Friday, December 18, 2009

Dragging down the health care debate

Media Matters: Dragging down the health care debate

Earlier this week, two very important things happened in the fight for health care reform, one flowing directly from the other. The first was that the public option was officially jettisoned from the Senate bill. The Democratic Senate caucus dropped it along with the proposed Medicare buy-in and will push the bill toward passage without these hotly controversial (within the Senate, if not among the American people) provisions.

The death of the public option then caused a fissure among progressives pushing to reform our health care system, effectively splitting left-leaning wonks and commentators into two camps: those who think that a bill without a public option will be a toothless waste of time and money; and those who think that the bill, while substantially weaker, will still be a vast improvement over the unsustainable status quo.

It's been an interesting debate to watch. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Daily Kos' Markos Moulitsas have argued against passing the public option-less Senate bill, calling it a gift to the already entrenched private health insurance monopolies. Meanwhile, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn have defended the stripped-down bill's merits, focusing on cost controls and the extension of health insurance to millions of people. Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich occupies something of a middle ground, saying the bill is worth passing, but only just barely. Their arguments have the dry weight of substance and reflect a genuine engagement with the issue.

The same can't really be said about the right side of the aisle.

Rush Limbaugh smeared health care reform supporters as "mentally disturbed" before announcing: "People are going to die prematurely with the government in charge of all this." He called Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) "stupid," "ignorant," and "uninformed" for saying she wants to see a health reform bill pass, and said her "ignorance" was born of a failure to recognize that "people are going to be dying." Limbaugh stridently defended the insurance companies' prerogative to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, was outraged that the bill would extend coverage to victims of domestic violence, and advocated "shutting down the government" to prevent its passage.

Glenn Beck theorized that the health care reform bill is purposefully unconstitutional, and that Democrats are ramming it through Congress to set up some sort of framework in which Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is the most powerful person in the country. Rather than bemoan the bill's allowance for victims of domestic violence, Beck compared the bill itself to an abusive spouse. He also offered a rousing defense of those tea partiers who protest health care reform by holding signs comparing President Obama to Hitler and the Nazis.

Speaking of tea partiers, they were at it again this week, holding poorly attended anti-health reform rallies at the Capitol and were cheered on, once again, by Fox News. On the December 15 Fox & Friends, "blind ideologue" Laura Ingraham hyped an Americans for Prosperity-sponsored "Code Red" rally against the "government takeover" of health care. When the rally actually got started, Fox News gave it some fawning live coverage augmented with RNC talking points about how great the tea partiers are for the Republican brand.

Fox Nation gave some love to the "Tea Party 'Die-In' " -- an event where tea partiers would storm the Capitol and pretend to die as a consequence of being denied health care by the government. As David Weigel of The Washington Independent reported, the event itself died a very real death.

And just today, Weekly Standard editor and professional temporary newspaper columnist Bill Kristol argued -- and it's hard to believe that this is actually what he wrote -- that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) should kill the Senate health bill today by supporting the Republican filibuster because it's going to snow in Washington, D.C., this weekend and it will be too dangerous for Hill staffers to drive to work. Incidentally, the conservative media had a lot to write about Ben Nelson this week. More on that below.

There exists right now a yawning divide in the quality of commentary and argumentation regarding health care reform. As the Senate bill has gone through the legislative meat grinder, leading progressive voices have shifted their rhetoric and opinions based on the changing conditions. Top-flight conservatives like Limbaugh and Beck, on the other hand, were screaming "Hitler" and "dictatorship" when the public option was on the table, and their tune hasn't changed now that it's no longer under consideration.

If anything, they're only going to get more shrill and irrational as the Senate bill moves closer and closer to a vote. The last thing they want is reasoned discourse. They'd much rather cancel the vote on account of weather.

Other major stories this week
White House threatens Nelson? Oh come Offutt

Let's do a quick thought experiment. Imagine that you are a nameless, faceless, party-less Senate aide who doesn't much like Obama or the Democratic push for health care reform and you're eager to discredit both with some kind of juicy scandal. But here's the problem -- because you have no name, face, or party, most people aren't going to give you a whole lot of credence. Also, the allegation you're trying to peddle has some pretty glaring credibility issues, so you can't risk taking it to the legitimate press because they might do a little fact-checking before running with it, which would inevitably kill it.

So what do you do?

The answer, actually, is quite simple. Take it to that one sector of the media that will believe any ridiculous smear as God's honest truth and won't let facts or common sense get in the way of an otherwise good story: the right-wing media.

This is in reference, of course, to Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb's shockingly implausible report, sourced to an anonymous "Senate aide," that the White House had threatened to close Nebraska's Offutt Air Force base in order to pressure Sen. Nelson to vote in favor of health care reform. The White House denied it, Nelson's office denied it, the whole thing stands athwart sense and reason, and Goldfarb has changed the story as inconvenient facts have undermined his allegations.

But, as is often the case, none of that matters. Soon after Goldfarb filed his report, the ridiculous story was picked up by Limbaugh, Beck, Sean Hannity, and Michelle Malkin. Beck accused the White House of something approximating "treason," and Investor's Business Daily slammed Obama for "playing politics with our national security." And that was the point from the beginning -- just get the story out there and get people talking about it. If the facts come out later, who cares?

It's a formula that's worked well in the past -- remember when candidate Obama "snubbed" wounded troops in Germany because he couldn't bring cameras along? Remember when Obama demanded that Jesus be covered up for a speech he gave at Georgetown University? Or how about when Obama's college thesis was unearthed and it was discovered that he trashed the Constitution? All three of these allegations were poorly sourced, ridiculous on their face, and easily proven false with just a minimum of fact-checking. And yet, they were embraced wholeheartedly by the right-wing media.

People who want to get ridiculous smears like this into the public debate know how the process works. Just feed the remarkable "scoop" to one of the many right-wing ideologues posing as journalists and trust that they'll be incurious enough to repeat it without any fact-checking or skepticism. If the anonymous "Senate aide" behind the Offutt allegation even exists, then he at least deserves some credit for playing Michael Goldfarb like a well-made fiddle.

Budget, credibility, and deficits

One of the favorite conservative arguments against health care reform, particularly when the public option was still on the table, was that an overhaul of the country's health care system would badly exacerbate the already huge budget deficit Obama created with his stimulus program, bank bailouts, and other big-government spending initiatives.

The argument suffered from two big setbacks. First, the Congressional Budget Office found that both the House and Senate health care reform bills, even with the public option, would reduce the deficit. Second, as much as conservatives would like to think that Obama, the big-spending liberal, is responsible for the deficit, the real blame lies with his predecessor.

A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study released this week found that the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for over $500 billion of this year's $1.4 trillion deficit, with the economic downturn accounting for another $400 billion. Over the next 10 years, Bush's tax cuts and war spending will account for $7.1 trillion. The CBPP's data meshes nicely with a New York Times analysis from June finding that Bush's tax cutting and war spending were the major contributing factors to this year's deficit.

With that in mind, it was interesting to see conservatives who wholeheartedly supported Bush's economic policies take to the airwaves this week to trash Obama and lie about his economic policies.

Karl Rove, who just might have an ulterior motive for bashing the president, declared that the stimulus package "impeded" economic recovery, even though CBO found that it created or saved hundreds of thousands of jobs and added greatly to the GDP. The crew of Fox & Friends also took a few jabs at the stimulus, falsely claiming that the government spent money to "save" a wine train in Napa Valley (the money was actually for the Army Corps of Engineers project to keep downtown Napa from flooding).

Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal responded to an increase in the number of people filing for unemployment in early December by attacking Obama for predicting "strong job growth" after the Labor Department released a report on November's dropping unemployment rate. Obama had actually said that "there are going to be some months where the [unemployment] reports are a little better, some months where the reports are worse."

And then there's Limbaugh. To have an intelligent discussion on economics, one must first have a semi-firm grasp of reality. Limbaugh has demonstrated that he can't fulfill even that basic requirement, declaring the two Bush presidencies, which oversaw three recessions, "eight years of prosperity."

You get the sense that they might be trying to cover their tracks. After eight years of conservative stewardship of the economy that they supported, media conservatives look at the mess that was left to us, blame it all on the guy who's been in office for 11 months, and attack him for not pursuing the policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The right goes guerilla - With "Climategate" and Jennings smears

from: Media Matters

The conservative reaction to President Obama's election is turning downright Faustian.

As the rhetoric on the right has grown increasingly shrill, a few conservatives have raised their voices in alarm, counseling their ideological kin to step back from the abyss. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in August that "the increasingly angry tone of incitement being heard from right-of-center broadcasters" is likely to lead to politically motivated violence. Not two weeks ago, conservative blogger Charles Johnson articulated the reasons behind his departure from the right, citing conservative support for "anti-science bad craziness" and "[h]atred for President Obama that goes far beyond simply criticizing his policies."

If the past week is any indication, those warnings have been roundly ignored. The conservative media, in their quest to derail the president's progressive agenda, have thrown their lot in with the grisly underbelly of political activism -- dumpster-diving thieves, extremist hate groups, and scam-artist videographers who sacrifice credibility for sensationalism and value Web traffic over truth.

