Assessing Obama's First Trip

By Dan Froomkin
1:09 PM ET, 03/31/2009

The Obamas leaving the White House this morning. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

President Obama embarked today on the first major foreign trip of his young presidency. Over the next eight days, Obama will be the central figure in a panorama of politics, pomp and pageantry spanning five countries.

The political media is setting this up as a huge test for Obama, with the implication being that if he doesn't come back with some major accomplishments to show for his troubles, he will have failed.

But even at a moment of great crisis, summits and state visits tend to be more about taking pictures than making policy. Whatever agreements will be reached have probably already been worked out by lower-level officials, and will be expressed in diplomatic statements that are vague enough to let everyone declare victory.

So the more lasting significance of this trip may be as a reminder of the historic nature of Obama's presidency.

Over here, we've gotten so caught up in the seemingly endless crises that Obama has been forced to address that we've lost sight of how extraordinary it is that a self-made black man is our president. Perhaps seeing things through non-American eyes will change that.

Perhaps this trip will remind us of our country's special role in the world, not just as its only superpower but as a land of unparalleled opportunity. Perhaps this trip will remind us of how dramatic a change we made in January. Perhaps this trip will be seen as a symbol of our restoration to our rightful place on the globe, after too long as a pariah nation led by a trigger-happy cowboy.

But perhaps not. Perhaps we will focus on moments of conflict and on declaring winners and losers.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz sets a typically modest bar: "Can President Obama lead the world?" he asks.

"[I]t is the question that will shadow him throughout his trip and is likely to become the basis for judging the outcome upon his return."

Balz writes that the Obama's enormous popularity abroad -- and the transformative effect his presidency has had on international perceptions of the United States -- is a given.

So: "The question is whether Obama has a strategy in mind to leverage that popularity to bend recalcitrant allies in directions he would like them to go, whether that means producing a coordinated response to the international economic crisis or winning concrete support for his new policies for Afghanistan and Pakistan."

In particular, Balz casts Obama's commitment to multilateralism not as a strength but as a potential source of weakness because "it leaves considerable power in the hands of U.S. allies to resist measures Obama may be advocating, unless he proves to be powerfully persuasive in both public and private venues."

Stephen Collinson writes for AFP: "Seldom can a US president have faced such a stern first test overseas as the one awaiting Barack Obama at Thursday's Group of 20 economic crisis summit in London.

"Obama has spent the exhausting first two months of his presidency battling to ensure the worst economic slump in generations does not overwhelm the huge expectations and ambitious plans of his young presidency.

"Now, he must take a central role in global efforts to mitigate the crisis while easing hints of rifts between Europe and the United States on the best way forward."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Despite his immense popularity around the world, Mr. Obama will confront resentment over American-style capitalism and resistance to his economic prescriptions when he lands in London on Tuesday for the Group of 20 summit meeting of industrial and emerging market nations plus the European Union."

Jonathan Martin writes for Politico: "He's no longer merely a candidate, wildly popular abroad in large part because of the contrast he offered to his predecessor. Now he's commander in chief of a nation that often finds itself at odds with even its allies."

Richard Wolf writes in USA Today: "After 10 weeks in office trying to save the U.S. economy, President Obama is ready to take on the world economy. Whether the world is ready for his remedy remains in doubt....

"It's one of the most anticipated presidential trips since John Kennedy went to Berlin in 1963."

The media prognosis is not any better for the rest of trip.

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "The president plans to push for a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, aggressive action to stop the proliferation of weapons and a more united European effort to combat the global recession.

"But if the U.S. president thought his popularity would cause foreign governments to fall quickly into line behind a new American leadership, experts warn, he could be in for a rude awakening."

Obama Gets High Marks From Public

By Dan Froomkin
12:15 PM ET, 03/31/2009

Despite all the grim news and the increasingly critical coverage, President Obama remains hugely popular with the American people.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll finds Obama with a 66 percent approval rating, unchanged from a month ago, and a 60 percent approval rating for how he's handling the economy.

