TIME Military

Obama Orders 350 More Troops to Baghdad

Iraqi Shiite militia fighters fire their weapons as they celebrate breaking a long siege of Amerli by Islamic State militants
Iraqi Shi‘ite militia fighters fire their weapons as they celebrate breaking the Islamic State militants' long siege of Amerli on Sept 1, 2014. President Obama has ordered the deployment of an additional 350 troops to Baghdad Youssef Boudlal—Reuters

"These additional forces will not serve in a combat role," the White House said

President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of another 350 American service members to Baghdad on Tuesday evening, the White House announced, bringing the number of American troops deployed to Iraq since June to over 1,000.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement that the 350 U.S. troops are tasked with protecting American diplomatic facilities and personnel in Baghdad, which has been under threat from the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“This action was taken at the recommendation of the Department of Defense after an extensive interagency review, and is part of the President’s commitment to protect our personnel and facilities in Iraq as we continue to support the Government of Iraq in its fight against [ISIS],” Earnest said. “These additional forces will not serve in a combat role.”

The announcement was unrelated to the release of an ISIS video Tuesday purporting to show the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said 405 American service members will be deployed to Baghdad, while 55 who have been there since June will be redeployed elsewhere in the region. About 820 American troops are engaged in the protection mission in Iraq, which was authorized by Obama in June, while hundreds more are serving in an advisory role to Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling ISIS.

The U.S. has also conducted 124 air strikes in Iraq, most to assist Iraqi forces in retaking the key Mosul Dam from ISIS control, with a strike Tuesday damaging or destroying 16 ISIS armed vehicles, according to U.S. Central Command.

“The President has made clear his commitment to doing whatever is required to provide the necessary security for U.S. personnel and facilities around the world,” Earnest said. “The request he approved today will allow some previously deployed military personnel to depart Iraq, while at the same time providing a more robust, sustainable security force for our personnel and facilities in Baghdad.”

The Obama Administration is contemplating expanding the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and into Syria, but no decisions have been made yet according to officials. Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco are traveling to the region in the coming weeks to build a coalition to take on the extremist group.

TIME Immigration

Obama Weighs Risks and Rewards on Immigration Action

President Barack Obama speaks at Laborfest 2014 in Milwaukee, Sept. 1, 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks at Laborfest 2014 in Milwaukee, Sept. 1, 2014. Gabriella Demczuk—The New York Times/Redux

The President is weighing whether to wait until after the midterms to move on immigration, after promising action at the end of the summer

President Barack Obama is weighing whether to postpone a self-imposed deadline to make unilateral changes to U.S. immigration laws as the midterm elections draw near.

The President is still expected to take executive action this year to provide temporary deportation protection and work authorization to potentially several million undocumented immigrants.

But with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the uncertain ramifications of revamping U.S. immigration law have spurred the White House to reconsider the timing of its announcement. Here’s what we know—and what we don’t—about a decision that could reshape the political landscape in 2014 and beyond.

When might Obama’s decision come?

It was originally supposed to be by the end of summer. On June 30, almost exactly a year after the Senate passed a bipartisan overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, Obama announced he had instructed cabinet officials to prepare reports advising him what executive orders he could legally issue to mend a broken system on his own. “If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours,” Obama said. “I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay.”

But Obama has backtracked from his original timeline in recent days. It’s now an open question whether the move will come before the calendar officially turns to fall on Sept. 22. “There is the chance that it could be before the end of the summer. There is the chance that it could be after the summer,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday. Obama’s advisers have yet to present any policy recommendations, which will precede a presidential decision.

Immigration activists and Democratic aides who have pressed Obama to use his executive authority say they now fear the White House may wait until after the midterms to act. “It seems like we’re losing the argument,” says one immigration activist who met with Obama this summer. A Democratic Congressional aide told TIME the White House seemed to be “getting cold feet” about its original timeline.

Why the delay?

