Despite some differences, President Obama and Pope Francis shared a laugh during their Thursday meeting at the Vatican. Obama called himself a "great admirer" of the pope.
(Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)
March 28, 2014

The Pope And The President: Common Ground But A Clear Divide

President Obama's Vatican meeting with Pope Francis wasn't without a dose of irony.

The U.S. president, once the world leader whose vow of "hope" and "change" excited millions, seemed eclipsed Thursday in that department by the pope.

The pope certainly is polling better than Obama among Americans. A recent St. Leo University poll placed the pope's approval rating at 85 percent among Catholics and 65 percent among all Americans. By contrast, Obama's approval rating was 47 percent in the same poll.

Another irony: While the pope's approval ratings are higher than Obama's, Americans, including many Catholics, agree more with Obama on certain social issues than with the pope.

For instance, on reproductive rights, more Americans are closer to Obama's stance than to the pope's. Sixty-three percent of Americans say they would not like to see the court completely overturn Roe v. Wade, according to Pew Research polling. More than a third of U.S. Catholics, 36 percent, say abortion should be legal in most cases, according to an October 2013 Quinnipiac University poll; an additional 16 percent say abortion should be legal in all cases.

When it comes to same-sex marriage, Quinnipiac reports 60 percent of U.S. Catholics support it — a higher level than the general population.

To some extent, the pope benefits from his relative newness, and from the appearance of being a fresh break from his recent predecessors. His eschewing of papal lavishness and call for the Roman Catholic Church to focus more on social justice have excited millions around the world.

By contrast, the realities of being a U.S. president in the 21st century, of being ultimately responsible for drone attacks and controversial NSA surveillance practices, have left even many of Obama's strongest supporters disappointed that the president hasn't changed the world as much as they had hoped.

As Michael Anthony Novak, a theology professor at St. Leo, told It's All Politics, it's more the rule than the exception that a president and pope wouldn't have much ideological overlap.

"Popes and presidents don't perfectly line up," Novak told me. "Whenever they get together, it's a fairly rare thing that their interests would perfectly align."

The kind of alignment between President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II at their first meeting, when they seemed to be of one mind on directly confronting communism, is rare, Novak said.

The U.S. president heads a superpower with vast economic and military might. The pope, meanwhile, heads the world's smallest country, Vatican City, but as leader of his church he has great moral power even beyond its adherents.

"Obama sounded out the Vatican last year about the idea of intervention in Syria," because the pope's support and moral authority might help the president make his case for action, Novak said.

"Did the Vatican think this fit the concept of just-war theory and so forth? And in that case, Francis seemed to be strongly against the idea of the West intervening in a strong military way," he said.

It was another area in which the president and the pope differed.

One area where the onetime Chicago community organizer and the former Buenos Aires parish priest align, however, is in the need to address economic inequality.

But while they both recognize the problem, the pope is certainly to the left of the president in his critique of capitalism. Still, their concern for social justice represents an opportunity for the two men to work together.

Novak notes that Obama met with the pope for a longer time than the Vatican usually allots for such meetings, even with other heads of state: "I don't know what it says yet but it says something."

Still, he says, the Vatican knows Obama is closer to the end of his presidency than its start.

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. Obama discussed a range of topics including education, income inequality, climate change and immigration reform.
(Larry Downing/Pool/Getty Images)
January 28, 2014

Decrying Washington Stalemate, Obama Calls For 'Year Of Action'

With the country slowly digging itself out of recession, some of his legislative priorities buried under Washington's partisanship and his approval ratings at some of their lowest levels, President Obama called for "a year of action" during his fifth State of the Union address on Tuesday.

During the roughly one-hour speech, Obama tried to balance his impatience with Washington with a call for a truce for the good of the country.

But absent cooperation, Obama said he would take executive action if he had to.

"I'm eager to work with all you," Obama said. "But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

To that end, Obama announced that, taking a cue from companies that believe higher wages boost productivity and reduce turnover, he would issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour. The president then went on to challenge Congress to raise the federal minimum wage and "give America a raise."

Obama also announced the creation of a "starter" retirement savings program for workers and tasked Vice President Biden with overseeing "an across-the-board reform of America's training programs ... to train Americans with the skills employers need."

Despite a bitterly divided House chamber, Obama found common ground with his Republican counterparts when he spoke about immigration, American exceptionalism and inequality in the rate of pay between men and women.

Instead of casting blame, Obama made an economic argument for passing immigration reform and called on Congress to get it "done this year."

During the Republican response to the speech, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington state, embraced coming to some resolution over immigration. But she criticized Obama for making "promises that sound good but won't make things better."

Of course, when Obama turned to a defense of his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, the Republican half of the chamber sat, while Democrats delivered a standing ovation.

"Now, I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law," Obama said to laughter. "But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."

The emotional highlight of the night was President Obama's telling the story of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, who was almost killed by a roadside bomb during his 10th deployment to Afghanistan.

Sitting next to first lady Michelle Obama, Remsburg received at least two minutes of applause from the chamber.

Despite surgeries and struggles, Remsburg never quit, Obama said.

"My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy," Obama said. "Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated; we're discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress — to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen."

We live blogged throughout the night, so if you want a detailed account of the State of the Union, keep reading. We've also posted a transcript of the speech here.

Update at 11:51 p.m. ET. A Modest Speech:

NPR's Mara Liasson sums up Obama speech like this:

"I thought it was a pretty modest speech; it wasn't very adversarial, no soaring rhetoric but he explained what he was going to do, which is he is going to use his own powers as much as possible by himself to advance the economic security of the middle class and those who want to get into it."

Update at 11:30 p.m. ET. A Roundup Of Headlines:

Here's what other news outlets are saying about Obama's State of the Union:

— "Obama calls for 'year of action'; president vows to use his authority with new force" (Washington Post)

— "The contrast between President Obama's State of the Union Address a year ago and the one he delivered Tuesday night is the difference between soaring ambitions — understandable for someone who had just decisively won a second term in the White House — and downsized dreams. It reflects a political journey from the aspirational to the achievable." (USA Today)

— "In State of the Union, Obama Vows Solo Action on the Economy" (New York Times)

— "Obama Seeks to Jump-Start Stalled Plans" (The Wall Street Journal)

Update at 10:37 p.m. ET. The Republican Response:

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers delivered the Republican response to President Obama.

Both Democrats and Republicans, McMorris said, want to make the United States better.

But Obama, said McMorris, "made more promises that sound good but won't make things better."

While McMorris criticized Obama, her message mostly stayed away from polemics. She painted a picture of an inclusive GOP, saying their goal is to close what she called an "opportunity gap" in the country.

Republicans, McMorris said, have a plan to close that gap without red tape and without more spending.

The GOP, McMorris said, "dreams big for everyone and turns its back on no one."

Update at 10:20 p.m. ET. An Emotional Closing:

Obama closed his one-hour speech on an emotional note. The overreaching theme was American exceptionalism. But it was the story of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg that brought the crowd to its feet for minutes.

Remsburg, the president explained, was nearly killed during his 10th deployment to Afghanistan.

Obama closed:

"Day by day, he's learned to speak again and stand again and walk again — and he's working toward the day when he can serve his country again.

" 'My recovery has not been easy,' he says. 'Nothing in life that's worth anything is easy.'

"Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit.

"My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated; we're discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress — to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

"The America we want for our kids – a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us — none of it is easy. But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us .... the way Cory summoned what is best in him — with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow — I know it's within our reach.

"Believe it."

Update at 10:07 p.m. ET. Foreign Policy:

Obama has now moved on to foreign policy.

About the war in Afghanistan, Obama says: "Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over."

On Guantanamo, Obama says: "With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay — because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world."

On Iran, Obama says: "If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today."

Obama followed that by renewing his vow to veto any legislation that imposes new sanctions on Iran.

"For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," Obama said.

Update at 9:58 p.m. ET. A Defense Of Obamacare:

As expected, President Obama gave an impassioned defense of his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

Obama told the story of Amanda Shelley, who signed up for health care insurance through the federal marketplace, on Jan. 1. On Jan. 6, Obama said, she had emergency surgery.

"Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would've meant bankruptcy," Obama said. "That's what health insurance reform is all about — the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don't have to lose everything."

As you might also have expected, this is also the part of Obama's speech that resulted in the most partisan reaction. The Democratic half of the chamber gave a standing ovation, while the Republican half sat quietly.

Obama acknowledged that:

"Now, I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice — tell America what you'd do differently. Let's see if the numbers add up. But let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans like Amanda."

Update at 9:50 p.m. ET. 'Give America A Raise':

Taking an example from companies like Costco — which, Obama says, believe higher wages boost productivity and reduce turnover — Obama will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay a "fair wage" of at least $10.10 an hour.

