Obama Administration

Photo Credit: Madison Richards | Daily Texan Staff

Kathleen Merrigan, Former USDA Agriculture Deputy Secretary, said at a lecture on campus Wednesday that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was one of the most successful products of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Obama administration.

During the lecture, hosted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Merrigan — who worked for the USDA from 2009 to 2013 as the deputy secretary and the chief operating officer — said the Obama administration has done an “above-average” job to avoid improper payments. 

“An improper payment can be giving more money than someone deserves, or less money than someone deserves — that’s the definition of improper payments in government,” Merrigan said. “They are doing really, really great, and, at the same time, doing better outreach in the program.”

The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, serves approximately 47 million people in the United States, according to the Washington Post. Merrigan said the federal government aims to have less than a 4 percent error rate when avoiding improper payments. She said the SNAP program currently has an error rate of 3.8 percent.

Although Merrigan praised the way the USDA executed the SNAP program, she listed what she believed to be failures by the department. Among these was ensuring that there was an adequate amount of competition in the agricultural market.

Rajeev Patel, who is a research professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, also spoke at the lecture. He said he believes it is important to remember the circumstances in which the Obama administration was formed in context to the country’s approach to food topics. He said the department’s relationship with the private sector is something that should be taken into account when discussing the administration’s approach.

“Often, it’s forgotten that while the beneficiaries of SNAP are invariably poor people in the United States … it’s also important to remember that one of the largest beneficiaries of SNAP is Walmart,” Patel said. “18 percent of the $80 billion spent on SNAP is spent at Walmart.”

Public affairs graduate student Cristian Villalobos, who attended the lecture, said he believes the USDA should focus on educating parents on proper nutrition for children in the first 1,000 days of life. According to Villalobos, SNAP has been one of the more crucial programs since the recession in 2009.

“On a public perception level, it seems to have less of a stigma than other forms of welfare,” Villalobos said. “SNAP seems to be less politicized and conflated as a burden to the government.”

Merrigan said she believes there was an effort underway nationally to vilify the traditional SNAP beneficiary, driven by Republican budget cutting purposes.

“We were really trying to protect the image of the SNAP recipient and to maintain their dignity,” Merrigan said. “There was a notion that poor people can’t take care of themselves, and we tried to push back.”

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, June 9, 2014, before signing a Presidential Memorandum on reducing the burden of student loan debt. The president said the rising costs of college have left America's middle class feeling trapped. He says no hard-working youngster in America should be priced out of a higher education.Obama signed a presidential memorandum he says could help an additional 5 million borrowers.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/ Jacquelyn Martin

The Obama administration recently announced new initiatives in an effort to fix the many problems of the public-private student loan system in America. These include allowing new borrowers to limit repayments to 10 percent of income above the poverty level, providing for loan forgiveness after 20 years of responsible repayment, and giving preferential treatment to those in public service.

To understand the importance of these initiatives, it helps to consider student loans as an investment. 

In the McCombs School, all students learn about “financial leverage,” which is a tool used by companies to increase growth. This concept holds that incurring debt can be beneficial when it creates financial returns that exceed the costs imposed by the debt obligation. Simply put, if I can borrow $1,000 at a reasonable rate of interest and use it to make $2,000 in a reasonable period of time, I come out ahead.

Despite all of the angst about student loan debt, a student loan can be great financial leverage. A recent article by the Economic Policy Institute notes that entry-level college graduates make $20 per hour, on average, while high school graduates make only $10 per hour. Similarly, a recent New York Times article noted that the average hourly pay for all college graduates is $32.60, versus $16.50 for everyone else.

If a college graduate works 40 hours per week and pays income taxes at a rate of 25 percent, that $10 per hour entry-level difference is a return of well over $1,000 per month. With student loan rates at 4.66 percent (effective July 1), that difference alone will pay off $100,000 in student loan debt in 10 years. But a new report by the White House Domestic Policy Council and Council of Economic Advisers notes that the average student debt at graduation is $29,400, leaving a substantial surplus after covering the loan payment.

