The Obama Administration

Guns and Gut Feelings

Obama's good intentions post-Newtown haven't been enough to fix our gun problem. So what's next for gun-control legislation?

AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin
AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin “It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different.” —Barack Obama, February 12, 2013, State of the Union Address “We need everyone to remember how we felt 100 days ago and make sure that what we said at that time wasn’t just a bunch of platitudes–that we meant it.” —Barack Obama, March 28, 2013 Sometimes in politics, good intentions are not enough. Even though the president often radiates all the passion of some-assembly-required instructions from Ikea, the dead children at Sandy Hook Elementary School obviously scarred Obama’s soul. But nearly seven months after Newtown, perhaps we should sadly conclude that this time is not different and that the president accomplished little that is lasting with his intense advocacy of gun control. Yes, I know this pessimism runs against the liberal wish to believe that a few more months, a few more petitions and...

What Happened to the Obama Scandals?

flickr/United States Government Work
flickr/United States Government Work A few months ago, political scientist Brendan Nyhan started warning that Barack Obama was due for a major scandal. Nyhan had analyzed previous two-term presidents and determined that by this stage of his second term, particularly with low approval ratings among the opposition party and a lack of major stories dominating the news for long periods, a president stands a strong chance of being engulfed in the kind of controversy that can hobble or even undo a presidency. Nothing was certain, of course—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton didn't see their all-consuming scandals until the sixth year of their presidencies, which would give Obama a few months—but conditions were ripe. And for a few weeks there, it seemed like the prediction would come true. The news media became simultaneously fascinated with three separate issues—the attack in Benghazi, I.R.S. scrutiny of conservative groups, and Justice Department surveillance of reporters—and it seemed like...

The Part-Timer Problem

The Obama Administration’s decision to delay for a year the penalty that employers (in firms of 50 or more employees) must pay if they don’t provide health insurance to their workers shines a light on a problem that may be even more profound than getting health coverage for every American: that is, the decline of the American job. The employer mandate was designed for an economy in which American workers were employed in what had been normal jobs. In firms of 50 or more, all workers who put in at least 30 hours a week were either to receive coverage from the firm or else the firm would have to pay the government a $2,000 yearly penalty. Problem is, fewer and fewer workers are putting in 30 hours a week. To begin with, labor-force participation is at its lowest level since women increased their work-force participation in the 1970s. It has declined even during the past four years of so-called recovery. The past four years have also seen a rise in the percentage of workers who are part-...

The Magic of Leaked Memos

Flickr/World Economic Forum
Supposedly, people in the White House are told when they start working there that you shouldn't put anything down on paper or email that you wouldn't like to see on the front page of The Washington Post . Not only are lots of documents subject to open records laws, they can be subpoenaed by Congress or a court, or much more likely, just get leaked by one of your co-workers. So you'd think White House staff would exercise some care when it comes to memo writing. Alas, they apparently do not. The time is ripe for some juicy behind-the-scenes tales from the Obama administration, which we'll apparently be getting from This Town , an upcoming book from New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich. In an excerpt released (leaked?) today, we learn that some staffers circulated a memo with talking points for people to repeat about senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a longtime confidant of the President's who hasn't exactly been the most popular person on Pennsylvania Avenue. There's nothing...

Should the Employer Mandate Be Eliminated Altogether?

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act.
This week the Obama administration announced that it was delaying implementation of the "employer mandate" part of Obamacare, so companies won't be required to cover their workers until the beginning of 2015 instead of the beginning of 2014. Their stated reason is that they need more time to work with employers to implement the somewhat complex reporting requirements, and they're trying to be flexible and respond to employers' concerns. Which is probably true, but it's also true that the issue has become something of a political headache, with lots of news stories profiling employers saying the mandate is going to destroy their businesses or lead them to lay off workers and cut back their hours so they don't have to comply. We'll get to what's true and false about those news stories in a moment, but it's important to understand that the "mandate" isn't really a mandate at all. First, it only applies to businesses with 50 employees or more. And second, if employers still don't want to...

