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White House Cheat Sheet: Symbolism Matters

President Obama, speaking to his senior staff, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Jan. 21, 2009. (The Associated Press)

The coverage of the first few days of Barack Obama's presidency is certain to be heavy on the various actions he is taking -- from the implementation of ethics rules for White House employees to the planned closing of Guantanamo Bay prison.

While each of the actions has import -- and impact -- on its own, the collective goal of these first moves is far broader: to send a prominent signal to the American public that there is a new sheriff in town.

The early days of the Obama presidency are best understood then as a symbolic distancing from the final days of the Bush presidency and an attempt to begin redefining government in the eyes of voters.

"It's a strategy and a message that is simple, direct and politically potent," said Joel Johnson, a former senior aide in the Clinton White House. "The President is saying 'You asked for change, you voted for change so now I'm here and here's your change.'"

During his inaugural address Obama offered a subtle but nevertheless powerful critique of how Bush handled the office, and on Wednesday he cast the new ethics package as "aimed at establishing firm rules of the road for my administration and all who serve in it, and to help restore that faith in government, without which we cannot deliver the changes we were sent here to make."

Hard to miss that slap at the man who used to be the president of the United States. Watch for more where that came from in the first few weeks of Obama: The President.

News Nugget: Obama will name George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as special envoys for Afghanistan and Pakistan today, reports the Post's Glenn Kessler. The appointments of Mitchell and Holbrooke, two veterans of the presidency of Bill Clinton, follow hard on Hillary Clinton's confirmation as Secretary of State, and are in keeping with Obama's pledge to bring on skilled hands to deal with the thorniest problems domestically and internationally. "I want some good mechanics who know how to run the system," Obama said last week in a interview with Post reporters and editors.

Sked Stuff: When President Obama named Hillary Clinton as his pick for Secretary of State, the chattering class was aghast. Bringing his main rival (and her husband who happens to be the former president of the United States) into the fold as the Administration's lead diplomat seemed a risky move. But, Obama has defended Clinton as "team player" and during her confirmation hearings last week Clinton was a passionate advocate for Obama's foreign policy vision. Today at 2:40 p.m. Obama and Clinton are scheduled to address State Department employees. Expect the joint appearance to be endlessly scrutinized for any signs of tension. Our guess? There won't be much.

Caroline Kyboshes Senate: Just when it looked like Caroline Kennedy might be the next Senator from New York, she reportedly withdrew her name from consideration for the post late last night. The news was first reported by the three New York City papers -- the Post, the Times and the Daily News -- but soon spread like wildfire due to Kennedy's universal name recognition and the sense that, ultimately, she would be Gov. David Paterson's pick. But, as the night wore on and no statement came from the camps of Kennedy and Paterson, doubt crept in. Just after midnight, a statement from Kennedy came confirming her decision to withdraw. The two new frontrunners: Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

ICYMI....DNC: Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine was officially chosen as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday -- a pro forma vote for the personal pick of President Obama. The DNC will be a a hub of activity under Obama -- housing not just the traditional party operations (led by 2008 campaign superstar Jen O'Malley Dillon) but also "Organizing for America", Obama's attempt to take the political machine built during his presidential bid and turn it into an advocacy organization for his agenda. Kaine went out of his way to praise outgoing DNC Chair Howard Dean in his acceptance speech ("His 50-state strategy was simple and powerful," said Kaine of Dean. "The Obama campaign adopted it and the results speak for themselves.") -- perhaps a reaction to the fact that Dean was not invited to attend the unveiling of Kaine as Obama's DNC pick earlier this month.

Party Like It's 2008: The inaugural balls may be over but there was still one heck of a party in Washington last night as the Obama campaign staff gathered for a celebration at the D.C. Armory that featured the president not to mention Jay-Z and Arcade Fire. The Armory staff must have been working overtime as the venue hosted the Southern inaugural ball on Tuesday and will welcome the D.C. Rollergirls (The Fix LOVED roller derby when we were young) on Saturday night.

Penn on Penn: Politics magazine is out with the results of their 2008 campaign poll of political insiders. The choice for the best ad of the presidential race? "3 a.m." of course -- the Hillary Clinton commercial that was the brainchild of chief strategist Mark Penn. The firm that conducted the Internet poll of 475 current Politics subscribers? Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates -- the polling firm founded by (you guessed it) Mark Penn. Full results of the survey will be announced on Thursday night.

Say What?: "We decided it was so much fun..." -- President Barack Obama on being sworn in a second time last night out of an "abundance of caution."

