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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. 

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave as they arrive in Cape Cod, Mass., to fly via helicopter to begin their family vacation in Martha's Vineyard on Saturday. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

What's Michelle Obama doing for fun these days? Hint: It involves rap.

By Staff writer / 08.13.13

Sometimes a girl just wants to have fun – even (or maybe especially) when she’s first lady of the United States.

Aside from vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard with her family this week, Michelle Obama has been doing a lot of that lately. She posted a selfie of herself and dog Bo on Twitter and Instagram last weekend. She danced during her kids’ “state dinner” last month. And who can forget her doing the Dougie in February on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” where she demonstrated “the evolution of mom dancing”?

Now Mrs. Obama is breaking the mold again – with a rap album. She’s not singing, but she appears in one of the videos, called “Everybody.” The album – called “Songs for a Healthier America” – is inspired by the first lady's Let’s Move! campaign, and features big-name performers like Jordin Sparks, Ashanti, Run DMC, and Doug E. Fresh.

Song titles include “U R What You Eat” and “Veggie Luv.” The album is being produced by the Partnership for a Healthier America and Hip Hop Public Health Foundation, and will be released Sept. 30. The videos will be distributed to schools in New York City before wider circulation. Fighting childhood obesity is one of Mrs. Obama’s signature causes.

But there’s another real issue behind all her joyous activities: that life in the White House can feel like being in a “really nice prison.” She made that comment at the African First Ladies Summit last month in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in a public conversation with former first lady Laura Bush.

“There are prison elements to it,” Mrs. Obama said to laughter. “But it’s a really nice prison, so.…”

“But with a chef,” Mrs. Bush interjected.

“You can't complain,” Mrs. Obama continued. “But there are definitely elements that are confining.”

The White House as gilded cage is a theme that goes back to the start of the republic. The first first lady, Martha Washington, once wrote to her niece that she felt like a "Chief State Prisoner." But in the modern era, amid omnipresent technology, escaping constant public scrutiny can be an even more daunting task.

During her husband’s first term, Mrs. Obama – disguised in a ball cap and sunglasses – once pulled off a trip to a suburban Target, and went largely unrecognized. But since the start of the second term, Mrs. Obama has ramped up the fun quotient. Maybe with reelection out of the way, she feels she can cut loose a little bit more.

What her daughters – one a teen, the other almost – think of all this public fun is another matter. We suspect they’re mortified. But Mrs. Obama actually can dance. Certainly better than her husband.

This photo provided by Jameson Hsieh shows a clown at the Missouri State Fair wearing a mask intended to look like President Obama. Video went viral of the crowd cheering an announcement that the Obama clown might be 'run down by a bull,' and fair officials banned the clown for life. (Jameson Hsieh/AP)

Obama-mask clown gets lifetime Missouri fair ban. Just, or too harsh?

By Staff writer / 08.13.13

Missouri State Fair officials have banned for life the rodeo clown who wore a President Obama mask while facing bulls at the event over the weekend.

The clown in question engaged in an “unconscionable stunt” and will never perform at the Show Me state venue again, the Missouri State Fair Commission said Monday, in a statement. Fair officials are also reviewing their contract with the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association, the contractor responsible for hiring and overseeing bull ring clowns.

The performance was “inappropriate and not in keeping with the Fair’s standards," said the statement.

The fair did not reveal the clown’s identity.

During a bull riding contest on Sunday, the clown appeared wearing a rubber mask of the president with an upside down broomstick trailing from his backside, as if it were a tail. The audience was asked, over a public address system, if it wanted to see Mr. Obama “run down by a bull.” Many people present clapped and cheered, according to one witness, Perry Beam.

“It was feeling like some kind of Klan rally,” said Mr. Beam.

Others defended the act as within the mainstream of rodeo ring entertainment. The clown was meant to be imitating a dummy, another witness, Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association member David Berry, told the Associated Press. Bull ring clowns often dress as sitting presidents, Mr. Berry said.

“The joke is not that it was the president. They drag out this person dressed like a dummy and all of a sudden this dummy just takes off running. That’s what’s funny,” Berry told AP.

