Friday, May 30, 2014

Why the Shinseki resignation was the pragmatic thing to do; and why that pisses off this pragmatist

When the story about the problems at the Phoenix VA gained national attention, the media could have launched journalistic investigations into what created the problem. And Congress could have held hearings to educate both themselves and the public about what went wrong.

But that's not what they did. Both groups determined that it was in their self-interests to engage in finger-pointing and scapegoating. And so the discussion centered around whether or not General Shinseki should resign. That fed the media's need for the hysteria that generates good linkbait and it gave politicians running for re-election a 5-second sound bite to assure voters they cared about the issue.

Once that frenzi got going, even people like Rep. Tammy Duckworth - who had originally focused on fixing the real problems - decided to join in the call for Shinseki's resignation because nothing was going to get done until/unless that was taken off the table. That's what pragmatists who actually care about veterans have to do once this kind of thing gets going. I suspect that was also what the conversation between General Shinseki and President Obama was all about earlier today.

What pisses me off about that is not the pragmatism demonstrated by that response. Its that it all makes the challenge of solving this problem even harder. Here's what Catherine Burke - an expert in public administration - wrote just prior to the announcement about Shinseki's resignation.
Given the general’s history and capability, he has actually made many things much better at the VA during his term of office. Forcing him out now is likely to make the situation at the VA worse — not better — as there will be no one in place for some time to actually take charge to fix the problem. A new secretary, even after the staggeringly long time it would take for nomination and confirmation, will take months more to learn who is who in the department: who is trustworthy, who is or is not competent, and which systems are the root cause of the problems. No one gets four stars without being extraordinarily capable; thus Shinseki may actually be the best person to identify the sources of the problems and to get them fixed.
As long as the media and politicians find it in their self-interests to engage in hysterical linkbait and 5-second soundbites, we'll continue to find ourselves caught up in this kind of frenzi rather than engaged in pragmatic problem-solving. Our power to change things lies in not following the linkbait, not engaging in the hysteria, and not buying the sound bites. That's something President Obama has been asking us to do for a very long time now.
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate...

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Nancy's "New Rules"

Democrats don't need to be more like Republicans.

Women don't need to be more like men.

People of color don't need to be more like white people.


But then, those aren't really "new" rules. Audre Lorde put it this way quite a while ago:


What states like Mississippi are doing that progressives should be applauding

As I noted recently, not only is crime going down in this country, but prison admissions are actually dropping after over 30 years of exponential growth. Hello! Is anyone paying attention?!

One of the few people talking about the big picture of this trend is Dr. Keith Humphreys, who writes at The Reality-Based Community (a blog you should be following). Today he notes that part of the reason for this trend is that conservatives in states like Mississippi and South Carolina are getting on board and reforming their criminal justice systems. Take a look at the specifics of the bill recently signed into law in Mississippi:
These reforms enact in policy something we have known to be true for a long time: namely, what helps the offender get back on his feet, hold down a job, secure stable housing and stay clear of trouble is good for all Mississippians. HB585 expands and strengthens alternatives to prison, such as drug court, and builds a re-entry infrastructure so that offenders leaving prison will not only have a bus ticket but a plan to get their lives back on track.

HB585 also ushers in long overdue reform to our drug and property sentences. The legislation narrows many of the broad sentence ranges that have bred disparity across our state for years and reduces the ceilings on low-level drug possession, drug sale and property crimes...

Instead, HB585 ensures we do not waste our most expensive public safety resource — prison beds — on offenders that can be safely and far more cost effectively supervised in the community or with shorter sentences followed by intensive parole supervision.
A lot of these changes are being spurred by conservative groups like Right on Crime. What's fascinating about this movement is that - while anti-science seems to be on the rise amongst conservatives - that site stresses the importance of best practice solutions and accountability for outcomes. Its a fascinating example of how pragmatism can reign when the solutions aren't dictated by ideology.

I am as frustrated as anyone by the lunacy that seems to have gripped the Republican Party these days. Knowing this doesn't change any of that. But the truth is that even in the harshest environment, something beautiful can grow. Its always good to notice.

"Without us firing a shot"

In his speech at West Point yesterday, one of the points President Obama made was about the need for the United States to demonstrate leadership by strengthening institutions that provide for international order. As he did in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he referred to President Kennedy's call for a peace based upon "a gradual evolution in human institutions." As I've been saying all along, those human institutions are based on the power of partnership rather than the dominance of unilateralism.

To point to the effectiveness of such an approach, the President gave two examples. The first is the global response to Russian incursion into the Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions; Europe and the G7 joined us to impose sanctions; NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies; the IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy; OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. And this mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.

This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next President. We don’t know how the situation will play out and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without us firing a shot.
The second was the work that is currently underway to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the United States and Israel and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for years. But at the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government. And now we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully.

The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement -- one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.
Neither situation is completely resolved. But its interesting to note this recent news on the Iranian negotiations.
Iran has neutralized most of its stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium that could be turned quickly into the core of a nuclear weapon, the U.N. nuclear agency said Friday, leaving the country with only about a fifth of what it would need for such a purpose.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a quarterly report that Iran now has less than 90 pounds of the material.

The report also said Tehran was meeting all other obligations under an agreement reached four months ago in Geneva that serves as a prelude to a comprehensive deal now being negotiated.
Both of these situations are demonstrations of how the Obama Doctrine has been successfully implemented:
  1. Articulation of international norms
  2. Development of a global partnership to reinforce those norms via economic pressure
  3. The use of diplomacy to identify a "way out" of that pressure via an appeal to the self-interests of the offending country
Prior to this presidency, our country's foreign policy was mostly limited in these kinds of situations to a response that either ignored the challenge (isolationism) or responded with military intervention. The one big exception to that would be President Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis - when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

Demonstrating the power of partnership as an effective tool for U.S. leadership in the world will truly be one of President Obama's most enduring legacies.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Reporters: Please do just a bit of homework before you write a story

I'm thinking about starting a regular series that perhaps I'll title "Dumb things reporters write." You'll be able to recognize an entry because this will be my motto:

Here's yesterday's installment that focused on the importance of actually listening to what someone said before reporting on it. 

