washingtonpost.com
The Limbaugh Chatter Goes Meta

By Dan Froomkin
4:25 PM ET, 03/ 5/2009

Dan Froomkin is off on Friday. The blog will resume on Monday.

The continuing media chatter about right-wing talk show giant Rush Limbaugh's inordinate influence over Republican Party officials is, undoubtedly, a distraction. There are much more important things for us to be talking about.

But now the chatter has gotten meta -- about who is responsible for the chatter in the first place. Is it the Republicans whose slavish devotion has recently gotten so bald that it's truly hard to ignore? Is it the media -- especially the cable hosts and the mainstream reporters who follow their lead?

Or could it be -- the White House?

A not particularly persuasive story yesterday by Jonathan Martin in Politico set off this latest storm. Martin wrote that the depiction of Limbaugh "as the new face of the Republican Party" was the result of "a full-scale effort first hatched by some of the most familiar names in politics" and was "now being guided in part from inside the White House."

Time's Michael Scherer dutifully took the story and ran with it, extrapolating that Obama -- who during the campaign railed against distractions raised by opponent John McCain, and who of late has taken to condemning the shallowness of the "cable chatter" -- was now being as bad as those he criticized.

"At a time of unprecedented threats to the United States, a time of financial collapse, bank failures and record layoffs, at a time when the credit crisis has not been solved, and the stock market is in free fall, at a time of stagnating wars, rising terrorism in Pakistan and growing nuclear potential in Iran, the White House has done the easy thing," Scherer wrote. "It has asked the American people to focus their attention not on solving the problems, but on a big-mouthed entertainer in Florida. This may be smart politics. But it is also the same petty strategy that John McCain employed during the presidential campaign, the one that our new president promised to rise above."

Except it's just not true. Even if you credit the White House for considerably more involvement in the Limbaugh matter than has been proven, the overwhelming preponderance of its energy has been going into trying to engage the public on the most serious issues imaginable.

And even if the White House put out a little bait, it was the media that chose to take it. And not stop talking about it.

Greg Sargent at Whorunsgov.com goes back to the story in Politico and notices: "The piece explicitly says that groups outside the White House -- the DCCC, the Center for American Progress, and the labor-backed Americans United for Change -- were the first to push the strategy."

This morning, House minority leader John Boehner took up the cudgel on the Washington Post op-ed page, writing that "in a carefully calculated campaign, operatives and allies of the Obama administration are seeking to divert attention toward radio host Rush Limbaugh, and away from a debate about our alternative solutions on the economy and the irresponsible spending binge they are presiding over....

"Moments like this demand the kind of cooperation and new way of doing business that Obama has promised. Instead, those around him are taking to the airwaves and the pages of our nation's newspapers to carry out a campaign intended to change the subject and divert attention from what matters most: finding a way to work together to get our economy moving again."

But as Steve Benen blogs for Washington Monthly: "I don't think Boehner fully appreciates the point of 'diversionary tactics.' As the Minority Leader sees it, Democrats don't want to talk about their economic policies, so they're talking about Limbaugh.

"But here's the follow-up question: why would Democrats be reluctant to talk about their economic policies? Americans like the Democrats' economic policies."

Ben Armbruster of Thinkprogress watches the White House conspiracy theory taking root on Fox News.

And while David von Drehle writes for Time that it was a monumental act of hubris for Gibbs to equate Limbaugh's "I hope Obama fails" with "wishing and hoping for economic failure in this country," I think the distinction is not that great at this point.

Obama's fortune is inextricably linked with the nation's economy. As Obama acknowledged -- with surprising candor -- to an audience in Fort Myers, Fla., early last month: "If it turns out that a few years from now people don't feel like the economy's turned around, that we're still having problems, that folks are still unemployed, that our health care system's not more efficient, then, you know...I mean, I expect to be judged by results. And -- and there's no -- you know, I'm not going to make any excuses. If stuff hasn't worked and people don't feel like I've led the country in the right direction, then you'll have a new president."

Obama Won't Take No for an Answer

By Dan Froomkin
1:35 PM ET, 03/ 5/2009

When it comes to reforming the health care system, President Obama told a gathering of 150 experts in the field today that he's willing to listen to any idea but one. "The status quo is the one option that is not on the table," he said. "And those who seek to block any reform at any cost will not prevail this time around....

