The Obama Administration

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 “...

Can the President Create a "Culture"?

Margaret Mead, who would not have bothered to study the administration's culture. (Photo by Edward Lynch, Library of Congress/Wikimedia)
As you may have noticed, the biggest problem with the IRS scandal (from the perspective of Republicans) is that it remains stubbornly removed from the President himself. It's all well and good to get a couple of scalps from mid-level managers, but for it to be a real presidential scandal you need to implicate the guy in the Oval Office in the wrongdoing. Confronted with Obama's non-involvement, conservatives have turned to vague and airy accusations about the "culture" Obama has created. Mitch McConnell, for instance, is warning darkly that Obama may be not too far removed from Tony Soprano: "I think what we know for sure is that there is a culture of intimidation across this administration—the president demonizing his enemies, attempting to shut people up. There is certainly a culture of intimidation." The idea that Barack Obama—whom Republicans regularly accuse of being a foreign-born anti-American socialist communist marxist who is slowly carrying out a plan to destroy America—is...

Bad Faith and Budget Politics

Obama has to do business with people who cannot be trusted to own up to their side of a deal.

AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin
Compromise is often an unhappily revealing art. “Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are,” the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes. In finding compromises with Republicans on the federal budget, Democrats need to remember not only who they are but who the voters depend on them to be. From that standpoint, the start of the budget battle in early April did not go well. Acceding to Republican demands for cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the president’s budget left his party open to a cynical but predictable response. Without the least acknowledgment of a contradiction, the chairman of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, Representative Greg Walden, immediately went on television to denounce Barack Obama’s “shocking attack on seniors.” We’ve seen it before. Many of the House Republicans who voted in 2008 for the bank bailouts called for by the Bush administration denounced the bailouts in the 2010 election as if they...

Bin Laden Photos to Stay Hidden

This will remain Bin Laden's enduring image.
Remember the Bin Laden photos? When the al-Qaeda leader was killed two years ago, people immediately began asking whether the world would ever get to see an image of his body. At first, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said photos would be released, but President Obama overruled him. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a lawsuit brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch that the government may continue to keep the photos hidden from public view. At the time, I argued that a photo should be released—not every photo that everyone took of the body, but perhaps one shot of it being lowered into the ocean in a respectful ceremony. I went on NPR's On the Media and debated the question with The New Yorker 's Philip Gourevitch, who treated me like I was some kind of contemptible ghoul for suggesting such a thing, but I made what I thought was a perfectly reasonable argument. Here's an excerpt of the column I wrote: Might the image be disturbing? Yes, it might...

Naming Names in the Dodd Frank Mess

It’s not just faceless Wall Street lobbyists who are doing the damage; a guy named Mark Wetjen has some explaining to do.

AP Images/Mark Lennihan
As we trudge through the swamp of disappointment that defines Dodd-Frank implementation, the liberal commentariat has lately seized upon a new meme; Wall Street lobbyists are responsible for gutting Dodd-Frank behind closed doors. Big-pocketed firms deploy phalanxes of clever lawyers and influence peddlers that easily outpace reformers, ensuring that the regulations ultimately written are sufficiently defanged to allow the financial industry to conduct its business with few, if any, restrictions. The lobbyists, and mostly the lobbyists alone, bear responsibility. Witness the most recent rollback of Dodd-Frank, a compromise on derivatives regulations by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The New York Times ’ Ben Protess makes the culprit clear in his Page 1 report : “ Under pressure from Wall Street lobbyists , federal regulators have agreed to soften a rule intended to rein in the banking industry’s domination of a risky market.” (Emphasis mine.) But this gets things...

Patty Murray in 19 Takes

Steve Moors
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster No. 1: The Fixer Patty Murray may be the dullest, most unremarkable member of the United States Senate. Two decades in, she lacks any major legislation to her name, isn’t associated with an issue, rarely appears on television, almost always speaks in gray generalities, and seems to have spent the bulk of her time focused on sending earmarks back to Washington state. As one staffer puts it, the most interesting thing about Murray is how uninteresting she is. She’s also the most important politician you’ve never heard of. As conference secretary, she’s the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate, which makes her the highest-ranking woman in the chamber. Last year, she chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), spearheading the party’s surprising string of victories in the November elections. Thanks to her efforts, the Senate now has 20 women, the most ever. And as chair of the powerful Budget Committee, she is going up against Paul Ryan, the...

Doesn't Anybody Here Know How to Run a Conspiracy?

Victoria Nuland's actual email.
In case you've forgotten, what took Benghazi from "a thing Republicans keep whining about" to "Scandal!!!" was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn't contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a "scandal" no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They're forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout "Aha!" no matter what. But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to...

President Obama Will Not Be "Going Bulworth"

Being president is hard, and often downright unpleasant, particularly when there are scandals, legitimate or otherwise, swirling about and distracting your attention from what you'd like to be accomplishing. I'm sure it's particularly frustrating when the opposition party is so intransigent that negotiating with them is pointless. Right now Barack Obama's presidency is at something of a low point, but nevertheless, it was a bit surprising to see this, from a New York Times story this morning: "Yet Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him." This is not, it should be noted, a belief on the president's part that if he just gave...

Do Drones Work?

AP Images/Eric Gay
Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted an ad hoc hearing on the implications of U.S. drone policy. It was a follow-up of sorts to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April examining the counterterrorism implications of drone strikes. The two hearings mark the first time Congress has explicitly scrutinized drones as a stand-alone issue; previous discussions were wrapped up in confirmation hearings and Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster in March. But in narrowing the focus of the debate over drones to encompass only the moral gray areas of the Obama administration’s targeted killings policy, Congress is failing to ask more important questions. There’s no doubt that drone strikes can have horrific consequences. Beyond the disputed numbers of noncombatants killed, there are psychological consequences to consider as well. In the Senate hearing, Farea al-Muslimi, an American-educated Yemeni writer and activist, spoke eloquently of the heartbreak and fear that drones cause...

Of Cover-Ups and Crimes

Richard Nixon and John Ehrlichman (White House photo). These guys knew from cover-ups.
Of all the crazy things people on the right are now saying about Benghazi, I'll admit that the one that most makes me want to scream is that it's "worse than Watergate." I get that much of the time it's just a way of saying "This is a big deal," and maybe there are some of your dumber elected officials (your Goehmerts, your Bachmanns) who believe it. But the idea is so plainly absurd that sometimes it feels like they're just trolling, saying it not because any sane person could think it's true, but because they just want to drive me nuts. And as long as they keep saying it, I guess we'll have to keep reminding people with short memories what actual scandals involve. To that end, Jonathan Bernstein has a nice reminder for us about Watergate and what a real cover-up looks like, in the course of which he counters the old "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" aphorism: "I'll stick with what I always say about this: its the crime, not the cover-up, that gets people in trouble. The reason...

Scandal Makers

AP Photo
AP Photo I n case you didn't notice, over the last few days we entered a new phase in the Obama presidency: the scandal phase. What happened? It wasn't evidence of a crime being unearthed, or a confession from a conspirator. There was no sudden revelation, no arrests, no cancer on the presidency. Indeed, just a few days ago it looked for all the world like Benghazi would take its place with Solyndra and "Fast and Furious" as one more wished-for scandal that, despite the best efforts of Republicans, failed to take flight. Yet all it took was ABC News getting passed some emails between the CIA, the State Department, and the White House detailing how the administration argued over how exactly to talk about the attack in Benghazi to get things underway, and now we have calls for special committees and ramped-up coverage. There may not be anything particularly shocking in those emails—just the time-honored tradition of people trying to cover their asses—but internal deliberations being...

Benghazi Fizzles

A New York Post cover from back when Benghazi was hotter.
Conservatives want, so very desperately, for Benghazi to be Barack Obama's undoing. And you have to give them credit for trying. Yesterday's hearing, hyped like it was the Super Bowl by Fox News, wasn't the first or the second or the fifth on the topic, and each one is supposed to deliver the blockbuster revelation that will finally show America just how evil the Obama administration is. But if you look at the way they've been talking about it, you can see some faint glimmers of doubt. Sure, you can always find somebody to come on Fox and take the speculation to an absurd level ("Did Hillary Clinton order the consulate to be unprotected because Ambassador Stevens knew she's an al Qaeda operative and she wanted him killed? We just don't know"). But I think all that speculation is sapping their spirits. After a while it gets tiresome to keep harping on what might have happened or why, when it would be so much more satisfying if there were some actual incriminating facts you could bring...

No, Syria Is Not Iraq

AP Photo/Hussein Malla
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit F or those advocating greater intervention in Syria by the United States, the memory of Iraq has turned into a real inconvenience. “Iraq is not Syria,” proclaimed the headline of New York Times editor Bill Keller’s op-ed on Monday, by way of arguing for greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Because of Iraq, Keller wrote, “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.” Let’s grant that it’s possible to over-learn the lessons of Iraq. The Iraq war, as costly a blunder as it was, should not discredit any and all military interventions, but it should—and has—raised the bar for when such interventions are necessary. What appears to persist, however, is the belief that “bold” U.S. moves—nearly always assumed to be military action—can change the situation for the better, and produce the outcomes that we would like to see. And if those outcomes...

Underfunded and Under Five

AP Photo/The Hawk Eye, John Lovretta
AP Photo/The Winchester Star, Jeff Taylor A s we contemplate the possibly bright future of pre-K laid out in Obama’s state of the union address this year, in which the feds work together “with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” along comes a sobering glimpse of what public preschool looks like now. It’s not quite as rosy. Rather than charting progress toward getting all four-year-olds ready for kindergarten, the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual survey of programs, just issued last week, shows a system in disrepair—or perhaps even retreat. Even as recognition of the benefits of preschool for four-year-olds has grown, the actual implementation of it has stalled—and, in places, lost ground. Meanwhile state funding for pre-K has gone down by more than half a billion dollars in the last year, according to NIEER. In 2012, state spending per child fell to well below what it was ten years ago. The backsliding, which can...

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