Today's entry comes from Dara Lind at Vox and the moral is about the importance of taking at least a moment to do some background work before writing a story. Lind's title gives you a pretty big clue about her agenda: Did Obama just get played by Republicans on immigration

She enters the story midway through its development and focuses on the fact that President Obama has asked his Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to delay an announcement on recommendations for changes to deportations priorities until the end of summer. Lind sees this as some kind of fig leaf (or preemptive compromise - OH MY!!!) President Obama is holding out to entice House Republicans into working on comprehensive immigration reform. And of course that will never work!
No House Republican has made any specific demands of the Obama administration on immigration, or said publicly that he or she would push for an immigration bill if the president made a gesture of goodwill. So it's not clear whether President Obama's announcement changes anyone's mind.
But if Lind had done just a bit of background work on this story, she might have noticed the following chain of events:

March 14, 2014 - President Obama meets with the Hispanic Caucus and promises a review of deportation practices.
In an evening meeting with Latino lawmakers, Obama said he still wanted to push a comprehensive immigration reform package but that, in the meantime, he had asked the head of the Department of Homeland Security to run an “inventory” of the agency’s practices.

April 2, 2014 - In a strategy that was likely discussed at the above meeting, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) says that if Republicans don't pass immigration reform by the July 4th recess, President Obama will take executive action on deportations.
If you don’t act in the next 34 days – if you refuse to give the President a bill he can sign... he will act without you. He has alternatives under existing law. There are concrete ways within existing law to help keep families together and spare U.S. citizens from losing their wives and their husbands and their children to deportation. In spite of your lack of action!

And the President is going to do it. I saw it in his eyes when I met with him...He is heartbroken by the pain deportations cause. Do you think he will sit by and do nothing just because you are doing nothing?
May 9, 2014 - Republican Representative Diaz Balart says the deadline for the House to pass immigration reform is prior to the August break.
“If Congress doesn’t act by the August break, the president is going to do something. And once that happens, two things happen,” said Diaz-Balart. “No. 1 is that the possibility of any further negotiations — of any — disintegrate.”

The Florida Republican added that if there is executive action on immigration, the president “will also then create a narrative of his choosing and again creating a situation where no further negotiations are possible.”
May 22, 2014 - Senate Democrats affirmed that House Republicans have until the end of July to act on immigration reform.
Senate Democratic leaders have set a hard deadline for the Republican-controlled House to move on comprehensive immigration reform: July 31, that last day the House is in session before August recess.

"They have about a six-week window, from June 10 after the last Republican primary till the August recess," the Senate's No. 3 Democrat, Chuck Schumer, said Thursday at a press conference. "If they don't pass immigration reform then, the president will have no choice but to act on his own."
I don't see how the message could be more consistent or clear. The President and Democrats are united and the ball is squarely in Speaker Boehner's court right now. Whether or not DHS Secretary Johnson releases his recommendations now or at the end of the summer has absolutely no bearing on anything.

The idea that President Obama is getting played here is laughable. The only way you can possibly spin it that way is to be completely clueless about what has been going on for the last 3 months.

I can't believe I have to write this, but my advice to those in the media who would like to regain the public trust would be that you do just a bit of homework on an issue before you write the story. Thank you.

"The world as it is and the world as it should be"

Once again today President Obama summoned the paradox that undergirds the work of his favorite philosopher - Reinhold Niebuhr.
Now, ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty. We have to be prepared for the worst, prepared for every contingency, but American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be -- a place where the aspirations of individual human beings really matters, where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in the direction of justice.
As I read various pundits react to the President's speech on foreign policy at West Point's commencement, I am struck by how difficult it is for many Americans to deal with the reality of "the world as it is." There persists in our imagination a myth that if we simply summoned the right formula for our foreign policy approach, we could control the outcome and create "the world as it should be." And so, when President Obama fails to make grand sweeping promises about how his approach will get us there, he is seen as somehow equivocating.

That kind of thinking seems to me to go right to the heart of our problems with exceptionalism. Since I find tremendous overlap between American exceptionalism and white privilege, I thought immediately of something Tim Wise wrote years about about the difference between an emphasis on efficacy vs the struggle.
Invariably, it seems it is we in the white community who obsess over our own efficacy, and fail to recognize the value of commitment, irrespective of outcome. People of color, on the other hand, never having been burdened with the illusion that the world was their oyster, and thus, anything they touched could and should turn to gold, usually take a more reserved, and I would say healthier view of the world and the prospects for change. They know (as indeed they must) that the thing being fought for, at least if it's worth having, will require more than a part-time effort, and will not likely come in the lifetimes of those presently fighting for it. And it is that knowledge which allows a strength and resolve few members of the dominant majority will ever, can ever, know.
And so perhaps its no great coincidence that our first African American President is the one who suggests that we must live with the tension of the world as it is while continuing to struggle for the world as it should be. Apparently that is big news to some pundits.
It's relatively easy to not order a cruise-missile strike or troop redeployment. Replacing that hard military power with soft power, and making it work, is a lot harder. Obama's got two years to prove to the world that he can do it. If he wants to see his superdove foreign policy doctrine survive beyond his time in office, he'll have to do a lot more with this doctrine than make speeches about it.
On whether or not this "superdove foreign policy doctrine" survives, I can't help but ask, "Or what?" We go back to our "success" in military adventurism in countries like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan? Ordering cruise-missile strikes and/or troop redeployment might be easy. But please, can we dispense with the notion that they have been proven effective? The fact that so many people haven't learned that lesson in over 60 years of failure speaks to enduring myth of exceptionalism. Or as Nezua put it... privilege.
The voice of privilege thinks no seat is unavailable, no land unconquerable, no food untasteable, no right deniable, no experience out of reach. 

And Still I Rise

I don't have much to say through the tears at the passing of this phenomenal woman. All I know is that I want to wallow in her words of wisdom and mourn the loss of a great soul on this earth.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Not listening makes actual reporting pretty impossible

The other day I wrote about the importance of understanding President Obama's goals in foreign policy in order to measure his success. But perhaps I should have taken it one step further. It would be helpful if we started by actually listening to what he says.

In an age where we can re-read speeches or listen to the video-tapped recordings of them, this kind of reporting on the outcome of the President's speech last year on counterterrorism is a perfect example of why our media has lost credibility. The title of the article pretty much tells you all you need to know: One Year After Obama's Big Drone Speech, Many Promises Left Unkept.

First of all, it was not a big drone speech!!!!  It was a speech about the indefinite war we've been waging since 9/11 (of which drones are a part) and a call for the country to contemplate ending that war. If you don't get that, you don't get the speech.

