A More Visceral Appeal

By Dan Froomkin
1:42 PM ET, 02/10/2009

After a somewhat fusty White House press conference last night (read my analysis from earlier today), President Obama traveled to economically devastated southwest Florida today to make a more emotionally-laden pitch for his economic stimulus package.

As was the case in Elkhart, Ind., yesterday, his best argument may have been the urgency embodied by his supportive but clearly hurting audience -- from the man who'd lost all the equity in his house to the woman who told Obama that she and her family live in a small car.

"Doing nothing is not an option. You didn't send me to Washington to do nothing," Obama said to cheers at a town-hall meeting in Ft. Myers, which is experiencing the highest foreclosure rate in the country.

The president also delightedly announced the Senate's passage of its $838 billion stimulus bill. "That's good news," he said.

He was a bit more rueful when discussing this morning's announcement by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner about the latest version of the bank bailout. "I know how frustrating it is for taxpayers when they're looking and they're saying, 'Let me get this straight: You've got a guy who's making $20 million a year who ran his bank into the ground, and now we've got to come in and clean up the mess?' Now, that's something that -- it just makes you mad," Obama said, the crowd murmuring in disapproval. "I understand that. But recognize that, whether we like it or not, credit is the lifeblood of our economy."

And he spoke in unusually personal terms about the trust Americans are investing in him.

"My hope is, is that the American people expect from me the same thing that I expect from myself, which is not to have every answer or to never make a mistake, but to feel like every day, me and my staff, that we are thinking about you and your lives, that we're talking to the most knowledgeable people on these problems, that we're making the best decisions for what's good for working families and middle-class folks and not just the powerful and the well-connected, that we are open to any idea, whether it comes from a Democrat or a Republican, or a vegetarian or a -- it doesn't matter -- and that we are going to be working as hard as we can to solve these problems.

"Now, you know, that is how I judge myself every single day. I ask myself, did I work as hard as I could? Did I seek out the best possible advice? Did I stay focused on the people who sent me to Washington? And if I -- if something's not working and I make a mistake, am I open minded enough to admit it and then move on and try something else that works?

"And that's -- that's -- that's the -- that's the best I can do. Now, look, I won't lie to you. If it turns out that a few years from now people don't feel like the economy's turned around, that we're still having problems, that folks are still unemployed, that our health care system's not more efficient, then, you know... I mean, I expect to be judged by results. And -- and there's no -- you know, I'm not going to make any excuses. If stuff hasn't worked and people don't feel like I've led the country in the right direction, then you'll have a new president."

Obama was introduced by a Republican -- Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist. "This is not about partisan politics. This is about rising above that, helping America, and reigniting our economy," Crist said.

Said Obama: "Governor Crist shares my conviction that creating jobs and turning this economy around is a mission that transcends party. And when the town is burning, you don't check party labels. Everybody needs to grab a hose, and that's what Charlie Crist is doing right here today."

Damien Cave recently wrote in the New York Times from one exurb outside Fort Myers: "In Lehigh Acres, homes are selling at 80 percent off their peak prices. Only two years after there were more jobs than people to work them, fast-food restaurants are laying people off or closing. Crime is up, school enrollment is down, and one in four residents received food stamps in December, nearly a fourfold increase since 2006."

The Torture Cover-Up Continues

By Dan Froomkin
12:14 PM ET, 02/10/2009

No change? On something this important? How is this possible?

John Schwartz writes in the New York Times: "In a closely watched case involving rendition and torture, a lawyer for the Obama administration seemed to surprise a panel of federal appeals judges on Monday by pressing ahead with an argument for preserving state secrets originally developed by the Bush administration.

"In the case, Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian native, and four other detainees filed suit against a subsidiary of Boeing for arranging flights for the Bush administration’s 'extraordinary rendition' program, in which terrorism suspects were secretly taken to other countries, where they say they were tortured. The Bush administration argued that the case should be dismissed because even discussing it in court could threaten national security and relations with other nations.

"During the campaign, Mr. Obama harshly criticized the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees, and he has broken with that administration on questions like whether to keep open the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But a government lawyer, Douglas N. Letter, made the same state-secrets argument on Monday."

Maura Dolan and Carol J. Williams write in the Los Angeles Times that Letter "told the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the Obama administration was taking 'exactly' the same position as the previous White House in calling for dismissal of a lawsuit by five terrorism suspects snatched by U.S. agents in foreign countries and delivered to secret detention sites in other countries....

"The case was 'thoroughly vetted with the appropriate officials of the new administration,' said Letter, who represented the Bush administration's opposition to the lawsuit as well....

"At one point during the hearing, Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, a Clinton appointee, told the government's lawyer that he was not convincing.

"'So any time the executive branch of the government says the fact is classified, it means it cannot be examined?' Hawkins asked Letter.

