Barack Obama's administration is still insisting in court that its worst-kept secret—the use of unmanned aircraft to target and kill suspected terrorists—is classified information. But that didn't stop the president from openly defending the program to CNN reporter Jessica Yellin in an interview that aired Wednesday. Here's an excerpt from Obama's remarks, transcribed by Chris Woods at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

It has to be a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States. And this is an example of where I think there has been some misreporting. Our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence. But a lot of terrorist networks that target the United States, the most dangerous ones operate in very remote regions and it's very difficult to capture them. And we've got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties, and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there’s going to be civilian casualties involved.

So we have an extensive process with a lot of checks, a lot of eyes looking at it. Obviously as president I'm ultimately responsible for decisions that are made by the administration. But I think what the American people need to know is the seriousness with which we take both the responsibility to keep them safe, but also the seriousness with which we take the need for us to abide by our traditions of rule of law and due process.

Comparing different plans to reduce the deficit is maddeningly difficult. This is because any proper comparison between two plans has to be done against the same baseline — and as soon as you say the word "baseline," you might as well just pack up your bags and go home. You are doomed to a funhouse spiral into insanity as you try disentangle how much Obama's cuts vs. Obama's baseline matches up to Paul Ryan's cuts vs. Paul Ryan's baseline.

For example: if the Bush tax cuts are extended, they'll cost about $4 trillion over the next decade. So if your baseline assumes they get extended, then you can claim $4 trillion in deficit reduction by allowing them to expire. However, by current law they're going to expire on December 31. If you take that as your baseline, you can't claim any deficit reduction at all by allowing them to expire.

There's a sense — a very big sense — in which this is ridiculous. Who cares what the baseline is? The Bush tax cuts will cost $4 trillion one way or the other. That's the price tag for keeping them, and it's the savings for letting them expire. All that matters is one simple thing: what would the deficit be in, say, 2017 if your proposals were enacted? That's it.

But Ezra Klein, in an aside to a longer post, very succinctly explains one of the reasons this stuff gets so many people so animated:

People prefer “tough” cuts to cuts they think are easy (though the cuts in question are rarely tough on the people analyzing them). So they give a lot more credit to, say, raising the Medicare eligibility age, as that hurts seniors, than to officially drawing down the war spending, or cutting interest payments, or banking the results of a deal. But the deficit doesn’t care how much the cuts hurt. It’s all about the bottom-line number.

It's sort of pathological, really. If you save money, you save money. Who cares if you go after the low-hanging fruit first? Nobody should, and yet they do. If your proposed savings aren't something that's likely to concretely hurt someone, they're somehow unserious. Raising the Medicare eligibility age is a real cut; reducing reimbursements to hospitals isn't. Block-granting Medicaid is a real cut; ending the war in Afghanistan isn't. Slashing NIH funding is a real cut; reinstating PAYGO isn't.

But it's not so. None of us should put up with baseline games anymore. Just show us the proposal and show us what the effect will be in five or ten years down the road. Period. That's all that matters. And if you can meet your goal without harming too many people in the process? That should be a point in your favor, no?

Lots of healthcare wonks have been beating the drums to focus a little more attention on Mitt Romney's proposed cuts to Medicaid, which acts as an indispensable backstop to Medicare. Last night, Bill Clinton went there:

Now, folks, this is serious, because it gets worse. And you won’t be laughing when I finish telling you this. They also want to block-grant Medicaid, and cut it by a third over the coming 10 years.

Of course, that’s going to really hurt a lot of poor kids. But that’s not all. Lot of folks don’t know it, but nearly two-thirds of Medicaid is spent on nursing home care for Medicare seniors who are eligible for Medicaid.

It’s going to end Medicare as we know it. And a lot of that money is also spent to help people with disabilities, including a lot of middle-class families whose kids have Down’s syndrome or autism or other severe conditions. And honestly, let’s think about it, if that happens, I don’t know what those families are going to do.