Take, for example, the hackers who illegally accessed email servers at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and stole thousands of emails. From Fox News on down to the conservative blogs, right-wingers have seized on the stolen documents as "proof" that climate change science is a "hoax" and attacked the global scientific consensus on climate change as a "cult." As Media Matters explained last week, the emails show nothing of the sort, and they are being wildly distorted. But the right not only wholeheartedly embraced these illegally obtained documents, it actively took steps to hide the fact that they were obtained by theft. Fox News spent an entire week describing the emails as "leaked," "revealed," and "uncovered." The conservative media critics at NewsBusters chastised the media for "paint[ing] the 'stolen' e-mails not as laudatory whistle-blowing, but as an unwanted impediment to the left's global warming agenda."

There were also new developments this week in another bogus "controversy" being stoked by right-wingers: the ongoing homophobic smear campaign against Department of Education official Kevin Jennings. Led by Andrew Breitbart and The Washington Times, conservatives falsely accused Jennings' organization of handing out explicit sexual materials to children, and smeared Jennings, who is gay, as a "deviant," a "pedophile," the "buggery czar," and a "mega-pervert." It was later revealed that the falsehoods upon which these smears are based originated with a group called MassResistance, a Massachusetts-based anti-gay hate group that purports to chronicle the "brutal fascist tactics" of the "homosexual movement," and whose leader compared the gay rights movement to Nazism.

Speaking of Andrew Breitbart, the Drudge-protégé and Twitter fiend received some bad news this week. An investigation by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger into Breitbart's much-publicized videos purporting to show ACORN aiding an undercover pimp and prostitute in tax evasion determined that the videos contained no evidence that the organization acted illegally. The report also found that the videos, shot by conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, "appear to have been edited, in some cases substantially, including the insertion of a substitute voiceover for significant portions of Mr. O'Keefe's and Ms. Giles' comments, which makes it difficult to determine the questions to which ACORN employees are responding." Perhaps he'll have better luck with his next project -- rooting through ACORN's trash to find incriminating documents.

The newest right-wing smear centers on a deceptively cropped undercover video shot by an anti-abortion activist at a Planned Parenthood office in Wisconsin. The Fox Nation and other right-wingers claimed the video shows Planned Parenthood trying to force women to have abortions. In reality, the video is so heavily edited it's impossible to determine the context of any of the Planned Parenthood staffer's supposedly damning statements.

These are the big stories for conservatives right now, and they're all based on thievery, the smears of an extremist fringe group, and disreputable hucksters with video cameras.

Now, it's probably not completely accurate to say that the right's embrace of these types of people is a Faustian bargain -- after all, such an arrangement typically involves the good being corrupted or seduced by the evil. When it comes to the conservative media, which are already notorious for slander and falsehood, it's more like the next step of a natural progression. The real danger is that they are helping to mainstream these fringe characters. The Washington Post published an op-ed by Sarah Palin who used the -- ahem -- "publication of damaging e-mails from a climate research center" as a pretext to lie and mislead on climate science. The Post defended publishing Palin's op-ed by claiming that it didn't have time to fact-check it and that Palin "is someone who stirs discussion."

And that's exactly the mindset these conservatives are preying upon: Forget the facts; we just want eyeballs on the screens.

Other major stories this week
O say can you CO2?

Don't for one minute think that with the Copenhagen conference in full swing that the "Climategate" faux-scandal was the only bit of climate-related nonsense coming from the right this week. In accordance with a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, on December 7, the Environmental Protection Agency released its endangerment finding on carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases, which stated that the six gases "threaten the public health and welfare of the American people." As The Washington Post reported, the ruling enables the Obama administration "to limit emissions across the economy even if Congress does not pass climate legislation."

Of course, when media conservatives catch a whiff of anything that even hints at increased government regulation -- even over substances that threaten to disrupt the climate and cripple global economies -- the default reaction is to loudly freak out over the corruption of "big government" and the demise of America. This time around, the preferred buzzword was "blackmail." Glenn Beck said: "This is blackmail. It is a bogus gun to our heads." Rush Limbaugh screeched that the EPA is "blackmailing elected officials -- representatives of the people." Charles Krauthammer chimed in, saying the EPA finding is "command and control, which is a polite way of saying Soviet control, meaning it's all regulation, it's all sort of arbitrary on the part of the EPA. It's an amazing admission, and it is a kind of blackmail."

The EPA finding also offered an opportunity to revisit one of the sillier fake scandals from earlier in the year -- the saga of "silenced" EPA "scientist" Alan Carlin. To recap, back in June, it was revealed that Carlin, an EPA economist (not climate scientist), had authored an unsolicited report challenging the agency's endangerment finding on CO2 (a report Carlin himself acknowledged was hastily prepared and full of errors). Carlin complained to his superiors that his findings were being ignored, at which point emails were "leaked" (starting to sound familiar?) and the right embraced Carlin as a "whistleblower" who had been "silenced." The official release of the endangerment finding brought Carlin back to the fore, with Fox Nation and Human Events pulling out the "silenced scientist" shtick. Unfortunately for them, neither Carlin's allegations nor his scientific bona fides have improved with age.

What it all comes down to is that the conservative media would have you believe -- contrary to common sense and the glut of scientific evidence accumulated over the decades -- that there is no climate change, but rather, as Laura Ingraham put it on December 8 on Fox News, "a concerted global effort to reduce the standard of living for all Americans -- bring us down so the rest of these countries can float up."

Yep, it's crazy. But there is a potential upside -- perhaps the tin foil on their heads will reflect a little sunlight safely back into space.

Health care fearmongering on the rise

We're fast approaching the point where there can be no reasonable response to the conservative commentary on the health care reform bills before Congress. Sure, a few of them are sticking to easily debunked falsehoods, like Fox News' Martha MacCallum, who claimed Senate Democrats were not willing to enroll in the public option even though Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown, Chris Dodd, Russ Feingold, Al Franken, and Barbara Mikulski co-sponsored an amendment mandating members of Congress do exactly that. But the big names in conservative talk are gunning for complete and total nonsensical hysteria.

Glenn Beck, after somehow arriving at the conclusion that health care reform opponents are painted as "Holocaust deniers," offered a full-throated defense of the American health care system that consisted mainly of making fun of Indians and the funny-sounding things they have in their country, like "that one big river they have there that sounds like a disease." You'll remember, of course, that a couple of years ago, Beck had nothing but bad things to say about his "eye-opening experience" of "receive[ing] health care in the United States."

Rush Limbaugh, for his part, cast health care reform as part of Obama's grand scheme of "aborting the private sector," and predicted that by pushing health care reform, the Democrats are "guaranteeing a revolt." And these attacks were in conjunction with the garden-variety Nazi-Cuba-totalitarian references and the "death panel" smear that just won't die.

You know you've reached a bad point in the health care debate when Nazi comparisons become garden-variety.

NPR's Fox News problem

It was revealed this week that National Public Radio executives had approached national political correspondent Mara Liasson and asked her to reconsider her regular appearances on Fox News in light of the channel's increasingly partisan programming. Liasson rebuffed her bosses, explaining that she appears only on the network's news programming, not its opinion shows. Her explanation likely elated Fox News executives, who have been pushing the "hard news"-versus-opinion distinction in response to White House criticism of the network's overt partisanship. To have NPR's national political correspondent make that argument for them was quite the credibility boon.

And that's exactly the problem. There is no discernable distinction between Fox News' opinion programming and its news content. Special Report and Fox News Sunday -- Liasson's homes away from home -- are every bit as capable of the same dishonest and partisan hackery as Sean Hannity. The fact that they engage in the same shenanigans behind the fig leaf of "hard news" actually makes them in some ways worse than their openly opinionated colleagues. Liasson brings with her NPR's good reputation and credibility and confers them upon Fox News, even though it routinely undermines its credibility with ideologically-driven agendas.

And this isn't the first time NPR has faced this problem. Earlier in the year, the organization asked news analyst Juan Williams, who had been making a habit of going on The O'Reilly Factor to trash Michelle Obama, to stop identifying himself as an NPR employee when he went on Fox News.

NPR's executives clearly recognize what an embarrassment Fox News is, it's a shame Liasson and Williams don't.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Climategate' distracts from a crucial issue - Glen MacDonald

The purloined e-mails of climate scholars raise legitimate questions that must be addressed.
But their work is a drop in a global flood of evidence that something critical is going on.

For the past week, I have been riveted by the disclosures and diatribes swirling around Climategate. If you haven't followed the story, it began when a hacker gained access to e-mails at the Climatic Research Unit at the British University of East Anglia and released private correspondence.

Some of the leaked correspondence implies that Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit, used a "trick" based on splicing together different data sets to hide an apparent decrease in 20th century temperatures. The origin of the trick was attributed to another scientist, Michael E. Mann of Penn State. Other e-mails suggest a conspiracy to keep data out of the hands of climate warming skeptics, to destroy communications and to suppress certain scientific publications.

Global warming skeptics have pounced on the e-mails as proof that climate scientists manipulate data and arbitrarily dismiss the work of scholars who hold contrarian views.

