The Accidental CEO

By Dan Froomkin
1:59 PM ET, 06/ 1/2009

The way things are going these days, owning a car company is not the best way to win friends and earn trust. And owning a bankrupt General Motors is, to put it lightly, a bit of a political and economic risk. Which may be why President Obama this morning immediately cast himself as a reluctant owner who won't be micromanaging.

After an infusion of $50 billion in taxpayer money, the American people now have a 60 percent equity stake in the carmaker. Obama insisted that both the bankruptcy and the public stakes were necessary to restore GM to competitiveness and ensure the survival of the domestic auto industry.

Virtually every decision facing the behemoth company will adversely affect one important constituency or another. And many of Obama's priorities -- such as bringing the company back to profitability, treating workers fairly and dramatically improving fuel efficiency -- may be in conflict.

From his remarks:

What we are not doing -- what I have no interest in doing -- is running GM. GM will be run by a private board of directors and management team with a track record in American manufacturing that reflects a commitment to innovation and quality. They -- and not the government -- will call the shots and make the decisions about how to turn this company around. The federal government will refrain from exercising its rights as a shareholder in all but the most fundamental corporate decisions. When a difficult decision has to be made on matters like where to open a new plant or what type of new car to make, the new GM, not the United States government, will make that decision.

In short, our goal is to get GM back on its feet, take a hands-off approach, and get out quickly.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board this morning outlined the downsides:

Welcome to Obama Motors, and what is likely to be a long, expensive and unhappy exercise in political car making....

Every decision the feds have made since December suggests that nonpolitical management will be impossible....

The Administration promises to wield a light ownership hand, but it's only a matter of time before Congress starts to micromanage GM's business judgments. Every decision to close a plant will be second-guessed, much like a military base-closing....

Mr. Obama likes to say he's a pragmatist who only prefers a government solution when it will work. But in resurrecting an industrial auto policy that even the French long ago abandoned, the President has made himself GM's de facto CEO. Our guess is that he'll come to regret it as much as taxpayers will.

Quite significantly, the New York Times editorial board this morning shared many of the Journal's concerns, if in a more sympathetic way:

President Obama owes American taxpayers and voters a candid and detailed explanation of the government's goals and the levers it intends to use to achieve them....

The decisions of G.M.'s new managers should not become entangled with the government's other policy priorities — such as maximizing employment in the United States or reducing job losses in Michigan. And he should specify what is supposed to happen if the goals of profitability and fuel efficiency collide.

The old saying, "What's good for General Motors is good for America," has never seemed like such a double-edged sword. And Obama also clearly appreciates the symbolism.

I recognize that today's news carries a particular importance because it's not just any company we're talking about -- it's GM. It's a company that's not only been a source of income, but a source of pride for generations of autoworkers and generations of Americans. But while the GM of the future will be different from the GM of the past, I am absolutely confident that if well managed, a new GM will emerge that can provide a new generation of Americans with a chance to live out their dreams, that can out-compete automakers around the world, and that can once again be an integral part of America's economic future. And when that happens, we can truly say that what is good for General Motors and all who work there is good for the United States of America.

Revisiting History

By Dan Froomkin
1:26 PM ET, 06/ 1/2009

Former Vice President Dick Cheney keeps trying to rewrite history in a way that will reflect kindly on the Bush-Cheney administration's counter-terrorism efforts.

But history struck back as former White House counter-terrorism director Richard Clarke, writing in a Washington Post opinion piece, reminded us of what really happened after Sept. 11.

What motivated Cheney and others to advocate such extraordinarily excessive and counterproductive measures? Clarke writes:

[W]hen Bush's inner circle first really came to grips with the threat of terrorism, they did so in a state of shock -- a bad state in which to develop a coherent response. Fearful of new attacks, they authorized the most extreme measures available, without assessing whether they were really a good idea.

I believe this zeal stemmed in part from concerns about the 2004 presidential election. Many in the White House feared that their inaction prior to the attacks would be publicly detailed before the next vote -- which is why they resisted the 9/11 commission -- and that a second attack would eliminate any chance of a second Bush term. So they decided to leave no doubt that they had done everything imaginable.

And, I would add, unimaginable.

Bush ultimately ducked a bullet when the 9/11 Commission he had opposed came out with a report in July 2004 that didn't excessively blame the administration for what had happened. As I wrote last year, that may have been at least partially thanks to the fact that the commission's executive director was close to Condoleezza Rice and exchanged frequent calls with the White House.

Clarke's piece also reminded me of investigative journalist Murray Waas's compelling and insufficiently appreciated reporting on how the Bush White House manipulated the release of intelligence and took other extreme measures to keep allegations of deception in the campaign for war in Iraq from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election. Karl Rove apparently understood that if American voters found out how Bush had intentionally misled them, the election might be lost.

Meanwhile, Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times on Sunday that Cheney "and his cohort" were once again:

using lies and fear to try to gain political advantage — this time to rewrite history and escape accountability for the failed Bush presidency rather than to drum up a new war. Once again Democrats in Congress were cowed. And once again too much of the so-called liberal news media parroted the right’s scare tactics, putting America’s real security interests at risk by failing to challenge any Washington politician carrying a big stick...

The harrowing truth remains unchanged from what it was before Cheney emerged from his bunker to set Washington atwitter. The Bush administration did not make us safer either before or after 9/11. Obama is not making us less safe. If there’s another terrorist attack, it will be because the mess the Bush administration ignored in Pakistan and Afghanistan spun beyond anyone’s control well before Americans could throw the bums out.

And the Rev. Jim Wallis writes in Sojourners:

I will leave the judgment of Dick Cheney’s soul to God, who alone is in the position to render that judgment on all of us. But I will say the vision of America that Cheney offers is decidedly evil, and has helped to spread even more evil around the world. Cheney represents the dark side of America, a view of the world dominated by fear and self-righteousness—always a deadly combination. It accepts no real reflection or self-examination; the evil in the world is always external, and the threat ever present. There is only certainty, and never humility. And, when the dark side goes unchecked, what it leads to is a state of permanent warfare, which will only be won by using any means necessary, and where the ends always justify the means. At the end of his breathtaking speech, the former vice president was so full of admiration and praise for those who used “enhanced interrogation” against America’s suspected enemies that you got the impression he would happily preside over those brutal sessions himself.

Wallis, according to the New York Times, is one of the "handful of evangelical pastors" Obama consults "for private prayer sessions on the telephone and for discussions on the role of religion in politics."

Watch Froomkin

By Dan Froomkin
1:01 PM ET, 06/ 1/2009

I was one of four White House journalists featured in an IFC Media Project documentary last night, which is also available (for $1.99) on itunes.

Host Gideon Yago's crew interviewed Julie Mason of the Washington Examiner, April Ryan of American Urban Radio, Ed Henry of CNN and me. I suggested that President Obama has yet to live up to his promises of transparency. (Building on my post from last week, Obama's Not-So-Open Government.)

Yago said he started off with a pretty cynical view of the White House press corps -- but eventually changed his mind. "I was wrong," he said. "The White House press corps is essential. Sure, some days they emerge from their cave-like offices just to cover the first dog. But most of the time I spent with them, they were mining [a] narrow vein of truth, and keeping watch."

Obama's Big Muslim Test

By Dan Froomkin
12:58 PM ET, 06/ 1/2009

Expectations are mounting for President Obama's big speech to the Muslim world from Cairo on Thursday -- and his approach is coming into clearer focus, as well.

Margaret Talev and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers:

President Barack Obama has a sweeping goal for his speech Thursday in Cairo, Egypt: to begin remaking the dynamic between the United States and Muslims abroad.

He'll declare a clean break from the Bush administration's "war-on-terror" approach to foreign affairs and forcefully endorse establishing a Palestinian state.

He'll talk about his respect for Islamic culture and call for an era of partnering with Muslim nations in areas of common interest, among them curbing violent extremists before they destabilize Muslim nations and threaten the West.

Having publicly demanded that Israel stop building settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, he'll also ask Arab nations collectively to recognize Israel's existence.

Tim McGirk writes for Time:

Obama's Cairo speech is supposed to set a new course for U.S. policy in the turbulent Middle East; the key to its success is to promote the image that his Administration is taking a more evenhanded approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict than did his predecessor. But this has not gone down well with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's hawkish Cabinet, which is grumbling in the Israeli press that Obama has gone too far the other way, supposedly granting concessions to Palestinians that are "unfair" to Israelis.

Indeed, Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times:

As President Obama prepares to head to the Middle East this week, administration officials are debating how to toughen their stance against any expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

She also notes that Obama:

will begin the Middle East leg of the trip in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he will take King Abdullah a wish list from not just himself, but from Israeli and Palestinian officials as well. Officials said Mr. Obama was hoping that King Abdullah would agree to make an overture to Israel that could, in turn, get Israel to move more quickly on a peace process.

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek that:

George W. Bush set the bar so low... [a]ll Obama has to do to be a success is elicit applause—rather than a fusillade of hurled shoes.

But he has privately told friends that his goal is far higher: nothing less than to help "reconcile Islam and modernity." He will pay homage to the Golden Age of that culture — its glorious achievements in mathematics, science, literature and diplomacy—and note that Muslim scholars rescued from oblivion the Greek and Roman (i.e., the "Western") canon. He also will draw on the by-now-familiar story of his own life. A Christian son of an African-Muslim father, he spent years in Muslim-majority Indonesia, attending a public school run by, but not suffused with, the teachings of Islam. All of this, Obama thinks, not only allows him, but obliges him, to play a grand role as bridge builder....

In the diplomatic community, there is little doubt the president is doing the right thing in Cairo. "President Bush liked to talk about our shared values, but it came off as didactic," said Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution. "His escalating series of military interventions left people in Muslim-majority countries feeling imposed upon. Obama's speech is a game-changer, because he's going to say that we are partners and equals."

Nevertheless, Fineman warns of "risks, large and small." For instance, "that the incorrigibles in the neighborhood — the true terrorists — will see him as a naif and be emboldened by that thought." Also "that he will become a prisoner of his own words, and the high expectations they create."

Read my most recent Middle East items here.

Still Playing the Race Card

By Dan Froomkin
12:32 PM ET, 06/ 1/2009

Judge Sonia Sotomayor's breakthrough nomination to the Supreme Court seems nearly unstoppable at this point. John Harwood writes in the New York Times that: "Notwithstanding fierce criticism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, there is scant evidence of solid opposition from Republican senators. Indeed, strategists on both sides say that one-third or more of the 40 Senate Republicans may vote to confirm her."

But that's not how it looked on the Sunday talk shows. Instead of trying to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party and leave the race-based arguments against Sotomayor to the lunatic fringe, some key Republican senators seemed to endorse those arguments, if in tamer terms.

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times:

Since the introduction last week of Sonia Sotomayor, Republican senators wary of attacking the first Latino Supreme Court nominee have lashed out at conservatives in their party who branded the would-be justice a racist and have even predicted a smooth confirmation.

But several of those same GOP senators said Sunday that they would now make race a focus of the Sotomayor nomination fight -- and they were far less eager to criticize conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich for their racially tinged critiques.

Fanning out across network television talk shows, the senators in essence pledged to ask a fundamental question: Can a woman who says her views are shaped by her Puerto Rican heritage and humble beginnings make fair decisions when it comes to all races and social classes?...

[T]he GOP senators' new tone underscored a sense in the party that Sotomayor's history of speaking about her Puerto Rican heritage had emerged as a surprisingly effective line of attack -- particularly as President Obama and other Democrats try to shore up their support among working-class white voters.

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote in an important essay on Dailykos.com that conservative leaders are trying to recast the Sotomayor nomination -- and, indeed, Obama's wider devotion to empathy -- as a giveaway to minorities and a red shirt to "conservative populists."

"The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor," Lakoff wrote. "In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the 'liberal elite' as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes." The attack on Sotomayor "is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women."

Jeffrey Toobin, writing in the New Yorker, reminds us of the historical stakes:

As with earlier breakthrough nominations, Obama's selection of Sotomayor has stirred some old-fashioned ugliness, and in that alone it serves as a reminder of the value of a diverse bench and society. Some anonymous portrayals of the Judge offered the kind of patronizing critiques ('not that smart') that often greet outsiders at white-male preserves. Women who have integrated such bastions will be familiar, too, with the descriptions of her temperament ('domineering'), which are of a variety that tend to reveal more about the insecurity of male holdovers than about the comportment of female pioneers. The pernicious implication of such views is that white males, who constitute a hundred and six of the hundred and ten individuals who have served on the Court, made it on merit, and that Sotomayor is somehow less deserving...

As Barack Obama knows better than most, it is a sign of a mature and healthy society when the best of formerly excluded groups have the opportunity to earn their way to the top.

Meanwhile, Dan Eggen and Paul Kane wrote in Saturday's Washington Post that Obama said Sotomayor regrets her choice of words in a 2001 speech in which she said a "wise Latina" judge would often make better decisions than a white male.

But Obama, in his first public remarks on the controversy, also condemned "all this nonsense that is being spewed out" by critics who have accused Sotomayor of being a racist and have likened her to a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I'm sure she would have restated it," Obama said of Sotomayor's remarks, in an interview with NBC News that will air next week. "But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through.

"That will make her a good judge," he added.

The comments underscored a shift in the White House's approach to Sotomayor's controversial speech, which has become a flashpoint for many conservatives opposed to her nomination.

Although by Saturday morning's weekly address, Obama was back to decrying how "some in Washington who are attempting to draw old battle lines and playing the usual political games, pulling a few comments out of context to paint a distorted picture of Judge Sotomayor's record."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:32 AM ET, 06/ 1/2009

Aday Zyglis on Obama's GM rescue, John Trever on Obama's health-care plan, Kevin Siers on the White House version of "Up," Tom Toles on the new voodoo economics, Steve Sack on Obama's North Korean options, Monte Wolverton on the politics of horror and August J. Pollak on the over-audacity of hope.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company