Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower And American Hero

The New York Times had an editorial today on how the United States should respond to the revelations on NSA surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden:

Seven months ago, the world began to learn the vast scope of the National Security Agency’s reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe, as it collects information about their phone calls, their email messages, their friends and contacts, how they spend their days and where they spend their nights. The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.

The revelations have already prompted two federal judges to accuse the N.S.A. of violating the Constitution (although a third, unfortunately, found the dragnet surveillance to be legal). A panel appointed by President Obama issued a powerful indictment of the agency’s invasions of privacy and called for a major overhaul of its operations.

All of this is entirely because of information provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who stole a trove of highly classified documents after he became disillusioned with the agency’s voraciousness. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia, on the run from American charges of espionage and theft, and he faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.

While Snowden’s actions were illegal, there are times when illegal action is necessary to preserve our liberties. This is especially true when it has been the government which as been breaking the law. Providing a reduced sentence would not be enough. Rather than punishing Edward Snowden, he deserves a full pardon and the United States should be considering the most appropriate means of thanking him and honoring him for his service to his country. While this will probably never happen officially, Americans should treat Snowden in the same way as important whistle blowers of the past such as Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed how the government was lying to the American people about the war in Viet Nam.

After further discussion, including how there was no other way for the abuses exposed by Edward Snowden to be acted upon, the editorial concluded with a list of some of the illegal activity on the part of the government which Snowden has exposed:

In retrospect, Mr. Snowden was clearly justified in believing that the only way to blow the whistle on this kind of intelligence-gathering was to expose it to the public and let the resulting furor do the work his superiors would not. Beyond the mass collection of phone and Internet data, consider just a few of the violations he revealed or the legal actions he provoked:

■ The N.S.A. broke federal privacy laws, or exceeded its authority, thousands of times per year, according to the agency’s own internal auditor.

■ The agency broke into the communications links of major data centers around the world, allowing it to spy on hundreds of millions of user accounts and infuriating the Internet companies that own the centers. Many of those companies are now scrambling to install systems that the N.S.A. cannot yet penetrate.

■ The N.S.A. systematically undermined the basic encryption systems of the Internet, making it impossible to know if sensitive banking or medical data is truly private, damaging businesses that depended on this trust.

■ His leaks revealed that James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, lied to Congress when testifying in March that the N.S.A. was not collecting data on millions of Americans. (There has been no discussion of punishment for that lie.)

■ The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rebuked the N.S.A. for repeatedly providing misleading information about its surveillance practices, according to a ruling made public because of the Snowden documents. One of the practices violated the Constitution, according to the chief judge of the court.

■ A federal district judge ruled earlier this month that the phone-records-collection program probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. He called the program “almost Orwellian” and said there was no evidence that it stopped any imminent act of terror.

The shrill brigade of his critics say Mr. Snowden has done profound damage to intelligence operations of the United States, but none has presented the slightest proof that his disclosures really hurt the nation’s security. Many of the mass-collection programs Mr. Snowden exposed would work just as well if they were reduced in scope and brought under strict outside oversight, as the presidential panel recommended.

When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government. That’s why Rick Ledgett, who leads the N.S.A.’s task force on the Snowden leaks, recently told CBS News that he would consider amnesty if Mr. Snowden would stop any additional leaks. And it’s why President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.

Without Edward Snowden, we would not know about any of this. It is unlikely that the entire discussion which is now underway to reevaluate the practices of the National Security Agency  would be taking place. The national debate over this topic we are now engaging in would certainly not be anywhere near as informative and fact-based, if such a debate were to have happened at all.

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Three Senators Call For Reforming NSA Surveillance

Three Senators, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore), Mark Udall (D-Colo), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M), have proposed legislation to help restore  Fourth Amendment privacy protections following recent revelations regarding NSA surveillance. They have an op-ed in The New York Times which explains their position and their opposition to currently proposed legislation form the Senate intelligence committee which would codify current surveillance without providing privacy protections. Their op-ed begins:

End the N.S.A. Dragnet, Now

THE framers of the Constitution declared that government officials had no power to seize the records of individual Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, and they embedded this principle in the Fourth Amendment. The bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records — so-called metadata — by the National Security Agency is, in our view, a clear case of a general warrant that violates the spirit of the framers’ intentions. This intrusive program was authorized under a secret legal process by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so for years American citizens did not have the knowledge needed to challenge the infringement of their privacy rights.