Of course, the cost of a college education is not just the cost of student loans, just as the value of a college education is not just in its financial returns. But, if taking out those loans is the difference between attending and not attending college, it’s likely to be a sound investment for most students.

So, why all the angst about student loans? One important thing that every McCombs student learns about financial leverage is that it increases risk: The $2,000 that I expect to earn is hypothetical, but the $1,000 I borrowed and will have to pay back is not!

The Obama administration’s new initiatives for student loan repayment help reduce that risk by indexing payments to earnings and eventually forgiving loans for those in low-paying and public service jobs who repay responsibly. So, even if a student’s passion turns out not to lead to one of those $20-per-hour jobs, these changes can help ensure that a college degree is still a good investment.

Many policy issues around student loans remain to be addressed, including the promotion of excessive borrowing by for-profit colleges and the misuse of student loan funds by students. But, by helping to reduce the risk in the investment equation, the president’s new initiatives are a step in the right direction.

Platt is the associate dean for undergraduate programs at the McCombs School of Business.

Obama looks at a folder on his desk.

Source: Associated Press

Last Tuesday, the Obama administration proposed a new set of rules that would crack down on the use of “dark money,” or anonymously donated money, in political elections. 

Though the proposed rules, released by the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service, do not apply specifically to Texas, there are more than a few Texas political organizations that would find themselves affected. Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a project of the infamous tea-party activist Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans group, may be the most prominent. 

The proposed reforms are timely: In 2006, tax-exempt groups across the country spent only $5.2 million on political activities. By 2012, that number had risen to $300 million, suggesting that the checks of big-time donors had found their way to politically-oriented nonprofits. 

Critics of the new regulations are already claiming that the proposed rules would do little, if anything, to stop anonymous corporate money from finding its way to political campaigns. But that doesn’t mean the administration is foolish for trying. 

In a piece published last Tuesday in Politico, Byron Tau and Lauren French wrote that the new rules “are unlikely to stem the tide of anonymous donations that have flooded into politics since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision.” That decision, made by a 5-4 vote, ruled that the government could not limit the ability of corporations to donate to political campaigns.

501(c)4s, the organizations targeted by the new rules, are currently defined as groups whose primary purpose is “social welfare.” However, the current tax code fails to clearly define what constitutes “social welfare.” 

“Many election lawyers and their clients use an unofficial rule of thumb: If a tax-exempt group spends less than 50 percent of its budget on political activity, then its primary purpose is not winning campaigns,” explained a New York Times article on the topic.

Under the draft of the new regulations, “social welfare” would exclude “candidate-related political activity.” What counts as candidate-related political activity? Under the draft, communications that expressly advocate for a candidate, campaign contributions and voter registration drives, among other activities, would all count. 

There’s a justified concern from conservative groups that the new rules are meant to limit the influence of growing grassroots organizations.

“I think it’s Obama’s revenge against people who have been participating in the process on the other side from him,” Charles Spies, the founder of the Pro-Mitt Romney Restore our Future Super PAC, told Politico about the new regulations. 

It’s hard to forget the recent  IRS scandal, in which the agency was found to have been excessively auditing tea-party organizations that had applied for nonprofit status.

As concerning as the potential implications for free speech is that the new rules would apply only to 501(c)4 entities, meaning that donors looking to obfuscate their actions can simply elect to check a different box on their tax form and ignore the new rules entirely. For example, organizations may easily escape the new regulations by converting into a Limited Liability Corporation, or LLC, which would not be subject to the new rules. 

It should be noted that the problem isn’t that corporations are donating to political campaigns, but rather that they are doing it anonymously through nonprofit organizations, making it impossible to track who is funding whose campaign.

These regulations then, though well-intentioned and on point, are problematic in that they regulate nonprofit entities, not the action itself of corporations anonymously donating large sums of money. But unless the Supreme Court reverses Citizens United, these new rules may be the best we can do to limit the influence of corporate America in the ballot box.

