Obama Tests the Bully Pulpit

By Dan Froomkin
12:36 PM ET, 01/28/2009
Obama with business leaders at the White House this morning. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(For an explanation of today's format change, please read this post.)

Spending time with them didn't seem to do the trick, so President Obama took to the bully pulpit this morning to increase the pressure on Congressional Republicans to support his stimulus plan.

Surrounding himself with top business leaders in the White House's Roosevelt Room, Obama said that everyone is going to need to make some compromises. He reminded Washington's elected leaders of their own culpability. And he said American workers and companies are hurting and "don't have a moment to spare." Here are his prepared remarks.

"[W]e must each do our share," he said. "Part of what led our economy to this perilous moment was a sense of irresponsibility that prevailed from Wall Street to Washington. That's why I called for a new era of responsibility in my Inaugural Address last week – an era where each of us chips in so that we can climb our way out of this crisis – executives and factory floor workers, educators and engineers, health care professionals and elected officials.

"As we discussed in our meeting a few minutes ago, corporate America will have to accept its own responsibilities to its workers and to the American public. But these executives also understand that without wise leadership in Washington, even the best-run businesses cannot do as well as they might. They understand that what makes an idea sound is not whether it's Democratic or Republican, but whether it makes good economic sense for their workers and companies...

"I know that some are skeptical of the size and scale of this recovery plan. I understand that skepticism, given some of the things that have happened in this town in the past. That's why this recovery plan will include unprecedented measures that will allow the American people to hold my Administration accountable."

Whether today's prodding and scolding will work any better than yesterday's wooing remains uncertain.

Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post that Obama yesterday "devoted nearly three hours to separate closed-door meetings with House and Senate Republicans, an investment that is unlikely to result in new support for the relief package but could help clear a path to final passage. Participants in the meetings said Obama conceded that both the House and Senate versions of the bill had been larded with Democratic spending priorities and sought to reassure GOP lawmakers that their concerns would receive consideration during final negotiations...

"But the final product is certain to fall well short of the Republican ideal of seeing a package heavy with tax breaks and light on new domestic spending, and both the White House and Democratic leaders worry that GOP lawmakers will use procedural tactics to stall a final vote as they seek to erode support for the plan with the public. The big Democratic majority in the House makes it all but certain the bill will pass the chamber today....

"Republicans praised Obama's candor and willingness to reach across the aisle, but said he conceded little ground and probably won few, if any, converts. He staunchly defended one of their least favorite provisions, a $500-per-individual tax credit that can be claimed by people who make too little to pay income taxes but currently pay payroll taxes. Republicans oppose the so-called refundable credits, arguing that they are a form of welfare.

"'Feel free to whack me over the head, because I probably will not compromise on that part,' Obama said of the refundability portion, according to a GOP participant who took notes during the House meeting. 'I will watch you on Fox News and feel bad about myself.'"

Meanwhile, there are competing views on just how transformative the current stimulus package is.

Alec MacGillis writes in The Washington Post that "some Democrats on Capitol Hill and other administration supporters are voicing a.... critique: that the plan may fall short in its broader goal of transforming the American economy over the long term....

"Their disappointment centers on the relatively small amount devoted to long-lasting infrastructure investments in favor of spending on a long list of government programs. While each serves a purpose, the critics say, they add up to less than the sum of their parts, and fall far short of the transformative New Deal-like vision many of them had entertained."

But Robert Pear writes in the New York Times that the Democrats are already using the bill as "a tool for rewriting the social contract with the poor, the uninsured and the unemployed, in ways they have long yearned to do...

"Altogether, the economic recovery bill would speed $127 billion over the next two and a half years to individuals and states for health care alone, a fact that has Republicans fuming that the stimulus package is a back door to universal health coverage."

And Sam Dillon writes in the New York Times: "The economic stimulus plan that Congress has scheduled for a vote on Wednesday would shower the nation's school districts, child care centers and university campuses with $150 billion in new federal spending, a vast two-year investment that would more than double the Department of Education's current budget."

Finally, it's worth noting that Obama's outreach yesterday was basically unprecedented.

