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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks

(PHOTO: First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama serve D.C. residents at the Capital Area Food Bank on Thanksgiving Eve 2013).

Giving thanks is a simple concept but it doesn't seem like many realize how important it is. It is easy to live a robotic life that rushes through each day without stopping to realize the blessings all around us. It is easy to lose sight of the privileges we enjoy because we often take them for granted. Sometimes, things are taken from us for no fault of our own and we then can see how plainly and clearly how precious life is and how important it is to preserve what we have and to be thankful for it. Millions of people in our own country understand this feeling. In the last several years, many Americans fell victim to the financial crisis as our country plunged into a terrible recession in the late 2000s. Millions of our fellow citizens lost jobs, saw their wages stagnate, and had to sacrifice more to put food on the table for their families -- including Thanksgiving dinners. They know all too well the importance of giving thanks for what they have.

Unfortunately, it appears that some individuals who are far luckier forget how privileged and fortunate they really are. It's not as financially burdensome for them to purchase a Thanksgiving dinner, to feed for their families year round, and to take care of their children and their parents. Therefore, it is easier to forget that simple concept: giving thanks. I have seen firsthand people complain about, whine about or express displeasure about relatively minor inconveniences in their lives that pale in comparison to the struggles that millions of people face. Obviously, I have fallen victim to this mentality too and I know it is truly understandable. There are events in our lives and disturbances in our daily routines that can irk any of us, that can make us feel angry or sad or betrayed, and, in that moment, can make us forget about how thankful we ought to be for our strong families, friends, and our luck.

However, Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to embrace graciousness, to be thankful for the pleasantries and privileges that we have, and to realize that in this finite life, expressing thanks for what we have is the least we can do for ourselves. For the sake of others, the least we can do is to express thanks for the sacrifices that the aforementioned working men and women in this country make each and every day as they work tirelessly to bring home food for their families even when it is difficult. They give thanks everyday for the limited resources they have and they understand how fragile those resources can be. If each of us could see life through that kind of introspective lens of understanding the delicacy of life, we would all be better people and we would all see for ourselves how vital it is to help each other and to be thankful for each other. Be gracious for what you enjoy, be thankful for what you have, and be thankful for the work of others that, in many cases, help make your own privileges of life possible.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Why I'm a JFK Fan

Progressives have their gripes about John F. Kennedy. As president, he was slow to embrace the civil rights movement, embraced tax cuts more so than public investment, undertook the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, and increased the American presence in Vietnam. He was by no means a perfect or consistently liberal president, much like every other Democratic president.

However, JFK was a courageous and strong leader for one central reason: he stood up to the most politically powerful institutions in the country for the sake of good policy. In both the domestic realm and foreign affairs, this signature quality of JFK defined his tragically short presidency. This aspect of his leadership significantly improved during the course of his tenure. At first, Kennedy was seemingly overly conciliatory with conservative southern Democrats, hawkish military advisers, and the ruling political and economic class. Over time, JFK became more resistant to their advice and counsel, instead charting his own course that shaped his legacy as a great president.

In the domestic political arena, Kennedy's boldness and learning in leadership was reflected in his relationship with the steel industry and in his handling of civil rights. Initially, JFK's administration sought and secured key negotiated compromises with U.S. Steel and five other large steel corporations to ensure that prices were kept low. Kennedy first sought conciliation and consensus to steer the steel companies in the right direction. The steel companies reneged on their pledge and dramatically raised prices. This prompted JFK to firmly take on, without fear or second-guessing, the steel companies and to be frank, honest, and forthcoming about their attitude. JFK passionately asserted that he did not "accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of...profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility." JFK learned that being bold, progressive, and firm pays off: his exertion of such rhetoric and pressure on the steel industry, which included investigating potential criminal violations of U.S. Steel, caused them to cancel their decision to raise prices. The gutsiness of standing up strongly to economically powerful interests such as steel companies was a sign of courage.

With regards to civil rights, it is true that JFK was rather slow in making it to the point of supporting the cause. In the late 1950s and in the 1960 presidential election, civil rights advocates, including MLK himself, were incensed with Kennedy's seeming indecisiveness, wavering, and lack of commitment to civil rights. Ultimately, thanks in no small part to pressure applied by such liberals, JFK came around to the right conclusion. On June 11, 1963, in his most famous nationally televised address, Kennedy endorsed what later became the Civil Rights Act. Though initially resistant of broader civil rights legislation, JFK ultimately ditched his longtime effort to reconcile with the southern conservative Democrats. Instead, President Kennedy stood up to them, despite their political power at that time, and he outlined his vision for desegregation and equal rights for African-Americans.

Most notably, Kennedy was willing to stand up to powerful interests in the "military-industrial complex," as his predecessor deemed it. Nowhere is this more evident than during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. As evidenced earlier this year by documents stored in a National Archives exhibit, JFK was receiving close advice that suggested, from the standpoint of military officers, that invading Cuba and militarily acting in response to Soviet acts would be a feasible and even desirable option. Kennedy refused that route despite the power and influence of his chain of command. Instead, he sought and helped secure a diplomatic resolution to the crisis -- something not all presidents would do in response to foreign aggression. JFK further defied the hawks amongst his administration -- despite their status as politically influential and intelligent policymakers -- by delivering a stirring, largely conciliatory, and diplomatic speech, urging greater detente with the Soviet Union, at the American University commencement in the late spring of 1963.

Ultimately, JFK was proud to be a liberal. It is true that conservatives like to emphasize his beliefs in the concept of "peace through strength"and his popular tax cuts. However, at his core, Kennedy was a liberal. These aforementioned actions prove that his liberalism and progressive views regarding political philosophy motivated JFK's gradual rise towards firm strength in taking on powerful lobbies. JFK came to believe, through rhetoric and through actions such as those included here, that taking on those powerful lobbies and calling a spade a spade (essentially) has hugely positive consequences and is the right thing to do. As a country now, much of us agree we are all better off for these Kennedy decisions despite their controversiality at the time.

If you want any more evidence that JFK was fairly progressive, take a look at this famous quote of his regarding his defense of liberalism: "If by a liberal, they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal' , then I'm proud to say I'm a 'Liberal.'" Rest in peace, Mr. President.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Power and Influence of a President

(LEFT: President Barack Obama signs into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with Vice President Joe Biden looking on, in front of a crowd in Colorado on February 17, 2009).

Presidents wield considerable power to change public policy, particularly in national security and foreign affairs but even in a score of domestic matters. The ability of the President to influence the legislative agenda, bring an issue into the mainstream, or rally his party is similarly strong. However, a President's effectiveness in overcoming intransigent congressional stubbornness and corralling public support for policies is wildly overblown. 

National Journal recently laid out a compelling case regarding this president and it correctly asserted that Barack Obama is one of the most powerful chief executives in the history of American presidents. In his first term, the President used the powers of his office to: halt the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, enact several executive orders aimed at boosting economic growth, unilaterally kill an American citizen affiliated with a branch of Al-Qaeda, order the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and make appointments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board. All of that was done without any help from the United States Congress. In President Obama's second term, he issued 23 executive actions to prevent gun violence, delayed the enforcement of two crucial aspects of his signature health care law, ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen limits on carbon emissions, and authorized his Attorney General to curtail the use of mandatory minimums -- all, again, without Congress.

Obama is not the first president to wield significant power in his time in office. His immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, ordered warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens, authorized waterboarding of foreign terrorist suspects, and created a sprawling, new federal cabinet-level department. The most notable presidents in history are those who asserted significant authority, such as Jackson (dissolving the National Bank), Lincoln (suspending habaeus corpus during the Civil War), and FDR (New Deal, World War II). If presidential history proves anything, it is chiefly that the power and influence of the President of the United States has continually strengthened and expanded, both in policy and in politics. Nevertheless, while the supporters of a president who falls short of policy goals often understate the power of the presidency, skeptics and pundits who peddle Beltway conventional wisdom in the mainstream media often vastly overstate the power and reach of a president.

First, the power of the presidency is undeniably the greatest in the realms of national security and foreign affairs. In this arena, the influence of the president has dramatically grown over several decades. To say that a president has little authority in decisions of national security and foreign policy is laughable. Consequently, there has been considerable debate recently amongst constitutional scholars, law professors, policy thinkers, and politicians, among others, as to whether this rise in power is warranted, wise, and constitutionally permissible. Presidents Bush and Obama, in particular, have broadened this power. Both presidents presided over a wide expansion of unilateral U.S. drone strikes aimed at terrorist suspects in various countries we are not officially at war with, continually enlarging domestic and foreign surveillance programs, and controversial detention policies at home and abroad. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first uncovered Edward Snowden's NSA revelations, asserts that such "unlimited presidential power" is "wholly alien and antithetical to the core" of our constitutional limits and civil liberties. To some extent, Mr. Greenwald is correct in his assessment. Certainly, Bush's authorization of warrantless wiretapping was a clear violation of the 1978 FISA law. Obama's refusal to ask Congress for approval of authorization to use force in Libya was legally dubious, at best.

