Obama Joins the Cover-Up

By Dan Froomkin
2:33 PM ET, 05/13/2009

President Obama's about-face on the release of more photos depicting detainee abuse is a colossal mistake.

The president who came into office promising to restore our international reputation and return responsibility to government now seems to be buying into the belief that covering up our sins is better than coming clean.

Obama has always been conflicted about how intensely to probe the abuses of the previous administration. He has an understandable desire not to stir things up, not to set people at each others' throats, and not to distract from his agenda. It's also reasonable for him to worry about the effect of disclosures on troops in harm's way. But ultimately, it's not his call to make.

Everything was set in motion a long time ago, when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney made the calls that they did. The truth has to come out, in all its horror -- and it will come out. For Obama to actively take side with those fighting against disclosure is a real disappointment.

The photos, which the administration had previously agreed to release under court order, reportedly show that the kind of vile, sadistic treatment of detainees illustrated in the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib in Iraq were in fact not limited to that one prison or one country. They would have been a visceral and powerful antidote to former vice president Cheney's furious PR campaign intended to cast the argument about government-sanctioned torture as a narrow one limited to the CIA's secret prisons.

Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson write for The Washington Post: "In announcing the shift today, the White House said in a statement that Obama 'strongly believes that the release of these photos, particularly at this time, would only serve the purpose of inflaming the theaters of war, jeopardizing US forces, and making our job more difficult in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.'"

David Stout writes for the New York Times: "'These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib,' said Amrit Singh, a staff attorney with the A.C.L.U., which sued for release of the pictures under the Freedom of Information Act....

"Disclosure of the latest pictures 'is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse,' said Ms. Singh."

Obama now finds himself sharing sides with Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, who argued yesterday that releasing the photos was tantamount to siding with the terrorists.

There was also a lot of torture-related activity on the Hill this morning, with a former State Department official decrying the Bush administration's "collective failure" on the interrogation of terror suspects, and a former FBI agent saying brutal tactics such as waterboarding didn't actually work. (See Carrie Johnson, writing for The Washington Post.) I have to run, but I'll have more tomorrow.

The Empathy War

By Dan Froomkin
1:35 PM ET, 05/13/2009

It's kind of ironic that empathy may turn out to be one of the most contentious topics in modern American politics. But empathy is at the very core of President Obama's political philosophy. And -- as seen in the response to his announcement that he considers empathy an essential attribute for a Supreme Court pick -- there's something about the word that seems to drive his critics on the right crazy.

On its face, it's hard to imagine why anyone would be threatened by empathy, either in general, or in particular as a desirable quality in a Supreme Court justice. Empathy, after all, is just about understanding others' feelings.

One glorious thing about this country is that there isn't (or at least shouldn't be) any conflict between having empathy and fervently adhering to the Constitution and the egalitarian vision of the founders.

Are Republican critics of Obama's empathy litmus test saying that one can't be empathetic and conservative at the same time? That self-centeredness is a GOP prerequisite? Hardly. They say Obama is simply using empathy as a "code word" for "activist judges" who will side against the wealthy, the strong and corporate interests even if the law suggests otherwise. (See my May 4 item. Also see Stephen Colbert's hilarious riff on trying to crack Obama's code.)

But it's worth remembering that "activist judge" is itself a thinly-disguised code word for someone who supports what liberals consider social progress. As Matthew Yglesias recently wrote for Think Progress: "The idea of an 'activist judge' is something that was cooked up by white supremacists in the 1950s and 60s who didn't like judges bossing people around and telling them they had to let black people vote and go to school."

Indeed, two academic surveys have found that whether you judge activism by the propensity to strike down laws passed by Congress or to strike down actions taken by the executive branch, it is the conservative justices who are more activist than the liberal ones.

Here's what Obama said on May 1 about what he's looking for in a replacement for David Souter: "I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives -- whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.

"I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes."

So what exactly does Obama mean by empathy? It's no mystery. He's written and spoken about it at length. It's worth reviewing.

In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes of his enormous admiration for the late Senator Paul Simon. "[H]is sense of empathy...is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule -- not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.

"Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother. She disdained any kind of cruelty or thoughtlessness or abuse of power, whether it expresses itself in the form of racial prejudice or bullying in the schoolyard or workers being underpaid. Whenever she saw even a hint of such behavior in me she would look me square in the eyes and ask, "How do you think that would make you feel?" ...

"I find myself returning again and again to my mother's simple principle -- 'How would that make you feel?' -- as a guidepost for my politics.

"It's not a question we ask ourselves enough, I think; as a country, we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit. We wouldn't tolerate schools that don't teach, that are chronically underfunded and understaffed and underinspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children. It's hard to imagine the CEO of a company giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting health-care coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals. And it's safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm's way.

"I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.

"But that does not mean that those who are struggling -- or those of us who claim to speak for those who are struggling -- are thereby freed from trying to understand the perspectives of those who are better off. Black leaders need to appreciate the legitimate fears that may cause some whites to resist affirmative action. Union representatives can't afford not to understand the competitive pressures their employers may be under. I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush's eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That's what empathy does -- it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.

"No one is exempt from the call to find common ground."

But there's no escaping that empathy as Obama sees it generally seems to lead to progressive values. Later in the book, he writes: "I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves."

Here are Obama's remarks to Planned Parenthood on July 17, 2007: "[I]t's important to understand that there is nothing wrong in voting against [judicial] nominees who don't appear to share a broader vision of what the Constitution is about. I think the Constitution can be interpreted in so many ways. And one way is a cramped and narrow way in which the Constitution and the courts essentially become the rubber stamps of the powerful in society.

"And then there's another vision of the court that says that the courts are the refuge of the powerless, because oftentimes they may lose in the democratic back-and-forth. They may be locked out and prevented from fully participating in the democratic process....

"You read the statute. You look at the case law, and most of the time the law is pretty clear -- 95% of the time....

"But it's those 5% of the cases that really count. And in those 5% of the cases what you got to look at it is: What is in the justice's heart? What's their broader vision of what America should be?"

Obama also spoke at length about the "empathy deficit" in a January 20, 2008, campaign speech in Atlanta: "I'm taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.....

"We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than some workers make in ten months; when families lose their homes so that lenders make a profit; when mothers can't afford a doctor when their children get sick.

"We have a deficit in this country when there is Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others; when our children see nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree today, in the present, in the twenty-first century."

Peter Slevin writes in today's Washington Post: "By making empathy a core qualification, he is uniting his own eclectic experience as a community organizer and constitutional-law professor while demanding what he has called 'a broader vision for what America should be.'..

"Obama offered clues to his thinking in January 2006, when he opposed the successful nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr., then an appellate judge. In cases in which Supreme Court precedent was unclear, he said, Alito 'consistently sides on behalf of the powerful against the powerless; on behalf of a strong government or corporation against upholding Americans' individual rights and liberties.'

"Alito's attitude, he said, did not support the role of the court as a 'bastion of equality and justice for U.S. citizens.'...

"The president's focus has drawn criticism, particularly from conservatives. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) interpreted Obama's empathy remark as a determination to pick judges on their 'perceived sympathy for certain groups or individuals.' He said such an approach would undermine public faith in the judiciary."

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate: "One is surely entitled to say that President Obama's repeated claim that he seeks 'empathy' in a replacement for Justice David Souter is something less than a crisp constitutional standard. But the Republican war on empathy has started to border on the deranged, and you can't help but wonder to what purpose....

"Empathy in a judge does not mean stopping midtrial to tenderly clutch the defendant to your heart and weep. It doesn't mean reflexively giving one class of people an advantage over another because their lives are sad or difficult. When the president talks about empathy, he talks not of legal outcomes but of an intellectual and ethical process: the ability to think about the law from more than one perspective.