Clinton's specific number is apparently wrong. According to Sarah Kliff, about 40% of Medicaid dollars are spent on nursing home care for seniors, not two-thirds. But Clinton's primary point remains true: at the same time that Romney/Ryan would squeeze Medicare, they'd also squeeze the very program that takes care of the elderly who'd be hardest hit by the cuts. This backstopping function is one reason that Medicaid is a surprisingly popular program: it doesn't just help the poor, it also helps the elderly and the disabled, and is therefore a lifeline for a lot of middle-class families. It's worth making a little more noise about.

Marines with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, move through a poppy field on their way to Patrol Base Mohmon in the Lui Tal district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 17, 2012.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ismael Ortega.

Update: Vladimir Putin has completed his crane-migration stunt. However, results were not terribly impressive: "On his first flight Putin was accompanied by only one of the Siberian white cranes." (The Russian president had been preparing for the motorized-hang-glider flight for about a year and a half.) Furthermore, Guardian contributor Howard Amos notes that, contra earlier reports, "[i]n the end [Putin] didn't have to wear a beak."

This story first appeared on the Guardian website.

He has shot a grey whale with a sample-collecting dart in the Pacific, released leopards in the Caucasus, and "saved journalists from wild tigers." Now Vladimir Putin's latest episode of animal antics takes him into the Siberian skies as a surrogate parent leading a flock of endangered cranes.

The stunt-prone Russian president will personally pilot a motorized hang glider during a stopover in the far north of the country this week on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum in Vladivostok.

There are only 20 Siberian white cranes left in the world. Putin will lead a group of the birds on the first leg of their 5,000-kilometer migration, and, if all goes to plan, they will spend the winter in central Asia.

Six months into his third presidential term and a month from his 60th birthday, Putin will have to don white overalls and a special beak to be recognized by the cranes, Yuri Markin, an ornithologist and director of the Oksk Nature Reserve, where the young birds were raised, told the RBC news website.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the nation's first-ever Muslim member of Congress, doesn't mince words when asked about the Republican party's formal proclamation that the United States is under assault from Islamic Shariah law. "It's an expression of bigotry," he said on Wednesday, in an interview with Mother Jones at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. "There has never been any legislation offered to establish Shariah law—not at the federal level, not at the state level. There's not been a municipal ordinance opposing this, there's not been anything."

For Ellison, the anti-Shariah plank was part of a broader narrative of exclusion. "Why do they want to become the party of hate? They're hating on immigrants who are from Latin America. They're demonstrating hatred toward Muslims. They're demonstrating hostility toward women. They act like they don't like gay people. Who is their party supposed to be made up of in 20 years?"

"I'm sad that they have decided to go into this dark ugly place where they see the whole world as their enemy," Ellison continued. "And this is the thing: I don't mind debating taxes and spending; we probably should. But they're the party that is basically a bigoted party and they have now officially declared themselves against a whole segment of the American population, because if we said we were going to put a plank opposing Jewish law, or Catholic canon, it would be an outrage. This is also an outrage. But you know, it'll pass."

Ellison's remarks echoed comments he made in July after his Minnesota colleague, GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, accused Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. (Bachmann's statement was condemned by some high-profile Republicans, like Arizona Sen. John McCain.) Ellison said he's spoken with Bachmann once since the Abedin controversy—in response to a bill she was proposing to audit Medicaid recipients—but didn't bring up the subject with her. "I don't find that to be a productive use of my time or hers," Ellison said. "She whipped up a million [fundraising] dollars by promulgating hate against a religious minority. I'm not gonna talk her out of that." His plan to settle the argument is to campaign for her opponent this fall, Minneapolis hotelier Jim Graves.

"She's always bragging about how great the private sector is. She should join it."