The snippets from the purloined e-mails do not provide a full context to the disturbing quotes, and I am not willing to condemn two highly talented and dedicated scientists without a full accounting. Investigations are taking place at East Anglia and Penn State. I trust these will be thorough and fair.

As illegal and unethical as this electronic theft may be, the e-mails do raise legitimate questions that must be addressed by the scientists involved and the climate community at large. The troubling questions fall into two categories -- those of scientific ethics and responsibility, and those related to the veracity of evidence that the world is warming at an alarming rate and magnitude.

Even under the best-case scenario, it can be argued that the science of climate change has been let down by what is contained in the e-mails. The perceived value of scientific research in formulating and implementing policy is greatly reduced if there is any question about its validity or any evidence of overriding bias by the researchers. The release of the stolen e-mails on the eve of the Copenhagen summit seems aimed to impede any real progress there. Even if they were nothing more than verbal rants and without underlying malfeasance, the troubling statements have handed the militant skeptics a platform from which to cast aspersions on the conclusion that the Earth is warming.

So, what if we faced a worst-case scenario and the climatic records from Jones and Mann were spurious? Do we have reason to discount the whole corpus of evidence that the 20th and 21st centuries have experienced an unusual spike in temperatures? The answer is a simple and clear no.

The climatic data from both Jones and Mann are only two instances of such evidence. Instrumental climate records of 20th century warming trends have been developed by other groups, including NASA. Well before Mann produced his famous "hockey stick" record of unusual 20th century warming relative to the past 1,000 years, there were centuries-long tree-ring records reported from places such as the Arctic that displayed unusually high and persistent warming over the 20th century. Hundreds of records of unusual 20th century warming from glaciers, lake and marine sediments, soil temperatures, tree rings, climate model estimates, etc., have been produced independently by many scientists in many countries.

In the Arctic, where I have worked for 30 years, there is evidence of environmental changes in sensitive ecosystems such as lakes that appear to be unprecedented in recent millenniums. In some cases, Arctic lakes, including ones that I visited as a student, have simply disappeared. Similar temperature-related changes are occurring in many places. We've seen disappearing glaciers from Mt. Kilimanjaro to the Andes, terrestrial plant and animal species expanding their ranges to higher altitudes or latitudes, increasing abundance of tropical/subtropical plankton species off the coast of California, and on and on.

The Jones and Mann reconstructions are drops in a global flood of evidence that something is going on with the world's climate and environments that we had better take note of. The climate change summit in Copenhagen remains completely justified in tackling the issue of climate warming now rather than later. In this regard, Climategate is a dangerous distraction from a frighteningly urgent threat.

We are facing a world of many environmental challenges, of which climate change is one important facet. We will not be able to confront all the threats at once and are faced with difficult decisions of environmental priorities and strategies. One important lesson from Climategate for all environmental scientists is that we must redouble efforts to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards -- and be seen to be upholding those standards. Transparency and openness are not just virtues, they are necessities. For in a world of environmental triage, the production of sound science and public faith in such science are crucial to the ultimate health of the planet.

Glen MacDonald is a climate change scientist, UC presidential chair and director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Difference between BUSH & OBAMA - `a brain!"

How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — On the afternoon he held the eighth meeting of his Afghanistan review, President Obama arrived in the White House Situation Room ruminating about war. He had come from Arlington National Cemetery, where he had wandered among the chalky white tombstones of those who had fallen in the rugged mountains of Central Asia.

How much their sacrifice weighed on him that Veterans Day last month, he did not say. But his advisers say he was haunted by the human toll as he wrestled with what to do about the eight-year-old war. Just a month earlier, he had mentioned to them his visits to wounded soldiers at the Army hospital in Washington. “I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years,” he said then.

The economic cost was troubling him as well after he received a private budget memo estimating that an expanded presence would cost $1 trillion over 10 years, roughly the same as his health care plan. Now as his top military adviser ran through a slide show of options, Mr. Obama expressed frustration. He held up a chart showing how reinforcements would flow into Afghanistan over 18 months and eventually begin to pull out, a bell curve that meant American forces would be there for years to come.

“I want this pushed to the left,” he told advisers, pointing to the bell curve. In other words, the troops should be in sooner, then out sooner.

When the history of the Obama presidency is written, that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war. By moving the bell curve to the left, Mr. Obama decided to send 30,000 troops mostly in the next six months and then begin pulling them out a year after that, betting that a quick jolt of extra forces could knock the enemy back on its heels enough for the Afghans to take over the fight.

The three-month review that led to the escalate-then-exit strategy is a case study in decision making in the Obama White House — intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar in Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner.”

Mr. Obama peppered advisers with questions and showed an insatiable demand for information, taxing analysts who prepared three dozen intelligence reports for him and Pentagon staff members who churned out thousands of pages of documents.

This account of how the president reached his decision is based on dozens of interviews with participants as well as a review of notes some of them took during Mr. Obama’s 10 meetings with his national security team. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but their accounts have been matched against those of other participants wherever possible.

Mr. Obama devoted so much time to the Afghan issue — nearly 11 hours on the day after Thanksgiving alone — that he joked, “I’ve got more deeply in the weeds than a president should, and now you guys need to solve this.” He invited competing voices to debate in front of him, while guarding his own thoughts. Even David Axelrod, arguably his closest adviser, did not know where Mr. Obama would come out until just before Thanksgiving.

With the result uncertain, the outsize personalities on his team vied for his favor, sometimes sharply disagreeing as they made their arguments. The White House suspected the military of leaking details of the review to put pressure on the president. The military and the State Department suspected the White House of leaking to undercut the case for more troops. The president erupted at the leaks with an anger advisers had rarely seen, but he did little to shut down the public clash within his own government.

“The president welcomed a full range of opinions and invited contrary points of view,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview last month. “And I thought it was a very healthy experience because people took him up on it. And one thing we didn’t want — to have a decision made and then have somebody say, ‘Oh, by the way.’ No, come forward now or forever hold your peace.”

The decision represents a complicated evolution in Mr. Obama’s thinking. He began the process clearly skeptical of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops, but the more he learned about the consequences of failure, and the more he narrowed the mission, the more he gravitated toward a robust if temporary buildup, guided in particular by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Yet even now, he appears ambivalent about what some call “Obama’s war.” Just two weeks before General McChrystal warned of failure at the end of August, Mr. Obama described Afghanistan as a “war of necessity.” When he announced his new strategy last week, those words were nowhere to be found. Instead, while recommitting to the war on Al Qaeda, he made clear that the larger struggle for Afghanistan had to be balanced against the cost in blood and treasure and brought to an end.

Aides, though, said the arduous review gave Mr. Obama comfort that he had found the best course he could. “The process was exhaustive, but any time you get the president of the United States to devote 25 hours, anytime you get that kind of commitment, you know it was serious business,” said Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser. “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”

Taking Control of a War

Mr. Obama ran for president supportive of the so-called good war in Afghanistan, but he talked about it primarily as a way of attacking Republicans for diverting resources to Iraq, which he described as a war of choice. Only after taking office, as casualties mounted and the Taliban gained momentum, did Mr. Obama really begin to confront what to do in Afghanistan.

Even before completing a review of the war, he ordered the military to send 21,000 more troops there, bringing the force to 68,000. But tension between the White House and the military soon emerged when General Jones, a retired Marine four-star general, traveled to Afghanistan in the summer and was surprised to hear officers already talking about more troops. He made it clear that no more troops were in the offing.

With the approach of Afghanistan’s presidential election in August, Mr. Obama’s two new envoys — Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative to the region, and Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired commander of troops in Afghanistan now serving as ambassador — warned of trouble, including the possibility of angry Afghans marching on the American Embassy or outright civil war.

“There are 10 ways this can turn out,” one administration official said, summing up the envoys’ presentation, “and 9 of them are messy.”

The worst did not happen, but widespread fraud tainted the election and shocked some in the White House as they realized that their partner in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, was hopelessly compromised in terms of public credibility.

At the same time, the Taliban kept making gains. The Central Intelligence Agency drew up detailed maps in August charting the steady progression of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, maps that would later be used extensively during the president’s review. General McChrystal submitted his own dire assessment of the situation, warning of “mission failure” without a fresh infusion of troops.

While General McChrystal did not submit a specific troop request at that point, the White House knew it was coming and set out to figure out what to do. General Jones organized a series of meetings that he envisioned lasting a few weeks. Before each one, he convened a rehearsal session to impose discipline — “get rid of the chaff,” one official put it — that included Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and other cabinet-level officials. Mr. Biden made a practice of writing a separate private memo to Mr. Obama before each meeting, outlining his thoughts.

The first meeting with the president took place on Sept. 13, a Sunday, and was not disclosed to the public that day. For hours, Mr. Obama and his top advisers pored through intelligence reports.

Unsatisfied, the president posed a series of questions: Does America need to defeat the Taliban to defeat Al Qaeda? Can a counterinsurgency strategy work in Afghanistan given the problems with its government? If the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, would nuclear-armed Pakistan be next?

