The Obama Administration

Boom Times for the NRA

Flickr/Sea Grape
There's a lot happening at the moment—government shutdown, war in Syria, Iranian president sort of maybe not denying the Holocaust—so there was very little attention given to the fact that yesterday, the United States government signed the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), commonly known as the small-arms treaty. It's meant to prevent the arming of human-rights abusers—potential perpetrators of genocide, and the like—by obligating states not to sell conventional weapons, from small arms up to tanks and helicopters, to foreign governments or entities that are going to use them to commit war crimes and massacre civilians. When it was voted on by the UN, the only countries that voted against it were Syria, Iran, and North Korea. And today, the National Rifle Association is celebrating. That might strike you as odd, but the ATT is political gold for them. It's the international equivalent of a failed gun control effort in Congress, which is far, far better than no gun control effort...

Hawks at Home—Obama and Rohani's Shared Obstacle

U nless you’re someone who relishes the prospect of U.S.-Iran conflict, President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday didn’t disappoint. Recognizing the opportunity presented by the new Iranian president, the speech marked a return to the conciliation of Obama’s first term, only this time backed up by several years’ worth of economic sanctions. While it’s easy to dismiss Obama’s reiteration of America’s commitment to the United Nations at the top of the speech as the usual internationalist boilerplate, the importance of robust American participation in multilateral institutions is something that has underpinned his administration’s approach to foreign policy. (For a wide-angle view of the speech, read John Judis’s excellent take .) It’s this approach—pursuing U.S. goals within a broader multilateral framework—that has facilitated the ongoing international effort to pressure and cajole Iran to address concerns over its nuclear program. Notably, the...

Senator Talks for Hours, While in Real World, Things Proceed According to Plan

Politics is, to a degree we don't often notice, mostly about talking. Politicians describe what they do in heroic, usually martial terms—they "fight" for things, they wage "battles," and so on—but what they actually do is talk, and talk, and talk some more. They talk on the floor of Congress, they talk in committees, they talk to constituents, they talk to each other. There are a few of them, oddly enough, who are not particularly good at talking. But the successful ones are almost all good talkers. So it isn't too surprising that Ted Cruz, the former debate champion who is known as an exceptionally good talker, is able to get up and talk about the satanic plot that is Obamacare for 18 hours straight. There's something fitting about this last stand. Let's recall that just a few days ago, Cruz was being branded a traitor by Tea Partiers simply for acknowledging that the defunding effort will fail in the Senate. So what better way to get back in their good graces than a grandiose,...

Obama’s Foreign-Policy Realism

AP Images/Meisam Hosseini
AP images/Meisam Hosseini President Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Iran and Syria takes him full circle, back to the Obama of the 2008 campaign and the Obama who was (prematurely) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Evidently the United States is now willing to foreswear the use of force if these still-nasty regimes will give up weapons of mass destruction. It’s both a remarkable shift, and a low bar. This new course presents a tricky set of diplomatic challenges. It falls squarely within the school of foreign policy known as realism: give up on ideals that are unattainable and focus on those that serve core national interests and that can be achieved at proportional cost, even if that means making peace with regimes you detest. In modern times, Henry Kissinger, sponsor of détente with China, was the great advocate of realism—with the notable exception of the failed crusade in Vietnam. Realism says that we should try to get along with even brutal status-quo powers, not topple them,...

Can Republicans Buck the Tea Party?

AP Photo/Marc Levy
AP Photo/Harry Hamburg S ince the Tea Party emerged following President Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, Republican governors have frequently been the faces of some of the most extreme policies in recent political memory. Even before her infamous “finger point” at the president, Arizona’s Jan Brewer was signing and defending her state’s racial-profiling bill, SB 1070. In Ohio, John Kasich championed a law—later repealed by voters—to strip public employees of bargaining rights. In Florida, Rick Scott has pushed a plethora of hard-right policies, from drug screening of welfare recipients and government employees to reductions in early voting. Michigan’s Rick Snyder, who has a moderate streak, went to the extreme last December when he approved “right to work” legislation in a state built largely by union labor. Yet Brewer, Kasich, Snyder, and Scott are among the nine GOP governors who have staked considerable political capital on Medicaid expansion, a key piece of the Affordable Care Act...

