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Krugman: Obama One of the Most Successful Presidents in American History

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 10:14 AM EDT

President Barack Obama may be facing some of his lowest approval ratings to date, but that isn't stopping Paul Krugman from defending the president's overall track record. In fact, the Nobel Prize-winning economist is arguing Obama is one of the most "successful presidents in American history."

Krugman, who was once among the president's more notable skeptics, made his case in a new feature for Rolling Stone aptly titled "In Defense of Obama," in which he dismissed persistent attacks from Republicans and mounting disappointment expressed by Democrats with an outline of the Obama administration's key achievements in several areas including healthcare, the environment, national security, and the economy.

It's a tough time to be making that case. Americans are increasingly frustrated by Obama's handling of ISIS and continued unrest in Iraq. As for the economy, even Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently blamed Obama's economic advisers for repeatedly failing ordinary Americans in favor of Wall Street.

But in a follow-up interview with ABC News, Krugman told Jonathan Karl the recent onslaught of criticism is unwarranted, noting Americans have experienced more "consequential" changes under Obama's presidency than ever before.

"People who had this idea that Obama was going to bring a transformation of America, I thought were being naïve," Krugman said in the interview. "But, by God, we got health reform, and we got a significant financial reform. We are getting the environmental action … it’s not everything you would have wanted, but it’s more than anyone else has done for decades."

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is still out there claiming the president has accomplished nothing:

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McDonald's Had to Hire a Fact-Checker to Prove It Serves Real Food

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

For McDonald's, 2014 has been like a Happy Meal that's missing a trinket: a major bummer. Its China operations (along with those other US fast-food firms) got caught up in an expired-meat scandal that pushed down Asian sales. Its US sales are down too, and its share price has fallen about 8 percent over the past three months. Strife among workers over low wages has lingered, and took a nasty turn for the company when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that it's responsible for employment practices at its thousands of franchises, which it had been using as a shield to protect it from allegations of labor abuse. Insult to injury, a Consumer Reports survey named Mickey D's signature burgers the "worst-tasting of all the major US burger chains."

What's a beleaguered, ubiquitous burger giant to do? Apparently, take to Twitter with an ask-me-anything attitude and roll out a bunch of behind-the-scenes videos, hosted by Grant Imahara, a former star of TV's Mythbusters, all under a new program called "Your Questions. Our Food."

In this one, Imahara tours a plant owned by Cargill, a vast agribusiness conglomerate, that supplies McDonald's with preformed burger patties. Spoiler alert: Imahara finds everything hunky dory.

On the burger-factory floor, Imahara confronts the Cargill folks about whether they add "lean finely textured beef," a.k.a., pink slime, to the burgers. Pink slime, you might remember, is a slurry made of scraps of beef that have been pulverized, defatted, and subjected to ammonia steam to kill microbial pathogens. No, they assure him. (They neglect to add that McDonald's burgers did contain pink slime until 2012, when consumer outrage inspired them to stop the practice.)

Over at Time, Naomi Starkman has a rundown of some less-than-appetizing practices the fast-food giant has copped to on the campaign.

On beef hormones: "Most of the cattle we get our beef from are treated with added hormones, a common practice in the U.S. that ranchers use to promote growth." On feeding animals GMO feed: "Generally speaking, farmers feed their livestock a balanced diet that includes grains, like corn and soybeans. Over 90% of the U.S. corn and soybean crops are GMO, so cattle, chickens and pigs in our supply chain do eat some GMO crops."

And while it says it no longer uses so-called "pink slime" in its burgers, it does use an anti-foaming agent, dimethylpolysiloxane, in the oil it uses to cook Chicken McNuggets. It also uses azodicarbonamide, a.k.a. "the yoga mat ingredient," in its buns and sandwiches, saying it has many uses: "Think of salt: the salt you use in your food at home is a variation of the salt you may use to de-ice your sidewalk." As for why its U.S. menu contains items that are banned in Europe? "Every country has different food safety and regulatory standards and, because of this, ingredients will vary in our restaurants around the world. But no matter where you’re dining with us—in the U.S. or abroad—you can be assured of the quality and safety of our food."

