The Obama Administration

The Last Four Years, and the Next Four

Tonight, PBS's Frontline will be broadcasting a documentary called "Inside Obama's Presidency," about the President's first term. The story told in this preview is about a now-somewhat-famous dinner that a bunch of Republican muckety-mucks held on the night of Obama's inauguration, during which they made the decision that the best way to proceed was implacable, unified opposition to anything and everything the new president wanted to do. As we all know, this plan was then carried out almost to the letter. Watch: Watch Facing a Permanent Minority? on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE. The story of this inauguration-night dinner was told in Robert Draper's book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the House of Representatives , which came out eight months ago. Seeing the story retold, what's striking is that beforehand, one would have considered the participants—Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Jim DeMint, John Kyl, Tom Coburn—to be extremely, sometimes infuriatingly, conservative. But...

Don't Count on a Sane GOP

AP Photo
A week before his inaugural, President Obama says he won’t negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit. At an unexpected news conference on Monday he said he won’t trade cuts in government spending in exchange for raising the borrowing limit. “If the goal is to make sure that we are being responsible about our debt and our deficit - if that’s the conversation we’re having, I’m happy to have that conversation,” Obama said. “What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people.” Well and good. But what, exactly, is the President’s strategy when the debt ceiling has to be raised, if the GOP hasn’t relented? He’s ruled out an end-run around the GOP. The White House said over the weekend that the President won’t rely on the Fourteenth Amendment, which arguably gives him authority to raise the debt ceiling on his own. And his Treasury Department has nixed the idea of issuing a $1 trillion platinum coin that could be deposited with the Fed,...

Embracing the Legacy of Torture

John Brennan's nomination for head of the CIA shows the appalling extent to which the worst abuses of the post-9/11 security state have become institutionalized.

Rex Features/Patsy Lynch
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin Demonstrators protest the White House's nomination of Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan to head the CIA on Monday, January 7, 2013. L ess than a month after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, John Brennan withdrew himself from consideration for head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) because of opposition from liberals, which centered on his role as chief of staff to CIA director George Tenet when the Bush administration's arbitrary detention and torture programs were being developed. It is particularly depressing, then, that Obama has done as a safely re-elected incumbent what he felt he could not do in his first term: Nominate Brennan as head of the CIA. The fact that Brennan has been nominated despite his support for some of the worst abuses of the post-9/11 security state demonstrates the appalling extent to which many of these practices have become institutionalized, as well as the political...

Obama's Genius Defense Pick

AP Photo/Nati Harnik
AP Photo/Nati Harnik Former senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, speaks at Bellevue University in February 2007. T he Republican Party is given these days to hysteria, and what appears at the moment to be a white-guy cabinet in the second Obama term is more likely the result of botched orchestration than anything. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s contention that the president is deliberately getting in the opposition’s face with his recent nominations. As those of us who have been supportive of the president wrestle with the moral question of whether he deserves as much grief as we would have given a newly elected Mitt Romney for filling the three biggest jobs in his administration with old white males, or whether Obama’s first term—including a female secretary of State and two female Supreme Court appointments—earns him some slack, the Machiavellian genius of the choices is lost. The Republicans are in disarray not because...

The Mortgage Mess and Jack Lew

Rex Features via AP Images
The more information we learn about the mortgage settlement that was announced Monday—official documents are yet to be made public—the more of a smarmy backroom deal it turns out to be. The deal lets ten major banks and other “loan servicers” off the hook for a corrupted and illegal process of millions of foreclosures, with a paltry one-time settlement of $8.5 billion. The economic damage inflicted on homeowners, and by extension on the economy, was many times that. The deal was hatched by the weakest of the federal bank regulatory agencies, the Comptroller of the Currency, and signed off on by the Federal Reserve. There was no consultation with the more consumer-oriented agencies, such as the FDIC or the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. The Comptroller just went and did it. Nor was the Justice Department consulted, even though the deal, nominally a civil settlement, will make criminal prosecutions more difficult now that a major regulator has signed off on an bargain to close the...

