WEEK ONE HUNDRED & FIFTY-SIX

January 9, 2012

1.     President Obama announced that chief of staff William Daley is quitting and heading home, capping a short tenure that had been expected to last until Election Day--Obama budget chief Jack Lew will take over one of the most consuming jobs in America:

  • Daley's run as Obama's chief manager lasted only a year, and it was filled with consequential moments for the White House, including the killing of Osama bin Laden--Obama now plows ahead in an election year with his third chief of staff, one of the most crucial positions in government and politics.

2.     The Supreme Court appeared to struggle with what to do about holding elections in Texas for the state Legislature and Congress in a case that could affect the federal Voting Rights Act and even the balance of power in the House:

  • At issue is whether Latinos and African Americans who accounted for the vast majority of the state's four million new residents in the 2010 Census have appropriate political power--the judges wrestled with whether the state's plan or maps drawn by federal judges in San Antonio that are friendlier to minorities should take effect or whether some new effort should be made, and there was no apparent concensus at the argument session although the justices on the liberal side of the court seemed more sympathetic to minority groups, and the conservatives appeared more favorable to the state.

3.     The Obama administration argued that Guatemalans unknowingly exposed to sexually transmitted diseases by U.S. researchers in the 1940s cannot sue the U.S., no matter how shameful and unethical the studies were--the government says the Federal Tort Claims Act protects the U.S. from lawsuits based on injuries suffered in a foreign country:

  • The experiment exposed, without the test subjects' consent, Guatemalan prostitutes, prisoners, mental patients, and soldiers with STDs to test the effects of penicillin--President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have all apologized for the research, hidden for decades until a Wellesley College medical historian uncovered the records in 2009.

January 11, 2012

1.     According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in U.S. society:

  • About two-thirds of Americans now believe there are "strong conflicts" between rich and poor in the U.S., a sign that the message of income inequality brandished by the Occupy Wall Street movement and pressed by Democrats may be seeping into the national consciousness--the result was about a 50 percent increase from a survey in 2009 when anger about the financial industry's role in the recession was festering.

2.     The Federal Reserve's latest report on the nation's regional economies showed that the pace of activity around the country is picking up, with the notable exception of the housing market--The Fed report, dubbed the beige book, reported that:

  • The central bank's New York district described retail activity as "brisk, and Dallas called it "robust";
  • Travel and tourism performed solidly in most areas at year's end;
  • Manufacturing continued its "steady overall expansion"; heavy-equipment production and steel led the pack as demand got a lift from resurgent activity in energy, farming, and auto manufacturing, but there was also strong demand for computers and electronic parts;
  • The service-producing part of the economy strengthened as well; and
  • professional services, technology, and health care providers grew in different parts of the country.

January 12, 2012

1.     A video showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of three dead Taliban fighters provoked anger and condemnation in Afghanistan and around the world--U.S. officials said they feared that the images could incite anti-U.S. sentiment at a particularly delicate moment in the war effort:

  • The Obama administration is struggling to keep President Hamid Karzai on its side as it carefully tries to open talks with the Taliban, but the video showing the desecration, a possible war crime, is likely to weaken the U.S. position with both--Pentagon officials said that the video had been made between March and September 2011 in Helmand province, a strategic Taliban heartland and a center of the opium poppy trade.

2.     President Obama asked Congress for another $1.2 trillion increase in the nation's debt limit, a request that is largely a formality but which carries election-year implications--it was the third and final such request the president is allowed under a deal the White House reached with lawmakers in August to prevent a government default:

  • Congress has 15 days to reject the president's request--House Republicans immediately announced they would hold a vote next week on a resolution of disapproval.

3.     The Justice Department is publicly rebutting Republican criticism of the legality of President Obama's recent recess appointments of a national consumer watchdog and other officials:

  • Assistant Attorney General Virginia Seitz wrote that the president has authority to make such an appointment because the Senate is on a 20-day recess, even though it has held periodic pro forma sessions in which no business is conducted.

4.     According to U.S. government officials, the Obama administration is relying on a secret channel of communication to warn Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that closing the Strait of Hormuz is a "red line" that would provoke an American response:

  • Administration officials and Iran analysts said that they continue to believe that Iran's threats to close the strait, coming amid deep frictions over Iran's nuclear program and possible sanctions, were bluster and an attempt to drive up the price of oil--blocking the route for the vast majority of Iran's petrolum exports, and for its food and consumer imports, would amount to economic suicide.

January 13, 2012

1.     President Obama announced a new campaign to shrink the federal government:

  • Obama called on lawmakers to grant him broad new authority to propose mergers of government agencies, which Congress would have to approve or reject in an up-or-down vote--the president, announcing the plan at the White House, said he would begin his pruning exercise by folding the Small Business Administration and five other agencies involved in trade and business into a single agency that would replace the Commerce Department;
  • The White House said that the consolidation wold save $3 billion over ten years and result in the elimination of 1,000 to 2,000 jobs, though he said those reductions would occur through attrition rather than layoffs--it is not clear whether Congress, which has blocked the bulk of Obama's legislative agenda, will go along with the initiative, and White House officials said no president since Ronald Reagan has had the so-called consolidation authority Obama is seeking.

2.     The U.S. is restoring full diplomatic relations with Myanmar, a landmark in the Obama administrtion's drive to reward democratic reforms by a government the U.S. previously treated as a pariah:

  • The decision announced today to exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in two decades follows the release of hundreds of political prisoners, but Washington will probably be looking for fair conduct in coming elections and an end to ethnic violence before it lifts sanctions--the U.S. also wants Myanmar to open up to U.N. nuclear inspectors and sever illicit military ties with North Korea because of concerns that Pyongyang has sold Myanmar defense hardware, including missiles, in defiance of international sanctions.

January 14, 2012     The Obama administration reaised concerns about efforts in Congress that it said would undermine "the dynamic, innovative global Internet", urging lawmakers to approve meassures this year that balance the need to fight piracy and counterfeiting against an open Internet:

  • White House officials said in a blog post that it would not support pending legislation that "reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk" or undermines the global Internet, cautioning the measure could discourage innovation and startup businesses--the administration was responding to measures that would allow the Justice Department to target offshore websites that offer illegal copies of music, movies, and television shows online.
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