"[T]oday, there are those who say we should defer health care reform once again – that at a time of economic crisis, we simply cannot afford to fix our health care system as well.

"Well, let's be clear: the same soaring costs that are straining our families' budgets are sinking our businesses and eating up our government's budget too. Too many small businesses can't insure their employees. Major American corporations are struggling to compete with their foreign counterparts. And companies of all sizes are shipping their jobs overseas or shutting their doors for good....

"[H]ealth care reform is no longer just a moral imperative, it is a fiscal imperative. If we want to create jobs and rebuild our economy, then we must address the crushing cost of health care this year, in this Administration. Making investments in reform now, investments that will dramatically lower costs, won't add to our budget deficits in the long-term – rather, it is one of the best ways to reduce them."

As for all the obstacles that have blocked reform in the past, Obama said: "I believe that this time is different. This time, the call for reform is coming from the bottom up, from all across the spectrum – from doctors, nurses and patients; unions and businesses; hospitals, health care providers and community groups. It's coming from mayors, governors and legislatures – Democrats and Republicans – who are racing ahead of Washington to pass bold health care initiatives on their own. This time, there is no debate about whether all Americans should have quality, affordable health care – the only question is, how?"

Obama spoke before participants in the summit broke out into several discussion groups -- much like at the fiscal responsibility summit Obama held last week.

Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama hosts a forum on healthcare reform today that is intended to open the door to all the groups -- like insurers -- who say they were left out in the cold 15 years ago when then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton met in private with a few wonks to craft a bill she then tried to sell as a fait accompli to Congress....

"[U]nlike the mind-numbing details in what was dubbed the Hillarycare proposal, Obama plans to articulate broad principles and leave the details to Congress...

"Today's White House summit will include 150 people -- far more than the small circle convened in private by President Clinton 15 years ago. Even Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, a key Senate voice on healthcare issues for decades who is now battling brain cancer, plans to attend."

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes for the Associated Press: "Among the invitees are some who helped kill the Clinton administration's health care overhaul in the 1990s. Everyone is supposed to be on his best behavior, but will that last?"

Dan Eggen and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post that Obama's plan "to dramatically expand the health-care system has attracted surprising notes of support from insurers, hospitals and other players in the powerful medical lobby who are set to participate in an unusual White House summit on the issue this afternoon. The lure for the industry is the prospect of tens of millions of new customers: If Obama succeeds in fulfilling his pledge to cover many more Americans, those newly insured people will get checkups, purchase medicine, undergo physical therapy and get surgeries they cannot afford today....

"The unstated intention of Obama's approach is to dole out the pain in small, easier-to-swallow bites to minimize opposition, White House aides say. Under the president's plan, hospitals, doctors, drugmakers, insurance companies and wealthy seniors -- all of whom will be represented at today's summit -- would sacrifice. But if the system was calibrated properly, no one would lose too much.

"Not everyone is happy, of course, and lobbyists and health-care experts warn that major obstacles lie ahead. The seniors lobby AARP, for example, opposes Obama's recommendation to raise Medicare prescription premiums on wealthy retirees. Major insurers also dislike his proposed overhaul of the Medicare Advantage program, which markets managed-care plans to seniors, while home-care providers object to cuts to their Medicare reimbursements....

"Drew Altman, head of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the debate 'will get a lot tougher' in the months ahead. 'We're still more in the happy-talk stage of health reform,' he said, adding: 'In Washington, there is a machine set up to fight every fight. No battle goes unfought.'"

David Alexander writes for Reuters: "Battle lines already are being drawn, with some Republicans opposing any move to let the government act as an insurer of last resort in competition with private insurers.

"'If the government is one of the competitors, eventually there are no competitors left,' Representative Roy Blunt, who is leading Republican healthcare efforts, said this week."

As with his stimulus package, Obama is planning to set broad goals, but leave the details to Congress. Is that wise? Or should he tell Congress exactly what to do? Discuss that in my White House Watchers group.

Is Rove Wriggling Away Again?

By Dan Froomkin
1:33 PM ET, 03/ 5/2009

Yesterday's announcement that former Bush White House aides Karl Rove and Harriet E. Miers will answer questions from congressional investigators about the U.S. attorney scandal puts an end to the absurd proposition advanced by the previous administration that senior advisers to the president have blanket immunity from any congressional oversight whatsoever, and if subpoenaed don't even need to show up.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that the interviews will be held behind closed doors -- and the transcripts will only be released on a delayed basis. That's bad in part because the public now won't see Rove and Miers sweating under the hot lights. But the more significant problem is that journalists, bloggers and the greater public won't be able to immediately pore over their responses in detail.