The company even answered one of my questions, about the precise composition of its McNuggets.

It's way too early to tell whether this corporate glasnost campaign will inspire consumers to stampede back through the Golden Arches. The stock market, though, shrugged Monday. McDonald's shares fell 1.7 percent, part of a broader sell-off.

Meanwhile, given recent controversies over wages, I just asked McDonald's a question it presumably isn't eager to answer. I'll update if I get a response.

 

Vatican to Cohabitators and Gays: You're Kind of Okay. (Update: Actually, Never Mind.)

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 7:04 PM EDT
Bishops at the synod on family issues at the Vatican.

Update, Saturday, October 18, 2014: Never mind: "A final statement agreed to on Saturday by a summit of Catholic Church leaders to discuss teachings on family retreated from groundbreaking language on “welcoming homosexual persons” included in an interim draft released on Monday."

A preliminary document released by the Vatican today suggests a possible easing of the Catholic Church's strict stances on premarital cohabitation, homosexuality, and divorce and remarriage. Summarizing the first week of discussion at a worldwide meeting of bishops, the document stresses the need for church leadership to listen "with respect and love" and "appreciate the positive values" of members "rather than their limitations and shortcomings."

The document is not an indication of change in doctrine, but more of a recap of what has been discussed so far at the two-week long synod on family issues, and what's on the agenda in the second week of meetings. The synod was both convened and attended by Pope Francis. Among the topics mentioned in the document are the "positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation," and the importance of including Catholics who are divorced or remarried while "avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against."

The document also encourages churches to welcome and accept gay people, who "have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community." This "welcoming" has its limitations: The document maintains that "unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman."

Overall, however, the document's tone contrasts with statements from Pope Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who called gay marriage a "threat to world peace" and damaging to "the essence of the human creature." And not once does it refer those who are divorced or living together before marriage as sinners.

The document quotes previous writings by Pope Francis, stating: "The Church is called on to be 'the house of the Father, with doors always wide open…where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.'"

The Vatican's baby steps toward discussion and inclusion appear to reflect the frustration among many Catholics toward the church's traditional stances on family issues and gay rights. Last week, a poll of American Catholics found 40 percent believe the church should drop its opposition to premarital sex and cohabitation (33 percent say it should not), and 42 percent believe the Church should recognize same-sex marriage (40 percent disagree). The poll also found Pope Francis has an 85 percent favorability rating among American Catholics.

South Dakota Senate Candidate Boasted of "African American Friends," Mulled Run for DC Mayor

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 6:45 PM EDT
South Dakota Senate candidate Larry Pressler

Larry Pressler, who's running as an independent in South Dakota's three-way race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, has averaged around 23 percent of the vote in polls of the contest, which could determine control of the Senate in 2015. With Election Day less than a month away, former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds and Democrat Rick Weiland are both hoping to siphon off support from the third-party entry. And Pressler, who represented South Dakota in the Senate as a Republican from 1979 to 1997, is beginning to take his lumps. On Friday, Politico reported that he lists his primary residence in Washington, DC. But Pressler isn't just a casual DC resident—he's a self-described townie who briefly floated a run for mayor. Here's the Associated Press in 1998, on Pressler's bid to replace Democrat Marion Barry:

Pressler, now a lobbyist, was not immediately available for comment.

But he told Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that he has written a three-point agenda, including a private-school voucher program and a "real tax cut" to stimulate economic development in Washington.

"I have lived in DC since 1971, longer than anyone else who's running," Pressler said.

Despite hailing from a state that has relatively few blacks, Pressler told the newspaper said he could connect with Washington's blacks. The district is 65 percent black.

"I have a lot of African American friends," he said.

That's sort of the Trinity of archival dirt—a lobbyist epithet, an affirmation of DC residency, and an awkward boast about black friends. You don't see it very often.