When someone knows how to put together a speech that makes a logical argument (as this President certainly does), you look for the opening statement that summarizes what the whole speech is about. After talking about the attacks on 9/11 and our response to them, the President said this:
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror...But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom. That begins with understanding the current threat that we face.
But here's how the reporters in the article linked above summarized the speech:
One year ago last Friday, President Barack Obama gave a major address on drones, targeted killing and terrorism. The president and administration officials promised that the drone program would operate within limits protecting civilians, control would be transferred from the CIA to the Pentagon, and a new era of transparency would begin.
Assuming those are promises the President made in this speech, they conclude:
"I would give the president an 'F' based on his promises a year ago," said Alka Pradhan, the counterterrorism counsel for the human rights group Reprieve U.S.
They pretty much missed the whole point of the speech and then gave him an "F" for not fulfilling the promises they suggest he made. So lets take a look at what they think he promised and compare it to what he actually said. On limiting the drone program in order to protect civilians, he was pretty clear-eyed.
America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set.

Now, this last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes -- both here at home and abroad -- understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties -- not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold. Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes. So doing nothing is not an option.
What I hear is a President grappling with the world as it is - doing everything in his power to minimize civilian casualties but recognizing that his actions risk just that - while doing nothing risks more. I hear no promises; only an explanation of the call that rests on his shoulders.

Nowhere in the speech did the President make a statement about transferring control of drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon. That leak came two months prior to this speech from unnamed senior officials, so I'm not sure what it has to do with an analysis of this speech. Even so, at the time of the leak it was predicted that such a transfer would take a year or more to implement. So perhaps its a bit soon to give it a grade.

I see no great emphasis on transparency in the President's speech. But he did say this:
And for this reason, I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action. After I took office, my administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress. Let me repeat that: Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. Every strike. That includes the one instance when we targeted an American citizen -- Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for AQAP.
He also made a couple of suggestions he was open to exploring with Congress.
Going forward, I’ve asked my administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress. Each option has virtues in theory, but poses difficulties in practice. For example, the establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process, but raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority. Another idea that’s been suggested -- the establishment of an independent oversight board in the executive branch -- avoids those problems, but may introduce a layer of bureaucracy into national security decision-making, without inspiring additional public confidence in the process. But despite these challenges, I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these and other options for increased oversight.
But that's it on the topic of transparency. Once again, I fail to hear any promises.

Finally, in an article that purports to hold President Obama accountable for the promises he made in a speech, there is NO mention of the other strategies he discussed.
  1. Effective global partnerships
  2. Diplomatic engagement and assistance
  3. Striking the appropriate balance between security and civil liberties
  4. Refining and ultimately repealing the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force
  5. Closing the Guantanamo Bay prison
But I guess when you've already decided that this was "a big drone speech," all that talk goes in one ear and out the other.

I thought it might be helpful to systematically unpack just one article that missed the mark so badly in order to make a point. The authors obviously had an agenda in mind and then simply used that to measure what they assume the President said. That this kind of thing is what often passes for reporting these days speaks to the willful blindness and/or laziness of much of our media. There are days that it feels like we could spend all of our time simply correcting the record...just to get us into a position to debate it.

A summer of action for President Obama

There will be no lazy days of summer for this White House. If you want to know what we'll all be talking about soon, take a look at how President Obama is setting the table for action over the next few months.

First of all, tomorrow he will give the commencement address at West Point.
President Barack Obama will use his speech at the West Point commencement Wednesday to lay out a broad vision of American foreign policy that a White House official Saturday called “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral.”
Those of us who have been listening to him since his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech and watching him act on the world stage will likely hear the Obama Doctrine affirmed. But for the isolationists and unilateralists, it will once again confuse them and spark an interesting debate.

Next Monday President Obama will announce the new EPA rules governing carbon emissions from existing power plants. As Jonathan Cohn suggests, this is a BFD.
Along with other steps the administration has taken, like setting higher fuel standards for cars and trucks, the new regulations could make climate change action one of Obama’s signature achievements—something historians will cite alongside Obamacare, rescue of the auto industry, and the Recovery Act. As Jonathan Chait has written in New York magazine, “By the normal standards of progress Obama has amassed an impressive record so far on climate change.”
Coral Davenport reminds us that this announcement will impact the discussion about climate change beyond our own borders.
China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies and greenhouse gas polluters, are locked in a stalemate over global warming. While today China pollutes more than the United States, Chinese officials insist that, as a developing economy, China should not be forced to take carbon-cutting actions. China has demanded that the United States, as the world’s historically largest polluter, go first. Chinese policy experts say that Mr. Obama’s regulation could end that standoff.

“If the standard is really stringent, that will make a difference in the domestic debate in China,” Mr. Qi said.
In mid-June Afghanistan will finalize their presidential election, which should pave the way for a status of forces agreement with the U.S. and a formal end to that war. Then the question becomes: will we finally be ready to end the indefinite war that began 13 years ago following 9/11?
My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda...

This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.
July brings the deadline for negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program. If a deal can be finalized, that will be a HUGE vindication of the Obama Doctrine.

And finally, President Obama and Congressional Democrats have given Speaker Boehner until August to pass comprehensive immigration reform. If he fails to do that, the President will sign an executive order altering the current priorities for deportations and setting off a firestorm of debate on that issue.

So while Republicans continue to ensure that this is the least productive Congress in modern history and want to focus on non-existent scandals related to Obamacare and Benghazi, this President is working on all of the above PLUS his Year of Action agenda. That should provide an interesting contrast for the upcoming midterm elections.

Oh, and about that lame duck President thingy? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!! Don't make me laugh.

Monday, May 26, 2014

What you should read this Memorial Day about the VA

The one thing you should read this Memorial Day about the VA is what retired U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer Jim Wright at StoneKettle Station wrote about it.
The problem isn’t Barack Obama.

The problem isn’t George W. Bush.

The problem isn’t Eric Shinseki, or whoever takes the fall for this.

The problem is systemic and a symptom of a much larger malaise.

The problem is an ineffective deadlocked Congress who’ve abdicated their actual constitutional responsibilities and oversight for conspiracy theories and witch hunts, hysteria mongering and political theater. If these people had put but one tenth of their efforts into responding to their veteran constituents as they did chasing after blowjobs and Benghazi, if they would have allocated but a hundredth of the funds to veterans affairs as they wasted on cancelled weapons programs and pork barrel projects, if they had put half the effort into creating jobs for veterans as they did into protecting those who continue to liquidate American businesses and ship American jobs overseas, well then veterans wouldn’t be dying while waiting for treatment.

This weekend is Memorial Day, a day we Americans set aside to remember those who died in uniform while serving their country. There will be speeches and parades and wreaths will be laid upon the cold white granite. Politicians, one by one, will take this opportunity to solemnly rail against the outrageous treatment of our veterans, with a sly wink and a nod towards November – and 2016 – using us just one more time.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of living veterans stand in line.

