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The Fate of the Union

By Dan Froomkin
2:04 PM ET, 02/23/2009


Obama and Biden meeting with the governors this morning. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Obama must achieve a number of outwardly contradictory goals in tomorrow night's address to a joint session of Congress -- essentially his first State of the Union speech.

He needs to explain how the extraordinary spending spree required to stimulate the economy and stem the foreclosure crisis is not actually in conflict with his intention to halve the deficit in four years. He has to be blunt about the severity of the current financial crisis, while at the same time expressing confidence in a strong recovery. He needs to play to the ultimate inside-the-Beltway audience in the room, while simultaneously speaking directly to a huge national audience that has grown skeptical of Washington's ways. And he needs to rebut the partisan attacks on his stimulus and mortgage plans, even as he calls for an end to tit-for-tat politics and urges members of both parties to work together.

All in a night's work for the Great Explainer? Perhaps.

Obama may have telegraphed some of his strategy this morning, when he addressed the nation's governors at the White House.

He described the extraordinary stimulus bill he signed last week as a plan "to put Americans to work doing the work America needs done" that will "make an immediate impact while laying the foundation for a lasting growth and prosperity."

He vowed to end "business as usual" when it comes to federal spending, promising "to watch the taxpayers' money with more rigor and transparency than ever."

And while acknowledging "legitimate concerns" from Republicans about some small parts of the stimulus package, he lashed out once again at the level of political discourse in Washington -- and particularly on cable television.

"I just want us to not lose perspective of the fact that most of the things that have been the topic of argument over the last several days amount to a fraction of the overall stimulus package. This sometimes gets lost in the cable chatter," he said. "I just want to make sure that we're having an honest debate ..

"[I]f we agree on 90 percent of this stuff, and we're spending all our time on television arguing about 1, 2, 3 percent of the spending in this thing, and somehow it's being characterized in broad brush as wasteful spending, that starts sounding more like politics. And that's what right now we don't have time to do....

"What I don't want us to do, though, is to just get caught up in the same old stuff that inhibits us from acting effectively and in concert. There's going to be ample time for campaigns down the road."

And early this afternoon, kicking off a "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" at the White House, Obama talked about fiscal restraint. "As we take the steps that we must to get through the crisis we're in now, we will not lose sight of the long-term," he said. "I refuse to leave our children with a debt they cannot repay."

As for tomorrow night, Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "President Obama will use his first address to Congress on Tuesday to present a road map for 'how we get to a better day,' a senior adviser says, in a speech intended to explain his economic policies and argue that legislative revisions on health care, education and energy are crucial to lifting the economy.

"The appearance before a joint session of the Senate and the House offers an opportunity for Mr. Obama to reprise some themes and initiatives from his campaign that have been overshadowed by the economic emergency that has defined the first month of his presidency....

"While the presidential address will be threaded with themes of optimism, in part to counter some criticism that Mr. Obama has been 'talking down' the economy, aides said his words would reflect the harsh reality of the challenges facing the country.

"'This is a speech to look forward, not back,' [senior adviser David] Axelrod said. 'The country is looking for a clear sense of direction. This is an opportunity to talk to the nation about that.'"

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters that "with his approval ratings high and his presidential honeymoon far from over, he will seek to regain momentum this week and build on an early flurry of legislative successes, financial initiatives and diplomatic moves....

"He will also lay out his broader agenda, including the goal of revamping health care, something he promised during the presidential campaign but which critics say is unrealistic now given budget pressures from bailout and stimulus measures...

"'This is a ritual for all new presidents,' said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. 'But considering the desperate economic situation, you can be sure people are going to be hanging on every word.'"

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "When President Obama addresses the nation tomorrow, he should not be distracted by Washington's obsessions over partisanship and ideology....

"In our battered industrial heartland, there is... a strong sentiment that the president should disentangle himself from Washington as much as possible, hard as that may be for a man who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. His obligation is to be the nation's leader, not the capital's ringmaster....

"[W]hen it comes to bipartisanship, the point is not the numerical count of Republicans who vote for this or that. It's whether frightened citizens sense that government is working."

Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek: "He knows that now is not the moment to cheerlead, not when the financial players are lying dazed on the field. There will be time for that, when the banks have been 'restructured' (see, that sounds better than 'nationalized') and the credit starts flowing again....

