Sunday, 20 December 2009

Senate healthcare bill set to pass by Christmas

Democrats' compromise on abortion with Nebraska's Ben Nelson gives them the 60 votes to fight off GOP filibusters. Obama calls it 'a major step forward for the American people.'

Extract from the Los Angeles Times, 20 December 2009




Reporting from Washington - After a dramatic month of sometimes round-the-clock negotiating and deal-making, Senate Democrats came together Saturday behind sweeping healthcare legislation, providing a powerful boost for President Obama's top domestic policy goal.

The breakthrough came after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his lieutenants engineered a delicately crafted compromise to prevent federal funding of abortions, the same issue that nearly stopped the House from passing its healthcare bill six weeks ago.

With the deal, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a strong opponent of abortion, became the 60th and crucial last member of the Democratic caucus to line up behind the healthcare legislation.

That paved the way for Reid to introduce a final package of changes to his 2,074-page bill and file the necessary procedural motions that should allow Democrats to quash an expected series of Republican filibuster attempts over the next several days. The Senate now remains on track to pass its version of the bill by Christmas.

"Today is a major step forward for the American people," Obama said Saturday afternoon at the White House as a thick layer of snow blanketed the capital. "After a nearly century-long struggle, we are on the cusp of making healthcare reform a reality."
Read the full article here.

Joss Garman: Copenhagen - Historic failure that will live in infamy

From the Independent, UK, 20 December 2009

The most progressive US president in a generation comes to the most important international meeting since the Second World War and delivers a speech so devoid of substance that he might as well have made it on speaker-phone from a beach in Hawaii. His aides argue in private that he had no choice, such is the opposition on Capitol Hill to any action that could challenge the dominance of fossil fuels in American life. And so the nation that put a man on the Moon can't summon the collective will to protect men and women back here on Earth from the consequences of an economic model and lifestyle choice that has taken on the mantle of a religion.

Then a Chinese premier who is in the process of converting his Communist nation to that new faith (high-carbon consumer capitalism) takes such umbrage at Barack Obama's speech that he refuses to meet – sulking in his hotel room, as if this were a teenager's house party instead of a final effort to stave off the breakdown of our biosphere.

Late in the evening, the two men meet and cobble together a collection of paragraphs that they call a "deal", although in reality it has all the meaning and authority of a bus ticket, not that it stops them signing it with great solemnity.

Obama's team then briefs the travelling White House press pack – most of whom, it seems, understand about as much about global-climate politics as our own lobby hacks know about baseball. Before we know it, The New York Times and CNN are declaring the birth of a "meaningful" accord.

Meanwhile, a friend on an African delegation emails to say that he and many fellow members of the G77 bloc of developing countries are streaming into the corridors after a long discussion about the perilous state of the talks, only to see Obama on the television announcing that the world has a deal.

It's the first they've heard about it, and a few minutes later, as they examine the text, they realise very quickly that it effectively condemns their continent to a century of devastating temperature rises.

By now, the European leaders – who know this thing is a farce but have to present it to their publics as progress – have their aides phoning the directors of civil society organisations spinning that the talks have been a success.

A success? This deal crosses so many of the red lines laid out by Europe before this summit started that there are scarlet skid marks across the Bella Centre, and one honest European diplomat tells us this is a "shitty, shitty deal". Quite so.

This "deal" is beyond bad. It contains no legally binding targets and no indication of when or how they will come about. There is not even a declaration that the world will aim to keep global temperature rises below C. Instead, leaders merely recognise the science behind that vital threshold, as if that were enough to prevent us crossing it.

The only part of this deal that anyone sane came close to welcoming was the $100bn global climate fund, but it's now apparent that even this is largely made up of existing budgets, with no indication of how new money will be raised and distributed so that poorer countries can go green and adapt to climate change.

I know our politicians feel they have to smile and claim success; they feel that's the only way to keep this train on the tracks. But we've passed that point – we need to go back to first principles now. We have to admit to ourselves the scale of the problem and recognise that at its core this carbon crisis is, in fact, a political crisis.

Until politicians recognise that, they're kidding themselves, and, more than that, they're kidding us too.

Not all of our politicians deserve the opprobrium of a dismayed world. Our own Ed Miliband fought hard, on no sleep, for a better outcome; while Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva offered to financially assist other developing countries to cope with climate change, and put a relatively bold carbon target on the table. But the EU didn't move on its own commitment (one so weak we'd actually have to work hard not to meet it), while the United States offered nothing and China stood firm.

Before the talks began, I was of the opinion that we would know Copenhagen was a success only when plans for new coal-fired power stations across the developed world were dropped. If the giant utilities saw in the outcome of Copenhagen an unmistakable sign that governments were now determined to act, and that coal plants this century would be too expensive to run under the regime agreed at this meeting, then this summit would have succeeded.

Instead, as details of the agreement emerged last night, we received reports of Japanese opposition MPs popping champagne corks as they savoured the possible collapse of their new government's carbon targets.

It's not just that we didn't get to where we needed to be, we've actually ceded huge amounts of ground. There is nothing in this deal – nothing – that would persuade an energy utility that the era of dirty coal is over. And the implications for humanity of that simple fact are profound.

I know we Greens are partial to hyperbole. We use language as a bludgeon to direct attention to the crisis we are facing, and you will hear much more of it in the coming days and weeks. But, really, it is no exaggeration to describe the outcome of Copenhagen as a historic failure that will live in infamy.

In a single day, in a single space, a spectacle was played out in front of a disbelieving audience of people who have read and understood the stark warnings of humanity's greatest scientific minds. And what they witnessed was nothing less than the very worst instincts of our species articulated by the most powerful men who ever lived.

Joss Garman is a Greenpeace activist and co-founder of Plane Stupid

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Abortion was at the heart of wrangling

Extract from The New York Times, Sun 8 Nov 2009

By David Herszenhorn and Jackie Calmes

WASHINGTON — It was late Friday night and lawmakers were stalling for time. In a committee room, they yammered away, delaying a procedural vote on the historic health care legislation. Down one floor, in her office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi desperately tried to deal with an issue that has bedeviled Democrats for more than a generation — abortion.

