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Wonkbook: Obama’s evolution doesn’t necessarily change the law or the election. But it matters.

By Ezra Klein,

For the President of the United States to endorse gay marriage is certainly, as Vice President Joe Biden would say, a big you-know-what deal. But what's actually changed this morning?

Pete Souza

AP

President Obama declared his support for gay marriage in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC’s Good Morning America May 9.

In Slate, Emily Bazelon argues that President Obama's position was actually trailing his administration's legal strategy. They had long ago made the unusual choice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. That is to say, they had stopped defending a law that pits the federal government against states that choose to to allow same-sex marriage. This largely predicted Obama's evolution on the underlying policy issue -- he personally supports gay marriage, but thinks that the actual decisions should be left up to the states.

Then, of course, there's the political fallout. This is unpredictable, of course. And my guess is that it probably hurts Obama a bit more than it helps him. But overall, I think Jonathan Bernstein is right that it's largely being overhyped by both sides.

"Yes," he writes, "some marriage-equality advocates had talked about withholding support unless the president 'evolved.' But realistically, there was no way that political activists — people accustomed to the normal give-and-take of politics — were not going to appreciate the wide gulf between Obama and Mitt Romney on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues." Similarly, "it’s highly unlikely that anyone who, otherwise was fine voting for Obama despite disagreeing with him on ending 'don’t ask don’t tell' and each of the other measures he has supported and in many cases has enacted, would draw the line here."

"And what of everyone else?" Asks Bernstein. "The millions of Americans, most likely a large majority, who don’t really care very much? They’re still not going to care very much."

But there are many Americans for whom this will matter quite a lot. Many of them are young Americans who perhaps have only recently realized that they're gay, and who live in places, or with families, they know will have trouble accepting that fact. To them, the president's words are a signal that they can look forward to a future in which they will be accepted, and in which they can live in a way that makes them happy. His words are proof that it gets better. And that's a big deal.

Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. Romney: Obama +1.3%; 7-day change: Obama -1.8%

RCP Obama approval: 47.3%; 7-day change: Obama -.3%.

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Top stories

1) The polling on gay marriage has flipped. According to surveys included in the PollingReport.com database, an average of 50 percent of American adults support same-sex marriage rights while 45 percent oppose it, based on an average of nine surveys conducted in the past year. This is a reversal from earlier periods: support for same-sex marriage has been increasing, and opposition to it has been decreasing, at a relatively steady rate of perhaps two or three percentage points a year since 2004...In addition, there is no longer evidence of an “enthusiasm gap” with respect to same-sex marriage: an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in March found that 32 percent of Americans said they strongly favored same-sex marriage, while 31 percent strongly opposed it. Nate Silver in the New York Times.

2) The president's personal position is catching up with his administration's legal strategy. Obama’s Justice Department withdrew more than a year ago from defending the Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage as 'a legal union between one man and one woman.' Attorney General Eric Holder started backing away from DOMA in suits brought by same-sex couples in Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The idea in these cases is that in states that recognize same-sex marriage, the federal government should follow state law and stop denying the economic benefits of marriage—estate tax deductions, Social Security benefits, pensions, and the like—to married gay couples....As Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer points out, Obama caught up to his administration’s legal position today without going beyond it. He said 'at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,' and he also said he thinks the states should decide the question of legalization for themselves. Emily Bazelon in Slate.

3) The Bundesbank may accept higher inflation. "The Bundesbank, the most hawkish of central banks, has signalled it would accept higher inflation in Germany as part of an economic rebalancing in the eurozone that would boost the international competitiveness of countries worst-hit by the region’s debt crisis. A future German inflation rate above the eurozone average could be part of a natural adjustment process as crisis-hit countries pulled themselves out of recession, the Bundesbank argued in evidence to German parliamentarians submitted on Wednesday...The Bundesbank has for some time seen European Central Bank policy as too loose for Germany. The willingness to contemplate higher domestic inflation in public comments points to a new-found flexibility in German thinking...Despite the Bundesbank’s conciliatory stance on inflation, German policy makers have been among the toughest in insisting that Greece sticks to its agreed reform programme underpinning its bailout in the aftermath of Sunday’s Greek election." Ralph Atkins in The Financial Times.