Whatever the intent, the nationwide reaction was harsh. Photos and video of the event went viral, and social media exploded with condemnation.

The public address announcer at the rodeo, Mark Ficken, is trying to distance himself from the fracas. Mr. Ficken, president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association and superintendent of the Boonville School District, said the clown was wearing a wireless mike and made most of the comments heard by the audience. Ficken said through an attorney that he was “as surprised as anyone” at the appearance of an Obama mask.

The speed with which fair officials responded to the uproar may be indicative of both the seriousness with which they took the stunt and the fact that Missouri is not exactly a deep-red anti-Obama state.

Instead, Missouri is a conservative rural center sandwiched between two urban areas, St. Louis and Kansas City, which contain lots of Democratic voters.

Mitt Romney did beat Obama there in 2012 by almost 10 points, 53.8 percent to 44.4 percent. But Obama essentially tied John McCain in Missouri in 2008. Gov. Jay Nixon is a Democrat, as is Attorney General Chris Koster, Secretary of State Jason Kander, and one of the state’s two US senators, Claire McCaskill.

If it’s not purple, Missouri is at least a purple-tinged state, and fair officials are surely cognizant of that, given that they receive more than $400,000 in state money to help fund their event.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus speaks at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in 2011. (Patrick Semansky/AP/File)

RNC chief doubles down on debate boycott. Smart move for GOP?

By Staff writer / 08.12.13

Over the weekend Republican National Committee chief Reince Priebus doubled down on his threat to withhold 2016 GOP presidential debates from CNN and NBC if the networks air planned programs on Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, host Candy Crowley asked Mr. Priebus whether he’d throw Fox News into the debate penalty box as well, given a New York Times report that a Fox sister company is in talks to produce the Hillary Clinton miniseries now slated to appear on NBC.

Priebus made it clear Fox would not be included in any RNC boycott. First of all, he downplayed the Times report, saying he “doesn’t know the truth of anything you’re talking about,” and that “I’m not going to boycott the food trucks that service all of the same companies.”

Then he said he’s really aiming at the networks that may put Clinton shows on the air, whether the programs are scripted entertainment dramas or news documentaries.

“What channel am I going to tune into to see the documentary and the miniseries that is all about promoting Hillary Clinton? And at this point, it sounds like it’s going to be CNN and NBC. And if that’s the case, they’re not going to be involved in our debates – period,” said Priebus.

Plus, the RNC on Monday started running paid YouTube ads calling on CNN and NBC to “dump the docs or lose debates.”

“It’s basically us putting our money where our mouth is,” an RNC spokesman told Daniel Halper of The Weekly Standard.

Priebus took some heat for his “State of the Union” performance from some members of the punditocracy on Monday. They felt the RNC chief appeared taken aback by the Fox News link, as if he hadn’t heard the latest developments.

“The words ‘due diligence’ don’t necessarily go with ‘Reince Priebus’ ... in this case,” said Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

But that criticism focuses on the one-day news cycle. Here’s our question: Is the RNC debate threat a smart strategic move, in the long term?

After all, as far as the national leaders of both parties are concerned, presidential primary debates have gotten out of hand. There are too many – 20 for the GOP in the 2012 cycle. Formats generally aren’t conducive to discussion. They’re controlled by media outlets, which make money from airing them, and state parties, which make money from co-hosting debates and associated fundraisers.

If Priebus wants to cut the debate schedule to 10 to 12, as recommended by the party’s 2012 postmortem, he’s got to start exerting control over the process in some manner. The “dump the docs” effort may be a way to start to do just that.

By making the “liberal” mainstream media the target, Priebus and the RNC can get hosannas of agreement from pretty much every faction of every state party. Linking it to Mrs. Clinton is a bonus in this context, given that she’s the potential 2016 Democratic candidate Republicans most love to dislike.

And why shouldn’t the party pick where debates appear? Slate political analyst Dave Weigel wrote earlier this month that Republicans should debate one another only on Fox.

