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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. 

Actor Zach Galifianakis, here watching a Los Angeles Lakers game in L.A. last month, hosted President Obama on March 11, 2013, on his satirical talk show, 'Between Two Ferns.' In one of his most unconventional settings ever, the president promoted enrollment in the Affordable Care Act. (Mark J. Terrill/AP/File)

President Obama on 'Funny or Die': Funny or dud? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 03.11.14

President Obama on Tuesday appeared in an episode of “Between Two Ferns," actor Zach Galifianakis’ satirical talk show on the “Funny or Die” web site. This was perhaps the boldest – or most outrageous – example yet of the White House attempt to market the Affordable Care Act to young people using nontraditional media.

The Pajama Boy ad for Obamacare? The use of the Doge Internet meme in a blast e-mail urging health insurance sign-ups? Those were perhaps conventional uses of media compared to this.

That’s because “Between Two Ferns” and Mr. Galifianakis are not “The Tonight Show” and Jimmy Fallon. On the show Galifianakis apes a bored, unprepared cable access host. With the president of the United States on, the actor made sure to establish this tone right away.

“Sorry I had to cancel a few times last week,” Galifianakis said. “My mouse pad broke. I had to get my great aunt some diabetes shoes.”

“No problem,” replied Obama. “When I heard that people actually watch this show, I was pretty surprised.”

Galifianakis went on to ask a series of “questions," such as what Obama has planned for follow-up after pardoning a turkey for 2013, and whether Hulk Hogan or Tonya Harding would be a better US envoy to Syria.

Obama replied in kind. They did a pretty good job of acting annoyed with each other. At least, we assume it was acting.

“What’s it like to be the last black president?” Galifianakis asked at one point.

“What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?” Obama shot back.

About half-way through the six-minute show, the president segued into Obamacare after the host sighed and asked what his (Obama’s) plug was.

Obama made the points the White House is trying to emphasized with young people – that health insurance costs less than their cell phone, and that they are not invincible in terms of health problems.

“Did you say ‘invisible?’ ” asked Galifianakis.

At the end, the set falls down, and it’s revealed that the show is being taped in the Diplomatic Room at the White House. Galifianakis says that’s where the show is always done.

“You’ve been filming here all these years, who gave you permission to do that?” asked Obama.

“Bush," says the “Hangover” movie star.

Will this accomplish White House goals? That will be easier to answer once final enrollment figures are in on March 31. If nothing else, the appearance shows how hard the administration is trying to attract the coveted young, healthier cohort of enrollees.

Some pundits enjoyed it.

“Best/Worst thing about #Obama’s schedule today is he’s already peaked,” tweeted veteran National Journal reporter Ron Fournier.

Others didn’t.

“I like esoteric comedy as much as the next guy, but this is effective outreach? POTUS has nothing better to do?” tweeted Mark Hemingway, senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

Maybe not, in terms of larger political outreach. The administration’s goal here could be selling the Democratic brand in general to young people as much as the Affordable Care Act in particular.

After all, the youngest voters of the Millennial generation do not lean Democratic, points out George Washington University political scientist John Sides, in “The Monkey Cage” blog. In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney won among voters age 18 to 20.

The explanation for this is that the political allegiance of generations coming of voting age is determined by the economic and political fundamentals of that time. And the youngest voters cast their first ballot at a time when Obama’s overall approval rating is low.

“A booming economy and a popular president will push young people toward the president’s party. A recession and an unpopular president will push young people toward the opposite party,” writes Professor Sides.

In this context, the untraditional marketing methods for Obamacare make sense on several levels. They may boost enrollment – and they may win back some wavering voters before they become committed to the GOP.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Friday, March 7, 2014. Sen. Paul is using civil liberties and NSA overreach as themes with which to frame his brand of libertarianism. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Will Edward Snowden affect presidential race? Rand Paul hopes so. (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.10.14

Will Edward Snowden affect the 2016 presidential race? Yes, it’s early yet, so in some ways the question appears very premature. But Snowden’s leaks about the extent of National Security Agency surveillance have launched a wide-ranging discussion about civil liberties in the US. And it’s already clear that the issue could play a part in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in particular.

