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Labor Day at the White House

By Dan Froomkin
1:41 PM ET, 01/30/2009


Obama signs an executive order reversing Bush labor policy on Friday. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Citing ordinary Americans he met during the campaign who were experiencing "the American dream in reverse," President Obama today told an audience full of labor leaders that he has created a new task force, led by Vice President Biden, devoted to strengthening the country's middle class. He also signed four executive orders intended to "level the playing field" for labor unions.

It was Obama's second burst of populism after what I wrote had started to feel like a bit of a drought.

Yesterday afternoon, Obama came out swinging against Wall Street bankers who granted themselves lavish bonuses even as they asked to be bailed-out with tax dollars.

At this morning's event, Obama once again pitched his economic stimulus plan, in the name of "the folks who approached me on the campaign trail, in union halls, in church basements and coffee shops and VFW halls and shop floors, [who] told me about jobs lost and homes foreclosed, hours cut, and benefits slashed -- the costs of life slowly slipping away and chipping away at the hopes of affording college or a new home or retirement. It's like the American Dream in reverse. These are the families who have by no fault of their own been hit hardest as the economy has worsened.

"They need action -- now."

It was a homecoming of sorts for the labor movement. "Welcome back to the White House," Biden said to loud cheers.

"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it's part of the solution," Obama said, adding: "This isn't a either/or proposition between the interests of workers and the interests of shareholders. That's the old argument. The new argument is that the American economy is not and has never been a zero-sum game. When workers are prospering, they buy products that make businesses prosper. We can be competitive and lean and mean and still create a situation where workers are thriving in this country."

Yesterday, Obama used his photo-op with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to scold some members of the upper class. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Stephen Labaton write in the New York Times: "President Obama branded Wall Street bankers 'shameful' on Thursday for giving themselves nearly $20 billion in bonuses as the economy was deteriorating and the government was spending billions to bail out some of the nation’s most prominent financial institutions.....

"It was a pointed — if calculated — flash of anger from the president, who frequently railed against excesses in executive compensation on the campaign trail. He struck his populist tone as he confronted the possibility of having to ask Congress for additional large sums of money, beyond the $700 billion already authorized, to prop up the financial system, even as he pushes Congress to move quickly on a separate economic stimulus package that could cost taxpayers as much as $900 billion.

"This week alone, American companies reported as many as 65,000 job cuts, and public anger is rising over reports of profligate spending by banks and investment firms that are receiving help from the $700 billion bailout fund."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "The president said he was reacting to a New York Times report about Wall Street executives who had given themselves almost $20 billion in bonuses in 2008, the same amount they received collectively during the much more bullish 2004."

Dawn Kopecki and Julianna Goldman write for Bloomberg that Obama is feeding "a swelling populist revolt against Wall Street bonuses...

"The president joined politicians such as Senator Christopher Dodd, who today called for using 'every possible legal means to get the money back.'"

Chuck Todd reported on the NBC Nightly News that "outrage at Wall Street became the president's issue of the day... Channeling his inner populist, the president got upset about something that the public has been angry about for weeks."

And he showed a clip of Biden, in an interview with CNBC's John Harwood, saying: "I mean, I'd like to throw these guys in the brig."

Biden alluded yet again to the issue this morning, praising Obama for sending "very, very clear signal to everyone in this country who goes to work every day without expecting acclaim or big bonuses.... To this, the great American middle class, you have simply said, we're on your side again."

And in a USA Today op-ed this morning, Biden was highly critical of the Bush administration: "For years, we had a White House that failed to put the middle class front and center in its economic policies," Biden wrote.

"Over the course of America's last economic expansion, the middle class participated in very few of the benefits. But now in the midst of this historic economic downturn, the middle class sure is participating in all of the pain. Something is seriously wrong when the economic engine of this nation — the great middle class — is treated this way."

Will we regularly be seeing this much of Biden? Monica Langley writes in the Wall Street Journal that Biden "is striving to carve out meaty roles for himself quickly...

"Mr. Biden's team is positioning the vice president to play up his differences with Mr. Cheney. For example, Mr. Biden's new task force on middle-class families will have a Web site complete with details of all meetings, attendees and policies, in contrast to Mr. Cheney's energy task force, which he fought to keep secret in court. Mr. Biden's office is releasing daily the vice president's schedule, unlike Mr. Cheney, who often didn't disclose his schedule....

"'Vice President Biden will be more transparent, accessible, bipartisan and focused on middle-class values than Dick Cheney,' says a senior administration official. 'That doesn't mean he'll be less powerful.'"