"Obama is betting on two things: first, that people are so tired of being bamboozled that a little straight talk about their woes will make them feel more in control, the prerequisite for genuine confidence. And second, that he'll get props for trying, that the very effort of riding events instead of letting them ride him will at least offer the illusion of mastery. Once these mental pieces are fastened in place and we're fully 'in recovery,' to use therapy lingo, the enduring problems won't seem so terrifying anymore."

But New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd worries that Obama is missing a key emotion: "Mr. Obama's egghead manner has failed to soothe a nation with the jits. Maybe he has been so intent on avoiding the stereotype of the Angry Black Man, as he wrote in his memoir, that it's hard for him to connect with and articulate public anger about our diminishment.

"Though he demonstrated in the campaign that he has a rare gift for inspiring the country with new belief in itself, Mr. Obama has not yet captured either the grit the moment requires or the fury it provokes."

Obama's Budget Plans

By Dan Froomkin
1:51 PM ET, 02/23/2009

President Obama kicked off this afternoon's "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" at the White House by announcing what his aides had leaked over the weekend: That he intends to halve the country's budget deficit by the end of his first term.

By contrast, little news is expected on the entitlements front. (See my post from Friday: Obama's Sense of Entitlements.)

Jackie Calmes writes in the New York Times that Obama had considered announcing the formation of a bipartisan Social Security task force, but relented under pressure from "his party's left and... Democratic Congressional leaders who contend that his political capital would be better spent on health care and other priorities."

As for the budget, Lori Montgomery and Ceci Connolly wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "President Obama is putting the finishing touches on an ambitious first budget that seeks to cut the federal deficit in half over the next four years, primarily by raising taxes on businesses and the wealthy and by slashing spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, administration officials said."

The plan "will press aggressively for progress on the domestic agenda Obama outlined during the presidential campaign. This would include key changes to environmental policies and a major expansion of health coverage that he hopes to enact later this year.....

"The plan would keep the deficit hovering near $1 trillion in 2010 and 2011, but shows it dropping to $533 billion by 2013, he said -- still high but a more manageable 3 percent of the economy."

On the revenue side, Obama "seeks to increase tax collections, mainly by making good on his promise to eliminate some of the temporary tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. While the budget would keep the breaks that benefit middle-income families, it would eliminate them for wealthy taxpayers, defined as families earning more than $250,000 a year. Those tax breaks would be permitted to expire on schedule in 2011. That means the top tax rate would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, the tax on capital gains would jump to 20 percent from 15 percent for wealthy filers and the tax on estates worth more than $3.5 million would be maintained at the current rate of 45 percent."

Jackie Calmes wrote in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama will propose cutting a variety of programs, including the Medicare Advantage subsidies for insurance companies that cover seniors who can otherwise acquire health coverage directly from the government. Another target is spending on private contractors, especially for defense, which spiked during the Bush administration. And he will scale back some promises, including his proposal to double money for foreign aid....

"'The president believes there are essentially three areas that have to move forward even as we pare back elsewhere — health care, energy and education,' said David Axelrod, his senior adviser. 'These are the bulwark of a strong economy moving forward.'

"While some people have predicted that Mr. Obama would have to shelve his priorities given rising deficits, his determination to proceed, especially on health care, reflects his economic advisers' conviction that the government cannot control its finances without reforming health care. The ballooning cost of health care, and thus Medicare and Medicaid, is the biggest factor behind projections of unsustainable deficits in coming decades."

And in his opening remarks at this afternoon's summit, Obama just announced he would push for "pay as you go" legislation.

Jonathan Weisman and John D. McKinnon wrote in this morning's Wall Street Journal: "Obama this week will propose using mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts to offset any new initiative that expands the government's red ink.

"The proposal, which would apply to any new tax cuts or spending, would return the government to the budget constraints that existed in the 1990s, a senior administration official said. Mr. Obama wants those rules to come in the form of a law, passed by Congress and signed by him. That would put presidential prestige on the line, raising pressure on Congress to observe the limits.

"Such restrictions have been in effect in recent years, in the form of rules adopted by Congress and enforced by the lawmakers themselves -- with spotty results....

"Any meaningful budget-restraint rules would likely face opposition from both parties. Many Republicans oppose constraints on tax cuts, which they say spur economic growth and generate government revenue. Some liberal Democrats have qualms about rules that could thwart long-sought expansions of government programs."

