The Obama Administration

Apology Silliness, Foreign Policy Edition

I apologize for these pastries. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

We're now negotiating the terms of our sort-of-departure from Afghanistan, and there's no doubt the Afghan government needs America more than America needs it. Imagine, if you would, that we just packed up and left. There would almost certainly be a full-on civil war, one the Afghan government would be hard-pressed to win. And back here, we'd pay about as much attention as we do now to the river of blood flowing through Iraq, which is to say, every once in a while we'd see a news story and say, "Gee, that's terrible," and then go back to wondering how long it'll be before Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan go on a cross-country crime spree.

So if you were the Afghan government, you probably wouldn't want to drive too hard a bargain in negotiating the terms of the future American presence there. And it's all getting hung up on whether the Americans are going to apologize for killing Afghan civilians, and whether they might offer an apology that isn't really an apology, and whether they can do it in a letter that's signed by Secretary of State John Kerry or if the letter has to be signed by President Obama himself. This is the silliness on which the future of an entire country, and who knows how many lives, depends.

The Real Roots of the Filibuster Crisis

As fake as the moon landing, obviously. (White House photo by Sonya Hebert)

We're about to have ourselves a little filibuster crisis, and the only surprising thing is that it took so long. We've now reached a point where Republicans no longer accept that Barack Obama has the right, as president of the United States, to fill judicial vacancies. Unlike in previous battles over judicial nominations, we're not talking about the nominees' qualifications or their ideological proclivities. It's merely a question of the president's constitutional privileges. Republicans don't think he has them. This is only the latest feature of a long descent for the GOP away from considering any Democratic president—but particularly this one—as a legitimate holder of the office to which he was elected.

There has never been a president, at least in our lifetimes, whose legitimacy was so frequently questioned in both word and deed by the opposition party and its adherents. Even today, many Republicans, including some members of Congress, refuse to believe that Obama was born in the United States. Right after he was re-elected, 49 percent of Republicans told pollsters they thought ACORN had stolen the election for Obama, a decline of only 3 points from the number that said so after the 2008 election, despite the fact that in the interim, ACORN had gone out of business. Think about that for a moment. How many times have you heard conservatives say that the Affordable Care Act was "rammed through" Congress, as though a year of debate and endless hearings and negotiations, followed by votes in both houses, followed by the president's signature, was somehow not a legitimate way to pass a law? In short, we've seen this again and again: it isn't just that Republicans consider Obama wrong about policy questions or object to the substance of one or another of his actions, it's as though they don't quite accept that he's the president, and everything he does carries for them the taint of illegitimacy.

How Both Republican and Democratic States Are Helping Obama

Last week, President Obama announced a "fix" to the problem of people in the individual health insurance market getting cancellation notices from their insurance companies: he'd allow the insurers to offer those substandard plans for another year. Does he want the fix to work? We can't read his mind, but depending on how you define "work," it would be better for the Affordable Care Act's ultimate success if it didn't. And as things have played out over the last few days, there are reasons that as a political problem this could fade.

As you may know, insurance markets are governed by officials in each state, and if a state's insurance commissioner doesn't want to allow the substandard plans to be sold, he or she can say no, no matter what the President might want. And a few of those insurance commissioners—from Vermont, Rhode Island, and Washington state—have already said they won't allow it. So what you have here are heavily Democratic states not supporting Obama. But here's the key to the story: those states also chose to run their own health exchanges, and all of them are working well.

We could end up with a situation in which the states that adopt Obama's fix are the ones most opposed to Obamacare, and the states that support Obamacare don't adopt it. And I wouldn't be surprised if that's just fine with Obama.

How Republicans Lost the Chance to Win Obamacare

AP Photo/Dylan Lovan

The argument for the national government administering things over the states has always been summed up, I thought, by an old James Carville joke: I’ll race you from Disneyland to DisneyWorld. I get to take the federal roads.

That joke, however, has been turned upside down by implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The whole sequence has been weird. After all, the law—as a concession to moderate Democrats who feared Republican attacks about a federal-government takeover—wound up asking the states, and not the federal government, to run the exchanges. But Republican-led states refused to do so. When the federal-run Healthcare.gov crashed, the odd result is that the current winners of the federalism battle—which is often waged, at least rhetorically, by Republicans dead set on keeping the feds out of their local government—are Democratic states such as California and New York where things are running reasonably smoothly. Or at least far better than the federally-run exchanges.

