TIME Medicare

The Return of Mediscare

In Arkansas, Democrats dust off an old tactic in order to retain control of the U.S. Senate

Tom Cotton is your basic republican red-state fantasy candidate. He is 36 years old, a former Army captain who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law. He is a member of the House running for the U.S. Senate from Arkansas. His opponent is an unflashy Democratic moderate, Mark Pryor, who spent the first months of the campaign barraged by an estimated $2 million in Obamascare ads provided by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ super PAC. Not surprisingly, Cotton has been leading–and is one of the reasons the Republicans may retake the Senate in 2014. Or maybe not: the polls suddenly turned around in March, and Pryor is now narrowly ahead. What happened?

Meet Linda … who joins Harry and Louise, and dozens of other average Americans–some real, some conjured–in the long, sordid history of political ads designed to scare the bejeezus out of other average Americans over health care. Linda appears to be real. She’s from Little Rock. She’s been married to the same lucky fellow for 37 years, and they have two “great” kids. We know this because a black-and-white family photo is shown prominently at the beginning of the ad. Then we see Linda, who seems to be in her 50s, with tightly curled gray hair and glasses, sitting in her breakfast nook gazing at her Apple computer. Retirement is just around the corner, she says. “That’s why I was so concerned when I read”–and here she seems to be reading off her computer–“that Tom Cotton voted to turn Medicare into a voucher system” that would allow insurance companies to “increase rates, cut benefits and cost seniors thousands more each year.”

It’s a brilliant ad, classic Mediscare. The fact that Linda seems to be reading the horrific news about Cotton off her computer lends a subtle authority to the information. Is it accurate? Well, yes and no. Cotton and 218 of his colleagues in the House did indeed vote for the Paul Ryan budget, which would slash costs by moving to a privatized “premium support”–or voucher–system of health care delivery for senior citizens. Is that a bad idea? Probably not. In fact, a more generous version already exists in the form of Medicare Advantage, the private-sector Medicare alternative that seems to be going great guns in the Obamacare era: an estimated 30% of seniors have signed up, an increase of 38% in recent years. The brute force of competition (plus some federal subsidies that both parties want to diminish) has allowed increased benefits like gym memberships and free medication. The fact that many of these plans are based within systems where doctors are paid salaries makes it potentially more cost-effective than classic fee-for-service Medicare. It would be very valuable to have a serious conversation about this. Pryor is a fiscal conservative. He’s said that all programs (including Medicare, presumably) should be on the table. He could be part of the solution, rather than hiding behind traditional Democratic battlements.

Democrats will say, Oh, come on. It’s about time we started playing hardball again. The Republicans strolled into a tornado by voting–symbolically, since it never had a chance of passage–for the Ryan budget. The Koch brothers have spent gazillions putting sketchy Obamascare ads on the air, including one starring Jerry, an Arkansas truck driver who “lost” his health coverage because of Obamacare, although maybe he didn’t, because the Arkansas insurance commissioner put a two-year delay on that ruling and now Jerry is “confused” by all these newfangled government machinations. This was one of the less toxic Koch ads–and “Jerry” has been smoked by “Linda” in the court of public opinion.

Of course, next month there could be a killer Obamascare ad starring “Arnie,” an Arkansas druggist whose health care premiums have skyrocketed. And later we may get to know “Marge,” who survived breast cancer because Obamacare saved her health insurance. We could go back and forth, Obamascare vs. Mediscare, all the way until November. It’s happened before. It’s worked before. But is it what you really want this election to be about? Isn’t it precisely the sort of campaign that turns people off politics? Don’t we have more important things to talk about? “I think the Republicans will still win the House and Senate,” says Steve Schmidt, a GOP consultant. “But when you have no real governing agenda, it becomes very easy to get caught up in entitlement issues.”

That is true for Democrats as well. They are proud of their demographics, especially the favor bestowed on them by younger voters. But younger voters may decide they don’t like paying for an unreformed Medicare system as we baby boomers live on and on and on. Those who live by the anecdote can die by the anecdote.

