Les anglonautes

About | Search | Vocapedia | Learning | Podcasts | Videos | History | Arts | Science | Translate

 Previous Home Up Next


History > 2012 > USA > Politics > White House / President (II)





by Garry Trudeau


March 25, 2012

















After Obama’s Decision on Marriage,

a Call to Pastors


May 13, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — About two hours after declaring his support for same-sex marriage last week, President Obama gathered eight or so African-American ministers on a conference call to explain himself. He had struggled with the decision, he said, but had come to believe it was the right one.

The ministers, though, were not all as enthusiastic. A vocal few made it clear that the president’s stand on gay marriage might make it difficult for them to support his re-election.

“They were wrestling with their ability to get over his theological position,” said the Rev. Delman Coates, the pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., who was on the call.

In the end, Mr. Coates, who supports civil marriages for gay men and lesbians, said that most of the pastors, regardless of their views on this issue, agreed to “work aggressively” on behalf of the president’s campaign. But not everyone. “Gay marriage is contrary to their understanding of Scripture,” Mr. Coates said. “There are people who are really wrestling with this.”

In the hours following Mr. Obama’s politically charged announcement on Wednesday, the president and his team embarked on a quiet campaign to contain the possible damage among religious leaders and voters. He also reached out to one or more of the five spiritual leaders he calls regularly for religious guidance, and his aides contacted other religious figures who have been supportive in the past.

The damage-control effort underscored the anxiety among Mr. Obama’s advisers about the consequences of the president’s revised position just months before what is expected to be a tight re-election vote. While hailed by liberals and gay-rights leaders for making a historic breakthrough, Mr. Obama recognized that much of the country is uncomfortable with or opposed to same-sex marriage, including many in his own political coalition.

The issue of religious freedom has become a delicate one for Mr. Obama, especially after the recent furor over an administration mandate that religiously affiliated organizations offer health insurance covering contraceptives. After complaints from Catholic leaders that the mandate undercut their faith, Mr. Obama offered a compromise that would maintain coverage for contraception while not requiring religious organizations to pay for it, but critics remained dissatisfied.

In taking on same-sex marriage, Mr. Obama made a point of couching his views in religious terms. “We’re both practicing Christians,” the president said of his wife and himself in the ABC News interview in which he discussed his new views. “And obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.”

He added that what he thought about was “not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf but it’s also the golden rule, you know? Treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

After the interview, Mr. Obama hit the phones. Among those he called was one of the religious leaders he considers a touchstone, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch in Florida.

“Some of the faith communities are going to be afraid that this is an attack against religious liberty,” Mr. Hunter remembered telling the president.

“Absolutely not,” Mr. Obama insisted. “That’s not where we’re going, and that’s not what I want.”

Even some of Mr. Obama’s friends in the religious community warned that he risked alienating followers, particularly African-Americans who have been more skeptical of the idea than other Democratic constituencies.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, another religious adviser to Mr. Obama and the president and chief executive of Sojourners, a left-leaning evangelical organization, said that he had fielded calls since the announcement from pastors across the country, including African-American and Hispanic ministers. Religious leaders, he said, are deeply divided, with some seeing it as the government forcing clergy to accept a definition of marriage that they consider anathema to their teachings.

Mr. Wallis said that it was clear to him that the president’s decision was a matter of personal conscience, not public policy. But he said that some religious leaders wanted to hear Mr. Obama say that explicitly. “We hope the president will reach out to people who disagree with him on this,” Mr. Wallis said. “The more conservative churches need to know, need to be reassured that their religious liberty is going to be respected here.”

Mr. Obama has reached out to Mr. Wallis, Mr. Hunter and three other ministers for telephone prayer sessions and discussions about the intersection of religion and public policy.

Mr. Wallis would not say whether he heard from Mr. Obama as Mr. Hunter did. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, another of the five and the senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, said he did not. “He doesn’t need to talk with me about that,” Mr. Caldwell said.

The other two pastors, Bishop T. D. Jakes, a nationally known preaching powerhouse who fills stadiums and draws 30,000 worshipers to his church in Dallas, and the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., did not respond to messages Friday.

Mr. Obama began reaching out within hours of his announcement on Wednesday. At 4:30 p.m., he convened the African-American ministers on the call.

“It was very clear to me that he had arrived at this conclusion after much reflection, introspection and dialogue with family and staff and close friends,” said Mr. Coates, who remains confident that the undecided pastors on the call will ultimately back the president in November. “There are more public policy issues that we agree upon than this issue of private morality in which there’s some difference.”

That is a calculation the White House is counting on. The president’s strategists hope that any loss of support among black and independent moderates will be more than made up by proponents of gay marriage. But Mr. Obama’s aides declined to comment and opted not to send anyone to the Sunday talk shows for fear of elevating it further.

Religious conservative leaders said the president’s decision changed the calculus of the election. “I think the president this past week took six or seven states he carried in 2008 and put them in play with this one ill-conceived position that he’s taken,” Gary Bauer, the former presidential candidate, said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” On the same program, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said, “I’ve gotten calls from pastors across the nation, white and black pastors, who have said, ‘You know what? I’m not sitting on the sidelines anymore.’ ”

Establishment Republicans, though, were eager to shift the subject. “For those people that this is their issue, they have a clear choice,” Reince Preibus, the party chairman, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But I happen to believe that, at the end of the day, however, this election is still going to be about the economy.”

Mr. Obama’s efforts to mollify religious leaders came after a tumultuous week as he lagged behind Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in advocating same-sex marriage. A senior administration official who asked not to be named said the White House contacted religious and Congressional leaders and Democratic candidates only after the president’s announcement.

Among those contacted was Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant magazine and a young evangelical leader, but he was on vacation. By contrast, the office of Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, said he had not heard from the president after publicly calling his decision “deeply saddening.”

Mr. Hunter’s cellphone buzzed shortly after the Wednesday interview. “I’m not at all surprised he didn’t call me before because I would have tried to talk him out of it,” Mr. Hunter said.

“My interpretation of Scriptures, I can’t arrive at the same conclusion,” he said. “He totally understood that. One of the reasons he called was to make sure our relationship would be fine, and of course it would be.”

    After Obama’s Decision on Marriage, a Call to Pastors, NYT, 13.5.2012,






President Obama’s Moment


May 9, 2012
The New York Times


It has always taken strong national leadership to expand equal rights in this country, and it has long been obvious that marriage rights are no exception. President Obama offered some of that leadership on Wednesday. “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with ABC News that the White House arranged for the purpose of giving Mr. Obama a forum to say just that.

With those 10 words, Mr. Obama finally stopped temporizing and “evolving” his position on same-sex marriage and took the moral high ground on what may be the great civil rights struggle of our time. His words will not end the bitter fight over marriage rights, which we fear will continue for years to come. But they were of great symbolic value, and perhaps more. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted, no expansion of rights embraced by a president has failed to become the law of the land.

This is a president and a White House that has not always been unwavering in taking positions of principle, including on this issue. Mr. Obama’s statement followed days of unseemly equivocation by the White House after Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. announced his support for same-sex marriage on Sunday. It also came one day after North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage and civil unions, which threatens all unmarried couples, health coverage for their children and domestic violence laws.

Still, the contrast was sharp between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, who took a hard-line position on Wednesday against same-sex marriage and civil unions with similar rights. He has said he favors a national constitutional amendment enshrining this particular bigotry.

Mr. Obama consciously presented his change of position (he used to favor so-called civil unions but not marriage) as a personal journey. He said he thought about “members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” and about “those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage.”

That process will seem familiar to Americans of his and older generations who have reached the same place, or are still getting there. Polling shows that younger Americans have firmly supported same-sex marriage for some time. Mr. Obama said denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples “doesn’t make sense” to his daughters. “Frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective,” he said. But there remains strong opposition among some older Americans, particularly Christian evangelicals and African-Americans. The White House is hoping Mr. Obama can help soften opposition among black voters over time.

We have one major point of disagreement with Mr. Obama: his support for the concept of states deciding this issue on their own. That position effectively restricts the right to marry to the 20 states that have not adopted the kind of constitutional prohibitions North Carolina voters approved on Tuesday.

Mr. Obama should remember that, in 1967, the Supreme Court said no state could prohibit mixed-race marriages because “marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man.’ ” Those rights are too precious and too fragile to be left up to the whim of states and the tearing winds of modern partisan politics.

A federal judge in California, supported by an appellate court panel, has ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage violates the 14th Amendment right to equal protection. That decision will probably reach the Supreme Court, and, when it does, we expect Mr. Obama, if he is still president, will take the final step in his evolutionary process and direct the Justice Department to support that ruling and urge the court to uphold equality in every state.

    President Obama’s Moment, NYT, 9.5.2012,






Obama Says Same-Sex Marriage Should Be Legal


May 9, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Before President Obama left the White House on Tuesday morning to fly to an event in Albany, several aides intercepted him in the Oval Office. Within minutes it was decided: the president would endorse same-sex marriage on Wednesday, completing a wrenching personal transformation on the issue.

As described by several aides, that quick decision and his subsequent announcement in a hastily scheduled network television interview were thrust on the White House by 48 hours of frenzied will-he-or-won’t-he speculation after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. all but forced the president’s hand by embracing the idea of same-sex unions in a Sunday talk show interview.

Advisers say now that Mr. Obama had intended since early this year to define his position sometime before Democrats nominate him for re-election in September. Yet many of the president’s allies believed he would not do so, trusting instead in his strong support from gay voters for having ended a ban on openly gay people in the military and disavowing a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Such caution was understandable, the allies said, given the unpredictable fallout the president would face by taking a clear stand on one of the most contentious and politically charged social issues of the day, before what is likely to be a close election. Mr. Obama’s closest advisers say only the timing was in question. Mr. Biden’s unexpected remarks undoubtedly accelerated the timetable.

Initially Mr. Obama and his aides expected that the moment would be Monday, when the president was scheduled to be on “The View,” the ABC daytime talk show, which is popular with women. Certainly, they thought, he would be asked his position on same-sex marriage by one of the show’s hosts, who include Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg.

Yet the pressure had become too great to wait until then, his aides told him; on Monday, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, was pummeled with questions from skeptical reporters about Mr. Obama’s stance. After the Tuesday morning meeting, Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s communications director, contacted ABC and offered a wide-ranging interview with the president for the following day.

And so it was that Mr. Obama on Wednesday afternoon sat down in the White House with ABC’s Robin Roberts and made news, after nearly two years of saying that his views on same-sex marriage were “evolving.”

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Mr. Obama said.

Long a proponent of civil unions, Mr. Obama said his views had changed in part because of prodding by friends who are gay and by conversations with his wife and daughters.

“I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Mr. Obama said. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs.”

Mr. Obama also invoked his Christian faith in explaining his decision.

“The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule — you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he said. “And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.”

Reaction to Mr. Obama’s announcement was largely predictable — including immediate opposition from his presumptive Republican rival, Mitt Romney — yet people on both sides of the issue pointed to the historical significance of a president endorsing marriage between people of the same sex. It was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, which the Obama administration last year decided not to enforce in the courts.

While Mr. Obama’s announcement was significant from a symbolic standpoint, more important as a practical matter were Mr. Obama’s decision not to enforce the marriage act and his successful push in 2010 to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that prohibited openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. For that reason, gay rights groups had been largely enthusiastic about his re-election campaign while being pragmatically resigned to his not publicly supporting same-sex marriage before the election.

Mr. Obama’s announcement has little substantive impact — as an aide said, “It’s not like we’re trying to pass legislation.”

But the political impact is a wild card, even Obama advisers acknowledged, and it came one day after voters in North Carolina — the site of the Democratic Party’s nominating convention — supported a ban on same-sex marriage. But while the president has now injected a volatile social issue into the campaign debate, both sides say the election still is all but certain to turn on the economy.

Public support for same-sex marriage is growing at a pace that surprises even pollsters as older generations of voters who tend to be strongly opposed are supplanted by younger ones who are just as strongly in favor. Same-sex couples are featured in some of the most popular shows on television.

Yet opponents include white working-class voters, among whom Mr. Obama has long had weak support, and many African-Americans, led by influential ministers in their churches, whose support is critical to Mr. Obama in swing states like Virginia and North Carolina. Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, one of the first openly gay members of Congress, said he told the White House months ago that it should not worry about the politics.

“This country is moving, and what’s interesting is every time somebody does something that’s supportive of our rights, it turns out to be (a) popular and (b) not very controversial,” he said in a telephone interview.

Many Americans already assumed Mr. Obama supported same-sex marriage, Mr. Frank said, adding, “Politically, it’s kind of a nonevent.”

Obama strategists had rejected the idea of announcing the president’s support during a fund-raiser or at a speech to a gay rights group, because, as one Democrat close to the White House put it, that would “look like pandering.”

Then last Friday, Mr. Biden taped his interview for NBC’s “Meet the Press,” shown on Sunday morning. Afterward, Mr. Biden’s aides circulated a transcript around the West Wing, with the gay marriage remarks highlighted in yellow. A flurry of e-mails ensued about how Mr. Biden’s office should explain it once the interview was broadcast.

The news media attention escalated on Monday when Mr. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, acknowledged in a television interview that he also supported same-sex marriage. Editorialists, columnists and bloggers criticized Mr. Obama as appearing calculating by his continued ambivalence.

An administration official, who like others did not want to be named discussing internal White House deliberations, said that until this week, the one certainty was for Mr. Obama to take his stand before September to avoid a convention fight. “It’s not helpful to go down there and have a big conflagration about including this in the platform,” the official said.

But several events loomed that would also force attention on the issue, leaving Mr. Obama vulnerable to continued criticism.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama is to visit the Los Angeles home of the actor George Clooney for a campaign fund-raiser expected to raise about $12 million, much of it from Hollywood people active in the gay rights cause.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to give the commencement address next week at Barnard College in New York City, where he will receive a medal along with Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a leading advocate for same-sex unions. Mr. Wolfson, who had written that he would “whisper in the president’s ear” to support same-sex marriage, said in an interview on Wednesday, “I’m going to shout, ‘Thank you!’ ”

Also on Monday, Mr. Obama is to speak at a campaign fund-raiser for gay rights supporters. And on June 6, he is to return to Los Angeles to speak at a gala benefiting the gay, bisexual and transgender community.


Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 10, 2012

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported

that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s office did not flag his comments

about gay marriage in a transcript of his “Meet the Press” remarks

that was circulated in the West Wing on Friday.

The comments were highlighted in yellow.

    Obama Says Same-Sex Marriage Should Be Legal, NYT, 9.5.2012,






Campaigning Beyond Inspiration


May 8, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama could not single-handedly transform American politics. Many of his young 2008 supporters learned that to their disillusionment, and as he begins his re-election campaign, the president himself seems a more somber candidate who learned by trial the limits to inspirational change. In his first formal campaign speech, delivered on Saturday, Mr. Obama’s view of what might happen with a robust use of government power was intertwined with the shadow of a Republican Party that has fought every attempt to use that power.

“The last few years, the Republicans who run this Congress have insisted that we go right back to the policies that created this mess,” he said, speaking in Columbus, Ohio. “Now their agenda is on steroids.”

There was a tiny echo of 2008 at the conclusion of his remarks when he said he “still believes” the country is not as divided as its politics, that people were Americans before they were Democrats or Republicans. But as Mr. Obama has reason to know, the country is more divided than it was four years ago, the parties and their supporters more polarized, and he will have to be far more persuasive if he hopes to win and then to govern effectively.

The president riffled through his considerable accomplishments, and was withering in his assessment of Mitt Romney’s plans to let prosperity sprinkle slowly from the hands of the rich onto the heads of everyone else. It is vital for Mr. Obama to make this contrast, to remind voters how far backward Mr. Romney and his party would take the country.

And Mr. Obama’s general goals are the right ones: more college degrees, better teachers, growth in manufacturing, investments in clean energy and preservation of gains in health care and women’s rights. But it’s not enough to simply tick through dreams that will die in a divided Congress. The public has seen plenty of that. Mr. Obama needs to spend more time persuading dubious and disillusioned voters that he can achieve these goals.

