The Obama Administration

A Shocking Outbreak of Intellectual Consistency

National Security Agency headquarters (photo from nsa.gov)
As soon as an issue like the NSA surveillance comes along (and by the way, it needs a name—BigDataGulp, perhaps?), we immediately start hearing charges of hypocrisy. When a Democratic administration does something normally associated with Republicans, we've come to expect everybody to give their partisan affiliations precedence over their prior substantive beliefs, and switch sides. So liberals should now be fervently defending the government's right to see who you called and read your emails, and conservatives should be decrying the expansion of the national security state. And most of all, everyone should be accusing everyone else of hypocrisy. But weirdly enough, though there are some charges of hypocrisy, actual hypocrisy is in relatively short supply, outside of a few isolated cases here and there. I've spent the morning going around to websites of various political stripes, and amazingly, most commentators seem to be taking the same positions they did on this matter during the...

The Verizon Data Order and Why It Matters

WikiMedia Commons
G lenn Greenwald of The Guardian had a major scoop yesterday, revealing a court order requiring the communications giant Verizon to hand over information about all the calls in its system, domestic or international. As Greenwald explains, this means "the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing." This is a major story that reveals glaring flaws in the current rules governing surveillance and national security—p articularly since, as Atlantic Wire 's Elspeth Reeve points out , it's unlikely that Verizon is the only company being required to turn over records of the calls made by its customers, or that this is the only type of information being sought by the government To be clear, the potential legal and policy problems of this policy are not the same as those of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping, which went ahead without the approval of the special...

The Right's Cult of Obama

From Peggy Noonan to Mitch McConnell to the Tea Party caucus, conservatives have a habit of making it all about Barack, all the time. 

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
What are we going to do about Barack Obama? More than any president in memory he has seeped into every aspect of the nation’s collective political consciousness—not the influence or charisma or persona of Obama but the fact of him. We’ve become so vested in him one way or another that no one is capable of dispassion about anything that has to do with him even indirectly. This includes those who have supported him and find themselves rationalizing, emotionally if not intellectually, how a former constitutional lawyer can have a record on civil liberties that’s occasionally confounding when it isn’t dismaying. It also includes those to the left of Obama who have never trusted him and have been predisposed from the outset to finding him compromised and wanting. But it’s the right, of course, that most spectacularly manifests how Obama-centric the political culture has become. Though it once seemed this couldn’t be truer than during last year’s presidential contest, it’s been more true in...

Once Upon a Time, There Was a President ...

flickr/United States Government Work
AP Photo L ast week I wrote about why the myth of the magical hero-king — what others call the "Green Lantern" presidency—just won’t die. The reason? Because it seems the myth is in the interest of the presidents themselves! In some ways, however, this particular myth is only one of the many ideas of the presidency that were essential in the institution’s development. Many of the things that presidents do, after all, aren’t explicitly in the Constitution, and many of the things we associate with the presidency weren’t done for years and years after the Constitution was adopted. A president just set a precedent, and it stuck. For a minor example, there’s the president’s Saturday radio address, invented by Ronald Reagan and then copied by everyone since, although Barack Obama added a twist with YouTube versions. There’s more: Everything from cabinet meetings to press conferences to “pardoning” Thanksgiving turkeys is part of the slowly built-up White House job requirements. Congress, on...

Republicans Mad that President They Despise, Obstruct, and Lie About Doesn't Call More Often

And not only that, he unfriended me on Facebook! (Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)
Iowa senator Chuck Grassley is something of an odd character. As I've said before, he used to be considered a reasonable moderate, but in the last couple of years he has basically turned himself into a Tea Party wingnut, combining the ideological extremism, face palm-inducing stupidity, and general craziness that makes that political movement so charming (although I was recently informed that even a couple of decades ago, before Grassley began publicly yelling at clouds , people in the Senate privately considered him kind of a nut). Today, The Hill reports that Grassley, who has spent the last five years floating conspiracy theories, impugning Barack Obama's motives, and telling truly vicious lies about his policies, is upset that Obama doesn't call him more often. Seriously. In 2009, Obama basically had Grassley on speed dial, calling him frequently during negotiations over an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system. Grassley at the time was one of three Republicans on the Group...

