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Obama's Sense of Entitlements

By Dan Froomkin
1:27 PM ET, 02/20/2009

A big question looming over the White House's "fiscal responsibility summit" on Monday is whether President Obama is willing to consider major cuts in future benefits for the poor and elderly to win bipartisan support for his long-term budget plans -- or whether he's going to try to redirect the "entitlement reform" fervor toward the goal of bringing down skyrocketing health costs for everyone.

It's turning into something of a public contest for Obama's soul. Some liberals are alarmed that he could be casting his lot with an alliance of Washington elites who believe that "entitlement reform" is essential to preserve the long-term fiscal health of the country -- and that only non-serious thinkers could possibly disagree.

What's odd about all this is that, despite a few puzzling signs to the contrary, Obama and his top economic advisers have made it abundantly clear that they don't consider Social Security a major problem and think the answer to Medicare and Medicaid's unsustainability is taming health care inflation -- a goal which fits neatly into their wider agenda to cut costs and make health care available to everyone.

Obama has long resisted the "entitlement reform" movement, which is currently focused on establishing a blue-ribbon commission that would present Congress with a finished proposal -- presumably calling for steep cuts in the nation's bedrock social safety programs -- for an up-or-down vote. But the coverage of his comments during a meeting with Washington Post editors a few days before his inauguration set off a new round of speculation about his intentions.

"Obama Pledges Entitlement Reform" said the front-page headline over Michael D. Shear's story the next morning. Shear wrote: "President-elect Barack Obama pledged yesterday to shape a new Social Security and Medicare 'bargain' with the American people, saying that the nation's long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs."

Obama did say, according to the transcript, that "the real problem with our long-term deficit actually has to do with our entitlement obligations" and that "we're going to have to craft what George Stephanopoulos called a 'Grand Bargain.'"

But consider this, from further down in the story: "Obama was careful not to outline specific fixes for Social Security and Medicare, refusing to endorse either a new blue-ribbon commission or the concept of submitting an overhaul plan to Congress that would be subject only to an up-or-down vote, similar to the one used to reach agreement on the closure of military bases...

"'Social Security, we can solve,' he said, waving his left hand. 'The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable....We can't solve Medicare in isolation from the broader problems of the health-care system.'"

Similarly, in an interview with opinion columnists last Friday, Obama had this to say: "Medicare and Medicaid on their current trajectory cannot be sustained. And the only way I think we're going to fix it is if we see those two problems in the broader contest of bending the curve down on health care inflation.

"The problem is not just demographics. Peter Orszag, before he joined us, loved to make this presentation -- you sat through the chart -- that, yes, people are getting older, but that's not the problem. The problem is health care costs going up 6, 7, 8, 10 percent a year."


A slide from Peter Orszag's PowerPoint presentation on health-care costs.

Orszag is Obama's new budget director. And here is the PowerPoint presentation Obama was talking about.

So although some of the leading advocates of "entitlement reform" will be at the summit on Monday, I suspect this will be the beginning of an attempt by Obama to co-opt them into supporting his preferred approach -- and the kickoff of a campaign to educate the general public on the issues as he sees them.

William Greider's recent essay in the Nation provides a lot of essential background on the battle over entitlements.

Ben Smith interviews Orszag for Politico: "Orszag's long-running project — something that has made him the left's favorite Cabinet member — has been replacing talk of an 'entitlement crisis' with his argument that Social Security requires only modest tax hikes and benefit cuts, while Medicare and Medicaid have much more dramatic fiscal woes.

"'Social Security faces an actuarial deficit over the next 75-100 years. In the past, I've resisted the term 'crisis' to describe that kind of situation,' he said. 'This is not quantitatively as important as getting health care done.'"

Nevertheless, as Walter Alarkon writes for The Hill: "Liberal groups are worried that the White House bipartisan fiscal responsibility summit on Monday will set the stage for President Obama to compromise with deficit hawks....

"Obama's announcement of the event last month and his initial invite list alarmed his allies on the left...Obama said in January that the summit would have a special focus on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and that he would invite Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Blue Dog Democrats and fiscal health advocacy groups. They have all called for a reduction of the deficit and have proposed a bipartisan commission to produce a plan to do it."

Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher is among the liberal bloggers worried that Obama is paying too much attention to -- and might even heed -- the people she calls "'entitlement reform' fetishists."