Is Jack Lew the Best We Can Do?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew in the East Room of the White House in Washington T o no one’s great surprise, President Obama has appointed his chief of staff, Jack Lew, to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Mainly, the choice signals that there will be no change either in the Obama-Geithner approach to reforming Wall Street (not very much), or on fiscal politics, where deficit reduction is a paramount goal despite a faltering recovery. The positives of Lew are these. He’s not a hard-core deficit hawk like Erskine Bowles (low bar). He’s not a bully like Larry Summers or Rahm Emanuel (even lower bar.) He’s a highly competent, detail-oriented numbers guy, and a skilled negotiator. That combination seems to drive some Republicans nuts, because in the infighting over the budget deal of 2011, Lew’s knowledge of the details enabled him to win some tactical victories in what was otherwise a rout for the administration (this was the deal that created...

Obama's Options on 2013's Big Issues

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Anyone who thinks congressional Republicans will roll over on the debt ceiling or gun control or other pending hot-button issues hasn’t been paying attention. But the President can use certain tools that come with his office—responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution and in his capacity as the nation’s chief law-enforcer—to achieve some of his objectives. On the debt ceiling, for example, he might pay the nation’s creditors regardless of any vote on the debt ceiling—based on the the Fourteenth Amendment’s explicit directive (in Section 4) that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” Or, rather than issue more debt, the President might use a loophole in a law (31 USC, Section 5112) allowing the Treasury to issue commemorative coins—minting a $1 trillion coin and then depositing it with the Fed. Both gambits would almost certainly end up in the Supreme Court, but not before they’ve been used to pay the nation’s bills. (It’s doubtful any...

Fighting Education Shock Therapy

With tools from 1964, community activists are pushing the White House to turn federal education policy around.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast Sixty-five-year-old John Washington pick up his great grandson, Rayshaun Cates, at Samuel Morse Elementary School, a Chicago school closed in 2006. T he watchword of austerity, “there is no alternative,” connotes painful cuts and layoffs adopted by fiscally shot local governments. In practice, though, this is a contradiction in terms: the politics of austerity are also a politics of imaginative restructuring, in which fiscal crisis is a cover for what Clintonites called “reinventing government” or, as partisans of Naomi Klein might prefer, “shock therapy.” The lie is starkest in the realm of education policy, where the Obama administration prescribes a slate of options for impoverished communities receiving federal School Improvement Grants. These range from “turnarounds,” which replace the principal and at least half of school staff, to charterization or outright closure. The catch with turnarounds and closings? Urban schools affected by them house more...

Solis Steps Down

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File
There has never been a more pro-worker Secretary of Labor than Hilda Solis, who announced yesterday that she’s stepping down from her cabinet post. But for much of her tenure, she was swimming upstream—confronting not just most anti-labor congressional Republicans in modern American history, but also an Obama White House inner circle that she, like many of her fellow cabinet members, never really permeated. Within those considerable constraints, Solis did what she could to get the federal government to intervene on workers’ behalf. Unable to advance many new policies, however, that often meant enforcing established pro-worker policies with uncommon vigor. During her tenure, the Labor Department collected record amounts of back pay for workers cheated by their employers, and moved to strengthen mine-safety inspections. The administration also announced new regulations that would bring nearly 2 million home-care workers under the coverage of the federal minimum-wage law, but,...

The Clear Legality of the Platinum-Coin Solution

It's likely that early this year we will once again see another debt ceiling crisis, with Republicans in Congress threatening the credit of the United States in order to win unpopular policy concessions. One increasingly popular idea for getting out of this cycle of hostage-taking is for the president to mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin that would allow the federal government to meet its outlays even if Congress refuses to lift the debt ceiling to allow the executive branch to cover the expenditures is has already required. Support for the idea, however, is far from unanimous. Mother Jones 's Kevin Drum has argued and reiterated that progressives are wrong to support the idea. The platinum-coin idea, Drum argues, is "not legal," and a legal challenge "would go against Obama 9-0 if it ever made it to the Supreme Court." Drum's objections, however, are erroneous. The platinum coin would be legal, and if the Republicans were to shoot their metaphorical hostage (i.e. the American...

