Recapturing the Campaign Spirit

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 04/29/2009

In his first visit to Missouri since a massive rally held two days before he was elected president, Barack Obama recalled the spirit that motivated his campaign and said nobody should be surprised by the scope of his ambitions.

Casting his first 100 days as just the beginning of a long journey, he declared himself "pleased with the progress we've made" but "not satisfied," and "confident in the future" but "not content with the present."

It was in his Inaugural address on January 20 that Obama said: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."

This morning, he told the St. Louis audience: "Today, on my 100th day in office, I've come back to report to you, the American people, that we have begun to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and we've begun the work of remaking America."

Taking obvious pleasure in being out of Washington, Obama marveled at some of the criticism he gets here. "Now, I've got to say that -- that some of the people in Washington have been surprised. They said, 'Boy, he's so ambitious. He's been trying to do so much,'" Obama said. "Now, maybe they're not accustomed to this, but there's no mystery to what we've done. The priorities that we've acted upon were the things that we said we'd do during the campaign. (Applause)

"I mean, it's not -- it's not like anybody should be surprised. The policies we proposed were plans we talking about for two years, in places like this all across the country with ordinary Americans. The changes that we've made are the changes we promised. That's what you should expect from a president.

"You may not always agree with me, but if you take a look at what I said I was going to do when I was running for office and you now look at what we are in the middle of doing, we're doing what we said we'd do."

He also thanked the public for being more patient than the pundits.

"The crisis that we're confronting was many years in the making. It will take us time to overcome it. We've come a long way. We can see the light on the horizon, but we've got a much longer journey ahead. And one of the encouraging things for me is the fact that the American people know this. You know that our progress has to be measured in the results that we achieve over many months and years, not the minute-by-minute talk in the media.

"And you know that progress comes from hard choices and hard work, not miracles. I'm not a miracle worker. We've got a lot of tough choices, and hard decisions, and hard work ahead of us."

Obama -- and his agenda -- seem to draw strength from the people who live outside the Beltway. And time and again today, Obama made it clear where his heart is. "My campaign wasn't born in Washington," he said. "My campaign was rooted in neighborhoods just like this one, in towns and cities all across America, rooted in folks who work hard and look after their families and seek a brighter children -- future for their children and for their communities and for their country.....

"You're who I'm working for."

Tonight, however, Obama will come face to face with those purveyors of "minute-by-minute" talk in his third prime-time press conference.

The Change Agent

By Dan Froomkin
12:15 PM ET, 04/29/2009

Obama in the Oval Office (AP photo)

He promised change, and boy has he delivered.

Looking back over the first 100 days of Barack Obama's presidency, one can't help but be awed by the tectonic shifts he has set in motion, even as he tries to steady a heaving economy.

It's all pretty much exactly what he said he would do, it's just that the scale is bigger than anyone anticipated. His startlingly bold and staggeringly large budget proposals reflect not a change in heart or a new agenda but a clear-eyed recognition of how dramatically off course the country was when he took over, and how thinking small just won't cut it.

His re-engagement with the international community, including a willingness to listen and treat others with respect -- even though we knew it was coming -- is just so different from what we've grown used to that it comes as a profound shock.

And consider that part of what is making the Obama presidency so big is the disproportionately large mess George W. Bush left for him to clean up. Part of what makes it seem so radical is the inevitable tension with a Washington establishment that was either actively or passively complicit in so many of the irresponsible policies that he is now trying to reverse. And part of what makes it so dramatic is that it's inevitably a wrenching process to go from one leader to another who is so diametrically his opposite.

Time and again, we are reminded of how profoundly different Obama is from Bush not just in his politics but in his background, his character, his vision -- and in terms of his thought processes, his cadences, his gut.

In some areas, however, there has been less change than many of us expected, and, as it happens, those are also the areas where Obama has put his presidency at greatest risk. There is no shortage of risk all around, of course. The stakes are enormous, the challenges are great, and there will be many political obstacles to overcome from both the opposition party's leadership and his own.

But it is in his bank bailout plan and his national security posture -- two places where he has seemed to focus more on continuity than on change -- that he may ultimately be the most vulnerable.

Obama's devotion to bailing out banks -- rather than, say, taking them over if they are de facto insolvent -- is tremendously unpopular with the American public as well as with the very economists who most support his policies otherwise. His financial rescue strategy in general has exposed him to charges that his top economic advisers have coopted him into being too soft on the very Wall Street players who caused this mess in the first place. As a result, an angry and well-founded populism perpetually seems just one outrage away.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, meanwhile, Obama has chosen to continue Bush's wars. And while he's done so with changed priorities, there is little sign that either war will end well. And in throwing out some of Bush's more extreme national-security measures (such as torture) but trying to keep others (such as an overly broad state secrets privilege) -- while at the same time insisting on no accountability for the extraordinary breaches of law and morality committed by the previous administration -- Obama risks alienating pretty much everybody.