It’s true that he has repeatedly been burned seeking elusive “grand bargains” with Republican leaders who proved unwilling or unable to compromise. But even Democrats say the president has been too aloof in his first term, not bothering to make his case in the Capitol, not interested in the L.B.J.-style flesh-pressing or arm-twisting that can rescue a law out of the mortuary of bills.

The president can let loose a great speech, but without follow-through Congress can be counted on to muck up the details, as he should have learned from the fight over the health care reform law of 2010. He never made the sale with the public on the law, and the two or three sentences he devoted to it in his speech were insufficient. If not struck down by the Supreme Court, the core of the law will be fully felt in his second term; rather than shy away, it is time to explain to the public in detail what that would mean and why it is important that he be there to fight for it.

Similarly, the speech lacked any detail of his plans to shore up Medicare while reducing its untenable cost growth. If he is going to counter the Republican plans to end Medicare’s guarantee to older Americans, he will have to do better than a quick promise to reduce wasteful spending.

Voters already know that Mr. Obama can lift their hopes with a powerful speech. This time around, they will be seeking far more than inspiration.

    Campaigning Beyond Inspiration, NYT, 8.5.2012,






A Delicate New Balance on National Security


May 2, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — One moment he boasts about taking out America’s No. 1 enemy, and the next he vows to bring home troops from an unpopular war. For President Obama, the days leading up to his re-election kickoff have been spent straddling the precarious line between hawk and dove, and possibly redefining his party for years to come.

For four decades, Democrats have been confounded by a deeply ingrained soft-on-security image that has hurt them at the ballot box. But in a country now tired of war yet still seeking to project strength, Mr. Obama is trying to reposition his party on national security, much as Bill Clinton did on economic and domestic policy in the 1990s, triangulating between two poles.

The blend, captured by an unannounced trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday that ended in a nationally televised address, has frustrated critics on both left and right. Many in his party’s liberal base have grown disenchanted with Mr. Obama for tripling troop levels in Afghanistan, carrying over many of President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies and in some ways even expanding them. Many conservatives, on the other hand, argue that behind the raid that killed Osama bin Laden lies a fundamentally weak approach to rivals and rogue states like Iran, North Korea and Russia.

If it seems to some like the doctrine of having it both ways, it has scored well with a broad cross-section of the country, as measured by polls and focus groups. And Mr. Obama’s advisers have made clear in recent days that they believe he can play offense on national security as no other Democratic presidential candidate has since the Vietnam War.

“The post-9/11 paradigm that existed for several years, where you were either all in with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or you were not sufficiently hawkish, I think no longer applies,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to the president. “He’s demonstrated that you can end those wars while actually more effectively targeting our enemy.”

Republicans see it as more calculation than conviction, more about winning an election than making America safe. “He’s in an odd position, sort of betwixt and between, and he can’t really figure out which way he wants to go,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee and chairman of his party’s Senate campaign committee.

Of course, the innovations of drone warfare make it easier for a president to be tough at little cost to Americans, or to his political standing. Mr. Cornyn said that Mr. Obama denounced harsh interrogation techniques but evinced no hesitation about killing suspected terrorists — even an American citizen — from the skies. “It looks kind of superficial to me,” he said, “and looks expedient.”

Mr. Obama has long expressed a complicated view of national security that did not neatly fit into old boxes, but it was initially obscured by his strong opposition to the Iraq war. As a candidate in 2007 and 2008, he cited that stance as his central argument against his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Less widely noticed was his attempt to balance that with vows to send more troops to Afghanistan and unilaterally strike inside Pakistan if necessary to capture or kill Bin Laden. At the time, many analysts thought those positions were more about avoiding the historical trap that past antiwar Democrats had fallen into. But four years later, Mr. Obama has presided over a national security policy that has married elements of both parties.

“What you’re seeing is carrying out a very well thought-out and very effective foreign policy — more than anything it’s pragmatic and practical,” said Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “He has done exactly what he said he was going to do.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last month showed that Mr. Obama had neutralized the traditional Republican advantage on national security. Fifty-nine percent expressed confidence in Mr. Obama’s ability to be an effective commander in chief, slightly more than the 56 percent who had confidence in that area in Mitt Romney, the putative Republican nominee.

“I think it has worked politically, but it is the type of thing that stops working the day after the election,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who worked on Mr. Bush’s national security staff. “If the policies are unwise, and I think they are at least fraught if not unwise, then those chickens come home to roost eventually.”

Politically, at least, Republicans in recent days struggled to come up with an effective counterpunch. They complained that Mr. Obama was politicizing national security when his campaign released a video last week hailing the Bin Laden raid. But if the video struck some as unseemly, including some in the White House who worried it was undignified, it kept the conversation focused for days on what the Obama team wanted to focus on.

As late as Tuesday night, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Fox News that Mr. Obama’s order launching the raid was not “a tough decision,” and that it “would just be dumbfounding” to decide otherwise. Democrats on Wednesday gleefully circulated a newspaper article reporting that Mr. Rumsfeld once pulled the plug on a raid to capture top Qaeda figures because it was too risky.

After initially saying that Mr. Obama was exploiting the raid, Mr. Romney and other Republicans pivoted by Wednesday to a more measured reaction to the president’s trip to Afghanistan. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, told a home-state radio station that “the only qualms I have about anything the president said is emphasizing to our enemies exactly what our next military move is, or the lack of a military move.” Mr. Obama, he said, is “misleading the American people” if he leaves the impression that the war on terrorism is over.

Mr. Obama, who campaigned on Sunday with Mr. Clinton, seems to be following his Democratic predecessor’s playbook. After a generation of Democrats alienating voters with liberal domestic positions, Mr. Clinton moved the party toward the center on issues like trade, welfare and deficit spending.

Recent focus groups conducted by Third Way, a Democratic-leaning group dedicated to that shift, found some success for Mr. Obama in doing the same for national security. “His brand on security has been very, very strong, and there’s no doubt that has been a radical shift in the way people think about Democratic presidents,” said Matt Bennett, the group’s senior vice president.

But it was limited to Mr. Obama. When it came to Democrats generally, Mr. Bennett said: “We heard the same thing we heard in ‘08: they’re weak, indecisive, afraid to use force. It just isn’t enough to completely change the brand. I think he’s done everything he can possibly do. It’s not his fault. It’s just it can’t be fixed in one term.”

    A Delicate New Balance on National Security, NYT, 2.5.2012,






7 Afghans Die as Suicide Attacker Strikes in Kabul


May 2, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Less than two hours after President Obama left Afghanistan airspace on Wednesday, explosions shook the capital and the Interior Ministry said a suicide attacker had exploded a large bomb at the gates of a compound used by foreigners in the east of Kabul, killing seven Afghans.

The dead included four civilians who were passing in a car when they were caught by the blast, a security guard at the compound, a student and another person who was on foot nearby, said Sediq Sediqqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman. Hospital officials said 18 other people had been hospitalized with injuries, including seven schoolchildren who were at a nearby school, and one person was in a critical condition.

The attack took place at the gate of a large compound called the Green Village, which houses private security guards, some foreign diplomats, United Nations employees and other foreign workers in the city, the spokesman said.

The attacker struck at about 6 a.m. local time on Wednesday morning and at least two loud consecutive explosions sounded across the city. Kabul was already on edge following a series of coordinated attacks by insurgents on April 15 when three groups of attackers breached the capital’s security cordons and launched rocket attacks on areas including the Parliament and the embassy district.

Residents living near to the Green Village and people within the compound reported Wednesday hearing a number of blasts, mortar explosions, and ensuing gunfire. News reports said the attack involved a number of insurgents and was continuing more than three hours later. Residents also reported hearing heavy gunfire.

The situation was confusing. Mr. Sediqqi said there had been a single attack, and that the consecutive blasts had been caused by a number of explosives placed in the same car. "We strongly believe there was one explosion," he said. He said the gunfire could have been caused by security guards firing after the attack.

President Obama made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, including a visit to Kabul, and met with President Hamid Karzai to sign a strategic partnership agreement.

But he had left the country before the explosions hit, the American Embassy said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was a “message” to President Obama.