Ending the Mindset that Got Us into Iraq

AP Photo/Bill Wolf
Rex Features via AP Images The nomination announcement for Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in the East Room of the White House. P resident Obama’s announcement yesterday of his nomination of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is important in a couple of ways. The first is that by following through with a candidate who faced one of the most intense negative pre-nomination campaigns in recent memory, the president signaled that is shaking off some of the caution that characterized his first term, and is prepared to undertake a bolder political course. Indeed, the opposition to Hagel already seems to be weakening in the face of an overwhelming outpouring of support for the nomination now that it has been announced. According to a former Democratic Senate staffer I spoke to, this was to be expected. “It...

Once Again, Obama Does Something No GOP President Bothers to Do

Ten points if you know who this is.
I'm sure there are many reasons why President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to be secretary of Defense, but the fact that Hagel is a Republican surely played at least some part. After all, if he nominated a Democrat to head the Pentagon, congressional Republicans would surely oppose the nomination and charge that the nominee was too dovish. Which of course is exactly what has happened with Hagel (along with some truly despicable phony accusations of anti-Semitism*). I'm not the first liberal to be disappointed with the fact that Democratic presidents seem to feel the need to placate their opponents by picking Republicans for this particular position. As Michael Beschloss observed , Republican presidents have never picked a Democrat for this job, but about half the secretaries of Defense in Democratic administrations have been Republicans. What's most important to note about this is that there is no equivalent on the other side. Republican presidents don't feel the need to appoint...

Barney Frank Walks Back on Hagel

World Economic Forum / Flickr
World Economic Forum / Flickr Republicans straining to present opposition to Chuck Hagel as bipartisan had a small assist from retired Massachusetts lawmaker Barney Frank last week, who because of Hagel’s 1998 criticism of Ambassador James Hormel—he called him “openly, aggressively gay”—said he “ strongly opposed ” his nomination to head the Defense Department. As of today, however, conservatives will no longer be able to cry crocodile tears on gay rights and turn to Frank as an example of anti-Hagel criticism from “both sides.” Here’s the Huffington Post : Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is softening his opposition to Chuck Hagel’s likely nomination as Defense Secretary, saying he is willing to overlook the former Republican senator’s past anti-gay remarks and positions. “As much as I regret what Hagel said, and resent what he said, the question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military,” Frank told the Boston Globe in an interview. ”In terms of the policy stuff...

Calling McConnell’s Bluff

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
The budget deal that just averted the supposed fiscal cliff was only a warm up. The next fiscal cliff is the $110 billion in automatic budget cuts (sequesters) that last week’s budget deal deferred only until March. But, as long as we are using topographic metaphors, this is less a cliff than a bluff. On the Sunday talk shows, Republican leaders were full of bravado and swagger. Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona, on CBS “Face the Nation” said it was about time “for another government shutdown.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, ruled out any further tax increases, declaring that “the tax issue is finished, over, completed.” He insisted, “Now it’s time to pivot and turn to the real issue, which is our spending addiction.” But is spending really the problem? For most the postwar era, federal tax revenues hovered around 19 percent of GDP, and spending a bit more than that. But for the four years since the financial collapse, federal...

Conservative Projection Takes a New Angle

Flickr/kylebogucki
Peggy Noonan is, without doubt, America's most hilariously ridiculous opinion columnist, someone forever pleading that we ignore piffle like "facts" and focus instead on the collective emotions that are bubbling just out of our awareness until she identifies them. But in her column today , she does something that we ought to take note of, because I suspect it will become a common Republican talking point. Noonan asks why Obama is so darn mean to Republicans, and answers the question thusly: Here's my conjecture: In part it's because he seems to like the tension. He likes cliffs, which is why it's always a cliff with him and never a deal. He likes the high-stakes, tottering air of crisis. Maybe it makes him feel his mastery and reminds him how cool he is, unrattled while he rattles others. He can take it. Can they? He is a uniquely polarizing figure. A moderate U.S. senator said the other day: "One thing not said enough is he is the most divisive president in modern history. He doesn't...

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