Tales from the Trail

All smiles at the White House, for a moment anyway

Earlier today President Barack Obama signed a law about prison sentences for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine and the photograph of the smiling group of people who supported the legislation gave us a brief pause.

The Democrats and Republicans gathered around the president in the Oval Office rarely agree on anything.  Let’s take a minute to dissect this photograph.

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There’s Attorney General Eric Holder (pictured second from the left), a close confidante of Obama’s. But he has drawn intense criticism for his plan to prosecute the five alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a criminal court in the heart of Manhattan (now highly unlikely). He also has been lambasted by Republicans for affording full legal rights to terrorism suspects who have been arrested on U.S. soil.

Next to him is Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy who has been the president’s man shepherding through the Senate his two Supreme Court justice nominees. The second nominee, Elena Kagan is expected to win Senate support but with only a handful of Republicans backing her.

Then just over the president’s left shoulder is Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Obama’s home state of Illinois. He  has been a big proponent of bringing terrorism suspects to trial in traditional criminal courts and even housing some of the suspects at a prison in his state (can we say jobs during a recession?).

Washington Extra

mcconnell1Democrats have been trying to portray Republicans as the “Party of No”. Today Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell visited the Reuters bureau in DC and argued there was no shame in saying no.

Republicans, he said, will be campaigning against many of the policies enacted by President Barack Obama, including healthcare reform, higher spending, bailouts and greater government intervention in the economy, things the party was “proud” to say no to.

“It depends on what you are saying ‘no’ to,” McConnell told Reuters. “If you’re saying ‘no’ to the massive amount of spending and debt and Washington takeovers and things like adding a quarter of a million federal employees with borrowed money like we have in the past year and a half, I think the American people are saying: ‘Please say no to that. We want you to say no to that.’”

Washington Extra

wikileakIn many ways the documents released by WikiLeaks last night merely underscored the bleak assessment of the Afghan war which General Stanley McChrystal issued last August.

At the time McChrystal warned the overall situation was “deteriorating”, complained of “under-resourcing” and called for not just more resources but a “fundamentally new approach” from NATO forces if failure were to be avoided.

McChrystal, who had access to a whole lot more information than WikiLeaks, said the Taliban were aided by “elements of some intelligence agencies” — meaning the Pakistanis — something US officials have been saying for years. He talked of a popular “crisis of confidence” with the government of Afghanistan and warned that the steady stream of civilian casualties had to be stemmed.

Washington Extra

What do central bankers and slalom skiers have in common? Bobbing and weaving, for one thing.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke sat in front of lawmakers for a second day on Thursday to deliver his semi-annual assessment of the economy, cleverly sidestepping the obstacles they placed to his right and left. With election season fast approaching, each side wanted ammunition for their campaigns, and for their partisan readings of the economy.
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Not surprisingly, the resolutely apolitical Bernanke trod carefully. For the Democrats, there was comforting agreement that this week’s bill to regulate Wall Street had placed the financial system on a sounder footing and reduced the risk of another devastating financial crisis. Last year’s $862 billion economic stimulus had saved or created somewhere between one and three million jobs, Bernanke said, and the government was right to run a fiscal deficit in 2010 to support the economy.

Road signs for stimulus

Have you seen these signs?
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They’re at the center of a running debate that flared up Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

The roadside signs are meant to show Americans construction projects funded by economic stimulus money, the Obama administration says.

But some Republican lawmakers have long argued that funds spent on the stimulus signs are a waste of taxpayers’ money and are politically motivated.

McChrystal gets to keep his 4 stars

mcchrystalGeneral Stanley McChrystal will go out with all the benefits of a four-star general, even though he hasn’t been in the position long enough to retire with that rank.

McChrystal was fired last week as the top U.S. commander  in Afghanistan. President Obama relieved McChrystal of his command after the general and his aides were quoted in a “Rolling Stone” article disparaging the president, vice president and top White House advisers involved in the war effort.

On Monday, McChrystal informed his bosses at the Pentagon that he is retiring from active duty. But whether he’d get to keep his 4 stars — and get the retirement benefits that come with them — was an open question. McChrystal has been a four-star general for only about a year — half the time normally necessary to qualify for a four-star general’s retirement income.

BP chief apologizes… again

carlOne day in Washington — two apologies from BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg.

The second apology came for referring to Gulf coast residents  devastated by his company’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as “small people.”

“I spoke clumsily this afternoon and for that I am very sorry,” Svanberg said in a statement after his “small people” comment earlier on Wednesday drew widespread ridicule and condemnation.

Traders put their money on Kagan to be Supreme Court pick

Traders are betting that there is a 75 percent chance that President Barack Obama will decide on U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court and that she would be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

That’s up 15 points from yesterday, according to the online market Intrade, which means that Kagan is by far the odds-on favorite to be the next Supreme Court justice.

USAObama is expected to announce soon, probably early next week, his selection for the Supreme Court vacancy that will be created by the retirement of liberal Justice John Paul Stevens at the end of the term in June. The president wants whomever he picks confirmed by the Senate before the high court reconvenes in October after its summer break.

U.S. officials seek to shelve Karzai tensions

Tensions, what tensions?

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew arrived back from Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, touting the performance of several ministers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.

OBAMA-AFGHANISTANHis visit came at a particularly tense time in U.S.-Afghan relations after Karzai made some corrosive statements in recent weeks against his donors, blaming the West for much of the corruption in his country and drawing critical comments from the White House.

Hours after landing home, Lew went out of his way to single out several Afghan ministers, including the finance and agriculture ministers, who he said were “extraordinary leaders.”

Nobel award to Obama required lengthy U.S. Constitution check

When President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last October it caught most by surprise and sent his lawyers scurrying to quietly make sure that the president could receive the prestigious award without running afoul with the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

NOBEL-OBAMA/A provision in the Constitution, known as the Emoluments Clause, bars the receipt of any present, emolument, office or title of any kind from a “King, Prince or foreign State”.  When the Nobel prize was established more than a century ago, Alfred Nobel’s will specified that the recipient of the peace award was to be chosen by a committee of five people elected by the Norwegian parliament known as the Storting.

However, Justice Department lawyers told the White House in a 13-page legal memorandum — sent to the White House counsel last December and released late Thursday — that the U.S. Constitution and federal law did not bar Obama from receiving the prize.