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



 Paul Zanetti

Paul Zanetti

is the cartoonist for The Sydney Daily Telegraph

and The Sunday Telegraph,

Australia's largest newspaper.


29 July 2012


President Barack Obama

















A Tepid Fiscal Agreement


December 31, 2012

The New York Times


For the first time since President George W. Bush began the country’s long slide into debt by cutting taxes in 2001, an agreement was reached late Monday in the Senate to raise income taxes on the rich. That’s what makes the deal significant: assuming it is approved by the House, it begins to reverse the ruinous pattern of dealing with Washington’s fiscal problems only through spending cuts.

Nonetheless, this deal is a weak brew that remains far too generous to the rich and fails to bring in enough revenue to deal with the nation’s deep need for public investments. Given that the Bush-era tax cuts expire on Jan. 1, Republicans were forced to give ground on their philosophical opposition to higher taxes, but they made it impossible to reach a farsighted agreement that truly grappled with government’s role in fostering improvements to education, transportation and manufacturing.

The deal, hammered out by the Obama administration and Senate Republican leaders, raises income taxes to Clinton-era levels on families making more than $450,000 a year and individuals making $400,000. That’s a far cry from the $250,000 threshold that Mr. Obama said defined the upper range of the middle class in the campaign.

But White House officials said they had to compromise on that number to win renewal of important provisions that would otherwise have expired: unemployment insurance for three million people, tax credits for low-income working families, and a reduction in the impact of the alternative minimum tax on many middle-class families. Republicans cynically used those vital measures as bargaining chips. (What was not a point of contention was allowing the payroll tax to go back up by 2 percentage points.)

The higher income threshold isn’t the only price the White House wound up paying. The estate tax on the nation’s biggest inheritances is going up slightly but not nearly enough (estates of more than $5 million would be taxed at 40 percent, up from the current 35 percent) in a big and unnecessary giveaway to the very richest families. Significantly, the estate tax rate would be made permanent, while the credits for low-income families would expire in five years. Capital gains and dividend tax rates go up to 20 percent from the current 15 percent, but again, only for families making more than $450,000 a year.

The White House argues that it achieved 85 percent of its revenue goals, raising $600 billion over a decade, a third of which comes by phasing out exemptions and deductions for people with incomes greater than $250,000 a year. And Republicans achieved none of the draconian spending cuts they wanted.

But that battle is far from over. Negotiators have yet to work out a deal to stop the arbitrary spending cuts known as the sequester, which are scheduled to slash $110 billion from the defense and domestic budgets beginning this week. And Republicans are waiting for the Treasury to hit its debt limit in a few weeks, hoping to once again extort more spending cuts.

President Obama has ruled out any negotiations over the debt ceiling, and, on Monday, he vowed that revenue increases must match any further spending cuts. But as this deal shows, he often compromises at the last minute, and, in this case, it was Senate Democrats who undercut him on both the estate tax and the income tax threshold, making it hard to remain adamant.

The fiscal-cliff agreement could still be blown up by the House, which would not be out of character. But a cleareyed look at the deal’s limitations shows how much Republicans have gotten for their intransigence.

    A Tepid Fiscal Agreement, NYT, 31.12.2012,






Tentative Deal Is Reached to Raise Taxes on the Wealthy


December 31, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Furious last-minute negotiations between the White House and the Senate Republican leadership on Monday secured a tentative agreement to allow tax rates to rise on affluent Americans, but not in time for Congress to meet its Dec. 31 deadline for averting automatic tax increases and spending cuts deemed a threat to the economy.

While the Senate moved toward a vote on legislation to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, the House was not going to consider any deal until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, meaning that a combination of tax increases and spending cuts would go into effect as 2013 began. If Congress acts quickly and sends the legislation to President Obama, the economic impact could still be very limited.

Under the agreement, tax rates would jump to 39.6 percent from 35 percent for individual incomes over $400,000 and couples over $450,000, while tax deductions and credits would start phasing out on incomes as low as $250,000, a clear win for President Obama, who campaigned on higher taxes for the wealthy.

“Just last month Republicans in Congress said they would never agree to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans,” Mr. Obama said at a hastily arranged news briefing, with middle-income onlookers cheering behind him. “Obviously, the agreement that’s currently being discussed would raise those rates and raise them permanently.”

Democrats also secured a full year’s extension of unemployment insurance without strings attached and without offsetting spending cuts, a $30 billion cost.

As negotiators tied up the last points of dispute, officials said that the two top Democrats on Capitol Hill — Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California — had signed off on the agreement. In an effort to win over other Democrats uneasy with the proposal, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who had bargained directly with Republican leaders, traveled to the Capitol on Monday night for a 90-minute meeting with his former Senate colleagues.

“I feel very, very good,” Mr. Biden said after the meeting. “I think we’ll get a very good vote.”

In one final piece of the puzzle, negotiators agreed to put off $110 billion in across-the-board cuts to military and domestic programs for two months while broader deficit reduction talks continue. Those cuts begin to go into force on Wednesday, and that deadline, too, might be missed before Congress approves the legislation.

To secure votes, Mr. Reid also told Democrats the legislation would cancel a pending congressional pay raise — putting opponents in the politically difficult position of supporting a raise — and extend an expiring dairy policy that would have seen the price of milk double in some parts of the country.

Anticipating Senate approval of the deal, Speaker John A. Boehner late Monday said the House would “honor its commitment to consider the Senate agreement if it is passed. Decisions about whether the House will seek to accept or promptly amend the measure will not be made until House members — and the American people — have been able to review the legislation.”

The nature of the deal ensured that the running war between the White House and Congressional Republicans on spending and taxes would continue at least until the spring. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner formally notified Congress that the government reached its statutory borrowing limit on New Year’s Eve. Through some creative accounting tricks, the Treasury Department can put off action for perhaps two months, but Congress must act to keep the government from defaulting just when the “pause” on pending cuts is up. Then in late March, a law financing the government expires.

And the new deal does nothing to address the big issues that Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner hoped to deal with in their failed “grand bargain” talks two weeks ago: booming entitlement spending and a tax code so complex that few defend it anymore.

Though the tentative deal had a chance of success if put to a vote, it landed with a thud on Capitol Hill. Republicans accused the White House of “moving the goal posts” by demanding still more tax increases to help shut off across-the-board spending cuts beyond the two-month pause. Democrats were incredulous that the president had ultimately agreed to around $600 billion in new tax revenue over 10 years when even Mr. Boehner had promised $800 billion. But the White House said it had also won concessions on unemployment insurance and the inheritance tax among other wins.

Still, Democrats openly worried that if Mr. Obama could not drive a harder bargain when he holds most of the cards, he will give up still more Democratic priorities in the coming weeks, when hard deadlines will raise the prospects of a government default first, then a government shutdown. In both instances, conservative Republicans are more willing to breach the deadlines than in this case, when conservatives cringed at the prospects of huge tax increases.

“I just don’t think Obama’s negotiated very well,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa.

But as night fell on New Year’s Eve, senators seemed worn down and resigned. “Everybody by this time is angry, but sooner or later this has to be resolved,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee.

Even House Republicans signaled that enough of them, in combination with Democrats, could most likely pass the legislation, just weeks after Republicans shot down Mr. Boehner’s proposal to raise taxes only on incomes over $1 million.

“I don’t want to say where I am until I read the legislation, but it is certainly better than the alternative,” said Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania.

With a deal agonizingly close, official Washington still prepared for the worst. The Defense Department prepared to notify all 800,000 of its civilian employees that some of them could be forced into unpaid leave without a deal on military cuts. The Internal Revenue Service issued guidance to employers to increase withholding from paychecks beginning Tuesday to match new tax rates at every income level.

“No deal is the worse deal,” said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, rejecting the assertions of liberal colleagues that no deal would be better than what they would see as a bad deal.

However, new wrenches were gumming up the machinery. Democrats put out late word that Republicans wanted the threshold at which inherited estates would be taxed to be indexed to inflation, a nonstarter for them. Republicans said they needed to see what cuts would pay for the $24 billion needed to put off across-the-board spending cuts.

But with Republicans and Democrats grumbling, it was clear that a deal hashed out through intense talks between Mr. Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, had given both sides provisions to cheer and to jeer.