If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling by Thursday, the U.S. will default on its debt.

But what does this mean? It means that U.S. federal law says that there is an upper limit to the government’s debt beyond which the government has to stop borrowing. If the government can no longer borrow, it will not be able to pay off its obligations, and the bonds and notes the government issues will go into default.

Yes — the U.S. has already reached its current debt limit. The U.S. reached the current debt limit of $16.699 trillion this past May, but has had sufficient funds to continue to pay its bills. But according to the Obama administration, if the debt ceiling is not raised, and thus the U.S. government cannot borrow more funds, the government will run out of money on Oct. 17. At this point, it will no longer be able to pay it for its outlays, triggering a default.

How did the debt ceiling come about? Surprisingly, there is nothing about a debt ceiling in the Constitution. Rather, Congress and the President created it in 1917 with the passing of the Second Liberty Act. Since then, Congress has been continually raising the ceiling. In fact, it has done so 74 times in the last 51 years, according to the Congressional Research Service, making the ceiling almost arbitrary. But this year, a standoff in Congress has changed the situation. Congressional leaders have been using the threat of a government default as a bargaining tool.

But if it’s not in the Constitution, why on earth does the debt ceiling exist?

In the words of Dr. Daniel Hamermesh, the Sue Killam Professor in the Foundation of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin, “The debt ceiling is a self-inflicted wound that the legislature and the president tied their hands with. No other country does this... It has become a bargaining tool, although in a better world, we shouldn’t have this.”

So this year, what exactly is being bargained for or against? And why hasn’t Congress raised the ceiling already?

At the most basic level, the fight this year is over the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, a health care platform that House Republicans have tried to repeal or undermine at least 42 times, according to CNN. Now, members of the Tea Party, or right-wing Republicans, have decided to use the threat of a looming default to try to defund the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. This is no secret agenda. In fact, one of the most vocal advocates of this strategy, Senator Ted Cruz, is a junior U.S. Senator from Texas.

What’s at stake? What happens if the U.S. defaults on its debt?

Honestly, no one knows. A U.S. default is unprecedented. While other countries — such as Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Belize — have found themselves in sovereign default, none of these nations’ currencies serve as the world’s benchmark currency the way the U.S. dollar does. Usually, during economic turmoil, investors buy what they U.S. Treasury bonds, seeing them as one of the safest investments. In this scenario, when the U.S. government’s sovereignty itself is at risk, it’s unclear what the global investment community will do.

Will investors continue to buy U.S. bonds? Will they move to a portfolio of currencies? One person’s guess is as good as any other’s. In either situation, though, the confidence of the people buying U.S. debt — individuals, institutional investors, large banks, and foreign governments such as China and Japan — will be shattered. And this diminishing confidence level will be the most detrimental effect of the default, much larger than the practical considerations of the government not being able to pay its bills.

Hamermesh agreed, saying that this crisis is slowly destroying the perception of the U.S. as the most stable place to put money. Interest rates will go up as well, and the increased uncertainty will cause investors to move their money out of the country.

As for the effects on UT, they would trickle down effect would harm funding. In truth though, if such a thing did occur, the big picture implication would be so catastrophic that it’s even hard to speculate specific effects on UT. And the longer this fight goes on in Congress, the more detrimental the effects will be.

Recently, there have been a number of stories in the media about an avenue President Obama could take to sidestep the Congress and resolve this crisis. Section four of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. constitution says the following: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

To Hamermesh’s eyes, this passage provides the grounds for Obama telling Congress, “the debt should not be questioned, I’m not going to let it be questioned. Therefore we are going to keep on writing checks.” A move that would in effect “leave Ted Cruz stomping up and down and crying.” 

Other academics are not so certain that the solution is clear. Dr. Jack M Balkin, the Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, says on his blog that “the President does not have the unilateral power under Section four to disregard the debt ceiling.” 

Balkin believes that the President needs Congressional authorization to do so. If he sidesteps the Congress, it’s likely he could be tried for impeachment. The Obama administration has also officially stated that the President does not have the power to end the crisis under the 14th Amendment.

So where does this leave us?

Our country is on the brink of unprecedented economic collapse in large part due to partisan politics. And yet, behind all the bickering, there is a vague certainty that the U.S. cannot default; that the government won’t. This sentiment seems reminiscent of the one held by numerous large institutions during the mortgage crisis years ago. But the truth is, no country is too big to fail, not even the world’s largest superpower. And we, as a country, need to realize this in order to uphold our esteemed status in the global community.

Should we as students at UT care? In the words of Dr. Hamermesh, if we are citizens of the U.S., and if we want to continue to live in a country that is viewed as the best in the world, we should certainty care. And one of the first steps to caring is to educate ourselves on what’s going on.

Malik is a Plan II and business honors sophomore from Austin.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas earlier this year, officials from the Obama administration affirmed the validity of using race as a factor in determining university admissions in a letter addressed to university presidents across the country on Friday.

 

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Fisher case, officials from the Education and Justice departments said colleges and universities within the United States can continue to use race as a factor in their admission policies only if it is necessary for achieving diversity.

 

“The Court preserved the well-established legal principle that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and can lawfully pursue that interest in their admissions programs,” the letter said.

 

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit Court did not apply strict scrutiny to UT’s admission policy, which does use race as a factor, and sent the case back to the appeals court. The Court’s decision in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case allowed universities and colleges in the United States to use race as a factor, only if no other race-neutral means of achieving diversity goals were viable.

 

UT law professor Lino Graglia, who specializes in racial discrimination and affirmative action among other topics, said the Obama administration sent the letter because the Fisher decision has opened the door for admissions policies to be further scrutinized.

 

“The Grutter case said that diversity is a compelling interest. What the Fisher case did is cast some skepticism on that,” Graglia said. “They haven’t disallowed racial preferences [in university admissions], but they certainly invited litigation.”

 

In an email to The Daily Texan last week, Edward Blum, director of the Project for Fair Representation, said in sending the case back to the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court ruled in plaintiff Abigail Fisher’s favor. His organization has represented Fisher during the case’s progression through the legal system.

 

“Abby Fisher never asked the Court to overturn Grutter. We only asked that Grutter be applied properly by UT,” Blum wrote in his email. “The Court agreed with us 7-1. We won; UT lost; the Fifth Circuit was wrong in their decision and analysis and the justices vacated the opinion.”

 

Fisher sued the University in 2008 after she was denied admission into the University. Fisher, who has since graduated from Louisiana State University, claimed UT violated her right to equal protection because its admissions policy considers race as a factor for students who do not automatically qualify under the Top 10 Percent Law.

 

Although the Supreme Court sent the case to a lower court so UT’s admissions policy might be looked at more closely, Graglia said the Fisher decision did not overturn the Grutter ruling.

 

“The Fisher decision does not go as far as the opponents of affirmative action want,” Graglia said. “That is, it doesn’t say that considering race in admissions is unconstitutional.”

 

UT spokesman Gary Susswein did not comment on the letter but said the University is confident in its admissions policy.

 

The Fifth Circuit Court is scheduled to hear the Fisher case again on Nov. 13.

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin earlier this year, officials from the Obama administration affirmed the use of race as a factor in determining university admissions.

In a letter addressed to university presidents across the country, representatives of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice said on Friday that their departments strongly support diversity in higher education. 

“The Court preserved the well-established legal principle that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and can lawfully pursue that interest in their admissions programs,” officials said in the letter.

With the Fisher decision, the officials from the education and justice departments said colleges and universities in the U.S. can continue to use race as a factor in their admissions policies if it is necessary for diversity on campus. Representatives also released a document detailing answers to prominent questions about the decision’s impact on admissions.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled the Fifth Circuit Court did not apply strict scrutiny to UT’s admission policy and sent the case back to the appeals court. 

Law professor Lino Graglia said the Obama administration sent the letter because the Fisher decision has opened the door for college admissions policies to be further scrutinized. Graglia mentioned the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, which allowed universities and colleges in the U.S. to use race as a factor, but required there be no other race-neutral means of achieving diversity goals.

“The Grutter case said that diversity is a compelling interest,” Graglia said. “What the Fisher case did is cast some skepticism on that. They haven’t disallowed racial preferences [in university admissions], but they certainly invited litigation.”

The Fifth Circuit Court is scheduled to hear the Fisher case again on Nov. 13.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government has been secretly collecting the telephonerecords of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephonerecords of U.S. citizens, but critics said it was a huge over-reach.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Thursday that the top secret court order for telephone records is a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice. She spoke to reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The sweeping roundup of U.S. phone records has been going on for years and was a key part of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program, a U.S. official said Thursday.

The White House offered no immediate on-the-record comment. A senior administration official did not confirm the Guardian newspaper report that the NSA has been collecting the records, but the authenticity of the document was not disputed by the White House. The administration official insisted on anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name.

The order was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19, the Guardian reported. The order requires Verizon, one of the nation's largest telecommunications companies, on an "ongoing, daily basis," to give the NSA information on all landline and mobile telephone calls of Verizon Business in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

The newspaper said the document, a copy of which it had obtained, shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether the people are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The disclosure raised a number of questions: What was the government looking for? Were other big telephone companies under similar orders to turn over information? How was the information used?

Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted that privacy was essential in the digital era.

"Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" wrote Gore, the Democrat who lost the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the Obama administration should disclose the facts.

"I think that they have an obligation to respond immediately," said Wyden, a frequent critic of government actions dealing with Americans' privacy.

Under Bush, the National Security Agency built a highly classified wiretapping program to monitor emails and phone calls worldwide. The full details of that program remain unknown, but one aspect was to monitor massive numbers of incoming and outgoing U.S. calls to look for suspicious patterns, said an official familiar with the program. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

After The New York Times revealed the existence of that wiretapping program, the roundup continued under authority granted in the USA Patriot Act, the official said.

The official did not know if the program was continuous or whether it stopped and restarted at times.

The official had not seen the court order released by the Guardian newspaper but said it was consistent with similar authorizations the Justice Department has received.

Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said Wednesday the company had no comment.

The NSA had no immediate comment. The agency is sensitive to perceptions that it might be spying on Americans. In a brochure it distributes, which includes a DVD for reporters to view video that it provides for public relations purposes, it pledges that the agency "is unwavering in its respect for U.S. laws and Americans' civil liberties — and its commitment to accountability," and says, "Earning the American public's trust is paramount."

Verizon Communications Inc. listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report this April — 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 million residential phonelines and about 10 million commercial lines. The court order didn't specify which customers' records were being tracked.

Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.

The administration official said, "On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls."

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets. NSA warrantless wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks was very controversial.

The FISA court order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compelled Verizon to provide the NSA with electronic copies of "all call detail records or telephony metadata created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls," The Guardian said.

The law on which the order explicitly relies is the "business records" provision of the USA Patriot Act.

Illustration by Colin Zelinski.

The Obama administration released a 67-page brief Friday arguing that the federal Defense of Marriage Act “violates the fundamental constitutional guarantee of equal protection. The law denies to tens of thousands of same-sex couples who are legally married under state law an array of important federal benefits that are available to legally married opposite-sex couples.” 

Section 3 of DOMA, which is debated in the brief, “defines ‘marriage’ and ‘spouse’ for all purposes under federal law to exclude marriage between persons of the same sex, regardless of whether a marriage is recognized under state law.”

In the brief released by the Obama administration, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said “moral opposition to homosexuality, though it may reflect deeply held personal views, is not a legitimate policy objective that can justify unequal treatment of gay and lesbian people.” 

The brief made headlines the same week that a poll released by the Center for American Progress and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders suggested 59 percent of registered voters oppose section 3 of DOMA. The poll also found that 62 percent of American voters think DOMA discriminates.