Rove, in particular, is the reigning champion when it comes to giving the superficial impression of answering a question while in fact dodging, weaving and spinning to the point of misdirection. If a transcript is not immediately available, the public will have to rely on second-hand accounts that could be profoundly misleading.

As I wrote back in May 2008, what Rove fears most is being forced to answer a direct question in public, especially under oath. And I wrote about the importance of a transcript back in March 2007, when this particular episode began -- and when the Bush White House offered Rove up as long as there was no transcript at all.

According to the agreement brokered by the Obama White House, no transcripts will be made public until "after the completion of the last interview and after counsel has had a reasonable opportunity to review them for accuracy. No document or part of any document and no description or partial description of any document shall be disclosed to any other person until after the completion of the last interview."

Wayne Slater, who covered Rove back when he was a political operative in Texas, blogs for the Dallas Morning News: "Rove appears on camera almost every day on FoxNews. So why not Congress...

"Truth is, Rove has a history as a fiesty, effective interviewee. Some years ago in Texas, when he was working for the tobacco industry, he underwent a memorable deposition by trial lawyers -- and gave as good as he got, firing back, denouncing his inquisitors. And he has proved he can answer questions without answering them. Rove aggressively denied every charge leveled by a Texas Senate Committee asking about political dirty tricks -- even though there was evidence against him. And when Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted (later acquitted) on charges of politicizing her office in 1993, Rove rode to the rescue with testimony that was effective, if not exactly true." (Update: Reader Brad Thomson writes in with a link to the tobacco deposition.)

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "Attorneys for former president George W. Bush, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Obama administration reached agreement yesterday to resolve a long-running dispute over the scope of executive power, a move that will allow lawmakers to question Bush aides Karl Rove and Harriet E. Miers about their roles in the firing of nine federal prosecutors in 2006.

"The pact follows weeks of negotiations led by White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig, who wanted to avert a federal court showdown that could have restricted the authority of the president in future disputes with other branches of government.

"Under the terms of the deal, former presidential adviser Rove and former White House lawyer Miers will testify before the House Judiciary Committee in transcribed interviews, under penalty of perjury, but without cameras, reporters or members of the public in attendance. The transcripts eventually will be published, the agreement said.

"The settlement gives the Judiciary Committee access to long-sought internal documents prepared by the Bush White House and the Justice Department from December 2004 through March 2007 about the politically explosive firing of the nine prosecutors. Lawmakers also reserved the right to ask the onetime Bush aides to testify in public and made clear that Congress could revive its lawsuit in a federal court in the District if former administration officials stray from the agreement....

"Lawmakers will not ask Rove or Miers about privileged conversations they had with members of the Bush White House legal team, and they will not be able to see 'four pages of particularly sensitive privileged material' to be described by a Bush representative, the agreement said."

Bill Sammon writes for Fox News: "Although he says it could turn into a 'show trial,' Karl Rove tells FOX News he is looking forward to telling the House Judiciary Committee about his alleged role in the firing of federal prosecutors and the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman...

"'Some Democrats would love to have me barbecued.'"

Handling the Truth

By Dan Froomkin
1:10 PM ET, 03/ 5/2009

When it comes to exploring and exposing the depths of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies, congressional Democrats can't seem to agree on the best approach. Should there be congressional investigations? Criminal investigations? Perhaps a bipartisan "truth commission"? Meanwhile, nobody at the White House seems much interested in any of those options.

And at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, several Republicans made the argument: criminal charges or bust.

Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont called the hearing to discuss his proposal for a truth commission. John Cushman writes for the New York Times that "Leahy has not yet fashioned an explicit proposal for what he calls his middle way, something between aggressive criminal prosecution of anyone who might have overstepped legal limits, or not exploring the past at all. The hearing was an effort to build momentum for his idea, by hearing from distinguished supporters including former diplomats, law enforcement officials and military officers. But it was not a one-sided show, including harsh critics of the idea as well."

Daphne Eviatar writes in the Washington Independent that "what was most surprising was that the Senate Republicans and their witnesses, in the process of ripping apart the idea, made the strongest case I've heard yet for why the Department of Justice should prosecute former senior officials of the Bush administration.

"Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking committee Republican...referred to the recent disclosures of Office of Legal Counsel memos as potentially supporting the case for prosecutions.

"'You've had some rather startling disclosures, with the publicity in recent days about unusual -- to put it mildly -- legal opinions' to justify broad executive actions, including homicide. 'They're all being exposed now,' he said, and noted that a forthcoming report from the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Justice Department will likely expose even more. They're 'starting to tread on what may disclose criminal conduct,' he said.

"Rather than going off 'helter-skelter' and conducting a 'fishing expedition,' said Specter, 'it seems to me that we ought to follow a regular order here....If there's reason to believe that these justice department officials have given approval for things that they know not to be lawful and sound, go after them.'"

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "The negative comments by Specter were especially significant because, as a moderate, the Pennsylvania senator's backing is often seen as key to winning bipartisan support for controversial proposals. As if to underscore those hurdles, a senior Obama administration official told Newsweek that, even in the wake of the new revelations, there was still little enthusiasm within the administration for the idea. 'It's a distraction,' said the official, who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive political matters. 'At a time when we are trying to get heath-care, energy and other proposals through -- and you need bipartisan support -- looking backward only generates more partisan opposition and noise.'"

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who does not attend events with the intention of saying nice things, writes: "Chief Pursuer of Truth Patrick Leahy cut a lonely figure yesterday as he tried to persuade the Senate Judiciary Committee to endorse his plan for such a commission to probe the Bush administration's treatment of suspected terrorists.

"About half of the audience seats in the committee room were full. The press tables: mostly empty. Even the dozen demonstrators in orange jumpsuits got bored with the proceedings and left before the hearing ended. Of the 19 members of the committee, only three, including Leahy, the chairman, bothered to question the witnesses....

"The sparse attendance and the jocular opposition were solid signs that the Truth Commission was foundering on the shoals of indifference."

Here are some highlights from the hearing:

Leahy: "[N]othing did more to damage America's place in the world than the revelation that our great nation stretched the law and the bounds of executive power to authorize torture and cruel treatment. Now, when the last administration chose this course, it tried to keep its policies and actions secret. I think they did that because they knew they couldn't stand the scrutiny of an open public airing.

"How many times did President Bush go before the world to say that we did not torture and that we acted in accordance with law? Now, there are some who resist any effort to look back at all, others are fixated only on prosecution, even if it takes all of the next eight years or more and divides this country.

"Over the last month, I've suggested a middle ground to get to the truth of what went on during the last several years and in a way that invites cooperation. I believe that might best be accomplished through a nonpartisan commission of inquiry. I'd like to see this done in a manner that removes it from partisan politics. Such a commission of inquiry would shed light on what mistakes were made so we can learn from these errors and not repeat them, whether in this administration or the next administration."

Specter: "When this idea of a so-called truth commission first surfaced, I said it was unnecessary because you had a change in administration. You could look in the front door, ask for directions to the relevant filing cabinet, go in and open the drawer and find out anything you wanted to know. Well, that's been done. And it's being done to a greater extent....

"I would not mind looking backward if there's a reason to do so. If there's a predicate, if we have evidence of torture, torture is a violation of our law. Go after it. If there's reason to believe that these Justice Department officials have knowingly given the presidents cover for things they know not to be right and sound, go after them."

Democratic Senator Russell Feingold: "A crucial part of restoring the rule of law, in addition, is a detailed accounting of exactly what happened in the last eight years and how the outgoing administration came to reject or ignore so many of the principles on which this nation was founded....

"At the same time, there should not be a focus on retribution or pay-back, and such an effort should not be used for partisan purposes. That is why your proposal, Mr. Chairman, is so important. Your proposal is aimed at finding the truth, not settling scores."

Republican Senator John Cormyn: "The suggestion that this subject can be delved into somehow in a nonpartisan fashion to me asks us to suspend our power of disbelief...

"And to me, the idea that this so-called truth commission would somehow resolve the good faith disagreements that I think many of us have had and have divided the country over this subject is, I think, just asking us to believe in the tooth fairy -- that somehow this is going to settle the score."

Democratic witness Thomas Pickering, a former senior state department official: "It's not enough to say that America is discontinuing the policies and practices of the recent past. We must, as a country, take stock of where we have been and determine what was and is not acceptable, what should not have been done, and what we will never do again....