“That could be fascinating,” wrote Mr. Weigel. “Republicans know exactly how to handle the mainstream media, and they know how to play against it.... They’re often more compelling when their interviews are pushing them from the right.”

Or what about this: Why get any network involved at all? Today’s broadband technology makes it feasible for Republicans to stage and control debates completely, streaming the show to an online audience à la Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.

Conservative commentator Edward Morrissey made this point in a column in The Week, saying that if Priebus wants to take serious steps toward reform, he should rethink the entire debate structure.

“CNN responded to Priebus’ ultimatum by rejecting the demand, claiming that a refusal to partner with CNN on debates would be ‘the ultimate disservice to voters.’ The ultimate disservice to both voters and candidates is the artificial, game-show circus that got repeated ad infinitum in 2011 and 2012. Priebus would do us all a favor by looking for an alternative that produces serious political debate rather than the Zinger of the Week,” wrote Mr. Morrissey.

This photo shows a clown wearing a mask intended to look like President Obama at the Missouri State Fair on Saturday. The announcer asked the crowd if anyone wanted to see 'Obama run down by a bull,' according to a spectator. State Fair officials later apologized. (Jameson Hsieh/AP)

Rodeo clown banned: Did rodeo stunt go too far? (+video)

By Staff writer / 08.12.13

A clown wearing a President Obama mask got a big reception at a Missouri State Fair rodeo over the weekend. According to The Associated Press, most of the crowd clapped and cheered when the announcer asked if they wanted to see “Obama run down by a bull."

The Missouri State Fair says it has banned the unnamed rodeo clown from ever performing at the fair again.

One fairgoer who was not happy about the performance, Perry Beam, told the AP that everybody “just went wild” when the masked clown appeared, and that he began to feel “a sense of fear” for himself, his wife, and a Taiwanese student that they had brought to the performance.

Another clown ran up to the clown wearing the Obama mask, pretended to tickle him, and played with the mask’s lips, according to Mr. Beam. Eventually they had to depart when actual bulls started running too close.

“They mentioned the president’s name, I don’t know, 100 times. It was sickening. It was feeling like some kind of Klan rally you’d see on TV,” said Beam.

OK, Obama mask plus stomping rodeo bulls. Who thought that equation would equal fun? Not the Missouri State Fair leadership. After the show, they apologized on their Facebook page for what they called an “inappropriate and disrespectful” performance. Not Missouri’s top elected officials. Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder condemned the stunt via Twitter. “We are better than this,” he wrote. Democrats Gov. Jay Nixon and Sen. Claire McCaskill also expressed deep displeasure.

Some national conservatives, however, charged that the umbrage was hypocritical, given the popularity of George W. Bush Halloween masks during his presidency. All US chief executives are mocked, wrote Dana Loesch on the right-leaning RedState site.

“Free speech is free speech and isn’t meant to protect only that with which I agree,” wrote Ms. Loesch.

In 1994, a Philadelphia Inquirer story noted that a rodeo clown used a George H.W. Bush dummy to distract raging bulls, yet nobody called for a Secret Service investigation, pointed out Loesch.

Of course, it’s the element of race that makes the Obama incident so controversial. Many of those who are outraged by the rodeo clown perhaps see mock violence against the nation’s first African-American president in the context of the nation’s long history of real violence against African-Americans.

“Silence is an inappropriate response to this ‘entertainment’ at an event supported by all Missourians,” wrote Bob Yates on “Show Me Progress," a left-leaning Missouri website.

On the other side, those who say the Obama mask clown is part of a long history of US irreverence toward their chief executives may feel that Democrats cry “race” to block all criticism of the president.

Here’s a third point of view: Maybe mock violence against presidential masks and dummies should be judged a chancy business, whomever the target. There’s been real violence against presidents of both parties, after all. This November will mark 50 years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan was shot 32 years ago. Every president gets a horrendous amount of violent hate mail and threats.

“The young Missourians who witnessed this stunt learned exactly the wrong lesson about political discourse – that somehow it’s ever acceptable to, in a public event, disrespect, taunt, and joke about harming the President of our great nation,” said Senator McCaskill in her statement responding to the incident.