4) Banks are throwing their weight behind Obama's Fed nominees. "President Barack Obama's two nominees to the Federal Reserve Board have received support from the financial-services industry, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Sen. David Vitter (R., La.) has effectively blocked Senate confirmation of the nominees, Harvard University economics professor Jeremy Stein and former private-equity executive Jerome Powell. Wall Street firms have been quietly pressing Mr. Vitter to drop his objections, an aide to the senator said. Senate leaders aren't expected to bring the nominees to the floor for debate, a potentially lengthy process unlikely to be welcomed by either party in an election year. The Senate generally confirms nominees through the faster process of unanimous consent. Unless Mr. Vitter changes his mind, the two Fed nominations are unlikely to advance." Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

5) The House will vote today on a plan to cut health-care spending rather than defense. "The House is expected to vote Thursday on a Republican plan that would spare the Pentagon from the deep across-the-board spending cuts envisioned as part of last summer’s debt-ceiling agreement, reviving what has been an emotional debate in Washington about the best ways to reduce the federal budget deficit. With a series of troubling end-of-year deadlines looming, Republicans are proposing to replace the first round of $110 billion in reductions, which are set to take effect in January. The cuts are a first-year down payment on $1.2 trillion in reductions spread over 10 years, which were to be split evenly between the military and domestic programs. To forestall the defense hit, the GOP proposal would cut funding for food stamps, eliminate key pieces of the federal health-care law and slash funding designed to help the government better monitor the financial sector." Rosalind Helderman in The Washington Post.

@MichaelGrabell: The Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act is probably the hottest name for a bill I've ever seen.

@ChadPergram: Ryan on bill to change sequester: The supercmte didn't do its job. We're doing what the supercmte was supposed to do: prioritize spending.

6) The FDIC will outline its plan to take down failing banks. "When the next crisis brings a major financial firm to its knees, U.S. regulators will seize the parent company but allow its units around the globe to keep operating while the mess is cleaned up, according to a planned announcement Thursday from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The equity stakeholders of the large bank or other financial firm will be wiped out, and bondholders will face losses as their holdings are swapped for equity in a new entity, as a part of the FDIC's plan. Nearly four years after the massive government bailouts of the financial crisis, regulators are looking to chip away at the tacit understanding that the government will step in to save top financial institutions seen as vital to the economy or banking system. As part of that effort, acting FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg will outline the agency's strategy in a speech in Chicago Thursday, his first public remarks on the dismantlement plans for banks." Victoria McGrane in The Wall Street Journal.

7) The CFPB will propose tighter mortgage lending regulations. "The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it planned to propose tighter mortgage lending regulations that would limit the ability of banks and mortgage brokers to charge certain transaction fees, possibly ending one of the most abusive costs levied on consumers when they buy a house. Bureau officials said that the rules, which were released Wednesday ahead of formal introduction this summer, would ban mortgage companies from charging origination fees that vary with the amount of the loan...The consumer bureau also said it would require that lenders offer a reduced interest rate when a consumer opted to pay upfront discount points and would require lenders to offer a loan option without points. During the financial crisis, some lenders charged the points without lowering the interest rate. Changing that rule, the bureau believes, will make it easier for consumers to weigh offers from multiple lenders." Edward Wyatt in The New York Times.

Top op-eds

1) KLEIN: Polarization is largely attributable to Republicans. "Look no further than Senator Richard Lugar’s concession statement Tuesday night, which showed, in its wan effort to make the two parties sound equivalently extreme, just how much further the Republican Party has gone...Whether the Republican Party is 'the problem' is a subjective judgment. Perhaps you loathe taxes and, in the face of all available evidence, consider global warming a hoax. In that case, the Republican Party is doing exactly what it should be doing. But there is simply no denying that the Republican Party has gone much further right than the Democratic Party has gone left, and that, from policy pledges to primary challenges, it has done much more to discourage its members from compromising than the Democratic Party has. So if you think polarization is the main problem in Washington today, then Mann and Ornstein are right: Your beef is largely with the Republicans." Ezra Klein in Bloomberg.

2) HANSEN: If tar sands drilling continues it's game over for the climate. "Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves 'regardless of what we do.' If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate. Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control...Civilization would be at risk." James Hansen in The New York Times.

3) YGLESIAS: It shouldn't be so hard for foreign visitors to come to the U.S. "For a depressed economy, exports function as a magic elixir. Demand--and with it jobs--appears from outside, generating new income that cycles through the economy, This is why President Obama, as part of his recovery strategy, has set a goal of doubling exports over five years. Talk of exports normally conjures up images of factories and container ships, but many of America’s exports are services. The nation’s biggest service export is in some sense not an export at all--it’s travel and tourism, an industry begging for respect on National Travel and Tourism Week...As far as the national balance sheet goes, tourism functions exactly like an export. Foreigners come here and spend money, leaving extra funds in American hands, with which we can purchase oil and Chinese toys. It’s an export realm in which the United States has very strong fundamentals." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

4) SALMON: Principal reductions can benefit everybody. "Principal reduction in mortgage modifications has to become the rule rather than the exception. The reason the government’s efforts to fix the mortgage market have failed so miserably is that those efforts have centered on interest payments, not the total amount owed. A sluggish housing market will act as an economic drag for as long as millions of homeowners owe vastly more than their house is worth. If done right, these policies can be implemented in a positive-sum way, making everybody -- including the banks doing the write-downs -- better off. For instance, the government could impose higher capital standards on banks that insist on marking underwater defaulted mortgages at par, and give the banks an incentive to write down principal that way, while making the whole banking system safer at the same time...If we don’t want the United States to continue to suffocate under the weight of far too much debt, we have to start making serious efforts to bring our debt burden down." Felix Salmon in Reuters.

5) WILL: The medical device tax will mean fewer life-extending inventions. "Congress, ravenous for revenue to fund Obamacare, included in the legislation a 2.3 percent tax on gross revenue -- which generally amounts to about a 15 percent tax on most manufacturers’ profits -- from U.S. sales of medical devices beginning in 2013. This will be piled on top of the 35 percent federal corporate tax, and state and local taxes. The 2.3 percent tax will be a $20 billion blow to an industry that employs more than 400,000, and $20 billion is almost double the industry’s annual investment in research and development. An axiom of scarcity is understood by people not warped by working for the federal government, which can print money when it wearies of borrowing it. The axiom is: A unit of something -- time, energy, money -- spent on this cannot be spent on that. So the 2.3 percent tax, unless repealed, will mean not only fewer jobs but also fewer pain-reducing and life-extending inventions...which have reduced health-care costs." George Will in The Washington Post.

Top long reads

Marcus Walker examines the failings of Europe's bailout of Greece: "Two years after Europe bailed Greece out to protect the euro, the rescue has become a debacle that threatens to unravel the common currency. After Greece's May 6 elections left pro-bailout parties too weakened to govern the country, more elections are likely in June, with no guarantee a stable government will emerge. By next month, Athens must identify €11.5 billion, or $15 billion, in fresh spending cuts or face suspension of the international loans it needs to pay pensions and run schools. If it doesn't get the money, it would eventually have to print its own. Greece's growing turmoil is the culmination of a radical austerity experiment and botched economic overhaul that have pushed the nation to the brink of social and political breakdown. The story of the ill-fated bailout suggests that forcing deep austerity on individual member states won't save the euro and may worsen its crisis."

Susan Headden on the search for better standardized tests: "Critics of testing habitually protest its cost, implying that the millions spent on assessment would be better put toward smaller class sizes, expanded library hours, or the restoration of art and gym. But despite testing’s huge and growing role in education, the U.S. now devotes less than a quarter of a percent of per-pupil spending to assessments. That’s less than the cost of buying each of America’s students a new textbook. The American education system is at a major crossroads, one that few Americans are aware of. The new assessments--the product of a huge investment of time, knowledge, and talent--are only two years away from being put in place, and they’re desperately needed. It’s too early to know whether they will work as advertised, and even if they do, the danger is that states will quickly revert to their old habits of doing assessment on the cheap. But if we do this right, we could finally provide educators like Caryn Voskuil with one of the tools they need most: a test worth teaching to."

Robert Rothman on the Common Core and its effect on innovation: "In some ways, the American elementary and secondary education system is undergoing a transition similar to what the American rail system underwent around the time of the Civil War. For decades, each state has set its own expectations for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. These standards might reflect the tradition of local control of education, but they have made it difficult for students to move from state to state; students transferring from fourth grade in, say, Indiana, might face a different set of expectations when they arrive in fifth grade in Illinois. And, by fragmenting the educational marketplace, these varied standards have impeded the kinds of innovations that might otherwise come with economies of scale--in testing, textbooks, and teacher education."