And Chris Bowers blogs on OpenLeft on one reason to worry about Obama's steadfastness in opposition to the blue-ribbon commission proposal championed by Conrad and Gregg (who, of course, just last week withdrew as Obama's commerce secretary nominee).

Lori Montgomery wrote in The Washington Post on February 2 that "Obama specifically mentioned the Gregg-Conrad proposal when he met with Senate Republicans last week.... But Obama 'was not supportive' of that idea, said Gregg."

And yet Jonathan Weisman wrote in the Wall Street Journal on February 14: "The president met with 44 fiscally conservative 'Blue Dog' Democrats this week and gave a nod to legislation that would set up commissions to deal with long-term deficit strains...

"'We feel like we've found a partner in the White House,' said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D., La.), a Blue Dog co-chairman."

Writes Bowers: "There are two possibilities here. First, President Obama changed his position on the commission between February 2nd and last week. Second, either the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post is incorrect."

Other liberal bloggers, however, say not to worry.

Jonathan Cohn blogs for the New Republic: "Obama has said consistently that the federal government doesn't have an entitlements problem. It has a health care problem....

"So what's up with this fiscal responsibility summit? It's all about education--and, yes, some public relations. Obama wants to signal that he is serious about fiscal responsibility and he wants to make clear the linkage between fiscal responsibility and health care."

Ezra Klein blogs for the American Prospect: "The Obama administration believes that the entitlement problem is a health care entitlement problem, and the health care entitlement problem is a health care system problem. And so the focus now is on health care reform: The fiscal responsibility summit will be used, in part, to make this argument. In Obama's Washington, a plan to cut Social Security is no longer enough to qualify you as 'fiscally responsible.' You need an answer to the Medicare and Medicaid questions, which means you need an answer to the health care system. We will see the beginnings of the White House's answer -- an answer that has required a series of decisions by President Obama himself -- when the budget emerges next Thursday. That, and not Monday's summit, is where the nature of the administration's commitment to fiscal responsibility will come clear."

As for that budget, Lori Montgomery writes in today's Washington Post: "When President Obama rolls out his first budget proposal next week, it will contain some of the ugliest deficit numbers this nation has seen since the end of World War II. So the Obama administration is planning an entire week of budget-focused activities to prepare the country for the painful spending cuts and program changes that will be needed to begin reducing the red ink.

"The schedule kicks off Monday with a White House summit on fiscal responsibility...

"On Tuesday, Obama will lay out the severity of the nation's economic crisis in a speech to a joint session of Congress.

"And on Thursday, the president will deliver his budget plan to lawmakers."

Jackie Calmes writes in the New York Times: "For his first annual budget next week, President Obama has banned four accounting gimmicks that President George W. Bush used to make deficit projections look smaller. The price of more honest bookkeeping: A budget that is $2.7 trillion deeper in the red over the next decade than it would otherwise appear, according to administration officials....

"Mr. Obama's banishment of the gimmicks, which have been widely criticized, is in keeping with his promise to run a more transparent government....

"The $2.7 trillion in additional deficit spending, Mr. Orszag said, is 'a huge amount of money that would just be kind of a magic asterisk in previous budgets.'

"'The president prefers to tell the truth,' he said, 'rather than make the numbers look better by pretending.'"

Massimo Calabresi and Nancy Gibbs, in Time Magazine, look at how central the curbing of health care costs is to Obama's long-term budget plans -- along with "winding down the war in Iraq, cutting fat and raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans." They also raise what could be some important questions.

Orszag and his colleagues "think they can tackle this problem in part through better data processing. First, a massive investment in health-information technology will track how America's health-care dollars are being spent. Next, a $1.1 billion government study, funded as part of the stimulus package, will take that information and figure out which treatments get the best outcomes for the least money. Which makes more sense for a clavicle fracture: a simple sling and waiting six weeks or surgical repair with a stainless-steel plate? The final step could be to create a federal health-care board that would shape Medicare- and Medicaid-reimbursement plans based on those studies.

"Administration officials suggest that some savings would come from controlling drug costs and changing reimbursement procedures....

"If the President tries to go down this road, the line of opponents will stretch well past the horizon. Even the idea of the 'effectiveness' studies sparked a huge fight in Congress over the prospect of rationing health care in the U.S. It's easy to say better information will help doctors avoid expensive treatments that don't work. But what about expensive treatments that do work? Who decides whether they count as being sufficiently cost-effective? Might the same treatment be approved for a 25-year-old but not for a 75-year-old, who won't live as long to benefit from it? What about treatments that work differently for men and women, or blacks and whites? Doctors warn that treatment decisions will be made by bureaucrats whose interest in saving money competes with their interest in saving lives."

