“From ‘Lame Duck’ To ‘Fourth Quarter'”: One For The History Books, As President Obama Plays Through To The End Of The Game
It seems to me that the job of political scientists is to identify patterns in political history as a way to predict the future. One of those patterns that has been pretty generally accepted is that once a presidential campaign begins to replace a second-termer, the White House occupant goes into “lame duck” status. That is certainly what everyone was expecting from President Obama after the huge losses Democrats suffered in the 2014 midterms.
But as we all know by now, the President decided he’d start a new pattern…one that saw his remaining two years as a “fourth quarter” in which he vowed to play to the end. His success in being able to do that hinged on several factors.
1. A scandal-free presidency
During my lifetime, no two-term president has managed to escape the drag of either scandal or terribly flawed policies at the end of their second term. Johnson had Vietnam. Nixon had Watergate. Reagan had Iran/Contra. Clinton had impeachment. Bush had the war in Iraq and the Great Recession.
Recently David Brooks noted that the current administration is the exception to that pattern.
I have my disagreements, say, with President Obama, but President Obama has run an amazingly scandal-free administration, not only he himself, but the people around him. He’s chosen people who have been pretty scandal-free.
That means that not only does the President maintain the good will of most Americans, but he doesn’t have to devote an inordinate amount of time to defending himself or attempting to fix policy failures.
2. Previous work is bearing fruit
Last December President Obama sat down for an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. In response to questions about some of the bold moves he’d already taken since the 2014 midterms, the President said this:
But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before — and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we’ve done is now beginning to bear fruit. And it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn’t always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency.
The major things he is referring to are that the economy was recovering, healthcare reform was working and ground troops were out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. But in addition to all that, diplomacy had opened the doors in Cuba, brought Iran to the negotiating table and led to an agreement with China about climate change.
3. Pen and phone strategy
A lot of the assumption about President Obama’s pending lame duckness had to do with the intransigence of Congress that was only bolstered by the 2014 midterms. But in January of 2014, the President instructed his Cabinet to bring him ideas he could implement via executive order or through persuasion with business leaders and local/state governments. Thus began his “pen and phone” strategy that led to everything from DAPA to new rules for overtime pay to working with local governments to provide paid sick/family leave.
4. Big events
Political pundits are often guilty of assuming that whatever is happening today will be a permanent narrative. But national/international events have a way of changing the current dynamic. Nowhere has that been more evident than the handwringing over President Obama’s assumed irrelevance when House Democrats handed him a “humiliating” defeat on TPA a couple of weeks ago. We all know how that one turned out. Just as the House and Senate re-grouped to pass TPA, the events in Charleston, SC were unfolding and the Supreme Court was preparing to hand down rulings affirming Obamacare, marriage equality and disparate impact. As Michael Cohen wrote, we’ve recently been witness to ten days that turned America Into a better place. From an affirmation of his policies to his Amazing Grace eulogy, President Obama has been front and center on it all.
But big events can help or hurt a presidency. The lesson we should all learn from their recent trajectory is that things can change in a heartbeat. President Obama still has a year and a half to go. There are a few things we know are coming up, like whether or not he is able to work with Iran and P5+1 to reach a deal on nuclear weapons. This December we’ll learn whether or not the agreements the Obama administration has crafted with countries like China, India and now Brazil will lead to an international agreement on climate change at the UN Conference in Paris. Both of those would be historic achievements. And then, of course, there are the unknown events that could be on the horizon.
This may very well be the first time in the modern era that a sitting president has as much influence on a presidential campaign as any of the candidates who are running for office. The increasing size of the clown car on the Republican side means that it might be months before any one candidate is able to break through all the noise. That leaves the stage pretty wide open for a Democratic message. And Hillary Clinton has wisely chosen to run with President Obama and his record rather than against it. That means she’s looking pretty good right about now.
Whatever happens, this will be one for the history books as lame duckness is tossed aside and President Obama plays through to the end of the fourth quarter.
By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, July 1, 2015
“The ‘Depends’ Defense”: Republicans Will Hate Obama’s New Overtime Rule, But They Can’t Do Anything About It
Last night President Obama announced — in an article on the Huffington Post — that he will raise the threshold for overtime pay in American workplaces. The new regulations are substantively important for the millions of workers who will be affected, and they’re politically important as well. Republicans are going to squawk, saying that this change will cost jobs and is another example of Obama’s tyrannical rule. But they can’t stop it, and they’re going to lose the argument as well.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers have to provide overtime pay (usually time and a half) to employees who work more than 40 hours a week, but executives and managers are exempt from the requirement, as are those who make higher salaries. The trouble is that the rules don’t account for inflation, and so over time, what constituted a higher salary became absurdly low. The threshold has been raised only once since 1975, when it covered nearly half of U.S. workers; today it stands at less than $24,000, or lower than the poverty level for a family of four. (This document from the Economic Policy Institute offers some background on the regulation if you’re interested.) Here’s how Obama described the change he will be making:
We’ve got to keep making sure hard work is rewarded. Right now, too many Americans are working long days for less pay than they deserve. That’s partly because we’ve failed to update overtime regulations for years — and an exemption meant for highly paid, white collar employees now leaves out workers making as little as $23,660 a year — no matter how many hours they work.
