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“Out In The Fever Swamps”:The One Thing To Know About Obama’s Philosophy On Executive Actions

There he goes again: President Barack Obama is issuing an executive order to tighten regulations of gun sales to make background checks modestly more effective. And in doing so, Obama is thumbing his nose at Republicans who claim his habit of end-running the legislative branch to act on his own reveals a dictatorial temperament and perhaps even a threat to the Constitution. Out in the fever swamps, the conspiracy theory holding that Obama is going to cancel the presidential elections and rule by decree will gain new adherents. And here and there (and from “centrist” pundits as well as Republicans) you will hear angry talk about the president once again betraying the bipartisanship he promised to bring to Washington back in 2008. You’ll even hear some progressive and Democratic validation of this treatment in the form of claims that Obama is pursuing extremism in the defense of this or that urgent policy goal.

Obama himself laid the political groundwork for this action not by insisting on his as opposed to Republicans’ ideas about gun safety, but by noting repeatedly that the Republican-led Congress has refused to act even in the wake of catastrophes like those at Sandy Hook and San Bernardino. Here’s the relevant statement from the White House:

The president has made clear the most impactful way to address the crisis of gun violence in our country is for Congress to pass some common sense gun safety measures. But the president has also said he’s fully aware of the unfortunate political realities in this Congress. That is why he has asked his team to scrub existing legal authorities to see if there’s any additional action we can take administratively.

If you look back at Obama’s record on big executive actions — on guns, climate change, and immigration — you see the same situation. It’s not that he’s fought for “liberal” as opposed to “conservative” policies in these areas. It’s that congressional Republicans, pressured by conservative opinion-leaders and interest groups, have refused to do anything at all. They are in denial about climate change and in paralyzing internal disagreement on immigration, and refuse to consider any new gun regulations. So there’s literally no one to hold bipartisan negotiations with on these issues, and no way to reach common ground. In all these cases, the absence of action creates its own dreadful policies, most notably on immigration where a refusal to set enforcement priorities and to fund them forces arbitrary actions no one supports.

So taking executive actions is hardly a betrayal of bipartisanship, but rather a forlorn plea for it. And it’s significant that Obama is usually acting on issues in which the Republican rank-and-file are far more supportive of action than their purported representatives in Congress.

Back during his announcement of candidacy in 2007, Obama made it reasonably clear that he didn’t just want to cut deals between the two parties in Washington, but also intended to force action on them when gridlock prevailed. After discussing several national challenges, he said:

What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics — the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.

Knowing that a Republican president could and probably would roll back all his executive actions, Obama is not taking a preferred course of action. If, of course, a Democratic succeeds him, his policies will take root and probably endure. Eventually, the two parties may come to agree on the challenges the country faces, and then have actual discussions — and disagreements and competition — over how to address them. That’s bipartisanship. And counterintuitive as it may seem, Obama’s executive actions may be necessary to produce bipartisanship down the road.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, January 5, 2016

January 7, 2016 Posted by | Bipartisanship, Gun Regulations, Gun Violence, Republican Obstructionalism | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Return Of The Do-Nothing Republican Congress”: The Lunatic Caucus Will Still Run The Show In 2016

Matt Yglesias has written an article that probably won’t be embraced by the partisans on the far left or the far right. It’s titled: 2015 Was the Year Congress Started Working Again. He begins by listing their accomplishments and adds some commentary.

Among some of the things Congress accomplished: The main federal statute governing K-12 education got an overhaul. So did the federal disability insurance system. A long-running dispute about federal highway funding got resolved, as did a long-running dispute about Medicare payments. Last but by no means least, December saw a whole bunch of tax changes featuring good news for low-wage workers and a broad set of business interests. Congress even passed a law to ban microbeads in bath products to help protect the nation’s fisheries.

These aren’t all good bills, and almost none of them are what anyone would consider a great bill, but in a way that’s the point. Legislation passed in 2015 because congressional leaders went back to doing what congressional leaders are supposed to do in times of divided government: compromise to pass bills that don’t thrill anyone but do make both sides happier than they would be in the absence of a bill.

We all know that people like Sen. Ted Cruz aren’t happy about any of this. There are plenty of people on the left who aren’t thrilled either. But as Yglesias points out – it is a clear improvement over the government-by-crisis dynamic we saw previously.