In a telephone interview, Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said: “As soon as the mujahedeen learned about Obama’s trip to Kabul we planned to conduct an operation at the heart of the city to send a message to Obama that instead of signing strategic partnerships and instead of imposing a corrupt and unpopular government over the people of Afghanistan, he should think of ways to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan.”

He said a group of insurgents had led the attack on the compound.

A local resident in the east of the city reached by telephone phone said the compound is located near a school and that parents could be seen taking their children out of the building.

Some of the explosions were loud enough to be heard easily on the opposite side of the city.

By about 7:15 a.m. local time, the local resident said that flames and black smoke could be seen rising from the area but that the smaller explosions and gunfire had diminished.

The United Nations sent out warning to its employees, warning them to remain under cover but said all of its personnel had been accounted for.

A Western diplomatic official speaking by telephone from the Green Village said: "I am not sure what happened. We heard a big explosion about 6:15 a.m. We moved to the bunker. We heard a few shots. Since then there have been a couple of explosions."

She said the Green Village was a varied community, mainly of foreigners, who were used to the security situation in Afghanistan. "They are being pretty sober about it," she said.

Stephen Mackenzie, an American who works in Afghanistan and lives at the Green Village where he is also a security warden for the compound, said by e-mail that two large explosions had hit the area right outside the compound and some rocket-propelled grenades had struck nearby.

"Lots of small-arms fire," he said.

He said there was heavy security surrounding the compound, mainly Afghan National Army officers.

    7 Afghans Die as Suicide Attacker Strikes in Kabul, NYT, 2.5.2012,






Missed Chance


May 1, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama gave his first speech on Afghanistan in nearly a year, speaking from Bagram Air Base on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing. The White House set it up as a big moment, but the president squandered the chance to fully explain his exit strategy from a war Americans are desperate to see brought to an end.

Mr. Obama repeated his commitment that American combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014 and that Afghan troops would be ready long before that to take over prime responsibility for the fight against the Taliban.

But the speech was frustratingly short on specifics. Mr. Obama didn’t explain what the United States and its allies planned to do to improve the training of Afghan forces so they can hold off the Taliban. Nor did he explain what President Hamid Karzai plans to do to rein in the corruption and incompetence that are the hallmark of his leadership and that have alienated so many of his own people, playing into the hands of the Taliban.

We have long supported the war in Afghanistan as a painful but necessary fight to ensure that Al Qaeda does not again have a major launching pad for attacking the United States. But we are increasingly concerned that Mr. Obama does not have a clear policy to ensure that the country does not implode once the Americans are gone.

The president’s brief, unannounced trip did accomplish one thing. He signed a long-delayed strategic partnership agreement with Mr. Karzai that is intended to signal that the United States will not cut and run, even after the 2014 withdrawal. That agreement is also short on specifics, but American officials say that Washington — and, they hope, the NATO allies — will provide some number of troops for years to come and billions in military and economic aid.

That may be a disappointment to Americans. But the United States will need some presence there to keep pummeling Al Qaeda and the Taliban on either side of the Pakistan-Afghan border.

That longer-term commitment also sends an important message to Afghans that Washington will not abandon them as it did after the Soviets were driven out, and that it is worth taking a chance on their government despite its deficiencies. It also tells the Taliban that they can’t just wait out the West — and need to seriously consider Mr. Obama’s offer of negotiations. Pakistan has long believed that it has to hedge its bets by cutting side deals with the extremists. We don’t know if this will change minds in Pakistan, but it takes away a rhetorical excuse.

Although the timing of Mr. Obama’s visit on the anniversary of the Bin Laden kill was contrived, his speech, wisely, had only a tinge of triumphalism. He said Washington has “devastated Al Qaeda’s leadership,” and insisted “the goal that I set — to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.”

Mr. Obama’s political message, and motivation, for this trip was undeniable. Still, he deserves enormous credit for going after Bin Laden and for the relentless pursuit of Al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan. He has made far more progress, with far less posturing, than his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama’s strongest argument for staying in Afghanistan for another two years is that it is the main base for continuing that fight and that, by 2014, the United States will be able to withdraw without seeing it turn once again into a haven for Al Qaeda. He didn’t make the case Tuesday night.

    Missed Chance, NYT, 1.5.2012,






House Votes to Approve Disputed Hacking Bill


April 26, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Defying a veto threat from President Obama, the House on Thursday passed a bill that encourages intelligence agencies and businesses to share information about threats to computer systems, including attacks on American Web sites by hackers in China and other countries.

The vote was 248 to 168, as 42 Democrats joined 206 Republicans in backing the bill. The “no” votes were cast by 140 Democrats and 28 Republicans, including a number who described the measure as a potential threat to privacy and civil liberties.

Under the bill, the federal government can share classified information with private companies to help them protect their computer networks. Companies, in turn, could voluntarily share information about cyberthreats with the government and would generally be protected against lawsuits for doing so if they acted in good faith.

The White House opposed the bill, saying it could “undermine the public’s trust in the government as well as in the Internet by undermining fundamental privacy, confidentiality, civil liberties and consumer protections.”

In addition, the White House said the government should set “minimum cybersecurity performance standards” for the private sector — an approach resisted by House Republican leaders.

“The White House believes the government ought to control the Internet, government ought to set standards and government ought to take care of everything that’s needed for cybersecurity,” said Speaker John A. Boehner. “They’re in a camp all by themselves.”

“We can’t have the government in charge of our Internet,” Mr. Boehner added.

The Senate is working on a more comprehensive bipartisan bill that directs the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to issue regulations to protect “critical infrastructure,” including the electric power grid, water and sewer systems, transportation hubs and financial service networks.

In confidential briefings on Capitol Hill, administration officials have expressed alarm about the damage that could be done by malicious attacks on computer systems and networks that have become an indispensable part of everyday life. Supporters of the bill said China was stealing jobs by pilfering proprietary information and valuable trade secrets stored in American computers.

The House bill was written by Representatives Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House intelligence committee, and C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the panel.

They accepted many amendments to protect privacy, but not enough to satisfy advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union or the Center for Democracy and Technology. The civil liberties union criticized the bill as “a privacy disaster.”

However, Mr. Rogers said the sharing of information with the government was “all voluntary,” and he added, “There is no government surveillance, none, not any in this bill.”

The bill says that “cyber threat information” shared with the federal government by the private sector can be used for five purposes: to protect computer systems; to investigate cybersecurity crimes; to protect people from “serious bodily harm”; to protect “the national security of the United States”; and to prevent the sexual exploitation or kidnapping of children.

Some members of both parties said they worried that the bill could lead to violations of privacy.

“We do have a real cyberthreat in this country, and this bill is an honest attempt to deal with it,” said Representative Joe L. Barton, Republican of Texas, who voted against the legislation.

“But the absence of explicit privacy protections for individuals is, to me, a greater threat to democracy and liberty than the cyberthreats that face America.”

The House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, said, “The threat of cyberattack is a real one, but the response must balance freedom and security.”

    House Votes to Approve Disputed Hacking Bill, NYT, 26.4.2012,






Shift on Executive Power Lets Obama Bypass Rivals


April 22, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — One Saturday last fall, President Obama interrupted a White House strategy meeting to raise an issue not on the agenda. He declared, aides recalled, that the administration needed to more aggressively use executive power to govern in the face of Congressional obstructionism.

“We had been attempting to highlight the inability of Congress to do anything,” recalled William M. Daley, who was the White House chief of staff at the time. “The president expressed frustration, saying we have got to scour everything and push the envelope in finding things we can do on our own.”

For Mr. Obama, that meeting was a turning point. As a senator and presidential candidate, he had criticized George W. Bush for flouting the role of Congress. And during his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, Mr. Obama largely worked through the legislative process to achieve his domestic policy goals.

But increasingly in recent months, the administration has been seeking ways to act without Congress. Branding its unilateral efforts “We Can’t Wait,” a slogan that aides said Mr. Obama coined at that strategy meeting, the White House has rolled out dozens of new policies — on creating jobs for veterans, preventing drug shortages, raising fuel economy standards, curbing domestic violence and more.

Each time, Mr. Obama has emphasized the fact that he is bypassing lawmakers. When he announced a cut in refinancing fees for federally insured mortgages last month, for example, he said: “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them.”