Obamacare Panic to Enter Even Stupider New Phase

Jason Eppink

I want to follow up on what I wrote Friday about those who are deciding that because of a) web site problems and b) the largely manufactured controversy over people who have one private insurance plan but now face the unfathomable horror of moving to a different private insurance plan, the Affordable Care Act is an unrecoverable disaster that has destroyed Barack Obama's second term. I'm sensing that this is about to move into a new phase of inane speculation that we should think about before it starts.

Memo to Democratic Chicken Littles: The Sky Is Not Falling

White House photo by Pete Souza.

Ah, now this is what politics is supposed to be like: Ruthless Republicans, gleeful at the prospect that they might increase the net total of human suffering. Timorous Democrats, panicking at the first hint of political difficulty and rushing to assemble a circular firing squad. And the news media bringing out its "Dems In Disarray!" headlines that have been used so many times before. The problems of the last couple weeks "could threaten Democratic priorities for years," says Ron Brownstein. It's just like Hurricane Katrina, says the New York Times (minus the 1,500 dead people, I guess they mean, though they don't say so). "On the broader question of whether Obama can rebuild an effective presidency after this debacle," says Dana Milbank, "it's starting to look as if it may be game over." Ruth Marcus also declares this presidency all but dead: "Can he recover? I'm sorry to say: I'm not at all confident."

Oh please. Everyone just chill out.

"Double Down" Was Written for Morning Joe—Not Posterity

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

The week Game Change was published in early 2010 coincided with my own version of journalistic martyrdom—watching my brain cells peel off like dandruff from enduring 60 hours of cable TV news in a week. From Morning Joe to Hardball to commercials for LifeLock, the authors of Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann were inescapable. Every time I switched channels, Halperin and Heilemann materialized peddling another nugget about Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton from their book on the 2008 campaign. The Game Change publicity machine so dominated cable TV news during that first week of selling in 2010 that I could have read the book in the time I spent hearing about it.

Judging Obama's ACA Fix

President Obama at a press conference today.

So today, trying to stem the tide of hand-waving and panic that reminded us all of how Democrats have traditionally acted, Barack Obama announced that people who have health insurance plans they bought in the individual market but don't meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act may get to keep those plans. So how should we feel about this?

On the most basic level, it's not a good thing. Any time someone stays on a junk insurance plan instead of entering the larger risk pool of the exchanges, that pool is weakened. Having said that, the specifics of what Obama proposed do seem designed to minimize the damage.

Obamacare's Critical Moment

And to think, we actually thought the hard part was over.

At times like this, with the Obama administration weathering yet another controversy regarding the stumbling beginnings of the Affordable Care Act, it's useful to remind ourselves that this too shall pass. I've been plenty critical of how healthcare.gov has been handled (see here, or here, or here), but eventually it will get fixed, at least to the point at which it works well enough. Likewise, the fears now being experienced by people with individual insurance policies will, by and large, turn out to be unfounded. There will be some who have to pay more than they've been paying, but in almost all cases they'll be getting more too.

But there's no doubt that this is an escalating problem for the administration. The person who got sold a cheap insurance policy on the individual market because the insurer was confident that either a) they probably wouldn't get sick any time soon, or b) the policy was so stingy (whether the customer knew it or not) that the insurer wouldn't have to pay anything even if they did, has now become the victim whom all agree must be made whole. We're all talking endlessly about Obama's "If you like your current plan, you can keep it" pledge, but the fact is that if you have one of these junk insurance plans, you only like it if you haven't had to use it. But no matter—the people on these plans (and not, say, people who are finally getting Medicaid, because they're poor so who cares) are now the only people that matter. Congress is obsessed with them, the news media is obsessed with them, and Something Must Be Done.

The administration is clearly spooked, and so are Democrats. But everyone needs to take a breath and ask themselves whether what they do in the next couple of weeks is something they'll be able to live with in a year or five years or twenty years.

The Indefensible Filibuster of Nina Pillard

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Senate Republicans have continued their blockade of nominations to the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Tuesday, the GOP minority blocked a vote on the nomination of Cornelia ("Nina") Pillard to the D.C. Circuit. Fifty-six senators voted in favor of moving forward with the nomination. Pillard is typical of the circuit court judges the Republican minority has had a particular distaste for. First, she's not a white male. And second, she has utterly mainstream legal views that hardly meet the "extraordinary circumstances" the Senate allegedly requires to filibuster a judicial nominee.