"But Republicans have gathered up their flaming torches and raised their fists to loudly denounce empathy and all empathy-based behavior as evil."

Lithwick asks: "When did the simple act of recognizing that you are not the only one in the room become confused with lawlessness, activism, and social engineering?"

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, recently blogged at Firedoglake: "We now know from the study of mirror neuron systems in the brain that empathy is physical, a capacity built into our very bodies. It is what allows us to feel what others feel and appears to be the basis for human connection and the capacity to care about others. Our native neural capacities for empathy can be strengthened by how we are raised, or it can decay when empathy is not experienced — or we can be trained to develop neural circuitry to bypass natural empathy.

"President Obama has argued that empathy is the basis of our democracy. It is because we care about others, he has argued, that we have principles like freedom and fairness, not just for ourselves but for everyone. I have found, in studies of largely unconscious political conceptual systems, that empathy is the basis of progressive political thought, and the basis for the very idea of social, not just individual, responsibility. Conservative political thought is otherwise structured, based on authority, discipline, and responsibility for oneself but not others. The major moral, social, and political divide in America centers around empathy."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 05/13/2009

David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times: "The events of the last few weeks have raised the odds that a health care overhaul will really happen this year." But, he writes, there's still the matter of a missing $90 billion. "Providing health insurance to the roughly 50 million people without it will cost something like $120 billion a year. President Obama has proposed $60 billion or so in new revenue for this purpose — a 'down payment,' his advisers say. But Congress seems set to reject about half of the down payment (a plan to limit high-income families' tax deductions for charitable giving and other such things). That makes for the $90 billion health care hole. And no one is quite sure how to fill it."

Here are Obama's remarks after a roundtable discussion yesterday with employers and unions about "innovative ideas...being implemented in the workplace to improve the health of workers and reduce the rising rate of health care spending."

Foon Rhee blogs for the Boston Globe that "Obama held a pep session this morning to rally House Democratic leaders behind his healthcare overhaul plan. 'We've got to get it done this year,' he said. 'And we don't have any excuses,' he added. 'The stars are aligned.'"

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Some Democratic senators joined Republicans yesterday in questioning whether the Obama administration had adequately explained its strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan as Congress considers a supplemental appropriations bill that includes billions of dollars for military and economic assistance programs in those countries."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column that Centcom commander Gen. David "Petraeus's plan in Afghanistan is to hit the enemy very hard this year with the additional 21,000 troops President Obama has approved -- and then see if the Taliban coalition begins to crack."

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post that Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former Special Operations chief who is President Obama's new choice to lead the war in Afghanistan is a master at manhunting. "'McChrystal kills people. Has he ever worked in the counterinsurgency environment? Not really,' said Roger Carstens, a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Special Forces officer. 'People will ask, what message are we sending when our high-value-target hunter is sent to lead in Afghanistan?' said a senior military officer at the Pentagon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly."

George Packer blogs for the New Yorker that: "McChrystal's background makes him an expert in a counterinsurgency strategy that focuses on eliminating high-level targets. Whether it's done by drones or by Special Ops commandos, it puts the greatest emphasis on killing or capturing the enemy, not on making the population secure. In Iraq, this approach—which inevitably leads to the deaths of innocents—swelled the ranks of the insurgency and helped bring America to the brink of defeat in 2006, until Petraeus made a fundamental change in strategy."

David Roberts writes for Grist about how some Washington journalists got suckered by Republican senators, who cast statements from a collection of comments gathered by the White House's Office of Management and Budget as an official White House rebuke of the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that greenhouse gases pose dangers to public health and welfare. OMB director Peter Orszag wrote in a blog post that the "quotations circulating in the press are from a document in which OMB simply collated and collected disparate comments from various agencies during the inter-agency review process of the proposed finding." John M. Broder writes in the New York Times: "A White House official said that many of the criticisms and suggestions came from holdovers from the administration of President George W. Bush and had been rejected by Obama appointees."

