Sunday, July 20, 2014

What's wrong with thoughtfulness?

On Meet the Press this morning, Senator Lindsey Graham attacked President Obama's foreign policy for being thoughtful and deliberative. Seriously. When asked about the situation in the Ukraine, Graham's exact words were: "President Obama is trying to be deliberative. It comes off as indecisive. He's trying to be thoughtful. It comes off as weakness." Such are the perils of a thoughtful and deliberative foreign policy, in contrast, say, to the thoughtless and reckless policies that most people believe characterized the previous administration. At least Senator Graham is smart enough to recognize what President Obama is attempting to achieve. And also smart enough to recognize the opportunity to score cheap political points by equating thoughtfulness with weakness.

When asked what specifically the Obama administration should be doing differently with respect to Russia and the Ukraine, Graham's answers became more revealing. First, he criticized President Obama for not calling Putin "the thug that he is." So instead of calling for a thorough investigation that will reveal exactly what Putin is, more name-calling is the suggested solution, as if we were back in high school. Second, Senator Graham criticized the president for failing to send more arms to the Ukraine to defend themselves against the Russian-supplied separatists. In other words Graham is nostalgic for the days of proxy wars with Russia that we engaged in, for example, by arming Afghanistan in the 1980's. Anybody remember how that effort came back to bite us later? Finally, he suggested additional sanctions against Russia and Putin, which is something the Obama administration is already doing.

The opposition doesn't have a credible alternative foreign policy to suggest. If they are attacking the president for being thoughtful and deliberative, that must mean that their suggested alternative ideas would be thoughtless and immature. But what these kinds of criticisms expose is the vulnerability of any administration that seriously attempts to pursue peaceful solutions as a strategy. That strategy can always be attacked as weak and wishy-washy, in contrast to the glib answers and tough talk these critics are espousing. Never mind that more militaristic approaches previously led us into Vietnam. And Iraq. And into a Cold War that lasted 40 years and verged on nuclear Armegeddon more than once. Or that by contrast President Obama's more "thoughtful and deliberative" approach has kept us out of war, and led to notable successes in reducing dangerous weapons, removing dictators, and managing conflicts around the world.

If you want a contrast to the careful policies of the Obama administration, all you have to do is look at the childish and dangerous approach to conflict being taken by Putin himself. Surely Lindsey Graham doesn't want the United States to start acting just like the thug with whom we are trying to draw a contrast?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The peace president

President Obama's statement this morning on the tragic downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet made all the right points. The president was careful not to jump to any more conclusions than are warranted by what we know so far, yet clearly made the connection between the fact that the shots were fired from rebel-controlled territory, and Russia's supplying of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to Ukrainian separatists, so as to point the finger squarely at President Putin. He was firm in condemning whoever was responsible, yet careful to emphasize the goal of de-escalating tensions and violence so as to prevent further loss of life.

In short, it was just the sort of speech that was bound to infuriate hawks such as Senator McCain who called the president's response to the fighting in the Ukraine "cowardly." At the same time, it wasn't the kind of speech likely to inspire the president's supporters either. What would probably stir people more might be a Rooseveltian ("day that will live in infamy") or Churchillian ("fight on the beaches") type of response to the outrageous act of violence apparently committed by these Ukrainian separatists.

But remember that both Roosevelt and Churchill made those remarks in an effort to whip up national resolve to fight and defeat an enemy that had already brought war to our shores. Our side needed to be mobilized for all out war. President Obama's much harder challenge is to stir up the desire for peace, not only to avoid a military confrontation with Russia, which no responsible person wants, but also to reduce tensions in the Ukraine, as well as in Gaza, another area of crisis addressed in the president's remarks today. To do that you have to emphasize the goals of fairness and impartiality. You have to be careful not to exaggerate threats or to accuse the enemy of anything more than you can prove. You have to give your adversary a face-saving way out of a dangerous situation.

President Obama was describing a way forward that does not involve capitulation on our side, but instead requires our adversaries to put down their arms.  Laying out a path to peace in this way is far from easy. It's shameful to call this approach cowardly. But President Obama will probably never be able to rally people around a march to peace in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, the way people might rally around a call to respond militarily.

Remember that this president has not shied away from fighting when deemed necessary. He called for an escalation of the effort in Afghanistan, and he has pulled the trigger on pirates and terrorists. But if we can obtain our objectives without the horrific costs of war, and we can induce other warring parties to stop fighting, that would represent the greatest sort of foreign policy triumph.

Ukraine

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Six Californias?

Silicon Valley rich guy Tim Draper claims that he has gathered enough signatures to place his idea of breaking up California into six separate states on the ballot in 2016. Draper supposedly spent $4.9 million of his own money on this effort so far.  There are lots of reasons why this is a terrible idea, and also lots of reasons why it will never happen. I'm not going to get too much into those.

What I want to talk about is a pet peeve of my own, which is why some rich guy gets to put his personal project on the public agenda. I have a blog, so I get to talk about whatever I want. You don't have to read it. And I'm not forcing you to vote on any of my ideas. Tim Draper, on the other hand, is forcing me to vote on his dumb idea. (And even if I thought it was a great idea, I think I would still resent the way he is forcing his idea on the public.)

Draper might think that he is setting in motion a democratic process, that will allow the people to decide whether to support this plan or not. But as a California voter for more than 20 years, who has had to wade through countless propositions every time we have an election, my perception is that very few of these are conceived in a genuine spirit of democracy. Most are put on the ballot by special interests trying to bypass the legislature, or represent vanity projects by people like Tim Draper, who have the will and the means to use this method of gaining attention for their ideas. A lot of them are half-baked proposals of dubious constitutionality that sound good on the surface but haven't been thought through very thoroughly. I'm sure, however, that Tim Draper thinks that his plan was conceived in a pure spirit of altruism to benefit all of the people of California, and that it's just a coincidence that it also happens to allow him to remove his very own new state of Silicon Valley--the richest state in the nation--from whatever problems might be faced by the remaining five states of the new California.

Assuming we get to vote on this brilliant plan in 2016, here's how the campaign will go. Information will be diffused by pro and con forces at great expense through campaigns of television commercials and billboard ads. Both sides will present their campaigns in a selective and misleading way, and few voters will have all of the facts necessary to make an informed decision. Is this any way to decide such an important and complicated issue?

Whatever you want to say about the legislative process, and we can all agree that it is a deeply flawed process, on an issue like this one we can at least trust that the state legislature would refer it to a committee that would assemble facts and analysis in a way that would at least enable our legislators to have a reasonable idea of the benefits and costs of the plan, before they would vote on it. Since under the U.S. Constitution, the state legislature would have to do this anyway before any proposal like this could be sent to Washington where it would surely be killed in Congress by every other states' senators not keen on adding 10 more votes to California's senate delegation, it is hard to see the value of putting this proposal to a vote of the public before such a legislative process could begin.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Report from Jerusalem

Of all the times my 19 year old daughter could have chosen to travel to Israel for a birthright trip, she ended up going last week. While she was in Jerusalem, she participated in two air raids, in which she had to run down four flights from her hotel room to the mall under her hotel designated as a bomb shelter. The second time, she and her roommate didn't have time to make it all the way downstairs, so they had to huddle together in a stairwell with other guests at the hotel, waiting for the all clear signal. She's not experienced enough with rocket fire to distinguish different types of explosions, but was told both times that the booms she heard were actually the sounds of the Iron Dome interceptors deflecting the rockets before they could strike the ground. Now that she has experienced the anxiety of waiting to find out whether her building was going to be struck by a rocket, my daughter thinks the Iron Dome defense system is a great idea!

It's not exactly the experience we had in mind for her. But as she says, it has made her appreciate the struggle for survival of this small country, and also how difficult it is to understand a conflict until you find yourself in the middle of it.

Most of us are far removed from the situation, and hold only a partial understanding of the complicated historical background to this conflict. That doesn't seem to stop those of us posting snap reactions on Twitter or Facebook from holding ourselves out as experts and casting blame on one side or the other for causing all the trouble.

To those who see Israel only as the villain, I would ask what you would expect any nation to do upon being struck with barrages of rockets by a group pledged to the destruction of that nation? What would the United States do, for example, if militants in Mexico seized the city of Tijuana and began lobbing rockets into homes in San Diego? And how do you justify the deliberate targeting of civilians, and the deliberate concealment of rocket launching sites inside homes and schools? Finally, if Hamas knows that this rocket fire is going to trigger a massive retaliation in which Palestinian civilians will suffer disproportionately while Israelis will emerge mostly unscathed, don't they bear some responsibility for the deaths of their own people?

And to those who see Hamas only as the villain, I would ask whether the retaliatory bombing of Gaza is giving Hamas exactly the propaganda victory it wants. Is Israel playing into its enemy's hands by carrying out what many are viewing as a disproportionate response? How will these periodic wars help end the cycle of violence and allow Israel to live in peace?

What's horrifying about this latest spate of violence (in addition to the overwhelming worry of my own kid being in the middle of it) is not that it's senseless and tragic. It's that both sides actually have some logical reasons for pursuing violent methods. For Hamas, the Israeli bombing of Gaza may create sympathy for their cause from much of the world. For Israel, Hamas rockets provide the opportunity to gain at least a temporary increase in security by cleaning out some of the rocket bases from which attacks are being launched. But I wonder whether either side has properly calculated the longer term costs of attempting to resolve their conflict by violent means. Violence does not seem the most direct way to peace. Blaming one side or the other is also not the way to peace. And however important it may seem, establishing who is right and who is wrong is also not a sure path to peace.