Under the deal, tax rates on dividends and capital gains would also rise, to 20 percent from 15 percent, on income over $400,000 for single people and $450,000 for couples. The deal would reinstate provisions to tax law, ended by the Bush tax cuts of 2001, that phase out personal exemptions and deductions for the affluent. Those phaseouts, under the agreement, would begin at $250,000 for single people and $300,000 for couples.

The estate tax would also rise, but considerably less than Democrats had wanted. The value of estates over $5 million would be taxed at 40 percent, up from 35 percent. Democrats had wanted a 45 percent rate on inheritances over $3.5 million.

Under the deal, the new rates on income, investment and inheritances would be permanent, as would a provision to stop the alternative minimum tax from hitting middle-class families.


Jennifer Steinhauer and Robert Pear contributed reporting.

    Tentative Deal Is Reached to Raise Taxes on the Wealthy, NYT, 31.12.2012,






Events Recall a More Bipartisan Era,

and Highlight Gridlock of Today


December 21, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — If Friday’s memorial service for one of this country’s long-serving senators was a somber recollection of a bipartisan era that once was, the rest of the day was a frenetic reminder of the political gridlock that now grips the capital.

At the National Cathedral, the nation’s political leaders eulogized Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who died this week at 88 after more than 50 years in Congress. President Obama said he learned from Mr. Inouye “how our democracy is supposed to work.”

Across town, democracy was, at best, showing its gritty side as it ground along angrily, noisily and slowly: A weary Speaker John A. Boehner admitted failure in his efforts to avert a fiscal crisis with a bill to increase taxes on millionaires but asserted that his job was not at risk; a top National Rifle Association official bluntly challenged Congress to embrace guns at schools, not control them; and Mr. Obama bowed to the reality that Republicans had blocked his first choice to be the next secretary of state.

Though it has been 45 days since voters emphatically reaffirmed their faith in Mr. Obama, the time since then has shown the president’s power to be severely constrained by a Republican opposition that is bitter about its losses, unmoved by Mr. Obama’s victory and unwilling to compromise on social policy, economics or foreign affairs.

“The stars are all aligning the wrong way in terms of working together,” said Peter Wehner, a former top White House aide to President George W. Bush. “Right now, the political system is not up to the moment and the challenges that we face.”

House Republicans argue that voters handed their members a mandate as well, granting the party control of the House for another two years and with it the right to stick to their own views, even when they clash strongly with the president’s.

And many Republicans remember well when the tables were turned. After Mr. Bush’s re-election in 2004, Democrats eagerly thwarted his push for privatization of Social Security, hobbling Mr. Bush’s domestic agenda in the first year of his second term.

New polls suggest that Mr. Obama’s popularity has surged to its highest point since he announced the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the latest CBS News survey, the president’s job approval rating was at 57 percent.

But taken together, events suggest that even that improvement in the polls has done little to deliver the president the kind of clear authority to enact his policies that voters seemed to say they wanted during the election.

Even some of the president’s closest advisers said they were surprised by the ferocity of the Republican opposition.

“It’s kind of a stunning thing to watch the way this has unfolded, at least to date,” said David Axelrod, one of Mr. Obama’s longtime advisers. “The question is, how do you break free from these strident voices?”

Friday’s wrangling crystalized the challenges that Mr. Obama faces as he prepares to begin a second term next month.

In Mr. Boehner, the president has a potential deal-making partner who is unable to rally House Republicans behind his own plans, much less any agreement he might cut with Mr. Obama. In a news conference on Friday morning, Mr. Boehner essentially admitted he was running out of ideas to avert big tax increases and spending cuts early next year.

“How we get there,” Mr. Boehner told reporters, “God only knows.”

Just minutes later, officials with the National Rifle Association made clear what House Republicans had been whispering all week: The president’s call for gun control in the wake of the Connecticut shooting is likely to run into tremendous opposition.

Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the firearm group, made clear the N.R.A. would not support the president’s call for gun control, recommending instead a “school shield” program of armed security guards at the nation’s schools as well as a national database that could track the mentally ill.

At the same time, Mr. Obama officially named Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts as his choice to lead the State Department — a decision the president was forced to make after Republicans effectively blocked his preferred choice, Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations.

Ms. Rice, a longtime confidante of Mr. Obama’s, was never formally nominated, but it was no secret inside the White House that the president would have liked her to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton early next year. But even on the heels of his electoral victory, Mr. Obama was unable to overcome Republican opposition — led by Senator John McCain, the man he defeated for the presidency in 2008 — to her nomination.

There are still 10 days left in which Mr. Obama might reach some sort of arrangement with Congress on averting a fiscal crisis that some predict could plunge the nation back into recession.

In an evening news briefing, Mr. Obama proposed a scaled-back deal that might avert fiscal crisis while putting off the major philosophical arguments for another day. He said he hoped lawmakers could cool off, "drink some eggnog, have some Christmas cookies and sing some Christmas carols" before coming back to Washington.

"Now is not the time for more self-inflicted wounds," Mr. Obama pleaded as he left town for a Hawaii holiday vacation. "Certainly not those coming from Washington."

In another 31 days, Mr. Obama will deliver his second Inaugural Address, providing him the opportunity to make his case to the American public on the direction he wants to take them in a second term. A few weeks after that, he will give his State of the Union address, which he has already promised to use in part as a call for new gun control laws.

Tom Daschle, a former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, said he feared Washington would remain paralyzed on taxes and other issues until the country truly faces a crisis.

“I worry that it’s going to take that kind of a condition to bring people to the reality that they can’t mess around here anymore,” Mr. Daschle said.

On Friday, Mr. Obama was more hopeful.

“This is something within our capacity to solve,” he insisted, even as he left Washington without even the outlines of a deal in place.

    Events Recall a More Bipartisan Era, and Highlight Gridlock of Today, NYT, 21.12.2012,






Obama Asking Congress for $60.4 Billion

to Help States Recover From Storm


December 7, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama proposed a $60.4 billion emergency spending bill on Friday to finance recovery efforts in areas pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, a sum that White House officials called a “robust” investment in the region but that was far less than what the states had requested.

The spending plan would pay for most, but not all, of the $82 billion in damage identified by the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, helping homeowners and small-business owners rebuild, repairing subway and other transit systems, replenishing eroded beaches and reimbursing governments for the cost of police, fire and other services.

The president’s plan would not cover several big-ticket items sought by state governments. It would not pay for damage already covered by private insurance and would extend aid only to primary residences. While small businesses would be eligible for help, larger private firms like Consolidated Edison would not.

The plan also assumes that states will have to pay about 10 percent of the cost of any repair and mitigation projects that are approved, even though they asked the federal government to cover 100 percent.

The proposal now goes to Congress, where it is likely to become the focus of a fight between fiscal conservatives seeking to limit federal spending and lawmakers from storm-battered areas bent on obtaining even more than what Mr. Obama proposed. Mr. Obama proposed no spending cuts elsewhere to pay the cost, arguing that such emergencies typically do not require offsetting measures.

Leaders from New York, New Jersey and other hard-hit states generally welcomed the proposal, even though it fell short of what they were seeking to clean up storm damage and prepare for future storms. The White House increased the overall spending request from the $45 billion to $55 billion estimated earlier in the week, attributing the change to more information received about the extent of the damage.

Govs. Andrew M. Cuomo, Democrat of New York, and Chris Christie, Republican of New Jersey, spent much of Friday negotiating the final package with the White House. In a joint statement, they praised the proposal, saying “it enables our states to recover, repair and rebuild better and stronger than before.”

Two New York lawmakers leading a hurricane recovery task force — Representatives Peter T. King, a Long Island Republican, and Nita M. Lowey, a Democrat from Westchester County — expressed support for the White House proposal but left open the possibility that additional financing might be sought.

“While more may be needed in the long term,” they said, “this robust package is a major first step that we will work to pass as quickly as possible in Congress to help devastated communities, families and businesses.”

In a joint statement, Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey echoed the sentiment. The senators, all Democrats, described the White House proposal as “a very good start” but noted that more aid may be “necessary as our states’ needs become more clear.”

Mr. Obama’s proposal seeks to finance an assortment of projects and programs reflecting the daunting array of storm-related needs. They include these items:

¶ $17 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Community Development Block Grant program to provide help to homeowners.

¶ $11.5 billion for the federal disaster relief fund that provides checks to individuals, reimbursement for government services and assistance to rebuild public facilities.

¶ $9 billion to repair and upgrade transit systems.

¶ $4 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, which will be in charge of various projects including beach replenishment.

¶ $9 billion for flood insurance.

