Obama Mocks GOP Critics

By Dan Froomkin
1:52 PM ET, 03/12/2009

Obama greets attendees at a meeting of state officials at the White House today. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

President Obama yesterday challenged his Republican critics to do more than just say no.

"Opposition is always easy. Saying no to something is easy. Saying yes to something and figuring out how to solve problems and governing, that's hard," he said in a roundtable interview with regional newspaper reporters.

"On this budget debate, for example, if you've got people who on the one hand say, 'We want to bring down the long-term deficit, but we don't want to cut certain programs that are important -- oh, and by the way we don't want to raise taxes' -- well, sounds good, you know, and I'd like to make sure that the Chicago Bulls win the championship every year and the White Sox win the Series. But you know, show me how you're going to do it."

And disputing the growing chatter in Washington that he is trying to do too much at once -- and should concentrate solely on short-term measures to turn the economy around -- Obama said his ambitious goals in such areas as health care and energy policy are essential to laying the foundations for long-term growth.

"I think that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures," he said. "Yes, they require some uncomfortable votes. If it was easy, I'm assuming it would have been done 20 years ago or 30 years ago. It's not easy, but it's the right thing to do.....

"The days of growing the economy through an overheated housing market or through people running up exorbitant credit cards bills are over," he said. "We've got to put our growth model on a different footing....

"There are no shortcuts to long-term economic growth, and we can't just keep on doing the same things we were doing before and somehow expect that all of our problems will be solved....

Obama seems well aware that even if the pundit class is quickly growing disillusioned with him, the public is taking a longer view.

"We've been in office all of seven weeks so far. This is a crisis that was eight years in the making, maybe longer in certain aspects of it," he said. "And the buck stops with me and we're responsible, but it's going to take some time, and the truth of the matter is the American people, I think, understand that it's going to take some time," he said.

"If you look at the public polling, they recognize that it's going to take awhile to dig ourselves out of the hole."

Obama did acknowledge concerns about his still-fuzzy plans to rescue the nation's financial markets. "I think the one area where there's still significant uncertainty has to do with the bank issue, and that's obviously a particular concern to Wall Street," he said. "The challenge for us there is ... we're in the process of conducting the stress tests for the banks, to get a better sense of where their capital positions are and how strong they are. And what we don't want to do is prejudge those tests or make a lot of statements that cause a lot of nervousness around banks that are already having difficulty."

It was Obama's second meeting in two months with reporters from regional newspapers, and Obama made no secret of his pleasure in talking to people who didn't necessarily share the obsessions of the national press corps.

"This is my monthly occasion to break out of the Washington bubble," he said. "I enjoy the keen insights of people outside of Washington."

And he spent much of the hour-long session answering smaller-bore questions than he normally faces, about such issues as ethanol, the Mexican border, the Voting Rights Act and the future of NASA.

I haven't been able to track down a complete transcript of the roundtable. (I'll add a link when and if I do.) (UPDATE: Here it is.) The quotes above instead come from a slew of excellent stories written by the reporters who attended.

Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel write: "Addressing his handling of the financial crisis, President Barack Obama said Wednesday that 'the buck stops with me, and we're responsible' but challenged Republican critics to do more than say no....

"'I think what will be interesting is the degree to which my Republican colleagues start putting forward an affirmative agenda that's not based on ideology but on the very real struggles and pain that people are feeling right now around the country and how do we get this economy back on its feet.' [Obama said.]

"Asked whether he thought he had done a good enough job communicating his approach to fixing the financial mess, Obama said, 'I think that we can always do a better job.'

"'Keep in mind it's only been two weeks since I gave a joint session speech to Congress, the day after which everybody said, 'Boy, that was really clear.'...The reviews were pretty good....

"Obama said the main message that he would deliver in the coming days and weeks is 'that it's going to take some time to get out of this deep hole we're in, but we're going to get out.'"

Kevin Diaz writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "Speaking slowly and deliberately, like the college professor he was, Obama made clear that his administration is in its infancy and that he still has the public on his side....

"For early signs of hope, Obama pointed to his new housing plan to provide relief to homeowners facing foreclosure. 'You're already starting to see an uptick in refinancings that are providing families with relief,' he said. 'And in certain pockets of the country, you're starting to see housing prices stabilize after a long drop.'"

