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U.S. Air Force Academy Cadets of the Class of 2012, lower their heads during the Invocation at the start of the commencement ceremony, Wednesday, May 23, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Air Force changes contentious religious policy

09/18/14 09:06AM

Under Pentagon guidelines, American servicemen and women who re-enlist are required to sign a specific written oath. In the Air Force, that's proven to be a bit more controversial than expected.
The oath seems pretty straightforward. Signers swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic"; "bear true faith and allegiance to the same"; and "obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me." But it concludes, "So help me God," and for atheists, that's a problem.
In the Army and Navy, Americans have the discretion to omit those final four words without penalty, but the Air Force has made it mandatory. In fact, as we discussed over the weekend, an airman was recently told he would be excluded from military service, regardless of his qualifications, unless he does as the Air Force requires and swears an oath to God.
At least, that was the policy. Abby Ohlheiser reported late yesterday that the Air Force has agreed to change its approach.
After an airman was unable to complete his reenlistment because he omitted the part of a required oath that states "so help me God," the Air Force changed its instructions for the oath.
Following a review of the policy by the Department of Defense General Counsel, the Air Force will now permit airmen to omit the phrase, should they so choose. That change is effective immediately, according to an Air Force statement.
In a written statement, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said, "The Air Force will be updating the instructions for both enlisted and commissioned Airmen to reflect these changes in the coming weeks, but the policy change is effective now. Airmen who choose to omit the words 'So help me God' from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so." She added that Air Force officials are "making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen's rights are protected."
It's worth emphasizing that the Air Force didn't have a lot of choice -- it was facing the prospect of a lawsuit officials were likely to lose.

Jobless claims show sharp improvement, near 14-year low

09/18/14 08:40AM

The data on initial unemployment claims was a little erratic around Labor Day, leading to some questions about what to expect next. With this in mind, the new data from the Labor Department was not only welcome news, it was better than anyone expected.
The number of people who applied for jobless benefits dropped 36,000 to 280,000 in the week that ended Sept. 13, hitting the lowest level since mid-July, signaling that employers are laying off very few workers, according to government data released Thursday. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected initial claims for regular state unemployment-insurance benefits to decline to 305,000 in the most recent weekly data from an originally reported 315,000 for the prior period.
On Thursday, the U.S. Labor Department tweaked initial claims for the week that ended Sept. 6 to 316,000. The four-week average of new claims, a trend that's less volatile than weekly changes, fell 4,750 to 299,500, the government reported.
Just to add some additional contest, this new report is the best since mid-July, but more important, the 280,000 figure suggests initial unemployment claims are approaching a 14-year low.
That said, to reiterate the point I make every Thursday morning, it's worth remembering that week-to-week results can vary widely, and it's best not to read too much significance into any one report.
A view of Capitol Hill Oct. 16, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

This time, Obama gets what he wants from Congress

09/18/14 08:00AM

The White House may be struggling badly with its political standing, and Democrats may very well have a rough election cycle, but President Obama can still occasionally get exactly what he wants.
For example, the president and his team worked hard to secure support for part of his new counter-terrorism strategy, and yesterday afternoon, the Republican-led House delivered.
The House of Representatives voted on Wednesday afternoon to greenlight President Obama's controversial proposal to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in effort to defeat the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Obama wanted this measure, and he got it. The president wanted the House to approve a spending measure -- the "continuing resolution" -- to avoid a government shutdown, and he got that, too. Obama even urged lawmakers to extend the life of the Export-Import Bank, and despite the controversy, that's also going through.
It's not often the White House can reflect on developments on Capitol Hill and conclude, "We got everything we hoped to get."
Of course, in yesterday's case, Obama had some help. The measure on support for Syrian rebels passed because House Republican leaders endorsed the administration's plan. The CR passed, despite some recent grumbling, because there was little appetite for a pre-election government shutdown. The Export-Import Bank will live on because so many of the GOP's allies in the business community urged Republicans to side with the White House on this.
Still, presidents struggling in the polls generally don't get what they want, especially from chambers run by the other party, especially when contentious issues like war take center stage. Yesterday, however, Obama had a good day.
That said, there was plenty of drama surrounding the proposal on supporting Syrian rebels -- with a more difficult discussion on the way.

