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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

Fugitive and NSA-secrets leaker Edward Snowden, shown here in Hong Kong in a June 9, 2013, photo provided by The Guardian newspaper in London, is again a focus of controversy – this time over whether clemency is in order. (Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras/The Guardian/AP/File)

New York Times pushes clemency for Edward Snowden. Justified? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.02.14

Should the United States government offer NSA leaker Edward Snowden some degree of clemency so he does not have to spend the rest of his life in exile, forever looking over his shoulder?

“Yes," says The New York Times editorial board, in perhaps the most high-profile defense yet of the famous fugitive. On Jan. 1, the Times published an editorial that argues that the information revealed by Mr. Snowden has had “enormous value” and launched a nationwide debate on government surveillance.

Snowden couldn’t just go to his superiors and work through channels to reveal NSA abuses, claims the Times, because legal protections for whistle-blower activities don’t apply to government contractors such as him. Meanwhile, there’s no proof his leaks have actually damaged US security, according to the paper’s editorial board.

“When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government,” writes the Times.

The British paper The Guardian has published an editorial with a similar point. This New Year’s push for mercy is likely to drive official Washington’s arguments over Snowden and his legacy, already heated, to new levels.

For instance, Business Insider political editor Josh Barro immediately fired back at the NYT’s logic, tweeting that it would be "terrible" to give Snowden a break along the lines laid out in the editorial, because to do would establish a dangerous precedent:

But the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, a longtime critic of the Obama administration’s surveillance and drone policies, fired right back at Mr. Barro, saying that pardons by definition deal with legal cases to which normal rules don’t seem to apply.

“They are meant to be used judiciously, on an ad hoc basis, in what are clearly exceptional circumstances,” Mr. Friedersdorf writes.

That’s just a taste of what security wonks will be tussling over. Of course we’ve got a couple of comments here ourselves.

First, any sort of negotiated deal with Snowden won’t happen quickly. That’s because, as a practical matter, it would probably have to wait until legal challenges to the NSA’s newly revealed activities have played out in the courts. The resultant legal framework could have a powerful effect on the inherently political nature of any Snowden clemency, after all. If the NSA’s phone metadata collections are held to be unconstitutional, his chances of a return to the US might rise. If not, it might be hard for any president to offer Snowden a deal he’d find acceptable.

Second (and related), your position on Snowden today likely depends on your snap judgment as to how history will judge the activities he revealed.

To the Times, and other clemency advocates such as the ACLU, he has laid bare widespread illegality and abuse. The NSA’s own internal auditor has judged that the agency exceeded its authority “thousands of times a year," writes the Times. The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has rebuked the NSA for repeatedly providing misleading information about its surveillance activities.

“Many of the mass-collection programs Mr. Snowden exposed would work just as well if they were reduced in scope and brought under strict outside oversight, as [a recent] presidential panel recommended,” writes the Times editorial board.

Not everybody agrees with this judgment. Much of the coverage of Snowden leaks has exaggerated their reach, goes this view, while minimizing the effect of privacy safeguards that are already in place.

Washington Post opinion writer Ruth Marcus writes that her scale weighs against Snowden, for instance.

“Existing oversight, while flawed, is not as feckless as Snowden portrays it, and the degree of intrusion on Americans’ privacy, while troubling, is not nearly as menacing as he sees it,” Ms. Marcus writes.

Finally, can we leave Snowden’s personality out of this? Marcus judges that he’s got an overblown sense of self and of the importance of his actions, and that’s a perfectly legitimate opinion to have, but should it bear on his clemency outcome?

Whistle-blowers are often difficult. So are politicians. It takes a pretty big ego to step into the public arena to take on big issues, for good or ill. By going public with his identity, Snowden ensured that a good share of the coverage of his actions would focus on himself. But maybe it’s the NSA and what it does, not Snowden, that’s most important to the nation.

While it may be easy to "despise and reject Snowden," it is "much harder to despite and reject the discussion he touched off," writes New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen on his "Pressthink" blog.

US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor arrives at the US State Department for a gala dinner to honor the 2013 Kennedy Center Honorees in Washington earlier this month. Justice Sotomayor will take center stage in New York's Times Square Tuesday to usher in 2014 by pressing the button to lower the iconic countdown ball. (Mike Theiler/Reuters/File)

Justice Sotomayor to lead Times Square ball drop. Undignified?

