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Why Obama Is Holding Back

By Dan Froomkin
12:53 PM ET, 02/ 6/2009

Obama with House Democrats

Obama speaking to House Democrats last night. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

What's holding President Obama back from wielding his considerable political power like a club and smashing the Republican congressional opposition to his stimulus package?

Well, less and less these days. Here is Obama speaking to the House Democratic caucus yesterday:

"We can't embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face; that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or falling schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees. I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV -- if you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change direction. (Applause.) That's what the American people called for in November, and that's what we intend to deliver. (Applause.)"

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Obama is losing the all-important spin campaign to Republicans -- and that it's time for him to flex some muscle. Washington Post opinion columnist David Ignatius blogged yesterday that it's time for Obama to display some "Clint Eastwood-style bravura" as he bargains with the GOP. The Washington Post editorial board wrote yesterday that Obama should demand that Democrats slash the bill's price tag and breadth.

But Obama's basic response to the criticism that he is not playing the Washington game right is that it shouldn't be a game in the first place. And the reason he has let Congress shape the bill rather than doing it himself is that he thinks that's the way American government is supposed to work.

Is it possible we've gotten so used to the way former President Bush played the game -- and rolled Congress -- that we are judging Obama by his standard? And if so, is that the right standard? What explains Obama's conduct? Is it naivete, or is it humility?

Just hours after this morning's staggering job loss numbers came out, Obama again urged Congress to act. "I am sure that at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, members of the Senate are reading these same numbers this morning," he said. "I hope they share my sense of urgency and draw the same, unmistakable conclusion: the situation could not be more serious. These numbers demand action. It is inexcusable and irresponsible to get bogged down in distraction and delay while millions of Americans are being put out of work. It is time for Congress to act. It is time to pass an Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan to get our economy moving again."

But he didn't quibble with the bill the congressional process had created or take sides in the current Senate debates. "There may be provisions in the bill that need to be left out and some that need to be added. But broadly speaking, it is the right size. It is the right scope."

For eight years, the executive branch utterly eclipsed the legislative. But consider what a different view Obama expressed in that same speech yesterday: "I value the constructive criticism and the healthy debate that's taking place around this package, because that's the essence, the foundation of American democracy. That's how the founders set it up. They set it up to make big change hard. It wasn't supposed to be easy. That's part of the reason why we've got such a stable government, is because no one party, no one individual can simply dictate the terms of the debate. I don't think any of us have cornered the market on wisdom, or that do I believe that good ideas are the province of any party. The American people know that our challenges are great. They're not expecting Democratic solutions or Republican solutions -- they want American solutions. And I've said that same thing to the public, and I've said that, in a gesture of friendship and goodwill, to those who have disagreed with me on aspects of this plan."

And talking about all the jobs that have been lost, Obama had this to say: "This is not a game. This is not a contest for who's in power and who's up and who's down. These are your constituents. These are families you know and you care about. I believe that it is important for us to set aside some of the gamesmanship in this town and get something done."

Washington Post reporter Michael D. Shear sees the plan testing Obama's powers of persuasion, and sees "mixed results" so far.

And, he writes: "It is an early reminder that there are limits to presidential power, even for a charismatic new chief executive who is immensely popular with the American people. 'Obama wants a different politics, but the system of a bill becoming a law hasn't changed,' said Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University. The House vote 'suggests he may not yet understand the institutional checks and balances that limit a president's salesmanship.'"

I don't agree. How a bill became a law changed a lot about eight years ago. Obama sees Congress's role in a more traditional light -- and seems OK with that. "We’ve got 535 people who feel it's their responsibility to represent their constituents and make their voices heard," Obama said in an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer on Sunday. "Democracy is always a somewhat messy process."

Meanwhile, reporters are noting that Obama is getting more aggressive -- and partisan.

Jonathan Weisman and Naftali Bendavid write in the Wall Street Journal: "Frustrated by Republican unity against his economic-stimulus plan, President Barack Obama toughened his rhetoric Thursday and moved to wield his personal popularity to overcome opposition in Congress....

"Republican proposals are "rooted in the idea that tax cuts alone can solve all our problems, that government doesn't have a role to play, that half measures and tinkering are somehow enough, that we can afford to ignore our most fundamental economic challenges," the president said in an address at the Department of Energy Thursday. "Those ideas have been tested, and they have failed."...

"Mr. Obama's comments Thursday signaled an escalation of his own role in the fray. "When you hear these attacks...you have to ask yourself, are these folks serious?" Mr. Obama asked...

"Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) said the White House has learned a lesson this week about his erstwhile Republican legislative partners. While Democrats may have seen a tectonic political shift regarding the role of government after their electoral sweep in November, the GOP did not.

"'This has been an early lesson for President Obama and his team,' Mr. Schumer said. 'The idea of getting 80 votes in the Senate is now a distant memory, even though it's two weeks old.'"

Voices from the left are saying it's about time.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "We’re happy to see President Obama getting tough with Congressional Republicans who are trying to sabotage the stimulus and recovery bill and bring even greater ruin on the economy....

"We know Mr. Obama is capable of uniting disparate groups. That comes with a tendency toward conciliation, which we admire, but we hope he resists it now. Mr. Obama made concessions on the House version of the economic plan, and no Republican voted for it."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to economic recovery. Over the last two weeks, what should have been a deadly serious debate about how to save an economy in desperate straits turned, instead, into hackneyed political theater, with Republicans spouting all the old clichés about wasteful government spending and the wonders of tax cuts....

"Somehow, Washington has lost any sense of what’s at stake — of the reality that we may well be falling into an economic abyss, and that if we do, it will be very hard to get out again....

"It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk. The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge."

David Corn blogs for Mother Jones that Obama needs to reach out "to the millions of Americans who are rooting for him in order to obtain their active support for his economic stimulus plan....

"What Obama has that none of the other players in Washington possess is political capital. He literally represents the hopes of millions. He harnessed those aspirations for his campaign. He must do the same for his presidency."

The Economic Brain Trust

By Dan Froomkin
12:49 PM ET, 02/ 6/2009

Neil Irwin and Michael D. Shear write for The Washington Post: "The Obama administration today announced a team of outside economic advisers, chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, to help sculpt a response to the deepening recession....

"Those voices include corporate leaders such as General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt and James W. Owens, head of Caterpillar, the heavy equipment manufacturer that recently announced it would lay off 20,000 workers worldwide in response to the economic downturn. Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasury of the AFL-CIO, is also on the board, as is Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.

"Former government officials are also on the panel, including former SEC chairman William H. Donaldson, Clinton administration economic adviser Laura D'Andrea Tyson, who is the dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, and Martin Feldstein, who was President Ronald Reagan's chief economic adviser and is an economics professor at Harvard University....

"The president already has many strong voices advising him on economic issues, including Volcker; Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner; Lawrence H. Summers, director of the National Economic Council; Christina Romer, chairman-designate of the Council on Economic Advisers; as well as other staff members who were at his side during the campaign."

Robert Schmidt and Julianna Goldman reported for Bloomberg yesterday that Volcker was growing increasingly frustrated over delays in setting up the group, and blamed Summers for slowing down the effort to organize the panel.

Christopher Hayes writes for the Nation: "The main players in Barack Obama's economic team can be cleaved roughly into two groups: (1) center-right neoliberals like Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council; his deputy, Diana Farrell; and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner; and (2) progressive labor-liberals like Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council; Biden's chief economic adviser, Jared Bernstein; and labor secretary nominee Hilda Solis."

He notes that "wage stagnation, rising inequality and this financial crisis have pushed the neoliberals in a more progressive direction. It's hard to imagine the Larry Summers of 1993 saying that income inequality is the 'defining issue of our time,' as he recently did, or, for that matter, advocating a stimulus package that may run as high as $900 billion."

But, Hayes writes: "The problem is that Summers and Geithner seem to have retained their dispositional trust in the market and skepticism of public sector involvement. So instead of nationalizing banks, as many economists urge, they're reportedly busy crafting a plan for TARP II similar to former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's ill-fated attempt to purchase bad assets from the banks. According to The New Republic's Noam Scheiber, whenever someone proposes a policy that crosses Summers's delicate threshold for Big Government, he derides it as 'Putinesque.' Unfortunately, reviving the financial sector may require measures that would make even Putin blush."

Robert Scheer writes in his syndicated column that "Goldman Sachs runs the Treasury Department - no matter which party is in power." And David Sirota writes in his syndicated column that the White House's economic team is "a squad of corporate lackeys disguised as public servants."

Obama's Faith-Based Initiatives

By Dan Froomkin
12:46 PM ET, 02/ 6/2009

When it comes to polarizing issues like abortion rights and the separation of church and state, is there a way to split the difference? President Obama sought to carve out a middle ground on both issues yesterday, with only limited success.