Overwhelming majorities of Americans (70 to 80 percent) blame big business, banks, former president George W. Bush and consumers who overextended themselves, in that order, for the financial crisis -- while only a small minority (26 percent) blame Obama.

By a greater than two-to-one margin, the public trusts Obama to do a better job handling the economy than they do Republicans -- although the percent saying "neither" is up significantly over a month ago.

And fully 64 percent of Americans are confident that Obama's economic program will improve the economy. That's down from 72 percent before his inauguration -- which was also before the full scope of the problem was apparent.

Asked if "beneath it all" Obama is "an old-style, tax-and-spend Democrat" or a "new-style Democrat who will be careful with the public's money," respondents chose the latter two to one.

Jon Cohen and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "The number of Americans who believe that the nation is headed in the right direction has roughly tripled since Barack Obama's election, and the public overwhelmingly blames the excesses of the financial industry, rather than the new president, for turmoil in the economy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll."

So what's the bad news for Obama? "Despite the increasing optimism about the future, the nation's overall mood remains gloomy, and doubts are rising about some of the administration's prescriptions for the economic woes. Independents are less solidly behind Obama than they have been, fewer Americans now express confidence that his economic programs will work, barely half of the country approves of how the president is dealing with the federal budget deficit, and the political climate is once again highly polarized."

But that's not really so bad. For instance, although Cohen and Balz write that "barely half" approves of how Obama is dealing with the deficit, barely half is still, well, more than half -- and who really thinks the deficit is a big issue right this minute, anyway?

OK, well, just wait then, Cohen and Balz write: "The findings suggest that the public continues to give Obama considerable latitude as he attempts to jump-start the economy, but public patience may be limited. The coming debate over his budget, where he faces both Democratic and Republican resistance to some of his major priorities, should produce a more definitive first-year judgment on his economic program and his presidency."

A new USA Today/Gallup Poll pegs Obama's approval rating at 64 percent.

CNN reports: "More than eight out of 10 Americans think Barack Obama will do a good job representing their country to the world, according to a new national poll published as the U.S. president set off on his first overseas trip since taking office."

And Lois Romano writes in The Washington Post about the poll numbers for Michelle Obama: "Her favorability ratings are at 76 percent, up 28 points since summer. The number of people who view her negatively has plummeted. Her most striking inroads have come among Republicans who viewed her negatively last year, perhaps in part because of comments she made about feeling proud of her country for the first time."

What's Good for General Motors?

By Dan Froomkin
11:50 AM ET, 03/31/2009

It's becoming something of a pattern: President Obama is faced with an economic mess of epic proportions left over from the previous administration and acts with a firm hand. In doing so he accrues extraordinary power --- and takes on enormous risk.

It was the auto industry's turn yesterday.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "In essentially taking command of General Motors and telling Chrysler to merge with a foreign competitor or cease to exist, Mr. Obama was saying that economic conditions were sufficiently dire to justify a new level of government involvement in the management of corporate America.

"His message amounted to an inversion of the relationship that had helped define the rise of American manufacturing might in the 20th century; now, Mr. Obama seemed to be saying, what is good for America will have to be good enough for General Motors."

Peter Wallsten and Jim Tankersley write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama's plan to save failing U.S. automakers -- and make them the instruments for creating a cleaner, greener transportation system -- marked a major step across the line that traditionally separates government from private industry.

"His announcement Monday of a new position on bailing out Detroit went beyond a desire to be sure tax dollars were not wasted in bailing out struggling companies. It put the Obama administration squarely in the position of adopting a so-called industrial policy, in which government officials, not business executives or the free market, decided what kinds of products a company would make and how it would chart its future."

Wallsten and Tankersley write that Obama's actions "drew immediate criticism, especially from conservatives." But, they note: "Obama's actions are 'consistent with the pattern of presidents acting during economic crises,' said Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University and an expert on the presidency. 'And it's absolutely consistent with patterns of presidents intervening to make sure major components of the economy don't fail.'"

