Friday, November 18, 2011

PM, Obama meet; discuss implementation of N-deal

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday declared that there were "no irritants" in Indo-US ties as he met US President Barack Obama in Bali and disucssed ways to implement the civil nuclear deal. Singh, who met Obama for the first time after latter's trip to India last November, also
talked about strengthening the bonds of strategic ties put in place during the historic visit of the US President to India in November last year.

"I am very happy to report to you that today there are no irritants whatsoever in our working together in multiplicity of areas both bilaterally and on global issues," Singh said in his opening remarks.

Emerging after their over an hour long meeting on the sidelines of the Asean and East Asia Summits, Singh said he explained to Obama the law of the land on liability issue regarding the civil nuclear deal.

"I explained to him that we have a law in place. Rules have been formulated. These rules will lie before our parliament for 30 days. Therefore, we have gone some way to respond to the concerns of American companies and within the four corners of the law of the land we are ready to address any specific grievances," said Singh.

Prime Minister also said India was ready to ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage.

"I also told him (Obama) that we'll ratify the Supplementary Convention... that's where the matter stands," Singh said.

Recalling the "historic visit" of Obama to India during the same time last year, Singh said, "in the last one year, we have made progress in every direction, strengthening our bilateral cooperation in investment, trade, higher education, clean energy and defence."

The Prime Minister noted "we have strengthened in many ways the path set out during the historic visit, whether it's civil nuclear cooperation, whether it's humanitarian relief, in disaster management, or maritime security, all the issues which unite us in our quest for a world free from war."

In his opening remarks, Obama refereed to his "extraordinary" trip to India during which the two sides strengthened the bonds of friendship, commercial links and security cooperation.

"We continue to make progress on a wide range of issues. The bonds between our two countries are not just at the leadership level but also at personal levels," he said.

"This is an outstanding opportunity for us to continue to explore how we can work together not only on bilateral front but also at multilateral level," Obama said, identifying some of the issues as maritime security, non-proliferation and terrorism.

The two leaders exchanged pleasantries while expressing immense happiness on meeting each other once again.

Ahead of the meeting, India asserted that its domestic laws with regard to nuclear liability and compensation will have to prevail and any contention otherwise would not be realistic after the Fukushima incident.

The sources said the rules should address concerns that any foreign company could have as these make it clear that liability cannot be unlimited or unending.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Obama under fire over space plans

High-profile critics fear President Barack Obama's commercial overhaul of human spaceflight is going nowhere and could mark the end of half a century of US supremacy among the stars and planets.

"We will have no American access to, and return from, low Earth orbit and the International Space Station for an unpredictable length of time in the future," Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, warned lawmakers at a recent hearing.

The end of the space shuttle era has left America's human spaceflight program in an "embarrassing" state, Armstrong said, arguing that NASA needs a stronger vision for the future and should focus on returning humans to the Moon and to the International Space Station.

With the US space shuttle program now mothballed after its last flight in July, the United States is forced to depend on Russia's Soyuz capsules to ferry astronauts to the orbiting research laboratory until at least 2015.

Obama canceled the Constellation program that aimed to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and called on NASA to instead focus on new, deep-space capabilities to carry people to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030.

NASA is counting on the private sector to develop a shuttle alternative at the least possible cost within the next five years.

But many experts doubt that the firms, most of which have little space experience, can step up to the challenge.

"I don't think any of the ISS partners looks at what we are doing in the US with commercial cargo and crew and feels very confident," Space Policy Institute director Scott Pace told AFP.

"So there is a great gap between the aspirations of the policy and the actual capabilities that exist now."

A ticket on the Soyuz capsules to the ISS costs global space agencies between $50 million and $60 million each.

Former astronaut Eugene Cernan, who commanded the Apollo 17 flight and was the last man to walk on the Moon in 1972, said Constellation has been replaced by a "mission to nowhere" and urged NASA to return to the Moon.

Under intense congressional pressure from both his fellow Democrats and rival Republicans, the White House has agreed to develop sooner than planned a heavy-lift launch vehicle for deep human space exploration dubbed the Space Launch System. But financing and other details remain vague.

NASA is focusing especially on deploying the SLS to explore asteroids around 2025, remaining vague on plans to visit Mars and mute on a return to the Moon.

Worried about the course taken by NASA, Cernan said that "today, we are on a path of decay. We are seeing the book close on five decades of accomplishment as the leader in human space exploration."

Republican Representative Ralph Hall, the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, agreed.

"If NASA doesn't move out quickly, more and more of our industrial base, skilled engineers and technicians, and hard-won capabilities are at risk of withering away," Hall said.

The 2012 budget request for human exploration through 2016 is only 38 percent that requested for 2007, or $50 billion less.

"The current administration?s view of our nation?s future in space offers no dream, no vision, no plan, no budget, and no remorse," said former NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

"The resulting turmoil when this is plainly seen by all will, without doubt, further impede progress in human spaceflight, and poses a major risk for this nation."

NASA has consistently rejected such criticism, arguing, like Obama, that the Constellation plan was over budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation.

Spokesman David Weaver described the vision laid out by the president at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010 as "bold" and said it would "one day allow the first astronauts to set foot on Mars."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

US Republicans hit aid to Israel neighbors, Pakistan

US Republicans moved Wednesday to cut aid to Pakistan, Israel’s neighbors and leftist countries in Latin America, vowing to get tough on militants and US rivals amid a drive to curb spending.

In an often contentious session that ran late into the night, the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee took up a range of priorities as it aimed to cut $6.4 billion from President Barack Obama’s budget requests.

But to come into force, Republican lawmakers will need to reach a compromise with the Senate where Obama’s Democratic Party retains control and is mostly supportive of the administration’s international outreach.

In one key measure, the bill would impose further conditions on assistance to Pakistan at a time of mounting US concern about the country’s military and intelligence in the wake of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

“The language in this bill puts that government on notice that it is no longer business as usual and that they will be held to account if they continue to refuse to cooperate,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the committee.

The Obama administration recently suspended about one-third of its $2.7 billion annual defense aid to Pakistan. But it has assured Islamabad it is committed to a five-year, $7.5 billion civilian package approved in 2009 that aims to build schools, infrastructure and democratic institutions.

The Republican bill would put that civilian aid in the firing line, requiring the United States to cut it if the administration does not certify measurable progress by Pakistan in fighting militants.

Representative Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the committee and a main author of the 2009 bill, said he agreed on the need to “get tough with Pakistan” but disagreed on restrictions over civilian aid.

“The key to long-term stability in Pakistan, and the only way we’ll ever get Pakistan to change its behavior, is by strengthening its civilian institutions — not weakening them as this bill will do,” Berman said.

The committee was expected to make a final vote Thursday, when it will also take up controversial issues including a Republican proposal to ban aid to non-governmental groups that provide abortions.

The bill would also end decades of security aid to Egypt, where protests swept out president Hosni Mubarak in February, unless the new leaders fully implement a peace treaty with Israel and exclude the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Republicans would also cut off security assistance to Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Yemen if militant movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas hold any position in government.

In a series of largely party line votes, the committee took aim at assistance to Latin American nations. The Republicans approved a measure to bar any aid to left-leaning Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Argentina.

Obama had requested some $96 million geared toward the five countries in the fiscal year starting in October but that includes aid to non-governmental organizations, which would not be affected.

The Republicans also pushed through the elimination of the $44 million in US funding for the Organization of American States, a regional bloc of 35 countries.

“Every time we turn around, the OAS instead of supporting democracies is supporting and coddling, if you will, the likes of Hugo Chavez,” said Republican Representative Connie Mack, referring to Venezuela’s firebrand president.

Democrats sharply criticized Mack. Representative Gary Ackerman said that the United States would effectively be withdrawing in its own continent from a global competition with China for “hearts and minds.”

“At the proper time, I might just offer an amendment to pull out of the world and put all this money into digging a moat around the United States and putting a big dome over the thing,” Ackerman said sarcastically.

In one measure that enjoyed bipartisan support, the bill would prevent China from opening further consulates until the United States is allowed to maintain a mission in Lhasa, from where US diplomats could assess human rights in Tibet.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

President Obama Declines To Define Victory In Afghanistan

President Obama said today that “the tide of war is receding” in Afghanistan, but declined to define what victory in the war-torn country would look like.

Instead, the president told reporters at a White House press conference that the U.S. is being successful in its missions, which he described as being “narrowly drawn” and focused on making sure al-Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. and helping Afghans maintain their own security.

Asked about yesterday’s deadly Taliban attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul yesterday and whether it concerns him that Afghan forces may not be able to step up their game, Obama stressed that “our work is not done.”

“Kabul is much safer than it was, and Afghan forces in Kabul are much more capable than they were. That doesn't mean that there are not going to be events like this potentially taking place. And that will probably go on for some time,” he said.

The press conference, Obama’s 14th since taking office, comes one week after he announced his strategy to withdraw the 33,000 “surge” troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer, several months earlier than originally anticipated.

"Keep in mind, the drawdown hasn't begun. So we understood that Afghanistan's a dangerous place, that the Taliban is still active and that there are still going to be events like this on occasion," Obama said.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Obama Still Mulling Afghanistan Troop Drawdown

President Barack Obama on Wednesday had another in a series of regular meetings with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will be among key advisers making recommendations about the size and scope of a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled to begin in July.

Questions about when Mr. Obama will actually receive formal recommendations from Defense Secretary Gates and military commanders have been a daily feature of White House news briefings for weeks.

The White House response has been consistent. Spokesman Jay Carney tells reporters the president continues to hold regular meetings with Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other members of his national security team.

Gates has made clear he believes the beginning of a U.S. troop drawdown should be modest in terms of numbers, and ensure that the U.S. maintains a strong combat troop presence.

Media reports in recent weeks, quoting various un-named administration officials, have speculated on the size of the drawdown, mentioning figures ranging from 3,000 or 5,000 troops to much higher.

In testimony to Congress on Wednesday, Gates insisted that Afghanistan is "not a war without end" and underscored the danger of allowing failure of the mission. "I know people are frustrated, the country has been at war for 10 years," he said. "I know people are tired, but people also have to think in terms of stability and in terms of the potential for reconstitution (of Taliban and al-Qaida), what is the cost of failure?"

One recent report in the on line publication The Daily Beast quoted anonymous administration officials as saying the president may unveil a plan involving a slow withdrawal over a period of 12 to 18 months of as many as 30,000 troops.

As that and other reports noted, this would be the number of U.S troops Mr. Obama sent to Afghanistan as part of a surge in late 2009 aimed at pushing back Taliban advances.

Spokesman Carney declined to say whether the withdrawal itself was on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting with Secretary Gates, adding that Afghanistan routinely comes up in such meetings.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, is in Washington. The primary purpose is to prepare for the U.S. Senate hearing next week to confirm his nomination as the new CIA director.

Carney was evasive on the question of meetings between General Petraeus and the president. "I don't have any announcements about meetings, but I think it is fair to, I'll simply refer you to what I have said in the past, which is that the president will have discussions with General Petraeus, who is the commanding general in Afghanistan, and others to hear their ideas and their recommendations about the beginning of a drawdown, which I hasten to remind people is the implementation of a policy that he articulated in December 2009, including specifically the fact that we will begin the drawdown in July of 2011," he said.

President Obama continues to face pressures from Capitol Hill, where the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry, called Afghan war costs of $10 billion a day "unsustainable" and urged a speeding up of troop withdrawals.

Anti-war sentiment could be heard in remarks by Massachusetts Democrat Congressman Jim McGovern who told reporters after a meeting earlier this month with the president that Americans "have had it" with the war in Afghanistan. "I think people have had enough, I think the American people are ahead of Congress and ahead of the administration on the issue of the war in Afghanistan, I think we need to bring our troops home where they belong," he said.

On Wednesday, a group of 27 U.S. senators, Democrats and one Independent, sent a letter to President Obama urging what they called a "sizable and sustained" drawdown and a shift of course in U.S. strategy.

The lawmakers said the primary objectives for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan - removal of the Taliban government that sheltered al-Qaida, the killing of Osama bin Laden and disruption of terrorist networks allied with al-Qaida - have largely been met.

In remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another influential senator, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argued that the 30,000 U.S. troop surge is "beginning to pay off" and supported a modest reduction. "A modest reduction this summer is called for, achievable and would not undercut the overall effort. The goal to transition to Afghan security force control by 2014 is very much possible if we continue the training, equipping and the general effort to build capacity," he said.

Senator Graham cautioned against "losing the momentum" in Afghanistan, and warned against Congress accelerating a withdrawal schedule "because it is popular at home" saying this undercuts gains in Afghanistan.

Recent media reports have also speculated about a struggle in the internal administration discussion involving, the reports say, differences between advisers to Mr. Obama, not only about the size of a drawdown but overall strategy going forward.

In responding to numerous questions, the White House continues to stress that while the president will have options before him that will be reviewed and discussed, the process leading to a final decision does not involve any major re-opening of the overall Afghanistan strategy laid out in December of 2009.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

House sends Obama message, rejects debt increase

The U.S. House today rejected a GOP bid to increase the debt limit without any spending cuts to go along with it, in an effort designed by Republicans to put President Obama and Democrats on the political hot seat.

The bill was set up to fail by House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team to show the need for deep spending cuts and budget changes to go along with any increase in the nation's $14.3 trillion borrowing authority.

In the end, the bill was rejected on a 97-318 vote. No Republicans voted for the measure.

The political ploy comes a day before Obama meets with the entire House GOP conference -- the first such White House get-together since Boehner's party won a record 63 seats to gain power in the 2010 elections.

"Raising the debt limit without major spending cuts and meaningful reforms would hurt our economy and destroy more jobs, adding to our debt crisis," Boehner said. The speaker has said that everything except tax increases is on the table to reduce a sea of red ink.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said repeatedly that the nation will be in danger of default if Congress does not pass an increase in the debt limit by Aug. 2. The United States officially hit the $14.3 trillion limit earlier this month, but Geithner halted investments in two big government pension plans in order to help cash flow.

Under the measure by House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, the government would have been allowed to borrow another $2.4 trillion.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., blasted Republicans before the debate began for playing games when defaulting on government loans is at risk.

"If we were adults and acting as adults, we would come together and give certainty to the markets that, 'Of course, America's going to pay its bills," said Hoyer, who planned to vote against the so-called "clean" debt limit increase.

Democrats were split on the vote: 97 lawmakers voted for the bill, while 82 members joined 236 Republicans to reject the measure. Seven Democrats voted "present," to avoid taking a stand.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who has been trying to garner support for a "clean" debt limit increase, denounced the GOP's effort as "guaranteed to fail."

"The clock is ticking away to Aug. 2. If we fail to increase the debt limit and default, America for the first time will not be able to pay its bills," Welch said in a recent interview.

"If this (vote) has the fundamental objective to be 30-second attack ads, then members will see it for what it is," Welch said.

Separately, Vice President Biden has been working with a small group of lawmakers on a bipartisan debt deal. White House press secretary Jay Carney said before the House vote that Obama "looks forward to an agreement on deficit reduction and to the Congress doing what it must do, which is vote to raise the debt ceiling."

USA TODAY's Richard Wolf takes a look at the White House meeting between Obama and the House GOP in The Oval, scheduled for Wednesday.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Obama's aides split over top-secret Osama bin Laden raid

U.S. President Barack Obama held a crucial meeting last week in which his advisers debated three options for dealing with top-secret information about a luxury compound in Pakistan where they thought Osama bin Laden might be hiding.

At a two-hour meeting in the ultra-secure White House Situation Room, the team discussed the pros and cons of a raid on the compound by a small group of elite U.S. forces, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The two other alternatives were to conduct a strike or to wait for information that might lend greater clarity on whether the Al-Qa'ida leader was indeed holed up at the fortress-like compound outside of Islamabad, the official said.

Obama's advisers were split at the Thursday meeting and the president took a night to think about the decision, the official said.

On Friday morning, just before leaving to visit tornado-hit Alabama, Obama revealed to a small group of aides that he had decided in favor of an immediate raid, the official said.

"It's a go," Obama told his advisers, as he ordered the operation that led to killing of the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

Information about the Abbotabad compound had surfaced last August, but it was not until March that U.S. officials felt convinced enough of bin Laden's potential presence there that they began to develop a list of options.

U.S. intelligence analysts had been monitoring the complex, observing that there was a million-dollar home there owned by someone with no apparent source of income. There also appeared to be a family living there, including a man who never left the compound, according to the official.

The family seemed to fit a profile of bin Laden's family. Still, right up until the end, no one in the Obama administration, including the U.S. president, knew for sure.

The discussions over what to do took place over a period of weeks in meetings that were so closely held, no photographers were present and the sessions were not given titles, the official said.

Because the person who was believed to be bin Laden seemed always to remain at the compound, that removed some of the pressure to act immediately on the suspicions.

Still, Obama and his aides feared delaying action too long would increase the risk that word of the surveillance might leak out and their target might flee, the official said.

The timing of Obama's Friday order of the raid was driven in part by that concern. Also playing a role in the timing was the fact that the U.S. Navy SEAL team had carried out a number of rehearsals of the operation and was deemed ready to move ahead by its commander.

On Sunday afternoon, Obama convened a meeting at the White House where the mood was "tense" and "anxiety-ridden" as the group monitored the unfolding operation on a screen, the official said.

Those present included U.S. Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

"We got him, guys," Obama said in reaction to the news of bin Laden's death.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Obama goes local to sell deficit reduction plan

The White House billed President Obama's interviews with local reporters Monday as an opportunity to "discuss his vision for reducing our debt and bringing down our deficit, based on the values of shared responsibility and shared prosperity."

But instead Mr. Obama opted to highlight issues like job growth- "we've seen numbers each month" - and blasting the Republican's proposed budget as one that "turns Medicare into a voucher program." When he discussed raising revenue-aka taxes- he stressed it would be "mostly coming from people like me, high income individuals."

Away from the White House press corps, Mr. Obama ultimately yalked less about his new deficit reduction plan and more about his administration's achievements- or about the visiting reporters' children.

In an interview with CBS News Denver affiliate KCNC, the president focused on clean energy and education and rarely used terms like debt or deficit, though he did cite his $2 trillion plan to cut spending as outlined in a speech last week.

"We don't have any magic bullet," Mr. Obama said. "When you've had a recession this bad then it's going to take some time to fix it."

In a run-up to the midterm elections, the president did a series of interviews with local radio and television stations to help fire up the Democratic base. The White House says he isn't yet campaigning, but Monday's interviews were scheduled with stations in states important to the re-election campaign- swing states Colorado and North Carolina, as well as Texas and Indiana.

Obama also has town halls about his deficit reduction plan scheduled in Virginia and Nevada this week, as well as a Facebook town hall in California.

CBS News Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller pressed Jay Carney in his daily briefing Monday, asking the press secretary if the president thinks "he gets better access to the American people than doing a news conference here?"

"We reach out in numerous ways," Carney said. "It just remains the case that a lot of Americans still get a large amount of their news from local television."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Why did Obama reverse decision on 9/11 trials?

The Obama administration on Monday reversed plans to use U.S. criminal courts to prosecute the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four co-conspirators and ordered them tried at a military tribunal.

Following are some key questions and answers about this major reversal of policy.


There was visceral opposition from Republicans and even some of Obama's fellow Democrats to prosecuting Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators in a federal court in the heart of Manhattan, just blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the September 11 attacks.

Opponents argued the trial would create a target for attacks and security could cost up to $1 billion. They also did not believe Mohammed and his accused co-conspirators were entitled to receive full U.S. legal rights in a federal court.

The U.S. Congress blocked funding for transferring any of the men to American soil for trial or detention.

The Obama administration either had to wage what would have been an uphill battle to lift that ban or reverse its decision. Attorney General Eric Holder also said a trial could no longer be delayed.


Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to close the military prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba amid widespread criticism of the Bush administration's use of the facility to hold terrorism suspects there without trial.

Obama will likely now face a backlash from the left wing of his Democratic Party base for the decision to resume military trials at Guantanamo and give up on prosecuting the 9/11 suspects in federal court. However, it remains to be seen what impact, if any, it will have on his re-election bid.

Obama won plaudits from Republicans who said the decision was long overdue and that it vindicated the Bush-era policies on detaining and prosecuting the suspects.



Military commissions are made up of a military judge and jury, not a traditional jury of ordinary American citizens. Rules for introducing certain evidence, such as hearsay conversations, are less stringent in a military commission, and defendants' access to evidence against them could be more restricted. Prosecutors can seek the death penalty in a military commission or a criminal court.

If a suspect pleads guilty in a criminal court, he or she can be sentenced to death, but it is unclear if that can happen in a military court.


Holder vowed to continue trying terrorism suspects in traditional criminal courts, noting that scores have been successfully prosecuted. He said "our national security demands that we continue to prosecute terrorists in federal court, and we will do so." However, Monday's policy reversal suggests that may be easier said than done.



Put simply, yes. Holder was resolute in his belief that his decision 16 months ago to hold the trials in Manhattan, just blocks from the former World Trade Center site, was the right one. He castigated lawmakers in the U.S. Congress for interfering with the executive branch's decision, saying they were not privy to all the intelligence and legal strategies for prosecuting Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators.

"I know this case in a way that members of Congress do not. I have looked at the files, I've spoken to the prosecutors, I know the tactical concerns that have to go into this decision. So do I know better than them? Yes."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Obama says Gaddafi may wait out military assault

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may try to wait out a no-fly zone and military assault that has damaged his armed forces, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday in an interview with CNN.

"Gaddafi may try to hunker down and wait it out even in the face of the no-fly zone, even though his forces have been degraded," Obama said.

The U.S. president's comments acknowledged the longtime Libyan leader's staying power and the limits of a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya that the United States and European countries are enforcing, with some Arab support.

U.S. officials have made clear Gaddafi's ouster would be welcome but was not the goal of the air strikes. Obama said the no-fly zone was meant to ensure "the people of Libya aren't assaulted by their own military."

Obama, in El Salvador on the last leg of a Latin America trip, said there were other ways the international community could try to oust Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya for 41 years.

"Keep in mind we don't just have military tools at our disposal in terms of accomplishing Gaddafi's leaving," he said. "We've put in place strong international sanctions. We've frozen his assets. We will continue to apply a whole range of pressure on him."

Asked what he would do to help the Libyan rebels, Obama said he was discussing possible measures with U.S. partners in the Libya coalition.

"I think - our hope is - that the first thing that can happen once we've cleared the space is that the rebels are able to start discussing how they organize themselves, how they articulate their aspirations for the Libyan people and create a legitimate government," he told CNN.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Obama More Likeable Than Policies

A new poll finds that most Americans like President Barack Obama personally, but are sharply divided over his policies. Meanwhile, some of the Republicans who would like to challenge Mr. Obama in next year’s presidential election are taking some tentative first steps toward joining the 2012 campaign.

The Quinnipiac University poll shows most Americans find President Obama personally likeable. But when it comes to his policies, the country is divided, says pollster Peter Brown. "Almost three in four Americans, 74 percent, say they like President Obama personally. But only 42 percent like his policies. That is a very large gap and the question in terms of the president’s re-election is really whether his personality or his policies will rule."

Mr. Obama argues some of his policies on the economy are bearing fruit. The latest jobs report shows unemployment is now below nine percent, its lowest level in nearly two years. "And that is progress, but we need to keep building on that momentum," he said.

President Obama’s job-approval rating has improved in several polls during the past few months, but political analysts say his re-election hopes hinge on improvements in the U.S. economy.

Analyst Charlie Cook told the CSPAN public-affairs network the jobs situation in particular is critically important as the 2012 campaign draws closer. "I would rather know the unemployment rate because I think ultimately it is more important. That is not to say the Republican nominee is not important, but (the election) is a referendum on the incumbent president, number one, and number two, people vote their pocketbooks (economic interests)," he said.

It is expected that several Republican presidential candidates will formally take steps to enter the race in the next few months. But so far the campaign has been slow to develop.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich launched a Web site last week inviting voters to help him explore a possible White House bid next year.

And former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney criticized the president’s health-care reform law during a speech he gave in the early primary state of New Hampshire. "One thing I would never do is usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover. I would repeal Obama-care," he said.

At this point in the presidential election cycle four years ago, all the major White House contenders had officially entered the race. But the 2012 Republican field is developing very slowly, and some Democrats believe that is because of President Obama’s improved standing in the polls.

Analyst Faiz Shakir is with the Center for American Progress in Washington and was a recent guest on VOA’s Encounter program. "I think one of the reasons that Republicans have not been rushing out of the gate to challenge Obama as they would have perhaps a few months ago is that they see the political fortunes of Obama actually getting better and the economy improving," he said.

But many Republicans do not accept that argument. John Fortier is a political scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. "I think the president has improved since the election. His (poll) numbers are up. But we should not overstate this. Certainly the president is kind of in the middle. He certainly could win at this point, he could lose, but he is not somebody who I think is scaring off Republicans," he said.

Republican caucus and primary contests will not begin until early next year, but a number of Republican candidate debates are scheduled for this year beginning in May.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Obama in Cleveland to talk small business

President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Cleveland State University today along with members of his cabinet to hold a Winning the Future Forum to hear from small business owners and leaders on how to develop the economy.

"The president will continue his focus on jobs and he will be focusing on how we can work together with small and large businesses to grow the economy and put people back to work," said White House deputy communications director Jennifer Psaki in a conference call Friday.

The forum, in association with northeast Ohio economic development organizations JumpStart America and NorTech, will begin and conclude with remarks from the president. The majority of the forum will be broken down into sessions on workforce development, clean energy, exports, entrepreneurship and access to capital and tax breaks for small business.

The forum is pivotal because two-thirds of the net job growth in the U.S. comes from small business and half of employed Americans own or work for a small business, said Karen Mills, administrator of Small Business Administration.

"There's nothing I like better than to go out and listen to small businesses," Mills said.

Faculty at Ohio State also like the idea of government listening to ideas and concerns from small business leaders.

"Anytime you can get feedback from small business to help our government and society it's going to help," said Lucia Dunn, an OSU economics professor.

Senior lecturer in the Fisher College of Business, Marc Ankerman, has the opportunity to participate in such an event since he is a small business owner himself. He owns Ankerman Training Solutions, a training and development consultant for large and small companies.

"I would love to do that. Anytime a small business owner gets an opportunity to talk about how taxes are influenced and how we can stimulate jobs is great," Ankerman said. "Letting any of us voice our opinions make America what it is."

Mills said some of the tools the government has given small business owners in the past few years have been important tools.

"The ability of these entrepreneurs and other small businesses to get the tools they need — the access of capital, the entrepreneurial mentoring and the reduction in regulatory barriers and issues, so that they can grow and do what they do best," Mills said.

The past couple of years have seen 17 tax cuts for small businesses and $41 billion in the hands of small businesses through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, Mills said.

"There's nothing small business owners like better or can do more with than cash in their pocket from tax cuts," Mills said.

The Small Business Jobs Bill was the "most important piece of small business legislation in over 10 years," Mills said.

Dunn explained the importance of small business on America's economy.

"Every town has small businesses. They may only employ two or three people, but they're so spread out. If they can get help, it will help everyone," Dunn said. "No area is going to be left out because they're distributed as the population is distributed."

Ankerman said there are a few advantages small businesses have over large ones in the workforce they are able to hire.

"They can hire different people for flexibility of hours, which allows them to do what some large businesses can't," Ankerman said. "There's an opportunity for small businesses to hire a diverse group of people which allows for more community."

In Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 25, he spoke of the need to compete globally by out-innovating, out-educating and out-building. Mills considers this forum to be a good opportunity to do so.

"It is our entrepreneurs who really are at the heart of America's ability to compete and create jobs," Mills said.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Laffer Curve Pays Billions If Obama Just Asks: Kevin Hassett

The U.S. is about to have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world because our competitors have noticed that revenue goes up as rates go down. Multinational corporations today nimbly move their profits to the friendliest environment, rewarding tax havens like never before.

It looks as if President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are going to miss out on the single biggest policy opportunity for the U.S. this year because of their ideological resistance to the idea that lower rates can increase revenue, also known as the Laffer curve.

The devil, as so often happens, was in the details of what Obama said in his State of the Union address: “I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years -- without adding to our deficit.”

A careful reading shows that Obama conditioned his support for tax reform on revenue neutrality -- that is, no net loss or gain in what the federal government collects in taxes. The usual referee in such matters, Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, doesn’t fully incorporate what’s known as dynamic scoring, or anticipating higher growth from lower taxes. So legislation that meets Obama’s prerequisite probably won’t lower corporate taxes significantly.

Message Received

If there were any doubts about the administration’s position, they were put to rest last week by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who said, “We’re not going to ask Americans to pay higher taxes so we can lower taxes on businesses.”

Obama and Geithner must not understand the fix our country is in.

Corporate taxes “are the most harmful type of tax for economic growth,” according to a November 2010 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In the World Bank-supported “Doing Business 2011” report, the U.S.’s worst ranking by far was in the category called “paying taxes” -- 62nd out of 183 economies, tied with Uganda. That needs to be fixed, whether or not the budget experts on Capitol Hill say the repair costs too much.

The U.S. top corporate tax rate of 35 percent in 2010 was higher than all other OECD nations except Japan, which has embarked on a 5 percentage-point cut. The average rate in the OECD is 23.5 percent. Ireland’s rate is only 10.9 percent; Turkey’s is 13.1 percent.

