Obama the Sphinx

By Dan Froomkin
2:19 PM ET, 01/27/2009
Obama and Mitchell

President Obama officially launched his push for peace in the Middle East yesterday, sending his new envoy George Mitchell to the region and declaring his desire for genuine progress -- "not just photo-ops."

Obama's sense of urgency -- and his aversion to photo ops -- contrasts starkly with former President Bush's half-hearted last-minute effort to bring the fractious parties together.

But it's unclear how much Obama's basic view of the region contrasts with that of his predecessor.

He says Mitchell's first visit will primarily be a listening tour, and he has not yet declared any obvious shifts in U.S. policy. But I'll bet that his view of the region will be more complex and considerably less black-and-white than Bush's. If nothing else, he is likely to expand the scope of the debate within the White House to include those who hold critical views of some Israeli actions.

Will he abandon Bush's absolute support for Israel and instead become an "honest broker" -- which requires some leaning on all parties? So far, it's all just a matter of speculation.

There's no doubt, however, that Obama, in choosing the Arab television network al-Arabiya for the first sit-down interview of his presidency, made a profound statement about the importance he places in restoring good relations with the Muslim world.

Obama's Words

Obama briefly spoke to reporters before a meeting yesterday with Mitchell, the former senator who helped resolve the Northern Ireland conflict, and newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It's important to me personally," he said.

"And the charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress. And when I say progress, not just photo-ops, but progress that is concretely felt by people on the ground, so that people feel more secure in their lives, so that they feel that the hopes and dreams and aspirations of their children can be met; that is going to be our task.

"It is not something that we're going to be able to do overnight, but I am absolutely confident that, if the United States is engaged in a consistent way and in an early fashion, that we can make genuine progress."

Here is the transcript and video of Obama's interview with Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of al-Arabiya.

Describing Mitchell's charge, Obama explained that "what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues --and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen. He's going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response."

Obama stressed that "Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."

The main purpose of his interview, however, was outreach.

"Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries," he said, in an unusually personal reference.

"But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what's on a television station in the Arab world -- but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well."

Domestically, meanwhile, he said his job "is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives."

The Coverage

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "In office less than a week, Obama has moved more rapidly than any predecessor to launch a vigorous diplomatic effort into the Arab-Israeli minefield. . . .

"What's not yet known is how Obama will deal with the setbacks his efforts will inevitably encounter. The landscape for diplomacy is bleak, with an Israeli public deeply skeptical of peace efforts and about to vote in national elections, and Palestinians split between the moderate Palestinian Authority and the radical Islamic group Hamas. . . .

"Even if Obama's foray into peacemaking is no more successful than previous presidents', the new president has set a different tone with the Arab world. Bush waited seven years before trying to broker talks, rarely got involved personally and often sent his special envoys into the region without explicitly empowering them to speak for him."

Glenn Kessler wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "Few words are as closely studied as a U.S. president's comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. . . .

"Thus far, Obama appears to have hewed closely to the line held by the Bush administration, among the most pro-Israel presidencies in U.S. history. But [at the State Department on Thursday] he appeared to show greater empathy for the plight of the Palestinians and offered an unusually detailed outline for securing the recent Gaza cease-fire. . . .

"Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, said the 'choice of Mitchell sends a clear signal that the United States is going to be back to being an honest broker and will move away from being Israel's lawyer.'

"During the campaign, Obama was viewed with suspicion by some Jewish groups, so he took pains to repeatedly emphasize his strong support of Israel and its need for security. But, in an unguarded moment captured on tape during a private gathering in Cleveland a year ago, Obama challenged Jewish groups to allow for greater debate on Israeli actions.

"'This is where I get to be honest, and I hope I'm not out of school here,' Obama said in a transcript published by JTA, a respected news service on Jewish issues. 'I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress.'

"Obama added, 'One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It's very ironic.'"

Mark Landler wrote in the New York Times last week that Obama had "signaled no major shift in American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue."

But Michael Hirsh wrote for Newsweek that Obama's comments at the State Department "signaled strongly that his approach to the Mideast would immediately move from unswerving and unquestioning support of Israel, as seen in the last eight years, to more of a broker's role. While making the requisite commitment to Israel's security--and its right to respond to rocket fire from Gaza--he also said it was unacceptable to permit 'a future without hope for the Palestinians.' He called for an immediate opening of the Gaza border, which must have come to a surprise to those Israelis lulled to sleep by Bush's permanent endorsement of Israel's every action over the last eight years."

