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Obama Should Speak Now in Support of the War Powers Act

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 6:09 PM EDT

How long are we going to be conducting air strikes against the ISIS insurgents in Iraq? On Saturday, President Obama made it clear that this depends on how long it takes for Iraqis to form an "inclusive government" that commands enough support to mount its own military offensive. Iraq's problem, he said, is first and foremost a political one. Until that's addressed, American air strikes are just a stopgap.

Fair enough. Still, how about an answer to the question?

Q Mr. President, for how long a period of time do you see these airstrikes continuing for? And is your goal there to contain ISIS or to destroy it?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m not going to give a particular timetable, because as I’ve said from the start, wherever and whenever U.S. personnel and facilities are threatened, it’s my obligation, my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief, to make sure that they are protected. And we’re not moving our embassy anytime soon. We’re not moving our consulate anytime soon. And that means that, given the challenging security environment, we’re going to maintain vigilance and ensure that our people are safe.

....Q Is it possible that what you’ve described and your ambitions there could take years, not months?

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks, if that’s what you mean. I think this is going to take some time....I think part of what we’re able to do right now is to preserve a space for them to do the hard work that’s necessary. If they do that, the one thing that I also think has changed is that many of the Sunni countries in the region who have been generally suspicious or wary of the Iraqi government are more likely to join in, in the fight against ISIS, and that can be extremely helpful. But this is going to be a long-term project.

In other words, Obama is claiming that he's (a) protecting our consulate in Erbil, and (b) that protecting American embassies is a constitutional responsibility, which is what gives him the authority to continue the air offensive.

This is a problem because, let's face it, in practically every war zone in the world there's an American embassy or some American citizens who can be colorably said to be in danger. If that's all it takes to justify long-term military action, then the president really does have a free hand to mount military campaigns anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.

I believe that Obama has truly become more skeptical about the effectiveness of American military power since he first took office. But that's not enough. If he really wants to make a difference, he should use this opportunity to explicitly weigh in on the side of the War Powers Act. This wouldn't legally bind future presidents to do the same, but it would set a precedent that would make the WPA more difficult to ignore. And it shouldn't be hard for Obama, who specifically addressed the issue of air strikes in 2007 and did so in no uncertain terms: "The President," he said, "does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Obama should use this opportunity to definitively acknowledge that the War Powers Act is binding on the president; that it applies to situations like this; and that therefore he needs congressional authorization to continue air strikes beyond 60 days. It's the right thing to do for both the executive branch, which should not have unconstrained warmaking powers, and for the legislative branch, which should be required to carry out its constitutional duties instead of merely whining about executive actions without ever having to commit itself to a course of action.

It's not too late to do this. But it will be soon.

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Does the 6-Year Itch Spell Doom for Obama?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 3:50 PM EDT

The theory of the six-year itch is well-known phenomenon: American presidents suffer all too often during their second terms from an onslaught of scandals that hobble their ability to act. Larry Summers thinks this is a good reason to ditch the limit of two four-year terms and instead switch to a single six-year term. Jonathan Bernstein isn't buying it:

He can point to all sorts of second-term miseries going back to Franklin Roosevelt. But the apparent pattern doesn't hold up that well. A classic example is Richard Nixon. Yes, Watergate dominated and ruined Nixon's second term, but the series of abuses of power that cost him the presidency—and the initial cover-up—occurred during his first term. Similarly, George W. Bush's second term was spoiled to a great extent by the Iraq war (which Summers bizarrely omits from his summary); Iraq, too, was a first-term decision.

Quite right. But I'm not sure this makes the point Bernstein wants it to make. Back in 2004 I predicted that if George Bush were reelected, he'd suffer through a bunch of scandals, and that turned out to be right. I suggested there were three reasons that second terms tended to be overrun by scandal, and this was No. 2:

Second, there's the problem that second terms are, well, second terms. It takes more than two or three years for a serious scandal to unfold, and problems that start to surface midway through a president's first term usually reach critical mass midway through his second term…George Bush is especially vulnerable to this since his first term already has several good candidates for scandals waiting to flower. Take your pick: Valerie Plame? The National Guard? Abu Ghraib? Intelligence failures? Or maybe something that hasn't really crossed anybody's radar screen yet, sort of like the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate Hotel that no one took seriously in 1972.

