Blog Posts by Olivier Knox

  • Ag Sec Vilsack wishes for ‘rain prayer’ to combat painful drought

    The exposed bottom of the Mississippi River near St. Louis, July 17, 2012. (Robert Ray/AP)

    Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned Wednesday that the worst drought in 25 years would drive food prices up later this year and said the situation was bad enough to make him wish for divine intervention. He also warned consumers to be on the watch for food price gouging.

    "I get on my knees every day, and I'm saying an extra prayer now," Vilsack told reporters during a rare appearance in the White House briefing room. "If I had a rain prayer, or rain dance, I could do, I would do it."

    "But honestly right now the focus needs to be on working with Congress" to craft an aid package in some form for hard-hit farmers and livestock producers facing the prospects of failed crops and higher feed costs, he said. Vilsack did not put a price tag on such legislation, saying the full extent of the damage was not yet clear.

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  • White House aide says Assad is ‘losing control of Syria’

    The White House said Wednesday that the latest deadly violence in Syria—notably a suicide bomb attack that killed the country's defense minister, as well as increased fighting in Damascus—showed that President Bashar Assad was losing his once iron grip on the country.

    "It's clear that the Assad regime is losing control of Syria," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. "With the Assad regime losing control, it's time for the Syrian people and the international community to focus on what comes next."

    The bombing prompted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to warn that the violence in Syria is "rapidly spinning out of control" and that a political solution is urgently needed.

    The message from Vietor is not radically different from the White House's message over the past few months: Assad's ouster is a matter of time, and the world must unite to pave the way for a political transition. But events on the ground lent it greater urgency.

    "We are working urgently with our international partners to push for a political transition in Syria," Vietor said in an emailed statement, noting talks between Washington's international partners and Syria's opposition. "The sooner this transition happens, the greater the chance we have of averting a lengthy and bloody sectarian civil war and the better we'll be able to help Syrians manage a stable transition to democracy."

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  • A tattoo crackdown? U.S. Capitol Police set new body modification rules

    A Capitol Police officer stands on guard on the west side of the Capitol in Washington Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

    Officers of the U.S. Capitol Police face new rules on the size and content of tattoos that might be seen by tourists, and a ban on "outwardly visible branding," National Journal reports.

    It's all in a manual from the force's top brass, in a section entitled "Grooming Standards," that National Journal reports is causing a bit of grumbling among the officers affected.

    It's not that they're defending tattoos showcasing "criminal gang affiliation, depictions of sexually explicit art, nudity, or violence, etc," the publication says. But size restrictions on visible tattoos could pose a headache for officers assigned to bike duty—when the sweltering D.C. weather leads them to wear short pants.

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  • Obama picks career diplomats to be envoys to Afghanistan, Pakistan

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan as Lt. Gen. Curtis "Mike" Scaparrotti looks on (Charles Dharapak/AP)

    President Barack Obama has picked senior career diplomats James Cunningham and Richard Olson to be ambassadors to Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, the White House announced late Tuesday.

    If confirmed by the Senate, the two would replace veteran diplomats Ryan Crocker and Cameron Munter in two of the toughest assignments in the State Department.

    Cunningham, currently Crocker's deputy, served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2008-2011. He has also held posts in Hong Kong, at United Nations headquarters in New York, and in Rome, among other places. (One interesting nugget in his official profile: Cunningham has a B.A. in Psychology from Syracuse University.)

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  • White House blasts study critical of Obama’s tax-plan

    President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event in Texas (Eric Gay/AP)

    The White House hit back hard late Tuesday at a study by accounting firm Ernst and Young that charged President Barack Obama's signature tax proposal could cost 710,000 jobs, claiming it's chock full of "major flaws, errors and misleading statements."

    Obama has called for extending Bush-era tax cuts on income up to $250,000, a move that chiefly would benefit the middle class, while letting lower tax rates on upper brackets expire on schedule come January 1. (The richest Americans would still get tax cuts on their first $250,000 of income.) The president has said that the country cannot afford the Republican plan to extend all of the tax cuts, and warned that doing so would force cuts to popular government programs.

    On the official White House blog, senior Obama economic policy aide Jason Furman ripped the new study. Among his complaints:

    -       The report, funded by pro-business groups generally hostile to Obama's agenda, assumes that none of the revenue generated by raising taxes on the richest Americans goes to deficit reduction. Instead, it assumes the money would go to expanding government spending. But the president has called for the money to go to reducing the federal deficit and national debt.

    -       The report omits Obama's push for new tax cuts to spur private-sector hiring and investment. By ignoring the predicted impact on jobs growth, Furman argued, the study distorts the impact of the president's agenda.

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  • Luke Skywalker knocks Romney as ‘not human’

    Luke shot first?

    Actor Mark Hamill—still, decades later, best known for his turn as Luke Skywalker in the original "Star Wars" trilogy—is warning voters that Mitt Romney "only imitates human behavior. He's not actually human himself." No word from Hamill on whether the Republican standard-bearer is more machine, now, than man, twisted and evil. Or whether the ugliness of the 2012 campaign is giving Mos Eisley a run for the title of most wretched hive of scum and villainy.

    The actor made his comments to the entertainment website at Comic-Con in San Diego. The riff began as Hamill fondly recalled watching "Zorro" as a kid.

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  • Obama ad hits Romney on taxes (yep, again)

    Welcome to Pennsylvania, Mitt Romney! What are you hiding? That's the message in the latest Obama campaign ad to take aim at the Republican standard-bearer's personal finances to make the case that he cannot be trusted to steer the economy.

    The ad accuses Romney of having "used every trick in the book" to shrink his tax burden and says it "makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all."

    "We don't know because Romney has released just one full year of his tax returns and won't release anything before 2010," the ad says. "What is Mitt Romney hiding?"

    The Obama campaign has been attacking Romney's personal finances as a way of blunting criticisms of the president over the fitful economy, and casting doubt on the former Massachusetts governor's credentials. Romney has declined to follow longstanding precedent by releasing a decade's worth of tax returns, a fact Democrats have gleefully turned into ammunition for election-year assaults. And even some Republicans have called for

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  • Study says Obama tax proposals could cost 700,000 jobs—Boehner pounces

    President Barack Obama crosses the South Lawn of the White House (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

    Republican House Speaker John Boehner hammered President Barack Obama on Tuesday after accounting firm Ernst and Young released a study funded by pro-business groups hostile to the Democrat's agenda. The firm's results showed that Obama's proposed tax hikes on the wealthy could cost the already sputtering economy more than 700,000 jobs.

    "Our economy is still struggling under President Obama's policies, and his massive tax hike will only make things tougher," Boehner said in a statement. "It's one of the worst possible ideas at one of the worst possible times for families and small businesses."

    Obama has been campaigning on calls to extend the Bush-era tax cuts on income up to $250,000 but let them expire above that level. He and fellow Democrats have accused Republicans of holding middle-class tax relief hostage to help the very rich (in fact, the wealthy would see the benefits on their first $250,000 of income). Recent polls have suggested that the public broadly supports the president in principle, though Republicans have noted that his proposal does not yet exist as legislation, and Democrats are expected to water down some of the president's recommended changes.

    The Ernst and Young study looked at the impact of seeing the top marginal tax rates rise—but also studied the effects of a range of other proposals included in the president's budget and broader tax plans.

    This report examines four sets of provisions that would increase the top tax rates:

    · The increase in the top two tax rates from 33 to 36 percent and from 35 to 39.6 percent.

    · The reinstatement of the limitation on itemized deductions for high-income taxpayers (the "Pease" provision).

    · The taxation of dividends as ordinary income and at a top income tax rate of 39.6 percent and increase in the top tax rate applied to capital gains to 20 percent.

    · The increase in the 2.9 percent Medicare tax to 3.8 percent for high-income taxpayers and the application of the new 3.8 percent tax on investment income including flow-through business income, interest, dividends and capital gains.

    Here is what the accounting firm concluded would happen:

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  • Obama reveals his favorite Girl Scout cookie (spoiler: Thin Mints)

    President Barack Obama shares a laugh at a town hall-style campaign rally in Cincinnati (Susan Walsh/AP)

    He can kiss the Tagalong voters goodbye. President Barack Obama on Monday revealed that his favorite Girl Scout cookies are Thin Mints—an announcement that generated a boo or two from a rowdy crowd at a town hall-style rally in Cincinnati.

    After questions on gay rights, environmental protection and how he planned to help small businesses, Obama took a question from a young girl named Julie, who piped up with "what's your favorite Girl Scout cookie?"

    "I've got to say, this is one of the toughest questions," the president said. "I've got to say I'm pretty partial to those mint, uh … " Most of the crowd laughed, clapped and cheered, but at least one person booed.

    "That's just me! I didn't meant to create controversy.  Did you hear there was somebody booing?" Obama said with a chuckle. He located the boo-er and said, "You had a different opinion. What are you, oatmeal?" Peanut butter, came the answer. "Peanut butter is quite good too, but I'm going with the mint," the president replied.

    (Thin Mints account for 25 percent of Girl Scout cookie sales, ahead of Samoas/Caramel deLites with 19 percent and Peanut Butter Patties/Tagalongs with 13 percent, according to the Girl Scouts.)

    In another exchange, Obama politely but firmly turned down barbershop owner Tony White's request to cut his hair.

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  • Obama says a Romney presidency would create 800,000 jobs–abroad

    President Barack Obama speaks at a town-hall style rally in Cincinnati (Susan Walsh/AP)

    President Barack Obama blasted Mitt Romney's economic plan during a stop in the pivotal swing state of Ohio on Monday, saying the blueprint would create 800,000 jobs—just not in America.

    "Today, we found out, there's a new study out by a nonpartisan economist that says Gov. Romney's economic plan would in fact create 800,000 jobs," Obama said at a town hall-style event in Cincinnati. "There's only one problem. The jobs wouldn't be in America."

    "They would not be in America. They'd be in other countries. By eliminating taxes on corporations' foreign income, Gov. Romney's plan would actually encourage companies to shift more of their operations to foreign tax havens, creating 800,000 jobs in those other countries," the president added.

    "This shouldn't be a surprise because Gov. Romney's experience has been investing in what were called pioneers of the business of outsourcing," Obama said, reprising one of his core arguments against the Republican standard-bearer. The president has been assailing Romney over allegedly encouraging businesses to ship jobs overseas.

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