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Another 'Test' for Obama

By Dan Froomkin
1:21 PM ET, 04/28/2009

If you think all the 100-days judgments are premature, get a load of the pundits likening the swine flu outbreak to Hurricane Katrina in terms of its potential to be a test of President Obama's mettle.

I thought his mettle was being tested already. And although the media hysteria is undeniable, it's way too early to say how big a challenge swine flu will really present. (And for the record, I did call Katrina right away.)

Right now, the top priority is keeping everyone calm -- something that plays to Obama's strengths. But it's always possible that things could go pear-shaped in a hurry.

Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu write for The Washington Post: "As they confront the growing swine flu crisis, President Obama's administration is attempting to implement a never-before-tested pandemic response plan while dozens of key public health and emergency response jobs in the administration remain vacant....

"In some ways, such a scenario would combine the test posed by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which occurred eight months into the administration of former president George W. Bush at a time when many key Justice Department and intelligence positions were vacant, and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, which struck just one year after a national response plan was overhauled."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "While health officials scramble to keep up with the fast-moving virus, it is deeply disquieting that the Obama administration has few of its top health officials in place."

Craig Crawford, blogging for CQ, recalls the last time swine flu became a political issue: "Gerald Ford's decision to inoculate every person in the country (including himself) resulted in a political debacle that contributed to a reputation for incompetence that scuttled his 1976 election bid. The vaccination program was plagued by delays and became a public relations nightmare as Ford was accused, perhaps unfairly, of coddling drug companies aiming to profit from the scare. By the time the program was canceled only about 24% of the population was inoculated - and the president ended up looking foolish."

Meanwhile, here's what's actually happening. Robert Pear and Gardiner Harris write in the New York Times: "The Obama administration dispatched high-level officials from several agencies Monday to allay concerns about swine flu and to demonstrate that it was fully prepared to confront the outbreak even as the president said there was 'not a cause for alarm.'...

"As the administration responds to its first domestic emergency, it is building on concrete preparations made during the tenure of President George W. Bush that have won praise from public health experts. But its actions are also informed by what Mr. Bush learned in his response to Hurricane Katrina: that political management of a crisis, and of public expectations, can be as important as the immediate response....

"[B]ehind the scenes at the White House, aides said the president was directing his administration to be ready in case an alarm needed to be sounded. A full report on the swine flu was added to Mr. Obama's daily intelligence briefing, with updates given to him throughout the day.

"Aides said they were mindful that how the president conducted himself in this period, both substantively and stylistically, would be long remembered. But they adamantly rejected the idea that this situation was at all comparable to that of the hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005."

Yash Gupta writes in The Washington Post's "On Leadership" forum that "there's tremendous urgency for leaders today to respond when faced with this kind of situation.

"The first job for a leader at a time such as this, especially a head of government, is to communicate. He must assure people that things are under control, and he can achieve this by quickly and clearly outlining several important pieces of information...

"A leader has to strike the perfect balance in tone - cautious but not alarmist. When should he begin to issue precautions to the public? I think early in the process. Otherwise, imagine the anger and resentment if the disease were to spread and people felt they hadn't been warned. In the case of a potential pandemic, a lack of information could be literally fatal."

The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "The swine flu outbreak offers an unexpected political challenge for President Obama, and a readiness test for the nation's public health system. So far, Obama is doing what he can to send the right message to the public: Don't panic over the swine flu threat, but don't ignore it either."

And Chris Cillizza writes for The Washington Post that the swine flu episode also "offers Obama and his senior team the chance to prove that even amid an economic recession, two foreign wars and a debate over whether to prosecute CIA officials involved in harsh interrogation practices, he (and they) can handle a worldwide heath crisis.

"'I don't think it hurts at all,' said Democratic consultant Phil Singer of the swine flu. 'Instead of being a retrospective on the last 100 days, the President can use the milestone to demonstrate his leadership skills in real time.'"

Yesterday, the White House press corps was obsessed with the president's medical, not political, exposure. As Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post, "the White House struggled Monday to convince the world -- and in particular the media -- that the president had not been infected.

"Speculation had exploded after foreign newspapers reported that the president's tour guide at a Mexico City museum on April 16 had died from flulike symptoms the next day. (He did die -- but not of swine flu, it turns out, or on April 17.)

"In his daily briefing to reporters, press secretary Robert Gibbs became exasperated after saying over and over again that Obama was not infected, not even sick."

99 and Counting

By Dan Froomkin
1:05 PM ET, 04/28/2009

Get ready for a veritable explosion of assessment tomorrow, as President Obama reaches a milestone.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "The wave crests tomorrow -- the actual Day 100 -- with a full day of cable chatter and, among other observances, a special section in The Washington Post. The notion that a presidential term can be reasonably assessed in just more than three months seems a stretch, especially in light of recent history.