Biden got a big laugh from the audience this morning when he announced: "This task force, I might add, which coming out of the Vice President's Office will be a bit unique, will be fully transparent -- totally transparent. (Laughter.) We are going to consult. We are going to consult -- (applause.) We are going to consult openly -- openly and publicly without outside groups, who can help us develop the most far-reaching, imaginative solutions to help us solve these problems and create the outcome we're looking for.

"And we'll put all the material from our meetings and any report we produce up on the website. None of this will happen behind closed doors. We want the American people engaged."

What's Next?

By Dan Froomkin
1:39 PM ET, 01/30/2009

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday to provide health insurance to 11 million low-income children, a bill that would for the first time spend federal money to cover children and pregnant women who are legal immigrants.

"The State Children's Health Insurance Program, which is aimed at families earning too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance, currently covers close to 7 million youngsters at a cost of $25 billion.

"Lawmakers voted 66 to 32, largely along party lines, to renew the joint state-federal program and spend an additional $32.8 billion to expand coverage to 4 million more children. The expansion would be paid for by raising the cigarette tax from 39 cents a pack to $1.

"The House approved similar legislation on Jan. 14, and President Obama is expected to sign a final version as early as next week."

Obama issued a statement about the bill this morning: "Providing health care to more than ten million children through the Children's Health Insurance Program will serve as a down payment on my commitment to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care."

Speaking of that commitment, Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "The whole world is in recession. But the United States is the only wealthy country in which the economic catastrophe will also be a health care catastrophe — in which millions of people will lose their health insurance along with their jobs, and therefore lose access to essential care.

"Which raises a question: Why has the Obama administration been silent, at least so far, about one of President Obama’s key promises during last year’s campaign — the promise of guaranteed health care for all Americans?...

"There’s a populist rage building in this country, as Americans see bankers getting huge bailouts while ordinary citizens suffer.

"I agree with administration officials who argue that these financial bailouts are necessary (though I have problems with the specifics). But I also agree with Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who argues that — as a matter of political necessity as well as social justice — aid to bankers has to be linked to a strengthening of the social safety net, so that Americans can see that the government is ready to help everyone, not just the rich and powerful."

'New Politics' Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:58 PM ET, 01/30/2009

President Obama didn't get anything concrete in return for his recent attempts to woo Congressional Republicans. Every one of them voted against his stimulus bill on Wednesday.

But Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "By making very public overtures – traveling to Capitol Hill, inviting Republican members to the White House more than once, including to a cocktail party after Wednesday’s vote – he has already distinguished his administration sharply from those in recent memory, analysts say. And he’s begun work on the difficult task of remaking the highly partisan culture of Washington, as promised in his campaign."

Mimi Hall writes for USA Today that Obama is even "having members of Congress over to the White House to watch the Super Bowl.

"In just 10 days in office, President Obama has taken a host of steps to tamp down the often-harsh political tone in Washington and fulfill his promise to preside over a new era of civility."

Sam Youngman writes in The Hill: "White House spokesman Robert Gibbs portrayed the invitations as part of a continued effort by Obama to erase partisanship in Washington. Obama on Wednesday was rebuked by House Republicans, who unanimously voted against his stimulus bill.

"'Old habits die hard in the town, we get that,' Gibbs said. 'But the president understands that changing the way Washington works isn't likely to happen in just 10 days, but he believes that the time that he spent with Republicans … is a worthy investment of his time.'"

The USA Today editorial board writes: "It's deeply disappointing that at one of the most perilous times in the nation's modern history, House members, egged on by their leaders, reverted to the same tired, tribal partisanship that has long poisoned the House....

"Obama came to office promising to curb this kind of partisanship, and so far he has been walking the walk. He repeatedly consulted with Republicans and invited leaders from both parties to the White House for drinks after the vote. That's useful, because when political opponents spend time together, it's harder for them to misunderstand and demonize each other."

Asked to respond, House Minority Leader John Boehner wrote that the bill "did not meet President Obama's standard... The American people deserve better than what congressional Democrats have offered them. After Wednesday's vote, President Obama said, 'I hope that we can continue to strengthen this plan before it gets to my desk.' Republicans couldn't agree more. Let's hope Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill feel the same way."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote that "over the past two years we worked with President Bush when an issue's seriousness demanded that we put partisanship aside. But for Republicans, even in a time of crisis, cooperation has taken a back seat to ideological positioning."

Did Obama bring some of this upon himself? Perry Bacon Jr. and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post that he "gave Republicans incentive to oppose his bill, according to GOP aides who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about internal party deliberations. In his private appearance with House Republicans on Tuesday, the new president acknowledged that the House version of the bill contained too much spending and indicated he was open to more tax breaks for small businesses. Obama suggested that fixes would be made in the Senate and during a House-Senate conference to work out differences between versions of the bill.

"Aides said Obama's signal that the final version would be more to their liking provided an incentive for wavering Republicans to vote against the bill, thereby winning kudos from conservatives while leaving them the option of voting for the final product."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column that the House Republicans have failed to recognize that one political era has given way to another. While Republicans continue to agitate for more tax cuts and fewer spending initiatives, Robinson writes, "Americans know that this philosophy has already taken us as far as it could. Americans know that taxes can be cut by only so much before the federal government's effectiveness inevitably suffers. Americans know that spending money doesn't necessarily mean wasting it. Americans know that the economic crisis means that taking the position that government is inherently oppressive, if not fundamentally evil, is now intellectually bankrupt, because government is the only instrument we have in the high-stakes attempt to induce financial and economic recovery."

'Progressive Federalism' Comes to Washington

By Dan Froomkin
12:56 PM ET, 01/30/2009

Is President Obama embracing states' rights? Odd as that may be for a liberal African American, yes. That's because these days, on regulatory issues at least, the states are often more progressive than the lobbyist-clogged federal government.

John Schwartz writes in the New York Times: "The Obama administration seems to be open to a movement known as 'progressive federalism,' in which governors and activist state attorneys general have been trying to lead the way on environmental initiatives, consumer protection and other issues, several constitutional experts say.

"A recent decision by President Obama that could open the way for California and other states to set their own limits on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks represents a shift in the delicate and often acrimonious relationship between the federal government and the states, legal experts say, possibly signaling a new view of federalism....

"The general trend under previous administrations had favored federal pre-emption, the belief that the best law comes from Washington, a concept still favored by business leaders...

"Many liberal thinkers skeptical of states’ rights and state actions since the days of segregation have begun to see that the states, to use Justice Louis Brandeis’s words from the 1930s, can 'serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.'"

Claiming Immunity From Beyond the (Political) Grave

By Dan Froomkin
11:48 AM ET, 01/30/2009

Just when you thought former President Bush didn't have any more tricks up his sleeve...

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "Just four days before he left office, President Bush instructed former White House aide Karl Rove to refuse to cooperate with future congressional inquiries into alleged misconduct during his administration.

"On Jan. 16, 2009, then White House Counsel Fred Fielding sent a letter to Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin. The message: should his client receive any future subpoenas, Rove 'should not appear before Congress' or turn over any documents relating to his time in the White House. The letter told Rove that President Bush was continuing to assert executive privilege over any testimony by Rove—even after he leaves office."

That letter, and a nearly identical one to a lawyer for former White House counsel Harriet Miers, reasserted the White House position that the two former aides have "absolute immunity" from testifying before Congress about anything they did while they worked at the White House -- a vastly more extreme and legally unsupportable assertion than, say, a limited claim of executive privilege.

Isikoff writes: "The letters set the stage for what is likely to be a highly contentious legal and political battle over an unresolved issue: whether a former president can assert 'executive privilege'—and therefore prevent his aides from testifying before Congress—even after his term has expired.

"'To my knowledge, these [letters] are unprecedented,' said Peter Shane, an Ohio State University law professor who specializes in executive-privilege issues. 'I'm aware of no sitting president that has tried to give an insurance policy to a former employee in regard to post-administration testimony.' Shane likened the letter to Rove as an attempt to give his former aide a 'get-out-of-contempt-free card'."

Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin "said that he forwarded a copy of Fielding's letter, as well as the subpoena he got from Conyers, to Obama's White House counsel, Greg Craig, and essentially asked for the new president's position on these matters.

"So far, he said, Craig hasn't responded."

Legal blogger Jack Balkin writes: "The fact that Bush sent these letters while he was still president makes no difference. He is no longer president. The claim of absolute immunity he is making (as opposed to executive privilege, which is not absolute) would be controversial even if offered by a sitting president, but it is even more so when offered by a former president."

Isikoff tells MSNBC's Rachel Maddow: "We certainly didn't see this one coming."

Lawyer Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:47 AM ET, 01/30/2009

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Washington lawyer Norman L. Eisen made his name in politics as a regular Democratic contributor and co-founder of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, a liberal-leaning watchdog group that, among other things, sued then-President George W. Bush over missing White House e-mails.

"Now Eisen is part of the White House, named by President Obama this week as his special counsel for ethics and government reform.

"Eisen is one of several dozen prominent lawyers who will help formulate and interpret legal policy in the new administration, signaling a dramatic departure from the legal approach and policies of Bush and his aides. The list includes heavy-hitters educated at some of the nation's most prestigious law schools, and many who were sharply critical of Bush administration policies on detention, prisoner treatment, surveillance and other issues....

"Many attorneys from both parties also marvel at the sheer number of lawyers Obama has appointed or nominated so far, particularly at the White House counsel's office, which will have at least 22 attorneys working under counsel Greg Craig. That's more than twice as large as the office was under Bush, with three deputy counsels, the special ethics counsel and 18 associate and deputy associate counsels."

Lobbyist Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:47 AM ET, 01/30/2009

Carrie Budoff Brown writes for Politico: "The new chief of staff to health reform czar Tom Daschle was a lobbyist through late last year and will have to recuse himself from issues he worked to influence, an administration aide said Thursday.

"Daschle adviser Mark B. Childress is the second lobbyist to land in the top ranks of the Health and Human Services department and joins at least 12 others who have found jobs in the administration — despite the president’s repeated pledges during the campaign to stamp out their influence in Washington.

"As a partner at the law firm Foley Hoag, Childress represented the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and PanFlu LLC, which sought assistance on mobile health technology issues. He will need to avoid making decisions that affect his former clients or the broader areas they represented, but Childress will not require a waiver because he did not lobby the health and human services department, the aide said."

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "Former Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn, nominated to be deputy secretary of defense in an exception to Obama's blanket rule against hiring Washington lobbyists, is shoveling hard to get out of a public relations hole. But so far he seems to have dug himself a bit deeper."

Gitmo Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:45 AM ET, 01/30/2009

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "A military judge threw a wrench yesterday into the Obama administration's plan to suspend legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay, denying the government's request to delay the case of a detainee accused of planning the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

"To halt proceedings for 120 days -- as Obama wants in order to conduct a review -- the Pentagon may be forced to temporarily withdraw charges against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and possibly 20 other detainees facing trial in military commissions, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks...

"The chief military judge at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Army Col. James Pohl, said that he found the government's arguments 'unpersuasive' and that the case will go ahead because 'the public interest in a speedy trial will be harmed by the delay in the arraignment.'

"The administration had argued that the 'interests of justice' would be served by a delay that would allow the government to review the approximately 245 prisoners at Guantanamo to figure out who should be prosecuted and how, and who can be released."

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "At times, Colonel Pohl, the chief judge in Guantánamo, took a contentious tone that seemed to challenge the Obama administration....

"The effect of Colonel Pohl’s decision could be reversed by the chief Pentagon official for the military commission system, Susan J. Crawford. Lawyers said Thursday that she could dismiss the charges against Mr. Nashiri 'without prejudice,' which would effectively remove the case from the judge, while clearing the way for prosecutors to file new charges in the future.

"A military official said he expected such a decision from Ms. Crawford, who has broad powers over commission cases.... This month, she surprised Pentagon officials by telling
The Washington Post that she had decided that a detainee who had been charged as the would-be '20th hijacker' in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, could not be prosecuted because she concluded he had been tortured at Guantánamo."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:42 AM ET, 01/30/2009

Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: “President Obama and his advisers have approached Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, about becoming commerce secretary, a step that could open the way to significant shift in the balance of power in Congress.”

The Associated Press reports: “He won the fight to keep it. Now, Barack Obama is putting his beloved BlackBerry to work. Upon returning to the White House on Thursday morning after a trip to his younger daughter’s school for a class presentation, the president walked along the West Wing Colonnade toward the Oval Office while looking down at the electronic communicating device he held in both hands.”

The BBC reports: “A sculpture of an enormous bronze-coloured shoe has been erected in Iraq to honour the journalist who threw his shoes at ex-US President George W Bush.”

Frank James reports for Tribune that Bush “made his first public appearance Wednesday night, attending a Baylor versus Oklahoma women’s basketball game. The ex-president got a warm reception.”

Kathleen Parker writes in her Washington Post opinion column that “the new president is sounding an awful lot like the old one.” How exactly? “Obama and Bush each mistakenly assumed that his election was a national mandate for his policies, rather than a rejection of alternatives.”

My Morning Read

By Dan Froomkin
9:42 AM ET, 01/30/2009

What's on my radar this morning? That flash of populism  yesterday, Obama invites labor to the White House and focuses on the middle class, Bush's extraordinary attempt to assert executive privilege from beyond his presidency, and a setback for Obama at Gitmo. But I'm also mulling Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stay tuned.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:40 AM ET, 01/30/2009

Tom Toles and Jimmy Margulies on Obama's courtship attempts, Ann Telnaes and Daryl Cagle on GOP principles, Dwane Powell on the Limbaugh imperative, Larry Wright on Obama's work in progress, Peter Brookes on the Obama octuplets, Signe Wilkinson on al Qaeda's Obama problem, Poul Erik Poulsen on trashing Bush, and Joel Pett on something Bush and Obama have in common.

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