Welcome Back, Congress

By Dan Froomkin
12:29 PM ET, 06/19/2009

If you believe in the legislative process -- if you actually believe that members of Congress have a role in formulating the laws of this land, rather than just rubber-stamping whatever the president wants -- then you really can't get freaked out when that process gets messy. It is a messy process.

If you persist in seeing all of politics as a game, and believe that all that matters is who appears to be winning or losing at a particular moment, then yes, it may look to you like President Obama is losing right now, because so many lawmakers are suddenly running around with their hands in the air screaming.

But I don't think that's correct. It's just that unlike former president George W. Bush, who treated Congress like an appendage of the executive branch, Obama has made it clear that he thinks Congress actually gets to do its job again.

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post:

President Obama's hopes for quick action on comprehensive health-care reform ran headlong this week into the realities of Congress, as lawmakers searching for the money to pay for a broad expansion of coverage discovered that it wasn't easy to find and descended into partisan -- and intraparty -- bickering.

A set of unexpectedly high cost estimates -- arcane data that nevertheless carry enormous import in the legislative process -- sent shockwaves along Pennsylvania Avenue and forced one key committee to delay action on its bill, probably until after the July 4 recess.

But the White House doesn't seem unduly alarmed. Connolly writes that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel described haggling over cost estimates as a routine part of lawmaking, and told her: "Since it's the first inning, I wouldn't call the game."

Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write for Politico:

"This was always going to be messy," said a senior administration strategist. "It got messy faster and earlier than people thought. But none of it is anything that’s going to stop it."

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz writes:

There is a tendency in the press, of course, to over-obsess on process, to overreact to each tactical setback. Remember all the back-and-forth over whether the stimulus package should be more than $787 billion? Of course you don't. It seems unimportant now, compared to the overarching question of whether unemployment will hit 11 percent and the economy will stabilize.

By year's end, Obama will either have delivered on health reform or he won't. His green-jobs energy package will be law or it won't. Presidents don't get everything they want, and the public is usually fuzzy on the fine print. What matters are the broad strokes.

But is Obama newly vulnerable? I wrote skeptically yesterday about the newly emerging media narrative. But Dan Balz, blogging for The Washington Post, takes it and runs with it:

President Obama may still hold the high ground politically in Washington, but the outlines of an opposition message have suddenly begun to come together. On domestic and foreign policy, Obama's opponents have found cracks in his armor.

The most serious potential problem is a thread that runs through his entire agenda and poses the fundamental question for the domestic side of his presidency. How much more government will Americans tolerate?...

Obama is lucky to have an opposition party that has so many of its own problems. But that will be of only limited comfort to him in the coming months. The public may disapprove of the Republicans, but they can easily start turning against the president if he doesn't deliver what he's promised. Five months after his inauguration, reality is beginning to sink in.

It seems to me you could more easily make the argument that Obama isn't being too daring, he's being too timid -- most recently when it comes to his proposed regulatory overhaul. Steven Pearlstein writes in his Washington Post column:

What does it tell you when banks, investment houses, insurance companies and derivatives traders are so pleased with their regulators that they are prepared to pull out all the stops to keep them?

What it tells me is that the current system of financial regulation has been thoroughly captured by the companies it was meant to restrain -- and that the only way to put things right is to bring in new rules, a new structure and tough new regulators. Anything short of that, and you can almost guarantee that the inmates will be back in charge of the asylum by the time the next bubble starts to develop.

Judged by that standard, the proposals the Obama administration put forward this week to reform the regulatory apparatus were a bit of a disappointment.

And Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column:

Yes, the plan would plug some big holes in regulation. But as described, it wouldn’t end the skewed incentives that made the current crisis inevitable.

Meanwhile, Sam Youngman writes about Obama's speech last night at a big Democratic fundraiser:

[T]he president appeared to be steeling and warning Democratic fundraisers that Republicans were sharpening their attack lines for the midterm elections, a subtle prod to "dig deep" lest they lose control of Congress.

Obama noted that many of the actions that he has taken are "not necessarily popular," and he warned that the criticisms of his administration will only get worse as he takes on more issues.

"But that's the nature of things," Obama said. "This is when the criticism gets louder. This is when the pundits get impatient. This is when the cynicism mounts."

The president dismissed those who say he is not changing the way Washington works, laughing at critics who question whether or not change is possible.

"Can't do it. System overload. Circuits breaking down," Obama said, mimicking a robot. "It's so predictable.

"So this is exactly the moment when we need to fight the hardest. This is the moment when we need to band together."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 06/19/2009

Things weren't bad enough in Afghanistan -- former president George W. Bush actually had to make them worse? Rajiv Chandrasekaran's riveting story in today's Washington Post describes how, ignoring advice from experts, Bush adopted an impetuous approach to development that compounded the problems created by his military decision to focus on Iraq instead of Afghanistan. Says Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's point man for Afghanistan policy, of Bush's $3 billion mistake: "In my experience of 40-plus years -- I started out working for AID in Vietnam -- this was the single most wasteful, most ineffective program that I had ever seen... It wasn't just a waste of money. . . . This was actually a benefit to the enemy. We were recruiting Taliban with our tax dollars."

Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post: "A war funding bill passed the Senate overwhelmingly yesterday, but the 91 to 5 vote came after a fractured process that included objections from Republicans and Democrats alike, and required President Obama to intervene repeatedly to lobby members of his own party for his foreign policy vision."

A video montage from Jed Lewison of DailyKosTV demonstrates Karl Rove's extraordinary hypocrisy in assailing ABC News for broadcasting from the White House one night next week. Meanwhile, Rove tells Fox News's Greta Van Susteren that Obama is afraid of coming on Fox: "I mean, here's a man who seems to be willing to go sit down with Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il, but he won't sit down with Greta or O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. I mean, it strikes that this guy might be a little fearful of -- of having tough questions asked of him."

Two neocons take to The Washington Post op-ed page this morning urge Obama to confront the Iran situation, well, more confrontationally -- like that worked out so great last time with a neighboring country. Charles Krauthammer writes: "Millions of Iranians take to the streets to defy a theocratic dictatorship that, among its other finer qualities, is a self-declared enemy of America and the tolerance and liberties it represents. The demonstrators are fighting on their own, but they await just a word that America is on their side. And what do they hear from the president of the United States? Silence. Then, worse." Paul Wolfowitz, literally an architect of the Iraq war, writes: "Now is not the time for the president to dig in to a neutral posture. It is time to change course."

Post columnist David Ignatius also calls for Obama "to express his solidarity with the Iranians who are so bravely taking to the streets each day."

By contrast, Les Gelb writes for the National Security Network that "calls for Obama to condemn Iran's election results and speak out for the demonstrators shows no knowledge of Iran whatsoever." Azadeh Moaveni writes that "in conversations with friends and relatives in Tehran this week, I've heard the opposite of what I had expected: a resounding belief that this time the United States should keep out." And Juan Cole blogs: "The regime's attempt to paint the protesters as nothing more than US intelligence agents underlines how wise President Obama has been not to insert himself forcefully into the situation in Iran."

Media Matters suggests: "When considering what kind of platform to offer conservative commentators' criticism of President Obama's reaction to events in Iran, the media should remember these commentators' previous discredited claims, predictions, and analysis about other foreign policy issues, particularly the Iraq war."

Also on the Post op-ed page, Bush administration CIA director Michael V. Hayden warns of danger if former officials continue to be questioned and -- God forbid -- criticized for their embrace of torture as an interrogation technique: "A whole swath of intelligence professionals -- the best we had, the ones we threw at the al-Qaeda challenge when the nation was in extremis -- are suffering for their sacrifice, being held up to recrimination for many decisions that were never wholly theirs and about which there was little protest when we all believed we were in danger." He bemoans the recent withdrawal of a Homeland Security nominee tainted by his association with torture and concludes: "There are other losses less visible. Pray that the safety of the republic is ultimately not among them."