The way to peace is through understanding of the other side's perspective, appreciation of both sides' common humanity, and figuring out practical ways in which people of different views and traditions can learn to live together.


UPDATE (7/17): Cora's full report in the Jewish Journal

Monday, July 7, 2014

Divided government

Polls show that public approval of Congress remains at historic lows. President Obama is still way more popular than Congress, but his ratings have taken a dip as well lately. All this negativity seems to reflect a general dissatisfaction or weariness with the federal government. My impression is that most people are fed up with Washington not so much because of the specific policy results that are or are not being achieved by our elected officials, but rather because of their inability to get much of anything done.

It's not hard to figure out why Congress can't get anything done. It boils down to simple numbers. Nothing can pass the House unless it is supported by the Republican majority, or unless the House Republican leadership is willing to put up a bill with bi-partisan support for a vote. And the Senate Republican minority will not allow most legislation to be put to a vote without 60 votes for cloture.

But when the question is placed to prospective voters whether they favor one party control of Congress and the White House or some variant of divided government, a surprising number are not troubled at all by divided government. In fact, a lot of voters seem to favor it, believing it is in line with the Constitution or something. It's mainly only partisan Democrats who think the solution is to elect more Democrats to Congress.

Is the message that American voters just don't understand the way their own government functions (or fails to function)? Or that they don't have the sense to do what is necessary to fix it, which most people in most other democracies in the world would tell you just means allowing one party or the other to assume control?

Or are Americans just manifesting the triumph of hope over experience? Gallup interprets the poll results to suggest that many people prefer divided government because they want Congress to compromise and enact a moderate agenda, fearing that complete control by one party or the other will produce legislation that is too extreme in either direction. Despite repeated demonstrations that many members of Congress consider it a betrayal of their principles to support anything that the other party might agree to, voters still continue to return those members to office, the most partisan voters demanding that their representatives never bend, while others expect them to compromise. We thereby place our own representatives in an impossible position, and then we blame Congress for a situation that we have created, and that we seem likely to perpetuate this coming November. (Remember Einstein's definition of insanity, which is to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.) But you could also argue that it's about time for Congress to get the message that they need to try harder to reach consensus more often, even though by doing that many members will have to risk their own seats.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Stress Test

Anyone who wants to re-live those exciting and scary days of 2008 and 2009 when we suffered through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, should pick up Tim Geithner's Stress Test. More than a memoir, the book tries to serve as a manual for dealing with massive financial panic. Yet it turns out to be an entertaining and pretty quick read for a 500 page tome, probably because it's dealing with momentous times and big issues.

Geithner is probably the most misunderstood and under-appreciated member of President Obama's first-term cabinet. He was disliked by both the right and left, and he probably realized even at the time that his task was thankless politically. He was a poor communicator, starting this self-deprecating book with the story of his first disastrous speech as Treasury Secretary, and talking elsewhere about his "colorless" speeches. And he failed to deal with some of our most distressing financial problems--high unemployment, fairness, bank regulation--in a way that satisfied most Americans.

On the other hand, Tim Geithner, maybe more than anyone else, probably saved us from another Great Depression. And the stress test, which he conceived sitting on a beach in Mexico during Christmas vacation just before President Obama took office, turned out to be a brilliant solution to restoring confidence in the banking system, which was absolutely critical to getting the economy moving again. Past massive bank failures, such as the savings and loan crisis of the 1980's, ended up costing the taxpayers many billions of dollars. But the near collapse of some of our largest financial institutions in 2008 ended up costing the taxpayers nothing, due to Geithner's brilliant plan. In fact, we were paid back with interest.

But who's going to thank Tim Geithner for saving the banks, as necessary as that may have been to economic recovery? A lot of people think they should have been allowed to fail, or at least punished more than they were, even though we probably would have seen the resurgence of 1930's style shantytowns across America had a general banking collapse been allowed to happen. (A lot of people also think that the basic problem was that the banks were too big to fail in the first place, and that that problem has not been solved. Geithner responds to that criticism by reminding us that the Great Depression was precipitated by the failures of hundreds of small banks. Breaking up big banks would not have prevented or solved the financial crisis. Anyway, in comparison to the banks of most other advanced countries, relative to their home countries' GDP, our banks are actually not even that big.)