Obama also called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to that same amount.

"This will help families," he said. "It doesn't involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise."

Update at 9:47 p.m. ET. Women Deserve Equal Pay:

The most robust applause so far? When Obama addressed inequality between men and women.

"Today, women make up about half our workforce," Obama said. " But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work."

Then he delivered the line that brought both sides of the chamber to their feet:

"It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. This year, let's all come together — Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street — to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds."

Update at 9:37 p.m. ET. Calls For Action On Immigration:

Obama calls on Congress to pass immigration reform "this year."

He got in and out of the issue quickly, tying the issue to economics instead of making the emotional plea.

"Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades," Obama said. "And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, and contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let's get immigration reform done this year."

Update at 9:35 p.m. ET. 'Climate Change Is A Fact':

After outlining what he calls an "all of the above" energy strategy, Obama made this declaration:

"The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."

Update at 9:26 p.m. ET. Americans Are Moving Forward:

Like first lady Michelle Obama, whose Let's Move program has helped lower obesity rates for the first time in 30 years, he will move forward with initiatives on his own.

"The point is, there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments, and are moving this country forward," Obama said. "They believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams. That's what drew our forebears here. It's how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America's largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is speaker of the House."

Here Obama got a huge applause and made Speaker John Boehner, sitting behind him, blush. Obama finished his thought: "It's how the son of a single mom can be president of the greatest nation on Earth."

Update at 9:20 p.m. ET. Rails Against Congressional Gridlock:

After taking a shot at congressional gridlock, Obama calls for a "year of action."

"In the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together. Let's make this a year of action," Obama said. "That's what most Americans want — for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all — the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America."

Update at 9:18 p.m. ET. 'A Breakthrough Year For America':

Obama now moves on to say that the United States is a much better place than it has been:

"Here are the results of your efforts: The lowest unemployment rate in over five years. A rebounding housing market. A manufacturing sector that's adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world — the first time that's happened in nearly 20 years. Our deficits — cut by more than half. And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world's No. 1 place to invest; America is.

"That's why I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America."

Update at 9:14 p.m. ET. An Ode To The American People:

After receiving a rousing applause from both sides of the chamber, President Obama opened his speech with an ode to the American people — with small vignettes of everyday accomplishments.

"Tonight, this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong," Obama said.

Update at 9:10 p.m. ET. Obama Enters The Chamber:

With the bellow of the sergeant-at-arms, President Obama enters the chamber, flanked by congressional leaders of both parties. It'll be a couple of minutes before Obama begins his speech.

Just a quick reminder: NPR's special coverage of the address has now begun.

Update at 9:03 p.m. ET. Justices, Cabinet Members Enter Chamber:

Six Supreme Court justices and the president's Cabinet secretary are now walking into the chamber.

It's worth noting that it is three members of the conservative wing of the Supreme Court — Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas — who are not in attendance.

Update at 8:51 p.m. ET. Obama Now In Holding Room:

CBS' Mark Knoller tweets:

"Seven minutes after leaving WH, Pres Obama arrives at the Capitol. Now to holding room until time to be announced by Sergent-at-Arms bellow."

Update at 8:40 p.m. ET. Obama Headed To Capitol:

President Obama has now left the White House. His motorcade is making the short trip on Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.

Meanwhile lawmakers are filing into the the House chamber. Some of them, of course, have been there for hours, saving a spot near the center hall that ensures a handshake with President Obama and perhaps just as important also ensures some TV time.

Update at 8:34 p.m. ET. The Special Guests:

As our friend Liz Halloran reported for It's All Politics, here are some of President Obama's guests for tonight:

  • Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman of Boston, both of whom survived the Boston Marathon bombing and were captured in an iconic photograph showing a cowboy-hatted Arredondo rushing Bauman to safety
  • Gary Bird, the Moore, Okla., fire chief instrumental in search and rescue efforts after a deadly tornado hit his town
  • Jason Collins, a professional basketball player who became the first male active player in a major professional team sport to announce he is gay
  • Joey Hudy, the Arizona teenage creator of the "extreme marshmallow cannon" that was featured at the White House Science Fair and tested by Obama
  • Kathy Hollowell-Makle, the District of Columbia public school's teacher of the year last year

Members of Congress also invite guests. A notable one: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham invited Korie Robertson of the reality TV show Duck Dynasty.