Michael Riley writes in the Denver Post: "Obama spoke to the reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, in a week that saw the emergence of a growing backlash by some moderate Democrats against a White House agenda that contemplates comprehensive health care reform, a major push toward renewable energy and an overhaul of tax policy — all while dealing with the biggest economic crisis in a generation.

"As doubts grow among a core of centrist Democrats in the Senate, Obama signaled he has no intention of backing off. He framed his administration's priorities — specifically the coming fight over the White House's 2010 budget proposal — as an urgent matter of solving problems that have been too-long delayed.

"'Whether we're talking about Republicans or my fellow Democrats, my argument is going to be that these are the right priorities for America, these are the right priorities for long-term economic growth,' Obama said."

James O'Toole writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Obama "said he expected battles in Congress over his budget proposals, but rebutted GOP assertions that the ambitious initiative represented a drastic lurch to the left.

"'For them to suggest that this was some radical assault on the rich makes no sense whatsoever,' he said, noting that a significant portion of the budget's tax increases -- rescinding former President George W. Bush's tax cuts for more affluent taxpayers -- had already been anticipated in Bush administration budgets despite Republican arguments, then and now, that they should be made permanent."

Philip Brasher writes in the Des Moines Register that Obama "says he wants to preserve the nation's ethanol industry while developing new versions of biofuels made from feedstocks other than corn."

Todd J. Gillman writes for the Dallas Morning News: "Mexico's drug war and the risks of cross-border violence deserve top-level attention, President Barack Obama said in an interview today, but it isn't time to send U.S. troops.

"'We've got a very big border with Mexico,' the president said. 'I'm not interested in militarizing the border.'...

"'We're going to examine whether and if National Guard deployments would make sense and under what circumstances they would make sense....I don't have a particular tipping point in mind. I think it's unacceptable if you've got drug gangs crossing our borders and killing U.S. citizens.'"

Mark K. Matthews writes in the Orlando Sentinel: "President Barack Obama said Wednesday that NASA is an agency afflicted by 'a sense of drift' and that it needs 'a new mission that is appropriate for the 21st century.'"

Bruce Alpert writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "President Barack Obama says he has not decided whether to restore the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a stand-alone department but promises that his administration is committed to robust Gulf Coast recovery efforts regardless of the agency's status.

"'We're going to be focused on New Orleans' reconstruction, and we're going to be paying a lot of attention to the systems that are in place to protect from hurricanes in the future,' Obama said during a White House interview Wednesday with The Times-Picayune and other regional newspapers."

Mary Orndorff writes in the Birmingham (Ala.) News: "The part of the 44-year-old Voting Rights Act that requires states such as Alabama to get federal permission before making election-related changes is still a necessary protection for minority voters, President Barack Obama said Wednesday.

"Obama, rebutting a sentiment in some Southern states that they no longer need Justice Department supervision, said the scrutiny remains important in places where blacks and whites and Hispanics are especially polarized in their voting patterns. The threat to minorities may no longer be as overtly discriminatory as refusing to register blacks to vote, he said, but may be that they won't have a real chance to elect their candidate of choice.

"'There are probably some parts of the South that ... if you looked at the data, are no longer that polarized. There are other parts that are probably still very polarized,' Obama said."

Neil H. Simon writes for Media General News Service: "President Barack Obama tried Wednesday to quell local community concerns about a potential move of suspected terrorist detainees from Guantanamo Bay to domestic prisons."

David Goldstein writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "'We would never put people into a situation that elevated the risks for surrounding communities,' the president said,...

"Obama said federal prisons already hold prisoners with terrorist backgrounds.

"'They are a serious risk,' but securing them is not much different than securing other violent offenders, he said."

Inside the Beltway, the Honeymoon is History

By Dan Froomkin
12:37 PM ET, 03/12/2009

Well, it's official.

David von Drehle and Michael Scherer write for Time: "Barack Obama's honeymoon in the corridors of power has come to an abrupt end — even as opinion polls show that the public remains by his side. To most grownups, seven weeks is an eyeblink (in baseball it's called spring training), but along the Acela line it is much ... too ... long to wait for Obama to fix the economy. And so the doomsday chorus began: He's trying to do too much. He's doing too little. His bank bailout is too complicated. His health-care plan is hollow. The great orator can't communicate his priorities. His priorities are clear — but screwed up....