Our first priority is to keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism. If government agencies identify a suspected terrorist, they should absolutely go to the relevant phone companies to get that person’s phone records. But this can be done without collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We recall Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition that those who would give up essential liberty in the pursuit of temporary safety will lose both and deserve neither.

The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.

Despite this, the surveillance reform bill recently ratified by the Senate Intelligence Committee would explicitly permit the government to engage in dragnet collection as long as there were rules about when officials could look at these phone records. It would also give intelligence agencies wide latitude to conduct warrantless searches for Americans’ phone calls and emails.

This is not the true reform that poll after poll has shown the American people want. It is preserving business as usual. When the Bill of Rights was adopted, it established that Americans’ papers and effects should be seized only when there was specific evidence of suspicious activity. It did not permit government agencies to issue general warrants as long as records seized were reviewed with the permission of senior officials.

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Republican False Narrative On The Failure Of The Affordable Care Act

Timothy Egan wrote about the South’s new lost cause. He started with how Abraham Lincoln lied in his inaugural address of 1861, essentially telling the South that if they liked their slaves they could keep them:

The comparisons of President Obama to Lincoln fade with every day of the shrinking modern presidency. As for the broken-promise scale: Lincoln said an entire section of the country could continue to enslave more than one in three of its people. Obama wrongly assured about five million people that they could keep their bare-bones health plans if they liked them (later amended when it turned not to be true).

As inapt as those comparisons are, what is distressingly similar today is how the South is once again committed to taking a backward path. By refusing to expand health care for the working poor through Medicaid, which is paid for by the federal government under Obamacare, most of the old Confederacy is committed to keeping millions of its own fellow citizens in poverty and poor health. They are dooming themselves, further, as the Left-Behind States.

And they are doing it out of spite. Elsewhere, the expansion of Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, has been one of the few success stories of Obamacare. It may be too complicated for the one-dimensional Beltway press. Either that, or it doesn’t fit the narrative of failure.

Of course conservatives cherry pick facts to support their narrative, and ignore all those which contradict their views. For example. how do problems with a web site (which are being fixed) have any impact as to whether we should be concerned about providing affordable health care to all Americans?

Russell Simmons wonders about the same thing. First he described the Republican view:

I know where Republicans stand. They have voted 47 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so their stance is clear. If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t pay for your medical expenses, declare bankruptcy. If you have a pre-existing condition, they’ll send you a get well card when you’re on your death-bed. Whatever President Obama stands for, they stand for the opposite. Even if it goes against every principle they have advocated for in the past, they would rather destroy our country, than see President Obama pass policy that is good for ALL Americans.

He next criticized Democrats who are backing down in fear, listening to the Republican narrative of failure, and argued that the web site will be fixed:

I run websites. I have built websites. I certainly understand the complications of servers and load times and 404 errors. THIS CAN ALL BE FIXED! And it will be fixed. But what cannot be fixed, is the fact that for over 100 years we have tried to reform our healthcare system, and EVERY President before Barack Obama FAILED! Yes, we initially wanted single payer, and we had to compromise back in 2009 for the Affordable Care Act. But, it is a damn good piece of legislation that has already saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. So, let us not give up now.  (**addendum: After getting attacked by the right wing blogs yesterday for my comments, let me remind them that Obamacare did not start with the website on October 1st.  It started when it was passed in 2009.  And since that time, 2.5 MILLION more young people have health insurance because they can stay on their parent’s plan until they are 26.  And since 2010, health insurance companies could no longer deny health insurance to children because of a pre-existing condition. That has been the law before the website even launched.)

Conservative sites are further spreading misinformation by citing how United Health Care has been dropping patients and doctors as if this is an argument against Obamacare. United Health Care has engaged in such practices for years. Their actions are not an argument against Obamacare. They are examples as to why the Affordable Care Act is needed.

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A Taft On How Modern Republicans Have Fallen To Nihilism And McCarthyism

John G. Taft on how the modern Republican Party would not be recognized by his ancestors, and the Democrats have become the agents of fiscal responsibility:

As I write, a photograph of my grandfather, Senator Robert Alphonso Taft, looks across at me from the wall of my office. He led the Republican Party in the United States Senate in the 1940s and early 1950s, ran for the Republican nomination for president three times and was known as “Mr. Republican.” If he were alive today, I can assure you he wouldn’t even recognize the modern Republican Party, which has repeatedly brought the United States of America to the edge of a fiscal cliff — seemingly with every intention of pushing us off the edge.

Throughout my family’s more than 170-year legacy of public service, Republicans have represented the voice of fiscal conservatism. Republicans have been the adults in the room. Yet somehow the current generation of party activists has managed to do what no previous Republicans have been able to do — position the Democratic Party as the agents of fiscal responsibility.

Speaking through the night, Senator Ted Cruz, with heavy-lidded, sleep-deprived eyes, conveyed not the libertarian element in Republican philosophy that advocates for smaller government and less intrusion into the personal lives of citizens, but a new, virulent strain of empty nihilism: “blow it up if we can’t get what we want.”

This recent display of bomb-throwing obstructionism by Republicans in Congress evokes another painful, historically embarrassing chapter in the Republican Party — that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked, unnecessarily and unfairly tarnishing the reputations of thousands of people with “Red Scare” accusations of Communist affiliation. Finally Senator McCarthy was brought up short during the questioning of the United States Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch, who at one point demanded the senator’s attention, then said: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” He later added: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Watching the Republican Party use the full faith and credit of the United States to try to roll back Obamacare, watching its members threaten not to raise the debt limit — which Warren Buffett rightly called a “political weapon of mass destruction” — to repeal a tax on medical devices, I so wanted to ask a similar question: “Have you no sense of responsibility? At long last, have you left no sense of responsibility?”

There is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party survived McCarthyism because, ultimately, its excesses caused it to burn out. And eventually party elders in the mold of my grandfather were able to realign the party with its brand promise: The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.

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Support For Obamacare Increases Despite Problems With Exchanges

Conservatives just can’t catch a break in polls since the shutdown. One might expect that at very least the numbers supporting Obamacare might have dropped considering how terrible the initial opening of the exchanges has gone. No, instead approval has increased in several recent polls, including Gallup.

Despite the highly publicized technical issues that have plagued the government’s health insurance exchange website that went live on Oct. 1, Americans’ views of the Affordable Care Act are slightly more positive now than they were in August. Forty-five percent now approve of the law, while 50% disapprove, for a net approval score of -5. In June and August, net approval was slightly lower, at -8.

Keep in mind that any poll regarding approval of the Affordable Care Act can falsely show decreased support because many of those who oppose the law do so because they believe it should do more, or want a single payer plan. There is also considerable misunderstanding of the law, with many people supporting the components of Obamacare when polled while also saying they oppose Obamacare when asked separately.

There are a couple of reasons why support might be going upwards despite the computer problems. This could be part of the overall backlash against Republicans and everything they stand for seen in recent polls. I wonder if coverage of what the exchanges are intended to do is leading to more support for the Affordable Care Act, which is more meaningful than probable temporary computer glitches. The administration has had excellent success with computers when used to revolutionize politics. I think that at times they are also overly optimistic about what computers can do, from handling the complexity of the insurance exchanges to their views on electronic medical records. We have lived with computers long enough to know that glitches are common with a new product, but this does not mean that we don’t adopt the new technology over time. Plus, in this situation, the use of computer exchanges to purchase health coverage says nothing about the quality and affordability of care once insurance coverage is purchased. The most important outcome so far is that insurance costs do appear to be lower than expected due to the exchanges.

We also must keep in mind that the Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, and the final law is not exactly what most people wanted. The question is not whether Obamacare is perfect, but whether it is a major improvement over what was in place in the past. Greg Sargent also reminds us that Obamacare passes another important comparison despite the initial problems: “We can keep two ideas in our heads at the same time. The first: Obamacare’s rollout is awful and demands accountability. The second: GOP criticism of the rollout is deeply incoherent and indicative of a larger refusal — one that has gone on for years — to participate seriously in the basic governing necessary to solve this pressing national problem.”

Most conservatives cannot keep these two ideas in their head (and few can even manage one). They see the problems with the roll out as indicative of problems in the overall concept. Others such as Ross Douthat realize that the failure of the conservative aspects of the plan could lead to an even more liberal alternative. Mike Konczal has argued that the exchange problems stem from more conservative or neoliberal ideas included in the Affordable Care Act (which was essentially the conservative Heritage Foundation’s alternative to Hillarycare). He looked at the politics and argued that a true government-run plan “while conceptually more work for the government, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary administrative problems.”

Some of the more cartoony conservatives argue that this is a failure of liberalism because it is a failure of government planning, evidently confusing the concept of economic “central planning” with “the government makes a plan to do something.”

However, the smarter conservatives who are thinking several moves ahead (e.g. Ross Douthat) understand that this failed rollout is a significant problem for conservatives. Because if all the problems are driven by means-testing, state-level decisions and privatization of social insurance, the fact that the core conservative plan for social insurance is focused like a laser beam on means-testing, block-granting and privatization is a rather large problem. As Ezra Klein notes, “Paul Ryan’s health-care plan — and his Medicare plan — would also require the government to run online insurance marketplaces.” Additionally, the Medicaid expansion is working well where it is being implemented, and the ACA is perhaps even bending the cost curve of Medicare, the two paths forward that conservatives don’t want to take.

The old status quo in which insurance companies profited by finding ways to deny coverage to those with expensive medical problems and affordable insurance was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain was not a viable option. The choices were either continuation of private insurance with increased government involvement, as with the Affordable Care Act, or a single-payer plan. Conservatives should be happy about the outcome if they are willing to back away from the extremism of opposing everything which Obama supports. If the exchanges turn out to be too complicated, especially with Republicans attempting to prevent their success (or as Ed Kilgore put it, have unclean hands) as opposed to participating in the process, the choice then become a more simple single-payer plan, not turning to the incoherent alternatives being proposed by Republicans.

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Reality Check

Does Maureen Dowd realize that The American President is a movie, The West Wing is a television show, and that real life doesn’t work that way?

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Obama Derangement Syndrome Preventing Meaningful Consideration Of Budget Issues

Obama derangement syndrome has become rather tedious. It’s not only the totally insane ones who call Obama a Socialist or who claim he was not born in the Untied States.  Conservative pundits and bloggers endlessly complain about the deficit, despite the fact that it was Republicans who ran it up and it is now shrinking, with Obama being the most fiscally conservative president since Eisenhower.  They regularly write about Obama taking an inordinate amount of time off on vacation even though he has taken far less days off than George Bush and many of his other predecessors.  Despite spending all his time on vacation, if you listen to conservatives, Obama has also taken on dictatorial powers, ignoring attempts at Republican power-grabs under the theory of the unitary president. Now a conservative columnist is attacking Obama for following the law.

Bob Woodward, who has become a second-rate conservative writer resting on his laurels from the Watergate years, has joined most of the conservative movement in totally ignoring the facts over the recent budget battles. He has a really odd attack on Obama today (which conservative bloggers are lapping up):

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward ripped into President Barack Obama on “Morning Joe” today, saying he’s exhibiting a “kind of madness I haven’t seen in a long time” for a decision not to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf because of budget concerns.

“Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I can’t do this because of some budget document?’” Woodward said.

“Or George W. Bush saying, ‘You know, I’m not going to invade Iraq because I can’t get the aircraft carriers I need?’” Or even Bill Clinton saying, ‘You know, I’m not going to attack Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters,’ … because of some budget document?”

The Defense Department said in early February that it would not deploy the U.S.S. Harry Truman to the Persian Gulf, citing budget concerns relating to the looming cuts known as the sequester.

“Under the Constitution, the President is commander-in-chief and employs the force. And so we now have the President going out because of this piece of paper and this agreement. ‘I can’t do what I need to do to protect the country,’” Woodward said.

If it was a matter of protecting the country from an imminent attack it would be a different matter. In such a case we would expect Obama to do what needs to be done (and face the inevitable conservative attacks for assuming more dictatorial powers). Sending one additional carrier to the Persian Gulf is more of an elective matter and the president is subject to obeying the law on such spending. Brian Buetler has an excellent response:

The obscure type of budget document Woodward’s referring to is called a duly enacted law — passed by Congress, signed by the President — and the only ways around it are for Congress to change it (Obama’s trip to Virginia on Tuesday was all about pushing Congress to do that) or for Obama to break it. Sequestration is bad policy, but not remotely unconstitutional, and if Obama decided to ignore it and just spend money as if the law didn’t exist the howls of outrage we’d hear from Woodward and others would be entirely justified.

Buetler also commented on additional absurdity surrounding much of the recent budget coverage:

David Ignatius doesn’t go quite as far as calling Obama’s decision to obey the law insane, but his Wednesday Washington Post column typifies the “Obama’s right on the merits, but this is somehow all his fault too” genre. In an overstretched metaphor he compares the U.S. political system to a drunk driver and Obama to a sober passenger who’s too meek to comandeer the wheel.

“I’m no fan of the way President Obama has handled the fiscal crisis,” Ignatius declares. “As I’ve written often, he needs to provide the presidential leadership that guides Congress and the country toward fiscal stability. In my analogy, he should take the steering wheel firmly in hand and drive the car toward the destination where most maps show we need to be heading: namely, a balanced program of cuts in Social Security and Medicare and modest increases in revenue.”

As it happens, that’s the precise mix of policies President Obama has been offering House Republicans for nearly two years.

The counter-argument against Obama, which we don’t hear in the mainstream media, is over whether it is really the right thing to cut Social Security and Medicare. Political discourse has centered far too much around cutting spending as if this is the only option. Social Security and Medicare are popular and beneficial programs which most voters do not want to cut. This country needs a serious discussion as to how much we want to spend on Social Security and Medicare and whether we want higher taxes to pay for this (including, but not necessarily limited to, taxes beyond the top one percent). We cannot have serious consideration over such matters as long as talk centers entirely on cutting spending and as long as one political party is unwilling to consider any means to increase revenue. We will be doomed to gridlock on matters of public policy as long as Republicans refuse to behave as responsible legislators.

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Bob Woodward Wrong In Accusing Obama Of Moving The Goal Posts In Sequester Battle

Conservatives have a tendency to latch onto articles which support their viewpoints, ignoring any further information which shows they are wrong. Therefore they have been citing Bob Woodard’s op-ed in The Washington Post which supports their attempts to pin the blame for any damages which occur from the sequester on Obama. For years Bob Woodward has capitalized on his name and avoided the hard work of actually reporting. This leads to him being wrong on many occasions, such as at present, when he ignores virtually all the negotiations surrounding the debt ceiling agreement which led to the sequester. Woodward appears totally oblivious to what Obama has been calling for when he accuses him of “moving the goal posts” in calling for a balanced approach to the deficit (while also admitting that Obama’s position is “reasonable” and that Obama “makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more.”

Brian Buetler responded to the op-ed:

But in this case Woodward is just dead wrong. Obama and Democrats have always insisted that a balanced mix of spending cuts and higher taxes replace sequestration. It’s true that John Boehner wouldn’t agree to include new taxes in the enforcement mechanism itself, and thus that the enforcement mechanism he and Obama settled upon — sequestration — is composed exclusively of spending cuts. But the entire purpose of an enforcement mechanism is to make sure that the enforcement mechanism is never triggered. The key question is what action it was designed to compel. And on that score, the Budget Control Act is unambiguous.

First: “Unless a joint committee bill achieving an amount greater than $1,200,000,000,000 in deficit reduction as provided in section 401(b)(3)(B)(i)(II) of the Budget Control Act of 2011 is enacted by January 15, 2012, the discretionary spending limits listed in section 251(c) shall be revised, and discretionary appropriations and direct spending shall be reduced.”

Key words: “deficit reduction.” Not “spending cuts.” If Republicans wanted to make sure sequestration would be replaced with spending cuts only, that would have been the place to make a stand. Some of them certainly tried. But that’s not what ultimately won the day. Instead the, law tasked the Super Committee with replacing sequestration with a different deficit reduction bill — tax increases or no.

“The goal of the joint committee shall be to reduce the deficit by at least $1,500,000,000,000 over the period of fiscal years 2012 to 2021,” according to the BCA. The bill even provided the House and Senate instructions for advancing a Super Committee bill if it included revenue. This couldn’t be clearer. In the Super Committee’s waning hours, Republicans tried to entice Democrats into a spending-cut heavy agreement by acceding to a small amount of revenue. Democrats balked — the balance was off — but all of that just goes to show that a tax increase has always been a likely element of a replacement bill, and Republicans know it.

David Weigel also responded by showing how Woodard’s claims contradict the facts, including information presented in Woodward’s own book, The Price of Politics. He concluded:

To argue that the White House is “moving the goal posts” when it now asks for revenue in a sequestration replacement, you have to toss out the fact that the White House always wanted revenue in the supercommittee’s sequestration replacement. This isn’t confusing unless reporters make it confusing.

Ezra Klein also argues that Woodward is wrong in suggesting that Obama has moved the goal posts by insisting that any budget deal includes increases in revenue. He also  points out that the deal over the debt ceiling did kick the can down the road until after an important event which would show how voters thought the matter should be settled–the election:

The American people voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.

In fact, they went even further than that. They also voted for a Senate that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes. And then they voted for a House that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes, though due to the quirks of congressional districts, they didn’t get one.

Here in DC, we can get a bit buried in Beltway minutia. The ongoing blame game over who concocted the sequester is an excellent example. But it’s worth remembering that the goalposts in American politics aren’t set in backroom deals between politicians. They’re set in elections. And in the 2012 election, the American people were very clear on where they wanted the goalposts moved to.

It is theoretically possible that a majority voted for candidates who did not reflect their views. After all, polls blinded to party have often showed that Republican voters actually favor Democratic positions. This wasn’t the case here. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that most voters do not support the types of spending cuts advocated by Republicans. This is consistent with other recent polls showing that a majority support Democratic positions on the budget and other issues.

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Republicans Try To Pin Blame For Sequester On Obama

As the Republicans are unwilling to negotiate (having developed a philosophical opposition to this), sequestration is likely to occur. The spending cuts are going to be unpopular so the Republican response (as on so many issues) is to try to shift the blame for the problems they have created. John Boehner even has an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal which blames Obama. Boehner’s account, like Republican accounts of history typically are, is largely fictitious. He also blames Obama for not putting forth a detailed plan. In reality, Obama has offered a balanced approach containing both increases in revenue and spending cuts, cutting more than is actually desirable. In contrast, if Republicans such as Boehner believe the deficit can be reduced significantly by spending cuts alone, why do they refuse to be specific about what they will cut? The answer is that the Republicans know that most voters (even most Republican voters) would be highly unhappy about the cuts which would be necessary to balance the budget, and the Republicans want to be able to blame the Democrats.

There are many responses on line to Boehner’s false claim that Obama is to blame. This includes a direct response from the White House and a review of the history of the sequester from John Avlon. For those who desire a more detailed review of the facts, along with a description of the damage caused by the radicalization of the Republican Party form a centrist source, I’d suggest reading It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein.

Republicans have frequently succeeded in pinning the blame for their failures on others but many pundits do not believe they will succeed this time. Byron York responded to Boehner’s op-ed with a response entitled The GOP’s astonishingly bad message on sequester cuts. Here is a portion of his response:

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner describes the upcoming sequester as a policy “that threatens U.S. national security, thousands of jobs and more.”

Which leads to the question: Why would Republicans support a measure that threatens national security and thousands of jobs?  Boehner and the GOP are determined to allow the $1.2 trillion sequester go into effect unless President Obama and Democrats agree to replacement cuts, of an equal amount, that target entitlement spending. If that doesn’t happen — and it seems entirely unlikely — the sequester goes into effect, with the GOP’s blessing…

The effect of Boehner’s argument is to make Obama seem reasonable in comparison. After all, the president certainly agrees with Boehner that the sequester cuts threaten national security and jobs.  The difference is that Obama wants to avoid them.  At the same time, Boehner is contributing to Republican confusion on the question of whether the cuts are in fact “deep” or whether they are relatively minor.

Could the GOP message on the sequester be any more self-defeating?  Boehner could argue that the sequester cuts are necessary as a first — and somewhat modest — step toward controlling the deficits that threaten the economy.  Instead, he describes them as a threat to national security and jobs that he nevertheless supports.  It’s not an argument that is likely to persuade millions of Americans.

Chris Cillizza has a simpler explanation as to why Obama will win politically on this one which can be further simplified to say that Obama is popular and Congress is not.

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Barack Obama’s Second Inauguration

Today Barack Obama joined a small group of people who have taken the oath of office more than twice. The oath was repeated in 2008 to avoid giving right wingers another reason to deny Obama’s legitimacy after John Roberts made an error when first administering the oath. (I note Roberts did use a note card today). He was sworn in for his second inauguration in a private ceremony on January 20, with the public event postponed to Monday. Only FDR and Obama have taken the oath of office four times. Bill Clinton is the only other president to my knowledge to have been sworn in more than twice as one of his inaugurations also occurred on a Sunday.