"Only great countries, Mr. Chairman, confident in themselves, are prepared to look at their most serious mistakes, to learn from them and to lead on forward. The United States has been and still is today, I believe, that kind of country."

Democratic witness Lee Gunn, a retired vice admiral: "We're not done, and that's why I think that we need a serious inquiry into the way we've behaved for the last seven years and the kind of orders we've given and decisions we've made. The enemy is still the enemy. The stress on our people, in uniform and out, who are charged with dealing with this enemy will continue. The pressure on our country and her leaders will remain. And we need to understand the circumstances under which choices were made by leaders in the past in order that we can anticipate those same circumstances or others in the future and avoid making what we consider to be mistakes."

Democratic witness John Farmer, a lawyer who served on the 9-11 Commission: "[T]here are some issues that touch so directly upon our identity as a people, that touch so directly upon the values that we profess, that no amount of internal bureaucratic review will suffice to allay public concern about the way its government has been conducting itself.

"In the absence of public fact-finding, people will be left to believe the worst, and the lack of public trust will ultimately undermine any effort to move forward. I have come to believe that our government's handling of detentions since 9/11 is such an issue."

Republican witness David B. Rivkin Jr., who served in the first Bush administration: "[A] commission of whatever variety to investigate the Bush administration activities and its officials is a profoundly bad idea, a dangerous idea, both for policy but even more importantly for me as a lawyer for legal and constitutional reasons....

"Far from seeking to establish a body to make recommendations in policy, as was the case, for example, with 9/11 commission, most commission supporters clearly want to establish a body that would engage in what would, in essence, be a criminal investigation of former Bush administration."

Republican witness and George Mason University Law Professor Jeremy Rabkin: "A lot of people are so revved up with indignation. Just go on the Internet. We can find this in published columns. People say, 'The Bush administration was guilty of war crimes. They are in the same category as notorious war criminals of foreign countries'. Now I think that is just wildly exaggerated and really inappropriate, but a lot of people feel that way. If you say we're going to have a truth commission, people immediately think, 'Oh, yes, that's what is done with war criminals when you can't prosecute them'....

"If you say truth commission people immediately think about these famous -- the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in Chile.

"We are not in, remotely, that situation, and those countries that had to have these commissions because they couldn't have prosecutions, and they couldn't have prosecutions because the countries were so deeply divided and they had made promises in order to secure a peaceful transition. Peace was really in doubt in those countries. So they had to back off of prosecution and say, 'Well, we'll have a truth commission instead'. We're not in that situation. If people think that there should be prosecutions, well then there can be prosecutions."

Zachary Roth of TPM Muckraker has video of this exchange:

Rivkin: "I fundamentally disagree with the narrative that has been portrayed here of the Bush administration's alleged misdeeds. Yes, mistakes were made. Yes, some bad things happened. But compared with the historical base line of past wars, the conduct of the United States in the last eight years... has been exemplary, measured by any objective indicia of misdeeds -- abuse of detainees per thousand captured, excessive use of force per thousand troops in the field. So I don't see that at all."

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's response: "I would suggest, Mr. Rivkin, that until you know, and we all know what was actually done under the Bush administration, you not be so quick to throw other generations of Americans under the bus and assume that they did worse."

Meanwhile, Rosa Brooks writes in the Los Angeles Times opinion column about the Office of Legal Counsel memos released on Monday: "How did such dangerously bad legal memos ever get taken seriously in the first place?

"One answer is suggested by the so-called Big Lie theory of political propaganda, articulated most infamously by Adolf Hitler....

"Big lies prevail because we can't bring ourselves to believe that our leaders could be so dishonest or deluded. And big lies can do terrible damage, of course. The Bush administration's big legal lies paved the way for some of the most shameful episodes in our history, including the official authorization of torture."

Even after the big lies collapse, she writes, they "leave little lies in their wake, changing the political discourse in enduring, difficult-to-detect ways.

"And that's the challenge we now face: tracing the barely visible effects of the Bush administration's now-repudiated big lies -- through our legal system, our constitutional system, our foreign policy -- and undoing all the damage."