TIME Health Care

Obamacare Disaster!

I just love it when I see neoconservatives pushing story angles like this one:

a new study from Express Scripts, the large pharmacy benefits-managing company, reveals something else that ought to depress those liberals throwing victory parties for the success of the misnamed Affordable Care Act: those signing up for ObamaCare appear to be older, sicker, and more dependent on expensive, specialty drugs than the average person covered by employer-based health insurance.

Two points:

1. This study, no doubt accurate, comes from a pharmacy-benefits company. And yes, of course, Obamacare has signed up a lot of people with dire medical conditions who will be filing a lot of expensive prescriptions. That’s the point of the exercise. But this study says absolutely nothing about the number of young people who signed up–if they signed up–who don’t have expensive prescriptions to fill. That’s the point of universal coverage: the healthy young help pay for the unhealthy elderly. This is a moral and civic duty. The young and healthy someday will be old and less healthy. (We don’t yet have any reliable indications of how many young people showed up.)

2. What sort of twisted mind could believe that taking care of the “older, sicker and more dependent” on expensive drugs is not a good thing? I’ve never bought that all this would cost less–though real reform of fee-for-service medicine would certainly help some. I’m in favor of universal coverage as a communitarian proposition: it is a social responsibility that we have. In most cases, these are hardworking people–those who don’t work get healthcare through Medicaid. I’d rather see my taxes go to helping those who are suffering than to subsidizing hedge-fund traders who pay Romney taxes.

But I wonder about all those salivating over Obamacare failures, real or imagined: Do they ever consider the actual human beings involved, the sum of human suffering diminished–or are they just interested in the political calculus? (Don’t worry, folks: I think I know the answer.)

TIME politics

Why Obama Hit Pause

An Iran deal may be possible. Getting Israelis and Palestinians to make peace may not be

We know what a reasonable middle East peace would look like. In December 2000, Bill Clinton laid out the formula. There would be a return to the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed-upon land swaps so that the bulk–perhaps 80%–of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands could become part of Israel. Jerusalem would be the capital of both countries. An international commission would control the religious sites in Jerusalem’s Old City. Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to Palestine but not to Israel. Israel’s sovereignty and security as a Jewish state would be accepted by the Arabs.

There have been other iterations of a framework agreement in the past 14 years, but they’re all based on Clinton’s plan, as Clinton’s was on previous plans. For those who actually want to see a Middle East peace negotiated, this is the consensus solution. In principle, it is favored by a majority of the Israeli and Palestinian publics and by the Saudis and the Arab League. In practice, who knows? The Israelis are always litigious about the details; the Palestinians always walk away at the last minute. But leading American strategists like Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski have said the way to negotiate the impasse is for the U.S. to present an updated version of the framework and allow international pressure to push the Israelis and the Palestinians toward peace.

John Kerry seemed intent on doing that too. But his version of the framework has never been announced–and the chance of the two parties’ producing their own mutually agreed-upon outline evaporated long ago, if it ever existed in the first place. Kerry deserves credit for the energy he’s put into the process, but there has been a tinge of desperation to his efforts over the past months–a reminder of the wobbly garrulousness that has damaged President Obama’s foreign policy since he took office. Kerry raised the loathsome possibility of releasing Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. citizen who spied for Israel, in order to cajole the Israelis into continuing the talks. Then, in congressional testimony on April 8, he weirdly blamed the Israelis for the impasse because of their insistence on building 700 new apartments in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, Gilo, that everyone assumes will be part of Israel if the borders are redrawn. There has been, as with Syria last summer, a melted cheesiness to his public statements when the heat is on.

Why hasn’t Kerry published a framework for the talks as promised? In my interviews with current and former diplomats, a prevailing theme emerged: a reiteration of the Clinton framework would activate the Sheldon Adelson neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, plus many Christian evangelicals who see the annexation of the West Bank territories as biblical prophesy, and this is a fight that Obama doesn’t particularly want at this point. Why not? The President may want to keep his powder dry, in part to keep Jewish voters on the reservation in the 2014 midterms but also because another, more promising fight is looming with the neoconservatives–over the Iran nuclear talks.

