The Obama Administration

The Courts: How Obama Dropped the Ball

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
(AP Photo/J. David Ake) I n his novel King of the Jews , Leslie Epstein sets his story in the wartime ghetto of Lodz, Poland, where the Gestapo ruled through an appointed council of Jewish elders. Epstein, researching the book, tracked down the gallows humor of the time. In one such joke, told by a character in the novel, two Jews are facing a firing squad. The commandant asks if they would like blindfolds. One of the condemned whispers to the other, “Don’t make trouble.” “Don’t make trouble” could have been the credo of the first year of the Obama Administration. The White House calculated that if the president just extended the hand of conciliation to the Republicans, the opposition would reciprocate and together they would change the tone in Washington. This was the policy on everything from the stimulus to health reform to judicial nominations. It didn’t work out so well. Now, spurred by the tailwind of a re-election victory and the realization that public opinion is on his side,...

Why Does Obama Want to Spend $8 Trillion on Defense?

United States Air Force
Washington is in a fiscal panic, yet surprisingly few people are asking an obvious question: Why in the world is the Obama administration proposing to spend $8 trillion on security over the next decade? Included in that giant sum is not just Pentagon spending, but also outlays for intelligence, homeland security, foreign aid, and diplomacy abroad. If the administration gets its way, security spending would account for a fifth of all government outlays over the next decade. Such spending would be roughly twice as great as all non-mandatory spending through 2022—a category that includes everything from NASA to Pell Grants and national parks. And—get this—around 40 cents of every dollar collected from individual income taxes over the next decade under the president's plan would go for security spending, according to White House estimates. That's a whole lot of defense for a country that, as of 2014 (when U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan), will be officially at peace and faces no...

Mitch McConnell Doesn't Understand What the Debt Ceiling Is

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Now that Republicans have pretty much resigned themselves to the idea that there is going to be some kind of tax increase for the wealthy, they're comforting themselves with the idea that come early next year, they'll still be able to re-enact the lovely conflict we had over the debt ceiling in 2011 and hold the American economy hostage to their demands. President Obama has quite sensibly said that we ought to just get rid of the debt ceiling itself, since it serves no purpose and allows a party to engage in just this kind of economic blackmail if it's desperate and cynical enough. So Republicans are pushing back, none more so than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the process, McConnell has revealed that he has no idea how the debt ceiling actually works. What McConnell has been saying is that if we eliminate the debt ceiling, it will give the president all kinds of new powers, to spend money willy-nilly however he wants to, run up the debt, and generally become a kind...

Not Another Wall Street Puppet

AP Photo
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama walks with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to the Oval Office at the White House after speaking about the fiscal cliff at Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers. I n his first post-election press conference, President Barack Obama said voters had awarded him only one mandate: to help middle class families and those striving to reach the middle class. In line with fulfilling this charge, the administration’s top priority would be creating manufacturing jobs and rebuilding the nation’s schools and infrastructure. An early bellwether of the president’s commitment to this will be his selection of a replacement for Timothy Geithner, who is expected to step down as Treasury secretary early next year. The nomination presents an opportunity for a White House course correction, finally putting Main Street ahead of Wall Street. With Geithner’s appointment four years ago, Obama chose someone acceptable to the banking...

The Obama Administration Plays Hardball On Medicaid

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act.
When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, it also gave Republican states a gift by saying they could opt out of what may be the ACA's most important part, the dramatic expansion of Medicaid that will give insurance to millions of people who don't now have it. While right now each state decides on eligibility rules—meaning that if you live in a state governed by Republicans, if you make enough to have a roof over your head and give your kids one or two meals a day, you're probably considered too rich for Medicaid and are ineligible—starting in 2014 anyone at up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible. That means an individual earning up to $14,856 or a family of four earning up to $30,657 could get Medicaid. Republican governors and legislatures don't like the Medicaid expansion, which is why nine states—South Dakota, plus the Southern states running from South Carolina through Texas—have said they'll refuse to expand Medicaid (many other states have...