¶ $2 billion to repair federal facilities.

¶ $1 billion for the Small Business Administration’s aid program.

The proposal comes at a politically inopportune time, as Mr. Obama and Congressional leaders in both parties try to reach an agreement intended to avert a so-called fiscal cliff next month, when broad tax cuts are set to expire and automatic spending cuts are scheduled to go into effect.

As the White House finds itself locked in a showdown with Congressional Republicans over these broader budget concerns, it was seeking to present the storm spending request as a separate issue that does not affect the long-term health of the Treasury.

But it appears likely that the emergency spending measure will become entangled in the larger spending struggle between the White House and Republicans, who would like to maintain the upper hand on the deficit.

Some key Republicans have suggested that the aid requests should be taken up in phases, with emergency needs addressed in the current Congressional session and longer-term requests left for the new Congress that convenes next year.

But regional leaders want Congress to approve as much aid as possible before it adjourns in the coming weeks, partly because they fear there will be less urgency to act as the months pass.

    Obama Asking Congress for $60.4 Billion to Help States Recover From Storm, NYT, 7.12.2012,






President Obama Goes to Asia


November 16, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama leaves on Saturday for a trip to Asia that will show his commitment to having the United States engage more intensely with countries there. But it comes at an awkward time. Israel and Hamas are at war in Gaza, and efforts to end the violence are demanding Mr. Obama’s attention. The Middle East is likely to remain a top priority, but he is right to also focus on Asia, where China’s growing assertiveness presents a challenge.

The trip to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia should give President Obama a chance to expand on an approach to Asia that has been seen as too security-oriented at the expense of trade and economic matters. When he announced his pivot to Asia in 2011, it was a sign that the United States was not ceding anything to China. Since then, most of the attention has been on expanded military cooperation, including an agreement to base 2,500 Marines in Australia. The administration also promised to deploy 60 percent of its naval forces in the Pacific by 2020, up from about 50 percent today. The Washington Post reported on Friday that the Pentagon is training a counterterrorism battalion in Cambodia, though that country has not faced a serious militant threat in nearly a decade.

The White House says its new strategy toward Asia will focus on many fronts, including regional institutions, emerging democracies and trade relationships. Mr. Obama will be the first American president to visit Myanmar, which has made remarkable progress over the past two years in moving from military rule to a more open political system. But there is far to go. He should nudge authorities to release all political prisoners and end ethnic conflicts, especially with the Rohingya Muslims. Mr. Obama will attend the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, whose prime minister, Hun Sen, has ruled for two decades, resulting in countless killings and abuses, according to Human Rights Watch. Mr. Obama should speak forcefully about the importance of political reform and human rights.

Of course, security issues cannot be ignored when nationalism and growing mistrust among Asian nations are raising tensions and threatening regional economic progress. The most serious is the dispute between China and Japan over some small islands in the East China Sea, and the oil and gas resources around them, that some experts fear could result in violence.

In Cambodia, President Obama will have two scheduled bilateral meetings, one with the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, and another with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan. He should make a strong case to them to resolve their dispute. If prolonged or intensified, the consequences could be significant, impeding economic growth and regional stability.

    President Obama Goes to Asia, NYT, 16.11.2012,






Obama, Visiting New York,

Pledges Help in Recovery From Storm


November 15, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama got a look on Thursday at the muddy wreckage that Hurricane Sandy left in its wake, flying over ravaged neighborhoods in Queens, consoling devastated homeowners under tents and in the streets on Staten Island, and promising a strong and continuing federal role in the recovery.

“We’re reminded that we are bound together and have to look out for each other,” Mr. Obama said after walking down a block that had been all but demolished in the storm.

Mr. Obama, flanked by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said he wanted federal officials to work with state and local leaders in New York and New Jersey on “a game plan for how we’re going to be able to resource the rebuilding process.”

The president also said he was assigning Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development and a former New York City housing official, to oversee the federal recovery effort in the New York area.

“We’re going to have to put some of the turf battles aside,” he said. “We’re going to have to make sure everybody’s focused on doing the job, as opposed to worrying about who’s getting the credit or who’s getting the contracts and all that stuff that sometimes goes into the rebuilding process.”

But administration officials were vague when they were asked about requests for federal aid for New York, including $30 billion from Mr. Cuomo and $1 billion sought by Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand for the first phase of recovery.

Aboard Air Force One on the way to New York, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters that the administration had not received details of Mr. Cuomo’s proposal; the president listened during the flight as the two senators made their case for a significant infusion of federal money.

Mr. Schumer said later that the president made it clear that he would push to get the money to help the region recover.

“He left us with the feeling that he was very hands-on and would work very hard to get the funds we need,” Mr. Schumer said. Mr. Obama toured the area on a day of thin, almost hazy sun, a bright contrast to the slate-gray sky on the day the storm hurled a wall of water against the coast.

He flew to Kennedy International Airport and then boarded a helicopter that took him over the Rockaway Peninsula and over Breezy Point, a shorefront community where more than 110 homes were destroyed by fire on the night the hurricane tore through. Some homes there now have plastic sheeting where the roofs used to be.

The storm killed more than 100 people as it churned its way up the East Coast, with most of the deaths in low-lying sections of New York and New Jersey. It exacted a particularly high toll on Staten Island. Of 43 deaths attributed to the storm in New York City, 23 were on Staten Island.

On Thursday, the president’s helicopter landed at a former Army Air Corps installation on Staten Island that has become a center for efforts to rebuild. A group of about 200 residents cheered as he arrived and chatted with the Staten Island borough president, James P. Molinaro, and other officials.

In another tent, volunteers told Mr. Obama they were from Texas, others from West Virginia, others from elsewhere. “We got the whole country represented here,” the president said. “We’re proud of you guys.”

He also met with two parents, Damien and Glenda Moore, whose young sons — Connor, 4, and Brandon, 2 — were swept away as the storm closed in.

Ms. Moore had packed them into her car and was trying to leave Staten Island for Brooklyn, but the car stalled. Ms. Moore climbed out, holding one child in her arms and the other by the hand. The police said at the time that she lost her grip when she was slammed by water.

“I expressed to them as a father, as a parent, my heartbreak over what they went through,” the president said.

Mr. Obama said that they were grief-stricken but that they wanted to thank those “who’ve been supportive to them,” especially Lt. Kevin Gallagher of the Police Department, who the president said had “made a point of staying with them and doing everything he could so ultimately they knew what had happened with their boys.”

“That’s not in the job description of Lieutenant Gallagher,” the president said. “He did that because that’s what so many of our first responders do.”

Mr. Obama had been expected to visit New York in the first days after the storm struck on Oct. 29, but Mr. Bloomberg asked him not to come, saying he worried that a presidential visit would be disruptive as the city took its first steps toward recovery. Mr. Obama toured the devastated New Jersey coast with Gov. Chris Christie, a visit that had political overtones, coming less than a week before what promised to be a close presidential election.

Some Staten Islanders expressed frustration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurers, and others said Mr. Obama’s visit did not settle questions that troubled them, like which kinds of insurance covered what.

“I’m still lost,” said Joe Ambrosio Jr., an elevated-track inspector for New York City Transit whose house was flooded.

“It was a big show and tell. Obama came through, the mayor’s over there, the governor’s over there, but nobody’s giving you the right answer.”

Debbie Ingenito got a hug from Mr. Obama, and more.

Her husband, Joseph, had chopped the top off a tree that fell in their yard and turned it into a Christmas tree with ornaments scavenged from the rubble and lights powered by a donated generator.

Mr. Ingenito would not leave their house — he has become a one-man neighborhood watch, keeping an eye on the whole block from their unheated second floor — so Ms. Ingenito went to see the president by herself. He embraced her.

“I told him that my husband would like to be here, but he’s back protecting the house,” Ms. Ingenito said. “He said he understood. And then he hugged me a second time.”

A Secret Service agent handed her official White House holiday tree ornaments from 2011 and 2012. But they did not go up on the Ingenitos’ tree after the president left and Ms. Ingenito went home.

“No,” she said, “they’re inside, where they’ll be safe.”


Reporting was contributed by Danny Hakim, Raymond Hernandez,

Christopher Maag and Vivian Yee.

    Obama, Visiting New York, Pledges Help in Recovery From Storm, NYT, 15.11.2012,






Obama Details Lines of Battle in Budget Plan, and on Libya


November 14, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama, riding the winds of re-election, signaled Wednesday that he was prepared to battle with Republicans over budget negotiations and his national security team’s handling of the deadly attack on an American mission in Libya.

