Ten Questions for Obama

By Dan Froomkin
12:35 PM ET, 03/24/2009

Obama's February news conference. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

President Obama holds a press conference tonight at 8 p.m. ET. Here are some of the questions I'd like him to answer:

1. After last week's disclosure of an International Red Cross report, there's no longer any doubt whatsoever that the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques amounted to torture. And, in addition to what the CIA did, hundreds of detainees -- many of whom may have been entirely innocent -- were terribly abused at Bagram and Abu Ghraib prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, among others. Assuring that detainees are treated humanely from this point forward is one thing. But don't we owe it to the detainees, to the world, and to ourselves to fully understand what was done to whom, and to hold to account those responsible? Leave the politics aside for a moment: Ethically, what is the least that we as a nation are required to do?

2. Your hugely ambitious budget proposal is an assault on the Washington establishment and the status quo. You've said that yourself. But to get it passed, you need the support of Congress: the very people who either made -- or at the very least acquiesced to -- the "irresponsible policy choices" that you argue brought us to this point. (And yes, that includes much of the Democratic leadership.) Presumably, these members of Congress felt they were acting in their best interests then; why do you believe you can get them to so dramatically reverse course -- especially when it would require them to do more in the next few months than they've done in years?

3. Who is your primary audience in the coming weeks as you go about stumping for your budget? Is it Congress? Or are you resigned to the fact that Congress will balk at following your lead until or unless the public expresses its will more assertively? If the latter, what gives you confidence that you can marshal an effective grassroots movement, or that individual members of Congress will heed it?

4. When it comes to the bailouts of financial institutions, it seems like the taxpayers are getting the short end of the stick. Why shouldn't the banks and insurance companies that would be insolvent without taxpayer funds be put under the direct control of the government? And, yes, we know that your top economic advisers tell you that's not a good idea, but why do you trust them? And what makes you so sure that the growing number of eminent economists who think that your advisers are too beholden to Wall Street and that short-term nationalization is the only reasonable answer are wrong?

5. Your new financial rescue plan, according to New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman, offers "a one-way bet: if asset values go up, the investors profit, but if they go down, the investors can walk away from their debt. So this isn't really about letting markets work," he writes. "It's just an indirect, disguised way to subsidize purchases of bad assets." Why do you disagree? And why do you think it's fair for taxpayers to bear the cost if things go wrong, but for stockholders and executives and hedge funds to get the benefits if things go right?

6. On the key issues being debated in the White House these days, whose advice to you listen to the most, and why? What exactly is your political adviser David Axelrod's role in setting economic policy? And how do you resolve conflicts between trusted advisers?

7. You've talked in the past about how your administration will inevitably make mistakes. What's been your biggest mistake so far? And what did you learn from it?

8. Some of your administration's moves have appeared to validate key elements of Bush's anti-terror strategy -- quite a surprise given your stated positions during the campaign. For instance, there was your Justice Department's support for an outrageously broad application of the state secrets privilege in a case in California, and the recent assertion of your right to hold certain prisoners indefinitely, without charge. Are these just short-lived aberrations that you intend to resolve after some more due diligence? Or have you found that the exigencies of national security make things a little less black and white than you expected?

9. Why do you think your honeymoon with the political and media elite has ended so much faster than your honeymoon with the public? And what do you intend to do about it?

10. Why hold a news conference if you're just going to fillibuster each question and not take follow ups?

I could go on. But why don't you? My White House Watchers discussion group is open for suggestions. There's also a new experiment in collecting citizen questions here.

On Huffingtonpost.com, Ari Melber raises some questions about tonight's press conference, including: Will President Obama call on more New Media?

I'm also wondering: Will reporters try to turn tonight into a public grilling of the president over the AIG bonuses -- or whether he appears sufficiently angry or insufficiently depressed in his public interviews -- or will they ask questions of substance?

Obama's Weak Spot?

By Dan Froomkin
12:27 PM ET, 03/24/2009

Is AIG really a weak spot for President Obama?

The latest Gallup Poll suggests it isn't. It finds that everybody connected to the AIG bonus controversy comes out looking badly -- except Obama. Some 54 percent of respondents gave Obama's handling of the matter a positive evaluation.