I think Bernstein and I are saying similar things here. In Bush's case, there were indeed some new problems in his second term: Katrina in 2005 and several assorted scandals that revolved around Jack Abramoff in 2006. The same has happened to Obama. Regardless of whether you think that things like Fast & Furious or Solyndra were genuine scandals (I don't), they have the same effect. More recently, you can add the IRS and Benghazi. And again, regardless of whether these are real scandals or invented ones, they work the same way. Low-information voters don't always pay attention to whether a scandal is "real." They just keep hearing about one thing after another, and eventually conclude that where there's smoke there's fire.

As it happens, I'd say that Obama has done a remarkably good job of running a clean administration, and I suspect that scandalmania isn't actually hurting him much. Despite the best efforts of Republicans to pretend otherwise, there's just not much there. You can hate his policies or his personality or his competence or his leadership ability, but the truth is that he's run a pretty clean shop on the scandal front.

Still, if you accept the general proposition that scandals tend to pile up over time, that means you're likely to have a fairly impotent president by year six. And maybe that means a single six-year term would be for the best.

The problem with this is that there's not much evidence for it. If six years really is some kind of magic scandal number, then you'd expect to see it at work elsewhere. But do you? How about in Britain, which has indeterminate terms? Or Germany, where Angela Merkel is heading into her ninth year in office? Or in cities and states without term limits? More generally, in other jurisdictions with different terms, how much evidence is there that voters become highly sensitive to mounting scandals by year six?

Not much, I think, though I suspect that voters do just generally get tired of politicians and parties after about six years or so. After all, by then it's clear that all the stuff they promised won't happen, so why not give the other guys a shot? Hell, lots of people are complaining these days about Obama failing to bring postpartisan peace and harmony to Washington, DC, as if there were much he could ever have done about that in the face of unprecedentedly unanimous obstruction from Republicans starting on day one. But still: He did say that was one of his goals, and he sure hasn't delivered it. So let's throw him out. The next president will be able to do it for sure. Right?

James Bonds, Ranked

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 2:59 PM EDT

According to CBS News, 51 percent of Americans think correctly that Sean Connery was the best James Bond. A misguided 12 percent—presumably millennials confusing the cause of their affection for the '90s— think Pierce Brosnan was the No. 1 007. Third place went to Roger Moore with 11 percent of respondents inexplicably calling the worst Bond ever their favorite. Current Bond Daniel Craig netted the favor of only 8 percent and rounding errors Timothy Dalton and George Lazenby both came in at just 1 percent.

Connery is without question the best, but let's go deeper. Here are all the Bonds ranked, according to me, a person with opinions.

1. Sean Connery

2. Daniel Craig

3. Pierce Brosnan

4. Timothy Dalton

5. George Lazenby

6. Roger Moore

(Note: I didn't included David Niven because the 1967 Casino Royale doesn't count.)

Watch John Oliver Explain How Payday Loans Are Awful

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 12:31 PM EDT

Payday lenders are awful, horrible scum who prey on the desperation of the working class. Payday loans are awful, horrible deals wherein a borrower gets a small amount of cash at an exceedingly high interest rate and agrees to pay it back in a short amount of time, typically two weeks. If a borrower can't pay it back then they're hit with an avalanche of fees and end up having to borrow more and then its a vicious cycle all the way down. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, the average borrower ends up paying $1,105 to borrow just $305.

On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver made these points and more in a way that will make you eventually run your head into a brick wall because you have no more tears left to shed.

Watch:

Lindsey Graham Lays Down a Terrorism Marker

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 12:07 PM EDT

Lindsey Graham says that if we don't attack "ISIS, ISIL, whatever you guys want to call it"—and attack them right now—they'll be attacking us on American soil before long. "This is about our homeland," he said yesterday. Steve Benen correctly interprets Graham's remarks:

In this case, Graham seems to be laying down a marker: if members of the Islamic State, at some point in the future, execute some kind of terror strike on Americans, Lindsey Graham wants us to blame President Obama — because the president didn’t stick to the playbook written by hawks and neocons.

I don't think anyone is actively hoping for a terrorist attack on American soil. Just as I don't think anyone was actively hoping to keep the American economy in ruins back in 2009. Still, these are cases where ideology and politics line up nicely: if something bad does happen, Republicans want to lay down a marker making sure that everyone knows whose fault it is.

