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Seven Ways Obama Can Beat Washington

By Dan Froomkin
1:55 PM ET, 03/ 3/2009


Obama at a campaign rally at the University of Denver in January 2008. (Reuters)

If nearly the entire Washington power establishment is complicit in the problems President Obama is trying to solve (see yesterday's post), then he's going to have to adopt an outside-in strategy -- an insurgency of sorts -- to persuade Congress to join him in going full speed in the opposite direction.

What would such a strategy entail? Here are some possible approaches.

1. Get out of town -- a lot.

That was the first idea raised by commenters in response to yesterday's post. "Constwkr" wrote: "He needs to keep taking the message to the folks who voted for this kind of change...Washington won't listen to him, but they sure will listen to the voters."

Jpk1 wrote: "His best strategy for winning the inside game is to not play it. Instead, appeal to the public."

As Eli Saslow pointed out in The Washington Post on Sunday, in a story about Obama's attempts not to get caught in the White House bubble, the new president is already hitting the road a lot.

"As a U.S. senator, he complained that Washington sometimes felt 'status-conscious' and 'artificial,' and he promised voters during the presidential campaign that he planned to travel outside the capital for a regular dose of perspective," Saslow wrote. "During the past three weeks, as Obama aggressively tried to sell his economic recovery package, he traveled to Indiana, Florida, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona and Canada as well as Camp David -- more trips outside Washington in his first month than any of the previous five presidents."

But I'm not just talking about town-hall meetings in high-school auditoriums -- although those are valuable. I'm also talking football stadiums, civic centers and waterfronts, major rallies that serve to invigorate citizens and encourage them to make their voices heard in Congress -- and that provide the media, the public and elected officials with inescapable reminders that Obama isn't just a popular president, he's leading a movement.

2. Go populist. Campaign against the insurance industry, the banks, the oil, gas and coal companies. Especially the banks.

As early as late January, as he took on the enormous challenge of righting the country's financial system, there were signs that Obama might be abandoning at least some of the populism he expressed in his campaign and inauguration in an attempt not to upset Republicans and Wall Street.

As Stephen Labaton and Edmund L. Andrews wrote in the New York Times in early February, there are evidently tensions within the White House over how tough to get on the banks. At the time, Labaton and Andrews wrote that "in the battle over how to approach banks, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy F. Geithner had aparently 'largely prevailed' over more populist presidential aides."

Since then, Obama has gradually gotten more vocal about supporting the interests of ordinary people over those of the privileged elites. "The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long, but I don't," he said in his radio and Internet address on Saturday. "I work for the American people." He predicted resistance from his budget plans from, in particular, the insurance industry, banks, and oil and gas companies.

In his Congressional address last week, Obama argued on behalf of bailing out essentially bankrupt banks, but vowed: "This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks, or buy fancy drapes, or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column that Obama's wishy-washy approach to banks is neither appealing to the public's anger -- nor solving the problem.

"The genuine populist rage in the country — aimed at greedy C.E.O.'s, not at the busted homeowners mocked as 'losers' by [CNBC's Rick] Santelli — cannot be ignored or finessed...

"Americans still don't understand why many Wall Street malefactors remain in place or why the administration's dithering banking policy lacks the boldness and clarity of Obama's rhetoric....

"Handing more public money to the reckless banks that invented this culture and stuck us with the wreckage is the new third rail of American politics."

3. Nationalize the banks, already.

Obama certainly isn't lacking in audacity -- except maybe in one area. For one reason or another, Obama is resisting what an increasing number of economists say may be the only real solution to the banking crisis: nationalization.

As columnist Paul Krugman blogs for the New York Times, the Obama team "seems committed to the view that banks should stay private even if they're bankrupt, because — well, just because....

"The sickening feeling of drift — the sense that policymakers are refusing to face hard facts, and are dithering while the world economy burns — just keeps getting stronger."

If Obama is trying to avoid nationalizing to prevent a sell-off on Wall Street, well, that ain't exactly working.

What Wall Street really wants, Obama acknowledged in his congressional address, is "an approach that gives bank bailouts with no strings attached and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions."

But if he won't give them what they want, why not do what needs to be done?