Washington vs. America, Continued

By Dan Froomkin
1:16 PM ET, 02/20/2009

And here's yet more about the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country. (See my previous posts on the topic.)

Inside the Beltway, President Obama's failed overtures to Republicans over the stimulus bill were widely seen as humiliating.

But Michael Tomasky writes in a Guardian opinion column: "His audience is the country." Obama's meetings "were conducted for citizens, so they could see that he was trying something different....

"[M]iddle-of-the-road voters see partisan gridlock as a problem. And what do they see today if they cast their gaze in Washington's direction? They see a president trying to talk about and do something about a problem that they think is important. And they see a Republican bloc that is a living embodiment of that problem every day....

"Think of it as an outside-in strategy. That is: we tend to think that change starts in Washington and spreads out to the country. In fact, the opposite is more often the case. Change starts outside the Beltway, and eventually bleeds into it."

Steve Benen blogs for the Washington Monthly that it's working: "A national AP poll released yesterday found that 62% of Americans believe the president is doing enough to reach out to congressional Republicans. In contrast, the same poll found that only 27% of the public believes the GOP is doing to enough to cooperate with Obama....

"Even Fox News' latest poll showed similar results. Asked if the president 'has sincerely tried to reach out to Republicans and be bipartisan,' 66% of respondents said he has. Asked the same of Republicans, only 33% agreed."

Beloved in Canada

By Dan Froomkin
1:00 PM ET, 02/20/2009

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama warned on Thursday against a 'strong impulse' toward protectionism while the world suffers a global economic recession and said his election-year promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement on behalf of unions and environmentalists will have to wait.

"Obama made the comments as he stood with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his first trip abroad as president. The two pledged cooperation on efforts to stimulate the economy, fight terrorism in Afghanistan and develop clean energy technology."

Shear writes that "some longtime observers of the U.S.-Canada relationship said Obama's current position appears to confirm the impression" that "then-candidate Obama's frequent criticism of NAFTA was nothing more than campaign speeches aimed at chasing support among Rust Belt union workers."

Here's the transcript of Obama's joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Mike Dorning reports for Tribune: "If short on substance, the day marked a departure from the uncomfortable tone that characterized relations during George W. Bush's presidency, especially after Canada balked at joining its closest ally in the invasion of Iraq.

"In contrast, the enthusiasm for Obama shown by those who turned out on Ottawa's slushy streets was a rare display of pro-American sentiment in Canada. A crowd of several thousand greeted the president on the lawn of the Parliament complex, many having waited hours in a light snowfall."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes that Obama used "the first foreign trip of his presidency to ease tensions over trade policy, climate change and the war in Afghanistan — all the while basking in his celebrity status in a nation where his approval ratings are so high that a local bakery named a pastry after him.

Canada's CTV network reports: "An Ottawa Market shop girl says she nearly passed out with excitement when U.S. President Barack Obama made a quick stop into her store on Thursday after finishing up business on Parliament Hill...

"Obama's stopped at a French bakery for cookies, a souvenir shop where he picked up a key chain with a moose on it for his daughter and a scarf for his wife, and then the Beaver Tails Hut where 17-year-old Jessica Milien works...

"BeaverTails Canada Inc. founder and co-owner Grant Hooker had invented a custom-made Beaver Tail, called the Obama Tail, which was served at the Canadian Embassy during the Obama inauguration back in January.

"So that's what was served to the man himself: an Obama Tail, a tail-shaped deep-fried pastry, coated with cinnamon and sugar and topped with maple-flavoured eyes and drizzled with a Nutella 'O' for 'Obama.'"

White House new media staffer Jason Djang live-blogged the trip on whitehouse.gov. Sample post: "Ottawa is white, and the snow's still coming down. Police are on snowmobiles."

Here Comes Climate Change

By Dan Froomkin
12:52 PM ET, 02/20/2009

It sounds to me like we may start hearing more about climate change soon.

Here's what President Obama had to say on the subject at yesterday's joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper: "We have to complete our domestic debate and discussion around these issues. My hope is, is that we can show leadership so that by the time the international conference takes place in Copenhagen that the United States has shown itself committed and ready to do its part."