Waiting.
Given how much our media plays handmaiden to those who are only interested in hysteria and outrage, this is not likely to be the story you'll hear elsewhere. But if you're interested in actually being informed, just click the link and go read the whole thing. Thank you.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Insiders/Outsiders

Here's an excerpt from Senator Elizabeth Warren's book A Fighting Chance. It recalls an exchange over dinner with Larry Summers who was then President Obama's Director of the National Economic Council.
Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.
I'd like to contrast two responses to this advice from Summers. First of all, Glenn Greenwald:
My book, and my writing and speaking more generally, usually criticizes insiders, and does so harshly and by name, so much of this reaction is simply a ritual of expulsion based on my chronic violation of Summers’ rule. I find that a relief.
And secondly, BooMan:
If you want to have a real impact on policy, you have to be an insider or, at least, gain the insiders' trust. You can stay on the outside and lob bombs at everyone but that will have minimal effectiveness. Sen. Warren seems to have gotten the message. She's the senior senator from Massachusetts now, and she is in a position to impact policy. 
To tell you the truth, I'm not comfortable with the designation of "insiders and outsiders" the way Summers describes it. But BooMan uses this quote to make a point that he refers to pretty often: in order for liberals to actually implement progressive public policy, we have to shed our comfort in being anti-establishment and learn what it means to become the establishment. I agree. A world of only rebels will never be anything but anarchy.

Wall Street and Main Street: Our inescapable network of mutuality

I believe that one of the problems with a lot of liberals is that they focus too much on the enemy. Looking at the treatment of our financial system and the 1%ers by them is often instructive. The rhetoric is all tied up in calls for retribution and defeat of the enemy.

In saying that, I am in no way attempting to excuse the injustices. They are very real. But if we are going to address them, we must maintain our North Star - a focus on who we are fighting FOR.

I am often struck by the approach of leaders from the past that we revere...people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both of those men led movements against oppression far beyond what we experience today. I believe that much of what guided them can be summed up in these words Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
It is the same grounding that President Obama acknowledged as the basis for what made Mandela such a powerful leader.
There is a word in South Africa- Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us...It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth.
Mutuality and Ubuntu are not merely statements of sentimentality. We now know that they are well-grounded in the science of everything from biology to economics. A simple focus on retribution against our enemies ultimately affects all of us. Whether or not we are willing to heed King's call to "love our enemies," we have to at least take that into account.

While I might not agree with every action taken by President Obama and his administration in the midst of the Great Recession, it is clear that they were guided by an awareness of the economic mutuality between Wall Street and Main Street. They knew that "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." That is exactly what is meant by the idea of "too big to fail." Even as we are justified in decrying how we got there, no one can deny that a "failure" would have had catastrophic effects on everyone - not just Wall Street.

And so here we are six years later and the immediate crisis is over. We're back to dealing with the growing income inequality that has been building for over 30 years. Liberals whose primary focus is on defeating the enemy seem more resentful of money being made on Wall Street than they are in figuring out what to do for Main Street.  I suspect that what drives that is an assumption that if Wall Street suffers Main Street will prosper. To me, that is just another example of assuming that the master's tools will be able to dismantle the master's house. It is the master's way to pit one group against another...divide and conquer...survival of the fittest.

Ultimately what will dismantle the master's house of income inequality is a recognition of the fact that "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." That means that we demonize neither the poor or the rich, nor do we call for their defeat. Instead, we begin to imagine how we can "free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The sane folks

Here's my theory: whenever President Obama gets thoroughly disgusted with obstructionist Republicans, media hysterics, battles he has to fight in his own administration and dealing with foreign tyrants, he gets the heck out of dodge and goes someplace where he can hang out with a few sane folks.

Who gets to decide?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That is the text of the First Amendment to our Constitution. It clearly states that Congress can't pass laws that interfere with the freedom of the press. And so it has become conventional wisdom in this country that journalists enjoy special privileges against prosecution for the stories they tell and the things they write. The New York Times was never taken to court for publishing the Pentagon Papers. But Daniel Ellsberg faced trail for leaking them to the press.

This issue has resurfaced lately with reporters who play more than a passive role in publishing leaked documents. For example, if Glenn Greenwald is to be believed, Edward Snowden gave him thousands of documents and basically told him "you decide" which one's to make public. It seems to me that blurs the line quite a bit between leaker and journalist.

Of course much of this conversation includes an assumption that there is a clear distinction between journalist and citizen. If journalists are exempt from laws that govern the rest of us, its important to know who is included in that definition. Interestingly enough, it sounds like the courts have made no such distinction.
The Free Press Clause protects the right of individuals to express themselves through publication and dissemination of information, ideas and opinions without interference, constraint or prosecution by the government. This right was described in Branzburg v. Hayes as "a fundamental personal right" that is not confined to newspapers and periodicals.
That's a good thing because these days, anyone with a computer can publish and disseminate information, ideas and opinions. I would suggest that, based on the court's understanding of the First Amendment and current technology, there are no clear lines defining what it means to be a journalist. The New York Times and Glenn Greenwald have no special privileges that aren't available to me publishing here on my little blog.

Apparently Greenwald thinks there is a distinction.
Through all the bombast, Greenwald makes no serious effort to defend as a matter of law the leaking of official secrets to reporters. He merely asserts that “there are both formal and unwritten legal protections offered to journalists that are unavailable to anyone else. While it is considered generally legitimate for a journalist to publish government secrets, for example, that’s not the case for someone acting in any other capacity.”
He's a lawyer and I'm not. So perhaps he is aware of "both formal and unwritten legal protections" that apply to journalists and not the rest of us. But I have a hard time imagining what they'd be.

I'm not saying all this because I think Glenn Greenwald should be prosecuted for publishing leaked documents. I'll leave that one for others to decide. My concern is that there are very real questions presented by this situation that don't lend themselves to the easy black-and-white answers that Greenwald has a habit of embracing. We should be talking about those questions. The most important one right now is "who gets to decide what information is private/secret and what is made public?" When it comes to making that decision, apparently even Greenwald and Assange don't always agree. But the truth is that - as is the case in that situation - lives are often on the line. All I know is that I don't think the right answer is that anyone with access to a leak and a blog should be able to make that call on their own.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Steve Benen got it wrong

