Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Oil spill: Obama to 'make BP pay'

Extract from BBC News Online, 16 June 2010

Mr Obama said he would meet company executives later and tell them that they must set up a fund to compensate those affected by the spill.

He described the spill as an assault on the shores and citizens of the US that tested the limits of human technology.

And he said it demonstrated the need to end the US "addiction" to fossil fuels.

Hours after the government sharply increased its estimate of how much oil was flowing into the Gulf from the broken well, Mr Obama warned that the risks of another such incident would continue to rise because "we're running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water".

He called on the Senate to pass an energy bill that has already cleared the House of Representatives.

Presidents use the Oval Office for what they regard as vital national issues.

The speech comes as opinion polls suggest a majority of Americans disapprove of how Mr Obama has handled the crisis - the worst environmental disaster in US history.

Click here to read the article in full.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

'Kick-ass' Obama attacks BP chiefs Hayward

From The Times, UK, 10 June 2010

BP may have hoped yesterday to boast of its first real progress in containing the leaking well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead, it faced a harsh personal attack on its chief executive from President Obama and a devastating new report that called the company a “recurring environmental criminal”.

Even as US government analysts said that the top cap installed over the well last week was finally capturing up to three quarters of the oil rising to the well head, Mr Obama lashed out at Tony Hayward, saying that he would have fired him for a series of remarks that have already made the BP CEO a lightning rod for the growing fury of Gulf Coast residents.

“He wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements,” Mr Obama said, when asked for his reaction to Mr Hayward’s claim last month that the environmental impact of the spill would be “very, very modest” and his admission that “I would like to have my life back”.

Mr Hayward will testify before Congress next week for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Mr Obama has frequently answered those who criticise his handling of the crisis by saying that his job is to solve the problem and co-ordinate the clean-up, rather than vent. However, he used an interview broadcast yesterday on NBC to do just that.

In the process, he revealed what appears to be a complete breakdown of trust between the White House and BP’s high command. Asked why he had not yet spoken directly to Mr Hayward, 49 days into the disaster, Mr Obama said: “Here’s the reason: because my experience is, when you talk to a guy like a BP CEO, he’s gonna say all the right things to me. I’m not interested in words. I’m interested in actions.”

Mr Obama also gave the clearest signal yet that his Administration may use evidence of negligence in the days and weeks before the blowout to build a criminal case against BP, potentially adding billions of dollars to the company’s liabilities.

“Initial reports indicate that there may be situations in which not only human error was involved, but you also saw some corner-cutting in terms of safety,” he told NBC’s Today Show.

The claim was supported by Courtney Kemp, the widow of one of the 11 men killed when the rig blew up. Testifying before Congress’s House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mrs Kemp said that her husband had been concerned for weeks before the explosion about the difficulties that engineers were having in controlling the well. “This well was different in the fact that they were having so many problems,” she said. “It was just kind of out of hand.”

The pressure to ensure that heads roll at BP will only mount with the publication of a new report on BP’s record of spills and accidents — the worst of any oil major operating in North America. The company pleaded guilty in 1999 to illegally dumping oil off the north coast of Alaska, failed to update vital equipment and safety systems at its Alaskan base in Prudhoe Bay and allowed a “fundamental culture of mistrust” to fester between workers and management there, according to the report by ProPublica, a non-profit research organisation.

“They are a recurring environmental criminal and they do not follow US health, safety and environmental policy,” Jeanne Pascal, a former lawyer for the US Environmental Protection Agency, told ProPublica.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Obama extends hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners of gays

Extract from the Washington Post, 16 April 2010

By Michael D. Shear

President Obama mandated Thursday that nearly all hospitals extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and respect patients' choices about who may make critical health-care decisions for them, perhaps the most significant step so far in his efforts to expand the rights of gay Americans.

The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation in a memo that was e-mailed to reporters Thursday night while he was at a fundraiser in Miami.

But opponents of same-sex marriage have called the visitation issue a red herring, arguing that advocates want to provide special rights for gays that other Americans do not have. A spokesman for one group said the president's move was part of a broader effort to appease gays and to undermine the institution of marriage.

Click here to read the article in full.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Israeli settlements: strong words from Hillary Clinton

BBC News Online, 22 March 2010

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on Israel to make "difficult but necessary choices" if it wants a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Mrs Clinton warned that the status quo was "unsustainable" in a speech to a pro-Israel lobby group.

Her comments come amid a dispute between the US and Israel over plans for 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out halting settlement construction in the city.

The Palestinian Authority is furious at Israel's insistence on building on occupied territory. It sees it as a serious stumbling block to the resumption of talks, which have been stalled for more than a year.

Nearly 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are held to be illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

In her speech to a convention in Washington of the influential Aipac (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), Mrs Clinton underscored the Obama administration's "rock solid" commitment to Israel.

"Guaranteeing Israel's security is more than a policy position for me. It is a personal commitment that will never waver," she said.

But, she added, it is Washington's "responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed".

New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank "undermines mutual trust" and "exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit" she said.

Mrs Clinton has demanded Mr Netanyahu move to restore confidence in the peace process, including extending the suspension of new building in the West Bank to include East Jerusalem.

In a telephone call on Friday, the Israeli prime minister proposed a series of "trust-building measures" that represented "a real effort" to aid US peace efforts.

Although details have not yet been made public, Israeli officials say these include an agreement to discuss all outstanding issues in the indirect "proximity talks" being mediated by US special envoy George Mitchell.

However Israel will not discuss a freeze on settlement construction in Jerusalem.

"As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv," Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

But Mrs Clinton warned in her speech to Aipac that the "status quo is unsustainable for all sides" and "promises only violence and unrealised aspirations".

"There is another path - a path that leads toward security and prosperity for all the people of the region. It will require all parties including Israel to make difficult but necessary choices," she said.

Read the article in full here.

Monday, 22 March 2010

"A new presidency for Obama"

The House of Representatives approves the healthcare reform bill, something the Democrats had been trying to do since 1945 and that took centre stage in the White House agenda.

From El Pais, Spain, 22/03/2010

Antonio CaƱo, Washington

The acting leader of the House, David Obey, banged the gavel at 22.45 (03.45 CET) to announce that the Healthcare Reform Bill of the United States had been approved with 219 votes in favour against 212 against.

In the Oval Office, surrounded by his collaborators, Barack Obama lived the moment like the sound of bell-ringings, the type of glory that is worth the most brutal of political battles. The Bill may not be officially assured yet, but the future of Obama's Presidency is.

For American society, the gavel brought to an end a day which had been memorable, both in terms of the drama and the emotions that led to it, as well as for the monumental consequences that will follow the vote.

Around 32 million uninsured will now be provided health coverage through the state. This will be the end for the tyranny of those private health insurers who impose unfair premiums and conditions. The Government will help small businesses who cannot offer their staff health insurance and will set penalities for those who refuse to provide coverage. Also, relationships with doctors and hospitals will be reviewed and healthcare will be guaranteed to both children and the young unemployed.

In a nutshell, the gavel heralded a huge step forward in the direction of better social justice and, symbolically, a massive blow against the Republicans, who tried every possible startegy to derail the reform. The majority of Democrats decided to finally lend their support in spite of the persistent warnings from the opposition (as well as some opinion polls) that the bill could prove electorally costly.

A last minute deal was struck with around ten pro-life Democrats led by Congressman Bart Stupak - President Obama will sign an executive order guaranteeing that no public funds will be used for abortions. This proved crucial to secure the last necessary votes.

Last night, along with the Bill, the House voted a series of amendments to be added to the text once it secures the Senate's approval. The Republicans could delay the process, but can no longer stop the Bill which simply needs the President's signature to be completed.

This success heralds a new presidency for Obama. Concluded the long and winded process that led to the Health Bill approval, the US President is a new man. Accomplished a mission that absorbed all his energy, he has now the opportunity to achieve other domestic goals (the Energy Bill, education reforms, the Immigration Bill, etc) as well as play a bigger role in foreign affairs.

Few presidents have had such a clear opportunity of boosting their mandate at this stage because few presidents have been at the core of an event of such magnitude. This is the equivalent of 9/11 for George W Bush, a landmark event that turned him from moderate politician into a fanatical neo-con.

March 21 won't turn Obama into a previously unseen version of himself. More likely, it will signify the making of an incredible candidate and a fully fledged president.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, Obama conceded in an interview that nobody studies to become president and that it's a job you only learn by actually doing it. And he's acted like an amateur for most of the time he's spent in the White House. Someone with good intentions and good ideas, willful and confident, but with evident lack of experience.

Without the help of a seasoned Washington professional such as Nancy Pelosi, the dream of a Healthcare Reform would long ago have died a premature death.

On the other side, without Obama's vision and the prominence that he gave this Bill as his number one priority, this project would have fallen into the same black holes that sucked in all of his predecessors'.

The debate taught Obama a few things that may prove useful in the long term. One, for instance, is the President's isolation. Obama learnt that no Congress member, including those most loyal to his party, would ever risk their career to save the President. Until the end of February, when Obama took full responsibility for the Bill, negotiations had ground to a standstill.

Also, Obama learnt that bipartisanship is a beautiful concept but not an easy one to pull off. Since last summer, the Republicans spotted the Healthcare Reform Bill as the President's Achille's heel and went for the jugular. Yesterday, the Republican's leader in the House, John Boehner, warned that "this war isn't over".

Saturday at Capitol Hill, Obama made his best pitch for health reform: "we are proud of our individualism, we are proud of our liberty, but we also have a sense of neighborliness and a sense of community and we are willing to look out for one another and help people who are vulnerable and help people who are down on their luck and give them a pathway to success and give them a ladder into the middle class".

(link to original article)

[Translated by myself as best I could].

US House passes key healthcare reform bill

Extract from BBC News Online, 22 March 2009

The US House of Representatives has narrowly voted to pass a landmark healthcare reform bill at the heart of President Barack Obama's agenda.

The bill was passed by 219 votes to 212, with no Republican backing, after hours of fierce argument and debate.

It extends coverage to 32 million more Americans, and marks the biggest change to the US healthcare system in decades.

"We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things," Mr Obama said in remarks after the vote.

"This legislation will not fix everything that ails our healthcare system, but it moves us decisively in the right direction," he said.

Mr Obama is expected to sign the legislation into law shortly.

But a new challenge is expected in the Senate, where Democrats hope amendments to the bill will be enacted by a simple majority. Republicans say the move is unconstitutional and plan to stop it.

Historic vote

This is the most significant victory for the president since he took office 14 months ago, says BBC North America editor Mark Mardell.

He has been tough and tenacious - some might say stubborn - in pushing this legislation after so much opposition and so many setbacks, our correspondent says.

When the vote count hit the magic number of 216 - the minimum needed to pass the bill - Democrats hugged and cheered in celebration and chanted: "Yes we can!"

Under the legislation, health insurance will be extended to nearly all Americans, new taxes imposed on the wealthy, and restrictive insurance practices such as refusing to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions will be outlawed.

The bill's final approval represented a stunning turnaround from January, when it was considered dead after Democrats lost their 60-seaty majority in the Senate, which is required to defeat a filibuster.

To avoid a second Senate vote, the House also approved on Sunday evening a package of reconciliation "fixes" - agreed beforehand between House and Senate Democrats and the White House - amending the bill that senators adopted in December.

The White House plans to launch a campaign this week to persuade sceptical Americans that the reforms offer immediate benefits to them and represent the most significant effort to reduce the federal deficit since the 1990s.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the healthcare bill will cut the federal deficit by $138bn (£92bn) over 10 years.

[Read the article in full here]

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Obama aide condemns 'destructive' Israeli homes plan

From BBC News Online, 14 March 2009

Israel's announcement of plans to build 1,600 homes for Jews in East Jerusalem was "destructive" to peace efforts, a top aide to Barack Obama says.

David Axelrod said the move, which overshadowed a visit to Israel by US Vice-President Joe Biden, was also an "insult" to the United States.

Israel's prime minister has tried to play down the unusually bitter diplomatic row between the two allies.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week issued her own stern rebuke.

Mrs Clinton told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by telephone on Friday that the Israeli move was "deeply negative" for US-Israeli relations.


Under the Israeli plans, the new homes will be built in Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem.

The international community considers East Jerusalem occupied territory and says Israel's building there is illegal under international law. But Israel regards East Jerusalem - which it annexed in 1967 - as its territory.

The Palestinians are threatening to boycott newly agreed, indirect talks unless the Ramat Shlomo project is cancelled.

"This was an affront, it was an insult but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region," David Axelrod, one of President Obama's closest aides, told NBC television.

"We have just started proximity talks, that is shuttle diplomacy, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and for this announcement to come at that time was very destructive," he said.

At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu began by giving a survey of media coverage of the spat with the Americans.

"I propose not to be carried away and to calm down," he said. "We know how to handle these situations, calmly, responsibly and seriously."

He went on to admit that the announcement of project during the vice-president's visit had been offensive, but it had been an accident.

Mr Netanyahu has now set up a committee of senior officials to vet the timing of such announcements.

However, the BBC's Paul Wood, in Jerusalem, says it is clear the Americans are not persuaded that this was all just a bureaucratic mix up.

The ill-timed announcement on settlements has allowed Mr Netanyahu to shore up his right-wing coalition, our correspondent says.

But Israel needs the US to deal with Iran's nuclear programme - and that is an issue which Mr Netanyahu himself has said is more important than any other facing Israel.

Close to 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

The Quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the US, Russia, the EU and the UN - has also condemned the Israeli housing announcement and said it would review the situation at its ministerial meeting scheduled for 19 March in Moscow.