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "Presidents seldom travel to Capitol Hill. Protocol generally holds that Congressional leaders come to the White House — at the president's invitation — when it comes time to negotiate legislation. But there Mr. Obama was, standing before an array of microphones without a presidential seal anywhere in sight."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "It's a rare sight in Washington to see the president walking the halls of the Congress, stopping to talk to reporters in the usual hallway haunts, and rarer still to see him meet with the opposition party to hear their ideas on the first big legislation of his presidency.

"Still stranger was this: The leaders of the out-of-power party, thrashed in two consecutive elections and the subject of all this presidential courting, told their members to vote against the president before he even arrived to hear their grievances.

"Hours before President Obama arrived Tuesday for GOP-only talks in the House and Senate on the $825 billion economic stimulus bill, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio and his deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, told a closed-door meeting of Republicans to vote against the bill because it has too much government and will not revive the economy."

Nancy Benac writes for the Associated Press: "Obama may have been premature when, in his inaugural address, he proclaimed an end to 'the petty grievances, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.'

"Presidents past have shown that in the hard realities of governing, it will be extremely difficult to deliver on his lofty sentiments."

But, as Benac notes: "Whatever the difficulty of the mission, Obama's early efforts to reach out and chart a new course on both domestic and foreign policy have been both substantive and symbolic.

"Since becoming president:

"* His first trip to Capitol Hill was to pay a visit not to Democrats in Congress but to opposition Republicans....

"* His first television interview went to Al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language satellite TV network....

"* His first cave-in was to dump money for family planning from his giant economic stimulus bill, representing a giveback to Republicans."

Looking Backward

By Dan Froomkin
12:35 PM ET, 01/28/2009

As I noted yesterday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. has issued a new subpoena to former Bush White House aide Karl Rove. Rove deflected an earlier effort to compel his testimony about the politicization of the Justice Department.

Zachary Roth writes for TPM Muckraker: "On the question of whether we’ll get to the bottom of the Bush White House’s role in the US Attorney firings, it’s starting to look more and more like the ball is squarely in President Obama’s court….

"[J]ust now, Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, told TPMmuckraker that he had already forwarded Conyers’ subpoena to the Obama White House, asking them to give an opinion as to whether President Bush retains his ability to assert executive privilege."

Gail Russell Chaddock writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "So far, the Obama administration has not commented on how it will interpret issues of executive privilege affecting the previous administration.

"'Certainly the rule of law is something that’s very important to this president, as is the pursuit of justice of those who have been wronged. But with a huge crisis and two wars, it’s not a top priority of his to start out by looking over what happened in the last administration,' says an administration official not authorized to speak for attribution.

"Obama’s early decisions on the exercise of executive power will be among the closest watched of his presidency.

"'This case exemplifies the tension he now faces. The day after huge layoffs by most of the major businesses in the country, he’s meeting with Republicans trying to win their support for an economic stimulus bill, while across the aisle, Democrats in Congress have just subpoenaed one of the major figures of the Bush administration for what could be a serious investigation,' says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. 'The clash between dealing with anger of the past and the need to focus on the future is now front and center in the early part of his presidency.'"

Law blogger Jack Balkin writes that whatever Obama decides, "Rove will still go to court to defend the privilege, whether Obama supports it or not. As a result, we can expect that Rove will not have to testify for some time, perhaps not for years."

Meanwhile, Marisa Taylor writes for McClatchy Newspaper: "The American Civil Liberties Union asked the Obama administration on Wednesday to release Justice Department memos that provided the legal underpinning for harsh interrogations, eavesdropping and secret prisons.

"For years, the Bush administration refused to release them, citing national security, attorney-client privilege and the need to protect the government’s deliberative process.

"The ACLU’s request, however, comes after President Barack Obama last week rescinded a 2001 Justice Department memo that gave agencies broad legal cover to reject public disclosure requests. Obama also urged agencies to be more transparent when deciding what documents to release under the Freedom of Information Act."

Dan Nguyen and Christopher Weaver yesterday launched a Web feature on ProPublica that lists and describes the OLC memos that are still secret. ProPublica's Chisun Lee explains: "These memos laid the legal foundation to many of Bush’s most criticized counterterrorism efforts — the claims of unilateral executive authority to surveil, detain, and try terrorism suspects, unfettered by Congress or international law. Their disclosure could reveal what move was considered when, why and at whose behest."

The New York Times editorial board marvels at former attorney general Alberto Gonzales’s "bizarre" comeback attempt, in which he is "painting himself as an upstanding man victimized by a ‘mean-spirited town.'" (See this post for background.)

The Times writes: "Mr. Gonzales said he was not worried about being prosecuted for his actions because he was “acting in good faith” and — yes — following orders.

"That smug self-assurance should be another powerful reminder to the White House of the need for an unsparing review of all of Mr. Bush’s policies on torture, wiretapping and executive power. Only by learning the details of those disastrous decisions can the nation hope to undo the damage and make sure these mistakes are not repeated."

And in a few more looks back, Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "Interior Department officials ignored key scientific findings when they limited water flows in the Grand Canyon to optimize generation of electric power there, risking damage to the ecology of the spectacular national landmark, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post."

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "In his last days in office, President George W. Bush formally rejected clemency requests from a host of prominent business and political figures, including junk bond king Michael Milken and former California lawmaker Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham, according to newly released Justice Department records.

"Bush’s decision frustrated several well-heeled felons and the expensive Washington lawyers they hired to make their case. Over the past several months, lawyers with GOP ties and veterans of the White House counsel’s office signed on to advocate for convicts at sums that at times exceeded $500,000, according to lawyers who received solicitations."

Obama's First Big Bill

By Dan Froomkin
12:34 PM ET, 01/28/2009

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "Congress gave final approval on Tuesday to a civil rights bill providing women, blacks and Hispanics with powerful new tools to challenge pay discrimination in the workplace. It is likely to be the first significant legislation signed by President Obama....

"The bill, named for Lilly M. Ledbetter, a longtime supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, would make it easier for workers to win lawsuits claiming pay discrimination based on sex, race, religion, national origin, age or disability....

"Since taking office, Mr. Obama has signed one other piece of legislation, fixing the salary of the secretary of the interior."

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "Coming exactly a week after Obama took office, the quick work of the new Congress -- and the scheduling of the president's first East Room signing ceremony -- are early emblems of an intention to give the government a more liberal tilt. They also signify a rebalancing of power among the government's branches, with newly ascendant Democrats overruling a decision that the Supreme Court made two years ago by a slender majority that included two conservative justices appointed by President George W. Bush."

The Unsupportable Defense of the Indefensible

By Dan Froomkin
10:32 AM ET, 01/28/2009

Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen posted a heated response on the National Review's blog on Monday to my suggestion last week that his defense of the Bush administration's torture policies was based on falsehoods.

A little background: The Post last Thursday ran a particularly strident op-ed by Thiessen in which he wrote, among other things, that for President Obama to ban Bush's "enhanced interrogation techniques" would "effectively kill a program that stopped al-Qaeda from launching another Sept. 11-style attack."

Later that day, of course, Obama did it anyway, leading Thiessen to blog: "The CIA program he is effectively shutting down is the reason why America has not been attacked again after 9/11... Obama is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office."

I called Thiessen's assertions about the effectiveness of torture outrageous and unsupported. As part of his argument, Thiessen had cited a slew of alleged plots he said were averted due to such harsh interrogations. I pointed out that it's never been proven that any of those attacks were anything more than fantasy, nor that they were averted due to CIA interrogation.

Thiessen now accuses me of "speaking from a pinnacle of near-perfect ignorance." And then he tells a story of how, in the process of preparing a speech for Bush in 2006, intelligence officials "painstakingly reconstructed how the questioning of these terrorists led to the disruption of plots." He explains one in depth.

