Organizing for Action — a group that formed out of President Obama's re-election campaign — has posted five tweets in the past week about climate change using the @BarackObama Twitter account.
OFA's mission is to promote the president's agenda on a wide range of issues, from guns to immigration. But now that it's focused on global warming, there's some tension with the agenda inside the administration.
This week, Organizing for Action unveiled a website urging supporters to "Call Out the Climate Change Deniers." The group recently produced a video highlighting Republicans who question the science of climate change — including House Speaker John Boehner.
"Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide," Boehner says in the montage. "Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide."
For Obama's supporters, this campaign helps create an us-and-them, black-and-white standoff. On one side, Obama and the scientific community who conclude man-made climate change is real. On the other, members of Congress who are unconvinced.
"The end goal here is obviously to spur action behind climate," says Ben LaBolt, a former White House spokesman who consults with Organizing for Action. "Few issues have motivated supporters to join Organizing for Action like climate change."
That's where things get complicated. While OFA's mission is to advance the president's agenda, some environmentalists are frustrated with that agenda when it comes to climate change.
For example, protesters have marched against the Keystone XL pipeline for more than a year — including a demonstration that brought thousands to the White House.
Last week, Peter Bowe, the head of a Baltimore dredging company, testified in support of the pipeline, telling a congressional committee it's all about jobs.
He said it's "not the construction jobs from the pipeline itself, but ongoing jobs every year for decades to come — all related to the production of oil from the Alberta oil sands deposits."
Obama spoke last Friday at that dredging company in Baltimore.
"You guys are an example of what we can do to make America a magnet for good jobs," he said. "After all, y'all know a thing or two about growing the economy."
The White House insists the president's speech had nothing to do with Keystone. But the situation shows how awkward this is for Obama, caught between protecting the environment and trying to create jobs.
Organizing for Action's global warming campaign does not extend to this key environmental debate of the day.
"Ultimately, the president's position on Keystone has been to let the State Department review process play out," LaBolt says. "And Organizing for Action is going to do the same thing."
OFA says if people want to lobby the president on Keystone, they can join other groups.
But the pipeline is not the only area where environmental groups are frustrated with Obama.
"Existing power plants are America's biggest global warming polluter," says Dan Lashof with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They're responsible for about 40 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions. And EPA has both the authority and the obligation to set standards to curb those emissions."
But Obama's nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, recently told a Republican senator that the agency is not developing any regulations to limit emissions from existing power plants.
Last week, a Senate committee voted along party lines to approve McCarthy's nomination. OFA and environmental groups both urged the full Senate to approve her. That's one thing they agree on. What the Obama administration does after she's in the job is a different story.
NPR continues its conversations about The Race Card Project, where NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris asks people to send in six-word stories about race and culture. The submissions are personal, provocative and often quite candid.
When Elysha O'Brien, a college professor in Las Vegas, decided to submit six words about her cultural identity, she knew exactly what she wanted to say: "Mexican white girl doesn't speak Spanish." Like many others who have written to The Race Card Project, she grew up in bilingual household but never learned the language of her elders.
O'Brien says she often feels like she has a foot in two worlds, but is never fully accepted in either. Whites often assume she is Greek or Mediterranean because her face is slightly angular and her skin fairly pale. But when she encounters others who share her Mexican heritage, they often don't pick up signals that suggest cultural camaraderie.
"When I go into a community of Hispanics, they just assume that I'm white," O'Brien says. "Once we start talking, sometimes they'll say, 'Well, why don't you speak Spanish?' And I say, 'Well, my parents didn't teach me.' "
O'Brien was raised in a household where both parents spoke Spanish — but not to their children. They are Mexican immigrants and made a collective decision to ensure the next generation mastered English without the hint of an accent. Spanish was the secret language they used when they argued or talked about Christmas presents.
O'Brien's father is one of eight children, and among her 45 cousins, all but three speak English only. When she asked her parents, aunts and uncles why they didn't pass on their native language, they all gave the same reason: They faced bias, or worse, when speaking Spanish outside the home. They were rapped on the knuckles at school or denied jobs and other opportunities.
Her family experienced so much prejudice in Fort Worth for speaking Spanish in school that they didn't want their children to endure that, O'Brien says. "They didn't want their children to get slapped on the wrist, they didn't want their children to get shushed in the lunchroom. They wanted their children to assimilate into the culture."
O'Brien absorbed that message, she says. At one point in her teen years, she would de-emphasize her heritage when other Mexican-American kids would tease her for not speaking Spanish, she says. "It was my parents' language; it wasn't my language. When you're kind of rebellious and you're trying to find your identity, I used to say, 'Well, I'm not Mexican, my parents are.' "
As an adult, even saying those words out loud is difficult for O'Brien. "I think it sounds very flip. It sounds very much like I'm trying to make amends for a really deep wound — just trying to put a Band-Aid on something instead of digging out the infection that's there," she says.
O'Brien, who has a doctoral degree, now says she emphasizes her Latino heritage out of pride. But she also hopes her career path and education might serve as a beacon for others. For years, she never asked her students to address her as "Dr. O'Brien"; "professor" or even her first name would do.
But that changed when she met a Latina student who gushed about meeting a Mexican-American Ph.D. for the first time. Now, she says, "I do make a point to tell people, 'Hey, I'm Mexican and I'm a female and I have a Ph.D. There are not very many of us who have all of those three things."
O'Brien and her husband, an educator of Irish and Italian descent, have three boys — a blend of cultures not easily captured on official forms. Recently, O'Brien says, she had to fill out a form for her children that required checking a box for ethnicity. "And there was a box for "white," there was a box for "black," a box for "Asian" and a box for "Hispanic."
"And my son says, 'Well, where's the Italian box?' " O'Brien recalls. "And I said, 'Well, that's just if you're white.' And he goes, 'And what about Irish?' I said, 'Well, that's white, too.' "
"But Hispanic's there and Italian isn't?" her son asked. "And ... I couldn't really answer him," O'Brien says. "But it's interesting that when you look at the Hispanics ... Mexicans are very different from Cubans, and Cubans are very different from Puerto Ricans, and Puerto Ricans are very different from Peruvians. But yet we are all lumped together as Hispanic, and we are all assumed to ... speak the same language."
O'Brien is determined that her sons will speak both English and Spanish. She hopes that will deepen their relationship with their Mexican-American grandparents. The elders on her family's side, she says, display a more gregarious part of their personality when speaking in their native tongue. As an academic, she says she also wants her boys to have the "brain plasticity" that learning another language allows.
And, while her parents experienced bias when speaking Spanish in public decades ago, O'Brien says she would have greater opportunities if she had dual language skills today — and wants her sons to have that advantage.
She acknowledges that her sons will ultimately decide how to identify themselves as adults, but she wants to make sure they emphasize their Hispanic roots when seeking opportunities, like applying to college.
"My children have the O'Brien last name and they're all fair-skinned and they appear white," O'Brien says. But when filling out school forms, "I always make sure I check off that 'Hispanic' box. Because I know that as a white male, they're not going to be given certain privileges as if they were a Mexican male, which perhaps is slightly racist on my own part, but I want them to be able to have access to things."
'Not Really Mexican'
Allen Nunez Wickham lives In Molalla, Ore., just outside of Portland. He sent his six words to The Race Card Project knowing his father would play a prominent role in his submission, "Grandma didn't let Dad speak Spanish." Both of his parents came to the U.S. from Mexico as children.
Because he doesn't speak with a noticeable accent, he "passes" or blends in better with other ethnic groups. Consequently, Nunez Wickham says, he's heard charges that "he's not really Mexican" because he doesn't speak Spanish. "After a while," he says, "I just started calling myself Chicano because it was like more of an American-Mexican."
But his family displays "Nunez," his mother's maiden name, with pride. "I use it deliberately," he says.