President Obama has lunch with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the patio outside the Oval Office late last month. Ms. Clinton is seen as a front-runner for the office in 2016. (Chuck Kennedy/White House Photo)

Hillary Clinton: Could her past derail White House bid? (+video)

By Staff writer / 08.11.13

So former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will hold a fundraiser for Virginia gubernatorial candidate and close family friend Terry McAuliffe, according to the McAuliffe campaign.

That makes sense. Mr. McAuliffe has been in the Clintons' political and personal inner circle for years now. He acted as their go-to fundraiser during the Clinton presidency and ran Ms. Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. These days, he's one of Mr. Clinton's golfing buddies, and Mr. Clinton gave $100,000 to his campaign. For the Clintons, opening up their Washington home to raise money for McAuliffe, who's locked in a tight race, seems like a no-brainer.

But for Ms. Clinton, it is not without political risks.

These days, Clinton's two terms as first lady seem almost like the Mesozoic. The Hillary Clinton who tops every poll of potential Democratic nominees for president in 2016 is the product of a political rebirth – eight years in the Senate, a historic presidential primary fight with Barack Obama in 2008, and four years as secretary of State. This Hillary has so eclipsed the Hillary of universal health care, Whitewater, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal that the latter seems a fossil – a curious relic of a time long gone, buried under the sediment of recent history.

But be sure, Republicans are already digging, and McAuliffe highlights the potential perils of Clinton's past.

McAuliffe, after all, was not universally loved as a Clinton fundraiser. While that might be a badge of honor for the best fundraisers, it doesn't make for sterling reputations. Even Mr. Clinton has joked about his friend. “Absolutely, I would buy a new car from Terry. But a used car? I am not so sure about a used car,” he told The New York Times last year.

That reputation was not enhanced earlier this month when the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed it was investigating an electric car company founded by McAuliffe, GreenTech Automotive, to see if it properly applied a federal program that offers permanent residency to foreign investors. For good measure, the SEC is also investigating Gulf Coast Funds Management, which seeks investors in the company and is run by Anthony Rodham, Ms. Clinton's brother.

As Ms. Clinton surely knows, holding a fundraiser on Sept. 30, 2013, for a good friend is not going to derail any 2016 presidential aspirations. But like the New York City mayor's race, it indicates a potential weak point for Clinton going forward.

In New York, a close Clinton adviser, Huma Abedin, has publicly backed her husband, Anthony Weiner, who has refused to drop out of the election despite his admission that he was still engaged in sexually explicit online chats with other women a year ago. The story has drawn uncomfortable parallels to the Clinton saga, when Ms. Clinton stood by her husband after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.

That, too, will surely pass well before 2016, but it shows how Republicans could counter Clinton if she runs for president.

The statesman who spawned Internet memes with her sunglasses and Blackberry has become broadly respected.

The first lady who went to Capitol Hill to do battle with "Harry and Louise" was among the most polarizing figures in the American political landscape.

Between now and 2016, Clinton will receive any number of requests from friends and political allies to sprinkle her fairy dust on their campaigns or causes. McAuliffe and Ms. Abedin are at least a reminder that she will need to choose wisely.

A woman enters a fudge shop through a screen door (l.) past a shirt with the name of President Obama, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, on Friday. The first summer vacation of President Obama's second term is bringing him back to the Vineyard. (Steven Senne/AP)

Obama on the Vineyard, redux: why presidential vacations stir up a furor

By Correspondent / 08.09.13

Apparently, not all working folks deserve a vacation.

As President Obama heads to Martha’s Vineyard Saturday for a nine-day hiatus from the rough-and-tumble of Washington, he’s taking flak for taking time off with so much work undone.

After all, federal workers still face furloughs due to spending cuts, and the economy hasn’t exactly roared back to life, despite White House declarations that it has stabilized. There’s the ongoing matter of the terrorist threat that prompted the administration to close embassies in 19 countries in the Middle East and Africa. And, well, American fugitive Edward Snowden is enjoying the first stretch of his year-long asylum in Russia, so that day of reckoning is hardly imminent.

