The Obama Administration

Visiting Israel, Juggling a Hundred Impossible Expectations

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit It’s near impossible to lower expectations of a visit by the President of the United States, especially to a region as consequential in U.S. policy, and controversial in U.S. politics, as the Middle East. Obama is learning this firsthand as he prepares to land in Israel for the first time in his presidency today. The trip will include visits to the West Bank and Jordan, but it’s no secret that its primary function is to re-introduce the president to the Israeli people, and attempt to re-boot the relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose resistance to Obama’s peace efforts and differences over the immediacy of the threat posed by Iran led to a frosty relationship during the president’s first term. I visited the country and the West Bank last week, and preparations on both sides were well under way to make sure that their messages were heard. In Ramallah, huge banners were hung, proclaiming “President Obama, don’t bring your smart phone to...

The Contest Over the Real Economic Problem

flickr/Starley Shelton
“Our biggest problems over the next ten years are not deficits,” the president told House Republicans Wednesday, according to those who attended the meeting. The president needs to deliver the same message to the public, loudly and clearly. The biggest problems we face are unemployment, stagnant wages, slow growth, and widening inequality—not deficits. The major goal must be to get jobs and wages back, not balance the budget. Paul Ryan’s budget plan—essentially, the House Republican plan—is designed to lure the White House and Democrats, and the American public, into a debate over how to balance the federal budget in ten years, not over whether it’s worth doing. “This is an invitation,” Ryan explained when he unveiled the plan Tuesday. “Show us how to balance the budget. If you don’t like the way we’re proposing to balance our budget, how do you propose to balance the budget?” Until now the president has seemed all too willing to engage in that debate. His ongoing talk of a “grand...

The Fundamentals of Immigration Reform

T he United States, with more than 40 million foreign-born, a number that includes the estimated 11 million illegal residents, is not just the largest immigration player in the world; it’s larger than the next four largest players combined. Because immigration amounts to social engineering, how well we do it has profound consequences for huge swaths of our society, from education to health care to economic growth to foreign relations. Most important, how a country treats its immigrants is a powerful statement to the world about its values and the principles by which it stands. Related Content Spotlight: The Fundamentals of Immigration Reform Demetrios Papademetriou talks about what's next for reforming our broken immigration system. On all these counts, recent U.S. immigration policy has been more notable for its failures than its successes. Almost half a century ago, in 1965, we reversed the discriminatory policies that over the course of the previous 80 years had either barred or...

Rand Paul's Lonely Stand

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak Senator Rand Paul walks to a waiting vehicle as he leaves the Capitol after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. L ike the roomful of monkeys who eventually write Hamlet if given long enough, or the broken clock that’s on time twice a day, sooner or later an otherwise dubious political figure will find his moral compass pointing true north if he keeps spinning in place. Or maybe it’s Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky who stays in one place as the world spins, with north finally swinging into his sights. Whatever the motive, whatever paranoia fuels the worldview that drives him, whatever withering scorn he invited yesterday from fellow Republicans who found themselves in the strange position of defending a Democratic president, Paul’s filibuster of the last 48 hours was an act of patriotism more authentic than we usually see from a right that so ostentatiously professes to love a country it refuses to understand. If nothing else,...

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate. Sort Of.

Congressional Republicans, apparently. (Flickr/jumbledpile)
Like any number of liberals, I have from time to time complained about the difficulty of having substantive arguments about politics when your opponents refuse to acknowledge plain facts about the world. It's hard to have a discussion about what to do about climate change, for instance, if the other person refuses to believe that climate change is occurring. It's hard to discuss how to handle market failures in health insurance when the other person holds that markets are always perfect and government health insurance is always more expensive. As frustrating as those kinds of impasses are, at least you're talking about complex systems that require at least some investment of time to understand. But there's a rather incredible dance going on right now in the dispute over the budget that takes every stereotype liberals have about know-nothing Republicans and turns it up to 11. To sum it up, Democrats are being forced to negotiate with a group of people who are either so dumb they can't...