Non-movement on entitlements at today's summit would please many liberals. Joe Conason writes for Salon: "For many years, 'entitlement reform' has served as Washington jargon for slashing or even abolishing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the basic social programs that remain objects of conservative ire despite their enormous success in reducing poverty and improving health....

"To get what he wants from this summit, the president should be prepared to brush back the slashers and privatizers and insist that they talk about the need for a healthcare system that is less expensive and more equitable."

Robert Kuttner writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "We need to increase public spending and debt now to restore economic growth and then gradually reduce the debt ratio once recovery comes. Social Security has little to do with this challenge. Nor does Medicare, if we reform our overall health system.

"Since the early 1980s, Peter G. Peterson [the private-equity investor who is the leading advocate of reining in entitlement spending] has been warning that future entitlement deficits would crash the economy. Yet when the crash came, the cause was not deficits but wild speculation on Wall Street.

"Now, with 401(k) plans swooning and health benefits being cut, Social Security and Medicare are the two bedrock programs that keep tens of millions of elderly Americans from destitution. Why perversely cut these programs to pay for the sins of Wall Street? The attack on social insurance is really an ideological assault, dressed up as fiscal high-mindedness."

Detainee Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:22 PM ET, 02/23/2009

I don't think many people figure prisoners of war deserve access to the domestic courts of their enemies, or that civilian judges should interfere on the battlefield. But how many of the 600 "enemy combatants" being held in Afghanistan (and several thousand in Iraq) genuinely qualify as POWs? And how many are the same kind of vaguely identified terror "suspects" that the U.S. had been sending to Guantanamo -- until U.S. courts ruled that the Cuban outpost was de facto U.S. territory? And how will we ever know?

Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times: "The Obama administration has told a federal judge that military detainees in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their imprisonment there, embracing a key argument of former President Bush's legal team.

"In a two-sentence filing late Friday, the Justice Department said that the new administration had reviewed its position in a case brought by prisoners at the United States Air Force base at Bagram, just north of the Afghan capital. The Obama team determined that the Bush policy was correct: such prisoners cannot sue for their release....

"The closely watched case is a habeas corpus lawsuit on behalf of several prisoners who have been indefinitely detained for years without trial. The detainees argue that they are not enemy combatants, and they want a judge to review the evidence against them and order the military to release them.

"The Bush administration had argued that federal courts have no jurisdiction to hear such a case because the prisoners are noncitizens being held in the course of military operations outside the United States.....

"The Obama administration's decision was generally expected among legal specialists. But it was a blow to human rights lawyers who have challenged the Bush administration's policy of indefinitely detaining 'enemy combatants' without trials."

So what does this mean? Savage writes: "Jack Balkin, a Yale Law School professor, said it was too early to tell what the Obama administration would end up doing with the detainees at Bagram. He said some observers believed that the Obama team would end up making a major change in policy but simply needed more time to come up with it, while others believed that the administration had decided 'to err on the side of doing things more like the Bush administration did, as opposed to really rethinking and reorienting everything' about the detention policies it inherited because it had too many other problems to deal with."

White House vs. Santelli

By Dan Froomkin
1:07 PM ET, 02/23/2009

The White House pushback against cable TV chatter continues. (See my post from last week, Washington vs. the Rest of America.)

As Michael D. Shear wrote in Saturday's Washington Post, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Friday "unleashed a barrage of criticism at a former trader whose rant against the plan this week made him a cable and Internet phenomenon.

"Rick Santelli, a CNBC reporter who exploded in a tirade Thursday from the Chicago Board of Trade, has accused the president of crafting a housing bailout that is unfair to the millions of responsible mortgage holders. 'Government is promoting bad behavior,' Santelli said on his network....

"In response, Gibbs attacked Santelli by name repeatedly at a news briefing, accusing him of not reading the president's housing plan and mocking the former derivatives trader as an ineffective spokesman for the little guy."

From the transcript of Gibbs's briefing: "I also think it's tremendously important that for people who rant on cable television to be responsible and understand what it is they're talking about."

Key Players Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:54 PM ET, 02/23/2009

Ryan Lizza profiles White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the New Yorker: "He is a political John McEnroe, known for both his mercurial temperament and his tactical brilliance. In the same conversation, he can be wonkish and thoughtful, blunt and profane....