After hours of heated talks, the people she was trying to convince — some of her closest allies — burst angrily out of her office.

Her attempts at winning them over had failed, and Ms. Pelosi, the first woman speaker and an ardent defender of abortion rights, had no choice but to do the unthinkable. To save the health care bill she had to give in to abortion opponents in her party and allow them to propose tight restrictions barring any insurance plan that is purchased with government subsidies from covering abortions.

The restrictions were necessary to win support for the overall bill from abortion opponents who threatened to scuttle the health care overhaul.

The results of that fight, waged heavily over two days, were evident as one liberal Democrat after another denounced the health care plan because of abortion restrictions, even though they were likely to hold their noses in the end and vote for the bill itself.

“If enacted, this amendment will be the greatest restriction of a woman’s right to choose to pass in our careers,” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, one of the lawmakers who left Ms. Pelosi’s office mad.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, said the bill’s original language barring the use of federal dollars to pay for abortions should have been sufficient for the opponents. “Abortion is a matter of conscience on both sides of the debate,” Ms. DeLauro said. “This amendment takes away that same freedom of conscience from America’s women. It prohibits them from access to an abortion even if they pay for it with their own money. It invades women’s personal decisions.”

But Ms. DeGette, Ms. DeLauro and other defenders of abortion rights said they would nonetheless vote in favor of the health care bill and fight for changes in the final version, to be negotiated with the Senate.

The fight over abortion foreshadows difficult soul searching in the months ahead as Democratic lawmakers confront deepening divisions among their caucus on issues like abortion rights and gun control.

Through the 1980s, the Democrats struggled over abortion. But by the 1990s, the share of Americans supportive of abortion rights had grown. Democrats lost their majorities for 12 years, leaving the most liberal and pro-abortion rights members in office. As a result it seemed to fade as a public issue. Now, however, Democrats once again have a large and diverse House majority, with more members from conservative-leaning districts where anti-abortion rights groups are active.

It was that division that played out behind the scenes late last week, and into the weekend, and came powerfully in the open as the issue.

Click here to read the New York Times article in full.

US House backs healthcare reforms

From BBC News Online, 8 Nov 2009

The US House of Representatives has backed a healthcare bill in a step towards reforms promised by President Obama, despite strong opposition.

Passed in a narrow 220-215 vote, the bill aims to extend coverage to 36 million more Americans and provide affordable healthcare to 96%.

The Senate now has to pass its own bill and the two must then be reconciled before the programme can become law.

Mr Obama has made healthcare reform a central plank of his domestic agenda.

He described Saturday's vote in the House as "historic", saying he was "absolutely confident" the Senate would follow suit.

Correspondents say the legislation could lead to the biggest changes in American healthcare in decades.

Concessions

The bill was supported by 219 Democrats and one Republican - Joseph Cao from New Orleans. Opposed were 176 Republicans and 39 Democrats.

Mr Obama said: "The United States Senate must follow suit and pass its version of the legislation. I am absolutely confident it will, and I look forward to signing comprehensive health insurance reform into law by the end of the year."

The debate had sparked strong emotions on both sides.

Democratic Party representative John Dingell said: "[The bill] offers everyone, regardless of health or income, the peace of mind that comes from knowing they will have access to affordable healthcare when they need it."

But Republican representative Candice Miller said: "We are going to have a complete government takeover of our healthcare system faster than you can say `this is making me sick'."

Before Saturday's vote, Mr Obama had made a rare visit to Congress to try to persuade wavering members of his own Democratic Party to back the bill.

He said such opportunities came around "maybe once in a generation".

After the vote, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said: "I thank the president for his tremendous leadership, because without President Obama in the White House, this victory would not have been possible."

The bill will allow the government to sell insurance in competition with private companies and make insurers offer cover to those with pre-existing conditions.

However, the government-run healthcare programme - the so-called "public option" - was scaled back in the run-up to the vote.

One key concession to get the bill through was to anti-abortion legislators.

An amendment was passed that prohibits coverage for abortion in the government-run programme except for rape, incest or if the mother's life is threatened. Private plans can still offer the cover.

Republican Bart Stupak, who sponsored the amendment, said: "Let us stand together on principle - no public funding for abortions."

Abortion rights supporters said the amendment was the biggest setback to their cause in decades.

A Senate debate on healthcare reform is expected in the coming days.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said after the House vote: "We realise the strong will for reform that exists, and we are energised that we stand closer than ever to reforming our broken health insurance system".

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Obama earns plaudits from the LGBT community

From El Pais, Spain, 11 October 2009

US President and Peace Nobel Prize Barack Obama, tried on Saturday (Sunday at dawn in Europe) to reassure the LGBT community with an impassioned defence of his commitment for equality. "My commitment with you is unswerving, do not doubt the advances that we're going to make, I'm here with you in that fight", Obama reassured during a speech at the Human Rights Campaign, the biggest organisation defending LGBT rights in the United States.

The community, which decisively backed Obama in last year's elections - and that repeatedly expressed frustration for what they consider has been minimal progress to favour their cause- replied to his words with an ovation. Joe Solmonese, President of the Human Rights Campaign, went as far as defining the night as "historic".

Like he'd stated on previous occasions, Obama reiterated his pledge to end the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military. The current policy, passed under Bill Clinton in 1993 and known as "Don't Ask Don't Tell", allows homosexuals to serve in the armed forces as long as they don't disclose their sexual orientation.

Regarding the thorny issue of same-sex marriage, the president - who last June timidly granted certain rights to LGBT public servants - vowed to repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which discriminates against homosexuals as regard the legality of same-sex unions and other rights. "I'll end all that", he insisted, "and the moment will come when we as a nation will finally recognise that relationships between two men or between two women are as right, real, and admirable as those between men and women".

[note: the article originally appeared in Spanish. This is my translation]

"Change we can't believe in"

Extracts from Mehdi Hasan's article from the New Statesman (UK), Oct 8 2009.

