Obama vs. the News Cycle

By Dan Froomkin
2:39 PM ET, 06/23/2009

President Obama, making his most extensive and personal remarks yet condemning the crushing of dissent by the Iranian regime, also stressed today that it's not his job to satisfy the 24-hour news cycle, with its rapacious appetite for conflict and ultimatums, but rather to advance the interests of the country on his own clock.

Responding to insistent questioning at today's press conference from NBC News's Chuck Todd about why he wouldn't "spell out the consequences" for the Iranian government, Obama shot back: "We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out.

"I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. OK?"

And when CBS News's Chip Reid recounted criticism from Republicans including former presidential candidate John McCain that Obama had thus far been timid and weak in his comments about Iran, Obama fired back: "You know, I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues. And, you know, I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail.

"But only I'm the president of the United States. And I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries."

He added: "I think that in the hothouse of Washington, there may be all kinds of stuff going back and forth in terms of Republican critics versus the administration. That's not what is relevant to the Iranian people.... They're trying to figure out how can they make sure justice is served in Iran."

Obama has often disparaged the short attention spans, the tit-for-tat politics and the endless cable chatter so rampant in Washington.

There were in fact quite a few moments of excitement at today's press conference, something we've rarely seen at these occasions in the past. From reporters, there was a crack likening Obama to Mr. Spock, the over-logical Vulcan from Star Trek, a prying question about his smoking habits -- and a lot of follow-up questions.

For his part, Obama mixed good humor with some sharp retorts.

The most contentious exchange was with Margaret Talev of McClatchy Newspapers. Obama yesterday signed legislation aimed at reducing the number of young people who start smoking -- reigniting the fascination among the White House press corps over whether Obama has well and truly quit his habit.

"How many cigarettes a day do you now smoke? Do you smoke alone or in the presence of other people? And do you believe the new law should help you to quit? If so, why?" Talev asked.

"Well, the -- first of all, the new law that was put in place is not about me. It's about the next generation of kids coming up. So I think it's fair, Margaret, to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking as opposed to it being relevant to my new law.

"But that's fine. I understand. It's an interesting human -- it's an interesting human interest story.

"Look, I've said before that as a former smoker I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. The -- am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids. I don't do it in front of my family. And, you know, I would say that I am 95 percent cured. But there are times where -- (LAUGHTER). There are times where I mess up. And I mean, I've said this before. I get this question about once every month or so. And, you know, I don't know what to tell you, other than the fact that, you know, like folks who go to A.A., you know, once you've gone down this path, then, you know, it's something you continually struggle with, which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important, because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place.


Obama signaled his defiance of the traditional Washington media early on -- by going off the grid to call on Nico Pitney, a Huffington Post editor, for his second question Pitney has has been liveblogging the Iranian uprising as it plays out on the Internet.

"I know that you and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran," Obama said. "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?" Pitney did.

In response to a question from CNN's Suzanne Malveaus about the "shocking video" of an Iranian woman shot in the chest and bleeding to death in the street (embedded below), Obama said he had seen it, and found it "heartbreaking. It's -- it's heartbreaking. And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that."

Obama also spoke at length about health care, making his most spirited defense yet of his proposal to offer the public the option of buying insurance from a government-run plan.

"Now, the public plan, I think, is an important tool to discipline insurance companies," he explained.

And he mocked the argument that a government plan would drive private insurance out of business: "Why would it drive private insurance out of business? If -- if private -- if private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care; if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can't run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That's not logical."

Obama acknowledged "a legitimate concern, if the public plan was simply eating off the taxpayer trough, that it would be hard for private insurers to compete." But he said it shouldn't be set up that way.

Obama, Slayer of the GOP

By Dan Froomkin
11:31 AM ET, 06/23/2009

The coverage of the latest wave of public-opinion polls has focused mostly on President Obama's ostensible political weaknesses. But the more important story may be the increased marginalization of his Republican opposition.

Three major polls out in the past week tell the same story: Of a Republican party that is widely disliked and mistrusted -- and that is becoming essentially irrelevant. Notably, on the single most polarizing aspect (the "public option") of the biggest political issue of the moment (Obama's proposed health-care overhaul), the public overwhelmingly supports Obama's position.

Republicans have essentially no power in the House. And even in the Senate, their ability to effectively block Obama is minimal without the cooperation of a handful of unreliable center-right Democrats.

In fact, the only real power Republicans have left is granted to them by a media culture that consistently clamors for bipartisan solutions, even as one of the parties increasingly represents a shrunken minority of hardened extremists.

Overall, public support for Obama remains very strong -- particularly considering all the unpleasantness he's having to deal with. The new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds his approval rating at 65 percent, with majority support for his handling of the economy, health care, international affairs, the threat of terrorism, the situation with Iran and global warming. His public support is slightly less than 50 percent in two areas: the budget deficit and the auto industry bailout.

By contrast, the Republican Party is viewed favorably by only 36 percent of the public, down from 51 percent three years ago, and the lowest in Washington Post polling history, but for a one-time blip in late 1998 on the eve of the Republican House's impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Obama leads Congressional Republicans by wide margins when asked who they trust to handle the deficit (56 to 30); health care reform (55 to 27); the economy (55 to 31); and the threat of terrorism (55 to 34).

Yes, even while the poll coverage would have you believe that the deficit is Obama's big political vulnerability, it it actually the one issue the public most trusts Obama to handle -- at least when the alternative is putting Republicans in charge. The utter hypocrisy of Republicans lecturing Obama on the deficit is apparently not lost on the public.

Last week's New York Times/CBS News poll found Republicans with only a 28 percent favorability rating, the lowest ever in that poll. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News found only 23 percent of the public feels either very or somewhat positive about the GOP -- down from 44 percent four years ago, and an all-time low from that poll as well.

Don't forget the trend Nate Silver and others blogged about a few months ago, namely that "Republican party identification, which had already been at fairly low levels, in fact appears to have slumped further since Inauguration Day."

And for good measure, Susan Page writes in USA Today that a new USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that over the past two months, "expectations for the future have brightened significantly amid rising optimism about a stock market rebound and economic turnaround."

So how are the Republicans trying to stop the bleeding? Health reform is Obama's biggest legislative priority right now, and the GOP is making its big stand in opposition to a "public plan," which would allow people to purchase insurance from a government-run plan if they weren't happy with the private options.

But according to the Wall Street Journal poll, 76 percent of Americans consider a public option either extremely (41 percent) or quite (35 percent) important. A recent Employee Benefit Research Institute poll found that 83 percent either strongly (53 percent) or somewhat (30 percent) support the availability of a public plan.

Nevertheless, today's coverage focuses on Obama's weaknesses.

"Obama Approval: Trouble Ahead?" says the headline on Gary Langer's analysis for ABC News.

Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post:

Barely half of Americans are now confident that President Obama's $787 billion stimulus measure will boost the economy, and the rapid rise in optimism about the state of the nation that followed the 2008 election has abated, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll....

The tempered public outlook has not significantly affected Obama's overall approval rating, which at 65 percent in the new survey outpaces the ratings of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at similar points in their tenures. But new questions about the stimulus package's effectiveness underscore the stakes for the Obama administration in the months ahead as it pushes for big reforms in health care and energy at the same time it attempts to revive the nation's flagging economy.

With more evidence that the weakness narrative is setting in, Chris Cillizza blogs for The Washington Post that Obama's press conference today "lands at a rare weak moment for the Obama White House with a series of domestic and international challenges bearing down on him."

And Michael Falcone and Andy Barr write for Politico:

Eroding confidence in President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy and ability to control spending has caused his approval ratings to wilt to their lowest levels since he took office, according to a spate of recent polls, a sign of political weakness that comes just as he most needs leverage on Capitol Hill.

Jamison Foser of Media Matters offers some perspective:

It's generally accepted that the news media obsess over horse-race political coverage at the expense of serious examinations of important issues. Media critics on the left, right, and in the middle tend to agree that there is too much focus on polling and not enough on policy, while many reporters seem proud of their focus on the game rather than the stakes. (Politico is, after all, called "Politico," not "Policy-o," and features blogs "on Politics," "on Hill intrigue," "on Gossip," and "on Campaigns" -- but not "on Policy." ABC News' senior White House correspondent calls his blog "Political Punch." And so on.)

But, he explains:

The media's obsessive focus on politics does not, however, mean their political assessments are of a high quality.... Calling the media's coverage of politics and policy "horse-race journalism" is an insult to horse-race journalism -- the Daily Racing Form isn't in the habit of advising readers to bet on the filly with the broken leg.

And Julian E. Zelizer, writing in a CNN commentary, quite accurately points out that Obama's real political vulnerability "is the tension between the left and center of the Democratic Party."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:30 AM ET, 06/23/2009

Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column: "It was thought by many that a President Obama would put a stop to the madness, put an end to the Bush administration’s nightmarish approach to national security. But Mr. Obama has shown no inclination to bring even the worst offenders of the Bush years to account, and seems perfectly willing to move ahead in lockstep with the excessive secrecy and some of the most egregious activities of the Bush era."

Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post: "Iran's post-election tumult has exposed the sharply divergent ways in which the Obama administration and its Republican opponents view the nature of American power and the president's role in speaking to political dissent outside the borders of the United States... In recent days, GOP leaders have invoked the unambiguous Cold War rhetoric of Ronald Reagan as the model for the message Obama should be sending to the demonstrators, citing the inspiration it provided to millions of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain." But a senior administration official tells Wilson: "We're trying to promote a foreign policy that advances our interests, not that makes us feel good about ourselves."

Jonathan Chait writes for the New Republic: "The thing that people haven't figured out about President Obama's conduct of foreign policy is that it's the same as his conduct of domestic policy. Obama believes in the power of negotiation and public dialogue to split his adversaries--Republicans at home, Islamists abroad--and strengthen his own position. Obama's speech in Cairo to the Muslim world was simply the foreign analogue of his dealings with the GOP."

Howard Kurtz writes about Rahm Emanuel in The Washington Post: "Perhaps no White House chief of staff in modern history has worked the media as aggressively and relentlessly as Emanuel. Drawing on his long-standing relationships with journalists, Emanuel serves up on-the-record quotes, background spin and the sort of capital gossip that lubricates relationships. The former Chicago congressman also seeks their take on events and floats possible administration tactics.... [He] somehow finds time to stay in constant touch with a sizable group of journalists, both on the phone and through a series of off-the-record restaurant dinners. Emanuel has also hosted off-the-record gatherings of columnists and Sunday show hosts in his White House office, or on his outdoor portico."

Saul Hansell writes in the New York Times: "The White House made its first major entree into government by the people last month when it set up an online forum to ask ordinary people for their ideas on how to carry out the president’s open-government pledge. It got an earful — on legalizing marijuana, revealing U.F.O. secrets and verifying Mr. Obama’s birth certificate to prove he was really born in the United States and thus eligible to be president.... The experience so far shows just how hard it is to allow all voices to be heard and still have a coherent discussion. When millions of Internet users are invited to discuss every regulation, how can any real work get done? On the other hand, why bother opening up the government if views that are outside the mainstream — as defined by the usual collection of lobbyists and think tank scholars — are summarily dismissed?"

Indeed, here is open government czar Beth Noveck opening up the new, wiki-like portion of the process, where the public can submit and edit drafts of the open-government rules. Sadly, it, too, is suffering from a severe lack of public participation. Here, for instance, is the section on what I described last week as Baking Transparency Into Government. As of this writing, there is one submission, and it's not responsive.

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "The White House on Monday hailed what it described as a 'historic agreement to lower drugs costs' for older Americans, but it was not immediately clear how much the government would reap in savings that could be used to pay for coverage of the uninsured." It looks to be a "boon to Medicare beneficiaries," but not necessarily the government.

Greg Sargent blogs for WhoRunsGov.com: "In a major new effort to throw Obama’s campaign apparatus into the push for health care reform, the White House’s political operation is set to launch a massive new online data bank of thousands of health care stories, which will be spread around the country via Obama’s extensive email list, officials familiar with the project tell me."

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "As he signed legislation bringing tobacco products under federal control for the first time, the president conceded that the new law, aimed at keeping children from starting to smoke, could have helped him three decades ago.... He did not mention whether he still smokes, a topic that has been a subject of considerable curiosity, and family drama, for years. Instead, he talked about the dangers of the addiction and its causes." Paul Farhi writes in The Washington Post that "everyone at the White House acts like a kid caught smoking when the subject comes up."

From Obama's remarks: "When Henry Waxman first brought tobacco CEOs before Congress in 1994, they famously denied that tobacco was deadly, nicotine was addictive, or that their companies marketed to children. And they spent millions upon millions in lobbying and advertising to fight back every attempt to expose these denials as lies. Fifteen years later, their campaign has finally failed. Today, thanks to the work of Democrats and Republicans, health care and consumer advocates, the decades-long effort to protect our children from the harmful effects of tobacco has emerged victorious. Today, change has come to Washington."

AFP reports: "The White House would not confirm Monday that President Barack Obama will head for the 2010 World Cup, but top aides already seemed to be sizing up tickets for the opening ceremony and first match.... The opening ceremony for the 2010 World Cup will be at the new 100,000-seat Soccer City stadium on the outskirts of Soweto."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:28 AM ET, 06/23/2009

Stuart Carlson, Matt Wuerker, Rob Rogers, Matt Davies, John Auchter and Tim Goheen on health-care reform, Rex Babin, Jimmy Margulies, Pat Bagley and Chan Lowe on Obama and Iran, Joel Pett on Obama's leadership, Mike Luckovich on Obama's struggle with cigarettes, and Lee Judge on the Bush legacy.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company