Greenwald's sweeping language ignores two crucial realities though. For one, early American history, dominated by the same Founding Fathers civil libertarians frequently cite as ideal models for today's presidents, was defined by presidents perceived to be overstepping boundaries of power. George Washington's response to the Whiskey Rebellion and John Adams' signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts stand out as examples. Second, the actual language of the U.S. Constitution and the resolutions authorizing military force are vague and ambiguous enough that they have arguably allowed for the rise of such presidential power. Article II, Section II of the Constitution broadly designates the president as the "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy...when called into the actual service" while the Authorization to Use Military Force in 2001 states that the "President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." One can debate the merits of this language, whether it is too broad, and how much authority it genuinely authorizes. It is clear though that whether it was the Founders over two centuries ago or the Congress over a decade ago, the framers of the law have always provided significant leeway and broad powers to the office of the President in crafting national security and foreign policy. As such, the President has sizable influence in control, direction, and actions of the U.S. military in his role as Commander in Chief, in negotiations, treaties and leading diplomatic efforts across the globe as seen in the successful deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, and, particularly in recent years, knowledge and power over the vast apparatus of electronic surveillance. That is a lot of power for a singular person.

Second, though it is sometimes dismissed, overlooked, or downplayed, a president does actually hold the authority to make sizable changes in the lives of real people in domestic policy as well. The size and scope of this power is certainly not as expansive as it is in foreign affairs and national security policy. However, sometimes supporters of a president will delude themselves into thinking that a president is simply not powerful enough to influence domestic policy in any real way without the help of Congress. It is true that without Congress, a president is limited in his or her capacity. A sampling of recent history though indicates that, still, even without the help of the legislature, a president can get a a lot accomplished. Through executive actions alone, President Obama eased access to mental health services for veterans, President Bush blocked certain forms of stem-cell research, President Clinton lifted a policy that prevented support for international family planning efforts, and the first President Bush stopped the importation of semi-automatic weapons. If supporters of a president mobilize hard enough and make their voices be heard in favor of a certain policy change that can occur through executive action, it may very well happen. That was the point of labor activists who lobbied and protested for the Labor Department to extend overtime pay and minimum wage protections for over 2 million home care workers -- a promise of Obama's 2008 campaign. Their advocacy was ultimately fruitful as the Obama Labor Department recently announced they will, in fact, extend such protections by 2015 -- again, possible without the help of Congress. That is also the point of progressives who marched the streets of DC in favor of higher pay for low-wage workers hired by federal contractors. They hope the President, through the force of executive action, can lift these workers out of poverty; he does have that power. As Franklin D. Roosevelt extolled to supporters, "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." If advocates for swift change make their case loud enough, strong enough, and with enough backing, they can get their way because such pressure applied on politicians does often succeed, as the Labor Department's decision demonstrated.

Presidents' ability to unilaterally change domestic policy is constrained compared to the sweeping authority given in foreign affairs but it is seemingly less controversial among scholars and professors who worry about the rise of presidential power. This is because, in the realm of domestic affairs, the Constitution is clearer and more explicit, the powers are carefully limited given Congress' prerogative in crafting legislation, and presidents have recently stretched legal boundaries more so in foreign affairs than in domestic affairs.  Article II, Section III of the Constitution explicitly spells out that it is the duty of the president to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." The power of the president to aggressively or discretionally enforce existing laws is clear. It is this provision that allows the current president to enact 23 executive actions on gun safety, all of which merely strengthen the enforcement of existing gun laws, but also to cite prosecutorial discretion in saving hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Scores of scholars of the law backed these decisions. Further, environmental protection and consumer safety laws passed in the last several decades and federal regulatory agencies created since then have both widened the power of the presidency. It is up to a particular president to ensure that these laws and agencies -- yes, created by Congress -- are fully enforced, assertive, and making a real difference in people's lives. For his part, President Bush was lackadaisical in enforcing environmental laws - his White House refused to open an email from the EPA calling for stricter enforcement! - while President Obama has recently stepped up EPA regulations on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Federal agencies can even enact regulations that both  protect people's lives and also create jobs in the process, without new legislation from Congress, as seen in the case of a recent OSHA regulation.