So will Obama trip up in his next hundred days, or his next thousand? The obvious answer is yes. What's less clear is whether he will learn from his mistakes -- and how damaging they will be to his goals.

One thing he has going for him, however, is that his agenda is so enormous in scope -- his change of course so dramatic -- that even if only a somewhat reduced and modified vision of it actually comes to pass, that would still be a huge accomplishment.

For now, of course, the public is solidly behind him. Lydia Saad writes for Gallup: "As President Barack Obama concludes his first 100 days on the job, Gallup Poll Daily tracking for the week of April 20-26 finds 65% of Americans approving of how he is doing and only 29% disapproving. Obama's average weekly job ratings have varied only slightly thus far, ranging from 61% to 67%.

"The new president's approval rating at the 100-day mark is notable in that nearly all major demographic categories of Americans are pleased with his job performance, as evidenced by approval ratings above the majority level. Only in terms of political and ideological categories does Obama have a significant proportion of detractors; a majority of Republicans and self-described 'conservatives' disapprove of his job performance."

Here's a look at some of the judgments being reached on today's anniversary.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "There has been nothing tentative about President Obama's first 100 days in office. The defining characteristics of his presidency have been his appetite for leadership, the breadth of his ambitions and his determination to pass his programs in the face of united Republican opposition.....

"He has set in motion so many initiatives -- domestic and international -- that his top advisers know that one of their biggest challenges will be to prevent the many pieces of his agenda from crashing into one another before they can be enacted and begin to work.

"For this fast start he has been rewarded with approval ratings that exceed those of his predecessors -- two in three Americans approve of the job he is doing -- and serious questions about the long-term implications of his multifront agenda."

Washington Post reporter Michael Shear says in a video roundtable: "One of the things that's striking to me is that you can pick any one of these things that President Obama did and, in another era, in another time, when things weren't as active as they were, any one of them might have been a huge story for us that would go on for weeks and weeks."

Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post that the near-defeat of Obama's stimulus plan in February "has emerged as the seminal learning experience for Obama and his fledgling administration."

The biggest mistake, apparently, was the assumption "made by the president's senior advisers...that a fair number of Republican lawmakers would rally behind the nation's first African American president at a time of crisis, an assessment that proved wrong when only three GOP senators supported the stimulus measure and not a single House Republican followed suit.

"But Obama and his advisers corrected course quickly. Drawing conclusions from a post-mortem analysis that Emanuel conducted of the stimulus battle, senior White House advisers returned to the successful tactics of the presidential campaign, taking the president and his message beyond the Beltway and scaling back his appeals to congressional Republicans. The approach has defined the way he has governed since."

Gerald Seib writes in the Wall Street Journal that "if the first 100 days of President Obama's term have proved anything, it is that he is a hard man to classify. He has confounded, at one time or another, people at just about every spot across the political spectrum. He likes big and activist government, but he isn't a classic liberal. He is more of a social engineer than a guardian of the old welfare state.

"He's phenomenally popular among Democrats, but has found the most support for some of his foreign-policy moves among Republicans. He's pulling combat troops out of Iraq, but more slowly than he once promised -- and at the same time has laid plans to add more troops in Afghanistan than the Bush administration envisioned....

"He sometimes sounds like a protectionist, but so far has acted mostly like a free-trader. He talks a lot about fiscal discipline, yet is overseeing the nation's first trillion-dollar deficits. He's made history as America's first African-American president, yet probably talks less about race than did the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Jim Rutenberg, Peter Baker and Bill Vlasic write in the New York Times that Obama's approach to the automobile industry crisis was a test of "the boundaries of his activist approach and the acuity of his political instincts. As with so many issues in his action-packed 100 days in office, Mr. Obama confronted choices few of his predecessors encountered. His ongoing intervention in an iconic sector of the economy offers a case study in the education, management and decision-making of a fledgling president."

Among their conclusions: "In terms of leadership style, Mr. Obama at times has seemed like a cross between his two most recent predecessors — intellectually curious, philosophically flexible and eager for input like Bill Clinton, while disciplined, willing to delegate and comfortable with bold decisions like George W. Bush.

"Unlike Mr. Bush, who preferred that his memos be kept to two pages, Mr. Obama has not trusted instinct during the auto-industry crisis so much as conduct a law school-style review of his options. Unlike Mr. Clinton, who was famous for making phone calls late at night without his aides knowing, Mr. Obama generally did not reach out independently to auto executives, union leaders or Congressional allies....