Few Waves in California

Flickr/msun523
Flickr/msun523 Cuts on overtime for customs inspectors at the Port of Long Beach in Long Beach, California, may hinder its ability to process cargo. I f the sequester had come to California 25 years ago, its effect would have been catastrophic. Today, its effects are decidedly less draconian. Nonetheless, California has a considerably less robust economy than that of the late '80s, and the sequester will cool off the state’s already tepid recovery. In considering the effects of the sequester, the difference between the California economy of 1942-1992 and its economy today is critical. For the half-century beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor, California was the centerpiece of the American defense industry. Southern California in particular was a home base for much of the aviation industry even before World War II, but wartime and Cold War spending built up aviation and then aerospace to the point that they employed more Californians than any other industry. When the Cold War...

The Sequester: Now What?

flickr/Penn State news
flickr/Penn State news President Obama gambled that the threat of the automatic sequester of $85 billion in domestic and defense cuts would force the Republicans to accept major tax increases, and so far he is losing the wager. The Republican leadership, which was badly divided over the New Year’s deal that delayed the fiscal cliff, is now re-united around the proposition that Republicans will accept no further tax increases. So the president is left to court individual Republican House members to support loophole closures in exchange for the restoration of some popular domestic and military spending. But for the moment, Republicans got what they wanted—big spending cuts, party unity around no tax increases, and a weakening of a newly re-elected president. For Obama and the Democrats, there are three big risks going forward. First, the sequester slows down economic growth—cutting it in half this year from about 3 percent to 1.5 percent according to the Congressional Budget Office...

The Sequester, Now What?

Flickr/Justin Sloan
President Obama gambled that the threat of the automatic sequester of $85 billion in domestic and defense cuts would force the Republicans to accept major tax increases, and so far he is losing the wager. The Republican leadership, which was badly divided over the New Years deal that delayed the fiscal cliff, is now re-united around the proposition that Republicans will accept no further tax increases. So the president is left to court individual Republican House members to support loophole closures in exchange for the restoration of some popular domestic and military spending. But for the moment, Republicans got what they wanted—big spending cuts, party unity around no tax increases, and a weakening of a newly re-elected president. For Obama and the Democrats, there are three big risks going forward. First, the sequester slows down economic growth—cutting it in half this year from about 3 percent to 1.5 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Obama, more than the...

The Maximum Impact of the Minimum Wage

AP Photo/Mike Groll
Cristina Romer, Berkeley economics professor and the former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, passed judgment on the merits of raising the minimum wage in Saturday’s New York Times , and in the process made clear why she wasn’t a member of the president’s de facto council of political advisers. She argued, as some mainstream economists do, that the merits of a heightened minimum wage were slight—that it may, for instance, raise prices, offsetting the gain to low-wage workers. The better solution, she argues, is to raise the earned income tax credit (EITC)—the government’s payment to the working poor—and to support universal pre-K education. “Why settle for half-measures,” she concludes (by which she means raising the minimum wage), “when such truly first-rate policies [by which she means the EITC and pre-K schooling] are well understood and ready to go?” Ready to go? Congressional Republicans are rarin’ to increase government spending on the working poor and...

These Aren't the Budget Cuts You're Looking For

White House/Pete Souza
Along with his many accomplishments as president, Barack Obama has given liberals many reasons to be disappointed. Well it looks like we're going to have to add one to the list : "I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I'm being reasonable, that most people agree I'm presenting a fair deal. The fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mindmeld with these folks and convince them to do what's right. Well, you know, they're elected. We have a constitutional system of government." A betrayal of generations of sci-fi geeks everywhere, who thought Obama was one of them? Or a mere slip of the tongue? Probably the latter. But as everyone knows, Jedis do mind tricks , in which they convince you to do or believe something (e.g. "These aren't the droids you're looking for"), while Vulcans perform mindmelds. Obama was saying that he couldn't perform a...