Presidential airstrikes and other headlines

09/18/14 07:56AM

Obama plans to tightly control strikes in Syria. (Wall Street Journal)

Senate votes today on training Syrian rebels. (The Hill)

Meet the president's key player on Syria. (The Hill)

Ukraine's president addresses a joint meeting of congress today. (Washington Post)

The man who can save Sen. Pat Roberts. (National Journal)

Texas executes second female prisoner this year. (AP)

Oregonians to vote on driving cards for immigrants. (AP)

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Manipulative propaganda is ISIS strong suit

Manipulative propaganda is ISIS strong suit

09/17/14 10:44PM

Laith Alkhouri, senior analyst at Flashpoint Partners, talks with Rachel Maddow about how ISIS distinguishes itself from other terror groups by its effective use of propaganda to terrorize Americans and draw the U.S. into the validating engagement it... watch

Lamp dancer a welcome bipartisan bright spot

Lamp dancer a welcome bipartisan bright spot

09/17/14 10:28PM

Rachel Maddow salutes the eccentric good cheer of the Topeka Lamp Dancer, whose twitter account is incongruously followed by the office of the Kansas Secretary of State, which is presently engaged in a legal battle to force a Democrat to stay on a ballot. watch

Ahead on the 9/17/14 Maddow show

09/17/14 08:19PM

Tonight's guest:

  • Laith Alkhouri, senior analyst at Flashpoint Partners
  • Bob McManaman, senior sportswriter for the Arizona Republic

And here's executive producer Cory Gnazzo with a preview of what's in store:

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 9.17.14

09/17/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* About 10 minutes ago, the House approved a White House request to help train anti-ISIS rebels in Syria. The measure passed, 273 to 156, and will be added to a spending bill (continuing resolution) that funds the government through mid-December.
* Syria: "In Talbiseh and across Syria, insurgent fighters who oppose both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the foreign-led militants of the extremist group called the Islamic State are being pummeled by a new wave of attacks and assassination attempts."
* Here's hoping this doesn't prompt GOP lawmakers to change their minds: "The White House said Wednesday it supports House passage of a stopgap spending bill that would keep the government funded through Dec. 11."
* Ebola: "The three West African countries most affected by Ebola could experience a 'potentially catastrophic blow' to their economies because of the epidemic, the World Bank Group warned Wednesday."
* The Fed: "The Federal Reserve on Wednesday released details of its plan to reverse nearly six years of easy money as it nears the end of its trillion-dollar stimulus campaign. The move comes amid an economic recovery that looks increasingly sustainable, even if it is not as robust as anticipated."
* Too careless, too often: "'No one ever doubts that I mean what I say,' Vice President Joe Biden told a group of lawyers in a speech before the Legal Services Corporation. 'The problem is I sometimes say all that I mean.' The crowd laughed. Then, less than 20 minutes later, he made a remark that was promptly condemned as a 'medieval stereotype about Jews' by the Anti-Defamation League."
* She raised a fair point: "Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) on Wednesday eviscerated Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for attacking the Obama administration instead of focusing on attacking ISIS. She criticized him for the way he questioned Secretary of State John Kerry during a hearing on the U.S. plan for combating ISIS."
* Nate Silver has extensive concerns about Sam Wang's forecasting model (the methodology, not necessarily the results). Wang, of the Princeton Election Consortium, responded soon after.
* Something to watch: "People seeking clues about how soon the Supreme Court might weigh in on states' gay marriage bans should pay close attention to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a Minnesota audience Tuesday."
Barack Obama addresses the media following briefings with US Central Command officials on the Islamic State (IS) militant group during a visit to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Sept. 17, 2014. Photo by Brian Blanco/EPA.

Obama re-commits: no ground troops

09/17/14 04:53PM

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, caused quite a stir in Washington yesterday, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the next phase of the U.S. mission against Islamic State falls short, he might recommend deployment of American ground troops.
For many, this was seen as a hint of what's to come: if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is thinking about ground troops, the argument went, then maybe this is the course of action the Obama administration has in mind. There were, of course, a few problems with the assumptions. First, Dempsey was responding to a hypothetical, not making a prediction. Second, the decision ultimately isn't in the hands of the Joint Chiefs anyway.
And finally, the one who would have to make the final call -- the military's civilian Commander in Chief -- keeps saying the same thing: there won't be a ground war for U.S. troops.
In an impassioned, pep rally-like speech to military personnel in Florida, President Obama insisted again on Wednesday that the U.S. will not send ground troops to fight ISIS.
"I will not commit you and the rest of our forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq," the commander-in-chief said at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. Earlier in the day, Obama was briefed on battle plans to strike ISIS in Iraq and possibly Syria by military commanders at U.S. Central Command.
Obama added, "After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries' futures. And that's the only solution that will succeed over the long term. "
There can be little doubt that the president has been consistent on this. There can be plenty of doubt, however, about whether conditions and specific circumstances will shift in unpredictable ways. If U.S. jets are targeting ISIS locations in Syria, for example, and American pilots are shot down, a mission that intended to stay off of Syrian soil can change quickly.
And then, of course, there's the politics.
The U.S. Capitol is shown at sunset in Washington, D.C.

