Now We're Talking Real Money

By Dan Froomkin
2:21 PM ET, 05/11/2009

When you're trying to crunch the numbers for America's future, the prospect of ever-skyrocketing health care costs makes everything look really grim.

And that's why the White House's announcement today -- that a broad coalition of health-industry groups is vowing to rein in the growth in health care costs, after years of uncontrolled increases -- is such a big deal. Simply trimming the annual health care spending growth rate by 1.5 percent would be enough to save the nation $2 trillion over 10 years. It would also dramatically slow the increasing cost of Medicare, and would make President Obama's hopes for universal health coverage considerably more affordable.

"This is a historic day, a watershed event in the long and elusive quest for health care reform," Obama said today.

Indeed, in an answer to those of us who weren't too impressed with the $17 billion in possible savings trumpeted by the White House last week, now we're talking real money.

There's more we need to know before getting too excited, however. One is where these "savings" will really come from -- and that we won't know for a while. But the other is what exactly united this extraordinary range of normally competing groups, some of them highly averse to government intrusion. That we should know more quickly.

Were they brought together by altruism? OK, stop laughing. No, the question of course is: What's in it for them? Did they decide that getting on Obama's train was better than being thrown under it? That certainly seems to be a part of it. But these guys are pretty clever. What do they think they're getting in return for one potentially empty promise?

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "The fact that the medical-industrial complex is trying to shape health care reform rather than block it is a tremendously good omen. It looks as if America may finally get what every other advanced country already has: a system that guarantees essential health care to all its citizens.

"And serious cost control would change everything, not just for health care, but for America’s fiscal future."

Ezra Klein blogs for the American Prospect: "The politics of this should surely cheer supporters of reform. In essence, this is the entire medical industry stepping forward and declaring themselves partners in Obama's effort. It leaves Republicans isolated. It allows the administration to credibly claim that they are working with the stakeholders to cut costs. It puts the industry on record saying that reform will bring new efficiencies rather than increased spending. And it's simple evidence of the momentum building behind the administration's effort. These groups wouldn't be jockeying for a seat at the table if they didn't think everyone was eventually going to sit down."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
2:16 PM ET, 05/11/2009

Lydia Saad reports for Gallup: "President Barack Obama appears to be slightly more popular with Americans at the start of his second 100 days in office than he was, on average, during his first 100. Gallup Poll Daily tracking from May 7-9 finds 66% of Americans approving of how he is handling his job, compared with an average 63% from January through April."

Scott Wilson and Anne E. Kornblut write in The Washington Post: "President Obama will travel to Egypt next month to deliver his promised address to the Muslim world, culminating a long and politically sensitive selection process by choosing as his venue an Arab nation governed by an autocratic U.S. ally who faces strong internal Islamist opposition."

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "With the economy performing worse than hoped, revised White House figures point to deepening budget deficits, with the government borrowing almost 50 cents for every dollar it spends this year. The deficit for the current budget year will rise by $89 billion to above $1.8 trillion — about four times the record set just last year."

Matt Apuzzo and Brett J. Blackledge write for the Associated Press: "Counties suffering the most from job losses stand to receive the least help from President Barack Obama's plan to spend billions of stimulus dollars on roads and bridges, an Associated Press analysis has found."

Stephen Labaton writes in the New York Times: "President Obama’s top antitrust official this week plans to restore an aggressive enforcement policy against corporations that use their market dominance to elbow out competitors or to keep them from gaining market share. The new enforcement policy would reverse the Bush administration’s approach, which strongly favored defendants against antitrust claims. It would restore a policy that led to the landmark antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft and Intel in the 1990s."

Alec MacGillis writes in The Washington Post: "On some issues, such as tax policy, Obama's invocation of pragmatism shrewdly frames an egalitarian agenda. On some social issues, such as stem cell research, pragmatism means settling on a middle course to avoid distracting battles on lesser priorities; and on thorny questions such as how to handle detained terrorism suspects, pragmatism means a search for expedient solutions that can seem at odds with the president's principled rhetoric."

Joseph Williams writes in the Boston Globe: "While the inauguration of the first black president has lessened racial tensions for most Americans, it has set off a wave of violence on the white supremacist fringe, with anti-hate groups attributing six recent killings - including the ambush last month of three Pittsburgh police officers and the fatal shootings last month of two Florida sheriff's deputies - in part to anger over President Obama's election."

Sally Quinn writes in The Washington Post that Michelle Obama's arms are "transformational. Her arms are representative of a new kind of woman: young, strong, vigorous, intelligent, accomplished, sexual, powerful, embracing and, most of all, loving."

Cheney Torture Tour Comes to CBS

By Dan Froomkin
1:35 PM ET, 05/11/2009

If torture saved American lives, was it worth it? That, with the words "enhanced interrogation" instead of torture, is the question former vice president Dick Cheney wants people considering when the subject of the Bush-era interrogation practices comes up.

Cheney is obviously betting -- with some justification -- that enough Americans would answer "yes" to that question that the debate over torture -- and the push for an official wide-scale investigation -- will never be able to gain critical mass.

As it turns out, there is not one bit of hard evidence that Bush-era torture averted a single imminent threat or saved any lives. But Cheney is not troubled by this fact, and neither are his hand-picked media interlocutors, who should be demanding that he put up or shut up.

Regardless, the real genius of Cheney's approach is that keeping the media debate to this narrow question is a victory. Because if the question were an appropriately broader one, the public would likely be much less sympathetic. Consider, for instance, if the question were about the abusive techniques widely and sometimes indiscriminately employed not just at CIA black sites but in places like the Bagram prison in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib.

Cheney's latest stop on his media tour was with Bob Schieffer of CBS News's Face the Nation, for an interview in which Cheney was largely allowed once again to make his argument that President Obama is endangering Americans without citing one iota of independently verifiable anything.

Schieffer did ask one tough question: "What do you say to those, Mr. Vice President, who say that when we employ these kinds of tactics, which are after all the tactics that the other side uses, that when we adopt their methods, that we're weakening security, not enhancing security, because it sort of makes a mockery of what we tell the rest of the world?"

Cheney is getting so cocky that he didn't even bother to reject the conflict implicit in Schieffer's question -- the one between Bush-era tactics and our standing as champions of human dignity. Cheney just snapped back: "Well, then you'd have to say that, in effect, we're prepared to sacrifice American lives rather than run an intelligent interrogation program that would provide us the information we need to protect America."

Sacrifice actionable intelligence for some abstract idea like human rights? Nonsense, says the former veep, who also expresses no regrets. "I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. I'm convinced, absolutely convinced, that we saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives."

Moveon.org raises a very good question: Why should we believe Cheney this time?

Cheney also said he'd pick right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh as a Republican spokesman over former secretary of state Colin Powell. "I didn't know he was still a Republican," Cheney said of Powell.

Funny Speech, Dismal Dinner

By Dan Froomkin
11:23 AM ET, 05/11/2009

President Obama's speech to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday night was full of delightfully deflating zingers in which Obama gently mocked his reputation, his top aides -- and his political opponents. Here's the full text.

When he got around to talking "about the men and women in this room whose job it is to inform the public and pursue the truth," however, the ribbing pretty much stopped -- replaced by something more like pity. Obama expressed his sympathies about the media industry's struggles to find its way in a new world, and spoke passionately about its essential role to society.

"[W]hen you are at your best, then you help me be at my best," he said. "You help all of us who serve at the pleasure of the American people do our jobs better by holding us accountable, by demanding honesty, by preventing us from taking shortcuts and falling into easy political games that people are so desperately weary of.

"And that kind of reporting is worth preserving -- not just for your sake, but for the public's. We count on you to help us make sense of a complex world and tell the stories of our lives the way they happen, and we look for you for truth -- even if it's always an approximation."

But with his remarks about the media, Obama (unintentionally or not) highlighted the evening's fundamental and deeply disturbing disconnect. Because the correspondents dinner isn't about journalism, or its uncertain future, or the importance of holding the government accountable. It's about a bunch of media elites partying and clowning around with a bunch of Hollywood celebrities.

It is, as I wrote on NiemanWatchdog on Friday, an orgy of self-congratulation. And, particularly since 2006, when Stephen Colbert left the audience dazed and uncomprehending with his brutal critique of both George W. Bush and the press corps that failed to expose him for what he was, it's become widely seen as the ultimate manifestation of the dangerous coziness between Washington’s journalistic elites and the people they cover.

And I had to wonder if there wasn't more than a little truth to one of Obama's first jokes of the night. "I have to confess I really did not want to be here tonight," he said, "but I knew I had to come -- just one more problem that I've inherited from George W. Bush."

Because here's the question: What was the president doing there, really?

Before I get everyone too morose, however, let's go back for a moment to the president's speech. Because there were some very funny lines -- some of which even cracked Obama up himself. He seemed particularly pleased with himself over the jokes that came at the expense of his top aides. For instance, he took a dig at his notoriously foul-mouthed chief of staff by saying about Mother's Day "that this is a tough holiday for Rahm Emanuel because he's not used to saying the word 'day' after 'mother.'" Obama chuckled to himself. "That's true."

He mocked chief economic adviser Larry Summers's penchant for falling asleep at meetings: "And I do appreciate that Larry is here tonight because it is seven hours past his bedtime." And he made a little fun of his hapless treasury secretary, promising to "housetrain our dog, Bo, because the last thing Tim Geithner needs is someone else treating him like a fire hydrant."

Obama also seemed very pleased with his mockery of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's attempts to give the GOP a hip-hop makeover. "Michael Steele is in the house tonight," Obama said. "Or as he would say, 'in the heezy.'" Then, making like a rapper, Obama exclaimed: "Whassup?" Big smile.

Later, it was John A. Boehner's turn, with Obama saying he and the perpetually overtanned House Republican leader "have a lot in common. He is a person of color. Although not a color that appears in the natural world. Wassup, John?"

Obama poked fun of his own reputation as a media darling. "All of you voted for me," he said -- before adding: "Apologies to the Fox table." And he joked about his own arrogance: "During the second hundred days, we will design, build and open a library dedicated to my first hundred days," he said. "It's going to be big, folks...I believe that my next hundred days will be so successful I will be able to complete them in 72 days."

Obama seemed to be having a good time. But I wonder if at some point he and his White House aides are going to start seeing the correspondents dinner as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

After all, actual White House correspondents make up a tiny fraction of the 2,500-plus people attending the festivities. Going back to Obama's point about the essential role played by the media, the heroes of the night were not those journalists who had achieved great heights in accountability reporting. On the media side, the big stars were the people who are on TV -- most of them glib repeaters of talking points, the play-by-play announcers of the perpetual Washington game of political one-upsmanship. And even they were eclipsed by the likes of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Natalie Portman and the cast of "Gossip Girl," whose relevance to White House journalism is nil.

In that NiemanWatchdog essay referenced above, I outline a few steps the White House Correspondents' Association could take to redeem the dinner. That includes reforming ticket distribution in favor of less high-profile news organizations that will take advantage of the opportunity to develop sources, and discouraging organizations from bringing guests who don’t contribute to the journalistic mission of the event.

Sitting there on Saturday night, I had a few more thoughts. What if the association took advantage of the evening to issue specific calls for greater transparency from the White House? What if it prominently featured and celebrated the best in White House accountability journalism -- while at the same time acknowledging the year's failures?

We could still have a great party. Just not a delusional one.

There's no shortage of further coverage of the dinner, and the weekend. From the Washington Post alone, here are Richard Leiby, Chris Cillizza, Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger, Mary Ann Akers and Liz Kelly. Washington media doyenne Tammy Haddad aggregates everything party-related on her Web site.

And Obama wasn't the only headliner, of course. Comedian Wanda Sykes gently ribbed the president -- and saved her most vicious zingers for Rush Limbaugh, who was safely out of the room.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
10:16 AM ET, 05/11/2009

Joel Pett on Obama's new slogan, Kevin Siers and Jim Morin on Obama's budget trims, Ted Rall on what's changed, and August J. Pollak on after the dinner.

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