Pressler quickly gave up on the idea of running for mayor, but not before the Washington City Paper's Michael Schaffer dug up this exquisite anecdote about the former senator:

Marching out of a committee hearing a couple years ago, Pressler mistook a closet door for the exit. After initially trying to wait out his colleagues, he finally realized that the hearing wasn't going to end any time soon. He walked back out of the closet, waved as if he'd been talking to someone inside, and left the chamber.

h/t Daily Kos Elections

Duck Dynasty Congressional Candidate Says Godlessness Will Cause "Mass Carnage and Mass Death"

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 4:49 PM EDT
Zach Dasher (left) and his cousin, Duck Dyansty's Willie Robertson

Godlessness is leading the United States down a path toward "tyranny and death," according to Louisiana Republican congressional candidate Zach Dasher. A nephew of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, Dasher is challenging incumbent GOP Rep. Vance McAllister in the November election. He made the comments in a 2012 episode of his personal podcast, Willing to Think.

Teasing a discussion of political correctness, Dasher asked, "Am I going to talk about the entitlement mindset of nearly half of our country that is really going to end in utter despair if we don't do something about it? Am I going to talk about how this swift drift away from God will usher in tyranny and death? Well, I probably will talk about that today."

He returned to the subject at the end of the episode:

We will only regress if we shut our mouths. Tyranny will get its foothold—if it already doesn't have it—and in the end, there will be mass carnage and mass death. It's inevitable. 'Oh, Zach, you are such an overreactor; you're like Alex Jones.' Look: I'm here with a philosophy. This is no conspiracy theory; this is a philosophy rooted in historical fact. Every society that has shut down people from discussing things about politics God, faith, when you silence people, every time that happens in a society, you know what happens? Tyranny and death. Every single time.

In another episode of the podcast, Dasher blamed rejection of God for a rise in anxiety disorders. "I know it's not politically correct, but there is a huge element of depression and anxiety disorders that is wrapped up in what I'm saying today," he said. In September, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski reported on comments Dasher made in other episodes of Willing to Think, in which the candidate blamed the Sandy Hook massacre on atheism. (He also argued that the popular millennial acronym "YOLO" is corrosive because it promotes an atheistic disregard for the afterlife.)

Dasher has put his faith front and center during the race. The campaign headquarters in West Monroe features an envelope taped to the outside of the glass door, instructing supporters to "leave your your prayers or scriptures." In an appearance on Fox News in June, he told Sean Hannity, "My platform begins with God."

Robertson, who supported McAllister during the special election for the seat in 2013, jumped ship after McAllister was caught on tape kissing a female staffer and now backs his kin. At a Lake Charles fundraiser, he referred to the first-time candidate as "my little nephew who came from the loins of my sister."

Elizabeth Warren: The Obama Administration Chose to Protect Wall Street, Not Families

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 3:20 PM EDT

In a new interview with Salon, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) leveled a bit of harsh criticism towards President Barack Obama's administration, charging his financial advisors with routinely favoring big banks following the financial crisis, rather than looking out for ordinary Americans.

"They protected Wall Street," Warren said. "Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. Not young people who were struggling to get an education. And it happened over and over and over."

But the senator, who was responding to columnist Thomas Frank's question regarding Democrats' mounting disappointment since the 2008 election, stopped short of issuing a scathing rebuke, largely pointing the finger at Obama's economic team for deregulation failures. She also made sure to credit the president with the creation of the Consumer Financial Bureau.

"If Barack Obama had not been president of the United States we would not have a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Period," Warren said. "I’m completely convinced of that...He was the one who refused to throw the agency under the bus and made sure that his team kept the agency alive and on the table."

As for continued confusion regarding the bureau's name itself, Warren jokingly blamed Republicans for the head-scratching.

"It was named by Republicans to be as confusing a name as possible. I used to think of it as the four random initials. I just call it my consumer agency. So that’s it, just the consumer agency."

Warren also noted that in light of Attorney General Eric Holder's recent resignation announcement, she would work to confirm a successor who will fully prosecute banking executives.