"The political strategy of the Administration can be summed up in a motto: 'Never waste a good crisis,' as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it. That phrase has been the rallying cry of the Obama team for months. But it increasingly appears that the Administration was unprepared for both the severity of the recession and the political resistance to trying to do so much at once. And so the Obama team is coming to grips with another motto for the ages: Sometimes a crisis is an opportunity — but sometimes it's just a crisis...

"Inside the Administration, Obama's audacious budget sketch is seen as an intricate web of reinforcing reforms, an exquisite piece of re-engineering in which stimulus creates jobs, jobs generate revenues, revenues fund an efficient health-care system, which in turn tames the deficit. What critics consider a massive intervention to impose a price on carbon emissions is, to the White House, the engine for the growth of a robust new green economy. Meanwhile, students will begin graduating from improved schools and moving seamlessly into this prosperous future. Shortcomings may lie in the details, but the economy won't really be fixed until the entire web is assembled....

"The reason so many people were left slack-jawed by the Obama budget was not that they disagreed with his premise[s]...It was the real-world knowledge that financial calamity has not magically transformed our slow-moving, reform- resistant, cantankerous government into a peaceful, streamlined, problem-tackling machine. Every one of Obama's reforms will mean bigger political fights, consume more intellectual bandwidth and require more bravery from politicians than Washington has witnessed anytime in the past 15 years."

Alexander Bolton writes in The Hill: "Members of Congress and old political hands say he needs to show substantial progress reviving the economy soon.

"Some Democrats have started to worry that voters don’t and won’t understand the link between economic revival and Obama’s huge agenda, which includes saving the banking industry, ending home foreclosures, reforming healthcare and developing a national energy policy, among much else.

"While lawmakers debate controversial proposals contained in the new president’s debut budget — cutting farm subsidies, raising taxes on charitable contributions, etc. — there is a growing sense that time is running out faster than expected."

And Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek about "the Blame Obama rhetoric that's been building in recent weeks. Even some who were the president's most fervent supporters on Inauguration Day are now saying plainly that, halfway through his first 100 days, Obama hasn't delivered on the biggest thing that he promised. He and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner pledged an overwhelming and powerful response to the crisis — an economic Powell doctrine that would restore confidence in the markets. Instead, we've had a hesitant if steady dribbling-out of new programs. What Obama has done is impressive in many ways, but it's hardly a New Deal."

But Hirsh also writes that the verdict may be a bit too quick. "Still, many of these criticisms will fade into irrelevance—along with the grim jokes about Geithner's imminent dismissal—if the banking problem starts to come around. We've got 50 more days to go—time enough for Obama to come out looking Rooseveltian yet."

Battling Over Freeman's Legacy

By Dan Froomkin
11:47 AM ET, 03/12/2009

I wrote yesterday about Chas Freeman, who was set to oversee the production of national intelligence estimates until coming under attack primarily for having expressed criticism of Israel.

I continue to believe that Freeman would have been perfect for that job, which had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with keeping everyone honest. As an iconoclast, gadfly and consummate asker of questions, he was exactly what the intelligence community – and the nation -- needed in that position to prevent another incident of the kind of “conventional wisdom” gone amuck that took us into a misbegotten war.

The groupthink of Washington’s national-security elite remains, to my mind, a source of great danger to this country.

After burbling mostly under the mainstream media's radar for three weeks, the story burst onto The Washington Post's front page today. Walter Pincus writes: "The withdrawal of a senior intelligence adviser after an online campaign to prevent him from taking office has ignited a debate over whether powerful pro-Israel lobbying interests are exercising outsize influence over who serves in the Obama administration.

"When Charles W. Freeman Jr. stepped away Tuesday from an appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council -- which oversees the production of reports that represent the view of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies -- he decried in an e-mail 'the barrage of libelous distortions of my record [that] would not cease upon my entry into office,' and he was blunt about whom he considers responsible....

"[A]ttention focused on Freeman's work for the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that is funded in part by Saudi money, and his past critical statements about Israel....

