White House Watch: Same-Sex Benefits, Obama's Priorities, More

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, June 17, 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, June 17 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 to another White House chat. President Obama, even as I type, is delivering these remarks, introducing his proposed financial regulatory overhaul. And that's not all. There's a biggish announcement coming later today about benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees, and there were some extroardinary developments on both the torture and surveillance fronts this morning.

And that's just today! The last two weeks have been typically chock-full of crises and opportunities, of transparency and secrecy, humor and pathos -- you get the idea.

So... what's on your mind?


Philadelphia: Do I wish that there were more transparency? Yes. Do I wish that faster progress were being made toward more parts of the social/rights agenda? Sure.

But the Iranian election is a critical reminder of the supremely high stakes and the benefits of having Obama as president. Can you imaging McCain as president, throwing himself all-in for the opposition -- and either finding that he'd have to still face Ahmedinejad or learn that the opposition is not exactly a liberal secularist. And then of course having to explain that when he talked of bombing Iran, he only meant those Iranians we didn't like.

It's inspiring to watch Obama show restraint and position our government to continue to deal with the Iranian nation, no matter who leads it, and at the same time delegitimizing the common view in Iran that the US meddles in its affairs. Either way, our long-term relationship with Iran is on more solid footing today.

Dan Froomkin: Well, it seems appropriate to start off with the big picture.

Indeed, it is kind of nice not to have to worry, every time you turn on the TV (or log on to Twitter), that your president has, oh, declared war or something.

That said, I think Iran presents a bit of a dilemna for Obama, lest his thoughtful response be seen as too divorced from the drama of the moment.

He's obviously not getting carried away. In his interview with CNBC's John Harwood yetserday, Obama said of Iran: "I think first of all, it's important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, that the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised... The second thing that I think's important to recognize is that the easiest way for reactionary forces inside Iran to crush reformers is to say it's the US that is encouraging those reformers."

But he may need to be more publicly cognizant that a lot of his fellow Americans, including his own supporters, are reacting a bit more emotionally than that.


San Jose: Hi Dan,

Thank you for citing Lichtblau and Risen's story this morning.

In the story, the authors write:

"Overcollection on that scale could lead to a significant number of privacy invasions of American citizens, officials acknowledge, setting off the concerns among lawmakers and on the secret FISA court. "


"Lawyers at the Justice Department believed that the tracing of e-mail messages appeared to violate federal law."

Is it just me, or are Lichtblau and Risen sugarcoating the issue? Aren't we talking about something a little more serious than "privacy concerns" and violations of "federal law?" If their implications of intentional data mining are factual, aren't these operations blatant violations of the constitution, namely the Fourth Amendment!?!?

washingtonpost.com: E-Mail Surveillance Renews Concerns in Congress

Dan Froomkin: I'm guessing -- just guessing, mind you -- that their story was subject to an awful lot of editing and lawyering. Because, to be honest, I thought it was unusually abstruse pretty much throughout. I'd like for them just to tell me what's going on, without all this pussyfooting around. They've obviously done some great reporting. They should shout it from the rooftops! (See my thoughts on overly tame journalism here.)


New York, N.Y.: Okay, so we've had two Presidents and three Congressional elections since the New York Times originally found out we're being spied on illegally by our own government. And we're still learning more now-? Has the media just dropped the ball on this issue, or what? Why is it taking so darn long to get to the bottom of what's being done with our private e-mails, phone calls and other private information?

Dan Froomkin: Maybe because only two reporters at one newspaper seem to be on the case? (And they have too many editors?)

I can't tell you how frustrated I have been that more news organizations haven't put top reporters on this story (and the torture story) and told them not to let go until they've gotten to the bottom of everything.

We may look back at the post-9/11 period, when news organizations were terrified of appearing out of step with a country that had blindly rallied behind Bush, as if this was a million years ago. But some of the decisions we made then continue to haunt us.


Minneapolis: Hi Dan -- Thanks for taking for taking questions today and for your continued good coverage. More of a comment than a question here, but as a gay American I'm feeling somewhat conflicted about the president right now.