Michael D. Shear and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post about Obama's Al-Arabiya interview: "Obama reiterated U.S. support for Israel, calling it 'a strong ally of the United States' and saying he will 'continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount.'

"But in tone, his comments were a stark departure from those of former president George W. Bush, who often described the Middle East conflict in terms that drew criticism from Palestinians.

"By contrast, Obama went out of his way to say that if America is 'ready to initiate a new partnership [with the Muslim world] based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.'"

Time's Scott MacLeod analyzes the text of the interview and concludes: "Here's what we learned in the al-Arabiya interview:

"Obama is critical of past U.S. Middle East policy, including insensitivity to the perspectives of the people in the region. . . .

"Obama is not kidding when he says he intends to plunge into peacemaking immediately. . . .

"Obama seems to see the need to address the legitimate interests of Arabs in the Middle East conflict, but he's going to judge their position based on their actions and not merely their words. . . .

"Obama seems intent on winning over the Arab world, to bolster U.S. credibility in pushing his Middle East policy, by leveraging his personal popularity on the Muslim street based largely on his Muslim roots and underdog image and by effectively campaigning for support among Muslims as he did for American voters. This could have a significant impact on his ability to win backing for compromises from the Arab world needed to achieve peace. The Arab street as well as Arab governments were skeptical even of Bush's better Middle East initiatives simply because they didn't trust him."

The Rollbacks Continue

By Dan Froomkin
2:17 PM ET, 01/27/2009

Lisa Wangsness writes in the Boston Globe: "President Obama yesterday swept aside his predecessor's skepticism about global warming and reluctance to goad US automakers into producing more fuel-efficient vehicles, issuing orders that he said would lay the groundwork for breaking the nation's dependence on oil from unfriendly regimes and help stave off the effects of global warming.

"'We must have the courage and commitment to change,' he declared. 'Year after year, decade after decade, we've chosen delay over decisive action. Rigid ideology has overruled sound science. Special interests have overshadowed common sense.'"

The New York Times editorial board writes: "In one dramatic stroke, President Obama has removed any doubts that he intends to break sharply from President George W. Bush's policies on yet another vital issue -- this time repudiating Mr. Bush's passive approach to climate change. . . .

"Mr. Bush began his tenure by breaking a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide and by withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto agreement on climate change. Mr. Obama begins his with a clear signal that he will not hesitate to use the regulatory levers provided by the Clean Air Act and other federal statutes to fight global warming."

The San Francisco Chronicle has a list of major Bush policies overturned by Obama so far.

Honeymoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
2:17 PM ET, 01/27/2009

Even as he undoes the Bush legacy and moves forward in his own right, Obama has encountered a few obstacles. But are they speedbumps of the sort that he will inevitably encounter as he moves forward, or are they indications of eventual roadblocks that will stymie him completely? Is he clear-eyed in his vision, or is he living in a fantasy world that's about to shatter when it meets the reality of governing?

Some members of the White House press corps are already warning of what might be ahead.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "it did not take long for the new president to discover that there were limits to his power to turn his campaign rhetoric into reality. . . .

"[H]e wrestled with fresh challenges at every turn, found some principles hard to consistently apply and showed himself willing to be pragmatic -- at the risk of irking some supporters who had their hearts set on idealism."

Stolberg writes that "one man's flexibility is another man's wishy-washiness, and Mr. Obama's willingness to adapt carries the risk that he will either alienate his liberal base or fail to convert Republicans whose support he hopes to win."

Dan Eggen and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post that Obama and his aides are "facing a stark reality: Rolling back eight years of the Bush administration is not going to happen overnight.

"Obama's call for tougher vehicle emissions standards, for example, ran into immediate opposition from major business and auto industry groups. His plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison has angered Republicans who object to transferring suspected terrorists to U.S. facilities. Many of those same Republicans are also fighting his economic stimulus proposal, arguing that it is too costly and would ultimately be ineffective, while others have attacked his plan to quicken the pace of troop withdrawals from Iraq."

Eggen and Shear also acknowledge, however: "Obama appears to be without peer among modern presidents in terms of the number of broad policy pronouncements made during his first week in office. Many Republicans also note that Obama is in a much better political position than was Bush, who entered office in 2001 after a fiercely disputed election and faced a narrowly divided Congress. Even then, Bush was able to push through a massive and controversial package of tax cuts, though he had to offer some concessions to win Democratic support."