"Only a few Jewish organizations came out publicly against Freeman's appointment, but a handful of pro-Israeli bloggers and employees of other organizations worked behind the scenes to raise concerns with members of Congress, their staffs and the media."

Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times that national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair's decision to hire Freeman "surprised some in the White House who worried that the selection could be controversial and an unnecessary distraction, according to administration officials."

And they write: "Because President Obama himself has been viewed with suspicion among many pro-Israel groups, the attacks on Mr. Freeman had the potential to touch a nerve."

Freeman explained his decision to NPR's Robert Siegel last night: "When it became apparent that anything I was associated with would be subject to fairly unscrupulous attack and criticism, I decided that in fact it was best for country, for me, to withdraw."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that its initial suspicions about Freeman were more than validated by his parting e-mail, "in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister 'Lobby' whose 'tactics plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency' and which is 'intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government.' Yes, Mr. Freeman was referring to Americans who support Israel -- and his statement was a grotesque libel....

"Crackpot tirades such as his have always had an eager audience here and around the world. The real question is why an administration that says it aims to depoliticize U.S. intelligence estimates would have chosen such a man to oversee them."

Washington Post editorial board member Charles Lane also weighed in online, writing that "Freeman’s strong suit is supposed to be original, contrarian thinking on foreign affairs. Actually, it’s more like a competing brand of conventional wisdom."

But Washington Post opinion columnist David S. Broder writes in Freeman's defense: "The Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in their place, and their friends on Capitol Hill. The country has lost an able public servant in an area where President Obama has few personal credentials of his own -- the handling of national intelligence."

Broder scolds "the lawmakers -- mostly Republicans but also some key Democrats -- who joined the lobbyists in running him off."

Some of Freeman's rhetoric might have been inflammatory, Broder writes, "but Freeman in person is low-key, thoughtful and obviously smart as hell. His great strength, Blair said, is his ability to think through how situations look to the people on the other side. Had our intelligence system been cued to do that, Freeman told me, we never would have assumed we'd be greeted as liberators in Iraq."

And fellow opinion columnist David Ignatius says, in a video: "This illustrates a disturbing fact about Washington, which is that in foreign policy discussion, the range of permissible debate often stretches from A to B. Beyond B, people get nervous....There is a correct line, which is enforced by lobbies of various descriptions, and administrations jump that line at their risk."

As for Freeman, Ignatius says:"If I was running an intelligence agency... he's the kind of person that I would very much want to sit on a panel like this, precisely because I could count on him to say what he thought regardless of political consequences."

James Fallows blogs for the Atlantic: "I have received enough pro-Freeman letters from his working associates in the last two days to make we wonder: is there anyone who actually dealt with the man who considered him a crackpot, an anti-Semite, a menace -- terms thrown around by his critics?"

And Stephen M. Walt, co-author of a highly critical book about the Israel Lobby, blogs for Foreign Policy that "the worst aspect of the Freeman affair is the likelihood of a chilling effect on discourse in Washington, at precisely the time when we badly need a more open and wide-ranging discussion of our Middle East policy...[T]his was one of the main reasons why the lobby went after Freeman so vehemently; in an era where more and more people are questioning Israel's behavior and questioning the merits of unconditional U.S. support, its hardline defenders felt they simply had to reinforce the de facto ban on honest discourse inside the Beltway."

Earmarks Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:43 AM ET, 03/12/2009

I wrote yesterday about President Obama's attempt to address the obsession some politicians and journalists have with earmarks.

As I pointed out, earmarks were not Obama's issue in the campaign -- they were Republican candidate John McCain's. Obama never promised to veto them, just reduce their number and make their sponsors more accountable.

But Obama's moves yesterday -- signing a bill with earmarks, even while calling for reform -- just seemed a little too much like hypocrisy for critics to resist.

As U.S. News reports: "The move sparked criticism from Republicans and some Democrats, and generated starkly negative media reviews -- including reports in all three networks that suggested that the President's action ran contrary to his own campaign rhetoric. ABC World News, for example, reported that 'away from cameras,' Obama 'signed a massive spending bill containing roughly 9,000 earmarks, despite his past campaign rhetoric.' NBC Nightly News noted 'critics said the President should have put up more of a fight when it came to those pet projects.' The CBS Evening News similarly reported there was 'no photo-op for this signing.'"

