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Cuba And U.S. To Re-establish Diplomatic Relations

Obama wins raves in Latin America over Cuba shift

12/19/14 08:40AM

Many of President Obama's critics on the right routinely focus on the global stage as a basis of their rebukes. Obama's foreign policy, they argue, has rattled international confidence in the United States and weakened respect for us abroad. It's hard to lead the free world, the Republican argument goes, if we're not as respected or as admired as we once were.
The argument, in general, is nonsense. America's stature quantifiably slipped during the Bush/Cheney era, but there's ample evidence that Obama has helped repair our standing in recent years.
That said, even if we take the right's rhetoric at face value, conservatives should be absolutely thrilled with the White House this week -- with one big announcement, the president has apparently boosted the United States' reputation throughout an important part of the world. The New York Times had a fascinating report on this:
President Obama has been lambasted for spying in Brazil, accused of being a warmonger by Bolivia, dismissed as a "lost opportunity" by Argentina, and taunted in Nicaragua by calls for Latin America to draw up its own list of state sponsors of terrorism -- with the United States in the No. 1 spot.
But now Latin American leaders have a new kind of vocabulary to describe him: They are calling him "brave," "extraordinary" and "intelligent."
After years of watching his influence in Latin America slip away, Mr. Obama suddenly turned the tables this week by declaring a sweeping détente with Cuba, opening the way for a major repositioning of the United States in the region.
This is no small development. As Latin America has soured on the United States, China has sought to take advantage, expanding Chinese ties and influence in the region, and positioning itself as a long-term partner for countries throughout Central and South America.
With one breakthrough shift, a half-century in the making, the Obama White House has taken an enormous step towards shaking off our imperialist reputation and vastly improving our standing.
Customers shop for "Green Friday" deals at the Grass Station marijuana shop on Black Friday in Denver, Colo. on Nov. 28, 2014. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Nebraska, Oklahoma take aim at Colorado's pot law

12/19/14 08:00AM

A couple of years ago, voters in Colorado and the state of Washington approved landmark drug laws, making recreational marijuana use legal for adults. The state measures were at odds with federal statutes, but the Obama administration gave Colorado and Washington its blessing to proceed.
Two years later, some of Colorado's neighbors are looking to the federal courts to undo what the states' voters did.
Two heartland states filed the first major court challenge to marijuana legalization on Thursday, saying that Colorado's growing array of state-regulated recreational marijuana shops was piping marijuana into neighboring states and should be shut down.
The lawsuit was brought by attorneys general in Nebraska and Oklahoma, and asks the United States Supreme Court to strike down key parts of a 2012 voter-approved measure that legalized marijuana in Colorado for adult use and created a new system of stores, taxes and regulations surrounding retail marijuana.
According to the lawsuit, crafted by Republican state attorneys general in Nebraska and Oklahoma, Colorado created a "scheme" that circumvents federal law and allows pot to flow into neighboring states. This in turn undermines their prohibition laws, "draining their treasuries, and placing stress on their criminal justice systems."
The suit added, "The Constitution and the federal antidrug laws do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local pro-drug policies and licensed distribution schemes throughout the country."
In other words, far-right GOP state attorneys general want federal courts to order federal law enforcement to enforce federal laws, whether voters in the Centennial State like it or not.
It's always interesting to see where conservative governing principles start and end, isn't it?

Family searches for U.S. mystery spy, and other headlines

12/19/14 07:53AM

Obama plans to start lifting restrictions on Cuba as soon as next month. (New York Times)

U.S. businesses can't wait for Cuba gold rush. (Washington Post) 

Family says U.S. mystery spy released in Cuba has disappeared without a trace. (Miami Herald)

Kurds, backed by U.S. airstrikes, reverse an ISIS gain (New York Times)

Anti-union groups try changing local county laws. (New York Times)

Nebraska, Oklahoma AG's sue Colorado over legalized marijuana. (Tulsa World)

'Colbert Report' signs off (Hollywood Reporter)

Flares over Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, called normal but worry the neighbors (NBC Bay Area)

What are you reading this morning? Let us know in the comments, please.