RECOMMENDED: Presidential vacations

"When there are so many people out there looking for jobs and Americans are struggling to make ends meet, this sends the wrong message to people who are struggling to survive," said Diana Waterman, the Maryland Republican Party chairman, in an interview with USA Today.

Martha’s Vineyard, the tony New England island retreat, is a regular favorite of the first family, as it was for President Bill Clinton, who vacationed on the Vineyard all but one year of his presidency. Though the Obamas passed on a pre-Labor Day sojourn there last year in advance of the 2012 presidential election, they visited the three summers prior.

Meanwhile, Congress is out of session for five weeks. August in Washington is a wonderful time to sightsee as a result (if you can stand the heat and humidity), but not a top spot for the people’s business.

Nonetheless, adversaries are crowing that the president should head to Camp David in Maryland, rather than the celebrity-dotted Massachusetts haven, a stomping ground for past presidents including Ulysses Grant and Mr. Clinton, and stars like Carly Simon and Ted Danson. Or maybe Mr. Obama should “staycation,” as many Americans do when financial times are tight, and pitch those lawn chairs outside the White House.

Instead, the Obamas will take their rest in an “ocean-view Vineyard estate,” Bloomberg reports, owned by David Schulte, a Chicago investment banker and Democratic Party donor. Bloomberg says the property includes a 5,000-square-foot home, an infinity pool, basketball and tennis courts, and a gymnasium. 

So who foots the bill for these family memories?

Although the White House isn’t dishing on the cost of the Obamas' trip, a spokesman has said the family shares costs with taxpayers. But the tab won’t likely be cheap, of course – it takes a village of government employees to help any presidential family travel. For example, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, the owner of the Wesley Hotel in the island town of Oak Bluffs has said he has booked 70 rooms for Secret Service members and another five for the Transportation Security Administration.

Obama has no public events scheduled during his time there, though most officials will readily suggest that a president is rarely, if ever, free of the duties and burdens of office – no matter how glamorous the location for a respite.

“Presidents are entitled to vacations,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” "Secondly, there are never any real vacations for presidents. The work goes on. It’s unbelievable how much work.”

Despite the latest griping, Obama is hardly a modern-day front-runner for days logged off the grid. At the same point in President George W. Bush’s presidency, the 43rd president had spent 367 days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, or at his family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, according to CBS News reporter Mark Knoller, who keeps track of such White House trivia.

By contrast, Obama, who doesn't own a vacation home, has spent 92 days of his presidency on vacation, Mr. Knoller says.

Regardless, the complaining is as much an annual tradition as the vacations themselves. At least the Obamas haven’t poll-tested the locale, as Clinton did before his 1996 reelection bid. Instead of heading to the Vineyard, the Clintons took off for Jackson, Wyo., which his advisers believed would play better in crucial swing states when voters headed to the polls.

Without a reelection on the horizon, Obama will, instead, jet off for the destination of his choosing.

RECOMMENDED: Presidential vacations

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (r.) with campaign manager Jesse Benton holding his nose in this photograph on the senator's reelection campaign Facebook page. (Courtesy McConnellForSenate Facebook page)

Will 'Nosegate' really hurt Mitch McConnell at the polls?

By Staff Writer / 08.09.13

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, has been caught on tape saying he’s “holding his nose” while working for Kentucky’s Republican senior senator.

Mr. Benton’s purpose in doing a job he finds distasteful, according to the secret recording, is to cement a relationship that will help Kentucky’s Republican/libertarian junior senator, Rand Paul, in a reelection or possible presidential bid.

“What we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in ’16,” said Benton on the tape, first reported by Economic Policy Journal on Thursday.

Wow, talk about unrest in the ranks. Is “Nosegate," as pundits have labeled the affair, going to hurt Senator McConnell at the polls in 2014? After all, Kentuckians already seem dissatisfied with McConnell’s performance – polls show his favorability rating is currently negative in the state.

Some pundits say the proboscis revelation could indeed be a problem for the Senate’s GOP leader.

