The Obama Administration

Daily Meme: The State of Our Union? Super-Stoked, Apparently

State of the Union addresses used to be no-frills affairs— in 1790, George Washington delivered one that was probably around 6 minutes long to a joint session of Congress in New York City, leaving him plenty of time to swill a couple mugs of cider with his boys and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Thomas Jefferson hated public speaking, so he did away with the addressing Congress bit and just sent the gentlemen a letter—presidents did this until Woodrow Wilson decided in 1913 that he'd reclaim the podium. The modern predidency is pretty damn enamored of the speech, though. It's the ultimate big-swinging-dick moment in politics, where members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, activists, and the American public must sit and listen without interrupting to what the president has to say, for, in the case of President Obama, an average of 1 hour . As the speech has gotten longer and more formalized over the years, so has the hype surrounding it, along with the theater of the main event...

Investing in Stock Buybacks, Not People

AP Images/Richard Drew
One fundamental reason why the American economy continues to limp along is that no one—at least, no one with major bucks—is investing in it. The Obama Administration countered the collapse of private sector investment in 2009 with its stimulus program, which, alas, was partially offset by all the cutbacks in state and local government spending. It’s not been able, however, to get any subsequent investment projects through the Republican House. The private sector—the corporate sector more particularly—returned not just to profitability but record profitability by the middle of 2010, but its profits have neither resulted from nor led to increased investment. To the contrary, American corporations have never sat on so much unexpended cash. Right now, their cash piles total more than $1.5 trillion, and that’s not counting the assets of the banks. The cash is concentrated in the coffers of our largest corporations, many of them tech companies. Apple leads the list with $150 billion...

Federal Board Finds NSA Program Illegal and Unjustified

AP Images/Oliver Berg
Yesterday, as Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported , the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) created by Congress issued a comprehensive report on the National Security Administration's collection of telephone data. This damning report makes it clear that President Obama's proposed reforms to the program don't go far enough . The PCLOB report raises serious questions about the legality of the program, and perhaps even more importantly, finds scant evidence that it has been effective at achieving its anti-terror goals. To start with question of the legality of the NSA program, the report raises both statutory and constitutional concerns. The report finds that the program exceeded the authority granted by Congress under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. According to the report, "Section 215 is designed to enable the FBI to acquire records that a business has in its possession, as part of an FBI investigation, when those records are relevant to the investigation...

The State of Our Union? Economically Unjust

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To honor Martin Luther King, Jr., the White House declared a “day of service” in Dr. King’s memory, and President Obama spent a few minutes on Monday helping to serve meals in a soup kitchen near the White House. Talk about a tin ear, or a timid one. For starters, Martin Luther King’s life was not about soup kitchens. It was about radical, disruptive struggle to win civil rights; and then in his last five years it was about connecting racial justice to economic justice. Dr. King took pains to define the 1963 March on Washington as about jobs as well as justice. He was murdered while helping striking sanitation workers in Memphis fight for decent wages. If we had more good jobs, and less Republican assault on what’s left of our social safety net, we’d need fewer soup kitchens. The president might have honored Dr. King’s legacy by giving a speech about that. One can sympathize—to a point—with President Obama’s wish to downplay both the radicalism and the racial aspect of Dr. King. As...

The Examined Life of the Digital Age

AP Images/Jose Luis Magana
You've seen it on CSI and other police procedurals a hundred times: the detectives take a surveillance photo and watch as their computer cycles through a zillion photos of perps and crooks until it blinks with a match, telling them who their suspect is. You may have known enough to realize that they can't actually do that—computerized face recognition isn't capable of taking a grainy, shadowed photo and identifying it positively as a particular person. Or at least they couldn't until recently. But the technology has been advancing rapidly, and now some law enforcement agencies are using powerful new software that can do just that, at least sometimes. It has a ways to go yet, but the question is when, not if, computers will be able to take the video that was shot of you as you walked down the sidewalk or browsed in a store and know exactly who you are. Last Friday I brought up the question of the future of surveillance, after President Obama's speech proposing new limits on the...

One Small Step for the Fourth Amendment

AP Images/Susan Walsh
Last week, Barack Obama delivered a speech announcing some reforms in response to Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency. As with most aspects of Obama's record on civil liberties, my response is inevitably mixed. The outlined reforms would certainly constitute a real improvement over the status quo, but they are also too narrow and limited. Some of these limitations reflect real political constraints, while others don't. To start with the good news first, Obama has announced that some checks and balances will be restored to the NSA's inquiries under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Under current practices, the NSA doesn't need to get judicial approval to query the database of metadata it collects; it can simply make queries if it makes a self-determination that the query was "reasonable." This self-enforced reasonableness standard is functionally indistinguishable from having no standard at all. Obama announced that he was ending this practice: the database...

The Surveillance State of Tomorrow

Flickr/Bryan Chan
By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have finished his speech outlining some changes to the NSA's global information vacuum. According to early reports , he'll propose creating an independent body to hold the phone metadata that the NSA gathers, and forcing the agency to get some kind of approval (presumably from the FISA court) before accessing it. Which is all fine and good. But the real question is whether we set up procedures and systems that constrain the NSA from doing not just what we already know about, but the things we haven't yet heard of, and even more importantly, the kinds of surveillance that will become possible in the future. Just today, we learned from the Guardian that "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks, and credit-card details, according to top-secret documents." I can't imagine that will be the last revelation...

