Obama Ducks a Cutlass

By Dan Froomkin
1:15 PM ET, 04/13/2009

I see an emerging consensus about the political impact of the military operation that successfully freed an American ship captain held hostage off the coast of Somalia yesterday.

At best, it's a small but significant victory for President Obama, who apparently was actively involved in monitoring the situation and coolly authorized the use of force. But had things gone the other way, it would have been an enormous PR disaster from which Obama would have had a hard time recovering.

How it is possible that the same incident can have such a small upside, and such a huge downside? That's a lot to be riding on the twitch of a Navy SEAL's finger.

But I think it's an accurate reflection of the state of our political discourse -- one no longer dominated by the right-wing message machine, but still vulnerable to hyperventilation about things that are, in the greater scheme of things, relatively trivial.

Seen from the White House, this was definitely a good moment for Obama. Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama's 'no drama' handling of the Indian Ocean hostage crisis proved a big win for his administration in its first critical national security test.

"Obama's quiet backstage decision to authorize the Defense Department to take necessary action if Capt. Richard Phillips' life was in imminent danger gave a Navy commander the go-ahead to order snipers to fire on the pirates holding the cargo ship captain at gunpoint....

"Obama's handling of the crisis showed a president who was comfortable in relying on the U.S. military, much as his predecessor, George W. Bush, did.

"But it also showed a new commander in chief who was willing to use all the tools at his disposal, bringing in federal law enforcement officials to handle the judicial elements of the crisis."

But as Joe Klein blogs for Time: "One can easily imagine all the different ways the rescue of Captain Phillips might have been screwed up--and the political firestorm that would have resulted....

"[I]t could easily have gone wrong, through no fault of the President and the SEALs--a gust of wind, whatever...and then the Administration would have had to waste all sorts of energy on damage control, fending off the second-guessers--Republicans and, all too often, people like me--and perhaps overreacting to the pirate 'threat' as a result. Presidencies are, sadly, built or crippled on such quirks of fate."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post that the incident posed "political risks to a young commander in chief who had yet to prove himself to his generals or his public."

The result "left Obama with an early victory that could help build confidence in his ability to direct military actions abroad," Shear writes. But: "The operation pales in scope and complexity to the wars underway in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Obama's adversaries are unlikely to be mollified by his performance in a four-day hostage drama."

Chris Cillizza writes for The Washington Post: "It's a public relations disaster dodged -- one of many Obama will have to avoid as he seeks to retain political momentum and keep his agenda on track."

Former Bush White House official Peter Feaver asks in his Washington Post discussion group: "Now what? What steps will Obama's national security team take to deal with the pirate problem? No serious observer believes that this single tactical victory -- as impressive and desirable as it was -- makes more than a slight dent in the bigger pirate problem. In the narrowest of terms, it may even increase the short-term risk to the other international hostages held by Somali pirates."

And Kevin Drum blogs for Mother Jones that, while giving Obama a lot of credit for the rescue is a bit ridiculous, "[t]he right-wing criticism of Obama during the incident had gotten so over-the-top that you'd have thought Obama was about ready to invite the Somali pirates over for tea. That was ridiculous. So if this shuts them up for a few moments, it will be a well-deserved few moments of silence for Obama."

Lara Jakes and Pauline Jelinek write for the Associated Press this morning: "President Barack pledged Monday that the U.S. would seek to halt the increasing threat of piracy off the Horn of Africa.

"Obama also praised the military's successful efforts to rescue merchant Capt. Richard Phillips, who had been held hostage there for several days by pirates.

"'His safety has been our principle concern,' the president said in his first remarks in public on the five-day standoff that ended Sunday with Phillips' release....

"In a sharp warning to increasingly brazen pirates operating off the coast of lawless Somalia, Obama said: 'I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks.'

"'We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise, and we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes,' the president said."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:46 PM ET, 04/13/2009

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post about all the outreach White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is doing with members of Congress. "The White House legislative strategy blends Obama's vision and salesmanship with Emanuel's granular political expertise and dealmaking skills...Emanuel also sits down once a week with a different committee chairman and ranking member to catch up on business before their panel. Obama attends at least part of those sessions. Emanuel brings in all the major groups: the Blue Dog budget hawks, the moderate New Democrats, the politically skittish House freshman class."

Mike Dorning writes for Tribune: "When President Obama needs to reach out to the political opposition, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood often gets the call to be the go-between...[I]n the Cabinet of a president pledged to bipartisanship, LaHood is the only member, as he likes to point out, who was 'elected as a Republican. Seven times.'"

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press that the dealmaking skills Obama exhibited on his international trip will be tested as he tries to get his "legislative priorities through Congress, where partisan lines continue to harden."

Roger Cohen writes in his New York Times opinion column: "For Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 'a combination of ignorance and arrogance' under the Bush administration squandered countless diplomatic opportunities with Iran and so allowed it to forge ahead with its nuclear program. Referring twice to Dick Cheney as 'Darth Vader,' ElBaradei told me in an interview that 'U.S. policy consisted of two mantras — Iran should not have the knowledge and should not spin one single centrifuge. They kept saying, wait, Iran is not North Korea, it will buckle. That was absolutely a mistake.'"

Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker: "Gradually, the President is fashioning a turn in national-security policy — by insisting, first of all, on an end to denial."

Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "Senior Obama administration officials are debating how to address a potential terrorist threat to U.S. interests from a Somali extremist group, with some in the military advocating strikes against its training camps. But many officials maintain that uncertainty about the intentions of the al-Shabab organization dictates a more patient, nonmilitary approach.

Frank Newport reports for Gallup: "Over two-thirds of Americans -- 71% -- have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in President Obama to do or recommend the right thing for the economy, a much higher level of confidence than is given to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, or the Democratic or Republican leaders in Congress."

David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times Magazine that Obama's economic "agenda is a bold one in many ways. Yet his tax code would still look more kindly on wealth than Nixon's, Kennedy's, Eisenhower's or that of any other president from F.D.R. to Carter." He points out that "yesterday's tax code, unlike today's, had separate marginal tax rates for the truly wealthy and the merely affluent."

Manuel Roig-Franzia writes in Sunday's Washington Post about his own busted scoop: "The identity of the first puppy -- the one that the Washington press corps has been yelping about for months, the one President Obama has seemed to delight in dropping hints about -- leaked out [Saturday]...The little guy is a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog given to the Obama girls as a gift by that Portuguese water dog-lovin' senator himself, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The girls named it Bo -- and let it be noted that you learned that here first. Malia and Sasha chose the name, because their cousins have a cat named Bo and because first lady Michelle Obama's father was nicknamed Diddley, a source said." Roig-Franzia has more today.

(The White House, incidentally, had planned to give the dog story exclusively to The Post today, to make amends for a New York Times scoop last month on the creation of a White House vegetable garden. But then a mysterious new Web site called firstdogcharlie.com ran a picture of the new dog, and TMZ.com soon followed.)

Rachel L. Swarns writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama's search for a church home has touched off a frenzied competition among ministers of various colors and creeds who are wooing the first family. The president, in turn, has sent emissaries to observe worship services, interview congregants and scrutinize pastors."

Matt Zapotosky and Hamil R. Harris write in The Washington Post that Obama celebrated Easter across the street from the White House, at St. John's Episcopal Church, but "questions remain about which D.C. church he will eventually call his own. Joshua DuBois, the White House's top faith adviser, released a statement yesterday saying the first family was 'honored to worship' at St. John's but 'has not made a decision yet on which church they will formally join in Washington.'"

Andrew Breitbart, one of the "Baracknophobes" Jon Stewart mocked last week, fights back on RealClearPolitics, accusing Stewart of "carrying water" for Obama. Breitbart gratuitously points out that Stewart was born with the last name Leibowitz, then writes: "Mr. Stewart can't stand anyone having a different opinion than his own. He's as fearful of an opposing voice as he is his own last name."

Life After Defeat

By Dan Froomkin
11:45 AM ET, 04/13/2009

Michael D. Shear's article in Saturday's Washington Post about Karl Rove's emergence as a leading critic of President Obama reminded me of how little Rove had changed.

While his former boss, George W. Bush, is leading a simple and insular new life in an upscale Dallas neighborhood, Rove has simply taken up where he left off.

And he's sticking with the signature tactics that so confounded his political opponents back when he was a force to be reckoned with -- back when it looked like he might just realize his vision of a permanent Republican majority. (Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?)

What makes Rove so special is how brazen he is in pursuing his own special form of jujitsu: He attacks his opponents where they are strongest and where he is actually most vulnerable himself.

As I explained in my April 4, 2007, column, Rove's genius is to "disdain the quaint constraints of reality." The ultimate example, of course, came during the 2004 campaign when Rove was marketing a man who had ducked service in Vietnam against a war hero. Somehow, Rove managed to make John Kerry look like the guy with the problem.

When it works, Rove doesn't only bloody his enemies, he sends the political discourse topsy turvy. It's almost like he stuns political observers into overlooking his own shortcomings.

Consider the astonishing hypocrisy of Rove accusing Obama of playing political hardball, of overpoliticizing the White House, or of being a divisive political figure. That was precisely Rove's legacy at the White House.

But Shear didn't get into any of that in his article, instead just noting Rove's new role and new arguments.

Shear also notes that Rove is now accusing Vice President Biden of being a liar after boasting of scolding Bush in a private get-together.

Rove biographer James Moore discussed Rove's suitability to make that charge with David Shuster on MSNBC Friday night (via Crooks and Liars).

Shuster: "In the CIA leak case, Karl Rove lied to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, knowing that McClellan would go out and repeat those lies. Later, Rove nearly got indicted for lying to federal investigators. Rove must know that he's damaged goods when it comes to issues of veracity. So what's he trying to do here?"

Moore: "I'm not sure. But how do you say, with all due respect, he's a blow hard? On the other hand -- but I have to suggest that there's something about Karl that is very -- we ought to, in many ways, feel sad about. There's something pathological about Karl's inability to integrate reality into what he views to be reality.

"This is a man who has made things up pathologically. There's a pathology to what Karl is doing and it goes on and on and on. And we're talking about a man who basically ran a lie factory in the White House under the White House Iraq Group, and has completely ignored everything that contradicts what Karl wants to be true."

Meanwhile, Eli Saslow writes in The Washington Post about Bush's new life: "The presidency that is remembered on Daria Place bears little resemblance to the one that most of the country continues to blame for its problems. Bush left Washington on Jan. 20 with two-thirds of Americans disapproving of his job performance -- one of the worst ratings ever for an outgoing U.S. president. In his return to private life, he has maintained tranquility by adhering to a basic philosophy...

"He lives squarely in the remaining 33 percent...

"His security is maintained by a daily routine that, intentionally or not, barricades him from the disapproving two-thirds of the nation. The 43rd president spends most weekends with his wife at their isolated ranch in Crawford, Tex., where he likes to wake up early, roam the 1,600 acres with a chainsaw and cut new bike trails. Most of his weekdays are spent 95 miles north, in Preston Hollow, an upper-class section of Dallas where he lived for seven years before becoming governor of Texas in 1995. He has declined to give interviews, except to discuss baseball or his book, and neighbors remain silent so as not to violate his privacy."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "The old gang is getting back together next week in Dallas for a reunion of sorts, the Bush team’s first since leaving the White House. On tap is a dinner with the former president and a daylong discussion of the future George W. Bush Policy Institute."

But, Baker notes: "Not coming to next week’s session is former Vice President Dick Cheney, who in the final days of the administration argued with Mr. Bush about his refusal to pardon Mr. Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr., who was convicted of perjury for his role in the leak of Valerie Wilson’s employment with the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Cheney later went on television to air his grievances with Mr. Bush, while also accusing Mr. Obama of endangering the country."

Watch the Easter Egg Roll

By Dan Froomkin
10:05 AM ET, 04/13/2009

Can't make it to today's White House Easter Egg Roll? Well, you can watch it on four official video livestreams. Here are the events related to eggs, music, stories and food. Here's the schedule of events.

It promises to be a bit of a madhouse. As Garance Franke-Ruta writes in The Washington Post: "30,000 people from 45 states are expected to attend -- about 10,000 more than usual. The theme of this year's event is 'Let's go play,' to encourage young people to lead healthy and active lives. The South Lawn egg roll, a Washington tradition since 1878, is open in two-hour shifts to pre-ticketed families with children 10 or younger and features athletic activities -- such as dance, yoga, soccer and basketball -- with stars of Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association and the Women's National Basketball Association; cooking classes with celebrity chefs such as José Andrés, Spike Mendelsohn and Art Smith; and live music from the likes of Fergie, Ziggy Marley and Jessica Jarrell."

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:39 AM ET, 04/13/2009

Jason Sudeikis portrays a somewhat overeager Vice President Biden on Saturday Night Live.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:37 AM ET, 04/13/2009

Mike Luckovich on the Obama bunny, Walt Handelsman on unintended consequences, Steve Sack on military contracts, Bob Gorrell on mixed feelings, Mike Keefe on nuclear disarmament, and Bob Engelhart and Jim Morin on looking back at the European tour.

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