Blame election season. Democratic campaign strategists believe that a sweeping move to grant deportation relief before November would imperil the reelection bids of several vulnerable Senate incumbents, and have pressed the White House to hold off until at least mid-November. The White House doesn’t want an executive order on immigration to tip tight races to its opponents. And the unresolved child-migration crisis at the southwestern border has further muddied a decision already fraught with political risks. But no matter the timing, Obama still intends to unilaterally reshape U.S. immigration law in the absence of Congressional action. “The president is determined to act,” Earnest said Tuesday. “That has not changed and it will not change.”

What policy options is Obama considering?

Obama’s exact plans are unknown. But he is weighing using his executive authority to grant work permits and deportation relief for several million undocumented immigrants, perhaps through expanding a 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Obama may also decide to reform immigration enforcement priorities, as well as to offer special protections for specific groups of workers, as business groups have sought.

What might be the political benefits of waiting until after the midterms?

Democratic campaign strategists and some White House officials believe that taking executive action on immigration would jeopardize Democratic Senators who are fighting to stave off challengers in conservative states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and North Carolina. Control of the Senate may hinge on the outcome of those races. “It would have the unhelpful consequence of putting the issue in the news in a way that doesn’t help Democrats, while also not accomplishing anything,” says a national Democratic strategist.

Of the most competitive Senate races this year, Colorado—which is home to a burgeoning Hispanic population—is perhaps the only one in which aggressive executive orders would be highly likely to benefit the Democratic candidate, Sen. Mark Udall. Democratic campaign strategists argue the move would not only endanger the party’s grip on the upper chamber, but also eliminate the diminishing chance that Congress passes a comprehensive overhaul in the near future. If a move “swings the election,” says the Democratic strategist, “that will set back comprehensive immigration reform for years.”

What might be the political benefits of acting now?

Immigration-reform advocates say that a bold move to protect millions from deportation would cement Democrats’ bond with increasingly frustrated Hispanics, giving the party an edge with the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group for a generation or more. And while it would almost surely help Democrats in 2016—as the creation of DACA did in 2012—it’s not necessarily clear that it would hurt in November.

In addition to thrilling Latinos, expansive executive action would incense conservative Republicans, and potentially incite the GOP’s anti-immigration wing to make damaging remarks that Democrats could wield as campaign cudgels. “It’s a winner coming and going,” says Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. “No matter what he does, the right wing is going to go bonkers,” Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters last week. “If he goes mild, he’ll energize the right, but he won’t energize the center and the left.”

What about splitting the difference?

A third option under consideration, according to White House aides, is that Obama announces some modest executive orders before the election, but holds off until mid-November to announce more sweeping components. This seems unlikely, however, because it minimizes the political rewards but not the risks. Republicans would still assail the President. The issue would still take center stage in the midterms. But Hispanics might view the move as a half-measure from a President who came into office vowing to make immigration reform a priority, but has mostly disappointed them since.

“You cannot, on the one hand, receive a community warmly and embrace them, and say that you are for them and that you’re ready to protect them,” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, “and on the other one turn your back on them when you think it’s not in your political self-interest.” Gutierrez has long urged his Democratic counterparts to be patient and let the process of coaxing Republicans to the table play out. In an interview Tuesday, he said it was time for Democrats to stop bowing to political considerations, and for the White House to live up to its commitment to Hispanics.

“I have absolutely no doubt that [Obama] wants to make a broad, bold and generous action,” Gutierrez says. “I hope that Democrats get the hell out of the way and let the President be the President we elected.”

—Additional reporting by Alex Rogers and Zeke J. Miller

MONEY Fast Food

WATCH: Fast Food Workers Plan Nationwide Protests for Thursday

Pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and unionization, organizers prepare for restaurant sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 2

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Teacher Standing in Front of a Class of Raised Hands Digital Vision.—Getty Images

1. As we approach the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, President Obama should make good on his promise to expand this vital program.

