Wonkbook: ‘President Obama believes there must be accountability’

August 27, 2013

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people."

That was Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday. His whole press conference sounded like that. As my Post colleague Max Fisher wrote, it was hard to find "a single sentence" in Kerry's remarks "that did not sound like a direct case for imminent U.S. military action against Syria."

"Military action" doesn't mean war, of course. The Obama administration appears to be leaning towards offshore missile strikes, possibly as part of a NATO-led campaign. Airstrikes are possible, too, but Syria's been purchasing high-tech antiaircraft defenses from Russia for years. Actual airstrikes sharply raise the likelihood of U.S. casualties.

That's not something the public wants. A Reuters/Ipsos online poll found that only 9 percent of Americans want to see the Obama administration intervene militarily in Syria. When asked whether the United States should intervene in the event that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against civilians, only 25 percent said "yes."

That could change, of course, if the media begin devoting more coverage to the atrocities and the Obama administration and key Republicans begin publicly making the case for intervention. But given that the public's initial reaction is sharply against, any change in the numbers would be fragile -- which is always a dangerous way to begin a military intervention. Particularly one that might quickly spin out of control.

"Syria has one of the biggest armies in the region," says Heather Hurlburt, director of the National Security Network. "It has a lot of very expensive antiaircraft material from Russia. It won’t be like Iraq or Libya." And if nothing else, Assad's use of chemical weapons, given President Obama's "red line" rhetoric, suggests he'll use anything he's got to retain power.

Moreover, it's not just Assad. "What’s missing from the headlines is that there are many different external actors with interests in the outcome in Syria that are funneling money and funneling resources," says Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. Iran is supporting the regime, in part through Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supporting the rebels.

If there's a "good" outcome here, it's the one mentioned by Slate's Fred Kaplan: A bombing campaign convinces Assad he can't win outright and he instead comes to the table for a negotiated settlement. That's not necessarily a likely outcome, but Kerry's news conference on Monday suggests the Obama administration has concluded a good outcome is even less likely if it does nothing.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 45, 40, and 14. Those are, respectively, the number of states that have adopted the Common Core math and language-arts standards, the number that are linking teacher reviews to test scores, and the number that have changed laws to expand charter schooling. This is a boom time for education reformers. 

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: Everything you need to know about baby pandas, in one chart.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) here comes the debt ceiling; (2) Stanley Fischer, Fed chair candidate?; (3) conservatives face huge, expensive internal spat over Obamacare; (4) Dylan Matthews will school you in education policy; and (5) the unknown sides of the March on Washington.

1. Top story: The debt ceiling is not here to play trick-or-treat

U.S. must raise debt limit by mid-October. "The announcement, which comes at the early end of what many in Washington were anticipating, creates a new crisis point in the nation’s protracted fight over the size and role of government.... The Obama administration on Monday did not indicate the date that such a default might occur. Rather, it said that it expects to have only $50 billion in cash on hand in mid-October, with no ability to borrow more." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

@jonathanweisman: Mid-Oct debt ceiling deadline means solution must be found without benefit of a congressional recess to lure members to a deal. #jetfumes

How long would that money last? "Protecting the full faith and credit of the United States is the responsibility of Congress, because only Congress can extend the nation's borrowing authority," Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew wrote in a letter to Mr. Boehner on Monday. "Failure to meet that responsibility would cause irreparable harm to the American economy." Mr. Lew told Congress that after mid-October, the government would only have $50 billion in cash, a sum that could be depleted quickly. That money probably wouldn't last long, said Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank founded by Democratic and Republican lawmakers calling for bipartisan solutions. "The first of November is a nasty day," he said. "You have a lot of money going out the first of November." Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

@Goldfarb: It'd take a cruel act of Congress to extend debt limit / gov't funding to Thanksgiving or New Year's. But I'm mentally prepped.

The Jedi Council's debt-ceiling plan. "Every week on Representative Steve Scalise’s calendar, there’s a meeting with an unusual name: “Jedi Council.” Scalise, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), is the newest member of a group of House Republicans who are helping to craft the GOP’s strategy on budget fights...The group formed a plan to “re-sequence” the budget fights to give the GOP more leverage. The idea was to punt on the debt ceiling for a while, let the automatic sequester cuts go into effect, pass the GOP’s budget, and then gear up for a big debt-ceiling brawl in the summer." Jonathan Strong in the National Review.

@justinwolfers: If you were a Fed governor & saw debt ceiling lunacy looming in October, would you really want a September taper?

