The White House's New Tone

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 02/ 2/2009

Obama meets with Republican Vermont Governor Jim Douglas in the Oval Office on Monday. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Not too long ago, we had a president who didn't just defy and shun his political opponents, he refused to respond to their actual arguments and chose instead to refute his own preposterous misrepresentations of what they were saying.

Somewhat lost in the furious Washington debate over how many concessions President Obama should be making to Republicans to win their support for his stimulus package is a public recognition of just how much has changed in the last few weeks.

The victorious president may not be pursuing an agenda that pleases the losers, but he is spending time with them, listening to them, and taking them seriously. That's a big change from the way former President Bush treated Democrats.

Bipartisanship doesn't necessarily require that the ruling party defers to the minority. It could simply mean that both sides treat each other like grownups.

There are two paths Obama could take to win widespread bipartisan support for his package -- certainly among the general public, if not the highly polarized Congress. He could sacrifice provisions of the stimulus package that are important to him, but anathema to the political right. Or he could spend even more time addressing the American people, openly discussing the views of his critics, explaining why he disagrees, tracing his thinking and discussing why he made the choices he did.

AFP's Stephen Collinson captures the irony of the reaction to the House's passage -- without a single Republican vote -- of the stimulus bill last week: "After Barack Obama's first big win, the White House finds itself in the odd position of denying the new president has absorbed a power-sapping defeat."

Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post that "the White House did not view the rejection of Obama's initial bid at fostering bipartisanship as a stinging disappointment. Even as Obama was unable to pick up their votes, he was left with many Republicans praising his outreach. And judging by Obama's record, it is this tone of mutual respect that -- at least for now -- he may be after as much as actual votes on bills he could pass without significant GOP backing....

"The uncertainty over just how the new president defines bipartisanship traces back to the campaign trail. When Obama called for an end to 'broken and divided politics,' his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and others contended that there were few instances in Obama's career when he had made major concessions that upset fellow Democrats to reach agreement with Republicans.

"But this, said some who have worked with Obama, overlooked his intent. To Obama, they said, fixing 'broken politics' is less about making concessions just for the sake of finding common ground and more about elevating the debate -- replacing cynical gamesmanship and immature name-calling with intellectually honest arguments and respect for the other side's motives...

"The president himself emphasized tone more than the results of congressional roll calls last week. 'We're not going to get 100 percent agreement and we might not even get a 50 percent agreement, but I do think that people appreciate me walking them through my thought process,' he said. 'I hope that I communicated my sincere desire to get good ideas from everybody. And my attitude is that this is the first major piece of legislation that we've been working on the Hill and that over time some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over. But old habits die hard.'"

And while Republicans are urging Obama to advocate on their behalf with Democratic congressional leaders, many Democrats don't get why they should concede on major points after their big victory in November. MacGillis and Kane write: "Already, many Democrats are upset with the inclusion in the stimulus package of $24 billion in business tax breaks that many economists doubt will provide a significant boost to the economy and that will reward some of the companies, such as banks and home builders, that fueled the housing bubble."

NBC's Matt Lauer interviewed Obama yesterday before the Super Bowl. Part of the interview was aired last night (see my earlier post.) But in more excerpts aired this morning, Lauer asked Obama if he was worried about his promise to build bipartisanship in Washington.

Obama replied: "Oh, listen, it's only been ten days. People have to recognize that it's going to take some time for trust to be built not only between Democrats and Republicans but between Congress and the White House, between the House and the Senate. You know, we've had a dysfunctional political system for a while now."

Obama even invited yet another Republican over to the White House this morning. Steven R. Hurst writes for the Associated Press: "Obama teamed up with Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, the Republican vice chairman of the National Governors Association, as he sought bipartisan backing for the stimulus legislation....

"'If I were writing it, it might look at little different,' said Douglas, who sat at Obama's side in the Oval Office. 'But the essence of a recovery package is essential to get the nation's economy moving.'