The deep skepticism he expressed at that opening session was reinforced by Mr. Biden, who rushed back overnight from a California trip to participate. Just as he had done in the spring, Mr. Biden expressed opposition to an expansive strategy requiring a big troop influx. Instead, he put an alternative on the table — rather than focus on nation building and population protection, do more to disrupt the Taliban, improve the quality of the training of Afghan forces and expand reconciliation efforts to peel off some Taliban fighters.

Mr. Biden quickly became the most outspoken critic of the expected McChrystal troop request, arguing that Pakistan was the bigger priority, since that is where Al Qaeda is mainly based. “He was the bull in the china shop,” said one admiring administration official.

But others were nodding their heads at some of what he was saying, too, including General Jones and Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

A Review Becomes News

The quiet review burst into public view when General McChrystal’s secret report was leaked to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post a week after the first meeting. The general’s grim assessment jolted Washington and lent urgency to the question of what to do to avoid defeat in Afghanistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the regional commander, secretly flew to an American air base in Germany for a four-hour meeting with General McChrystal on Sept. 25. He handed them his troop request on paper — there were no electronic versions and barely 20 copies in all.

The request outlined three options for different missions: sending 80,000 more troops to conduct a robust counterinsurgency campaign throughout the country; 40,000 troops to reinforce the southern and eastern areas where the Taliban are strongest; or 10,000 to 15,000 troops mainly to train Afghan forces.

General Petraeus took one copy, while Admiral Mullen took two back to Washington and dropped one off at Mr. Gates’s home next to his in a small military compound in Washington. But no one sent the document to the White House, intending to process it through the Pentagon review first.

Mr. Obama was focused on another report. At 10 p.m. on Sept. 29, he called over from the White House residence to the West Wing to ask for a copy of the first Afghanistan strategy he approved in March. A deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, brought him a copy to reread overnight. When his national security team met the next day, Mr. Obama complained that elements of that plan had never been enacted.

The group went over the McChrystal assessment and drilled in on what the core goal should be. Mr. Biden asked tough questions about whether there was any intelligence showing that the Taliban posed a threat to American territory. But Mr. Obama also firmly closed the door on any withdrawal. “I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan,” he told his advisers.

Tension with the military had been simmering since the leak of the McChrystal report, which some in the White House took as an attempt to box in the president. The friction intensified on Oct. 1 when the general was asked after a speech in London whether a narrower mission, like the one Mr. Biden proposed, would succeed. “The short answer is no,” he said.

White House officials were furious, and Mr. Gates publicly scolded the general, saying advice to the president should remain confidential. The furor rattled General McChrystal, who, unlike General Petraeus, was not a savvy Washington operator. And it stunned others in the military, who were at first “bewildered by how over the top the reaction was from the White House,” as one military official put it.

It also proved to be what one review participant called a “head-snapping” moment of revelation for the military. The president, they suddenly realized, was not simply updating his previous strategy but essentially starting over from scratch.

The episode underscored the uneasy relationship between the military and a new president who, aides said, was determined not to be as deferential as he believed his predecessor, George W. Bush, was for years in Iraq. And the military needed to adjust to a less experienced but more skeptical commander in chief. “We’d been chugging along for eight years under an administration that had become very adept at managing war in a certain way,” said another military official.

Moreover, Mr. Obama had read “Lessons in Disaster,” Gordon M. Goldstein’s book on the Vietnam War. The book had become a must read in the West Wing after Mr. Emanuel had dinner over the summer at the house of another deputy national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and wandered into his library to ask what he should be reading.

Among the conclusions that Mr. Donilon and the White House team drew from the book was that both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory — clearly driving the Obama advisers to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The Pakistan Question

While public attention focused on Afghanistan, some of the most intensive discussion focused on the country where Mr. Obama could send no troops — Pakistan. Pushed in particular by Mrs. Clinton, the president’s team explored the links between the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Mr. Obama told aides that it did not matter how many troops were sent to Afghanistan if Pakistan remained a haven.

Many of the intelligence reports ordered by the White House during the review dealt with Pakistan’s stability and whether its military and intelligence services were now committed to the fight or secretly still supporting Taliban factions. According to two officials, there was a detailed study of the potential vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, posing questions about potential insider threats and control of the warheads if the Pakistani government fell.

Mr. Obama and his advisers also considered options for stepping up the pursuit of extremists in Pakistan’s inhospitable border areas. The president eventually approved a C.I.A. request to expand the areas where remotely piloted aircraft could strike, and other covert action. The trick would be getting Pakistani consent, which still has not been granted.

On Oct. 9, Mr. Obama and his team reviewed General McChrystal’s troop proposals for the first time. Some in the White House were surprised by the numbers, assuming there would be a middle ground between 10,000 and 40,000.

“Why wasn’t there a 25 number?” one senior administration official asked in an interview. He then answered his own question: “It would have been too tempting.”

Mr. Gates and others talked about the limits of the American ability to actually defeat the Taliban; they were an indigenous force in Afghan society, part of the political fabric. This was a view shared by others around the table, including Leon E. Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., who argued that the Taliban could not be defeated as such and so the goal should be to drive wedges between those who could be reconciled with the Afghan government and those who could not be.

With Mr. Biden leading the skeptics, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen increasingly aligned behind a more robust force. Mrs. Clinton wanted to make sure she was a formidable player in the process. “She was determined that her briefing books would be just as thick and just as meticulous as those of the Pentagon,” said one senior adviser. She asked hard questions about Afghan troop training, unafraid of wading into Pentagon territory.

After a meeting where the Pentagon made a presentation with impressive color-coded maps, Mrs. Clinton returned to the State Department and told her aides, “We need maps,” as one recalled. She was overseas during the next meeting on Oct. 14, when aides used her new maps to show civilian efforts but she participated with headphones on from her government plane flying back from Russia.

Mr. Gates was a seasoned hand at such reviews, having served eight presidents and cycled in and out of the Situation Room since the days when it was served by a battery of fax machines. Like Mrs. Clinton, he was sympathetic to General McChrystal’s request, having resolved his initial concern that a buildup would fuel resentment the way the disastrous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan did in the 1980s.

But Mr. Gates’s low-wattage exterior masks a wily inside player, and he knew enough to keep his counsel early in the process to let it play out more first. “When to speak is important to him; when to signal is important to him,” said a senior Defense Department official.

On Oct. 22, the National Security Council produced what one official called a “consensus memo,” much of which originated out of the defense secretary’s office, concluding that the United States should focus on diminishing the Taliban insurgency but not destroying it; building up certain critical ministries; and transferring authority to Afghan security forces.

There was no consensus yet on troop numbers, however, so Mr. Obama called a smaller group of advisers together on Oct. 26 to finally press Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates. Mrs. Clinton made it clear that she was comfortable with General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 troops or something close to it; Mr. Gates also favored a big force.

Mr. Obama was leery. He had received a memo the day before from the Office of Management and Budget projecting that General McChrystal’s full 40,000-troop request on top of the existing deployment and reconstruction efforts would cost $1 trillion from 2010 to 2020, an adviser said. The president seemed in sticker shock, watching his domestic agenda vanishing in front of him. “This is a 10-year, trillion-dollar effort and does not match up with our interests,” he said.

Still, for the first time, he made it clear that he was ready to send more troops if a strategy could be found to ensure that it was not an endless war. He indicated that the Taliban had to be beaten back. “What do we need to break their momentum?” he asked.

Four days later, at a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 30, he emphasized the need for speed. “Why can’t I get the troops in faster?” he asked. If they were going to do this, he concluded, it only made sense to do this quickly, to have impact and keep the war from dragging on forever. “This is America’s war,” he said. “But I don’t want to make an open-ended commitment.”

Bridging the Differences

Now that he had a sense of where Mr. Obama was heading, Mr. Gates began shaping a plan that would bridge the differences. He developed a 30,000-troop option that would give General McChrystal the bulk of his request, reasoning that NATO could make up most of the difference.

“If people are having trouble swallowing 40, let’s see if we can make this smaller and easier to swallow and still give the commander what he needs,” a senior Defense Department official said, summarizing the secretary’s thinking.

The plan, called Option 2A, was presented to the president on Nov. 11. Mr. Obama complained that the bell curve would take 18 months to get all the troops in place.

He turned to General Petraeus and asked him how long it took to get the so-called surge troops he commanded in Iraq in 2007. That was six months.

“What I’m looking for is a surge,” Mr. Obama said. “This has to be a surge.”

That represented a contrast from when Mr. Obama, as a presidential candidate, staunchly opposed President Bush’s buildup in Iraq. But unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama wanted from the start to speed up a withdrawal as well. The military was told to come up with a plan to send troops quickly and then begin bringing them home quickly.

And in another twist, Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of transparency and had been announcing each Situation Room meeting publicly and even releasing pictures, was livid that details of the discussions were leaking out.

“What I’m not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room,” he scolded his advisers. “It’s a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.”

His advisers sat in uncomfortable silence. That very afternoon, someone leaked word of a cable sent by Ambassador Eikenberry from Kabul expressing reservations about a large buildup of forces as long as the Karzai government remained unreformed. At one of their meetings, General Petraeus had told Mr. Obama to think of elements of the Karzai government like “a crime syndicate.” Ambassador Eikenberry was suggesting, in effect, that America could not get in bed with the mob.