Obama delivers the commencement address at University of Notre Dame on Sunday. Peter Slevin and Jacqueline L. Salmon write in The Washington Post: "Antiabortion activists see Obama's appearance before 2,603 graduates and the national media as a chance to challenge the president on turf hospitable to their cause.... The protests come at a time when the antiabortion movement is increasingly splintered amid a debate over goals and tactics. The activists' cause has been complicated by Obama, who has sought to ease tensions over an issue that has dogged politicians on the right and left for nearly three decades."

Jessica Brady writes for Roll Call that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "suggested on Tuesday that he does not have the votes to bring up President Barack Obama's pick to run the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel...'We need a couple Republican votes until we can get to 60.' But Ali Frick writes for Thinkprogress.org: "It's unclear why 60 votes are needed to confirm Johnsen, considering her predecessor, Jay Bybee — who went on to authorize illegal torture — won easy confirmation in 2001 through a simple voice vote. Bybee's successor, Jack Goldsmith, was also approved by a voice vote."

Ashley Halsey III writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama took a dramatic step to revive faltering efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, issuing an executive order that could empower the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set a more demanding timetable and penalize states that fail to meet it."

The Wrong Entitlement Debate

By Dan Froomkin
11:45 AM ET, 05/13/2009

The release of the latest official status report on the Social Security and Medicare trust funds -- which unsurprisingly finds that both are suffering somewhat due to the recession -- has spawned the predictable headlines of doom.

After all, the way things are going now, Social Security won't be able to pay retirees full benefits by today's rules -- in 26 years. Medicare, I'll grant you, is a vastly bigger problem, as a lot needs to be done in the next nine years to prevent a deficit.

What I don't understand, however, is why almost no one is focusing on the more immediate problem, namely the extraordinary damage that the recession and foreclosure crisis have done to the nest-eggs of the the current crop of retirees and near-retirees. Why is there no discussion about a short-term boost in benefits, especially for lower-income people? After all, isn't it reasonable to expect that enormous declines in the stock market and home values are translating into more severe poverty for the elderly?

Alas, that's not what Washington is talking about. As Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post, the new numbers "intensify a political debate, gathering strength among Democrats and Republicans, over how quickly President Obama should tackle Social Security when health-care reform is his administration's most urgent domestic priority....

"Congressional Republicans and some Democrats seized upon the findings to argue that the administration should work rapidly to ward off the looming insolvency of Social Security and Medicare."

Robert Reich writes a little reality check for TPM Cafe: "Even if you assume Social Security is a problem, it's not a big problem. Raise the ceiling slightly on yearly wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes (now a bit over $100,000), and the problem vanishes under harsher assumptions than I'd use about the future....Social Security would also be in safe shape if it were slightly more means tested, or if the retirement age were raised just a bit. The main point is that Social Security is a tiny problem, as these things go.

"Medicare is entirely different. It's a monster. But fixing it has everything to do with slowing the rate of growth of medical costs -- including, let's not forget, having a public option when it comes to choosing insurance plans under the emerging universal health insurance bill....

"Look more closely and the real problem isn't even health-care costs; it's a system that pushes up costs by rewarding inefficiency, causing unbelievable waste, pushing over-medication, providing inadequate prevention, over-using emergency rooms because many uninsured people can't afford regular doctor checkups, and spending billions on advertising and marketing seeking to enroll healthy people and avoid sick ones."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
7:42 AM ET, 05/13/2009

Tom Toles on Cheney torture, David Horsey on Cheney's defense, RJ Matson on Cheney's latest excuse, Dan Wasserman on Cheney's biggest fans, Jeff Danziger, Ed Gamble and Jeff Darcy on Cheney's BFF, Stuart Carlson on the GOP's lack of empathy, Ann Telnaes on Karl Rove's high standards, and Tony Auth and Joel Pett on the Obama's health care industry friends.

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