"Barack Obama promised a sharp break from the Bush era, yet he seems to have stepped into the shoes of his disgraced predecessor. As the anniversary of his election approaches, Mehdi Hasan investigates what went wrong".

"The distance between Obama and Bush on a host of policies is not as great as many people might hope or have expected - and it appears to get narrower by the day. This should not, perhaps, come as a huge surprise. One reason for continuity between US presidents - even those who are, on the surface, as different as Bush and Obama - is the nature of the modern imperial presidency, at the apex of a bloated national-security state. As the historian Garry Wills pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books, the president 'is greatly pressured to keep all the empire's secrets . . . he becomes the prisoner of his own power . . . a self-entangling giant'".

Click here to read the article in full.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Obama wins 2009 Nobel Peace Prize

From BBC News Online, 9 October 2009

US President Barack Obama has won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Committee said he was awarded it for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples".

The committee highlighted Mr Obama's efforts to strengthen international bodies and promote nuclear disarmament.

There were a record 205 nominations for this year's prize. Zimbabwe's prime minister and a Chinese dissident had been among the favourites.

The laureate - chosen by a five-member committee - wins a gold medal, a diploma and 10m Swedish kronor ($1.4m).

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," the Norwegian committee said as the prize was announced.

"His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

Thursday, 17 September 2009

US missile rethink a huge shift

From BBC News, 17 Sep 2009

By Paul Reynolds, World Affairs Correspondent

"A US decision to drop plans to base an anti-ballistic missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic would be a huge shift in American foreign and defence policy by the Obama administration.

The decision was reported in the Wall Street Journal and official word is expected during the day.

Implications

The implications of such a move would include the following:

First, it would be a major signal, which has followed a number of others, that the United States is adopting a far more cautious foreign policy under President Obama than it did under President Bush.

President Bush was determined on the European-based system and agreements had been reached with Poland to base 10 anti-missile interceptors there and with the Czechs for them to house the system's radar.

President Obama ordered a review when he came into office and apparently does not see the need for such a hurry. His experts seem to be telling him that Iran - the cause of all this deployment - is not after all quite so advanced in its ballistic missile technology.

The second effect would be on US relations with Russia. Here the picture will be mixed. The Russians will be pleased and therefore relations will be eased. The Russians had claimed the system might be a threat to them, though the US said it would not. The US felt that the Russians were simply making an excuse to meddle in the affairs of their near neighbours.

But the Russians might also feel triumphant and conclude that their tough approach is one that brings respect and results.

Thirdly, this might indicate that the Obama team will be looking as sceptically at claims that Iran is developing an actual nuclear weapon. That could mean a reluctance to attack Iranian nuclear plants without rock-solid information, though this would not necessarily stop the Israelis from doing so.

Fourthly, the Polish and Czech governments might have mixed feelings. They had invested considerable capital in agreeing to the system. Some hardliners might feel let down. Others might be relieved. There will be debates about the long-term US commitment to Europe.

Fifthly, on the military side, this would herald a shift of emphasis in the whole US anti-missile defence strategy.

According to the Wall Street Journal account, the emphasis will now be on regional defence. The Israeli example might be a good one. The US is co-operating with the Israelis on the Arrow anti-missile missile and on a shorter range missile interceptor known as David's Sling.

Such methods will now come to the fore. And the existing Aegis ship-based defence, already deployed near Japan, will also have renewed importance."

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Obama's healthcare speech in the Congress

"We are the only democracy on Earth that allows such hardship for millions of its people".

From BBC News Online, 10 Sep 2009

"Madame Speaker, Vice President Biden, members of Congress, and the American people:

When I spoke here last winter, this nation was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month, credit was frozen, and our financial system was on the verge of collapse.

As any American who is still looking for work or a way to pay their bills will tell you, we are by no means out of the woods. A full and vibrant recovery is still many months away. And I will not let up until those Americans who seek jobs can find them".

(CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL TEXT)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Barack Obama's battle to save US health care reform

Extract from an article by Toby Harnden in the Telegraph UK, 9 Sep 2009

The speech to Congress is seen as so important that it could make or break his presidency.

With Mr Obama's poll numbers slipping and public support for his health care overhaul eroding almost by the day, Senator Max Baucus, a fellow Democrat, drew up a compromise plan designed to appeal to centrists across the political divide.

Republicans have vigirously opposed a mooted extra tax burden on highers earners to pay for medical insurance for the poor. Under the new plan, non-profit co-operatives would be set up to compete with private health insurance companies.

This would replace the idea of introducing a so-called "public option" of government-run insurance, which is favoured by liberals.

The Baucus plan would cost about $900 billion (£550 billion) over 10 years - $100 billion less that the $1 trillion price tag on a previous House of Representatives proposal.

This would partly be achieved by raising $180 billion from taxing insurance companies that offer the most expensive packages.

[Click here for the full article]

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Obama invokes grandmother's death in health care debate

Article from Japan Today, 16 August 2009

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado — President Barack Obama has made it clear that his efforts to reform the U.S. health care system have meaning to him personally.

On Saturday, Obama invoked his own anguish over the death of a loved one as he challenged the notion that Democratic efforts to overhaul the nation’s health care would include “death panels” that decided who would get care and who wouldn’t.

“I just lost my grandmother last year. I know what it’s like to watch somebody you love, who’s aging, deteriorate and have to struggle with that,” an impassioned Obama told a crowd as he spoke of Madelyn Payne Dunham. He took issue with “the notion that somehow I ran for public office or members of Congress are in this so they can go around pulling the plug on grandma.”

“When you start making arguments like that, that’s simply dishonest—especially when I hear the arguments coming from members of Congress in the other party who, turns out, sponsored similar provisions,” Obama said.

Reforming the U.S. health care system is Obama’s top domestic priority and arguably his most challenging political fight yet as president, in no small part because of the vast number of diverse stake-holders involved.

His goal is to ensure health care for everyone in a country with the world’s costliest system and an estimated 48 million uninsured people.

It’s an issue that touches everyone in the United States. There are thickets of competing interests among patients, doctors, drug makers, insurers, labor, businesses and others.