That’s because Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is using civil liberties and NSA overreach as themes with which to frame his brand of libertarianism. This was on full display at the just-completed Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington, D.C. Senator Paul’s speech was almost entirely about the NSA and what he sees as its infringement on the rights of Americans.

Paul said the American Revolution’s “sons of liberty” would “make a bonfire” of the secret orders that authorize NSA actions. In a reference to NSA monitoring of cell phone metadata, he said that “I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their [expletive] business.”

Paul brought up the lawsuit he’s filed against the NSA for its activities, and said he was talking about electing “lovers of liberty,” not just Republicans.

“Don’t forget, there is a great battle going on for the heart and soul of America,” Paul said.

That was pretty tough stuff. The (seemingly) unending stream of revelations from documents made public by Snowden and his journalistic partners is what has made Paul’s approach possible. But the crowd at CPAC loved it. Paul won the meeting’s presidential straw poll for the second year running.

“Paul’s address ... unapologetically heavy with libertarian sentiment was far and away the best-received speech of the weekend,” concluded CNN national political reporter Peter Hamby.

That doesn’t mean he’s assured of the nomination, of course, or even a front-runner. CPAC’s audience skews young and male, a demographic for which libertarianism is attractive.

But Paul’s hammering on the NSA issue does separate him from his fellow GOP contenders. In particular it draws a distinction with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another contender for the backing of tea party groups and adherents.

Senator Cruz, for his part, emphasized over the weekend that he does not agree with Paul’s non-interventionist views on foreign affairs. He’d be more hawkish on the Ukraine crisis, for instance. Cruz has signed on to a Senate effort to enact more economic sanctions in Iran, while Paul has not.

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz told ABC News' Jonathan Karl for the Sunday talk show "This Week."

The question is whether Paul’s NSA emphasis can trump traditional GOP hawkishness with primary voters. Edward Snowden himself has said that he believes “libertarian millenials” such as him are a coming trend in US politics. The upcoming GOP race may show whether that generation has become a significant presence in the Republican Party.

“It’s clear that libertarians are becoming a vocal faction within the Republican ranks,” writes Jamie Fuller of the Washington Post on “The Fix” political blog.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 5. House Republicans have blocked an attempt by Democrats to chastise Issa for his conduct at a hearing after Issa abruptly adjourned a meeting of the House Oversight Committee Wednesday. (Lauren Victoria Burke/AP/File)

Should Issa lose House panel chairmanship for cutting off Cummings's mic?

By Staff writer / 03.07.14

Should Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California lose his committee chairmanship because he cut off the microphone of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland? The Congressional Black Caucus thinks so. The group has written House Speaker John Boehner demanding that Representative Issa be punished for his disrespect of Representative Cummings, who is African-American.

Issa’s action was “deplorable” and violates the rules of the House, according to the CBC letter.

“Mr. Issa is a disgrace and should not be allowed to continue in a leadership role,” wrote CBC chair Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) of Ohio.

Well, don’t buy an outfit for Issa’s going-away party. Speaker Boehner has already said he thinks Issa was within his rights to do what he did. On Thursday, the House declined to censure the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a party-line vote.

Issa himself has apologized to Cummings. He called and said he was sorry about cutting off the Maryland Democrat at the end of an abbreviated hearing into alleged abuses by the Internal Revenue Service. Cummings has accepted this outstretched hand, saying in a statement, “My sincere hope is that as we move forward, we will respect the opinions of all members of the committee.”

Let’s hope that happens. But the fact of the matter is that the IRS investigation is flammable material into which Issa has thrown a match. Partisan disagreements will arise again soon on this committee, and the subject of the dead mike could well arise again. Our prediction: There will be shouting.