WEISENTHAL: The debt ceiling, not the Fed's taper, is the bigger economic threat. "[U]nlike with the normal government shutdown (which would be very damaging to the GOP politically) the party feels the threat is serious enough that The White House would have to blink, preventing an outcome that would make the party look bad. It could all get nasty, and nobody is talking much about it. On Wall Street it's getting very little discussion in most of the notes we read. Joe Weisenthal in Business Insider.

Music recommendations interlude: The Silver Seas, "Catch Yer Own Train," 2010.

Top opinion

GATES AND BOREN: Public colleges boost economic growth. "Many of the nation's most prominent public universities — including the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia — now receive less than 15% of their operating budgets from the state.... Programs for the elderly now consume more than half of all federal spending and are politically untouchable. But there is no similar resistance to cutting support for higher education. To be blunt, we are sacrificing our young people's futures — and our future economic growth — by focusing on protecting our generation's benefits. That is a formula for national decline." Robert M. Gates and David L. Boren in The Wall Street Journal.

LURIE: The astonishing decline of homelessness in America. "[T]he stimulus package of 2009 created a new $1.5 billion dollar program, the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. This furthered what the National Alliance called “ground-breaking work at the federal level…to improve the homelessness system by adopting evidence-based, cost effective interventions.” The program is thought to have aided 700,000 at-risk or homeless people in its first year alone, “preventing a significant increase in homelessness.” Since then, the Obama administration also quietly announced in 2010 a 10-year federal plan to end homelessness. This is all to say that the control of homelessness, in spite of countervailing forces, can be traced directly to Washington—a fact openly admitted by independent organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness." Stephen Lurie in The Atlantic.

KLEIN: Health care and education are messed up for the same reason. "Health care and education pose the same basic threat to the economy: How do you keep costs down for a product when consumers can’t say “no”? Saying “no,” after all, is how consumers typically restrain costs. If Sony wants to charge you too much for a television, you can walk out. You might want a television, but you don’t actually need one. That gives you the upper hand. When push comes to shove, producers need to meet the demands of consumers. But you can’t walk out on medical care for your spouse or education for your child. In the case of medical care, your spouse might die." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

ORSZAG: Are hospitals already saving money for Medicare? "The first, a technical paper from the Congressional Budget Office, parsed the decline in cost growth per beneficiary from 7.1 percent a year from 2000 to 2005 to 3.8 percent from 2007 to 2010...[T]hey examined whether growth in price or quantity of services had fallen, and found that less than a 10th of the change could be attributed to payment rates. Almost all of the change, then, was due to slower growth in the quantity of Medicare services.... David Cutler and Ariel Dora Stern of Harvard University, Jonathan Skinner of Dartmouth College, and David Wennberg of the Geisel School of Medicine examined why Medicare spending varies so much across regions of the U.S. They found that patient demand explains little. Instead, it appears to be related to differences from place to place in the ways doctors practice medicine." Peter Orszag in Bloomberg.

COCHRANE: The danger of an all-powerful Fed. "This is not traditional regulation—stable, predictable rules that financial institutions live by to reduce the chance and severity of financial crises. It is active, discretionary micromanagement of the whole financial system.... Consider the idea that low interest rates spark asset-price "bubbles." Standard economics denies this connection; the level of interest rates and risk premiums are separate phenomena. Historically, risk premiums have been high in recessions, when interest rates have been low." John H. Cochrane in The Wall Street Journal.

PONNURU: Will Obama make the Fed even worse? "For Summers, the only effect of looser money would be to encourage a few marginal investments by lowering interest rates. It is, again, too narrow a view of what the Fed can do. The direct effects of a change in interest rates are less important than what the Fed signals about the future path of spending levels. If markets have confidence that the Fed is learning from its failures, both consumption and investment should start rising." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

BERNSTEIN: Wage stagnation and market outcomes. "[L]et me introduce some terminology. The primary distribution is the income, wage and wealth status of households generated by market outcomes, before taxes and all kinds of other policies kick in to help those on the short end of those outcomes (i.e., transfer policies, like food stamps or unemployment insurance). The secondary distribution is the income distribution after taxes and transfers. Of course, policy plays a role in market outcomes. The primary distribution is not some pristine, meritocratic outcome devoid of political or policy influence.... Progressive economic policy must aim to improve the primary distribution, and the pursuit of full employment labor markets is a great place to start." Jared Bernstein in The New York Times.

BROOKS: The ideas behind the march. "The stereotype of the day held that a large gathering of determined black marchers would inevitably turn violent and unruly. But the whole point of this philosophy is that you defeat your opponents with superior self-discipline.... As befitting what was largely a religious movement, the idea was not only to change society but to work an inner transformation. They clung to this in a way that is humbling for the rest of us, who stumble and fall in far easier circumstances." David Brooks in The New York Times.