Aides say many more such moves are coming. Not just a short-term shift in governing style and a re-election strategy, Mr. Obama’s increasingly assertive use of executive action could foreshadow pitched battles over the separation of powers in his second term, should he win and Republicans consolidate their power in Congress.

Many conservatives have denounced Mr. Obama’s new approach. But William G. Howell, a University of Chicago political science professor and author of “Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action,” said Mr. Obama’s use of executive power to advance domestic policies that could not pass Congress was not new historically. Still, he said, because of Mr. Obama’s past as a critic of executive unilateralism, his transformation is remarkable.

“What is surprising is that he is coming around to responding to the incentives that are built into the institution of the presidency,” Mr. Howell said. “Even someone who has studied the Constitution and holds it in high regard — he, too, is going to exercise these unilateral powers because his long-term legacy and his standing in the polls crucially depend upon action.”

Mr. Obama has issued signing statements claiming a right to bypass a handful of constraints — rejecting as unconstitutional Congress’s attempt to prevent him from having White House “czars” on certain issues, for example. But for the most part, Mr. Obama’s increased unilateralism in domestic policy has relied on a different form of executive power than the sort that had led to heated debates during his predecessor’s administration: Mr. Bush’s frequent assertion of a right to override statutes on matters like surveillance and torture.

“Obama’s not saying he has the right to defy a Congressional statute,” said Richard H. Pildes, a New York University law professor. “But if the legislative path is blocked and he otherwise has the legal authority to issue an executive order on an issue, they are clearly much more willing to do that now than two years ago.”

The Obama administration started down this path soon after Republicans took over the House of Representatives last year. In February 2011, Mr. Obama directed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages, against constitutional challenges. Previously, the administration had urged lawmakers to repeal it, but had defended their right to enact it.

In the following months, the administration increased efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions through environmental regulations, gave states waivers from federal mandates if they agreed to education overhauls, and refocused deportation policy in a way that in effect granted relief to some illegal immigrants brought to the country as children. Each step substituted for a faltered legislative proposal.

But those moves were isolated and cut against the administration’s broader political messaging strategy at the time: that Mr. Obama was trying to reach across the aisle to get things done. It was only after the summer, when negotiations over a deficit reduction deal broke down and House Republicans nearly failed to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, that Mr. Obama fully shifted course.

First, he proposed a jobs package and gave speeches urging lawmakers to “pass this bill” — knowing they would not. A few weeks later, at the policy and campaign strategy meeting in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, the president told aides that highlighting Congressional gridlock was not enough.

“He wanted to continue down the path of being bold with Congress and flexing our muscle a little bit, and showing a contrast to the American people of a Congress that was completely stuck,” said Nancy-Ann DeParle, a deputy chief of staff assigned to lead the effort to come up with ideas.

Ms. DeParle met twice a week with members of the domestic policy council to brainstorm. She met with cabinet secretaries in the fall, and again in February with their chiefs of staff. No one opposed doing more; the challenge was coming up with workable ideas, aides said.

The focus, said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, was “what we could do on our own to help the economy in areas Congress was failing to act,” so the list was not necessarily the highest priority actions, but instead steps that did not require legislation.

Republican lawmakers watched warily. One of Mr. Obama’s first “We Can’t Wait” announcements was the moving up of plans to ease terms on student loans. After Republican complaints that the executive branch had no authority to change the timing, it appeared to back off.

The sharpest legal criticism, however, came in January after Mr. Obama bypassed the Senate confirmation process to install four officials using his recess appointment powers, even though House Republicans had been forcing the Senate to hold “pro forma” sessions through its winter break to block such appointments.

Mr. Obama declared the sessions a sham, saying the Senate was really in the midst of a lengthy recess. His appointments are facing a legal challenge, and some liberals and many conservatives have warned that he set a dangerous precedent.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, who essentially invented the pro forma session tactic late in Mr. Bush’s presidency, has not objected, however. Senate aides said Mr. Reid had told the White House that he would not oppose such appointments based on a memorandum from his counsel, Serena Hoy. She concluded that the longer the tactic went unchallenged, the harder it would be for any president to make recess appointments — a significant shift in the historic balance of power between the branches.

The White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, said the Obama administration’s legal team had begun examining the issue in early 2011 — including an internal Bush administration memo criticizing the notion that such sessions could block a president’s recess powers — and “seriously considered” making some appointments during Congress’s August break. But Mr. Obama decided to move ahead in January 2012, including installing Richard Cordray to head the new consumer financial protection bureau, after Senate Republicans blocked a confirmation vote.

“I refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Mr. Obama declared, beneath a “We Can’t Wait” banner. “When Congress refuses to act and — as a result — hurts our economy and puts people at risk, I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them.”

The unilateralist strategy carries political risks. Mr. Obama cannot blame the Republicans when he adopts policies that liberals oppose, like when he overruled the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to strengthen antismog rules or decided not to sign an order banning discrimination by federal contractors based on sexual orientation.

The approach also exposes Mr. Obama to accusations that he is concentrating too much power in the White House. Earlier this year, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, delivered a series of floor speeches accusing Mr. Obama of acting “more and more like a king that the Constitution was designed to replace” and imploring colleagues of both parties to push back against his “power grabs.”

But Democratic lawmakers have been largely quiet; many of them accuse Republicans of engaging in an unprecedented level of obstructionism and say that Mr. Obama has to do what he can to make the government work. The pattern adds to a bipartisan history in which lawmakers from presidents’ own parties have tended not to object to invocations of executive power.

For their part, Republicans appear to have largely acquiesced. Mr. Grassley said in an interview that his colleagues were reluctant to block even more bills and nominations in response to Mr. Obama’s “chutzpah,” lest they play into his effort to portray them as making Congress dysfunctional.

“Some of the most conservative people in our caucus would adamantly disagree with what Obama did on recess appointments, but they said it’s not a winner for us,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s new approach puts him in the company of his recent predecessors. Mr. Bush, for example, failed to persuade Congress to pass a bill allowing religiously affiliated groups to receive taxpayer grants — and then issued an executive order making the change.

President Bill Clinton increased White House involvement in agency rule making, using regulations and executive orders to show that he was getting things done despite opposition from a Republican Congress on matters like land conservation, gun control, tobacco advertising and treaties. (He was assisted by a White House lawyer, Elena Kagan, who later won tenure at Harvard based on scholarship analyzing such efforts and who is now on the Supreme Court.)

And both the Reagan and George Bush administrations increased their control over executive agencies to advance a deregulatory agenda, despite opposition from Democratic lawmakers, while also developing legal theories and tactics to increase executive power, like issuing signing statements more frequently.

The bipartisan history of executive aggrandizement in recent decades complicates Republican criticism. In February, two conservative advocacy groups — Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network — sponsored a symposium to discuss what they called “the unprecedented expansion of executive power during the past three years.” It reached an awkward moment during a talk with a former attorney general, Edwin Meese III, and a former White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray.

“It’s kind of ironic you have Boyden and me here because when we were with the executive branch, we were probably the principal proponents of executive power under President Reagan and then President George H. W. Bush,” Mr. Meese said, quickly adding that the presidential prerogatives they sought to protect, unlike Mr. Obama’s, were valid.

But Jack L. Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, said the Obama administration’s pattern reflects how presidents usually behave, especially during divided government, and appears aggressive only in comparison to Mr. Obama’s having been “really skittish for the first two years” about executive power.

“This is what presidents do,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “It’s taken Obama two years to get there, but this has happened throughout history. You can’t be in that office with all its enormous responsibilities — when things don’t happen, you get blamed for it — and not exercise all the powers that have accrued to it over time.”

    Shift on Executive Power Lets Obama Bypass Rivals, NYT, 22.4.2012,






That Other Obama


April 5, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama is an intelligent, judicious man who can see all sides of an issue. But every once in a while he tries to get politically cute, and he puts on his Keith Olbermann mask.

I suppose it’s to his credit that he’s most inept when he tries to take the low road. He resorts to hoary, brain-dead clichés. He wanders so far from his true nature that he makes Mitt Romney look like Mr. Authenticity.

That’s pretty much what happened this week in Obama’s speech before a group of newspaper editors. Obama’s target in this speech was Representative Paul Ryan’s budget.

It should be said at the outset that the Ryan budget has some disturbing weaknesses, which Democrats are right to identify. The Ryan budget would cut too deeply into discretionary spending. This could lead to self-destructive cuts in scientific research, health care for poor kids and programs that boost social mobility. Moreover, the Ryan tax ideas are too regressive. They make tax cuts for the rich explicit while they hide any painful loophole closings that might hurt Republican donors.

But these legitimate criticisms and Obama’s modest but real deficit-reducing accomplishments got buried under an avalanche of distortion. The Republicans have been embarrassing themselves all primary season. It’s as if Obama wanted to sink to their level in a single hour.

First, there was his tone. Obama cast himself as the fiscal moderate who embraced the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles approach. (Perhaps we were all asleep during the Simpson-Bowles-Obama consciousness tour.) Then he unleashed every 1980s liberal cliché in the book, calling the Republicans a bunch of trickle-down, Trojan horse-bearing social Darwinists.

Social Darwinism, by the way, was a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples.

Then Obama exaggerated the differences between his budget and the Ryan budget.

There are, indeed, real differences, but in the short term they are not a chasm. In 2013, according to Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University, the Ryan budget would be about 5 percent smaller than the Obama budget, and it would grow a percent or two more slowly each year. After 10 years, government would be smaller under Ryan, but, as Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute complains, it would still take up a larger share of national output than when Bill Clinton left office.

Obama exaggerated these normal-sized differences into a Manichaean chasm. Under Ryan, Obama charged, 10 million college students would get their financial aid cut by $1,000, Alzheimer’s research would be slashed, 200,000 children would lose their chance to enter Head Start.

Where did Obama get these specifics? He imagined them. He imposed some assumptions that are nowhere to be found in the Ryan budget. He compared Ryan’s reduced spending increases with proposed growth, not current levels.

Then the president turned to Ryan’s Medicare proposal. The Ryan plan, he charged, “will ultimately end Medicare as we know it.”

In 2011, when Ryan first proposed a version of this budget, Politifact, the truth-checking outfit, honored this claim with its “Lie of the Year” award. Since then, the Ryan Medicare proposal has become more moderate and much better. Obama’s charge is even more groundless.

The Ryan plan would slowly phase in a premium support option, in which the government would give people money to buy insurance. This general idea was embraced by Bill Clinton’s bipartisan Medicare reform commission. It follows a similar design to the prescription drug benefit. Its effectiveness is unproved, but it’s a time-tested and respectable proposal, with expert support.

Obama treated it as some sort of alien monster from the lunatic fringe. He made a series of specific accusations that have been easily swatted away by the Ryan defenders: That the Ryan plan would allow the insurance companies to cherry-pick the healthiest seniors (in fact, there are specific passages in the plan forbidding that); the Ryan plan would mean lower benefits for seniors (in fact, the plan would guarantee seniors the equivalent of current benefits while giving them other options).

As I say, I have my own problems with Ryan’s plan, which Obama identified. But Ryan has at least taken a big step toward an eventual fiscal solution. He’s proposed necessary structural entitlement reforms, which the Democrats are unwilling to do. He’s proposed real tax reform, which the Democrats are also unwilling to do.

The first truth is that we will have to do these big things to avoid a fiscal calamity. The second truth is there is no one party solution; there has to be a merger of respectable ideas. The third truth is that gimmicky speeches obscure the president’s best character and make it seem as if he doesn’t understand the scope of the calamity looming in front of us.

Obama shouldn’t be sniping at Ryan. He should be topping him with something bigger and better.

    That Other Obama, NYT, 5.4.2012,






A Personal Note as Obama Speaks on Death of Boy


March 23, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama did not mention race even as he addressed it on Friday, instead letting his person and his words say it all: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Weighing in for the first time on the death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed a month ago in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer, Mr. Obama in powerfully personal terms deplored the “tragedy” and, as a parent, expressed sympathy for the boy’s mother and father.

“I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids,” Mr. Obama said. “Every parent in America,” he added, “should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”

While speaking movingly from his perspective as the father of two girls, one a teenager, Mr. Obama notably made no reference to the racial context that has made the killing of Trayvon and the gunman’s claim of self-defense a rallying point for African-Americans. Since Mr. Obama first began campaigning to be “president of all the people,” as his advisers would put it when pressed on racial issues, he has been generally reluctant to talk about race. And after his historic election as the first black president, Mr. Obama learned the hard way about the pitfalls of the chief executive opining on law enforcement matters involving civil rights.

His remark at a news conference in the summer of 2009 that a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., had acted “stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard law professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., at his home led to a national controversy that ended with Mr. Obama holding a peacemaking “beer summit” with the two men at the White House.

Until Friday, Mr. Obama had refrained from commenting on the death of Trayvon, 17, a high school student who was killed on the night of Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando. George Zimmerman, 28, the neighborhood watch volunteer, said he fired at Trayvon in self-defense, although there is no apparent evidence that the teenager, who held only a bag of Skittles candy and an iced tea, was doing anything wrong.

But when a reporter asked about the case at a White House event introducing Jim Yong Kim as his choice to be president of the World Bank, Mr. Obama, who typically leaves such events ignoring the shouted questions of reporters, seemed prepared.

“It was inevitable given the high-profile nature of this story that he would be asked about it,” his press secretary, Jay Carney, said later. He added that Mr. Obama “had thought about it and was prepared to answer that question when he got it.”

Mr. Carney himself had refused for days to speak for Mr. Obama about Trayvon’s death, and other advisers on Friday likewise declined to weigh in on the thinking at the White House about the case and its repercussions. Mr. Obama’s mostly white male inner circle has long been reluctant to talk for their boss when the subject is race, given how personal it is for him. One aide, speaking only on the grounds of anonymity, said that there was no internal debate about how to respond to Trayvon’s death, but that Mr. Obama wanted to await the Justice Department’s initial review of the case and the announcement this week by his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., that the civil rights division would investigate.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama endorsed the Justice Department investigation as well as efforts by local and state agencies in Florida to examine the circumstances of the shooting. Trayvon’s parents “are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” Mr. Obama said.

The president indicated his caution in not reacting earlier was due to the hazards of addressing an issue under inquiry. “I’m the head of the executive branch and the attorney general reports to me so I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now,” he said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who organized a rally on Thursday night in Florida protesting the handling of the case and has been working with the Martin family, praised Mr. Obama’s comments and took issue with black critics who say the president should have spoken out sooner.

“We’re trying to win a case, not just have the president make high-profile statements,” Mr. Sharpton said in an interview. “As one who’s been with the family, the president making a statement before the Justice Department announced an investigation could have been used by Zimmerman to say the White House was pre-judging a legal case.”

Charles J. Ogletree, an African-American law professor at Harvard who taught Mr. Obama there and remains a confidant, said there was no doubt the president had been moved by Trayvon’s death. “Nothing is more frightening for a parent than losing a child,” Professor Ogletree said. “I know personally that he felt this pain, from the moment he was made aware of the case.” He added: “He has two young daughters. This is personal.”

Mr. Carney said he could not say whether Mr. Obama planned to call Trayvon’s parents, as some black activists have urged. Boyce D. Watkins, a Syracuse University professor and the founder of the Your Black World coalition, said Friday in a Twitter message, “If Trayvon’s mother were white, would Obama give her a call?”

Dr. Watkins, in an interview, called Mr. Obama’s statement “a step in the right direction,” but added that the president could “squash a great deal of the criticism” with a call to the parents. And while applauding Mr. Obama’s comment that his own son would look like Trayvon, Dr. Watkins said the president’s remarks were characteristic of how Mr. Obama talks to black people.

“That’s what I would refer to as a standard political smoke signal that President Obama sends through the back door to the black community,” Dr. Watkins said. “He communicates to the black community in code language. That’s a subtle way of saying, ‘I know this kid is black.’ ”

Mr. Obama’s comments appeared to prompt several of the Republicans campaigning to run against him to weigh in against the shooting for the first time. Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum said that based on what they knew, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law should not apply in Mr. Zimmerman’s case.

Speaking publicly for the first time on Friday evening, Craig A. Sonner, Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyer, said on CNN that he would not use the Stand Your Ground defense should his client be charged in the shooting. He said he would use self-defense.

Mr. Santorum, campaigning at a shooting range in Louisiana, which holds a presidential primary on Saturday, called the decision of local officials not to immediately prosecute Mr. Zimmerman “another chilling example of horrible decisions made by people in this process.” Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, told reporters in Louisiana that the shooting was “a terrible tragedy, unnecessary, uncalled for and inexplicable at this point.”


Richard A. Oppel Jr. contributed reporting from West Monroe and Shreveport, La.

    A Personal Note as Obama Speaks on Death of Boy, NYT, 23.3.2012,






Bin Laden Plot Against Obama Outlined in Documents


March 16, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A terrorist whom Osama bin Laden wanted to assassinate President Obama was himself killed in a drone strike last year, shortly after evidence of the plot showed up in documents seized by the SEAL team that killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.

The documents include one in which Bin Laden asked his top lieutenant, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, to find out from a Pakistani terrorist named Ilyas Kashmiri “the steps he has taken” toward assassinating Mr. Obama and the top American general in the region. Mr. Kashmiri had long been one of the chief targets of American counterintelligence forces.

That account emerged in a column by David Ignaitius that was published Friday morning on the Web site of The Washington Post. Mr. Ignatius said he had been granted access to translations of the documents from the raid last year that have been declassified and will be made public soon.

It has been known since a few days after the Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, last year that the documents carted off by the Americans included evidence of the Qaeda leader’s desire to assassinate Mr. Obama, who in the end struck first.

But the documents, as quoted by Mr. Ignatius, could provide new insights into Bin Laden’s thinking as his influence and capacity for action were hamstrung by the pressure of the American campaign to find him. In the documents, his wording can be bureaucratic, theological, convoluted, acerbic or quirky. Some directives run for dozens of pages.

Mr. Ignatius quoted documents in which Bin Laden wanted to organize cells in Afghanistan to attack aircraft carrying Mr. Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was then the top regional military commander and is now director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Bin Laden said one result of the death of the president, whom he called “the head of infidelity,” would be to elevate Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., causing a crisis because he is “totally unprepared,” according to the documents. General Petraeus was “the man of the hour,” Bin Laden said, and his death “would alter the war’s path.”

Evidently, Bin Laden was worried that the deaths of so many innocent Muslims at Al Qaeda’s hands had damaged its reputation. And he mused that the Americans were shying away from the phrase “global war on terror” because it might ring badly in the ears of Muslims. He suggested that to broaden its own appeal to Muslims, Al Qaeda might want to change its name, which means “the Base,” to something like the “Monotheism and Jihad Group.”

    Bin Laden Plot Against Obama Outlined in Documents, NYT, 16.3.2012,






With Video,

Obama Looks to Expand Campaign’s Reach

Through Social Media


March 14, 2012
The New York Times


When presidential candidates have a message they want voters to hear far and wide, they have typically turned to that old campaign standby: the television ad.

But as President Obama and his advisers prepare to begin their general election push, they are turning first not to a 30-second commercial but a 17-minute online documentary that they hope will be shared and spread online through social networks and e-mail.

When the Tom Hanks-narrated, Hollywood-style documentary, called “The Road We’ve Traveled,” is set to go online Thursday night, it will appear on a new YouTube platform that enables the Obama campaign to turn the passive experience of watching a video into an organizing and fund-raising tool. The technology will allow viewers to post campaign content to their Facebook pages, volunteer and donate all without having to leave Mr. Obama’s dedicated YouTube page.

Eventually campaign strategists hope to use the new software to focus on people in highly specific ways. For example, if someone watches a video about a certain geographic location, like Florida, a list of that person’s Facebook friends in Florida would appear alongside the video with a message from the campaign that suggests recommending the video to them.

The Obama campaign’s efforts underscore the importance that political campaigns now attach to Web video and the role the medium will probably play in the coming election. Once best known in politics as the venue for viral parodies and hastily produced response efforts, online video is vital in the way campaigns communicate with and persuade voters.

“The importance of video is so new for campaigns, even relative to ’08,” said Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s digital director. “Now it’s in some ways the primary way our digital operation communicates with supporters. And increasingly it will be the primary way we communicate with undecided voters.”

Television is likely to remain the dominant way campaigns reach voters for the foreseeable future. Experts predict that about 10 percent of the campaigns’ advertising budgets this year will be spent on the Web. But online video offers campaigns a way to connect with people they know are engaged and not fast-forwarding through messages on their DVR players or flipping channels during commercials.

And, perhaps more important, it offers them a way to disseminate their messages into online communities where friends and family members share, discuss and debate. Campaigns believe that helps elevate their messages beyond propaganda.

“This year it’s all about getting your message into those trusted networks because everyone is suspicious about politicians,” said Darrell West, of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “It’s hard to be persuasive through a direct advertisement. But if you can get people to share videos, it adds a degree of credibility because a friend is endorsing it. People will take it more seriously.”

“The Road We’ve Traveled” was conceived and produced by the campaign to stand out from standard political video fare. For starters, it was directed by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director whose film credits include “Waiting for Superman” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” It features interviews with Obama administration officials past and present, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff. Former President Bill Clinton makes an appearance as well, hailing Mr. Obama’s decision to kill Osama bin Laden as one he hoped he would have had the courage to make as president.

The new YouTube platform that the Obama campaign will use to release the documentary gives anyone visiting the president’s YouTube page a number of options to share the content or pledge support, the kind of one-click approach that campaigns now see as an integral part of their digital strategies.

Mitt Romney’s campaign is using similar technology with its Web videos. Visitors can donate, volunteer and share content, all within Mr. Romney’s YouTube page. The campaign has worked to keep its video offerings dynamic, producing roughly two a week over the course of the campaign.

The Obama campaign has taken a similar one-stop-shopping approach to streamline online donations. Borrowing a technique from online merchants like Amazon and Fresh Direct, repeat donors do not need to resubmit their credit card information to make a pledge. The campaign saves it on file, and all the donor has to do is click.

Where online video offers some of the most potential, strategists say, is in modernizing the traditional aspects of campaigning, like get-out-the-vote efforts and responses to attacks from opponents.

“It’s the ability to get your message out quickly that makes all the difference,” said Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign’s digital director. “And that’s really where I think YouTube has found a niche in politics.”

Some strategists said what has changed in this election is the ability to turn Web video into something people act on. “One of the biggest challenges with YouTube is giving people a clear action to take after viewing,” said Stephen Muller, the Obama campaign’s video director. “The goal is to bring our engagement tools to our supporters.”

    With Video, Obama Looks to Expand Campaign’s Reach Through Social Media, NYT, 14.3.2012,






The Power to Kill


March 10, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama, who came to office promising transparency and adherence to the rule of law, has become the first president to claim the legal authority to order an American citizen killed without judicial involvement, real oversight or public accountability.

That, regrettably, was the most lasting impression from a major address on national security delivered last week by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.

There were parts of the speech worth celebrating — starting with Mr. Holder’s powerful discussion of why trying most terrorists in civilian courts is best for punishing them and safeguarding America. But we are deeply concerned about his rejection of oversight and accountability when it comes to killing American citizens who are suspected of plotting terrorist acts.

A president has the right to order lethal force against conventional enemies during conventional war, or against unconventional enemies in unconventional wars. But when it comes to American citizens, there must be compelling evidence that the threat the citizen poses is imminent and that capturing the citizen is not a realistic option.

The case that has brought the issue to international attention is the Sept. 30, 2011, drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, who United States officials say was part of Al Qaeda’s command structure. Another American was killed in the strike, and Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also an American citizen, was killed in an attack two weeks later.

The killings touched off a storm of criticism. Mr. Awlaki’s father tried to sue the government, which used the “national secrets” defense to have the case tossed out. But the administration has refused to acknowledge that the killing took place or that there is in fact a policy about “targeted killings” of Americans.

It has even refused to acknowledge the existence of a Justice Department memo providing legal justification for killing American citizens, even though that memo has been reported by The Times and others. It is beyond credibility that Mr. Obama ordered the Awlaki killing without getting an opinion from the department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Even President George W. Bush took the trouble to have lawyers in that office cook up a memo justifying torture.