4. Don't listen to the usual suspects so much.

As the Nation's Ari Melber writes in a Politico opinion column: "Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is 'experienced' Beltway insiders who have actually caused the largest problems for Obama.

"When the new, young president stacked his administration with familiar Washington veterans, the predictable praise poured in. Washington Post columnist David Broder lauded Tom Daschle's appointment, hailing him as a 'shrewd choice' to head Obama's health care reform. 'The former South Dakota senator knows the politics of Capitol Hill intimately,' Broder wrote in December, apparently unaware that old school politics can hinder reform.

"We know how that turned out....

"[T]he point of hiring Washington insiders was the promise that pros would run Washington smoothly." But, Melber writes: "the non-Washington appointees seem to be Getting It Done without incident, from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to foreign policy adviser Samantha Power."

David Cho writes in The Washington Post that, on economic policy, Geithner and National Economic Council Chair Lawrence H. Summers are winning a lot of the economic arguments in the White House these days.

Maybe that's part of the problem.

5. Liken incrementalism to supporting the status quo.

As I noted in an item on Friday, the dominant media analyses of Obama's budget have cast it as a political gamble -- which it is, of course. But is that the biggest risk?

Inertia is a powerful force in Washington. Consider how, for so many years, establishment Washington called withdrawal from Iraq "risky" -- without acknowledging how risky it was to stay. The media reflects this inertia by tending to focus on the risk of doing something, not the risk of doing nothing.

The White House position, by contrast, is that doing too little is riskier than doing too much, considering the circumstances. But that view is getting lost in the chatter.

How to cut through the noise and make that point more effectively? I suggest publicly mocking those who want to respond to this crisis with baby steps. They can always be mollified later by having them over for cocktails. No one in the Washington establishment can resist the trappings of the presidency.

New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks this morning joins the chorus of incrementalists, writing ostensibly on behalf of his fellow "moderates" that Obama's budget proposal just goes way too far: "There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once."

Joe Klein responds appropriately in Time: "We are at the end of a 30-year period of radical conservatism, a period so right-wing that many of those now considered 'liberals'--like, say, Barack Obama--would be seen as moderate pantywaists in the great sweep of modern political history. The past 30 years have been such a violent departure from the norm, such a profound destruction of the basic functions of government, that a major rectification is called for now--in rebalancing the system of taxation toward progressivity, in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, not just physically, but also socially and intellectually.

"So it's not surprising that the President would feel the need to move on all fronts, rather than prioritizing, as Brooks would want."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "There's a reason Obama's approval ratings remain so high. He senses that Americans yearn for greater fairness and accountability, especially after the excesses that threaten to wreck our economy and destroy so many dreams. He knows that American individualism is tempered by the need to feel community in the nation and the world.

"He also knows that windows of opportunity for fundamental change remain open just briefly before slamming shut. His declaration Saturday that 'I didn't come here to do the same thing we've been doing or to take small steps forward' may be the understatement of the year."

6. Run against the media. But also use it.

It's not just the political establishment Obama needs to worry about, it's also the media establishment. And it's not just that the media establishment aided and abetted the profound irresponsibility that Obama argues brought us to this "day of reckoning."

While individual members of the media might be quite taken with Obama, their smartest career move these days is to take a critical approach toward the White House to prove that they're not liberals. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, for instance, yesterday profiled Jake Tapper, the former Salon writer who is making a name for himself as ABC News White House correspondent.

How? By having "already clashed publicly with press secretary Robert Gibbs" and having "been outspoken in his view that many in the media have been too soft on Barack Obama." Kurtz writes: "'Certain networks, newspapers and magazines leaned on the scales a little bit,' [Tapper] says over a vanilla latte at Starbucks."

And the Washington press corps has an obsession with political minutiae -- who's up, who's down, who scored a point, who screwed up -- that inevitably distracts from the big issues that Obama is trying to focus on.

In a February 17 post, I wrote about Obama's interview with a group of opinion columnists, in which he said: "[W]hat I won't do is to engage in Washington tit-for-tat politics and spend a lot of time worrying about those games to the detriment of getting programs in place that are going to help people."

At the same time, if Obama makes himself much more accessible to the media, especially in long-form interviews, he can deliver his message and telegraph that he has nothing to hide.