Unlike Yglesias though, I don’t see the productivity resulting from the fact that President Obama is now a lame duck or that Congressional leaders don’t have much of a stake in any of the Republican presidential contenders.

What those explanations miss is that in 2015, Republicans took control of both Houses of Congress. Simply obstructing Democrats was no longer a viable strategy. Initially they eschewed government-by-crisis in favor of passing bills that would force President Obama to use his veto pen. That strategy started to fall apart almost immediately when the lunatic caucus wanted to shut down the Department of Homeland Security over the President’s immigration executive orders.

All of the compromises Yglesias listed happened when the Republican leadership abandoned the lunatic caucus and sought ways to work with the Democrats. And that, my friends, is precisely why John Boehner is no longer Speaker of the House. The lunatic caucus rebelled.

So what is the new Speaker to do? Here’s what Siobhan Hughes reports:

House Speaker Paul Ryan starting this month will push to turn the chamber into a platform for ambitious Republican policy ideas, in a bid to help shape his unsettled party’s priorities and inject substance into a presidential race heavy on personality politics.

Right out of the gate for the new year comes this:

It looks to me like Speaker Ryan is going to once again try to herd the cats of the lunatic caucus in an attempt to rack up symbolic votes that will be stopped by a presidential veto (if not in the Senate first). One has to wonder how that will fly with the angry/fearful right. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be stuck with a do-nothing Congress once again.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, January 4, 2015

January 5, 2016 Posted by | Do Nothing Congress, GOP Presidential Candidates, Omnibus Spending Bill | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Congress Largely On The Sidelines For Paris Deal”: Mitch McConnell Is Powerless To Block Obama’s Climate Change Deal

One of the few times countries around the world have reached a climate change deal to cut global greenhouse gasses was the 1997 Kyoto treaty, which required binding cuts from industrialized nations. Top Republicans told the press it was “dead on arrival” and would never gain approval from the Senate. And that was, more or less, the end of Kyoto—other countries pointed to the U.S. never ratifying it as reason enough to ignore their own commitments.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has now pledged to kill the latest emerging global consensus to act on climate change. His strategy is to obstruct a deal at the next major conference in Paris at the end of the year. As Politico reported earlier this week, congressional Republicans have returned from their August recess with every intention of derailing a deal long before we get to December. An aide to McConnell is reaching out to foreign embassies to detail how the GOP-controlled Congress plans to stop President Obama’s climate plan from moving forward.

But this won’t be another Kyoto, because McConnell just isn’t a credible threat to the global negotiations. Well aware that Republicans have not changed their minds on UN climate treaties—and have in fact gone to a greater extreme—negotiators have put together a different kind of deal for a Paris conference at the end of the year, one that looks nothing like Kyoto. Republican obstinacy is so predictable, it’s already baked into the structure, politics, and messaging ahead of a deal in Paris.

At Paris, countries are responsible for putting forward their own emissions plans. Though it’s not clear what structure the final deal will take—including which elements are binding and which are not—the emissions cuts proposed at Paris probably won’t require Senate approval because they won’t be binding, as they were in Kyoto. Obama has pledged U.S. climate action through executive authority. (Of course, that also means that many of his pledges in Paris will rely on the commitment of his successor.)

McConnell’s strategy is clear: Send the world some very mixed messages on what the U.S. intends to do about its own greenhouse gas emissions. He’s emphasizing Republican plans to block the Clean Power Plan, a key part of Obama’s strategy to cut the U.S.’s carbon footprint by reducing emissions from electricity 32 percent by 2032. The GOP’s likely tool will be the Congressional Review Act, which requires only a majority vote to repeal a law—but it’s still subject to Obama’s veto, which makes repeal unlikely. The Senate may also take up a bill passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee that delays the Clean Power Plan until court challenges are resolved, a process that could take years and years—but though the Supreme Court could send the regulation back to the Environmental Protection Agency, defenders insist it is on sound legal ground. One tactic might work in the short term: Congress’s control over appropriations gives the GOP the ability to withhold the $3 billion Obama promised to the Green Climate Fund, an international fund to help poorer nations adapt to climate change. But it’s unlikely that alone would be enough to blow up broader negotiations.

Despite the largely hollow threats from McConnell, the Obama administration has been conducting its own outreach to large polluters like China to explain how the U.S. can deliver on its promises in good faith without Congress’ input—as long as a Democrat is in office, that is. In March, the U.S. submitted its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions up to 28 percent by 2025 over 2005 levels. When negotiators ask State Department climate envoy Todd Stern about the “solidity of U.S. action,” he says he assures them that “the kind of regulation being put in place is not easily undone,” signaling that the White House is confident its Clean Power Plan and other EPA regulations can survive court battles and congressional opposition.

All this means mixed news for Paris: The bad news is that a single Republican is powerful enough to undo the deal—but not until long after December, and only if the GOP wins the White House in 2016. The good news, though, is this means Congress is largely on the sidelines for Paris and won’t make or break the negotiations. It won’t be Mitch McConnell who sinks a deal.

 

By: Rebecca Leber, The New Republic, September 9, 2015

September 10, 2015 Posted by | Climate Change, Mitch Mc Connell, Paris Climate Conference | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Obama Moves On Paid Sick Leave”: What Exactly Do Republicans Want To Do For Workers?

It’s Labor Day, but some of us are still working, like yours truly and the president:

President Obama rallied union workers here Monday, announcing a new executive order that will require federal contractors to offer employees up to seven paid sick days a year, a move that the White House said could benefit more than 300,000 workers.

Obama made the announcement during a Labor Day speech as he continues a year-long effort to pressure Congress to approve legislation that would provide similar benefits for millions of private-sector workers. The president highlighted a Massachusetts law, approved by voters in November, that provides employees with up to 40 hours of sick leave per year. That law went into effect in July.

My guess is that Republicans will just ignore this latest action, not because they aren’t opposed to it but because there’s little they have to gain by making a fuss about it. Because it’s limited to federal contractors, most of whom do quite well suckling at government’s teat, they aren’t going to hear a whole lot of complaining from employers about it. And mandating paid sick leave is spectacularly popular: in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 85 percent of those surveyed said they supported it, including 77 percent of Republicans.

Like other actions Obama has taken on labor rules, this is a limited version of a policy he’d like to see adopted nationally. Obama has advocated a national law mandating that workers get paid sick leave, and there is such a bill in Congress that Democrats have introduced, called the Healthy Families Act. But Republicans have no intention of allowing it to come to a vote. While there’s nothing much Obama can do about that, he is allowed to set rules for federal contractors, a power he has employed before. Because these are executive orders, a future Republican president could undo them, though there’s no guarantee he or she would; on one hand, the GOP is opposed to pretty much any expansion of worker rights, while on the other hand, they might decide rolling these rules back isn’t worth the bad publicity.

There are two basic questions at play here, one more philosophical and one more practical. The first is whether government has any role at all to play in setting the terms of the relationship between employers and employees. While few conservatives would say outright that the answer to that question is no, in practice they oppose almost every regulation of that relationship that exists. For instance, many conservatives don’t just oppose raising the minimum wage; they also say there should be no minimum wage at all, because the free market should set wage levels. If there’s an employer who wants to pay somebody a dollar an hour to do some job, and there’s someone willing to do it for that little, why should government get in their way?

You might think I’m caricaturing conservative views, but there is an entire movement in conservative legal circles seeking to return to a turn-of-the-century conception of government’s ability to regulate the workplace, one that prevailed before we had laws on things such as overtime, workplace safety and child labor (Brian Beutler recently profiled this movement).

The second question is, if we accept that government can set some work rules, what should they be? Even the most liberal advocate wouldn’t argue that any expansion of worker rights is necessarily a good idea; nobody’s suggesting that we set the minimum wage at $100 an hour or force all employers to wash their employees’ cars. But the kind of thing that’s on the table now, like paid sick leave, would only bring us in line with the rest of the industrialized world, where basic worker protections aren’t so controversial. As Democrats always mention, the United States is the only developed country with no legally mandated paid sick leave.

And just like on the minimum wage, where there’s little or no action at the federal level, states and cities are stepping in. As of now there are four states that mandate some form of paid sick leave — California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Connecticut — in addition to a number of big and small cities, including New York, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia and Seattle. As long as there’s no federal sick leave law, activists and liberal legislators will keep pushing for it in more and more places, and given its popularity, they’ll probably succeed more often than they’ll fail.

