Top of the Heap

By Dan Froomkin
1:40 PM ET, 02/24/2009

Obama at the fiscal responsibility summit yesterday. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Obama goes into tonight's big event in a commanding position, despite the enormous challenges he and the country face.

He is vastly more popular than the members of Congress he is addressing, and the American public strongly supports the policies he has advanced so far.

In fact, two new polls show not only that Americans are resoundingly behind him, but that they want his political opponents to back down and let him govern.

On the issue of bipartisanship, something of an inside-the-Beltway obsession, the public actually thinks Obama has gone too far, while Republicans haven't gone far enough. According to the New York Times/CBS News Poll, a whopping 79 percent of Americans think working in a bipartisan way is more important for Republicans than sticking to their party's policies. By contrast, 56 percent think it's more important for Obama to stick to the policies he campaigned on than to reach out.

Obama's approval rating is dropping slightly because support from Republicans is plummeting. But overall, the numbers suggest that the Republican Party's decision to redefine itself in opposition to Obama and his stimulus package may simply accelerate its transformation to a regional party without much of a national foothold.

Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: "Large majorities of Americans in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll support his $787 billion economic stimulus package and the recently unveiled $75 billion plan to stem mortgage foreclosures. Nearly seven in 10 poll respondents said Obama is delivering on his pledge to bring needed change to Washington, and about eight in 10 said he is meeting or exceeding their expectations. At the same time, however, the bipartisan support he enjoyed as he prepared to take office has eroded substantially amid stiff Republican opposition to his major economic initiatives.

"Thirty-seven percent of Republicans now approve of how he has done his job, a sharp drop from a month ago, when 62 percent gave him good marks for his handling of the transition...

"Americans put far more faith in Obama than in congressional Republicans: Sixty-one percent said they trust Obama more than the GOP on economic matters; 26 percent side with the Republicans in Congress. On that question, Obama's advantage is bigger than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush ever had over the opposition party in the legislature.

"Overall, Democrats maintain an edge of nearly 2 to 1 over Republicans as the party that Americans prefer to confront 'the big issues' over the next few years."

Here are the complete results.

Jeff Zeleny and Megan Thee-Brenan write in the New York Times: "President Obama is benefiting from remarkably high levels of optimism and confidence among Americans about his leadership, providing him with substantial political clout as he confronts the nation's economic challenges and opposition from nearly all Republicans in Congress, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

"A majority of people surveyed in both parties said Mr. Obama was striving to work in a bipartisan way, but most Americans faulted Republicans for their response to the president, saying the party had objected to the $787 billion economic stimulus plan for political reasons. Most Americans said Mr. Obama should pursue the priorities he campaigned on, the poll found, rather than seek middle ground with Republicans....

"A month into Mr. Obama's term, with his first big accomplishments, setbacks and political battles behind him, more than three-quarters of Americans said they are optimistic about the next four years with him as president. Similar percentages said they think he is bringing real change to the way things are done in Washington and that they have confidence in his ability to make the right decisions about the economy."

Here are those results. Obama's 63 percent approval rating is precisely the mirror image of Congress's 63 percent disapproval rating. And consider this: 74 percent think Obama is trying to work with Republicans in Congress in order to get things done, while 57 percent think the Republicans aren't doing the same; 79 percent think that, for Republicans, working in a bipartisan way is more important than sticking to their party's policies, while 56 percent think that for Obama, sticking to the policies he campaigned on is more important than reaching out; and 76 percent are either somewhat or very confident in Obama's ability to make the right decisions about the economy.

Susan Page of USA Today has more from a Gallup Poll: "As President Obama outlines his priorities to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, Americans overwhelmingly support new spending to help individuals — including creating jobs and rescuing struggling homeowners — but oppose bailouts for automakers and banks."

I wrote about the expectations for tonight's congressional address in this post yesterday.

Tom Brune writes for Newsday: "There are a lot of moving parts to the way he is addressing the economy, and he has to explain, in clear language to Congress and the nation, just how they fit together and work."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Barreling ahead on a mammoth agenda, Barack Obama is ready to offer a detailed sketch of the first year of his presidency, casting the nation's bleeding economy as a tangle of tough, neglected problems....

"White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama will provide more details about his financial stability plan and measures to help the economy while delivering 'a sober assessment about where we are and the challenges we face.'

"'He'll say we're on the right path to meeting these challenges, and there are better days ahead,' Gibbs said."

Feller notes: "Daily followers of Obama's rhetoric are not likely to be surprised by Obama's words, some of which will be repeating. He is trying to reach millions of people who don't get to hear him every day.

