The Obama Administration

Schneiderman Strikes Back

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who headed a group of state attorneys general that won homeowners and former homeowners a $26 billion settlement from five mega-banks over their foreclosure abuses, announced yesterday that he’d sue two of the banks—Wells Fargo and Bank of America—for allegedly violating the terms of the settlement. The February 2012 settlement with those two banks, as well as JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC), had required the banks to adhere to a set of standards that would end the kind of abuses that had led to wholesale foreclosures of homes when they could have worked out alternative arrangements with the homeowners. Some of those standards—such as requiring the banks to notify struggling homeowners within five days that they had received the documents required to modify mortgages—sound so obvious they shouldn’t have needed to be codified, yet it was precisely such practices that the banks had repeatedly shunned. Homeowner...

Bad Flight Plan

Flickr/vmarta, Kent Wein
Flickr/vmarta T he decision by Senate Democrats last week to restore funding to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—money that was cut when the “sequester” took effect in March and led to flight delays that angered a wide swath of Americans—was a clear loss for Democrats in the ongoing budget wars. Rather than cave and reverse the cuts, Democrats should have used the public discontent as leverage to pressure Republicans. They squandered this opportunity. Unlike cuts from sequestration that affect the poor or will be felt down the line—cuts to Head Start or infrastructure, for example—the FAA cuts were both highly visible and affected wealthier and middle-class voters whom members of Congress tend to listen to. Sequestration was designed to slash programs important to both Democrats (broadly speaking, social programs) and Republicans (mainly, defense spending). By cutting bluntly, sequestration would force cuts to high and low-priority programs even if everyone agreed on which...

A Crossroads for Hillary

Titanic Belfast / Flickr
Titanic Belfast / Flickr H illary Clinton is making all the early moves of someone preparing to run for president, though she has given herself plenty of time to rest, rejuvenate, and review a final decision. Now, however, President Obama’s ill-conceived plan to cut Social Security benefits via a “technical” change in the inflation index will force Clinton to make an awkward choice. Most Democrats in both houses of Congress are not happy with this backdoor cut in Social Security. It is both fiscally unnecessary and spectacularly bad politics. Republican leaders are already bashing Obama for selling out retirees. After Obama released his budget, Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon went on CNN to accuse the president of "a shocking attack on seniors." Resolutely defending Social Security in the face of periodic Republican forays at cutting or privatizing America’s most popular program has always been one of the Democrats’ great appeals. Obama gave that away...

On Immigration, Gay Community Should Take One for the Team

Flickr/Phil Davis
In July of 2010, Russ Feingold did the principled thing. After weeks of markup and debate, the liberal Wisconsin senator voted against Dodd-Frank. "My test for the financial-regulatory reform bill is whether it will prevent another crisis," Feingold said at the time. "[The bill] fails that test." Ironically, Feingold's fortitude only served to further weaken the legislation . In order to break a filibuster, Dodd-Frank's sponsors had to appease conservative Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who opposed a "bank tax" that would have made financial institutions pay for the new regulatory regime. The provision was stripped from the legislation, costing taxpayers $19 billion. Gay-rights advocates should keep this scenario in mind as the Gang of Eight tries to push immigration reform through the Senate. Given that more than a quarter million undocumented immigrants are LGBT , the movement has a broad interest in seeing comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship succeed. But gay-rights...

The Frankenstein Foreign-Policy Crisis

AP Images
The last week has been not so much a case of national déjà vu as a Philip K. Dickian time-slip where the past bleeds into the present and transforms it. Syria is potentially the frankenstein of foreign-policy crises, made up of the parts of dead blunders: Vietnam, where we learned that firepower won’t overcome the unquantifiables that make for a quagmire; Iraq, where we learned that intelligence may be faulty or manipulated; Libya, where we learned both the combat possibilities and limitations of no-fly zones; Afghanistan, where a quarter-century ago we armed freedom-fighters who became accomplices in the murder of 3,000 citizens on American soil; Kosovo and Rwanda, where we ignored mass slaughter at the cost of our collective conscience; and Somalia, where we answered the call of conscience to disastrous end. Syria surpasses them all. With a warring population becoming ever more kaleidoscopically sectarian, and an air-defense system as sophisticated as any in the non-Israeli Middle...

Don't Give Up on Green Tech Yet

flickr/Chris Wevers
W hen in 2008 George W. Bush signed the law creating the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program (ATVM), which gives loans to car companies investing in green tech, conservatives were outraged. They took to talk radio to express their dismay, they introduced bills to dismantle the program, they poured contempt on Bush for trying to "pick winners and losers" with a bunch of hippie-mobiles running on patchouli and idealistic delusions. I'm just kidding, of course. Conservatives didn't actually do those things. It was only when Barack Obama took office in 2009 that they discovered their antipathy to the ATVM (though their dislike of electric cars was evident long before). The program got some scrutiny last week when the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the dire straits of Fisker Automotive, the recipient of a Department of Energy loan. Despite the fact that a number of the Republicans on the committee, including chairman Darrel Issa, had previously requested...

Is the U.S. Set to Intervene in Syria?

AP Photo/Jim Watson
AP Photo/Jim Watson Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria. T he chances of U.S. intervention in Syria just got higher. This morning, the White House released identical letters it had sent to Senators Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, both of whom had written to the administration in March urging “more active steps” to stop the killing in Syria, stating that “our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale.” This comes two days after the head of the Israel Defense Forces intelligence research and analysis division said that Syria had used sarin gas against its people. Speaking to reporters about the letter in Abu Dhabi, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the use of such weapons “violates every convention of warfare.” So what happens now? The White House letter was...