Displaying a mix of resolve and restraint, Mr. Obama flatly rejected any budget deal that did not raise tax rates on income above $250,000 a year, even if it meant driving the economy into a recession. But he did not rule out a compromise that could leave the top tax rates lower than their levels during the Clinton administration, presumably combined with a restriction on some tax breaks for top earners.

For a president fresh off a hard-fought victory, Mr. Obama projected little of the triumphalism of other newly re-elected leaders like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who boasted in 2004 that he had amassed political capital and planned “to spend it.”

Mr. Obama instead cloaked his tough stance in the language of compromise, saying he was “familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” and that his re-election was not a mandate to ram his proposals through Congress without any concessions.

In his first formal news conference in eight months, which was meant to position Mr. Obama for the coming fiscal battles but ended up including a C.I.A. scandal and a vitriolic fight over who is to blame for the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the president saved his most fiery words to defend his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice. Ms. Rice, a candidate for secretary of state, has come under withering attack from Senator John McCain and other Republicans for suggesting that the siege in Benghazi that killed four Americans was a spontaneous protest rather than a premeditated terrorist attack.

“For them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on the intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous,” Mr. Obama said, his eyes flashing with anger.

Describing Ms. Rice’s conduct as “exemplary,” he warned that her critics have “got a problem with me.” Almost daring them to a confirmation battle, he vowed to nominate Ms. Rice if he determined that she was the right person for secretary of state.

Mr. Obama’s remarks drew an equally angry response from Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham. In a statement issued after the news conference, Mr. Graham reiterated that he would oppose “anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle.”

By contrast, the president struck an almost elegiac tone in discussing the sex scandal that forced the resignation of David H. Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Petraeus, he said, told him that he did not meet his own standards for holding the job.

But, Mr. Obama added, “We are safer because of the work Dave Petraeus has done,” voicing hope that the scandal would end up as a “single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career.”

Mr. Obama was cautious in responding to questions about whether he should have been told earlier about the investigation into the relationship between Mr. Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, with the president saying that he would leave it to the F.B.I. to explain its “protocols.” But while he offered no criticism of the investigation, he appeared to leave himself room to do so in the future, should new information emerge.

“I am withholding judgment with respect to how the entire process surrounding General Petraeus came up,” he said.

In laying out his position on the budget, Mr. Obama emphasized that debate over taxes had been central to the election he just won and reprised many of the themes he had struck on the campaign trail. The president urged Republicans to go along with his proposal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts on all personal income up to $250,000 a year, noting that people who made more than that amount would also benefit from such an extension.

“But when it comes to the top 2 percent, what I’m not going to do is extend further a tax cut for folks who don’t need it, which would cost close to a trillion dollars,” Mr. Obama said.

While he insisted that the tax cuts for income above $250,000 must expire, Mr. Obama did not stipulate that the top rate would revert to 39.6 percent, as it was in the Clinton administration. Mr. Bush signed a bill a decade ago reducing it to 35 percent, where it has remained.

Mr. Obama’s stance appeared to leave room for the White House and Republicans to negotiate a tax rate somewhere in between and then raise additional revenue by restricting tax deductions and credits on high incomes. “I don’t expect Republicans simply to adopt my budget,” he said. “That’s not realistic. So I recognize that we’re going to have to compromise.”

Still, Mr. Obama said he could envision a situation in which there was no agreement and all the tax cuts expired. Such an outcome would be a “rude shock” for middle-class people, he said, and could set off a recession.

“It would be a bad thing,” he said. “It is not necessary.”

By suggesting he was willing to accept failed negotiations, Mr. Obama was in part trying to give himself more leverage than in 2010, when fears about the economy and its impact on his political standing caused him to reverse course and accept an extension of all the Bush tax cuts in exchange for additional stimulus. This time, however, the economy is somewhat stronger, Mr. Obama has no more elections in front of him — as he pointed out on Wednesday — and the package of budget changes set to take effect on Jan. 1 includes both tax increases and military cuts that Republicans generally oppose.

Speaker John A. Boehner, the effective leader of the Republican Party, said Republicans were not ready to accept Mr. Obama’s proposal because it would “hurt our economy and make job creation more difficult.” But he added that there was a “spirit of cooperation” that had infused Washington and that gave him optimism that some sort of deal would eventually come to pass.

Republicans say they will find a way to raise enough money to reduce the deficit without lifting the top rates. Back-of-the-envelope math suggests that eliminating all tax breaks for the top 2 percent of households would raise about $2 trillion over 10 years, more than the $1.6 trillion that the White House demands, as part of a $3 trillion deficit-reduction package over 10 years. But having all of the additional tax revenue come from the restriction of tax breaks would require getting rid of virtually every such provision, like the home-mortgage deduction, in the tax code on top incomes.

“The math tends not to work,” Mr. Obama said.

Allowing tax rates to rise on the wealthy — to the Clinton-era levels, or a few percentage points below them — puts much more money on the table and would allow more moderate changes to deductions, Democrats argue.

Looking beyond the immediate fiscal challenges, Mr. Obama expressed optimism about one major goal — immigration legislation — and caution about another, climate change.

The president said he intended to pursue comprehensive immigration legislation, and noted that the election had prompted reflection among Republicans about their opposition to such an effort. Even as he criticized Mr. McCain on Benghazi, he cited his support for an overhaul of immigration law as an indication that it could pass.

On climate change, Mr. Obama played down expectations for any major initiative. He spoke of holding a conversation with scientists and engineers about fresh ideas, but said more ambitious legislation would come only after the economy strengthened.

“We’re still trying to debate whether we can just make sure that middle-class families don’t get a tax hike,” he said. “That should be easy. This one’s hard.”


Annie Lowrey and Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.

    Obama Details Lines of Battle in Budget Plan, and on Libya, NYT, 14.11.2012,






Obama’s Nightmare


November 13, 2012
The New York Times


The scandal engulfing two of our top military and intelligence officers could not be coming at a worse time: the Middle East has never been more unstable and closer to multiple, interconnected explosions. Virtually every American president since Dwight Eisenhower has had a Middle Eastern country that brought him grief. For Ike, it was Lebanon’s civil war and Israel’s Sinai invasion. For Lyndon Johnson, it was the 1967 Six-Day War. For Nixon, it was the 1973 war. For Carter, it was the Iranian Revolution. For Ronald Reagan, it was Lebanon. For George H.W. Bush, it was Iraq. For Bill Clinton, it was Al Qaeda and Afghanistan. For George W. Bush, it was Iraq and Afghanistan. For Barack Obama’s first term, it was Iran and Afghanistan, again. And for Obama’s second term, I fear that it could be the full nightmare — all of them at once. The whole Middle East erupts in one giant sound and light show of civil wars, states collapsing and refugee dislocations, as the keystone of the entire region — Syria — gets pulled asunder and the disorder spills across the neighborhood.

And you were worried about the “fiscal cliff.”

Ever since the start of the Syrian uprising/civil war, I’ve cautioned that while Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia implode, Syria would explode if a political resolution was not found quickly. That is exactly what’s happening.

The reason Syria explodes is because its borders are particularly artificial, and all its communities — Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Kurds, Druze and Christians — are linked to brethren in nearby countries and are trying to draw them in for help. Also, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia is fighting a proxy war against Shiite-led Iran in Syria and in Bahrain, which is the base of the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Bahrain witnessed a host of bombings last week as the Sunni-led Bahraini regime stripped 31 Bahraini Shiite political activists of their citizenship. Meanwhile, someone in Syria decided to start lobbing mortars at Israel. And, Tuesday night, violent anti-government protests broke out across Jordan over gas price increases.

What to do? I continue to believe that the best way to understand the real options — and they are grim — is by studying Iraq, which, like Syria, is made up largely of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Kurds. Why didn’t Iraq explode outward like Syria after Saddam was removed? The answer: America.

For better and for worse, the United States in Iraq performed the geopolitical equivalent of falling on a grenade — that we triggered ourselves. That is, we pulled the pin; we pulled out Saddam; we set off a huge explosion in the form of a Shiite-Sunni contest for power. Thousands of Iraqis were killed along with more than 4,700 American troops, but the presence of those U.S. troops in and along Iraq’s borders prevented the violence from spreading. Our invasion both triggered the civil war in Iraq and contained it at the same time. After that Sunni-Shiite civil war burned itself out, we brokered a fragile, imperfect power-sharing deal between Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Then we got out. It is not at all clear that their deal will survive our departure.

