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Some Things Obama Must Explain

By Dan Froomkin
1:40 PM ET, 06/22/2009

Even as President Obama spends most of his time trying to fix the problems former President George W. Bush created or overlooked, his administration is nevertheless embracing the Bushian way of doing business on a handful of issues, most notably those that involve secrecy.

Obama's approach to transparency, for instance, can charitably be described as schizophrenic. When it's good, it's good, but when it's bad, it's really, really bad. See Friday's post for a real howler.

The big question, then, is: Why? When Obama's Justice Department, for instance, puts forth a legal opinion full of the kind of arguments Obama formerly characterized as extreme -- startling even rather jaded federal judges -- what is going on?

Is this just inertia at work? Are holdovers from the Bush era still somehow holding out? Are top Obama appointees being circumvented or outwitted? Is this just a temporary phenomenon? Or is this actually policy coming from the White House? And if so, from exactly how high up does it come? The counsel's office? The chief of staff's office? The Oval itself?

I've been calling since at least April for Obama to address a growing list of apparent hypocrisies and reversals. How, for instance, does he see DOJ's continued assertion of a hugely broad state secrets privilege or his embrace of preventive detention conforming with his previously stated views of the U.S. Constitution?

There's one way reporters could hasten such an explanation: They could ask for one. And as luck would have it, another opportunity is now upon us. The White House announced today that Obama is holding his first Rose Garden press conference tomorrow at 12:30 ET.

Most of the questions will appropriately be about Iran and health care, but I also want to hear about secrecy, preventive detention and -- while we're at it -- DOJ's defense of a law forbidding federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Meanwhile, McClatchy Newspapers and Newsweek offer up a few more case studies.

Michael Doyle overstates the case for McClatchy:

President Barack Obama is morphing into George W. Bush, as administration attorneys repeatedly adopt the executive-authority and national-security rationales that their Republican predecessors preferred.

But he does put forth some compelling evidence:

In courtroom battles and freedom-of-information fights from Washington, D.C., to California, Obama's legal arguments repeatedly mirror Bush's: White House turf is to be protected, secrets must be retained and dire warnings are wielded as weapons.

"It's putting up a veritable wall around the White House, and it's so at odds with Obama's campaign commitment to more open government," said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a legal watchdog group....

On policies that are at the heart of presidential power and prerogatives... this administration's legal arguments have blended into the other. The persistence can reflect everything from institutional momentum and a quest for continuity to the clout of career employees.

"There is no question that there are (durable) cultures and mindsets in agencies," Weismann acknowledged.

Doyle notes that Obama is following Bush's lead by defending the federal marriage law, seeking to keep White House e-mails secret, seeking to keep visitor logs secret, and of course deciding to withhold photographs of detainee abuse.

And Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek:

[L]ast week public-interest groups were dismayed when his own administration rejected a Freedom of Information Act request for Secret Service logs showing the identities of coal executives who had visited the White House to discuss Obama's "clean coal" policies....

After Obama's much-publicized Jan. 21 "transparency" memo, administration lawyers crafted a key directive implementing the new policy that contained a major loophole, according to FOIA experts. The directive, signed by Attorney General Eric Holder, instructed federal agencies to adopt a "presumption" of disclosure for FOIA requests. This reversal of Bush policy was intended to restore a standard set by President Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno. But in a little-noticed passage, the Holder memo also said the new standard applies "if practicable" for cases involving "pending litigation." Dan Metcalfe, the former longtime chief of FOIA policy at Justice, says the passage and other "lawyerly hedges" means the Holder memo is now "astonishingly weaker" than the Reno policy.

Head-Knocking Time

By Dan Froomkin
1:04 PM ET, 06/22/2009

There's a consensus emerging among liberal pundits about what needs to happen for President Obama to achieve genuine health care reform: He's got to get tough with the legislators who are standing in his way.

Michael Tomasky writes in a Guardian commentary:

What time is it? Simple. It's time this week for Barack Obama to start banging some heads in Congress....

[L]egislators are rarely courageous. They're not leaders. They're followers. They don't like doing risky things. They like doing things they know are popular...

We all know that Obama can do the let's-all-reason-together routine. It's nice, and it still should be his default posture on most matters. But he has to show that he can be a ball-buster. He has to show he can scare people. Americans haven't seen that side of him. It could be that it doesn't exist. But if it does, now is damn well the time to start showing it.

Robert Reich blogs for TPM Cafe that Obama must build forcefully make the case for universal health care everywhere around the country, forget bipartisanship, insist on a public option, demand that taxes be raised on the rich, and -- yes -- knock heads on Capitol Hill.

Whose heads?

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column:

The real risk is that health care reform will be undermined by 'centrist' Democratic senators who either prevent the passage of a bill or insist on watering down key elements of reform. I use scare quotes around 'centrist,' by the way, because if the center means the position held by most Americans, the self-proclaimed centrists are in fact way out in right field....

Whatever may be motivating these Democrats, they don't seem able to explain their reasons in public....

Honestly, I don't know what these Democrats are trying to achieve. Yes, some of the balking senators receive large campaign contributions from the medical-industrial complex — but who in politics doesn't? If I had to guess, I'd say that what's really going on is that relatively conservative Democrats still cling to the old dream of becoming kingmakers, of recreating the bipartisan center that used to run America.

But this fantasy can't be allowed to stand in the way of giving America the health care reform it needs. This time, the alleged center must not hold.

By contrast, Robert J. Samuelson uses his Washington Post op-ed column today to decry the amount of money being spent on the "welfare state." You know, on things like Social Security and Medicare.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:02 PM ET, 06/22/2009

Having come to realize that it was neither realistic nor useful, the White House is now retooling Obama's first officially broken campaign promise: His vow that once a bill was passed by Congress, the White House would post it online for five days before he signed it. Katharine Q. Seelye writes in the New York Times: "Instead of starting the five-day clock when Congress passes a bill, administration officials say they intend to start it earlier and post the bills sooner. 'In order to continue providing the American people more transparency in government, once it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president's desk, the White House will post the bill online,' said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman. 'This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law.'"

I was pretty horrified at Obama's failure to express remorse for the massive civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan in May. Now, at least someone down his chain of command seems to be doing something about it. Dexter Filkins writes in the New York Times: "The new American commander in Afghanistan said he would sharply restrict the use of airstrikes here, in an effort to reduce the civilian deaths that he said were undermining the American-led mission."

Obama tells CBS News's Harry Smith: "Well, I think -- I think when it comes to -- Vice-president Cheney, he and I have a deep disagreement about what's required to keep the American people safe. And I think that disagreement -- has been -- amply aired. And -- and certainly he has a right to -- to voice his opinions. I would argue that -- our policies are making the American people safer -- and that -- some of the policies that he's promoted in the past have not."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "President Obama ratcheted up his language against Iran's leadership on Saturday, in a statement that invoked the American civil rights movement as an analogy for what was unfolding on the streets of Tehran. 'Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,' ' Mr. Obama said in a statement released after security forces in the Iranian capital clashed repeatedly with protesters. 'I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian people's belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.'"

That didn't assuage Republicans, who as Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press, "intensified their criticism of President Barack Obama's handling of his first major test of international leadership, saying Sunday that he has been too cautious in response to Iran's postelection upheaval. 'The president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it,' said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. 'He's been timid and passive more than I would like.'"

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "For Obama's critics, this one is a no-brainer. Their counsel: Stand tall for freedom and human rights, trash the repressive mullahs, and let the chips fall. If the opposition wins, everybody wins. If the regime cracks down and manages to survive, engagement is dead. That, from the point of view of Obama's critics, is win-win."

Former Bush State Department official Paul J. Saunders writes in a Washington Post op-ed that "the president has struck the right tone in his public statements.... And he is right to avoid becoming more deeply involved in Iran's post-election political crisis, both practically and morally."

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "A National Journal study of 366 top Obama administration officials has found that 52 percent are white males, down from 59 percent at this point in President George W. Bush's first term. Eleven percent of those officials are African Americans, compared with 10 percent under Bush. The Journal assessment, out today, said 8 percent of Obama's top folks are Hispanic, compared with 6 percent for Bush. Asian Americans totaled 4 percent of Obama's team and 3 percent of Bush's, according to the Journal. Overall, given the demographics of the Obama vote, the percentages don't differ all that much between the two administrations, at least so far."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Despite signs that the recession gripping the nation's economy may be easing, the unemployment rate is projected to continue rising for another year before topping out in double digits, a prospect that threatens to slow growth, increase poverty and further complicate the Obama administration's message of optimism about the economic outlook."

Faiz Shakir reports for ThinkProgress that White House Staff Secretary Lisa Brown on Friday night "conceded that the administration is 'moving slowly' on gay rights. 'Nobody thinks it's fast enough right now, but I know the President cares about this. … It's going in the right direction, if not quickly enough.'"

Greg Sargent blogs that the public release of a highly-anticipated CIA inspector general's report on torture, originally set for last Friday, will now come this Friday.

Albert R. Hunt writes in the New York Times about Obama and the media: "Although the fawning coverage depicted by some is hyperbole, the tone has been largely favorable. That will change if events go sour — a foreign policy mistake, the demise of the president's health care plan, a scandal involving one of his people."

Lee Ross write for FOXNews.com that, in a victory for the defendants: "The Supreme Court announced Monday it will not give further consideration to a lawsuit brought by a fired CIA agent and her husband against high ranking Bush administration officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Though we don't know how Obama will fare on all the challenges he faces this summer, last week's big rollout of his financial reform package was a big punt, an accommodation to the status quo. Given that the economy remains the country's paramount concern — and that all new polling finds that most Americans still think it's dire — this timid response was a lost opportunity. It violated the Rahm Emanuel dictum that 'you never want a serious crisis to go to waste' and could yet prompt a serious political backlash."

Obama talks to the New York Times's John Harwood about why he plays so much golf: "I don't take golf that seriously, actually. The reason I've been playing since the summer started is, it's actually the closest thing to being outside of the bubble of anything else that I do. I can see why presidents play as often — or enjoy playing as often as they do — because when I'm out there, it's the only time I'm outside for any sizable stretch of time.... [G]etting out of the confines of this place is, uh, I find useful."

And here's the quote of the day: "You read Urdu poetry?" That came from Anwar Iqbal, who writes in Pakistan's Dawn about his interview with Obama last week, in which Obama said he believes the Pakistani state is strong enough to win the military offensive against the extremists. Here's one exchange:

Q: Any plan to visit Pakistan in the near future?

Obama: I would love to visit. As you know, I had Pakistani roommates in college who were very close friends of mine. I went to visit them when I was still in college; was in Karachi and went to Hyderabad. Their mothers taught me to cook.

Q: What can you cook?

Obama: Oh, keema -- daal -- you name it, I can cook it. And so I have a great affinity for Pakistani culture and the great Urdu poets.

Q: You read Urdu poetry?

Obama: Absolutely. So my hope is that I'm going to have an opportunity at some point to visit Pakistan.

Presidential Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:45 AM ET, 06/22/2009

President Obama on Friday night was the headliner at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner -- the newly toned-down counterpart to the trashily excessive White House Correspondents Association Dinner.

Here is the video of Obama's routine. My favorite joke, by far: "I have to admit, though, it wasn’t easy coming up with fresh material for this dinner. A few nights ago, I was up tossing and turning, trying to figure out exactly what to say. Finally, when I couldn’t get back to sleep, I rolled over and asked Brian Williams what he thought."

Don't get the joke? Read this.

Politico's Mike Allen recounts Obama's "top ten quips."

And JibJab unleashed its latest animated video, this one called He's Barack Obama:

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:44 AM ET, 06/22/2009

Kevin Siers, Michael Ramirez, Glenn McCoy and Heng Kim Song on Obama and the fly, Tom Toles on Obama's secret secrecy czar, Jeff Danziger on Obama's stealth lobbyists, Adam Zyglis on the new regulatory regime, Tony Auth on how Congress is saving health reform, KAL on risky behavior, Eric Allie on Obama's neutrality, Michael Ramirez on Obama's Gitmo compromise and Garry Trudeau on questions for Condoleezza Rice.

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