What’s going right for Obama

Al Kamen
Columnist May 14, 2013

President Obama is taking serious incoming these days over Benghazi. (If you missed our colleague Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker column in Saturday’s paper, look it up — it’s worth reading.)

Then there’s the new uproar over the Internal Revenue Service targeting tea party groups. And the Justice Department going after reporters’ phone records.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Well, he’s doing better at one thing: None of his recent Cabinet nominees have had to withdraw. Even though Obama’s most recent nominees — Tom Perez for labor secretary, Penny Pritzker for commerce secretary — may face a tough go of it in the Senate, so far the president is ahead of his first-term effort.

Quick Loop Quiz! Name the three Obama Cabinet nominees who had to withdraw their nominations in 2009.

First, it may seem a while back, but it wasn’t that long ago that former U.N. ambassador, energy secretary and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson was nominated to be secretary of commerce on Dec. 3, 2008.

But he withdrew a month later, citing an ongoing grand jury investigation into allegations that a firm got business from the state of New Mexico after making contributions to Richardson’s political action committee. The investigation was dropped nine months later.

The second withdrawal was truly odd. Obama nominated former senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) on Feb. 3 to be commerce secretary, but Gregg withdrew 10 days later, saying he’d made a mistake. (John Bryson finally got the difficult-to-fill job.)

And the third withdrawal? That was former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who was nominated shortly after the election in 2008 to be secretary of health and human services. He withdrew in February 2009 after it turned out he’d failed to pay $146,000 in back taxes.

Talk about a rocky beginning. So Obama’s doing better — so far — this time around in at least one area. (Of course, it helps to have a few holdovers.)

Northern exposure

Sweden is big in the news of late. King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia were hanging out over the weekend with Vice President Biden in Wilmington, Del., at the 375th anniversary of a Swedish colony there.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hosted them Friday when they laid flowers at the Pentagon memorial to those killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Hagel also thanked them for “Sweden’s close security partnership in the wake of September 11, 2001 and pledged to continue close military to military cooperation in the future,” a Pentagon statement said.

Well, maybe the Swedes, so famously neutral in World War II, will get around to joining NATO? They contributed troops in Afghanistan, after all.

And Secretary of State John Kerry is in Sweden this week to attend a foreign ministers meeting Wednesday of the Arctic Council — the eight countries with land in the Arctic.

The meeting’s not in Stockholm but in balmy Kiruna, the northernmost “city” (population 18,000) in Sweden, 80 miles above the Arctic Circle. It boasts a hotel made of ice and snow. (It was snowing Monday.)

On the other hand, sunrise is around 2:30 a.m. and sunset is about 10:40 p.m. Best we can recall, it never gets fully dark this time of year. And if it’s cold, the usually cheery Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be there to warm things up. (He’s a serious smoker, we hear, so he might be a bit grumpy if they make him go outside.)

And he may be even grumpier than usual, what with the news Tuesday that the Russian State Security Service briefly detained a U.S. diplomat it claimed to have caught in the act of trying to recruit a Russian officer to work as a U.S. agent.

The Russians said the American had “special technical devices,” typewritten instructions for the recruit, a “large sum” of cash and various means of disguise when they picked him up, our colleague, Will Englund reports.

Uh-oh.

Brief laughter

It’s happened! New State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki did her first official briefing Monday and, best we can tell, while she seemed maybe a bit nervous, she did a fine job.

She also learned a very important lesson: State Department reporters at the briefings can at times be a bit humor-deprived. You have to help them.

Take, for example, this exchange with a reporter who complained that he had raised a question last week “and I’m still waiting for an answer.” It was a request for State’s account of a meeting officials had last week with a group of South Asian human rights activists.

“Your side of the story, please?” the reporter asked.

“Yes, I apologize,” she said. “I don’t have anything new for you on that today. I will — I’m happy to check on it. And we’ll make sure the appropriate person is fired.”

There was a moment of confused silence.

“Just kidding,” Psaki said.

Some reporters started to laugh.

“That’s a joke,” she explained.

More laughter.

Note to Psaki: No kidding from the podium.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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