On the one hand, I admire his resoluteness to do things on his own timetable, but at the same time I'm troubled by his indifference to issues that matter to me -- don't ask, don't tell, the administration's defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, and his silence on all that is happening with same sex marriage on the state level.

His announcement today about same sex partner benefits for federal employees seems very much timed to appease his GLBT supporters. I'm glad to see the administration responding, but would rather he not be forced into it, because it weakens him. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: He's certainly got his hands full. But on the other hand, he's doing so darn many things at the same time that I just don't understand why this is one of the few issues he has allowed to languish. I find it particularly ironic that our first African-American president is essentially AWOL on the major civil-rights issue of our time.

Here's what I'd like to know: Who is advising him on gay issues? What are they saying? What is he telling them?


Fairfax, Va.: Any thoughts on Obama's firing of the Americorps IG (who had alleged that an Obama supporter stole $850,000 from the program)?

Regardless of which side one believes, is there any justification for the Post's decision not to report on it? The difference between the amount of press attention being devoted to this firing vs. the US Attorney firings under the Bush administration is really surprising.

Dan Froomkin: Well, our ombudsman certainly agrees with you (that The Post should have been on the story faster.)

I absolutely cannot speak for anyone but myself, but I can tell you that I first saw a story about this yesterday morning, and it didn't really set off my alarms. Maybe I was being naive (and I really try not to be naive) but I didn't see the alleged acts of the administration as being in character with what I've seen of them so far, so I chose to wait until we knew more. Now it looks like the gentleman may have had some sort of a meltdown. But at this point, it is absolutely appropriate for more reporting to take place to be sure.


New York: Okay, its as plain as the nose on anyone's face that the Axelrods and Emanuels have advised Obama -- and he obviously agrees -- that he can have health care, a new energy policy, and some sort of economic recovery this year, but he can't do these things unless he ignores the Bush horrors, government secrecy, or anything else along those lines that his supporters thought they were voting for.

Our legislators being what they are, are the advisers right?

Dan Froomkin: Well, funny you should bring up legislators -- because they do have a role they could play here, if they could find their spines. (Watch Glenn Greenwald's head explode today on this general topic.)

My sense is that Ax and Em are, while dead wrong on merit, not entirely unjustified in fearing that too much disclosure of the Bush abuses would be a distraction, if not to the legislative process, then to the media narrative.


What's "biggish" about it?: Not sure I see the same sized announcement when it comes to Obama's latest "bone" thrown to us gay folks. He promised us repeal of DOMA and DADT. Vociferously and regularly during the campaign. But then there was that execrable brief his administration wrote supporting DOMA last week. And the scales have been ripped from my eyes. Face facts: DOMA actively prohibits the federal government from extending health and retirement benefits to same-sex couples, so these benefits he's trying to assuage us with are more likely to be marginal -- like relocation assistance & suchlike. Plus these rules would sunset when Obama leaves office -- and are only available to a handful of people (not me). What's "biggish" about that, Dan? What happened to all that pretty talk of "equal rights"?

Dan Froomkin: To your point, the White House just clarified precisely what benefits Obama's presidential memo will extend to same-sex partners of federal employees -- and I gotta say it doesn't look like much. Like the NYT reported, it notably does not include medical benefits. Here's the key paragraph:

"For civil service employees, domestic partners of federal employees can be added to the long-term care insurance program; supervisors can also be required to allow employees to use their sick leave to take care of domestic partners and non-biological, non-adopted children. For foreign service employees, a number of benefits were identified, including the use of medical facilities at posts abroad, medical evacuation from posts abroad, and inclusion in family size for housing allocations."

That said, it's still something.


Fairfax, Va.: Re your idea that America "needs" Obama to say more about Iran. I sure don't. Iran's mullahs have just started to claim American "intervention" in the crisis due to his extremely measured remarks. He absolutely cannot and should not be dripping gasoline on this fire for some short-term emotional need by the public. We elected him to be smarter and more statesmanlike than that.

Dan Froomkin: I'm definitely against dripping gasoline. But there is something exciting and compelling going on in Iran, and on Twitter, and on cable, and while he shouldn't do anything stupid, that doesn't mean he can't have, and share, a human reaction.

And yet the New Yorker's George Packer, who I quoted yesterday as suggesting Obama take a less equivocal position on Iran, is now writing:

"Just when Obama seemed to have fallen a step behind events, he emerged from his silence to do what no politician in our time could have managed: emphasize American respect for Iranian sovereignty and yet, in measured terms, make it clear that the U.S. cannot be indifferent to the tragedy unfolding in Iran. He spoke with calm eloquence to the millions of people who have filled the streets at great risk-spoke to their hopes and their courage. He proved that an American President can lend his voice to "universal values" without sounding like a self-righteous fool. And he showed the emptiness of the eternal argument between realism and idealism. When foreign policy is articulated by a thoughtful politician in the middle of an intense and unfolding drama, the abstractions melt away. It's actually possible to be pragmatic without being indecent. Why shouldn't it be?"


Las Vegas: Dan,

Doesn't it seem that there is no real immediacy to the transparency issue for the White House? and that making this a back-burner item is okay considering all the front-burner action Obama has going right now?

It seems to me that transparency is a Pandora's Box that will be opened when the proper attention can be committed, as in pursuing legal action against past administration officials, creating policy going forward (which they're getting into now).

Thanks - been a reader since the beginning of your column.

Dan Froomkin: I think that's a very good point. The way I see it is that once Obama became president, he quickly realized the downsides of transparency, and that there's no real penalty for abandoning it. I would like the press to be much more assertive on this issue, to make the pain of non-transparency at least comparable to the pain of transparency. And no, I'm not willing to wait until the second term.

That said, as I wrote last week, Obama is profoundly schizophrenic on disclosure. He's doing mostly wrong things on torture and surveillance (and transparency regarding the White House decision-making process), but he's doing mostly right things on this Open Government Initiative that could actually bake transparency and accountability into government in a way that would be hard to undo down the line.


Salinas, Calif.: Hi Dan. I'm fascinated by the criticism that Obama has received for not attempting to immediately overturn DADT upon taking office. I tend to think that building a critical mass of consensus behind the scenes (in Congress and in the military) for a fait accompli is preferrable to the disasterous compromise that Bill Clinton settled for during his presidency.

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that there *is* a critical mass of consensus behind the scenes for the repeal of DADT. All it would take at this point is a little push from the president.

It would undoubtedly inflame a small minority of folks -- and tick off some military leaders to whom Obama seems to be trying hard to ingratiate himself. But needless to say, I don't find that an acceptable excuse.


Washington, DC: Dan..."Had a meltdown"

Really, was his meltdown finding out an Obama friend stole 450K from Americorps? By the way, that money has already been repayed. So, not only was the AG correct...but the money was paid back and he was still fired.

This is worse than the attorney firings, because IG's are non-political appointees. US arrotney's are political appointees.

Your partisan Obama can do no wrong stripes are really showing today!

Dan Froomkin: If indeed he was fired for political reasons, that would be a legitimate scandal.

In either case, you deserve a thorough accounting of what happened there, no doubt about it.


Las Vegas: Dan,

Big fan, thanks!

After 8 years of methodical breakdown of the government I'm a little curious about all the immediacy expected by your readers regarding gay rights, privacy, and prosecuting Bush officials in light of the extreme actions being taken in the economy, wars, and general turning of the ship through incremental policy changes - with which Obama has been incredibly busy.

Is there a lot of single issue voter noise blocking out all of the positive changes that we're seeing? It seems to me that the Pres has his priorities in order and that these back burner issues will be addressed within a first year, not necessarily within the first few months.


Dan Froomkin: The problem, it seems to me, is that you can't really "put off" these decisions. You're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution. You're either disclosing, or you're hiding. Obama can't "put off" releasing the IG report without actively joining the cover up. And while trying to "put off" fighting the Defense of Marriage Act, he found himself actually defending it in court.


If I waterboard you, Dan, will you come clean?: The "what to call torture" debate is not just about semantics. It's about actual acts committed in the real world - about who did what and when. How can you and other Post reporters take the position that the Bush administration might (or might not) have tortured, when it's an established fact that waterboarding and other techniques were used. And, under international law, waterboarding is torture. Period. If the Post can't or won't call the techniques torture, the Post's editorial position lines up exactly with the Bush Administration's line that they didn't torture, doesn't it?

Dan Froomkin: I call it torture. Over and over again.


Frederick, Md.: I have to tell you that while I appreciate your perspective, integrity and industriousness, I believe you are taking too hard a line when you conclude that President Obama has turned his back on positions.

Not much worth changing can be changed in a short period of time, and I trust him to his word that transparency et al are his ideals. Every short term statement and action has a price and he seems very savvy to me in determining the best time to make a statement or action.

You seem to believe this is a lack of leadership, but I think it is political savvy. I think you are stuck in the short term media reality.

Dan Froomkin: I don't deny there is some political savvy at work here. But I do think that Obama's political advisors underestimated the obstinacy of the torture issue -- and overestimated the patience of the gay community.


Sullivan, Ill.: Hi Dan,

One of the concerns I had with the warrantless unaccountable wiretap program was that it was completely, or appeared to be completely unaccountable and we had no assurances other than the administration telling us that everything was OK. My concern was that it could be abused, that it could be used for political or business purposes. Little by little we hear that personal phone calls were listened to "accidentally", today we hear that President Clinton's Emails were read. Seeing as he is the former president of the united states and a member of the opposition party I find it hard to believe that this was a random accident, and am now wondering when we will find out that in 2004 Kerry and his campaign staff were "accidentally" having their communications monitored.

Prior to the most recent revelations, have you heard any rumblings about suspected politics coming into play with the program? Or is this a bolt out of the blue?

Dan Froomkin: When there is essentially zero oversight, rumors can flourish. Yet another reason for rigorous and independent oversight and accountability.


Support Our Troops?: NPR's "All Things Considered" this morning played a recorded snippet from a 2004 Bush speech in which he blasted John Kerry for "not supporting the troops" based on Kerry's vote against a military budget bill (which included money for the IMF). Now nearly all the Republicans in Congress are threatening to vote against the Obama administration's similar bill (including IMF funds). How do you think Boehner et al. will reply if a reporter points out this glaring inconsistency? Do you think Obama will point this out?

Dan Froomkin: This came up at yesterday's press briefing:

"Q Robert, on the war funding, the Republicans have announced they're going to vote en bloc against the war-funding measure. Does the administration believe that Republicans or Democrats who vote against the war-funding measure are putting our troops in danger?"

"MR. GIBBS: I would note with some irony the new message position of Republicans on Capitol Hill."

He left it at that.

Look, it was a ridiculous argument and shame on the media for not making that abundantly clear at the time.


San Francisco: As I recall, during the election campaign Obama clearly stated he did not favor gay marriage, but supported states making their own decisions on the issue. Is that correct? For that reason, I'm not quite sure why the LBGT community is so disappointed with Obama's actions (or lack thereof) on this issue so far.

As for DADT, on the other hand, that seems less contentious and easier to reverse. On that one, disappointment is understandable. I can only assume he has too many other things going on, or there are some advisers recommending inaction, so I'd like to know if you have any insights there.

Dan Froomkin: Obama definitely did not endorse gay marriage during the campaign. But he did oppose the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act -- which his Justice Department just defended in a brief. So that's the betrayal.


Franconia, Va.: Just to contradict the other commenter, your phrasing "had a meltdown" is a very tactful restatement of the official White House counsel's letter calling the IG disoriented and disruptive at a public meeting. I don't believe someone with a law degree would make those accusations in a formal letter without proof. Without further explanation it's hard not to think of dementia, anger management, or substance abuse among other possibilities, none of them good.

At this point, it seems only fair to this IG as well as the bipartisan Board that complained about him to settle this with more details, but I wish the Senators had asked the White House privately for the explanation instead of grandstanding, if it turns out to be a medical or personal issue.

Dan Froomkin: Good point.

For the record, however, I think IGs are hugely important and should be granted enormous independence once appointed, and fired only for explicity, publicly-stated cause.


Dan Froomkin: Okay I have to run, but thanks everyone for another lively chat.


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