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Friendly Fire

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009 10:07 AM

When Barack Obama was running for president, he was often chided for being a conventional Democrat unwilling to challenge the sacred ideological cows on his own side.

Where, the skeptics asked, was his Sister Souljah moment?

But after 50 days in office -- a non-milestone that the cable networks insisted on treating as one -- it's clear that Obama is bucking the Democrats and their constituencies in several ways.

The latest example came yesterday, when the president called for merit pay for teachers -- a proposal that the teachers unions have been battling for years. The unions -- which give big bucks to the Dems -- are fervently opposed to the notion of using money as a gauge for rewarding superior teachers (and move bad teachers out of the classroom).

Although in any other field you'd want to reward your best performers, the union opposition has meant that merit pay has gone nowhere. The question now is whether Obama has the will, and the clout, to push such proposals through the Democratic Congress.

As the WP noted yesterday, many Hill Democrats aren't scrambling to embrace parts of their man's agenda. This includes his push to eliminate earmarks; to do away with crop subsidies; to means-test the Medicare drug benefit according to income; and to limit mortgage deductions for upper-income folks.

It's the classic Washington problem: each item -- say, farm subsidies -- might not mean much to the public at large, but a small, well-organized minority cares passionately about blocking any reform. With Obama garnering little Republican support so far, modest numbers of Democratic defections could kill these measures. And that would leave the president spending huge sums on his initiatives but not delivering the savings he promised. Or, in the case of merit pay, leaving him throwing lots o' money at public schools but not reforming the way business is done there.

"President Obama called for sweeping changes in American education on Tuesday, urging states to lift limits on charter schools and improve the quality of early childhood education while also signaling that he intends to make good on his campaign promise of linking teacher pay to performance," the NYT reports.

"His proposals reflected his party's belief that education at all levels was underfinanced in the Bush years and that reform should encompass more than demands that schools show improved test scores. But they also showed a willingness to challenge teachers' unions and public school systems, and to continue to demand more accountability."

The Washington Times has an interesting headline: "Obama to Build on Bush Education Plan."

"Taking on the teachers unions and building on his predecessor's No Child Left Behind Act, President Obama on Tuesday told states to stop limiting charter schools, to get rid of bad teachers and to improve rather than scrap standards and testing that were at the heart of President Bush's education agenda . . .

"But on the same day congressional Democrats introduced a bill to help unions organize, Mr. Obama broke with the traditional bond between teachers unions and Democrats by challenging states to fire bad teachers and reward good ones as part of a new 'culture of accountability' in schools."

Is Obama's inner Fred Armisted actually a liability? Rich Lowry makes the case:

"Last fall, Barack Obama was deemed by all the great and good as the man to save the country from its financial crisis because of his calm. As John McCain flailed around, Obama stayed steady, and commentators ascribed to him the most extraordinary leadership qualities based merely on his equipoise.

"How is that working out? Well, the stock market has lost roughly 25 percent of its value in the past two months, destroying more than $2.6 trillion of wealth. But at least President Obama is calm.

"The banking crisis weighs down the economy, with zombie institutions requiring ever more infusions of federal cash (Citigroup has taken $45 billion, and AIG $180 billion and counting). But Obama's supernatural calm is undisturbed by the financial mayhem . . .

"Calm is not in itself a leadership quality. Containing your emotions is important (see George Washington and the Duke of Wellington for a couple of history's greatest examples), but calm is no substitute for courage, wisdom, or imagination. Calm can just as easily be an indication of arrogance as of nervy self-control, of aloofness as of coolness under fire."

Of course, if Obama were getting angry, the right would say he lacked a presidential temperament.

Is the n-word (nationalization, that is) now acceptable? Salon's Mike Madden says the Republicans keep using it:

"You may feel a little disoriented if you've turned on a TV or flipped through conservative opinion columns lately. All of a sudden, nationalization seems to have come home. These days, a federal takeover of the banking system is practically the only thing Republicans want to talk about. If South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint isn't declaring that even temporary nationalization of banks is 'the same idea as socialization,' then his colleague from the same state, John McCain sidekick Lindsey Graham, is telling NBC's 'Meet the Press' that Obama needs to consider the idea. Even Alan Greenspan is part of the conversation. The Ayn Rand disciple whose every public utterance for most of his life has been devoted to extolling the virtues of the free market is suddenly pushing nationalization . . .

"Yes, some liberal commentators, like Paul Krugman, are pushing the administration to take more control of big banks as a way of clearing bad home loans and related financial detritus out of the system. But much of the conservative chatter seems aimed at freaking people out about creeping socialism, rather than solving the banking crisis. As one Democratic aide on Capitol Hill put it, 'The only people talking about nationalization are Republicans -- this is crazy to me, that they have traded their entire ideology within six weeks.' Another aide likened the GOP buzz about bank nationalization to the 'Joe the Plumber' phase of McCain's campaign -- talking about a federal takeover of banks is like screaming that Obama wanted to 'spread the wealth' around. And, as if on cue, conservative firebrand Michelle Malkin called Obama a socialist on Monday, referring back to the McCain campaign's old language about 'Barack the Redistributor.'

"Chances are, of course, that some of the country's biggest banks will fail the 'stress tests' the Treasury Department plans to administer soon -- and will effectively prove insolvent, forcing the issue . . . Any nationalization is likely to be brief, narrow and aimed at saving any assets worth saving from banks that would otherwise go under . . . But to Republicans, the details seem beside the point. 'Nationalization' is just another way to make voters fear Obama's stewardship of the economy."

Roger Simon sees Obama's stem cell decision as a step toward sanity:

"President Barack Obama did a lot more than lift the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research Monday. He came to the startling conclusion that scientific research should be based on science.

"This will be a change. George W. Bush spent the past eight years making sure scientific research was based on conservative ideology, political manipulation and whim. Global warming? Buncha baloney. We've got millions of years left. Saw a polar bear the other day in a zoo. Looked fine. And if scientists disagree with that, we can always find new scientists. Using embryonic stem cells to try to cure diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes or to repair spinal cord injuries? Hold your horses on that one. Some religious conservatives don't like that one."

But in Slate, William Saletan compares Obama's explanation to -- yes -- Bushian tactics:

"Former Bush aide Karl Rove accused Obama of endangering the country by impeding interrogations of the enemy. 'They don't recognize we're in a war,' said Rove. 'In a war, you do not take tools that are working and stop using them and say we'll get back to you in four months, six months, eight months, a year, and tell you what we're going to do to replace this valuable tool which has helped keep America safe."

"To most of us, Rove's attack is familiar and infuriating. We believe, as Obama does, that it's possible to save lives without crossing a moral line that might corrupt us. We reject the Bush administration's insistence on using all available methods rather than waiting for scrupulous alternatives. We see how Rove twists Obama's position to hide the moral question and make Obama look obtuse and irresponsible.

"The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they're not coming from the right. They're coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle--in this case, a scientific struggle--anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it."

There's a whole lot of Obama-bashing going on, as David Corn notes in his CQ column:

"You thought Rush Limbaugh was leading the conservative pack in terms of extreme anti-Obama rhetoric? Guess again. There are rightwingers claiming that President Barack Obama is part of a global conspiracy to destroy the US economy.

"The other day, Human Events, the conservative magazine, zapped out an email pitching copies of a book called Obama Unmasked, written by Floyd Brown, a longtime conservative activist responsible for the infamous Willie Horton ad, and Lee Troxler, a former Reagan White House press aide. The book came out before the election. But the election results apparently have not voided the need for this book. In fact, the authors claim it is needed now more than ever. Really. Truly. That is, if you can handle the truth about Barack Hussein Obama. Here's the bottom line:

"When it comes to Barack Hussein Obama and the plans he has in store for YOU, plunging the United States into European-style Socialism is JUST THE BEGINNING. Make no mistake, Barack Hussein Obama is probably one of the most dangerous men alive today!

"Brown and Troxler claim that Obama 'formed a secret pack [sic -- they mean 'pact'] with Mad Billionaire George Soros' and Asian and European currency traders. Soros, they maintain, is 'a half-crazed socialist activist who wants to end American supremacy.' Obama, they urge, must be stopped before he sets up a 'Neo-Socialist Government' and redistributes 'your hard-earned tax dollars to . . . third-world tyrants around the world.' "

He sounds like a dangerous guy.

Speaking of Rush, a onetime close ally of Gingrich, he didn't take kindly to Newt's slap at him on "Meet the Press":

"I'm frankly getting tired of talking about Newt. I mean, it's a pointless exercise. . . . I mean, next week Newt could come out and profess his total admiration and love for me if it would serve his purposes. They're running TV ads against me. Newt Gingrich wishes they were running TV ads against him."

What happens when the New York Times conducts an e-mail interview with Ann Coulter?

"Do you ever say things just to get a laugh, or just to provoke your audience?

"I DON'T SAY THINGS JUST TO 'GET A REACTION' OR 'PROVOKE MY AUDIENCE' ANY MORE THAN ANYONE WHO TALKS ABOUT IDEAS DOES. I IMAGINE CHURCHILL HOPED TO 'PROVOKE HIS AUDIENCE' WITH HIS 'WE SHALL FIGHT ON THE BEACHES' SPEECH. I'M TRYING TO EXPRESS IDEAS, USUALLY ABOUT IMPORTANT ISSUES, AND IF A POINT IS MADE WELL THAT WILL TEND TO ELICIT A REACTION.

"Do you consider yourself as speaking for the conservative movement, or just someone who has attracted many conservative fans? Something else?

"I THINK I SPEAK FOR ALL AMERICANS WHO THINK NEWSPAPER EDITORS WHO PRINT THE DETAILS OF TOP-SECRET ANTI-TERRORIST INTELLIGENCE GATHERING PROGRAMS ON PAGE ONE IN WARTIME SHOULD BE EXECUTED FOR TREASON."

Nice talking to you. Now please put your head in this noose.

Time names the 10 most endangered newspapers in America. I don't think the Boston Globe is going anywhere, and I still can't believe the San Francisco Chronicle will go under.

I don't know if David Brooks has second thoughts about the comments he made about Michelle in MoDo's column, but Bonnie Fuller goes nuclear on him:

"Have the Republicans reverted to a party with so little to say that they are reduced to making feeble jabs at Michelle Obama's biceps? Are they so afraid of the new Obama era that the First Lady's arms are a enough of a symbol of power that they cower before them? . . .

"Brooks also had the nerve to say that 'sometimes I think half the reason Obama ran for president is so Michelle would have a platform to show off her biceps.'

"If that doesn't sound like a sore loser running scared, then I don't know what does. Let me respond to Mr. Brooks' insulting comments one by one. As a sometime fashionista who has edited the style bibles Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Glamour, I contend that Mrs. Obama's eggplant dress was striking, chic and very modern. . . .

"I think that Brooks, like many of his Republican cohorts, is more than a little jealous of the finely-toned Obama arms. When was the last time he saw the inside of a gym? I bet he's got jiggly girly-man arms."

I think the two of them should meet at the fitness center and hash this out.

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