By Staff writer / 12.30.13

Yes, it’s true – Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor will play a key role in the drop of the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square on Tuesday night. She’ll lead the ceremonial 60-second countdown and push the button which begins the ball’s final descent.

Organizers of the event noted that Justice Sotomayor will be the first high court judge to play such a role, which we would have thought went without saying. However, the choice here is apt in that Sotomayor is a Bronx native and evangelist for all things New York City, including its pace of life and the speed of its ordered-in food delivery.

She was chosen for the New Year’s Eve honor in part because of her inspirational story of rising from modest origins to become the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, said event organizers.

“Justice Sotomayor is an inspiration to many, and it is a privilege to welcome her to our celebration to ring in 2014,” said Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins. “Who better to join us in the Crossroads of the World than one of New York’s own?”

Given that Sotomayor was tapped for the court by President Obama in 2009, there’s been some grumbling on the right that her appearance is unseemly. The conservative news site Twitchy headlined their piece on this issue “Might Miley teach the justice to twerk?”

(Yes, Ms. Cyrus will perform on stage in Times Square in the 11 p.m. hour, according to the event schedule. She’ll be pretty far from Sotomayor, however, so it’s unlikely they’ll meet.)

However, we’ll note that in performing this public role, Sotomayor is following in the footsteps of conservative colleague Antonin Scalia, who has become something of celebrity jurist in his own right.

In 2005, Justice Scalia, the first Italian-American Supreme Court justice, served as grand marshal of New York’s Columbus Day Parade, an honor previously given to actress Sophia Loren, among others. Like other justices, he speaks often at law schools. But he’s also addressed incoming House Republicans, and he delights in publicly skewering what he believes to be misbegotten liberal dogmas.

Prior to Scalia’s appointment to the court by Ronald Reagan in 1986, Supreme Court justices for the most part eschewed publicity, wrote George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley in a lengthy 2011 piece on the subject. But to some extent he has pioneered a path of higher-profile speeches and public position-taking that some of his colleagues now follow.

“Scalia is the first real celebrity justice,” wrote Mr. Turley in The Washington Post.

He’s also the high court’s firearms instructor, apparently. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan grew up in New York City, like Sotomayor. Consequently, she had little to say when in making the rounds of the Senate prior to her confirmation vote lawmakers asked her if she had ever handled a gun.

She promised them she’d ask Scalia to take her hunting, and she did.

“He thought it was hilarious. He thought it was a total crackup,” she told the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier this year. (Hmm, another public appearance by a justice here, we’ll just point out.)

Now Justice Kagan and Scalia hunt ducks two or three times a year. They’ve even been to Wyoming to shoot deer.

President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seen here in file photo, are the most admired man and woman in America, according to a Gallup poll. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File)

Gallup most admired: Who made the list besides Obama, Hillary Clinton? (+video)

By Staff writer / 12.30.13

President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton once again topped Gallup’s annual list of world figures admired most by Americans.

But that’s not the news. Mr. Obama has topped the men’s list every year since 2008 – as have American presidents most years since Gallup began polling “most admired man” in 1946. Mrs. Clinton won “most admired woman” for the 12th straight year and 22nd time overall.

What’s new is that their numbers took a dive. Obama went from 30 percent last year to 16 percent this year, in the open-ended survey of 1,031 Americans; Clinton fell from 21 percent to 15 percent.

Obama’s slide is easy to explain: From the Obamacare fiasco and general Washington dysfunction to Edward Snowden’s leaks on government snooping, the president had an annus horribilis. Clinton’s slide might be attributed to the fact that she kind of took the year off, having retired as secretary of State and declined to engage in others’ efforts to prepare the groundwork for a possible presidential campaign.

More interesting to us were the other names on the list. Let’s start with the men who got 1 percent each: Microsoft founder Bill Gates; actor Clint Eastwood; retired Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas; Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas; 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney; and former President Jimmy Carter.

Most are from the world of politics – including Mr. Eastwood, whose prime time conversation with the empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention is still buzzworthy. We’re going to assume that if Mr. Romney sees the list (and cares), he won’t be happy that he and Eastwood get equal billing.

Senator Cruz is the only prospective 2016 presidential candidate on the men’s list, which probably says more about the fervency of his supporters than his chances of winning the nomination. But it’s also interesting that one of his likely rivals, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, didn’t make the list – while his father did.

Tied for second on the men’s list, with 4 percent each, are former President George W. Bush and Pope Francis. For President Bush, that 4 percent is double what he got last year. Perhaps this hints at a comeback in public estimation, having left office with dismal job approvals? Regarding the Pope, we’re going to guess that his 4 percent is only the beginning, given the splash he has made in just nine months on the job.

Rounding out the men’s list, with 2 percent each, are former President Bill Clinton and the Rev. Billy Graham. The elderly Mr. Graham tops the all-time list of top 10 mentions for Gallup’s most admired man – 57 times, far more than anyone else.  

Also of note: Former South African President Nelson Mandela was chosen by 7 percent of those surveyed, but he is no longer qualified to make the list, which only ranks people who are still alive. Mr. Mandela died the day polling began, Dec. 5.

On the women’s list, entertainer Oprah Winfrey eked out a second-place showing with 6 percent, just ahead of first lady Michelle Obama, who got 5 percent. Four of the top six women are minorities: Ms. Winfrey, Mrs. Obama, Pakistani teen education advocate Malala Yousafzai (2 percent), and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (2 percent). Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) came in fourth with 5 percent.

The final four women each polled at 1 percent: German Chancellor Angela Merkel; actress Angelina Jolie; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; and Queen Elizabeth II. We’re thinking that Duchess Kate gets points for giving birth to a future king, and a cute one at that, though she made the list last year, also with 1 percent. And her grandmother-in-law reigns supreme at the top of the all-time list of top 10 finishes for most admired women, with 46 appearances.

Looking ahead to 2014, we see at least two women who could break into the top 10: Janet Yellen, set to become chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, a liberal firebrand with a fan base eager for her to run for president in 2016 (despite her protestations).

Among the men, that bottom scrum of 1-percenters could see some new faces. Maybe Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey and a 2016 prospect? How about Vice President Joe Biden? Maybe Senator Paul will replace his father on the list? Check back in a year.

In this November photo, Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing. On her blog, Tavenner reported that tech fixes to have worked. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Obamacare enrollment surge: Mission accomplished or misleading blip?

By Staff writer / 12.30.13 handled a December surge in Obamacare sign-ups with apparent aplomb, according to administration officials. More than 975,000 Americans enrolled in private insurance plans through the federal health-care marketplace during the month, bringing the total since Oct. 1 to 1.1 million enrollees.

Tech fixes to the front end of appear to have worked, wrote Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, on her official blog. On Dec. 23 alone, the site supported 83,000 simultaneous users without crashing.

“We are in the middle of a sustained, six-month open enrollment period [and] we expect to see enrollment ramp up over time, much like other historic implementation efforts we’ve seen in Massachusetts and Medicare Part D,” Ms. Tavenner writes.

In addition, roughly 850,000 people have signed up for coverage through state-run Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges, according to private estimates. That puts Obamacare’s total enrollment near 2 million. This figure is within shouting distance of the administration’s original estimate of 3.3 million enrollees before Jan. 1.

Woo-hoo! Mission accomplished, right? Is it time for the president to stand in front of a banner in the White House press room and declare victory?

Not so fast, and no, it isn’t time. Even Obamacare’s supporters acknowledge there’s still a long way to go before the effort can be judged a success – or failure.

“It’s premature to say Obamacare is meeting expectations,” Jonathan Cohn writes in The New Republic.

First of all, it’s not clear how many of the new enrollees previously had individual health-care policies canceled because they didn’t meet ACA standards.

Some 4 million people lost health coverage due to cancellation, according to Associated Press coverage. The Obama administration reversed course and said these substandard plans could exist for another year, but not all states and insurers agreed to this fix.

That means it’s possible the United States is entering the first year of Obamacare with a net loss of 2 million insured, according to the law’s critics.

“We’re still ending 2013 with more people having lost their insurance than gained it,” Jim Geraghty writes in the right-leaning National Review.

Second, the ACA will need to see a continuing surge in applicants to meet its overall first-year goal.

While December was big, 2013 enrollment was still more than 1 million short, and the enrollment surge probably won’t continue in January and February. That’s because of the ACA’s multiple deadlines.

Enrollees had to sign up in December to have coverage on Jan. 1. The next important date is March 31, when open enrollment for 2014 ends. After that, individuals without health coverage who are not exempt from Obamacare will have to pay a tax penalty.

If past experience with the implementation of health laws is any guide, the next surge won’t come until the last few weeks of March as possible tax penalties loom.