Most everything on the Democratic agenda for workplaces — a higher minimum wage, expanded overtime, paid sick leave — is extremely popular, which is one of the reasons Republicans would rather focus on something else. And they’re smart enough to know that if they don’t come out in thunderous opposition, the proposals will get a lot less media attention, which means they’re less likely to play a significant role in voters’ decision-making. But when the question “What exactly do you want to do for workers?” gets asked in the presidential campaign, as it surely will, at least the Democrats have an answer.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, September 7, 2015

September 7, 2015 Posted by | Labor Day, Paid Sick Leave, Workers | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Community Organizing Virtuoso”: President Obama Is Well-Versed In The “Dance” Between Activists And Politicians

Years ago I was a program manager at a nonprofit organization and decided to apply to be the executive director of the same agency. The board of directors asked staff to review resumes and interview finalists for the job (including me).

The staff I supervised at the time objected to the fact that I included on my resume the accomplishments of the program I managed. Their response was that they had been the ones that did the work and I was taking credit for their efforts.

In a way, they had a point. But they also didn’t understand leadership. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi never scored a touchdown and never kicked a field goal. And yet he is credited with the success of that football team throughout most of the 1960’s.

In the end, I decided to take the staff objections as a compliment. That’s because I value the kind of leadership that facilitates the feeling of ownership by employees for their accomplishments. It’s the kind that Marshall Ganz described this way:

Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more “power to” — based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of “power over” –a relationship that meets interests of the “power wielder” at the expense of everyone else.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, we’ve often heard that he doesn’t do enough to tout his own record and when someone else does, activists jump in and take credit for pushing him to do something. Most recently that happened with his executive orders on immigration. Activists who had interrupted his speeches and called him the “Deporter-in-Cheif” took credit. The same thing happened when DADT was finally overturned a few years ago.

While Obama’s supporters often complain about that, I’m not sure the President would mind. As a former community organizer, he is well-versed in the “dance” between activists and politicians. And I believe that his goal as President has always been to lead in the same way he did back in those early days in Chicago. Here’s how James Kloppenberg described him in Reading Obama.

How did Obama, lacking any experience as an organizer, learn the ropes so fast? In Galuzzo’s words, “nobody teaches a jazz musician jazz. This man is gifted.”

Kruglik explains Obama’s genius by describing two approaches community organizers often use. Trying to mobilize a group of fifty people, a novice will elicit responses from a handful, then immediately transform their stray comments into his or her own statement of priorities and strategies. The group responds, not surprisingly, by rejecting the organizer’s recommendations. By contrast, a master takes the time to listen to many comments, rephrases questions, and waits until the individuals in the group begin to see for themselves what they have in common. A skilled organizer then patiently allows the animating principles and the plan of action to emerge from the group itself. That strategy obviously takes more time. It also takes more intelligence, both analytical and emotional. Groups can tell when they are being manipulated, and they know when they are being heard. According to Kruglik, Obama showed an exceptional willingness to listen to what people were saying. He did not rush from their concerns to his. He did not shift the focus from one issue to another until they were ready. He did not close off discussions about strategy, which were left open for reconsideration pending results. Obama managed to coax from groups a sense of what they shared, an awareness that proved sturdy because it was their doing, not his. From those shared concerns he was able to inspire a commitment to action. In the time it takes most trainees to learn the basics, Obama showed a virtuosos’s ability to improvise. As Galuzzo put it, he was gifted.

And here is how Barack Obama described it himself back in 1988.

In return, organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents could never aspire to — it is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves.

(If you’ve ever wondered whether Obama had/has potential as a gifted writer…there’s your answer!)

There is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between organizing fifty people on the South Side of Chicago and leading the entire country. That is why Michelle Obama described her husband’s foray into politics like this:

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

And so I suspect that when citizens take credit for the changes they’ve worked to make happen, the community activist in him counts that as a success. Pundits who are attuned to the polarization in our politics have a point about whether or not that is a reasonable approach to take these days. But when our founders talked about “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” it’s exactly what they had in mind.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, August 1, 2015

August 2, 2015 Posted by | Community Organizers, Politicians, President Obama | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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