Paul Kane and Scott Wilson write in The Washington Post: "President Obama's call to rein in the use of earmarks was met with derision yesterday even from some of his past reformer allies, dealing an early blow to his attempt to change how business is done in Washington."

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "In proposing only modest changes in how lawmakers finance their pet projects, President Barack Obama tossed aside a golden opportunity to work with Sen. John McCain. Instead, the president stood foursquare with his Democratic allies, the people he needs most to advance his ambitious agenda."

And Peter Baker and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times that Obama's ostensible allies in Congress really showed him: "House Democratic leaders smiled as they watched Mr. Obama on television. Just a half-hour earlier, marking their own turf, they had pre-empted him by putting in place essentially the very rules he was now calling on them to adopt."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:37 AM ET, 03/12/2009

Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times: "President Obama on Wednesday issued his first signing statement, reserving a right to bypass dozens of provisions in a $410 billion government spending bill even as he signed it into law. In the statement — directions to executive-branch officials about how to carry out the legislation — Mr. Obama instructed them to view most of the disputed provisions as merely advisory and nonbinding, saying they were unconstitutional intrusions on his own powers...David M. Golove, a law professor at New York University who specializes in executive powers, said the prerogatives invoked by Mr. Obama were relatively uncontroversial." (Obama on Monday vowed to restore signing statements to their uncontroversial, pre-Bush role.)

Remember Elkhart, Indiana? Where Obama traveled early last month to call attention to the plight of average Americans? The Associated Press reports: "Roughly 1,600 familes picked up food and other items sent by a charity to economically distressed Elkhart, Ind., which has an unemployment rate of 18.3 percent.... About 300 volunteers handed out the supply packages as hundreds of cars waited in a line wrapped around a shopping mall parking lot and onto surrounding roads."

Washingtonpost.com's Mary Ann Akers interviews Jay Carney, who "just three months after leaving Time magazine" is "already an entrenched partisan trumpeting the message of Vice President Joe Biden."

Kimberly Kindy writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration's decision to halt production of an experimental power plant that would capture and store carbon dioxide emissions underground may have set back 'clean coal' technology in the United States by as much as a decade, according to a congressional report released at a hearing yesterday."

Matt Kelley writes in USA Today: "The federal official policing how the $700 billion financial rescue package is spent told Congress on Wednesday that he is investigating whether political pressure affected the distribution of the money. Neil Barofsky, the rescue package watchdog, said he will report his findings on 'what impact, if any, that lobbyists or other outside influences have had' on the Treasury Department's spending of the money."

AFP reports: "The Iraqi journalist who shot to fame for hurling his shoes at former US president George W. Bush was jailed for three years on Thursday, stirring outrage from his family and supporters."

Here's former Karl Rove deputy talking to Australian radio host Eleanor Hall today about the Valerie Plame scandal: "It was a damaging episode and there is no question and it is distracting. And you know one of the things that I think is unfortunate for all political systems is we have this explosion of different media outlets where people can get information. There's increased pressure to create controversy. And I think in this case a good old scandal in Washington and especially if it reaches into the White House, nothing was better." Hall: "You really think the Bush administration got a raw deal from the media? I mean a lot of people would have said Fox News was the president's publicity arm." Jackson: "Well you know with all respect, Fox News versus 'The New York Times', 'The Washington Post', the ABC, CBS, NBC, the blogosphere - it's kind of a mismatched battle."

Cristina Corbin reports for Fox News on the whereabouts of former Bushies. Former vice president Dick Cheney, she writes, has in recent days "held 'small luncheons' to 'invite people to talk about current events -- both on the economic front and on national security issues,' [a source close to Cheney] said. 'He follows what's happening very closely.'"

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:37 AM ET, 03/12/2009

Tony Auth on class warfare, Jeff Danziger on Obamaville, David Horsey on Obama's confidence, Gary Markstein on Obama's agenda, Rob Rogers on Obama's challenges, Daryl Cagle on Obama's opportunity, Clay Bennett on Obama's critics, Walt Handelsman on Obama the multitasker, Steve Benson on Obama as Reagan, Jeff Danziger on the omnibus, Steve Sack on the return of science and Steve Kelley on opposition from Obama's inner circle.

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