By contrast, a new CBS News poll finds that AIG is indeed a weak spot -- but evidently not a very big one.

"For the first time since he became president, a significant number of Americans are expressing disapproval of Barack Obama's actions in a specific area: His handling of the AIG bonus situation," CBS reports.

"Forty-two percent of those surveyed disapprove of the president's handling of the AIG bonuses, while roughly the same percentage - 41 percent - approve. Another 17 percent don't know or aren't sure...

"Yet President Obama's overall job performance rating appears unaffected by the AIG fallout. Sixty-four percent approve of the president's performance, roughly the same as last week.

"And ratings for the president's handling of the overall economy are actually up slightly: Sixty-one percent now approve, up from 56 percent last week."

Obama's Big Budget Push

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 03/24/2009

The next few weeks could be make or break for Obama's daring budget plan.

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama will go to Capitol Hill this week to try to persuade skeptical Senate Democrats to support the administration's first budget request after an analysis showed that the spending plan would drive the nation deeply into debt over the next decade."

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "Obama's $3.6 trillion budget faces its first tests on Capitol Hill this week, where a leading lawmaker wants to cut as much as $30 billion from agency budgets while promising to protect initiatives like energy, education and health care....

"Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is preparing to sharply cut Obama's 11 percent increase for non-defense appropriations to perhaps 6 percent. But he's running into opposition from other powerful Democrats like Sens. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Patty Murray of Washington. In the House, moderate 'Blue Dog' Democrats are pressing for even deeper cuts."

The budget plan is also "taking a drubbing from Republicans over its spending and tax increases as well as a global warming plan that would impose higher energy costs on consumers and businesses."

So how are grassroots efforts going so far?

David Lightman and William Douglas write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Barack Obama's army of canvassers fanned out across the nation over the weekend to drum up support for his $3.55 trillion budget, but they had no noticeable impact on members of Congress, who on Monday said they were largely unaware of the effort....

"Over the weekend, Obama supporters knocked on an estimated 1 million doors in all 50 states. Canvassers asked people to sign a two-point pledge saying that they support Obama's 'bold approach for renewing America's economy,' and that they'll ask family, friends and neighbors to back it.....

"The group Obama most needs to lobby this week are the approximately 51 conservative-to-moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives and the 16 in the Senate. Their numbers are big enough in both chambers to deny the president the majorities he needs to win budget approval, assuming near-unanimous Republican opposition as well....

"Blue Dogs were careful not to criticize Obama, but said they've felt little pressure from the canvassing."

Meanwhile, with a little context, Stan Collender writes in his Roll Call column: "Contrary to what some are currently saying, a budget resolution that doesn't move in lock step with the administration's budget means the Congressional budget process is working and not that there are troubles in political paradise....

"[A]fter years of doing whatever the Bush administration wanted, the House and Senate are acting on their own now, rather than as part of the White House's government affairs team....

"At least on the budget, this is, in fact, what's supposed to happen."

Financial Rescue Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 03/24/2009

What to make of the administration's new financial rescue plan? You tell me. Comments are open.

Here's what I read with interest this morning:

Neil Irwin and David Cho write in The Washington Post: "Financial markets roared ahead yesterday as investors reacted with near-euphoria to the Obama administration's new trillion-dollar plan to stabilize banks by relieving them of their troubled assets and risky loans.

"But even as markets exulted, conflicting interests among the program's participants -- banks, investors and taxpayers -- were emerging, leaving in doubt the fate of a program meant to revive bank lending and in turn reinvigorate the overall economy."

Edmund L. Andrews and Eric Dash write in the New York Times: "The Obama administration's new plan to liberate the nation's banks from a toxic stew of bad home loans and mortgage-related securities is bigger and more generous to private investors than expected, but it also puts taxpayers at great risk....

"Administration officials outlined a three-part Public-Private Investment Program that offers private investors vast amounts of cheap, taxpayer-supported financing for every dollar they put up of their own money. In essence, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve will be offering at least a tablespoon of financial sugar for every teaspoon of risk that investors agree to swallow."

Jim Puzzanghera and Tom Petruno write in the Los Angeles Times: "Skeptics said it wasn't clear that enough investors would step up -- or that banks would be willing to unload assets at the prices offered. But a banking trade group sounded a note of optimism. And some of the country's biggest investment firms expressed support for the program and said they planned to participate."