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Cuba deal reached under cloak of secrecy

Cuba deal reached under cloak of secrecy

12/18/14 11:39PM

Rachel Maddow reports new details of how President Obama negotiated directly with Cuba's President Castro to remake U.S./Cuba relations, the role of Pope Francis, secret meetings, and the American spy returned to the U.S. in the deal. watch

Russia crash is perilous, schadenfreude aside

Russia crash is perilous, schadenfreude aside

12/18/14 09:42PM

Michael McFaul, former U.S ambassador to Russia, talks with Rachel Maddow about the dire economic circumstances President Putin has placed Russia in, the danger to the world economy of a Russian crash, and what options remain open for Putin to recover. watch

Ahead on the 12/18/14 Maddow show

12/18/14 08:18PM

Tonight's guests:

  • Jason Healey, cyber-security expert and director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council
  • Michael McFaul, professor of political science at Stanford University, former U.S Ambassador to Russia

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.18.14

12/18/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* ISIS: "Three leaders of ISIS have been killed by American airstrikes in Iraq in the past month and a half, U.S. defense officials said Thursday. They were identified as Haji Mutazz, a deputy to the ISIS leader; Abd al-Basit, the top military commander; and Radwin Talib, who is in control of ISIS in Iraq. They were described as mid- to high-level leaders."
* Nigeria: "More than 100 women and children were unaccounted for after gunmen stormed a northeastern Nigerian village in a deadly raid Sunday, a Nigerian military source told NBC News on Thursday. No group took responsibility for the attack in Gumsuri, but it bore the hallmarks of Boko Haram, which abducted more than 200 girls in April from a secondary school in nearby Chibok."
* Secret Service: "The Secret Service is overstretched and needs a 'culture change' from outside leadership, according to an independent review of the agency that found profound problems in the organization tasked with protecting the president and his family."
* Putin: "Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a press conference on Thursday to address the country's increasingly dire economic crisis, made an extended, bizarre reference to bears that is drawing a lot of attention, and rightly, because it makes him sound absolutely crazy."
* A lot of the early reporting on this was wrong: "How exactly the former Marine suspected in this week's killing spree in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, died is unclear after an examination by the county's coroner. Coroner Dr. Walter Hoffman tells NBC10's Deanna Durante there was no sign of trauma to Bradley Stone's center region, contradicting information released by prosecutors on Tuesday."
* DOJ: "Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department's position going forward in litigation will be that discrimination against transgender people is covered under the sex discrimination prohibition in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
This will matter to several red-state policymakers from Plains states: "U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said reforms announced today by President Barack Obama will make it make easier to sell U.S. farm products to Cuba."
This image released by Columbia Pictures shows James Franco, left, and Seth Rogen in "The Interview." (Photo by Ed Araquel/Columbia Pictures/AP)

Hollywood retreats in the face of threats

12/18/14 05:08PM

I'll concede that the entertainment industry is pretty far from my usual beat, but the story of North Korea, Sony, and "The Interview" is obviously no longer just a story about a movie.
And while there are obviously policy concerns related to national security and cyber-attacks, even at a surface level, it's hard not to notice the speed with which Hollywood is retreating, just over the last 24 hours.
For example, as you've probably heard, the movie studio has already scrapped distribution of the movie.
Sony Pictures decided to pull its upcoming comedy "The Interview" from distribution Wednesday amid security concerns and news that the five largest movie theater chains in the U.S. had decided to hold off on screening the film.
A handful of theaters intended to respond to the developments by screening "Team America," a puppet movie that casts Kim Jung-il in a negative light, but apparently those plans are off, too.
Paramount Pictures ordered movie theaters planning to screen Team America: World Police to cancel the screenings.
If that weren't quite enough, it appears yet another film that might bother North Korea has now been scrapped before production could even begin.
According to, plans for a "paranoid thriller" set in North Korea and starring Steve Carell have been scrapped in the wake of a cyber attack against Sony Pictures that eventually led to the postponement of "The Interview." A source close to the project confirmed that production company New Regency had stopped development on the untitled film after Twentieth Century Fox pulled distribution plans.
I can think of instances in which various movies have been the subject of protests and boycotts, but is there any precedent for Hollywood fearing literal, physical violence from a foreign government and its allies?
A supporter holds a campaign sign of Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, promoting his goal of $2.50 a gallon gas as he speaks at a rally in Brandon, Miss., Sunday, March 11, 2012.

Gas prices drop below key threshold

12/18/14 04:01PM

Remember the 2012 presidential campaign? It was just two years ago that Mitt Romney boasted that if he were elected president, he'd "get the unemployment rate down to 6 percent, perhaps a little lower" by the end of his first term in 2016.
Americans decided to re-elect President Obama instead. The unemployment dropped below 6 percent in September 2014, about two years ahead of Romney's timeline.
It was around this time when Newt Gingrich vowed that if he were the president, he'd lower the price of gas to $2.50 a gallon. That was the threshold for success.
Which brings us to this morning's latest news from the energy sector.
This week's national average is $2.47 per gallon, also down by more than 14 cents from last week.
Triple-A analysts say prices could fall even further in the coming weeks, barring unforeseen circumstances.
You know, by the standards set by Republicans two years ago, Obama sure is looking like a great success, isn't he?
An Affordable Healthcare Act supporter (R) talks with a student (L) about the law on the campus of Santa Monica City College in Santa Monica, California, October 10, 2013.