And should the coverage turns out to be hostile or trivial, he can go directly to the people and use that coverage to help make his point that Washington and the media are out of touch with what's troubling the rest of the country.

7. Enlist the grassroots, especially on the Internet.

It looks like at some point Obama will have to call on the public to put pressure on Congress.

And, yes, as Jose Antonio Vargas writes in The Washington Post, Obama's much vaunted tech team "has been overwhelmed by challenges that staffers did not foresee and technological problems they have yet to solve." But those challenges can and must be overcome. And if Obama can interact with citizens directly online -- bypassing the media filter -- the results could be enormously effective.

Whether it's accepting comments on the White House Web site, answering online questions from voters, mobilizing his campaign e-mail list, or working with bloggers to launch pressure campaigns, Obama has opportunities to grow grass-roots movements like no president before him.

Got more ideas? Leave them in comments.

Bush's Secret Dictatorship

By Dan Froomkin
12:52 PM ET, 03/ 3/2009

The memo issued by the acting director of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel just five days before Barack Obama took office comes across almost as, among other things, a bit whiny.

Steven Bradbury wrote to officially retract a series of memos in which his former colleagues secretly rewrote the Constitution.

He acknowledged that their reasoning was at various points "unconvincing" and "not sustainable."

But Bradbury was also making excuses for them. They were afraid, he wrote: "The opinions addressed herein were issued in the wake of the atrocities of 9/11, when policymakers, fearing that additional catastrophic terrorist attacks were imminent, strived to employ all lawful means to protect the nation." They were rushed, confronting "novel and complex legal questions in a time of great danger and under extraordinary time pressure."

No excuse. Not even close.

The memo was one of nine previously undisclosed Office of Legal Counsel documents released by Obama's Justice Department yesterday, most of them making baldly spurious legal arguments to support any number of unprecedented tactics that were either contemplated or employed by the White House.

At about the same time the documents were being released, Attorney General Eric Holder was making a speech putting them in context: "Too often over the past decade, the fight against terrorism has been viewed as a zero-sum battle with our civil liberties," Holder said. "Not only is that school of thought misguided, I fear that in actuality it does more harm than good. I have often said that the test of a great nation is whether it will adhere to its core values not only when it is easy, but also when it is hard....

"There is no reason we cannot wage an effective fight against those who have sworn to harm us while we respect our most honored constitutional traditions. We can never put the welfare of the American people at risk but we can also never choose actions that we know will weaken the legal and moral fiber of our nation."

R. Jeffrey Smith and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "The number of major legal errors committed by Bush administration lawyers during the formulation of its early counterterrorism policies was far greater than previously known, according to internal Bush administration documents released for the first time by the Justice Department yesterday....

"In one of the newly disclosed opinions, Justice Department appointee John Yoo argued that constitutional provisions ensuring free speech and barring warrantless searches could be disregarded by the president in wartime, allowing troops to storm a building if they suspected terrorists might be inside. In another, the department asserted that detainees could be transferred to countries known to commit human rights abuses so long as U.S. officials did not intentionally seek their torture."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The opinions reflected a broad interpretation of presidential authority, asserting as well that the president could unilaterally abrogate foreign treaties, ignore any guidance from Congress in dealing with detainees suspected of terrorism, and conduct a program of domestic eavesdropping without warrants.

"Some of the positions had previously become known from statements of Bush administration officials in response to court challenges and Congressional inquiries. But taken together, the opinions disclosed Monday were the clearest illustration to date of the broad definition of presidential power approved by government lawyers in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks."

Josh Meyer and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times that one Bush administration lawyer told them the memos are "just the tip of the iceberg" in terms of what was authorized.

Law professor Jack Balkin blogs about "reasoning which sought, in secret, to justify a theory of Presidential dictatorship...

"This theory of presidential power argues, in essence, that when the President acts in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, he may make his own rules and cannot be bound by Congressional laws to the contrary. This is a theory of presidential dictatorship.

"These views are outrageous and inconsistent with basic principles of the Constitution as well as with two centuries of legal precedents. Yet they were the basic assumptions of key players in the Bush Administration in the days following 9/11."

Scott Horton blogs for Harper's: "We may not have realized it at the time, but in the period from late 2001-January 19, 2009, this country was a dictatorship. The constitutional rights we learned about in high school civics were suspended. That was thanks to secret memos crafted deep inside the Justice Department that effectively trashed the Constitution. What we know now is likely the least of it."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "Over the last eight years, we had a system in place where we pretended that our 'laws' were the things enacted out in the open by our Congress and that were set forth by the Constitution. The reality, though, was that our Government secretly vested itself with the power to ignore those public laws, to declare them invalid, and instead, create a whole regimen of secret laws that vested tyrannical, monarchical power in the President. Nobody knew what those secret laws were because even Congress, despite a few lame and meek requests, was denied access to them."

Greenwald also writes, with some vindication: "Yet those who have spent the last several years pointing out how unprecedentedly extremist and radical was our political leadership (and how meek and complicit were our other key institutions) were invariably dismissed as shrill hysterics."

Taking Bush's Words Seriously

By Dan Froomkin
12:48 PM ET, 03/ 3/2009

Former president George W. Bush insisted that his controversial plans for an anti-missile base in Poland and radar deployment in the Czech Republic weren't intended to protect Europe from Russia -- but from Iran.

Bush's real motives were more complex. He had long had an obsession with missile defense. Twenty five years after Ronald Reagan proposed what became known as the "Star Wars" program, Bush clearly wanted to make it a key part of his legacy. And his proposed Eastern European emplacements were an overt act of provocation against the Russians.

Now President Obama appears to be taking Bush's ostensible rationale to its logical conclusion.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama has sent a letter to his Russian counterpart that raises the prospect of the United States halting development of its missile defense program in Eastern Europe if Russia helps resolve the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, senior administration officials said last night....

"Russia has cooperated with Tehran on a range of issues and has often resisted Washington's tough stance toward Iran, which insists that its nuclear program is aimed at developing only cheap energy, not weapons....

"Administration officials said Russia has not responded to the letter on missile defense, details of which were first reported yesterday by the Russian newspaper Kommersant."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama’s letter, sent in response to one he received from Mr. Medvedev shortly after Mr. Obama’s inauguration, is part of an effort to 'press the reset button' on Russian-American relations, as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. put it last month, officials in Washington said. Among other things, the letter discussed talks to extend a strategic arms treaty expiring this year and cooperation in opening supply routes to Afghanistan."

What a Rush

By Dan Froomkin
12:09 PM ET, 03/ 3/2009

This is the kind of story that simply captivates the Washington media.

Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Obama White House has begun advancing an aggressive political strategy: persuading the country that real power behind the Republican Party is not the GOP leaders in Congress or at the Republican National Committee, but rather provocative radio talk show king Rush Limbaugh.

"President Obama himself, along with top aides and outside Democratic allies, have been pushing the message in unison...

"In an interview Monday, David Axelrod, senior advisor to Obama, pressed the argument that the real GOP boss is Limbaugh: 'I don't see most of these Republican office holders heeling for [The new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele] like they do for Limbaugh.'"

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "If White House officials were trying to elevate Rush Limbaugh to the leader of the opposition, they may have succeeded....

"Limbaugh, a master at drawing media attention, has filled a vacuum for the GOP since the election, and Emanuel's comments served only to further boost his prominence."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:54 AM ET, 03/ 3/2009

Robert Pear and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "In naming a new team to run health policy for his administration, President Obama has recruited a formidable array of talent, but has not clarified the lines of authority, leaving various appointees to jockey for primacy. Mr. Obama announced his intention on Monday to nominate Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to be secretary of health and human services. He also named Nancy-Ann DeParle to coordinate health policy for the administration. Her position, counselor to the president and director of the White House Office for Health Reform, is not subject to Senate confirmation."

From Obama's remarks: "Health care reform that reduces costs while expanding coverage is no longer just a dream we hope to achieve; it's a necessity we have to achieve...I realize that there are those who simply don't believe Washington can bring about this change, and the odds are long. It's failed too many times. There are too many special interests and entrenched lobbyists invested in the status quo. That's the conventional wisdom, and I understand those doubts. But I also know this. I didn't come to Washington to take the easy route or to work for the powerful and the well-connected interests who have run this city for too long. I came here to work for the American people. I came here to deliver the sweeping change that they demanded when they went to the polls in November."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who is President Obama's nominee to be the U.S. trade representative, failed to pay almost $10,000 in taxes during the past three years because of a series of mistakes, the Senate Finance Committee said yesterday."