It’s true that political insiders are fully aware that Benton, a longtime Ron Paul and Rand Paul supporter, is more a tea party person than an establishment Republican. McConnell hired him in part to build a bridge to the tea party wing of his party.

But most voters don’t know that. And McConnell’s opponents might use Benton’s remarks to show that even McConnell’s staff thinks McConnell is inauthentic.

“It’s not that voters care about staff stuff. They don’t. But this development allows staff stuff to become indicative of McConnell trying to be something he isn’t,” writes Washington Post political analyst Chris Cillizza on “The Fix” blog.

The primary beneficiary of this gaffe is likely McConnell’s primary opponent, wealthy Louisville businessman Matt Benton, adds National Journal’s Alex Roarty.

As a tea party person himself, Mr. Bevin will try to run to McConnell’s right. He made a good first impression with a speech at Kentucky’s Fancy Farms political picnic last week, but the campaign neophyte starts far behind McConnell in terms of name recognition and statewide organization.

“It’s exactly the kind of tinder that Bevin needs to ignite his campaign,” writes Mr. Roarty.

Well, maybe. Our own view is that this is a tempest that’s as flimsy as a tissue, so to speak.

Yes, Bevin’s done well, and he's already putting up ads with the nose-holding comment. But a Wenzel Strategies poll released Aug. 1 shows him trailing McConnell by nearly 3 to 1. McConnell is hitting Bevin hard over alleged state bailouts paid to his Connecticut bell factory. “Bailout Bevin” will find out just how tough a political opponent McConnell is.

McConnell’s bigger challenge is Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, current Kentucky secretary of State. She’s running for the seat now that actress Ashley Judd opted not to seek it. The Grimes campaign this week publicized a Mellman Group poll putting her ahead of McConnell by two points. 44 to 42 percent.

With the general election  so far off, the nose remark will be a dim memory by the time voters turn their full attention to this. Kentucky is a red-leaning state, and, despite Secretary Grimes’s current lead, many election analysts still rate this as a race that’s trending toward McConnell.

McConnell is an aggressive campaigner and has a “massive” campaign war chest, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Mitt Romney won 60 percent of the vote in Kentucky last fall, and the state’s undecided voters are unlikely to break for a Democratic Senate candidate, according to Mr. Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” newsletter.

The race might be close, but “we still think McConnell is a clear favorite to win, even if it’s only by a percentage point or two. Despite the troublesome recent news for the minority leader, he is still in decent shape in our eyes,” write Sabato and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics in Charlottesville.

Oprah Winfrey attends an event for the Oprah Winfrey Network in Pasadena, Calif., this year. She was named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Thursday. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File)

Why is Obama awarding Oprah Winfrey the Medal of Freedom?

By Staff writer / 08.08.13

Broadcast host/entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey is getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

So are women’s rights advocate Gloria Steinem, ex-Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Cub great Ernie Banks. Oh, and former President Bill Clinton. Can’t forget him.

They’re among the most famous names on the just-released list of 2013 Medal of Freedom winners. Established in its current form by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award bestowed by the US government.

“This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world,” said President Obama in a statement.

US chief executives have hung the Medal of Freedom ribbon around the necks of some of the greatest names in modern US cultural and political history, as well as a scattering of eminent foreign leaders.

But it’s no disrespect to the winners’ credentials to note that the process for deciding who gets one is not exactly as rigorous as that involved with, say, winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Under the Executive Order signed by JFK, those eligible for the Medal of Freedom include anyone who has made a significant contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant private or public endeavors.

In other words, pretty much anybody who has done anything of enough interest to come to a US president’s attention.

And, as we’ve noted before, that’s one of the most interesting aspects of the medal award process: the president alone is the decider. 

“Honorees are selected solely by the President, either acting on his own initiative or based on recommendations made to him. As such, recipients tend to reflect the personal and political interests of the President,” wrote Barbara Salazar Torreon of the Congressional Research Service in a 2004 report on the subject.

Thus sports stars such as Atlanta Braves slugger Henry Aaron (2002) have won the honor, along with religious figures such as Billy Graham (1983) and every president from JFK through Clinton, with the exception of Richard Nixon.