If the high rate in the U.S. raised lots of revenue, cutting it might be bad news for the federal budget. But that’s not a problem.

Below Average

The U.S. earns less federal corporate tax revenue, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than the average OECD country. Higher rates, lower revenue.

From 2000 through 2009, the U.S. average corporate tax revenue as a percentage of GDP was 2.06 percent, according to OECD data. The average for the rest of the OECD was almost a percentage point higher, at 3 percent.

In 2009, the U.S. ratio dropped to 1.64 percent. That year, the U.K., with a tax rate of 28 percent, raised 2.8 percent of GDP. South Korea raised 3.4 percent of GDP with a rate of 22 percent. Belgium raised 2.5 percent of GDP with a rate of 34 percent.

A number of studies have indicated that a Laffer curve exists for corporate taxes. One study I did with Alex Brill, looking at data for OECD countries from 2000 to 2005, found that the U.S. could maximize its tax revenue by cutting the top corporate rate 8.6 percentage points, to 26.4 percent.

Money Rolls In

If the average OECD country set its rate at 26.4 percent, it would raise 3.8 percent of GDP from corporate tax revenue, according to my analysis of historical correlations. If the U.S. managed to increase its corporate revenue as a share of GDP to 3.8 percent, it would yield a startling $2.8 trillion during the next decade above what the Congressional Budget Office now projects.

Even less-rosy assumptions can’t spoil the fun. Let’s say the U.S. achieves merely the average improvement of an OECD country that reduces its corporate tax rate to 26.4 percent from 35 percent. The improvement would still generate an impressive $748 billion in additional tax revenue over the next 10 years.

All of this might force Obama to reconsider his obeisance to revenue neutrality, since under these models, tax revenue doesn’t remain neutral -- it soars. (If he really wants to deprive his supporters of billions to spend, he could lower the corporate tax rate all the way to 17.4 percent. By the rules of the Laffer curve, that rate generates the same revenue as 35 percent.)

Republicans have asserted for years that just about all tax cuts pay for themselves. They’ve almost always been wrong about that. But with regard to corporate taxes, it’s true. Laffer prevails.

Political reflex might lead Democrats to ignore the evidence that lowering the corporate tax rate increases revenue. If so, too bad, because we’ll leave free money on the table.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Obama Presses Business Leaders to Hire and Invest

President Obama urged American businesses on Monday to “get in the game” by letting loose trillions of dollars that they are holding in reserve, saying that they can help create a “virtuous cycle” of more sales, higher demand and greater profits that will put people back to work.

“If there is a reason you don’t believe that this is the time to get off the sidelines — to hire and invest — I want to know about it. I want to fix it,” Mr. Obama said in a speech to business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In the speech, Mr. Obama pledged to eliminate unneeded regulations and simplify the tax code, but said companies had responsibilities to help the economy recover.

“Ultimately, winning the future is not just about what the government can do to help you succeed,” he said. “It’s about what you can do to help America succeed.”

The president’s comments came as he sought to reassure members of the business community that he was not their adversary and to mend fences with their forceful lobbying advocate in Washington.

“I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly,” Mr. Obama said, alluding to the contentious relationship he has had with the Chamber of Commerce over the past two years. “I strolled over from across the street, and, look, maybe if we had brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in, we would have gotten off to a better start. But I’m going to make up for it.”

The chamber has fiercely opposed most of Mr. Obama’s health care and banking agenda and spent more than $50 million during last year’s midterm elections to cast the president and his party as anti-business and a threat to capitalism.

But the chamber, too, is eager to tone down the rhetoric, according to senior officials there. At the height of the high-profile fight with the White House, several big-name companies left its board, citing concern about the chamber’s opposition to the administration’s efforts.

Thomas J. Donohue, the Chamber of Commerce’s president, has in the past warned of a “regulatory tsunami” that will result from Mr. Obama’s policies. In particular, he told reporters after the November elections last year that the health care law would produce hundreds of new burdens on American businesses.

But in introducing Mr. Obama, Mr. Donohue emphasized his group’s desire to work with the administration in areas where they might agree. Those include increasing free trade and exports, investing in technology and infrastructure and reducing the nation’s debt.

“I reaffirm the American business community’s absolute commitment to working with you and your administration to advancing our shared priorities,” Mr. Donohue said.

Mr. Obama’s remarks reflected the careful effort of a White House eager to seem more pro-business but anxious about the accusations of betrayal by some of the Democratic president’s most liberal allies.

The president’s basic message to the business community — “I get it,” he said of the profit-making imperative — was joined with an admonition that corporate America must feel some sense of duty as well. That effort to walk a political line appeared to please neither side completely on Monday.

Mr. Obama’s suggestion that businesses can help the economy recover by spending their reserves was met with skepticism by some in the audience. Harold Jackson, a executive at Buffalo Supply Inc., a medical supply company, called it na├»ve.