Four Lessons Learned from This Year's Stuffed Supreme Court Docket

flickr/quinn.anya
(AP Photo/J. David Ake) A momentous Supreme Court term concluded on Wednesday with historic decisions on same-sex marriage. But while the previous term will be forever defined by the Court's narrow upholding of the Affordable Care Act, the 2012-3 term had an unusual number of important decisions for a contemporary court. There are several important lessons to take from the term as a whole: On Civil Rights and Liberties: One Step Up, Two Steps Back. As Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith observed (among many others) in their book The Unsteady March , progress on civil rights isn't a linear progression in which things start off terribly and keep getting better. Progress achieved in one generation can be substantially rolled back in the next; civil rights often advance for some groups while backsliding for others. (World War II catalyzed substantial civil rights advances for African-Americans; Americans of Japanese origin and suspected political radicals, conversely, saw substantial...

IRS Scandal Ends With a Whimper

No, not that kind of bolo. (Flickr/Magpie Gal)
With Edward Snowdon on his whirlwind tour of countries unfriendly to the United States and the Supreme Court handing down a bunch of important decisions, this is a good week for stories to get lost in the back pages. So you may not have noticed that late yesterday, the IRS scandal, supposedly Worse Than Watergate™, came to a sputtering halt with the release of new documents in the investigation. The whole scandal, you'll recall, is about how conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) status were given extra scrutiny, while other kinds of groups just slid by. Well, it turns out, not so much : The instructions that Internal Revenue Service officials used to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in their titles also included groups whose names included the words "Progressive" and "Occupy," according to I.R.S. documents released Monday. The documents appeared to back up contentions by I.R.S. officials and some Democrats that the agency did not...

The ACA's Obamacare Problem

The law is going to make health care better for many Americans. A lot of them just won't realize it's the same thing as the Obamacare they hate. 

AP Images/Evan Vucci
AP Images/Evan Vucci Obamacare is well on its way to being permanently unpopular. A problem for supporters of health-care reform? Not really—because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could become just as untouchable as Medicare or Social Security. That’s right—get ready for “keep your Obamacare away from my Affordable Care Act!” Okay, not literally; they won’t actually know that the ACA exists. But that’s what they’ll be saying, in effect. From the very beginning, and certainly before Democrats also adopted “Obamacare” as the shorthand name for health-care reform, Republicans have strongly opposed a fantasy version of the landmark legislation. Whether it was “death panels,” or “government takeover,” or any number of wacky claims in chain emails, Republican opposition has rarely been focused on what’s actually in the ACA. And no matter how successful reform turns out to be, that’s unlikely to change. See, the funny thing about the Affordable Care Act is that a whole lot of it will either...

The Song of the White House Spokesperson

White House spokesperson Jay Carney, seen here appreciating a reporter's question.
If you asked me who was the most appalling evader/distracter/dissembler among White House spokespeople over the time I've been politically aware, I'd have to say Ari Fleischer, who served in that position for the first couple of years of George W. Bush's administration. I remember often shouting at Fleischer on the TV as he spun some inverted version of the truth to the press, inventing absurd new terms (remember "homicide bombing"?), telling Americans to "watch what they say," and most of all, just shamelessly denying what everyone knew to be true (Jonathan Chait penned the definitive takedown of Fleischer). On the other end of the spectrum I'd have to put Mike McCurry, who did the job under Bill Clinton, including the period covering the impeachment scandal. McCurry wasn't any more forthcoming than anybody else who has held that job, but he had an easy, straightforward manner that seemed to make the interaction between himself and the reporters more of an honest negotiation over...