Let’s look at Oprah, one of the richest and most influential women in the world, to see how this process works.

The administration says the TV star won her Medal in part because of her extensive philanthropic work with young women, in both Africa and the US.  

But as The Chicago Tribune notes, there’s also something of an Illinois theme to this year’s medal list, of which Oprah is a part. She honed her style and created the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” after moving to Chicago to work for WLS in 1983.

Ernie Banks was a beloved Cub icon on the field. Another 2013 honoree, Cordy Tindell Vivian, was a key figure in the civil rights movement in Illinois and a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do we have to add that Obama was an Illinois lawmaker?

Oprah was an early and enthusiastic backer of Obama for president and has contributed lots of cash to his campaigns.

She’s also a television pioneer who earned a billion dollars due to her own business acumen and inspired millions of viewers with her personal story and interviewing style, so it’s not as if it’s a stretch for her to win a Freedom medal.

Not that she or a certain former Oval Office occupant need the publicity, complained some right-leaning blogs.

“Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey have gone unrecognized and underappreciated for far too long,” said the conservative media site Twitchy.

Obama will award a total of 16 Medals of Freedom at a White House ceremony later this year. Other winners include former US Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii (posthumous), astronaut Sally Ride (posthumous), former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (posthumous), musician Loretta Lynn, former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, musician Arturo Sandoval, and Judge Patricia Wald.

President Obama speaks about housing Tuesday in Phoenix. He participated in an online chat about housing issues on Wednesday. (Matt York/AP)

Why did President Obama talk housing on Zillow?

By Staff writer / 08.07.13

President Obama has “slow jammed” the news on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show and appeared in an “Ask Me Anything” session on the social media forum Reddit. But on Wednesday he made one of his most unusual media appearances yet, answering questions in a live on-line chat on the real estate database

The chat was hosted by Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff. It followed Mr. Obama’s Tuesday speech on housing issues, in which he outlined a number of specific proposals, including the winding down of government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

On Zillow Wednesday, Obama said he’d like to get a package of housing measures through Congress as soon as possible, and that the government should not be in the business of underwriting and guaranteeing most US mortgages, as is now the case.

“The private market can step in and do a good job, and government can be a backstop,” said Obama.

Obama added that mortgage rates remain low by historical levels, and that he and first lady Michelle Obama would likely benefit from refinancing their South Side Chicago home.

“I would save some money,” said Obama in response an online question. “When you’re president you have to be a little careful about these transactions so we haven’t refinanced.”

According to financial disclosure forms cited by the Associated Press, the Obamas currently have a 5.625 percent 30-year fixed loan on their Chicago domicile. Current market rate for a similar loan is 4.5 percent, according to the AP.

Obama complimented Zillow itself. The firm, among other things, uses open government data to produce home value estimates.

“I think you guys have done a great job in helping to make consumers more empowered when they are buying a home, selling a home, and it’s a wonderful service,” Obama said.

OK, so how did Zillow land this presidential publicity bonanza? As the tech website GeekWire notes, “The interview is a huge coup for Zillow, which ... is in the midst of a huge brand building campaign.”

Well, connections, for one thing. As the right-leaning Examiner notes Wednesday, Zillow co-founder Lloyd Frink has long been an Obama supporter, and joined a “Tech Leaders for Obama” coalition in November 2007.

And when it comes to campaign contributions, Zillow employees seem to have a Democratic tilt. A search on the political money database Open Secrets shows that individuals connected to Zillow donated $183,945 to political party committees and candidates in the 2012 election cycle. Virtually all that money went to Democrats.

Of the $183,945 total, $50,000 went to the DNC Services Corp., an arm of the Democratic National Committee. The top candidate recipient of Zillow-linked cash was Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington, who got $19,500. President Obama received $15,600.

But it’s important to put this in context: that’s not really very much money, in political terms.

Zillow remains a gnat in terms of housing-related political spending. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) gave $4.1 million to party committees and candidates in the same time period.

Forty-four percent of this money went to Democrats, according to Open Secrets data, and 56 percent went to Republicans.