In part, this is because Issa has handed Democrats an issue with which to call into question his IRS assertions. For months, Issa and Republicans have been looking into the question of whether the IRS unfairly targeted for extra scrutiny conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Democrats say the probe is a witch hunt – that liberal groups were targeted, too, and that the committee has no evidence that higher officials or even the White House ordered a crackdown on right-leaning organizations.

Former IRS official Lois Lerner is a potentially key witness in this regard. She ran the office that did the vetting; presumably she’d know if it was done because of administration pressure. But she has clammed up, claiming Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. She did so again on Wednesday, after which a frustrated Issa attempted to end the hearing, Cummings attempted to speak, and Issa pulled the plug.

In that moment, Issa may have undermined his own credibility. Even some House Republicans are frustrated with his actions, according to a report in The Hill.

“Every chairperson has their own way of working with the minority," Rep. Frank Lucas (R) of Oklahoma, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, told The Hill. "Clearly, Darrell has his own unique style.” (To be clear, Representative Lucas was not directly criticizing his colleague’s actions.)

But now, some of the spotlight here has shifted from Ms. Lerner to Issa himself. And she will be back, or at least, the subject of what to do about her will return. Republicans believe she waived her right to Fifth Amendment protection by making an opening statement during her initial committee appearance.

The Oversight Committee could vote on a contempt resolution for Lerner soon, perhaps even next week. If it does, expect Democrats to try to deflect attention onto what they claim is Issa’s autocratic and unpredictable leadership – and bring up the mike incident as evidence of their assertions.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Thursday, March 6, 2014, and his remarks seemed reasonably well received by the crowd. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Chris Christie CPAC speech: How did he do? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.06.14

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) spoke at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington on Thursday, and his remarks seemed reasonably well received by the crowd. That’s good news for Governor Christie, of course. He needs conservatives on his side to have a shot at winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Well, maybe he doesn’t have to have them on his side so much as he needs them to not be in front of him, pushing back. The right has long been wary of Christie, seeing him as a moderate who is too eager to work with Democrats and questionable on social issues.

“CPAC is never going to be Christie base. He just needs them to not actively [work] against him,” tweeted Chris Cillizza, Washington Post political analyst, on Thursday.

The Conservative Political Action Conference isn’t a definitive gathering of the right wing of the Republican Party. Its attendees skew young and male, and libertarian. Three of the past four years, libertarian champion Ron Paul has won the CPAC presidential straw poll, the announcement of which caps the conference.

That said, it’s closely watched by other conservatives for trends and draws a big crowd of Washington-based media. Last year, Christie wasn’t invited, and the snub was big political news. This year he was, perhaps on the theory that Bridge-gate has made him a target of the mainstream media, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc.

In that context, Christie gave the crowd some of the attack lines they came for. He hit the media, saying the GOP shouldn’t let them define what the party is. He did his best to define himself as a conservative.

“We need leaders who are willing to say not only we are against Obamacare – which we are – [but] that we’re against higher taxes, we’re against bigger government,” Christie said.

Christie touted his own fiscal conservatism, saying New Jersey now has 6,000 fewer state employees than when he took office. He hit back at the Democrats' emphasis on economic inequality, saying, “We don’t have an income inequality problem, we have an opportunity problem in this country because government’s trying to control the free market.”

He also praised Republican governors for getting things done and said that he’s the only antiabortion governor elected in New Jersey for decades. He said the GOP has allowed speakers in favor of abortion rights at its national conventions, but the Democratic Party has not allowed the reverse.

“Tell me, sir, the last pro-life Democrat who was allowed to speak at a Democratic convention? By the way, don’t strain yourself, because there’s never been one. They’re the party of intolerance, not us,” Christie said.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t accurate. Antiabortion Democrats have been on the convention podium as recently as 2008, though it’s true they’re not exactly swamping the agenda.

Still, the “party of intolerance” remark is the kind of red meat the CPAC audience loves. While attendees were respectful of Christie at the start, they seemed to grow warmer as he went on and ended by giving him a standing ovation.

Christie “came to CPAC in need of a reception like that, and the party faithful delivered,” writes Eliana Johnson of the National Review.