“These next three months will be pretty important for seeing whether the law hits the Congressional Budget Office projection of 7 million enrollees in 2014 – or, as it has in the first three months of enrollment, continues to fall short,” writes Sarah Kliff, Washington Post health-care expert.

Finally, now the hard part starts. Beginning Jan. 1, people who have enrolled in health plans through federal and state ACA exchanges will begin showing up at doctor's offices and hospital emergency rooms. Not all have received insurance cards yet. Not all have had their enrollment information passed to insurance companies. Glitches in this back end of the system could have an enormous effect on popular perception of the law.

“The front-end of the site is now finally working quite well – in contrast to the very serious back-end issues that still remain,” writes Robert Laszewski, a respected insurance industry consultant, on his blog.

So bottom line: The December surge is certainly a welcome development for hard-pressed administration officials. But they will still be anxious over the ACA’s progress for months to come.

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during his end-of-the-year news conference at the White House, Dec. 20, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

A polling puzzle: Obama's popularity at low ebb, even as economy improves

By Staff writer / 12.24.13

The last few months have taken their toll on President Obama's popularity.

Currently vacationing in Hawaii, Obama is finishing 2013 with approval ratings at an all-time low – and the lowest they've been for any president at this point in their term since Richard Nixon, according to one new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The Real Clear Politics average puts Obama's approval rating at just over 42 percent, and his disapproval rating at 54 percent. The numbers are particularly striking when you consider that just a year ago, they were reversed, with approval ratings of about 54 percent and disapproval ratings of 42 percent.

The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act clearly took a major toll on Obama – and the law itself is seen by Americans as both Obama's greatest achievement and his greatest failure to date, according to a new Gallup poll – as did the government shutdown and NSA surveillance controversy.

But perhaps most surprising, given that voters name the economy as their No. 1 issue, is that his tanking approval ratings coincide with an economic rebound. Unemployment is at 7 percent – its lowest level in five years – and GDP is growing. The 4.1 percent annualized pace of growth recently reported for the third quarter is the fastest quarter for GDP growth in two years.

Voters seem at least partially aware of that fact. In a year-end USA Today/Pew Research Center poll that also found abysmal approval numbers, and which chronicled how badly the Affordable Care Act and its botched rollout has hurt Obama, one of the few bright spots for the president were the views on his handling of the economy. While that number is still low – 42 percent – it has risen 11 points in just a month.

Given how much voters care about the economy, why is Obama's approval tracking in the opposite direction?

One reason is that the reaction to the Obamacare rollout seems to be having an unusually strong effect, far overshadowing any help that economic gains might otherwise have given Obama.

According to the USA Today/Pew poll, perceptions of Obama's effectiveness, honesty, and leadership have also suffered greatly in the past year, with negative views on all three traits increasing by double digits since January. A majority of Americans in all recent major polls also express dissatisfaction both with the new health-care law and its implementation.

But beyond the Obamacare effect, Americans' perception of the economy doesn't seem aligned with the news about its recovery. According to the Post-ABC poll, 79 percent of Americans still say the economy is in recession. (In a slightly more encouraging sign for Obama, 59 percent said that based on their personal experience, the economic recovery has begun.)

The bigger question for Obama is whether sustained economic gains – assuming the public eventually starts believing those gains – will eventually be enough to help him in the public eye. And whether his approval ratings can recover soon enough to help his party in next year's midterm elections.

In his year-end news conference, Obama shrugged off the polls and said that his only concern is whether things are improving for Americans.

"If you’re measuring this by polls, my polls have gone up and down a lot through the course of my career,” Obama said. “If I was interested in polling, I wouldn’t have run for president.”

“We head into next year with an economy that’s stronger than it was at the start of the year,” he added, saying that, “I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.”

One possible bright spot for Obama: Polls show Congress faring far worse than the president when it comes to Americans' opinions, and Congressional Republicans faring worst of all.

Rosemary Cabelo uses a computer at a public library to access the Affordable Health Care Act website in San Antonio, Dec. 11, 2013. The White House announced Thursday night that people whose health insurance plans got canceled won't have to comply with the law's individual mandate in 2014. (Eric Gay/AP/File)

Is Obamacare individual mandate cracking?

By Staff writer / 12.20.13

Good news for people who’ve lost their health insurance because it doesn’t meet "Obamacare" standards: The White House announced Thursday night that it’s going to cut these folks something of a break.