In his remarks yesterday, Obama returned to some familiar themes in explaining what caused him to act: "[I]t's a failure of leadership -- from Washington to Detroit -- that led our auto companies to this point," he said. "Year after year, decade after decade, we've seen problems papered over and tough choices kicked down the road, even as foreign competitors outpaced us. Well, we've reached the end of that road. And we, as a nation, cannot afford to shirk responsibility any longer. Now is the time to confront our problems head-on and do what's necessary to solve them."

And despite calling upon all parties -- including unions and workers -- to make sacrifices, he had a particular messsage to "all those men and women who work in the auto industry or live in countless communities that depend on it....[W]hat I can promise you is this: I will fight for you. You're the reason I'm here today. I got my start fighting for working families in the shadows of a shuttered steel plant. I wake up every single day asking myself what can I do to give you and working people all across this country a fair shot at the American Dream."

But as David Brooks writes in his New York Times opinion column: "The Obama administration and the Democratic Party are now completely implicated in the coming G.M. wreck. Over the next few months, the White House will be subject to a gigantic lobbying barrage. The Midwestern delegations, swing states all, will pull out all the stops to prevent plant foreclosures. Unions will be furious if the Obama-run company rips up the union contract. Is the White House ready for the headline 'Obama to Middle America: Drop Dead'? It would take a party with a political death wish to see this through."

Meanwhile, Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post op-ed column: "The president is telling Detroit to shape up or die while at the same time politely asking Wall Street, whose recklessness and greed caused this economic crisis, if it would be so kind as to accept another heaping helping of taxpayer funds.....

"There are reasons for structuring the bank bailout this way, and there are reasons to take a get-tough attitude with the auto companies. But the juxtaposition is galling -- and, for many autoworkers, potentially devastating."

And Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column that Obama's pitch for Americans to buy more cars didn't go over well with the press corps: "The president had promised car buyers everything but rich Corinthian leather seats -- and reporters leaving the Grand Foyer got in the spirit of the day. 'Zero money down!' proposed one. 'Will he throw in a few oil changes?' wondered another."

The Krugman Test

By Dan Froomkin
11:40 AM ET, 03/31/2009

Newsweek's cover story this week is about Paul Krugman, the New York Times opinion columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist who has also become a leading critic of the Obama administration's bank bailout plans. But the story arguably says more about Washington's establishment than it does about Krugman.

Consider this astonishingly frank admission from author Evan Thomas: "If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he's wrong, and you sense he's being a little harsh (especially about [Treasurey Secretary Tim] Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking."

That, to me, says a lot not just about the establishment's uneasiness with Krugman -- but about its increasing discomfort with President Obama's ambitious and transformative agenda. I've collected my many posts on that topic into one place, for your browsing pleasure.

And Eric Boehlert blogs for Media Matters with another thought about the cover: "During the Bush years, Krugman, from his same perch on the pages of Times' opinion pages, waged about as vocal a campaign as humanly possible to warn readers and the country about what he considered to be the perilous policy decisions the Bush administration was embracing, and what the disastrous results for America would be.

"Looking back on the Bush years, Krugman's track record was rather impeccable. But you'll note he didn't appear on the cover of Newsweek back then. (No 'Bush is Wrong' cover lines.)..

"But now a Democrat is in the Oval Office, Krugman is still hitting the president from the left, and suddenly the Beltway press thinks Krugman's work is fascinating and newsworthy....We just think everyone would have been better off if the press had paid this much attention to Krugman's work between, say, 2002 and 2006."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:11 AM ET, 03/31/2009

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Monday evening to bolster House Democrats as Congress began a politically charged budget debate that will determine the president's ability to pursue his broad domestic policy agenda. In a private session with lawmakers, Mr. Obama urged them to remain united behind the House's $3.5 trillion spending plan, saying its approval would provide momentum for more difficult fights to come over major policy changes he has promised. 'If we don't pass the budget, it will empower those critics who don't want to see anything getting done,' Mr. Obama told his fellow Democrats...Lawmakers and aides said Mr. Obama also impressed them with his detailed level of political knowledge, reminding one questioner that the lawmaker had voted against his economic stimulus legislation. 'Don't think we're not keeping score, brother,' Mr. Obama said."