The Scandalous Lack of Obama Administration Scandals

I f you ask many Republicans, they'll tell you that Barack Obama himself and the administration he leads are deeply, profoundly, fundamentally corrupt. It isn't just that they have the wrong values or the wrong policy priorities, but rather that they are practically a band of criminals bent on destroying America and unconcerned about what violations of law and morality they commit as they cut a swath of misery and destruction across our nation. For some on the right—the cynical politician, the carnival-barking radio host—these ideas are a tool to use in a partisan game. They understand that the picture is an absurd one, but they also know it's useful in keeping the rabble roused. But for many others, from ordinary voters to Republican lawmakers, it's something they sincerely believe. So five years into this presidency, where do we stand with the scandals that were supposed to lead to Barack Obama's downfall? The truth—no doubt a painful one for Republicans—is that there's almost no...

New Year, Same Intellectual Dishonesty

AP Images/NBC News
AP Images/NBC News The new year searches for a theme. Sometimes annual themes come ready-made; a presidential election looms, or a war. As far as can be seen from the American Rubicon called California, the theme (for the rest of you, anyway) that ushered in the new year is: It’s fucking cold, even as those of us on the West Coast lament every dip of the thermometer below 50. The media so abhors the vacuum of manmade conflict that it rushes to render even the weather controversial. Thus Fox Nation turns the designated polar vortex into a personal taunt of Al Gore—“What global warming?”—either truly or willfully ignorant that climate change is not about vanishing winters but meteorological extremes growing more so. Nonetheless this provided temporary solace to a right unsettled by reports that Obamacare might work after all. The truth is that it’s too early to tell about Obamacare, and arguments about its success or failure are pointless except for their reflection of wishful thinking...

Class War: The View From the Board Room

T he Vice-President for Governmental Affairs has just finished his report to the corporate board of directors. “Thanks, Ted,” says the Chairman. “You and your Washington staff have done a great job. Getting that little amendment inserted in the budget bill will save us at least $25 million next year. …. Questions or comments? Paul?” Paul, the hedge fund CEO: “I’m worried about the big picture down there in Washington, Ted. It’s a mess. Deficit out of control. The anti-business attitude. Not to mention incompetence. Can’t even run a website for their own health care program. Pathetic.” “Amen,” says Hank, who used to run a tobacco company. “What bugs me is Obama’s complaining about inequality. Just whips people up. Saw them last night on the TV news, in front of a McDonald’s somewhere, screaming for more money. Makes you sick. Want money? Get a job!” “Actually Hank, those people already have a job,” says Cliff from Silicon Valley. “And lucky to have it. Plenty more out there ready to...

The Doomed Wars

White House photo by Pete Souza.
Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir. Even if a memoir doesn't tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound familiar. Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "I...

Kerry’s Middle East Grind

F or most who spend time watching and analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, weary cynicism is the default pose. It’s not entirely unjustified. Few conflicts have seen as many false starts and dashed hopes as the effort to negotiate an end to Israel’s occupation and create a Palestinian state. So the skepticism that greeted Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that he would take up the issue as one of the priorities of his tenure was not surprising. What was surprising was the vigor with which Kerry approached the issue from the get-go. Multiple visits to the region soon resulted in a re-introduction of the Arab Peace Initiative , in which Arab states promised full normalization with Israel in exchange for a resolution of the Palestinian issue, and, later in the summer, a re-start of talks, with Israelis and Palestinians both committing to stay in negotiations for at least nine months. The road hasn’t been an easy one. While all sides agreed not to speak to the press...

The Fed Transformed

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
AP Images/Charles Dharapak I t is a small miracle that on February 1, Janet Yellen will become chair of the Federal Reserve. She is not just the first woman to head America’s central bank but the first labor economist. While the Fed is ordinarily obsessed with inflation, Yellen has given equal or greater emphasis to unemployment. Yellen represents a break with the Wall Street–friendly senior Obama economic officials who promoted their former colleague Larry Summers for chair. Had Summers gotten the post, the Fed and Treasury would both have been in the hands of the same old boys’ club that coddled the big banks before and after the financial collapse of 2008. That the job went instead to Yellen means the Fed will be an independent power center, and somewhat to the left of the administration. With a four-year term as chair, Yellen will serve at least two years into the next presidency as well. The transformation of the Fed since the economic collapse of 2008, however, is far broader...

The Year in Preview: Obama's Last Stand

AP Images/Evan Vucci
M argaret Chase Smith, the pioneering Republican moderate senator from Maine, was asked by a reporter in the early 1950s what she would do if she awoke to find herself in the White House. She replied, “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.” Anyone trying to concoct an agenda for Barack Obama during his remaining 37 months in office should approach the task with similar modesty. The rocky terrain of 2013 is a reminder that life in the Oval Office usually becomes more dispiriting even as the furnishings grow more familiar. After five years, every two-term president (not just unequivocal failures like George W. Bush) has assembled a lengthy list of if-only and had-I-but-known regrets. As Obama’s average approval ratings have dipped to just above 40 percent in the polls (eerily similar to Bush’s numbers at an analogous point in his Oval Office tenure), the president is being offered more free advice than a puzzled do-it-yourselfer at Home Depot. Everyone has...

Four Takeaways from Yesterday's NSA Ruling

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Flickr/Cliff Y esterday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that the National Security Agency's extensive collection of "metadata"—as revealed by Edward Snowden earlier this year—is likely to have violated the Fourth Amendment. Justice Leon stayed his ruling ordering the government to stop the warrantless surveillance of two plaintiffs pending a trial. Given the inevitable appeal, we're a long way from the end of this NSA program—even if Judge Leon rules again in favor of the plaintiffs. Not every legal challenge to the metadata program was successful. Judge Leon dismissed a challenge based on the theory that the NSA's program exceeded the statutory authority granted by Congress. The court ruled that it lacked the jurisdiction to hear the claim under the Administrative Procedures Act. Judge Leon did, however, find that he had jurisdiction to hear the constitutional claims against the program. "While Congress has great latitude to create statutory schemes like FISA," the...

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