Indeed, the Iran talks seem to be going as well as the Middle East talks are going poorly. That’s why you haven’t read much about them in recent weeks. There are still major issues to overcome, but Western negotiators have been impressed by the Iranians’ seriousness and unwillingness to use extraneous events–like the U.S.-Russian tiff over Ukraine–to try to delay the talks or split the U.N. alliance. It is not inconceivable that a deal limiting Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and a strict regimen of international inspections will be completed by the end of the year … although, once again, the Administration won’t want it to be finished until after the midterm elections.

The Middle East peace talks continue to chug along, at the request of the Israelis and Palestinians, even after Kerry declared them moribund. It turns out that neither side wants to abandon the illusion of progress–and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, may be keeping his powder dry for the Iran fight as well. But the paralyzed talks have now become another reminder of the Administration’s perceived weakness in foreign policy. Iran may well prove to be the President’s ultimate test–not just the political test of maneuvering a treaty through a Congress heavily influenced by the Israel lobby but also the diplomatic test of dealing with a complicated, opaque Iran, where the reactionary forces will want to reassert their authority if the treaty is successfully negotiated. A remarkable achievement may be within Obama’s grasp, but he and his Secretary of State are going to have to prove more solid, subtle and dependable policy implementers than they have in the past.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

TIME politics

Obamacare: Mend it, Don’t End it

The Affordable Care Act has problems. But the GOP campaign to junk it is now finished

The endless, blindingly obtuse debate about the Affordable Care Act–also known as Obamacare–has been almost entirely about politics, not substance. There are two reasons for this. We haven’t had much real substance to go on. And politics is a lot easier for us wizards of the media to report and opine upon. The abysmal debut of the HealthCare.gov website is a lot easier to comprehend–government can’t tie its own shoelaces–than the heroic efforts to bring the site back to life. The people who “lost” their insurance because of new coverage requirements are more famous than those who were able to get better, cheaper coverage through the new government health care markets. (Actually, they’re many of the same people.) The fact that 7.1 million people signed up for insurance is more important than who they actually are: Were they uninsured in the past? Will they pay their bills? Will they get the care they’re paying for? Will the system be able to handle all the new traffic?

But we have now turned a corner. the system is up and running. It has 7.1 million customers (plus 4.5 million more in the expanded Medicaid program). The word of mouth seems to be … not bad: a recent ABC News–Washington Post poll actually had more Americans in favor of Obamacare than opposed to it, by an overpowering 49% to 48%. Those numbers may well improve over time as the public learns that the program isn’t the socialist cataclysm that Republicans predicted. It may even happen by November. It is not impossible that Americans will be pleased that a significant social injustice has been rectified: the hardworking poor finally have health care protection, just as the indigent on Medicaid have had. Indeed, there is one political thing that we know for sure: the Republicans have lost this debate substantively. The law won’t be repealed. “There is no off switch,” says Professor John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania, who is studying the system from the bottom up in 35 states. “There are financial obligations to the people who have signed up [and receive subsidies from the government]. There are 50 different stories here. The program is different in every state. That makes it difficult to formulate a national policy response,” whether it be repeal or sweeping reform.

Which doesn’t mean the Affordable Care Act doesn’t need reform. It is a slovenly piece of legislation that will need constant modification and in some cases structural overhaul. The very notion that there are 50 stories here demonstrates a glaring inefficiency. There should be four or five regional exchanges–they should be supermarkets, not corner stores, providing greater economies of scale. There ought to be (as six moderate Democratic Senators proposed) a wider variety of insurance options, including plans with lower premiums and higher deductibles. There should be fewer mandated coverages: if the Jones family believes it receives all the mental-health counseling it needs through its church, it shouldn’t be required to pay for mental-health coverage. Businesses that currently provide health coverage for their employees in the private market, especially moderate-size companies, should be free to shop for better deals in the health care exchanges. The President has been open to negotiation on most of the above, as well as conservative evergreens like medical-malpractice reform.