Warren's remarks follow last week's meeting at the White House between Obama and financial regulators to propose additional regulatory measures.

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Republicans Are Far More Critical of American Schools Than Democrats

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 2:23 PM EDT

Over at Vox, Libby Nelson interviews Jack Schneider, an education professor at College of the Holy Cross, about why Americans think schools are in decline despite the evidence that they're actually better than they used to be. Here's Schneider:

The first reason that people think schools are in decline is because they hear it all the time. If you hear something often enough, it becomes received wisdom, even if you can't identify the source. That rhetoric is coming from a policy machine where savvy policy leaders have figured out that the way that you get momentum is to scare the hell out of people. So reformers have gotten really good at this sky is falling rhetoric....The rhetoric there is the schools are in crisis, we are competing against nations that are going to somehow destroy us if our test scores aren't high enough, and lo and behold, policymakers have a solution.

Schneider points to a couple of pieces of evidence to back up his contention that schools today are better than in the past. The first is NAEP test scores, which have been generally rising, not falling, over the past few decades. The second is the well-known fact that people tend to think their own neighborhood schools are fine but that schools nationally are terrible. A Gallup/PDK poll confirms this perception gap.

But here's an interesting thing. Although it's true that this gap in perceptions is widespread, it's far more widespread among Republicans than Democrats. Take a look at the chart on the right, constructed from the poll numbers. When it comes to rating local schools, there's barely any difference between Democrats and Republicans. Only a small number give their local schools a poor grade. But nationally it's a whole different story. Republicans are far more likely to rate schools as disaster areas nationally.

I'm reluctant to draw too many conclusions about this without giving it some serious thought. Still, there's at least one thing we can say. This difference doesn't seem to arise from different personal perceptions of education. Both groups have similar perceptions of their own schools.1 So why are Republicans so much more likely to think that other schools are terrible? If it doesn't come from personal experience, then the most likely culprit is the media, which suggests that conservative media does far more scaremongering about education than liberal or mainstream media. That's pretty unsettling given the fact that, as near as I can tell, the mainstream media is almost unrelentingly hostile toward education.

But the truth is that I don't watch enough Fox or listen to enough Limbaugh to really know how they treat education. Is this where the partisan divide comes from? Or is it from the Christian Right newsletter circuit? Or the home school lobby? Or what?

In any case, there's more interesting stuff at the link, and Neerav Kingsland has a response here, including the basic NAEP data that shows steadily positive trends in American education since 1971.

1Or so it seems. One other possibility is that far more Republicans than Democrats send their kids to private schools. They rate these schools highly when Gallup asks, but rate other schools poorly because those are the schools they pulled their kids out of. A more detailed dive into the poll numbers might shed some light on this.

Pentagon: We Could Soon Be Fighting Climate Wars

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 1:45 PM EDT
The submarine USS Annapolis breaks through three feet of ice in the Arctic Ocean during an exercise in 2009. A report today from the Pentagon calls for an increased US military presence in the Arctic.

In one of its strongest statements yet on the need to prepare for climate change, the Defense Department today released a report that says global warming "poses immediate risks to US national security" and will exacerbate national security-related threats ranging "from infectious disease to terrorism."

The report, embedded below, builds on climate readiness planning at the Pentagon that stretches back to the George W. Bush administration. But today's report is the first to frame climate change as a serious near-term challenge for strategic military operations; previous reports have tended to focus on long-term threats to bases and other infrastructure.

The report "is quite an evolution of the DoD's thinking on understanding and addressing climate threats," said Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security. "The Department is not looking out into the future, it's looking at what's happening now."