British post-punk interlude: Django Django plays "Default" live on Later with Jools Holland.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: The Fed approved Chinese banks; primary care doctors will be getting more for Medicaid patients; the F.T.C. and the White House want online privacy legislation; it's a good time to be a solar installer; and a super-medley of songs from Super Mario Bros. 3.

Economy

Europe may be open to relaxing Greece's payment deadlines. "As another day passed with Greece no closer to a working government, European officials suggested Wednesday that they had a new tool in their mission to keep the shared euro currency with all its partners: time. A ticking watch may be the most powerful bargaining chip Europe has against the possibility that anti-bailout voices in Greece will push it off the euro. Every day that ends without new European bailout money for Greece to pay its bills heightens the pressure on its leaders to comply with the austerity measures that come as a condition of the $171 billion rescue package. But German officials signaled Wednesday that they may be willing to relax some of the nation’s payment deadlines if a pro-bailout government comes to power...They may even be willing to consider reducing the interest payments on Greece’s emergency loans, sweetening the deal without abandoning any of the fundamental overhauls they say Greece needs to get its economy on track." Michael Birnbaum in The Washington Post.

@TonyFratto: I used to believe Greece couldn't exit the euro. Now I think it's only a matter of timing.

@esoltas: Likelihood of Eurozone exit soars on @Intrade -- 69% by yearend 2014, 54% by 2013, 35% by 2012. http://pic.twitter.com/ES1kbQqF

Fannie Mae won't need additional taxpayer aid for the first time since the bailout. "Fannie Mae, the government-backed mortgage financier, said on Wednesday that it made a profit in the first quarter and that it did not need additional bailout money -- a first since the federal government took it over in fall 2008. A slowdown in the decline of home prices and in the number of homes entering serious delinquency allowed the company to eke out a profit after paying its dividend to the Treasury. Fannie Mae also said losses on its portfolio of home mortgages had probably peaked and that it expected better profits in the future, another sign that the worst might be over for the battered American housing market. The company reported quarterly net income of $2.7 billion, up from a $6.5 billion loss in the first quarter of 2011. Fannie has received about $116 billion from the Treasury over the last three and a half years and paid back about $23 billion in dividends." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Export-Import Bank reauthorization is headed towards the Senate. "Ending months of haggling, the House voted Wednesday to extend the Export Import Bank’s charter through September 2014 and raise its loan exposure cap to $140 billion -- a 40 percent increase. The bill must still pass the Senate but the lopsided 330-93 House margin makes it harder for conservatives to obstruct. Republicans split 147-93 for the measure, and Democrats, whose party controls the Senate, were unanimous in their support...Wednesday’s vote caps a remarkable odyssey is which all of modern Washington’s politics seemed to descend with a thud on the once obscure enclave of overseas financing for U.S. manufacturers. Pushed to the brink, the bank is only weeks away now from seeing its charter expire at the end of May, by which point it will have also exhausted its $100 billion cap and be unable to take on further transactions in the pipeline." David Rogers in Politico.

@TPCarney: 93 GOP votes against the Export-Import Bank, as compared to 50 Nays in 2002: Evolution!


@Amy_NJ: Overheard in a Capitol elevator: "Another day in the United States Senate. I couldn't be more excited."

The Fed approved the U.S. expansion plans of Chinese state banks. "Giant banks owned by the Chinese government are coming to the U.S. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday approved plans by three state-backed Chinese banks to expand in the U.S., including the first acquisition of a U.S. retail-banking network by a state-owned Chinese lender. The approval is a landmark step for U.S. banking regulators. Chinese banks long have sought access to the U.S. banking system in order to provide financing to Chinese companies operating overseas and to do business with foreign investors looking for exposure to the Chinese currency, the yuan. But they have been stymied in previous attempts by assorted delays and rejections...The Federal Reserve effectively is giving its seal of approval to China's bank-regulatory system, a big step for U.S. regulators given their past concerns about the adequacy of Chinese supervision of banks." Jon Hilsenrath, Robin Sidel, and Lingling Wei in The Wall Street Journal.

Compilation interlude: People say "you just don't get it, do you?" a lot in films.