Banking Regulation: Closed for Business

Flickr/Vittorio Ferrari
T hese are heady times for the bipartisan group of reformers seeking a safer and more manageable U.S. financial system. The leaders of this movement, Senators Sherrod Brown and David Vitter, introduced legislation yesterday to force the biggest banks to foot the bill for their own mistakes by imposing higher capital requirements. The bill would increase equity (either retained earnings or stock) in the financial system by $1.1 trillion and incentivize mega-banks to break themselves up, according to a Goldman Sachs report . Brown and Vitter previewed the legislation earlier this week at the National Press Club, insisting that the new regulations on risky mega-banks would diminish threats to the U.S. economy and prevent taxpayers from having to bail out banks in the future . Vitter also said the legislation would “level the playing field and take away a government policy subsidy, if you will, that exists in the market now favoring size.” With momentum, broadening support, and tangible...

Read Him His Rights

AP Photo/vk.com
AP Photo/vk.com Dzhokhar Tsarnaev T he capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev presents an important test for federal and state authorities: Can the United States resist the temptation to violate the civil liberties of people suspected of engaging in acts of terrorism? In some important respects, we seem to have avoided the systematic civil-liberties violations of the Bush administration. But when it comes to informing Tsarnaev of his Fifth Amendment rights, Obama is buying into the myth that ordinary police process is inadequate for dealing with domestic terrorism. It is not clear what the Obama administration will do with Tsarnaev, who has not been read his Miranda rights and who is engaging only in written communication from his hospital bed. But U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has cited a "public-safety exemption in cases of national security and potential charges involving acts of terrorism" and indicated that Tsarnaev will be interrogated for at least a 48-hour period without being informed of...

Torture Report

Flickr/Shrieking Tree
As Americans grapple with the tragic bombings in Boston on Monday and the U.S. government works to track down those responsible, a new report on detainee treatment after 9/11 sheds important light on some of the measures adopted by the U.S. government in response to that attack. Issued by a panel convened by the Constitution Project , and chaired by two former members of Congress, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James R. Jones, the 577-page report looks at the broad range of policies and practices that were adopted by the U.S. to deal with detainees after the September 11 attacks. “Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel,” the report’s opening states , “is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” The new report states that in addition to methods that qualify as torture, “American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading’ treatment. Both categories of...

John Kerry's Middle East Mystery Tour

AP Photo/Paul Richards, Pool
AP Photo/Paul J. Richards, Pool T he mysterious Mr. Kerry has come to the Middle East and gone. The secretary of state promises to return soon, but does not tell us exactly when. In Jerusalem and Ramallah, he says, he listened to leaders' suggestions for restarting peace talks. He does not say what those suggestions were. Curiously polite things happen while he in in the neighborhood. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for instance, postponed his previously announced trip to Gaza, lest he cause Israel grief. Kerry does not explain how he inspires such thoughtfulness. John Kerry is quite open, though, about his motives: He wants to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, right away, soon, to conduct them "in a clear and precise, predetermined manner" toward the agreement that has eluded every previous peace effort. The only mystery here is the one created by broken expectations, which say that Washington should treat Israelis and Palestinians with benign neglect, that the...

Bi-Partisanship We Don’t Need

Flickr/BeckyF
John Boehner, Speaker of the House, revealed why it’s politically naive for the president to offer up cuts in Social Security in the hope of getting Republicans to close some tax loopholes for the rich. “If the President believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes,” Boehner said in a statement released Friday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor agreed. He said on CNBC he didn’t understand “why we just don’t see the White House come forward and do the things that we agree on” such as cutting Social Security, without additional tax increases. Get it? The Republican leadership is already salivating over the president’s proposed Social Security cut. They’ve been wanting to cut Social Security for years. But they won’t agree to close tax loopholes for the rich. They’re already characterizing the president’s plan as a way to “save” Social Security—even though the cuts would undermine it...

President Obama's Budget

President Barack Obama discusses his proposed federal budget. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)
Budget

Jack Lew: Obama’s Austerity Ambassador

AP Images
There is something seriously off about the mission of the new Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, to Europe. Secretary Lew has been visiting European capitals to persuade leaders there to ease up on the austerity. He has not had a good reception. Speaking at a joint press conference with the chagrined Lew in Berlin, Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister and uber-austerity enforcer, dressed down Lew thusly: “Nobody in Europe sees this contradiction between fiscal consolidation and growth.” Nobody among the elite, that is. Ordinary people in Greece, where output has declined by nearly 25 percent since the austerity tonic began, surely see the contradiction. So do young people in Spain, where the youth unemployment rate has reached 56 percent. Even if the cure should eventually work—which it won’t—we will have lost a whole generation. Only in the rarified power precincts of Brussels and Berlin is austerity “working.” But Jack Lew doesn’t exactly come to this mission with clean hands...

Where's the Change?

AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File T he Democratic Party’s long-term prospects have dramatically improved since the November election. They will control the White House for another four years. The Republicans, who lost the total vote for the House of Representatives, remain captive of an unpopular reactionary right wing. The “Obama Coalition” of minorities and single women is growing faster than the GOP’s white male base. If demography is destiny, Democrats—and the progressive interests that they are supposed represent in the two-party system—are the wave of the future. But the American dream is about upward mobility. Ultimately, “The economy, Stupid” trumps identity politics. If the Democrats are not the champions of expanding jobs and incomes for the majority of voters who work for a living—whatever their gender, color, or sexual orientation—their claim to being the natural majority party will amount to little. So it made political sense that Barack Obama began his 2013 State of the Union...

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