Still, the lesson is that if you’re trying to topple one of these iron-fisted, multisectarian regimes, it really helps to have an outside power that can contain the explosions and mediate a new order. There is too little trust in these societies for them to do it on their own. Syria’s civil war, though, was triggered by predominantly Sunni rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad and his minority Alawite-Shiite regime. There is no outside power willing to fall on the Syrian grenade and midwife a new order. So the fire there rages uncontrolled; refugees are now spilling out, and the Shiite-Sunni venom unleashed by the Syrian conflict is straining relations between these same communities in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait.

But Iraq teaches another lesson: Shiites and Sunnis are not fated to murder each other 24/7/365. Yes, their civil war dates to the 7th century. And, yes, when they started going after each other in Iraq, they did so with breathtaking chainsaw-nails-pounded-into-heads violence. There is nothing like a fight within the faith. Yet, once order was restored, Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, many of whom have intermarried, were willing to work together and even run together in multisectarian parties in the 2009-10 elections.

So the situation is not hopeless. I know American officials are tantalized by the idea of flipping Syria from the Iranian to the Western camp by toppling Assad. That would make my day, too, but I’m skeptical it would end the conflict. I fear that toppling Assad, without a neutral third party inside Syria to referee a transition, could lead not only to permanent civil war in Syria but one that spreads around the region. It’s a real long shot, but we should keep trying to work with Russia — Syria’s lawyer — to see if together we can broker a power-sharing deal inside Syria and a United Nations-led multinational force to oversee it. Otherwise, this fire will rage on and spread, as the acid from the Shiite-Sunni conflict eats away at the bonds holding the Middle East together and standing between this region and chaos.

    Obama’s Nightmare, NYT, 13.11.2012,






An Array of Relationships for Obama

to Strengthen and Redefine


November 7, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — If history is any guide, President Obama will cast his eye abroad over the next four years, hoping to put an imprint on the world that matches the sweeping domestic programs of his first term. From Iran and Russia to China and the Middle East, there are plenty of opportunities, but also perils, for a leader seeking a statesman’s legacy.

Many of the issues Mr. Obama will have no choice but to address. For months, decisions on a number of festering problem areas have been deferred by administration officials until after the election. And yet as Richard M. Nixon did in opening ties to China or Ronald Reagan in embracing arms control, Mr. Obama could see the foreign policy arena as a place to achieve something more lasting in a second term than crisis management and more satisfying than the gridlock that has bedeviled his domestic initiatives.

Atop Mr. Obama’s list, administration officials and foreign policy experts agree, is a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program. The United States is likely to engage the Iranian government in direct negotiations in the next few months, officials said, in what would be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to head off a military strike on its nuclear facilities.

Officials insist they have not set a date for talks nor do they know if Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has blessed them. But with Iran’s centrifuges spinning and Israel threatening its own strike, the clock is ticking, and it may put pressure on the Iranians to make a deal, particularly between now and Iran’s presidential elections next June.

“If they can achieve something during that period, it would create a new dynamic and create a very promising opening,” said Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group based in Washington that favors diplomacy.

While Mr. Obama can scarcely hope for something as seminal as President Nixon’s famous journey to Beijing, experts say he has the chance to forge a new relationship with China that takes into account its rising economic might.

Last year, the president articulated a “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to China and Asia. Critics said there was less to the initiative than met the eye. But with four more years, Mr. Obama could put meat on the bones of an ambitious, if incomplete, policy.

To be credible in Asia, experts said, the United States will need a robust military presence from the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea. But unless the White House and Congress strike a fiscal deal, the Pentagon will face deep budget cuts, depriving it of the ability to project such power. The challenge will be to assert a big role without precipitating a clash with Beijing. “It’s going to have to be very deft and subtle in its implementation because there’s going to be pushback from the Chinese,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of state who teaches at Harvard.

There may also be an opening for Mr. Obama with Russia on one of his most cherished issues: nuclear nonproliferation. Among the most intriguing congratulatory telegrams the president received this week was from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who had taken a bristling tone toward the United States for much of the last year. On Wednesday, Mr. Putin and his surrogates signaled a willingness to make deals with the United States.

In his infamous remark to then-President Dmitri A. Medvedev last March, picked up by an open microphone, Mr. Obama promised “flexibility” after the election on a missile defense system based in Europe — a concession Mr. Putin, who succeeded Mr. Medvedev last May, has long sought. In Washington, a government review group has been quietly preparing strategic arms-reductions proposals.

“It’s teed up for the president to make the decision,” said Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “If you think about what his legacy would be, this is something he would like to leave behind.”

For Mr. Obama, the Middle East is generally less a landscape for bold new initiatives than a place for triage. On situations as varied as the crackdown in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the president will have to fight to keep intact even the vestiges of the overture he made to the Islamic world early in his presidency.

But other unfinished business remains there — not least Mr. Obama’s frustrated efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But several experts expressed doubt that the president would thrust himself again into the role of Middle East peacemaker.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who has had a fraught relationship with Mr. Obama, seems likely to stay in power with a right-wing government.

“Because he got his fingers burned and was outmaneuvered by Netanyahu, he will wait to see the outcome in the Israeli election,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel.

Mr. Obama will not be able to avoid one issue. Over American and Israeli objections, the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is likely to petition for nonstate membership in the United Nations next month — a step he had put off for the election. If the United Nations were to grant that, it would cause Congress to cut off aid not only to the Palestinian Authority but also to the United Nations.

“He doesn’t have an easy way to head off this vote,” said Mr. Indyk, one of the authors of a book about Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, “Bending History.” “But if Obama sends a message to Abu Mazen that he is going to reinvigorate the peace process, this could give Abu Mazen a way to climb down from the tree he’s in.”


Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

    An Array of Relationships for Obama to Strengthen and Redefine, NYT, 7.11.2012,






Netanyahu Rushes to Repair Damage With Obama


November 7, 2012
The New York Times


JERUSALEM — Over the past several years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has on several occasions confronted or even undercut President Obama, taking his message directly to the Israel-friendly United States Congress, challenging Mr. Obama’s appeal to the Arab world, and seeming this fall to support his opponent, Mitt Romney.

Mr. Netanyahu woke up Wednesday to find not only that his Republican friend had lost, but also that many Israelis were questioning whether he had risked their collective relationship with Washington.

“This has not been a very good morning for Netanyahu,” a deputy prime minister, Eli Yishai of the religious Shas Party, told journalists in Eilat.

The prime minister, facing his own re-election fight on Jan. 22, did not directly acknowledge any missteps, but he rushed to repair the relationship. He called the American ambassador to his office for a ceremonial hug. He issued a damage-control statement declaring the bond between the two nations “rock solid.” He put out word to leaders of his Likud Party whose congratulatory messages had included criticism of Mr. Obama that they should stop.

Mr. Netanyahu still maintains strong ties to members of Congress, particularly Republicans, and to other influential Americans. But his strained relationship with Mr. Obama may prove more than a temporary political headache. Israeli leaders and analysts are concerned that the prime minister has hampered his ability to influence Washington on vital policy matters, particularly the Iranian nuclear threat and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In practical terms, Jerusalem is worried that Washington will agree to direct talks with Tehran, and go easier on the Palestinian Authority’s quest this month for upgraded status in the United Nations.

“Netanyahu backed the wrong horse,” Mitchell Barak, a pollster and strategist, said at a morning gathering of Americans watching the election results here. “Whoever is elected prime minister is going to have to handle the U.S.-Israel relationship, and we all know Netanyahu is not the right guy.”

Mr. Obama’s re-election seemed to embolden Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister who has spent the past few years battling corruption charges, making it more likely that he will forge a comeback that he hopes can unite and expand Israel’s center-left bloc.

“Given what Netanyahu had done these recent months, the question is: Does our prime minister still have a friend in the White House?” Mr. Olmert asked at a meeting with Jewish leaders in New York. “I am not certain of this, and this might be very significant to us at critical points.”

Few believe that Mr. Obama will act to punish Mr. Netanyahu, but their notoriously tense relationship, made worse in recent months not only by the Romney question but also by Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-line position on Iran, could hurt efforts to coordinate priorities. And freed from electoral concerns, the second-term president may prove likelier to pursue his own path without worry about backlash from Washington’s powerful and wealthy pro-Israel lobby.