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post about the "daunting tasks the new administration faces as the world scrambles to forge a new climate-change treaty this year: trying to persuade emerging economies to make deep cuts in greenhouse-gas releases that they have long resisted while coaxing Congress to adopt first-ever limits on the United States' own emissions.

"These two challenges, which are key to securing a deal when climate negotiators convene December in Copenhagen, mean that President Obama and his deputies must launch a major push abroad and at home on an issue that President George W. Bush only reluctantly addressed...

"Adopting climate targets that will satisfy other countries entails persuading Democrats and Republicans from the nation's mid-section -- where fossil fuels, manufacturing and automobiles are pivotal to the economy -- to approve legislation that will drive up energy prices, at least in the short term. Many Republicans oppose any mandatory carbon cap, so the administration will have to expend significant political capital to win the necessary votes."

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press: "Saying it's time to 'take a whack' at climate change, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he plans to push for Senate action on global warming by the end of summer.

"The Nevada Democrat in an interview with The Associated Press said the Senate will take up energy legislation in a couple of weeks 'and then later this year, hopefully late this summer do the global warming part of it.'"

Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, Eric Pooley writes that, if there's to be any chance of a climate bill passing before the talks in Copenhagen, Obama needs to make clear right now what sort of climate-change legislation he's looking for -- not by wading into the all the minutiae, but by explaining to the American people why a climate bill is important and what basic principles he thinks should guide it.

Truth Commission Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:49 PM ET, 02/20/2009

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy writes for Time about his proposal to appoint a "truth-finding panel" to look into the abuses of the Bush years.

"People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments but to assemble the facts. If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecution in order to get to the whole truth....

"[T]o repair the damage of the past eight years and restore America's reputation and standing in the world, we should not simply turn the page without being able first to read it."

The Constitution Project yesterday released a letter calling on President Obama to appoint a commission to examine Bush's detainee policies. Among the signatories: former FBI director William S. Sessions, retired Major General Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, and former under secretary of state Thomas Pickering.

Daphne Eviatar writes for the Washington Independent that Leahy's proposal has "revealed deep divisions among Democrats, legal experts and human rights advocates. That's because Leahy was suggesting not a prosecution, but an investigatory commission....

"'The only reason to have a commission of this kind is to avoid doing what we're obligated to do under a treaty,' George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley told Keith Olbermann on MSNBC last week. 'It is shameful that we would be calling for this type of commission,' he added. 'We're obligated to investigate. It's not up to President Obama. It's not up to Sen. Leahy.'"

James L. Cavallaro writes in the Christian Science Monitor that, based on his experience with human rights issues in Latin America, a truth commission would serve the nation well: "What...the US can learn from Latin America is this: If we are to control our own destiny, we must reclaim our past. A truth commission, along the lines suggested by Leahy, would be a good means of beginning that process. The alternative – to turn the page without knowing what is on it – could doom us to a haphazard and unpredictable future in which individual consciences and other nations' courts control our destiny."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:31 PM ET, 02/20/2009

Tahman Bradley writes for ABC: "Former President Bill Clinton gives President Barack Obama an 'A' grade for his first month in office, but tells ABC News that Obama needs to put on a more positive face when speaking to the American people about the economy and must keep pressure on Republicans who try to obstruct his plans....Clinton gives former President George W. Bush a harsh review on the economy, however, blaming the Republican for the current fiscal crisis by not moving sooner to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure. 'I personally believe, based on my experience over the years with the economy, that if we moved aggressively on this home problem a year and a half ago, even a year ago, as much as 90 percent of the current crisis could have been avoided,' he said."

Alina Selyukh writes for the National Journal: "With just one signature, President Obama not only sent $787 billion rolling into the U.S. economy, he also moved a few steps closer to fulfilling at least 38 pledges he made on the campaign trail, scratching one completely off the to-do list."

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan thinks it's necessary. His successor, Ben Bernanke, doesn't rule it out. From editorial pages to the blogosphere to boardrooms, this is the question on many minds: Should the United States nationalize some banks?"

The Associated Press reports: "Invoking his own name-and-shame policy, President Barack Obama warned the nation's mayors on Friday that he will 'call them out' if they waste the money from his massive economic stimulus plan."

Kim Chipman and Daniel Whitten write for Bloomberg that at the Treasury Department, "Secretary Timothy Geithner is the only Senate-confirmed appointment. Among the missing: a deputy secretary, an administrator for the bank- bailout program, undersecretaries for domestic finance and international affairs, and a general counsel. 'It's absolutely shocking we don't have a full Treasury Department given the enormous economic and banking challenges we face,' said Darrell West, head of government studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution."