There are some who are somewhat alarmed by even the vast influence of the president and the executive branch in domestic policy. GW constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley wrote a compelling piece in The Washington Post outlining the aggressiveness of power in some federal regulatory agencies and how they have become a "fourth branch of government." The prosecutorial and spying powers of the FBI and other domestic law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, have also come under intense scrutiny from civil libertarians and liberals. However, while Turley cites good examples of domestic policy power run amok and certainly federal law enforcement under a power-hungry president could be dangerous, there are also strong cases to make for the executive branch enacting good rules and regulations that strengthen people's lives. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is showing that everyday that it stands up to big banks. The vast power of the presidency to change lots of people's lives without the help of Congress is seen further in the ability of the president to negotiate treaties such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that can affect laborers at home, implement executive orders and actions such as Obama's 2011 "We Can't Wait" initiatives to spur the economy, and to pardon anyone. The Nation Magazine has done a terrific job of showing how Obama has lagged in his disappointing pardon record. He holds the power to literally forgive people of their crimes, commute sentences, and free from prison many, many people unjustly jailed for decades for nonviolent crimes, most notably drug crimes. He could do that without Congress. Unfortunately, Obama has yet to be bold in this arena and he has issued fewer pardons than any president in modern history. The Nation has also done a superb job of pointing out executive actions this president can take on his own -- some of which, he has yet to do -- that would significantly improve life for millions, including in economic affairs. If Obama wants to overcome congressional intransigence to improve the economy, he could take action on his own to do so, as he did in 2011 and 2012 with several executive orders. The huge weakness of executive actions though is that they can be easily undone by the next president -- as President Bush showed when he rid of many of President Clinton's executive orders -- but if the policy that is enacted becomes popular and makes a huge difference for a lot of people, then it could stick around for a while.

Third, the president is very powerful in terms of setting the legislative agenda for Congress and the agenda for the nation. Most importantly, he submits a yearly budget to Congress thus setting into motion a national debate regarding spending priorities, values, and what we cherish as a nation. Consequently, members of Congress and much of the public will have on their mind issues that they may not have otherwise thought about considerably. Vice President Joe Biden did a good job of demonstrating this reality when he spoke to a crowd at The Howard Theater in April 2012. He urged supporters to imagine what the first Obama/Biden term would look like if John McCain and Sarah Palin were elected. Health care reform, the signature achievement of Obama and Biden, would likely never have even been a part of the national debate. LGBT rights would see little to no support in a McCain/Palin administration and would not be as dominant a part of the national conversation. A perfect example of what Biden was talking about could be reflected in his second term as vice president when he led the administration's push for stricter gun laws. It is true that Sandy Hook forced these issues into the forefront but a Mitt Romney administration surely would not have made gun control a central part of their legislative agenda and would not have made it such an overarching part of the national dialogue. The Obama/Biden administration chose a different path than what Romney and Ryan would have done and invested the first several months of their second term to passionately making the case for gun control. It remained firmly implanted in the minds of millions of voters, many of whom subsequently joined new organizations like Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly's Americans for Responsible Solutions, and in the docket of members of Congress who scurried to craft proposals like the Manchin/Toomey bill. Needless to say, the president has sweeping power to sign or veto bills that Congress ultimately passes. It should be noted too that if the Senate complies in passage of appointments to the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court, the President can dramatically remake society. However, these latter two examples obviously require a willing Congress.

Fourth, without Congress though, the president has a strong power to bring issues into the mainstream of American public thinking and subsequently influence our culture. In recent history, no better example of this exists than President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage in May 2012. As the first sitting president to publicly endorse marriage equality, Obama essentially legitimized and gave a crucial stamp of official approval to a practice once viewed as extremely controversial and very unpopular. My friend Alex Yudelson said it best when he said that Obama's endorsement of gay marriage "changed the political culture" on the issue as it led to Democratic members of Congress falling over one another to endorse same-sex marriage and the national party endorsing marriage equality. This shows another overlooked power of the president: his or her ability to corral his party and influence their thinking. After Obama backed gay marriage, registered Democrats' support for it increased in public opinion polls and was soon followed by Democrats in Congress embracing it too. During his presidency, George W. Bush's endorsement of vast national security powers brought on board millions of registered Republicans and GOP members of Congress into supporting these measures despite their resistance to those same measures when Bill Clinton proposed them in 1995.