The big Realtors group was defensive about Obama’s Zillow chat, saying in an internal news communication to members that it was “not a serious public policy discussion.”

Because NAR lobbies extensively on public policy issues, the White House could not realistically involve them in the online discussion. “Zillow has no such conflicts, since they are a housing entertainment website,” sniffed the NAR.

Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, here speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, warned congressional Republicans at a New Hampshire fundraiser on Tuesday to avoid forcing a government shutdown over Obamacare. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

Mitt Romney to GOP: Don't shut down government to kill Obamacare

By Staff writer / 08.07.13

Mitt Romney leaped into the deep waters of debate over the future course of Republican Party policy Tuesday night in a speech near the shores of New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee where the former GOP presidential candidate has a vacation home.

Mr. Romney, who described himself as a “severe conservative” during the 2012 campaign, appeared to side with the pragmatic wing of his party with most of his remarks, made at a political fundraiser for the New Hampshire Republican Party. In particular, he warned against shutting down the government in an attempt to strip funds from the Affordable Care Act, known informally as “Obamacare."

“I badly want Obamacare to go away, and stripping it of funds has appeal. But we need to exercise great care about any talk of shutting down government,” Romney said. “What would come next when soldiers aren’t paid, when seniors fear for their Medicare and Social Security, and when the FBI is off duty?”

What would come next, in Romney’s eyes, is a predictable political failure: Voters would revolt, Obamacare would get its money after all, and Republicans would be hurt at the polls, as Washington conventional wisdom holds they were following the 28-day government shutdown of 1995 and '96.

“I think there are better ways to remove Obamacare,” he added.

However, he didn’t go on to say what those notional “better ways” were. Rolling back time and electing him, perhaps?

Romney also urged Republicans to rally behind electable candidates, not those who appeal to the party base but frighten moderates. He didn’t name any names here – he did not, for instance, mutter “Sen. Ted Cruz” under his breath. And he did acknowledge that this advice might be ironic coming from someone who billed himself as the electable choice, only to be proven wrong at the polls.

“My guess is that every one of the [2016 GOP presidential] contenders would be better than whoever the Democrats put up,” Romney said. “But there will only be one or perhaps two who actually could win the election in November.”

Conservative GOP leaders and tea party activists were dismissive of Romney’s advice, saying in essence that the speech revealed him as the squish they had suspected all along.

“Romney did not want to fight to repeal Obamacare while he was on the campaign so it is no surprise he would not fight now,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin told the conservative Breitbart News.

“The last person the conservative movement should turn to for winning advice is Mitt Romney,” added For America chairman Brent Bozell, according to Breitbart.

So what’s going on here? Why did Romney feel it necessary to offer remarks he must have known would inflame some in his own party?

Well, for one thing, consider the venue: The Granite State is pretty flinty, but it’s not deep red. As polling guru Nate Silver has pointed out, it’s one of the most “elastic” of US swing states, meaning it’s possible to persuade large numbers of voters to actually change minds and vote for either party. (Non-elastic swing states are just evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans, with victory hinging on turnout and party enthusiasm.)

In that context, the Mittster was saying stuff tailored to appeal to his actual physical audience. The relatively moderate New Hampshire GOP is unlikely to support brinkmanship in Washington.

In essence, he was also siding with the wing of the party that pushed him to the nomination. He was always the establishment candidate, backed by lists of governors and elected Republicans in Washington. The party leadership in D.C. remains nervous about the defund Obamacare strategy. It’s nonleadership figures such as Senator Cruz of Texas and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah who are calling for the ACA fight.

If he’s going to maintain a role in party politics, as he’s said he’d like to do, it’s unlikely to involve his evolution into a tea party maverick.

Finally, here’s the wild theory: He doesn’t mean it. He believes the threat of government shutdown to end Obamacare might work. But he knows he is now so widely discounted in Republican circles that few will heed his advice. So he’s employing reverse psychology.

“Are we at the point where Romney should tell the GOP the opposite of what he really wants it to do? Might be more effective that way,” tweeted Washington Post political reporter Aaron Blake on Wednesday.

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