Stop the Madness

Flickr/K.P. Tripathi
The sequester has failed. I say that because it was intended as a deterrent, not as something that was ever supposed to go into effect. So because it has gone into effect, it has failed. What should we do now? The answer is simple—not easy, but simple. We have to end this madness, this string of manufactured crises that hamstring the economy and cause enormous amounts of genuine human suffering. Enough is enough. So Congress has to do three things: 1. Repeal the sequester immediately. I've said it before and I'll say it again, this thing just needs to be repealed, period. Not replaced with some other negotiated deficit reduction package, just repealed. Stop the bleeding, and then you can start negotiating what the government's finances will look like in the coming years. But you can't do it with a gun to all of our heads, so it just needs to be repealed. Now. 2. Pass a continuing resolution to allow the government to continue functioning, and immediately begin negotiations to pass an...

Automatic Stabilizers: There When Congress Isn't

Flickr/JMazzolaa
As we approach sequestration today the dominant narrative continues to be that the huge run-up in the deficit since the Great Recession has been our greatest political—perhaps even a moral—failure. But it isn’t a failure. This is exactly how the system was designed to work if the economy ever saw a downturn on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis. The deficit is collapsing through the same planned process. As the economy recovers, it is falling quickly, down to 7 percent in 2012, and an estimated 5.3 percent in 2013. These are our "automatic stabilizers" at play. Though it sounds vaguely hydrologic or like a bad steampunk creation, it’s straightforward: The economy will naturally suffer from periods of slack demand in which there isn't enough purchasing power in the economy to produce goods and employ all of our resources, including people. Automatic stabilizers then kick into motion in to counteract this. One important automatic stabilizer is the tax code, which has people pay less...

Dear White House, You'll Regret This

Olivier Douliery/AP Images
The latest dust-up in the descent of Bob Woodward from fearless investigative reporter to manipulative media celebrity began with his contention in a Washington Post column that President Obama, by asking for revenue increases as part of a deal to defer the sequester, was “moving the goal posts” from the 2011 budget deal (in which Obama got thoroughly hosed by the Republicans). When the White House pushed back and an unnamed “senior official” told Politico that Woodward would “regret” those comments, someone, presumably Woodward, leaked an e-mail between himself and White House top economic strategist Gene Sperling. Since then, the political class has been abuzz with chatter about Woodward’s modus operandi, the ethics of burning a source, his longstanding strategy of trading access for friendly treatment, and so on. But far more revealing (and appalling) is the content of the e-mails . Here's what Sperling told Woodward: The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back...

Falling into Woodward's Den of Iniquity

Flickr/Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin
When I got to my computer this morning and saw how many people were blathering about Bob Woodward, a wave of despair washed over me. First, because this is the kind of stupid argument from which we thought we could get something of a reprieve once the campaign ended, and second, because Bob Woodward himself, and the deference with which he is treated, just make me depressed. It's not that Woodward isn't a good reporter, of a sort. But Watergate was pretty much the last time his reporting enhanced public understanding in a meaningful way. Woodward's modus operandi since then has been to approach powerful people and convince them to tell their side of major events through him. Knowing that if they don't, someone else will and they might come out looking bad, many of them give him their spin in great detail, which his books then pass on to a wide readership. They aren't so much a record of events as a record of events as the people who talked to Bob Woodward would like us to see them...

The U.S. Budget, By the Numbers

AP Photo/Ed Andrieski
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds I n the argument over the "sequester," the across-the-board cuts to both domestic and military programs that are about to take effect, everyone in official Washington seems to agree that the government's budget is bloated. Despite the economists telling us that this is still a terrible time for austerity (just look how well it has worked out for Europe), the argument between Republicans and Democrats seems to be whether we need to just slash the budget mercilessly, or slash the budget somewhat less and raise some taxes. But is the federal budget really so big? Let's take a look at some graphs. If you look just at raw dollars, it's true that the size of government has increased steadily in recent decades (there are a lot of reasons why that's the case). It's also true that spending went up at the beginning of the Obama administration, but it's important to understand why and how. The answer to why is simple: the Great Recession. When a recession hits, government...

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