Obama Connects Most of the Dots

By Dan Froomkin
2:10 PM ET, 04/14/2009

Obama at Georgetown today. (Brendan Smalowski/Bloomberg News)

Aware that many Americans are wondering how all his different economic programs and policies fit together, President Obama today tried to connect the dots.

He explained why he believes each of his various short-term economic initiatives is a critical element of the economic recovery, how his ambitious long-term budget proposals are essential to building an economy that won't crash like this one did, and that, although some initiatives are already producing glimmers of hope, most of the hard work still lies ahead.

At the heart of a forceful speech delivered at Georgetown University, Obama placed powerful biblical imagery from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, likening the boom-and-bust economy he inherited to a house built on sand and the future U.S. economy he is working toward one built on a rock.

He strongly rebutted the criticism, largely from Republicans, that he shouldn't be spending so much either now or in the long term. He noted how it is economic common sense that "the last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending." And, in an analogy that resonated particularly well with an audience heavy on college students, he talked about the need to invest in the future.

"Look, just as a cash-strapped family may cut back on all kinds of luxuries but will still insist on spending money to get their children through college -- will refuse to have their kids drop out of college and go to work in some fast food place, even though that might bring in some income in the short term, because they're thinking about the long term -- so we as a country have to make current choices with an eye to the future."

He stressed his dedication to what he called the "five pillars" of his new "house upon a rock": "Number one, new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation, not reckless risk-taking. Number two, new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive. Number three, new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and new industries. Number four, new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses. And, number five, new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations."

He even suggested that entitlement reform -- including putting Social Security "on firmer footing" -- and tax reform would be on his agenda after those other issues were addressed.

But he failed to persuasively rebut the most urgent critique of his economic policies -- one that can't be written off either to reflexive partisanship from Republicans or defensiveness from the Washington establishment.

Obama raised it on his own, noting that some critics think he has "been too timid" about shoring up the banking system. "This is essentially the nationalization argument that some of you may have heard. And the argument says that the federal government should have already preemptively stepped in and taken over major financial institutions the way that the FDIC currently intervenes in smaller banks and that our failure -- my administration's failure -- to do so is yet another example of Washington coddling Wall Street: 'Why aren't you tougher on the banks?'"

But his answer was vague and unconvincing: "So let me be clear. The reason we have not taken this step has nothing to do with any ideological or political judgment we've made about government involvement in banks. It's certainly not because of any concern we have for the management and shareholders whose actions helped to cause this mess. Rather, it’s because we believe that preemptive government takeovers are likely to end up costing taxpayers even more in the end, and because it’s more likely to undermine than create confidence."

Obama's belief has never been in question. It's the reasoning behind that belief that we've been missing, as well as the source of his faith in the judgment of economic advisers. But he once again left us all in the dark on that count.

Obama ended his speech with his most extensive critique yet of the weak-willed and easily distracted Washington establishment whose support he needs to get his agenda put into law. He called on leaders to toughen up and act in a sustained fashion.

"For too long, too many in Washington put off our decisions for some other time on some other day. There has been a tendency to spend a lot of time scoring political points instead of rolling up sleeves to solve real problems. There's also an impatience that characterizes this town, an attention span that has only grown shorter with the 24-hour news cycle, that insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results or higher poll numbers.

"When a crisis hits, there's all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment until the furor has died down and the media coverage has moved on to something else, instead of confronting the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way. This can't be one of those times: the challenges are too great; the stakes are too high.

"I know how difficult it is for members of Congress in both parties to grapple with some of the big decisions we face right now. I'd love if these problems were coming at us one at a time instead of five or six at a time. It's more than most Congresses and most presidents have to deal with in a lifetime.

"But we have been called to govern in extraordinary times. And that requires an extraordinary sense of responsibility to ourselves, to the men and women who sent us here, to the many generations whose lives will be affected for good or for ill because of what we do here."

Obama's Timid Cuban Move

By Dan Froomkin
12:00 PM ET, 04/14/2009

Dan Restrepo, senior White House adviser on Latin America, announced changes in America's Cuba policy in Spanish yesterday. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

There's nothing the least bit bold about the baby steps toward engagement with Cuba that the White House announced yesterday. And President Obama shouldn't be getting any credit for bucking the Cuban lobby -- not when the Cuban American National Foundation, the archetypal redoubt of hysterical anti-Castroism, asked him last week to do even more.

Indeed, the big news is that Obama is leaving the Bush Administration's failed Cuban strategy largely in place, including a trade embargo and, at least thus far, a refusal to engage in diplomatic relations with one of our nearest neighbors.

Consider, for instance, that the most far-reaching change announced yesterday, allowing travel to Cuba, only applies to people with family there. Others will still face fines and criminal prosecution.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Damien Cave write in the New York Times that Obama "demonstrated Monday that he was willing to open the door toward greater engagement with Cuba — but at this point, only a crack.

"The announcement represents the most significant shift in United States policy toward Cuba in decades, and it is a reversal of the hard line taken by President George W. Bush."

And yet, as Stolberg and Cave point out: "It comes as Mr. Obama is preparing to meet later this week in Trinidad and Tobago with Latin American leaders, who want him to normalize relations with Cuba and its leader, Raúl Castro.

"The White House made clear on Monday that Mr. Obama, who campaigned on improving relations with Cuba, was not willing to go that far, at least not yet."

Well, could yesterday's actions be seen as the laying a foundation for more far-reaching change?

"'We really don't know yet what he's got in mind for the long term,' said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which advocates a further loosening of the restrictions. She said the administration may be trying to take 'baby steps toward building confidence' by letting the Cuban exile community in Miami, which has traditionally opposed any softening of American policy, get used to the idea....

"[S]ome experts, like Philip Peters, a Cuba specialist and vice president at the Lexington Institute, a policy research center, argue that a president who is willing to engage Iran and Syria ought to be willing to engage Cuba."

Lesley Clark and Luisa Yanez write in the Miami Herald that the policy change "strikes middle ground, reversing former President George W. Bush's efforts to tighten restrictions against Cuba but stopping far short of some efforts in Congress to lift all travel restrictions to the island."

Carol E. Lee writes for Politico: "For most of the recent history, U.S.-Cuba policy has been driven by the sentiment felt among South Florida's Cuban-American exile community, which remained fervently anti-Fidel Castro.

"They voted lockstep Republican since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion under President John F. Kennedy and made it clear that politicians who didn't share their hard-line views on Castro risked being tagged as 'soft on communism' – a label no Democrat could afford to wear.

"But in recent years, younger Cuban-Americans and more recent Cuban exiles have more moderate views than those who fled during Castro's early years. And some of the original Cuban exiles who strongly supported the U.S. embargo against Cuba are having second thoughts, because the policy has yet to topple Castro's regime.

"Also, there was some backlash in the Cuban-American community to the stricter restrictions adopted by President George W. Bush in 2004."

And consider that even the Cuban American National Foundation has concluded that engagement, in contrast to the current strategy, has a chance of working. In a policy statement issued last week, the foundation declared that existing policy "relegates the U.S.'s role to that of passive observer rather than active supporter of the process of democratization...

"Under the Administration of George W. Bush, Cuba policy was defined by the desire to placate perceived domestic political interests, leading to the enactment of policies that lacked strategic thought or benefit and that ignored Cuba's increasingly influential role in Latin America and its active support for anti-American leadership in the region."

The foundation specifically asked for Cuban Americans to be allowed to visit the island: "Cuban-Americans are in the best position to assess the needs of Cubans on the island and can most efficiently direct essential remittances to them. Not only will such a policy provide increased humanitarian aid but it will also permit the Cuban people to become more independent from the State in meeting basic needs and in creating and developing civil society."

Matthew Walter writes for Bloomberg on the Cuban response, where "former President Fidel Castro said President Barack Obama should completely lift an embargo on trade with the communist country...

"'The conditions are there for Obama to use his talent for a constructive policy to put an end to what has failed for almost half a century,' Castro wrote yesterday in a 'reflection' published on the Cubadebate.cu Web site."

Jorge Castañeda and Andrés Martinez write for The Washington Post: "The minor adjustments he has made to American policy towards Cuba simply take us back to the days of the Clinton administration, a time when the trade embargo and the travel ban had already proven to be counterproductive anachronisms. They still are."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Obama's action yesterday -- he eased some restrictions on travel, gifts and remittances, but only for Cuban Americans -- is barely a start. He should go so far as to actually base our Cuba policy on reality. After all, we've tried everything else.

"Those who argue for keeping in place the trade embargo and what remains of the travel restrictions -- and even predict that these measures, imposed at a time when the Cold War was getting chillier, will bring the Castro government to its knees any day now -- have been drinking too many mojitos. Claims that the United States would somehow surrender valuable "leverage" by lifting the sanctions are purest fantasy....

"What we should do is lift the embargo, which Obama hasn't meaningfully disturbed, and end the travel ban for everyone. That would put the onus on the Cubans to somehow keep hordes of American capitalists and tourists from infecting the island with dangerous, counterrevolutionary ideas."

Steve Clemons writes in his influential blog that "what was interesting in today's announcement was the fact that his envoys for making today's announcement -- [press secretary Robert] Gibbs and [senior White House adviser on Latin America] Dan Restrepo -- gave no indication that the President felt uneasy issuing executive orders removing all restrictions for Cuban-Americans but not addressing the travel rights of all other classes of American citizens.

"I want to give credit to Dan Restrepo saying that today's policy was a starting point -- before Gibbs cut him off.

"So, applause for the Cuban-American oriented efforts. Better than nothing -- but not nearly enough. And the precedent is worrisome and disconcerting.

"We did not open up relations with Vietnam by restricting travel to Vietnamese-Americans. We really should not be doing this with Cuba either."

Finally, none of this should come as a surprise. It's exactly what candidate Obama promised he would do in a speech in Miami just under a year ago: "After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people....

"It's time for more than tough talk that never yields results. It's time for a new strategy. There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. That's why I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island. It's time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It's time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.

"I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That's the way to bring about real change in Cuba – through strong, smart and principled diplomacy."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:44 AM ET, 04/14/2009

Andy Barr writes for Politico: "Three months into his presidency, Barack Obama stands out as perhaps the most trusted figure in American politics. In a new Public Strategies Inc./Politico national survey of 1,000 registered voters, Obama outdistances figures on both the left and the right in earning the public's trust, with two-thirds of respondents saying they trust the president 'to identify the right solutions to the problems we face as a nation."

Of course, consider who he was up against: "Voters were asked the same question of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and the two major political parties. Among those choices, only the Democratic Party was trusted to find the right solutions by a majority of voters, 52 percent to 40 percent."

Paul Steinhauser writes for CNN: "A new poll indicates Americans don't agree with former Vice President Dick Cheney's recent assertion that President Barack Obama's actions have increased the chances of a terrorist attack against the United States....Seventy-two percent of those questioned in the poll released Monday disagree with Cheney's view that some of Obama's actions have put the country at greater risk, with 26 percent agreeing with the former vice president."

Ezra Klein blogs for the American Prospect: "You know what might be interesting? A serious story interviewing an array of terrorism experts at length and asking whether there's truth to Cheney's claims. You could even expand the scope of the question and ask prominent terrorism skeptics like John Mueller whether it even matters if Cheney's claims are true, or whether a slightly increased risk of terrorism is overwhelmed by the economic and diplomatic dangers posed by the Bush/Cheney approach."

Scott Horton writes for the Daily Beast: "Spanish prosecutors have decided to press forward with a criminal investigation targeting former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five top associates over their role in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo."

Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker that the prosecutors were inspired in part by Philippe Sands's book, "Torture Team." The criminal complaint is aimed at "the same six former Bush Administration officials he had named, weighing charges that they had enabled and abetted torture by justifying the abuse of terrorism suspects....Sands reiterated a warning that he made in his book. 'If I were they,' he said, referring to the former officials in question, 'I would think carefully before setting foot outside the United States. They are now, and forever in the future, at risk of arrest. Until this is sorted out, they are in their own legal black hole.'"

David E. Sanger writes for the New York Times: "The Obama administration and its European allies are preparing proposals that would shift strategy toward Iran by dropping a longstanding American insistence that Tehran rapidly shut down nuclear facilities during the early phases of negotiations over its atomic program, according to officials involved in the discussions."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that "in a world of depression and war, the discussion of an American shipping captain's successful rescue from pirates over the weekend brought the rare sensation of adventure on the high seas to the White House briefing room yesterday -- and everybody seemed to enjoy the diversion."

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Former president George W. Bush and some of his White House aides are gathering in Dallas this week to plan the future George W. Bush Policy Institute. There, I guess, they will ponder grand themes and marble foyers, but I propose they begin by simply renaming the place. I suggest naming it the 'George W. Bush Institute of Management Failure' and dedicating it to studying how this presidency went so wrong -- a task as big as Texas itself."

The Washington Post's Scott Wilson profiles Mona Sutphen, the White House deputy chief of staff for policy and "perhaps the least well known of the Obama administration's senior advisers."

Michael Cieply writes in the New York Times: "John McTiernan, facing an expected new indictment for his role in the Anthony Pellicano Hollywood wiretapping case, is striking back — with a movie. In an extraordinary and somewhat startling challenge to officials who have threatened him with jail time for lying to an F.B.I. agent, Mr. McTiernan....has completed a documentary that accuses the Bush administration of having pursued the Pellicano case as part of a far-ranging conspiracy under the direction of Karl Rove to prosecute Democrats."

Where the Wild POTUS Was

By Dan Froomkin
10:10 AM ET, 04/14/2009

Wanna watch President Obama howl?

The Houston Chronicle's Hailey Branson writes in a pool report about Obama's visit to the storytime area of the White House Easter Egg Roll yesterday morning: "After greeting the group of a few dozen children sitting on the lawn in front of him and the onlookers behind a green wooden fence, the President began reading 'Where the Wild Things Are' by Maurice Sendak. As he read, he held the pictures out for the children to see. He stood on the grass, close to the children.

"Mr. Obama pointed to one picture in the book and said, 'That's a wild thing. It's like a dragon-looking thing.' At one point, he got the group of children to try staring without blinking their eyes. There were some highly-amusing kids' bug-eyed faces, and one little girl's eyes were so big the President started laughing.

"Mr. Obama asked the children if they had ever been in a 'wild rumpus' like the book was describing. As he read about the imaginary beasts in the book and the adventures of the book's main character (a little boy named Max wearing a wolf suit), Mr. Obama howled and spoke in a monster voice.

"'You guys look like you have a wild rumpus all the time,' he told the kids.

"When Mr. Obama finished the story, almost all of the children clapped, but one started crying. 'These wild things can be a little scary,' Obama said with a smile as someone picked up the boy and held him."

Petula Dvorak has more in The Washington Post about the festivities enjoyed by the largest crowd ever.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:50 AM ET, 04/14/2009

Jimmy Margulies, Ann Telnaes, Tom Toles, John Darkow, Tim Goheen, Rob Rogers, and Daryl Cagle on the new White House dog, Nate Beeler and Steve Sack on the Easter Egg Roll, Scott Stantis on an Obama success, Jeff Danziger on Afghanistan, and Dan Wasserman on Obamaman!

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