How the reception at CPAC would translate into performance in 2016 primaries remains to be seen. There’s some evidence that Christie’s troubles with the Fort Lee bridge scandal have cut into his support across the board.

A new Washington Post poll finds that 38 percent of self-described conservatives say they “definitely would not vote for” Christie, for instance. Among Republicans as a whole, 30 percent say they definitely oppose the New Jersey governor.

That’s just one survey, and poll questions about future choices aren’t always truly indicative. But it still hints at a little voting problem for Christie if he decides to run.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended her Hitler remark in a speech to students at the University of California Los Angeles campus on Wednesday. The remark simply noted that Hitler used defense of ethnic Germans as an excuse for territorial ambitions and Putin had adopted the same tactic, she said. (Nick Ut/AP)

Hitler remark: Will it hurt Hillary Clinton? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.06.14

Will the Hitler remark made by Hillary Rodham Clinton rebound against her? That’s what some Republicans are saying in the wake of Clinton’s comparing Vladimir Putin the architect of the Third Reich.

It isn’t that the GOP thinks the analogy overdrawn or approves of Putin’s occupation of the Crimea in any way, shape, or form. It’s that the 2016 Democratic presidential frontrunner was at the center of the Obama administration’s attempt to “reset” US-Russia relations when she was secretary of State.

If Putin’s Hitler, why try to make friends?

“Was Mitt Romney right then in labeling Russia our greatest geopolitical foe?” asks right-leaning (and Romney fan) Jennifer Ruin in her Washington Post “Right Turn” blog.

In case you missed it, this contretemps began on Tuesday when former Secretary Clinton, addressing a private fundraiser in California, said that Putin’s actions in regards to Ukraine were similar to those undertaken in Europe by Adolf Hitler prior to the outbreak of World War II. Hitler made a lot of noise about protecting enclaves of ethnic Germans in such places as the Sudetenland, and used that as an excuse to seize territory adjacent to Germany itself. Putin’s excused his move into the Crimea by saying he needs to protect ethnic Russians who are under attack by “ultra-nationalist mobs."

Putin is a leader “who believes his mission is to restore Russian greatness," said Clinton, according to an account of the talk in the Long Beach Press Telegram.

Republicans looking to build a case that Clinton’s foreign policy leadership was not great have seized on this as an unfortunate comparison. If Putin is Hilter, who is Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister whose appeasement of the German leader did nothing to stop the onset of war? Would it be ... Obama? Or Clinton herself?

“This ... invites obvious attacks on the Secretary of State, who long ago bragged of ‘resetting’ relations with Russia,” writes Mary Katharine Ham on the conservative Hot Air site.

Not so fast, replied Clinton on Wednesday, in essence. In remarks at UCLA, she said that she was simply stating a fact of history, not drawing a larger comparison between Russia’s leader and the most infamous tyrant of the age.

After all, any newspaper reader in the 1930s would have known Hitler did indeed use ethnic Germans as an excuse for his territorial ambitions. In 2014, Putin’s talking the same way.

“I just want everybody to have a little historical perspective. I’m not making comparisons, but I am recommending that we can perhaps learn from this tactic that has been used before,” said Clinton.

If nothing else this flaplet shows how seriously Republicans are taking the threat of Clinton’s candidacy. In parsing her every word, they’re treating her almost as if she has won her party’s nomination. Either that or they are doing their best to dissuade her from running at all.

Also, she’s not the only one using “Hitler” in the same sentence with “Putin." Among those who have agreed with her sentiments? The GOP’s 2008 nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and 2016 Republican hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who this week agreed there are “similarities” between Hitler’s and Putin’s geopolitical actions.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., right, leaves as the committee's ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., left, begins his statement on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, during the committee's hearing where former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner invoked her constitutional right not to incriminate herself. (Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)

House IRS hearing explodes. Why such anger? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 03.05.14

A House Oversight Committee hearing on whether the Internal Revenue Service unfairly targeted conservative political groups for scrutiny degenerated into near-chaos Wednesday as a key witness refused to testify and the Republican panel chairman cut off the microphone of the ranking Democrat as he attempted to speak.

