Was 'Post-Partisanship' the Problem?

By Dan Froomkin
1:09 PM ET, 02/ 5/2009

A major irony of President Obama's pursuit of an economic stimulus package may end up being that in his attempt to be "post-partisan" -- and avoid that "partisan gridlock" he campaigned against -- he conferred legitimacy on the strident arguments of a discredited minority that might otherwise have been marginalized by the media and the public.

In the last couple days, Obama has started more explicitly blaming this particular partisan gridlock on Republicans.

Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama abruptly changed tactics Wednesday in his bid to revive the economy, setting aside his bipartisan stance and pointedly blaming Republicans for demanding what he cast as discredited 'piecemeal measures.'

"Obama's comments were a marked departure from the conciliatory tone he has maintained as he courted Republican votes for his stimulus package through compromise....

"'Now, let me say this,' Obama said. 'In the past few days, I've heard criticisms of this plan that frankly echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis in the first place -- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems, that we can address this enormous crisis with half steps and piecemeal measures and tinkering around the edges, that we can ignore fundamental challenges, like the high cost of healthcare, and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

"'I reject these theories,' he continued. 'And, by the way, so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change.'"

See also Obama's op-ed in The Washington Post today.

Rick Klein writes for ABC News: "President Obama appears to be scaling back his efforts to attract a broad bipartisan consensus for his bill.

"Where once there was talk of a resounding bipartisan vote in Congress, the goal now is simple passage of the bill -- even if that means (as seems very likely) it will pass with almost exclusively Democratic votes."

Why the change in course? Well, despite Obama's outreach to Republicans, as Jeanne Cummings writes for Politico: "[I]t was business as usual on Capitol Hill for Republicans.

"They could practically sleep-walk through their attack plan once House Democrats began to fill in Obama's broad outlines for a stimulus with a few pet projects of their own.

"It required two simple steps: Scream pork, call Rush Limbaugh."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "Obama's desire to begin a 'post-partisan' era may have backfired. In his eagerness to accommodate Republicans and listen to their ideas over the past week, he has allowed the GOP to turn the haggling over the stimulus package into a decidedly stale, Republican-style debate over pork, waste and overspending. This makes very little economic sense when you are in a major recession that only gets worse day by day. Yes, there are still some very legitimate issues with a bill that's supposed to be 'temporary' and 'targeted' — among them, large increases in permanent entitlement spending, and a paucity of tax cuts requiring immediate spending. Even so, Obama has allowed Congress to grow embroiled in nitpicking over efficiency when the central debate should be about whether the package is big enough. When you are dealing with a stimulus of this size, there are going to be wasteful expenditures and boondoggles. There's no way anyone can spend $800 to $900 billion quickly without waste and boondoggles. It comes with the Keynesian territory. This is an emergency; the normal rules do not apply."

I now see that my post earlier this morning, The Questions Obama Needs to Answer, hits on many of the same points that Joan Walsh hit in Salon yesterday: "Obama is the most remarkable Democratic communicator of my lifetime, I think, and even he's not rising to the task, yet. He needs to lay out his priorities, clearly; he needs to simplify his pitch, yet he also needs to add some depth to his and our understanding of how we got here. This economic crisis is not just about bad mortgages and/or the housing bubble bursting, and it won't be solved by reinflating that bubble, the Republicans' latest dumb idea. These problems have been building since at least the 1970s."

As for the press coverage, via Media Matters, here is NBC's Chuck Todd says some Democrats feel "that basically Matt Drudge has been the managing editor for deciding which part of the stimulus package gets highlighted."

And Joe Klein writes for Time: "It pains me to watch normally reasonable colleagues overreacting to Obama's situation now... Some form of stimulus will pass. If it doesn't revive the economy, then more stimulus will be passed. Obama's maintaining the proper balance of reaching out to Republicans, making some compromises, but staying firm on the need for a bill that includes public works as well as tax cuts."

Is Admitting Mistakes Good Politics?

By Dan Froomkin
1:05 PM ET, 02/ 5/2009

I wrote yesterday about President Obama's unusually frank admission that he "screwed up" in nominating two people with tax problems to key positions in his administration.

Walter R. Mears writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama may not be able to change the ingrained ways of Washington, but he's already changed the language. Presidents have screwed up before. None has confessed to it so candidly, if at all."

David Saltonstall writes in the New York Daily News: "The question, observers say, is whether Obama's concession succeeded in getting his administration beyond the furor.

"The early signs Wednesday must have pleased the White House - most of the buzz out of the capital was about Obama's push to cap the salaries of Wall Street fat cats who take taxpayer bailout money...

"'I think it was smart politics for Obama to put it on his shoulders, because the American people like to like their President,' said Ken Duberstein, Reagan's former chief of staff. 'It was very humanizing.'"

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama's advisers said Mr. Obama's admission was the latest in a series of change-the-tone signals intended to show how this presidency would be stylistically different from that of either Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton.

"But the episode was revealing for reasons that go deeper than mere style. It reflected concern in Mr. Obama's top circles that the president and his aides had put at risk a central aspect of his carefully cultivated political image: as the reformer determined to break the rules of Washington. It was hard for Mr. Obama to be chastising Wall Street executives for living by a different set of rules when people he was appointing into government were perceived as doing much the same thing.

"'There were two words: not just "mistake," but "responsibility," ' Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama's chief of staff, said in an interview. 'You had a culture here that was pervaded for a while with the sense of anything goes.'

"'People like the fact that he said he made a mistake,' Mr. Emanuel said. 'They hadn't heard it from anybody in office for a long time. They heard excuses and denials.'

"Yet, there is a reason that prior inhabitants of the office had been loath to admit error, given the way in which such an admission can undercut the power and the mystique of the presidency, a point that Mr. Obama's own advisers did not dispute."

Nagourney writes that Obama "has to be particularly careful not to do anything to feed any public concern that he might not be quite ready for this job."

The Las Vegas Sun editorial board writes: "Americans are a forgiving people, particularly when their leaders own up to their mistakes. With these distractions behind him, we believe Obama will be able to move forward with the important work that lies ahead."

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:01 PM ET, 02/ 5/2009

Torture opponents hope that President Obama will follow up his banning of torture by clearing the air about what the U.S. actually did these past eight years. But there's now one sign he may not.

Mary Jordan writes in The Washington Post: "Two British High Court judges ruled against releasing documents describing the treatment of a British detainee at the Guantanamo Bay prison, but made clear their reluctance, saying that the United States had threatened to withhold intelligence cooperation with Britain if the information were made public.

"'We did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence...relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be,' Justice John Thomas and Justice David Lloyd Jones wrote.

"The judges decided not to release information, supplied to the court by U.S. officials, concerning the treatment of Binyam Mohamed, 31, an Ethiopian-born British resident who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002."

Richard Norton-Taylor writes in The Guardian: "A spokesman for the US state department said: 'The US thanks the UK government for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information and preserve the long standing intelligence-sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens. The US investigates allegations and claims of torture ... such as those raised by Binyam Mohamed.'"

Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, responded: "Hope is flickering. The Obama administration's position is not change. It is more of the same. This represents a complete turn-around and undermining of the restoration of the rule of law. The new American administration shouldn't be complicit in hiding the abuses of its predecessors."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:00 PM ET, 02/ 5/2009

Murray Waas writes for TPM Muckraker: "A federal grand jury probe of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys during the Bush administration is focusing on the role played by recently retired Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and former senior Bush White House aides in the 2006 dismissal of David Iglesias as U.S. attorney for New Mexico, according to legal sources familiar with the inquiry."

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "The House gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill extending health insurance to millions of low-income children, and President Obama signed it this afternoon, in the first of what he hopes will be many steps to guarantee coverage for all Americans."

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "President Obama on Wednesday provided 11 million more reasons why the occupant of the Oval Office matters."

Michael D. Shear blogs for The Washington Post: "President Obama will address a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, an administration official said, giving the equivalent of a State of the Union speech that promises to continue his grim assessments of the nation's struggling economy."

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "In a clear signal that the Obama administration is shifting the government's approach to energy exploration on public lands, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday canceled oil and gas leases on 77 parcels of federal land after opponents said the drilling would blight Utah's scenic southeastern corner."

DeNeen L. Brown profiles new White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers in The Washington Post.

David Montgomery writes in The Washington Post about the Obama-inspired rise of community organizers.

The Questions Obama Needs to Answer

By Dan Froomkin
10:00 AM ET, 02/ 5/2009

Obama at the White House yesterday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama and his team are finally making a greater effort to answer the critiques -- large, small, legitimate and absurd -- that threaten to block or delay action that he says is imperative to avoid economic catastrophe. See, for instance, Obama's Washington Post op-ed today. Also see David Leonhardt's piece in the New York Times yesterday. Leonhardt insisted on -- and got -- substantive responses from Obama aides to two of the more serious criticisms.

But Obama still has some work to do. Part of his winning style during the campaign was that he didn't just announce his positions, he explained his thinking. As George Packer blogged for the New Yorker on Inauguration Day, "what he’s always been is a great explainer, who pays the rest of us the highest compliment — the appeal to reason."

Obama stepped up his rhetoric again yesterday. "[M]ake no mistake: A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future," he said, expressing complete certainty that the plan "can save or create more than three million jobs, doing things that will strengthen our country for years to come."

But he needs to explain in greater depth why he's so sure he's right. Sure, many Americans have great confidence in him at this point. But the stimulus is too big a deal to take on faith.

How did Obama reach the conclusions that he did -- from the big picture to the little? Why is he so sure things are that dire? Why is he so sure this will help?

Why isn't the plan bigger? Why isn't it smaller? How did he conclude that this is the right balance between short-term job stimulus and long-term strategy? Why not separate the two? Why, given some criticisms from experts with no axe to grind, has he come to the conclusion that this package is good enough, rather than in need of major surgery?

Why is he letting Congress turn this into something typically Congressional -- i.e. messy -- rather than using his political clout to dictate the terms? Since he acknowledges that the plan can be improved, why doesn't he publicly and explicitly state how? What is his litmus test for individual projects that are part of the overall plan? (Does he have one?) It's too late for listening now: What suggestions that he's heard does he think are worth taking?

What does he say to Republicans who worry this is the return of a permanent big government?

Obama needs to have a long heart-to-heart with the American people, either in a television address or in a serious, prolonged sit-down interview. And that interview shouldn't be with a blow-dried anchor or a political obsessive, but with someone who knows a lot about the economy and will push him beyond what have now become familiar sound bites, into a more persuasive terrain where he explains his reasoning and describes how he has reached his conclusions.

Obama Says Partisanship is Holding Up Progress

By Dan Froomkin
9:47 AM ET, 02/ 5/2009

There's a lively debate over the stimulus package on The Washington Post editorial pages today, headlined by none other than President Obama himself. In an op-ed, Obama responds to criticism of the plan working its way through Congress. He writes that it is intentionally a mix of short-term job creation and long-term strategic goals. And he casts most of the objections as the product of the "partisan gridlock" he was sent to Washington to change -- while making it clear that he blames this particular gridlock on the Republicans.

The Washington Post editorial board is not impressed, writing that "ideology is not the only reason that senators -- from both parties -- are balking at the president's plan." It urges him to reconsider key provisions.

But columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. takes Obama's argument even further, and writes that the GOP has hijacked the media's narrative.

And new Washington Post opinion columnist William Kristol weighs in with a blog post urging Republicans to "[i]nsist on splitting the legislation being debated on the Senate floor into a true short-term stimulus, which can pass quickly, and long-term policy proposals, which require serious debate."

First, here's Obama: "In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis -- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can meet our enormous tests with half-steps and piecemeal measures; that we can ignore fundamental challenges such as energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

"I reject these theories, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. They know that we have tried it those ways for too long. And because we have, our health-care costs still rise faster than inflation. Our dependence on foreign oil still threatens our economy and our security. Our children still study in schools that put them at a disadvantage. We've seen the tragic consequences when our bridges crumble and our levees fail."

The Post editorial board writes: "As credible experts, including some Democrats, have pointed out, much of this 'long-term' spending either won't stimulate the economy now, is of questionable merit, or both."

Dionne writes: "For most of the debate, Obama has cast himself as a benevolent referee overseeing a sprawling and untidy legislative process to which he would eventually bring order. He urged Democrats to knock out small spending measures that had caused public relations problems while doing little to defend the overall package or to reply to its Republican critics.

"In the meantime, those critics have been relentless, often casting logic aside to reframe the debate from a practical concern over how to rescue the economy to an ideological dispute about government spending."

Columnist Harold Meyerson writes that Republicans are acting like Alf Landon, the GOP presidential candidate who lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, by the widest margin in the history of presidential elections.

"While retail chains topple like so many dominos as consumers cut back, the Republicans focus on cutting corporate taxes, as though the problem confronting American businesses was the tax on their profits rather than the fact that, in the absence of sales, they have no profits."

Meanwhile, columnist David S. Broder scolds Obama for his handling of the Daschle nomination: "Even when the White House belatedly learned of Daschle's tax troubles, it misjudged the political fallout. Despite the glaring contradiction between Obama's proclaimed ethical standards and Daschle's lucrative expense-account life that led to his tax underpayment, Obama said he 'absolutely' stood by his choice. One day later, he accepted Daschle's withdrawal. This is a blow to Obama's credibility that will not be easily forgotten."

Froomkin Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:46 AM ET, 02/ 5/2009

I'm scheduled to be on NPR's Talk of the Nation today between 3 and 4 p.m. ET. We'll be talking about press coverage of the Obama White House. Call in -- (800) 989-8255 -- and say hi.

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:44 AM ET, 02/ 5/2009

Jon Stewart uses video clips to show the continuity between Bush press secretaries Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan and Dana Perino -- and Obama's Robert Gibbs. "Is there a handbook that gets passed down, from press secretary to press secretary," he asks, showing a booklet entitled "He's Just Not That Into Answering You."

David Letterman, via U.S. News: "Ladies and gentlemen, while you were applauding that joke, another Obama nominee dropped out."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:40 AM ET, 02/ 5/2009

Dwane Powell, Rex Babin, RJ Matson and Mike Lane on working with the GOP.

Mike Luckovich, Joel Pett, Stuart Carlson, Nate Beeler, David Horsey, Chip Bok, Walt Handelsman, Clay Bennett and Dan Granlund on ethics, taxes and Obama's presidential appointees.

Dan Wasserman and Pat Oliphant have opposing views on Obama admitting his screw-ups.

David Cohen on Dick Cheney and Jeff Danziger on Karl Rove.

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