Opinion

The Great Debate

Drones: From bad habit to terrible policy

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.

This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.

If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.

In May 2013, the White House responded to criticism about secrecy — including a filibuster by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — by releasing a “fact sheet” on its “policy standards” for drone strikes. It detailed the administration’s aspirations for a contained drone program. But the document does nothing to allay concerns that when push comes to shove, the United States will bend the legal rules: using elastic and unconventional legal definitions to permit expansive and potentially unlawful killings.

It has been a year since a leaked Justice Department memo on the killing of U.S. citizens sparked a political firestorm. The public reaction to that was as fierce as the fury over NSA surveillance is now. Yet the drone reform scorecard remains dismal. Most members of Congress have never seen the government memos describing the legal justifications for killings. We do not know how many memos exist and which issues they cover. Relatively few Congress members have even seen the memos that specifically authorize the killing of U.S. citizens.

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Is NBC soft on Sochi terror threats, political stalling, and the lawyer who could nail Christie

1. Is NBC soft on Sochi terror threats? Or are its rivals overdoing it?

I may be imagining it, but while the other network news organizations are giving full, even avid, coverage to the threat of terrorism at the coming Sochi Olympics, NBC -- which is televising the games -- seems to be playing it down. Or at least not playing it up.

It’s no surprise that NBC has been full of segments featuring the arrivals or practice sessions of members of team America, especially the good-looking ones. That’s a time-honored, if cheesy, effort to use ostensible news shows to boost the games’ ratings.

But it also seems that its coverage of the security threats and accompanying precautions is nothing like what we’re seeing on CBS, ABC, Fox or CNN -- where images of barb wire-encased arenas and helmeted Russian security forces abound.

The other inequality is structural

For the second year in a row, the issue of economic inequality was featured in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. Even some Republican lawmakers have now dared to speak the “i-word.”

Though Obama predictably avoided comparisons between the earnings held by the top 1 percent and the 99 percent of Occupy Wall Street fame, the message was familiar: The widening income gap between the very rich and everyone else is a stain on the social compact and a serious problem for future economic growth.

Focusing on this income inequality is crucial. Lower incomes create an oxymoronic class of “working poor.” Inadequate pay hurts consumption and reduces tax revenues. People simply do more for themselves with more money, growing it into wealth for future generations — and as a cushion against economic downturns. A good job, as the president said, remains the best access to the promise of opportunity.

Moscow fiddles, while Kiev burns

Timing is everything in politics, and this adage could not be truer for the whirlwind now enveloping Russia and Ukraine. Both countries are in the headlines — Russia for the coming $50 billion Winter Olympics extravaganza, and Ukraine for an economic and political collapse that has left the country on the cusp of revolution.

The confluence of these two events has created a unique set of circumstances unlikely to change until the Olympic flame is extinguished on February 23. For the prestige of hosting the Olympics — and the huge international spotlight that accompanies the spectacle — limits Moscow’s ability to act decisively toward Ukraine as it might have otherwise.

This unexpected inaction can be traced to a failure of Russian soft power and a large segment of the Ukrainian population’s unwillingness to be bought off.

Shhh. The president is sleeping

President Barack Obama is out of gas. Pooped out. Gone fishing. Or rather, golfing. He’s just not that into it anymore. The republic is safe from any further vast left-wing legislative prescriptions for our ills.

But Obama’s increasing job fatigue is, paradoxically, cause for serious concern. While he sits back, aides in the White House and in the agencies are busy enacting a stealth agenda of rules and regulations. And on the world stage, Washington’s withdrawal threatens national security.

The president on display at Tuesday’s State of the Union is one who has shrunk from the pretension of becoming a president on the order of Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt into the purveyor of a list of puny policies that tinker at the margins.

Can Obama circumvent Washington?

Washington is broken,” Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, said in September 2008. “My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”

There are three ways that Washington works: compromise, crisis and clout. Compromise is the way Washington is supposed to work. It’s practically mandated by the Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It’s the way the U.S. government has worked for more than 200 years.

But it’s not working very well any more. Party positions have dug in. Deal-making is harder now that there are fewer moderates in Congress. It has taken more than two years for the House of Representatives to pass a farm bill, and it’s already under attack by both conservatives and liberals.

Obama’s small steps won’t fix inequality

President Barack Obama is taking on the challenge of increasing the United States’ all but stagnant economic mobility.

He wants, he said in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, to both “strengthen the middle class” and “build new ladders of opportunity” into it. His modest plan — modest so that it does not need the congressional approval he’s unlikely to receive — includes raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers and offering workers a new workplace retirement savings account option.

It’s a nice start. But nowhere near enough.

The United States’ sluggish economic mobility is not new. According to a paper recently published by academics at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, it has been mediocre for those born in the 1970s, and it is just as bad for those born 20 years later.

Bob McDonnell: It depends on the meaning of the word ‘guilty’

The other prosecutorial shoe has finally dropped on Robert McDonnell, Virginia’s just-retired Republican governor. Last week a federal grand jury indicted the former governor and his wife, Maureen, for conspiring to defraud Virginia’s citizens of McDonnell’s “honest services” and to obtain property “under color of official right” — that is, to procure bribes through extortion. He was also charged with making false statements and obstructing an official investigation.

The indictment is replete with details of the many gifts the McDonnells received from Jonnie Williams, a corporate executive who was trying to get state help for his company.

But the governor’s defenders are now describing the whole affair as an unfortunate lapse in the first lady’s judgment. They note that McDonnell rejected a deal proposed by prosecutors, in which the governor would plead guilty to a single felony charge unrelated to official corruption and his wife would escape prosecution altogether. In other words, these defenders suggest, the prosecutors are not so confident of the strength of their case.

In France, where unions rule, a challenge from Hollande

In France, taking a person hostage or sequestering them against their will is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail. It also happens to be a very effective weapon in French labor disputes. Since 2009, there have been 15 incidents of “boss-napping” and only one resulted in sanctions: 11 postal workers who were fined $2,000 apiece for locking up their managers during a dispute over a change in how the mail is delivered.

Most of the time, it’s the unions who win. That’s certainly the case in the most recent incident, involving a bitter struggle over job losses at a Goodyear tire plant in Amiens. Earlier this month, union officials occupied the factory and sequestered the production manager and head of human resources for 30 hours. After the government intervened, the battle finally ended last week when the company agreed to triple the severance it had offered. Union leader Mickaël Wamen didn’t hide his triumph. “It was a grand and beautiful struggle,” he wrote in a blog post on Jan. 24, announcing details of the settlement.

This type of labor militancy is the exception in Europe today; union power has taken a battering along with the economy in crisis-ridden nations such as Greece and Spain, which were once bastions of organized labor. But it’s not the only characteristic of the French labor scene that is exceptional. Although only 8 percent of French workers actually belong to a union — a tiny proportion by international standards –  French unions wield enormous political clout over the national economy. Among other things, they run the national systems for unemployment insurance and vocational training, in joint management with employers’ organizations. In fact, they formally play as big a role in setting social and labor policy as organized labor does in Scandinavia, where 80 percent or more of the workers are union members. “The political influence of French unions is abnormal,” says Radu Vranceanu, research director at ESSEC business school in Paris. “It’s not at all in line with their capacity to mobilize people.”

Obama’s address: Borrowing from Bubba and the Gipper

Many presidents don’t have the problem of salvaging their second terms because the voters threw them out of office. Among those who win reelection, the successful communicators, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, used many of the techniques that President Barack Obama deployed in his State of the Union Address last night. He is likely to repeat them often this year, which is one that will determine whether his administration is remembered as transformational or transitional.

Giving Americans credit: While most recent presidents began their State of the Union addresses by rattling off positive economic statistics, Obama did it differently. Using archetypal anecdotes — a dedicated teacher, a high-tech entrepreneur, a night-shift worker – Obama gave regular Americans credit for reducing unemployment, adding manufacturing jobs and increasing high school graduation rates. In so doing, Obama emulated Reagan, who declared in his second State of the Union address of his second term: “Today, the American people deserve our thanks.”

By speaking for the American people instead of talking at them, Obama seeks to do what Reagan and Clinton accomplished: appeal to swing voters frustrated with political bickering.

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