Shouting ensued, some of it electronically amplified, some not. Eventually committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California left the room and held a press conference just outside, drawing the crowd with him.

“Mr. Chairman, what are you hiding?” said the visibly agitated Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland as Rep. Issa walked away.

Wow, why the anger? Yes, Congress is polarized, but most committee hearings don’t end this way. Lawmakers generally disagree without the whiff of actual fisticuffs hanging in the air. What happened?

Long story short, the IRS investigation is a highly fraught subject. And Wednesday’s hearing frustrated both sides for different reasons.

It began with former IRS official Lois Lerner invoking the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and refusing to answer committee questions. Ms. Lerner is the former head of the unit of the IRS that investigated applications for tax exempt status for political groups, and thus a key figure in the investigation.

She took the Fifth at a May hearing as well, but she also delivered a statement defending herself before refusing to answer questions. GOP committee members think it’s an open question as to whether this statement constituted a waiver of her Fifth Amendment rights, and there was some talk in congressional halls that she’d testify at Wednesday's hearing. But she didn’t, and now the Republican House leadership may up the pressure.

Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday he would wait for a report on the issue but that “she has to testify or she should be held in contempt” of Congress. That could lead to a court ordering her to speak.

Republican members of the committee were particularly frustrated because they think they’ve got some documentary evidence that establishes a motive for Lerner’s office to unfairly target conservative groups applying for tax exempt status under section 501 (c) 4 of the tax code.

Investigators have obtained IRS e-mails that show Lerner was very concerned about the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling on political spending, according to a report in Politico.

Republicans think Lerner may have wanted to limit the political activity of conservative groups to level the political field. Lerner’s lawyer has called that assertion “fiction,” and the text of the e-mails made public so far don’t seem to indicate any party bias on Lerner’s part.

“My object is not to look for political activity – more to see whether self-declared c4s are really acting like c4s,” she wrote at one point, according to the Politico story.

Without Lerner’s testimony that may be as far as the trail leads, said Issa after the contentious hearing.

“At this point, roads lead to Ms. Lerner,” he said. “It may dead-end at Ms. Lerner” if she does not talk at some point.

This apparent dead end has led some conservatives to wonder why the committee does not just do what Lerner’s lawyer wants, and give his client immunity from prosecution in return for her testimony.

“Maybe Issa and the GOP are worried that conservatives will be angry with them if they let Lerner walk. That’s a small price to pay, though, if she has incriminating info on others up the chain,” writes right-leaning Allahpundit at the Hot Air site.

Democrats, for their part, say Issa has spent years on open-ended investigations of alleged Obama administration wrongdoing and has little to show for it. They’re frustrated by what they say is the autocratic way he conducts committee business. That’s what finally appeared to put Representative Cummings, a liberal whose district includes half of Baltimore, over the edge.

It started just after Lerner declined to speak. Issa, who appeared frustrated, tried to adjourn the hearing. He stood up as if to depart.

Cummings said he had a procedural question. “Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this. You cannot do this. We’re better than that as a country. We’re better than that as a committee.

At that point Issa leaned over and switched off Cummings’ mike.

“If you will sit down and allow me to [ask] the question, I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America, I am tired of this,” an unplugged Cummings bellowed into the room.

Afterward, Cummings said that as far as he is concerned, Lerner has not waived her Fifth Amendment rights. Nor has the investigation shown any political motivation by IRS agents, or any links to anyone in higher office, including the White House, said the Democratic lawmaker.

George P. Bush makes a campaign stop in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, March 3, 2014. Bush, the nephew of one former president, grandson of another, and son of an ex-Florida governor, won the Republican nomination for Texas land commissioner on Tuesday. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

George P. Bush wins Texas primary. Return of the dynasty? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.05.14

It’s alive! On Tuesday the Bush family political dynasty returned from wherever it has been lately as George P. Bush, nephew of ex-President George W. Bush, won the Republican nomination for Texas land commissioner.