"Letter, noting that national security was at stake, told the court it should 'not play with fire' by permitting the suit to go forward.

"'Nor should the government in asserting [secrecy] privilege,' Hawkins shot back."

Dolan and Williams add: "At the same time, Justice Department officials in Washington pledged to review all cases in which the Bush administration invoked the right to protect state secrets and pledged to ask for secrecy 'only in legally appropriate situations.'"

Here's the response from Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union: "This is not change. This is definitely more of the same. Candidate Obama ran on a platform that would reform the abuse of state secrets, but President Obama's Justice Department has disappointingly reneged on that important civil liberties issue. If this is a harbinger of things to come, it will be a long and arduous road to give us back an America we can be proud of again."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon that the administration had "resoundingly and disgracefully" failed "the first real test of the authenticity of Obama's commitment to reverse the abuses of executive power over the last eight years."

David Luban blogs for Balkinization: "Nobody doubts that there are legitimate state secrets -- but the Bushies, and now apparently the Obama/Holder DOJ, thought that anything that makes the U.S. government look bad should be a state secret. The theory is that disclosing government crime or misconduct would embarrass the government in the eyes of the world, and whatever embarrasses the government in the eyes of the world harms national security. This misbegotten theory holds that sunlight isn't the best disinfectant, it's the source of hideous wasting disease. Government wrongdoing must be concealed because, well, it's government wrongdoing."

Andrew Sullivan blogs for Atlantic: "This is a depressing sign that the Obama administration will protect the Bush-Cheney torture regime from the light of day. And with each decision to cover for their predecessors, the Obamaites become retroactively complicit in them.

"So what are they hiding from us? Wouldn't you like to know?"

Populism MIA in Bailout Plan

By Dan Froomkin
12:11 PM ET, 02/10/2009

David Cho and Lori Montgomery write in The Washington Post: "Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner this morning announced a rescue program for the hard-hit U.S. financial system that may commit up to $1.5 trillion in public and private funds....

"Geithner announced a public-private partnership that would seek to finance the purchasing of toxic bank assets that are at the heart of the credit crisis. The program would initially raise $500 billion in public and private funds to offer low-cost financing to encourage investors to buy the toxic assets, and could eventually include as much as $1 trillion in funds...

"A second initiative will broaden the scope of a Federal Reserve program aimed at unclogging the markets for auto, student and other consumer loans. That initiative may expand to as much as $1 trillion, using $100 billion from the Treasury's rescue funds, and include aid for commercial real estate markets.

"A third program would offer direct help to the nation's largest banks. The government plans to conduct a review of major financial firms to determine how much they may need. Any federal aid would come with conditions that would give the firms incentives to pay the money back as soon as possible. The review would determine the ultimate price tag of this program."

So where did all the populism go?

Stephen Labaton and Edmund L. Andrews write in the New York Times: "The Obama administration’s new plan to bail out the nation’s banks was fashioned after a spirited internal debate that pitted the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, against some of the president’s top political hands.

"In the end, Mr. Geithner largely prevailed in opposing tougher conditions on financial institutions that were sought by presidential aides, including David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, according to administration and Congressional officials.

"Mr. Geithner...successfully fought against more severe limits on executive pay for companies receiving government aid.

"He resisted those who wanted to dictate how banks would spend their rescue money. And he prevailed over top administration aides who wanted to replace bank executives and wipe out shareholders at institutions receiving aid...

"[O]fficials said Mr. Geithner worried that the plan would not work — and could become more expensive for taxpayers — if there were too much government involvement in the affairs of the companies."

Poll Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:08 PM ET, 02/10/2009

Paul Steinhauser writes for CNN: "A new national poll suggests that three out of four Americans approve of the job Barack Obama is doing as president, but the economic stimulus package he's trying to push through Congress is not nearly as popular.

"Seventy-six percent of those questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Monday gave Obama a thumbs-up on how he's performing his duties..."

According to the details supplied by Pollingreport.com, a slight majority, 54 percent, support the Senate version of the stimulus bill, while 45 percent are opposed.

Steinhauser also notes: "Three out of four poll respondents said that Obama is doing enough to cooperate with Republicans in Congress, but only 39 percent feel that congressional Republicans are cooperating enough with the president.

"Six out of 10 approved of the way Democratic leaders in Congress are handling their jobs. But only 44 percent of those questioned approved of the way Republican leaders in Congress are performing. Overall, only 29 percent said they like the way Congress is handling its job, with 71 percent disapproving.

"That's far below Obama's 76 percent approval rating, which is higher than other recent national surveys by other organizations."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:06 PM ET, 02/10/2009

Nazila Fathi writes in the New York Times: "After the icy mutual hostility of the Bush era, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran on Tuesday made a conditional offer of dialogue to the Obama administration, saying Tehran was ready for 'talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere.'"

Devlin Barrett writes for the Associated Press: "The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is proposing a 'truth commission' to investigate abuses of detainees, politically inspired moves at the Justice Department, and other decisions made during the Bush administration." Here is the announcement from Senator Patrick Leahy.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that of more than 100 end-of-term appointments to a constellation of presidential boards and panels, former President Bush filled at least 20 of the positions with former aides and nearly half with Republican donors.

Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post: "U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appealed to President Obama to attend a hastily planned summit here in late March to promote international efforts to stem the pace of climate change, according to senior U.N. officials and delegates."

A Missed Opportunity

By Dan Froomkin
10:26 AM ET, 02/10/2009

Obama's news conference last night. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

The media coverage of Barack Obama's first presidential news conference last night has been generally positive, concluding that he was commanding and resolute as he pressed his argument for an economic stimulus package, dramatically defining the stakes, marginalizing his critics and explaining how only government can come to the nation's rescue.

All that may be true, but I still think it was a missed opportunity for Obama. Rather than engage in a spirited dialogue with members of the press corps, Obama filibustered. After an eight-minute opening statement, he got through only 13 questions in an hour -- and allowed no follow-up questions. His answers were an oddly unexciting combination of familiar talking points and wonky dissertations. It wasn't particularly good TV, and it wasn't necessarily what Obama needed, either.

To "close the sale" -- as many pundits defined Obama's mission last night -- the president might well have been better off letting reporters probe beneath the placid surface of his regular pitch, especially if the result was a clearer view into his thought processes. Polls show that Americans support Obama the man in much greater margins than they support his plan. Giving the public a more visceral sense of why he believes in the stimulus package couldn't have hurt.

Worst of all, Obama engaged in one of the most frustrating rhetorical techniques: The straw-man argument. It wasn't fair for Obama to repeatedly suggest that the core opposition to his stimulus plan comes from people "who just believe that we should do nothing." The basic Republican position is considerably more nuanced than that, favoring tax cuts and opposing big-government spending. Obama was on much more defensible territory mocking the GOP for posing as the party of fiscal responsibility after doubling the deficit, and pointing out that calling his proposal "a spending bill, not a stimulus bill" is nonsense, since "part of any stimulus package would include spending -- that's the point."

In some ways, the biggest excitement last night came when Obama called on a blogger: Sam Stein of Huffingtonpost.com. But when Stein asked whether Obama agreed with Senator Patrick Leahy's call yesterday for a "truth and reconciliation committee" to investigate Bush administration misdeeds, Obama ducked the question, saying "my general orientation is to say, let's get it right moving forward."

Two of the better questions elicited the only really new things Obama said.

CBS's Chip Reid asked Obama if he was revisiting his devotion to bipartisanship after getting so little backing from Republicans on the stimulus package. The president said he's still taking the long view on bipartisanship, even while doing what he has to in order to meet the immediate need.

"You know, when I made a series of overtures to the Republicans -- going over to meet with both Republican caucuses; you know, putting three Republicans in my Cabinet, something that is unprecedented; making sure that they were invited here to the White House to talk about the economic recovery plan -- all those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. And I think that as I continue to make these overtures, over time hopefully that will be reciprocated.

"But understand the bottom line that I've got right now, which is what's happening to the people of Elkhart and what's happening across the country. I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games. What we have to do right now is deliver for the American people."

ABC'S Jake Tapper asked Obama: "[O]nce all the legs of your stool are in place, how can the American people gauge whether or not your programs are working? Can they -- should they be looking at the metric of the stock market, home foreclosures, unemployment? What metric should they use? When? And how will they know if it's working, or whether or not we need to go to a plan B?"

Obama supplied some benchmarks: "[M]y initial measure of success is creating or saving 4 million jobs," he said. And although that measure may be hard to quantify -- when is a job "saved"? -- the others were more concrete. "Step number two: Are we seeing the credit markets operate effectively?" And: "Step number three is going to be housing: Have we stabilized the housing market?" Obama even volunteered a timeframe: "[I]f we get things right, then starting next year we can start seeing some significant improvement," he said.

Generally speaking, the press corps didn't acquit itself well, either. Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press chose to interpret one of Obama's comments earlier in the day as a prediction of permanent recession. Obama told a town hall audience in Elkhart, Ind., that without a stimulus bill, "our nation will sink into a crisis that at some point we may be unable to reverse."

Loven asked: "Can you talk about what you know or what you're hearing that would lead you to say that our recession might be permanent, when others in our history have not? And do you think that you risk losing some credibility or even talking down the economy by using dire language like that?"

As a result, the record will show that the first response to the first question at the Obama's first news conference as president began: "No, no, no, no." Obama explained that what he and many economists have said is that "if you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of."

Caren Bohan of Reuters, who got the second question, asked about Iran -- not even the most pressing foreign policy matter facing this country, except possibly in certain neocon circles.

NBC's Chuck Todd questioned why the stimulus plan encourages increased consumer spending. "[I]sn't consumer spending or overspending how we got into this mess?" Todd asked. Obama countered that spending was actually not what got us into this mess, and that economists aren't the least bit worried about overspending right now.

Finally, Michael Fletcher of The Washington Post actually asked Obama for a reaction to baseball star Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids six years ago.

I'll add one more disappointment for the night: It's hard to see any reason for Obama not to immediately overturn the Bush administration's ban on media coverage of flag-draped coffins. As Lara Jakes writes for the Associated Press, even military families are against the ban. But in response to a question from CNN's Ed Henry, Obama hemmed and hawed and said a review is underway.

Here's a look at the coverage:

David Jackson and Richard Wolf write for USA Today: "President Obama took his case for more than $800 billion in economic stimulus directly to the American people Monday, accusing Republican opponents of playing politics with a plan that's 'exactly what this country needs.'

"Fresh from a town-hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., where the jobless rate has soared above 15%, Obama used his first news conference as president to press Congress to pass his spending initiatives and tax cuts or risk a Depression-like catastrophe."

Anne E. Kornblut and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "President Obama declared last night in his first prime-time news conference that the task of saving and creating jobs is more important than cultivating the bipartisan cooperation he promised to bring to Washington, and he pressed his case for the massive economic stimulus plan working its way through Congress...

"Obama repeatedly stressed the need for swift and aggressive action on the economy, pitting his plan against those who he said would 'do nothing' to assist a desperate public....

"Obama's remarks on partisanship -- a gridlock he once vowed to break as part of his signature campaign promise -- were perhaps most striking. Conveying exasperation with Republicans to whom he had extended an olive branch since taking office, the president said he will continue his outreach in the hope of a compromise down the line. But he will not, he said, allow political differences to trump the needs of the public."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "Authoritative and unsmiling, gloomy rather than inspirational, Mr. Obama cast the nation’s economy in dire light and offered a barbed point-by-point critique of the Republican argument that his plan would just create more government jobs and authorize a raft of new wasteful spending.

"'It’s a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they presided over a doubling of the national debt,' he said at the news conference. 'I’m not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.'"

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama looked comfortable enough at his first White House news conference, but he sounded like a man fed up with one thing: Republicans lecturing him about his $820 billion economic stimulus plan."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Obama controlled the tone of the East Room proceedings, speaking with utmost seriousness, gesturing with his hands and displaying a command of the facts. His lengthy, multi-part answers -- allowing for just 13 questions -- went well beyond what the journalists asked and defended his record while taking not-so-veiled slaps at the Republicans as 'folks who presided over a doubling of national debt.'...

"Obama smiled only once, while sidestepping a question from Fox's Major Garrett about Vice President Biden's comment that he and Obama agreed they had a 30 percent chance of getting an unspecified policy wrong. The president pleaded a faulty memory of the exchange....

"Afterward, MSNBC's Chris Matthews praised Obama's 'amazing ability' to communicate, while Fox's Bill O'Reilly called him 'very eloquent' but 'dull.'"

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "It was a bookend moment.

"President Obama on Monday evening became the 10th American president to call on Helen Thomas at a White House news conference. And he was the first to call on Sam Stein, a reporter for The Huffington Post, whose Internet publication sprung to life during Mr. Obama’s candidacy." [Actually, it was founded in 2005.]

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama’s locutions are steady, fluent and often very long. On Monday night, even his fiercest warnings about the perilous state of the economy were bracketed by professorial disquisitions on everything from charter schools to electronic medical records."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "Obama is not excessively didactic—though he did correct one reporter's characterization of the role of excessive consumer spending in the economic collapse. He's orderly. This is in great contrast to his predecessor, who sometimes spoke in small colloquial bursts. Those who found that to be George W. Bush's most irritating quality have probably already watched Obama again on TiVo for the delight of hearing a string of complete sentences. There may also be another group of people who tuned in or will see the sound bites from the press conference on Tuesday and will be reminded that they like Obama's moderate, careful tone and find that reason enough to give him more support for his big new program. But if Obama wanted to create urgency to get Congress to act or to spur people to call their representatives and demand action to avoid economic catastrophe, he didn't really do it."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:24 AM ET, 02/10/2009

Tom Toles on dealing with Congress, Ken Catalino on dealing with Democrats, Rob Rogers, Ben Sargent, Ed Stein, Jeff Danziger and David Horsey on dealing with Republicans, and Pat Oliphant on dealing with bankers.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company