A recent Kaiser family foundation poll shows that 59% of Americans want to see this program improved, not repealed–another reason the Republicans have lost this debate. There are legitimate arguments against government expansion, but the Republicans haven’t been making them. Instead they’ve resorted to fear tactics (remember “death panels”), demagoguery (socialism!), concocted bad-news stories and irrelevant bean-counting. One reason the 7.1 million people signing up became such a big deal is that Republicans made it a litmus test. Given public disgust with the noxious atmosphere in Washington, you might expect that the GOP would be ripe for a reset on this issue. They could argue, We’re gonna reform this thing, make it an efficient free-enterprise model for the world. After all, the bone structure of Obamacare–the exchanges, the individual mandate–came out of the conservative Heritage Foundation 25 years ago.

But no. John Boehner and other GOP leaders sent a reflexive message to the 7.1 million enrollees: they’re still against it, no retreat, no surrender. That makes political sense in a dull, conventional-wisdom way. Current polls have them winning the House and perhaps the Senate in November. But what happens if Obamacare brings better coverage to millions of Americans between now and then? What happens if the good-news stories start outplaying the bad? Politics is never static, especially seven months from Election Day.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

TIME Media

The Charge of the Neo-Conservative Light Brigade

Bill Kristol cries Obama Retreat! yet again.

Kiev is ablaze. Syria is a killing field. The Iranian mullahs aren’t giving up their nuclear weapons capability, and other regimes in the Middle East are preparing to acquire their own. Al Qaeda is making gains and is probably stronger than ever. China and Russia throw their weight around, while our allies shudder and squabble.

Ah yes, Bill Kristol has taken another look at the world and found it messy. But his messiness is messy. Kiev is ablaze because Russia can’t really throw its weight around anymore. Iran is engaged in serious nuclear negotiations for the first time and has taken verifiable steps to get rid of its weapons-grade uranium. Al Qaeda is no longer the centralized threat it once was, thanks to the Obama Administration’s use of drones and special operations forces. China’s stability is heavily dependent on the long-term success of the United States. Putin’s blowhard Russia is a paper tiger. And for once, in Syria, we have forced Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons without attacking yet another Islamic country (even if the President’s steps toward that goal were, shall we say, shaky and unconvincing).

The neo-conservative world view was already out-of-date in 2001, when George W. Bush adopted it. Dick Cheney, who is still raging in the darkness, thought the radical Islamist threat came from nation-states like Iraq. It didn’t. Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton and saw the world in an oily way: the threat to American national security was from hostile control of hydrocarbons. It wasn’t. These days, actual nation-states–like Iran, for instance–have far too much at stake to go to war, given the lethality of the weaponry. (Iran, having taken 1 million casualties–an estimated 10% from chemical wmds– in its disastrously stupid war against Iraq in the 1980s, has a better sense than most countries of the brutality of modern warfare.)

It seems abundantly clear now that the most appropriate response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks would have been a limited, special operations effort to clear Afghanistan (and Pakistan) of Al Qaeda’s central leadership, then to remain vigilant against bad actors–as the Obama Administration has done. Obama’s policy in the region has not been retreat. It has been sanity and, in its use of drones and special forces, far more effective than Bush’s extravagantly wasteful war effort. The idea that the United States is “responsible” for keeping the peace in a region of maps misdrawn by colonial powers is staggeringly arrogant. It is up to the modern-day Babylonians to decide what their country will be–and up to the Kurds to decide whether they’ll have a country of their own. The “Who Lost Iraq” argument even more foolish than “Who Lost China?” was 65 years ago. It is a neo-colonial hangover. It is time for the people in the region–with our diplomatic and humanitarian assistance, if requested–to decide what the actual countries are. Such things are never easy and, sadly, they are often bloody. But they are also inevitable. (This is also true for that other British colonial mapmaking disaster: South Asia, including Afghanistan.)

And yet Kristol and Charles Krauthammer–dubbed the “Bomber Boys” by George W. Bush–and dinosaurs like Cheney and John McCain insist on seeing the future of warfare in the now-distant past. There are national security threats, to be sure. Cyberwarfare is a real threat. Terrorism remains a real threat, which is why a sensibly modified version of the NSA’s data-mining operation is a necessity. There is the need for a nuclear deterrent. But it sometimes seems as if the neo-conservative minority still wants to arm itself against the possibility of tank battles on the plains of central Europe and fleet-sized sea battles in the South China Sea. This sort of view is dangerously myopic, reactionary in the truest sense of the word.

The future of warfare–and with it, the future of diplomacy–is changing at warp speed, along with the future of everything else. We should be doing everything we can to remain ahead of that curve, even it means spending a lot of money. Protecting the nation’s security remains the government’s top priority. But the time for spending money on tanks and vast divisions of infantry has passed as surely as the need to raise catapults and horse-cavalry. Kristol’s “retreat” argument is disingenuous–he is, as ever, the ultra-conservative tactician, trying to score political points without engaging in the substantive argument about national security necessary at this hinge of history. It will be interesting to see if his persistent illogic will remain dominant in the increasingly isolationist Republican Party.

TIME Health Care

Obamacare: Economic Boon?

President Barack Obama at the White House on February 12, 2014.
President Barack Obama at the White House on February 12, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Duncan Black makes an argument that liberals haven’t emphasized nearly enough about the Affordable Care Act: that it could well be a shot in the arm for the economy.

It is, in truth, a conservative argument–a freedom argument. I’ve always loved the logic of it. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people with clever ideas for starting businesses who are trapped in their current jobs because of the need to provide health insurance for their families. These are the potential Wright brothers, the middle managers who see a better, more efficient way to process a product, the tinkerers who come up with a new valve, the designers who come up with a snazzzy new pattern.

The ad hoc employer-based American health care system has been an impediment to such people, especially for those who have family members with pre-existing conditions. And that’s why I immediately dismissed, out of hand, the CBO report that said 2 million jobs would be “lost” under Obamacare (the CBO meant, of course, that an estimated 2 million people would choose to leave their jobs). The problem is, there is no way to anticipate or calculate the number of jobs that will be created by newly liberated entrepreneurs–what if there’s a FedEx or a Sam Adams in the mix?

And so, it is good to know that there is mildly happy news today on the Obamacare front–1.1 million new signups in February, including a healthy number of young people. The overall fate of the law remains unclear, of course. As Michael Shear and Reed Abelson report in the Times:

[I]ndustry experts and insurance officials say that the reality is murkier than either party wants to admit, and that the numbers at the heart of the national political debate are largely meaningless outside Washington’s overheated environment. The determination about whether the law works from an economic standpoint will not be clear for years, when individual insurance companies are finally able to tell whether their expectations about the health of their customers — and the premiums they set for coverage — were accurate.

The good news is that if the law is imperfect, as it undoubtedly will be in some aspects, it can be modified. Other countries have managed to provide national health insurance--and not neceessarily socialized medicine–without too much of a fuss. In the end, I hope that we’ll eventually move to a system like the Wyden-Bennett proposal, which would entirely remove the health insurance burden from American corporations, allowing them to compete in the global market on the same basis as companies in other advanced economies do. Conservatives call this sort of system “premium support”–vouchers to buy health insurance are given (by the government) according to need; liberals call this system…single-payer. There will be an argument about how generous the benefits will be, but that’s a benign necessity–democracy needs to work such things out in public view.

We are, perhaps, light years away from the adjustments that will create a more perfect health insurance system. The Affordable Care Act is a nice place to start. I wish it had been implemented better; I hope it will be modified and simplified. Most of all, I hope that saner heads will prevail, that the nonsense passing for talking points (especially from the wingers) will abate and things like this piece of unprocessed inanity will have no place in the public debate.

TIME Hillary Clinton

The Hillary Clinton Papers: Not Much There

Hillary Clinton
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks to the National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in New Orleans, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 Gerald Herbert / AP

The dirt unearthed in the Diane Blair papers wasn't much of anything, except for a rehash of the faux scandal-plagued years of the Clinton White House. And most importantly, it won't dull her political chances in the 2016 race, writes Joe Klein

In February of 1998, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, I interviewed Diane Blair about her dear friend Hillary Clinton.