What Raising the Medicare Eligibility Age Means

President Johnson signing Medicare into law in 1965.
After a campaign in which Republicans attempted to pillory Barack Obama for finding $716 billion in savings from Medicare (via cuts in payments to insurance companies and providers but not cuts to benefits), those same Republicans now seem to be demanding that Obama agree to cuts in Medicare benefits as the price of saving the country from the Austerity Trap, a.k.a. fiscal cliff. Oh, the irony! You'd almost think that they weren't really the stalwart defenders of Medicare they pretended to be. And there are some hints that the Obama administration is seriously considering agreeing to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as part of this deal. It's a dreadful idea, and as we discuss this possibility, there's one really important thing to keep in mind: Medicare is the least expensive way to insure these people. Or anybody, for that matter. In all this talk of the bloated entitlement system, you'd be forgiven for thinking Medicare was some kind of inefficient, overpriced big...

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: SCOTUS Takes on Same-Sex Marriage

Flickr/Jamison Weiser
Tonight, you’ll hear on the news that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the "gay marriage cases.” Much of the mainstream ( i.e. , straight) media will be treating the two cases they’ve taken—a challenge to California's ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, and a challenge to DOMA, the federal law that prohibits the government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states—as essentially the same. Don’t be fooled. The cases are very different. The fact that SCOTUS has taken both has a lot of us very worried. Let’s start with the more famous one: the Prop. 8 case. This is the one we did not want the Court to take. At its simplest, the lawsuit—brought by star lawyer team Ted Olsen and David Boies—is asking the Court to consider whether Prop. 8 is constitutional; it’s about whether there’s a fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry. When the California electorate passed Prop. 8 in 2008, you may recall, it overturned the state supreme court’s decision to allow...

What's Next for Immigration Reform?

Flickr/Anuska Sampedro
Flickr/Justin Valas An immigration rally in Washington, D.C.'s McPhereson Square P resident Obama has called it the “biggest failure of [his] first term.” Now, having once again been elected with a sizable majority of the Latino vote and with key Republicans seemingly on board, the administration has begun pressuring Congress to take up immigration reform. The president has said he plans to introduce an immigration-reform proposal shortly after his inauguration, and Senators Lindsay Graham and Chuck Schumer, who led the failed effort for immigration reform in 2009, have “resumed talks.” In previous legislative battles over immigration going back to George W. Bush’s second term, the key sticking point has been what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented workers currently in the country. Another point of contention is whether to pass a “comprehensive” bill—one that addresses a broad range of problems with the immigration system including enforcement, the visa system for high-...

Forget the Fiscal Cliff—We've Got Other Problems

Flickr/DonkeyHotey
The “fiscal cliff” is a metaphor for a government that no longer responds to the biggest challenges we face because it’s paralyzed by intransigent Republicans, obsessed by the federal budget deficit, and overwhelmed by big money from corporations, Wall Street, and billionaires. If we had a functional government America would address three “cliffs” posing far larger dangers to us than the fiscal one: The child poverty cliff. Between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of American school-age children living in poor households grew from 17 to 21%. Last year, according to the Agriculture Department , nearly 1 in 4 young children lived in a family that had difficulty affording sufficient food at some point in the year. Yet federal programs to help children and lower-income families—food stamps, aid for poor school districts, Pell grants, child health care, child nutrition, pre- and post-natal care, and Medicaid – are being targeted by the Republican right. Over 60 percent of the cuts in the GOP’...

Folks Like Me

(Flickr / 401(K) 2012)
When President Obama calls for raising taxes on the top 2 percent, he has a habit of declaring that, “Folks like me” should pay higher taxes. He used the phrase dozens of time during the campaign, and just this week again in an interview on Bloomberg. Either someone on the president’s speechwriting staff has a tin ear, or Obama himself does. For starters, the comment puts unnecessary distance between the president and the citizenry. It signals: I am not like most of you. I am far wealthier. But the phrase, “folks like me,” is wildly misleading. The people whose taxes really need to rise are not folks from the professional class like Barack Obama. They are folks like Mitt Romney and Pete Peterson—people with net worth in the billions or hundreds of millions; people behind the corporate Fix the Debt campaign; people like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. These are people not at all like us, and they are not people like Barack Obama. As Obama used to remind audiences, he is a lot...

