8 a.m. ET: For the first time in recent memory, Hillary Clinton was a prominent figure in the headlines yesterday. She appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warning that the Pakistani government now faces an "existential threat" from Islamic militants. (At the same hearing, Howard Berman, the panel chairman, passed on the opinion of experts that "Pakistan could collapse in as little as six months." How comforting.)
But more than anything Clinton said about Pakistan, it was her defense of President Obama that drew the most attention. When Clinton was asked about Dick Cheney's assertion that the Bush administration's interrogation policies helped make America safer, Clinton responded, "It won't surprise you that I don't consider him a particularly reliable source of information." And when asked about Obama's much-discussed handshake with Hugo Chavez, Clinton said she found the contoversy "somewhat amusing, to be honest," and reminded the committee that Obama had won the election -- and beaten her -- by promising "a different approach" on foreign policy.
It wasn't the most stirring defense, but a defense it was, and served as a reminder of Clinton's relatively low-profile in the first months of her tenure. To an extent, that makes sense; it's not the job of any Cabinet secretary to overshadow her boss, Obama has generally preferred to make major public announcements himself, and the White House is surely relieved that the Obama vs. Clinton storyline has been largely dormant since the Inauguration. But Clinton is a bona fide celebrity, the only one in the administration -- apologies to Hilda Solis and Shaun Donovan -- other than Obama. So when the president needs a surrogate to step up and help deliver his message, and rebut the criticism of a major figure like Cheney, Clinton is the obvious choice.
The administration could use some message help right now. It took a day, but Ellen Moran's departure from the White House communications director post after just three months on the job is now getting the scrutiny it merits. The Fix notes that Moran probably should never have been handed the job in the first place, given her background and the difficulty of penetrating Obama's tight, loyal circle of advisers. The New York Times made a similar point, which Alex Conant interpreted to mean that she did not fit in well with David Axelrod.
Conant's larger argument is that Moran's departure, combined with the White House's perceived missteps this week, particularly the muddled message on terror, mean the administration has a communications problem. "It’s notable that almost all of Obama’s accomplishments so far have been rhetorical, rather than policy-based," he writes, so if the "message machine starts to sputter," the White House is in real trouble. Is that true? Obama has, after all, signed the massive stimulus package and ordered key policy changes on issues like stem cell research, while also handling the ongoing financial crisis. Polling suggests Americans are much more optimistic about the country's direction now than they were when Obama was sworn in. At the same time, it is true that a lot of what Obama has done is announce his intention to do things -- like close Guantanamo Bay or fix health care -- rather than actually doing them yet.
On that latter priority, health care, Obama and his fellow Democrats now face a choice: Should they work with Republicans, or roll them? If Democrats use expedited procedures to get a bill through the Senate, how would that be perceived by the public? We already know how the GOP would perceive it -- as a "declaration of war." And Republicans would likely respond by retaliating against Obama's other priorities, using Senate rules to slow everything to a crawl.
How would Senate Republicans handle a proposal to launch a new investigation of Bush-era interrogation policies? The idea drew a mixed response on Capitol Hill yesterday. Republicans are inclined to oppose any probe, and Democrats seem split on how to proceed. The Senate did agree yesterday to consider creating a select panel to study the roots and causes of the financial crisis.
Both the financial meltdown and the interrogation controversy may be better suited for investigation by independent commissions rather than members of Congress. If both probes get underway at the same time, we may suffer from an acute shortage of statesmanlike figures to run them. Has anyone booked John Danforth yet? Where's Lee Hamilton?
April 23, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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