The Obama Administration

Why Republicans Can't Destroy Obama

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Over the past few years, liberals like me have pointed out countless times that the Republican party was being (or would be soon, as the case might have been) terribly damaged by the ideological extremism and general nuttiness of the faction that took over the party between 2009 and 2010. But we have to be honest and acknowledge that it didn't always work out that way. They were able to win a number of tangible victories despite the fact that the public doesn't look favorably on the things they wanted to do. In many cases, an extremist Republican ousted a perfectly conservative Republican in a primary, and now the extremist Republican is in possession of a safe seat. And of course, they won a huge victory in the 2010 elections. For all the fun we've had at the expense of people like Michele Bachmann, the damage they did to the GOP wasn't always as serious as we thought it would be. But I think we're seeing the limits that the House Republicans' extremism imposes on their ability to...

Not Too Shabby So Far: Obama's Judicial Legacy

flickr/The Library of Congress
Flickr/Cliff E arlier this week, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would name nominees to fill three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court, touching off a new battle between the White House and Republicans over filibusters and presidential privileges. Despite the fact that appointing judges is one of the powers given to every president by the Constitution, some Republicans reacted as though Obama were doing something horrible by fulfilling this obligation. (You'd almost think they didn't accept the legitimacy of his presidency.) In any case, this argument is likely to heat up over the next few weeks, so we might benefit from some context as charges and counter-charges start flying. To begin with, some background. The nominations at issue here are those to the circuit courts—also known as the courts of appeals—and to the district courts. There are 13 circuit courts with a total of 179 seats, and 89 district courts with a total of 677 seats. The circuit court seats...

Shorting the D.C. Circuit

Wikimedia commons
Flickr/Cliff At least since the Reagan administration, Republicans have taken judicial nominations, especially to the federal circuit courts , much more seriously than Democrats have. As a result, Republican presidents have gotten relatively more nominees confirmed, and their nominees have been younger and more ideologically consistent than their Democratic counterparts. Yesterday, however, there was a sign that this could be changing. As the Prospect 's Paul Waldman noted , Michael Shear of The New York Times reported that President Obama would be simultaneously nominating individuals for all three current vacancies on the D.C. Circuit. This move is clearly intended to make Republican obstructionism a major issue of Obama's second term. And while it's not clear how this bold advance will play out, under any scenario something good will come out of it. As Waldman notes, for now the central Republican argument against the nominations is that Obama is trying to "pack the court." As...

Children of the Great Collapse

AP Photo/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise, Bill Hughes
AP Photo/Kin Cheung Here’s a piece of good news of which you might not be aware: The U.S. safety net performed a lot better than you thought during the recent downturn, which was the deepest since the Depression. Thanks to expansions to the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and unemployment insurance—all beefed up by the $840 billion Recovery Act—the safety net almost wholly mitigated the rise in child poverty. Even middle-income households saw most of their income losses substantially offset by tax and transfer policies that sharply ramped up to help them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault. While the safety net performed well during the worst phase of the downturn, other trends have been troubling. Families lost trillions of dollars in home equity, the largest source of wealth for working- and middle-...

Republicans Looking Sheepish On Obama Court Nominees

One of the biggest criticisms activist liberals have had of the Obama administration is that they have not moved aggressively to put their stamp on the federal judiciary. While there has certainly been Republican obstruction of Obama nominees, in many cases the administration hasn't even bothered to nominate anyone to open seats. There are currently 82 vacancies on the federal bench, and in 58 of those, the administration has offered no nominee. So it's good news that they have announced that they are about to offer nominations for the three vacancies on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, widely considered the second most important court in the nation, since it hears many critical cases involving the scope of government power. It looks like the administration is betting that the more nominations they put up at the same time, the more attention the issue will get if Republicans try to block them, and the more attention it gets, the more difficult Republican filibusters will be...

King Obama the Magical

AP Photo/John Bazemore
Brendan Nyhan’s “Green Lantern” theory of presidential politics—the (incorrect) belief that when things don’t turn out how a president wants it was because he didn’t want it deeply enough—has been all over the Internet lately. And, no matter how false that image of the presidency might be, it’s probably not going away. The idea of the president as a Magical King serves everyone’s interests—beginning with man in the Oval Office himself. Political scientists who study the presidency have long contended that the presidency is a relatively weak office : the presidency is the single most influential position in the political system, but the president cannot get very much done just by giving orders. Not only does he have to bargain with Congress—which means 535 individual politicians, all with their own constituencies and interests and preferences, and many of whom have strong partisan reasons for opposing whatever he wants—but he can’t even, in many cases, control the executive branch...

Republican Overreach, Coming Soon

You can bet hey'll be hearing from these folks. (Flickr/SS&SS)
A number of people have asked whether the Republicans will overreach in their reaction to the current collection of scandal-ish controversies (by the way, someone really needs to come up with a name that encompasses them all). The answer to that question is, of course they will. Try to remember who we're talking about here. Overreaching is their thing. Congress will be going home this weekend, and I'll bet the Republicans are going to come back from their recess reassured that their constituents really, really want them to pursue Barack Obama to the ends of the earth. I'll explain why in a moment, but in the meantime the National Journal has details on their strategy: Congressional Republicans head into next week's Memorial Day recess armed with a strategy designed to keep the controversies that have consumed Washington in the news back home. Both House and Senate Republicans will focus on the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny as well as the...

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...