"But the strong public interest in all things Obama has combined with a journalistic love of anniversaries to forge a prime media marketing opportunity."

There's already a pretty clear consensus that Obama has dramatically recast the nation's foreign policy. (See, for background, my April 7 and April 16 posts.)

Steven R. Hurst writes for the Associated Press: "In just 100 days, President Barack Obama has broken the American foreign policy mold.

"He's turned the focus of the anti-terror war away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan, lifted decades-old restrictions on Cuban-Americans' visiting and sending money to their homeland, moved to reverse a slide in relations with Russia and reached out to tell Muslims worldwide that the U.S. is not their enemy. He's declared repeatedly he knows the United States isn't immune to mistakes.

"The scope, sweep and breadth of the new president's engagement abroad -- two major trips, significant policy directives -- are dizzying, and all the more so given he took office in the midst of the country's worst economic and financial crises in decades."

Hans Nichols and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan write for Bloomberg: "Barack Obama has used the first 100 days of his presidency to repudiate the go-it-alone tone of George W. Bush's foreign policy, announcing to friends and foes alike that America will lead the world by listening to it."

Of course, not everyone is impressed. Foreign Policy magazine asks "some of the best foreign-policy minds in Washington and beyond to rate the U.S. president's first 100 days in office. The result? 11 As, 16 Bs, 7 Cs, and a D."

The "D" is from Elliot Abrams, the former Bush administration official and Iran-contra conspirator. He writes: "The 'apology tours' are not the administration's worst offense, and would only merit a C. The D reflects the abandonment of brave men and women throughout the world fighting for human rights and civil liberties."

But foreign policy arguably is not the real measure of this administration.

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "The economy will determine whether Barack Obama achieves what few presidents have: a far-reaching change in American politics that might even earn its own title and legacy.

"Will there be an Obama version of the New Deal, the Great Society or the Reagan Revolution?

"Afghanistan, North Korea and other foreign hot spots certainly will test Obama. But the deeply troubled economy is his signature challenge and the focus of his greatest efforts, attention and gambles in his first 100 days in office."

Amanda Ruggeri writes for U.S. News: "When he launched his campaign for president, Barack Obama could not have foreseen that the signature accomplishment of his first 100 days in office would likely involve spending $787 billion on an economic stimulus package. But the effects of that piece of legislation — one heavy with both expenditures and expectations of economic recovery — may well determine Obama's success as president. Two and a half months after its passage, it's still early to evaluate the full ramifications of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the economy. But there are some promising signs."

Susan Page and Mimi Hall write in USA Today that's is the next 100 days that will really be key: "Since his inauguration 14 weeks ago, Obama has thrown a remarkable number of balls into the air — committing trillions of dollars in spending and dramatically extending the reach of the federal government in the economy. He has launched rescue plans for automakers and beleaguered banks, outlined timelines to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and send them to Afghanistan, and reversed his predecessor's policies on everything from stem-cell research to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Now those balls are coming down."

Arianna Huffington blogs on her Web site that "any list of the most impressive achievements of Obama's first 100 days should start with the intangible qualities of transformational leadership --- from the president's personal equanimity (which Robert Reich described as 'the serene center of the cyclone -- exuding calm when most Americans are petrified') to his masterful use of the bully pulpit." She also gives a thumbs up on the stimulus package, the national service bill and a progressive budget, among other achievements -- and a thumbs down on the bank bailout, Afghanistan and torture accountability.

Jonah Goldberg writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column that Obama's liberal arrogance may yet fuel a conservative comeback: "American politics didn't come to an end with Obama's election, and nothing in politics breeds corrective antibodies more quickly than overreaching arrogance. And by that measure, Obama's first 100 days have been a huge down payment on the inevitable correction to come."

Meanwhile, opinion polls continue to show that Obama has great public support.

CBS News reports that "Obama's 68 percent approval rating at the 100 day mark is better than the ratings of his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush (whose approval at this point was 56 percent) and Bill Clinton (whose approval was 49 percent). Going back to 1953, only two presidents - John F. Kennedy (83 percent) and Dwight Eisenhower (72 percent) - had a higher approval rating at this point in their terms.

"The president has the overwhelming support of Democrats, nine in ten of whom approve of the president. Just 31 percent of Republicans agree, however. The party divisions are similar to those seen under President's George W. Bush and Clinton - Mr. Bush had the support of just 35 percent of Democrats at the 100 days mark, while Mr. Clinton was backed by just 26 percent of Republicans at this point.

"Mr. Obama enjoys the approval of Americans overall on every major issue: Iraq (63 percent approval), the economy (61 percent), foreign policy (59 percent), Afghanistan (56 percent) and terrorism (55 percent). He is widely seen as a different kind of politician, one who Americans say cares about them and can unite different groups. Most say he has already made progress on critical issues and that he is tough enough to make the hard decisions required of a president."

Dalia Sussman blogs for the New York Times: "Obama entered the presidency promising a new kind of leadership in Washington, and after observing him for nearly 100 days in the White House, most Americans do say he is not your typical politician, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Marjorie Connelly write for the New York Times: "Barack Obama's presidency seems to be altering the public perception of race relations in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans now say race relations are generally good, and the percentage of blacks who say so has doubled since last July, according to the latest New York Times/ CBS News poll."

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:45 PM ET, 04/28/2009

Brian Stelter writes in the New York Times: "In late 2007, there was the first crack of daylight into the government's use of waterboarding during interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees. On Dec. 10, John Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. officer who had participated in the capture of the suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in 2002, appeared on ABC News to say that while he considered waterboarding a form of torture, the technique worked and yielded results very quickly.

"Mr. Zubaydah started to cooperate after being waterboarded for 'probably 30, 35 seconds,' Mr. Kiriakou told the ABC reporter Brian Ross. 'From that day on he answered every question.'

"His claims — unverified at the time, but repeated by dozens of broadcasts, blogs and newspapers — have been sharply contradicted by a newly declassified Justice Department memo that said waterboarding had been used on Mr. Zubaydah 'at least 83 times.'"

I wrote about Kiriakou in my December 11, 2007, column. While I focused on his willingness to call waterboarding what it is -- torture -- I also noted that he was making "the unsubstantiated claim that torture worked. Kiriakou told Ross...that, as a result of waterboarding, suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah coughed up information that 'disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.'"

I contrasted that with Ron Suskind's reporting that Zubaydah was a mentally ill minor functionary and that most if not all of the information he provided to the CIA under duress was either old news -- or entirely made up.

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald today documents: "(a) just how pervasive that 'Zubayduh-confessed-after-30-seconds' myth became and -- more importantly -- (b) how obvious it was to real journalists that Kiriakou's claim required serious skepticism and doubt."

Kevin Drum blogs for Mother Jones: "Kiriakou's testimony was immensely influential at the time, but it's pretty clear now that he was wrong: unless the CIA continued waterboarding him just for sport, Zubaydah didn't break after a single session. Or ten sessions. Or fifty. And if Kiriakou was wrong about that, what are the odds that he was also wrong about the 'dozens of attacks'? Or about the fact that waterboarding was responsible for any actionable information at all?

"Ron Suskind, on the other hand, hasn't been contradicted at all. As near as I can tell, his reporting has stood up almost perfectly in the face of subsequent evidence. If you want to know what really happened to Zubaydah, his book remains the gold standard for now."

Meanwhile, former war crimes prosecutor Mark J. McKeon writes in a Washington Post op-ed that "we cannot expect to regain our position of leadership in the world unless we hold ourselves to the same standards that we expect of others. That means punishing the most senior government officials responsible for these crimes. We have demanded this from other countries that have returned from walking on the dark side; we should expect no less from ourselves...

"[T]orture and cruel treatment are as much violations of international humanitarian law as are murder and genocide. They demand a judicial response. We cannot expect the rest of humanity to live in a world that we ourselves are not willing to inhabit."

Washington Post opinion columnist Richard Cohen calls for repudiation of torture "because it degrades us and runs counter to our national values." He even likens the Bush-era torture memos to the work of Nazis.

But he insists that "it is important to understand that abolishing torture will not make us safer. Terrorists do not give a damn about our morality, our moral authority or what one columnist [Paul Krugman] called 'our moral compass.'"

After citing his vivid memories of 9/11, he repeats: "I know that nothing Obama did this month about torture made America safer."

But Cohen doesn't address the evidence that our torture policies served as a hugely effective recruitment tool for our enemies. In congressional testimony last year, for instance, Former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora listed three ways torture had made America -- and specifically its troops -- less safe. Most significantly, he said "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."

There's also some new poll data out on torture. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Marjorie Connelly write in the New York Times that the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll "found broad support for Mr. Obama's approach on a variety of issues, including one of the most contentious: whether Congress should investigate the harsh interrogation tactics authorized by George W. Bush. Sixty-two percent of Americans share Mr. Obama's view that hearings are unnecessary."

But consider that the poll only asked about a congressional investigation -- while advocates of further investigation are much more focused on either setting up an independent commission or appointing a special prosecutor.

Among the other findings, 46 percent said waterboarding "and other aggressive interrogation tactics" are never justified, compared to 37 percent who said they are sometimes justified. And 71 percent said they consider waterboarding to be torture.