"So Obama will say that the crises facing the nation are so large they can only be solved in bipartisan ways. He will be blunt about the country's woes but try to balance that talk with optimism. He will talk about his travels as president so he can focus on the stories of communities outside Washington."

There's a lot of focus in today's coverage on the proper balance between hope -- and fear.

Edwin Chen and Kim Chipman write for Bloomberg: "President Barack Obama, who spent the last month warning of the dangers facing the U.S. economy to win support for his recovery plan, is under pressure to begin fostering public optimism.

"Obama has rolled out three major initiatives -- a $787 billion stimulus bill, a bank-rescue plan, and an effort to limit home foreclosures. Now, as he addresses his first joint session of Congress before a nationwide audience tonight, he must encourage lawmakers and voters to believe the plan can work, political analysts and economists say."

Jonathan Martin writes for Politico that Obama's primary challenge is "how to balance inspiration and exhortation with detail and specifics....

"Obama aides say he'll use the prime-time setting — his most high-profile platform since being sworn in last month — to delve into a broader range of issues that he has not yet devoted significant attention to because of the focus on the stimulus package.

"He'll key in on education, health care, energy and reducing the budget deficit — and attempt to tie them together into a larger discussion about his vision for the economic growth of the country."

Michael Scherer writes for Time about five themes to look for tonight, including Obama's continued differentiation of himself from George W. Bush. Being the "anti-Bush" allows "Obama to reemphasize that he has not been in office long enough to be held responsible for the dizzying array of crises that the nation now faces."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:11 PM ET, 02/24/2009

Here's actor George Clooney talking to CNN's Larry King last night about his meetings yesterday with President Obama and Vice President Biden to discuss his recent trip to the Darfur border: "[W]e were talking about there's a moment coming up relatively soon -- probably by the middle of next week where the International Criminal Court is going to indict the president of Sudan for war crimes, which has never happened before -- a sitting president. And we talked about this being an opportunity, perhaps, not just for the United States, but all of us together to work with the international community in a real diplomatic effort to try and bring some sort of peace to this region."

Andrew Zajac writes in the Chicago Tribune: "White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's Washington lodging arrangements, a rent-free basement room in a Capitol Hill home owned by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) and her pollster husband, have inspired debate among tax experts and in Republican-leaning parts of the blogosphere."

Chris Cillizza writes in The Washington Post: "Former Washington governor Gary Locke is likely to be President Obama's choice to head the Commerce Department, according to several administration officials briefed on the decision."

The Washington Times editorial board delights in Obama's adoption of the Bushian position that military detainees in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their imprisonment there: "What to do with the remaining Gitmo detainees? The answer now presents itself: Ship them all off to Afghanistan, where they can be detained for as long as necessary without the right to demand lengthy, complicated trials in U.S. courts that could potentially reveal important intelligence secrets and compromise our national security. Problem solved."

Los Angeles Times opinion columnist Jonah Goldberg looks at Bush policies Obama has adopted, and writes: "You might conclude that the famous pragmatist recognizes that this is a center-right country after all. Or that he is a hypocrite, a statesman, or both, now that the buck stops with him."

Eric Boehlert writes for Media Matters: "The Republican Noise Machine doesn't need the customary 100 days to size up the new president. Right-wing commentators barely needed 30 days to come to their conclusion that they hate everything Barack Obama stands for....Rush Limbaugh's original anti-Obama proclamation at the outset of his presidency -- 'I hope he fails' -- already seems benign in retrospect."

Zachary Roth writes for TPM Muckraker: "Karl Rove was supposed to appear before the House Judiciary committee to testify about the US Attorney firings [yesterday]. And of course, Rove didn't show....Rove had already publicly indicated he didn't plan on being there, citing President Bush's claim of executive privilege. ... The next key date is March 4th -- the new deadline for the Obama administration to weigh in on the Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten case, in which President Bush also asserted executive privilege."

Gautham Nagesh writes for the National Journal that the White House has "announced the staff of its new media team, headed by Macon Phillips, who has been named director of new media."

Live Online

By Dan Froomkin
1:03 PM ET, 02/24/2009

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Let's talk about President Obama's first month, his big speech -- and my new blog format.

Obama's Radical New Discourse

By Dan Froomkin
11:39 AM ET, 02/24/2009

President Obama yesterday modeled a dramatic new form of discourse for the White House -- a possible antidote to the sound-bite culture of modern politics -- in which people with different views come together to engage in a respectful dialogue.

Some 130 Democratic, Republican and community leaders met in intense but collegial "breakout" groups on key issues related to the country's fiscal health for over two hours at the White House yesterday afternoon. They then gathered in an auditorium where Obama calmly and commandingly called on more than a dozen of them -- starting with his vanquished foe, Republican Senator John McCain -- to share their thoughts.