He spoke with NPR's Michele Norris about the pros and cons of being closer to his family's cultural heritage.
Prison is a tough place, but Congress made an exception nearly 30 years ago, giving terminally ill inmates and prisoners with extraordinary family circumstances an early way out. It's called compassionate release.
But a recent investigation found that many federal inmates actually die while their requests drift through the system.
One of them was Clarence Allen Rice.
Rice operated a leasing company in Iowa for decades. But when the market went south in 2004 and many of those leases plunged into default, a jury found that he turned to fraud. Rice was sentenced to just under six years and sent to a Minnesota prison camp in 2011. But in some ways, that was only the beginning of his trials, says his wife, Christine.
"He got sick — very sick," she says. "And when they get sick, they don't tell the families. And so I wouldn't know why I hadn't heard from him."
Weeks passed, and Christine found out her husband of four decades had bile duct cancer. She asked the prison doctor what to expect. His response? "He said something to the effect of, 'Well, if he's alive in three months, he'll be very lucky,' " she recalls.
The doctor said he had started the paperwork so that Rice could apply for early release. In the meantime, Rice got transferred to a prison medical facility near the Mayo Clinic, where the family was told he would have to restart the paperwork for compassionate release. Under the prison rules, Rice — not his doctors or his family — was responsible for filling it out.
Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, studied the compassionate release program, and found it is poorly managed and rife with confusion.
"If you're going to tell inmates that they can only apply if they show that they have less than a certain number of months to live, there needs to be some standards in place so that the people processing these papers understand they've got to make the decisions quickly," he says.
Mary Price, a lawyer at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates for inmates and their relatives, says only about two dozen inmates a year get compassionate release, though thousands may be eligible under that program — including more than 100 inmates who are over age 80.
"It's been neglected for so long, and that neglect can translate into real cruelty at the end of the day," Price says. "It's not intended cruelty — it's the cruelty that flows from a program that has been for the most part abandoned and left to run at all different levels, essentially on its own."
Members of Rice's family say they were on their own, too. His petition for early release was denied — because, they heard, the warden wanted him to serve more time. Then they muddled through appeals as Rice got worse, while his family members struggled to squeeze into tight limits on visiting hours. There was no allowance made for inmates who were terminally ill, they say.
Rice's final decline happened right after Christmas 2012, when he went from walking short distances to the visiting area to being completely bedridden. His wife, Christine, spent several days going back and forth to the facility.
"I wanted to be able to share with my children, you know, Dad's thoughts to them about what made him proud, what he would encourage, encourage them to do," she says. "I had to memorize it all to the best of my ability because, you know, he wasn't writing any letters. He wasn't making any phone calls."
She drove home, only to get a call later from the prison doctor.
"She called me, and she hadn't been there for several days because of the holiday and the weekend," she recalls. "She said, 'Well, he's changed dramatically since I saw him last. You should come.' "
Christine jumped in her car and drove about three hours to the prison. Her son and her sister-in-law followed close behind. But Christine says officials wouldn't make an allowance for her sister-in-law to come in during the visit, so she sat outside in the parking lot. Rice died that same night, in early January, about three months after his diagnosis.
"You want to spend more time with someone on their death bed," Christine says. "But we had just the opposite — more limiting," in part because the medical facility where Rice had been moved was higher security than the prison camp where he resided before he got sick.
Daughter Alanna Rice looks back at it this way: "A person really is more than just the worst thing they've done in their life," she says. "Just because he was convicted doesn't take away all the love and the support that my dad gave me, and my siblings, and his church and his community."
Alanna Rice says it's too late to change things for her father, but maybe not for others in the system.
"If talking about it and making people aware of it can help conditions for families and prisoners in the future, I think my dad would really like that," she adds.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons didn't want to talk on tape for this story. But in a statement to NPR, and in response to the critical inspector general report, prison leaders say they will do a better job of letting inmates know about the program, cut down on how many people need to approve the requests, and start tracking them electronically.
Making all those changes could take two years.
If you were hoping to cash in that Borders gift card for the latest Dan Brown novel — or at least hoping to get some cash for it — you're too late.
A Manhattan federal judge on Wednesday ruled that the bankrupt and defunct book chain owes nothing to the roughly 17.7 million people who hold $210.5 million in unredeemed gift cards.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter says it would be unfair to Borders Group's other creditors to let gift-card holders pursue recoveries, Reuters reports.
"To do so, Carter explained, could upset liquidation by Borders' bankruptcy trustee that is already 'substantially' completed.
He also said card holders failed to prove they met all the requirements for an exception, including that unsecured creditors whose interests might be harmed had been notified about the litigation and given a chance to object."
Reuters explains that the decision upholds an earlier, lower court ruling, dating from August of last year.
Borders filed Chapter 11 in February 2011 and closed for good seven months later, the news agency said.
The public got its first look Thursday at Lois Lerner, who has gone from faceless IRS bureaucrat to the face that launched what feels like 1,000 congressional hearings and conspiracy theories.
But it was only a brief sighting since she didn't stay long at a House hearing to further probe her role in how some IRS workers came to target conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
The night before the hearing Lerner, who heads the IRS tax-exempt operation at the scandal's heart, made it known through her lawyer that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and would refuse to testify or answer questions. And she did just that, mostly.
She did make a short statement to declare her innocence, however. Lerner's motivation was more transparent than much of what the IRS has done in connection with this controversy. She was determined to get her side of the story out, at least the main points as she saw them. After all, she's had to endure many days of lawmakers and journalists accusing her of deception in her past dealings with them, and worse.
"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws, I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee," she said.
There was one problem. By reading her statement and acknowledging that a document she was handed contained information she had provided, Lerner prompted some Republicans to claim she had essentially waived her Fifth Amendment right. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight Committee which conducted Wednesday's hearing, indicated he was seeking legal advice on the matter.
Legal expert Stan Brand told NPR's Peter Overby and The Washington Post, however, he thought it unlikely a court would agree that she had forfeited her constitutional rights.
In any event, Lerner's conclusions about her own rectitude aren't likely to win over many converts.
She was, after all, the IRS official who answered that question at a recent American Bar Association conference — the one that made the IRS trend on Twitter for weeks now. In her canned answer to the planted question, she blamed low-level workers in the agency's Cincinnati office for targeting groups with "Tea Party" and "patriot" in their names.
To say that many people found the planted-question gambit unseemly would be an understatement. That tactic apparently wasn't solely Lerner's idea: The IRS's recently fired acting commissioner, Steven Miller, told senators Tuesday he deserves blame for that one. He and Lerner had discussed how to get the details out before a Treasury inspector general's report on the matter went public.
Still, the mere fact that Lerner is caught up in the scandal has genuinely surprised Bruce Hopkins, a veteran tax lawyer in Kansas City who knows her through numerous conferences where they both appeared on panels or as speakers.
"Overall, I've always had a very high regard for her and I think she is far more qualified and more talented than most" IRS officials he has observed over the years, he said. "I think she's probably as good as can be gotten here for a government position like this.
"That's why I was surprised to learn she was involved with something like this. It didn't fit. It still doesn't fit. I have trouble understanding what has happened."
Hopkins' high opinion, earned over years of his seeing her in action, is no doubt something for her to cling to as she finds herself at the center of a storm. On the other hand, something recently written by David Cay Johnston, a journalist who knows the IRS better than many people who work there, is exactly the sort of thing she may want to put out of her mind:
"Only a person lacking a sense of honor and integrity would cling to their job in the face of the horrendous damage caused to the agency they work for, to her superiors and to the welfare of the Republic if her mistakes prompt even more IRS budget cuts.
"No one in this century has done more to breed disrespect for our tax system than Lois G. Lerner, undermining the public confidence on which voluntary compliance rests."
It would be hard to find stronger evidence for her having become the face of this scandal than that.