And a new Gallup Poll "finds 51% of Americans in favor and 42% opposed to an investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration."

Asked if there were to be an investigation, who they would want to conduct it, only 8 percent said Congress; 25 percent said a bipartisan commission; 22 percent said the Justice Department; and 43 percent expressed no preference.

Another finding, however, is disturbing -- and can't be written off to bad wording. I guess journalists aren't doing a sufficient job of explaining what really happened.

Asked "Based on what you know or have read, do you think the use of harsh interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects was justified or not justified?", 55 percent said they found them justified.

Link Bait

By Dan Froomkin
12:40 PM ET, 04/28/2009

In his very first opinion column for the New York Times, young, Internet-bred conservative Ross Douthat brings the concept of "link bait" to the Times's online opinion section -- by making the most absurd statement imaginable just to get attention. Think I'm exaggerating? Here's the headline of his inaugural offering: "Cheney for President."

Six hundred words later, it's clear he's not serious. He certainly isn't saying he wishes Cheney were president. He's just musing about what it would have meant for the Republican party for Cheney to have run and lost. He argues that it might have jolted the conservative movement into rejecting the "particular strain of right-wingery" that Cheney represents: "a conservatism of supply-side economics and stress positions, uninterested in social policy and dismissive of libertarian qualms about the national-security state."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 04/28/2009

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "House-Senate negotiators on Monday night announced the agreement on a $3.5 trillion budget outline for 2010, with votes expected in the full House and Senate by Wednesday." The pact "would give an endorsement to President Barack Obama's agenda by his 100th day in office...[and] would prevent Senate Republicans from delaying or blocking Obama's plan to vastly expand government-subsidized health care when it advances this fall. The $3.5 trillion plan for the budget year starting Oct. 1 embraces several of Obama's key goals besides a health care overhaul, including funds for domestic programs and clean energy, and a tax increase for individuals making more than $200,000 a year or couples making more than $250,000."

Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post: "Once a symbol of capitalist might and U.S. industrial prowess, General Motors would be half owned by the Treasury under a new sweeping plan that would also shut down GM's Pontiac operations, lay off 21,000 workers and impose harsh terms on the company's bondholders. The partial nationalization proposal [is] a last-ditch effort developed by GM and the Obama administration's auto task force to keep the leading U.S. carmaker out of bankruptcy....The move would represent one of the largest ownership stakes the U.S. government has ever taken in an American manufacturer. But the Obama administration said yesterday that it would not seek any seats on the company's board and vowed to take a hands-off approach to GM management."

A.G. Sulzberger and Matthew L. Wald write for the New York Times: "An Air Force One lookalike, the backup plane for the one regularly used by the president, flew low over parts of New York and New Jersey on Monday morning, accompanied by two F-16 fighters, so Air Force photographers could take pictures high above the New York harbor. But the exercise — conducted without any notification to the public — caused momentary panic in some quarters... By the afternoon, the situation had turned into a political fuse box, with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg saying that he was 'furious' that he had not been told in advance about the flyover.... When President Obama learned of the episode on Monday afternoon, aides said, he, too, was furious. Senior administration officials conveyed the president's anger in a meeting with [Louis E. Caldera, director of the White House Military Office]... At 4:39 p.m. Monday, the White House issued an apology for the flyover."

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "Interior Secretary Ken Salazar instructed the Justice Department yesterday to seek a court order to overturn a Bush administration regulation allowing mining companies to dump their waste near rivers and streams, calling the regulation 'legally defective.' The announcement, coming on the same day the Environmental Protection Agency said it was taking a second look at a handful of Bush-era rules on air pollution, shows that the Obama administration continues to chip away at its predecessor's environmental policies."

Alan Zibel writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration is expected to announce Tuesday that it is expanding its plan to stem the housing crisis by offering mortgage lenders incentives to lower borrowers' bills on second mortgages."

Krissah Thompson and Michelle Boorstein write in The Washington Post: "Everyone in Washington's church-going community seems to have an opinion about where the first family should go to church -- and nowhere is hope higher than among the city's scores of predominantly black churches, which are in the mix for the first time....Like so many choices the first family is making in this city, the search for a church has spurred discussions about the state of race relations and a hot competition for its mark of approval."

The Associated Press reports: "Fox became the first broadcast network to turn down a request by President Obama for air time, opting to show its drama 'Lie to Me' on Wednesday instead of the president's prime-time news conference."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:20 AM ET, 04/28/2009

Pat Oliphant and Tony Auth on Obama's new problem, Gary McCoy on a possible solution, John Darkow on Obama's stress position, Joel Pett on Obama's bailout plan, Rob Rogers on the GOP's 100 days in the wilderness and Steve Benson on FDR's verdict.

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