My favorite immediate response came from MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall, who marveled moments after the summit wrapped up: "The tone was very different than what we hear when people are guests on the show." It sure was.

Here's the transcript. "My sense is that, despite partisan differences, despite regional differences and different priorities, everybody is concerned about the legacy we're leaving to our children," Obama said. "And the hope was, is that if we had a forum like this to start talking about these issues that it would turn out that there are real opportunities for progress -- there are going to be some areas where we can't make progress -- but that we have more in common that we expect. And I appreciate that while we may have different opinions, there's a renewed willingness to put some concrete ideas on the table, even on those issues that are politically tough, and that's real progress."

Mark Miller, of the liberal Center for American Progress, told MSNBC's Hall: "What you saw here was a really genuine attempt by a president who's very comfortable dealing with the substance, to engage political leaders across the spectrum....It's like a national teach-in almost, and I think this will be the first of what will be a number of things we see Obama do in this vein to both teach people about the problems and create a climate to get past just the finger-pointing and come together to solve problems."

Steve Holland of Reuters likened the session to "a polite version of British 'question time' in which the prime minister engages in back-and-forth with members of parliament."

Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press called Obama the "facilitator in chief" and wrote that he "showed his hand as both a policy wonk and a gracious host — to allies and adversaries alike.

"Easygoing though always in charge, Obama melded serious talk about ways to control the exploding federal deficit with frequent doses of humor and familiarity. That mix provided moments of levity that defused what could have been a tense session of finger-pointing between Republicans and Democrats on a painfully dry subject — fiscal policy."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank mocked certain elements of the event, but concluded: "For all the no-shows and the lack of planning, the summit had, in the end, provided something of value: a rare, public back-and-forth between the president, lawmakers and interest groups."

Obama said the approach was particularly necessary for such central issues as health care, where there are a lot of tradeoffs and "no perfect solutions.

"But in the sound bite, political culture that we got, it's very hard to communicate that. And we think that it's very important to have some forums -- and I talked about this during -- way back in the primary campaign, that there is a process that the public can listen to about what these tradeoffs are, because I think that some of us get on our high horse and say we've got the answer to health care. Well, it turns out that, you know, there are costs involved on the front end even if the benefits accrue in the out years. There are situations in terms of people, if they've got health insurance, sort of liking what they've got now, they just want it for cheaper. There are issues in terms of providers and them feeling like they're getting squeezed.

"And so making sure that all that stuff is surfaced in public and we're educating the public on some of these issues can be very important if we're going to make progress because -- you know, some of these things will ultimately involve some tough decisions and some tough votes."

Obama's exchange with McCain was substantive -- and humorous.

McCain, who had participated in the breakout session on procurement, said that the issue that "consumed a lot of our conversation on procurement was the issue of cost overruns in the Defense Department." And as an example, he raised a matter close to home. "We all know that the cost overruns -- your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money."

Obama replied: "Well, John, let me -- this is going to be one of our highest priorities. By the way, I've already talked to [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates about a thorough review of the helicopter situation. The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. (Laughter.) Of course, I've never had a helicopter before -- (laughter) -- maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it. (Laughter.)

"But I think it is a -- it is a -- an example of the procurement process gone amuck. And we're going to have to fix it. Our hope is, is that you, Senator [Carl] Levin, and others, can really take some leadership on this."

(As a result, R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post today that "prospects for building a new fleet of high-tech presidential helicopters darkened" after what "amounted to a shot across the bow of large defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, the helicopter's manufacturer.")

Obama called on several other Republicans, including House Whip Eric Cantor. When Democratic Sen. Tom Carper urged Obama to continue his outreach, he replied: "Well, I will certainly do that, Tom, because I'm just a glutton for punishment. (Laughter.) I'm going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Some day, sooner or later, he is going to say, boy, Obama had a good idea. (Laughter.) It's going to happen. You watch, you watch. (Laughter.)"

In perhaps the most striking contrast to events in the Bush White House, where the opposition was rarely seen and never heard, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) challenged Obama to pressure the House's Democratic leaders to include Republicans in the bill-writing process. "I think the House Republicans have shown that when we're not included in the decision-making, we're disinclined to sign off on the solution," Barton noted dryly.

Obama called that "an important point," but responded : "[O]n the one hand, the majority has to be inclusive. On the other hand, the minority has to be constructive.

"And so to the extent that on many of these issues we are able to break out of sort of the rigid day-to-day politics and think long term, then what you should see, I think, is the majority saying, what are your ideas; the minority has got to then come up with those ideas and not just want to blow the thing up. And I think that on some of these issues, we're going to have some very real differences and, you know, presumably the majority will prevail unless the minority can block it. But you're just going to have different philosophical approaches to some of these problems."