Thiessen writes that he was told that a major al-Qaeda figure named Abu Zubaydah, under torture, "provided information that led to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh — one of the key plotters of the 9/11 attacks and a close associated of KSM [Khalid Sheik Muhammed]." According to Thiessen, Zubaydah and bin al Shibh then provided information that led to KSM's capture. KSM, under torture, then provided information that led to the capture of a Southeast Asian terrorist named Zubair. Zubair then provided information that led to the arrest of his fellow terrorist Hambali. KSM then provided information that led to the arrest of Hambali's brother. And Hambali's brother then provided information "that led us to a cell of 17 [Jemmah Islamiyah] operatives that were going to carry out the West Coast plot."

Little of this is new; Thiessen included most of it in the speech Bush delivered in September 2006 (in the heat of the mid-term elections), and much of it can also be found in a statement released at the same time by the director of national intelligence.

And guess what? It doesn't appear to be remotely true.

Yes, it may be what Thiessen was told -- by people trying to defend the horrible things they had done, and who were trying to tell the White House what it wanted to hear.

But investigative journalists have found that this story -- like all the other ones attempting to justify torture -- falls apart at almost every turn. In this case, the most authoritative reporting has been done by Ron Suskind and is laid out in his book The One Percent Doctrine.

For starters, Zubaydah was not a major player. According to Suskind, he was a mentally ill travel booker who under CIA torture sent investigators chasing after false leads about al-Qaeda plots on American nuclear plants, water systems, shopping malls, banks and supermarkets.

Zubaydah did not, as Bush maintained, identify bin al Shibh. As Spencer Ackerman blogged for the New Republic in 2002: "A Nexis search for 'Ramzi Binalshibh' between September 11, 2001 and March 1, 2002 -- the U.S. captured Abu Zubaydah in March 2002 -- turns up 26 hits for The Washington Post alone. Everyone involved in counterterrorism knew who bin Al Shibh was."

Zubaydah did not, as Thiessen asserts, provide information that led to bin al Shibh's capture. Bin al Shibh was captured almost half a year after Zubayda was, and Suskind reported that the key information about his location came not from Zubaydah but from an al-Jazeera reporter who had interviewed bin al Shibh and KSM at their safehouse apartment in Karachi. The reporter passed the information to his superiors, who passed the information to al-Jazeera's owner, the Emir of Qatar -- a friend of the CIA -- who then passed it to Langley.

Zubaydah did not, as Thiessen asserts, provide information that led to KSM's capture. Suskind reported that a tipster -- a "walk in" -- led the CIA directly to KSM and subsequently collected a $25 million reward.

And skipping ahead to the end of Thiessen's tale, the West Coast plot has been debunked repeatedly. It's never been clear that the alleged plot to fly an airplane into the tallest building on the West Coast was ever more than a pipe dream. After Bush first mentioned the plot in February 2006, Peter Baker and Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post that "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the... scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk."

The Bush White House never provided any independently verifiable information to support its claims that extreme measures helped keep Americans safe. Indeed, in this particular case, at least one key bit of evidence was made to vanish. Zubaydah's entire interrogation was captured on CIA videotapes -- that the CIA destroyed in 2005.

Why should anyone care about this particular deceit? After all, even if torture did work, it's still morally indefensible. Well, the reason I keep calling attention to the misleading and fabricated assertions of the now-former Bush administration is that it's important to remember that they didn't tell us the truth, that we still don't really know what they did in our name, and that, if some people have their way, we never will.

Here's what Suskind had to say in an e-mail to me yesterday: "Almost all the valuable information offered by Zubaydah -- and there was some -- was obtained with traditional debriefing, especially certain artful uses of the Koran and Zubaydah's believe in predestination. The point, made again and again by the leading interrogation experts in the U.S. government: torture doesn't work. It is misleading to frame this debate in terms of doing whatever's necessary to get the information we desperately needed. CIA and some DOD interrogators -- legally unleashed and encouraged to improvise by a go-with-your-gut, expert-phobic White House -- forfeited some of America's most cherished principles for virtually nothing. They got very little with their 'enhanced methods.' And what they did obtain could have just as easily been yielded by traditional methods. What was lost, in terms of America's most precious asset -- its moral authority? Where does one begin? This is the hard truth that responsible public servants -- past and present -- should, at this point, acknowledge. Instead, some dead enders are relying on the fact that files remain classified and videotapes have been destroyed to confuse this issue at a time when the country is crying out for clarity. Right now, America's position should be: we tortured some people in these troubled years since 9/11, it didn't work, we shouldn't have done it, we've learned from our mistakes and we commit to never doing it again. That's what a mature nation does. It evolves."