“I would be surprised if he were more rather than less forthcoming in dealing with Israel,” Bob Zelnick, a former Middle East correspondent for ABC News who now teaches at Boston University, said of Mr. Obama. “My sense is that he both dislikes and distrusts Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and that he is more likely to use his new momentum to settling scores than to settling issues.”

On Iran, the immediate concern here is that a White House pursuit of bilateral talks would stretch out the timetable for diplomacy even as Mr. Netanyahu’s famous “red line” for halting Iran’s capability to develop a nuclear weapon closes in. On Wednesday, one member of the inner circle of Iran’s ruling system said such talks — the subject of an October article in The New York Times — are “not a taboo,” though another said it was a “big mistake” for Washington to think it could “blackmail” Iran into relations.

Several analysts said Mr. Obama was loath to take on a new Middle East military operation; indeed, one of the biggest applause lines in his victory speech was his declaration that “a decade of war is ending.”

Regarding the Palestinians, Israeli officials had been counting on the Obama administration to forcefully oppose the United Nations bid — as it did last year — and to chastise those countries that support it. But Palestinian leaders seemed unworried on Wednesday, making the bid for nonmember state status in the General Assembly a central focus of their congratulations.

“We will not retract,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. “We hope President Obama will even support this move.”

Regardless of how he handles the United Nations effort, Mr. Obama is unlikely to pursue the peace process more broadly in the early part of his second term, given the turmoil across the Middle East and internal divisions among the Palestinians.

“I think he recognizes the importance of this issue — he would be a fool not to,” said Diana Buttu, a political analyst and former Palestinian Authority official based in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “But when it comes to the priority list of issues he will have to deal with, I’m just not certain that this is going to be No. 1 or even No. 10 on that list.”

Ehud Barak, the defense minister who shared a close partnership with Mr. Netanyahu for much of the last four years but has tried to distinguish himself on Iran and other issues as elections approach, since he leads the separate Independence Party, congratulated Mr. Obama nearly an hour ahead of Mr. Netanyahu, and followed up by e-mailing reporters photographs and video of himself with the newly re-elected president.

“Even if there were certain kinds of bumps on the road in recent years, we should be able to move beyond it,” Mr. Barak said in an interview. “There is nothing better to mend any scar or grudge from the past than making better achievements in the present and the future.”


Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Amsterdam,

and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.

    Netanyahu Rushes to Repair Damage With Obama, NYT, 7.11.2012,






Back to Work, Obama Is Greeted by Looming Fiscal Crisis


November 7, 2012
The New York Times


Newly re-elected, President Obama moved quickly on Wednesday to open negotiations with Congressional Republican leaders over the main unfinished business of his term — a major deficit-reduction deal to avert a looming fiscal crisis — as he began preparing for a second term that will include significant cabinet changes.

Mr. Obama, while still at home in Chicago at midday, called Speaker John A. Boehner in what was described as a brief and cordial exchange on the need to reach some budget compromise in the lame-duck session of Congress starting next week. Later at the Capitol, Mr. Boehner publicly responded before assembled reporters with his most explicit and conciliatory offer to date on Republicans’ willingness to raise tax revenues, but not top rates, together with a spending cut package.

“Mr. President, this is your moment,” said Mr. Boehner, a day after Congressional Republicans suffered election losses but kept their House majority. “We’re ready to be led — not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America.”

His statement came a few hours after Senator Harry Reid, leader of a Democratic Senate majority that made unexpected gains, extended his own olive branch to the opposition. While saying that Democrats would not be pushed around, Mr. Reid, a former boxer, added, “It’s better to dance than to fight.”

Both men’s remarks followed Mr. Obama’s own overture in his victory speech after midnight on Wednesday. “In the coming weeks and months,” he said, “I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together: reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.”

After his speech, Mr. Obama tried to call both Mr. Boehner and the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, but was told they were asleep. The efforts from both sides, after a long and exhausting campaign, suggested the urgency of acting in the few weeks before roughly $700 billion in automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts take effect at year’s end — the “fiscal cliff.” A failure to reach agreement could arrest the economic recovery.

Corporate America and financial markets for months have been dreading the prospect of a partisan impasse. Stocks fell on Wednesday, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index closing down 2.4 percent. The reasons for the drop were unclear, given that stock futures did not drop significantly on Tuesday night as the election results became clear. Analysts cited fears about the economic impact of such big federal spending cuts and tax increases, but also about new economic troubles in Europe.

While Mr. Obama enters the next fray with heightened leverage, both sides agree, the coming negotiations hold big risks for both parties and for the president’s ability to pursue other priorities in a new term, like investments in education and research, and an overhaul of immigration law.

The president flew back to Washington from Chicago late on Wednesday, his post-election relief reflected in a playful race up the steps of Air Force One with his younger daughter, Sasha. At the White House, he prepared to shake up his staff to help him tackle daunting economic and international challenges. He will study lists of candidates for various positions that a senior adviser, Pete Rouse, assembled in recent weeks as Mr. Obama crisscrossed the country campaigning.

The most prominent members of his cabinet will leave soon. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner long ago said they would depart after the first term, and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, previously the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, has signaled that he wants to return to California in the coming year. Also expected to depart is David Plouffe, one of the president’s closest confidants.

Mr. Obama is expected to reshuffle both his inner circle and his economic team as he accommodates the changes. For example, Jacob J. Lew, Mr. Obama’s current White House chief of staff and former budget director, is said to be a prime candidate to become Treasury secretary. For the foreseeable future, the holder of that job is likely to be at the center of budget negotiations, and Mr. Lew has experience in such bargaining dating to his work as a senior adviser to Congressional Democrats 30 years ago in bipartisan talks with President Ronald Reagan.

“They’ve been thinking about this for some time and they’re going to have a lot of positions to fill at the highest levels,” said former Senator Tom Daschle, who has close ties to the White House.

Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ended up replacing about half of their cabinet members between terms, and Mr. Obama could end up doing about the same, especially since his team has served through wars and economic crisis. John D. Podesta, a chief of staff for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama’s transition adviser, said, “There’s a certain amount of new energy you want to inject into any team.”

There is talk about bringing in Republicans and business executives to help rebuild bridges to both camps. The one Republican in the cabinet now, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, has said he will leave. One possible candidate, advisers say, could be Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican moderate from Maine who is retiring.

A front-runner for secretary of state appears to be Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Democrats said worries about losing his Senate seat to the Republicans in a special election had diminished with Tuesday’s victories. Another candidate has been Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, but she has been a target of Republicans since she provided the administration’s initial accounts, which proved to be wrong, of the September terrorist attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

While no one in the White House blames her, “she’s crippled,” said one adviser who asked not to be named discussing personnel matters. Another possible candidate, Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, has told Mr. Obama he wants to stay in his current position, according to a White House official.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., once expected to leave, now seems more likely to stay for a while. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, would like to be attorney general and is widely respected in the White House.

Among other cabinet officers who may leave are Ron Kirk, the trade representative; Steven Chu, the energy secretary; Ken Salazar, the interior secretary; Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, and Lisa P. Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency chief. But Valerie Jarrett, the president’s longtime friend and senior adviser, plans to stay, according to Democrats close to her.

It may be weeks before Mr. Obama starts making personnel announcements. His first priority is policy, and its politics — positioning for the budget showdown in the lame-duck session, to try to avoid the fiscal cliff by agreeing with Republicans to alternative deficit-reduction measures.

If Mr. Obama got a mandate for anything after a campaign in which he was vague on second-term prescriptions, he can and will claim one for his argument that wealthy Americans like himself and his vanquished Republican rival, Mitt Romney, should pay higher income taxes. That stance was a staple of Mr. Obama’s campaign stump speeches for more than a year. And most voters, in surveys of those leaving the polls on Tuesday, agreed with him.

Specifically, Mr. Obama has called — over Republicans’ objections — for extending the Bush-era income tax cuts, which expire Dec. 31, only for households with taxable income below $250,000 a year.

“This election tells us a lot about the political wisdom of defending tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of everything else,” a senior administration official said early on Wednesday.

But Mr. Boehner, in his public remarks on Wednesday, sought to avoid a White House tax trap that would have Republicans boxed in as defenders of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Speaking for Republicans after a conference call with his Congressional colleagues, Mr. Boehner said he was ready to accept a budget deal that raised federal revenues, but not the top rates on high incomes. And the deal, he said, also would have to overhaul both the tax code and programs like Medicare and Medicaid, whose growth as the population ages is driving projections of unsustainable future debt.