“Any business person has to look at the demand to their company for their product and services, and make hiring decisions,” Mr. Jackson said. “I think it’s a little outside the bounds to suggest that if we hire people we don’t need, there will be more demand.”

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, said in remarks Monday that “we’ll just have to wait and see whether the administration’s actions support its rhetoric.” Mr. McConnell urged Mr. Obama to prove his intentions to help the business community by doing more to push free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

At the same time, Mr. Obama’s decision to address the chamber in the first place has upset liberal groups, who say the president is consorting with the very forces they believe have worked to undercut his policies.

Public Citizen, a liberal group in Washington, issued a statement condemning the president’s comment that he would “go anywhere” in the world to promote trade, a line that prompted one of the few moments of applause from the crowd of business leaders.

“It’s unclear what is more mortifying: President Barack Obama choosing the club of America’s notorious job-offshorers to talk about the importance of creating American jobs, or his rallying of his fiercest political opponents to help him overcome the majority of Americans who oppose more-of-the-same job-killing trade agreements,” said Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

Erica Payne, the founder of the Agenda Project, a liberal organization in New York, said: “Two weeks ago, the president promised that he would work to rebuild people’s faith in government. Meeting with the biggest lobbyists in the country is hardly a step in the right direction.”

In an interview after Mr. Obama’s speech, Ms. Payne said the president’s speech had “many words, little content.”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Obama challenges high school students to book him as commencement speaker

President Obama challenged public high school students in Massachusetts and across the country today to book him as their graduation speaker.

The second annual Race-to-the-Top Commencement competition asks students to write essays and submit statistics that show their school is doing an extraordinary job of preparing them for life after high school. Obama will give the commencement address at the winning school.

“I’m looking for the school that’s doing the best job of preparing students for college and careers,” Obama said in a statement today. “The winning school will understand that their number one priority is making sure that our kids are learning what they need to succeed in this 21st century economy.”

East Boston High School, Somerville High and Lowell High were among more than 1,000 schools that competed in the challenge last year. The winner was Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Applications for this year's challenge must be submitted by February 25 at

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

While fishing for laughs, Obama hooks a regional issue

He may not know his kings from his silvers or a humpy from a chum, but President Obama's mention Tuesday night of the Northwest's signature fish seems to have resonated with the public — though probably not as he'd hoped.

While many laughed at the president's comic reference to salmon in his State of the Union address, many of those familiar with our troubled seagoing species applauded, and then groaned.

During a portion of the speech dedicated to reorganizing government, Obama highlighted what sounded like government redundancies. He mentioned that 12 federal agencies deal with exports and five "entities" deal with housing.

And he followed those statements with this: "Then there's my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

The line was a hit — perhaps too big a hit. When National Public Radio after the speech asked 4,000 listeners to describe in three words what they recalled from the president's hourlong address, the most frequently mentioned word was "salmon."

But Obama's description wasn't even entirely accurate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within Interior, manages most endangered species and owns and operates nine hatcheries in Washington. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, an agency within Commerce, runs virtually every aspect of salmon management regardless of whether they're at sea or in a river.

And if the president's point was that salmon involves more than one agency, he really missed the mark.

In truth, it's way more Byzantine than that.

"I don't think you could make a more complicated system if you tried," said Bruce Sanford, a retired state chinook biologist.

NOAA Fisheries is responsible for recovering salmon under the Endangered Species Act, but the Washington state Fish and Wildlife Department manages fishing in state waters.

There are 17 tribes just in the Puget Sound region with rights to half the catch, and several more once you get to the Columbia River.

Salmon are also dramatically affected by water levels and dams, which are run by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide electricity for the Bonneville Power Administration — except of course when they're run by the city of Seattle or another agency altogether.

And salmon need cold, clear, flowing streams to survive.

That's why state forest managers and the U.S. Forest Service in the past few decades have had to change logging practices — and why forest road crews and state and federal transportation agencies are under pressure to widen culverts.

And that's not to mention international negotiations with Canada.

Obama's comments opened his administration to easy criticism.

"Streamlining is fine," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice. "But stream protection is what we really need."

Fishing groups cheered the mention of salmon — then used the opportunity to urge the president to tackle "the real source of government inefficiency: politics trumping science."

It's clear what Obama was really trying to say: "He used the way salmon are overseen by the government as an example of how jurisdictions can overlap," said Kenneth Baer, head of communications for White House Office of Management and Budget.

Even so, no one at this point expects a wholesale reorganization of salmon-agency jurisdiction.

David Montgomery, for one, thinks that's probably good.

"It makes for a better joke than it does an idea," said the University of Washington professor and MacArthur Award recipient, who explored the complexities of saving salmon in his award-winning 2003 book "King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon."

"It really does sound silly that we have all these different jurisdictions, but the basic problem is salmon don't stay put," he said.

Combining salmon management into fewer agencies wouldn't change the fact that on their journey from gravelly riverbeds to the ocean and back, the fish are affected by everything from climate to logging to housing development, roads, fishing and pollution.

"That still requires different science and expertise and policies that are hard to make line up in ways that don't undercut each other," he said. "But none of that means fewer people."