Morning Must Reads — If TARP is your best, what's your worst?

Washington Post — Obama lists financial rescue as 'most important thing' of his first year

President Obama struck a defensive tone in his year-end interview with the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson, suggesting that he did not get enough credit for averting another depression through the continuation of the Bush administration’s TARP program.

In a year mostly given over to the fight to implement his health plan, Obama said that his part in the Wall Street bailout early this year was the highlight. He said health, a carbon crackdown, a new “cradle to career” free public education system, and new Wall Street regulations – his ambitious first-year targets — would all come to pass in time.

Wilson doesn’t mention the Afghan war or national security, an odd omission since Obama’s career has in large part been defined by his opposition to the Iraq war and subsequent escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan.

And Wilson does not challenge the president’s oldest saw – that his goals have been thwarted by “special interests.” Obama let big pharma help write his health plan and the two most frequent visitors to his White House this year were the head of the Service Employees International Union and the lobbying Podesta family. Even so, Obama uses the “special interests” as the reason he fried Congress’ legislative circuits.

“In the interview, Obama said he ‘could have put off’ health-care reform, adding: ‘There are some people who would say that wouldn't be such a bad thing.’

‘Given how difficult fighting the special interests has been on Capitol Hill, it's clear that if we hadn't decided to make a bold step forward this year, we probably wouldn't have had the political capital to get it done in the future,’ said Obama, who has argued that health-care reform is essential to the country's future fiscal and financial health.”


New York Times — Plan to Move Guantánamo Detainees Faces a New Delay

Greg Craig has been booted and the Governor of Illinois is all fired up about the economic development potential of housing al Qaeda members in his state, so the whole “close Guantanamo” thing is back on track, right.

Not so much.

The White House tells writer Charlie Savage that the new target date for closing the prison is sometime in 2011 because congressional leaders quietly put kibosh of a presidential request for the money to buy and outfit the Illinois prison. Congress will not appropriate the money until late 2010 (read: after the elections). After the money is appropriated, the improvements at the prison are expected to take more than 8 months.

While some enemy combatants are being released in garden spots like Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, the core group of prisoners needs a place to be – though this news may encourage the administration to look for more opportunities to release prisoners.

This all begs the question: Did no one think this through before the administration announced the plan to buy the prison. It’s not that Congress has been shy about swatting down plans to import enemy combatants before. I bet Greg Craig wouldn’t have made that mistake.

“Frustrated by the difficulties in obtaining financing from Congress, administration officials had discussed invoking a little-known statute that would allow the president to declare a national emergency and then use military funds allocated for other construction projects to buy and retrofit the Illinois prison.

That statute, however, has never been used for a project quite like this one. Fearing that lawmakers would be angered by such a move and could respond by erasing the statute, the administration decided not to invoke it.”


Wall Street Journal — Businesses Brace for Health Bill's Costs

Companies are trying to extract some concessions in the final mash up of President Obama’s health plan and an army of lawyers and accountants are studying the plans so far to make the right plays once the legislation passes: which benefits they can cut, which benefits they must add, whether to start firing workers.

Writer Neil King tells us that the outlook is mostly negative, except for companies with low-wage workers that will be able to dump insurance coverage altogether and save thousands.

But the fear is that even with reduced health costs for some, all will pay higher taxes and most will face higher premiums.

“A top gripe is that the Senate bill would alter the tax rules that affect big companies providing prescription-drug benefits to their retired workers. Under the law earlier this decade creating a drug benefit in Medicare, companies that continued to provide such benefits qualified for a 28% tax-free subsidy. The Senate bill would tax that subsidy.

A spokesman for Caterpillar said, ‘The financial impact would be significant for Caterpillar, particularly in the first year.’

Martin Reiser, a Washington representative for Xerox and chairman of the National Coalition on Benefits, said another big concern was ‘whether a lot of the provisions meant to contain [health-care] costs will actually do so. If they don't work — and we won't know for years — then the bill is a failure.’


New York Times — Thousands May Incorrectly Be Using Stimulus Tax Breaks

The problem with targeted tax incentives is that just as the government hopes to elicit very specific responses, fraudsters are given very specific targets.

Writer Lynnley Browning tells us that the first-tie homebuyers tax continues to be a font of fraud and error, with half-a-billion dollars being siphoned off by those who haven’t met the criteria.

Browning explains how a big part of the problem are the blizzard of phony tax identification numbers, a hot commodity in the illegal immigrant community.

“The numbers, first issued in 1996, do not change an immigrant’s legal status or permit employment.

The I.R.S. has said that between 1996 and 2003, the number holders reported owing taxes of $50 billion, though it has not disclosed the size of refunds claimed.

Based on nearly 1.2 million federal tax returns filed over 2008 and 2009, the report estimated that the fraud would cost the government more than $2 billion over five years.”


Wall Street Journal — Alabama Democrat, Vexed by Party's Agenda, Jumps to GOP

After four retirements, we see the first party switch in the House Democratic Caucus.

This so far does not portend a GOP takeover in 2010, which but it does point to the kinds of gains that Democrats saw in 2006.

“Mr. Griffith, a lifelong Democrat whose victory in his Huntsville-area district last year helped the party hold a seat in an increasingly conservative district, said he was surprised by the party's legislative focus this year on health-care and climate-change legislation. And he was miffed by the Obama administration's decision not to deploy a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe; much research for that system takes place in his district.

‘The left-wing agenda in the Democratic Party is in charge, and I feel that I was expendable,’ Mr. Griffith said in an interview.”

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