Photography interlude: School's out forever, with Tribune journalist Brian Cassella.

2. Stanley Fischer for Fed chair?

The most qualified candidate for Fed chair isn’t Summers or Yellen. It’s this guy. "[I]f the choice was being made by the central bankers and academic economists who attended a closely-watched conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo. over the weekend, there would be another name very much in the mix—and quite possibly the front-runner. His name is Stanley Fischer...The short version: He is an outstanding academic economist; he was the No. 2 official at the IMF; and he did a virtuoso job leading the Bank of Israel until earlier this year, making him the central banker to one of the nation’s closest allies. Whether you’re looking for academic brilliance, crisis management or central banking experience, Fischer’s resume is sterling." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Poll: Economists anticipate Fed will pull back in fourth quarter. "Nearly 40 percent of economists polled in a new industry survey believe the Federal Reserve will not begin to scale back its multibillion-dollar stimulus program until the fourth quarter, despite widespread speculation that the central bank will pull back sooner. The survey, released Monday by the National Association of Business Economists, polled 220 of its members. Only 10 percent anticipated that the Fed would decide to begin tapering its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases at its upcoming policy meeting in September policy meeting. About 27 percent did not believe it would start until the first quarter of 2014." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Watch: This video explains how to read the jobs dataDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Set back by the recession, and shut out of the rebound. "[A] substantial number of older workers who lost jobs — even those lucky enough to be re-employed — are still suffering. Two-thirds in that age group who found work again are making less than they did in their previous job; their median salary loss is 18 percent compared with a 6.7 percent drop for 20- to 24-year-olds. The re-employment rate for 55- to 64-year-olds is 47 percent and 24 percent for those over 65, compared with 62 percent for 20- to 54-year-olds. And finding another job takes far longer: 46 weeks for boomers, compared with 20 weeks for 16- to 24-year-olds." Michael Winerip in The New York Times.

Durable-goods orders drop 7.3 percent in July. "Outside of the volatile transportation category, durable-goods orders were still relatively weak for the month, declining 0.6%, the Commerce Department said Monday...The weaker outlook for business spending led several economists to trim their forecasts for economic growth in the current quarter. Morgan Stanley economists cut their third-quarter growth estimate to an annual rate of 2.3% from 2.7%. Macroeconomic Advisers lowered its third-quarter projection by 0.2 percentage point to a 1.8% rate." Sarah Portlock and Eric Morath in The Wall Street Journal.

The return of the McMansion. "The average size of a new home now exceeds the lofty levels reached during the housing boom, the latest indication that the new-home market is catering more to older, more affluent buyers and less to younger and first-time buyers...Data released by the Census Bureau this month confirmed the trend and showed that the average size of a new home was a record 2,642 square feet in the second quarter, eclipsing the record of 2,561 square feet set in the first quarter of 2009." Kris Hudson in The Wall Street Journal.

How the goal of 'maximizing shareholder value' changed America. "It used to be a given that the interests of corporations and communities such as Endicott were closely aligned. But no more. Across the United States, as companies continue posting record profits, workers face high unemployment and stagnant wages...Together with new competition overseas, the pressure to respond to the short-term demands of Wall Street has paved the way for an economy in which companies are increasingly disconnected from the state of the nation, laying off workers in huge waves, keeping average wages low and threatening to move operations abroad in the face of regulations and taxes." Jia Lynn Yang in The Washington Post.

Adorable animals, Wonkblog style interlude: Everything you need to know about baby pandas, in one chart.

3. The far right is furious the GOP won't defund Obamacare

The White House says Obamacare begins on Oct. 1. Not really. "As I spent time reporting my most recent article – checking in with state marketplaces — it became increasingly clear that their big day isn’t necessarily Oct. 1. Instead, it’s Jan. 1, the day that the individual mandate takes effect and any plans purchased on the marketplace actually kick in. The space between October and December is viewed, by many standing up the health care law, as as soft launch: the time to make their new Web sites live, sort out the kinks and get the site in prime condition for the beginning of 2014." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Paul, Lee, Cruz to headline Obamacare defunding rally. "Republican senators Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) will headline the “Exempt America Tour” rally on the West Lawn as a culmination of a five-day tour of six states. The tour, which will kick off in Kentucky on Tuesday, is sponsored by seven tea party groups, including Tea Party Patriots and For America." Ruth Tam in The Washington Post.

Tea Party to rally against ‘BoehnerCare’ over fight to defund healthcare law. "Tea Party activists are planning a rally outside Speaker John Boehner’s (R) Ohio office on Tuesday, vowing they will rebrand President Obama’s healthcare reform law “BoehnerCare" if he does not get behind a conservative effort to defund the legislation. “If he funds it, he will own it,” said Janet Porter, president of Faith2Action, one of the groups scheduled to participate in the rally, according to The Washington Times." Lara Seligman in The Hill.