Lois Romano interviews Anita Dunn, interim communications director at the White House. Ellen McCarthy writes about the love affair between White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes and her new husband, Marland Buckner.

Barack Obama writes in Parade: "In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence—both in my life and in the lives of others. I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill.... I know I have been an imperfect father. I know I have made mistakes. I have lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood.... On this Father's Day, I think back to the day I drove Michelle and a newborn Malia home from the hospital nearly 11 years ago—crawling along, miles under the speed limit, feeling the weight of my daughter's future resting in my hands. I think about the pledge I made to her that day: that I would give her what I never had—that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father."

And the White House has released the official portrait of Bo the dog. Also his baseball card.

Obama's Bogus New Excuse for Secrecy

By Dan Froomkin
11:26 AM ET, 06/19/2009

The Obama Justice Department yesterday put forth an new legal argument, one that even the Bush team might not have had the gall to employ. Call it the Daily Show disclosure exclusion.

Yes, a Justice Department lawyer actually argued to a federal district court judge that there should be an exemption from Freedom of Information Act disclosure rules for documents that would subject senior administration officials to embarrassment -- as in on late-night television.

This is not just wrong, it's perversely wrong. By contrast, a good rule of thumb would be: The more embarrassing, the more we need to know. The Justice Department and the White House should be forced to renounce this assertion immediately.

And if this wasn't bizarre enough, consider the irony that in the case at hand, the Obama Justice Department is fighting the release of a transcript of former vice president Dick Cheney's testimony to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about his role in the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.

And guess what else? The Obama team relied extensively on a legal opinion (via Emptywheel) authored by Stephen Bradbury, the utterly discredited head of the Office of Legal Counsel whose other writings included memos outrageously asserting that torture was legal -- and that Karl Rove had absolute immunity from congressional oversight.

In his memo, Bradbury described the information in question:

Portions of the withheld documents reflect or describe frank and candid deliberations involving, among others, the Vice President, the White House Chief of Staff, the National Security Adviser, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the White House Press Secretary. These deliberations concern, among other things, the preparation of the President's January 2003 State of the Union Address, possible responses to media inquiries about the accuracy of a statement in the President's address and the decision to send Ambassador Joseph Wilson on a fact-finding mission to Niger in 2002, the decision to declassify portions of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, and the assessment of the performance of senior White House staff.

OK, right this second, I can't think of a single document that I want -- or deserve to have -- more.

And yet, as R. Jeffrey Smith chronicled in The Washington Post this morning:

[C]areer civil division lawyer Jeffrey M. Smith, responding to Sullivan's questions, said Bradbury's arguments against the disclosure were supported by the department's current leadership. He told the judge that if Cheney's remarks were published, then a future vice president asked to provide candid information during a criminal probe might refuse to do so out of concern "that it's going to get on 'The Daily Show' " or somehow be used as a political weapon.

This is yet another example of Obama's lawyers blatantly violating the president's promise not to "protect information merely because it reveals the violation of a law or embarrassment to the government."

Shocked? You're not the only one. As Smith writes:

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan expressed surprise during a hearing here that the Justice Department, in asserting that Cheney's voluntary statements to U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald were exempt from disclosure, relied on legal claims put forward last October by a Bush administration political appointee, Stephen Bradbury....

Sullivan said Bradbury, who was the acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, was not obviously qualified to make such claims and that they were in any event unsubstantiated. Sullivan said the department needed new evidence, if it hoped to prevail, and said the administration should supply him with a copy of Cheney's statements so he could directly assess whether the claims are credible.

This is not the first time the public has gotten this close to seeing Cheney's statements.

As I wrote in December 2007, it took an intervention by the White House to prevent Fitzgerald from turning it over to congressional investigators.

Then-House Oversight Committee chairman Henry Waxman had gotten Fitzgerald, up until then reluctant to divulge any information about his investigation that hadn't come out in open court, to turn over documents that weren't protected by grand-jury secrecy rules. Fitzgerald explicitly acknowledged that "there were no 'agreements, conditions and understandings between the Office of Special Counselor the Federal Bureau of Investigation' and either the President or Vice President 'regarding the conduct and use of the interview or interviews.'"

After the White House intervened, Waxman subpoenaed the Justice Department for the information. He pointed out that what he was asking for was far from unprecedented: "During the Clinton Administration, your predecessor, Janet Reno, made an independent judgment and provided numerous FBI interview reports to the Committee, including reports of interviews with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and three White House Chiefs of Staff." But then-attorney general Michael Mukasey backed up the White House, and refused to turn it over.

Why all this still matters is that it's long been clear that Fitzgerald was hot on Cheney's trail until he was obstructed by a pack of lies from former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. In the closing arguments of the trial at which Libby was found guilty, Fitzgerald declared: "There is a cloud over the vice president. . . . And that cloud remains because this defendant obstructed justice."

So while Fitzgerald couldn't prove a case against Cheney, that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of evidence of wrongdoing in his case file. And Cheney's interview with Fitzgerald would, I am quite sure, be revelatory. For instance, Libby told the FBI in 2003 that Cheney might have ordered him to reveal Plame's identity to reporters. What did Cheney say to that?

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press about how this latest case came to be:

In July 2008, the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Justice Department seeking records related to Cheney's interview in the investigation. The Justice Department declined to turn over the records, and CREW filed a lawsuit in August.

And Ben Conery writes in The Washington Times:

The judge's move came as the Obama administration continues to defend the legal positions of the Bush administration on the Plame affair.

In addition to fighting against the release of the interview notes, the Obama Justice Department is carrying on its predecessor's opposition to a lawsuit filed by Mrs. Plame and her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, against several top Bush administration officials, including Mr. Cheney. The Justice Department recently asked the Supreme Court not to hear an appeal of the case, which has been dismissed by two lower courts.

Froomkin Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:07 AM ET, 06/19/2009

As Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander and others reported yesterday, The Washington Post has terminated my contract. So sometime in late June or early July, I'll be writing my last blog post here.

I'll have more to add later on, when I actually say goodbye and let you know where you can find me. But in the meantime, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all the readers who have e-mailed, blogged, commented, tweeted and left notes on my Facebook page. Your kind words and support mean the world to me.

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:01 AM ET, 06/19/2009

The White House blog today features a video of Stephen Colbert teeing up President Obama for his cameo appearance on Colbert's show last week, which Colbert filmed in Baghdad. In the taped cameo, after a little banter, Obama ordered Iraq commanding Gen. Ray Odierno to shave Colbert's head. Obama seems much warmer to Colbert than George W. Bush was.

In last night's show, a shorn and unbowed Colbert continued his coverage (see yesterday's Late Night Humor) of Obama's vile murder of a fly. "Of course the rest of the media...has been silent on this senseless killing," Colbert says. "Why am I the watchdog? Why am I the only one speaking out? Why am I alone?"

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Murder in the White House - Jeff Goldblum
Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
8:54 AM ET, 06/19/2009

Jeff Danziger on stolen elections, Walt Handelsman, Jeff Darcy, Nate Beeler, and Tim Goheen on pesky flies, Dan Wasserman on Obama's medical diagnosis, Bruce Beattie on the public response, Mike Thompson on cash for clunkers, John Trever on Obama's meddling in Iran, Mike Keefe on domestic surveillance, Joel Pett on the poll numbers, Bob Englehart and RJ Matson on Obama and Wall Street, and Rob Rogers on the socialist hero.

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