"As with his predecessors, strength at times can be weakness. Mr. Obama’s confidence has been a powerful asset at a time of national anxiety, even as close advisers acknowledge that it risks blinding him to the drawbacks of some decisions. In the end, Mr. Obama is gambling that his judgment is the right one to salvage an industry at the heart of America’s economic self-image."

Gideon Rose writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "After 100 days, it seems that President Obama is that rare creature, a responsible gambler. Bill Clinton took large risks personally but not as a policymaker. George W. Bush took lots of risks, but they were reckless and irresponsible ones. Obama is unlike either of his predecessors. Inheriting a dramatically reduced stack of chips, he finds himself with little choice but to bet heavily again and again -- but he is doing so with the odds rather than against them, taking sensible, calculated risks that may well pay off."

The USA Today editorial board writes: "Many crises, predictable and unpredictable, await Obama. At least for today, however, he can take comfort in knowing that he's so quickly and convincingly taken charge of the job that the novelty of his being the nation's first African-American president has largely faded. He's now simply the president, and surveys confirm that most Americans like the tone he has set. On balance, for a president entering office facing the tallest stack of problems in recent times, Obama is off to a promising start."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Crises, not days, is the first word that comes to mind when we think about the number 100 and Barack Obama’s presidency.

"The list of failed policies and urgent threats bequeathed to him by former President George W. Bush could easily be that long. In his first 14 weeks plus two days, President Obama has made a strong start at addressing many of the most critical ones."

The Washington Post "surveyed an assortment of presidential historians, who arrived at the same conclusion: President Obama, in both the scope of his legislative achievements and the groundwork he has set for future policy changes, has done more in his first 100 days in the White House than any commander in chief since Franklin D. Roosevelt, who entered office in 1933 amid the throes of the nation's last major economic upheaval."

Walter Isaacson wrote: "History will judge that he has been astonishingly successful in his first 100 days. The stimulus package helped push major investment in education and health care and seems to have stemmed the collapse of our economy. His push for education reform is going to have a lasting impact on America's education system. The ability to open up and deal directly with adversaries around the world transforms the way we conduct foreign policy and could lead to important breakthroughs, whether in Cuba or Iran. And he has set a tone that is both open yet also persistent in pursuing his goals."

Ron Chernow wrote: "Across the board, he has signaled a willingness to rethink even deeply entrenched policies. There is a freshness and openness about this administration that is very engaging.... I think that he's been very fearless and not bound by old orthodoxies. I think that the speed with which he changed the policy on stem cell research shows how open he is to new ideas."

Salon asks 21 writers, politicians, activists and economists for their assessment of the Obama presidency so far. There are a lot of "A-" grades, though many give split decisions, like Robert Reich, who gives Obama's budget plan an "A" and his bank bailout an "F".

Michael Tomasky writes in a Guardian op-ed: "George Bush and Dick Cheney wanted an infantile citizenry. In fact they didn't really want citizens, in the sense in which the word is used in political philosophy, at all. Especially after 9/11, they wanted wards of the state....They wanted Americans to be fearful and to need daddy's protection....

"Obama wants people to be citizens. He wants them to play a role in shaping their own destiny. He's not trying to scare anybody. He couldn't anyway. That isn't his thing. He wants people to think. You can hear it in all his speeches – notably, to me, the mid-April Georgetown speech on the economy. He talks up to his audience and not down. He tries to clarify, but he does not try to simplify. He trusts that citizens can hold two concepts, even competing and contradictory ones, in their heads at one time.

"The numbers don't lie. The people, committed conservatives excepted, like being treated as adults for a change."

Time's Joe Klein also calls attention to that same speech: "The combination of candor and vision and the patient explanation of complex issues was Obama at his best — and more than any other moment of his first 100 days in office, it summed up the purpose of his presidency: a radical change of course not just from his predecessor, not just from the 30-year Reagan era but also from the quick-fix, sugar-rush, attention-deficit society of the postmodern age. The speech received ho-hum coverage on the evening news and in print — because, I suspect, it was more of a summation than the announcement of new initiatives. Quickly, public attention turned to new 'tempests of the moment' — an obscene amount of attention was paid to the new Obama family dog and then, more appropriately, to the Bush Administration's torture policy and the probably futile attempt to prosecute those who authorized the practices. And then to a handshake and a smile that the President bestowed on the Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez. These are the soap bubbles of our public life. They have become the hasty, capricious, bite-size way that we experience the world. It has made for slovenly, sandy citizenship."