The administration intended Mr. Holder’s speech to address the criticism and provide a legal argument for the policy, but it was deeply inadequate in important ways.

Mr. Holder agreed that killing an American citizen requires that he “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” that capture “is not feasible,” that the target has military value, that other people are not targeted intentionally, that the potential “collateral damage” not be excessive and that the weapons used “will not inflict unnecessary suffering.”

But he gave no inkling what the evidence was in the Awlaki case, and the administration did not provide a way in which anyone other than the people who gave the order could review whether the standards were met. Mr. Awlaki made tapes for Islamist Web sites that justified armed attacks on the United States by Muslims. But was he just spouting off, or actively plotting or supporting attacks?

All Mr. Holder did say was that the president could order such a killing without any judicial review and that any such operation would have “robust” Congressional oversight because the administration would brief Congressional leaders. He also said the administration provided Congress with the legal underpinnings for such killings.

In the Awlaki case, we do not know whether that notification was done in advance or after the fact, if it was done at all. We do know the administration has not given Congress the legal memo with the underlying justification for killing American citizens, because Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was asking Mr. Holder for it just the other day.

Perhaps most disturbing, Mr. Holder utterly rejected any judicial supervision of a targeted killing.

We have said that a decision to kill an American citizen should have judicial review, perhaps by a special court like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes eavesdropping on Americans’ communications.

Mr. Holder said that could slow a strike on a terrorist. But the FISA court works with great speed and rarely rejects a warrant request, partly because the executive branch knows the rules and does not present frivolous or badly argued cases. In Mr. Awlaki’s case, the administration had long been complaining about him and tracking him. It made an earlier attempt to kill him.

Mr. Holder said such operations require high levels of secrecy. That is obvious, but the FISA court operates in secret, and at least Americans are assured that some legal authority not beholden to a particular president or political party is reviewing such operations.

Mr. Holder argued in his speech that judicial process and due process guaranteed by the Constitution “are not one and the same.” This is a straw man. The judiciary has the power to say what the Constitution means and make sure the elected branches apply it properly. The executive acting in secret as the police, prosecutor, jury, judge and executioner is the antithesis of due process.

The administration should seek a court’s approval before killing an American citizen, except in the sort of “hot pursuit” that justifies the police shooting of an ordinary suspect. There should be consequences in the event of errors — which are, tragically, made, and are the great risk. And the administration should publish the Office of Legal Counsel memo. We cannot image why Mr. Obama would want to follow the horrible example set by Mr. Bush in withholding such vital information from the public.

    The Power to Kill, NYT, 10.3.2012,






Number of U.S. Hate Groups Is Rising, Report Says


March 7, 2012
The New York Times


ATLANTA — Fed by antagonism toward President Obama, resentment toward changing racial demographics and the economic rift between rich and poor, the number of so-called hate groups and antigovernment organizations in the nation has continued to grow, according to a report released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The center, which has kept track of such groups for 30 years, recorded 1,018 hate groups operating last year.

The number of groups whose ideology is organized against specific racial, religious, sexual or other characteristics has risen steadily since 2000, when 602 were identified, the center said. Antigay groups, for example, have risen to 27 from 17 in 2010.

The report also described a “stunning” rise in the number of groups it identifies as part of the so-called patriot and militia movements, whose ideologies include deep distrust of the federal government.

In 2011, the center tracked 1,274 of those groups, up from 824 the year before.

“They represent both a kind of right-wing populist rage and a left-wing populist rage that has gotten all mixed up in anger toward the government,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the author of the report.

The center, based in Montgomery, Ala., records only groups that are active, meaning that the groups are registering members, passing out fliers, protesting or showing other signs of activity beyond maintaining a Web site.

The Occupy movement is not on the list because its participants as a collective do not meet the center’s criteria for an extremist group, he said.

One of the groups that was moved from the “patriot” list to the hate group list this year is the Georgia Militia, some of whose members were indicted last year in a failed plot to blow up government buildings and spread poison along Atlanta freeways. They were reclassified because their speech includes anti-Semitism.

The far-right patriot movement gained steam in 1994 after the government used violence to shut down groups at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Tex. It peaked after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and began to fade. Its rise began anew in 2008, after the election of Mr. Obama and the beginning of the recession.

There have been declines in some hate groups, including native extremist groups like the Militiamen, which focused on illegal immigration. Chapters of the Ku Klux Klan fell to 152, from 221.

Among the states with the most active hate groups were California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and New York. The federal government does not focus on groups that engage in hate-based speech, but rather monitors paramilitary groups and others that have shown some indication of violence, said Daryl Johnson, a former senior domestic terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security.

The Justice Department does not comment on the center’s annual report, but a spokeswoman said the agency had increased prosecution of hate crimes by 35 percent during the first three years of Mr. Obama’s presidency.

    Number of U.S. Hate Groups Is Rising, Report Says, NYT, 7.3.2012,






Israel’s Best Friend


March 6, 2012
The New York Times


The only question I have when it comes to President Obama and Israel is whether he is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most.

Why? Because the question of whether Israel has the need and the right to pre-emptively attack Iran as it develops a nuclear potential is one of the most hotly contested issues on the world stage today. It is also an issue fraught with danger for Israel and American Jews, neither of whom want to be accused of dragging America into a war, especially one that could weaken an already frail world economy.

In that context, President Obama, in his interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and in his address to Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby, offered the greatest support for Israel that any president could at this time: He redefined the Iran issue. He said — rightly — that it was not simply about Israel’s security, but about U.S. national security and global security.

Obama did this by making clear that allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons and then “containing” it — the way the U.S. contained the Soviet Union — was not a viable option, because if Iran acquires a nuclear bomb, all the states around it would seek to acquire one as well. This would not only lead to a nuclear Middle East, but it would likely prompt other countries to hedge their commitments to the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The global nuclear black market would then come alive and we would see the dawning of a more dangerous world.

“Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the interest of Israel, it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States,” the president told The Atlantic. “If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. ... It would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation. ... If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won’t name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, ‘We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons.’ And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound. You essentially then duplicate the challenges of India and Pakistan fivefold or tenfold.” In sum, the president added, “The dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world.”

Every Israeli and friend of Israel should be thankful to the president for framing the Iran issue this way. It is important strategically for Israel, because it makes clear that dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat was not Israel’s problem alone. And it is important politically, because this decision about whether to attack Iran is coinciding with the U.S. election. The last thing Israel or American friends of Israel — Jewish and Christian — want is to give their enemies a chance to claim that Israel is using its political clout to embroil America in a war that is not in its interest.

That could easily happen because backing for Israel today has never been more politicized. In recent years, Republicans have tried to make support for Israel a wedge issue that would enable them to garner a higher percentage of Jewish votes and campaign contributions, which traditionally have swung overwhelmingly Democratic. This has led to an arms race with the Democrats over who is more pro-Israel — and over-the-top declarations, like Newt Gingrich’s that the Palestinians “are an invented people.”

And it could easily happen because money in politics has never been more important for running campaigns, and the Israel lobby — both its Jewish and evangelical Christian wings — has never been more influential, because of its ability to direct campaign contributions to supportive candidates.

As such, no one should want domestic electoral politics mixed up with the Iran decision, which is why it was so important that the president redefined the Iran problem as a global proliferation threat and grounded his decision-making in American realism, not politics.

Reports from the Aipac convention this week indicated that those advocating military action were getting the loudest cheers. I’d invite all those cheering to think about all the unintended and unanticipated consequences of the Iraq war or Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. That’s not a reason for paralysis. It’s a reason to heed Obama’s call to give diplomacy and biting sanctions a chance to work, while keeping the threat of force on the table.

If it comes to war, let it be because the ayatollahs were ready to sacrifice their whole economy to get a nuke and, therefore, America — the only country that can truly take down Iran’s nuclear program — had to act to protect the global system, not just Israel. I respect that this is a deadly serious issue for Israel — which has the right to act on its own — but President Obama has built a solid strategic and political case for letting America take the lead.

    Israel’s Best Friend, NYT, 6.3.2012,




home Up