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Obama Tries to Harness the Outrage

By Dan Froomkin
3:40 PM ET, 03/19/2009


Obama soaked up the love in Orange County yesterday. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

President Obama is attempting to redirect the public fury over the AIG bonuses into outrage over the way the whole economy's been tilted toward the super-rich over the last decade -- precisely the problem he's trying to address with his hugely ambitious budget plan and his push for greater financial regulation.

It's not clear that Obama will succeed in rerouting the rage, though -- at least not yet. The public's anger, as reflected in the media, seems to be particularly focused on the fact that these wildly undeserved bonuses were paid for with tax dollars. And that happened on Obama's watch.

Nevertheless, it's understandable that he would try to use this powerful expression of public sentiment to move the country in what he considers to be a better direction. And to that end, Obama yesterday unleashed some of his most provocative language yet about the Bush-era economy, likening it to one big Ponzi scheme.

Here's the transcript of his town hall meeting in Orange County, Calif.

Obama acknowledged the anger over the AIG bonuses, and said he shared it -- then quickly pivoted to a broader critique and his proposed solution.

"But these bonuses, outrageous as they are, are a symptom of a much larger problem," he said. "And that's the system and culture that made them possible -- a culture where people made enormous sums of money, taking irresponsible risks that have now put the entire economy at risk....

"We don't need these house of cards, these Ponzi schemes, even when they're legal, where a relatively few do spectacularly well while the middle class loses ground....

"I want to describe to you the kind of economy that we want to build: an economy that rewards hard work and responsibility, not high-flying finance schemes -- (applause); an economy that's built on a strong foundation, but not one that's propelled by overheated housing markets and maxed-out credit cards."

What's important, Obama said, "is that we make sure we don't find ourselves in this situation again, where taxpayers are on the hook for losses in bad times, and all the wealth generated in good times goes to those who are at the very top of the income ladder. That's the kind of ethic we've had for too long. That's the kind of approach that led us into this mess. That is something we have to change if we're truly going to turn our economy around and move this country forward."

And long-term economic growth, he said, depends on the sorts of investments in health care, energy and education that he has proposed in his budget.

Obama tried to put the details of the AIG scandal behind him, by taking responsibility for the situation -- if not blame: "And I know Washington is all in a tizzy and everybody is pointing fingers at each other and saying it's their fault, the Democrats' fault, the Republicans' fault. Listen, I'll take responsibility; I'm the President. (Applause.) We didn't grant these contracts, and we've got a lot on our plate, but it is appropriate, when you're in charge, to make sure that stuff doesn't happen like this. So we're going to do everything we can to fix it."

Instead, what he wanted to talk about was whether he is trying to do too much at once. "Now, there are those who say these plans are too ambitious; we should be trying to do less, not more. Obama is trying to do too much, they say; just focus on Wall Street, focus on the banks," he said. "Well, I say our challenges are too large to ignore. The cost of health care is too high to ignore. The dependence on oil is too dangerous to ignore. Our education deficit is too wide to ignore. (Applause.)

"To kick these problems down the road for another four years or eight years, that would be to continue the same irresponsibility that got us to this point."

And he encouraged an anti-Washington populism that would serve his ends: "For all of you know deep down -- and what folks in Washington sometimes forget -- in the end, a budget is not merely numbers on a page or a laundry list of programs. It's about your lives; it's about your families; it's about your dreams for the future. You did not send us to Washington to stand in the way of your aspirations. You didn't send us there to say no to change -- you sent us there to get things done and bring about change, and that's what I intend to do. (Applause.)"

Obama telegraphed his intentions in a short talk with reporters before flying to California yesterday: "I don't want to quell anger," he said "I think people are right to be angry. I'm angry. What I want us to do, though, is channel our anger in a constructive way."

Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post: "Striking a sharp populist tone, President Obama used a town hall meeting here Wednesday to argue that he is 'trying to bring balance back to our economy' after years when only the wealthiest Americans benefited from government policy and lack of regulation."

Laura Meckler writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Barack Obama said he will take the blame for bonuses being paid at American International Group Inc. if it will settle an intense finger pointing under way over how such payments were possible at a company that has received tremendous taxpayer aid....

"The comments were an effort to change the subject, which has engulfed Washington this week, and pivot to his push to overhaul financial regulations that govern the system and that many blame for the underlying problems...

"White House officials had expected questions about AIG, given the furor over the $165 million in bonuses given to officials at the company, which has received $180 billion in government aid.... But not one person asked about the matter. Instead the questions were about issues that hit closer to home: teachers losing their jobs, immigration law, union organizing and the ability of community banks to continue making loans."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times that Obama's populist tone "found favor with the crowd of about 1,300 people."