The President, His Men, and His Women

By Dan Froomkin
12:40 PM ET, 03/ 5/2009

Elizabeth Drew looks back on Obama's first 30 days in the New York Review of Books and offers these observations on Obama's management style: "Seeking to avoid the mistakes of the early Clinton era, Obama concluded that, unlike Clinton, he didn't want to hold the numerous meetings that can chew up so much of the president's time. Instead, according to his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, Obama's style is to drop by an aide's office -- a restless man, he roams the White House corridors -- or stop an aide in a hallway and ask, 'How are you coming on that thing we were talking about?' Gibbs says, 'The worst thing is not have an answer.' Asked what happens then, Gibbs replied, 'He gets that disappointed parent look, and then you better go find an answer.'

"Obama's publicly announced schedules have large gaps; he makes it a point to set aside time to step back and think -- sometimes going for a long, solitary walk around the White House grounds -- or make calls, or read. A night owl, he usually takes work home, to be studied after he's tucked his daughters into bed. Aides say he turns around paperwork fairly quickly, responding to and signing off on their memoranda....

"Of Obama's approach to governing, Gibbs says, 'He's not by any stretch a micromanager.' According to another close observer, 'The boys are running the White House' -- by which he meant chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, chief campaign strategist and now senior adviser David Axelrod, and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who was also chief of staff of the campaign. Gibbs is often called in for advice, because he's smart and he knows Obama's mind well. This cast of characters -- Axelrod has the prized if unglamorous office adjoining the President's study -- gives a strong political tone to the Obama White House."

Over at CNN, Jessica Yellin and Kevin Bohn profile Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who is in charge of today's health summit.

"Barnes is one of a handful of power players in a White House whose key advisers are predominantly male. But she says there isn't a struggle to be heard in the White House.

"Barnes said Obama's selection of people for his inner circle like longtime friend Valerie Jarrett sends a signal.

"'He respects her. He respects the other women that he's brought around. So he sends the signal to everyone that we all have to sit at this table, we put ideas on the table, we debate them, people have hard-charging debates, but at the same time, we respect one another. And when we walk out of the room, we are a team.'"

Front Page News

By Dan Froomkin
12:35 PM ET, 03/ 5/2009

Who says the media isn't focusing on the important stuff?

Helene Cooper writes on the front page of today's New York Times: "Well, that didn’t take long. Just 44 days into the job, and President Obama is going gray....

"'I started noticing it toward the end of the campaign and leading up to inauguration,' says Deborah Willis, who, as co-author of 'Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs,' pored through 5,000 photographs of the first head over the last year.

"Mr. Obama’s graying is still of the flecked variety, and appears to wax and wane depending on when he gets his hair cut, which he does about every two weeks....

"For a guy who prides himself on projecting a stress-free demeanor, the changes above his temples are speckled evidence that perhaps the psychological and physical strains of the job — never mind the long process of winning it — are in fact taking something of a toll."

And it's not just the Times. The Washington Post has a similar story on its Style section front today. Philip Rucker writes: "Are times so stressful -- a plummeting economy and two wars -- that our young president is going grayer a mere six weeks into the job?

"Maybe 754 days is more like it. That's how long it's been, if you can believe it, since a baby-faced senator stood in the winter chill in Springfield, Ill., to declare his candidacy for president. With each debate, after every primary fight, it seems Barack Obama's tightly clipped hair became just a dash saltier."

In case you're wondering: "Obama's gray hairs are most prominent around his temples and atop his head, visible more clearly just before his regular trims."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 03/ 5/2009

Here's ABC's Charlie Gibson talking last night about all the earmarks in the $410 billion spending bill currently before Congress. "You may ask, didn't the presidential candidates last fall agree to get rid of earmarks?" But correspondent Jonathan Karl doesn't actually answer the question -- perhaps because the answer is no. John McCain promised to veto any earmarks. Obama promised to curb them and make them more transparent.

John D. McKinnon and Martin Vaughan write in the Wall Street Journal: "President Barack Obama is meeting strong Democratic Party resistance to his proposal to reduce tax deductions enjoyed by upper-income Americans and could be forced to drop or modify the idea....The resistance from Mr. Obama's own party -- focusing on a single element of the president's tax plans -- could foreshadow broader troubles for the rest of his proposed tax increases."