From the viewpoint of Obama-watchers like myself, what's interesting about Geithner's portrait of the president is Obama's emphasis on getting the policy decisions right, regardless of the political consequences. President Obama pushed his economic team to come up with the best possible plan, and backed them up to the hilt. It's ironic, given that Obama supporters such as myself were initially attracted to his candidacy because of his promise of a more open and inclusive political process, even at the possible expense of particular policy outcomes. Instead the president stuck to his team's policy guns, because that was what was deemed necessary to restore the economy. And without restoring the economy, nothing else would have been possible.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Geithner's analysis or prescriptions, it's hard after reading this book not to admire his self-sacrifice and devotion to the best interests of the country. And Geithner has solid answers to all the criticisms of his tenure in office. His perspective deserves to be heard and better understood.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Conspiracies

If you are wedded to the theory that Benghazi was some kind of State Department conspiracy and cover-up, then it seems you are not going to be capable of processing any new information about Benghazi without somehow fitting it into that pre-conceived narrative. So when the Obama administration captures one of the terrorists who led the Benghazi attack, this news cannot be taken at face value. It just can't be that the Obama administration has been diligently hunting down the attackers to bring them to justice. No, it must be that they are doing it to distract attention from the real Benghazi scandal, whatever it is, that the president's opponents are still hoping to prove. Or maybe they're doing it to give a boost to Hillary Clinton's book tour, allowing her to bask in the glory of finally capturing one of the terrorists, rather than face the tough questions about the real scandal, whatever it is.

It has gotten to the point where the president's critics, who have been trying so hard for years to push the narrative that the Obama administration has not been doing enough to hunt down terrorists, are now criticizing the administration for guess what? Yes, it has come to this: they are criticizing the president for hunting down and capturing terrorists.

Here's another corner the conspiracy theorists have painted themselves into. If you have bought the theory that the Obama administration has been engaged in a massive effort to subvert the Constitution, take power from the states, destroy our freedoms, and dictate every aspect of our personal lives, then it seems you can't help reacting to the patent office's decision to revoke the trademark rights of the Washington Redskins football team, except by decrying this action as yet another example of the overreaching federal government taking away personal freedoms. (But I thought the patent and trademark office has the authority to decide what "writings and discoveries" are entitled to federal protection. It's actually written in the Constitution that the president's critics supposedly revere so much.)

Anyway, some of the conservatives who are now screaming about how invalidating the Redskins' trademark represents some kind of end to the American way of life might want to consider just what way of life is threatened by this action. Isn't it that way of life where we once casually threw around all kinds of derogatory terms for various ethnic groups? Isn't it the way of life of segregation and discrimination that these critics are showing nostagia for? Isn't it the whole structure of white supremacy that the Obama administration is threatening? If it's not that, somebody tell me just what American values are being threatened by a rule against trademarking ethnic slurs, because I have trouble understanding what else these critics could possibly be talking about.

In the meantime, I'm just going to celebrate the PTO's ruling by plastering the Redskins logo to this post, which I have cut and pasted from the team's website without authorization or compensation. May this shameful emblem of our racist history soon disappear. Good riddance.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Libya

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary

Statement by the President on the Apprehension of Ahmed Abu Khatallah

The United States has an unwavering commitment to bring to justice those responsible for harming Americans. Since the deadly attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I have made it a priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans. I recently authorized an operation in Libya to detain an individual charged for his role in these attacks, Ahmed Abu Khatallah. The fact that he is now in U.S. custody is a testament to the painstaking efforts of our military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel. Because of their courage and professionalism, this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system.
Even as we welcome the success of this operation, we also pause to remember the four Americans who gave their lives in Benghazi representing their country: Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty. As I said shortly after the attack, they exemplified the values that we stand for as a nation, including a commitment to freedom and justice. All Americans should be grateful for their service, just as we are grateful to all our personnel – civilian and military – who represent our country around the globe. We will continue to honor our fallen by carrying on their efforts in support of the Libyan people’s aspirations to live in a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic society.
With this operation, the United States has once again demonstrated that we will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans. We will continue our efforts to bring to justice those who were responsible for the Benghazi attacks. We will remain vigilant against all acts of terrorism, and we will continue to prioritize the protection of our service-members and civilians overseas. We will also sustain our support for the Libyan people, as they work to overcome years of tyranny and do the difficult work of building a democracy.