Binyamin Appelbaum writes in The Washington Post: "Investors may have cheered the administration's latest financial bailout plan yesterday, but a chorus of academics and financial experts expressed skepticism, saying there are better ways to restore the health of the banking system.

"Some warned that the new plan will likely fail, or fall short, because banks will demand higher prices than investors are willing to pay.

"There was also widespread agreement that the Obama administration, like its predecessor, has not done enough to explain its choice of a fraught and controversial approach."

Peter Nicholas and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "Aside from President Obama, the administration has yet to find a commanding figure who can carry economic policy messages and inspire confidence in White House prescriptions."

Michael Hiltzik writes in his Los Angeles Times business column: "The plan looks like the best hope yet for creating a viable market for all the toxic mortgage-based investments plaguing the balance sheets of banks large and small...

"The plan turns the government into 'the world's largest hedge fund investor,' UC Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong wrote on his blog Sunday.

"DeLong, one of the plan's more outspoken supporters in academia, argues that this could be a savvy investment for the taxpayer. The assets at issue are 'probably fundamentally undervalued,' he said, and placing them in the hands of investors who can afford to hang on to them until markets recover, rather than leaving them with banks that are desperate to unload them quickly, could produce 'an immense profit' -- for the private investors and the government alike.

"The doubters argue that the plan merely prolongs a doomed effort to place an artificially high price on toxic assets that may indeed be worth as little as the current market says they are. In doing so, critics contend, the plan only delays a necessary radical recapitalization of the banking industry."

Steven Pearlstein writes in his Washington Post business column that "the plan looks to me like it has a good chance of bringing significant amounts of private capital back into the financial system and relieving banks of some of their worst assets."

Simon Johnson and James Kwak write in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "We believe the best mechanism for solving the banking-sector crisis is government-supervised bankruptcy, also known as receivership. However, the Obama administration has made it abundantly clear that it will not consider this option, except perhaps as a last resort."

The "anemic" Geithner plan, they write, "could work -- but only if the banks agree to sell at reasonable prices. If it doesn't work, we'll need to come up with another approach, either one that is even friendlier to banks or one that confronts them head-on. Banks in this country have become too big economically and too powerful politically. Going forward, we have to fix this. We simply cannot afford to have another problem of this magnitude."

Susan Fenton and Deborah Kan write for Reuters: "The U.S. government plan to rid banks of toxic assets will rob American taxpayers by exposing them to too much risk and is unlikely to work as long as the economy remains weak, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said on Tuesday....

"The U.S. government is basically using the taxpayer to guarantee against downside risk on the value of these assets, while giving the upside, or potential profits, to private investors, he said.

"'Quite frankly, this amounts to robbery of the American people. I don't think it's going to work because I think there'll be a lot of anger about putting the losses so much on the shoulder of the American taxpayer.'"

Monica Langley writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Obama administration, after months of criticizing Wall Street, has been scrambling to woo top bankers and financiers to back its latest bailout plan.

"In recent days, in spite of public furor over huge bonuses paid at American International Group Inc., the administration has concluded that it needs the private sector to play a central role in fixing the economy. So over the weekend, the White House worked to tone down its Wall Street bashing and to win support from top bankers for the bailout plan announced Monday, which will rely on public-private investments to soak up toxic assets."

But the wooing was not exactly returned in kind: "Some bankers say they turned the conversations into complaints about the antibonus crusade consuming Capitol Hill. Some have begun 'slow-walking' the information previously sought by Treasury for stress-testing financial institutions, three bankers say, and considered seeking capital from hedge funds and private-equity funds so they could return federal bailout money, thereby escaping federal restrictions."

Langley describes ebbs and flows in the relationship between the White House and Wall Street. But her anecdotes may in fact better conform to the narrative of a White House riven by tensions between a populist political apparatus and a pro-Wall Street economic team, as described in the New York Times last month.

And word of Obama's nice talk to banks reminded blogger Digby of something the president said in a town hall meeting in California on Thursday about the banks and other financial institutions the government is bailing out: "Here's the problem. It's almost like they've got -- they got a bomb strapped to them and they've got their hand on the trigger. You don't want them to blow up, but you got to kind of talk them -- [to] ease that finger off the trigger."

Meanwhile, Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho write in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration is considering asking Congress to give the Treasury secretary unprecedented powers to initiate the seizure of non-bank financial companies, such as large insurers, investment firms and hedge funds, whose collapse would damage the broader economy, according to an administration document.

"The government at present has the authority to seize only banks."

Another Way to Escape From D.C.

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 03/24/2009

The last time President Obama sat down for an interview with regional reporters, he made no secret of his pleasure in talking to people who didn't necessarily share the obsessions of the national press corps. "I enjoy the keen insights of people outside of Washington," he said.

Yesterday, for the third time in six weeks, reporters from markets way too small to field a White House correspondent -- Bangor, Me., and Fargo, N.D. -- were invited to ask the president questions.

"It's good for me to get a chance to know you guys and get a better sense of what your readership is thinking," Obama said, according to Andrew Barksdale of the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer.

Barskdale writes: "Obama talked about topics ranging from expanding broadband Internet service to rural communities to making health-care services more efficient. He was relaxed and forthright. He mostly stuck to his talking points, but he didn't hesitate to say he didn't know the answer to a specific question or two about the details of his budget."

Some of the takeaways were of only local interest.

Robert Swift writes in the Scranton (Pa.) Times: "President Barack Obama said in a White House interview Monday projects like the long-sought Scranton-to-New York City commuter rail line will have a shot for federal funding when the next federal transportation funding bill is taken up by Congress."

Kevin Miller writes for the Bangor Daily News: "President Obama said Monday that rural states such as Maine could benefit significantly from his administration's energy and technology initiatives but reiterated that fixing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression will take time, and money....

"White House officials organized Monday's intimate press conference — as well as two previous events — as part of the president's efforts to communicate his message to Americans outside of the Washington Beltway and major metropolitan areas."

Janell Cole write for the Fargo Forum: "North Dakotans worried about the state's robust coal mining and power generation industries shouldn't fear that it will be crippled by a federal 'cap and trade' program to regulate greenhouse gases, President Barack Obama said Monday.

"'I don't think this is something to be afraid about,' he said....

"And he's optimistic about reaching an accord with Congress on his proposed federal budget, despite disagreements with lawmakers that include Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is the Senate Budget Committee chairman and a sharp critic of the president's budget. Conrad thinks it will create much bigger deficits than the White House predicts."

James R. Carroll writes in the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal: "Gearing up for negotiations with Congress over his proposed budget, President Barack Obama chided Republican lawmakers yesterday for opposing his initiatives without offering alternatives.

"'I do think that the Republican Party right now hasn't sort of figured out what it's for,' Obama said in a White House interview with The Courier-Journal and reporters from five other newspapers. 'And so, as a proxy, they've just decided 'we're going to be against whatever the other side is for.' That's not what's needed in an economic crisis.'

"He added that 'you could play that game maybe in the early '90s, when basically we were pretty prosperous. Right now, everybody's got to pull together.'"

Also present: Alex Daniels of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Politico's Jonathan Martin concludes that the White House's goal was "to fire a political rifle shot, in this case aimed at convincing key senators to support the president's budget.

"That's why the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the dominant daily in a state home to two moderate Democratic senators, was brought in to the Roosevelt Room along with the Bangor Daily News, representing a state with two moderate Republicans. And it's why the Fargo Forum, a paper which reaches thousands of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad's constituents, got a front page story today on Obama's reaction on local floods."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:00 PM ET, 03/24/2009

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "The Environmental Protection Agency's new leadership, in a step toward confronting global warming, submitted a finding that will force the White House to decide whether to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the nearly 40-year-old Clean Air Act. Under that law, EPA's conclusion -- that such emissions are pollutants that endanger the public's health and welfare -- could trigger a broad regulatory process affecting much of the U.S. economy as well as the nation's future environmental trajectory. The agency's finding, which was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget without fanfare on Friday, also reversed one of the Bush administration's landmark decisions on climate change, and it indicated anew that President Obama's appointees will push to address the issue of warming despite the potential political costs."

Richard Simon and Mark Z. Barabak write in the Los Angeles Times about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's diminished role: "Under President Obama, a breakthrough figure in his own right, the party has a new face, an ambitious platform and a commanding voice -- and Pelosi is discovering what it means to be back in a lesser role, with someone else setting the party's agenda and establishing its priorities."