David Corn and Darrell Hammond (who famously portrayed Bill Clinton on Saturday Night Live) joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss how Bill Clinton's inherent charm makes him such an effective political speaker.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

It's hard to judge convention speeches when you're a partisan yourself, but it sure seems as if Democrats have the better of things this year on the rhetorical front. Yesterday Michelle Obama gave probably the best speech a first lady has given since Eleanor Roosevelt, and tonight Bill Clinton gave one of the best speeches he's ever given. That's a pretty high bar.

It went long, of course. It was Bill Clinton, after all. But I'll bet the viewing audience loved it. And he sure seemed to be having a great time. He went after Republicans about as hard as anyone has done yet, but he did it with a smile and a real sense of joy at being in the arena. Like this:

In Tampa—did y'all watch their convention? I did. In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president's reelection was actually pretty simple—pretty snappy. It went something like this: We left him a total mess. He hasn't cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in.

Later he went after Romney and Ryan on Medicare, making no personal attacks but eviscerating them nonetheless:

Now, there were two other attacks on the president in Tampa I think deserve an answer. First, both Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan attacked the president for allegedly robbing Medicare of $716 billion…Look, here's what really happened. You be the judge. Here's what really happened. There were no cuts to benefits at all. None. What the president did was to save money by taking the recommendations of a commission of professionals to cut unwarranted subsidies to providers and insurance companies that were not making people healthier and were not necessary to get the providers to provide the service.

…Now, when Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama's Medicare savings as, quote, the biggest, coldest power play, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry—because that $716 billion is exactly, to the dollar, the same amount of Medicare savings that he has in his own budget. You got to get one thing—it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.

And welfare reform:

Let's look at the other big charge the Republicans made. It's a real doozy. They actually have charged and run ads saying that President Obama wants to weaken the work requirements in the welfare reform bill I signed that moved millions of people from welfare to work. Wait, you need to know, here's what happened. Nobody ever tells you what really happened — here's what happened.

When some Republican governors asked if they could have waivers to try new ways to put people on welfare back to work, the Obama administration listened…And the administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent, and they could keep the waivers only if they did increase employment. Now, did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less.

…I am telling you the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform's work requirement is just not true. But they keep on running the ads claiming it. You want to know why? Their campaign pollster said, we are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers. Now, finally I can say, that is true. I couldn't have said it better myself.

The whole thing was vintage Clinton. There was plenty of detail in the speech, but it was all delivered with a wink and a chuckle while he stuck in the shiv. Republicans will dutifully attack back, but really, most of them are probably just shaking their heads and wishing they had someone like him in their party.

Speaking of things that President Obama doesn't get enough credit for:

Total auto sales for the month were just under 1.3 million, 19.9% higher than a year earlier. That would put the annual pace at 14.5 million vehicles, the best of any month since the federal "cash for clunkers" economic stimulus program in August 2009 and a rate 2 million vehicles ahead of August 2011's.

....Fuel-efficient vehicles were especially good sellers as gas prices neared or crossed $4 a gallon in much of the nation. Sales of Toyota's Prius hybrid more than doubled to more than 21,000 vehicles....General Motors Co. said its Chevrolet passenger car sales jumped 25%, with gas sippers such as the Spark, Sonic, Cruze and Volt plug-in hybrid all posting their best-ever monthly sales.

I won't pretend to know whether GM and Chrysler can survive in the long run. Probably not. But then, you know what they say about the long run, don't you?

Conversely, in the here-and-now, the Obama administration's surprisingly dextrous rescue of GM and Chrysler saved upwards of a million American jobs and prevented the economy from tumbling even further toward the abyss than it did. Entire regions of the country would probably be in economic devastation today if Obama hadn't acted as he did.

But he did, against the opposition of nearly the entire Republican Party. The Big Three all have at least a fighting chance at long-term survival, a million workers still have jobs, and the economy is starting to recover. Not bad.

A motto of this year's GOP convention was "We Built It." But remember when Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren reminded voters about how America really gets built? "There is nobody in this country that got rich on their own," she declared, in a clip that became a viral sensation. Watch: