Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Obama and Bush, distinct men with policy overlaps

Despite vast differences with President George W. Bush on ideology, style and temperament, President Barack Obama has stuck with Bush policies or aspirations on a number of fronts, from counterterrorism to immigration, from war strategy to the global fight against AIDS.

Even on tax policy, where Bush advocated lower tax rates for all and Obama pushed for higher rates on the rich, Bush's tax cuts for the middle class not only have survived under Obama, they have become permanent.

Obama inherited from his predecessor two military conflicts, a war on terror and a financial crisis. He also inherited, and in time embraced, the means with which to confront them.

On Thursday, Obama will attend the dedication of Bush's presidential library in Texas, a tableau that will draw attention to two distinct men—a Republican and a Democrat from different ends of the political spectrum, political foils with polarized constituencies.

Indeed, Obama ran for president in 2008 as the anti-Bush, critical of the war against Iraq and of the economic policies of the preceding eight years.

But in his more than four years of governing, Obama has also adopted or let stand a series of Bush initiatives, illustrating how the policies of one administration can take hold and how the realities of governing often limit solutions.

Bush's signature education plan, No Child Left Behind, remains the law of the land, though the Obama administration has granted states waivers to give them flexibility in meeting performance targets. A Bush Medicare prescription drug plan, criticized for its cost, is now popular with beneficiaries, and Obama has sought to improve it by providing relief for seniors with high bills. Obama continued the unpopular bank bailouts and expanded the auto industry rescue that Bush initiated in 2008.

Bush authorized a military surge in Iraq in an effort to tame the conflict there. Obama completed the withdrawal of troops from Iraq but also authorized a military surge in Afghanistan before beginning a drawdown of troops that is expected to be completed at the end of 2014.

"The responsibilities of office drive presidents toward pragmatism," said Joshua Bolten, a former Bush chief of staff. Where those policies are effective, he added, "the successor has good reason to adopt them."

Obama, like Bush during his presidency, is seeking an overhaul of immigration laws that give 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally a chance to get on a path toward citizenship. Bush came up short in 2007, but Bolten believes that six years later the nation and its politicians are in a different place.

"President Bush was just ahead of his time and his party in recognizing both the importance of reaching some sort of bipartisan accommodation and on what the elements of that might reasonably be," he said.

Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes on the presidency, says it's not uncommon for presidents to hand off their agendas to another. Even measures or issues that were unpopular under one president can appear different with the passage of time and under the direction of a new occupant in the White House.

"While the names of the problems are the same, the stage of development is usually very different and the public stance of the president dealing with them is often very different," he said. "You have to be sensitive to those things lest you create the false impression that they are mirror images of one another, which I don't think would be accurate."

On no front are the similarities more striking than on counterterrorism. Obama did vow to end the harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding that had been employed during the Bush administration, and he issued an executive order upon becoming president declaring that the United States would not engage in torture.

But other practices continued and, in some case, expanded under Obama.

"The basic similarity is these are the only two presidents that have governed in a post-9/11 era, where the principal threat to the United States comes from terrorism," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser. "President Obama believes that we're at war with al-Qaida and its affiliated groups, has continued to take direct action against al-Qaida networks overseas and has continued to pursue very aggressive intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security measures that have been developed since 9/11."

Jack Goldsmith, who was an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel during Bush's first term, says Obama's use of warrantless surveillance, military detentions without trial and increased drone strikes has received less pushback than it would under a Republican president.

Goldsmith, now a law professor at Harvard Law School, argued in a blog post after Obama's election that the public "generally trust the former constitutional law professor and civil liberties champion more than a Republican president to carry out these policies."

He added that "many on the left (in Congress and the NGO community, and perhaps the press) who might otherwise be uncomfortable with these policies will give President Obama a freer hand than they would a Republican president."

Still, Rhodes sees significant differences in Obama's national security approach.

Bush, Rhodes said, had defined the broad conflict as a war on terrorism and included Iraq as part of that war.

"We redefined the war as something more narrow, which was a war against al-Qaida and its affiliates, not against other states, not against nonaffiliated terrorist groups," Rhodes said.

Republican Sen. John McCain has a unique perch to assess both presidents. He ran against both—in 2000 against Bush for the Republican nomination and in 2008 against Obama. He allied himself with both men on immigration and called on them to increase troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. An early opponent of waterboarding, he has applauded Obama's continued use of other counterterrorism measures.

"I think they both had an appreciation for the threat that we face," he said of the two presidents.

But he faults Obama for not leaving a residual force in Iraq and for creating uncertainty about what the U.S. presence will be in Afghanistan after 2014.

And he distinguishes between the presidents. Under Bush, he said the United States became a nation "that was ready to pursue our enemies."

"Obviously, President Obama viewed this as a time to withdraw and not to make military commitments overseas."

Rhodes makes a similar point, though differently.

"The trajectory under the previous administration was an increased military presence overseas," he said. "President Obama would like his legacy to be the reduction of military presence overseas and having, ideally, zero troops in harm's way." 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Obama outlines private-public project to study the brain

Making good on a promise first hinted at during his State of the Union speech in February, President Obama on Tuesday unveiled the broad outlines of a scientific initiative aimed at mapping the human brain. The project's ambitious goals include understanding how the brain forms memories and controls human behavior; how it becomes damaged by conditions such as Parkinson's disease and autism; and how it can be repaired when afflicted by Alzheimer's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses.

The BRAIN initiative — short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — is modeled after the Human Genome Project, in which the federal government partnered with philanthropies and scientific entrepreneurs to identify and characterize the nearly 25,000 genes that make up human DNA.

"A human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons making trillions of connections," Obama said Tuesday as he outlined the initiative in the East Room of the White House. In the absence of a detailed map of the brain's complex circuitry and operating instructions that could help troubleshoot when the brain's wiring goes awry, scientists often grope in the dark for therapies that can treat Alzheimer's or autism or to reverse the effects of a stroke, Obama said. "So there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked."

The funding available beyond this year for the BRAIN initiative remains unclear. Calling the "three pounds of matter that sits between our ears" a mystery to be unraveled, Obama said his proposed budget of $110 million for fiscal year 2014 would "help get this project off the ground." Private sector partners the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Kavli Foundation have committed $158 million to the project.

Over five years of the Human Genome Project, the federal government invested $3.8 billion in the effort. But federal spending in the initiative's first year was modest: $27.9 million.

In a bid to fend off opposition from budget-cutters on Capitol Hill and cast the initiative as an investment in the U.S. economy, the White House said that every federal dollar expended on the Human Genome Project went on to generate $141 in economic output.

"Ideas are what power our economy," Obama said. "When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else."

If Obama's proposed budget for the project is approved by Congress this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the small office within the Pentagon known as DARPA, will disburse about $50 million in grants under the BRAIN initiative next year. The National Institutes of Health will contribute $40 million, and the National Science Foundation $20 million.

Funding in future years will be negotiated yearly.

"Out of this is going to come a foundation of understanding the brain that we have dreamed of all through human history," said Dr. Francis Collins, who was in charge of the government's role in the Human Genome Project and is now director of the National Institutes of Health.

DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said her agency would focus on the brain trauma research it has pioneered in recent years. That work was spurred by the brain injuries and PTSD that have afflicted thousands of U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting insights and treatments will also benefit civilians whose brains have been injured by strokes, illness, car crashes and falls, she said.

"We're starting to learn more about how memory is encoded in the brain and starting to see how we might restore memory loss after injury," Prabhakar said. "There are broader applications," as researchers extend that research to address disorders of memory, such as Alzheimer's disease, and DARPA would probably invest in such projects, she said.

DARPA, whose early research helped spawn the Internet, will also look to fund brain research that would make prosthetic devices more responsive to human thought, as well as other cognitive research that might inspire new information-processing and computing techniques, Prabhakar said. Both subjects are of keen interest to the military.

The White House will also assign the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues the task of exploring the ethical, legal and societal problems certain to arise as brain science advances.

That panel has already weighed in on the social and ethical implications of drugs and technologies that promise to enhance the cognitive performance of healthy people. As future work unlocks the workings of the brain when a patient appears to be in a vegetative state, those experts will probably wrestle with new definitions of life and death. And as the field of neuroprosthetics makes human thought increasingly discernible to computers, age-old fears about the use of mind-reading technologies are likely to spark investigation.

Despite uncertainty about future funding, the initiative drew jubilant praise from scientists engaged in brain research.

"Where you put a major investment in understanding the most complicated thing we know — the human brain — there could be benefits to every aspect of society," said Dr. John C. Mazziotta, a leading neuroscientist who is executive vice dean of UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. Scientists could make new discoveries about aging, education, creativity, psychiatric disorders and social problems such as homelessness, he said.

But such lofty goals will not come cheap, cautioned Larry Swanson, president of the Society for Neuroscience. The initiative will fall short of expectations if federal funds dedicated to the project are the object of yearly political haggling.

Obama on Tuesday offered a nod to such concerns.

"Of course, none of this will be easy," he said. "If it was, we would already know everything there was about how the brain works, and presumably my life would be simpler here. It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington."