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From the President, Some Red Meat for a Conservative Bastion

By Al Kamen
Monday, May 11, 2009

It was a mixed week at best for President Obama. Democrats hammered him for even the meager cuts he proposed to their pet programs in his $3.4 trillion spending plan, vowing to reinstate every dime. Republicans hammered him for making such, well, meager cuts.

Even his trip out to Arlington on Tuesday for a burger with his pal Joe Biden came in for criticism, as he once again ordered Dijon mustard. Maybe not as elitist as Grey Poupon, but not exactly French's. And he was chided for ordering his burger medium-well.

On the upside, though, the burgers were said to be tasty, it was a great photo op, and the trip drew high praise for him from the most unlikely of places, the NRA. No, not that NRA -- we're talking about the National Restaurant Association, which is pretty much an equally solid GOP bastion.

"During these challenging economic times," NRA President Dawn Sweeney, formerly the chief executive of AARP Services, wrote him, "your recent and highly visible visits to restaurants with the vice president and your family are exactly the type of activities that help convey the important role of restaurants in the economy and the importance of all of us doing our part to help support a revitalized economy."

Now, remember, this is an outfit whose congressional contributions went 87 percent GOP ($1.345 million) in the 2006 election cycle and 79 percent in 2008. "As the commander-in-chief, father of two and a husband, you know firsthand the rewards of time together with your family," she added. "As we all look for ways to improve the economy and create jobs, we thank you for your recent restaurant visits," she said.

Of course, let's see where they come down on food-safety legislation.

NO PEACE AT THE CORPS

What with President Obama's emphasis on volunteerism domestically and internationally, it seemed odd that there has been no announcement of a new Peace Corps director. One name circulating as a top contender for the post is James Arena-DeRosa, now New England regional manager for the Peace Corps in Boston. Arena-DeRosa also teaches developmental research and advocacy at Brandeis University and worked with the aid organization Oxfam International.

Some folks in the returned-volunteer community, a powerful and active lobby, may be less than delighted about this. There's a strong feeling among some former volunteers -- not shared by all of us -- that service overseas is a prerequisite for the job, especially with so many former volunteers available. Arena-DeRosa reportedly enjoys strong support from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and from some key players on the Hill.

Meanwhile, the Obama budget is giving Peace Corps devotees major agita. Despite Obama's past boosterism, it appears that the agency's proposed budget is up only 10 percent next year and that the number of volunteers is projected to rise by 20 percent, to 9,000, by 2012. It peaks at 11,000 by the end of 2016, short of the doubling Obama talked about by 2012.

DON'T CRY FOR HER

Looks like the winner in the ambassadorial sweepstakes, Latin America division, is going to be big-time Los Angeles corporate lawyer Vilma S. Martinez, who is the pick to occupy the newly renovated ambassador's residence in Buenos Aires. Her new digs are to be a cozy 43,000-square-foot bungalow.

Martinez chairs Wal-Mart's Employment Practices Advisory Panel. She was the longtime president and general counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund before moving in 1982 to L.A.'s Munger, Tolles & Olson, where she has been defending companies facing state and federal challenges to their employment practices.

NEW DOG, OLD TRICKS?

In June 1999, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, based on info from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) giant laser project , gave a speech hailing the project as on time and within its budget. A much-chagrined Richardson found a year later that the GAO concluded the NIF would cost nearly $2 billion more than originally announced and would be delayed by at least six years, the New York Times reported.

And now, newly installed Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently recognized the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which handles the NIF, for project management excellence, something the watchdog Project on Government Oversight (POGO) says it was "shocked to learn."

"The most recent cost estimate is $5-6 billion," POGO said in a letter Wednesday to Chu, "more than 600 percent over budget and at least eight years behind schedule."

So if the new secretary is "serious about cleaning up DOE's pathetic record of program management," the letter said, he should "consider rescinding the management award given to the NIF project."

Energy folks beg to differ, noting that the project was overhauled in 2000 and that it since has been much improved and is getting completed on time and on budget. "This is a one-of-a-kind project that will make critical contributions to maintaining the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile and could produce groundbreaking scientific advances on everything energy research to basic astrophysics," said NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera.

In its letter, POGO suggests it might be better to hold off on the kudos until we see if the thing works.

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