By the Editorial Board of the New York Times

2. Journalists still believe they’re writing for the same old reasons, but the data shows they’re chasing clicks, changing the nature of their work.

By Angèle Christin at the Nieman Journalism Lab

3. A dangerous new trend of policing faculty speech at American universities is threatening academic freedom.

By David M. Perry in the Chronicle of Higher Education

4. “Infoladies” bring digital services – from filling online forms to collecting health data – to the people of Bangladesh, and could be expanded to serve many more.

By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury in Al Jazeera English

5. The new batteries coming from Tesla’s “Gigafactory” should remove the final barrier to mass-produced electric cars.

By Daniel Sparks in The Motley Fool

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Iraq

U.S. Air Strikes and Aid for Iraqi Town Under Siege

(WASHINGTON) — Aircraft from the United States, Australia, France and Britain dropped food and water to the beleaguered Iraqi town of Amirli, which has been under siege by Islamic State militants for nearly two months, the Pentagon said Saturday night. U.S. airstrikes supported the humanitarian mission.

Thousands of Shiite Turkmen have been stranded in the farming community about 105 miles north of Baghdad. The aid came at the request of the Iraqi government, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.

Military operations will be limited in scope and duration as needed to address the humanitarian crisis in Amirli and protect the civilians trapped in the town, Kirby said.

Instead of fleeing in the face of the Islamic State drive across northern Iraq, the Shiite Turkmens have stayed and fortified their town of 15,000 with trenches and armed positions.

While Amirli fought off the initial attack in June, it has been surrounded by the militants since mid-July. Some residents have said that the Iraqi military’s efforts to fly in food, water and other aid have not been enough amid oppressive heat, lack of electrical power — the town’s power station was destroyed weeks ago — and shelling from the militants.

U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, which began earlier this month, have targeted Islamic State militants attacking Yazidi Iraqis on Mount Sinjar and the militant forces operating in the vicinity of Ibril and Mosul Dam. The beleaguered Yazidis received several humanitarian drops of tons of food and water as well as military support aimed at protecting them.

Earlier Saturday, U.S. Central Command said five more airstrikes had taken place against Islamic State militants near Mosul Dam. Those attacks, carried out by fighter aircraft and unmanned drones, brought to 115 the total number of airstrikes across Iraq since Aug. 8.

TIME nation

Obama Goes to War (With Congress)

The President began bombing ISIS on his own, but only Congress can start a war

Earlier this summer, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine found himself in the Grand Foyer of the White House playing the foreign policy–hypothetical game with President Obama. Over drinks with some Senate Democrats, the President mentioned Kaine’s article that day in the Washington Post demanding a congressional vote to authorize any new military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the armed extremist group overtaking large chunks of Iraq.

The Law Professor in Chief, who campaigned for office promising to rein in executive power, proposed some scenarios. “He’d say, ‘Here’s the situation. Do you think I have executive authority to act?'” Among the possibilities Kaine recalls: What if there is an imminent threat to a U.S. embassy? “We generally agreed on most of them,” says Kaine. But not all.

Two months later, those debates are no longer hypothetical. Since Aug. 8, Obama has unilaterally ordered more than 100 bombing runs on ISIS targets in northern Iraq, citing his authority under Article II of the Constitution to protect U.S. lives and offer humanitarian aid. Hundreds of military advisers have been dispatched to Iraq, along with shipments of lethal equipment to proxy forces in the region. Through it all, the White House has maintained that Obama has no plans to seek permission from Congress, which returns from recess on Sept. 8.

The Constitution gives the President the power to defend the country as Commander in Chief, but it delegates the power to declare war to Congress. Kaine is one of several Senators who believe Obama has stretched his powers about as far as they can go. “I am worried about the consequences of Congress basically saying the President can decide unilaterally which organizations to launch air strikes against,” says Kaine.