The victory was not a surprise – it’s long been clear that Mr. Bush’s name and personal political skills would carry him to victory in the Texas GOP primary. In the red Lone Star State, he’ll almost certainly win the general election in November as well, vaulting him into a statewide office that’s been the starting point for several prominent politicians.

So who has a brighter future: George P., or his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush? Get ready to hear subject-starved pundits chew on that ad infinitum. Yes, Jeb has long been the Bush-in-waiting, thought to be next in line for an Oval Office run if he so chooses.

But "P" (can we call him that already?) has some advantages over his dad. He’s part-Hispanic, as his mother, Columba, was born in Mexico. He speaks Spanish fluently at a time the GOP is struggling to figure out how to reach this fast-growing constituency. He has also continued the Bush family trek away from its preppy patrician roots. He has called himself a “movement conservative,” as opposed to uncle W’s “compassionate conservative” Texas tag.

And he’s young, but not that young. At 37, P is one year older than John Kennedy was when the latter was elected to the US Senate. JFK was president at 43. Just noting that for the record.

OK, maybe that’s enough irresponsible speculation. The fact is that in comparison to his dad, Jeb, P lacks experience and a certain gravitas – and national-level opponents would be sure to point that out. His time may be coming, but it is not yet. The real question is whether Jeb’s time is coming, or whether it disappeared when brother "W" won the top job.

As Sean Sullivan of The Fix political blog at the Washington Post wrote earlier this year, Jeb remains the single biggest question mark in the 2016 presidential invisible primary. That’s the stage when potential candidates gauge their strength with donors and party elites, and it’s going on now.

No other Republican has the power to scramble the race as much as Jeb does, according to Mr. Sullivan.

“No other top tier Republican has broadcast as much genuine uncertainty about his plans,” he writes.

If anything, Mr. Bush may now be feeling more pressure to run. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s star has fallen as a result of Bridge-gate, meaning the establishment GOP may lack an obvious candidate. Many Mitt Romney donors have expressed an interest in supporting Bush, for what that’s worth. It’s possible that Bush is uniquely positioned to unite the party’s warring establishment and conservative factions.

It’s also possible that another candidate named Bush will drive tea party adherents nuts. Many see W as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) who supported increased government spending, after all. Jeb’s numbers in early voter polls are OK but not great for somebody with his name recognition. In the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys of Republican primary voters, he ranks behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Governor Christie, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

And his mom is still not helping. Matriarch Barbara Bush was on "Fox & Friends" Wednesday and once again said bad things about the prevalence of US political dynasties.

Mrs. Bush said that, when it comes to political dynasties in a country the size of the United States, there should be “more than three families,” apparently referring to the Bushes, the Clintons, and the Kennedys.

“I mean we’ve got great governors, other people, I just don’t understand it,” she told Fox’s Steve Doocy.

She did add that she feels Jeb Bush is the best-qualified person in the country for the Oval Office. “Put me down as saying that,” Mrs. Bush said.

Of course, in pure voter appeal there might be another older-generation Bush who surpasses Jeb. That would be her. Barbara Bush’s favorability ratings while her husband was in office are the highest for any recent first lady, a recent Gallup poll notes. She had 77 percent approval in that period. In contrast, Michelle Obama’s average approval rating during her husband’s presidnecy is 66 percent.

President Obama answers a question about the situation in Ukraine, following remarks on the budget at Powell Elementary School in Washington March 4, 2014. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Obama submits budget. Why did he bother? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 03.04.14

Why do presidents bother to submit budgets to Congress nowadays? They’ve become starting points for political fights as much as the first draft of the nation’s fiscal plan.

The opposition party reaction to President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget plan is typical. Before it had even been released the National Republican Congressional Committee was gleefully bashing it, issuing a series of press releases asking whether individual Democratic lawmakers would support Obama’s outline.