Scott Wilson and Robert O'Harrow Jr. write in The Washington Post that the government-wide review of federal contracting procedures Obama ordered yesterday "served as a philosophical break with the Bush administration, which vastly expanded the role of contractors in running the government and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president said, 'We will stop outsourcing services that should be performed by the government,' noting that annual spending on contracts had doubled to more than $500 billion over the past eight years."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The Obama administration on Wednesday began the most ambitious effort since the 1930s to help troubled homeowners, offering lenders and borrowers big incentives and subsidies to try to stem the wave of foreclosures....Administration officials estimate that the plan will help as many as four million people avoid foreclosure, at a cost to taxpayers of about $75 billion. In addition, the Treasury Department said it intended to follow up with a plan to help troubled borrowers with second mortgages, which many homebuyers used as 'piggyback' loans to buy houses with no money down."


John D. Geanakoplos and Susan P. Koniak write in a New York Times op-ed: "The plan announced by the White House will not stop foreclosures because it concentrates on reducing interest payments, not reducing principal for those who owe more than their homes are worth. The plan wastes taxpayer money and won’t fix the problem....For subprime and other non-prime loans, which account for more than half of all foreclosures, the best thing to do for the homeowners and for the bondholders is to write down principal far enough so that each homeowner will have equity in his house and thus an incentive to pay and not default again down the line. This is also best for taxpayers, who now effectively guarantee the securities linked to these mortgages because of the various deals we’ve made to support the banks."

Glenn Kessler writes for The Washington Post: "The Obama administration is pushing to convene a high-level meeting on Afghanistan this month that could for first time bring together Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Iranian counterpart.

Tom Hamburger and Christi Parsons write in the Los Angeles Times: "As President Obama names more policy czars to his White House team -- high-level staff members who will help oversee the administration's top initiatives -- some lawmakers and Washington interest groups are raising concerns that he may be subverting the authority of Congress and concentrating too much power in the presidency."

Joseph Williams writes in the Boston Globe: "President Obama has quietly adopted some of his predecessor's expansive views of the power as commander in chief - especially concerning antiterrorism policies....Some top Democrats, Obama allies, and civil libertarians say they are closely watching how the new president uses his power, and intend to challenge him if he does not voluntarily roll it back to pre-Bush limits."

Sunlen Miller reports for ABC News: "Declaring it a 'timeout' before they 'dive back into the game' President Obama hosted a bipartisan group of congressional leaders to the White House for dinner last night....The administration has followed a pattern recently, opening up the White House on Wednesday nights for social events – a Stevie Wonder concert last Wednesday, and cocktail parties with various groups in weeks past."

Peter Baker writes for the New York Times: "Presidents have been using teleprompters for more than half a century, but none relied on them as extensively as Mr. Obama has so far. While presidents typically have used them for their most important speeches to the nation — an inauguration, a State of the Union or an Oval Office address — Mr. Obama uses them for everyday routine announcements, and even for the opening statement at his news conference...Mr. Obama prefers the message to be just so. After all, he is a bestselling author who has had a hand in writing many of his major speeches, so his aides say he feels a certain fidelity to the crafted text."

Blogging for the Telegraph, Tim Shipman writes that Obama is "running scared" of the British press. The White House, for some reason, decided not to hold the traditional joint press conference when the British prime minister came to visit. "There were several spiky and revealing moments between President Bush and the BBC political editor Nick Robinson," Shipman notes, absolutely correctly. "It is bizarre that Mr Obama is less willing to answer questions than Mr Bush. It reflects very poorly on his tendency towards control freakery, which has been in evidence since his campaign."

Stacy St. Clair writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Malia and Sasha Obama don't have that puppy yet, but their parents found another way to keep them entertained at the White House: a killer swing set."

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
10:25 AM ET, 03/ 5/2009

Jon Stewart (below) explains: "Recent opinion polls indicate that six weeks into Barack Obama's administration, the American public thinks they approve of his performance. But it turns out they're wrong."

In fact, based on cable TV coverage, Stewart concludes: "Opinion polls don't matter. The stock market is the only rational, objective indicator of a commander-in-chief's performance."


Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
10:20 AM ET, 03/ 5/2009

Tony Auth on the charge of socialism, Dwane Powell, Robert Ariail, Daryl Cagle and Adam Zyglis on Obama's economic strategies, Nate Beeler on if Obama twittered, Jimmy Margulies on earmarks, Tom Toles, Ann Telnaes, Steve Sack, Stuart Carlson and Chan Lowe on Rush Limbaugh and the GOP, and Steve Kelley on Rush Limbaugh and Obama's inner circle.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company