This week, I’ll head to Wisconsin to discuss my plan to extend overtime protections to nearly 5 million workers in 2016, covering all salaried workers making up to about $50,400 next year. That’s good for workers who want fair pay, and it’s good for business owners who are already paying their employees what they deserve — since those who are doing right by their employees are undercut by competitors who aren’t.
That’s how America should do business. In this country, a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. That’s at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America.
We should note that Obama could have gone higher than $50,400. Earlier this year, some Democrats on Capitol Hill worried that the administration was going to propose a lower overtime threshold, something like $42,000 a year. A group of liberal senators urged Obama to set the threshold at $54,000. They also argued that it should be pegged to increase with inflation going forward, an absolutely critical provision that would give the measure lasting effect. So Obama didn’t raise the threshold as far as they wanted, but he is accounting for future inflation, by pegging the overtime threshold to the 40th percentile of incomes.
As much as Republicans will object, they can’t expect that their next president will undo this action. There are some regulations that we can expect to change whenever the White House changes hands. For instance, the Mexico City Policy, also known as the “global gag rule,” prohibits the funding of any organization anywhere in the world that even discusses abortion with a woman; when a Republican president takes office, he institutes it, and when a Democratic president takes office, he revokes it. But rules such as this one almost certainly won’t fall into that category. Try to imagine a President Rubio or Walker announcing that he was taking overtime pay away from millions of lower-middle-class U.S. workers. It won’t happen. They may argue against the rule when it is proposed, but once it’s in place, undoing it becomes politically impossible.
The more immediate political impact of this rule change lies in its place among a constellation of proposals Democrats will be offering on things such as the minimum wage and paid sick leave, proposals that are aimed at arresting the growing cruelty of the American workplace. As I’ve argued before, one way to think about the contrast between what Republicans and Democrats offer on the economy is that Republicans say they’ll get you as far as your employer’s door, while Democrats want to walk inside with you. Republicans argue that their preferred policies, mostly tax cuts and light regulation on businesses, will accelerate growth so that new jobs will be created. But once you’ve got the job, you’re on your own. The Democratic argument is that government has to come inside the workplace, to make sure people are being treated fairly. So they want to increase pay, provide family and sick leave, allow workers to bargain collectively, make sure no one is discriminated against and generally establish a structure that guarantees that people are treated well and can maintain some measure of dignity.
The Republican counter, of course, is that all those things increase costs to employers and therefore cost jobs. But their argument presumes that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the American workplace, which most of us know just isn’t true. Yes, many employers already treat their employers well. But millions of others don’t and would treat their workers even worse if they could get away with it.
As for this measure, we know exactly what employers will say: This will cost us money, which means fewer jobs. We know that’s what they will say, because that’s what they say about every marginal improvement in working conditions, benefits or pay. And in the short term, they’re right: It will cost them some money.
But let’s turn it around. What if employers said, “We could save money by removing the employee bathrooms and just telling our workers to wear Depends to the job. And that would mean we’d be able to hire more people.” Would we respond, “Well, if it would save you money and produce a few more jobs, then that sounds great”? Of course not. The short-term cost to employers of a regulation is certainly something to consider, but it’s not the only thing to consider.
The change to overtime regulations isn’t some kind of dramatic transformation. Like increasing the minimum wage, it’s nothing more than taking an existing rule and updating it for inflation. But it’s built on the assumption that the government should come into the workplace and make sure that what happens there is fair. Republicans don’t believe that’s government’s job. But it isn’t going to be easy for them to make that case to a population that feels increasingly insecure at work. And even if they could win the argument, they won’t be able to change the policy.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, June 30, 2015
Was I on the edge of my seat, waiting for the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare subsidies? No — I was pacing the room, too nervous to sit, worried that the court would use one sloppily worded sentence to deprive millions of health insurance, condemn tens of thousands to financial ruin, and send thousands to premature death.
It didn’t. And that means that the big distractions — the teething problems of the website, the objectively ludicrous but nonetheless menacing attempts at legal sabotage — are behind us, and we can focus on the reality of health reform. The Affordable Care Act is now in its second year of full operation; how’s it doing?
The answer is, better than even many supporters realize.
Start with the act’s most basic purpose, to cover the previously uninsured. Opponents of the law insisted that it would actually reduce coverage; in reality, around 15 million Americans have gained insurance.
But isn’t that a very partial success, with millions still uncovered? Well, many of those still uninsured are in that position because their state governments have refused to let the federal government enroll them in Medicaid.
Beyond that, you need to realize that the law was never intended or expected to cover everyone. Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible, and any system that doesn’t enroll people automatically will see some of the population fall through the cracks. Massachusetts has had guaranteed health coverage for almost a decade, but 5 percent of its nonelderly adult population remains uninsured.
Suppose we use 5 percent uninsured as a benchmark. How much progress have we made toward getting there? In states that have implemented the act in full and expanded Medicaid, data from the Urban Institute show the uninsured falling from more than 16 percent to just 7.5 percent — that is, in year two we’re already around 80 percent of the way there. Most of the way with the A.C.A.!
But how good is that coverage? Cheaper plans under the law do have relatively large deductibles and impose significant out-of-pocket costs. Still, the plans are vastly better than no coverage at all, or the bare-bones plans that the act made illegal. The newly insured have seen a sharp drop in health-related financial distress, and report a high degree of satisfaction with their coverage.
What about costs? In 2013 there were dire warnings about a looming “rate shock”; instead, premiums came in well below expectations. In 2014 the usual suspects declared that huge premium increases were looming for 2015; the actual rise was just 2 percent. There was another flurry of scare stories about rate hikes earlier this year, but as more information comes in it looks as if premium increases for 2016 will be bigger than for this year but still modest by historical standards — which means that premiums remain much lower than expected.
And there has also been a sharp slowdown in the growth of overall health spending, which is probably due in part to the cost-control measures, largely aimed at Medicare, that were also an important part of health reform.
What about economic side effects? One of the many, many Republican votes against Obamacare involved passing something called the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act, and opponents have consistently warned that helping Americans afford health care would lead to economic doom. But there’s no job-killing in the data: The U.S. economy has added more than 240,000 jobs a month on average since Obamacare went into effect, its biggest gains since the 1990s.
Finally, what about claims that health reform would cause the budget deficit to explode? In reality, the deficit has continued to decline, and the Congressional Budget Office recently reaffirmed its conclusion that repealing Obamacare would increase, not reduce, the deficit.
Put all these things together, and what you have is a portrait of policy triumph — a law that, despite everything its opponents have done to undermine it, is achieving its goals, costing less than expected, and making the lives of millions of Americans better and more secure.
Now, you might wonder why a law that works so well and does so much good is the object of so much political venom — venom that is, by the way, on full display in Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion, with its rants against “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” But what conservatives have always feared about health reform is the possibility that it might succeed, and in so doing remind voters that sometimes government action can improve ordinary Americans’ lives.
That’s why the right went all out to destroy the Clinton health plan in 1993, and tried to do the same to the Affordable Care Act. But Obamacare has survived, it’s here, and it’s working. The great conservative nightmare has come true. And it’s a beautiful thing.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 25, 2015
“The Same Priorities She’s Emphasizing Now”: What Hillary Said About Paid Leave, Child Care, Inequality — Yesterday And 20 Years Ago
Following Hillary Clinton’s first major campaign speech on Saturday, purveyors of conventional wisdom have assured us again that she is tacking toward the left to deflect her challengers and mollify her party’s liberal base. Such assertions usually hint that Clinton is not progressive herself, but merely swayed that way by polls and consultants.
On the evening before her big event in Four Freedoms Park, New York’s memorial to its favorite son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I picked up a copy of her 1996 bestseller, It Takes A Village. (While many journalists once thumbed through it, few seem to remember its contents.) Published during an era when the nation showed few signs of turning leftward, Clinton’s first book offered pithy arguments for the same priorities she is emphasizing now. Consider the views she expressed on family leave — and, in particular, the limitations of the law signed by her husband in 1993:
As I have mentioned, the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees unpaid leave to employees in firms with more than fifty workers. That is a good beginning. Many parents, however, cannot afford to forgo pay for even a few weeks, and very few employers in America offer paid maternity and paternity leave….