Instead of allowing the top rates to go up, which Republicans say would harm the economy, Mr. Boehner said Washington should end some deductions and loopholes to raise revenues. The economic growth that would result from a significant deficit reduction compromise would bring in additional revenues as well, he said.

Mr. Boehner entered the ornate Capitol room with none of his usual bonhomie, walked to a lectern and spoke in formal tones from two Teleprompters. He then hastened out of the room, ignoring shouted questions.


Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.

    Back to Work, Obama Is Greeted by Looming Fiscal Crisis, NYT, 7.11.2012,






Obama Wins New Term as Electoral Advantage Holds


November 6, 2012
The New York Times


Barack Hussein Obama was re-elected president of the United States on Tuesday, overcoming powerful economic headwinds, a lock-step resistance to his agenda by Republicans in Congress and an unprecedented torrent of advertising as a divided nation voted to give him more time.

In defeating Mitt Romney, the president carried Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin, a near sweep of the battleground states, and was holding a narrow advantage in Florida. The path to victory for Mr. Romney narrowed as the night wore along, with Mr. Obama winning at least 303 electoral votes.

A cheer of jubilation sounded at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago when the television networks began projecting him as the winner at 11:20 p.m., even as the ballots were still being counted in many states where voters had waited in line well into the night. The victory was far narrower than his historic election four years ago, but it was no less dramatic.

“Tonight in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back,” Mr. Obama told his supporters early Wednesday. “We know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.”

Mr. Obama’s re-election extended his place in history, carrying the tenure of the nation’s first black president into a second term. His path followed a pattern that has been an arc to his political career: faltering when he seemed to be at his strongest — the period before his first debate with Mr. Romney — before he redoubled his efforts to lift himself and his supporters to victory.

The evening was not without the drama that has come to mark so many recent elections: For more than 90 minutes after the networks projected Mr. Obama as the winner, Mr. Romney held off calling him to concede. And as the president waited to declare victory in Chicago, Mr. Romney’s aides were prepared to head to the airport, suitcases packed, potentially to contest several close results.

But as it became increasingly clear that no amount of contesting would bring him victory, he called Mr. Obama to concede shortly before 1 a.m.

“I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters,” Mr. Romney told his supporters in Boston. “This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”

Hispanics made up an important part of Mr. Obama’s winning coalition, preliminary exit poll data showed. And before the night was through, there were already recriminations from Republican moderates who said Mr. Romney had gone too far during the primaries in his statements against those here illegally, including his promise that his get-tough policies would cause some to “self-deport.”

Mr. Obama, 51, faces governing in a deeply divided country and a partisan-rich capital, where Republicans retained their majority in the House and Democrats kept their control of the Senate. His re-election offers him a second chance that will quickly be tested, given the rapidly escalating fiscal showdown.

For Mr. Obama, the result brings a ratification of his sweeping health care act, which Mr. Romney had vowed to repeal. The law will now continue on course toward nearly full implementation in 2014, promising to change significantly the way medical services are administrated nationwide.

Confident that the economy is finally on a true path toward stability, Mr. Obama and his aides have hinted that he would seek to tackle some of the grand but unrealized promises of his first campaign, including the sort of immigration overhaul that has eluded presidents of both parties for decades.

But he will be venturing back into a Congressional environment similar to that of his first term, with the Senate under the control of Democrats and the House under the control of Republicans, whose leaders have hinted that they will be no less likely to challenge him than they were during the last four years.

The state-by-state pursuit of 270 electoral votes was being closely tracked by both campaigns, with Mr. Romney winning North Carolina and Indiana, which Mr. Obama carried four years ago. But Mr. Obama won Michigan, the state where Mr. Romney was born, and Minnesota, a pair of states that Republican groups had spent millions trying to make competitive.

Americans delivered a final judgment on a long and bitter campaign that drew so many people to the polls that several key states extended voting for hours. In Virginia and Florida, long lines stretched from polling places, with the Obama campaign sending text messages to supporters in those areas, saying: “You can still vote.”

Neither party could predict how the outcome would affect the direction of the Republican Party. Moderates were hopeful it would lead the rank and file to realize that the party’s grass-roots conservatism that Mr. Romney pledged himself to during the primaries doomed him in the general election. Tea Party adherents have indicated that they will argue that he was damaged because of his move to middle ground during the general election.

As he delivered his brief concession speech early Wednesday, Mr. Romney did not directly address the challenges facing Republicans. His advisers said that his second failed quest for the White House would be his last, with his running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, standing as one of the leaders of the party.

“We have given our all to this campaign,” said Mr. Romney, stoic and gracious in his remarks. “I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead this country in a different direction.”

The results were more a matter of voters giving Mr. Obama more time than a second chance. Through most of the year slight majorities of voters had told pollsters that they believed his policies would improve the economy if they could stay in place into the future.

Mr. Obama’s campaign team built its coalition the hard way, through intensive efforts to find and motivate supporters who had lost the ardor of four years ago and, Mr. Obama’s strategists feared, might not find their way to polls if left to their own devices.

Up against real enthusiasm for Mr. Romney — or, just as important, against Mr. Obama — among Republicans and many independents, their strategy of spending vast sums of money on their get-out-the-vote operation seemed vindicated on Tuesday.

As opinion surveys that followed the first debate between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama showed a tightening race, Mr. Obama’s team had insisted that its coalition was coming together as it hoped it would. In the end, it was not a bluff.

Even with Mr. Obama pulling off a new sweep of the highly contested battlegrounds from Nevada to New Hampshire, the result in each of the states was very narrow. The Romney campaign was taking its time early Wednesday to review the outcome and searching for any irregularities.

The top issue on the minds of voters was the economy, according to interviews, with three-quarters saying that economic conditions were not good or poor. But only 3 in 10 said things were getting worse, and 4 in 10 said the economy was improving.

Mr. Romney, who campaigned aggressively on his ability to turn around the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, was given a narrow edge when voters were asked which candidate was better equipped to handle the economy, the interviews found.

The electorate was split along partisan lines over a question that drove much of the campaign debate: whether it was Mr. Obama or his predecessor, George W. Bush, who bore the most responsibility for the nation’s continued economic challenges. About 4 in 10 independent voters said that Mr. Bush should be held responsible.

The president built a muscular campaign organization and used a strong financial advantage to hold off an array of forces that opposed his candidacy. The margin of his victory was smaller than in 2008 — he held an advantage of about 700,000 in the popular vote early Wednesday — but a strategic firewall in several battleground states protected his Electoral College majority.

As Mr. Romney gained steam and stature in the final weeks of the campaign, the Obama campaign put its hopes in perhaps one thing above all others: that the rebound in the auto industry after the president’s bailout package of 2009 would give him the winning edge in Ohio, a linchpin of his road to re-election.

Early interviews with voters showed that just over half of Ohio voters approved of the bailout, a result that was balanced by a less encouraging sign for the president: Some 4 in 10 said they or someone in their household had lost a job over the last four years.

He defeated Mr. Romney 52 percent to 47 percent in Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati, but only because of the number of votes he banked in the month leading up to Election Day.

Mr. Obama won despite losing some of his 2008 margins among his key constituencies, including among younger voters, blacks and Jewish voters, yet he appeared to increase his share among Hispanics and Asians. Early exit poll results showed Latinos representing about 1 in 10 voters nationwide, and voting for Mr. Obama in greater numbers than four years ago, making a difference in several states, including Colorado and Florida.

He held on to female voters, according to preliminary exit polls conducted by Edison Research, but he struggled even more among white men than he did four years ago.

Mr. Romney’s coalition included disproportionate support from whites, men, older people, high-income voters, evangelicals, those from suburban and rural counties, and those who call themselves adherents of the Tea Party — a group that had resisted him through the primaries but had fully embraced him by Election Day.

The Republican Party seemed destined for a new round of self-reflection over how it approaches Hispanics going forward, a fast-growing portion of the voting population that senior party strategists had sought to woo before a strain of intense activism against illegal immigration took hold within the Republican grass roots.

It was the first presidential election since the 2010 Supreme Court decision loosening restrictions on political spending, and the first in which both major-party candidates opted out of the campaign matching system that imposes spending limits in return for federal financing. And the overall cost of the campaign rose accordingly, with all candidates for federal office, their parties and their supportive “super PACs” spending more than $6 billion combined.