AFP reports: "A former top US government advisor who faces possible indictment in Spain for his role in establishing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp described the case against him as 'outrageous.' Douglas Feith -- a key advisor in president George W. Bush's Pentagon -- told Fox News that moves before a Spanish court to indict him for facilitating torture were an effort to 'intimidate US government officials.'"

Reuters reports: "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday the Obama administration had dropped 'war on terror' from its lexicon, rhetoric former President George W. Bush used to justify many of his actions. 'The (Obama) administration has stopped using the phrase and I think that speaks for itself. Obviously,' Clinton told reporters traveling with her to The Hague for a conference on Afghanistan."

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "The Justice Department announced Monday that the administration had decided to release a detainee at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, a Yemeni doctor who the Bush administration once claimed had taken part in an anthrax program of Al Qaeda. The government had backed away from the anthrax accusations but had continued to hold the detainee....The decision...came in the third case the Obama administration has reviewed under new procedures the president put in place to analyze the cases of military detainees in preparation for closing the Guantánamo prison in Cuba."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "President Obama on Monday repeated his request for Sudan to let more than a dozen expelled humanitarian aid groups back into the country and suggested that if it did not, he would 'find some mechanism' to get food, water and medicine to the people of Darfur."

Reuters reports: "Obama signed sweeping land and water conservation rules into law on Monday, setting aside millions of acres as protected areas and delighting environmentalists. The measure, a package of more than 160 bills, would designate about 2 million acres -- parks, rivers, streams, desert, forest and trails -- in nine states as new wilderness and render them off limits to oil and gas drilling and other development."

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post about "more than a dozen environmental initiatives the new administration has undertaken in its first two months. In nearly every case, the decisions were based on extensive analysis and documentation that rank-and-file employees had prepared over the past couple of years, often in the face of contrary-minded Bush administration officials. After years of chafing under political appointees who viewed stricter environmental regulation with skepticism, long-serving federal officials are seeing work that had been gathering dust for years translate quickly into action."

Is Vice President Joe Biden the anti-Cheney? A gadfly, rather than a puppetmaster? Mark Leibovich writes in the New York Times: "'There's, I think, an institutional barrier sometimes to truth-telling in front of the president,' Mr. Obama said. 'Joe is very good about sometimes articulating what's on other people's minds, or things that they've said in private conversations that people have been less willing to say in public. Joe, in that sense, can help stir the pot.'"

Elisabeth Bumiller writes about Defense Secretary Robert Gates and how the "canny, deceptively bland Washington master of adaptation — he is a former director of central intelligence who has served eight presidents of both parties — is trying to cement his role in the Obama inner circle."

Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press that "old racial stereotypes and Internet-fueled falsehoods flourish about the first black president."

Denise Lavoie writes for the Associated Press: "Barack Obama's Kenyan aunt lost her bid for asylum more than four years ago, and a judge ordered her deported. Instead, Zeituni Onyango stayed, living for years in public housing. Now, in a case that puts the president in a tough position both personally and politically, Onyango's request is being reconsidered under a little-used provision in U.S. immigration rules that allows denied asylum claims to be reheard if applicants can show that something has changed to make them eligible. Such as the ascension of her nephew to the presidency of the world's most powerful country."

Erica Orden writes in New York Magazine: "At a time when people are having trouble holding on to their houses, Barack and Michelle Obama have sensibly decided not to use taxpayers' money to renovate theirs."

And not only that, but CNN's Alexander Mooney and Shannan Butler note: "New presidents have traditionally undertaken extensive redecoration efforts to their personal quarters reflect their own tastes, with a new Oval Office rug tradition ringing in as the priciest item. Former President George W. Bush spent over $60,000 on a new cream carpet designed by Laura Bush in 2000 to replace the deep blue rug that covered the space during the Clinton administration. Obama aides have said the president likes the Bush rug, and does not plan to replace it."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:55 AM ET, 03/31/2009

Tom Toles on Obama's European tour, Jim Morin on Obama and the G19, Rex Babin on GM's new management, Steve Kelley on warrantees, and Mike Luckovich on Tim Geithner's new White House role.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company