"His task has been made no easier by Obama's desire for bipartisanship, which Emanuel argues the press has misunderstood. 'The public wants bipartisanship,' he said. 'We just have to try. We don't have to succeed.' Still, he insisted, they have been succeeding. All Obama's other major accomplishments to date—winning approval for three hundred and fifty billion dollars in additional funding for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding S-CHIP, signing an executive order to shutter the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay and a memorandum to increase the fuel efficiency of cars—were supported by at least some Republicans. The G.O.P., Emanuel said, decided that opposing the stimulus 'was definitional, and I will make an argument to you, both on political and economic grounds: they will lose. I don't think the onus is on us. We tried. The story is they failed.'"

Lizza writes that "the atmosphere of crisis is now so thick at the White House, any moment of triumph has a fleeting half-life." And here's a memorable detail: On Emanuel's desk is a small screen "that looks like a handheld G.P.S. device and tells Emanuel where the President and senior White House officials are at all times." How's that work?

(Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald calls Lizza's profile "so reverent, one-sided, and glorifying that it is hard to believe it wasn't written by Emanuel himself." Greenwald adds: "[T]here is an intense competition underway to see who will get to be this administration's Bob Woodward -- the semi-official royal court spokesperson who is given constant access in exchange for good behavior.")

Newsweek's Howard Fineman profiles Emanuel's brother, Zeke, a medical ethicist who has just taken a key role advising the budget director.

Anne E. Kornblut writes in The Washington Post about Emanuel's deputy, Jim Messina: the "Fixer."

Michael Scherer profiles Press Secretary Robert Gibbs for Time, and he writes that the press briefing has become "a good place to take the ambient temperature of the busiest White House in a generation."

Michael Hirsh and Evan Thomas find some signs of a "new" Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser.

And NPR's Mara Liasson talks to senior adviser David Axelrod, who "describes his role as the keeper of the Obama brand....

"It's a more narrowly defined role than his predecessor, Karl Rove, played for President Bush.

"'Karl's aspirations were different than mine,' Axelrod says. 'He wanted to build the Republican Party for years to come. I'm not belittling that. My role is more circumscribed, and I'm not looking to run the Democratic Party from the White House. I just want to help the president be successful, and that's what I'm here to do.'"

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:50 PM ET, 02/23/2009

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama faces split opinions within the military on whether to make the speedy withdrawal from Iraq he championed as a candidate. Obama's top generals in Baghdad are pressing for an elongated timetable. Some influential senior advisers inside the Pentagon are more amenable to a quicker pullout."

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama's [Afghan] war strategy began to take shape with his announcement last week that 17,000 additional U.S. troops are headed to Afghanistan. But the thorniest problems still await him: persuading militants to lay down their arms, coaxing help from allies and eliminating extremist havens on the Afghan-Pakistan border."

Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government....The strikes are another sign that President Obama is continuing, and in some cases extending, Bush administration policy in using American spy agencies against terrorism suspects in Pakistan, as he had promised to do during his presidential campaign."

Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes in The Washington Post about Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi, an apparently innocent Kuwaiti turned into a terrorist by four years in Guantanamo. There is, Chandrasekaran writes, "a view in some quarters of the U.S. government that cases such as Ajmi's are the inevitable result of locking up 779 foreigners in an austere military prison, without access to courts or consular representation, and subjecting them to interrogation techniques that detainees say amount to torture. Some of them are bound to seek revenge, these officials believe."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration, siding with former President George W. Bush, is trying to kill a lawsuit that seeks to recover what could be millions of missing White House e-mails. Two advocacy groups suing the Executive Office of the President say that large amounts of White House e-mail documenting Bush's eight years in office may still be missing, and that the government must undertake an extensive recovery effort....Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, noted that President Barack Obama on his first full day in office called for greater transparency in government. The Justice Department 'apparently never got the message' from Obama, Blanton said."

Jake Tapper reports for ABC News: "Every day President Barack Obama is handed a special purple folder. The folder contains ten letters, and every day President Obama takes time to read them." The "letters have been culled from the thousands the White House Correspondence Office receives each day from Americans who have taken the time to sit down and write to their president. 'They help him focus on the real problems people are facing,' says Axelrod. 'He really a absorbs these letters, and often shares them with us.'... Some of these, maybe two or three each day, the President responds to in his own hand."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:58 AM ET, 02/23/2009

Milt Priggee, Adam Zyglis, John Darkow, Jeff Danziger and Joel Pett on the GOP and the stimulus, Tom Toles on nationalization, Glenn McCoy on Obama as a socialist and Bob Gorrell on Obama's faux bipartisanship.

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