U.S. uninsured rate shows sharp improvement

12/18/14 12:45PM

The Affordable Care Act covers an enormous amount of policy ground, and on every front, it's having considerable success. But the point of initiating the reform effort in the first place was to bring coverage to those who need it -- Americans, like residents of every other advanced democracy on the planet, should be able to receive affordable medical care when they need it.
And when it comes to extending coverage to those who've lacked it, the latest data is very encouraging. Time's Zeke Miller reported this morning:
New federal government data shows the percentage of Americans without health insurance was at or near historic lows this year following the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, and appears certain to fall to record levels next year.
The data released Thursday from the National Center for Health Statistics' National Health Interview Survey found that 11.3 percent of Americans were without coverage in the second quarter of 2014, down from 13.1 percent in the first quarter and 14.4 percent throughout 2013. An analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers finds the drop in the uninsured to be the largest in four decades, amounting to roughly 9.7 million Americans getting insurance, consistent with other Affordable Care Act estimates.
Note, as encouraging as this is, the figures do not include the recent data on new enrollments, which is also quite heartening at this point.
Miller's report flagged this new piece from White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman and CEA Senior Economist Matt Fiedler, who argued, "As this week's data confirm, 2014 has seen dramatic coverage gains, gains matched or exceeded only by those seen in the decade of rapid progress that followed the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Following this year's gains, we estimate that the Nation's uninsured rate is now at or near the lowest levels ever recorded across the 50 years for which we have data."
I'm sure the right doesn't want to hear this, but results like these are what success looks like. Those wedded to the idea that "Obamacare" is a "failure" simply have their heads in the sand.

Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.18.14

12/18/14 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 Arizona's 2nd congressional district, Rep. Ron Barber (D) conceded yesterday to his far-right challenger, Martha McSally, who prevailed by 167 votes. The net gain for House Republicans for the 2014 cycle is now 13 seats.
* If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intends to separate herself from President Obama in advance of 2016, she has a funny way of showing it -- HRC yesterday not only endorsed the president's new policy towards Cuba, she highlighted her recommendations on the subject.
* In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) also appears to be gearing up for a national campaign, but closer to home, his support continues to fade. The new Rutgers-Eagleton poll shows Christie's approval rating inching lower and his favorability rating falling, too.
* In Kentucky, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) made clear yesterday that Sen. Rand Paul (R) cannot legally run for president and the U.S. Senate at the same time in 2016. She's prepared to take him to court to prevent the Republican from trying to circumvent Kentucky law.
* Despite losing re-election in the worst showing ever for an incumbent Pennsylvania governor, outgoing Gov. Tom Corbett (R) told the Associated Press he has "great interest" in helping a Republican presidential hopeful in 2016.
Former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush prior to speaking at the 2014 National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, DC on Nov. 20, 2014. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Jeb Bush's challenges quickly becoming apparent

12/18/14 11:38AM

The last time former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) faced a competitive election was literally 20 years ago. After winning an easy primary in 1994, Jeb took on incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) and lost -- in a year when nearly every Republican in America won big.
Bush tried again four years later, and he won two terms without much trouble, but in campaign politics, politicians who hone their skills on the trail and on the stump have an advantage over those who don't. In Jeb's case, the former governor simply doesn't know what it's like to persevere through a tough primary -- or eke out a win in a spirited general election -- because he's never had to do it.
And with this background in mind, it's that much more interesting to see the kind of challenges Jeb Bush is facing as he stumbles a little out of his presidential stumbling blocks.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush blasted the Obama administration's decision to normalize relations with Cuba in a Facebook post Wednesday, but in an example of why Bush's ties to private equity and Barclays could provide fodder for opponents and critics, Barclays (which reportedly pays Bush more than a million dollars a year) had to settle criminal charges for violating sanctions that included Cuba.
Soon after, reports indicated that Bush will abandon his paid advisory position at Barclays in two weeks.
To be sure, it's good to get problems like these out of the way now, and it's wise for Bush to take steps to address pitfalls before the campaign begins in earnest, but I'm not sure he's fully prepared to defend himself against controversies like these. Didn't he and his team see this coming before going after President Obama's breakthrough announcement?