Let's Talk about Tax Reform

Flickr/tolworthy
A few Republicans out there, struggling to put the IRS scandalette in a larger context, are now saying it shows we need tax reform. It doesn't really, unless their argument is that we've been letting shamelessly political 501(c)(4) organizations get away with a scam and we ought to clarify the law on what such organizations can do. But that's not what they're saying. What they're saying is that the IRS matter shows we need to change the tax code to reflect the same policies they've advocated forever. It wasn't as though this particular scandal arose because filing your personal income taxes is too complicated or because the corporate tax system is riddled with loopholes. It was something very specific, the law regarding how certain kinds of non profit organizations are allowed to operate. Frankly, there's no part of the tax code conservatives care less about. What they're interested in is changing personal and corporate taxes. Ted Cruz, for instance, says, "We ought to abolish the IRS...

Why Republicans Can't Destroy Obama

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Over the past few years, liberals like me have pointed out countless times that the Republican party was being (or would be soon, as the case might have been) terribly damaged by the ideological extremism and general nuttiness of the faction that took over the party between 2009 and 2010. But we have to be honest and acknowledge that it didn't always work out that way. They were able to win a number of tangible victories despite the fact that the public doesn't look favorably on the things they wanted to do. In many cases, an extremist Republican ousted a perfectly conservative Republican in a primary, and now the extremist Republican is in possession of a safe seat. And of course, they won a huge victory in the 2010 elections. For all the fun we've had at the expense of people like Michele Bachmann, the damage they did to the GOP wasn't always as serious as we thought it would be. But I think we're seeing the limits that the House Republicans' extremism imposes on their ability to...

Not Too Shabby So Far: Obama's Judicial Legacy

flickr/The Library of Congress
Flickr/Cliff E arlier this week, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would name nominees to fill three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court, touching off a new battle between the White House and Republicans over filibusters and presidential privileges. Despite the fact that appointing judges is one of the powers given to every president by the Constitution, some Republicans reacted as though Obama were doing something horrible by fulfilling this obligation. (You'd almost think they didn't accept the legitimacy of his presidency.) In any case, this argument is likely to heat up over the next few weeks, so we might benefit from some context as charges and counter-charges start flying. To begin with, some background. The nominations at issue here are those to the circuit courts—also known as the courts of appeals—and to the district courts. There are 13 circuit courts with a total of 179 seats, and 89 district courts with a total of 677 seats. The circuit court seats...

Shorting the D.C. Circuit

Wikimedia commons
Flickr/Cliff At least since the Reagan administration, Republicans have taken judicial nominations, especially to the federal circuit courts , much more seriously than Democrats have. As a result, Republican presidents have gotten relatively more nominees confirmed, and their nominees have been younger and more ideologically consistent than their Democratic counterparts. Yesterday, however, there was a sign that this could be changing. As the Prospect 's Paul Waldman noted , Michael Shear of The New York Times reported that President Obama would be simultaneously nominating individuals for all three current vacancies on the D.C. Circuit. This move is clearly intended to make Republican obstructionism a major issue of Obama's second term. And while it's not clear how this bold advance will play out, under any scenario something good will come out of it. As Waldman notes, for now the central Republican argument against the nominations is that Obama is trying to "pack the court." As...

Children of the Great Collapse

AP Photo/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise, Bill Hughes
AP Photo/Kin Cheung Here’s a piece of good news of which you might not be aware: The U.S. safety net performed a lot better than you thought during the recent downturn, which was the deepest since the Depression. Thanks to expansions to the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and unemployment insurance—all beefed up by the $840 billion Recovery Act—the safety net almost wholly mitigated the rise in child poverty. Even middle-income households saw most of their income losses substantially offset by tax and transfer policies that sharply ramped up to help them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault. While the safety net performed well during the worst phase of the downturn, other trends have been troubling. Families lost trillions of dollars in home equity, the largest source of wealth for working- and middle-...

Republicans Looking Sheepish On Obama Court Nominees

Flickr/NCinDC
One of the biggest criticisms activist liberals have had of the Obama administration is that they have not moved aggressively to put their stamp on the federal judiciary. While there has certainly been Republican obstruction of Obama nominees, in many cases the administration hasn't even bothered to nominate anyone to open seats. There are currently 82 vacancies on the federal bench, and in 58 of those, the administration has offered no nominee. So it's good news that they have announced that they are about to offer nominations for the three vacancies on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, widely considered the second most important court in the nation, since it hears many critical cases involving the scope of government power. It looks like the administration is betting that the more nominations they put up at the same time, the more attention the issue will get if Republicans try to block them, and the more attention it gets, the more difficult Republican filibusters will be...

King Obama the Magical

AP Photo/John Bazemore
Brendan Nyhan’s “Green Lantern” theory of presidential politics—the (incorrect) belief that when things don’t turn out how a president wants it was because he didn’t want it deeply enough—has been all over the Internet lately. And, no matter how false that image of the presidency might be, it’s probably not going away. The idea of the president as a Magical King serves everyone’s interests—beginning with man in the Oval Office himself. Political scientists who study the presidency have long contended that the presidency is a relatively weak office : the presidency is the single most influential position in the political system, but the president cannot get very much done just by giving orders. Not only does he have to bargain with Congress—which means 535 individual politicians, all with their own constituencies and interests and preferences, and many of whom have strong partisan reasons for opposing whatever he wants—but he can’t even, in many cases, control the executive branch...

Republican Overreach, Coming Soon

You can bet hey'll be hearing from these folks. (Flickr/SS&SS)
A number of people have asked whether the Republicans will overreach in their reaction to the current collection of scandal-ish controversies (by the way, someone really needs to come up with a name that encompasses them all). The answer to that question is, of course they will. Try to remember who we're talking about here. Overreaching is their thing. Congress will be going home this weekend, and I'll bet the Republicans are going to come back from their recess reassured that their constituents really, really want them to pursue Barack Obama to the ends of the earth. I'll explain why in a moment, but in the meantime the National Journal has details on their strategy: Congressional Republicans head into next week's Memorial Day recess armed with a strategy designed to keep the controversies that have consumed Washington in the news back home. Both House and Senate Republicans will focus on the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny as well as the...

The Forever War, Still Forever

White House photo by Eric Draper
*/ AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File T oday, President Barack Obama gives what has been billed as a major address on the status of the "war on terror," a term that the Obama administration doesn't use but that is still how we refer to the efforts the United States takes around the world fighting al-Qaeda, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, those who might be affiliated with someone who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and pretty much any nongovernmental entity that looks at us funny. Whatever you call it, the war on terror is our endless war, just as George W. Bush set it out to be. With a Congress and most of a public willing to let him do almost anything he wanted, Bush and his administration told us all those years ago that we were fighting not al-Qaeda nor even terrorism but "terror" itself. In other words, our war would be not against a group of people or even a tactic that anyone can use but against our own fear. And that's a war we can never win. Nevertheless, when Obama was running...

A Week of Bleak Metaphors

Tornados, IRS scandal, Benghazi scrutiny, and wire-tapping; the country has seen its fill of bad omens and forboding in recent days. What's Obama to do to change the narrative?

AP Images/Brennan Linsley
This was going to be the week when we learned what last week meant, which is turning out to be true in a way we didn’t anticipate barely 72 hours ago. We were going to learn whether last week was the beginning of a crisis that would fatally wound if not kill the Obama presidency or if it was merely the most egregious manifestation of right-wing bad faith. Instead the cataclysmic Oklahoma tornado, along with the gathering politics of the scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service, inevitably engage the American public in a consideration of government itself—what it’s good for and what it isn’t, how it serves us and how it betrays us. In sheer partisan terms, the IRS matter is a godsend to conservatives for whom Benghazi had become a mantra long on glee but short on comprehension. If the Republicans I know, including my 85-year-old mother, are so obsessed as to nearly mutter Benghazi in their sleep—that very name almost as deliciously ominous in its foreignness as “Barack” and “...

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