Indeed, while preaching -- and modeling -- civility, Obama didn't gloss over his differences with the previous administration. In his opening remarks at the summit, Obama blamed former president George W. Bush for the fix he's in -- and for engaging in budget subterfuge.

"We cannot, and will not, sustain deficits like these without end. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington these past few years, we cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation," Obama said.

"And that's why today I'm pledging to cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term in office. This will not be easy. It will require us to make difficult decisions and face challenges we've long neglected. But I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay -- and that means taking responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control.

"We'll start by being honest with ourselves about the magnitude of our deficits. For too long, our budget process in Washington has been an exercise in deception -- a series of accounting tricks to hide the extent of our spending and the shortfalls in our revenue and hope that the American people won't notice: budgeting certain expenditures for just one year, when we know we'll incur them every year for five or 10; budgeting zero dollars for the Iraq war -- zero -- for future years, even when we knew the war would continue; budgeting no money for natural disasters, as if we would ever go 12 months without a single flood, fire, hurricane or earthquake.

"We do ourselves no favors by hiding the truth about what we spend. In order to address our fiscal crisis, we're going to have to be candid about its scope. And that's why the budget I will introduce later this week will look ahead 10 years, and will include a full and honest accounting of the money we plan to spend and the deficits we will likely incur."

(Christi Parsons and Maura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times have more on the exclusions, unrealistic assumptions, and accounting tricks that were part of the Bush budget process.)

Obama continued: "[I]f we want to rebuild our economy and restore discipline and honesty to our budget, we will need to change the way we do business here in Washington. We're not going to be able to fall back into the same old habits, and make the same inexcusable mistakes: the repeated failure to act as our economy spiraled deeper into crisis; the casual dishonesty of hiding irresponsible spending with clever accounting tricks; the costly overruns, the fraud and abuse, the endless excuses. This is exactly what the American people rejected when they went to the polls.

"They sent us here to usher in a new era of responsibility in Washington -- to start living within our means again, and being straight with them about where their tax dollars are going, and empowering them with the information they need to hold all of us, their representatives, accountable."

Despite all the speculation -- both alarmed and enthusiastic -- that "entitlement reform" would be the theme of yesterday's summit, the central topic, as I predicted in a post on Friday, Obama's Sense of Entitlements, was clearly health care.

Lori Montgomery and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "President Obama will make reforming the U.S. health-care system his top fiscal priority this year, administration officials said yesterday, contending that reining in skyrocketing medical costs is critical to saving the nation from bankruptcy....

"The White House budget director, Peter Orszag, delivered a forceful argument for keeping Washington's focus, for now, on slowing 'the growth rate in health-care costs,' calling it 'the single most important thing we can do to improve the long-term fiscal health of our nation.'

"'Let me be very clear: Health-care reform is entitlement reform. The path of fiscal responsibility must run directly through health care,' Orszag said...

"Although the $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress this month, along with bailouts for the nation's financial system, has bloated this year's budget deficit, administration officials and many outside experts contend that the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid, the federal health programs for the elderly and the poor, present a far greater threat to the nation's long-term financial stability."

Michael Kranish and Lisa Wangsness write in the Boston Globe: "The effort to overhaul healthcare and extend insurance to most Americans has vexed politicians in Washington for decades. There had been discussion among analysts in the last month about whether the Obama administration might try to wrap healthcare into a 'grand bargain' that would also include overhauls of Social Security and Medicare.

"But Obama aides said that the president wants to work on healthcare separately and 'made it clear they want to focus on healthcare first,' according to Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who took part in the summit."

Here are the pool reports from the breakout sessions on Social Security, tax reform, health care, the budget process and procurement.

In one rare example of consensus, incidentally, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa told Obama: "Mr. President, it was kind of a surprise in the procurement group that was together, we had almost universal recognition that over the last decade or so, we've overdone, in some cases, outsourcing of critical federal requirements, and that means that in many cases we spend more to hire a contractor or a non-federal worker than we would pay to invest in federal workers.

"And so there was universal -- Republican, Democrat, House and Senate, even -- (laughter) -- that during this administration we need to assess where we can re-federalize some parts of the workforce, particularly when it came to people who do get procurement and oversee the procurement."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:44 AM ET, 02/24/2009

Roy Peterson on Obama's prize, Tom Toles on Obama's signposts, Pat Oliphant and Dave Granlund on the Great Obama, Steve Kelley, RJ Matson and John Trever on the binge, Jim Morin on the new populism, Tony Auth on nationalization, and Jeff Danziger, Steve Breen, Jim Morin, Steve Benson and Mike Lane on the next surge.

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