In the end though, the President is not all powerful. Writers like Ron Fournier of National Journal notoriously exaggerate the extent to which the president can change things on his own. These writers often lament that if only the president showed more "leadership," he could compel John Boehner to sit down and talk with him and negotiate great deals that will reduce the deficit and create jobs. The fact of the matter is that congressional stubbornness is hard to overcome if Congress is stubborn! Who knew? Even Lyndon B. Johnson faltered in bringing the Congress on board with domestic legislative proposals after his party suffered massive losses in the 1966 midterm elections. He did best in passing elements of the Great Society when he had stronger majorities in Congress; the same was evident with Obama, who utilized large Democratic majorities from 2009-2011 to pass several large-scale domestic reforms, but has been unable to do so since 2011. As political reporter John Harwood said, "the difference" is not schmoozing. Republicans control the House, many of them are from partisan gerrymandered districts where Obama is extremely unpopular, and Obama has a vastly different agenda than many of them were elected to pursue. Greg Sargent, Brendan Nyhan, John Sides, Ezra Klein, and other writers do a terrific job in various articles, journals, and books of showing how many pundits wrongly convince themselves that if a president barnstormed the country and sat down for hours with members of Congress and just showed some more magic leadership, things can get done. A lot of pundits also falsely believe that a president going out and embracing an issue and driving it home passionately would naturally increase public support for it. While that may be the case within the president's own party, that is not necessarily the case for the public at large. Scholars of presidential history assert that this kind of activism from a president tends to polarize an issue that thus becomes more divisive because the president, a political figure, seized on it. Sometimes, the president could have the same effect on Congress. If a president gets too involved in legislative details or endorses proposals before they come up for a vote or intertwines too much in the process of passing a bill, he or she could cripple the process. Legislators often like to be left alone to figure out the details on their own because they know each other best or, as may be the case, a president's strong support of specific legislative measures could convince members of the opposition party to vote against those provisions. In the immigration reform debate and in the health care reform debate, observers like Ezra Klein and legislators like Senator Chuck Schumer have argued that Obama's deference to Congress in figuring out the specifics increased the chances of legislative success. In truth, the president is not as powerful or influential with Congress and the public as these pundits suggest and these writers do a good job of making that case.

Ultimately, the president is a powerful but not almighty figure. Constraints are built within our system and checks and balances and separation of powers exist within the framework of the Constitution in the form of basic rights, the Supreme Court, and in Congress that prevent a president from being too radical. Despite some frustrations that things may not be getting done because of the intransigence of Congress, this fact of life about our presidency is, generally, a good thing. In this arena, our Founding Fathers largely found the right balance.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Three Cheers for Pragmatic Government Activism on Election Day

(PHOTO: Terry McAuliffe celebrates his win for Virginia governor, Washington Post).

Some political pundits are shamelessly trying to claim Virginia's governor race, in which the pro-Obamacare Terry McAuliffe beat the anti-Obamacare Ken Cuccinelli, as evidence that the Affordable Care Act cost McAuliffe a larger margin of victory. Needless to say, this analysis ignores the simple fact that McAuliffe ultimately won -- in a state that, four years ago, voted for a Republican governor and voted for the GOP candidate for President in every presidential election from 1964 to 2004. Never mind that this evidence pundits present is not based in reality; there is certainly no basis for it in the polling. Instead, if there is anything that Tuesday's election results show us, it is that pragmatic government activism -- elected officials of both parties coming together to use the levers of government to materially improve people's live -- is politically popular and wins elections. 

Terry McAuliffe run unabashedly on expanding Medicaid in the state as part of the Affordable Care Act. It was the most prominent issue that he emphasized in his gubernatorial campaign. The day after his victory, he told reporters he thinks it was the capstone policy debate of the election and that he had a mandate to pursue it. Public opinion polling shows the Medicaid expansion is actually extremely popular in Virginia. It is also very popular in New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie was reelected on Tuesday. Christie, unlike some Republican governors, accepted the Medicaid expansion - a decision that helped establish his ostensibly moderate bona fides, though he is no moderate. Further, with nearly 90 percent of New Jersey voters giving Christie high marks for his response to Hurricane Sandy, it is clear that Sandy and Christie's perceived strong response to it politically benefited him in his run for reelection. Voters saw a politician working with a member of the other party, President Obama, to address the problems of a natural disaster and use the power of government to help the victims of the natural disaster. Much like the popularity of the Medicaid expansion, this is a case of government activism being popular with voters. Lastly, in New York City, voters, by a gargantuan 50-point margin, made progressive hero Bill de Blasio their next mayor. De Blasio ran centrally on raising taxes on the wealthy -- an extremely popular idea, both nationally and in the city. Indeed, voters like the idea of government asking the wealthy to pay their fair share to help finance critical safety net programs and other government operations that are also, by the way, broadly well-liked, both in New York and nationally. So, in the end, the results from Tuesday are far from any kind of rebuke of Obamacare. Instead, they are an embrace of government activism. Government can craft effective public policy that helps improve people's lives and, time and again, this has proven to be popular with voters. EJ Dionne makes a stronger case than I could make right here: