Politics, Obama-Style

By Dan Froomkin
3:00 PM ET, 05/19/2009

Watching President Obama speak today, I got the sense that this was what he went into politics for.

It wasn't just that it was a gorgeous sunny day in the Rose Garden and he was president of the United States -- though I'm sure that didn't hurt.

It was that he and his team had brought people representing traditionally conflicting views together to agree on something that represents real progress in a way that not so long ago would have seemed impossible.

For Obama, a community organizer at heart, politics isn't just a zero-sum game. It's not always about winning at someone else's expense. The best moments are when everyone wins.

The problem is that such moments haven't ever been particularly common in Washington -- and they still aren't. Most of Obama's biggest political victories thus far have been fought and won along traditional party lines.

But today's announcement, Obama insisted, "represents not only a change in policy in Washington but the harbinger of a change in the way business is done in Washington."

In this particular case, Obama was celebrating an agreement over tough new standards for fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions. The agreement requires an average fuel economy standard of 35.5 mpg in 2016, with fuel economy gains averaging more than 5 percent per year. It also establishes the first nationwide regulation of greenhouse gases.

So who was there? "This is an extraordinary gathering," Obama said. "Here we have today standing behind me, along with Ron Gettlefinger and leadership of the UAW, we have 10 of the world's largest auto manufacturers, we have environmental advocates, as well as elected officials from all across the country.

"And this gathering is all the more extraordinary for what these diverse groups -- despite disparate interests and previous disagreements -- have worked together to achieve. For the first time in history, we have set in motion a national policy aimed at both increasing gas mileage and decreasing greenhouse gas pollution for all new trucks and cars sold in the United States of America....

"Now, in the past, an agreement such as this would have been considered impossible. It's no secret that these are folks who've occasionally been at odds for years, even decades. In fact, some of the groups here have been embroiled in lawsuits against one another. So that gives you a sense of how impressive and significant it is that these leaders from across the country are willing to set aside the past for the sake of the future."

Obama spoke of how the need to end our oil dependence has too often been lost "in the back-and-forth of Washington politics" and "in arguments where the facts opponents use depend on the conclusions they've already reached." What's needed is "a willingness to look past our differences, to act in good faith, to refuse to continue the failures of the past, and to take on this challenge together."

John M. Broder writes in the New York Times: "Environmentalists called it a long-overdue tightening of emissions and fuel economy standards after decades of government delay and industry opposition. Auto industry officials said it would provide the single national efficiency standard they have long desired, a reasonable timetable to meet it and the certainty they need to proceed with product development plans....

"'This is a very big deal,' said Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, who has pushed for tougher mileage and emissions standards for two decades with the goal of curbing the gases that have been linked to global warming. 'This is the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.'"

John Hughes and Kim Chipman write for Bloomberg: "'It launches a new beginning,' said David McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, in a statement. 'The president has succeeded in bringing three regulatory bodies, 15 states, a dozen automakers and many environmental groups to the table.'"

Steven Mufson writes for The Washington Post: "The deal has been under negotiation since the first days of the administration. It represents a compromise among the White House, the state of California and the auto industry, which has long sought national mileage standards and has waged an expensive legal battle against the California waiver. The industry will get its national standard, but at the price of one that approximates California's targets. Industry officials said they would drop all related lawsuits...

"Today's announcement marks a major change in tone from the Bush administration, which had rejected California's waiver in March 2008, barring states from setting their own limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles."

But James R. Healey of USA Today calls it a "fragile compromise among often-warring factions."

Let's Talk White House

By Dan Froomkin
2:51 PM ET, 05/19/2009

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET taking your questions and comments. Tell me what's on your mind.

Obama's Stealth Middle East Peace Plan

By Dan Froomkin
1:05 PM ET, 05/19/2009

Netanyahu and Obama in the Oval Office yesterday. (Marvin Joseph/The Post)

Yesterday's public exchange of remarks between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered no indication of progress towards peace in the Middle East -- maybe even the opposite.

Israel's new, hawkish leader refused to even utter the phrase "two-state solution," demanded concessions from the Palestinians without expressing any interest whatsoever in making any of his own, and focused primarily on the Iranian nuclear threat.

Obama spoke vaguely of his confidence that progress could be made in the "days, weeks and months to come," and of potentially engaging Arab states and "realign[ing] interests in the region in a constructive way." But that was just empty words, right?

Perhaps not.

Yitzhak Benhorin writes for Ynet News that Netanyahu met with Israeli reporters after the meeting and reported that Obama told him "that he intends to promote a new regional peace initiative for the Middle East....[T]he prime minister said that his understanding the regional component will be the key focal point of the new initiative. It will likely be presented in Obama's planned June 4th speech in Cairo."

Hilary Leila Krieger and Herb Keinon write for the Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu "termed the plan 'interesting,' and said that it would involve not just the Palestinians and Israelis, but also a number of moderate Arab states."

This sounds like the initiative that Jordan's King Abdullah was talking about last week.

Richard Beeston and Michael Binyon wrote in the Times of London: "America is putting the final touches to a hugely ambitious peace plan for the Middle East, aimed at ending more than 60 years of conflict between Israel and the Arabs, according to Jordan's King Abdullah, who is helping to bring the parties together.

"The Obama Administration is pushing for a comprehensive peace agreement that would include settling Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and its territorial disputes with Syria and Lebanon, King Abdullah II told The Times. Failure to reach agreement at this critical juncture would draw the world into a new Middle East war next year. 'If we delay our peace negotiations, then there is going to be another conflict between Arabs or Muslims and Israel in the next 12-18 months,' the King said....

"The initiative could form the centrepiece for Mr Obama's much-anticipated address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4. A peace conference could then take place involving all the parties as early as July or August...

"'What we are talking about is not Israelis and Palestinians sitting at the table, but Israelis sitting with Palestinians, Israelis sitting with Syrians, Israelis sitting with Lebanese,' said the King, who hatched the plan with Mr Obama in Washington last month. He added that, if Mr Obama did not make good his promise for peace, then his credibility would evaporate overnight.

"The Israeli Government has so far rejected any moves that would lead to a two-state solution, the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, but the King insisted that what was being proposed was a '57-state solution', whereby the Arab and entire Muslim world would recognise the Jewish state as part of the deal."

AFP reports that Abdullah told a session of the World Economic Forum last week in Jordan: "The Arab peace initiative has offered Israel a place in the neighbourhood and more: acceptance by 57 nations, the one-third of the UN members that do not recognise Israel" -- in return for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are 57 countries in the Islamic Conference.

The Times predicted that details of the plan would likely to be thrashed out in a series of meetings -- starting with the one between Obama and Netanyahu.

The recognition by the Arab states could conceivably be a powerful incentive for Israel. Netanyahu told Ynet News, for instance, "that Israel shares Obama's view that as many Arab nations as possible should be included in the Palestinian process, 'so that they talk directly to Israel.'"

Reuters reported last week: "Among Arab states, only Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania have diplomatic relations with Israel. Most Muslim countries avoid political, economic ties and even diplomatic ties."

Jason Burke, Ewan MacCaskill and Rory McCarthy wrote in Sunday's Observer: "The real strength of Obama's strategy lies in the regional dimension. His team is following the dictum 'If you can't solve a problem, make it bigger'. Their aim is to dilute the knotty intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a broader environment, in the hope that regional powers such as Jordan and Egypt can offer Israel incentives that the weakened Palestinians cannot or will not give.

"By linking all the various elements of the complex matrix of conflicts and rivalries that comprise Middle Eastern politics, the White House hopes to get something, somewhere, to give.

"Some of those blocks might be clearing. Moderate Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt, as well as US allies like Saudi Arabia, are concerned both by the continuing threat of radical Islamic violence and by Iran's bid for regional primacy and may be prepared to make concessions themselves or press the Palestinians to do so."

There's also an Iranian angle. Tim McGirk writes for Time: "Obama wants to rally Arab nations to create a bloc against Iran's nuclear ambitions, and he thinks that the only way to bring the Arabs on board is to achieve headway on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict....

"He has his sights on a regional peace initiative, roping in moderate Arab states, which he will unveil on June 4 in Cairo. Obama knows that his plan will succeed or flop depending on Israel's willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians."

Next week, before his trip to Cairo, Obama is hosting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House.

As for Iran, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Obama said Monday that he expected to know by the end of the year whether Iran was making 'a good-faith effort to resolve differences' in talks aimed at ending its nuclear program, signaling to Israel as well as Iran that his willingness to engage in diplomacy over the issue has its limits.

"'We're not going to have talks forever,' Mr. Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel after a two-hour session in
the Oval Office....

"Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama came to the meeting with competing goals: Mr. Obama wanted Mr. Netanyahu to embrace a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and Mr. Netanyahu wanted Mr. Obama to take a strong stand on the threat to Israel's security posed by Iran. Some independent experts said afterward that Mr. Netanyahu appeared to have succeeded."

Aluf Benn writes for Haaretz: "Netanyahu said he hopes 'Obama will succeed' in his talks with Iran, but this is a diplomatic phrase. It is doubtful that he believes the Iranians will suddenly become nice and give up their nuclear program just because Obama talks with them.

"In practice, this means that Netanyahu agreed to give Obama until the end of the year. Then, if Iran's nuclear program is still proceeding, Israel will consider 'other options.'"

And in a related development, Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "A planned U.S. missile shield to protect Europe from a possible Iranian attack would be ineffective against the kinds of missiles Iran is likely to deploy, according to a joint analysis by top U.S. and Russian scientists. The U.S.-Russian team also judged that it would be more than five years before Iran is capable of building both a nuclear warhead and a missile capable of carrying it over long distances. And if Iran attempted such an attack, the experts say, it would ensure its own destruction."

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 05/19/2009

What's the latest torture news?

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "A coalition of left-wing advocacy groups filed legal ethics complaints on Monday against 12 former Bush administration lawyers, including three United States attorneys general, whom the groups accuse of helping to justify torture."

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank finds humor in the idea of holding Bush administration officials accountable for torture: "So, forced nudity for Ashcroft, the former attorney general who once ordered the covering of the bare breasts of the Lady Justice statue?... Waterboarding for Addington, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, who haughtily brushed off lawmakers?" Hardy har har.

Emily Pierce and Tory Newmyer write for Roll Call (subscription required): "Instead of talking up their grand plans for changing the direction of the country and moving past the partisan bitterness, Congressional Democrats can't seem to get out of this debate over the harsh interrogations of terror suspects during President George W. Bush's first term.....

"'It's drowning out our message,' one senior House Democratic aide said. 'We are about to conclude a really productive work period, but torture is all you hear about.'

"Case in point: During the media frenzy over Pelosi's latest explanation of what the CIA told her about the waterboarding of detainees, reporters on Thursday laughed at one of their own when he asked the Speaker about a massive, controversial rewrite of health care policy — which just happens to be the Democrats' top priority this year.

"'Did you get booed?' Pelosi asked the lone journalist who tried to change the subject."

And while we're on the general subject, let me catch you up on the latest Cheney developments:

Robert Windrem writes in the Daily Beast that two U.S. intelligence officers confirm that former vice president Cheney's office suggested waterboarding an Iraqi prisoner in the spring of 2003. The prisoner was a former intelligence official for Saddam Hussein, who was suspected to have knowledge of a Saddam-al Qaeda connection.

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Then-Vice President Dick Cheney, defending the invasion of Iraq, asserted in 2004 that detainees interrogated at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp had revealed that Iraq had trained al Qaida operatives in chemical and biological warfare, an assertion that wasn't true.

"Cheney's 2004 comments to the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News were largely overlooked at the time. However, they appear to substantiate recent reports that interrogators at Guantanamo and other prison camps were ordered to find evidence of alleged cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — despite CIA reports that there were only sporadic, insignificant contacts between the militant Islamic group and the secular Iraqi dictatorship....

"'The (al Qaida-Iraq) links go back,' he said. 'We know for example from interrogating detainees in Guantanamo that al Qaida sent individuals to Baghdad to be trained in C.W. and B.W. technology, chemical and biological weapons technology. These are all matters that are there for anybody who wants to look at it.'

"No evidence of such training or of any operational links between Iraq and al Qaida has ever been found, according to several official inquiries."

Walter Pincus wrote in Saturday's Washington Post that "senior intelligence officials...acknowledged that two al-Qaeda operatives, Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, had been questioned about alleged links between al-Qaeda and Iraq when the two men underwent CIA interrogation in 2002 and 2003. But the officials denied that the questioning on Iraq had included waterboarding."

But that's hardly a blanket denial. Waterboarding was by no means the only form of coercion used upon the CIA's detainees. And what about all the other people who passed through the black sites?

Walter Pincus writes in today's Washington Post about whining from within the CIA: "Harsh interrogations were only one part of its clandestine activities against al-Qaeda and other enemies, and agency members are worried that other operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan will come under review...

"The agency's defensiveness in part reflects a conviction that it is being forced to take the blame for actions approved by elected officials that have since fallen into disfavor."

Joby Warrick reported last week for The Washington Post that the CIA rejected Cheney's request to release documents that he says show that the agency's harsh interrogation methods helped thwart terrorist plots. The CIA cited "pending legal action" as the only reason for keeping the memos secret. But it turns out that legal action consists of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits from a variety of human rights groups. So the CIA won't release the memos to Cheney because other people are asking for them, too? Ridiculous.

Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek about Cheney's recent media visibility: "[I]t's good to have Cheney around. We need someone to tell us hard, unpleasant truths. And it is useful to remind ourselves of the mistake we made in thinking that he was the man to do it."

Marcy Wheeler writes in Salon about the "Torture 13" -- Bush officials who "exploited the federal bureaucracy to establish a torture regime." Cheney tops the list, followed by his counsel and chief of staff David Addington.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 05/19/2009

Spencer S. Hsu writes for The Washington Post: "The Obama administration is expanding a program initiated by President George W. Bush aimed at checking the immigration status of virtually every person booked into local jails. In four years, the measure could result in a tenfold increase in illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes and identified for deportation, current and former U.S. officials said."

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times that as details of Obama's military commission system emerged Monday, "it was clear that military commission trials would be subject to new legal challenges raising many of the same issues that plagued the Bush administration's effort to prosecute detainees for the last seven years....But senior administration officials said they planned to ask Congress for additional reforms of the military commission system, calling the proposed changes the president announced a starting point."

Annie Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "The nation's top military officer warned Monday that the deaths of Afghan civilians caught up in U.S. combat operations could cripple President Barack Obama's revamped strategy for the seven-year-old war. 'I believe that each time we do that, we put our strategy in jeopardy,' Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. 'We cannot succeed...in Afghanistan by killing Afghan civilians.' Mullen said additional forces and new tactics can help the United States turn a discouraging tide in Afghanistan. He said he was hopeful that 'in the next 12- to 24 months, that we can stem the trends which have been going very badly in Afghanistan the last three years.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes for the New York Times: "President Obama told a huge crowd in Prague last month that he is committed to 'a world without nuclear weapons.' On Tuesday, he is expected to deliver that message from the Oval Office, with a little help from four elder statesmen of the nuclear non-proliferation movement – including two former Republican secretaries of state."

Charles Clover writes in the Financial Times: "Russia and the US on Tuesday began talks in Moscow aimed at limiting their respective nuclear arsenals, which may provide the first breakthrough in an effort by both sides to 'reset' a badly frayed relationship beset by mistrust."

Ceci Connolly writes for The Washington Post: "One week after the nation's health insurance lobby pledged to President Obama to do what it can to constrain rising health costs, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina is putting the finishing touches on a public message campaign aimed at killing a key plank in Obama's reform platform. As part of what it calls an 'informational website,' the company has hired an outside PR company to make a series of videos sounding the alarm about a government-sponsored health insurance option, known as the public plan."

Robert Reich writes on his blog: "It's still possible that the House could come up with a real Medicare-like public option and that Senate Dems could pass it under a reconciliation bill needing just 51 votes. But it won't happen without a great deal of pressure from the White House and the public. Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and the rest of Big Med are pushing hard in the opposite direction. And Democrats are now giving away the store. As things are now going, we'll end up with a universal health-care bill this year that politicians, including our President, will claim as a big step forward when it's really a step sideways."

Jack Cafferty writes for CNN: "The Bush presidency is thankfully over...but the damage he and Dick Cheney did continues to press on the nerve of the American people like an impacted wisdom tooth. And until the questions surrounding arguably the most arrogant and perhaps most corrupt administration in our history are addressed, the pain won't go away."

Mary Ann Akers writes for The Washington Post that at last night's Bruce Springsteen concert "the Boss held up a sign from someone in the audience at the Verizon Center that said: 'Obama called, he wants Rosie.' That sign now belongs to President Obama. Backstage after the concert, Bruce Springsteen personally autographed the Rosie poster and gave it to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to deliver to Obama at the White House, an eyewitness tells the Sleuth....Springsteen belted out Rosalita as a rousing final encore that had the entire Verizon Center throbbing and screaming."

Anatomy of a Myth

By Dan Froomkin
11:50 AM ET, 05/19/2009

Here's a classic example of an inaccurate story instantly gaining mythological status.

As Mark Silva blogs for Tribune, Washington yesterday was "abuzz with word that Vice President Joe Biden reportedly had disclosed the location of the undisclosed location that his predecessor, Dick Cheney, made mysteriously famous."

Consider the Fox News headline: Biden Reveals Location of Secret VP Bunker.

What set it all off was a blog post by Newsweek's Eleanor Clift: "Ever wonder about that secure, undisclosed location where Dick Cheney secreted himself after the 9/11 attacks? Joe Biden reveals the bunker-like room is at the Naval Observatory in Washington, where Cheney lived for eight years and which is now home to Biden. The veep related the story to his head-table dinner mates when he filled in for President Obama at the Gridiron Club earlier this year. He said the young naval officer giving him a tour of the residence showed him the hideaway, which is behind a massive steel door secured by an elaborate lock with a narrow connecting hallway lined with shelves filled with communications equipment. The officer explained that when Cheney was in lock down, this was where his most trusted aides were stationed, an image that Biden conveyed in a way that suggested we shouldn’t be surprised that the policies that emerged were off the wall."

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger write in The Washington Post that Clift's "source" was the club's newsletter, in which club President Dick Cooper of the Tribune Co. recounted what Biden had said to him at the dinner -- fully two months ago.

But Clift apparently put two and two together and got five. The room in question was not Cheney's secret bunker.

As Silva writes: "Elizabeth Alexander, Biden's spokeswoman, offered this explanation this afternoon: 'What the vice president described in his comments was not - as some press reports have suggested - an underground facility, but rather, an upstairs workspace in the residence, which he understood was frequently used by Vice President Cheney and his aides.

"'That workspace was converted into an upstairs guestroom when the Bidens moved into the residence,' Alexander said. 'There was no disclosure of classified information.'"

But too late -- Biden's latest "gaffe" has now entered the pop-culture bloodstream.

Via U.S. News, here was Jay Leno last night: "Well, another gaffe by Vice President Joe Biden. God bless Joe Biden....He's been our savior here. 'Newsweek' is reporting that at the Gridiron Dinner, Joe Biden started talking and accidentally revealed Dick Cheney's secret hiding place. See, there's more proof you don't need waterboarding to get secret information. Just give Joe Biden a couple of drinks."

And David Letterman: "Here's something that I am very excited about. Joe Biden, the current vice president, was yakking away over the weekend. And he -- remember when Dick Cheney...was in an undisclosed location and everybody thought where?...So supposedly top secret information, classified information. And Joe Biden just says, 'No, I know where he was. He was hiding under his house.'... Joe Biden is living proof that people can give up sensitive information without being tortured."

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
10:01 AM ET, 05/19/2009

Stephen Colbert celebrates: "Barack Obama has finally seen the light! He is not going to release photos of detainee abuse -- and he's reinstituting military tribunals for detainees down in Guantanamo. I knew he was going to be transformative. But who knew he was going to transform into President Bush?"

If Obama truly intends to join the conservative "real world," Colbert says, he's going to need a few things, including "a magical unicorn whose tears cure homosexuality" and "a dictionary where 'socialism' and 'fascism' mean the same thing."

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Welcome to the Real World, Obama

Jon Stewart has one question for Obama after his Notre Dame commencement speech: "Why are you making us think?"

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c

And Wyatt Cenac explains to Stewart how Obama is like Cliff Huxtable.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Barack Obama Is Cliff Huxtable
Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:33 AM ET, 05/19/2009

Pat Oliphant on Obama's slam dunk, Jim Morin on mutual respect in the culture wars, John Branch on the GOP's new face and Ann Telnaes on Daughter of Cheney.

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