Friday, June 13, 2014

No US troops in Iraq

Monday, June 9, 2014

Student loans

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary

Remarks by the President on Opportunity for All: Making College More Affordable

1:51 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Everybody have a seat.  Welcome to the White House.  And I want to thank Andy for the terrific introduction.  And this is commencement season, and it’s always a hopeful and exciting time, and I’ll bet we might have some folks who just graduated here today.  Raise your hands.  Let’s see -- yes, we’ve got a couple of folks who are feeling pretty good.  (Laughter.) 
Of course, once the glow wears off, this can be a stressful time for millions of students.  And they’re asking themselves, how on Earth am I going to pay off all these student loans?  And that’s what we’re here to talk about.  And Andy I think gave a vivid example of what’s going through the minds of so many young people who have the drive and the energy and have succeeded in everything that they do but because of family circumstances have found themselves in a situation where they’ve got significant debt.
Now, we know, all of you know, that in a 21st century economy, a higher education is the single best investment that you can make in yourselves and your future, and we’ve got to make sure that investment pays off.
And here’s why:  For 51 months in a row, our businesses have created new jobs -- 9.4 million new jobs in total.  And over the last year, we’ve averaged around 200,000 new jobs every month.  That’s the good news.  But while those at the top are doing better than ever, average wages have barely budged.  And there are too many Americans out there that are working harder and harder just to get by.
Everything I do is aimed towards reversing those trends that put a greater burden on the middle class and are diminishing the number of ladders to get into the middle class, because the central tenet of my presidency, partly because of the story of my life and Michelle’s life, is this is a country where opportunity should be available for anybody -- the idea that no matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, how you were raised, who you love, if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to live up to your responsibilities, you can make it here in America.
And in America, higher education opens the doors of opportunity for all.  And it doesn’t have to be a four-year college education.  We’ve got community colleges, we’ve got technical schools, but we know that some higher education, some additional skills is going to be your surest path to the middle class.  The typical American with a bachelor’s degree or higher earns over $28,000 more per year than somebody with just a high school education -- 28 grand a year.  And right now, the unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree is about half of what it is for folks with just a high school education.
So you know that this is a smart investment.  Your parents know this is a smart investment.  That’s why so many of them made such big sacrifices to make sure that you could get into college, and nagged you throughout your high school years.  (Laughter.) 
Here’s the problem:  At a time when higher education has never been more important, it’s also never been more expensive.  Over the last three decades, the average tuition at a public university has more than tripled.  At the same time, the typical family’s income has gone up just 16 percent. 
Michelle and I both went to college because of loans and grants and the work that we did.   But I’ll be honest with you -- now, I’m old, I’ve got to admit -- (laughter) -- but when I got out of school, it took me about a year to pay off my entire undergraduate education.  That was it.  And I went to a private school; I didn’t even go to a public school.  So as recently as the ‘70s, the ‘80s, when you made a commitment to college, you weren’t anticipating that you’d have this massive debt on the back end. 
Now, when I went to law school it was a different story.  But that made sense because the idea was if you got a professional degree like a law degree, you would probably be able to pay it off.  And so I didn’t feel sorry for myself or any lawyers who took on law school debt. 
But compare that experience just half a generation, a generation ago to what kids are going through now.  These rising costs have left middle-class families feeling trapped.  Let’s be honest:  Families at the top, they can easily save more than enough money to pay for school out of pocket.  Families at the bottom face a lot of obstacles, but they can turn to federal programs designed to help them handle costs.  But you’ve got a lot of middle-class families who can’t build up enough savings, don’t qualify for support, feel like nobody is looking out for them.  And as Andy just described vividly, heaven forbid that the equity in their home gets used up for some other family emergency, or, as we saw in 2008, suddenly home values sink, and then people feel like they’re left in the lurch. 
So I’m only here because this country gave me a chance through education.  We are here today because we believe that in America, no hardworking young person should be priced out of a higher education. 
This country has always made a commitment to put a good education within the reach of young people willing to work for it.  I mentioned my generation, but think about my grandfather’s generation.  I just came back from Normandy, where we celebrated D-Day.  When that generation of young people came back from World War II, at least the men, my grandfather was able to go to college on the GI Bill.  And that helped build the greatest middle class the world has ever known. 