Eamon Javers writes for Politico: "There are no former CEOs in the Obama Cabinet. And among the people who make up his daily inner circle, there is only a dollop or two of top-level private sector experience. This is a notable absence, particularly for an administration whose domestic reputation will hinge on whether it can reverse one of the steepest economic downturns in decades."

Robin Shulman writes in The Washington Post: "Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr., who was named Thursday to direct the new White House Office of Urban Affairs, said he wants cities to become economic centers that can pull the country out of a recession and improve American competitiveness in a global market."

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "Visiting the Central Intelligence Agency to swear in Leon E. Panetta as the agency's 19th director, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Thursday that the Bush administration's detention and interrogation policies 'gave Al Qaeda a powerful recruiting tool.' Considering the setting — the C.I.A. lobby where several hundred agency employees greeted the vice president with cheers — Mr. Biden's remarks implied a tough judgment on parts of the agency's record under the previous administration.

From the transcript of Biden's remarks: "We expect you to provide independent analysis, and not engage in group-think. And we expect you to tell us the facts as you know them, wherever they may lead –- not what you think we want to hear."

John Barry writes for Newsweek: "President Obama was initially wary of agreeing to this week's announced deployment of some 17,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, according to administration sources. He preferred to await the outcome of a full-blown review on U.S. strategy in the country which could land on his desk in six weeks or so. But with critical elections looming, even that delay wasn't acceptable."

Jonathan S. Landay of McClatchy Newspapers recounts encounters in Afghanistan that illustrate "the distrust and anger that U.S.-led forces face as the Obama administration tries to stem the Taliban-led insurgency by sending more American troops to Afghanistan and ramping up a strategy to start making good on years of empty U.S. vows to better the lives of ordinary Afghans."

Peter Finn and Julie Tate write in The Washington Post: "A former British resident held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be flown home early next week, marking the first transfer of a Guantanamo detainee by the Obama administration....The British government had pressed the new administration to make the case of Binyam Mohammed a priority. The release of the Ethiopian native could come as early as Monday, the day Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is scheduled to visit the military facility with top Justice Department officials who are leading a review of the cases of the approximately 245 detainees held there."

Joe Palazzolo writes for Legal Times: "The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is giving the Obama administration one week to determine whether to press ahead with President George W. Bush's claim that his former aides are absolutely immune to congressional subpoenas...The Justice Department had asked the court for two additional weeks to state its position in the case, but the court issued an order Thursday requiring the Justice Department to file its opening brief by Feb. 25. The Justice Department immediately filed a motion to reconsider, emphasizing the need for more time to negotiate an increasingly complex range of interests."

Martina Stewart reports for CNN: "A California Republican congressman has called on President Obama to put in place a system that ensures all White House emails be preserved even if official business was done through private e- mail accounts. Rep. Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made the request in a February 18 letter to White House Counsel Greg Craig."

Matt Corley of Thinkprogress.org notes: "This newfound interest in the use of outside e-mail accounts at the White House is ironic, considering [Issa's] dismissal of such concerns when Democrats investigated the Bush administration's use of RNC e-mail accounts."

Chris Soghoian writes for CNET that Recovery.gov, the newly-launched Web site devoted to making the stimulus bill transparent and accountable, initially blocked all search engines from indexing its site.

Richard Leiby assesses Michelle Obama's first month in The Washington Post and finds that "she has pushed beyond her initial self-definition as 'mom in chief,' notably visiting four Cabinet-level federal agencies to rally workers and tout her husband's agenda. She has also read to children, promoted community involvement and participated in a forum for African American women at Howard University. Her celebrity status draws adoring crowds. But a review of her public remarks finds scant reference to policy."

Washington Post opinion columnist Charles Krauthammer says a "supine" Obama foreign policy has turned the U.S. into "a grinning Goliath staggering about sporting a 'kick me' sign on his back."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:18 AM ET, 02/20/2009

Jim Morin on how the GOP won't play ball, Canadians Guy Badeaux (Bado) and Grahame Arnould on Obama's visit to Ottawa and Bill Mitchell on Obama and Afghanistan.

Slim pickings today. If I've missed anything, e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com and I'll update. Or take a look back at the cartoons from Obama's first month.

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