The leak of Ambassador Eikenberry’s Nov. 6 cable stirred another storm within the administration because the cable had been requested by the White House. The National Security Council had told the ambassador to put his views in writing. But someone else then passed word of the cable to reporters in what some in the process took to be a calculated attempt to head off a big troop buildup.

The cable stunned some in the military. The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official, was “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” — military slang for an expression of shock. Among the officers caught off guard were General McChrystal and his staff, for whom the cable was “a complete surprise,” said another official, even though the commander and the ambassador meet three times a week.

A Presidential Order

By this point, the idea of some sort of time frame was taking on momentum. Mrs. Clinton talked to Mr. Karzai before the Afghan leader’s inauguration to a second term. She suggested that he use his speech to outline a schedule for taking over security of the country.

Mr. Karzai did just that, declaring that Afghan forces directed by Kabul would take charge of securing population centers in three years and the whole country in five. His pronouncement, orchestrated partly by Mrs. Clinton and diplomats in Kabul, provided a predicate for Mr. Obama to set out his own time frame.

The president gathered his team in the Situation Room at 8:15 p.m. on Nov. 23, the unusual nighttime hour adding to what one participant called a momentous wartime feeling. The room was strewn with coffee cups and soda cans, caffeine being the lubricant keeping the participants going.

Mr. Obama presented a revised version of Option 2A, this one titled “Max Leverage,” pushing 30,000 troops into Afghanistan by mid-2010 and beginning to pull them out by July 2011. Admiral Mullen came up with the date at the direction of Mr. Obama, despite some misgivings from the Pentagon about setting a time frame for a withdrawal. The date was two years from the arrival of the first reinforcements Mr. Obama sent shortly after taking office. Mr. Biden had written a memo before the meeting talking about the need for “proof of concept” — in other words, two years ought to be enough for extra troops to demonstrate whether a buildup would work.

The president went around the room asking for opinions. Mr. Biden again expressed skepticism, even at this late hour when the tide had turned against him in terms of the troop number. But he had succeeded in narrowing the scope of the mission to protect population centers and setting the date to begin withdrawal. Others around the table concurred with the plan. Mr. Obama spoke last, but still somewhat elliptically. Some advisers said they walked out into the night after 10 p.m., uncertain whether the president had actually endorsed the Max Leverage option or was just testing for reaction.

Two days later, Mr. Obama met with Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker and a critic of the Afghan war. The president outlined his plans for the buildup without disclosing specific numbers. Ms. Pelosi was unenthusiastic and pointedly told the president that he could not rely on Democrats alone to pass financing for the war.

The White House had spent little time courting Congress to this point. Even though it would need Republican support, the White House had made no overtures to the party leaders.

But there was back-channel contact. Mr. Emanuel was talking with Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who urged him to settle on a troop number “that began with 3” to win Republican support. “I said as long as the generals are O.K. and there is a meaningful number, you will be O.K.,” Mr. Graham recalled.

The day after Thanksgiving, Mr. Obama huddled with aides from 10:30 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. refining parameters for the plan and mapping out his announcement. He told his speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, that he wanted to directly rebut the comparison with Vietnam.

On the following Sunday, Nov. 29, he summoned his national security team to the Oval Office. He had made his decision. He would send 30,000 troops as quickly as possible, then begin the withdrawal in July 2011. In deference to Mr. Gates’s concerns, the pace and endpoint of the withdrawal would be determined by conditions at the time.

“I’m not asking you to change what you believe,” the president told his advisers. “But if you do not agree with me, say so now.” There was a pause and no one said anything.

“Tell me now,” he repeated.

Mr. Biden asked only if this constituted a presidential order. Mr. Gates and others signaled agreement.

“Fully support, sir,” Admiral Mullen said.

“Ditto,” General Petraeus said.

Mr. Obama then went to the Situation Room to call General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The president made it clear that in the next assessment in December 2010 he would not contemplate more troops. “It will only be about the flexibility in how we draw down, not if we draw down,” he said.

Two days later, Mr. Obama flew to West Point to give his speech. After three months of agonizing review, he seemed surprisingly serene. “He was,” said one adviser, “totally at peace.”

Friday, December 04, 2009

The FOX News(?) is just like PRAVDA only worse!!


On Afghanistan, Fox News decides, then reports

President Obama never had a chance ...

It didn't matter what decision he came to regarding troop levels in Afghanistan, or what he said about the ongoing conflict there, because Fox News and the rest of the conservative media had already reached two conclusions. First, he took too long. Second, he was wrong.

Since the Bush administration stuck him with the untended-to mess in Afghanistan, Obama had to make a choice -- more troops, fewer troops, withdrawal. When Obama signaled that he actually wanted to consider his options before making a decision, the Fox News followed the lead of Dick Cheney -- one of the primary authors of the Afghanistan debacle -- in accusing the president of "dithering" and "inaction." Glenn Beck, never one to be subtle or reasonable, accused the president of "letting our troops literally bleed and die" and said Obama would "pay for it" in the hereafter.

Of course, Cheney's idea of "dithering" is another man's idea of a "substantive discussion" that came as part of a "good" process. That other man just so happens to be Gen. David Petraeus, who was asked by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough on December 2 if Obama had been "dithering" as Cheney alleged. Petraeus responded: "This process was actually quite good, Joe. It was a very substantive discussion. Everybody's assumptions and views were tested. I think out of this have come sharpened objectives, a very good understanding of the challenges and the difficulties and what must be done in a much more detailed and nuanced fashion."

But the big moment finally arrived, and Obama made his decision -- 30,000 more troops, with a set time limit of July 2011. The decision was announced during a prime-time speech to the nation on December 1. Before the teleprompters had even cooled down, Fox News got right to the mischief. Bill O'Reilly chastised the president for not "saying, 'Look, these are bad guys. We're fighting evil.' " While it's true that Obama didn't use those exact words, he did use some that sounded awfully similar, like when he called Al Qaeda "extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam ... to justify the slaughter of innocents," and when he called the Taliban "a ruthless, repressive, and radical movement."

Other Fox News personalities got in on the fun -- the crew of Fox & Friends complained that Obama never said the word "win" during the speech, even though he spoke several times about the "successful" conclusion to the war. And when they weren't complaining about things that Obama didn't (but really did) say, conservatives were complaining that it wasn't the best speech the world had ever seen. O'Reilly said it was "not exactly the Gettysburg Address." Sean Hannity said: "I didn't hear Winston Churchill, I didn't hear Ronald Reagan, I didn't hear George Bush." Charles Krauthammer was hoping to get his Shakespeare fix, lamenting that it wasn't "exactly the kind of speech that you would have heard from Henry V."

And speaking of history, conservatives took the occasion of Obama's speech to do a little rewriting of the historical record. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove said Obama was "in no position whatsoever to criticize what President Bush did" in Afghanistan because "at the time, he didn't speak out on this." Rove must've been too busy ignoring subpoenas to have noticed the many, many, many times that Obama spoke out against the Bush administration's Afghanistan policy. And then there was Hannity, who disregarded the many thousand troops Obama sent to Afghanistan earlier this year in claiming that the president has "had a "less-than-consistent stance on the issue of Afghanistan."

The bottom line is that for conservatives, there are plenty of substantive ways to disagree with Obama's policy prescriptions. He's a Democrat, he's going to propose policies that fall on the left side of the spectrum, and conservatives can and should bring to the table what facts they can in making their counter-arguments. But judging by their treatment of Obama's Afghanistan policy, Fox News isn't interested in that. They're simply going to reflexively gainsay anything Obama does. That's why you get superficial, ludicrous, and transparently false claims like these -- the point isn't to be right; the point is to say the other guy is wrong.

Other major stories this week
Snapping the "Climategate" shut

It's no secret that the American right has had a contentious relationship with science. They've made clear that they don't really care all that much for practical science (embryonic stem cell research, for example), but also have a soft spot for anti-science (creationism) and anti-science dressed up to look like science (intelligent design). When forced to choose between scientific fact and ideological purity, they'll more often than not show anyone wearing a lab coat to the door.

And in that great conflict between science and ideology, there is no greater battle than climate change, and the weight of scientific evidence stacked against the right has put it into a precarious position, forcing it to engage in asymmetrical warfare. Take, for example, the email messages illegally hacked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia that, according to the right-wing commentariat, are prima facie evidence that climate change is nothing more than an elaborate hoax perpetrated over many generations by legions of scientists who want to undermine capitalism across the globe.

Or something like that.

Here's what it comes down to -- much of what the right is saying about those emails is wildly out of context, an outrageous distortion, or just plain false. But let's assume, just for one moment, that these emails actually do say everything that the right claims. If that were the case, then the emails would be a damning indictment of the scientists whose names appear on them. What they would not be, however, is compelling evidence that the entirety of climate change science is "unproven" or a "hoax," as conservatives are claiming. They've put themselves in the laughably silly position of claiming that a few private messages between scientists outweigh the glut of scientific data accumulated over the decades, the volumes upon volumes of peer-reviewed publications on the topic, and the findings of thousands of scientists working with several independent scientific bodies.