The Day after Shutdown

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Denis Paquin, File S o it’s October … or maybe it’s six or ten weeks later, after a short-term continuing resolution has come and gone. The clock strikes midnight, Congress has failed to fund the government, and the next day it shuts down. What happens next? There’s been plenty of talk about the possibility of a government shutdown, along with the potential ways it could be avoided. But what happens after the shutdown? I don’t mean how the government operates or doesn’t operate; the Congressional Research Service has a good explainer on that. I’m talking about how the bargaining situation changes. Because remember: Government shutdown or not (I'm on Team Probably Not, for those counting at home), sooner or later a deal will be reached. 1. It’s Getting Hot in Here People will be inconvenienced, directly, by a shutdown, whether it’s vacations ruined (thanks to national parks closing), Social Security applications postponed , or government grants and contracts not awarded. Which...

The Finger of Blame Points Only One Way

It's pointing. (Flickr/Gabe Austin)
Sorry to subject you to another post about the pending government shutdown (It's Friday—shouldn't I be writing about robots? Maybe later.), but I just want to make this point briefly. As we approach and perhaps reach a shutdown, Republicans are going to try very hard to convince people that this is all Barack Obama's fault. I'm guessing that right now, staffers in Eric Cantor's office have formed a task force to work day and night to devise a Twitter hashtag to that effect; perhaps it'll be #BarackOshutdown or #Obamadowner or something equally clever. They don't have any choice, since both parties try to win every communication battle. But they're going to fail. The public is going to blame them. It's inevitable. Here's why. 1. Only one side is making a substantive demand. The Democrats' position is let's not shut down the government, because that would be bad . They aren't asking for any policy concessions. The Republican position, on the other hand, is if we don't get what we want,...

Secular Corporations Cannot Exercise Religion, My Friend

AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman
Earlier this week, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected claims stating the requirement that corporations performing secular functions—in this case, the manufacturing company Autocam—cover contraception as part of their employee-insurance packages represented a violation of these corporations' rights. The 6th Circuit is the second circuit court to reject these claims, following the 3rd Circuit (conversely, the 10th Circuit held that there was a "likelihood" that the Hobby Lobby chain of craft scores was " substan tially burdened" by the requirement.) Perhaps even more interesting is the reasoning the 6th Circuit panel used to reach its decision. According to the court's persuasive argument, it is not possible for a for-profit corporation with secular purposes to "exercise" religion in a way protected by the Constitution or federal statues. To provide the relevant background, the most obvious source for a claim that the contraceptive coverage requirements violate religious freedom...

The Fed Stays the Course

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
F inancial markets rallied when the Federal Reserve defied the rumor-mongers and resolved to continue its program of keeping interest rates very low until the unemployment rate improves. There was only one dissenting vote on the Fed’s policy-setting open market committee. What’s going on here? Ever since the run-up to the collapse of 2008, what’s good for Wall Street hasn’t exactly been good for the rest of the economy. Are these ultra-low interest rates just pumping up more financial bubbles, as critics fear? Or does a still weak economy need this form of stimulus? Think of it this way. There are risks to continuing a policy of very easy money, but premature tightening would be even worse. The markets and the pundits got this one wrong because the hawks in the Fed system had been leaking rumors that they had the votes and that the Fed would soon be “tapering” (pulling back) its program of $85 billion-a-month in bond purchases. Chairman Ben Bernanke, to appease the hawks, lent...

The Obamacare Is Falling! The Obamacare Is Falling!

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Steve Browne, Valley City Times-Record As we approach the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act at the end of the year, confusion still reigns. Most Americans don't understand what the ACA does or how it works, which is perhaps understandable. It is, after all, an exceedingly complex law, and from even before it passed there was an aggressive and well-funded campaign of misinformation meant to confuse and deceive Americans about it, a campaign that continues to this day and shows no sign of abating. To undo uncertainty and banish befuddlement, we offer answers to a few questions you might have about Obamacare. What's happening when? The next important date is October 1, when open enrollment for insurance plans on the new exchanges begins. Those who sign up will begin their new insurance on January 1, when the rest of the high-profile components of the law take effect. The individual mandate, requiring everyone to carry insurance or pay a fine, takes effect, as does...

