Tag: Barack Obama

Obama on Pakistan (and Nawaz Sharif)

The New York Times reports this morning that the Obama administration is deciding whether Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is likely to be a reliable ally or an obstructionist force.

Honestly? This is a man who in 1999 agreed to send a special operations team to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who later tried to forge peace with India, and recently agreed to mediate a truce between Karzai’s government and the Taliban.

Right now, there’s no solution in Afghanistan unless Pakistan is stabilized. Sure, Sharif is pompous, self-aggrandizing, and as religiously conservative as ever before, but he’s still immensely popular and (reminder to policymakers in Washington) it’s not our job to pick and choose that country’s political winners.

In this turbulent region our strategy should be narrowly tailored to securing our specific objectives (i.e. - narrowing our aim to denying al Qaida the use of sanctuaries, if that’s even still achievable), implementing the few policies likely to achieve those goals (i.e. - cooperating with local leaders and tribal elders along the Pashtun tribal belt straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border), and being flexible with whatever leader holds power in Islamabad (i.e. - not expecting Sharif to toe the line on every conceivable issue).

America’s Problem: Too Little Government Lending!

Suffering through a massive housing bust spurred by the activities of utterly irresponsible government-sponsored entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, may have led you to believe that the government should stop subsidizing the irresponsible and improvident.   Indeed, with government spending and lending off the charts, you might even have come to believe that Washington should cut back on its spending and lending. 

Silly you.

According to the Obama administration, more spending and lending is in order.  And by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Indeed, preparing the government for even more spending and lending apparently is the goal of current policy, which already includes a lot of spending and lending.

Christina Romer, Chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, was interviewed by CNN’s John King on Sunday.  She helpfully sought to clear up the confusion exhibited by  those of us who thought the current economic crisis resulted from irresponsible spending and lending.  According to CNN:

KING: Mr. Liddy said he is going to break up AIG. Do we need to break up Fannie and Freddie?

ROMER: I think that is certainly going to be an issue going forward. I think it should be part of the overall financial regulatory reform, to figure out what is the best way.

Again, you know, anytime we have now got taxpayer money on the line, what we have an obligation to do is do it in a way that protects the American taxpayer. What is going to be the way that gets these institutions safe, gets them doing what we need them to do, which is lend like crazy, and just basically functioning again for the economy.

Of course. 

“Lend like crazy” really is the “just basically functioning” of Fannie and Freddie.  But it is beyond question that this behavior helped spark the current crisis.  Unfortunately, Dr. Romer does not explain exactly how we can make these fiscally irresponsible, money-losing organizations “safe.”  Nor does she enlighten us on how having Fannie and Freddie ”lend like crazy” will have better results than before. 

If this is the advice President Barack Obama is getting from what traditionally is one of the most economically responsible agencies in the executive branch, imagine what he is hearing elsewhere.  Buckle up, for the economic ride is likely to get much worse.

Obama’s First Signing Statement

obama-signs-billPresident Obama issued his first signing statement last week. While approving the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, he reserved the right to reinterpret, evade, or ignore a number of the bill’s provisions. To some conservatives, that smelled like vindication; and some liberals found it fishy. Who’s right? Both, to some extent.

During the Bush years, “signing statements” came to stand for a much broader set of issues than the practice itself. After President Bush used one to basically announce that, veto-proof majority or no, he didn’t have to follow the McCain Detainee Treatment Act, “signing statements” in the public mind became shorthand for the Bush theory that the president is sole constitutional “decider” on all matters related to national security—in much the same way that the PATRIOT Act became shorthand for overzealousness in homeland security. The obnoxiousness of each—open defiance in the signing statement case, the dopey Orwellianism of the acronym with PATRIOT—made them symbols, even though neither represented the worst abuses in the fight against terrorism.

But what really matters is the underlying constitutional theory, not the particular quasi-legislative device it’s reflected in. Which is worse: openly announcing that you’re not going to obey new congressional restrictions on torture—as Bush did with the 2006 McCain Amendment—or secretly violating the old ones for years? The latter, clearly. At least a signing statement puts you on notice.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama, unlike McCain, never promised to end the practice of signing statements entirely. Obama’s position was more nuanced. When it comes to signing statements, some nuance is appropriate. I don’t agree with the ABA’s blanket condemnation of the practice. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, despite the Supreme Court’s 1983 repudiation of the legislative veto, Congress continues to smuggle legislative vetoes into omnibus spending bills. One could argue that the president’s only recourse is to veto the bill–and more vetoes of spending bills would surely be welcome. But it seems to me that in such cases, issuing a signing statement is a venial sin at worst. There’s a vast difference between that sort of signing statement and one that asserts that the president cannot be bound by a law barring torture.

Most of the objections Obama lodged in his signing statement fall well short of the Bush-Cheney end of the spectrum. But there’s at least one that looks particularly dodgy:

United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. Section 7050 in Division H prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States. This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as Commander in Chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority. Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority and responsibilities.

Here Obama echoes Bushian claims about the extent of the president’s authority under the commander-in-chief clause. But given the context, perhaps the better parallel is with Bill Clinton. President Clinton also asserted the power to ignore congressional restrictions on his ability to place U.S. troops under foreign command. That sort of executive unilateralism in the service of multilateralism was distinctly troubling. As one commentator noted in 2000:

Responding to congressional efforts to stop the new policy, the Clinton administration has claimed a broad constitutional power in the president to delegate military command authority to any person. According to the administration, the president’s commander in chief power allows him to select whomever he believes necessary for military success…. That position has serious constitutional and policy defects. First, the administration’s legal justification for its recent multilateral command policy fails to account for the Constitution’s limitation on the delegation of federal power outside of the national government….

You know who wrote that? John Yoo. My head hurts.

To Reform Health Care, Obama Must First Convince His Advisers

In The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn makes some interesting observations about how Barack Obama’s campaign and administration approach policy issues, particularly health care.

In early January, most of Barack Obama’s senior staff assembled with the president-elect … It was a pivotal moment in Obama’s transformation from candidate to commander-in-chief. Obama’s advisers had taken all of his campaign pledges, factored in his promise to reduce the deficit, and put together a provisional blueprint for governing. For the first time, Obama would get a sense of how his proposals fit together in the real world.

Does Cohn suggest that candidate Obama just threw out proposals without considering their cumulative, real-world impact?  That Obama launched a new administration with insufficient planning??  Perish the thought.

Obama … said he was mostly happy with what his advisers had produced. Investments in energy and education, plus real progress on reducing the deficit–it was all in there, Obama noted. But then the president-elect turned to his one major concern: a key item that was not, in his opinion, sufficiently funded. “Here’s my guidance to you,” one participant recalls Obama saying to the group. “Protect health care.”

It wasn’t the first time that health care had seemed to get short shrift from Obama’s advisers. Nor would it be the last. Indeed, there were moments during the transition and the early weeks of the administration when it appeared that the push for comprehensive health care reform might collapse before it had even begun. During this time, a debate raged inside the administration, with some senior officials arguing that the new president should wade into health care gingerly–or even postpone it altogether–because it would cost too much, distract from other priorities, and carry huge political risks.

Ultimately, however, these arguments failed to carry the day, and health care reform, against what occasionally seemed like long odds, managed to find a sizeable place in Obama’s budget…

The divide among Obama’s counselors was never over whether to pursue health care reform or even what it should look like in the end … What divided Obama’s team was the question of how to pursue reform–in particular, how quickly.

That tension stretched back to the campaign, when Obama’s political strategists advised him to soft-pedal the topic. One of them was David Axelrod. Although personally acquainted with the flaws in our health care system because of his disabled daughter, he also understood public opinion: The middle-class voters whose support politicians covet were worried about the cost of insurance, but their enthusiasm for universal coverage seemed shallow. Obama, though, always insisted on keeping health care prominent in the election.

Why so much dissension in the ranks? Partly because the nation faces much more immediate problems.

Axelrod’s anxiety hadn’t dissipated since the election. And now he had a new ally in Larry Summers, whom Obama had appointed to head the National Economic Council. One concern for Summers was the diversion of presidential and staff attention from other issues, like the economy.

But the dissension is also because Obama’s advisers understand just how difficult it will be to achieve universal coverage.

Mostly, though, Summers worried about money. Experts generally believe it will take years before better use of information technology, more preventive care, and other reforms start to yield serious savings. At least in the short run, health care reform is therefore likely to add to the government’s financial burden–during a time of rising deficits. This made Summers uncomfortable.

How bad was the dissension?

Particularly in Obama’s absence, the voices of the skeptics often predominated. “It was scaring the hell out of the rest of us,” says one of the advisers who favored more aggressive action.

Ultimately, Obama insisted on putting $634 billion in his budget to fund health care reform.  But Cohn acknowledges that Obama may be over-reaching.

At a time when the economy is collapsing, perhaps Obama can’t afford the distraction of such a major policy effort; at a time when the government is pumping out so much money for other priorities, perhaps it’s foolish to incur a new obligation that, if carried out by the book, still may not pay for itself in under ten years. And, even if it makes sense to seek health care reform this year, Obama’s decision to allocate health care money now could make the budget tougher to pass–inviting an extra political fight that might make reform even harder to achieve.

Nice thing about Cohn: he may be a high priest in the Church of Universal Coverage.  But he’s a darned good journalist.

Week in Review: A School Choice Victory, Earmark Reform, and Drug Violence in Mexico

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Obama Dips a Toe in the Educational Choice Pool

After Congress voted to let the Washington D.C. voucher program expire, stripping 1,700 low-income children of the opportunity to attend private schools, President Obama said he will keep the program afloat in subsequent legislation.

“It wouldn’t make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. “And I think we’ll work with Congress to ensure that a disruption like that doesn’t take place.”

Andrew J. Coulson, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, commented on Obama’s decision to continue to extend school choice benefits to underprivileged children in the nation’s capital:

This is a crucial milestone. There is finally a major national Democratic leader who is beginning to catch up to his state-level peers. Democrats all around the country have been supporting and signing small education tax credit programs because they realize that these programs are win-win: good for their constituents and good for their long-term political futures.

In an op-ed that ran the day Gibbs made the announcement, Coulson explained why those who oppose school choice will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

In 2006, Susan Aud and Leon Michos published a report on the fiscal impact of the D.C. voucher program, which documented the success of the District’s school choice pilot, the first federally funded voucher program in the United States.

Obama Signs Earmark-Heavy $410 Billion Omnibus Bill

After signing a bill that had nearly $8 billion in earmarks, President Obama declared that from then on, his administration would work toward earmark reform.

Sounds a bit like St. Augustine’s famous prayer, “Lord, make me chaste but not just yet,” said Daniel Griswold, director of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies:

Recall that as a candidate, Obama said he and Democratic leaders in Congress would change the “business as usual” practice of stuffing spending bills with pet projects. Those earmarks, submitted by individual members to fund obscure projects in their own districts and states, typically become law without any debate or transparency.

Saying he would sign the “imperfect bill,” President Obama offered guidelines to curb earmarks … in the future. “The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past,” he said. “So let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability.”

Lord, make us fiscally responsible, but not just yet.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders are condemning the president’s expansion of the federal government. But do they have any standing to judge? Senior Fellow Michael D. Tanner said no:

The Bush administration’s brand of big-government conservatism was, at the very least, the greatest expansion of government from Lyndon Johnson to, well, Barack Obama.

For Cato’s policy recommendations on earmarked spending, see the “Corporate Welfare and Earmark Reform” chapter in the 2009 Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

Violence Spills into the U.S. from Mexico’s Drug War

With daily reports of increased violence coming from Mexico, Cato Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Ted Galen Carpenter said the brutality is an indicator of power and arrogance, not desperation, and asserts that gun restrictions in the U.S. will not subdue violence:

The notion that the violence in Mexico would subside if the United States had more restrictive laws on firearms is devoid of logic and evidence. Mexican drug gangs would have little trouble obtaining all the guns they desire from black market sources in Mexico and elsewhere…

… Even assuming that the Mexican government’s estimate that 97 percent of the weapons used by the cartels come from stores and gun shows in the United States-and Mexican officials are not exactly objective sources for such statistics-the traffickers rely on those outlets simply because they are easier and more convenient, not because there are no other options.

Carpenter spoke at a Cato policy forum last month, and explained why the war on drugs sparks such intense levels of violence.

In a Policy Analysis published in early February, Carpenter warned of the need to change our policy on the Mexican drug conflict, so as to prevent the violence from spreading across the border.

Now He Tells Us!

President Barack Obama now says the economy isn’t as bad as we thought.  Reports the New York Daily News:

President Obama said Thursday the nation’s economic woes are not as dire as they seem and said his economic policies will get the country back on track.

“I don’t think things are ever as good as they say, or ever as bad as they say,” Obama told CEOs at a meeting of the Business Roundtable in Washington.

“Things two years ago were not as good as we thought because there were a lot of underlying weaknesses in the economy,” he said. “They’re not as bad as we think they are now.”

Does this mean we can cancel the “stimulus” bill and reverse all those bail-outs that were promoted as necessary to save us from disaster?

The President Talks Too Much

At least Cato Vice President Gene Healy thinks so.

In an interview on Obama’s 50th day in office, Healy explained why  the president should consider staying out of the spotlight:

The president wasn’t supposed to be a national guardian angel. He was supposed to be a limited constitutional officer whose main job was faithful execution of the laws. And I don’t see a lot of evidence that Barack Obama’s omnipresence is really helping him or the country.