Obama treads well-worn presidential path with executive actions

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama has come under fire for taking unilateral action to implement aspects of his policy agenda. But experts say that Obama’s use of executive actions is in keeping with other post-WWII presidents.

Struggling to work with a divided and often recalcitrant Congress, President Obama has issued a number of controversial executive actions over the past two years to advance his domestic agenda, stirring the ire of opposition conservative Republicans.

Unable to pass immigration reform, the White House decided in 2012 to stop deporting young undocumented migrants in lieu of failed congressional legislation. The president has also delayed parts of the Affordable Care Act, such as the employer mandate, and has appointed officials while Congress was in recess.

In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, President Obama announced executive actions that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for future government contractors; create retirement savings plans for workers; and improve fuel efficiency standards on trucks among other proposals.

“I’m eager to work with all of you,” President Obama told lawmakers. “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.”

Republicans, however, have decried these unilateral actions on the part of the president as executive overreach. Congressman Tom Rice has submitted a resolution to the House of Representatives that seeks to halt some of Obama’s executive actions via court injunction.

“Our president is clearly saying that he is not going to be bound by the constitution,” Rice told Fox News. “One man who can enact and enforce the law – he’s a king not a president.”

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Republicans lose budget battle, but US fiscal war may continue

(By Deutsche Welle) In the last-minute deal that averted a default, Republicans won no substantive concessions from the White House. After taking a hit in the polls, the Grand Old Party is licking its wounds and contemplating what’s next.

For more than two weeks, Republicans went to the mat in Washington’s latest partisan fiscal battle in a push to defund President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act (ACA). But on Wednesday, the Tea Party caucus couldn’t hold the line any longer, with many moderate Republicans agreeing to cut their losses and support a bill to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling through the New Year.

“We fought the good fight, we just didn’t win,” Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner told conservative radio talk show host Bill Cunningham in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Under Wednesday’s agreement, the federal government will receive funding through January 15, while the debt ceiling has been raised until February 7. In exchange, Republicans secured only a token concession, which tightens income verification rules for Americans applying for health care subsidies under the ACA.

“Our drive to stop the train wreck that is the president’s health care law will continue,” Boehner said in a press release.

Although Boehner had encouraged his party to support the bill that the president would eventually sign, only 87 Republicans heeded the speaker’s call and voted for it. In the Senate, where the bill originated, 18 Republicans cast their ballots in favor of the legislation.

“The real question going forward is the same question as this time,” Theda Skocpol, author of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” told DW. “When will other Republicans, conservatives who want to operate within normal governing procedures, when are they going to stand up to these folks?”

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US foreign policy looms over German election

(By Deutsche Welle) In Germany’s election, controversial US policies on surveillance and Syria have forced the candidates to walk a fine line on relations with Washington. But the US wants Berlin to play a bigger global leadership role.

At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg this month, major European nations such as France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain all signed a joint statement supporting the United States’ position on Syria. The document pointed the finger at the Assad regime as the likely culprit behind the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack in eastern Damascus and called for a “strong international response.”

But the signature of Europe’s largest economy and arguably most important political power, Germany, was noticeably absent from the joint statement.

Berlin hesitated and then ultimately signed the communiqué one day later. It’s an election year, and with the campaign now in its final leg before the vote on September 22, the center-left opposition is trying to breach Chancellor Angela Merkel’s seemingly impregnable position in the polls. Even foreign policy, often a back-burner issue in elections, has become a point of campaign contention.

The issue of military strikes against Syria is not the first time that US policy has stirred up partisan recriminations in Germany’s election campaign. Reporting by newsmagazine Der Spiegel on former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about US surveillance programs, and Berlin’s alleged involvement in them, has dogged Merkel for months now.

“It’s a fine line – the candidates can’t get too close to the US, especially on the NSA issue,” Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy, told DW. “On the other hand they can’t be seen as being too distant either, because the US is still one of German’s biggest economic partners. It’s still its major security partner.”

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Obama turns WWI-era law against leakers

(By Deutsche Welle) During WWI, President Wilson signed off on the Espionage Act, in a bid to keep a lid on German spies in the US. But 96 years later, President Obama is using the act to aggressively prosecute leaks to the press.

The Obama administration has cracked down hard on national security leaks to the press over the past four years, dusting off the almost 100-year-old Espionage Act to pursue prosecutions against leakers in seven cases, twice the number of any other presidency combined.

At the end of last month, Bradley Manning became the first successful Espionage Act conviction under the Obama administration. Manning was WikiLeaks’ source for some 700,000 diplomatic cables and battlefield reports, the largest single leak of secret information in US history. Edward Snowden, who leaked several secret National Security Agency surveillance programs to the press, is the latest leaker to be charged under the act.

Signed into law in 1917, the Espionage Act criminalizes the transmission of defense information, which could cause injury to the US or give advantage to a foreign nation, to unauthorized people. According to Stephen I. Vladeck, an expert on national security law, the language of the act makes no distinction between old-fashioned espionage by foreign spies and whistle-blowing government abuse to the press.

“For better or worse, the Espionage Act is the American statute that best fits the crime of wrongfully disclosing national security information to someone who’s not entitled to receive it,” Vladeck told DW via email.

“Whether we’d call it leaking, whistle-blowing, or classic espionage, the statute treats all three as the same offense – and so the government understandably gravitates toward it in any case where it can,” he said.

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Obama signs order for painful budget cuts

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama has signed an order that starts putting into effect across-the-board budget cuts known as the “sequester” after he and congressional leaders failed to find an alternative budget plan.

Huge spending cuts will start to hit the US starting Saturday after President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans failed to find a compromise budget. Obama signed an order authorizing the cuts Friday night, officially enacting the across-the-board reductions.

With the series of automatic spending cuts, Democrats and Republicans are playing a game of political chicken, with neither party willing to compromise in the latest round of America’s 18-month-old fiscal drama. A last-ditch round of talks between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders ended without a breakthrough. After the talks Obama described the cuts that now have gone into effect as “dumb” and “arbitrary” and warned of the negative impact on the economy and jobs.

The $85 billion (65 billion euros) in across-the-board cuts for fiscal year 2013, called sequestration, will equally impact both defense and social spending. Another $1.2 trillion of austerity will then set in over the next decade. Designed originally as a strategy to intimidate hyper-partisan members of Congress into a compromise on taxes and spending, sequestration was never actually supposed to become reality.

But now, both sides of the political aisle are pointing fingers as Washington prepares to fall on its own sword.

“Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans in Congress have decided that instead of compromising  – instead of taking anything from the wealthiest Americans – they would rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class,” US President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.

Having already agreed in January to postpone the sequester by two months and raise taxes on families earning more than $450,000, many Republicans are unprepared to meet the president’s demands on revenue this time around.

“Most Americans are just hearing about this Washington creation for the first time: the sequester,” John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial on February 20. “What they may not realize from Mr. Obama’s statements is that it is a product of the president’s own failed leadership.”

According to Ron Haskins, an expert on budget issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., the parties are unwilling to forge a bi-partisan agreement on austerity because they would be held politically accountable by their constituencies for the economic pain. So they are increasingly prepared to let the sequester go into effect and try to push the blame on their adversaries.

“I don’t think they have really made a rational calculation,” Haskins told DW. “I think that probably the main element in their thinking is that they can blame the other team – that’s what they’re hoping.”

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NRA comes out fighting

(By Deutsche Welle) In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the White House and the NRA are set for a bitter confrontation over gun control. Although the NRA wields considerable influence, gun control initiatives are gaining momentum.

A meeting between US Vice President Joe Biden and America’s most powerful gun lobby group ended in recrimination on Thursday, with the National Rifle Association (NRA) accusing the Obama administration of seeking to impose restrictions on lawful firearms owners.

“We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” the NRA said in a release, referring to the constitutional provision that guarantees Americans the right to bear arms.

The White House has called for a gun policy review in the aftermath of the December 14th massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 young children and six adults were shot dead. Earlier in the week, Biden said that President Obama may issue an executive order to tighten gun restrictions should Congress fail to act on its own.

Although Biden hinted that the Obama administration was considering universal background checks and limitations on high-capacity magazines, new regulations would have to survive a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the opposition of the NRA. Well-funded and with some 4 million members nationwide, the NRA is widely considered to be one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States.

“The NRA has a great aura and a great mystique,” Kristin Goss, an expert on gun policy at Duke University, told DW. “I think there is a very open question whether some of this aura is exaggerated. There’s no question that Congress fears the NRA.”

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Petraeus scandal shakes Washington

(By Deutsche Welle) The US national security establishment has been shaken by a sex scandal involving David Petraeus. Respected for his role in the Afghan and Iraq wars, the former general may have become a casualty of his own power.

Just days after Petraeus resigned his post as CIA director over an affair with his biographer, General John Allen’s nomination to lead US European Command has been delayed over his alleged connections to a woman at the center of the scandal.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a statement to reporters saying that Allen’s nomination had been delayed over alleged inappropriate communication with Jill Kelley, the woman who initiated an FBI investigation that ultimately led to the uncovering of Petraeus’ extramarital affair. A Pentagon official said the FBI had uncovered more than 20,000 pages of correspondence between Allen and Kelley, according to the Reuters and AFP news agencies.

Petraeus resigned his position as director of the Central Intelligence Agency last Friday, after National Intelligence Director James Clapper informed the White House of the general’s affair with Paula Broadwell, author of the 2012 Petraeus profile called “All In.”

Kelley had told an FBI friend that she was receiving harassing emails from an anonymous person, who accused her of pursuing Petraeus romantically. As a volunteer who helps military families in Tampa, Florida, Kelley and her husband befriended Petraeus during his tenure as the head of US Central Command, which is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Kelley’s FBI friend helped initiate a federal inquiry, which ultimately linked the emails to Broadwell. After obtaining access to Broadwell’s email account, investigators concluded she was having an affair with Petraeus, after they discovered sexual explicit correspondence with the general. Although investigators later found that no crime had been committed, there has been concern on Capitol Hill that the scandal could have somehow compromised classified information.

The scandal comes as the CIA, Defense Department and White House have come under growing scrutiny for the handling of the response to the September 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in that attack.

Petraeus, widely regarded as one of the most respected public servants in the US, was scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday regarding the role the CIA played in the response to the consulate attack. Allen’s nomination to lead the US European Command and become the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe was also originally scheduled to go before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

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