The Obama Administration, meanwhile, has been signaling that the conflict with ISIS is likely to expand before it contracts. U.S. officials worry about what they believe are hundreds of ISIS fighters with Western passports who could attack Europe or the U.S. if they return to their homelands. General Martin Dempsey, who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that defeating ISIS will require action by U.S. or other forces on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Days later, Pentagon sources leaked news of new U.S. surveillance flights over Syria to better map out ISIS positions, a possible prerequisite to expanded bombing efforts. “Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” Obama said on Aug. 26. Though the White House insists no decisions have been made for an expanded campaign against ISIS, no one denies that preparations are under way.

The ironies of the situation are striking. A President who helped build his national profile by opposing the war in Iraq now must decide whether to force a vote on a similar military adventure just weeks before midterm elections. But the commander who deferred to Congress rather than launch air strikes on Syria last year may not be able to attract the votes on Capitol Hill that he has in the past claimed to need. “I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress,” Obama said one year ago. “And I believe America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.”

There are plenty of reasons for the White House to avoid a bitter debate over a new war in the Middle East. Obama’s attempts to get approval from Congress for the last round of Syria strikes failed to muster the required votes, and it divided his own party, upsetting many on the left. He has also spent some of his second term celebrating what he described as the coming end to the war on terror, a goal that seems increasingly distant. Congressional leadership on both sides is skittish about a vote. “Neither he nor the Congress wants to have this dance now,” says Jack Goldsmith, who led the Office of Legal Counsel for President George W. Bush. “That’s really what is going on.”

In the meantime, the White House has been searching for a legal justification for a protracted military campaign that doesn’t involve going to Congress. A 2002 congressional authorization to use force in Iraq remains on the books, but the White House announced in July that the document “is no longer used” and should be repealed. That leaves the 2001 congressional authorization to pursue those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, which a White House spokesperson says the Administration is “currently reviewing” to see if it applies to ISIS.

But Obama allies like Kaine, who otherwise supports Obama’s ISIS campaign, say that document clearly doesn’t cover ISIS, which did not exist in 2001. Far from being a partner of al-Qaeda, ISIS has emerged as a rival in the region. And in 2001, Congress rejected a White House request for broader authorization to allow military force against threats unconnected to al-Qaeda.

A third option–perhaps the most likely outcome–is for Obama to declare that his constitutional powers allow him to continue the conflict without Congress. A Vietnam-era law requires the President to seek congressional authorization for hostilities within 60 days of their launch, or begin military drawdowns; that deadline would expire after Oct. 7. But Obama never sought such authorization for the bombing campaign that toppled Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Instead, his lawyers argued that the limited nature of U.S. support for air strikes on Libya did not amount to “hostilities” under the law.

In the end, the greatest risk for Obama in avoiding Congress may be to his legacy. No court is likely to force him to stop military action, and Congress is unlikely to unite around a demand for a vote. But Obama has repeatedly promised the American people a more democratic approach to warfare. As so often happens in the Oval Office, the President must now decide whether to pay a political price to uphold his public vows.

–WITH REPORTING BY JAY NEWTON-SMALL AND ZEKE MILLER/WASHINGTON

TIME Military

U.S. Launched Operation to Rescue ISIS Hostages, Pentagon Says

Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012.
Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012. Nicole Tung—AP

No hostages were found at the target location

The United States launched a rescue operation this summer to free American hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Department of Defense said Wednesday, but no hostages were found at the target location.

In a statement released a day after the Sunni extremist group released a graphic video showing the execution of American journalist James Foley, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. Kirby confirmed that American air and ground forces attempted a rescue to free a number of American hostages held by militants in Syria.

A U.S. government official confirmed Wednesday night that Foley was among the Americans the military attempted to rescue.

“This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within [ISIS]. Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” Kirby said. “As we have said repeatedly, the United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity. In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harms’ way to try and bring our citizens home.”

Lisa Monaco, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said Obama authorized the operation “because it was the national security team’s assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day in [ISIS] custody.”