Stephen Collinson writes for AFP that Obama "is deploying every weapon in the presidential armory to bolster his economic rescue strategy." He has another town hall meeting today, "as well as a spot awaiting Thursday on the couch of late night "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno...

"Next Tuesday, the president will crank his campaign up another notch with a prime time televised press conference."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The president needs to do two things at once. The administration has no choice but to spend piles of money to unwind the financial mess. A share of the largess...may indirectly benefit some of the malefactors in this saga. But Obama has to be unambiguous in asserting that the purpose of this spending is not to reward those who got us into this fix but to solve a problem that affects us all.

"To make this case, the administration should be unafraid to use its proposals on health care, taxes, education, energy and financial regulation to argue that it is building a new economy on the ashes of the old -- an economy based on fair rewards to capital and labor alike, not on an ethic of greed and excess."

Meanwhile, who knew what when? David Cho and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "Federal Reserve officials knew for months about bonuses at American International Group but failed to tell the Obama administration, according to government and company officials, exposing problems in a relationship that is vital to addressing the financial crisis....

"Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, a central figure in the decision to bail out AIG last fall as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in an interview yesterday that he had not been aware of the size of the bonuses and the timing of the payments [until March 10]....

"Two days later, Geithner told the White House."

But: "Democrats and Republicans in Congress are increasingly questioning how Geithner could not have known about the bonuses, given his past role in AIG's bailout, which has totaled more than $170 billion."

And there's still no evidence that the bonuses set off the appropriate alarm bells at the White House when officials there still had the time to block the checks from going out.

"For the new administration, the bonuses were a distraction from what senior aides called the main focus: getting the economy working and people back to work. 'People are not sitting around their kitchen tables thinking about AIG,' [senior adviser David] Axelrod said. 'They are thinking about their own jobs.' "

Is Axelrod right? Or terribly wrong? We'll know soon enough, I guess -- based at least in part on whether Obama's new pitch seems to be working.

Finally, a note about the protests outside Obama's town hall yesterday. Jennifer Muir, Doug Irving and Cameron Bird write in the Orange County Register: "On the sidewalk along Fairview Road, outside the fairgrounds, a crowd that grew to 35 waved signs and jeered as the heavy blades of Marine One and three other beige choppers sounded overhead.

"'Go back home, leave us alone!' said Elisa Mohr, her head titled up. 'Go back to Chicago. We don’t want you here!'

"'How about, ‘go back to Kenya,' Bobby Florentz suggested."

Obama Is Doing Too Much -- But That's OK

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 03/19/2009

Back on Monday, I noted a Pew Research Center poll's finding that, contrary to the emerging consensus of the Washington punditocracy, only 35 percent of Americans think President Obama is trying to tackle too many issues in his first few months. Fully 56 percent of the poll's respondents said Obama is "doing about right" -- while four percent said he was actually focusing on too few issues.

But then yesterday, along came a new CNN poll with what appeared to be dramatically different results.

"Fifty-five percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Wednesday say that since he's taken over in the White House, President Obama has tried to handle more issues than he should have. Forty-three percent say he hasn't bitten off more than he can chew," wrote Paul Steinhauser under the headline, "Poll: Obama's taken on too much, say Americans."

The poll also found, by the way, that "a majority, 58 percent, feel that the president's programs strike the right political tone for the country....59 percent say they approve of how the President's handling the economy, 57 percent like how Obama's dealing with health care, 63 percent approve of his energy policy and 65 percent back him on education reform. Sixty-six percent like Obama's approach to foreign affairs, with 63 percent approving of how he handles Iraq, 67 percent agreeing with him on Afghanistan and 61 percent approving of his performance in the fight against terrorism."

How, then, to reconcile these two apparently opposing results?

I put the question to pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal. In his blog, Blumenthal writes that "the usual culprit in these sorts of discrepancies is that pollsters are asking about something that a lot of respondents have not really considered before....As a general rule, it is hard to understate how often ordinary Americans are oblivious to the controversies that seem oh-so important inside the beltway, on cable news or the blogosphere. I would wager that the is-Obama-overextended meme is probably one of them."

But he also notes that "although both questions ostensibly ask about the same idea, they use different wording.

"In particular, the Pew question is far more explicit about labeling one option as approving of Obama's performance ('Obama is...doing about right'), while the CNN equivalent is a little more vague ('Obama has tried to handle more issues than he should have'). Perhaps some respondents interpret the words 'should have' differently, agreeing that Obama is having to handle more issues than he 'should have' were these ordinary times. Or perhaps some are not hearing the words 'than he should have' at all, and instead interpret the question as asking whether Obama is trying to handle many issues or few issues."