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Even though President Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged to ban congressional earmarks, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has 16 such projects, worth about $8.5 million, in the bill the Senate is scheduled to begin debating Tuesday."

Juliet Eilperin writes for The Washington Post: "Today President Obama will restore rules requiring U.S. agencies consult with independent federal experts to determine if their actions might harm threatened and endangered species, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified, marking yet another reversal of President Bush's environmental legacy."

Kirk Johnson writes in the New York Times: "Former Vice President Dick Cheney will have to give his account — under oath, in a legal deposition — of what happened at a Colorado ski resort in June 2006 when a man stepped up to protest the Iraq war and was arrested, a federal district judge ruled Monday. The protester, Steven Howards, sued five Secret Service agents in Mr. Cheney’s security detail after the encounter at the Beaver Creek resort. Mr. Howards’s lawyers have argued that Mr. Cheney’s version of events is crucial to getting at the truth....Mr. Howards has admitted to approaching Mr. Cheney and saying the administration’s policies in Iraq were disgusting, or words to that effect. He walked away unhindered by Secret Service agents, but he was arrested by them about 10 minutes later for what they said was the 'assault' on the vice president.

Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column: "The U.S. economy is in free fall, the banking system is in a state of complete collapse and Americans all across the country are downsizing their standards of living. The nation as we’ve known it is fading before our very eyes, but we’re still pouring billions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with missions we are still unable to define."

Arianna Huffington calls former Bush senior advisor Karl Rove "the real intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party," and writes that having Rove on TV "to pontificate about the economy is like having Bernie Madoff on to offer advice about investing."

Unbreaking Government

By Dan Froomkin
9:25 AM ET, 03/ 3/2009

George Bush pretty much broke the federal government. He and former vice president Dick Cheney put people into key posts who didn't support the traditional missions of the agencies they led. Competence or experience weren't as important as loyalty to the White House, rigid ideological commitment to deregulation, aversion to oversight and allegiance to corporate and special interests over consumers and the general public.

And the outsourcing of federal jobs was taken to such an extreme that even Republicans now recognize it's gone too far. As I noted in a Feb. 24 item, after the breakout sessions at the White House's fiscal responsibility summit, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa got up to tell President 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."

Now it's Obama's job to fix what Bush broke. And part of that will entail a lot of hiring.

Philip Rucker writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama's budget is so ambitious, with vast new spending on health care, energy independence, education and services for veterans, that experts say he probably will need to hire tens of thousands of new federal government workers to realize his goals.

"The $3.6 trillion plan released last week proposes spending billions to begin initiatives and implement existing programs, and given Obama's insistence that he would scale back the use of private-sector contractors, his priorities could reverse a generational decline in the size of the government workforce....

"Obama inherited a federal workforce of about 2 million that [Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University,] described as woefully understaffed, especially to fulfill his bold domestic policy agenda. He predicted that Obama's budget and the $787 billion economic recovery package could require an additional 100,000 federal workers, but warned that the number may be even higher.

"'I think that's just a start,' Light said. 'You kind of look across the federal landscape and you say there has to be more bodies with more expertise, as well as more bodies that can just deliver the basic services we've already promised.'"

Republicans, not surprisingly, aren't pleased: "'What group of socialists got in the room and wrote this budget? Do they have any idea what the implications are?' asked Republican Newt Gingrich, who as House speaker in the 1990s advocated a shrinking of the government. 'This is the most aggressive 180-degree turn that we have seen in the American system.'"

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:21 AM ET, 03/ 3/2009

Pat Oliphant on Bush's legacy, Stuart Carlson on extra-strength Obama, Tony Auth on Obama's test, Chan Lowe on Obama's effrontery, Dan Wasserman and Ed Gamble on the GOP, Phil Hands on Obama's Iraqi asterisk, Clay Bennett on Rush Limbaugh, Peter Brookes on the special relationship, and Ted Rall on Obama as...Hitler?

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