White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, May 20, 2009; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch for washingtonpost.com.

He was online Wednesday, May 20 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about his blog and the latest White House news.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Let's talk about the White House. What's interesting you the most these days?


Kingstown, R.I.: Great work, Dan. Any thoughts on how serious the Pelosi flap is becoming? When Newt Gingrich demands that she step down, I'm not sure whether to take it seriously or laugh.

Dan Froomkin: I never predict the course of Washington political stories -- because there is no logic to them.

What I think is significant about the Pelosi story, at least thus far, is that it has reinvigorated the Republican torture apologists. They suddenly feel they've got a hold of a winning issue. Or at least a distraction.

And that in turn is significant because while I think some sort of commission of inquiry into torture etc., is inevitable, I think it probably won't come until at least a few Republicans peel off from the torture dead-enders, realizing that torture is not a good brand for their party -- sort of like some Republicans realized that Nixon wasn't a good brand. That has now been delayed, I fear.


Tolland, Conn.: Hi Dan,

I have to admit I don't get the objection of congressmen to having Gitmo detainees in their states. Our prisons are already full of much scarier and more dangerous felons, so this seems totally irrational. In the Bush years, at least after 9/11, it seemed everything was driven by fear (Iraq, torture, surveillance). I had hoped that things would change with the new administration, but congress isn't exactly a profile in courage these days. Any chance Obama can use his communication skills to get the country back its old John Wayne ethic?

Dan Froomkin: I'm about as dumbfounded by this as I've ever been. See my fulminating item on the subject, hot off my keyboard.

As for what Obama does -- or can do -- we'll know soon enough. He' giving a big speech on the subject tomorrow.

But I don't think he will challenge congressional Democrats to show a little spine. He's a pragmatist. And there's no sign they have any.


Arlington, Va.: I don't get all of the outcry over closing GITMO and bringing those prisoners to the USA. We have all sorts of terrible criminals locked up in our prisons. Almost none of them ever escape. Plus, how many of the people left at GITMO are actual terrorists? We still have all of those poor Uighurs locked up there who have never done anything to us. And how many of the people who are innocent but turned in by bounty hunters are still there? The people with their knickers in a twist a just totally irrational and lacking in facts.

Dan Froomkin: Agreed, agreed, agreed.

That said, don't underestimate the mess Bush left at Guantanamo. What do you do with the people who are self-evidently guilty of something -- but the evidence is tainted with torture? What do you do with people who weren't at all threatening when they were stuck in Gitmo in the first place, but after X years of abuse and detention, bear more than a little resentment to the country that treated them this way?

There are no easy solutions. And Bush administration holdover fearmonger and FBI chief Robert Mueller isn't exactly helping the forces of reason and logic here today, either.


San Diego: Dan, the Democrats look like they're still motivated more by fear of being labeled by the GOP (Harry Reid for instance on Gitmo) than by taking a longer view of what would be best for the country. Do you think the President realized how difficult it would be to get his party to snap out of fear-based stupidity? Regardless, does he now have a person, group, task force-whatever you want to call it-assigned the function of going up to Congress every day and trying to insert spines into those people?

Dan Froomkin: Ha! That would be one miserable assignment.

You know, I haven't really written about this as much as I should have, but I think Obama made a pretty big mistake in not more assertively rejecting fear earlier in his presidency. Fear is the ultimate Bush legacy. It's a hugely effective political weapon. But it tends to lead to really lousy decisions. We need to reject fear as a country, but I doubt even Obama can get that done in one speech.


San Francisco: Hi Dan,

Two questions today:

  • Is your heine still sore?
  • Did Krauthammer have trouble getting you up over his knee?

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

washingtonpost.com: Krauthammer: The Torture Debate, Continued

Dan Froomkin: I quite enjoyed my exchanges with Krauthammer, thank you. In case you missed them, here's his original column, my initial response, his response to my response (wherein he calls my response "stupid") and my response to his.


Arlington, Va: It is my understanding that Obama can suspend "don't ask don't tell" now. Why do you think he hasn't done so?

Dan Froomkin: Seems like we have a theme today: Insufficient spine.

My sense is that Obama doesn't want to take on another fight right now, even one with significant day in, day out ramifications like this one. And he seems to be a bit too deferential to the military types.

Carol J. Williams checks in on the subject in today's Los Angeles Times: "President Obama's campaign vow to end the ban on gays in the military -- and the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy that forces thousands of military personnel to stay in the closet -- appears to be driven now by a strategy of 'don't rush.' "

Also see my May 7 item, Where's the President?


Richmond, Va.: Despite all the glowing reviews of Obama's speech in Notre Dame, I found this section a bit disingenous:

"Now, understand -- understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it -- indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory -- the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

Under Obama's position, there's no point in making a case to the public, because as I understand it he believes that this issue is a matter of constitutional law that has been decided by the Supreme Court.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting observation. When you put it that way, it does remind me a bit of my high school principal, who used to tell me "Let's agree to disagree." Which of course really meant, "I win, you lose, move on."

But I think you could also read it to say that Obama does think that non-name-calling debate on the subject can nevertheless produce mutually satisfactory conclusions, like the reduction of abortions, even if it doesn't change a woman's constitutionally protected right to choose.

I think there were other parts of the speech that were, if not disingenuous, certainly more subversive than they initially appeared. See my May 18 item on the subject.


Baltimore: Re putting Gitmo prisoners in U.S. facilities: Dan, I wonder if you saw the story about Hardin, the Montana town that has a prison that never opened. The town manager has said, point blank, that they would take all the prisoners from Gitmo and put them in lockup in Hardin to give a boost to a town that is very depressed economically. And believe me, having been to to Hardin, if any of these guys ever escaped, they would be very noticeable in a town populated only by elderly white people and members of the Crow Indian tribe.

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, and as the New York Times reports, "Montana's senators, both Democrats, and its representative, a Republican, quickly voiced opposition."


Richmond, Va.: "Here's one thing that hasn't changed in the Obama era: Republicans are still able to come up with scare tactics that turn Senate Democrats into a terrified and incoherent bunch of mewling babies."

This is why the Republicans can come back: The Democrats don't believe in their own positions enough to defend them in public.

Reminds me of 2002 when all they wanted to do was change the subject back to the economy from national security, and the Republicans ended up picking up seats in the midterm.

Dan Froomkin: My take is that too many politicians (of both parties) are motivated by political gamesmanship rather than principle, and therefore when confronted with an issue, their first thought is about how it will play politically, rather than what's the right thing to do. This of course is abetted by a political press corps that treats politics like sport.


Fear-based stupidity: Sadly, there was never any reason to believe that Obama would attempt to stiffen the Dems' spines on national security issues. Remember, he's the one who talked a big game about filibustering telecom immunity and then folded like a beach chair when it came to a vote last spring. So I never really expected better from him (and I say that as someone who gave money and canvassed for him in the general because, well, the alternative outcome was far worse).

Dan Froomkin: That's an important vote to remember. Indeed, Obama was on the folded-beach-chair side of one of the most telling Bush victories of the second term.


Why no detainees in prisons?: While I may not agree, I know the reason for the objection to detainees being moved to US prisons. There are 2. First, there's a higher level of visibility. So we can't used enhanced interrogation. Second, local politicians are worried that al Qaeda will come to the US to liberate their imprisoned friends. In Cuba, it's an island. Not U.S. soil. Harder for do-gooders to come and ask to see what's going on. Harder for terrorists to come and attempt an attack. And, in the case of an attack, all that's destroyed is a military installation and a Communist country. Fewer U.S. civilians.

Dan Froomkin: OK, thanks for that. But what: They think al Qaeda will target the Leavenworth Burger King?


Washington, D.C.: Dan: all presidents disappoint. My first great disappointment with Obama was the failure to release the photos. Now, it is the growing level of back-tracking on "Don't ask, don't tell." Here we are fighting a war and pilots and Arabic speakers are being fired from the military. I recall during the campaign, Obama explicitly said that such valuable people would not be victims of this policy in his Administration. What's your sense, is he looking for a better time (will there ever be a better time?) to act? What about the injustice being done to these individuals...any sense that there is a sense of shame over at the WH?

Dan Froomkin: I hear you. I don't know what they're thinking over there, but I suspect they are taking some consolation in the fact that they are fighting an awful lot of enormous battles at the same time. Even if they can't fight every one -- not to mention win every one -- they will still legitimately see themselves as having accomplished a lot. See my April 30 item, Obama's Full Plate.


To Richmond: I understand why you think Obama's statement "disingenuous," but I think you misread his mindset. Obama is speaking almost professorially here as someone deeply committed to the value of honest debate to communicate different viewpoints fairly and understandably. And, yes, I think he's actually open to changing his own position, probably incrementally.

Dan Froomkin: Changing his position on abortion rights? Or on the margins? Maybe the latter, but I'm not even sure about that.

I'm actually becoming quite interested in the whole issue of Obama's willingness to change his mind. It hasn't happened a lot. I'm not even sure it happened with the abuse photos -- was he involved in the original decision not to appeal the court order?

I'm not convinced he actually changed his mind about military commissions. He apparently didn't change his mind after dinner with Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. So when does he change his mind, and why?

(He did admit a mistake -- once.)


Bethesda, Md.: "They think al Qaeda will target the Leavenworth Burger King?"

Yes, some of them probably do. I remember when the feds started distributing "homeland security" funding, and all sorts of small town mayors, mall operators, etc. asserted, with totally straight faces, that the East Podunk Mall or the American Twine Museum was a serious potential target. And it's just as dumb now as it was then.

Dan Froomkin: That's a good point.


Richmond, VA: "My take is that too many politicians (of both parties) are motivated by political gamesmanship rather than principle, and therefore when confronted with an issue, their first thought is about how it will play politically, rather than what's the right thing to do. This of course is abetted by a political press corps that treats politics like sport. "

I would say that the primary spokesman for the Republican Party, Cheney is motivated by principles (regardless of whether you agree with them or not) and doesn't care how it plays out politically or how popular he is.

It's interesting to contrast his relatively straight forward (even if you think they are wrong) answers to these questions to the way Pelosi and Reid stumble all overthemselves.

Russ Feingold really ought to be the face of the Senate Democrats.

Dan Froomkin: Well, I think Cheney is doing plenty of game-playing in his own way. Yes, he's a true believer. But I think his current PR campaign is very cleverly intended to cast the argument about government-sanctioned torture as a narrow one limited to the CIA's secret prisons, rather than a broad one, about the abusive techniques widely and sometimes indiscriminately employed not just at CIA black sites but in places like the Bagram prison in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib.


Houston: Nice column, Dan! Can someone please explain to the congressional Democrats that one of the reasons that many voted for Obama was that we were tired of being spoken to as children by our leaders? You'd think with the number of self-identifying Republicans dwindling to the hard-core, that they would understand that maybe, just maybe, all of sturn and drang regarding patriotism and fear of terrorists is pretty much NOT what the American public wants to deal with.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. But old habits die hard.

I do think that when Obama criticizes Washington's ways he's not just thinking about the Republicans.


Washington, D.C.: Re: proposed consumer finance watchdog agency. We have lots of these watchdog agencies already, but they're understaffed, underbudgeted, and their commissioners are heavily loaded with power brokers. If Mr. Obama wants to establish this agency, perhaps the enabling legislation should include a requirement that the agency educate its clientele about the many financial "products" Wall Street people create, e.g., derivatives, options, etc.

washingtonpost.com: U.S. May Add New Financial Watchdog

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

Expect to read a lot more about Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard University law professor who now chairs the Congressional Oversight Panel for the government's financial rescue initiative, and who first came up with this idea.


Harrisburg, Pa/: Dan, do you think there's any chance the president will send back this credit-card legislation that, oh, by the way, permits folks to carry loaded semi-automatic weapons into our national parks?

Even the reliably lefty blogs are sort of throwing up their hands -- "oh, well, we'd rather have health care reform than gun control." Is that really what it comes down to? Tell you what, I'd rather not have some kook taking shots at imaginary bears while I'm trying to enjoy my summer vacation!

Thanks for your thoughts on this seemingly bizarre turn of events.

Dan Froomkin: I agree it's bizarre. But I don't think he'll send it back, no. Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "To the frustration and discouragement of many Democrats, House and Senate lawmakers and aides say it now appears likely that President Obama will this week sign into law a provision allowing visitors to national parks and refuges to carry loaded and concealed weapons."


Don't ask: I think that Obama's reluctance/refusal to get involved in a social issue such as gay rights is well founded. Just my opinion, but I think that a social movement that seeks to allow gays to serve openly in the military, or that legalizes gay marriage, will become better accepted if it comes through the grassroots, as opposed it being imposed by (perceived) fiat.

Rachel Maddow has interviewed a few former servicemen who served with honor and yet who were released from the military because of their orientation. States are increasingly passing legislation to allow gay marriages. The more that this gets footing as a wide-spread social acceptance movement instead of a strictly partisan or political issue, the stronger it will be. If polls ever indicate that a huge majority of Americans are in favor of allowing gay marriage, the rightwing will have lost yet another one of its anti-liberal fearmongering tools.

Dan Froomkin: I don't think his endorsing gay marriage would stunt the movement. And don't-ask-don't-tell isn't going to magically get undone without him.


Peaks Island, Maine: On Monday, Netanyahu said: "I very much appreciate, Mr. President, your firm commitment to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear military capability and also your statement that you're leaving all options on the table." But in press reports relating to the meeting, there was no mention of Obama having referred to "all options" being on the table.

One thing that is clear, however, is that "military force" is an option on Netanyahu's table that has a significantly likelihood of being used; i.e. David Makovsky on the PBS NewsHour said: "I think that Netanyahu has told his top aides ... that history has brought him to be the leader to stop a second Holocaust against the Jewish people. I think he believes it to the very fiber of his soul. And his father is a leading historian. He sees himself as a historic figure. Right now, everyone is in agreement that dialog is the way to go. And like I said, Israel is not trying to stop the United States. The issue is, what if it fails? And I believe, if it fails, that Israel will attack Iran; I do think so."

Do you think military force is an option on Obama's table? If it is not, has Obama made clear to Netanyahu that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would have disastrous consequences?

What do you predict Obama. would do if Netanyahu, pointing to a failure of efforts to persuade Iran to cease its uranium enrichment activity, launched an attack notwithstanding an unambiguous U.S. disapproval?

Do you suppose Netanyahu's thinking is that although Obama would have opposed an Israeli attack upon Iraq that he would have no choice but to come to Israeli's aid in the aftermath?

Dan Froomkin: You can't ask just one question? Obama has not taken military action against Iran "off the table" -- but he doesn't talk about it a lot either. My sense is that he realizes how counterproductive it would be.

I don't think Israel could or would launch an attack without U.S. approval. They are, when you get down to it, a client state.

My sense of all this is that Obama is getting ready to give Israel a little "tough love." But given everything else on his plate, I'm not sure how persistent he'll be about it.


Martinez, California: I agree that it is important to pressure the WH to fullfill their campaign promises. However, I wish those who voted for President Obama would acknowledge the speed with which this President has attempted to clean up the worst mess any President has had to deal with. Even FDR didn't have two wars to handle. It's only been a little over 100 days people!

Dan Froomkin: Noted. Thanks.


Bedford Falls: Reaching back to yesteryear -- do you think the documents Cheney wants declassified will show that torture pays? Feingold says they won't.

Dan Froomkin: They will show that the people who wrote the memos wanted to believe that very much.

I would be very surprised if there was anything really new in any of them. I'm quite sure the torture apologists have already made their best arguments.


Dan Froomkin: OK thanks everyone. I have to run. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.


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