Four more years?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 12:06 PM

Is it conceivable that Barack Obama won't run for reelection?

First-term presidents routinely deflect that question and then try to win another four years. The last one to walk away from the job was Lyndon Johnson in 1968, and he was essentially driven out of the race by Gene McCarthy. Before that, it was Harry Truman in 1952, but he had served almost two terms after FDR's death.

My general assumption is that if you have the psychological makeup to run for president -- to put yourself and your family through that grueling marathon -- then you don't voluntarily relinquish power. You might get tossed out by the voters -- like Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush the elder in 1992 -- but you fight to hang onto the office.

Obama made some intriguing comments the other day that didn't get much pickup. That got me thinking whether, if his first term was a flop, he might just walk away. You never got a sense that Obama had to be president -- for most of his life, the notion that an African-American could live in the White House was far-fetched. As a law professor and author, he seemed comfortable before getting into Illinois politics. But will he step away from the pinnacle of power?

On the Asia trip last week, my CNN colleague Ed Henry raised the 2012 issue by asking Obama whether he could envision a scenario where he wouldn't run for reelection.

"Here's how I think about it,' the president said. "I said to myself very early on, even when I started running for office, that I -- I don't want to be making decisions based on getting reelected, because I think the challenges that America faces right now are so significant. Obviously, if I make those decisions and I think that I'm moving the country on the right direction economically, in terms of our security interests, our foreign policy, I'd like to think that those policies are continued because they're not going to bear fruit just in four years. . . .

"But, you know, if -- if I feel like I've made the very best decisions for the American people and three years from now I look at it and, you know, my poll numbers are in the tank and, you know, because we've gone through these wrenching changes, you know, politically, I'm in a tough spot, I'll -- I'll feel all right about myself. I -- I'd feel a lot worse if at a time of such urgency for the American people, I was spending a lot of time thinking how can I position myself to ensure reelection, because if I was -- if I was doing that right now, I wouldn't have taken on health care. I -- I wouldn't be taking on things that are unpopular. I wouldn't be closing Guantanamo. . . . And, you know, history will -- will -- will bear out my theories or not."

Let's deconstruct, shall we? On one level, this is a very political answer. I'm doing the tough things, Obama is saying, not simply trying to hang onto my job. And, he says, if that costs me a second term, so be it. I'll know I have done the right thing. It makes the president look high-minded and principled.

But is there also an element of doubt in there: if "my poll numbers are in the tank"? Is Obama frustrated at his struggles on everything from health care to Afghanistan, and approval ratings that, according to Gallup, have now dipped below 50 percent? Is he acknowledging that this whole audacity of hope thing may not work out? That his "theories" may have collided with reality?

I may be reading too much into it. Ninety-nine percent chance he runs again. But an interesting window into the president's psyche.

War fatigue

Part of Obama's problem is that he's taking heat from the left, with the likes of David Obey pushing a war surtax.

"As President Obama nears a decision on a troop increase for the war in Afghanistan," the NYT reports, "he is facing increasingly vocal criticism from senior Congressional Democrats over the war's cost, the size of the United States troop commitment and the reliability of America's allies. . . .

"Administration officials said that even if an exit strategy was not an explicit part of Mr. Obama's announcement, it would be implicit."

Jobless fatigue

The president also is getting pummeled from the left on the rising jobless rate, with Arianna Huffington asking: Will the Unemployment Disaster be Obama's Katrina?

"There's a Category 5 storm about to make landfall, and the president and the officials in charge of preparing for the approaching disaster don't seem to be particularly worried. Sound familiar?

"Just as Katrina exposed critical weaknesses in the priorities and competence of the Bush administration, the unfolding unemployment disaster is threatening to do the same for the Obama White House."

Politically, at least, that could wash away some of Obama's political base in 2010.

Haggling over health

Senate Democrats may have gotten to 60 on that procedural vote, but the whole health-care enterprise still feels incredibly fragile. In the New York Post, Rich Lowry argues that the Dems are suicidal:

"There was real drama Saturday -- the same drama playing out every day the Democrats persist in the political and fiscal heedlessness that characterizes their push for ObamaCare. It's as if they don't realize that they're led by a marginally popular president (dipping below 50 percent public approval in the Gallup poll last week for the first time), are deeply unpopular themselves and are pushing for legislation that is opposed by more people than support it in almost every single opinion poll.

"But they do realize it -- they just don't care. They've talked themselves into the ludicrously self-delusional notion that what ails them and the president is that they haven't yet passed the hundreds of billions of dollars of tax hikes and Medicare cuts that finance (albeit incompletely) ObamaCare."

In the New Republic, by contrast, Jonathan Chait says the party needs to do the popular thing -- despite the qualms of some members:

"A clear majority of Americans say that they want the Democrats to pass a health care bill with a public option, even if this means it would get no GOP votes -- a striking result, given the misty-eyed sentiment Americans generally display toward bipartisanship in all its forms.

"All of these results suggest that the Democrats' biggest obstacle on health care reform is not a fundamental lack of public agreement but public weariness with the endless legislative grind. Vulnerable congressional Democrats may have individual interests in establishing their moderate bona fides by challenging their party leadership. But they have a far stronger collective interest in passing a bill.

"The second, broader Republican goal is to essentially delegitimize Obama's presidency. . . . 'If the president -- opposed by a majority of Americans, with almost no support from the other party -- imposes an ideologically divisive health reform, it will smack of radicalism, reinforce polarization and may cede the ideological center to Republicans for years to come,' cries former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. Democrats 'know this legislation is. . . . possible only because of temporary liberal majorities,' complains a Wall Street Journal editorial.

"How, you might ask, does this differ from George W. Bush ramming through unpopular regressive tax cuts? Well, those were temporary conservative majorities. The other difference, of course, is that Obama out-polled his opponent by eight-and-a-half million votes, a margin that exceeded Bush's 2000 popular-vote edge by, oh, roughly nine million votes."

One difference: Cutting taxes is easy -- you're giving people goodies. Transforming health care, which includes substantial Medicare cuts, is hard.

How big a factor are industry ties? They loom large to Joe Klein:

"I watched Joe Lieberman, the Senator from Aetna, slag the public option on Meet the Press. He was armed with a new CBO score that has public option policies costing more than private policies in the proposed new system (I'd love to know more about that one, given the add-on private costs of corporate profits and advertising). The question David Gregory should have asked next was: So if you want more competition, as you say, are you in favor of lifting the anti-trust exemption that health insurers now enjoy? If Lieberman wants to be philosophically consistent, if he really wants to offer more choice and greater competition, he should announce that he will filibuster any bill that doesn't end the anti-trust exemption. Right now, because of Ben Nelson, the Senator from Omaha Mutual, the Senate bill doesn't contain such a provision. It should.

"(By the way, I still consider the public option a relatively small bit of business -- certainly nothing that would cause me to vote for or against the bill. There are other far more important provisions.)"

Tehran ordeal

Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari recounts his lengthy captivity in Iran, and his chief tormentor:

"Mr. Rosewater was to be my nemesis for 118 days, 12 hours, and 54 minutes. He never told me his name. I saw his face only twice. The first time was when he led the team that arrested me. 'This prison can be the end of the line for you if you don't cooperate' were his welcoming words. The second and last time was after I was freed -- and warned by him never to speak of what had happened to me in jail. If I disobeyed, he said, I would be hunted down. 'We can put people in a bag no matter where in the world they are,' he said menacingly. 'No one can escape from us.'

"I did not believe him. I do not believe him. But the doubt lingers, which is what he wanted --what the regime he serves wants from all of us, in fact. They are masters of uncertainty, instilling it among their enemies, their subjects, their friends, perhaps even themselves."

Palin without end

The book tour continues, and so does the partisan back-and-forth. National Review's Jonah Goldberg sees some kind of Palin Derangement Syndrome:

"Some of us will always be sympathetic to Mrs. Palin if for nothing else than her enemies. The bile she extracts from her critics is almost like a dye marker, illuminating deep pockets of asininity that heretofore were either unnoticed or underappreciated.

"In fairness, just as there are people who hate Palin for the effrontery she shows in daring to draw breath at all, there are those who love her with a devotion better suited for a religious icon. . . .

"Sarah Palin is neither savior (that job has been taken by the current president, or didn't you know?) nor is she satanic. She is a politician, a species of human like the rest of us. I'm fairly certain that if you read many of her public-policy positions but concealed her byline, many of her worst enemies would say 'that sounds about right,' and some of her biggest fans would say 'that sounds crazy.' But most people would say that her views are perfectly within the mainstream of American politics. She may be more religious than coastal elites in the lower 48, but that is something some bigots need to get over, anyway."

Andrew Sullivan explains why he keeps pounding the ex-governor:

"She cannot be given the benefit of the doubt. And the Dish will continue to monitor those odd lies that can be independently and objectively proven, as we have all along. But for those things we cannot prove objectively, we just have to leave alone at this point. I believe nothing she says is true unless I can verify it. But if I can't disprove her accounts of things only she and her family can know about, I should shut up.

"Move on and forget about her? If only. Not just because she is a vital figure in this country's politics right now and one of the most dangerous demagogues this country has seen in a long time, but because I just want to know. I want to know what really lies under that facade."

NYT columnist Ross Douthat says Palin and Mike Huckabee are shying from political combat:

"So far, they've chosen celebrity instead. Huckabee spent the last year hamming it up on a weekly talk show, and the last month hawking a book of inspirational Christmas stories. As for Palin -- well, you probably know what she's been up to lately.

"Nobody should begrudge them their choices. Think tanks are a snooze; Senate races are a grind. Signing autographs for your adoring fans is more fun than rounding up budget votes in Juneau.

"But they were the wrong moves if either wanted to become president someday. Huckabee's gabfest is a weekly reaffirmation of the rap that he's too lightweight for the Oval Office. Palin has sealed her identity as a culture-war lightning rod: she can inspire hysteria from liberals (ably catalogued in Matthew Continetti's 'Persecution of Sarah Palin') and adulation from conservatives (visible at every stop along her book tour), but she's unlikely to persuade anyone in the middle to trust her with the reins of government."

The fruit of hackers

A decision by the NYT is drawing flak on the right, as we see in this Pajamas Media post by Ed Driscoll, who complains of "this staggering moment of hypocrisy from the New York Times' Andrew C. Revkin of their 'Dot Earth' blog on Friday:

"The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won't be posted here.

"And they don't contain any obvious state military secrets as well, unlike say the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War or more recently, the secrets of War on Terror, or any of a number of other leaked documents the Times has cheerfully rushed to print.

"Back in 2006, when his paper disclosed the previously confidential details of the SWIFT program, which was designed to trace terrorists' financial assets, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said on CBS's Face the Nation, 'one man's breach of security is another man's public relations.' Of course, much like the rest of the media circling the wagons with ACORN, it's not at all surprising that the Times circles the wagons when it's necessary to save the public face of their fellow liberals."

I don't think it's quite comparable to the Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post, for its part, chose to report what some of the e-mails said.

Going after Google

Rupert keeps complaining about how Google is stealing his content, but the Financial Times reports that he may be making a deal elsewhere:

"Microsoft has had discussions with News Corp. over a plan that would involve the media company being paid to 'de-index' its news websites from Google, setting the scene for a search engine battle that could offer a ray of light to the newspaper industry.

"The impetus for the discussions came from News Corp., owner of newspapers ranging from the Wall Street Journal of the US to The Sun of the UK, said a person familiar with the situation, who warned that talks were at an early stage.

"However, the Financial Times has learnt that Microsoft has also approached other big online publishers to persuade them to remove their sites from Google's search engine."

What is the different between having your content strewn across the Net by Google or by Microsoft's Bing? The answer, apparently, is more favorable terms.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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