The ground portion of the operation was carried out by U.S. special forces operators. Monaco said the government wouldn’t go into detail on the operation to protect “operational capabilities.”

“The United States government uses the full breadth of our military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring people home whenever we can,” Kirby said. “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.”

In a statement to reporters Wednesday, Obama referenced the Americans still being held by ISIS. “We keep in our prayers those other Americans who are separated from their families. We will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. “

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Hails Elimination of Syria Chemical Weapons

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama says the elimination of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile marks an important achievement in the effort to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

But while hailing that achievement, Obama says Syria now must follow through on its commitment to destroy its remaining declared chemical weapons production facilities.

In a written statement, Obama also says concerns about omissions and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration to the organization that oversaw the destruction must be addressed.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical arsenal last fall when Obama threatened missile strikes in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The attack is believed to have killed more than 1,000 people.

The weapons were destroyed aboard the U.S. cargo vessel MV Cape Ray in international waters.

TIME White House

Obama Declines Ice Bucket Challenge

President Obama Makes A Statement
U.S. President Barack Obama Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

He'll donate cold, hard cash instead

Presidents, they’re just like us! Just like everyone you’ve ever Facebook friended, President Obama has formally been invited, by Ethel Kennedy no less, to dump a bucket of ice over his head to raise attention for Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS.

While the 86-year-old Kennedy matriarch had the strength of will to take the challenge, Obama has officially declined the ice and instead is offering cold, hard cash.

“The President appreciates Mrs. Kennedy thinking of him for the challenge — though his contribution to this effort will be monetary,” said White House spokesperson Eric Shutlz. Obama has promised to make a donation to an ALS charity this week.

Since the Ice Bucket Challenge kicked off July 29, the national ALS Association has raised $2.3 million, including $1 million raised since Monday afternoon.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME Transportation

The Truth About Obama’s High-Speed Rail Program

Don't believe the New York Times or the train haters who cite it: High-speed rail is not an $11-billion failure.

The New York Times has declared President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail program a failure. “Despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere,” America’s paper of record reported Aug. 6—in its news pages, not its opinion section. The story quickly rocketed into Republican talking points and conservative op-eds as fresh evidence of presidential haplessness.

But it’s wrong. The administration hasn’t spent anywhere near $11 billion. The projects haven’t gone mostly nowhere. There are legitimate questions about the high-speed rail initiative—and the administration’s hype has outstripped its ability to deliver in an era of divided government—but the public debate over the program has been almost completely detached from the reality on the ground.

Here’s the real story.

First of all, while Congress has appropriated $10.5 billion (not $11 billion) for high-speed rail, only $2.4 billion (definitely not $11 billion) of it has been spent to date, much of it on planning, design and other pre-construction work. The big construction spending has just started, and will continue through September 2017. Yet the Times and other critics are judging the program as if it had already blown through all its cash. The new meme on the right is that Obama has poured $11 billion into high-speed rail with nothing to show for it. In fact, less than one-fourth of the money has gone out the door. Just because funds have been appropriated and even “obligated” does not mean they’ve been spent, much less “poured.”

That fundamental mistake alone is enough to refute the basic thesis of the Times‘ gotcha story. But it also fuels other widespread public misperceptions about what the program has already achieved, what it’s supposed to achieve, and why it’s unlikely to achieve Obama’s grand vision for high-speed rail. The first sentence of the Times article noted U.S. passenger rail “still lags far behind Europe and China,” but that’s an absurd and annoyingly common straw man to use to slag the program.

Really, the initiative that Obama launched with his 2009 stimulus bill should have been called “higher-speed rail.” As I wrote a few years ago in TIME, it was partly about creating new routes for 200-mile-per-hour bullet trains like the ones already zipping around Europe and Asia, but it was mostly about improving slower-speed Amtrak routes so they would be incrementally faster and more reliable. America’s freight rail system is the envy of the world, but our passenger rail system is awful; the goal of the program was to make it less awful—a more realistic alternative to long drives and short flights.