Its very rare to find Steve Benen making a mistake. He is one of the best in a media full of problems. But today is one of those times he got something wrong. It comes in the midst of writing about the Obama administration's decision to release the memo written by the Office of Legal Counsel justifying the drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki. In recapping how we got here, Benen summarized the White House response to questions about the legality of its actions this way:
The Obama administration responded that it absolutely has the legal authority to use force under conditions like these. The tricky part came after – when the administration’s attorneys didn’t want to tell anyone how or why it had the authority. In effect, the argument was, “What we did was legal. Honest. Take our word for it. We can’t elaborate, but we looked into it and we’re sure.”
That totally ignores the following:
  1. Attorney General Eric Holder's speech in March 2012 outlining the legal rationale for targeted killing of al Qaeda operatives - even if they are American citizens.
  2. The release of the Justice Department White Paper on the legal case for drone strikes on Americans. 
  3. President Obama's remarks about the legal case for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki during his speech on counterterrorism strategies in May 2013.
It is perfectly valid to mount arguments against the rationale that has been articulated. What is wrong is to continue to suggest that the Obama administration "didn't want to tell anyone how or why it had the authority." As I noted the other day, the judge who ordered the release of this memo said:
“Whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had has been lost by virtue of public statements of public officials at the highest levels and official disclosure of the DOJ White Paper,” Judge Jon Newman wrote in the Second Circuit’s opinion...
It frustrates me that these kinds of errors continue to surface in reporting about the Obama administration - especially from someone as reliable as Steve Benen.

Intelligence community is fighting back on ending the indefinite war

For over two years now I've been saying that rather than focusing on drones and Gitmo, liberals should be talking about actually ending the indefinite war. A year ago this week, the President said we should do just that. But as Eli Lake reports, he's facing some pretty tough opposition on that front from the intelligence community. The title of his article is telling: 'Over My Dead Body': Spies Fight Obama Push to Downsize Terror War.
In interviews with many of them, a common theme is sounded: The threat from al Qaeda is rising, but the White House is looking to ratchet down the war against these Islamic extremists.
Lake goes on to dutifully quote many in the intelligence community about why we should still be afraid of "the terrorists" - even if it means ramping up the current furor over Benghazi! and the freak-out about ending the war in Afghanistan. But to get an idea of how the President views all of this, here's a fascinating exchange.
Tommy Vietor, who served as the spokesman for the National Security Council in Obama’s first term, recalled a meeting he attended with Obama on the crisis in Mali. He said the president understood the threat from al Qaeda’s core leadership had diminished, while the threat of affiliates had grown stronger. At the end of the meeting though, he said the president remarked, “What will be required for a crisis like that is not a drone-based program dotting the continent. It will be a sustained political process that includes economic development.”

It’s an irony for Obama, who has been attacked by progressives for relying too heavily on drone attacks in his war on terrorism.
An irony indeed! This is the perfect example of why so few people really understand President Obama. When he came into office he was clear that the Bush/Cheney administration had mangled this country's response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11: the Iraq War had to end, the Taliban in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) had to be defeated, and the "global war on terror" had to be narrowed and re-focused on al Qaeda.

Working towards all that was seen by many on the left as "warmongering." Rather than simply agree/disagree with any particular action, that frame became the narrative though which everything is filtered. And so even as the number of drone strikes has dropped dramatically (zero in Pakistan in 2014) and the President is openly advocating for an end to the war on al Qaeda, the narrative persists.

All of this is coming to a head because today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing to discuss the reform/repeal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that is the legal framework for the war on al Qaeda. Eli Lake's article is obviously an attempt by the intelligence community to weigh in on that debate. A google search of "news" for "Senate Foreign Relations Committee AUMF" indicates that not one liberal/progressive pundit/blog has written anything about it. Imagine that...President Obama has called for an end to this indefinite war, a Committee in Congress is holding a hearing to discuss that and the intelligence community is fighting back. But the only thing liberals seem interested in talking about are questions that have already been asked and answered. Shame on you!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Health insurers cut profits/admin costs by $1.4 billion

Rick Ungar was the first to name the bomb that was buried in Obamacare - the medical loss ratios. In case you haven't heard, that is the provision that limits insurers profit and administrative costs to 80/85% of the premiums they collect. Anything less that those minimums has to be refunded to their customers.

Now comes word that in 2011 and 2012, health insurance companies sent out rebates totaling $1.5 billion. But get this, they also cut their profits/admin costs.
The rule also led insurance companies to reduce their own profit margins, spending on brokers fees, marketing and others administrative costs to the tune of $1.4 billion. These costs are overhead fees that insurance companies have typically pushed on to their customers.

“The Affordable Care Act has changed how health insurance is bought, sold, and managed and, on balance, those changes have produced substantial benefits for consumers without harming insurance markets,” said Michael McCue, the study’s lead author. “In its first two years, the MLR requirement contributed to a significant reduction in insurance administrative costs, a major source of health care cost growth in the United States.”
An elementary understanding of math says that health insurance companies paid $2.9 billion over those two years (rebates + cost reductions) for the privilege of gaining customers on the health insurance exchanges who cannot be denied coverage based on pre-existing conditions. Excuse me while I laugh at those who said Obamacare was nothing more than a big give-away to them :-)

The pen and phone strategy

Over the last few years I've written about the various strategies President Obama has employed to deal with Republican obstructionism. As has been well documented, on the day the President was inaugurated in 2009, Republican leaders met to develop an opposition strategy. The one they decided on was to simply oppose anything and everything he tried to do - regardless of whether it included things they'd supported in the past.

Initially the President's response was to enlist conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy. The best description I've found of that came from Mark Schmitt.
One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.
President Obama demonstrated that he was open to Republican ideas and invited them to the table to develop solutions to the challenges we face. This meant that he increasingly absorbed any pragmatic policies the Republicans had previously held and - in order to continue their obstruction - they had to paint themselves into an increasingly extremist corner.

Eventually on some issues a few Republicans became uncomfortable with those ideological extremes and started breaking away. That's when the President began to employ a strategy to develop a common sense caucus. That worked to get immigration reform through the Senate and created the possibility for a bi-partisan budget bill to be passed early this year after the extremists shut down the government.

And now comes the "pen and phone" strategy. Basically what President Obama is saying is that if Republicans won't work with him, he'll find the power to make changes via other means. The "pen" refers to his executive authority and the "phone" is all about marshaling the business community, nonprofits, state and local governments, etc. to do what Congress will not do. Recently I wrote about the innovation of working with the business community to achieve his goals in both foreign and domestic policy. Today Dan Pfeiffer wrote about the pen and phone strategy and highlighted how it is working on the issue of raising the minimum wage.
The best example of the president's philosophy for governing in a divided Washington is his effort to raise the minimum wage. Last year the president called for raising the minimum wage in the State of the Union. This caught a lot of pundits in Washington by surprise because there hadn't been much discussion of the issue in recent years. The president wanted to put it on the table even though he knew the legislative path was difficult, to say the least. What has happened since that speech is pretty remarkable: The president has launched a national movement to raise wages in this country. To begin with, he signed an executive order to raise wages for people working on new federal contracts. He has also has called on states, cities and businesses to do their part in the absence of Congressional action. And the thing is, folks are listening: From Maryland to Hawaii, states are raising their wages, and from the Gap to Punch Pizza, businesses are doing their part too. The actions that have been taken in just five states this year -- Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Hawaii -- mean that more than a million workers will see a raise.
But hold onto your hats. Because in the coming months we're going to see President Obama use this strategy on a couple of issues that will spark some fires. First of all, we know that the President has given Speaker Boehner until August to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the House. If he doesn't, Obama will use his pen to sign executive orders that re-prioritize our current deportation policies.