 

And the Prize for Ebola Fearmongering Goes to Louisiana

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 1:40 PM EDT

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has a plan to stop Ebola: File a restraining order. Caldwell, a Republican, called the proposal to dispose of Dallas Ebola victim Eric Duncan's incinerated belongings at a Lake Charles landfill "absurd" and pledged to use the legal process to stop the transfer. WBRZ Baton Rouge reports:

"We certainly share sadness and compassion for those who have lost their lives and loved ones to this terrible virus, but the health and safety of our Louisiana citizens is our top priority. There are too many unknowns at this point," Caldwell said. The Louisiana Attorney General's Office is in the process of finalizing the application for temporary restraining order and expects it to be filed as early as Monday morning.

Additionally, the office is sending a demand letter to Texas state and federal officials, along with private contractors involved seeking additional information into the handling of this waste.

Caldwell, whose decision was quickly supported by GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal, didn't offer any details on how burying the incinerated materials would affect the people of his state. It's hard to see any risk—Ebola is transmitted only through bodily fluids, and Chemical Waste Management Inc., which operates the storage facility, sees no problem. And it's not as if the ashes are going particularly far, anyway—Lake Charles is just a quick jaunt over I-10 from Port Arthur, Texas, where Duncan's belongings were burned.

But Caldwell's stance is especially bizarre in light of the great lengths Louisiana lawmakers have gone to position the state as a repository for every other kind of waste. Fracking waste disposal, for instance, has become a $30 billion industry nationwide over the last decade. Much of that wastewater has been dumped into old wells in Louisiana. Louisiana may also soon begin accepting thousands of tons of other states' shale wastewater, which will be shipped down the Mississippi on barges. In Louisiana you can even store radioactive materials in an abandoned salt cavern, and then, after the salt cavern collapses, creating a massive sinkhole and forcing hundreds of people to permanently relocate, pour wastewater directly into the sinkhole. Just don't try to truck the ashes of an Ebola victim's belongings across the Sabine.

Election Rule #34: Process Gaffes Matter. Policy Gaffes Don't.

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 1:19 PM EDT

Last year, it was conventional wisdom that Republicans had a very good shot at gaining control of the Senate in this year's midterm election. But then GOP candidates started to falter a bit in Kansas, South Dakota, and other swing states. Charles Pierce comments on how this has played out with Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado:

The meme looked a little weak and faltering. It was time to make it strong again. And then we saw one of those remarkable moments in which the keepers of Our National Dialogue moved to shore up their own endangered credibility, thereby reviving the meme. Instead of being a demonstration that Joni Ernst's entire previous political career was built on fringe bushwah, her ability to "distance" herself from these positions was presented as a demonstration of how politically deft she is. Out in Colorado, Cory Gardner, who has spent every second of his time in politics as a proud anti-choice loon, is now ahead of incumbent Mark Udall at least in part because of the credit Gardner has accrued for shrewdly "softening" his long history of extremism. That this might be naked opportunism seems lost in the narrative somewhere. I don't think it's entirely out of line to believe that a lot of people in my business need the Senate to change hands in November to vindicate how smart they were in February.

Maybe. Or it might just be the usual preoccupation that political reporters have with process over substance. For example, Steve Benen notes today that Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes recently dodged "a straightforward question about whom she voted for in the 2012 presidential election" and got hammered for it. But in Iowa, when Ernst refused to say if she wants to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency or what she'd do for those who’d lose health care coverage if Obamacare is repealed, the reaction was mostly crickets.

The difference is that Grimes was clumsy over her handling of a process issue: her support for a president of her own party. Reporters feel free to go after that. Ernst, by contrast, was crafty over her handling of policy issues: in this case, environmental policy and health care policy. Likewise, Gardner is being crafty about his handling of abortion and contraceptive policy. That sort of craftiness generally invites little censure because political reporters don't want to be seen taking sides on an issue of policy—or even rendering judgment about whether a candidate's policy positions have changed. In fact, being crafty on policy is often viewed as actively praiseworthy because it shows how politically savvy a candidate is.

There are exceptions to this rule if a candidate says something truly loony. But the bar is pretty high for that. Generally speaking, policy views are out of bounds for political reporters, regardless of whether they've changed or whether they're transparently absurd. Ernst knows that. Grimes apparently didn't.