Other countries have figured out that honoring the family by giving it adequate time for caregiving is not only right for the family and smart for society but good for employers, who reap the benefits of workers’ increased loyalty and peace of mind. The Germans, for example, guarantee working mothers fourteen weeks’ maternity leave (six weeks before and eight weeks after delivery) at full salary…
Other European countries provide similarly generous leave, some of them to fathers as well as mothers. In Sweden, for example, couples receive fifteen months of job-guaranteed, paid leave to share between them…
As First Lady, Clinton obviously was in no position to demand that her husband’s administration (or the Republican-dominated Congress) institute paid family leave, but her own opinion was clear enough. So was her view of early childhood education, another current issue that she highlighted on Saturday:
Imagine a country in which nearly all children between the ages of three and five attend preschool in sparkling classrooms, with teachers recruited and trained as child care professionals. Imagine a country that conceives of child care as a program to “welcome” children into the larger community and “awaken” their potential for learning and growing.
It may sound too good to be true, but it’s not….More than 90 percent of French children between ages three and five attend free or inexpensive preschools called écoles maternelles…
While I was in France, I had conversations with a number of political leaders, from Socialists to Conservatives. “How,” I asked, “can you transcend your political differences and come to an agreement on the issue of government-subsidized child care?” One after another of them looked at me in astonishment. “How can you not invest in children and expect to have a healthy country?” was the reply I heard over and over again.
Finally, Clinton drew sharp attention to the social instabilities of the post-industrial American economy and the role of government in redressing what she called a “crisis.” Observing that “long-established expectations about doing business have given way under the pressures of the modern economy,” she warned bluntly:
Too many companies, especially large ones, are driven more and more narrowly by the need to ensure that investors get good quarterly returns and to justify executives’ high salaries. Too often, this means that they view most employees as costs, not investments, and that they expend less and less concern on job training, employee profit sharing, family-friendly policies…or even fair pay raises that share with workers – not to mention their families and communities – gains from productivity and profits…
Despite record profits for many companies, the gap in income between top executives and the average worker has widened dramatically….This growing inequality of incomes has serious implications for our children.
She went on to again praise Germany, where “there is a general consensus that government and business should play a role in evening out inequities in the free market system” — and where higher base wages, universal health care, and superb job training guaranteed “a distribution of income that is not so skewed as ours is.”
Writing 20 years ago, when President Clinton was running for re-election against the odds, Hillary hedged her message — and yet she was prescient in addressing the harms of an increasingly unfair economy. What she said then undergirds what she is still saying, more and more forcefully, in this campaign.
By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, The National Memo, June 15, 2015
On the night of October 11, 2012, Barack Obama loped across the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, looking as if he were trying hard not to grin. It was a change of mood; eight days earlier, he had done poorly in his first Presidential debate with Mitt Romney, and the feeling in his campaign was gloomy. But, that evening, Vice-President Joe Biden had had his first debate with Paul Ryan, during which he called out the Romney campaign on its “malarkey.” Some commentators thought that he had looked foolish—he’d laughed a lot, and when Biden laughs, he throws back his head. (Mark Salter, the Republican operative, called the Obama-Biden debate combination “sleepy cop/crystal-meth cop.”) But even many of the critics thought that he’d won. He had reminded a lot of people of why they wanted a Democrat in the White House, particularly on questions like income inequality. One of those people seems to have been Obama himself. He’d watched the debate on Air Force One and, though there wasn’t a plan for him to speak to reporters, he swung over to where they were standing.
“I’m going to make a special point of saying that I thought Joe Biden was terrific tonight,” the President said. “I could not be prouder of him. I thought he made a very strong case. I really think that his passion for making sure that the economy grows for the middle class came through. So I’m very proud of him.”
Obama also seemed, in the days to come, more proud of himself. Having Biden with him on the ticket in 2012 helped him win and, it seemed, helped make him a better President when he did. That was the case when what was scoffed at as yet another instance of Bidenic indiscipline—getting ahead of his boss by saying that he was “absolutely comfortable” with full legal recognition of same-sex marriage—led Obama, too, to say what he actually believed, and arrive at a place where he felt proud to be.
The idea that a person could make those around him better came up again this past weekend, when Obama delivered the eulogy for Biden’s son, Beau, who had died of brain cancer, at the age of forty-six. The Vice-President, by all accounts, was hit hard by his son’s death. In 1973, he had taken his Senate oath next to the hospital bed where Beau lay, at age three, after surviving the car crash that had killed Biden’s wife and daughter. He was also the son who had served in the reserves in Iraq, been elected as the district attorney of Delaware, and one day, perhaps, could go even further in politics than his father had. “He even looked and sounded like Joe, although I think Joe would be first to acknowledge that Beau was an upgrade—Joe 2.0,” Obama said. He added, “That’s who Beau was. Someone who cared. Someone who charmed you, and disarmed you, and put you at ease. When he’d have to attend a fancy fund-raiser with people who took themselves way too seriously, he’d walk over to you and whisper something wildly inappropriate in your ear.” (Joe Biden, for his part, has been known to whisper wildly inappropriate things, but when he was, for example, caught on an open mic telling Obama that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was “a big fucking deal,” he was reminding Obama that he should take something seriously.) At the funeral, Obama said that he loved Biden. The two have a weekly lunch; the most recent one was on Wednesday, Biden’s first day back at work since Beau’s death.
But Obama is almost done being President. Who else can Biden make better? Put another way, why doesn’t Biden run for President in 2016? Hillary Clinton may not want him to. But it might do her good, even if she is, as everyone says, the inevitable candidate. And it can only make the Democratic Party better.
Last year, Evan Osnos spoke to the Vice-President for a New Yorker Profile, and, Osnos wrote, “I asked Biden how he will respond if opponents say he is too old to be President. ‘I think it’s totally legitimate for people to raise it,’ he said. ‘And I’ll just say, Look at me. Decide.’ ’’ Biden is seventy-two. Hillary Clinton is sixty-seven. More tellingly, Biden added, “I watched my father. I made a mistake in encouraging him to retire. I just think as long as you think you can do it and you’re physically healthy….”
The Clintons have become very wealthy as a result of their book deals, speaking fees, and other endeavors—they have made thirty million dollars just since Hillary left the State Department. (Bill Clinton recently said that he would consider giving up paid speeches—after Hillary wins.) Joe Biden is not a very wealthy man. By one estimate, his net worth is between thirty-nine thousand and eight hundred thousand dollars; by another, with his mortgage figured in, it is a negative number. (Biden: “But I got a great pension and I got a good salary!”) Which way does that cut, for each of them? Perhaps it makes a Biden campaign less feasible, in that he has less flexibility; it might also make it more desirable, depending on one’s definition of independence.
Last week, Hillary Clinton almost lost to Bernie Sanders in a Wisconsin straw poll (the tally was forty-nine per cent to forty-one), but Sanders, who can reasonably be called a socialist, is not likely to be the one who makes clear what her real general-election vulnerabilities are, or how to overcome them. Biden would. He may have no chance of winning. But he is a more plausible candidate than anyone Clinton is facing now, and perhaps the best answer to the fear that, as the Republicans fight it out among themselves, she will drift through until the convention, with a stray glance at Martin O’Malley, and enter the general election unprepared for the fight. Obama was right about Biden’s debate with Ryan: rewatching it is a good reminder of his ability to speak plainly and in detail about Democratic economic policies—something that involves more than just throwing out lines about level playing fields. (Republicans have been doing that, too.) Maybe Hillary Clinton, in a speech she’s scheduled to give on Saturday, will find a way to make those themes work for her. She hasn’t yet.
And, although she served four years as Secretary of State, Biden has a deeper background in foreign policy, with years as a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a skepticism about things like troop deployments that might appeal to noninterventionists—who can be found across the spectrum. His 2006 proposal for Iraq—reshaping the country into a loose three-part federation—also much derided, does not, in light of recent events, look all that bad. (As it is, a sectarian Shiite-dominated central government unwilling to give a voice or commit resources to Sunni and Kurdish regions has contributed to the rise of ISIS.)
But how, might one ask, could Biden win in a general election when Obama, his boss, is so unpopular? That question points to what may be one of the most interesting results of having Biden in the race. Hillary Clinton would have to decide where she really stands on the Obama Presidency, in all its aspects, and say what she thinks about it. (He was her boss, too.) Her advisers have made it clear that she’s counting on the Obama coalition; how tied are their votes to the Obama legacy? Clinton needs a response that doesn’t just involve hinting that everything would have been better if she’d been elected in 2008. She tried out some jabs at Obama, in an interview with the Atlantic last August, in which, quoting one of his mantras, she said, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” and called his choices on Syria a “failure.” Her spokesman said afterward that she hadn’t meant to criticize the President, and looked forward “to hugging it out.” The message there, whatever it was, got muddled. Biden’s presence might clarify it, and present some interesting choices to Democratic primary voters—and to Obama, who might not endorse anyone before the nomination, but could give a few hints of his preference along the way.
The President, in his eulogy, spoke to Beau Biden’s children. “To Natalie and Hunter, there aren’t words big enough to describe how much your dad loved you, how much he loved your mom. But I will tell you what, Michelle and I and Sasha and Malia, we’ve become part of the Biden clan. We’re honorary members now. And the Biden family rule applies. We’re always here for you, we always will be—my word as a Biden.” That might have some resonance for their grandfather, as well. Why not run?
By: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, June 12, 2015