The Obama Administration

The Sum of Its Parts

Flickr/Will O'Neill

We're just two weeks away from the start of open enrollment for the new state health care exchanges established as part of the Affordable Care Act, and it's safe to say that Republicans will not be able to repeal the law between now and then. It's equally safe to say that they won't be able to repeal it by January 1st, which is when the people who sign up for insurance through those exchanges start on their new plans. That's also the date when a whole bunch of other components of the law take effect. When that day comes, will Republicans have to abandon all hope of ever repealing it?

The ones who don't understand the law (and let's be honest, that's probably most of them) might answer yes. Once it goes into effect and begins destroying lives, sapping us of our precious bodily fluids, and generally turning America into a socialist hellhole where all hope has died and the flickering flame of freedom has been snuffed out, people will quickly realize what a disaster it is and support repeal. The problem is that come January, the ACA will be transformed. It will no longer be a big, abstract entity that would be possible to undo. Instead, it will be what it truly was all along: a large number of specific reforms and regulations that in practical terms are entirely separate from one another. What this means is that once it takes effect, "Obamacare" for all intents and purposes will cease to exist.

America's Exception Deception

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

In a democracy, politicians seldom counsel the public to be modest. They flatter and praise the voters, telling them that they are just and wise, hardworking and principled, possessed of boundless vision and common sense. And here in America at least, they also generalize those virtues from the people to the nation itself. America, Americans are endlessly reassured, is unique and special among the world's countries. It isn't just that we're the most important country, which is undeniable, since we have the biggest economy, the biggest (and most frequently deployed) military, and the most influential popular culture. Those things could change someday. Instead, what voters are told over and over again is that we're "exceptional." We're not just stronger or richer, we're better. Indeed, we're stronger and richer because we're better. And we may well be exceptional in how often we're told that we're exceptional. My knowledge of the electoral politics of other nations may be limited, but I don't recall hearing about presidential candidates in Portugal or Peru who feel the need to convince voters that their country is superior to all others and they are the world's best people.

Did Summers Spoil It for Yellen?

AP Images/Mark Lennihan

Now that Larry Summers is out of contention for Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the nomination of Janet Yellen should be assured. Unfortunately, Yellen still is far from a safe bet.

Obama's Crippling Ambivalence

AP Images/Charles Dharapak

Barack Obama’s presidency is a series of crossroads. The crossroads are moments of decision for a president who is utterly indecisive except, of course, when he’s not a ruthless tyrant trampling the Constitution (or, on more banal occasions, saving the national economy or pressing forward on health-care reform or ordering the execution of the mass murderer of 3,000 Americans).

Yet Another NSA Violation

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

Last month, it was revealed that the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had rebuked the National Security Agency for using illegal search methods. Not surprisingly, this incident wasn't an isolated one. In another judicial opinion responding to a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, further illegal abuses by the NSA were unveiled. Like the previous revelations, this story reveals the dangers posed by an NSA conducting searches with far too broad a scope and too few constraints.

Twelve Years Later, Have We Gotten Control of Our Fear?

This kind of thing just doesn't fill us with terror anymore. (Office of the President/Wikimedia Commons)

Reading an article today I came across a reference to the Dixie Chicks and their fall from grace, which happened ten years ago. It was shocking enough at the time, but today it seems beyond absurd, that a musical group could be all but blacklisted out of the American entertainment industry because they expressed opposition to the Iraq War and joked about being ashamed that George W. Bush was from their home state of Texas. Even then, a year and a half after the September 11 attacks, just expressing reservations about a foreign military adventure was enough to put them on the receiving end of a torrent of hate and fear, to the point where radio stations refused to play their songs and concert venues wouldn't book them.

But today, we can say with some pride that our level of national terror has been significantly reduced. The situation in Syria and the Iraq War are obviously different in many important ways, but don't forget that despite the ridiculousness of the Bush administration's case for war (which some of us saw plainly at the time), they were quite successful in getting Americans to sign on. At the time of the invasion, around two-thirds of the public thought it was a good idea. And that was a full-scale war. Today, Barack Obama can barely get half that number to support lobbing some cruise missiles into Syria.

As I said, the situations were different in many ways. But what made Bush's persuasion project possible was the fact that Americans were afraid.

If Obama Wants the GOP’s Help in Syria, He Must Deal with Torture First

AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

Among the lessons of Syria for Barack Obama, there is one that stands out: the destruction of the Republican foreign policy establishment makes his job harder, and the president is now suffering the consequences of his choice to avoid, as much as possible, dealing with the fallout from torture during the George W. Bush administration.

Playing Russian Roulette with Syria

The strategy outlined in President Obama’s speech Tuesday night was 180 degrees from where it stood when it was announced he would address the nation, so much so that it’s worth asking why he actually went ahead and went on prime time.

The War on Terror Is Still Everywhere

AP Photo/Doug Mills

In May of this year, Barack Obama gave a speech effectively declaring the end of the "War on Terror." Like many people, I was pleased. The War on Terror, which embodies the idea that terrorism is such an existential threat that all other threats the US has faced pale before it and therefore we had permission abandon every moral standard we ever held to and wage a global military campaign that never ends, has been a poison coursing through our national bloodstream. Its effects can be seen in things that don't on their surface seem to have almost anything to do with terrorism. And despite Obama's speech, it doesn't seem like much has changed.

It was only a few weeks after that speech that Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance began to come out, and it wasn't as though President Obama said, "You know what? This just shows how things have gotten out of hand. We're going to be dialing this stuff back." He defended every bit of it as necessary and proper. Why do we need this positively gargantuan apparatus of surveillance? The answer is always terrorism. Oh, we're using it to spy on state actors too—both enemies and friends—but it's harder to argue that Chinese officials or the president of Brazil want to kill your children, so when challenged, the justification inevitably turns back to terrorism.

The War on Terror perspective, where the most extreme overreactions become the ordinary way of doing business, has infected all kinds of government actions. I point you to this story in yesterday's New York Times by David Carr, which on first glance doesn't look like it's about the WoT, but I think in some ways it is. It's about Barrett Brown, a journalist who has reported on the activities of Anonymous, the internet hacking group. If prosecutors have their way, Brown will spend the rest of his life in prison because he posted a link. I kid you not:

Is Barack Obama a Hawk?

Wikimedia Commons/DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

Back in 2008, one of the things—maybe the main thing—that convinced liberal Democrats that Barack Obama was more liberal than Hillary Clinton was that while Clinton had supported the Iraq War and was seen as generally to the more hawkish side of national security issues, Obama had opposed the war and sounded generally more skeptical about the use of American military power. Having been right on Iraq was a pretty rare calling card, and a lot of liberals took it as a proxy for something larger. It wasn't just that he was less like George W. Bush, it meant that he had the courage to stand up to Republicans and advocate for liberal values when other Democrats quaked in fear.

In retrospect, it doesn't seem that Obama was or is more liberal than Clinton in any substantive way, aside from perhaps a small policy difference here or there. And while he hasn't started any new big wars on the scale of Iraq, that isn't saying much, since Iraq was our biggest war since Vietnam. Today Kevin Drum takes E.J. Dionne to task for saying that "Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up until now."...

What Happens If There's a Split Decision in Congress on Syria?

Flickr/World Can't Wait

As we begin the congressional debate on whether to launch some kind of strike on Syria, one of the main questions animating the political discussion is, what happens if Obama loses? People are saying some predictably stupid things about it, talking about how wounded Obama's presidency would be, and how he'd no longer be able to get Congress to do his bidding, unlike the last few years, when he got whatever he wanted from Congress. But here's a question: What if a resolution on the use of force in Syria passes the Senate, but fails to pass the House?

Right now that looks like a distinct possibility. People doing whip counts based on what members have publicly said (see here or here) are saying that in the House, a majority of members have either come out against military action or say they're leaning that way. In the Senate things are less clear; most senators haven't said how they'll vote. Of course that could change, but if it doesn't, what happens then?

The Summers Dossier

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

Dear Mr. President,

Welcome home. You have several immense challenges in the coming days and weeks, including of course marshaling support for the Syria attack, dealing with the next artificial budget crisis contrived by the Republicans, and continuing to move forward with implementation of the Affordable Care Act against fierce partisan opposition.

How To Get Single-Payer Health Care, and More!

Based on Congressional Republicans’ apparently overwhelming opposition to President Obama’s proposal to strike Syrian military facilities in retaliation for the government’s use of chemical weapons, a new way to enact progressive legislation in the United States has become apparent.

The Fundamental Problem with the Argument for Airstrikes

Nicholas Kristof has a column that exemplifies why the case for bombing Syria is so unconvincing. There's a fundamental bait-and-switch at the heart of the article, using the (uncontested) fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a monstrous tyrant to skate over the question of what exactly airstrikes against Syria would do about it.

Over and over again, Kristof notes the death toll of the civil war in Syria:

It’s all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month.

The Syria Debate Is Very Good for Some People

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

My assumption all along, one I'm still (uneasily) holding to, is that when the debate is over, Congress will give Obama the authority he's asking for to attack Syria, just as it has every other time a president has asked. (There have been a couple of occasions in which Congress voted against a military action, but in those cases the president hadn't actually requested the vote; they were congressional protests against something that had already begun.) But a congressional rebuke, particularly in the House, is starting to look like a real possibility. This is a Congress unlike any that came before it, and the unusual nature of this proposed action—offered mostly as a punishment for something that already happened, with barely a claim that it will do much if anything to stop future massacres so long as they're done with conventional weapons—may combine to set a new historical precedent.

It was pretty remarkable to see Republican members of Congress yesterday yelling at John Kerry about the rush to war like they were a bunch of San Francisco liberals. But for these guys, there's really no higher principle than opposition to Barack Obama and everything he wants to do. And if this is a "conscience" vote (i.e. one where the leadership is not demanding that they toe the party line), a lot of Democrats just don't find the administration's case persuasive.

And for some others, this isn't a difficult vote, it's a golden opportunity.

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