William Branigin writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama yesterday outlined plans to spend about $59 billion in economic stimulus funds and $150 billion from the federal budget to promote what he calls America's 'clean-energy future.'"

Barack Obama writes in an op-ed that appeared in more than thirty papers around the world today: "[T]he leaders of the Group of 20 have a responsibility to take bold, comprehensive and coordinated action that not only jump-starts recovery, but also launches a new era of economic engagement to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again...I know that America bears our share of responsibility for the mess that we all face. But I also know that we need not choose between a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism and an oppressive government-run economy. That is a false choice that will not serve our people or any people."

Neil Genzlinger writes in the New York Times: "The makers of 'Ten Trillion and Counting,' Tuesday's 'Frontline' on PBS, want to make really, really, really sure that you know that George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, put the country in the economic mess it's in now. More than half the program is devoted to cataloging the Bush administration's economic policies, which, as portrayed here, come across as appallingly reckless, a burden that will grind us down for generations to come."

Al Kamen writes for The Washington Post: "The end of the Global War on Terror -- or at least the use of that phrase -- has been codified at the Pentagon. Reports that the phrase was being retired have been circulating for some time amongst senior administration officials, and [on Tuesday] speechwriters and other staff were notified via this e-mail to use 'Overseas Contingency Operation' instead."

Jose Antonio Vargas blogs for The Washington Post that five experts asked to assess Whitehouse.gov on such factors as transparency, accessibility and engagement gave the site a C+.

Michael E. Ruane writes in The Washington Post: "Tickets to the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll will for the first time be distributed online."

The Cheney Reaction

By Dan Froomkin
11:56 AM ET, 03/24/2009

Who does former vice president Dick Cheney think he's helping, exactly?

Molly K. Hooper writes for the Hill: "Congressional Republicans are telling Dick Cheney to go back to his undisclosed location and leave them alone to rebuild the Republican Party without his input.

"Displeased with the former vice-president's recent media appearances, Republican lawmakers say he's hurting GOP efforts to reinvent itself after back-to-back electoral drubbings."

Writing about President Obama's "60 Minutes" interview on Sunday, Los Angeles Times blogger (and former press secretary to Laura Bush) Andrew Malcolm assails Obama for -- among many other things -- responding to Cheney's assertion that he had made the nation less safe.

"Yes, he was asked about them. And Obama's certainly entitled to defend himself. But in that much detail? Let's be brutally honest here: Except for Sunday TV shows' desperate search for Sabbath conflict and the ex-VP's own family, who cares what Dick Cheney has to say now? He's history.

"The reason Obama went on about Cheney, of course, is that as long as Obama can keep the public and especially his own Democratic supporters on the left focused on the aging, albeit unifying, sins of the devil Bush years, the less anyone thinks to start comparing Obama promises to Obama actions in the present day."

Malcolm continues: "[W]hat happens if, heaven forbid, there is another successful terrorist attack on the homeland? Who'd look more politically prescient then -- the departed vice president or the rookie incumbent who defensively and unnecessarily called so much attention to those dire predictions way back now?"

Harper's blogger Scott Horton has video of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow talking to Jonathan Turley. Horton writes: "As Professor Jonathan Turley notes, the curious thing about Obama's response is that it is so mild. Cheney's statements are tantamount to an admission of his involvement in a serious criminal conspiracy. Moreover, Cheney actually brags about his criminality—he insists that he's doing it because it's good for us. When prosecutors decide which cases to charge, one concern is whether the crime has been committed in an open and notorious way. Cheney's conduct on this score is off the charts. As Turley says, 'This is the best defined and most public crime I've seen in my lifetime.' Cheney is effectively building the case for his own criminal prosecution."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:13 AM ET, 03/24/2009

Pat Oliphant on Obama and the angry public, Tony Auth on the misplaced anger, Bob Englehart on courage, Tom Toles, John Sherffius, Nick Anderson, Pat Bagley and Rob Rogers on Geithner's plan, J.D. Crowe, Kevin Siers and Jimmy Margulies on Obama's garden, Ann Telnaes and Steve Sack on Cheney's outbursts.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company