They won’t be subject to the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate for 2014, meaning they won’t have to pay a tax penalty if they don’t get coverage for next year. They’ll also be eligible to buy so-called catastrophic insurance plans, which are inexpensive but cover only big medical expenses.

“The President and I want to do everything we can to ensure that individuals with canceled plans have as many options as possible,” wrote Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a letter to Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia that outlined the changes.

The cancellation of policies purchased in the individual health insurance market, for not meeting ACA regulations, caused a political uproar that forced the Obama administration’s hand on this issue. The White House said about 500,000 people who lost plans but have not yet found new insurance will be helped by these changes. Other estimates put the number of individuals who lost insurance due to the onset of Obamacare in the millions.

President Obama previously said that insurers could restore these policies if they wished. Some insurers and states said it was too late to go back, however, making Thursday’s move almost inevitable.

The question now is whether the individual mandate to buy insurance, the heart of Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement, will be further softened in the months ahead. The administration has been adamant that it won’t delay the requirement, saying it’s needed to get people to sign up in large enough numbers to make Obamacare work. But now they’ll face renewed political pressure to allow others to opt out for 2014.

“This puts the first crack in the individual mandate. The question is whether it’s the last,” writes Ezra Klein at the Washington Post’s "Wonkblog."

In fact, even prior to Thursday’s move the individual mandate was not an absolute requirement. The Affordable Care Act as passed contained substantial mandate exemptions.

For instance, people whose employers don’t offer an adequate plan don’t have to have health insurance if the cheapest ACA “bronze” policy available on the state exchange marketplaces would cost more than 8 percent of their annual income. There’s also a generalized “hardship exemption” that exempts you from the mandate if you’re facing an unforeseen difficulty, such as homelessness or divorce.

For the purposes of the law, the administration has now defined losing your previous health insurance due to its noncompliance with ACA as a “hardship.” That’s how it managed Thursday’s move. But that raises a difficult question, the law’s critics note. If people who had insurance, but lost it, are now exempt from Obamacare due to hardship, what about people who didn’t have insurance in the first place? Isn’t their situation just as difficult?

Plus, what if you lost your insurance, but have managed to make it through the hoops of and purchase a new policy? Can you ditch that and buy a cheaper catastrophic plan?

“How can anyone make health care decisions today knowing that the law may be unilaterally changed tomorrow?” complained House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia in a statement after the White House announcement.

On the other side of the issue, insurers aren’t happy. Given the realities of the ACA, they want as many people to sign up for new policies as possible, and particularly as many healthy young people as possible. Softening the individual mandate threatens their economic projections.

“This latest rule change could cause significant instability in the marketplace and lead to further confusion and disruption for consumers,” says Karen Ignani, head of America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry Washington trade group.

In that context, it’s important that the administration announced this change in a letter to a purple state Democratic senator. As Ezra Klein points out, congressional Democrats will be a key to what happens next on the mandate. If they believe that Thursday’s move is enough to end their political problem from canceled plans, they won’t push for more exemptions. But if they don’t, look for a tumultuous January on Capitol Hill.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks after receiving the 2013 Lantos Human Rights Prize during a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. The New Hampshire-based human rights organization awarded its highest honor to Clinton for her efforts to promote human rights for women and through Internet freedom. (AP Photo/) (Susan Walsh/a)

Who'll be the Democrats' 'anti-Hillary' in 2016? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 12.19.13

It’s pretty obvious that Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2016. But who’s going to be the anti-Hillary? That’s something that’s much more difficult to foresee.

Yes, you read that right – the “anti-Hillary.” The structure of the developing 2016 race is such that it’s quite likely the former secretary of State will face an intra-party challenger who fashions themselves the yin to her yang.

That’s the point perceptive University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato makes in his “Crystal Ball” newsletter Thursday, in any case. He says Mrs. Clinton remains the heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination, but that there’s lots of lingering resentment within the party toward her husband, who pushed the party to the right during his presidency, and toward her own vote for the Iraq war as a senator in 2002.

She’ll “at least receive a minimal challenge from someone for the nomination. One possibility to watch: ex-Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana,” write Sabato and colleague Kyle Kondik.

OK, we’re watching. And guess what? On Wednesday, former Governor Schweitzer ... criticized Hillary’s vote on the Iraq war during an appearance in Iowa. That’s where they hold those first-in-the-nation caucuses that kick off the presidential race. In case you’ve forgotten.

“I didn’t vote for that war, and I didn’t think it was a good idea,” he said at an event for the left-leaning group Progress Iowa, according to a report in the Des Moines Register.