So where did the Administration send the money? The big winners in the initial state-by-state competition were Florida and California, which had ambitious plans for new bullet trains. But after Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican, was elected governor of Florida in 2010, he killed the Sunshine State’s Tampa-to-Orlando-to-Miami train and sent $2.4 billion back to Washington. That meant the far more daunting and less shovel-ready San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line would be America’s only new bullet-train project. After years of legal and political warfare, California is just now preparing to start laying track in the Central Valley.

The rest of the high-speed money is going to lower-speed projects where Amtrak trains share tracks with lumbering freight trains. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad projects. “They’re not as sexy, and maybe they don’t look like much, but they’re providing tangible benefits,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo said in an interview. Bridge and tunnel repairs, projects to upgrade and straighten tracks, sidings and double-tracking to help passenger trains pass freight cars, and other incremental improvements can all make rail travel more attractive.

And it’s happening. By 2017, the program will reduce trip times from Chicago to St. Louis by nearly an hour through upgrades that will increase top speeds from 79 to 110 miles per hour; Chicago to Detroit will get a similar boost. The Department of Transportation says it has already sliced off a half-hour between Springfield, Mass., and St. Albans, Vt., while completing projects to reduce delays around San Jose, San Diego, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. It has extended Amtrak service for the first time to Brunswick, Maine, anchoring a thriving downtown revitalization program, and it’s bringing trains to the Illinois towns of Geneseo and Moline for the first time since 1978. It has renovated stations in St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Ore, and it’s expanding service between Raleigh and Charlotte, where ridership has nearly tripled since 2005.

You need a pretty crimped sense of “somewhere” to argue that the money is going “mostly nowhere.”

One can certainly argue the money should have gone elsewhere. It’s nice that a new bridge and other Missouri projects have improved on-time performance between Kansas City and St. Louis from about 20 percent to 80 percent, but that’s still not a popular train route. Florida’s Scott and Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, both scuttled solid projects—the $45 million their states spent beforehand was the only inarguably wasted high-speed rail money—but Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, had a strong case for scuttling an absurdly slow-speed project in his state. Many critics have suggested Obama should have focused on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, which is wildly popular—and profitable—even though it’s much slower than it should be.

In fact, the Administration has steered about $850 million to the Northeast Corridor. Szabo was in Trenton last week to tout a massive upgrade to an 80-year-old electrical system that will reduce delays and increase top speeds to 160 m.p.h. on America’s most traveled 23-mile stretch of track. The work will be a prototype for projects along the rest of the corridor, where rail has already replaced air as the dominant form of travel, even though logjams keep average speeds at 70 m.p.h.

Still, it’s true that the bullet-train rhetoric from Obama and the White House’s main train buff, Vice President Joe Biden, has not lived up to the bullet-train reality. It’s also true that the Administration’s spread-it-thin strategy, featuring incremental improvements in 32 states, is hard to justify in a vacuum. You need to walk before you can run, but it doesn’t make much sense to upgrade trains from slow speeds to semi-slow speeds if they’re never going to be able to compete with cars or planes. That’s why in 2011, Biden announced a new six-year, $53 billion plan to expand high-speed rail beyond the initial stimulus investments, a plan that would have built much more groundwork for a truly competitive national passenger rail network.

That plan, however, really has gone nowhere. Once Republicans took over the House, Congress stopped appropriating money for high-speed rail. Period. There was never any chance that bullet trains would be whizzing all over America by now, but the reason there’s no realistic prospect of that happening anytime soon has nothing to do with executive incompetence and everything to do with politics. And while I love the New York Times—even when it publishes ludicrous essays slagging my hometown—its validation of the “mostly nowhere” nonsense will help make sure America’s passenger rail system remains a global joke.

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