State Secrets Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:00 PM ET, 04/29/2009

A federal appeals court yesterday dealt a massive blow to the the Obama administration's attempt to assert its right to avoid even modest judicial scrutiny simply by citing national security concerns. Here's the ruling. For background, read my April 9 post, Obama's State Secrets Overreach.

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated a lawsuit by five former detainees who sued a Boeing subsidiary over its alleged role in transporting them to foreign countries, where they say they suffered brutal interrogation under the CIA's 'black site' prison system.

"Three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit batted aside claims by the Obama administration that the suit would reveal 'state secrets' at the heart of the agency's covert operations and so should be dismissed....

"The unanimous panel...rejected administration arguments that the very nature of the dispute
was secret and said a judge should weigh, on a case-by-case basis, what kinds of evidence the detainees could receive and use in court....

"The appeals court panel noted in a footnote that the executive branch in the past had misused the state-secrets argument to cloak revelations that would embarrass federal agencies, rather than to protect sensitive operations from the eyes of enemies.

"To side with the government, the court ruling said, would mean that judges 'should effectively cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and limits of the law."

Marc Ambinder blogs for the Atlantic: "A bottom-line read of the decision: the government can assert the privilege for any piece of evidence in any case. It just can't assert the privilege as an immunity doctrine -- or a justiciability doctrine -- as a way to end the case before it begins."

"This historic decision marks the beginning, not the end, of this litigation," ACLU staff attorney Ben Wizner said in a statement. "Today's ruling demolishes once and for all the legal fiction, advanced by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, that facts known throughout the world could be deemed 'secrets' in a court of law."

Also yesterday, firebrand Democratic Senator Russ Feingold released his "100 Day Rule of Law Report" on the Obama administration. He gave Obama high marks for his executive orders to close Guantanamo, ban torture and increase transparency. But he gave Obama a "D" for his position on state secrets.

And Senator Arlen Specter (yes, that Arlen Specter) writes in the New York Review of Books: "In the seven and a half years since September 11, the United States has witnessed one of the greatest expansions of executive authority in its history, at the expense of the constitutionally mandated separation of powers. President Obama, as only the third sitting senator to be elected president in American history, and the first since John F. Kennedy, may be more likely to respect the separation of powers than President Bush was. But rather than put my faith in any president to restrain the executive branch, I intend to take several concrete steps, which I hope the new president will support."

Obama's Fillibuster-Buster

By Dan Froomkin
11:45 AM ET, 04/29/2009

"I'm thrilled to have Arlen in the Democratic caucus," President Obama said this morning as he stood alongside Arlen Specter, the formerly Republican senator who suddenly declared himself to be a Democrat yesterday.

Obama has reason to be delighted. Specter's defection means that Republicans will almost certainly lose their ability to casually threaten to filibuster anything that displeases them. It is also another sign that the GOP in the age of Obama has moved so far to the right that it is fast becoming a regional party with a dwindling national foothold.

But it also calls attention to the fact that Obama's ostensibly Democratic ruling coalition now includes a good number of members who in ordinary times would be called Republicans.

Specter joins several other so-called moderate senators including Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu and several others who take center-right positions on many issues on Obama's agenda. "I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture," Specter said in his statement yesterday.

And one must also remember the circumstances. While its repercussions will be profound, Specter's move was not so much an act of great philosophical courage as a desperate attempt to save his own political skin -- faced as he was with the near certainty that he would have lost a Republican primary battle in Pennsylvania.

Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "With a beaming Obama standing at his side, Specter said: 'I think that I can be of assistance to you, Mr. President....There are a lot of big issues we're tackling now that I've been deeply involved in.'..

"'I don't expect Arlen to be a rubber stamp,' Obama said. 'In fact, I'd like to think that Arlen's decision reflects recognition that this administration is open to many different ideas and many different points of view.'"

Paul Kane, Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "The addition of Specter to their ranks, coupled with the likelihood that the Minnesota Supreme Court will name Al Franken the winner of that state's disputed Senate race in the coming months, means that Democrats are all but certain to control a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the chamber for the first time in about 30 years....

"Republicans warned yesterday that such a majority would give Obama almost unfettered control over the federal government. But Specter vowed to maintain his current policy positions -- including opposition to a labor organizing bill and to the nominee Obama has tapped to run the key legal counsel unit at the Justice Department....

"Specter received his own final poll Friday, an assessment he called 'bleak.' He ultimately chose to cast his lot with Democrats, he said in a news conference yesterday, because 'I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.'"