Blair was ill then, suffering from cancer, but she was vehement about two things: that Hillary was a dynamite friend–smart, funny, thoughtful and loyal–and that the Clintons had a real marriage. She told me a story about the two of them getting into a wild, screaming fight over some obscure policy issue, a fight so intense that she was beginning to get embarrassed and thought about making for the door…when Bill took Hillary’s face in his hands, looked over to Blair and said, “Isn’t she amazing?”

And so I wasn’t expecting much dirt from the Diane Blair papers, even though they were splashed internationally on Drudge on Sunday, with a big SCANDAL headline. And I wasn’t disappointed: not much there, except Hillary’s stiletto discription of Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony tune.” Indeed, the “editor” of the “publication” that “broke” this story described the then-First Lady as “surprisingly human.”

To which I can only ask: Why surprisingly? I’ve known Hillary Clinton for nearly 30 years now. I wouldn’t say I know her particularly well, but well enough to describe her in an entirely different way–as relentlessly human. She has been willing to get really angry in my presence (I didn’t like her health plan). She has been willing to have open, questioning discussions about policy. She has, at times, displayed a wicked sense of irony; she has, at other times, admitted to having been badly hurt by the public reaction–the spitting, the invective–that splattered her 1994 health plan speaking tour. She has a profoundly goofy okey-dokey-artichokey personal manner; she is an extremely hard worker and clear thinker. She really cares about people, including the people on her staff, all of whom would stop a bullet for her. I’m not nearly cynical enough to attribute these qualities to pretense. She is obviously ambitious and can, at times, be ruthless–but so what? She is one of the finest people I’ve known in public life. (Which is not to say that I don’t think she may have some real problems running for President, problems of insufficient boldness and sometimes being just plain wrong–but that’s a different story.)

Oh, and one other thing: She loves her husband. The marriage is not a “partnership.” She loves the guy. Indeed, one of the saddest intimacies of the Blair papers was the implication the Clinton blamed herself, in a way, for the Lewinsky disaster.

My overwhelming reaction to the release of the Blair papers was sadness–sadness because I remember Diane Blair fondly, the sort of smart, level-headed person I’d want as a friend. But also because it brought back the disgraceful bilge volcano of the Clinton years–the non-stop garbage peddled and sleazed by Drudge and Rush and the then frisky young Fox Network, the fact that the Clintons were accused of drug-trafficking, murder, financial scandals and all sorts of vile craziness–none of which proved to be true. And no apologies have ever been forthcoming from the greasy perps.

In the end, Bill Clinton’s behavior toward women was primitive and embarrassing. He defiled the Oval Office…but looking back, he wasn’t a half-bad President, was he?

It would be profoundly sad if all this manure were dredged up yet again. If Hillary Clinton does run for President, she should be examined carefully–as a public servant, not as a demonic caricature. She’s far better than that; I hope we are, too.

TIME Israel

Academic Farcedom

The American Studies Association wants to boycott Israel…and us to pay for it.

I have a degree in American Studies–actually, it’s in American Civilization, which sounds far grander but really is the same thing. And so it has been rather painful for me to watch the members of the American Studies Association, the official mafia of my beloved major, taking vast, florescent positions on topics about which they have no expertise or authority. Namely Israel.

Regular readers know that my positions on my people’s Homeland haven’t always been politically correct. Indeed, I find the current Iran-sanctions-lobbying being done by AIPAC and their minions in the Congress to be nauseating, and shameless, in the extreme. It is, in fact, a blatant attempt to conflate a misguided sense of Israel’s national security interests with our own–a false equivalence if there ever was one. After the disastrous and naive bellicosity of the past decade, all Americans should be rooting for the nuclear negotiations to succeed–and for Iran to rejoin the community of nations after making a clear, veriable and irreversible commitment not to pursue a nuclear weapon. We do not need another war, certainly not another pre-emptive war.