The second use of the pen will happen when the EPA releases their policies governing emissions from existing coal plants. As many have noted, this will be the most important step the President will take in dealing with climate change. And as has been recently reported, rather than leave it up to the EPA to make the announcement, President Obama will do it himself.

What I find fascinating about all this is that the Republican strategy of obstruction is nothing more than a power game. Their intent has always been to strip the President of his power. But perhaps they forgot that he taught classes on the topic of power analysis. President Obama is not about to play the victim and give his away. No matter what they throw at him by way of obstruction, he'll find a way to carry on...doing everything he can to implement the changes we elected him to make.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Measuring President Obama's success in foreign policy

Lot's of people are weighing in on whether or not they think President Obama's approach to foreign policy has been a success. One way they often do that is to assume that the President's goals are the same as theirs.

For example, if you think that he took military action in Libya or threatened it in Syria in order to implement "regime change" and impose American democracy on those countries, of course you would label his policy a failure. In general, if you think the President's response to the Arab Spring should have mirrored what our leaders have done in the past (including Bush's ultimate rationale for invading Iraq), of course you are going to judge Obama harshly.

The other route to go would be to actually listen to the President's stated goals. For example, in Libya he said he wanted to stop the massacre of civilians, and in Syria he said that his efforts were to stop the use of chemical weapons in that country's civil war. By that measure, both have been a success. Overall, President Obama's response to the Arab Spring has been to say that it should be up to the people of those countries to decide.

I know that is a hard concept for the hegemonic hawks amongst us to grasp. And much like our country's own revolutionary war against imperialism, it produces a certain amount of chaos. But ultimately, for the U.S. to decide another country's fate is the opposite of real democracy. We can lend a hand (as we've done in Libya and Syria - and are now doing in the Ukraine), but that is a very different course to take than picking the winners and losers.

Of course, picking winners and losers via overt intervention (ie, Vietnam and Iraq) or covert (ie, from Iran to Chile) hasn't exactly been a recipe for success either. So even if you don't buy that its not our job, we might as well try something else.

The really big picture is that for many of these countries, transitioning out of colonialism meant decades of living under corrupt dictatorships that were often fueled by the Cold War. Much of South America has now found a more democratic footing, but in places all over Africa and the Middle East, it is just beginning. Measuring President Obama's foreign policy success should not be based on the extent to which we dictate the outcome. It will be whether or not - in the end - we were good partners in supporting the people to make their own decision.

Getting the history right

Years ago I was a member of a professional association that staged a coup against the man who had served as its president since its founding. Members had lost trust in him and his vision for the association. In a surprise move, they coalesced a majority to elect me as president.

The next couple of years were ugly as I dug into the finances and found that the previous president has "skirted" the law and created potential legal problems for the association. So I had a pretty big mess to clean up and it took some time.

Once that was finally completed, we opened up the doors of the association to a lot of new members (something the previous president had opposed) and folks came flooding in. Knowing nothing about the mess we had been busy working to clean up for the past few years, they criticized the association for lack of vision, took the reigns, and ran with it. I was happy to pass the baton on to a next generation that would take the association where we'd always dreamed it could go.

I think of that experience now as a tiny replica of what I see happening with a meme that is developing in our politics. The buzz on the left is all about the new focus on income inequality. As the story goes, that meme came on the scene with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and has been championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren. Lately even Hillary Clinton has gotten on the bandwagon.

Of course that narrative completely ignores the fact that Barack Obama has repeatedly called income inequality "the defining issue of our time" and that way back in 2007 he said dealing with it is why he decided to run for president.

But something happened on the way to that presidency. The guy who preceded him made a pretty big mess of things and for the first few years President Obama had to focus on cleaning all that up. Now that he's done so, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon that he had the vision to see over 7 years ago.

Based on my experience, it is probably inevitable that the baton will soon be passed on to those who will have the opportunity to build on that legacy. But when the history is written, I for one will remember who - not only championed that vision from the beginning - but did all the hard work to create an opening for it to thrive once again.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

President Obama: Harnessing the power of big business for change


I've written before about how President Obama's time as a community organizer and his understanding of power relations informs his foreign policy and the development of the Obama Doctrine. See if you can connect those dots with why Max Fisher says his strategy of letting Putin hang himself is working.
Most of this is economic. Russia's self-imposed economic problems started pretty quickly after its annexation of Crimea in March and have kept up. Whether or not American or European governments sanction Russia's broader economy, the global investment community has a mind of its own, and they seem to have decided that Russia's behavior has made it a risky place to put money. So risky that they're pulling more money out.

A lot of that may have come from the targeted sanctions that Obama pushed for against individual Russian leaders and oligarchs. Those targeted sanctions did not themselves do much damage to the Russian economy. But, along with Russia's erratic behavior in Ukraine and the lack of clarity as to whether Europe and the US could impose broader sanctions, it appears to have been enough to scare off global investors — the big, faceless, placeless mass of people and banks who have done tremendous damage to Putin's Russia, nudged along by the US and by Putin himself...

The lesson that Putin is learning is that Russia depends on the global economy, whether it likes it or not, and the global economy doesn't like it when you go invading other countries and tempting the richest nations in the world to maybe consider sanctioning you. This is actually a significant change for Russia, which at the height of its Soviet power was not integrated into the global economy and so didn't have to worry about things like investor sentiment. But now it is and it does.

What's cool about this is that it theoretically could apply to lots of other possible acts of international aggression around the world. This is something that economists and political scientists have been predicting since World War One: that integrating all the national economies into the global economy wouldn't just make all of us richer; it would make war more economically painful for the people starting it and thus less likely to happen.
As liberals we are often sucked into arguments about the evils of a globalized economy and we are certainly quick to demonize the "global investment community." But what President Obama saw is that they have power - and that can be wielded for good as well as evil. To harness that power against Russia's incursions into the Ukraine meant coalescing the global community in condemnation and focusing efforts on an economic rather than a military response. The hawks screamed "weak," but the investment community saw the writing on the wall - in other words - they acted to preserve their own self-interests.

Engaging the power of the corporate/investment community for change is a strategy President Obama has implemented on more than one occasion domestically as well. For example, in advocating for single payer, liberals called for an end to private health insurers. But with Obamacare, the President co-opted them into transforming their practices in a way that lines their interests up with those of the American people.

In 2011 President Obama gave a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In it he laid out a challenge.
But ultimately, winning the future is not just about what the government can do to help you succeed. It's about what you can do to help America succeed...

We have faced hard times before. We have faced moments of tumult and change before. We know what to do. We know how to succeed. We are Americans. And as we have throughout our history, I have every confidence that we will rise to this occasion; that we can come together, that we can adapt and thrive in a changing economy. And we need look no further than the innovative companies in this room. If we can harness your potential and the potential of the people all across our country, there will be no stopping us.
Harnessing that potential is a big part of this President's most current strategy to deal with a grid-locked Congress - what some have called his "pen and phone" strategy.
“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” he said at his first Cabinet meeting of the year. Outlining the strategy, Obama said he plans to use his pen to sign executive actions and his phone to convene outside groups in support of his agenda if Congress proves unable or unwilling to act on his priorities.
For example, while President Obama pressures Congress to raise the minimum wage, he is also working with businesses to do so on their own and spending a lot of time highlighting successful companies that pay a living wage. We also see this with his work to engage corporate America in expanding access to broadband and even his "Brother's Keeper" initiative.

Not all of the power for change rests with Congress. In ways both here and abroad, President Obama is showing that harnessing the power of big business is also a way to address our challenges. That's how an effective community organizer thinks. It's fascinating to watch this President put that into action.

Its time to weigh in on ending the indefinite war

A year ago President Obama said this:
Now, all these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact -- in sometimes unintended ways -- the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.

The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old. The Afghan war is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.

So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
This week there will be bi-partisan efforts in both the House and Senate to reform and/or end the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that began our indefinite war.

Liberals who have been vocal in their opposition to the activities this war has enabled (Guantanamo prison, drone strikes, surveillance) have typically been silent about actually ending it. But President Obama has signed on to do just that.

The AUMF doesn't need to be reformed...it needs to be repealed. As the article above says regarding Gitmo:
...ending the AUMF would remove the primary legal justification that allows them [Gitmo detainees] to be held.
I'd suggest that as Congress takes this up - its time to weigh in.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

An administration committed to civil rights

Ever since Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, I've wanted to watch every moment of his journey because I think something truly remarkable is happening. There are times when it is the relatively small things that often go unnoticed by our media that actually stand out to me.

For example, did you know that today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia? And are you aware that yesterday the President issued a statement commemorating it?
Tomorrow, as we commemorate the 10th annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, we recommit ourselves to the fundamental belief that all people should be treated equally, that they should have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential, and that no one should face violence or discrimination -- no matter who they are or whom they love.
This comes a week after Obama's Secretary of Defense said it was time to review the military's ban on transexuals. B.F.D!!!

And then, of course today we are also celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on Brown v Board of Education. Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and AG Eric Holder wrote this to commemorate the occasion:
...for all the progress our nation has seen over the last six decades, this is a process that continues, and a promise that has yet to be fully realized, even today.

While the number of school districts that remain under desegregation court orders has decreased significantly in just the past decade, the Department of Justice continues to actively enforce and monitor nearly 200 desegregation cases where school districts have not yet fulfilled their legal obligation to eliminate segregation “root and branch.” In those cases, the department works to ensure that all students have the building blocks of educational success – from access to advanced placement classes, to facilities without crumbling walls and old technology, to safe and positive learning environments.

The Departments of Justice and Education are also working together to reform misguided school discipline policies that fuel the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Some of these policies, while well-intentioned, have resulted in students of color facing suspensions and expulsions at a rate three times higher than that of their white peers. And the Administration is moving in a variety of ways to dismantle racial barriers and promote inclusion, from America’s classrooms, to our courtrooms, to our voting booths – and far beyond.
This is happening because President Obama appointed people to these critical positions who "get it." For example, this morning AG Holder made some powerful remarks to Morgan State University graduates. In reference to the Sterling and Bundy sagas, he said:
But we ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation. Because if we focus solely on these incidents -- on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter -- we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines.

These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done -- because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized.
Holder went on to describe the "disparate impact" of things like zero tolerance policies in our schools, the racial disparities that persist in the criminal justice system and attacks on voting rights as the form of racism that is more subtle and cuts deeper.
This is the work that truly matters -- because policies that disenfranchise specific groups are more pernicious than hateful rants. Proposals that feed uncertainty, question the desire of a people to work [shoutout to Rep. Paul Ryan] and relegate particular Americans to economic despair are more malignant than intolerant public statements, no matter how many eyebrows the outbursts might raise. And a criminal justice system that treats groups of people differently -- and punishes them unequally -- has a much more negative impact than misguided words that we can reject out of hand.
And in case anyone wonders where this administration comes down on the resent dust-up between Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sotomayor on the current status of racism in this country... Holder set that record straight.
Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether. This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn't need to be actively confronted. In its most obvious forms, it might be. But discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow like statute. And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote recently in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admissions case -- we must not "wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society... The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race."
The Obama administration is clearly not in the business of taking the easy road when it comes to the matter of civil rights for ALL Americans. They're pushing the envelope on every one of these important issues. Sometimes the work that advances that cause catches the national headlines - like ending DADT. And sometimes it comes in baby steps - like this week when AG Holder spoke out against the excessive use of isolation in juvenile detention facilities. But regardless, the focus is clear and the determination is relentless. That's why I want to pay attention and not miss a moment of how it unfolds.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Photo of the Day: He's always been his brother's keeper


I simply cannot say all the ways I love this picture. But then, I don't have to. It says it all for me :-)

PUMA alive and well...in the GOP

In 2008, as it became clear that Barack Obama would be the Democratic nominee for president, a group of disgruntled Clinton supporters took on the moniker of PUMA - Party Unity, My Ass. But in the end, they weren't able to divide the Democratic Party and Obama won...twice.

Nobody is giving that same moniker to a group of conservatives who are disenchanted with the Republican Party these days. But perhaps we should. If you remember, they are the group that organized the government shutdown over Obamacare - against Speaker Boehner's wishes. You might have thought they'd fade into the woodwork after that debacle. But they haven't. The very same people - Ed Meese, Ted Cruz, the Heritage Foundation, etc - met yesterday and developed a 10-page manifesto for the 2014 elections.
The group, alarmed by a resurgence of the GOP establishment in recent primaries and what activists view as a softened message, drafted demands to be shared with senior lawmakers calling on the party to “recommit” to bedrock principles.