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Specter's decision provides further evidence that the party is continuing to contract, especially outside the South. Northeastern Republicans have gone from an endangered species to nearly extinct. Obama's victory in Pennsylvania in November was due in part to a sizeable shift in party registration toward the Democrats. Republicans have lost ground in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest in the past two elections. That is no way to build a national party.

"The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the depth of the party's problems. Just 21 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans. From a high-water mark of 35 percent in the fall of 2003, Republicans have slid steadily to their present state of affairs. Party identification does fluctuate with events. But as a snapshot indicator, the latest figures highlight the impact of Obama's opening months on the Republican Party."

Michael D. Shear writes for the Washington Post that Obama initially waved off a phone call from Specter yesterday morning, until he was given a note explaining the reason for the call. "'Obama's eyes got very wide,' recalled [a] top adviser. 'Get him back on the phone.'"

Obama had apparently not been wooing Specter -- but Vice President Biden had. "In the 10 weeks since the president signed the stimulus bill, Biden has met with Specter face-to-face six times and talked on the phone at least eight times, advisers said.

"People close to Biden said the vice president has been urging Specter to make the switch for years. But they said the conversations intensified during the past several weeks as Biden watched political developments in Pennsylvania."

Doyle McManus writes in his Los Angeles Times column about Specter: "Conservatives dubbed him a RINO: Republican In Name Only. Now he has crossed the aisle to join the Democratic majority, but Specter acknowledged Tuesday that he'll be something of a DINO."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:40 AM ET, 04/29/2009

Michael D. Shear and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post: "White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pointedly refused to rule out a firing in the case of the Air Force One backup's flight that terrified some in New York City on Monday....Gibbs reiterated that President Obama was 'furious' about the decision, and he said the deputy chief of staff will conduct the review."

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "The taxpayer bill for Monday's presidential plane flight over Manhattan was $328,835. The political cost to the Obama White House will be harder to calculate."

Lauran Neergaard writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama suggested Wednesday that school closings may be necessary, in an escalating global health emergency...Obama said the federal government is 'prepared to do whatever is necessary to control the impact of this virus.' He noted his request for $1.5 billion in emergency funding to ensure adequate supplies of vaccines."

Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post that "the Obama administration finds itself in control of many of the pillars of U.S. finance and industry, but it is playing its role reluctantly. Obama's goal is to fix them, not run them, the White House says. With regard to GM, for example, one official said this week that the administration's 'goal is to exert as little influence as possible' and 'to exit as quickly as possible.' Yet the Obama administration, on behalf of American taxpayers, has become -- or will soon become -- the controlling shareholder of General Motors and Chrysler, mortgage behemoths Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and insurance giant AIG, not to mention the 29 banks taken over this year by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. And that puts the president in the awkward position of balancing public policy goals with the financial interests of taxpayers as investors in these ailing corporations."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "Judge Jay S. Bybee broke his silence on Tuesday and defended the conclusions of legal memorandums he had signed as a Bush administration lawyer that allowed use of several coercive interrogation practices on suspected terrorists. Judge Bybee, who issued the memorandums as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel and was later nominated to the federal appeals court by President George W. Bush, said in a statement in response to questions from The New York Times that he continued to believe that the memorandums represented 'a good-faith analysis of the law' that properly defined the thin line between harsh treatment and torture....Judge Bybee said he was issuing a statement following reports that he had regrets over his role in the memorandums, including an article in The Washington Post on Saturday to that effect."

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama's Cabinet was finally filled yesterday after the Senate, on the eve of President Obama's 100th day in office, voted 65 to 31 to confirm Kathleen Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services....As expected, Obama, with 102 nominations pending before the Senate and 65 officials confirmed, has far outpaced his modern predecessors back to Ronald Reagan in terms of overall appointment activity. Obama nearly beat the Reagan juggernaut in terms of confirmed nominees, though the Reagan White House still holds the record at 73 appointees confirmed, according to the White House Transition Project."

Christopher Drew writes in the New York Times that Obama's decision to halt an expensive program to build new presidential helicopters is being challenged by "several influential lawmakers and defense analysts" who "are now calling for a compromise that would salvage a simpler version of the helicopter that is already being tested."

New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd writes bad fiction.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:26 AM ET, 04/29/2009

Tom Toles on the GOP's big bet, Mike Keefe, Clay Bennett and John Sherffius on the first hundred days, Jack Ohman on the first hundred grays, Patrick Blower on how Obama can't please everyone, Ann Telnaes on the GOP and Specter, Jimmy Margulies on a time to panic, Mike Marland on the angry right, Pat Oliphant on accountability for torture, and Walt Handelsman, Tony Auth and Charlie Daniel on flyover outrage.

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