To use a subject-appropriate metaphor, it's as if they pulled a pebble from a glacier and held it up as proof that the glacier weren't made of ice.

Just we need MORE GUNS in trained unstable killers hands


Veterans and gun safety
Legislation to loosen restrictions on buying guns by mentally unstable veterans is misguided.

Reasonable people agree that precautions should be taken to keep psychologically impaired individuals from buying guns. In the enduring debate over gun regulation, this has been one area of consensus. That's why it is difficult to fathom legislation proposed by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) that would make it more difficult to keep guns out of the hands of veterans who have been deemed mentally incompetent by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Currently, such veterans fail their federal background checks if they attempt to buy a gun. So Burr wants to add another step to the background check: He proposes that the VA's medical diagnoses be subject to the approval of a judge or magistrate. But that's unnecessary; the VA already offers extensive due process to veterans whose mental capabilities are questioned, and the legal presumption is in favor of their competence. In fact, one reason the gun lobby supported the National Instant Criminal Background Check System improvement act was because it had been amended to protect the ability of veterans who have been successfully treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological conditions to own guns.

Burr has gotten some traction for the bill by cherry-picking from a long list of factors involved in a determination of mental incompetence, such as an inability to manage personal finances, to make the rules sound unreasonable. But a VA doctor doesn't ask for a veteran's checkbook and then rescind the right to bear arms if the columns don't balance. Even the National Rifle Assn. admits the process is more thoughtful than that. A recent article in the NRA's magazine said that VA records are reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System only "if a patient has been adjudicated as a mental defective, a lengthy process that includes opportunities for hearings, appeals, etc."

After the Virginia Tech massacre by a student who had been diagnosed with psychological disorders, the NRA and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence worked together on a bill encouraging states to submit records of the dangerously mentally ill (as well as felons, fugitives and others) to the system. The bill also created a process to help veterans get their gun rights reinstated if they'd been improperly taken away.

Adding another layer of bureaucracy to the process is pure political pandering. About 100,000 veterans are currently deemed unfit to have access to guns, and under Burr's bill, they would automatically be removed from the background check system until judicial review. Treating these veterans fairly is important, but making it easier for them to get firearms should be low on everyone's list of priorities.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


PROMISES, PROMISES: Friday is still WH 'trash day' SHARON THEIMER APNews

President Barack Obama entered the White House promising a new era of openness in government, but when it comes to bad news, his administration often uses one of the oldest tricks in the public relations playbook: putting it out when the fewest people are likely to notice.

Former White House environmental adviser Van Jones' resignation over controversial comments hit the trifecta of below-the-radar timing: The White House announced the departure overnight on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, when few journalists were on duty and few Americans awake, much less paying attention to the news.

As with past administrations, Friday looks like a popular day to "take out the trash," as presidential aides on the TV drama "The West Wing" matter-of-factly called it. Along with weekends, holidays and the dark of night, the final stretch of the work week, when many news consumers tune out, is a common time for the government to release news unlikely to benefit the president.

When he took office, Obama pledged in a memo to agency chiefs to create "an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration." But as his predecessors demonstrated, openness is a relative thing. Bad news can be hidden in plain sight.

Among recent examples: On Friday, Nov. 13, the Obama administration announced it would put the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on trial in civilian court in New York. It also disclosed the resignation of the top White House lawyer, who had taken blame for some of the problems surrounding the administration's planned closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The following Friday, Nov. 20, saw the Justice Department quietly notifying a court that it intended to drop manslaughter and weapons charges against a Blackwater Worldwide security guard involved in a 2007 Baghdad shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead. The court filing was sealed from public view and submitted without ceremony, in contrast to the Monday last December when the charges were announced. Then, the Justice Department held a noon news conference and put out a lengthy press release.

On previous Fridays, the White House acknowledged it may not be able to close the Guantanamo prison by January as the president promised, announced Obama was imposing punitive tariffs on car and light-truck tires from China, and disclosed that Obama had waived conflict-of-interest rules for several aides.

It all shows how timing can be used to obscure, if not totally hide, news that detracts from a president's main message.

"It's a time-honored practice where the president's trying to talk about what he wants to talk about and push the subjects that maybe he doesn't want to talk as much about into a time when people aren't paying as much attention," said Dee Dee Myers, press secretary during Clinton's first two years in office and a consultant for "The West Wing" "trash day" episode.

If Friday is a prime day to dump potentially unfavorable news in Washington, 5 p.m. is the witching hour.

The day before Halloween, the Obama administration slipped out news on several ongoing issues, much of it in late afternoon or evening. It included developments on warrantless wiretapping, terror interrogations, the CIA leak case, the reliability of the government's stimulus job creation figures, lobbyists and other visitors to the White House, and the Securities and Exchange Commission's failure to detect disgraced financier Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme for years.

"The president has taken and will continue to take wide-ranging and unprecedented steps to fulfill his campaign promise to give Americans firsthand access to information about their government at," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, when asked whether dropping important news late on Fridays, when few news consumers are paying attention, squares with the president's promise of transparency. "The First Amendment to the Constitution ensures that the media is independently responsible for how and when that information is covered."

Earnest noted that Obama is the first president to routinely release visitor logs, and that while the White House did decide to put them out on Fridays, it moved up the disclosure to Wednesday last week rather than do it the day after Thanksgiving. Of the Madoff example, he said the SEC is an independent agency and makes its own decisions about when to release information.

Obama is far from the only president to make major news at the tail end of, or outside, normal business hours.

President George H.W. Bush granted Christmas Eve pardons in 1992 to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and several others in the Iran-Contra arms scandal.

Fridays saw many Iran-Contra scandal developments during Ronald Reagan's presidency, including the resignation of White House chief of staff Donald Regan. And Friday was a common day for President George W. Bush's administration to release documents in a scandal over U.S. attorney firings.

The "trash day" episode of "The West Wing" was patterned on a Friday heading into the July 4 holiday weekend when the Clinton White House dumped several stories, Myers said.

In Obama's case, releasing voluminous sets of documents and data late on Fridays, such as White House visitor records and stimulus job figures, isn't "anti-transparency" because they're still making the documents available, she said.

"But yes, do you try to manage the flow of information to some degree at the White House? Of course. You'd be a fool not to," Myers said.

Though the tactic of intentionally dumping some news at off-times persists, it doesn't always work, said Myers and Lanny Davis, a crisis management attorney in Washington and former special counsel to Clinton.

"If it's a really bad story it will have its own legs and you're probably not accomplishing all that much," Davis said. "Sometimes all you're accomplishing is irritating reporters."

Davis points to a famous episode involving President Richard Nixon as an example of weekend timing failing to minimize impact. In an incident known as the "Saturday night massacre," Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired on Nixon's orders on a Saturday night in 1973, hours after Cox held a news conference to defy him. The Justice Department's top two officials resigned rather than be the ones to dismiss Cox.

"It didn't exactly help Nixon to do it on a Saturday night," Davis said. "Only, he gave us all a memorable historic expression. The 'Wednesday night massacre' doesn't sound as good as the 'Saturday night massacre.'"

Crazy about guns BUT at what price?

LATimes editorial 12-01-09

Tragic shootings like those in Washington show the deadly side of our love affair with firepower.

News that an armed fugitive who shot and killed four police officers near Seattle on Sunday was still at large prompted fear, anger, sorrow and something else: The desire to grab a gun. "I can tell you that most people have probably got their weapons loaded right now," a retired computer worker from Parkland, Wash., told The Times. "I think people should carry their guns and be ready," a local taxi driver told National Public Radio.

It's a typical American response to an all-too-typical American incident of gun violence. It is also a striking example of the disconnect between our desire to feel safe and our insistence on loose gun laws that make us less so. The murdered officers were armed, well trained in the use of their weapons and wearing bulletproof vests. It didn't save them.

Americans seem hard-wired to love guns; our frontier history and our bloody split from the British crown have made gun ownership both a cultural imperative and a constitutionally enshrined right. That's not going to change any time soon, and polls show that's OK with increasing numbers of Americans. But we pay a steep price for our fascination with firepower.

Had Sunday's victims been, say, Mounties, it wouldn't necessarily have sent Canadians scrambling for the gun racks. But then, such killings are far less common in Canada. According to the FBI, the U.S. homicide rate in 2008 was 5.4 for every 100,000 people; 67% of those killings were committed with guns. In Canada, the homicide rate was 1.8 per 100,000, with 33% of the killings committed with guns. Notice a pattern? Canada has stricter guns laws than the United States, requiring owners to pass a safety course and get a license before buying a gun, rather like drivers must do here. The need for a driver's license seems obvious to most Americans -- after all, a car with an untrained driver behind the wheel can be deadly.

Time will tell how the suspected shooter in Parkland got his weapon. If he stole it or acquired it from an accomplice, there are few gun laws that could have prevented the tragedy short of a blanket ban on handguns, and the Supreme Court last year ruled that Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban was unconstitutional. Yet regardless of the circumstances in Parkland, it is simple for criminals and the mentally unstable to acquire guns in this country. In most states (though not, thankfully, California) they need only go to a gun show and buy from a reseller, because dealers in second-hand firearms usually aren't required to perform a federal background check.