Schweitzer didn’t mention Clinton specifically. But Register reporter Jennifer Jacobs asked him about her afterwards, and she writes that he responded with a grin.

“Did she vote for it? I didn’t keep track,” said Schweitzer.

Nudge, nudge; wink, wink; know-what-I-mean? Afterwards Schweitzer auctioned off his tie and other articles of clothing as a fund-raiser for the progressive group.

We’ve got a couple of points to make about this anti-Hillary business, however. The first is that whoever wants to assume this mantle has a long, long way to rise, and they’d better get busy and hustle to Iowa, as Schweitzer has.

Just look at the polls. Last week the Register put out its Iowa poll rating possible 2016 contenders, and Hillary just killed. Eighty-nine percent of Iowa Democrats said they had a somewhat or very favorable opinion of her.

Schweitzer, in contrast, was a blip. Sixteen percent of Iowa Democrats said they had a favorable opinion of him. Fully 70 percent said they weren’t sure, meaning they probably didn’t know who he is.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, another possible Hillary challenger, had the same problem. He got an 18 percent favorable rating and a 69 percent “not sure.”

Look, it’s still a long ways to 2016, and Barack Obama wasn’t exactly a household name at the same point in the 2008 cycle. But Jimmy Carter could probably beat Schweitzer and O’Malley’s numbers in Iowa at the moment. This is why running for president is such a slog of hand-shaking and precinct-visiting in Iowa and New Hampshire for many contenders.

Finally, don’t count out Hillary herself as the anti-Hillary of 2016.

This thought isn’t original with us – veteran reporter Ron Fournier of the National Journal floats this Thursday in a column that’s written in the style of a faux campaign memo.

Fournier points out that Washington insiders, intensely political people, and national institutions are all polling badly at the moment. Problem is, Hillary is all three of those things.

That means she has to campaign as an honest, accessible, vulnerable, competent populist, writes Fournier.

“To win, you must be the anti-Hillary. You need to blast the public’s caricature of you to smithereens and replace it with what we know as the real Hillary,” goes the fake memo.

Of course, Hillary could give pundits everywhere the vapors by deciding she doesn’t want to run for president after all. She’s still sounding ... unconvinced.

“I haven’t made up my mind. Obviously I will look carefully at what I think I can do and make that decision sometime next year,” she told Barbara Walters in an interview for Walters’ “10 Most Fascinating People of 2013”.

This screenshot from President Obama's Twitter feed shows the Obamacare ad that has gone viral Wednesday. (Twitter)

'Pajama Boy' on Obamacare: Will Millennials hear a grownup in a onesie? (+video)

By Staff writer / 12.18.13

Have you heard about “Pajama Boy”? He’s in an ad tweeted yesterday by a political nonprofit associated with President Obama, wearing what appears to be a plaid onesie while cradling a hot beverage and looking to one side through arched eyebrows.

The point of the ad is to promote Obamacare among young adults. “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance,” says the ad copy.

The tweet adds its own kicker: “How do you plan to spend the cold days of December?” It includes a link to a website from the group, Organizing for Action, that includes information on how to talk to family members over the holidays about signing up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Conservatives have had lots of hilarity with this ad Wednesday, poking at everything from the guy’s glasses and beverage choice to what some charge is his lack of traditional masculinity.

“A doofus in a plaid onesie drinking hot chocolate – is this really how the Obama administration pictures its supporters?” writes John Hinderaker on the right-leaning "Powerline" blog.

Then, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took a whack at pajama boy in a recent tweet.

Even liberals, who defend the ad overall, think its particular choice of image could be improved.

“Admittedly, the guy in the photo does look a little silly. That’s what happens when you wear a onesie!” writes Elias Isquith on the Salon site.

But we’ve got a question that’s more prosaic. What’s the idea here? How can this, you know, work?

The Obama administration is keen to get young adults – the so-called "young invincibles" – to sign up for Obamacare, of course. Younger people have generally lower health-care costs, and the revenue from their premiums is needed to offset the higher costs incurred by older beneficiaries.

And we get that this ad is meant to be ironic. At least, we think it’s meant to be ironic. That comes across more clearly in a companion ad where “Pajama Boy” is reclining in a leather sofa wearing a Christmas sweater and holiday socks. “And a Happy New Year with health insurance” says the ad’s copy.