"Douglas is among several GOP governors who are breaking with their Republican colleagues in Congress to ask for approval of the plan. Douglas is in Washington to lobby the Senate."

The conventional wisdom is still not satisfied. Nancy Gibbs writes for Time that "we're about to find out" if Obama is "all hat and no cattle" -- or whether he will perform "some highly public sacrifices of some Democratic sacred cows. And by so doing, shows who's really in charge of leading America out of these dark times."

She writes: "I can't help but wonder at the gap between the aggressively sensible things Obama is saying and the passive way that he is acting. And you get a sense that a lot of people in the audience, the experts and economists as well as the worried working classes, are starting to wonder as well."

Also see my latest Honeymoon Watch item.

But Washington Post opinion columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. takes a different view of the challenge ahead: "The coming week will test the strength of President Obama and the Democrats: Will they lose their nerve, or will they face down a rapidly forming conventional wisdom that would allow them to claim victory only if their economic stimulus package passes with substantial Republican support?...

"If achieving bipartisanship takes priority over the actual content of policy, Republicans are handed a powerful weapon. In theory, they can keep moving the bipartisan bar indefinitely. And each concession to their sensibilities threatens the solidarity in the president's own camp."

And Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "The crisis is at least as grave as the one that confronted us — and, for a time, united us — after 9/11. Which is why the antics among Republicans on Capitol Hill seem so surreal. These are the same politicians who only yesterday smeared the patriotism of any dissenters from Bush's 'war on terror.' Where is their own patriotism now that economic terror is inflicting far more harm on their constituents than Saddam Hussein's nonexistent W.M.D.?...

"[T]he Obama honeymoon remains intact. The nightmare is that we have so irrelevant, clownish and childish an opposition party at a moment when America is in an all-hands-on-deck emergency that's as trying as war. To paraphrase a dictum that has been variously attributed to two of our most storied leaders in times of great challenge, Thomas Paine and George Patton, the Republicans should either lead, follow or get out of the grown-ups' way."

Stimulus Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:40 PM ET, 02/ 2/2009

In his interview with NBC's Matt Lauer that aired this morning, Barack Obama acknowledged that he'll be a one-term president if the stimulus doesn't work.

Lauer: "[A]t some point will you say, 'Wait a minute, we've spent this amount of money. We're not seeing the results. We've got to change course dramatically?"

Obama: "Look, I'm at the start of my administration. One nice thing about-- the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years. And... you know, a year from now I think people -- are gonna see that -- we're starting to make some progress. But there's still gonna be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years then there's gonna be a one-term proposition."

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate will open debate today on a nearly $900 billion economic stimulus plan that is similar in size and scope to the package the House passed, creating a possibly smooth path for sending a bill to President Obama's desk by the mid-February deadline.

"But senators in both parties hope to alter the legislation, focusing on easing the housing crisis, increasing infrastructure spending and cutting taxes on corporations. If many of these changes are accepted in the Senate, which hopes to finish voting on the plan by Friday, it could complicate the effort to work out differences between the two bills. It could also drive the overall cost of the legislation, which was $819 billion in the House version and is $887 billion in the Senate plan, much closer to the politically shaky $1 trillion mark."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama is now on a quest to reshape the legislation in a way that will bring Senate Republicans, and perhaps eventually some House members as well, on board. On Monday, he will meet with Congressional Democratic leaders at the White House for further discussions on the package."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that "one question is looming over their search for a cure: Can the government fashion a fast and efficient economic stimulus while also seizing the moment to remake America?

"For now, Mr. Obama and his aides are insisting they can accomplish both goals, following their mantra of using the urgency of the economic crisis to accomplish larger — and long-delayed — reforms that never garnered sufficient votes in ordinary times.

"In fact, at various times in American history, moments like this one have been used for big programs, from integrating the armed forces to creating Social Security and, later, Medicare. So it is little wonder that everyone with a big, stalled, transformative project — green energy programs, broadband networks that reach into rural America, health insurance for the newly unemployed or uninsured — is citing the precedent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and declaring that a new New Deal is overdue.

"But the question that the Senate will begin debating Monday is whether grand ambitions are getting in the way of pulling the country out of a nose dive. And so for every comparison of this moment to Roosevelt's first hundred days, there are warnings that much of his social experimentation did not have a big impact on America's economic recovery, which took years."

Michael Scherer and Massimo Calabresi talk to Obama's economic guru, Larry Summers: "[T]his economic wunderkind turned Obama adviser is moving at flank speed on the biggest restructuring of the U.S. economy since the New Deal.....

"'Any study of history reveals that with crisis comes enormous fluidity in the system,' he says...'In Washington the transition from inconceivable to inevitable can be rapid if forced by events.'...

"Some Republicans call the current plan wasteful; free-spending Democrats long for more investments over years, not months. Summers argues that the stimulus bill splits the difference: not only will most of the money go to reviving the economy in the next 18 months, but much of it will also go to projects that could save money over the long term, such as weatherizing 75% of federal buildings and computerizing medical records. 'The bill does a good job of marrying the twin imperatives of putting people back to work and doing the work that needs to be done,' he says. 'No $825 billion bill is going to not have some projects that any individual disagrees with.'

"Assuming the stimulus measure is passed--in private, even top GOP aides believe it will happen by mid-February--Summers says Obama will push next to stabilize the banks and the housing market. The Administration is weighing approaches that range from buying up banks' bad assets or guaranteeing the solvency of banks that hold them to taking an even larger ownership stake in the institutions and then pouring more cash directly into them. None of the options, Obama Administration officials admit, are ideal.

"And then, perhaps as early as March, they'll launch their biggest lift with the beginnings of a plan to reform Social Security and Medicare, the two entitlement programs that, even before the economy collapsed, were threatening the Treasury with bankruptcy. By any standard, it is a massive three-month agenda fraught with political risk. The key to getting it all done, Summers says, is entering into a 'compact' with the country 'that this isn't just government as usual throwing money at things.'"

Financial System Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:38 PM ET, 02/ 2/2009

David Stout writes in Sunday's New York Times: "Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner will soon announce a new strategy for reviving the country's financial system while making sure that banking executives do not misuse federal money meant to assist their companies, President Obama said Saturday in his weekly address."

"The president said the goal of the strategy would be to get credit flowing again to families and businesses....

"The administration, the president said, would ensure that chief executives 'are not draining funds that should be advancing our recovery'...

"Administration officials have said that restrictions on executive pay at companies benefiting from the rescue program may be announced this week. Later, perhaps next week, revisions in the program will be announced under which the most toxic assets of the banks will be bought up or guaranteed, so that the institutions will have incentives to unclog the credit streams."

Vikas Bajaj and Stephen Labaton write in the New York Times: "As the Obama administration prepares its strategy to rescue the nation's banks by buying or guaranteeing troubled assets on their books, it confronts one central problem: How should they be valued?

"Not just billions, but hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake....

"Placing too low a value would force institutions selling and others holding similar investments to register crushing losses that could deplete their capital and make it harder for them to increase lending.

"But inflated values would bail out the companies, their shareholders and executives at the expense of taxpayers, who would swallow the losses if the government could not recoup what it had paid."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Question: what happens if you lose vast amounts of other people's money? Answer: you get a big gift from the federal government — but the president says some very harsh things about you before forking over the cash...

"I'm talking, instead, about the administration's plans for a banking system rescue — plans that are shaping up as a classic exercise in 'lemon socialism': taxpayers bear the cost if things go wrong, but stockholders and executives get the benefits if things go right....

"In normal times, banks raise capital by selling stock to private investors, who receive a share in the bank's ownership in return. You might think, then, that if banks currently can't or won't raise enough capital from private investors, the government should do what a private investor would: provide capital in return for partial ownership.

"But bank stocks are worth so little these days — Citigroup and Bank of America have a combined market value of only $52 billion — that the ownership wouldn't be partial: pumping in enough taxpayer money to make the banks sound would, in effect, turn them into publicly owned enterprises.

"My response to this prospect is: so? If taxpayers are footing the bill for rescuing the banks, why shouldn't they get ownership, at least until private buyers can be found? But the Obama administration appears to be tying itself in knots to avoid this outcome."

The Daschle Dilemma

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 02/ 2/2009

Thomas A. Daschle's nomination to be secretary of health and human services got tripped up on Friday by the disclosure of a series of tax filing errors made over the past three years, including his failure to pay taxes on a luxury car and driver provided for him by Democratic businessman Leo J. Hindery Jr., his friend and employer.

But Daschle's $146,000 tax problem, serious as it is, also called attention to his status as something of a poster-child for the kind of revolving-door lobbying culture that Obama has so vociferously condemned.

As Douglass K. Daniel writes for the Associated Press, the former Senate majority leader "collected nearly a quarter of a million dollars in fees in the last two years speaking to leaders of the industry President Barack Obama wants him to reform as the administration's health secretary.

"That was just a portion of the more than $5.2 million the former South Dakota senator earned as he advised insurers and hospitals and worked in other industries -- real estate, energy and telecommunications among them, according to a financial statement filed with the Office of Government Ethics."

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times that the Daschle story "offers a new window into how Washington works. It shows how in just four years an influential former senator was able to make $5 million and live a lavish lifestyle by dint of his name, connections and knowledge of the town's inner workings...

"[I]nterviews and a review of public documents show that in his work for a Washington law firm, Mr. Daschle did take on an array of clients seeking influence with the government, including concerns involved in Indian gambling, ethanol, health care, telecommunications and federal contracting...

"Affiliated with the firm Alston & Bird, Mr. Daschle has operated in the gap between the popular understanding and legal definition of a lobbyist. There is no evidence that he directly sought to influence his former colleagues or other government officials in ways that would have required him to register as a lobbyist or could have run afoul of the restrictions on former lobbyists entering the Obama administration. But the rules still left plenty of room for him to advise businesses seeking to influence the government or to profit otherwise from the fame and insights he acquired in public life."

Meanwhile, Ceci Connolly and Paul Kane write for The Washington Post that Daschle "released a letter early today apologizing to the top lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee for mistakes on his personal income tax returns that resulted in $146,000 in back payments.

"'I am deeply embarrassed and disappointed by the errors that required me to amend my tax returns,' he wrote to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). 'I apologize for the errors and profoundly regret that you have had to devote time to them.'"

Honeymoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:23 PM ET, 02/ 2/2009

Rick Klein writes for ABC News's The Note that it's a "make-or-break week" for the Obama agenda in the Senate: "The message he wanted to send with the stimulus package -- a new tone of bipartisan cooperation and coordinated action -- has been lost in old Washington games, as the opposition party finds its voice. If Obama's going to salvage something out his first bipartisan push -- other than Super Bowl leftovers -- it's going to have to happen here and now, with the men and women he once called colleagues."

First Promise Broken

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 02/ 2/2009

Politifact.com determines that President Obama has broken his first campaign promise.

His campaign Web site promised: "As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days." But as Angie Drobnic Holan writes: "[T]he first bill Obama signed into law as president -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- got no such vetting."

Perhaps in response, the White House this morning Web-published a copy of the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 -- and a comment form.

Bush Legacy Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:16 PM ET, 02/ 2/2009

Todd J. Gillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "The Bush legacy-protection machinery isn't in full gear yet. But it's getting there, with former aides gathering online to share talking points and swap spin.

"'We were there. And as members of the team, we know the difference between rumor, reality, fact, and fiction. This is our chance to stand up, speak up, and set the record straight,' says the Web site dedicated to the task.

"The Bush-Cheney Alumni Association Web site, 43alumni.com, appeared last week as a link from the Web site of the George W. Bush Foundation, which is raising funds to build the Bush presidential library and policy institute at Southern Methodist University.

"Bush critics warned from the outset that the SMU project could stray from biography and academics into hagiography and polemics. The reams of laudatory press clippings loaded on the alumni site, with nary a naysayer to be found, might prompt an 'I told you so.'...

"The site's offerings include reprints of Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey's critique of the Obama economic stimulus plan ('As crafted, it is unlikely to produce the desired results') and a tart assessment from Bush political guru Karl Rove suggesting a 'perpetual campaign' mentality at the new White House."

In a likeminded Wall Street Journal opinion column, Dorothy Rabninowitz warns darkly that Obama's "trumpeting declarations to the world that new leadership had now come to the United States, that we were now a nation worthy of the world's trust -- those speeches suggesting that after years of darkness America had now been rescued, just barely, from the abyss -- will be in the end this president's Achilles' heel. Those are not, Mr. Obama may discover, tones that wear well in the course of a presidency."

But taking a somewhat more critical view of Bush's legacy, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers writes for Huffingtonpost.com about his insistence on a full reckoning of the Bush administration's excesses: "If we move on now without fully documenting what occurred, without acknowledging the betrayal of our values, and without determining whether or not any laws have been broken, we cannot help but validate all that has gone on before. If we look at the Bush record and conclude that the book should simply be closed, we will be tacitly approving both the documented abuses and the additional misdeeds we will have chosen to leave uncovered."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "On the campaign trail, Barack Obama was skeptical of sweeping claims of executive privilege. We hope that he will show the same skepticism now that he is in the White House. The scandals of the Bush Justice Department will not be put to rest until all of Mr. Bush's aides who have been subpoenaed provide Congress with the information it needs, in public and under oath.

Ryan J. Donmoyer writes for Bloomberg with another bit of the Bush legacy: "The average tax rate paid by the richest 400 Americans fell by a third to 17.2 percent through the first six years of the Bush administration and their average income doubled to $263.3 million, new IRS data show."

Meanwhile, Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that "there are plenty of signs that Team Obama is more than a little preoccupied with Bush — with avoiding his mistakes, reversing his policies in a daily drumbeat of events, and with getting as much political mileage as possible from coded but clear shots at the unpopular ex-president...

"'Yes, Bush is unpopular. But he's unpopular because the policies weren't right,' said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. 'What people want a change from is not theoretical.'"

And Joanna Molloy and Meredith Kolodner write in the New York Daily News: "Will Ferrell's spoof of former President George Bush may be the hottest ticket in town, but it's a lap-dancing Condoleezza Rice - and her red panties - that steal the show."

Obama Aces Super Bowl Prediction

By Dan Froomkin
9:34 AM ET, 02/ 2/2009

In a sometimes serious but mostly lighthearted pre-Super Bowl interview with NBC's Matt Lauer yesterday (above), President Obama -- looking boyish and relaxed in an open-necked shirt and no jacket -- vowed that a "substantial" number of American troops will have come home from Iraq within a year, joked about his new BlackBerry ("It's like Inspector Gadget, if you touched it, it might blow up... It turns into a car, if I have to make a quick getaway") and correctly predicted the results of the big game ("I think the Steelers are gonna eke it out in a close one.")

Here's the transcript.

Lauer extended the president an opportunity to indulge in Bush-style fear tactics, but Obama gently declined:

Lauer: "There are millions, tens of millions of people watching this broadcast right now, Mr. President. If they were to have access to the same information you have now on a daily basis, how much less sleep would we all be getting?"

Obama: "Here’s what I think is important for everybody to understand. We’ve got real threats. And we have to remain vigilant. But the quality of our armed forces has never been better. When you meet the people who are charged with keeping America safe, it gives you enormous confidence. They are on the case day in and day out with extraordinary profess — professionalism. But there is no doubt that — we have to make sure that we don’t let up because there are people who would be willing to do us harm."

Obama described what he called "sobering moments" such as "having to sign letters for troops... who have died and — and sending letters to their family, where you realize every decision you make counts. And, you know, you don’t have time to — you — you don’t have time to spend a lot of time on inconsequential stuff. You’ve gotta focus on, at this point, putting people back to work but also reminding yourself that you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people — around the world who are putting themselves in harm’s way and you are the commander-in-chief."

Asked how important it is to gain some Republican support for his economic stimulus package, Obama replied: "Well, look, the — the important thing is getting the thing passed. And — I’ve done extraordinary outreach I think to Republicans because they had some good ideas. And I wanna make sure that those ideas are incorporated. I am confident that by the time we actually have the final package on the floor that we are gonna see substantial support."

On being shown how he was cut out of a photo of his family on the cover of US Weekly, Obama replied: "It's a little hurtful." When Lauer pointed out it was in favor of a photo of Jessica Simpson, Obama wryly took note of the headline above the picture, adding, "who's losing a weight battle, apparently."

Obama also spoke warmly of his mother-in-law -- and of being able to spend more time with his family: "At the end of the day, yeah, I can come home, even if I’ve got more work to do, I can have dinner with them. I can help them with their homework. I can tuck them in. If I’ve gotta go back to the office, I can. But — I’m seeing them now more than anytime in the last two years."

The Comedian in Chief

By Dan Froomkin
9:11 AM ET, 02/ 2/2009

Talk about bipartisan politics. President Obama's comic side was on display Saturday night when he headlined the exclusive Alfalfa Club dinner. The club, founded in 1913, was named for the plant's willingness to "do anything for a drink" and exists solely to throw a lavish, off-the-record annual party, where leaders from both political parties tell jokes to -- and about -- each other.

The White House released some excerpts from Obama's remarks, heavy on quips aimed at the president's famously profane chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel:

"I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused....

"Now, this hasn't been reported yet, but it was actually Rahm's idea to do the swearing-in ceremony again. Of course, for Rahm, every day is a swearing-in ceremony....

"But don't believe what you read. Rahm Emanuel is a real sweetheart....

"No, it's true. Every week the guy takes a little time away to give back to the community. Just last week he was at a local school, teaching profanity to poor children....

"But these are the kind of negotiations you have to deal with as President. In just the first few weeks, I've had to engage in some of the toughest diplomacy of my life. And that was just to keep my Blackberry. I finally agreed to limit the number of people who could email me. It's a very exclusive list. How exclusive?.... Everyone look at the person sitting on your left? Now look at the person sitting on your right? None of you have my email address."

A few more of the one-liners leaked out as well.

Mike Allen writes for Politico: "President Obama, at last night’s closed-press Alfalfa Dinner, on the delay in getting a dog: 'The labradoodle we picked has some problems with back taxes.'"

Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin write in the Examiner: "President Obama said he was freezing the salaries of everyone at the White House making over $100,000. He quipped that no one had frozen that much money since ex-Rep. William Jefferson."

Manuel Roig-Franzia writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- the club's outgoing president -- noted that former vice president Richard B. Cheney injured himself while moving into his new home, according to a source inside the dinner.

"'I had no idea waterboards were so heavy,' Lieberman quipped."

Mark Silva and Clarence Page blog for Tribune that Lieberman also "announced that Obama will be visiting the Washington offices of The New York Times soon 'as part of your search for a new house of worship.'"

Jo Mannies writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the comments by the incoming Alfalfa president, Missouri Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond: "I plan to follow Barack Obama’s model, and diminish the role of the Vice President. … If our president didn’t know then, he sure does now: Joe Biden is the reason Amtrak invented the quiet car."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:06 AM ET, 02/ 2/2009

Mike Luckovich, Steve Sack, Adam Zyglis, RJ Matson, John Cole and Bill Mitchell on reaching out to the GOP.

Tom Toles on Obama to the rescue, Joel Pett on the return of science, Nate Beeler on what lies beneath the surface, Monte Wolverton on Karl Rove's great wall and Ted Rall on being too forgiving of Bush.

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