Those feelings, however, do not stop me from being appalled by the American Studies Association’s empty “boycott” of Israel for its impositions on Palestinian lands. Again, the aggrandizement of Israeli settlements on the West Bank has been an illegal and foolish enterprise; but it is not impossible that we’re approaching the moment, thanks to patient work of Secretary John Kerry, when a new green line border–with equal land swaps–can be drawn. Conditions in the Palestinian territories are dreadful, but they have grown better in recent years, thanks to the economic and security efforts of prime minister Salam Fayyad, whom the Palestinians have sadly gotten rid of–and the raising of some security restrictions by Israel.

Certainly, Bibi Netanyahu remains a pest, involving himself in American politics–pro-Romney, anti-Kerry–in a way that no other American ally would (or could, for that matter). But in my mind, conditions on the West Bank do not rise to the depravity necessary for a boycott. And these sorts of gestures add gasoline to the ever-blazing delusion, among far too many academics, that the state of Israel, established by the United Nations, is not a legal entity.

The American Studies Association has a right to its opinion, no matter how stupid or venal. It even has the right to support a one-state Palestinian solution, if that’s the intent lurking in some of these professors’ minds. But as a New York state taxpayer, I do not want a nickel of my money to be spent on meetings of the ASA, travel to meetings, printing the results of such meetings or anything at all to do with such a feckless enterprise. So I support the effort of the New York State legislature to ban the allocation of funds to the American Studies Association. I hope it passes and is signed soon by Governor Cuomo. This is not a question of academic freedom, as the ACA argues. It is a question of the state funding partisan political organizations. You are free to yak, you are not free to have us pay for it.

Stick to American Studies, folks. It’s a lovely field. There’s plenty to do. Your huffy resolutions only undermine the public’s faith in your ability to render accurate judgments on the history, society and arts of our country. Israel is none of your official business.

TIME State of the Union 2014

You, the People

Obama urges Congress to quit bickering and just get the job done. Like the rest of us do

It is a well-known axiom of American politics that the word we is far more powerful than I. But Barack Obama demonstrated in his clever State of the Union message that you can be the most powerful pronoun of all. “It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong,” he said at the start of the speech. “Here are the results of your efforts.” And then a litany of good news: unemployment down, housing and manufacturing rebounding, increased energy independence, budget deficits cut in half.

Given the hand-wringing and rancor of the past decade, this was a fresh breeze. It informed the rest of the speech: We’re doing O.K., but there are things–not monster things, simple things–that we can do to make this a jollier place. “Give America a raise!” Obama said, smiling, joyous. He made it sound like fun. And there was, implicit in all this fun we could have together, a message to Washington: We the Politicians aren’t doing nearly as well as You the People. We’re having this big, important, out-of-proportion debate about the size of government, but when that debate “prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy–when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States–then we are not doing right by the American people.” So c’mon, let’s get our act together!

The speech was billed as a left-populist call to arms on income inequality, in which the President would assert his right to act independently of Congress. And yes, some of that was in there–but modestly so. There was no “soak the rich” rhetoric. Opportunity was the operative word, rather than inequality. “Opportunity is who we are,” he said–a nice, simple sentence. The deficit-reduction discussion of years past–another out-of-proportion debate–was pretty much gone too. There was an awful lot of uplift: The daughter of a factory worker who became the CEO of General Motors. The independent female entrepreneur who, with the help of a federal job-training program, built an auto-parts company in Detroit. Carefully, Obama avoided the reality that federal job-training programs are a mess, then promised to have Vice President Joe Biden sort them out, with a brief nod to the need to “streamline” the government.

There were elements that Republicans clearly didn’t like. The President’s flat-out statement that “climate change is a fact”–another nice, simple sentence–will probably roil the troglodytes, but in this ridiculous winter, it had some heft. Similarly, his defense of the Affordable Care Act contained the sharpest elbow of the night, aimed at the House Republicans’ witless pursuit of repealing Obamacare: “Let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans.” At the same time, he offered to seriously consider specific Republican proposals to reform the law.

Those proposals may finally be taking shape. Three Republican Senators recently announced a plan to “replace” Obamacare–that’s a necessary fig leaf for their party’s rabid base–which contained some interesting ideas and seemed, at the very least, a good way to launch some real negotiations on the law. The Republican opposition to Obamacare has been disingenuous from the start, but there are conservative, market-oriented ideas that could strengthen the program. The President himself has cited the need for medical-malpractice reform. Even if it succeeds splendidly–and it might–this is a law that will require constant bipartisan tinkering. It would also be nice to think that some progress could be made this year on immigration: “legalizing” undocumented workers rather than granting them full citizenship may be a good interim step toward defusing the poisonous status quo.

As I listened to Obama’s speech, I found myself thinking about the media’s role in creating the tense, toxic atmosphere of the past decade. We do gridlock a lot better than we do compromise. Our pages and broadcasts are overstuffed with fanatic pessimists. There is a chronic optimism deficit. We have been inured to this by a mudslide of shockingly bad news, from 9/11 to the Great Recession, and we have exploited it by succumbing to the entertainment value of contentiousness. We have wrapped ourselves in a straitjacket of cynicism.

And then comes a moment like Obama’s concluding celebration of Army Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, nearly killed by a roadside bomb, struggling to rebuild himself, to regain his voice–a metaphor for our country’s slow recovery from the bombs and crashes of the 21st century. The President drove this message home, but he didn’t need to: just the sight of Remsburg awkwardly, but triumphantly, waving a hand and trying to smile was enough: If he can, we can.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

TIME Barack Obama

Obama on Data Mining

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama talks about National Security Agency surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The President offered a solid step forward in reforming a necessary security system.

Fred Kaplan, as usual, has the smartest, sanest evaluation of President Obama’s speech yesterday. It was not a perfect response to this vexing problem, but there were several major reforms that will address the excesses of the data-mining system. The most important, to my mind, is the “two-step” reform which will focus the government’s ability to detect the phone-affinity patterns of suspected terrorists…and protect those with 3 degrees of separation from troublemakers. For example, Yemeni bombmaker calls his cousin in America, who happens to be a dry-cleaner. You are one of the dry-cleaner’s customers (one-step). Your phone calls are searched for suspicious patterns (2 steps). You went to graduate school with Angela Merkel and have remained good friends. Her phone calls are searched (3 steps).

It is plausible that the Yemeni bomb maker is using his cousin to provide a safe house for a terrorist cell. But with each degree of separation–each step–the connections become less plausible. Two steps are a logical stopping place.

The removal of mountains of data from permanent NSA control is another important step. This should placate some of those who worry that the government may be the draconian conspiratorial enterprise that Hollywood portrays in far too many movies. A revised and expanded FISA court should help control access to this data.

Of course, there are more than a few who won’t be placated. They’re wrong on the merits, I believe, but their voices are a necessary part of our democracy. Clearly, in this case, the NSA had overstepped and needed to be restrained. But this sort of data-mining is an absolutely necessary part of our national defense in a time of asymmetric terrorist threats and, especially, the cyberwarfare to come.

Which brings me to the question of Edward Snowden. He reminds me of David Harris, the anti-Vietnam war protestor who refused to join the Army, refused to run to Canada, refused to become a conscientious objector (he believed some wars were necessary)–a valiant patriot, I believe–who went to jail for his beliefs…and went on to live a valued life as a writer.

Snowden is clearly guilty and, unlike Harris, has absconded with paranoid delusions that the government wanted to kill him. But there are mitigating circumstances. He was far more careful with his data than Chelsea/Bradley Manning, whose wholesale data dump has led to the exposure of about 150 human-rights activists around the world, who were sources of information for U.S. diplomats. In addition, Snowden’s disclosures have forced a necessary conversation and now, necessary reforms. It’s now time for Snowden to come home and face the music; but judgment in his case should be merciful. I hope and expect he’ll live a useful life after he is punished for the crime he committed.

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