Health Care

A new regulation will boost Medicaid payments for primary care doctors. "Primary care doctors could get a pay raise next year for treating Medicaid patients, under a rule announced by the Obama administration Wednesday. The proposed regulation implements a two-year pay increase included in the 2010 health-care law. The increase, effective in 2013 and 2014, brings primary care fees for Medicaid, which covers indigent patients, in line with those for Medicare, which insures the elderly and some disabled patients. Although Medicaid is jointly funded by states and the federal government, the pay boost would be covered entirely with federal dollars totaling more than $11 billion over the two years it would be in effect...Administration officials also noted that the law has already increased Medicare payments to primary care doctors -- awarding more than 150,000 physicians almost $560 million in additional compensation in 2011." N.C. Aizenman in The Washington Post.

Some lawmakers want a permanent 'doc fix.' "Reps. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) and Joe Heck (R-Nev.) introduced a bill Wednesday to reform how Medicare pays healthcare providers and to avoid a cut to reimbursement rates on Jan. 1. The bipartisan measure would repeal Medicare's current reimbursement formula and replace it with a new system of payment models. It would also give doctors small boosts in payment rates for four years. Money for the changes would coming from war savings from troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan -- a move Republicans have opposed in the past as a 'Ponzi scheme.'...The proposal instructs the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to create new payment model options aimed at giving providers more flexibility based on specialty, region or type of practice. Doctors who treat Medicare patients are scheduled to see a 30 percent cut to their reimbursements on Jan. 1, 2013, if Congress does not step in." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Domestic Policy

The FTC and the White House are urging Congress to pass online privacy legislation. "The Obama administration and the nation’s chief privacy regulator pressed Congress on Wednesday to enact online privacy legislation...Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces limited Internet privacy laws, and Cameron F. Kerry, general counsel for the Commerce Department, said at a hearing of the Senate commerce committee that writing new laws and giving the F.T.C. the power to enforce them with civil penalties would promote Internet commerce by increasing the trust that Americans put in online transactions. Currently, the F.T.C. monitors whether Internet companies that have privacy policies keep their promises to consumers about when and where they will share personal information. But the commission lacks the authority to assess penalties for most transgressions, and it has little authority over how companies operate when they have no written privacy rules." Edward Wyatt in The New York Times.

Game music interlude: Meine Meinung play a super-medley of songs from the Super Mario Bros. 3 soundtrack.

Energy

Consumer resistance to 'smart meters' is slowing a grid upgrade. "A growing consumer backlash against new wireless digital technology for measuring power usage is slowing U.S. utilities’ $29 billion effort to upgrade their networks. States including California, Maine and Vermont have responded to customer concerns about higher bills and safety by offering them the option of keeping their conventional devices for an extra charge. The fee may discourage drop-outs from the 'smart-meter' program, in which household usage data is transmitted over radio waves to local utilities such as PG&E Corp. (PCG), Central Maine Power Co. and Central Vermont Public Service Corp. (CV), which can use the information to charge higher rates during times of peak demand...The meters are key to the 'smart grid' being rolled out nationwide to increase delivery flexibility. Investment by utilities in the new grid has totaled $15.4 billion through the first quarter of 2012 and is projected to increase by another $13.4 billion through 2015." Mark Chediak in Bloomberg.

Solar installers are thriving. "Jay Nuzzi, a New Jersey state trooper, had put off installing solar panels on his home here for years, deterred by the $70,000 it could cost. Then on a trip to Home Depot, he stumbled across a booth for Roof Diagnostics, which offered him a solar system at a price he couldn’t refuse: free. Mr. Nuzzi had to sign a 20-year contract to buy electricity generated by the roof panels, which he would not own. But the rates were well below what he was paying to the local utility...Similar deals are being struck with tens of thousands of homeowners and businesses across the country. Installers, often working through big-box chains like Home Depot or Lowe’s, are taking advantage of hefty tax breaks, creative financing techniques and a glut of cheap, Chinese-made panels to make solar power accessible to the mass market for the first time. The number of residential and commercial installations more than doubled over the last two years to 213,957, according to Greentech Media, a research firm." Diane Cardwell in The New York Times.

@AndrewRestuccia: Dingell quotes from "Oliver Twist" at hearing on electric reliability #youdontseethateveryday

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.


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