Opinion

The Great Debate

Counterterrorism: Where are Obama’s policy changes?

It is now roughly five months since President Barack Obama announced a new direction for U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

“America is at a crossroads,” Obama said at the National Defense University in May. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.”

The president proceeded to set out his post-war vision for the nation — the peace dividend earned for the last 12 years of a complicated, costly and at times tragically misguided counterterrorism policy. The president, as usual, gave a good speech. Where he’s weak is on the follow-through, however.

Though five months isn’t that long, when it comes to a war that involves killing and indefinitely detaining a vaguely defined enemy, time is of the essence. It’s also critical to restoring U.S. credibility around the globe, particularly around the constitutional principles the president repeatedly emphasized.

Obama has taken a few steps in the right direction since May. As promised, he appointed an envoy at the State Department to focus on transferring Guantanamo detainees to their home countries, and just this month appointed someone in charge at the Pentagon as well. He’s sent home two of the 86 prisoners already cleared for transfer.

The power in a president’s mandate

The controversy over responsibility for the government shutdown has brought about one surprising consequence: a debate over the meaning of the term “presidential mandate.”

Republicans are asserting President Barack Obama has no warrant to call on Congress to fund the Affordable Care Act — since his victory margin in 2012 was so slender and the voters kept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives. The White House, meanwhile, is countering that the healthcare legislation was not only approved by both houses of Congress, and validated by the Supreme Court, but also was authenticated by his election triumph — after a campaign in which his opponent made hostility to the healthcare reform law his main point of attack.

“Presidential mandate” is an ideal brickbat in a political struggle because it is so carelessly used. Republicans who question Obama’s credentials today were quick to claim after the 2004 presidential election that, in then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s words, “the nation responded by giving [Bush] a mandate.” They ignore the reality that Obama gained re-election by a larger percentage of the popular vote than George W. Bush had received, and that his advantage in the Electoral College was 126 votes in contrast to Bush’s 35.

Tea Party zealots hold the public debate hostage

This year’s contrived budget crisis is headed to its climax, as the date for defaulting on the nation’s debt approaches.

Washington’s budget debates are dizzying and incomprehensible. But at stake is what kind of country we will have. House Republican Tea Party zealots, backed by well-funded right-wing lobbies, continue to manufacture budget crises. They want to alarm Americans into accepting cuts in basic security — in food stamps, and home heating, in Social Security or Medicare benefits — that would otherwise be utterly unacceptable.

Lost in the uproar is any reasoned discussion of the real strategies we need to make this economy work for working people. It is vital that the president and the Democrats in Congress end this macabre dance and make it clear to people just what the stakes actually are. The measure of any compromise deal is whether it will crush the hostage-takers.

The budget is its own ‘debt ceiling’

It could be that President Barack Obama and the Republican House of Representatives will again be able to avert fiscal and financial chaos through a short-term, ad hoc agreement on government funding and the “debt ceiling” limit. This would be good news for the world and its markets.

Going forward, however, we should repeal the 1917 Liberty Bond Act — the source of the “debt ceiling” regime that everyone’s talking about. This was effectively superseded by today’s budget regime, enacted under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Making this explicit by repealing the 1917 “debt limit” regime is preferable to leaving things merely implicit as they are now.

In what sense does the 1974 regime “implicitly” repeal the 1917 regime? To answer, begin with this apocryphal early 20th century statute familiar to some lawyers: This law supposedly imposed a strange, impossible requirement on two train conductors when their trains approach from opposite directions. The conductor of each train was to stop, await the other train’s passage and then continue the journey. If read literally, of course, this statute would leave trains idling indefinitely on the prairies, shutting down the railway. So the law cannot require what the “plain” language seems to suggest — nor would any court rule this way.

Antisocial genesis of the social cost of carbon

The day after his 2009 inauguration, President Barack Obama committed to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

He vowed to build on “transparency [that] promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the government is doing,” “participation [that] allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise,” and “collaboration [that] actively engages Americans in the work of their government.”

Despite these promises, and despite longstanding requirements of administrative law, the Obama administration is making significant regulatory decisions behind closed doors — without transparency or public involvement. Yet these new regulations could have enormous impact on Americans for generations to come.

Ending the debt limit crisis: Dear Ben Bernanke

Warren Buffett calls the debt ceiling a “nuclear weapon, too horrible to use.” Obama administration official Jason Furman says the consequence of a default on U.S. government debt is “too terrible to think about.” When asked about a default, Wells Fargo strategist James Kochan simply commented, “Holy cripes.”

With this crisis, America is risking financial Armageddon. The default of Lehman Brothers on its $613 billion of debt ignited a chain reaction in the financial system, nearly destroying the U.S. economy. A default by the U.S. government on $17 trillion of debt — debt that has been considered the safest in the world — could be far worse.

But at heart, this is not a debt problem. It is an accounting problem. The Treasury Department issues U.S. debt, and lots of it. So you would think that America is deeply indebted to its bondholders. Yet increasingly, it is the U.S. monetary authority, the Federal Reserve, and not private investors, who buys this debt.

Why this shutdown isn’t like 1995

The political battlefield of the current government shutdown looks a lot like the last big shutdown of 1995. But major changes within the Republican Party in Congress — a weaker leadership, the demise of moderates and two decades of gerrymandering — could make this year’s endgame far harder.

Then as now, a rebellious Republican Congress used a budget bill to set up a deliberate confrontation with a Democratic president over spending priorities. GOP militants and radicals in the House – today’s wing nuts — bet that gridlock, disarray and the embarrassment of a shutdown would force the White House to give in.

Then, as now, the president defied the Republican brinksmanship and took the political risk of a government shutdown rather than bowing to the GOP’s surrender terms. Former President Bill Clinton enjoyed the sport of sparring with Congress and President Barack Obama, after giving in so many times in the past three years, has finally decided to dig in his heels.

Forging ahead with free trade

The recent focus on what divides world leaders, from Syria to the euro zone, has obscured the significant agreements reached at the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg earlier this month. One of the most important was support for free trade and opposition to protectionism.

We can now build on this momentum, as well as other trade liberalization efforts, to achieve meaningful progress at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Bali in December.

Though critics describe the G20 as ineffective, it has been key in fostering economic cooperation among the world’s largest countries and helping to stave off the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. With the economic stresses of the past five years potentially triggering protectionism, it’s noteworthy that G20 members have steadfastly supported free trade.

from David Rohde:

The key stumbling blocks U.S. and Iran face

A historic phone call Friday between the presidents of the United States and Iran could mark the end of 34 years of enmity.

Or it could be another missed opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, clear signs will emerge whether a diplomatic breakthrough is possible. Here are several key areas that could determine success or failure:

Enrichment in Iran?

Throughout his New York “charm offensive,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made one demand clear: Tehran will rebuff any agreement that does not allow it to enrich some uranium.

Ted Cruz: Blackmailer

On October 28, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his supporters may wish to commemorate the feast day of Saint Jude. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. Because if ever there was a hopeless cause, it is killing the Affordable Care Act.

Fighting for hopeless causes is not uncommon in politics. Think of the nearly two centuries it took to abolish slavery and segregation in the United States. Fighting for a hopeless cause can raise public consciousness about an issue and advance the career of the advocate.

But it has to be seen as a noble effort. Cruz’s effort is anything but noble.

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