washingtonpost.com
Is Reaching Out Futile?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 26, 2009 1:06 PM

In his first weekly address from the White House, President Obama on Saturday described his proposed $820 billion economic stimulus plan in more detail and appealed for public support.

"[I]f we act now and act boldly; if we start rewarding hard work and responsibility once more; if we act as citizens and not partisans and begin again the work of remaking America, then I have faith that we will emerge from this trying time even stronger and more prosperous than we were before," he said.

The public overwhelmingly supports him. According to Gallup, even a plurality of Republicans think he's doing a good job.

But, of course, it's not the public that must approve his plan, it's Congress -- that dysfunctional and widely despised institution that by all appearances still lives and breathes partisan politics.

Some sort of stimulus package will inevitably make it into law. But whether it passes with meaningful support from both parties will be the first practical test of Obama's "new politics."

Will he be able to get Republican support? And if so, how and how much? Will he simply try to peel away the few Republican moderates in Congress by including tax cuts and accountability in his proposal? Will he make major concessions to win over the rank-and-file? Or will he drop the hammer -- and warn Republicans that their lack of support risks infuriating voters?

And if Republicans don't go along in big numbers, would that mean Obama's visions of bipartisanship were a bit premature? Or would it mean that it's the GOP leadership that is out of step with the times?

Officially, the White House is still stressing areas of agreement. After Obama's meeting on Friday with congressional leaders from both parties, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: "I think there was a lot of agreement in that room this morning about the notion that we are facing an economic crisis unlike we've seen in quite some time. There was an agreement that we must act quickly to stimulate the economy, to create jobs, to put money back in people's pockets. And there was a commitment to ensuring that the funds that are appropriated to do that are spent quickly."

Here is some of what Obama had to say about his stimulus plan in his weekly address: "It's a plan that will save or create three to four million jobs over the next few years, and one that recognizes both the paradox and the promise of this moment - the fact that there are millions of Americans trying to find work even as, all around the country, there's so much work to be done. . . .

"I know that some are skeptical about the size and scale of this recovery plan. I understand that skepticism, which is why this recovery plan must and will include unprecedented measures that will allow the American people to hold my Administration accountable for these results. We won't just throw money at our problems - we'll invest in what works. Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made public, and informed by independent experts whenever possible. We'll launch an unprecedented effort to root out waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending in our government, and every American will be able to see how and where we spend taxpayer dollars by going to a new website called recovery.gov."

The White House Web-posted more details on this page and in this report.

Reaching Out

Obama is expected to attend Republican caucus meetings on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Whether there's movement on either or both sides after that should be telling.

As Laura Litvan writes for Bloomberg: "President Barack Obama proved he could win over Republican voters. Now he's trying to show he can do the same with the party's lawmakers. . . .

"Obama's decision to go to the Capitol to meet with the opposing party just days after his inauguration is unusual. Bush met only twice in eight years with House Democrats, and only at retreats outside Washington."

So far, however, the response has not been effusive.

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Republicans signaled Sunday that they would not be daunted by President Obama's soaring approval ratings, criticizing his proposed $825-billion economic stimulus plan, his strategy for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and his decision to exempt a top-ranking Pentagon appointee from new ethics rules.

"Some of the sharpest criticism came from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party's challenger to Obama in the election and the recipient of aggressive outreach as part of the new president's efforts to forge an image of bipartisanship. . . .

"But Sunday, McCain had few kind words for Obama's initial moves as president. . . .

"[T]he senator said he would not support the stimulus plan in its current form, asserting that it should have more tax cuts and less emphasis on projects, such as repairing the National Mall or extending broadband access to rural areas."

Sasha Issenberg writes in the Boston Globe: "'Right now, given the concerns that we have over the size of this package and all of the spending in this package, we don't think it's going to work,' the House minority leader, John Boehner, said on NBC's 'Meet the Press.' 'And so, if it's the plan that I see today, put me down in the "no" column.'"

Then again, Issenberg writes: "In a speech on Friday, the Senate's Republican leader sounded less inclined than his House counterpart to marshal forces in opposition to the stimulus bill even as he pushed for his party's voice to be heard on the matter.

"'There's widespread consensus here,' the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Friday at the National Press Club. 'Everybody believes that government action is necessary, and this is coming out of the mouth of somebody who doesn't normally advocate government action as the first resort.'"

Obama Shows Some Teeth

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News about Obama: "The big question is whether he will be a fighter, an essential trait in an effective president."

Walsh describes how Obama, while president-elect, used his powers of persuasion to win the congressional release of the second half of a the financial rescue package.

"But there are times that require a show of presidential muscle," Walsh writes: "'The campaign was very inspirational and motivating, but it's not enough,' says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, adding, 'At some point, he is going to have to tell people what he's going to fight for and show exactly where he will put his presidential power.'"

And as it happens, Obama did show some teeth at his meeting with congressional leaders on Friday. Jonathan Weisman blogged for the Wall Street Journal: "Obama showed that in an ideological debate, he's not averse to using a jab.

"Challenged by one Republican senator over the contents of the package, the new president, according to participants, replied: 'I won.'

"The statement was prompted by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, who challenged the president and the Democratic leaders over the balance between the package's spending and tax cuts, bringing up the traditional Republican notion that a tax credit for people who do not earn enough to pay income taxes is not a tax cut but a government check.

"Obama noted that such workers pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, property taxes and sales taxes. The issue was widely debated during the presidential campaign, when Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, challenged Obama's tax plan as 'welfare.'"

And Charles Hurt writes in the New York Post that Obama also warned Republicans "that they need to quit listening to radio king Rush Limbaugh if they want to get along with Democrats and the new administration.

"'You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done,' he told top GOP leaders. . . .

"One White House official confirmed the comment but said he was simply trying to make a larger point about bipartisan efforts.

"'There are big things that unify Republicans and Democrats,' the official said. 'We shouldn't let partisan politics derail what are very important things that need to get done.'"

Faiz Shakir reported for Thinkprogress.org last week that Limbaugh recently described his hopes for the Obama presidency this way: "I hope he fails."

Then this morning, just before announcing his overhaul of environmental policy, Obama stepped up his public rhetoric on the stimulus -- making it a little more emotional. "Over the last few days, we've learned that Microsoft, Intel, United Airlines, Home Depot, Sprint Nextel and Caterpillar are each cutting thousands of jobs," Obama said. "These are not just numbers on a page. As with the millions of jobs lost in 2008, these are working men and women whose families have been disrupted and whose dreams have been put on hold.

"We owe it to each of them and to every single American to act with a sense of urgency and common purpose. We can't afford distractions and we cannot afford delays."

Mr. Popular

It's worth remembering that former President Bush was able to push Congress around with a lot less public support than Obama has right now.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "A recent Washington Post poll found Obama to be viewed favorably by nearly eight in 10 Americans, making him the most popular president to take office in a generation and allowing him to start out with the kind political capital that Bush often claimed but in truth enjoyed only fleetingly."

Jeffrey M. Jones writes for Gallup: "With a 69% job approval rating in the latest Gallup Poll Daily update, Barack Obama continues a strong start to his presidency. That rating follows his initial approval rating of 68% -- based on Jan. 21-23 polling and reported Saturday -- and ranks him near the top of the list of presidents elected after World War II.

"In fact, only John Kennedy had a higher initial approval rating -- 72% in 1961."

Patrick O'Connor writes for Politico that one result of Obama's popularity is that "Congressional Republicans face the tough task of opposing an economic stimulus plan proposed by President Obama -- without opposing Obama himself."

So could the public come to the rescue? Maybe. But Obama's grassroots movement isn't quite there yet.

Jim Rutenberg and Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times about what White House aides "say is one of their most important goals: transforming the YouTubing-Facebooking-texting-Twittering grass-roots organization that put Mr. Obama in the White House into an instrument of government. That is something that Mr. Obama, who began his career as a community organizer, told aides was a top priority, even before he was elected. . . .

"They envision an army of supporters talking, sending e-mail and texting to friends and neighbors as they try to mold public opinion. . . .

"Still, after months of discussion, aides said the whole approach remained a work in progress."

Doubtful Pundits

Some liberals think Republicans are just not going to go along -- though that's not Obama's fault.

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "On Friday, Gallup released a devastating report, based on 30,000 interviews over the course of 2008. It found that last year an average of 36 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats and only 28 percent called themselves Republicans. Gallup noted that this was the largest advantage for the Democratic Party in more than two decades.

"For some Republicans, these numbers counsel short-term prudence and suggest a need for at least a semblance of cooperation with Obama, whose popularity is soaring."

But Dionne cites "an important undercurrent in Republican thinking: that the GOP should place its bets on the prospect that Obama's policies will fail, knowing that if the president succeeds, he and the Democrats are likely to gain ground no matter what Republicans do. This is hardly in keeping with the bipartisan spirit the White House seeks to foster. But it's a lot easier than coming up with new ideas."

And Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "As the debate over President Obama's economic stimulus plan gets under way, one thing is certain: many of the plan's opponents aren't arguing in good faith. Conservatives really, really don't want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don't want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending. . . .

"Basically, conservatives are throwing any objection they can think of against the Obama plan, hoping that something will stick.

"But here's the thing: Most Americans aren't listening. The most encouraging thing I've heard lately is Mr. Obama's reported response to Republican objections to a spending-oriented economic plan: 'I won.' Indeed he did -- and he should disregard the huffing and puffing of those who lost."

Rollback Watch

With a blistering critique of the Bush era, Obama this morning announced his plans to overhaul environmental policy and overturn some key Bush decisions.

"The days of Washington dragging its heels are over," Obama said. "My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them. We cannot afford to pass the buck or push the burden onto the states."

William Branigin, Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson have the details on washingtonpost.com.

Matthew B. Stannard writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "in the brief time he's been in the White House, analysts say, Obama has issued a series of orders, statements and speeches that convey a single message to America and the world: The Bush administration is over."

Rob Stein and Michael Shear write in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Obama yesterday lifted a ban on U.S. funding for international health groups that perform abortions, promote legalizing the procedure or provide counseling about terminating pregnancies.

"Obama issued a memorandum rescinding the Mexico City Policy, also known as the 'global gag rule,' which President Ronald Reagan originally instituted in 1984, President Bill Clinton reversed in 1993 and President George W. Bush revived in 2001.

"The memorandum revokes Bush's order, calling the limitations on funding 'excessively broad' and adding that 'they have undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family programs in foreign nations.' In an accompanying statement, Obama said he would also work with Congress to restore U.S. funding support for the United Nations Population Fund 'to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries.'"

The New Yorker's Jane Mayer talks to White House Counsel Greg Craig about Obama's executive orders last week banning torture and ordering the closure of Guantanamo within a year

"He explained that Obama's bold legal moves were the result of a 'painstaking' process that started in Iowa, before the first presidential caucus. It was there that then-candidate Obama met with a handful of former high-ranking military officers who opposed the Bush Administration's legalization of abusive interrogations. . . .

"Top C.I.A. officials have argued for years that so-called 'enhanced' interrogation techniques have yielded life-saving intelligence breakthroughs."

But apparently Obama's advisers found their arguments lacking. "During the transition period, unknown to the public, Obama's legal, intelligence, and national-security advisers visited Langley for two long sessions with current and former intelligence-community members. They debated whether a ban on brutal interrogation practices would hurt their ability to gather intelligence, and the advisers asked the intelligence veterans to prepare a cost-benefit analysis. The conclusions may surprise defenders of harsh interrogation tactics. 'There was unanimity among Obama's expert advisers,' Craig said, 'that to change the practices would not in any material way affect the collection of intelligence.'"

Afghanistan Watch

What to do in Afghanistan is shaping up as one of the most complicated issues facing Obama -- with the new president finding himself under increasing pressure to reassess his campaign promise to send in more troops.

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times that "even as Mr. Obama's military planners prepare for the first wave of the new Afghanistan 'surge,' there is growing debate, including among those who agree with the plan to send more troops, about whether -- or how -- the troops can accomplish their mission, and just what the mission is. . . .

"Some foreign policy experts argue that Mr. Obama's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan is simply an extension of Bush administration policy in the region, with the difference being that Mr. Obama could be putting more American lives at risk to pursue a failed policy. . . .

"'There's clearly a consensus that things are heading in the wrong direction,' [said Andrew Bacevich, an international relations professor at Boston University]. 'What's not clear to me is why sending 30,000 more troops is the essential step to changing that. My understanding of the larger objective of the allied enterprise in Afghanistan is to bring into existence something that looks like a modern cohesive Afghan state. Well, it could be that that's an unrealistic objective. It could be that sending 30,000 more troops is throwing money and lives down a rat hole.'"

And former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern writes in a Washington Post opinion piece that Obama should give peace a chance: "As you settle into the Oval Office, Mr. President, may I offer a suggestion? Please do not try to put Afghanistan aright with the U.S. military. To send our troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan would be a near-perfect example of going from the frying pan into the fire. . . .

"I have believed for some time that military power is no solution to terrorism. The hatred of U.S. policies in the Middle East -- our occupation of Iraq, our backing for repressive regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our support of Israel -- that drives the terrorist impulse against us would better be resolved by ending our military presence throughout the arc of conflict. . . .

"So let me suggest a truly audacious hope for your administration: How about a five-year time-out on war -- unless, of course, there is a genuine threat to the nation?"

Quick Takes

* Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post about al-Qaeda's consternation over our new president. "The departure of George W. Bush deprived al-Qaeda of a polarizing American leader who reliably drove recruits and donations to the terrorist group. . . . With Obama, al-Qaeda faces an entirely new challenge, experts say: a U.S. president who campaigned to end the Iraq war and to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and who polls show is well liked throughout the Muslim world."

* Karen DeYoung and Peter Finn write in The Washington Post that Obama officials are finding that the Bush team had no comprehensive case files on many 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. Astonishingly, some anonymous former officials tell The Post that this highlights the "complexity and dangers" involved in closing the prison.

* Erroll Morris, in his New York Times blog, asks the head photo editors of three news services -- Vincent Amalvy (AFP), Santiago Lyon (AP) and Jim Bourg (Reuters) -- to pick the photographs of former president Bush that they believe captured the character of the man and of his administration. Great stuff.

* Brian C. Kalt writes in a Washington Post op-ed that George Lardner Jr. was wrong to argue, on the same page two weeks ago, that Bush could legally revoke a pardon he granted to New York real estate developer Isaac Toussie.

* Henry Louis Gates Jr. traces the history of blacks at the White House for The Root.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the changing of the guard, Jeff Danziger on faith, Mike Luckovich on TMI, Rex Babin and Tony Auth on torture and Gitmo, Joel Pett on common ground, and Pat Bagley on trashing Bush.

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