After reading Blumenthal's post, what became increasingly clear to me was that you can't really conclude definitively from the CNN poll whether people are happy or unhappy with Obama's behavior, whereas in the Pew poll, there was a distinct value judgment.

So what both polls say, taken together, is that people think Obama is doing a lot -- but they're not really concerned about it.

Barack-et-ology Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:14 PM ET, 03/19/2009

President Obama takes his college basketball brackets very seriously. Check out his lengthy disquisition on his picks with ESPN's Andy Katz (below).

Ryan Teague Beckwith writes for the Raleigh News and Observer that Obama "picked the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the same team he picked last year, when it lost." But, he notes: "In a handwritten version of the bracket made available by the White House, Obama appears to have struggled with his final choice, crossing out Louisville to write UNC and putting a large question mark next to the match-up."

The Associated Press reports that Obama's brackets have ticked off at least one UNC hater. "Somebody said that we're not in President Obama's Final Four, and as much as I respect what he's doing, really, the economy is something that he should focus on, probably more than the brackets," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said from the Blue Devils' first-round site in Greensboro, N.C.

And blogger Nate Silver does a little regression analysis and concludes that Obama was "more inclined to select teams from swing states."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 03/19/2009

Jonathan Cohn writes in the New Republic about how "health care reform, against what occasionally seemed like long odds, managed to find a sizeable place in Obama's budget....Particularly in Obama's absence, the voices of the skeptics often predominated....And health care, in the end, might have gotten pushed aside--except that one very senior official in the administration kept insisting that it stay on the agenda. That official was Obama himself." Cohn concludes: "Obama is not always as cautious as he might seem. He can think big. He can take risks. And he can bring his advisers to him--rather than the other way around."

Jackie Kucinich writes for Roll Call: "The House Republican Study Committee sent its members a series of talking points this week to try to present a united front against Democratic policies and label the Obama administration as 'disingenuous, unfocused, and reckless.'"

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "Under withering criticism from veterans and Congress, President Obama on Wednesday abandoned a proposal that would have required veterans to use their private health insurance to pay for the treatment of combat-related injuries."

Josh Meyer and Scott Glover write in the Los Angeles Times: "U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that the Justice Department has no plans to prosecute pot dispensaries that are operating legally under state laws in California and a dozen other states -- a development that medical marijuana advocates and civil libertarians hailed as a sweeping change in federal drug policy."

David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times that Holder also told reporters yesterday that the Justice Department "was 'monitoring' developments related to accusations of abuse of detainees by the Central Intelligence Agency, but stopped short of endorsing the appointment of a special prosecutor. 'We will let the law and facts take us to wherever we need to go,' he said."

Barack Obama writes in Time Magazine that "government alone is not the answer to the challenges we face. Yes, our government must rebuild our schools, but we also need people to serve as mentors and tutors in those schools. Yes, our government must modernize our health-care system, but we also need people to volunteer in our hospitals and communities to care for the sick and help people lead healthier lives. Yes, our government must maintain the finest military in the history of the world, but that is only possible if brave men and women across America sign up to serve in that military...So I hope that you will stand up and do what you can to serve your community, shape our history and enrich both your own life and the lives of others across this country."

Garance Franke-Ruta blogs for The Washington Post: "Disclosure forms filed with the Secretary of the Senate for Barack Obama's final year as a U.S. senator show that, as he spent 2008 campaigning for president, he earned nearly $2.5 million in royalties from the sale of his books. And he added $500,000 more on Jan. 15, just before taking office as president, when he signed a deal for 'an abridged version of Dreams from My Father suitable for middle grade or young adult readers.'"

Mark Silva blogs for Tribune: "The presidential debut on comedic TV tonight carries certain risks and rewards - the risk of immersing in levity in the midst of economic calamity, the reward of piercing the bubble of the presidency to communicate directly with a very large audience." Obama's planned appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno later today is a first for a sitting president on any comedic program, Silva writes.

David Hinckley writes in the New York Daily News: "In a way, hearing Leno quiz Obama on the merits of federal employment stimulation is like having David Gregory invite Simon Cowell onto 'Meet the Press.' It just isn't what the room was built for. On the other hand, this is also old-school thinking, because for years the media has been collectively dismantling whatever walls had traditionally been constructed between serious public discourse on important socio-political matters and pure entertainment."

Jake Tapper blogs for ABC News: "Well, here's another way President Obama has put his historic stamp on the presidency. With no fanfare or media attention, President Obama last month added a new decoration to the Oval Office: a 12 5/8' bronze bust of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr."