NPR's Melody Kramer tells us at least four lawmakers have now posted pictures on Facebook of them with the reality stars.

Sen. David Vitter, who posed with Robertson, wrote: "My kids are impressed I get to see one person tonight, and it's not President Obama or Speaker Boehner."

Update at 8:16 p.m. ET. People Not Government:

After President Obama speaks tonight, the official Republican response will come from Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

According to excerpts of her speech released by her office, she will emphasize that Republicans advocate for smaller government and an empowered American public. She will say:

"Tonight I'd like to share a more hopeful, Republican vision — one that empowers you, not the government. It's one that champions free markets — and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you. It helps working families rise above the limits of poverty and protects our most vulnerable. And it's one where Washington plays by the same rules that you do. It's a vision that is fair and offers the promise of a better future for every American."

In that same vein, Rodgers will also take a shot at the president's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act:

"We've all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn't expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have. No, we shouldn't go back to the way things were, but the President's health care law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's. And that whether you're a boy with Down syndrome or a woman with breast cancer, you can find coverage and a doctor who will treat you."

As The Washington Post reports, three other Republicans will deliver responses.

Update at 8:05 p.m. ET. The Designated Survivor?

For every State of the Union, a member of the president's Cabinet does not attend in case of a catastrophe.

ABC News and CNN report that tonight's "designated survivor" is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who used be a professor of physics and engineering at MIT before he joined the Obama administration.

By not attending, CBS's Mark Knoller explains, Moniz preserves "the line of succession."

"Moniz tonight is under Secret Service protection and is held at an undisclosed location until the President is safely back at the WH," Knoller tweets.

Update at 7:49 p.m. ET. A Promise Of Action:

The White House has released a couple of excerpts of Obama's speech. As his senior adviser John Podesta said on Morning Edition, Obama was going to make the case for taking action through executive orders, bypassing Congress.

According to the excerpt, Obama will say:

"Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by — let alone get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all.

"Our job is to reverse these tides. It won't happen right away, and we won't agree on everything. But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

January 17, 2014

Obama Calls For End To NSA Holding On To Call Data

Saying that "critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives," President Obama said Friday that he wants the National Security Agency to stop holding on to massive amounts of "metadata" about the phone calls and electronic communications of millions around the world.

Obama said he's ordered that a plan be drafted to shift that data to some other entity. The information could then only be "queried ... after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency." He's also ordered, the president said, that the NSA narrow the scope of its activities. "We will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three," Obama said.

Speaking of the months of controversy about the NSA that were sparked by leaks from former agency contractor Edward Snowden, Obama said of the United States that "we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity."

"No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account," he added.

Our original post and additions we made before 11:40 a.m. ET pick up the story:

"In our rush to respond to very real and novel threats," after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, "the risks of government overreach — the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security — became more pronounced," President Obama said Friday.

Obama put a post-Sept. 11 frame around his highly anticipated announcement about the changes he believes need to be made in the way the National Security Agency collects information about millions of people around the world.

Among the changes Obama said he wants to be made: "The establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court." The president said he will call on Congress to create that panel.

While outlying such changes, he also sought to make the case for the work that the NSA and other intelligence agencies do. "In an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic, the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people," the president said.

He also made the case for the collection of massive amounts of digital data. "We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications — whether it's to unravel a terrorist plot; to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange; to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised; or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts," Obama said.

Speaking of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose leaks about the agency's activities sparked an uproar that has led to demands for changes in NSA's operations, Obama said:

"Given the fact of an open investigation, I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations. I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy."

From our original post:

Our earlier post, "Obama Expected To Say NSA Should Not Hold 'Metadata'," previewed his remarks.

We'll be updating during Obama's address. We're also embedding the White House's livestream for those who wish to watch.

For more background and context, see these earlier posts:

Five Changes To The NSA You Might Hear In Obama's Speech

Obama's NSA Speech: Just What Eisenhower Warned About?

Barack Obama
(Getty Images)
December 26, 2013

President Obama Signs Budget, Defense Bills

President Obama on Thursday signed the bipartisan budget bill agreed upon earlier this month, setting the stage for an easing of mandatory spending cuts over the next two years.

The Senate approved the spending measure last week, following its passage in the Republican-dominated House.

The president also signed the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014.

As The Associated Press reports:

"Obama signed the bill Thursday while vacationing in Hawaii. The deal reduces across-the-board cuts already scheduled to take effect, restoring about $63 billion over two years. It includes a projected $85 billion in other savings.

"It's not the grand bargain that Obama and congressional Republicans once had wanted, but it ends the cycle of fiscal brinkmanship for now, by preventing another government shutdown for nearly two years.

"The bill signing marks one of Obama's last official acts in a year beset by the partial government shutdown, a near-default by the Treasury, a calamitous health care rollout and near-perpetual congressional gridlock."

Reuters says the president also authorized "appropriations for Department of Defense programs and related spending at other agencies. The act sets out a Pentagon base budget of $526.8 billion in the 2014 fiscal year."

But, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the defense authorization does not go as far as the president wants in closing Guantanamo Bay.

As he has in past years, Obama attached a signing statement complaining of "unwarranted and burdensome restrictions" on transferring detainees out of the prison.

Although the law eases those restrictions a bit, making it easier to transfer detainees to foreign countries, Congress still won't let the White House move detainees to U.S. soil, making it nearly impossible to close the prison, Shapiro reports.

Obama says the restrictions "unwise" and insists that "the executive branch must have the authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees."

December 19, 2013

Obama Commutes Rockford Man's Life Sentence

President Barack Obama has commuted the life sentence of a northern Illinois man sentenced 20 years ago for distributing crack and cocaine.

Under Thursday's order, the sentence of Reynolds Wintersmith Jr. will now expire on April 17. In a prominent 1998 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld sentences given to Wintersmith and four other Illinois men convicted in a drug-selling conspiracy in Rockford.

Molly Gill of the organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums said there are thousands of prisoners like Wintersmith.

“The president said that he can only do so much. He can commute the sentences for someone like Reynolds Wintersmith, so that that young man doesn’t die in prison," Gill said. "But he can’t change the laws that put Reynolds Wintersmith in prison for life. Only Congress can do that.”

Wintersmith’s conviction was his first offense, but the sentence was increased under the mandatory minimum sentencing formula. That is because there was also a gang member and a large amount of cocaine involved in the conspiracy.

President Obama walks into an auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Monday for a speech about World AIDS Day.
(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
December 02, 2013

Obama Launches HIV Cure Initiative, Ups Pledge For Global Health

Commemorating the 25th World AIDS Day a day late, President Obama announced an initiative Monday to find a cure for HIV infections that would be funded by $100 million shifted from existing spending.

"The United States should be at the forefront of new discoveries into how to put people into long-term remission without requiring lifelong therapies — or better yet, eliminate it completely," Obama said at a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

The initiative reflects a growing optimism among scientists that it may be possible to get patients' immune systems to control HIV without drugs, or even to eliminate the virus from their systems. A feat like that seemed impossible not so long ago. The moneywill come from expiring AIDS research grants over the next three years, the administration said in a statement.

The president also pledged $5 billion over the next three years to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria if other countries contribute twice that amount. The Global Fund is holding its fourth replenishment meeting this week in Washington, with a goal of topping the $9.3 billion pledged three years ago.

And he signed legislation enacted last month to extend the 10-year-old President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, started by President Bush.

Obama boasted that PEPFAR has exceeded the goal — thought to be ambitious when he set it on World AIDS Day two years ago – of getting anti-HIV treatment to 6 million people in developing countries. "Today I'm proud to announce that we've not only reached our goal, we've exceeded our treatment goal," he said. "We've helped 6.7 million people receive life-saving treatment, and we're going to keep at it."

Obama also noted that the waiting list for treatment under the federal-state AIDS Drug Assistance Program last week fell to zero, from a peak of 9,310 in the fall of 2011.

Apart from that domestic bright spot, however, a report card on how America is doing with its own HIV epidemic reveals only slow progress.

In a panel discussion following Obama's remarks, Dr. Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins University pointed out that when PEPFAR and the Global Fund began, AIDS experts were betting it would be easier to combat HIV in targeted populations in America than to get millions of HIV-infected people in sub-Saharan Africa into treatment.

But the opposite has happened. "African-American men are about half as likely" to have their HIV infection under control as non-Hispanic white men, Beyrer says. "And two-thirds of new infections are among men who have sex with men."

The White House report is thin on promising results, as one section puts it, and heavy on challenges.

For instance, a 2010 National AIDS Strategy set a goal of reducing new HIV infections in this country by 25 percent. But the incidence "remains unacceptably high," the latest report says. And, in fact, new HIV infections increased 12 percent among men who have sex with men in the most recent figures – 22 percent among the youngest males, from 13 to 24 years old.

The strategy aimed to increase the percent of HIV-infected who know their status to 90 percent. But the most recent figures indicate undiagnosed HIV decreased by only 9 percent between 2006 and 2010. And fewer than half of those between ages 13 and 24 years are aware of their infection.

When it comes to effective anti-HIV treatment, fewer than half of Americans at highest risk – men who have sex with men, blacks and Latinos – get sufficient antivirals drugs to keep their HIV under control.

Still, there's evidence that concerted efforts to combat HIV can pay off in the most heavily affected places. The report cites impressive gains in New York City, the District of Columbia and San Francisco.

"All three have made care and treatment very available, have ramped up testing and needle exchanges," says Chris Collins, policy director of amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. "When you do that, you see infection rates fall."

For instance, when Washington, D.C., increased publicly funded HIV testing from 400 tests in 2007 to 120,000 in 2011, newly diagnosed cases went down by almost half. Newly diagnosed cases have also fallen by half in New York City and San Francisco.

The proportion of HIV-treated people whose virus was suppressed has gone steadily up in New York City, especially after the health department recommended that all newly diagnosed patients should be offered anti-retroviral treatment. By the end of last year, nearly 8 in 10 were virally suppressed.

November 27, 2013

Small-Business Access To Online Health Exchanges Delayed Again

The Obama administration is delaying yet again online signup for small businesses through the Affordable Care Act.

The program was intended to make it easier for small employers to provide health insurance to their workers on a more equal footing with big business.

Employers with 50 or fewer workers were supposed to be able to participate in something called the SHOP marketplace, for Small Business Health Options. The marketplace offers plans that meet the health law's standards and would let some businesses qualify for tax credits.

But the online part of the SHOP exchange has not yet been available, at least in the 36 states where the federal government is running the program. And now, says the government, it won't be working until November 2014.

It's the second major delay for the SHOP program. In April, the administration delayed the ability of workers in small businesses to choose from among more than one plan.

In a conference call with reporters, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman Julie Bataille was frank in saying that getting the SHOP program online was less important than getting the website working for individuals.

"It was important for us to prioritize the functionality that would enable consumers and individuals to shop and enroll online in coverage," she said. "Those are the things we put in place Oct. 1 that we have continued to make sure we work on to improve the capacity and functionality to do that work, and it was important for us to continue doing that."

Instead, for now, small businesses that want to enroll in SHOP plans must go directly to an insurer, or to an insurance agent or broker, and fill out a paper application. Next year, when online enrollment is up and running, both employers and their employees should be able to enroll in a full array of plans through

Small-business groups reacted with disappointment, flavored by politics.

"While we're disappointed that the ability to enroll online on the website has been pushed back for small employers, starting in December will offer small businesses a better comparison shopping experience," said a statement from the small-business group the Main Street Alliance. "Most importantly, today's announcement allowing direct enrollment ensures that small businesses will be able to access the benefits of the Affordable Care Act in 2014, including expanded health care tax credits."

The more politically conservative National Federation of Independent Business was less charitable, calling the announcement "a disappointment but not a surprise. Small businesses continue to be low on the priority list during the Obamacare implementation process," the statement continues. "It probably matters little to people in Washington that the failure to get the small business exchanges online adds yet another onerous paperwork requirement for job creators."

Barack Obama
November 14, 2013

Obama Moves To Delay Cancellations Of Insurance Plans

President Obama announced Thursday that Americans who have had their health insurance plans canceled because of his Affordable Care Act can keep those plans for another year.

Those cancellations — most effective on Jan. 1 — have sparked intense criticism of the ACA, in part because the president pledged many times that if Americans liked the health plans they had, they wouldn't have to give them up under the terms of his program.

Obama also said that problems with the website and with the cancellations of some American's health insurance policies are "on me."

Several times in remarks at a White House news conference, the president turned to football analogies. "We fumbled the rollout on this health care law," he said at one point.

We updated this post as he spoke.

Update at 12:55 p.m. ET. "We're Going To Get This Done":

As we suspected, the president was winding up his remarks. He finishes by saying of the fixes he wants made to the ACA that "we're going to get this done."

Update at 12:52 p.m. ET. "I Am Not A Perfect Man":

He remembers saying when he first ran for president that "I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president," Obama says as he continues to talk about the ACA's problems. But he also said back then, Obama adds, that he would "wake up every day" and work as hard as he can.

Those are pledges he hasn't broken, says the president: He's not perfect and he believes he continues to "work as hard as I can to make things better for folks."

It sounds as if he's winding up the news conference.

Update at 12:47 p.m. ET. "Two Fumbles On A Big Game":

Yet another football reference.

His team has had "two fumbles on a big game, but the game's not over," Obama says — referring to the troubled website and the cancellation of some Americans' insurance plans.

Update at 12:45 p.m. ET. Another Football Reference:

Doing some "Monday morning quarterbacking," Obama says that "two years ago, as we were thinking about this, we might have done more to be sure we were breaking the mold on setting this up."

Update at 12:40 p.m. ET. Majority Of People Will Find The Website Working By Nov. 30, But No Guarantee of Perfection:

Will the website be fixed by Nov. 30 as his aides have promised? Obama says that by then "the majority of people that go to the website will see a website that's working the way it's supposed to." But, he adds, "it's not possible for me to guarantee that 100 percent of the people, 100 percent of the time, will have a perfectly seamless, smooth experience."

Update at 12:25 p.m. ET. He Didn't Expect Cancellations:

Obama has come under sharp criticism for saying many times that Americans could keep their health insurance policies if they liked them, only to watch as many received cancellation notices. as the ACA went into effect. He says his expectation was that "98 percent" of policyholders would see no change or find they could get plans with better options, and that others would see their plans covered by the "grandfather clause" that was designed to keep them in place.

It's "on me" that many plans were cancelled, Obama says.

Update at 12:20 p.m. ET. He's Not "Stupid Enough" To Say It Would Work If He Knew It Wouldn't:

Reminded that he said many times before it launched that it would be easy to buy health care insurance on the new website, the president says "I was not informed" that there were concerns about whether the website was ready for its Oct. 1 launch.

"I don't think I'm stupid enough to say 'this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity' a week before [the launch] ... if I thought it wasn't going to work," Obama says.

Update at 12:15 p.m. ET. "We fumbled."

"We fumbled the rollout on this health care law," Obama says.

As for his falling approval rating, the president says that "we just came out of a shutdown ... and the next thing [Americans] know is that the president's health care reform can't get the website to work. ... I understand why people are frustrated."

Update at 12:12 p.m. ET. Extending Plans:

He's announcing, Obama says, that "insurers can extend plans that otherwise would be canceled" because they don't meet the new law's basic requirements. Those extensions would go through 2014. The administration is also asking, he says, that those insurers tell policyholders "what protections those new plans don't include" and that the new health insurance exchanges may offer "new options with better coverage and tax credits."

Update at 12:08 p.m. ET. "Problem No. 1":

The president concedes that "problem No. 1" is making sure the website "works like it's supposed to."

Update at 12:03 p.m. ET. The President Begins:

Obama is at the microphone. He says he will be taking a few questions at the end of his remarks. First, though, he offers his condolences to the people of the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan hit one week ago. He urges Americans to go to to find organization that are assisting people in the Philippines.

Update at 11:50 a.m. ET. Running Late:

As we cautioned, these events often start late. The president hasn't yet come to the microphone at the White House briefing room.

Update at 11:15 a.m. ET. Back On For 11:35 A.M.:

The White House tells NPR that an official's earlier comment that the president would start speaking at 11:45 a.m. ET was a slip. The announcement is still set for 11:35 a.m. ET., the White House says.

That said, the president is often several minutes late at such events. So stay tuned.

Update at 11 a.m. ET. Will Allow Insurers To Renew Current Policies:

NPR is now reporting that sources with knowledge of the announcement say the president "is set to allow insurance companies to renew current private health care policies for one year even if they do not comply with the minimum coverages required by the Affordable Care Act."

In other words, insurers who have notified some policyholders that their plans have been canceled will be told they can contact those policyholders to offer them the old coverage again.

Update at 10:45 a.m. ET. Time Change:

Earlier the White House said Obama would speak at 11:35 a.m. ET. Now, officials say, he's expected to start at 11:45 a.m. ET.

President Obama waves as he departs Love Field Airport after shaking hands with supporters Wednesday in Dallas.
(Tony Gutierrez/AP)
November 07, 2013

With Three Years Left To Go, Obama Remains On Defense

Just a year after he won re-election, President Obama's second term is already feeling long and fairly fruitless.

It could get worse.

It's typical for second-term presidents to enter the doldrums, but in Obama's case the feeling that he can't accomplish very much set in early. The hopes he stated last year that his re-election would "break the fever" of unyielding Republican opposition to everything he proposed turned out to be misguided.

"The president is clearly at his weakest point in his presidency so far," says GOP consultant Whit Ayres.

House Republicans consider everything Obama proposes to be dead on arrival. The major legislation that he pushed through while Democrats still controlled Congress early in his term — the Affordable Care Act — remains contentious.

The fact that its rollout has been politically disastrous thus far has put the president on the defensive. A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed Obama's approval rating at a low ebb of 39 percent. Other polls have also registered slippage.

Obama and other Democrats can blame Republicans all they want for being intransigent — and they will. But the fact that the two parties are in an unceasing mode of castigating each other doesn't bode well for any future deal-making.

"As long as Republicans control the House and see some prospect they can control the Senate next year, they're not going to do a thing to cooperate with this president," says William Schneider, a senior fellow at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

Honeymoon Got Canceled

Soon after winning re-election, Obama achieved one of his goals — a tax package enacted at the start of the year that had the effect of raising income tax rates for top earners.

But that package only delayed by two months the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. Obama has been unable to replace those cuts or reach any kind of broader budget agreement with Republicans that would end what he has described as a cycle of lurching from crisis to crisis.

Last month's deal that ended the partial government shutdown called for a joint House-Senate committee to address larger fiscal concerns. The committee met once publicly, then adjourned for a month.

On other issues, Obama has failed to get traction. The Senate-passed immigration bill — a major second-term priority for the president — appears to have no life in the House.

Obama and his agenda are "vastly more popular" than the GOP, says Democratic consultant Jim Jordan.

"But we can count on the Republican Party to continue to obstruct policy that the public roundly supports," Jordan says. "The president's legislative prospects aren't particularly bright, as I think the White House will concede."

The Problem Of Obamacare

Republicans look at Tuesday's election results and see no evidence they suddenly need to embrace the president. Instead, they look at the most important Democratic victory, in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and see hope for their side.

It ended up being a closer race than predicted. But more than that, exit polls indicated that voters blamed both parties equally for the shutdown (OK, 3 percent more blamed the GOP), while a majority disliked Obamacare.

"This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare," defeated GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli said in his concession speech Tuesday. "That message will go out across America tonight."

There was instant debate about the validity of that argument. But while the health care law may or may not ultimately prove a great boon for the country, in political terms there could be more pain to come for Obama and his party.

Obama's broken promise about people being able to keep insurance plans they liked has so far applied only to the relatively small market of people who buy coverage as individuals. If Americans who are covered through employer-backed plans see cost increases or other changes, Republicans will be sure to blame the law that bears the president's name.

"For Republicans, it's like the anti-war movement was for Democrats in 2006 — it's what they live for, fighting Obamacare," Schneider says. "They'll stop at nothing, including shutting down the government."

Polarization Continues

For a two-term president, Obama is "weirdly nonpopular," says Henry Olsen, a political analyst at the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center.

Despite an economy that's remained middling at best throughout his time in office, Obama retains a firm base of support. But, in an era of strident polarization, he hasn't been able to win over sustained support from solid majorities in polls.

"The thing to remember is that the core of each political party thinks that the other one is inherently illegitimate," Olsen says. "Both sides prefer stasis to action at this point, because both sides believe they will win the longer the battle is prolonged."

That means Obama — the most prominent politician in America who will never seek office again — remains in an ongoing campaign mode, trying to sell ideas that his opponents will never accept.

"Very little is now possible that wasn't possible before," says Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College. "He looks like a very typical second-term president — not so popular, the agenda's stuck, a little bit of scandal is starting to creep out and he's hunkering down to ride out the rest of his term."

October 28, 2013

Obama Twitter Account Hacked

A nonprofit political advocacy group which emanated from President Barack Obama's re-election campaign says hackers altered the links contained in tweets sent under his name.

An official with Organizing for Action said that someone hacked the link shortener used by the account. The official said the Twitter account itself had not been compromised.  Though the account is listed under Obama's name, the president himself rarely sends messages.

A group called the Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility for the action. The group aligns itself with Syrian President Bashar Assad and has taken credit for hacking into social media sites in the past. The group said, "Obama doesn't have any ethical issues with spying on the world, so we took it upon ourselves to return the favor.''

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