Conservative group targets Sen. Flake over Obamacare funding. "The Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that typically backs conservative challengers in primaries, is launching another radio ad focused on defunding ObamaCare, this time targeting Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). The ad notes Flake's refusal to sign a letter, circulated by conservative lawmakers, pledging to vote against any budget that includes funding for the healthcare law — essentially a threat to shut down the government if the law isn't defunded." Alexandra Jaffe in The Hill.

Awesome places interlude: Dead Horse Bay.

4. Dylan Matthews will school you in education policy

Introducing ‘The Tuition is Too Damn High.’ "My mom graduated from college in 1975. Her senior year at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the state’s flagship campus, cost $322 (around $1,400 today), financed by generous state subsidies. Not only did she graduate with no debt, but she managed to pay her way through college by working part-time. I also worked part-time in college (writing Wonkbook!) but there was no way that was going to pay my tuition. In total, my senior year of college in 2011-2012 cost $36,305 in tuition, or $52,652 including room and board. Sure, I chose a more expensive school than my mom did. But it wasn’t just that. As parents of high schoolers know, college tuition has been skyrocketing in the past few decades." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Biggest changes in decade greet students. "Most states are implementing tougher math and reading standards known as Common Core, while teacher evaluations increasingly are linked to student test scores or other measures of achievement. Meantime, traditional public schools face unprecedented competition from charter and private schools...Meantime, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core math and language-arts standards, which lay out what students should know at each grade level. More than 40 states have agreed to link teacher evaluations to test scores or other student-achievement measures, and four plan to rescind the licenses of some teachers who fail to make the grade. Moreover, 14 states have passed laws allowing more charter schools and at least eight adopted or expanded voucher programs that let students use tax money for private schools. The number of charter schools grew to 5,997 last school year from 2,559 in the 2002-2003 year." Stephanie Banchero and Arian Campo-Flores in The Wall Street Journal.

More adorable animals interlude: The dubstep cat.

5. The unknown sides of the March on Washington

Civil-rights leader Rustin gets his due 50 years later. "This year, the U.S. also is belatedly recognizing Mr. Rustin, a black activist at a time when blacks were denied basic rights, a pacifist when a nation fighting a world war scorned pacifism and a gay man when being gay meant risking jail and public humiliation. "He is one of the three or four most-important civil-rights leaders in history, and he's virtually unknown," said historian William P. Jones." Michael M. Phillips in The Wall Street Journal.

In March on Washington, white activists were largely overlooked but strategically essential. "In the sweep of the day, the presence of the tens of thousands of white people joining the mass of African Americans was mostly a passing mention, but they were essential to the strategy behind the march. “The idea really was to say to those people in the middle, white folks in the middle, ‘You have to come and support this movement. You can’t sit on the fence anymore,’ ” remembers Rachelle Horowitz, who coordinated transportation for the March on Washington as an aide to lead organizer Bayard Rustin. To reach those “white folks in the middle,” March organizers had to ensure that their movement not be seen as solely a “Negro thing.”" Krissah Thompson in The Washington Post.

How the March on Washington shaped the Mall. "[A]nother character will also be showcased, a supporting player in the history of not only the civil rights movement but also of all public protest in the nation. It will make no speeches but will be clearly visible on television screens, peeking out under the soles of presidential feet...The March on Washington in 1963 “imposed a vision of what a perfect march was supposed to be,” says Lucy Barber, a Washington historian and author of “Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition.”" Monica Hesse in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

These maps show how Asia is taking over the oil marketsBrad Plumer.

Obama’s record on appointing women is much worse than Clinton’sEzra Klein.

The West is on the brink of a wild horse apocalypse. (No, really.) Brad Plumer.

Everything you need to know about baby pandas, in one chartSarah Kliff.

Health care and education are messed up for the same reasonEzra Klein.

The White House says Obamacare begins on Oct. 1. Not reallySarah Kliff.

This awesome video explains how to read the jobs dataDylan Matthews.

Introducing ‘The Tuition is Too Damn High.’ Dylan Matthews.

The most qualified candidate for Fed chair isn’t Summers or Yellen. It’s this guyNeil Irwin.

Et Cetera

In Obama's high-level appointments, the scales still tip towards menAnnie Lowrey in The New York Times.

NSA phone data collection is illegal, ACLU saysScott Shane in The New York Times.

Rep. Goodlatte didn't show up at an immigration rally in his districtRussell Berman in The Hill.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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