Your Guide to the Polls on U.S. Military Involvement in Syria

Flickr/Freedom House
It's obviously a bad idea for the administration to decide whether to jump into a whole new Middle East quagmire based on whether the famously inattentive and uninformed American public thinks it's a good idea. Nevertheless, public opinion is inevitably going to play a role in President Obama's decision-making on this. That isn't to say Obama won't take any particular step unless the polls show the public approves, but any time a politician does something unpopular, he'll always be looking over his shoulder a little bit. So what do the American people think about the prospect of American military involvement in Syria? The first thing to understand is that they're not paying very much attention to the issue, which means few have given it a great deal of thought. According to a new Pew poll , only 15 percent of the public says they're following the story very closely, a figure that has been basically unchanged over the two years of the civil war there. (Another 30 percent say they're...

Nothing to Hide, Much to Fear

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
I n reviewing the public’s ambivalent reaction to the disclosures of NSA data mining , I find that some people conclude that it’s no big deal, while others are uneasy but can’t quite explain why. It’s just a modest generic invasion of privacy that is not even activated in most cases. Presumably, this is a weapon that the authorities need to keep us safe. After closed-door hearings yesterday, some skeptics on Capitol Hill were somewhat reassured that safeguards are adequate. If you are in this camp, here are three good reasons to reconsider. First, the history of such surveillance is that it tends to be abused. As heedless of civil liberties as Attorney General Eric Holder has been, he is surely better than whoever the next Republican Attorney General might be. Remember Alberto Gonzalez? Secondly, the authorities tend to define terrorism down. After the Patriot Act was passed, Attorney General Gonzalez kept assuring the Congress and the American public that its sweeping powers would...

The End of the Austerity Crusade?

Rex Features via AP Images
I s President Obama planning to reverse course on deficit reduction? You will recall that the president joined the deficit-hawk crowd in calling for more than $4 trillion of deficit reduction over the next decade; that he has offered to cut Social Security and Medicare as part of a grand bargain (that the Republicans mercifully rejected); that it was Obama who appointed the Bowles-Simpson Commission; and that his own budget for FY 2014 includes substantial spending cuts. But, with the 2014 midterm election looming and the recovery stuck in second gear with mediocre job creation, there is zero chance of a grand-budget bargain that includes tax increases, and interest rates are creeping up (which will slow the recovery further). Europe demonstrates that austerity economics are a proven failure. Even the International Monetary Fund says so . So let us read the tea leaves. First, the president has just named Jason Furman to chair the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). Furman was a...

George Packer's U.S.A.

AP Images/David Samson
In the quest to understand what has happened to the U.S. economy since the 2008 meltdown and the recession that followed, the challenge has been figuring out how far back to pull the lens. Early books on the crisis zoomed in on airless rooms occupied by panicked CEOs and government officials during the pathetic last few months of the Bush administration and the beginning of this one. More expansively reported accounts looked at lower-level traders and fly-by-night firms, expanding the scope to recognize a decade of mortgage fraud and exploitation of would-be homeowners and investors, along with the Washington corruption that allowed the profiteers to thrive unpunished. As time passed, it became clearer that this was not a story that began in 2008 or just a story of the Bush years. It was the inevitable last act of the period since the late 1970s, when the nation became dramatically wealthier but median wages stagnated, economic insecurity worsened, and debt became a means to paper...

How All Three Branches Conspired to Threaten Your Privacy

WikiMedia Commons
The recent revelations about the court order issued to Verizon asking them to hand over data about the calls made by millions of customers were chilling not so much for the specific information the government was asking for, but for what the order likely portended. Given its massive scope, the potential for spying into electronic communications made much more disturbing revelations inevitable. It didn't take long for the other shoe to drop. In a blockbuster story , Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras of The Washington Post have revealed the existence of a more comprehensive spying program with the code name PRISM involving the National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as at least nine telecommunications giants. It's a classic case of how checks and balances have not worked in the way the framers envisioned. Far from checking executive overreach, Congress has authorized dangerous expansions of power while various levels of the judiciary break out their rubber...

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...

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