Grants helped my mother raise two kids by herself while she got through school.  And she didn’t have $75,000 worth of debt, and she was raising two kids at the same time.  Neither Michelle or I came from a lot of money, but with hard work, and help from scholarships and student loans, we got to go to great schools.  We did not have this kind of burden that we’re seeing, at least at the undergraduate stages.  As I said, because of law school, we only finished paying off our own student loans just 10 years ago.  So we know what many of you are going through or look forward -- or don’t look forward to.  (Laughter.)  And we were doing it at the same time -- we already had to start saving for Malia and Sasha’s education. 
But this is why I feel so strongly about this.  This is why I’m passionate about it.  That’s why we took on a student loan system that basically gave away tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to big banks.  We said, let’s cut out the middle man.  Banks should be making a profit on what they do, but not off the backs of students.  We reformed it; more money went directly to students.  We expanded grants for low-income students through the Pell grant program.  We created a new tuition tax credit for middle-class families.  We offered millions of young people the chance to cap their student loan payments at 10 percent of their income -- that’s what Andy was referring to.  Michelle right now is working with students to help them “Reach Higher,” and overcome the obstacles that stand between them and graduation.  This is something we are deeply invested in.
But as long as college costs keep soaring, we can’t just keep throwing money at the problem.  We’re going to have to initiate reforms from the colleges themselves.  States have to invest more in higher education.  Historically, the reason we had such a great public education system, public higher education system was states understood we will benefit if we invest in higher education.  And somewhere along the line, they started thinking, we’ve got to invest more in prisons than we do in higher education.  And part of the reason that tuition has been jacked up year after year after year is state legislators are not prioritizing this.  They’re passing the costs onto taxpayers.  It’s not sustainable.
So that’s why I laid out a plan to shake up our higher education system and encourage colleges to finally bring down college costs.  And I proposed new rules to make sure for-profit colleges keep their promises and train students with the skills for today’s jobs without saddling them with debt.  Too many of these for-profit colleges -- some do a fine job, but many of them recruit kids in, the kids don’t graduate, but they’re left with the debt.  And if they do graduate, too often they don’t have the marketable skills they need to get the job that allows them to service the debt.     
None of these fights have been easy.  All of them have been worth it.  You’ve got some outstanding members of Congress right here who have been fighting right alongside us to make sure that we are giving you a fair shake.  And the good news is, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before.  And that’s something we should be proud of, and that’s something we should celebrate. 
But more of them are graduating with debt.  Despite everything we’re doing, we’re still seeing too big a debt load on too many young people.  A large majority of today’s college seniors have taken out loans to pay for school.  The average borrower at a four-year college owes nearly $30,000 by graduation day.  Americans now owe more on student loans than they do on credit cards.  And the outrage here is that they’re just doing what they’ve been told they’re supposed to do.  I can’t tell you how many letters I get from people who say I did everything I was supposed to and now I’m finding myself in a situation where I’ve got debts I can’t pay off, and I want to pay them off, and I’m working really hard, but I just can’t make ends meet.
If somebody plays by the rules, they shouldn’t be punished for it.  A young woman named Ashley, in Santa Fe, wrote me a letter a few months ago.  And Ashley wanted me to know that she’s young, she’s ambitious, she’s proud of the degree she earned.  And she said, “I am the future” -- she put “am” in capital letters so that I’d know she means business.  (Laughter.)  And she told me that because of her student loan debt, she’s worried she’ll never be able to buy a car or a house.  She wrote, “I’m not even 30, and I’ve given up on my future because I can’t afford to have one.”  I wrote her back and said it’s a little early in your 20s to give up.  (Laughter.)  So I’m sure Ashley was trying to make a point, but it’s a point that all of us need to pay attention to.  In America, no young person who works hard and plays by the rules should feel that way. 
Now, I’ve made it clear that I want to work with Congress on this issue.  Unfortunately, a generation of young people can’t afford to wait for Congress to get going.  The members of Congress who are here are working very hard and putting forward legislation to try to make this stuff happen, but they have not gotten some of the support that they need.  In this year of action, wherever I’ve seen ways I can act on my own to expand opportunity to more Americans, I have.  And today, I’m going to take three actions to help more young people pay off their student loan debt.
Number one, I’m directing our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to give more Americans who are already making their loan payments a chance to cap those payments at 10 percent of their income.  We call it “Pay As You Earn.”  We know it works, because we’ve already offered it to millions of young people.  It’s saving folks like Andy hundreds of dollars potentially every month. It’s giving graduates the opportunity to pursue the dreams that inspired them to go to school in the first place, and that’s good for everybody.  And we want more young people to start their own businesses.  We want more young people becoming teachers and nurses and social workers.  We want young people to be in a position to pursue their dreams.  And we want more young people who act responsibly to be able to manage their debt over time.  So we’re announcing steps that will open up “Pay As You Earn” to nearly 5 million more Americans.  That’s the first action we’re taking today.