Sometimes this doesn't work: Republicans confidently predicted doom in 1993 when Bill Clinton raised taxes, for example. But wrong predictions are quickly forgotten. Occasionally, however, predictions are right, and then they can be milked forever. When Ronald Reagan insisted that tax cuts would supercharge the economy, and the economy then dutifully improved, his reputation was cemented forever—even though tax cuts played only a modest role in the economic recovery of the 80s.

Another major terrorist attack on the American homeland is bound to happen sometime. Who knows? It might even happen within the next year. And make no mistake: if it does happen, Lindsey Graham wants to make sure you know who to blame. If it doesn't happen, well—look! Gay climate Obamacare!

Is There a Hillary Doctrine?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 11:21 AM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with Hillary Clinton is being taken as an effort by Hillary to distance herself from President Obama. Here's the most frequently quoted snippet:

HRC: Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.

....JG: What is your organizing principle, then?

HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.”

I've seen the first part of this excerpt several times, and each time I've wondered, "So what's your organizing principle." When I finally got around to reading the interview, I discovered that this was Goldberg's very next question. And guess what? Hillary doesn't have one.

She's basically hauling out an old chestnut: We need to be strong at home if we want to be strong overseas. And that's fine as far as it goes. But it's not an organizing principle for foreign policy. It's not even close. At best, it's a precursor to an organizing principle, and at worst it's just a plain and simple evasion.

It so happens that I think "don't do stupid stuff" is a pretty good approach to foreign policy at the moment. It's underrated in most of life, in fact, while "doctrines" are mostly straitjackets that force you to fight the last war over and over and over. The fact that Hillary Clinton (a) brushes this off and (b) declines to say what her foreign policy would be based on—well, it frankly scares me. My read of all this is that Hillary is itching to outline a much more aggressive foreign policy but doesn't think she can quite get away with it yet. She figures she needs to distance herself from Obama slowly, and she needs to wait for the American public to give her an opportunity. My guess is that any crisis will do that happens to pop up in 2015.

I don't have any problems with Hillary's domestic policy. I've never believed that she "understood" the Republican party better than Obama and therefore would have gotten more done if she'd won in 2008, but I don't think she would have gotten any less done either. It's close to a wash. But in foreign policy, I continually find myself wondering just where she stands. I suspect that she still chafes at being forced to repudiate her vote for the Iraq war—and largely losing to Obama because of it. I wouldn't be surprised if she still believes that vote was the right thing to do, nor would I be surprised if her foreign policy turned out to be considerably more interventionist than either Bill's or Obama's.

But I don't know for sure. And I probably never will unless she gets elected in 2016 and we get to find out.

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This Is What Happens When You Like Everything on Facebook

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 11:08 AM EDT

Fun fact about Facebook: You should be discerning with the Like button because the News Feed algorithm is pretty sensitive. This can be a struggle because logging onto Facebook is a bit like hiking up a very tall mountain with Satan. It shows you the world and says, "all these things I will give you if you fall down and Like them." Facebook gives you an unending slew of opportunities to Like things because the more you Like, the more accurate the algorithm gets at predicting what you want to see in your News Feed. In general, it's pretty good at this. However, it makes a few assumptions about your Like. The assumptions are (1) that you actually Like the posts you Like—you may not like some bad breaking-news alert, but you like that you received it, you like that you received it from the page that posted it; and (2) you are somewhat picky about what you Like. Maybe not too picky! But picky. If you Like everything, you Like nothing and it's all meaningless.

What happens though if you Like everything? Every Candy Crush request? Every political post? Every bad joke? Every marriage announcement? Wired's Mat Honan gave it a shot and the answer is, well, things get crazy:

My News Feed took on an entirely new character in a surprisingly short amount of time. After checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore…Nearly my entire feed was given over to Upworthy and the Huffington Post…As I went to bed, I remember thinking "Ah, crap. I have to like something about Gaza," as I hit the Like button on a post with a pro-Israel message.

By the next morning, the items in my News Feed had moved very, very far to the right. I'm offered the chance to like the 2nd Amendment and some sort of anti-immigrant page. I like them both. I like Ted Cruz. I like Rick Perry. The Conservative Tribune comes up again, and again, and again in my News Feed. I get to learn its very particular syntax.