Obama and the GOP

By Dan Froomkin
2:17 PM ET, 01/27/2009

Janet Hook and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama travels to the Capitol today to meet with House and Senate Republicans, the latest in a series of high-profile efforts to reach across the aisle and make good on his campaign promise to swim against the partisan tide that has flooded Washington for decades.

"So far, his gestures have shown few signs of success, as Republicans have continued to snipe at his signature initiative -- legislation to stimulate the economy -- and even to question the sincerity of his efforts. In the stimulus bill's first two tests last week, it passed two committees without a single Republican vote.

"But whether or not he picks up support from Republican lawmakers, Obama has already accomplished one important aim: He is winning over more Republican voters than he did on election day. If that continues, the president's hand could get stronger on Capitol Hill.

"'You don't calculate the impact of his effort in terms of the number of votes he gets on the stimulus bill,' said Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster who worked for Obama's campaign rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). 'You calculate it based on how he is perceived by Republicans around the country, and it looks to be substantially more positive.'"

Molly K. Hooper and Jared Allen write for The Hill: "Republicans are expected to press the president strongly on the stimulus bill, and if the meeting becomes tense, it would quickly remind voters that partisanship in the nation's capital -- despite Obama's vow to reduce it -- is alive and well.

"There are risks for Republicans as well. If they are highly critical of the popular president, Democrats could portray them as 'childish' -- a pointed word used by Obama in his Inaugural address to denigrate political gamesmanship."

I wrote yesterday about the possibility that GOP intransigence will stymie Obama's attempts to get his massive economic stimulus bill passed in a bipartisan fashion. Indeed, it was notable that Obama had to remind GOP leaders on Friday that he won the election. They aren't really acting like they lost at all.

Slate's John Dickerson wonders, now that some Republicans have said they intend to vote against the plan: "How will Obama respond? In the face of increased opposition, how much will Obama work for bipartisanship as an end in itself? Will he agree to GOP modifications to buy votes, or will he accept puny GOP support because he knows that, in the end, voters are more interested in action than whether he lived up to some standard of bipartisanship that he set for himself?"

New York Times opinion columnist Bob Herbert has some very different questions: "What's up with the Republicans? Have they no sense that their policies have sent the country hurtling down the road to ruin? Are they so divorced from reality that in their delusionary state they honestly believe we need more of their tax cuts for the rich and their other forms of plutocratic irresponsibility, the very things that got us to this deplorable state? . . .

"The question that I would like answered is why anyone listens to this crowd anymore. G.O.P. policies have been an absolute backbreaker for the middle class. (Forget the poor. Nobody talks about them anymore, not even the Democrats.) The G.O.P. has successfully engineered a wholesale redistribution of wealth to those already at the top of the income ladder and then, in a remarkable display of chutzpah, dared anyone to talk about class warfare. . . .

"When the G.O.P. talks, nobody should listen. Republicans have argued, with the collaboration of much of the media, that they could radically cut taxes while simultaneously balancing the federal budget, when, in fact, big income-tax cuts inevitably lead to big budget deficits. We listened to the G.O.P. and what do we have now? A trillion-dollar-plus deficit and an economy in shambles. . . .

"Why is anyone still listening?"

Looking Backward

By Dan Froomkin
2:15 PM ET, 01/27/2009

Gary Kamiya writes for Salon that in banning torture and ordering the closure of Guantanamo last week, "Obama emphatically rejected Bush's warped vision of America, and announced the return of the confident, principled country we all believed in, and too cavalierly took for granted. With a few strokes of the pen, he began to erase the ugly ethos that dishonored us for eight years, and called upon us to stand for a braver, better America. An America that will not abandon its moral principles at the first setback. An America that knows its real power lies not in its mighty army but in its mightier ideals.

"The miasma of repressed fear that has hung over America for so long will not dissipate overnight. Right-wing pundits are shrieking that we must keep torturing to keep America safe, and claiming that if Guantánamo detainees are moved into ordinary prisons, America's cities will be the targets of terrorist attacks. These boogeymen have been effective for years, and they will not instantly disappear. But since Obama's repudiation of Bush's hide-under-the-bed-and-shoot ethos, the country already feels more like the home of the brave and less like a land of furtive torturers. . . .

"Bush confronted evil with evil. He tortured, lied and flouted the law. By so doing, he deserted posts more vital than any front-line position: He abandoned the Constitution, he fled from the moral law. And we all, collectively, let him do it."

According to a new Rasmussen survey, "44% of Democratic voters believe President Bush and senior members of his administration are guilty of war crimes. Only 28% of the nation's Democrats disagree. . . .

"Overall, among all voters, 25% believe war crimes were committed while 54% disagree."

Ross K. Baker, writing in a USA Today opinion piece, says people should let it go: "In this season of reconciliation and hope that we can rise above the corrosive polarization of recent years, a chorus of angry voices has pressed aggressively for criminal charges to be brought against former president George W. Bush, former vice president Dick Cheney and members of the intelligence community thought guilty of constitutional violations or of practicing or sanctioning torture.

"A few lonely politicians, some television talking heads and the vitriolic chorus of the blogosphere seek revenge against an administration with which they did not happen to agree on much of anything. This 'movement,' if one could call it that, makes a mockery of the spirit of generosity and compassion to which President Obama is dedicated."

Washington Post opinion columnist Richard Cohen cites "the very different country called Sept. 11, 2001" and writes that "certain people are demanding that the torturers and their enablers be dragged across the time border and brought to justice."

He argues, however, that "we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives -- and maybe were -- and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted."

He endorses a proposal by David Cole of Georgetown Law School: "Writing in the Jan. 15 New York Review of Books, he proposed that either the president or Congress appoint a blue-ribbon commission, arm it with subpoena power, and turn it loose to find out what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and to report not only to Congress but to us."

Loose Ends

By Dan Froomkin
2:12 PM ET, 01/27/2009

The fact remains that some former Bush officials still owe us some answers.

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) issued a new subpoena yesterday to former Bush White House aide Karl Rove, months after Rove deflected an earlier effort to compel his testimony about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys and other political disputes that swirled around the Justice Department.

"Conyers's committee subpoenaed Rove on May 22, calling on him to testify about his contacts with department officials in the Bush era. But Rove rebuffed the summons, saying he was barred from testifying because of executive privilege.

"Yesterday's subpoena may test the limits of that power for the first time since George W. Bush left office, legal experts said. Some Democratic lawyers have suggested that an executive order issued by President Obama last week governing presidential records could make it easier for citizens and lawmakers to gather information about Bush administration controversies.

"'Change has come to Washington, and I hope Karl Rove is ready for it,' Conyers said. 'After two years of stonewalling, it's time for him to talk.'"

Meanwhile, NPR's Liz Halloran reports on former attorney general Alberto Gonzales's interview with Michel Martin.

"'I deeply regret some of the decisions made by my staff,' he said, referring directly to former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who resigned over the controversy after telling a Senate committee that the attorney firings were performance-related. . . .

"'Sometimes people identify someone to target. That's what happened to me,' said Gonzales, who served as President Bush's White House counsel before becoming attorney general in 2005, replacing John Ashcroft.

"'I'm not whining,' he said. 'It comes with the job.'"

Mark Silva blogs for Tribune with more from that interview, including Gonzales's expression of confidence that neither he nor others will be prosecuted for the administration's interrogation practices.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
2:12 PM ET, 01/27/2009

Other White House items of note:

* Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post about the White House's unfortunate e-mail outage yesterday. (It's over now.)

* Ben Pershing blogs for washingtonpost.com that it's not at all clear what Vice President Biden be doing at the White House.

* Via Huffingtonpost.com, author Bob Woodward tells NBC's Chris Matthews -- without any supporting evidence -- "I don't think the nanny or household tax problems and so forth are over for the Obama administration."

* Owen Thomas blogs for Valleywag: "The official residence of the vice president, obscured until Dick Cheney's last days in office and residence, now shines in satellite sunlight." It's no longer intentionally obscured on Google Maps.

* Charles Herman and Jake Tapper report for ABC News: "The high-flying execs at Citigroup caved under pressure from President Obama and decided today to abandon plans for a luxurious new $50 million corporate jet from France."

Live Online

By Dan Froomkin
2:12 PM ET, 01/27/2009

I'll be Live Online Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET. Let's talk Obama!

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
2:12 PM ET, 01/27/2009

Ed Stein on closing Guantanamo, Pat Oliphant, Tony Auth, and David Horsey on Obama and the GOP, John Sherffius on Obama's standards, and Matt Davies on a responsible withdrawal.

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