The second action is to renegotiate contracts with private companies like Sallie Mae that service our student loans.  And we’re going to make it clear that these companies are in the business of helping students, not just collecting payments, and they owe young people the customer service, and support, and financial flexibility that they deserve.  That’s number two.
Number three -- we’re doing more to help every borrower know all the options that are out there, so that they can pick the one that’s right for them.  So we’re going to work with the teachers’ associations, and the nurses’ associations, with business groups; with the YMCA, and non-profits and companies like TurboTax and H&R Block.  And tomorrow, I’m going to do a student loan Q&A with Tumblr to help spread the word -- you’re laughing because you think, what does he know about Tumblr?  (Laughter.)  But you will recall that I have two teenage daughters so that I am hip to all these things.  (Laughter.)  Plus I have all these twenty-somethings who are working for me all the time.  (Laughter.)
But to give even more student borrowers the chance to save money requires action from Congress.  I’m going to be signing this executive order.  It’s going to make progress, but not enough.  We need more.  We’ve got to have Congress to make some progress.  Now, the good news is, as I said, there are some folks in Congress who want to do it.  There are folks here like Jim Clyburn, John Tierney, who are helping lead this fight in the House.  We’ve got Elizabeth Warren, who’s leading this fight in the Senate.  Elizabeth has written a bill that would let students refinance their loans at today’s lower interest rates, just like their parents can refinance a mortgage.  It pays for itself by closing loopholes that allow some millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families. 
I don’t know, by the way, why folks aren’t more outraged about this.  I’m going to take a pause out of my prepared text.  You would think that if somebody like me has done really well in part because the country has invested in them, that they wouldn’t mind at least paying the same rate as a teacher or a nurse.  There’s not a good economic argument for it, that they should pay a lower rate.  It’s just clout, that’s all.  So it’s bad enough that that’s already happening.  It would be scandalous if we allowed those kinds of tax loopholes for the very, very fortunate to survive while students are having trouble just getting started in their lives. 
So you’ve got a pretty straightforward bill here.  And this week, Congress will vote on that bill.  And I want Americans to pay attention to see where their lawmakers’ priorities lie here:  lower tax bills for millionaires, or lower student loan bills for the middle class.
This should be a no-brainer.  You’ve got a group of far-right Republicans in Congress who push this trickle-down economic plan, telling hard-working students and families, “You’re on your own.”  Two years ago, Republicans in Congress nearly let student loan interest rates double for 7 million young people.  Last year, they tried to strip protections from lower-income students.  This year, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to slash Pell grants and make it harder for thousands of families to afford college.  If you’re a big oil company, they’ll go to bat for you.  If you’re a student, good luck. 
Some of these Republicans in Congress seem to believe that it’s just because -- that just because some of the young people behind me need some help, that they’re not trying hard enough.  They don’t get it.  Maybe they need to talk to Andy.  These students worked hard to get where they are today. 
Shanelle Roberson -- where is Shanelle?  Shanelle is the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college.  (Applause.)  Shanelle is not asking for a handout, none of these folks are.  They’re working hard.  They’re working while they’re going to school.  They’re doing exactly what we told them they should do.  But they want a chance.  If they do exactly what they’re told they should do, that they’re not suddenly loaded up where they’ve got so much debt that they can’t buy a house, they can’t think about starting a family, they can’t imagine starting a business on their own. 
I’ve been in politics long enough to hear plenty of people, from both parties, pay lip service to the next generation, and then they abandon them when it counts.  And we, the voters, let it happen.  This is something that should be really straightforward, just like the minimum wage should be straightforward, just like equal pay for equal work should be straightforward.  And one of the things I want all the voters out there to consider, particularly parents who are struggling trying to figure out how am I going to pay my kid’s college education, take a look and see who is that’s fighting for you and your kids, and who is it that’s not.  Because if there are no consequences, then this kind of irresponsible behavior continues on the part of members of Congress.
So I ran for this office to help more young people go to college, graduate, and pay off their debt.  And we’ve made some really good progress despite the best efforts of some in Congress to block that progress.  Think about how much more we could do if they were not standing in the way. 
This week, they have a chance to help millions of young people.  I hope they do.  You should let them know you are watching and paying attention to what they do.  If they do not look out for you, and then throw up a whole bunch of arguments that are meant to obfuscate -- meaning confuse, rather than to clarify and illuminate -- (laughter) -- then you should call them to account.  And in the meantime, I’m going to take these actions today on behalf of all these young people here, and every striving young American who shares my belief that this is a place where you can still make it if you try. 
Thank you, everybody.  God bless you.  God bless America.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Obama-bashing 101