But here’s the problem: not that many young adults are ironic, in our experience. Many of the ones that are, are also highly educated and live in urban areas, and are exactly the sort of high-information voters who already know all about the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that individuals buy health insurance.

Plus, true hipsters are likely making fun of this guy. Have you seen hipsters lately? Lots of them wear beards. They look Amish.

Maybe the outlandishness of the portrayal is supposed to make the photo go viral and spread the word by sheer repetition, as if it were a funny cat gif imbued with a serious message. If so, mission accomplished!

However, to us it seems like lots of the advertising aimed at young adults on health care from both sides is condescending. There are the “brosurance” ads from ProgressNow Colorado, which use frat boy images to push the idea that young adults need health care to pay for injuries incurred while drinking, for instance.

On the other side of the issue, there are the infamous “Creepy Uncle Sam” ads, which use a big-head Uncle Sam figure to try and convince young adults that getting insurance through the government is a bad idea.

The actors in these ads are mid-20s. That’s an age where you can be a captain in the Army, or a foreman on a contracting crew, or a physics teacher in a big high school. To many Millennials, ads pushing a serious subject that also feature keg stands or a guy in a scary costume may not connect.

“The problem with these campaigns – with all the Invincible-targeted ads in the Obamacare muddle, actually – is twofold. First they don’t inform all that much.... Second, there’s very little respect for the intended audience,” wrote the Atlantic Wire’s Alex Edelman of the “brosurance” and “Creepy Uncle Sam” campaigns in November.

“Pajama Boy” might not be as far up the condescension scale. It’s still kind of weird. On Buzzfeed, McKay Coppins theorizes that the ambitious young folks in politics that get put in charge of youth outreach efforts don’t really understand their generational peers. They’re in politics, after all.

“Is there any battle in contemporary politics being waged with more indignity and less prowess than the tug-of-war for twentysomethings over Obamacare?” Mr. Coppins writes.

First lady Michelle Obama, seen here at a White House event earlier this month, will try to rally moms to the Obamacare cause. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Obamas rally moms to boost Obamacare. Will that work? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 12.18.13

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are targeting a particular group of powerful Americans in their effort to boost enrollment in the Affordable Care Act: moms.

That’s right, moms. The White House figures no one is better able to cajole the so-called “young invincibles” into getting health care than their mothers, who have cared for them so long, and cleaned up after them, and packed them lunches, and did they ask for any thanks? Your happiness is thanks enough, that’s what they said.

Sorry, we got carried away for a second. So the Obamas are meeting today in the Oval Office with a group of mothers. Several of their visitors are heading outreach efforts designed to let friends, neighbors, and kids take advantage of their new health insurance options, according to the White House.

“Moms have a unique role to play in helping young adults gain health-care coverage,” says a White House official, speaking on background.

Young adults are important to the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare”, because they’re relatively healthy. Insurers need their premiums to balance out the costs of older Americans, who generally consume more health services.

If fewer young people than expected enroll, then premiums might rise in following years to cover the revenue shortfall. Then, even fewer young people might sign up, due to increased costs, and then the costs might have to rise again, and so on, creating a “death spiral” for the law, according to critics. (The law does contain some financial stabilizers meant to fend this off.)

The White House is right to be concerned about young peoples’ reaction to the law so far. Evidence from some state exchanges shows they are not signing up in anticipated numbers. Perhaps worse, they are less likely to even know about the law and their ACA options than are older possible customers.

A recent Gallup poll found that only 63 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds are very or somewhat aware of the ACA, as opposed to 72 percent overall.

“This is very significant because younger Americans are the target of the Affordable Care Act, at least in terms of the necessity that they sign up for insurance to make the whole thing work,” said Frank Newport, Gallup editor-in-chief, in a commentary on the survey.

That’s the shortfall moms are supposed to address, apparently – the information deficit. Many of them are good at that, aren’t they? They bug you and bug you to wear your coat out in the cold, and that works, doesn’t it? Except all those other kids showed up for school in a hoodie and shorts and laugh at you. We’re not bitter at all.

Anyway, America’s moms may be a good group to rally to the ACA’s defense, if they can be rallied. The Heritage Foundation is urging mothers to go the other way, and tell their kids to not sign up, due to potential rate shock from higher premiums under Obamacare, and the possibility of higher taxes to pay for the law’s subsidies in the future.

But it’s possible that the need to sign up young people has been exaggerated. That’s what a group of scholars from the Kaiser Family Foundation is arguing, in any case. 

They’ve run the numbers, and they figure that the pool of potential enrollees for Obamacare is about 40 percent young adults. If, say, the pool of actual enrollees is only about 33 percent young adults, then projected costs for insurers will rise by a (non-)whopping 1.1 percent to keep revenues in line, according to their calculations.

That's because "premiums are still allowed to vary substantially based on age," they say.

If young people represent only 25 percent of enrollees, projected costs for insurers would rise 2.4 percent, according to the KFF study.

“Premiums are not as sensitive to the mix of enrollment as fears about a ‘death spiral’ suggest, particularly with respect to age,” write the authors of the study, Larry Levitt, Gary Claxton, and Anthony Damico.

President Barack Obama meets with technology executives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 17. From left: Mark Pincus, founder, Chief Product Officer & Chairman, Zynga; Marissa Mayer, President and CEO, Yahoo!; and President Obama. (Evan Vucci)

Obama meets with tech executives. How were they picked? (+video)

By Staff writer / 12.17.13

President Obama met Tuesday with top executives from America’s leading high tech firms, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

The White House says the meeting was meant to focus on efforts to fix Obamacare’s website and on possible reforms in the way the government buys information technology.

“The president made clear his continued focus on improving the way we deliver technology ... and encouraged the CEOs to continue to share their ideas on how to do so,” according to a White House press office read-out of the meeting.

Mr. Obama also announced that a Microsoft executive, Kurt DelBene, will succeed Jeff Zients as the senior tech point person for the rescue effort. Mr. DelBene, who most recently served as chief of the Microsoft Office Division, also happens to be married to a Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington.

DelBene’s tech credentials appear to qualify him for his new mission. But his appointment still unleashed some cubicle-office-based snark.

“Everyone who loves Internet Explorer and Windows 8 will rejoice at the latest appointment from the White House to rescue its core policy from incompetence,” wrote Ed Morrissey over at the right-leaning Hot Air site.

Finally, the tech officials and the president also discussed the implications of the latest disclosures of National Security Agency intelligence-gathering.

Obama listened to the group’s “concerns and recommendations,” the White House said.

“This was an opportunity for the president to hear from CEOs directly as we near completion of our review of signals intelligence programs, building on the feedback we’ve received from the private sector in recent weeks and months,” said the administration read-out.

Somehow we think the conversation on this subject was livelier than these words indicate. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of NSA snooping has called the privacy protections of big tech applications and social media sites into question. We bet they told Obama he needed to do something to at least appear to rein in the NSA – and fast.

But here’s our question: how did these tech people get picked to meet with Obama in the first place?

Some of the firms represented were no-brainers, of course. Apple, Microsoft, et al are the titans of the US high-industry. But as the gossipy tech news site Valleywag noted, some of the invited guests were not quite in Apple Inc’s. league.

The administration “probably should have reconsidered some of these choices,” wrote Valleywag’s Sam Biddle.

Why, wondered Valleywag, did Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus get an invite? After all, his firm is most famous for a virtual farming game. Its stock has tumbled, employees have been laid off, and it’s in trouble.

Well, maybe Pincus got his place at the table because he donated $1 million to Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC that backed Obama in the 2012 election. Nor was he the only big Democratic fund-raiser in the room, noted the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a campaign finance watchdog group.

Venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar was there, too. He’s best known for backing the upscale car service Uber. He and his wife have donated more than $120,000 to Democrats. He was also an Obama campaign “bundler” – someone who bundles up contributions from others and sends them along to get partial credit for the money.

“In the 2012 campaign, Pishevar was a top-tier harvester of cash, gathering up at least $500,000 for the Obama campaign,” writes Russ Choma on CRP’s “Open Secrets” blog.

We’ll end by noting that the larger context for the meeting was increased political activity by the tech industry as a whole.

In recent years many tech giants have scaled up their Washington presence. Google, for instance, spent little on DC lobbying until 2010. Now they’re on track to spend about $15 million on disclosed lobby activities in 2013, according to CRP figures.

Microsoft’s lobbying expenditures are in the same ballpark. Like Google, the issues Microsoft is pushing most are related to cybersecurity and data privacy.

Years ago Microsoft paid little attention to what went on in Washington. Then it ran afoul of federal anti-trust regulators and discovered that in such circumstances professional representation in DC can be helpful. It’s likely that other tech firms saw what happened and are determined not to repeat Microsoft’s mistake.

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