Why filibuster a nominee with unanimous support?

09/17/14 03:26PM

The United States maintains embassies in 169 countries around the globe, and in roughly a fourth of them, the ambassador's office is currently empty. The main problem is Senate Republicans  creating needless delays, regardless of the consequences for U.S. foreign policy.
The problem is especially striking in Turkey, which is critical to U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, most notably against Islamic State. The Obama administration is giving Turkey the full-court diplomatic press, which is proving to be tricky -- there is no U.S. ambassador to Turkey because Senate Republicans haven't allowed a vote on President Obama's nominee. (The White House was forced to dispatch the Bush/Cheney ambassador to Turkey in a temporary capacity because of the immediacy and urgency of the situation.)
Al Kamen reports today that the delays finally ended, at least in this limited case.
The Senate on Wednesday, moving at what can be called warp speed in the post-"nuclear option" world, confirmed seven more Obama nominees -- including career Foreign Service officer John R. Bass as ambassador to Turkey, a country critical to the effort to defeat the Islamic State militant group.
The Senate held a roll call vote on the nomination -- before voting 98 to 0 to confirm him.
The GOP also graciously allowed a unanimous confirmation vote on career diplomat Thomas Frederick Daughton's nomination to serve as U.S. ambassador to Namibia. He only had to wait 443 days for the vote on his confirmation -- which literally no one ended up opposing.
John Bass' becoming ambassador to Turkey didn't take nearly as long -- he only waited about 100 days -- but the fact he, too, enjoyed unanimous support raises the question of why he couldn't have been confirmed sooner in light of Turkey's geo-strategic significance.
The answer, of course, is that Senate Republicans' feelings were hurt when Senate Democrats restored minority rule on nomination votes, which may seem ridiculous, but which happens to be true.
Just how often do Republicans delay nominees they support? You might be surprised.
A sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event in Los Angeles, California, September 28, 2013.

'I'm tickled to death with it'

09/17/14 12:59PM

About a year ago, Jason Cherkis published an anecdote so popular, even President Obama repeated it.
It featured a middle-aged man in a golf shirt who shuffled up to a small folding table at the Kentucky State Fair to hear about Kynect, the state's health benefit exchange established by the Affordable Care Act. The man liked what he heard. "This beats Obamacare I hope," he said, apparently unaware that Kynect and Obamacare are the same thing.
Today, however, Abby Goodnough has another health care anecdote out of Kentucky that's nearly as striking.
The Affordable Care Act allowed Robin Evans, an eBay warehouse packer earning $9 an hour, to sign up for Medicaid this year. She is being treated for high blood pressure and Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder, after years of going uninsured and rarely seeing doctors.
"I'm tickled to death with it," Ms. Evans, 49, said of her new coverage as she walked around the Kentucky State Fair recently with her daughter, who also qualified for Medicaid under the law. "It's helped me out a bunch."
But Ms. Evans scowled at the mention of President Obama -- "Nobody don't care for nobody no more, and I think he's got a lot to do with that," she explained -- and said she would vote this fall for Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, who is fond of saying the health care law should be "pulled out root and branch."
Just so we're clear, this voter loves her new health care benefits. She also wants to vote for a politician who's desperate to take her new health care benefits away.
It's a reminder that voting isn't always rational, but it's also an example of just how messy the politics of health care can get.
Goodnough's broader point is important: the Affordable Care Act is doing a lot of good for families in red states like Kentucky, but this won't pay any political dividends to Democrats.

Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.17.14

09/17/14 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* In North Carolina's U.S. Senate race, PPP's latest results show Sen. Kay Hagan (D) up by four over Thom Tillis (R), 44% to 40%, which is roughly in line with most other recent surveys. Hagan benefits from a big gender gap -- she leads by 16 among women, while Tillis leads by 10 among men.
* Though most recent polling shows Rep. Bruce Braley's (D) odds improving in Iowa's U.S. Senate race, a new Quinnipiac poll shows Republican Joni Ernst leading by six, 50% to 44%.
* Speaking of Quinnipiac releasing polls that seem like outliers, the same pollster shows former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) with a double-digit advantage over incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in Colorado, 50% to 40%. No other pollster has released results even close to these.
* In New Hampshire's U.S. Senate race, a New England College poll released last night shows Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) leading former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass) by 11 points, 51% to 40%. Most recent polling has shown the incumbent with a more modest advantage.
* As if Monica Wehby's Republican Senate campaign in Oregon weren't tough enough, elements of her health care plan appear to have been lifted directly from a survey released by Karl Rove's Crossroads operation.
* Despite his multiple pending felony counts, Rep. Michael Grimm (R) is ahead in the latest Siena College poll, leading his Democratic challenger, Domenic Recchia, 44% to 40%.