“Higher taxes? More spending? Sounds right to [insert name of vulnerable House Democrat here],” read the NRCC’s e-mails.

Of course, if budget submissions are now always dead on arrival, Obama’s 2015 plan is deader than most. To paraphrase Monty Python, it’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible.

That’s because, with the 2014 elections looming, the White House is looking to keep Democrats unified, not compromise with Republicans. It’s dropped from the budget a plan to reduce the growth in Social Security benefits by changing the way they are adjusted for inflation. And it seeks billions in new spending for such Democratic priorities as expanded preschool education and job training for laid-off workers.

Plus, last year’s government shutdown delayed the budget’s finalization. This year the administration missed its chance to link its budget submission to the State of the Union speech, a typical move that ensures greater attention to particulars.

This doesn’t mean the president missed a chance to have his plan whooped through Congress. As this great chart from the Washington Post shows, presidents never get the spending totals they want. Democrats get less than requested. Republicans get more.

The paper exercise has become such a kabuki play that veteran budget expert Stan Collender opined earlier this month that it may be time to eliminate the president’s budget submission entirely.

“No matter who has been president and which political party controlled Congress, the budget has become so unimportant that its release essentially is now a nonevent,” writes Collender, now a national director of Qorvis Communications.

Presidential budgets no longer serve as the starting point for the serious business of planning the US government’s year, according to Collender. Instead they’ve become a “political liability, something to criticize and reject out of hand.”

However, there is one big reason why administrations keep up this cycle of submit-and-get-hammered. It’s the law. It’s been a legal requirement since the passage of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.

Of course, it’s also the law that Congress is supposed to pass its own budget resolution to establish spending category top lines. That seldom happens. Last year, the House and Senate manage to get together to pass a two-year resolution. Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has already said she’ll rely on that document to set this year’s spending goals, and won’t write a 2015 budget resolution.

As a congressional staff member, Mr. Collender helped write the laws governing the congressional budget process, so he knows the pitfalls. His solution is simple: change the law so that the president is not required to submit a budget the year after Congress fails to adopt its budget resolution.

“In the meantime we should all save a few trees or bytes of memory when the president’s budget is released. It’s just not going to mean very much and should not be taken that seriously,” he writes.

First lady Michelle Obama speaks in Miami, Feb. 25, 2014. Michelle Obama plans a week-long visit, without President Obama, to China this month that includes meetings with China’s first lady and high school and university students. (Joel Auerbach/AP/File)

Michelle Obama to visit China. Do first ladies often travel solo abroad? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.03.14

First lady Michelle Obama will head to China for a week-long official visit on March 19, the White House announced Monday. She’ll be accompanied by her daughters, Sasha and Malia, and her mother, Marian Robinson, but President Obama won’t tag along. He’s got a trip of his own to Europe and Saudi Arabia planned for that time period.

Education will be a major theme of the trip, and Mrs. Obama will visit with Chinese high school and university students. She’ll also meet Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The first lady is encouraging US students to follow her progress via the White House website. She’ll be posting a daily travel blog and taking and answering kids’ questions.

Issues such as education, escaping poverty, and easing climate change are the same around the world, wrote Mrs. Obama in a message to students on the White House blog Monday.

“These issues affect every last one of us, so it’s critically important that young people like you learn about what’s going on not just here in America, but around the world,” she wrote.

On Tuesday Mrs. Obama will visit a District of Columbia charter elementary school with a Chinese-language international baccalaureate program, as preparation and publicity for her trip.

It’s not the first time the first lady has set out on solo diplomatic visits. In 2010 she assessed earthquake damage in Haiti, then continued to Mexico for meetings on getting youths engaged in important political and economic questions. In 2011 she traveled to Botswana and South Africa sans spouse.

In doing so, she’s continuing a modern tradition. First ladies are unique ambassadors for the US. They’re important in a political sense, but their visits aren’t as divisive or high-stakes as those of presidents can be.

Eleanor Roosevelt pioneered such trips, as she did with so many other aspects of the modern role of first lady. She was the first presidential wife to travel overseas on her own. As a representative of the Red Cross, she traveled to England and Ireland and US bases throughout the Pacific in World War II.

The Kennedy administration deployed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to unique effect. Admired throughout the world, she built goodwill for the US in solo trips to Greece and Italy. In 1962 she was officially designated a “goodwill ambassador” for a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

More recently, Laura Bush traveled to the Middle East as first lady to promote breast cancer awareness. Hillary Rodham Clinton made a solo trip to China in 1995 to attend a UN Conference on Women, where she called on the host nation to do more to push progress in gender equality.

But first ladies are not immune from overseas missteps. During a solo foray in the Middle East in 1999, Mrs. Clinton listened as Suha Arafat, Yassir Arafat’s wife, gave a speech in which she falsely accused Israel of using poison gas on Palestinians.

Mrs. Clinton hugged Mrs. Arafat at the end of the lecture.

“The First Lady’s politeness was taken as substantive agreement with Arafat’s inflammatory charges,” Brookings Institution Vice President Darrell West wrote in 2010.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 16, 2013. Palin says she was right to predict that Russia might invade Ukraine. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Sarah Palin: 'I told you so on Ukraine'

By Staff writer / 03.01.14

It’s not true that Sarah Palin once said “I can see Russia from my house.” That was comedian and Palin impersonator Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live.”

But back in 2008 when she was the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, trying to establish her credentials on things like foreign policy, the ex-Governor of Alaska did say of Russia, “They're our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.”

Which is literally true – on a clear day if you stand on your tippy-toes and gaze from the Alaskan island of Little Diomede across the International Date Line to the unpopulated Russian island of Big Diomede two and one half miles away.

This running joke about Ms. Palin – who went on to become a Fox News commentator, star of her own brief reality show, and well-paid Obama scold on behalf of the tea party – came to mind when she went on Facebook to comment on the crisis in Ukraine:

“Yes, I could see this one from Alaska,” she wrote. “I'm usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did, despite my accurate prediction being derided as ‘an extremely far-fetched scenario’ by the ‘high-brow’ Foreign Policy magazine. Here’s what this ‘stupid’ ‘insipid woman’ predicted back in 2008: ‘After the Russian Army invaded the nation of Georgia, Senator Obama's reaction was one of indecision and moral equivalence, the kind of response that would only encourage Russia's Putin to invade Ukraine next.’”

Then she went on Fox News to elaborate.

"Back in 2008, I accurately predicted the possibility of Putin feeling emboldened to invade Ukraine because I could see what kind of leader Barack Obama would be,” she said. “The bullies of the world are always emboldened by indecision and moral equivalence. We can expect more of this sort of thing in a world where America is gutting its military and 'leading from behind.'"

As usual, Palin is nothing if not controversial, and she delights in tweaking the “lamestream media.”

Earlier in the week, Palin won Newshound’s “most outrageous quote” reader poll for another Facebook post: “If he is good enough for Ted Nugent, he is good enough for me!” (Newshound’s motto is “We watch Fox so you don’t have to.”)

Ted Nugent, of course, is the geezer rocker who called President Obama a “communist-educated, communist-nurtured, subhuman mongrel.” Palin’s reference was in support of Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Texas governor now serving as the state’s Attorney General, who has welcomed Nugent’s endorsement – or at least refused to say anything critical about “The Nuge’s” political pronouncements.

Meanwhile, fellow tea partiers have been chuckling over Palin’s Ukraine moment.

“Palin not only knows where Russia is, but she knew what Putin would do to Ukraine with Obama as president,” radio talk show host Mark Levin tweeted.

“In light of recent events in Ukraine … nobody seems to be laughing at or dismissing those comments now,” wrote Tony Lee at

Others note that Mitt Romney was accused of reviving the Cold War when, as the 2012 Republican presidential candidate debating Obama, he stated that Russia is "without question our number one geopolitical foe."

At the moment, Palin’s Facebook post on Ukraine has 66,684 “likes” and 15,442 “shares.”

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