Blog Posts by Olivier Knox, Yahoo News

  • How an Obama State of the Union speech is born

    President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union speech has been coming together, draft by draft, much of it springing from the mind of a quick-witted 33-year-old with a below-ground West Wing office, an above-average thirst for caffeine and a passion for the 1985 Chicago Bears.

    Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan is known to fuel his long hours with “red eyes” — large drip coffees with a shot of espresso for extra kick. Recently, White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri made him a batch of her “energy cookies” — described by someone who has had them as “mini power bars.”

    He’s no Raymond Price — the long-ago speechwriter for Richard Nixon who famously wrote the first draft of the 1970 State of the Union on a sleepless three-day blitz powered by “greenies,” amphetamines prescribed by the White House doctor. Instead, in the wee hours, Keenan can make himself a cup of coffee with a Keurig machine given to him by the National Security staff.

    The big themes of Obama’s

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  • NBA’s Jason Collins, Boston Marathon survivors among Obama’s State of the Union guests

    It’s “meet the Skutniks” time in Washington, D.C.: The NBA’s first openly gay player, a hero from the Boston Bombing (and the man he helped save), the Moore, Okla., fire chief who led the search for survivors after a devastating tornado, and others.

    The White House on Monday announced the first batch of guests who will watch President Barack Obama’s state of the union speech on Tuesday alongside first lady Michelle Obama, who will sit in her special spot in the gallery above the floor of the House of Representatives.

    Why are they called “Skutniks?”

    Lenny Skutnik dove into the icy Potomac River in January 1982 to rescue a woman from the Air Florida Flight 90 crash, earning him a spot as an honored guest at then-President Ronald Reagan’s state of the union speech two weeks later.

    By tradition, the guests who sit in the first lady’s gallery – people whose life stories traditionally help the president make a point in the annual speech – are known as Skutniks.

    Here is the first wave of

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  • Watch what happens when Obama picks a top donor as ambassador

    This is why a future president might finally do away with the practice of nominating a top political donor to be an ambassador.

    Here’s how the White House described wealthy executive George Tsunis when President Barack Obama nominated him to be the top U.S. diplomat in Norway in September 2013:

    “George J. Tsunis is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Chartwell Hotels, LLC. From 1999 to 2009, Mr. Tsunis was of counsel at Rivkin Radler, LLP and served as partner since 2005. Mr. Tsunis was Special Counsel to the Town of Huntington Committee on Open Space Preservation as well as Counsel to the Dix Hills Water District from 2003 to 2009. From 1998 to 1999, he practiced law at Goldberg & Cohen in Brooklyn, NY. From 1996 to 1998, he was a Legislative Attorney at the New York City Council. Mr. Tsunis received a B.A. from New York University and a J.D. from St. John's University School of Law.”

    Missing: diplomatic credentials, obvious ties to Norway.

    But a trip to the website

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  • Experts: Voting should not be English-only affair

    Elections officials must step up efforts to help voters who do not speak English well register to vote, then actually cast their ballots, a bipartisan panel recommended in a report released Wednesday.

    “Jurisdictions should provide bilingual poll workers to any polling place with a significant number of voters who do not speak English,” the Presidential Commission on Election Administration said among its series of recommendations.

    President Barack Obama met Wednesday with the panel, whose co-chairs were his top campaign lawyer, Bob Bauer, and Mitt Romney’s top campaign lawyer, Ben Ginsberg.

    "All of us share the belief that, regardless of party affiliation, that our democracy demands that our citizens can participate in a smooth and effective way," the president said.

    The recommendation comes at a time when Republicans and Democrats are looking for ways to appeal to an increasingly diverse electorate.

    The commission said it heard testimony that some states fail to fulfill Voting Rights Act

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  • 8 questions about Obama’s NSA spying overhaul

    President Barack Obama’s speech on Friday about overhauling how America spies on itself and the world grabbed headlines — but it mostly served to feed, not resolve, big debates largely forced on him by Edward Snowden’s leaks.

    Here are eight questions about what happens next in the ongoing “Yes we can! But should we?” argument about the National Security Agency’s role in surveillance and overall intelligence-gathering.

    1) How will the Supreme Court react?

    Lots of reporting about the future of American surveillance seem to forget about the nine justices, who aren’t going to “react” to Obama's speech, of course, but might yet play the most influential role in setting rules of the road.

    Two federal judges have recently broken on whether the government’s storage of Americans’ telephone metadata — everything except the content of communications — is constitutional. That means the Supreme Court might weigh in on whether that program is constitutional.

    Congress and the administration’s lawyers will

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  • White House summit on college affordability: Live chat

    President Barack Obama and Michele Obama are hosting a high-profile White House summit of college and university presidents, and leaders from non-profits, state governments and the private sector as part of a push to find ways to make higher education more affordable.

    Is the ever-higher price tag on a college education worth it? Are there ways to make it cost less, and make repaying student loans easier, especially in difficult economic times? Is that colleges can do on their own? Or will it require action from Washington?

    Join Yahoo News for a live chat on these and other issues with our experts:

    - Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy

    - John Malcolm McCardell, Jr., the Vice Chancellor of The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee

    - Anthony Carnevale , director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce

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  • Obama NSA speech on anniversary of Eisenhower warning

    It’s a coincidence, White House aides say. President Barack Obama did not deliberately schedule his big NSA speech for Friday to mark the anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning that the “military-industrial complex” posed a potential threat to American democracy.

    Eisenhower’s Jan. 17, 1961, speech portrayed the country as locked in a struggle of “indefinite duration” — he meant against Soviet Communism, though the label could apply today to Islamist extremism. He also noted that a vigorous military, and the industrial and technological apparatus that supports it, were necessary.

    But then the former five-star general shocked Americans with this:

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

    He went on:

    “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic

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  • White House turns to ‘Magic’ to sell Obamacare

    Eager for an assist in getting young Americans to sign up for Obamacare, the White House is turning to NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.

    Johnson, in a two-minute video released Wednesday, notes that access to reliable health care “saved my life” with the early detection of his HIV infection 22 years ago.

    "If it wasn’t for that quality health care that I had, and the plan that I had, I probably would have been dead," Johnson says in the video.

    “You never know when you’re going to need it,” the former world-class athlete says. “Young people, they think they’re Superman, like nothing’s ever going to happen to them. But trust me, one day something’s going to happen, and you’re going to need a quality health plan, so make sure you get Obamacare.”

    The retired Los Angeles Laker, 54, is the NBA’s all-time leader in average assists per game. He plans to promote the video—soon to be a 30-second ad on networks like ESPN, ABC and TNT—via Twitter and on a blog.

    The Obama administration has acknowledged

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  • Greenwald: I’ll watch Obama’s NSA speech, more stories coming ASAP

    When President Barack Obama lays out his proposed changes to the way America spies on its citizens and the world in a major speech on Friday, Glenn Greenwald will be watching.

    But the independent journalist and civil liberties champion whose work with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden effectively forced Obama’s hand scoffs at the notion that he is looking to time a new bombshell revelation to overshadow the president’s remarks at the Department of Justice.

    Obama administration officials privately expressed resignation this week that a new revelation, drawn from Snowden’s trove of NSA documents, could land even as Obama is trying to retake the initiative on the spying issue.

    “I think it's funny that US officials think that I calculate my stories that strategically - they're like Internet conspiracy theorists,” Greenwald told Yahoo News by email.

    It’s not just U.S. officials who are mindful of Snowden’s next move. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy implied that America’s allies, stung

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  • Robert Gates considered Michael Bloomberg a possible Pentagon successor

    Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in his buzzy memoir that, when it came time to hand over the reins at the Pentagon, he created a short list of possible successors that included one unlikely name: Michael Bloomberg, the news company billionaire serving as New York City's mayor at the time.

    "For my own job, my short list included Hillary [Clinton], Colin Powell, [then-CIA director Leon] Panetta, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg," Gates reveals on page 537 of "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War."

    Panetta was plainly Gates' top choice, and ultimately got the job. Gates doesn't spell out why Bloomberg would have made a solid candidate to replace him, though New York City's government bureaucracy probably rivals the Pentagon's.

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