With Obama being sworn in, dogs everywhere gave a sigh of relief. Maybe now that Obama has been sworn in two more times Karl Rove is willing to give up hope for a Romney victory and concede defeat. Tea Partiers and Mitch McConnell swear to oppose Obama’s agenda and make him a two-term president. (Surprisingly some commentators do not realize how the Republicans really did decide to oppose everything Obama did on the day of his first inauguration.) All the living former presidents were in attendance except for George H. W. Bush, for health reasons, and George W. Bush, because everyone in Washington hates his guts.

Getting serious, Obama gave a liberal speech to mark the start of his second term (full text here and video above). He sounded neither like the socialist Republicans claim he is or the conservative a handful on the far left claim he is. James Fallows found this to be a startling progressive speech. Think  Progress called this a landmark moment for LGBT equality. Obama made a strong push for taking action on climate change.

While Obama has learned he cannot compromise with the extremism and intransigence of Congressional Republicans, I do like see Obama continue to try to explain how the real world works to conservatives in the hopes that there are some who will listen. Radical conservatives and libertarians believe a mythology that the free market is something which exists in nature, and that any government action is an abomination. In reality, markets are a creation of men and require government regulation to exist. Rothbardian anarch0-capitalism provides a fun background for some science fiction stories, but cannot exist in the real world. Obama explained:

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

He did learn it is politically dangerous to point out the truth that businessmen did not build the infrastructure they depend upon after the Republicans themed their convention around misquoting Obama, claiming Obama was saying businessmen did not build their businesses.

Obama’s record is not perfect. No president’s record is. Even if he did not do everything hoped for by the left, in a two party system, and with the constraints on presidential power, Obama did have a strong first term. Even his frequent critic Paul Krugman has been acknowledging this in recent columns, such as yesterday’s column, calling Obama’s record a Big Deal:

Health reform is, as Mr. Biden suggested, the centerpiece of the Big Deal. Progressives have been trying to get some form of universal health insurance since the days of Harry Truman; they’ve finally succeeded.

True, this wasn’t the health reform many were looking for. Rather than simply providing health insurance to everyone by extending Medicare to cover the whole population, we’ve constructed a Rube Goldberg device of regulations and subsidies that will cost more than single-payer and have many more cracks for people to fall through.

But this was what was possible given the political reality — the power of the insurance industry, the general reluctance of voters with good insurance to accept change. And experience with Romneycare in Massachusetts — hey, this is a great age for irony — shows that such a system is indeed workable, and it can provide Americans with a huge improvement in medical and financial security.

What about inequality? On that front, sad to say, the Big Deal falls very far short of the New Deal. Like F.D.R., Mr. Obama took office in a nation marked by huge disparities in income and wealth. But where the New Deal had a revolutionary impact, empowering workers and creating a middle-class society that lasted for 40 years, the Big Deal has been limited to equalizing policies at the margin.

That said, health reform will provide substantial aid to the bottom half of the income distribution, paid for largely through new taxes targeted on the top 1 percent, and the “fiscal cliff” deal further raises taxes on the affluent. Over all, 1-percenters will see their after-tax income fall around 6 percent; for the top tenth of a percent, the hit rises to around 9 percent. This will reverse only a fraction of the huge upward redistribution that has taken place since 1980, but it’s not trivial.

Finally, there’s financial reform. The Dodd-Frank reform bill is often disparaged as toothless, and it’s certainly not the kind of dramatic regime change one might have hoped for after runaway bankers brought the world economy to its knees.

Still, if plutocratic rage is any indication, the reform isn’t as toothless as all that. And Wall Street put its money where its mouth is. For example, hedge funds strongly favored Mr. Obama in 2008 — but in 2012 they gave three-quarters of their money to Republicans (and lost).

All in all, then, the Big Deal has been, well, a pretty big deal

While Obama’s record was not perfect, there is no problem which would be handled better if the Republicans had taken the White House. Just think of the executive orders which were not issued today because Mitt Romney did not have the opportunity. Romney, like Republicans before him, would have probably immediately reinstated the Global Gag Rule, limiting access to abortions world wide. While it would probably take more than a quick executive order, he would probably have made an effort to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He may have immediately put an end to federal funding of stem cell research. Who know what else what he would have done to accommodate the far right on his first day alone.

Seeing Barack Obama sworn in to be president for the next four years is a Big Deal.

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