It's Time to Kill the Debt Ceiling

(AP Photo/CBS News, Chris Usher)
There are a number of strange aspects to the negotiation/maneuvering/posturing now taking place between the White House and congressional Republicans about the Austerity Trap (a.k.a. fiscal cliff), but one that hasn't gotten much attention is the disagreement over the debt ceiling. As part of their initial offer, the White House included something I and other people have been advocating for some time: Just get rid of the debt ceiling altogether. The Republicans, particularly in the House, don't seem to be interested. But we should take a good look at how crazy their position on this issue is. In an ordinary negotiation, each side has things it wants, while it dislikes some or all of the things the other side wants. A union wants higher wages for its workers, while the company doesn't want to pay the higher wages. You'd rather have your partner do the laundry while you do the dishes, but your partner doesn't like doing the laundry either. The White House wants to increase taxes on the...

A New, Tougher Obama?

(AP Photo)
In response to pushback from Congress and progressive activists following a report in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal that Obama had offered to be “flexible” on tax-rate hikes for the very richest, the White House formally unveiled a tough bargaining stance: $1.6 billion in tax increases over a decade, all on the top two brackets, and no tax hikes for the bottom 98 percent. The White House proposal included only $400 billion in spending cuts over a decade, none of which cut into Social Security or Medicare—details to be filled in later. Obama also proposed a change in the law to eliminate the obstructionist ritual of requiring a congressional vote to periodically increase the debt ceiling. (The debt increase has already been obligated by previous congressional actions, so the debt-ceiling vote is entirely redundant and nothing but an opportunity for mischief.) The Republicans, not surprisingly, dismissed the White House position out of hand. Two things are encouraging about Obama’s...

Snatching Defeat out of the Jaws of Victory

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Invited guests listen as President Barack Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building about extending middle-class tax cuts before they expire in January. The president said he believes that members of both parties can reach a framework on a debt-cutting deal before Christmas. P resident Barack Obama, to his great credit, has drawn a bright line. Taxes have to revert to the rates that were in effect before the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent. This is crucial because the less the very rich pay, the more others have to pay either in the form of less tax relief for the bottom 98 percent or on program cuts like Social Security and Medicare. Or has he drawn that line? Yesterday, the White House put out the word that the president was willing to be “flexible” on the question of tax rates for the top bracket. Specifically, that means the president will accept the Republican idea of getting some of the needed revenue by closing loopholes rather than...

Will Tim Geithner Lead Us over or around the Fiscal Cliff?

I’m trying to remain optimistic that the president and congressional Democrats will hold their ground over the next month as we approach the so-called “fiscal cliff.” But leading those negotiations for the White House is outgoing Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner, whom Monday’s Wall Street Journal described as a “pragmatic deal maker” because of “his long relationship with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, for whom balancing the budget was a priority over other Democratic touchstones.” Geithner is indeed a protégé of Bob Rubin, for whom he worked when Rubin was Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration. Rubin then helped arranged for Geithner to become president of the New York Fed, and then pushed for him to become Obama’s Treasury Secretary. Both Rubin and Geithner are hardworking and decent. But both see the world through the eyes of Wall Street rather than Main Street. I battled Rubin for years in the Clinton administration because of his hawkishness on the budget...

The Election Heard Round the Watercooler

(Flickr / striatic)
This year's election wasn't the most negative in history, or the most trivial. But it did see a few new developments, including one particularly troubling one: the spread of politics into some places it used to be unwelcome. And not just any politics, but a kind of ill-informed, antagonistic kind of politics, the kind that says that your party losing is literally a national catastrophe and that there is no such thing as an opponent, only an enemy. When we hear ridiculous stories like that of the gun store owner in Arizona who took out an ad in the local paper proclaiming, "If you voted for Barack Obama, your business is NOT WELCOME at Southwest Shooting Authority," we aren't surprised. After all, hundreds of thousands of people—maybe millions—got an extra dose of partisanship at their jobs this year for the first time. When the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case in 2010, most of the focus was on the fact that the decision allowed corporations and wealthy individuals to...

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