Michelle Boorstein and Kimberly Kindy write in The Washington Post: "President Obama yesterday announced the creation of his faith-based outreach office, expanding its agenda beyond funding social programs to work on policies aimed at strengthening family life and reducing abortion....

"Obama's move more fully formalizes the partnerships between the federal government and faith groups that first began under President Bill Clinton and was expanded by President George W. Bush. But where Bush used the faith office primarily for funding programs -- drawing criticism that he was mainly assisting his political supporters -- Obama said he wants to use the office for policy guidance, as well."

Rob Stein writes in The Washington Post: "In a series of moves, he is attempting to nudge the debate away from the morality and legality of abortion and toward a goal he hopes both sides can endorse: decreasing the number of women who terminate their pregnancies by addressing the reasons they might choose the procedure.

"The strategy is being met by deep skepticism from many prominent antiabortion activists, but it has been embraced by some others as well as by leading abortion rights activists, who hope it could fundamentally reshape one of the nation's most intransigent political stalemates."

Peter Wallsten and Duke Helfand write in the Los Angeles Times: "It seemed like a firm campaign promise. Barack Obama pledged to continue President Bush's faith-based office in the White House, but with a key change: Groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

"On Thursday, however, as President Obama disclosed the details of his faith-based program, he left the controversial Bush policy in place....

"The hiring issue was a major point of controversy between Bush and Democrats. The president signed an executive order in 2002 that paved the way for allowing federal grants to certain groups that hired only people of like-minded religions. Supporters of the policy argued that a small Christian organization, for example, could not operate according to its ideals if it were forced to hire non-Christians.

"Obama clearly singled out the policy during a campaign speech in July, declaring that 'if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion.'

"But once he won the election, religious conservatives began lobbying Obama and his transition team on the issue. It was the subject of intense internal debate, according to participants."

Other than not explicitly banning discrimination by groups that take federal money, the panel Obama created by executive order yesterday did sound just like what he outlined in that July speech. And at the time, he said: "[M]ake no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles."

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, had this to say in a statement: "What we are seeing today is significant -- a president giving his favored clergy a governmental stamp of approval. There is no historical precedent for presidential meddling in religion – or religious leaders meddling in federal policy – through a formal government advisory committee made up mostly of the president’s chosen religious leaders."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:35 PM ET, 02/ 6/2009

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Early stumbles by the Obama White House over some high-level appointments caused a furor in the capital and on cable TV this week, but most Americans dismiss them as just a normal part of staffing a new administration. In a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken Wednesday, those surveyed say by nearly 3-1 that their confidence in President Obama's ethical standards and his ability to manage the government and improve the economy has gone up rather than down since his inauguration last month."

Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "Leon Panetta, President Obama's surprise choice to be CIA director, yesterday promised a 'new chapter' for the embattled spy agency, telling a Senate panel he would banish controversial interrogation policies while demanding greater candor and accountability with Congress and the American public.

Dan Eggen writes for The Washington Post: "The knives are already out just two weeks after Bush left the White House, as some of his closest friends and former aides begin lobbing sharp criticisms at the Obama administration. The comments mark a departure from the general rules of decorum that held sway during the final weeks of the Bush administration, when the departing president and his aides made a point of fostering a cordial relationship with the Obama team."

Mark Pittman and Bob Ivry write for Bloomberg: "U.S. taxpayers are being shortchanged by about $78 billion through the Treasury Department’s bank bailout, the panel overseeing the program said."

Anne E. Kornblut profiled White House Counsel Greg Craig in The Washington Post: "In addition to thoroughly revamping the government's approach to national security and the handling of those captured in the fight against terrorism, he is leading the search for judges and prosecutors nationwide (including 17 court of appeals and 30 district court vacancies, and all U.S. attorneys), monitoring the closure of detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and, in the days ahead, overseeing the vetting process."

Michael D. Shear, Peter Finn and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "President Obama will meet today with victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the USS Cole bombing and their families as his administration reviews how to handle detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.... One Sept. 11 activist... said 'fireworks' are likely at the gathering because it will include participants who oppose Obama's plan to close Guantanamo Bay and those who support it."

Matt Kelley writes for USA Today: "The confirmation of another Cabinet member stalled Thursday because of unpaid taxes after USA Today disclosed that the husband of Labor secretary nominee Hilda Solis paid about $6,400 this week to settle numerous tax liens against his business dating to 1993."

Anya Strzemien writes on Huffingtonpost.com: "One day after President Bush's former Chief of Staff Andrew Card blasted President Obama for breaking the Bush dress code, which reportedly required that a jacket be worn by anyone entering the Oval Office, we've unearthed a photo of, well, a jacketless President Bush in the Oval Office."

And here's audio of my appearance on NPR's Talk of the Nation yesterday, in which I advocated more substantive reporting of the presidency and the issues.

The Big Test on Monday Night

By Dan Froomkin
10:33 AM ET, 02/ 6/2009

The White House announced yesterday that President Obama will hold his first news conference on Monday -- in prime time, no less -- to talk about the need for his economic stimulus package.

This will present a real test for the folks on both sides of the podium. Will the press corps ask substantive questions? And will the president respond with substantive answers?

Unfortunately, press conferences are not an ideal format for delving deeply into complicated issues. Reporters, some of whom preen for the cameras, tend to arrive with intricate pre-written queries, often intended to trap the president in some sort of slip-up rather than to elicit a thoughtful response. And follow-up questions -- granted only at the president's discretion -- tend not to be follow-ups at all, but rather opportunities to ask unrelated questions. There's almost inevitably a disjointed quality as reporters ask their prepared questions rather than pursue an ambiguous or intriguing comment from the president or continue the last guy's line of questioning.

(Reporters would be well to follow some of the advice I gleaned from past White House correspondents for an essay I wrote in 2004: Ask one thing at a time, make it simple and direct, tag-team on the big issues, and don't worry about how smart you look.)

Another reason to worry: Watching Press Secretary Robert Gibbs mostly parry questions in the briefing room -- rather than use the occasion to help reporters genuinely understand what's going on inside the White House -- hasn't been as big a change from the previous regime as many of us expected. (See my post from yesterday on Jon Stewart's delicious riff on this very subject, if you don't believe me.)

And yet, in spite of all that, it's entirely appropriate for our expectations to be high. Obama has set the bar very high for himself when it comes to transparency and accountability. Anyone who has read his books knows he is a deeply reflective person with an extraordinary capacity to explain his thought processes. And the conventional wisdom in Washington is that he hasn't quite made the sale.

In yesterday's post, The Questions Obama Needs to Answer, I wrote about how important it is for him to explain not just what he wants, but why he wants it -- and how he came to the conclusions that he did.

Monday night will also set a lot of precedents when it comes to the relationship between Obama and his press corps. Even if the questions are superficial, or hostile, or too focused on gamesmanship rather than policy, he should answer them directly. If he does answer the questions, we should give him credit. And if he doesn't, we should absolutely note that in our reporting. Sure, that isn't exactly fair: Former president Bush frequently ignored the questions he was asked in favor of hoary talking points, and the press rarely called him on it. But Obama has invited us to hold him to a higher standard, and we should do just that.

So what questions do you think reporters should ask Obama on Monday night? And will he be better off if he actually answers them -- or just sticks to his talking points? Share your thoughts in my White House Watchers discussion group.

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:12 AM ET, 02/ 6/2009


Jon Stewart listens to former vice president Dick Cheney's interview with Politico.

"It's nice to see that even in retirement, Dick Cheney is still making time to scare the [bleep] out of people. So many people retire and stop doing the thing they love. Not him," Stewart says.

Stewart then plays a clip from the interview, in which Cheney says of the possible release of detainees from Guantamo: "If you turn 'em loose and they kill more Americans, who's responsible for that?"

Stewart responds: "Ooh, I have a question. Um, what if we're hit again by a guy who's really sad 'cause his whole family was killed in Iraq? Who's responsible for that? Or, what if someone got pissed off at us 'cause his brother was potato-sacked and bound and kept in a cage without a lawyer for seven years on an island in the Caribbean? Who's responsible for that? Or, if al Qaeda, on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, had time to reconstitute and devise another attack because we pulled all our resources into invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11? Who's responsible for that?"

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:09 AM ET, 02/ 6/2009

Pat Oliphant, John Sherffius, Jim Morin and Clay Bennett on the GOP sticking to its principles; Tom Toles, Walt Handelsman and Mike Keefe on the executive pay cap; Robert Ariail, Tony Auth, Scott Stantis and John Deering on Obama's stumbles; and Stuart Carlson on acting presidential.

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