Obama Just Changed the Most Racist Law in the Country

(flickr/uncgspecia)
You may have missed it, but yesterday President Obama dramatically altered one of the most racially damaging laws in America when the Department of Labor announced that it would extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers. To say there's a backstory here would be a wild understatement. Seventy-five years ago, Franklin Roosevelt achieved a historic victory—but a morally compromised one—when he signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The law created the modern labor regulations that we're all familiar with today, including the minimum wage, overtime pay, and much more. Yet getting the FLSA passed entailed a major concession to southern Democrats, who successfully fought to exclude agricultural and domestic workers. Why? Because, as legal scholar Juan Perea has shown in his illuminating history of the law, that exclusion was seen as crucial to preserving a southern way of life that hinged on exploiting cheap African-American labor—both in the fields...

Shutdown Report: How to Play Chicken and Lose

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite R epublicans are likely to incur serious political damage in their effort to hold hostage continued funding of the government in exchange for deep spending cuts. This routine has become an annual ritual, and in the past President Barack Obama has been the first one to cave. The 2011 Budget Control Act, which includes the automatic sequester, is one bitter fruit of the president’s past failure to hang tough in the face of Republican extremist demands. But this time is different. The Tea Party Republicans, who dominate the GOP House Caucus, are demanding that President Obama de-fund the Affordable Care Act in exchange for their willingness to fund ordinary government spending in the new fiscal year, which begins October 1. But they picked the wrong demand. In the past, Obama was willing to make deep cuts in federal spending in order to get a budget deal with Republicans. The Affordable Care Act, however, is a nonnegotiable for the president. It’s his...

Could Conservatives Help Obamacare Implementation Work?

She only wants to help, really. (Flickr/American Life League)
Supporters of the Affordable Care Act, up to and including President Obama, have been at pains to point out to anyone who'd listen that as with any large and complex piece of legislation, implementation is going to be imperfect. There are going to be hiccups. Hurdles. Stumbles. Stops and starts, ups and downs, potholes and roadblocks and detours. They've been saying it because it's true, because they want to prepare the media and the public, and because they know that conservatives will be squawking loudly every time it becomes apparent that some feature of the law needs to be adjusted, trying to convince everyone that even the most minor of difficulties is proof the law should never have been enacted in the first place. But let me make a counter-intuitive suggestion: Perhaps all the inevitable overblown carping from the right will prove to be a good thing, making the law work better in the long run. Not because the conservatives' motives aren't bad (they are), and separate from the...

American Public Oddly Reasonable on Syrian War

President Obama addressing the nation on Syria.
When public opinion is running against the position you've taken on something, it's natural to conclude either that the people just haven't yet heard your argument clearly, or even that opinion doesn't matter. And in one sense, it doesn't. If you're right, you're right, even if most Americans disagree. Not long ago, most Americans had a problem with people of different races to get married; they were wrong about that even if they were in the majority. Of course, that's a matter of substance, which is distinct from matters of politics, which can constrain your behavior whether you're substantively in the right or not. So I wonder what Barack Obama thinks of public opinion on Syria these days. I doubt that he's like George W. Bush, who was forever certain that "history" would judge the Iraq War to be a smashing success. By now Obama may have concluded that he'll probably never win the public over on this question, so he should just try to move things along as best he can. There's a new...

The Sum of Its Parts

Flickr/Will O'Neill
We're just two weeks away from the start of open enrollment for the new state health care exchanges established as part of the Affordable Care Act, and it's safe to say that Republicans will not be able to repeal the law between now and then. It's equally safe to say that they won't be able to repeal it by January 1, which is when the people who sign up for insurance through those exchanges start on their new plans. That's also the date when a whole bunch of other components of the law take effect. When that day comes, will Republicans have to abandon all hope of ever repealing it? The ones who don't understand the law (and let's be honest, that's probably most of them) might answer yes. Once it goes into effect and begins destroying lives, sapping us of our precious bodily fluids, and generally turning America into a socialist hellhole where all hope has died and the flickering flame of freedom has been snuffed out, people will quickly realize what a disaster it is and support repeal...

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