Any plan must get through a Democratic-controlled Congress, where most lawmakers are up for re-election next year. Also, there’s an ideological fault line between Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives over the level of government involvement in health care.

In a debate in which he often sounds professor-like, Obama on Saturday spoke with a rare bit of emotion that seemed to counter that of vocal health care opponents as he referenced the beloved grandmother who helped raise him and who he called “Toot.”

She died of cancer at age 86 on Nov 2, two days before he won election to become the nation’s first African-American president.

He talked about her death while answering a question about misinformation being spread about Democratic health care efforts during a town hall style gathering in a high school gymnasium.

“Health care is really hard. This is not easy. I’m a reasonably dedicated student to this issue. I’ve got a lot of really smart people around me who’ve been working on this for months now,” he said. “There is no perfect painless silver bullet out there that solves every problem, gives everybody health care for free. There isn’t. I wish there was.”

But he said that because there’s no perfect solution to solving health care, opponents “start saying things like we want to set up death panels to pull the plug on grandma.”

Obama reiterated his contention that the Democratic health care legislation would not create “death panels” to deny care to frail seniors. Obama has explained that the provision that has caused the uproar would only authorize Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, living wills, hospice care and other issues, if the patient wants it.

Conservatives have called end-of-life counseling in government health care programs like Medicare a step toward euthanasia and former Alaska Gov Sarah Palin has likened the idea to a bureaucratic “death panel” that would decide whether sick people get to live. Those claims have been widely discredited but the issue remains a political weapon in the increasingly bitter health care debate.

Over the past week, Obama has fielded questions from audiences in New Hampshire, and Montana, as well as in Grand Junction. Thus far, he’s faced polite crowds, a stark contrast to the taunts and jeers that Democratic lawmakers have endured at similar sessions during their August break.

Much like in the campaign, Obama’s using people’s stories to illustrate his points, railing against interest groups and asking supporters to “rise to this moment.”

In Grand Junction, he sounded much like a candidate again as he adapted a campaign theme.

He likened the health care effort to policy fights that led to Social Security and Medicare system. “These struggles have always boiled down to a contest between hope and fear,” Obama said—a talking point of his candidacy. “So if you want a different future, if you want a brighter future. I need your help.”

[Click here for the original article]

Obama attacks insurance premiums

Extract from BBC News, 16 August 2009

US President Barack Obama has stepped up his drive for healthcare reform, attacking excessive premiums charged by insurance companies.

Speaking in Colorado, Mr Obama said that under his plan companies would not be allowed to charge exorbitant fees nor place arbitrary limits on coverage.

Mr Obama is making a series of "town-hall" speeches to back his campaign.

Extending coverage to the millions of Americans who lack health insurance is Mr Obama's top priority for 2009.

His reform plan is currently under debate in the US Congress.

Some 46 million people in America currently do not have health insurance, and rising healthcare costs are a major contributing factor to America's spiralling budget deficit.

'No silver bullet'

Mr Obama said insurance companies had to be held accountable for practices that had led to premiums nearly doubling for the average American family over the past few years.

HEALTHCARE IN THE US
  • 46 million uninsured, 25 million under-insured
  • Healthcare costs represent 16% of GDP, almost twice OECD average
  • Reform plans would require all Americans to get insurance
  • Some propose public insurance option to compete with private insurers
  • He said: "We're going to ban arbitrary caps on benefits. We'll place limits on how much you can charge on out-of-pocket expenses. No-one in America should go broke because they get sick."

    Mr Obama admitted there was "no perfect painless silver bullet out there that solves every problem, gives everybody healthcare for free".

    But he said he had "a lot of really smart people around me who've been working on this for months now".

    Mr Obama also accused his political opponents of using scare tactics in their campaign against the reform.

    He added: "I need you to stand for hope. I need you to knock on doors. I need you to spread the word. Because we are going to get this done this year."

    [Read the article in full here]

    Thursday, 16 July 2009

    Obama to lift for six months economic embargo against Cuba

    Extract from El Informador, Mexico

    US President Barack Obama decided to lift section III of the Helms-Burton Law which penalises foreign investment in Cuba. [...] Obama notified Congress that he will extend for six months, starting Aug 1.

    Sunday, 28 June 2009

    Victory on climate change boosts president's position

    Suzanne Goldenberg, the Observer, UK, 28 June 2009

    The epic battle over universal health care is still to be fought, but Barack Obama moved to capitalise on a defining moment of his presidency yesterday - a vote in Congress to act on global warming - saying the time had arrived for America to show international leadership on climate change.

    The White House shifted the topic of Obama's address from healthcare to energy after the vote, seeking to build momentum for the ambitious climate change bill ahead of its next hurdle in the Senate. The first round, in the house of representatives on Friday night, barely went to Obama. The Democratic leadership, despite making concessions to dissidents from oil and coal states, eked out only a 219-212 victory. A total of 44 Democrats opposed the bill.

    But environmentalists claimed the vote as a milestone: the first time either house of Congress had acted to reduce the carbon emissions that cause climate change. It was also a validation of Obama's powers of persuasion. The president put energy reform at the heart of his White House agenda and jumped into a furious lobbying effort for its passage.

    In his video address, Obama sought to bring home Friday night's victory, calling on the Senate to approve the bill so that America could catch up to the rest of the world in moving to a cleaner energy economy.

    "We have seen other countries realise a critical truth: the nation that leads in the creation of a clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy," he said. "Now is the time for us to lead."

    Read the article in full here.

    Friday, 15 May 2009

    Obama risks wrath of his liberal base

    From The Independent, UK, 16 May 2009

    David Usborne, US editor: "Decision to revive military trials for terror suspects welcomed by Republicans – and lambasted by human rights activists".
    "Although his plan will modify the tribunals in an effort to expand the legal rights of the defendants, the decision has already proved controversial. One of Mr Obama's first acts as President was to announce the closing of Guantanamo Bay within a year and the suspending of the tribunals which drew criticism around the world. As a candidate, he favoured turning to America's federal courts or the traditional military judicial system to try the cases.

    But pressure has been building on Mr Obama to explain what he planned to do with the roughly 241 detainees at Guantanamo – and particularly how he would proceed with the 20-odd cases due to be handled under the commission system set up by an act of Congress in 2006. He remains squeezed by competing priorities: to repudiate the past Bush policies while not compromising national security. "
    Click here to read the full article

    Obama's Guantanamo balancing act

    From BBC News-
    by James Coomarasamy , Washington

    Barack Obama's decisions to try to block the release of photos allegedly showing abuse of prisoners in US custody, to avoid the pursuit of Bush administration officials who may have sanctioned torture and - now - to restore military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay - suggest that, on contentious national security issues, he plans to take a middle path.

    Depending on your point of view, the president should either be applauded for his responsible, pragmatic approach or criticised for reneging on one of his key campaign promises: to turn his back on many of the practices used by the Bush administration, as it prosecuted its "War on Terror".

    Of course, all US leaders encounter the same conflict, when campaign rhetoric runs up against the reality of the security briefings they are given as commander-in-chief.
    But, having been handed two wars - and a highly contentious foreign policy legacy - this was always going to cause Mr Obama particular headaches.

    Click here to read the article in full

    Thursday, 16 April 2009

    Obama releases Bush torture memos

    "Insects, sleep deprivation and waterboarding among approved techniques by the Bush administration"

    Extract from The Guardian, UK, 17 April 2009

    By
    Ewen MacAskill.

    Barack Obama today released four top secret memos that allowed the CIA under the Bush administration to torture al-Qaida and other suspects held at Guantánamo and secret detention centres round the world.

    But, in an accompanying statement, Obama ruled out prosecutions against those who had been involved. It is a "time for reflection, not retribution," he said.

    The memos provide an insight into the techniques used by the CIA and the legal basis on which the Bush administration gave the go-ahead.

    In the first of the memos, dated 1 August 2002, the justice department gave the go-ahead to John Rizzo, then acting general counsel to the CIA, for operatives to move to the "increased pressure phase" in interrogating an al-Qaida suspect.

    Ten techniques are approved, listed as: attention grasp, walling (in which the suspect could be pushed into a wall), a facial hold, a facial slap, cramped confinement, wall standing, sleep deprivation, insects placed in a confinement box (the suspect had a fear of insects) and the waterboard. In the latter, "the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual's feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner........produces the perception of 'suffocation and incipient panic'."

    'Walling' involved use of a plastic neck collar to slam suspects into a specially-built wall that the CIA said made the impact sound worse than it actually was. Other methods include food deprivation.

    The techniques were applied to at least 14 suspects.

    Click here to read the full article.

    Monday, 6 April 2009

    Barack Obama tells Turks: 'We are not at war with Islam'

    Extract from The Times (UK), 6 Apr 2009

    President Obama extended the hand of friendship to the Muslim world today by declaring: “Let me say this as clearly as I can: the United States is not at war with Islam.”
    In a speech to the Turkish Parliament, Mr Obama sought to draw a line under what he described as the “difficulties these last few years” during the Bush era of the “war on terror” – a phrase rarely used by his own Administration not least because it reinforced the views of many Muslims that they were under attack.

    "Our partnership with the Muslim world is critical," he said, "in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject”.
    Mr Obama’s 25-minute speech was listened to respectfully in the white marble parliamentary chamber with one of the few bursts of applause reserved for a commitment to back Turkey’s fight against the PKK – Kurdish separatists deemed by the US a terror group

    Tuesday, 31 March 2009

    Obama sets tight auto aid terms

    Extract from BBC News online, 30 March 2009


    US President Barack Obama has given US carmakers General Motors (GM) and Chrysler strict deadlines to restructure before getting more aid. General Motors will be given 60 days and Chrysler just 30 days to submit new plans for recovery.


    Soon after ordering the resignation of GM chief Rick Wagoner, Mr Obama said bankruptcy protection could speed up the restructuring process. But he also offered conditional assurances about the industry's future.

    "We cannot, we must not and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish," said Mr Obama.

    "But our auto industry is not moving in the right direction fast enough to succeed."
    He said the car firms had run into trouble because of a "failure of leadership - from Washington to Detroit".

    Restructuring plans may "mean using our bankruptcy code as a mechanism to help them restructure quickly and emerge stronger", he said. This could make it easier for the firms to "quickly clear away their old debts that are weighing them down so they can get back on their feet and on to a path of success".
    Mr Obama said this would not have to involve breaking the companies up.

    "My administration will offer GM and Chrysler a limited period of time with creditors, unions, and other stakeholders to fundamentally restructure in a way that would justify an investment of additional tax dollars."

    The president also said he would work with Congress on a programme to encourage consumers to replace old, less fuel-efficient cars with newer, cleaner vehicles. Germany and others have adopted such schemes, thus boosting vehicle sales.

    Friday, 20 March 2009

    "Obama promotes reforms on TV show"

    From BBC News online, Friday 20 March 2009

    US President Barack Obama has appeared on a popular TV chat show to promote moves to resolve the economic crisis. He told NBC's Tonight Show he was taking full responsibility "to fix" the economy, in the first-ever appearance on the show by a serving US president.

    Mr Obama said he was "stunned" by the huge bonuses that bailed-out insurance firm AIG was paying its employees.
    The bonuses - totalling $165m (£113m) in a company now 80% government-owned - have caused outrage in the US. On Thursday, US lawmakers in the House of Representatives backed a bill to levy a 90% tax on big bonuses from firms bailed out by taxpayers.

    Mr Obama told programme host Jay Leno in Burbank, California: "The immediate bonuses that went to AIG are a problem but the larger problem is we've got to get back to an attitude where people know enough is enough and people have a sense of responsibility.

    "And if we can get back to those values that built America, then I think we're going to be OK."
    Promoting his plans for broad reform of financial regulation, Mr Obama said they were needed because "most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal".

    The president also mounted a strong defence of his embattled Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. "This guy has not just a banking crisis. He's got the worst recession since the Great Depression," he said, adding: "I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job."

    Mr Obama also exchanged jokes with Leno during the 35-minute interview.
    Referring to his critics, he said: "I do think in Washington it's a little bit like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell."

    Questions veered away from politics and into the personal life of the president and his family in the White House.
    He said it was "pretty cool" to fly on Air Force One, and that his daughters Sasha and Malia would get their promised pet dog "shortly".

    For fans of the president it was an opportunity to see him looking calm and humorous, the BBC's Justin Webb in Washington says. Mr Obama's staff also felt that they needed to use any opportunity they have to allow him to explain himself to the widest possible audience.

    But his opponents say that the appearance demeaned his office and was a distraction from serious issues, our correspondent says.

    "US offers Iran a 'new beginning'"

    US President Barack Obama has offered "a new beginning" of engagement with Tehran in an unprecedented direct video message to the Iranian people.

    Extract from: BBC News online, Friday 20 March 2009

    "My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us," Mr Obama said.

    An advisor to Iran's president welcomed Mr Obama's message but said Washington had to fundamentally change policy.

    Relations between Iran and the US have been strained over Tehran's controversial nuclear activities.

    The US fears Iran's uranium enrichment programme is a cover to build atomic weapons, a charge Iranian officials deny.

    Mr Obama, like his predecessor, wants Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment programme, but is trying to build up diplomatic capital before confronting the issue, says the BBC's diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

    EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana described Mr Obama's appeal as "very constructive" and urged Teheran to pay close attention to it.

    The message is a dramatic departure from the policies of the George W Bush's administration, which described Iran as part of the "axis of evil", the BBC's Jonathan Beale in Washington says.
    Earlier this year, President Obama said he was looking for "openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face-to-face" with Iran.

    Click here to read the article in full

    Saturday, 14 March 2009

    "We will create green new deal", says Gore

    Extract from The Guardian, UK - Saturday 14 Oct 2009
    [by Leo Hickman]

    Gore says that, since the election of Barack Obama last November, he feels much more bullish about the chances of political progress in tackling climate change. But one group who are unlikely to ever "get it" are the ever-vocal contingent of climate change sceptics, the most prominent of whom were gathered at a conference this week in New York.

    Al Gore, the world's best-known climate change "alarmist", as the sceptics like to say, was a popular source of ridicule and ire at the conference. Gore brackets the sceptics with those who believe in creationism: "It's fed by a huge amount of funding from carbon special interests who have been financing these phoney, pseudo-scientific reports and they have a self-interest in sowing doubt. Doubt is their product.

    "It's also fed by an ideological opposition and, coming out of the 20th century, the battle against excess statism in various forms became a deeply held view, and I share that view if it's stated properly, but some take it to such an extreme that anything which implies a new regulation or a new role for government is automatically attacked."

    (Click here to read the article in full)

    Friday, 27 February 2009

    Six years after Iraq invasion, Obama sets out his exit plan

    From The Guardian, UK

    Ewen MacAskill in Washington

    Almost six years after the invasion of Iraq, the end is finally in sight for America's involvement in its longest and bloodiest conflict since Vietnam. Barack Obama yesterday set out a timetable that will see all US combat units out by summer next year and the remainder by the end of 2011.

    Obama said yesterday that "by any measure, this has already been a long war". It had cost the US 4,425 dead, divided the country and cost it friends abroad. For Iraq, the death toll is unknown, in the tens of thousands, victims of the war, a nationalist uprising, sectarian in-fighting and jihadists attracted by the US presence.

    Obama flew from Washington yesterday morning to Fort Lejeune, North Carolina, to deliver his speech in front of 8,000 marines. He told them it was going to be a speech with far-reaching consequences: "Today, I have come to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end."
    Of the 142,000 US troops in Iraq, between 92,000 and 107,000 are to leave by August next year. The mission at that point will change, from combat to one that deals primarily with training Iraqi forces, supporting the Iraqi government and engaging in counter-terrorism.

    His delivery contrasted with the premature celebrations of President George Bush (right) almost six years ago when, shortly after the invasion, he spoke on an aircraft carrier beneath the now infamous banner reading 'mission accomplished'.
    He had gone to North Carolina to bury the biggest and most divisive issue of the Bush era, the failed neo-conservative experiment to create a model Arab country that would be a beacon for the rest. He did that with the words: "Let me say this as plainly as I can - by August 31 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

    In doing so, Obama fulfilled one of the central pledges of his election campaign.

    He aimed his words at those at home who long ago lost faith in the war and at those Iraqis who do not believe the US will really ever leave. He hoped the US departure from Iraq would herald "a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East", changing the way the world sees the US,

    Most of Obama's speech was aimed at an American audience, in particular the armed services. He said they had completed their tasks with honour. And he spoke with sadness of an America that will take a long time to come to terms with the legacy of Iraq, of the names of the dead commemorated in town squares and highways and etched on the white stones at Arlington cemetery.

    (Click here to read the article in full)

    "Obama's budget sweeps away Reagan's ideas"

    from the International Herald Tribune.

    by David Leonhardt

    "The budget that President Barack Obama proposed on Thursday is nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters.

    The Obama budget — a bold, even radical departure from recent history, wrapped in bureaucratic formality and statistical tables — would sharply raise taxes on the rich, beyond where Bill Clinton had raised them. It would reduce taxes for everyone else, to a lower point than they were under either Clinton or George W. Bush. And it would lay the groundwork for sweeping changes in health care and education, among other areas.

    More than anything else, the proposals seek to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years. They do so first by rewriting the tax code and, over the longer term, by trying to solve some big causes of the middle-class income slowdown, like high medical costs and slowing educational gains.

    After Obama spent much of his first five weeks in office responding to the financial crisis, his budget effectively tried to reclaim momentum for the priorities on which he campaigned.
    His efforts would add to a budget deficit already swollen by Bush's policies and the recession, creating the largest deficit, relative to the size of the economy, since World War II. Erasing that deficit will require some tough choices — about further spending cuts and tax increases — that Obama avoided this week."

    But he nonetheless made choices.
    He sought to eliminate some corporate subsidies, for health insurers, banks and agricultural companies, that economists have long criticized. He proposed putting a price on carbon, to slow global warming, and then refunding most of the revenue from that program through broad-based tax cuts. He called for roughly $100 billion a year in tax increases on the wealthy — mostly delayed until 2011, when the recession will presumably have ended — and $50 billion a year in net tax cuts for the nonwealthy.

    (Click here to read the article in full)

    "Green budget"

    From la Repubblica, Italy

    WASHINGTON - "Higher tax for the well-off, a medium term fund for healthcare reforms, 'green' revenues from the trade-off of C02 emissions to fund tax relief for the low and middle classes. These are some of the core points of the budget as unveiled today by President Barack Obama. Along with the pledge to halve the deficit, which is expected to reach $1,750 bn in 2009, 12,3% of the entire US economy: the highest level since WWII. Obama hasn't denied the severity of the ongoing recession and stated that he intends "to offer transparency on the way each single dollar from the taxpayer is being spent".
    (More here)

    Saturday, 21 February 2009

    Obama hails 'fastest' US tax cut

    from BBC News Online, 21 February 2009
    President Barack Obama has said US tax bills will begin to fall from April, hailing a tax cut he called the fastest ever to take effect.
    In his weekly radio and internet address, President Obama said the typical American family would gain by at least $65 (£46) a month.
    He also pledged to cut America's trillion-dollar deficit.

    The tax cuts announced on Saturday are part of a $787bn stimulus plan approved by Congress earlier this week.
    The stimulus plan, aimed at reviving the US economy amid a global economic crisis, is split into 36% for tax cuts and 64% percent allocated for spending on social programmes.
    Mr Obama said the US treasury had already begun directing employers to reduce the amount of taxes claimed from pay cheques.

    The savings will reach 95% of American families, he said.
    "Never before in our history has a tax cut taken effect faster or gone to so many hardworking Americans," the president said.
    (Click here to read the article in full)

    Wednesday, 18 February 2009

    Obama's housing plan to help 9m

    From BBC News Online, 18 February 2009

    President Barack Obama has revealed a long-awaited plan to tackle the US housing crisis, aiming to help up to nine million families.


    The plan will provide refinancing to four to five million "responsible homeowners" on the verge of defaulting. A $75bn (£53bn) fund will also aim to help reduce monthly payments for a further three to four million people, to no more than 31% of their income.

    President Obama unveiled the details in a speech at an Arizona high school.
    He stressed that the plan focused on helping families who had "played by the rules" and would not help lenders or borrowers who had acted irresponsibly.
    The announcement came one day after President Obama signed into law a $787bn (£548bn) economic stimulus package.

    Help for homeowners

    Falling house prices have been at the heart of the problems in the financial sector.
    More than one million people in the US have lost their homes in the housing crisis, and President Obama said a further six million homes were at risk of foreclosure.
    "All of us are paying a price for this home mortgage crisis," he said.

    The plan is designed to assist "underwater" homeowners - those who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are now worth, as well as those on the verge of foreclosure.
    President Obama said it could provide a buffer of up to $6,000 against declining values on the average home.

    He also revealed a further $200bn in Treasury funding to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which underwrite more than half of all US mortgages.
    Fannie and Freddie would also have to change their policy on refinancing, he said.
    Currently they will only refinance borrowers with mortgages up to 80% of the value of their home.

    This plan abolishes that rule though, so that "underwater" homeowners could now refinance.

    Mixed reaction

    "By addressing the foreclosure crisis directly, the administration's housing plan finally begins to plug the holes that cause the problem," the Center for Responsible Lending said in a statement.

    However, others were less optimistic.

    "[The plan] seems to offer little help to borrowers whose loan exceeds their property value by more than 5%," said John Courson, chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association.
    US markets closed flat as investors greeted the plan with caution.
    Earlier, official data showed the rate of construction of new homes in the US fell to a 50-year low".

    Monday, 16 February 2009

    Obama tears down wall with Cuba

    The Bill that will end travel restrictions to the island is already in the Congress. The President's advisors are confident of its speedy approval.

    Lissette Bustamante, Miami

    (from Publico, Spain, 15 February 2009)

    Obama isn't wasting time. This is perhaps why Cuba is no longer a taboo for Uncle Sam. And what has now descended upon the White House "is a doses of realism on the subject of Cuba", said to Público Frank Sánchez, Obama's advisor on global affairs.

    The proposal from nine congressmen from the Foreign Office Committee in the Congress to wholly liberalise US tourist access to the Pearl of the Caribbean is the perfect epitome of the new atmosphere as brought by Obama's administration. In The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, as previewed by Público, submitted to the Congress on Feb 4, it is explained that "not only will those Cubans domiciled in the US be allowed to travel for family reasons, but also every American tourist". The President, according to the Act, "may not regulate or prohibit travel to or from Cuba, except in the event the two countries are at war with each other". As such, the Americans will be free to visit the island for the first time since 1963.

    The democrat William Delahunt, promoter of the initiative and historic opponent of the embargo worked on all details. The Bill will first reach the Senate and in March it will be voted by the Congress.

    The situation has never been as promising. The Democrats control both chambers and President Obama has expressed his intention to revise the travel policy to the island. Obama's advisors consulted by Público seem certain that the Bill will be approved.

    Unlocking travel from the US is effectively a time bomb for the Castro brothers' apparatus. A study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggests that between 3 and 3.5 million Americans a year will visit Cuba. The huge access of dollars, in the view of many analysts, may signify the beginning of the end for the communist regime.

    The democrat Joe García admits that "it will all depend on how freedom of travel and consignment will be taken". "Within three months - he says- academic exchange programmes will begin". Allowing tourism may only be the tip of the iceberg. For instance, sociologist Ted D. Henken, author of Cuba: a Global Studies Handbook, expects Obama to lift 2004's restrictions in his first 100 days in office.

    What is undisputed is that Washington under the new administration is bustling. And the Cuban affairs are no exception: work is underway to cross Cuba off the lists of country accused by the US of supporting terrorism (a political hot potato in the hands of Hillary Clinton). Despite the fact that Obama's government has no plans to repeal the embargo, it "it will trigger a debate amongst its supporters in the Congress on the start of a reversing process", says journalist Louise Bardach, writer of Cuba Confidential.

    [Read the full article and more here]

    Wednesday, 4 February 2009

    Obama caps executive pay

    Fat cats pay on bailout businesses to be limited.

    It's what millions of people would want to hear from the British government. It's the natural course of action for those banks who were bailed out from the taxpayer to the tune of hundreds of billions. But whereas in Britain they're still tiptoeing about, in the US Barack Obama is going straight to the point.

    After dubbing the Wall Street culture of bonuses in times of crisis "shameful", the new President revealed "details of new rules limiting executive pay to $500,000 [still a level that you or me will never understand through our entire lifetime -ed] a year for firms getting a US taxpayer bail-out".

    The BBC reports that "here was public outcry over $18.4bn in bonuses paid out in 2008 at a time when taxpayer money was propping up the financial system"."If the taxpayers are helping you, then you've got certain responsibilities to not be living high on the hog," Obama said. As the Reuters agency notes, "the White House aims to hold banking executives accountable for the money they receive from government coffers with the new rules, which were presented as being in the interest of shareholders and taxpayers alike".

    Interestingly, while this is front page news in the US, you'll struggle to find any mention in the UK press. Instead, all the headlines are for Obama "screwing up" the nomination process. The question is: why? Could it be that our lovely bankers may want to shield people from overexcitement with ideas of fairness and accountability?

    Monday, 26 January 2009

    "Obama Orders Higher Auto Fuel Efficiency, Lower CO2 Emissions"

    Extract from "Environment News Service", US, 26 January 2008


    WASHINGTON, DC, January 26, 2009 (ENS) - "This moment of peril must be turned to one of progress," President Barack Obama said this morning, as he signed his first two Presidential Memoranda, both aimed at getting the United States on the path to energy independence.

    In what he called "a down payment on a broader and sustained effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," the president directed the Department of Transportation to establish higher fuel efficiency standards for carmakers' 2011 model year.
    The standard, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standard, was established in 1975 in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. In model year 1990, the passenger car standard was amended to 27.5 miles per gallon, and it has remained at this level. In 2007, new light truck standards of 22.2 mpg were issued.

    The second memo paves the way for California and 18 other states to raise tailpipe emissions standards for the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide above and beyond the national standard.
    The states had repeatedly requested a waiver of weaker federal standards, but the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency denied the request last year, prompting a lawsuit by the states.

    "Instead of serving as a partner, Washington stood in their way," President Obama said. "The days of Washington dragging its heels are over."

    Read the article in full here

    Thursday, 22 January 2009

    Obama orders Guantanamo closure

    Extract from BBC News Online, 22 Jan 09

    US President Barack Obama has ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as well as all overseas CIA detention centres for terror suspects.

    Signing the orders, Mr Obama said the US would continue to fight terror, but maintain "our values and our ideals".
    He also ordered a review of military trials for terror suspects and a ban on harsh interrogation methods.

    Continuing a flurry of announcements, he named his envoys to the Middle East, and to Afghanistan and Pakistan. At Mr Obama's request, military judges have suspended several of the trials of suspects at Guantanamo so that the legal process can be reviewed.

    'Ongoing struggle'

    Mr Obama signed the three executive orders on Thursday, further distancing his new administration from the policies of his predecessor, George W Bush.
    He said the Guantanamo prison "will be closed no later than one year from now."
    (Click here to read the article in full)

    Wednesday, 21 January 2009

    "Obama acts on Guantanamo trials"

    Extract from BBC News online, 21 Jan 2009

    Barack Obama has requested the suspension of all military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, in his first major act as US president.
    The request could halt proceedings in 21 pending cases, including those against five men accused of plotting the 11 September 2001 attacks.

    The halt would give Mr Obama time to review the tribunal process.
    The new president is beginning his first working day by meeting economic advisers and top military commanders.
    Most of his cabinet is in place but several key posts are still to be confirmed.
    Mr Obama himself attended inaugural balls late into Tuesday night, as America marked the arrival of its 44th president and first African-American leader.
    'Ideals versus safety'
    Mr Obama has repeatedly promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where some 250 inmates accused of having links to terrorism remain.


    (Click here to read the article in full)

    Tuesday, 20 January 2009

    On First Full Day, Obama Will Dive Into Foreign Policy

    Extract from an article by Michael D. Shear and Karen DeYoung, Washington Post (USA) 20 January 2009

    President-elect Barack Obama will plunge into foreign policy on his first full day in office tomorrow, finally freed from the constraints of tradition that has forced him and his staff to remain muzzled about world affairs during the 78-day transition.

    As one of his first actions, Obama plans to name former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as his Middle East envoy, aides said, sending a signal that the new administration intends to move quickly to engage warring Israelis and Palestinians in efforts to secure the peace. (continues)

    Read the whole article here.

    Friday, 9 January 2009

    "Obama urges action on economy"

    Article by Steve Schifferes, BBC News (UK), 8 January 2009

    US President-elect Barack Obama has called for "drastic action" to prevent the US economic situation worsening.
    In his first major policy speech since being elected, Mr Obama urged Congress to act quickly to pass his $800bn (£526bn) stimulus plan.
    "I don't believe it's too late to change course, but it will be if we don't take dramatic action as soon as possible," he said.
    "If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years."
    (read the full article here)

    Monday, 5 January 2009

    Obama's priorities for 2009

    Extract from an article by Max Deveson, BBC News online, 5 Jan 2009

    Barack Obama enters the White House this month with a wide-ranging agenda for change.
    The BBC's Max Deveson considers which issues he is likely to tackle head on - and which he may be tempted to put to one side:

    Economic stimulus
    Healthcare reform
    Climate change
    Iraq/Afghanistan
    Closing Guantanamo
    Engaging with the world
    Labour relations
    Backburner issues

    Read the whole article here.