In a separate poll, the Respect for Marriage Coalition – “a partnership of more than 80 civil rights, faith, health, labor, business, legal, LGBT, student and women’s organizations working together to end the DOMA and grow support for the freedom to marry,” according to the coalition’s website — released findings from the “first public opinion poll of 2013 on marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.” 

The results suggest “growing bipartisan majority of registered voters believe that the right for Americans to marry the person they love is both a Constitutional right and a freedom that all Americans — including gays and lesbians — should enjoy.”  The poll found 75 percent of American voters believe that marriage equality is a constitutional right, up 4 points since 2011. 

Regardless of the personal opinion's of the participants of the survey on the issue, the poll found 83 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriage “will be legal nationally in the next five to ten years” and 77 percent believe it will be legal in the next couple of years. This signifies a “significant increase since 2011 when 72 percent believed it would happen in the next five to 10 years, and 67 percent believed it would happen in the next couple of years.”

Voters on both sides of the issue do not believe that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry will have much of an impact on their personal lives. According to the Respect for Marriage Coalition poll, 62 percent believe legalizing same-sex marriage will either have not much impact or absolutely no impact at all, and the vast majority of these voters think it will have absolutely no impact on their lives.

Yet those who are denied legal marriage and its federal benefits are vastly impacted by DOMA. The Obama administration brief notes this can have a negative impact on children because “the denial of federal benefits otherwise accorded to married individuals undermines the efforts of same-sex couples to raise children, hindering rather than advancing any interest in promoting child welfare.”

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments next month on DOMA, the evolving attitudes regarding marriage equality in America suggest now more than ever, people across the board recognize that regardless of their own personal beliefs, discrimination based on sexual orientation is unconstitutional. 

Published on February 27, 2013 as "Marriage act deemed unconstitutional". 

This image taken Wednesday shows buildings that were destroyed from a shelling by forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad, in Homs province, central Syria.
 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Members of Syria’s opposition-in-exile bristled Thursday at the Obama administration’s suggestion that Washington will handpick more representative leaders at a crucial conference in Qatar next week.

The new U.S. push appears aimed at creating a unified leadership that could work more closely with the West. But there are signs of resistance among deeply fractured opposition groups wary of attempts by foreign backers to dictate strategy in the civil war against President Bashar Assad.

“This direct tutelage and these dictates are not acceptable to the Syrian people anymore,” said

Zuhair Salem, the London-based spokesman for Syria’s banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition group. The Brotherhood is part of the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which is dominated by exiles.

Syrians and the U.S. administration have grown increasingly frustrated as the opposition proved unwilling or unable to coalesce. The U.S. and its allies have long bemoaned the lack of a cohesive leadership, and there is little doubt that this has held back more robust foreign aid and involvement to bolster the opposition in its fight.

With the battle for control of Syria almost certainly to be decided on the battlefield, the political opposition led by exiles is being further sidelined.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration said it would push for a major shakeup in the opposition leadership so that it better represents the fighters risking their lives on the frontlines. At least 36,000 people have been killed since the uprising began 19 months ago, according to anti-regime activists.

It was a signal that Syria’s political opposition is increasingly irrelevant, as it’s become clearer that the conflict will be decided by fighters.

The shift in the U.S. position came after months of fruitless attempts by the Obama administration and its allies to cajole the notoriously fractious SNC to broaden its base, according to two American officials.
 
 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is weighing options for sharp new cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including a reduction of up to 80 percent in the number of deployed weapons, The Associated Press has learned.

Even the most modest option now under consideration would be an historic and politically bold disarmament step in a presidential election year, although the plan is in line with President Barack Obama's 2009 pledge to pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons.

No final decision has been made, but the administration is considering at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons cutting to: 1,000 to 1,100; 700 to 800, and 300 to 400, according to a former government official and a congressional staffer. Both spoke on condition of anonymity in order to reveal internal administration deliberations.

The potential cuts would be from a current treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.

Printed on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 as: Obama considers eliminating 80% of total nuclear weapons