Jane Mayer, in her book The Dark Side, substantiates many of Suskind's findings, and concludes that "whatever their motives, it appears the President and the Director of Central Intelligence gave the public misleadingly exaggerated accounts of the effectiveness of the abuse they authorized. Some might impute dishonest motives to them. But it seems more likely that they fooled not just the public, but also themselves."

I'll generously put Thiessen in that category.

Honeymoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
10:15 AM ET, 01/28/2009

Patrick O'Connor and Jonathan Martin write for Politico: “Beneath the polite give and take between the new president and the newly disempowered Republican caucus, there was a sense that Obama’s honeymoon had already begun to ebb. For the first time, it seems, congressional Republicans, shut out of power and seemingly cowed by the harsh verdict of voters and wild popularity of the new president, are finding their voice, rallying in large numbers against the centerpiece of Obama’s agenda."

Chuck Raasch writes for the Gannett News Service that “the Republicans' stiff, early opposition is belying predictions that they would initially defer to Obama and may be foreshadowing a shorter-than-expected honeymoon for the new president."

Howard Fineman writes for MSNBC: “Even though the country is behind Obama as he starts — he has the highest approval ratings on record — the sense Inside the Beltway is rather fizz-less. There are a number of reasons. Obama essentially started governing the economy weeks ago, so his ‘honeymoon’ was over — at least among the political and chattering classes here in Washington — before he was even inaugurated.”

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
10:08 AM ET, 01/28/2009

Dan Wasserman, Ed Stein and Joel Pett on Obama's new GOP friends, Pat Bagley on Rush Limbaugh, Jim Morin on the stimulus plan, Ann Telnaes on Obama's exceptions, Dana Summers on the honeymoon, Adam Zyglis on light at the end of the tunnel, and Jim Day on the Bush library.

Morning Read

By Dan Froomkin
10:05 AM ET, 01/28/2009

Alec MacGillis writes in The Post that some Democrats think Obama isn’t being bold enough, and should to focus more on long-term investments in energy, health care and infrastructure.

But Robert Pear writes in the New York Times that Democrats are already using the stimulus bill to rewrite the social contract with the poor, the uninsured and the unemployed “in ways they have long yearned to do.” And Sam Dillon writes in the Times that the bill would make a vast two-year investment in the nation’s school districts, child care centers and university campuses.

Meanwhile, David Cho writes in The Post about a related problem that makes stimulating the economy look easy: How to stabilize the financial system.

Live Q&A

By Dan Froomkin
10:02 AM ET, 01/28/2009

I’m Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. There's so much to talk about.

A Change in Format for White House Watch

By Dan Froomkin
10:00 AM ET, 01/28/2009

Welcome to my new blog. It's the same old White House Watch, only different. A new presidency seemed like a good time to shake up my format, and this one has some distinct advantages. I hope you'll agree.

Back when I started writing about the White House, in January 2004, I chose to file once a day, in a long column broken up with subheads. I wasn't initially sure what direction the column would take. Since the Bush White House was so opaque, I figured there would be value in pulling together what little information there was in the public domain. As time went on, I grew attached to writing something that had a beginning, a middle and an end, at least in part because certain recurring themes often wound their way through the column.

But so much will be different with this administration, I decided a change in format was called for. One advantage of the new format is that each item will exist as its own post, allowing readers (and bloggers) to respond individually to the specific items. I'll also be keywording my posts, allowing me to build up rich resource pages on the key themes and key players of the new administration. On my side of things, the new production system won't have some of the annoying hang-ups of the old one, and I can embed relevant photos and video; on your side of things, it will make my work easier to follow via RSS and Twitter and so on.

I also expect that I'll be posting some items earlier in the day, rather than just once at mid-day -- and sometimes in the afternoons, as the situation warrants.

The format change will be gradual, as I tweak this and that -- partly in response to your comments. So let me know what you think.

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