Obama Withdraws the Open Hand

By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 06/24/2009

President Obama's I'll-talk-to-anyone approach to international diplomacy does, it turns out, have exceptions. One is for leaders who are in the middle of brutally repressing anti-government protesters.

Most of the talk about yesterday's press conference today is either about Obama's increasingly harsh criticism of the Iranian crackdown or about the hysterical response by some traditional-media journalists to Obama calling on a blogger bearing a question from an actual Iranian.

But the bigger news, it seems to me, is how Obama has now imposed some conditions on what used to be an unconditional offer to talk to Iran's leaders. Here's how Obama put it -- ever so diplomatically:

We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed. But to reiterate, there is a path available to Iran in which their sovereignty is respected, their traditions, their culture, their faith is respected, but one in which they are part of a larger community that has responsibilities and operates according to norms and international rules that are universal.

We don't know how they're going to respond yet, and that's what we're waiting to see.

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger note in their New York Times story that administration officials told them that

more so now than even a few days ago... the prospects for any dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program appear all but dead for the immediate future, though they held out hope that Iran, assuming it has a stable government, could respond to Mr. Obama’s overtures later in the year.

Cooper and Sanger write:

While Mr. Obama did not rule out the possibility of engaging with Iran over the nuclear issue, administration officials and European diplomats say that the door to talks has all but closed, at least for now.

"I think that under these circumstances, no one is going to be able to pursue anything because there is nothing to pursue," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, who has been consulting with White House officials "on a daily basis," he said, about the unfolding situation in Iran.

Glenn Kessler explains, well into his Washington Post story:

As newly described by the president, engagement is not an initiative from the United States but "a path available to Iran" that is linked to "how they handle the dissent within their own country." So far, as the president noted, "what we've seen . . . is not encouraging in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take."

This is not to say that Obama isn't keeping his eye on the prize. Kessler writes:

Since the election crisis began, the president has sought to preserve his options for future dealings with the government, assuming it survives. While his rhetorical message has sharpened, he has not called the June 12 election a fraud, refused to deal with the announced winner, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or spelled out sanctions Iran might face if it continues its crackdown on protesters. Obama has also been careful to avoid the appearance of meddling, even to the point of sidestepping all questions on Ahmadinejad's legitimacy.

Or, as Anne Gearan explains for the Associated Press:

Behind President Barack Obama's toughened but modulated response to the Iranian election crisis is a calculation that when the dust settles, the United States will still face an unpredictable adversary that gets closer every day to producing nuclear weapons....

"My position coming into this office has been that the United States has core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn't possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders," Obama told reporters Tuesday.

Gearan points out that Obama's attempt "not to poison chances for negotiations over those threats" has given "Republican critics room to call him timid." But as Obama pointed out so effectively pointed out yesterday, political sniping is not his most urgent priority.

Meanwhile, Obama's decision to call on Nico Pitney, a Huffington Post editor who has been monitoring and reporting on the crackdown in Iran as it plays out on the Internet, is giving some MSM reporters the vapors. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank was besides himself, complaining bitterly of "prepackaged entertainment" and "stagecraft" and "planted" questions. Similarly, The Post's Howard Kurtz calls it "the strangest bit of orchestration I can recall at one of these events."

But while it's true that White House press aides reached out to Pitney and asked him to bring a question proposed by an Iranian, they didn't know what the question would be.

If the White House had solicited a particular question -- or even knew what a question would be ahead of time -- that would be an abuse of the forum. So would it be if the president called on someone he knew would ask softballs. (Think Jeff Gannon.)

But when Pitney was called on, it turned out the question he chose was a tough one, about how Obama would determine whether the election results were legitimate. It was "far and away the best question" of the day, according to the Guardian's Michael Tomasky. Here is Pitney explaining how it came about.

And here's how Ari Melber puts it, for the Nation:

By injecting a citizen question into a live presidential press conference, Pitney cracked the Beltway boundaries on who gets to interrogate the President....

[M]any Washington reporters routinely, secretly grant the White House blind quotes and restrictive ground rules in exchange for access. By contrast, Pitney transparently told readers about his dealings with the White House, in real time, on his blog. The public would be better served if all media outlets took that tack, publishing any arrangements, restrictions or ground rules along with every article or interview.

Public Actually Supportive of Health Plan

By Dan Froomkin
1:02 PM ET, 06/24/2009

How troubled are Americans by President Obama's proposed health-care overhaul? Less than you might think after reading Ceci Connolly and Jon Cohen's story in The Washington Post today. They write:

A majority of Americans see government action as critical to controlling runaway health-care costs, but there is broad public anxiety about the potential impact of reform legislation and conflicting views about the types of fixes being proposed on Capitol Hill, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Most respondents are "very concerned" that health-care reform would lead to higher costs, lower quality, fewer choices, a bigger deficit, diminished insurance coverage and more government bureaucracy. About six in 10 are at least somewhat worried about all of these factors, underscoring the challenges for lawmakers as they attempt to restructure the nation's $2.3 trillion health-care system....

As for the finding in other polls that there is widespread support for a "public plan," which would allow people to purchase insurance from a government-run plan if they weren't happy with the private options, Connolly and Cohen write:

Survey questions that equate the public option approach with the popular, patient-friendly Medicare system tend to get high approval, as do ones that emphasize the prospect of more choices. But when framed with an explicit counterargument, the idea receives a more tepid response. In the new Post-ABC poll, 62 percent support the general concept, but when respondents were told that meant some insurers would go out of business, support dropped sharply, to 37 percent.

But take a close look at the actual poll questions and results, and the numbers tell a somewhat different story.

First of all, a majority of Americans (53 percent) say they approve of how Obama is handling health care. A larger majority (57 percent) say they are dissatisfied with the current health care system.

By very significant margins, the public likes key aspects of Obama's proposed overhaul. Some 70 percent support a tax credit or other aid to help low-income Americans pay for health insurance; 68 percent support a rule that insurance companies sell coverage to people regardless of pre-existing conditions; 62 percent support having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans. And, yes, that last number goes down if they are warned that "many private health insurers" would then go out of business -- but that's an argumentative assertion made by opponents of the proposal, without any basis in fact. As Ezra Klein blogs for The Washington Post:

If you asked poll respondents, "What if having the public plan lowered your insurance premiums by 20 to 30 percent," my hunch is you'd see a sharp shift toward support of the policy.

On the revenue-generating side, 60 percent support Obama's proposal to raise income taxes on Americans with household incomes over $250,000 to help pay for health care reform. And, interestingly, 70 percent oppose the tax increase some Congressional Democrats say they prefer to Obama's proposal (imposing taxes on high-value health benefits).

So where's the beef? Well, when asked if they have "concerns," people say -- not surprisingly -- that they do. Although their biggest concern is about their family's health care costs in the future, they are also concerned that "current efforts to reform the health care system" will (in descending order) increase their health-care costs, increase the deficit, reduce their insurance coverage, reduce the quality of their health care, and limit their choices of doctors.

But it strikes me that with the details of a health-care overhaul still very much in the air, it simply makes sense to be "concerned." The more significant question is what measures people favor -- and they seem to be lining up behind Obama.

Meanwhile, Obama spoke to ABC News's Diane Sawyer about health care this morning, as part of a media push that wraps up tonight with a televised town meeting. And he directly took on the argument that various "concerns" mean his proposal should be scaled back, or abandoned:

[H]ere's the problem. If we don't change. If we don't reform the system. Then people are going to lose their health care. Or it's going take a bigger and bigger chunk of their paycheck. Or their employer is going start dropping coverage. Or the Federal Government is going stop-- being able to reimburse everything on Medicare and Medicaid. And so, you know, the situation that we confront is do nothing. In which case, the trend lines are such that American families are going be more and more vulnerable. Or we make common sense sensible changes, based on good medicine and good science, which helps us to drive down costs. And allows everybody to have the coverage they need.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:00 PM ET, 06/24/2009

Via thinkprogress.org, Ian Pannell reports for BBC News: "Allegations of abuse and neglect at a US detention facility in Afghanistan have been uncovered by the BBC. Former detainees have alleged they were beaten, deprived of sleep and threatened with dogs at the Bagram military base. The BBC interviewed 27 former inmates of Bagram around the country over a period of two months. The Pentagon has denied the charges and insisted that all inmates in the facility are treated humanely."

I missed this last week, but it's worth a read. Joseph L. Galloway writes in a commentary for McClatchy Newspapers: "There was one thing Obama absolutely had to do, even before tackling an economic meltdown and the Wall Street and big bank rip-offs: He had to reassure Americans that we all live under the rule of law; that no one by virtue of holding the highest offices in the land, or having the biggest bank account, is above the law. It was incumbent on new President Obama to step back and let justice be done. Let the investigators do their job, Not only to let justice be done but let justice be seen to be done. But no. He said he wanted to focus on the future, not revisit the past."

Spencer Ackerman writes in the Washington Independent: "The task force charged with fleshing out President Obama’s ban on torture in interrogations is likely to recommend the creation of small, mixed-agency teams for interviewing the most important terrorist targets. Representing an implicit demotion of the CIA, which currently has responsibility for interrogating high-level terrorists, the teams would report jointly to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence, according to officials familiar with the proposal."

Spencer S. Hsu writes in The Washington Post: "Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced yesterday that she will kill a controversial Bush administration program to expand the use of spy satellites by domestic law enforcement and other agencies."

Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama has decided to return a U.S. ambassador to Syria after an absence of more than four years, marking a significant step toward engaging an influential Arab nation long at odds with the United States."

Lydia Saad writes for Gallup: "Public confidence in the presidency has risen by 25 points over the past year... The percentage of Americans saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the presidency has in fact doubled since June 2008, from 26% to 51%."

ESPN reports: "President Barack Obama plans to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the All-Star Game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on July 14."

Motoko Rich writes in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney has signed a deal with an imprint of Simon & Schuster to write a memoir about his life in politics and his service in four presidential administrations... A person familiar with the negotiations said Mr. Cheney would receive around $2 million for his book."

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:55 AM ET, 06/24/2009

Stephen Colbert on the GOP demand that Obama ratchet up his Iranian rhetoric: "Exactly! Seeing these protesters struggle and not speaking boldly and loudly is like seeing a drowning man and not standing on the shore shouting: 'Hey, look at me! I'm a lifeguard!'"

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Barack Obama's Response to Iran
Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:51 AM ET, 06/24/2009

Pat Oliphant on Obama's Iranian tightrope, Donna Barstow on media strategy, Tom Toles on GOP protests, Ken Catalino on rethinking things, Scott Stantis on Obama's garden, Bruce Plante and Steve Kelley on Obama's mixed message on cigarettes, Matt Wuerker and Ann Telnaes on transparency, and Victor Harville on Cheney's memoirs.

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