Some of those principles laid out in the new document — strict opposition to illegal immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion — represent the hot-button positions that many Republican congressional candidates are trying to avoid as the party attempts to broaden its appeal...

In the 10-page pamphlet finalized Thursday, they called on party leaders to champion lower taxes, a well-funded military, and the idea that “married moms and dads are best at raising kids.” The document warns Republicans against signing on to an immigration overhaul unless the U.S. border is “fully secure,” and it argues that support for school prayer, a balanced-budget amendment and antiabortion legislation should remain priorities.
Robert Costa, who provided that report, added this via twitter:

In subsequent tweets he mentioned that these folks don't like Jeb Bush at all, didn't even mention Gov. Chris Christie (he's "off the radar"), and that the sleeper choice of this group for 2016 might be Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

The most interesting part of the story is not what WAS discussed, but what didn't seem to be on the agenda at all...Obamacare. When even the lunatic wing of the Republican Party has accepted the inevitable, mark that as a HUGE development!

In the end, what this group wants is for the Republican Party to be vocal about their anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-gay agenda during the 2014 election. When it comes to what the establishment Republicans are trying to do (Reince's outreach plan?), they're still pretty much saying: Party Unity, My Ass. But these are the same guys who thought it would be a great idea to shut down the government to kill Obamacare. We know how well that worked out for them. So they're not the brightest bulbs in the room.

I have to say, the one person who saw this coming was Charles Krauthammer. In talking about President Obama he said:
He’s been using this, and I must say with great skill–-and ruthless skill and success–to fracture and basically shatter the Republican opposition… His objective from the very beginning was to break the will of the Republicans in the House, and to create an internal civil war. And he’s done that.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Shinseki under attack...again


Calls for General Shinseki's resignation as Secretary of Veteran's Affairs have gone out. In case you haven't heard what this is all about, here's a summary.
The latest scandal erupted when a former VA doctor alleged the department’s Phoenix health clinic developed a secret system to hide treatment delays, possibly affecting dozens of patients who died while waiting for care.
But this isn't the first time Shinseki has faced the fire. In 2003 he was Army Chief of Staff when the Bush/Cheney administration was beating the war drums for an invasion of Iraq.
Appearing before the Armed Services Committee a month before the invasion of Iraq, Shinseki said that occupying the country would require “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” That estimation put him at odds with the war’s chief architects, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who dismissed his opinion as “wildly off the mark.” Their plans called for only 100,000 soldiers.
Shinseki "resigned" his position after that - even though his estimation was eventually proven to be correct.

In order to understand the current issue about the backlog of claims for medical treatment of veterans, this article about Shinseki's work in that area (published prior to the current controversy) is critical. It outlines the following steps taken by Shinseki to reform/improve VA services (and likely ruffled a lot of feathers):

1. Reduced the definition of "backlog" from 180 days to 125 days, raising the number of cases that fit in that category from 85,000 to 150,000 overnight.

2. Expanded eligibility for veterans affected by PTSD and Agent Orange, raising the backlog to 450,000.

3. Improved VA outreach - especially to Vietnam veterans.
VA’s actions since 2009—not coincidentally under the leadership of a Vietnam veteran—have, in fact, revealed the extent of the longstanding estrangement between Vietnam veterans and the government which sent them to war nearly 50 years ago.

And after four years of concerted outreach, along with special care taken to bring Vietnam veterans back into the fold, the awareness campaign has paid off.
4. Began the process of automating a system that was still based on paper claims - thus beginning the process of actually reducing the backlog.

Here is a graph demonstrating how each of these actions impacted the situation.


It seems to me that what we're seeing now is an example of the old adage that "no good deed will go unpunished." Its true that there might have been managerial issues that resulted in VA employees "skimming the books" under the pressure to do something about the backlog of claims. But there's also the very real possibility that Shinseki has once again rattled the cages of the system in a way that is producing backlash - just as other Obama cabinet secretaries like Holder and Sebelius have faced. Keep that in mind as you watch him come under fire.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The constraints of civil disobedience

Ben Sasse, who just won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate race in Nebraska, says this on his web site:
Government cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances.
Since this is the foundation for the Holly Lobby suit against providing employees with birth control via their health care coverage, liberals are all a-flutter over this "bold" statement by Sasse.

But wait a minute - compare that with what Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail:
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
We all recognize that what MLK is talking about comes from a long line of progressive philosophy about civil disobedience. But there is one way to distinguish that from what Sasse is suggesting. King goes on to say:
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.
The bolded part is the critical difference. That is why anyone who suggests that Edward Snowden is engaging in civil disobedience by breaking the law and seeking asylum in Russia in order to avoid the penalty is playing right in to the hands of people like Sasse. Its a dangerous opening we need to be careful to avoid.

No country for old hostage-takers

Anyone else notice that its all quiet on the hostage-taking front lately?
As the saying goes, I'm old enough to remember when Republicans weren't simply content to obstruct anything President Obama tried to do. After awhile they started threatening to shut down the government and/or blow up the entire global economy if they didn't get what they wanted.

At first, President Obama used the opportunity to try to get a Grand Bargain on deficit reduction - including both increased revenue and spending cuts. But because he was so busy watching his back, Speaker Boehner said "no deal."

As a result, we went through a period of one hostage crisis after another...always walking up to the brink of the cliff before the Republicans figured out they'd have to negotiate a compromise.

And then President Obama said, "we're not playing that game any more." The Republicans went ahead and shut down the government and we skated within inches of passing by the debt ceiling. But because the President had constituently shown himself willing from the very beginning to work with Republicans, the American people were ready to end the game too. They blamed the Republicans - who eventually came to the table and worked out a bipartisan budget and debt ceiling deal.

Since then - no more hostage-taking.

Some might say that I'm speaking too soon. There is still work to be done on the 2015 budget and the current debt ceiling will need to be raised sometime around March 2015. But word is that the Republicans will forgo another government shutdown prior to the 2014 election and pass a continuing resolution this fall. After that, everyone will be gearing up for the 2016 presidential election and the last thing Republicans will want going into that one is another hostage crisis.

So I think its important that we mark the passing of this utterly destructive Republican strategy. The budget battles between Republicans and Democrats are sure to continue. But at least we won't have a gun to our heads next time.

Good riddance to bad politics. And well played, Mr. President.