The syntax he identifies will look familiar to anyone has spent any time on Facebook lately. The whole article is pretty interesting. Go read the whole thing.

80 Years Ago: Alcatraz Takes In First Group of No Good Thugs

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 6:25 AM EDT
Group portrait of the Alcatraz Guards and Officials in front of the Administration Building. In the center with the light hat is Warden Johnston. Second to the right of Johnston is Capt. Henry Weinhold. c1930s. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Weinhold Family Alcatraz Photograph Collection

On August 11, 1934, Alcatraz accepted 14 federal prisoners, considered to be the grand opening the Rock. Of course, once you dig a little deeper, you learn that there were already prisoners on the island when those 14 inmated arrived on armored railcars (via ferry). But history is filled with asterisks, right? Alcatraz had long been used as a military prison, going back to the Civil War. On August 11th, a few military prisoners still serving out their terms were on the island to welcome their new Rockmates.

The new federal inmates were all transferred from McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington. They were joined by 53 more inmates on August 22nd. Alcatraz remained open as a Federal Penitentiary until March 1963 and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions on the West Coast.

Because there are so many great photos of Alcatraz, we're going to stretch our legs a bit today.

Main Cell Block Guard Carl T. Perrin, March 21, 1963. Keith Dennison/Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives
 
Alcatraz guards at the sallyport, c. 1939-1962. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Carl Sundstrom Alacatraz Photograph Collection
 
View of the original control center at Alcatraz Federal Prison. Taken during the World War II period as can be seen by the war bond poster on the wall behind the gentleman. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, McPherson/Weed Family Alcatraz Papers
 
Alcatraz mess hall and kitchen with Christmas menu, date unknown. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Sheppard Alcatraz Collection
 
Alcatraz inmates playing dominoes and baseball in the recreation yard, c1935-1960. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Betty Waller Collection
 
Alcatraz inmates arriving at the main cell house, c1960. Leg irons and handcuffs can be seen on most of the inmates. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Marc Fischetti Collection
 
Construction of Alcatraz 1890-1914 Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives
 
Press Photo from the 1962 Alcatraz escape, June 1962. View from the west side building diagram directions. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives

 

A New Album From Elvis? Sort of.

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Elvis Presley
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (Deluxe Edition)
RCA/Legacy

Elvis That's The Way It Is

How many versions of Elvis singing Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" would you like to hear? Is eight enough? That's what you get on this mammoth eight-CD (plus two-DVD) set. Revisiting one of the true high points of his career, Elvis: That's the Way It Is (Deluxe Edition) chronicles his summer 1970 run of shows in Las Vegas, when The King was in undeniably fine voice and great spirits. Contents include the original album of the same name, six complete shows (with not-quite-identical set lists), a fun disc of rehearsals, and, on the DVD side, the original theatrical release of the film chronicling the shows, as well as the special edition from 2001. Yes, it's overkill, but also surprisingly, compulsively entertaining—assuming already you're a fan. Encompassing the rollicking rock of his youth and the grandiosity of his grown-up self, Elvis would never sound this great again, whether belting out "Hound Dog" or getting convincingly angsty on a latter-day gem like the soaring "Suspicious Minds." If it becomes disconcerting to hear him cover other people's hits (for example, Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline"), or indulge in corn like "The Wonder of You," or break the mood with dopey wisecracks, ultimately Elvis's obvious delight in being onstage transcends any shortcomings in the repertoire. Binge-listening is permitted.
 

Book Review: "Excellent Sheep"

Mon Aug. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Excellent Sheep

By William Deresiewicz

FREE PRESS

Something is rotten in higher education, William Deresiewicz writes in Excellent Sheep, as promising students, driven by an almost neurotic need for overachievement, are caught up in an escalating race. Deresiewicz, a former Yale prof, argues that America's top institutions have become career mills that funnel privileged kids into a narrow selection of professions—namely consulting and finance (and more recently, tech). Many end up unfulfilled, anxious, depressed, and fearful of failure, he notes, citing reports from a Stanford mental-health task force and the American Psychological Association. While it's largely anecdotal, the book still makes a pretty good case that these colleges are failing in their most essential mission: to help kids "build a self."