On the first point, Jennifer Bendery of Huffington Post observes that the three women the GOP minority has now prevented from getting up-or-down votes are part of a trend:

Ten of the sidelined judicial nominees are women, two are openly gay and nine are minorities (seven are African American, one is Asian American and one is Native American). The lone executive nominee being blocked right now, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), is African American.
This is not to say that the fact Republicans are filibustering a disproportionate number of these nominees because of their race or gender. That they're nominees of a Democratic president was already damning enough evidence of their inability to carry out the law, in the GOP's opinion. Nonetheless, irrespective of their motivations, the result of Republican obstructionism is to make the federal courts less diverse than they should be.

Shocker: Health-Exchange Websites Can Be Done Right

That sure seems easy.

In the last few days, you might have seen a news story about something called thehealthsherpa.com. The story usually goes like this: "The federal government may have screwed up when it tried to create the Obamacare web site, despite spending hundreds of millions on contractors. That's why three tech geeks thought they could do a better job. And after just a week of coding, they did it."

So have these guys solved all our problems? Is it now a piece of cake for everyone to find out what their insurance options are on the individual market? That would sure be a good thing, especially since nearly everyone complaining that their plans are being cancelled—the folks whose fate has suddenly become the most important moral and practical crisis facing America—seems to be taking their insurers at their word when they get those threatening letters instead of trying to find out what their choices actually are.

The answer is...sort of, maybe.

Darrell Issa, the Obama Administration's Best Friend

Darrell Issa smiles uncomfortably upon realizing he's posing with Judy Collins, whom he's pretty sure is some kind of hippie. (Flickr/Music First Coalition)

When Darrell Issa took the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform after Republicans took back the House in the 2010 election, he promised that he was going to be a dogged pursuer of the Obama administration. But at this point, I'm genuinely curious about how Republicans feel about Issa. Conservatives sincerely believe that the Obama administration is riddled with corruption, starting with the villainous president and going all the way down to the intern who makes copies in the basement of the Commerce Department. Yet Issa has turned out to be a strikingly incompetent clown, screwing things up spectacularly every time he tries to embarrass the administration and being so transparently sleazy in the way he goes about his work that he never succeeds in pinning anything on Obama.

Think about all the times Republicans thought they had Obama dead to rights and Issa couldn't deliver the goods. There was Solyndra, "Fast and Furious," the IRS scandal, and of course the one that keeps on giving, Benghazi. Obviously, the fact that they haven't mounted a successful impeachment based on any of these is mostly because there just hasn't been any criminal behavior. But every time it looks like Issa is about to whip something into a lasting scandal, he does something like what he did yesterday. First, Issa (or presumably his staff) leaks to CBS News a "partial transcript" of a closed hearing revealing that, in the words of their report, "the project manager in charge of building the federal health care website was apparently kept in the dark about serious failures in the website's security. Those failures could lead to identity theft among buying insurance." Sounds awful! But you'll be shocked to learn that neither of those things is true. Steve Benen has the details:

Between a Rock and a Polling Place

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Few things excite a political reporter more than polls. They're the sports statistics of the electoral grind, giving any argument that little extra oomph. For people not necessarily known for their numerical prowess, a cleverly placed percentage point is the perfect condiment for any story. Heck, polls can even be the story.

Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for those alluring little numbers can end badly. In election off-season it's not so noticeable, with polls slowing to a relative trickle and our attentions focused elsewhere—or so far in the future that the ambitious dreams of Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton dancing in our heads outweigh any margins of error. But the polls are still there. Exhibit A: presidential approval ratings.

Who’s on First? Under Boehner, It’s Always the Senate.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

If someone is looking for the week that proved a perfect example of how the 113th Congress functions, it doesn’t get much better than last week. The Senate beat back a filibuster to pass a popular bill, with every Democrat joined by a handful of Republicans.

The House? Oh, they took the week off.

Obamacare Expansion in the Offing?

Flick/urbanbohemian

Every few days, a new poster child for the horror of Obamacare comes along, the person who just loves their insurance plan but has been told it's being cancelled. Pretty much every time, their story turns out to be full of holes—the plan they're on is actually junk insurance, they'd be able to get better and cheaper coverage through the exchanges, and so on (here's the latest). But without a doubt, this small group of people (and not, say, the millions who are getting free or low-cost coverage for the first time) have become the momentary face of the Affordable Care Act, at least in the mainstream news media's eyes.

So now the administration is scrambling to deal with this political problem, and here's the latest twist:

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