Those who think that the uproar over the release of American POW Bowe Bergdahl demonstrates blatant hypocrisy or inconsistency on the part of the Obama administration's critics just don't appreciate their logic. Allow me to explain just how the minds of the Obama-bashers work. Until last week, President Obama was wrong for not doing enough to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home. Now he is wrong for doing what was necessary to get Bergdahl home. If you think that is inconsistent, you are missing the crucial point that in both cases, it is President Obama doing the wrong thing. There is no inconsistency whatsoever. In fact, the President's critics show nothing if not a breathtakingly beautiful consistency that can be summed up in a simple Rule Number 1 for Obama's detractors: no matter what President Obama does, he is ALWAYS wrong. Now occasionally following Rule Number 1 requires the president's critics to change their own minds about what the president should do or have done. They're only following Rule Number 1 when they do that. And of course the only person to blame for this flip-flopping must be President Obama. When Obama wasn't doing enough, that must have been Obama's fault. When he accomplished what the critics wanted last week, he must be wrong to do that also. To admit otherwise, the president's critics would have to give up Rule Number 1. And they would rather tie themselves into pretzels than do that.

Once you let Rule Number 1 sink in, just think about the futility of comparing President Obama's actions to those of any of his predecessors. Those who wonder how President Obama can possibly be criticized for releasing Guantanamo detainees or for negotiating with the Taliban, given that President Bush released way more detainees, or that President Reagan negotiated with way more terrorists and practically created the Taliban, have not really understood the lesson I am trying to impart here. Do I have to spell it out? Those were Presidents Bush and Reagan doing those things. They obviously had justification. In this case, we are talking about President Obama. Completely different situation. Get it? On the one hand, you have President Bush or President Reagan. On the other, you have President Obama. How can anyone even make a comparison? If you're still confused, read Rule Number 1 again.



The final thing that President Obama's defenders don't seem to understand is that even if President Obama sometimes does the right thing, he always does it the wrong way. Let's call that Rule Number 2. In other words, maybe President Obama was supposed to try and get Bowe Bergdahl back, but he wasn't supposed to negotiate for Bergdahl's release. Instead he should have sent Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone over to Afghanistan to shoot their way out or something. Or even if was ok to negotiate, Obama should have gotten a better deal. Or even if we made a fair deal, Obama shouldn't have allowed Bergdahl's parents to go on television. Following Rule Number 2, it is easy to understand how Senator McCain, for example, is able to explain how he could have approved only a few weeks ago of making a deal for Bergdahl's release, but now he can be completely opposed to the deal that was made. McCain never said Obama should make THIS deal. He should have made some other deal. Following Rule Number 2, it is easy to see how this deal was the wrong kind of deal. What's wrong with it? Well, all kinds of things are wrong with it, but the main thing that is wrong is that it was made by President Obama.

Any questions?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dreaming

Last night I dreamt that the Obama administration obtained the release of the only American POW being held by the Taliban, and Republican politicians all praised the return of the captured soldier. Not just that they temporarily praised the return, and subsequently took down their congratulatory Twitter posts.  No, in my dream the opposition decided to be gracious, recognizing that getting this American prisoner freed represents a significant achievement.

Senator McCain, for example, recognized that he had recently said he supported the idea of a prisoner exchange with the Taliban to obtain the release of Bowe Bergdahl. "I said then that I would support the prisoner exchange, and of course I still support it. Why would I suddenly change my position just to score some cheap political points?"

Senator Ayotte, who only last month issued a press release mentioning her "ongoing efforts to urge the Department of Defense to do all it can to find Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home safely," [actual quote] said it would be bad form now to criticize the deal that obtained the return she herself had pushed for.

Senator Jim Inhofe said last year that " the mission to bring our missing Soldiers home is one that will never end. It’s important that we make every effort to bring this captured Soldier home to his family.” [actual quote] This week the senator was of course grateful for Bergdahl's return and appreciative that the Obama administration had done exactly what he had urged them to do.

In response to a few objections to the administration's apparent inability to notify Congress about the prisoner exchange a full 30 days before it occurred, a large number of Republican congressmen pointed out that this statute did after all, represent a substantial impingement on the President's constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy, and therefore was of dubious validity.  Moreover, one Republican congressman mentioned, "we imposed no such restrictions on President Bush. The Bush administration released hundreds of Guantanamo detainees, without getting anything whatsoever in return. And a lot of them returned to the battlefield. It would be unfair of us to complain about President Obama releasing a mere five prisoners in exchange for the only American serviceman still held in Afghanistan."

And to those who questioned whether the circumstances of Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance made him unworthy of efforts to retrieve him, Republican politicians, as well as their supporters on Fox News, were quick to silence such critics. "When the time comes, it might be appropriate to hold some inquiries into this question. But it is our policy to leave no soldier behind, no matter what his actions. To deviate from that policy would be unpatriotic."

Finally, in response to a few questions about whether we were negotiating with terrorists, Republican leaders were quick to point out that this was not a negotiation with terrorists, it was a prisoner swap in a war that is winding down to a conclusion, something that occurs at the end of every war. "If we are withdrawing from Afghanistan, we have no legal basis for holding captured Taliban fighters any longer. Since we have to release them eventually anyway, it only makes sense to trade them for an American prisoner." Anyway, these Republicans admitted, "if you want to bring up the champion of negotiating with terrorists, that would be Ronald Reagan, who traded arms for hostages with the Iranians. After setting that kind of example, how could we possibly turn around and criticize President Obama for doing something that needed to be done, and that we had in fact urged him to do?"