That "gun-show loophole" should have been closed years ago because it would protect the public while doing nothing to restrict law-abiding citizens' right to bear arms, but the gun lobby has successfully resisted every attempt at reform. Americans could stand to be less gun-crazy and more willing to stop crazy people from getting guns.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Politico SEVEN OBAMA QUESTIONS worth reading

7 stories Obama doesn't want told John F. Harris

Presidential politics is about storytelling. Presented with a vivid storyline, voters naturally tend to fit every new event or piece of information into a picture that is already neatly framed in their minds.

No one understands this better than Barack Obama and his team, who won the 2008 election in part because they were better storytellers than the opposition. The pro-Obama narrative featured an almost mystically talented young idealist who stood for change in a disciplined and thoughtful way. This easily outpowered the anti-Obama narrative, featuring an opportunistic Chicago pol with dubious relationships who was more liberal than he was letting on.

A year into his presidency, however, Obama’s gift for controlling his image shows signs of faltering. As Washington returns to work from the Thanksgiving holiday, there are several anti-Obama storylines gaining momentum.

The Obama White House argues that all of these storylines are inaccurate or unfair. In some cases these anti-Obama narratives are fanned by Republicans, in some cases by reporters and commentators.

But they all are serious threats to Obama, if they gain enough currency to become the dominant frame through which people interpret the president’s actions and motives.

Here are seven storylines Obama needs to worry about:

He thinks he’s playing with Monopoly money

Economists and business leaders from across the ideological spectrum were urging the new president on last winter when he signed onto more than a trillion in stimulus spending and bank and auto bailouts during his first weeks in office. Many, though far from all, of these same people now agree that these actions helped avert an even worse financial catastrophe.

Along the way, however, it is clear Obama underestimated the political consequences that flow from the perception that he is a profligate spender. He also misjudged the anger in middle America about bailouts with weak and sporadic public explanations of why he believed they were necessary.

The flight of independents away from Democrats last summer — the trend that recently hammered Democrats in off-year elections in Virginia — coincided with what polls show was alarm among these voters about undisciplined big government and runaway spending. The likely passage of a health care reform package criticized as weak on cost-control will compound the problem.

Obama understands the political peril, and his team is signaling that he will use the 2010 State of the Union address to emphasize fiscal discipline. The political challenge, however, is an even bigger substantive challenge—since the most convincing way to project fiscal discipline would be actually to impose spending reductions that would cramp his own agenda and that of congressional Democrats.

Too much Leonard Nimoy

People used to make fun of Bill Clinton’s misty-eyed, raspy-voiced claims that, “I feel your pain.”

The reality, however, is that Clinton’s dozen years as governor before becoming president really did leave him with a vivid sense of the concrete human dimensions of policy. He did not view programs as abstractions — he viewed them in terms of actual people he knew by name.

Obama, a legislator and law professor, is fluent in describing the nuances of problems. But his intellectuality has contributed to a growing critique that decisions are detached from rock-bottom principles.

Both Maureen Dowd in The New York Times and Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post have likened him to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

The Spock imagery has been especially strong during the extended review Obama has undertaken of Afghanistan policy. He’ll announce the results on Tuesday. The speech’s success will be judged not only on the logic of the presentation but on whether Obama communicates in a more visceral way what progress looks like and why it is worth achieving. No soldier wants to take a bullet in the name of nuance.

That’s the Chicago Way

This is a storyline that’s likely taken root more firmly in Washington than around the country. The rap is that his West Wing is dominated by brass-knuckled pols.

It does not help that many West Wing aides seem to relish an image of themselves as shrewd, brass-knuckled political types. In a Washington Post story this month, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, referring to most of Obama’s team, said, “We are all campaign hacks.”

The problem is that many voters took Obama seriously in 2008 when he talked about wanting to create a more reasoned, non-partisan style of governance in Washington. When Republicans showed scant interest in cooperating with Obama at the start, the Obama West Wing gladly reverted to campaign hack mode.

The examples of Chicago-style politics include their delight in public battles with Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (There was also a semi-public campaign of leaks aimed at Greg Craig, the White House counsel who fell out of favor.) In private, the Obama team cut an early deal — to the distaste of many congressional Democrats — that gave favorable terms to the pharmaceutical lobby in exchange for their backing his health care plans.

The lesson that many Washington insiders have drawn is that Obama wants to buy off the people he can and bowl over those he can’t. If that perception spreads beyond Washington this will scuff Obama’s brand as a new style of political leader.

He’s a pushover

If you are going to be known as a fighter, you might as well reap the benefits. But some of the same insider circles that are starting to view Obama as a bully are also starting to whisper that he’s a patsy.

It seems a bit contradictory, to be sure. But it’s a perception that began when Obama several times laid down lines — then let people cross them with seeming impunity. Last summer he told Democrats they better not go home for recess until a critical health care vote but they blew him off. He told the Israeli government he wanted a freeze in settlements but no one took him seriously. Even Fox News — which his aides prominently said should not be treated like a real news organization — then got interview time for its White House correspondent.

In truth, most of these episodes do not amount to much. But this unflattering storyline would take a more serious turn if Obama is seen as unable to deliver on his stern warnings in the escalating conflict with Iran over its nuclear program.

He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe

That line belonged to George H.W. Bush, excoriating Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. But it highlights a continuing reality: In presidential politics the safe ground has always been to be an American exceptionalist.

Politicians of both parties have embraced the idea that this country — because of its power and/or the hand of Providence — should be a singular force in the world. It would be hugely unwelcome for Obama if the perception took root that he is comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence or position in the world.

On this score, the reviews of Obama’s recent Asia trip were harsh.

His peculiar bow to the emperor of Japan was symbolic. But his lots-of-velvet, not-much-iron approach to China had substantive implications.

On the left, the budding storyline is that Obama has retreated from human rights in the name of cynical realism. On the right, it is that he is more interested in being President of the World than President of the United States, a critique that will be heard more in December as he stops in Oslo to pick up his Nobel Prize and then in Copenhagen for an international summit on curbing greenhouse gases.

President Pelosi

No figure in Barack Obama’s Washington, including Obama, has had more success in advancing his will than the speaker of the House, despite public approval ratings that hover in the range of Dick Cheney’s. With a mix of tough party discipline and shrewd vote-counting, she passed a version of the stimulus bill largely written by congressional Democrats, passed climate legislation, and passed her chamber’s version of health care reform. She and anti-war liberals in her caucus are clearly affecting the White House’s Afghanistan calculations.

The great hazard for Obama is if Republicans or journalists conclude — as some already have — that Pelosi’s achievements are more impressive than Obama’s or come at his expense.

This conclusion seems premature, especially with the final chapter of the health care drama yet to be written.

But it is clear that Obama has allowed the speaker to become more nearly an equal — and far from a subordinate — than many of his predecessors of both parties would have thought wise.

He’s in love with the man in the mirror

No one becomes president without a fair share of what the French call amour propre. Does Obama have more than his share of self-regard?

It’s a common theme of Washington buzz that Obama is over-exposed. He gives interviews on his sports obsessions to ESPN, cracks wise with Leno and Letterman, discusses his fitness with Men’s Health, discusses his marriage in a joint interview with first lady Michelle Obama for The New York Times. A photo the other day caught him leaving the White House clutching a copy of GQ featuring himself.

White House aides say making Obama widely available is the right strategy for communicating with Americans in an era of highly fragmented media.

But, as the novelty of a new president wears off, the Obama cult of personality risks coming off as mere vanity unless it is harnessed to tangible achievements.

That is why the next couple of months — with health care and Afghanistan jostling at center stage — will likely carry a long echo. Obama’s best hope of nipping bad storylines is to replace them with good ones rooted in public perceptions of his effectiveness.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Single payer health care best - just ask people who have it!

A recent study found that 90 percent of Canadians support universal, single-payer health care. A poll taken last summer shows 82 percent of Canadians believe their health care system to be better than the US's, despite constant grumbling about waiting times for treatment of non-life-threatening conditions.

Seven issues amending healthcare bill

Seven issues to watch as Senate begins amending healthcare bill
By Jeffrey Young - The Hill

Senators will be asked to cast their votes on numerous amendments as they begin a debate to reshape the country’s healthcare system.

Some amendments will be designed to improve the bill, some to satisfy a special interest or pet peeve. Still others will be presented as poison pills.

Here are seven issues likely to arise during the amendment process.

Public option: An issue that unites Republicans and divides Democrats on ideological grounds inevitably was bound to haunt the Senate Democratic leadership. The notion of creating a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private companies is seen as vital by liberal Democrats but centrists range from skeptical to deeply antagonistic, even though states could opt out.
The best hope for a positive outcome for the Democrats could rest on the chances that liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) along with centrist public option supporter Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) can forge yet another compromise version of the program to satisfy centrists such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who have threatened to filibuster the bill over the public option. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is waiting in the wings with her “trigger” compromise.