Martin C. Evans writes for Newsday: "On the evening of March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush gave a four-minute address from the Oval Office, announcing that the nation had gone to war to topple the regime of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Six years and a presidential election later, more than 130,000 troops remain in Iraq. And although President Barack Obama has said he will withdraw all but 50,000 troops by August 2010, more than 4,250 U.S. troops have died there so far."

Bush's Book of Excuses

By Dan Froomkin
10:20 AM ET, 03/19/2009

Former president George W. Bush is already hard at work trying to explain himself.

Bush first told a Canadian audience on Tuesday that he intends to write a book about his 12 "toughest" decisions.

Yesterday, he told Hillel Italie of the Associated Press that he's already written about 30,000 words: "'I want people to understand the environment in which I was making decisions. I want people to get a sense of how decisions were made and I want people to understand the options that were placed before me,' Bush said during a brief telephone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press from his office in Dallas.

"Bush's book, tentatively (not decisively) called Decision Points, is scheduled for a 2010 release by Crown....

"Instead of telling his life story, Bush will concentrate on about a dozen personal and presidential choices, from giving up drinking to picking Dick Cheney as his vice president to sending troops to Iraq. He will also write about his relationship with family members, including his father, the first President Bush, his religious faith and his highly criticized response to Hurricane Katrina."

This would technically be Bush's second book. His first, titled A Charge to Keep, was ghost-written by adviser Karen Hughes in 1999.

Italie writes: "Bush told the AP on Wednesday that he was not 'comfortable with the first book, only because it seemed rushed,' and that his current memoir would have 'a lot more depth,' thanks to his years as president. Although he didn't keep a diary while in the White House — he 'jotted' down the occasional note — he said he began Decision Points just two days after leaving the White House...

"Bush said the book would include self-criticism, 'Absolutely, yes,' but cautioned that 'hindsight is very easy' and that he would make sure readers could view events as he saw them."

Some decisions may be off limits. "Asked if he might write about the ouster of his first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, or about his decision not to pardon Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, choices both openly disputed by Cheney, Bush said he didn't know.

"'I made a lot of decisions,' he said."

Bush told Italie he had "skimmed" former president Bill Clinton's memoirs -- and hasn't read either of President Obama's books.

Motoko Rich writes in the New York Times: "According to Robert B. Barnett, the Washington lawyer who negotiated the deal with Crown on Mr. Bush's behalf," the former president "has no collaborator, but he's working with his former chief speech writer Christopher Michel."

Tirdad Derakhshani writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the book sounds like "a cross between a memoir and a ruler's how-to book (like Governing for Dummies? Or maybe more like Marcus Aurelius' Meditations?)."

Bush's comments on Tuesday, as I wrote in this post yesterday, indicate that his memoir will be heavy on revisionist self-justification, at least when it comes to his decision to sanction torture.

Rob Gillies of the Associated Press quoted Bush as saying on Tuesday: "I want people to understand what it was like to sit in the Oval Office and have them come in and say we have captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, the alleged killer of a guy named Danny Pearl because he was simply Jewish, and we think we have information on further attacks on the United States."

But Bush initially sanctioned torture about a year before Mohammed's capture, and there's never been any evidence corroborating Mohammed's involvement in Pearl's murder -- other than Mohammed's confession, which came after, not before, he was tortured.

There's the distinct possibility that Bush's book, when it comes out, won't actually sell much. But it will inevitably inspire a lot of jokes.

That process, in fact, has already begun. Here's TV host Jimmy Fallon last night, via U.S. News: "George Bush is writing a book. No, that's not the joke. It's a serious book about the 12 toughest decisions he made as President. It's called 'The Ten Toughest Decisions I Made As President.' It's...a good book. It's a pop-up book."

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:41 AM ET, 03/19/2009

Jon Stewart marvels at former vice president Dick Cheney's recent interview on CNN, and his "willful obliviousness to the impact of his policies, both economically and in the realm of foreign policy."

He offers some possible titles for Cheney's upcoming book. Among them: "The Bush Administration: If We Did It, Here's How It Happened," "A Heartclogging Work of Staggering Evil," and "I Know How to Make the Caged Bird Sing."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:32 AM ET, 03/19/2009

Jim Morin on the real outrages, John Coles on Bush's outrage, Rex Babin and Ron Rogers on March madness, Bob Gorrell's brackets, Walt Handelsman's investment advice, Mike Lester on perspective, Dwane Powell on the shovel brigade, Stuart Carlson on job security and Tom Toles on Obama avoiding the GOP's trap.

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