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 22, 2009; 6:05 AM ET
Categories:  Cheat Sheet Share This:  E-Mail | Technorati | Del.icio.us | Digg | Stumble Previous: Caroline Is Out?
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"Obama's First Days: I like what I'm seeing so far...

Posted by: dognabbit | January 22, 2009 4:48 PM"
Total agreement. I also notice now that intolerance, bigotry, and knownothingism are no longer in vogue, hate broadcasting seems to have lost its steam. Rush openly and irrationally stated he "wants Obama to fail" -- proving his hatred of "those people" apparently trumps his claimed love for his country. Laura Ingraham was on O'Reilly today to bad mouth O's inaugural speech but toward the end of their "analysis" both lost interest, looked at each other, and went to commercial. Hate's not cool anymore. The foreign press is clearly getting 44's message of hope (including a return to an honest broker role in the Middle East) and its coverage of O's first days has been overwhelmingly positive.

Posted by: broadwayjoe | January 22, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse


reminds me of No Child Left Behind....stating that there would a Highly Qualified Teacher in every classroom by 2005.

Long past that, uh?

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | January 22, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

The United Nation's Millennium Development Goals aim to cut world hunger in half by 2015 and eliminating it completely by 2025. An estimated $19 billion would eliminate malnutrition and starvation around the world. Our current defense budget is $522 billion, in comparison.

The BORGEN PROJECT (borgenproject.org) provides lots of information about this issue.

Posted by: alenka | January 22, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Obama's First Days: I like what I'm seeing so far...

Posted by: dognabbit | January 22, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

"I was not an Obama supporter during the election or after the election.
[Unfortunate stuff in middle omitted]...There is a proverb that states that “you do not preach to the charging lion but you defend with deadly force”. If Obama’s inexperienced mind believes that “talking to terrorists” will eliminate terrorism, he is wrong and inexperienced."

Posted by: madayilnair | January 22, 2009 3:07 PM
Speaking to the Nation's adversaries is called "diplomacy." See, e.g., wikipedia entry for Dean Acheson. That is why we have a billion dollar cabinet-level agency called the State Department. The point is to talk it out to avoid war. Hence, Mitchell and Holbrooke have been dispatched as special envoys to the Middle East and Afghanistan. P.S.: fortune cookie "proverbs" are stuffed in stale cookies and go unread for a reason.

Posted by: broadwayjoe | January 22, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I've been writing for a while that this is going to be one long symbolic three year campaign for 2012...I don't like it, I think President Obama should kick David Axelrod to the curb -- at least for a year or so. This political posturing is bad for the country - we need to unite - if the new admin. does a good job (with the help of the legislators) - they won't have to worry about symbolism and a new era of executive behavior can emerge.

Posted by: newbeeboy | January 22, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

criminey sakes folks...

It's only Day 3.

And the "list of good things" far out weighs the "list of bad things".

Shall I list the good for ya all????

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | January 22, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I was not an Obama supporter during the election or after the election.
Obama started to fill the cabinet positions, I started to support him and his cabinet choices giving him a
“window of acceptance” hoping that election speeches are just speeches.
But Presidential actions of Wednesday and Thursday made me to believe that he is moving in the wrong track.
Global Islamist terrorism is not decreasing but accelerating in a record level, even though we are safe up to this time.
There is a proverb that states that “you do not preach to the charging lion but you defend with deadly force”. If Obama’s inexperienced mind believes that “talking to terrorists” will eliminate terrorism, he is wrong and inexperienced. If the experienced people that he selected to several cabinet positions are honest and not worry about expressing their honest views, this is the time.

Posted by: madayilnair | January 22, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Scinver50 may be paranoid schizophrenic but journalist he is not. What a loser.

Posted by: vbhoomes | January 22, 2009 12:14 PM
We have no view on his content but I think "scrivner" actually was/is a journalist...

Posted by: broadwayjoe | January 22, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Scinver50 may be paranoid schizophrenic but journalist he is not. What a loser.

Posted by: vbhoomes | January 22, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

OK, that would be "ranks," not "tanks."

Posted by: FlownOver | January 22, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

capitolheel: your observation would be true if "ethics" concerned only one's own personal financial gain. It's extremely unethical to lie and torture, and to sell out the public interest for the private gain of political allies. The Bush administration collectively tanks as the most unethical since Nixon, at least.

Posted by: FlownOver | January 22, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

to langs13 and all




As I have written about in this space, it goes much, much further that just surveillance. An "American Gestapo" has ruined untold thousands of lives, contributed to the decimation of the economy, and has TORTURED American citizens with radiation weaponry and devices that the government now confirms are being placed in the hands of local law enforcement nationwide.