Abortion: It wouldn’t be American politics if the forces on both sides of the abortion issue weren’t at loggerheads. The healthcare bill already includes language that is supposed to keep federal dollars away from abortion funding but the Catholic bishops, and Nelson, don’t think it goes far enough. Democratic Sens. Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) each voted in committee to beef up the abortion restrictions so their actions on the floor will be key. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) authored the failed committee amendments and is sure to raise objections to the bill on abortion.

Health insurance excise tax: The proposed tax on high-cost health insurance plans, a key to raising revenue and reducing long-term healthcare costs according to the Congressional Budget Office, may enjoy support in the White House but many Democrats and labor unions remain staunchly opposed to what they view as a middle-class tax hike. Already scaled down several times – the original idea was to tax the value of all workplace health benefits – Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and others will look to shrink it further, if not eliminate it, but will need to raise additional taxes to make up the difference.

Prescription drugs: The pharmaceutical industry struck a grand bargain this summer with the White House and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to limit its financial exposure from healthcare reform to $85 billion and to support the Democrats’ efforts. That deal has held uneasily since and Democrats are eyeing the chance to take a bite out of a long-time nemesis. Like in the House, Democrats are eager to require larger rebates from pharmaceutical firms who sell drugs to state Medicaid programs and use the additional money to sweeten the Medicare prescription drug benefit. A handful of Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and David Vitter (La.) would likely join, or even start, any effort to permit the import of medicines from abroad.

Affordability: Because almost everyone would be required to obtain health coverage, providing fair and adequate subsidies to low- and middle-income people has presented a challenge for lawmakers trying to keep the bill on budget. Liberal Democrats get more attention when they talk about the public option but they have complained about the subsidy levels almost as much, while Snowe has also been adamant that the bill does too little to ensure insurance is less expensive. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a key swing vote, wants more help for small businesses and the self-employed. Trouble is, every dollar of assistance paid out has to come from somewhere.

Insurance exchanges: The concept of creating an online marketplace where consumers can comparison-shop for healthcare hasn’t been very controversial. But what types of plans people could buy and who will be allowed to buy them has been a point of contention. Democrats will be looking to provide access to the most generous but most affordable plans they can. Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), under an agreement with Reid and Baucus, will offer an amendment to let more people beyond individuals and small-business employees buy insurance on the exchanges. The exchanges wouldn’t launch until 2014, either, so Landrieu and others want to move that date closer.

Medicare cuts: Republicans have railed about the hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicare contained in the bill though Democrats insist they are seeking to make the program more efficient and are not cutting anyone’s benefits. Because these cuts are essential to financing the rest of the bill, however, they’re here to stay – though some could be scaled back. The deep cuts to private Medicare Advantage plans, for instance, could be mitigated to assuage senators from states with large senior populations. Medical interests from physicians to home healthcare providers will also be seeking concessions.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Who's watching Glenn Beck?

LATimes Tim Rutten

Much like the Depression-era demagogue Father Charles Coughlin, the Fox News personality is promoting a mass movement. Should his bosses be pulling the plug?

For nearly a century, the Anti-Defamation League has stared unflinchingly into the dark corners of America's social psyche -- the places where combustible tendencies such as hatred and paranoia pool and, sometimes, burst into flame.

As a Jewish organization, the ADL's first preoccupation naturally is anti-Semitism, but in the last few decades it has extended its scrutiny to the whole range of bigoted malevolence -- white supremacy, the militia movement, neo-nativism and conspiratorial fantasies in all of their improbable permutations. These days, the organization's research is characterized by the sense of proportion and sobriety that long experience brings.

That makes its recent report on the extremist groups and propagandists that have emerged since President Obama's election -- "Rage Grows In America: Anti-Government Conspiracies" -- particularly notable. For the first time in living memory, the ADL is sounding the alarm about a mainstream media personality: Fox News' Glenn Beck, who also hosts a popular radio show.

The report notes that while "other conservative media hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, routinely attack Obama and his administration, typically on partisan grounds, they have usually dismissed or refused to give a platform to the conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists." By contrast, "Beck and his guests have made a habit of demonizing President Obama and promoting conspiracy theories about his administration. ... Beck has even gone so far as to make comparisons between Hitler and Obama."

What gives all of this nonsense an ominous twist is Beck's announcement that he intends to use his TV and radio shows to promote a mass movement that will involve voter registration drives, training in community organizing and a series of regional conventions that will produce a "100-year plan" for America to be read from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a mass rally Aug. 28.

As Beck wrote on his website, "I know that the bipartisan corruption in Washington that has brought us to this brink and it will not be defeated easily. It will require unconventional thinking and a radical plan to restore our nation to the maximum freedoms we were supposed to have been protecting. ... All of the above will culminate in The Plan, a book that will provide specific policies, principles and, most importantly, action steps that each of us can take to play a role in this Refounding."

Hard times predictably throw up their demagogues. Still, even allowing for the frenetic pace of our wired world's 24-hour news cycle, it's remarkable how quickly the arc of Beck's career has come to resemble that of the Great Depression's uber-demagogue, Father Charles Coughlin. In the months after the crash of '29, Coughlin turned what had been a conventionally religious weekly radio broadcast into a platform for championing the downtrodden working man. He was an early supporter of the New Deal, coining the slogan "Roosevelt or Ruin," but quickly turned on the president for a variety of complex ideological and personal reasons. Coughlin flirted with Huey Long, launched an unsuccessful political party, published a popular newspaper, Social Justice, and even inspired and supported a kind of militia, the Christian Front, some of whose members were arrested by the FBI and charged with plotting a fascist coup.

As the 1930s dragged on, Coughlin, a longtime admirer of Francisco Franco, became virulently anti-Semitic, isolationist and pro-German. He also was extraordinarily popular. At their height, his weekly broadcasts attracted more than 40 million listeners. Still, after he lashed out at German Jews in the wake of Kristallnacht, many major urban radio stations dropped his program. Influential American prelates, the Vatican and prominent Catholic New Dealers had worked for some time to persuade Coughlin's superior, the archbishop of Detroit, to silence him. Shortly before the U.S. entered World War II, a new bishop was installed, and Coughlin was ordered to cease broadcasting. He accepted the clerical discipline and retired into a long life of bitter silence.

It's hard to imagine any contemporary cable system dropping Fox News simply because Beck is an offensively dangerous demagogue -- not with his ratings at least. His new foray into politics, though, presents Rupert Murdoch's network with a profound challenge. Is it willing to become the platform for an extremist political campaign, or will it draw a line as even the authoritarian Catholic Church of the 1940s did? CNN recently parted ways with its resident ranter, Lou Dobbs -- who now confirms he's weighing a presidential bid.

Does Fox see a similar problem with Beck -- and, if not, why?

White House defends costs

White House defends costs, cuts in health bill

The Obama administration pushed back Wednesday against claims that it's not doing enough to slow the growth of health care costs, a topic senators will debate heavily in coming weeks.

White House budget director Peter Orszag cited economists and analysts who say a pending Senate bill would take several steps in that direction. And Orszag left no doubt that the administration supports a provision disliked by many House Democrats, union activists and others: a new tax on generous health insurance plans offered by employers.

A rival health care bill passed by the House would, instead, place a new surtax on millionaires' incomes. Lawmakers must resolve such differences if Congress is to send a bill to President Barack Obama's desk.

Republicans kept up their criticisms Wednesday, saying the Senate bill would reduce the federal deficit only by raising taxes and cutting Medicare.

The goal is to drive down health care costs, not increase them along with taxes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.

"That's not reform," McConnell said.

In a conference call with reporters, Orszag said such critics are overlooking key provisions in the Senate bill. He cited a recent letter from 23 prominent economists praising four main features:

_ Making the federal deficit level or lower over 10 years.

_ Taxing high-cost, employer-provided insurance plans, which are blamed for overuse of medical care.

_ Creating a commission to recommend ways to control Medicare costs.

_ Taking preliminary steps to encourage more efficient ways to deliver health care.

The Senate bill "includes these four pillars," Orszag said.

Previous efforts by Congress to rein in health care costs have done little. For instance, vows to trim Medicare reimbursements to doctors are routinely overturned.

The same has been true for efforts to stop what many consider government overpayments to Medicare Advantage, a privately administered program.

But "it's going to happen this year," said Obama health adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle, who also was on the conference call.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says the Senate bill would reduce deficits by $130 billion over the next decade. It would do so partly by raising various taxes and by reducing federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid and other programs by $491 billion over 10 years.

Republicans say such details are lost on many Americans, who might be led to believe the pending legislation would actually reduce overall spending on health care.

"All the Democrats' health care bills will increase costs, slash Medicare and raise taxes," said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, also criticized the Democratic proposals. She said the Senate bill would increase costs "by encouraging people to wait until they get sick to get insurance, adding new taxes on health care coverage and failing to include systemwide cost-containment provisions."

Ralph G. Neas, head of the Washington-based National Coalition on Health Care, which comprises unions, business groups, patient groups and others, called the House and Senate bills a good start. But Neas urged lawmakers to toughen the bills by including "a strong fail-safe provision" to ensure that segments of the health industry deliver cost savings they have promised.