Keith, if you are reading this, please read the story linked below, updated last week but originally reported last July on my blog site.

Give me a call. I tried to tell you that day at 30 ROCK that you were a fellow victim. You wouldn't -- or couldn't? -- listen that day. Now read this:


OR (if link is corrupted):


And Chris: Welcome to my world. You've been a "target" too. Who do you think may have been calling you "Chrissie" in all those rude posts?

Posted by: scrivener50 | January 22, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: pastor123 | January 22, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I am not sure the neocons showed they "know how to fight these thugs."

They only demonstrated the ability to spend money fighting...

Posted by: rocketman528 | January 22, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

There can be plently of debate and criticism over policy decisions made by the Bush White House, but you'd be hard pressed to criticize them on ethics. As I recall they had two folks get caught up in the Abramoff deal, but other than that there were no charges or allegations of unethical behavior. With thousands of appointees over the 8 years, that's a pretty impressive record.

Obama's focus on ethics is either just a red herring, or more likely a dig at Congress who has had a ton of ethical lapses in recent years.

Posted by: capitolheel | January 22, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

"I hope Obama fails" -- Rush Limbaugh, 1/20/09


With those words, Rush thoroughly discredited himself, forever. He now can no longer lay claim to being a superpatriot.

BHO is the President of the U.S. so if Rush wishes him to fail, he must wish America itself to fail--to fail in World Peace, global warming, fixing the financial crisis, etc. After years of braying about socialists, blacks, Hispanics, and liberals as responsbile for the country's ills, it turns out that Rush is the real anti-American. With BHO's election, the great American parade has passed Rush by...finally.

Just as marginalized is Tavis Smiley, a freelance AA commentator who, unsuccessfully, went after BHO during the campaign (allegedly) because BHO wouldn't interrupt his campaign to attend Smiley's annual social event. Smiley's latest line of attack: that BHO needs to be the President of Black America.
Hello, Tavis -- BHO is President of the United States, all of people in all of the States, not just Bedford-Sty or Newark. Stop the hate.

Sorry about Ms. Schlossberg. Once her YouTube movie, "The More You Know" came out, her candidacy for the Senate seat was doomed. It also didn't help that her supporters tried to box Gov. Patterson in by asserting Mrs. S was a "shoo-in" and even getting the MSM to report that her selection was imminent. That Paterson did not immediately announce someone else for the Senate seat suggests Mrs. Schlossberg was really in the running up to the end, and that he might have appointed her if she had been able to provide coherent answers to the media instead of assuming they already knew the answers (by repeatedly --140+ times in one interview-- saying "you know").

Also great move by BHO on the swearing in. After the MSM went bonkers about Roberts botching the oath at the inauguration, BHO just fixed the problem--with a re-do, calling Roberts over to say it again. No muss, no fuss.

And an equally great move by Mrs. BHO. Seeing (through a WH window) that a line of people waiting in line in the cold to visit with her and BHO during Open House had been denied entrance, Mrs. 44 immediately ordered that they be allowed in to chat with the First Couple.

Posted by: broadwayjoe | January 22, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse


To me the most interesting thing that happened yesterday was Obama's evident disapproval of Biden's small joke at Roberts' expense. This is really setting a new tone of mutual respect -- even the VP is not supposed to joke about the small mistakes and foibles of people who might be perceived as political opponents. How far distant this is from the Bush presidency where poking fun at or slurring political opponents was an everyday practice!

Posted by: tomsawyer2 | January 22, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Chris, how could the "no drama Obama" team be so politically stupid as to have the second swearing in done without a Bible? Do they not realize they have given a gift that will keep on giving to the email rumorsphere about his value of religion - that he uses it for show and political ends but personally isn't that wedded to it? When you invite a press pool and photographers to record the moment, why didn't a staffer catch the symbolism for a man who's faith has been called into question by doubters throughout his campaign to the White House. Maybe the Lincoln Bible wasn't available from Library of Congress, but surely there's a copy there somewhere in the place. Why give such fodder away?

Posted by: echidna1 | January 22, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

"a good deal of those suspects were interrogated by methods that would never be allowed in Federal court" ... Which is precisely why the convictions would be tainted.

Posted by: CJMiva | January 22, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

It was Obama who called for a "New Era of Responsibility", I only suggest we hold him to his words and if through his misguided policies like treating terrorism as a law enforcement problem that results in further attacks, he and his administration should resign emass and hand over power to the neocons who know how to fight these thugs. Obama means well, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be held accountable for nitwit decisions.

Posted by: vbhoomes | January 22, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Chris, re Kennedy, how could the press and Democratic political elite have gotten this one so wrong? Kennedy was deeply unpopular among New Yorkers. I hardly knew anyone who suppported her, even among the Manhattan professional classes who were supposed to be her base. Across the board, people were offended by the entitlement and qualification things.

Re Holbrooke, I have to say I'm disappointed. Having spent a lot of time on democratization work in the Balkans over the past decade and a half, my impression of him has long been that he's a deeply ideologically biased man. Almost reminiscent of a Bushie, and hardly the sort of person I'd hoped Obama would be appointing.

Posted by: Itzajob | January 22, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Video of Obama being Sworn in, Cheif Justice Roberts is very nervous, seems like he is trying to confuse Obama.

Posted by: pastor123 | January 22, 2009 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Chris: Yesterday on Keith Olberman, Russell Tice former NSA Analyst revealed that the press was a target of the NSA program.

If those people in the NSA have the intellect of Cheney and his boys, well, we dont' have much to worry about -- perhaps we will see a SMART NSA under the new President.

(Though I'm sure like every other agency, most of the poeple who staff the NSA are dedicated to maintaining American freedoms, as opposed to behaving as a lapdog for the Dr. Strangelove yet slightly more stupid Cheney types.)

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | January 22, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

If god forbid there is another major terrorist attack in this country the next four years due to naive understanding of the enemy, dems can kiss power goodbye for the next 40 years.
Almost seesm a threat, doesn't it?

But the greater point is to what point do we let terrorism guide our fears, determine our freedoms, even in the event of another attack?

So, we have to fight terrorism while maintaining, even strengthing the Constitution -- we can't hide or pretend behind the ineffective policies of Cheney or the neocons, who, in retrospect, seemed easily intimidated by terrorism.

How do we fight, then?

Certainly not by suspendng the Constitution -- this isn't Dick Cheney's world, anymore, perhaps it never was...

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | January 22, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I am alway baffled by statements that whoever is in power for the next attack, especially if they re-establish the rule of law (including international prohibitions on torture) will be responsible for such attack, but that somehow 9-11 was an attack no one could have imagined and no one should be held accountable for. I guess national security briefs stating bin Laden determined to strike are simply not credible compared to the testimony of a waterboarded adolescent.

Posted by: eddiehaskel | January 22, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Symbolism does matter but Obama is acting as well. In fact, his words and actions suggest he's not fettered by past political divisions (blue v. red etc.)

I can only hope that this continues and that pragmatism is his guiding light..

Posted by: RickJ | January 22, 2009 7:57 AM | Report abuse

Pamela, a good deal of those suspects were interrogated by methods that would never be allowed in Federal court and under Discovery rules, sensitive intelligence information would be compromised that could cause grave danger to our informants and nation. We simply cannot try them in federal court so we will have to find another country to take them or simply let them go. If god forbid there is another major terrorist attack in this country the next four years due to naive understanding of the enemy, dems can kiss power goodbye for the next 40 years.

Posted by: vbhoomes | January 22, 2009 7:27 AM | Report abuse

Chris: Yesterday on Keith Olberman, Russell Tice former NSA Analyst revealed that the press was a target of the NSA program.


That means your email, faxes, and all phone calls were listened to 24/7 365 days a year.

Where is this story.

Posted by: langs13 | January 22, 2009 7:20 AM | Report abuse

vbhoomes, I think it's more like "Rule of Law" appreciation day. My understanding is that President Obama intends to use the federal court system to try suspected terrorists. Isn't Khalid Sheikh Mohammed still at Gitmo? I don't think he's going home any time soon.

Posted by: -pamela | January 22, 2009 7:08 AM | Report abuse

We can sure be Proud as Americans as one of the 1st things Obama did was to declare "TERRORIST APPRECIATION DAY" along with a Get out of Jail free card so than can once again plan and excecute the murder of thousands americans.

Posted by: vbhoomes | January 22, 2009 6:41 AM | Report abuse

Yes, symbolism matters - but so does substance, and if memory serves, the last 2 presidents began their administrations promising ethical and open government, too. I'm more optimistic this time.

BTW, the NY Times has a report on Kennedy's withdrawal http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/nyregion/22caroline.html?_r=1&hp - with polls showing her slightly behind Cuomo and the bad press she's received, I'm thinking this is a done deal. Since I'm trying to be hopeful this morning, I'm going to hope that in the spirit of change, Paterson does something radical like select someone from outside NYC. I think Kirsten Gillibrand would be a strong candidate who would play well upstate.

Posted by: -pamela | January 22, 2009 6:39 AM | Report abuse

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