The results Tuesday were certain to be parsed for days to determine just what effect the spending had, and who would be more irate at the answer — the donors who spent millions of dollars of their own money for a certain outcome, or those who found a barrage of negative advertising to be major factors in their defeats.

While the campaign often seemed small and petty, with Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama intensely quarreling and bickering, the contest was actually rooted in big and consequential decisions, with the role of the federal government squarely at the center of the debate.

Though Mr. Obama’s health care law galvanized his most ardent opposition, and continually drew low ratings in polls as a whole, interviews with voters found that nearly half wanted to see it kept intact or expanded, a quarter wanted to see it repealed entirely and another quarter said they wanted portions of it repealed.

In Chicago, as crowds waited for Mr. Obama to deliver his speech, his supporters erupted into a roar of relief and elation. Car horns honked from the street as people chanted the president’s name.

“I feel like it’s a repudiation of everything the Republicans said in the campaign,” said Jasmyne Walker, 31, who jumped up and down on the edge of a stone planter in a downtown plaza. “Everybody said that if he lost it would be buyer’s remorse — that we were high on hope in 2008. This says we’re on the right track. I feel like this confirms that.”


Michael Cooper contributed reporting.

    Obama Wins New Term as Electoral Advantage Holds, NYT, 5.11.2012,






A President’s Last Race, Win or Lose


November 4, 2012
The New York Times


BRISTOW, Va. — President Obama looked out at the sea of shivering supporters at a chilly late-night rally here and soaked in the wave of blue campaign placards and the flashing of a thousand smartphone cameras.

It was 37 degrees, and he warmed his left hand in his pocket even as he jabbed at the air with his right. Midnight was approaching. It was the last rally of the last Saturday of his last campaign, and he drifted off script.

“I was backstage with David Plouffe,” Mr. Obama told the crowd, referring to his political guru, who looked surprised as he stood offstage. “And we were talking about how, as the campaign goes on, we’ve become less relevant. I’m sort of a prop in the campaign. He’s just bothering a bunch of folks, calling, asking what’s going on.”

Indeed, for Mr. Obama, the campaign is effectively over. Oh, there will be a final round of rallies on Monday, a final frenetic swing through swing states and plenty of Plouffe phone calls asking what is going on. But the machinery they have assiduously put in place over four years is now on remote control. The campaign is out of their hands, and so is the fate of the 44th president.

Win, and he has a chance to secure a legacy as a president who made a mark not simply by virtue of his original barrier-breaking election but also by transforming America in his image — for the better, he hopes; for the worse, his critics fear. Lose, and he becomes an avatar of hope and change who could not fulfill his own promise and whose programs might not survive his remarkable rise and fall.

It is in moments like these that nostalgia takes hold for a president on the precipice. With each passing day, aides said, Mr. Obama has taken note every time he passes a milestone.

“This is my last debate prep practice,” he said at Camp David.

“This is my last walk-through,” he said, touring a debate stage.

“This is my last debate,” he said after squaring off a third time with Mitt Romney.

The “lasts” piled up on a bone-weary final weekend as he raced from Ohio to Wisconsin, Iowa to Virginia, New Hampshire to Florida and back to Ohio, then Colorado and Wisconsin again. What he hopes most is that these are not the last days of his presidency.

“You can see the nostalgia, the wistfulness, setting in,” observed Dan Pfeiffer, one of his longest-serving advisers and now the White House communications director. “The focus here is winning and making the case, but the last campaign of a man’s life — you every once in a while pause and think about that.”

Other than a brief interlude for Hurricane Sandy, the White House has been relocated to Air Force One for months. Mr. Obama half-jogs off the plane and half-jogs onto the stage, his coat off, his sleeves rolled up, his tie usually gone. He has grown hoarse arguing his case. Between stops, he huddles in the plane’s conference room, nursing his throat with tea and scratching out his speech in longhand.

His daily routine has been upended, but he tries to keep up his workout regimen in hotel fitness centers. He eats whenever he can, usually whatever the Air Force stewards are serving aboard the plane or something brought in before a speech. Occasionally, when he stops to glad-hand at a pizza place or a doughnut shop, he may snack in the motorcade to the next campaign rally; at a Cleveland meat shop, he bought barbecue jerky.

He is happier whenever he gets time with Michelle Obama, but she has largely kept a separate schedule. Like any father on the road, he makes sure to call his wife and children every evening. To keep him company in recent weeks, friends like Marty Nesbitt and Mike Ramos have accompanied him aboard Air Force One. Between conference calls on storm recovery on Sunday, he checked out the Chicago Bears football game on the Air Force One television.

The other day, Mr. Obama landed in Chicago to vote and spotted his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now the city’s mayor, waiting on the tarmac. A huge grin appeared on the president’s face, and he pointed at Mr. Emanuel. The mayor grinned and pointed back. The two embraced like long-lost brothers and chatted happily before walking, arm in arm, to shake hands with bystanders.

“He’s got his goal in eyesight, and he’s driving to the basket,” Mr. Emanuel said later. “He’s a happy warrior, I’d say.”

Happier with the debates over. He considered preparations for the first one “a drag,” as he put it, and got walloped. It was an eye-opener for a president who has never lacked confidence, a moment when he “faced his own political mortality,” Mr. Pfeiffer said. “The first debate turned a switch for him. He came out of that very focused on ensuring that would never happen again.” By his own reckoning, Mr. Obama had failed to “communicate why he wants a second term,” said another adviser.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who played Mr. Romney during debate rehearsals, said Mr. Obama recognized the peril. “He just decided in his mind that he needed to bear down and win, period,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview. “He’s a competitive guy. He’s very analytical. He knows exactly what he had not done and exactly what he wanted to do.”

After coming out stronger in the later debates, Mr. Obama could finally return to the trail, where the affirmation of the crowd beats the pounding of the pundits. The crowds are smaller — he drew 24,000 here in Bristow, compared with 60,000 and 80,000 in his final days in 2008 — but they are enthusiastic, and he draws energy from them.

“The president seemed relaxed,” said former Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, who campaigned with him in that state. “You don’t see a lot of anxiety or frenetic behavior.”

Mr. Obama seems to enjoy his unannounced stops even more, allowing a tiny peek into his interior life. At the Common Man restaurant in Merrimack, N.H., he met a woman with two daughters. “You can’t beat daughters,” he said, reflecting on his own, who were, he added, still at a good age: “They still love you. They’re still cute. They don’t talk back too much.”

One of his favorite stops was the employee cafeteria at the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas, where he greeted kitchen workers and room cleaners. “For him, that was the people he’s fighting for,” Mr. Plouffe said later. “He loves stuff like that. That was a unique one.”

It made such an impression that Mr. Obama was still talking about it a day later. “That thing at the Bellagio yesterday was great,” he told reporters on Air Force One. Then, recalling that his press secretary’s van broke down, he joked, “I think every trip we’re going to find at least one occasion to ditch Jay Carney.”

Very rarely does Mr. Obama confront the nearly half of America that polls say do not support him, those who blame him for the economic troubles still afflicting the country. He seemed taken aback at Cleveland’s West Side Market when he asked a chicken vendor how business was going.

“Terrible since you got here,” the man said.

The vendor later told his local newspaper he had meant only that the president’s party had blocked his business that day. But he inadvertently voiced the frustrations of many Americans.

Nor has Mr. Obama faced many tough questions lately, like those about the response to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, since he generally does not take questions from the reporters who trail him everywhere.

Instead, he sticks to generally friendlier broadcast interviews, sometimes giving seven minutes to a local television station or calling in to drive-time radio disc jockeys with nicknames like Roadkill.

With Michael Yo, a Miami radio host, he revealed his first job — Baskin-Robbins, “paid minimum wage” — and addressed a feud between Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj: “I’m all about bringing people together,” he said.

He relishes rare moments away from politics. He had dinner one night at a Washington restaurant with several swing-state Democrats who had won a contest to meet the president. He had done his homework; he knew their names and their children’s names. But as he tucked into a dinner of salmon, asparagus and potatoes — he left most of the potatoes — he was eager not to dwell on the campaign.

“We didn’t really talk about politics very much,” said Kimberley Cathey, 41, a speech language pathologist from North Carolina. “I don’t recall really in the hour and a half we talked anything major about the election,” said her husband, Ron, also 41. “It was pretty much a night away from that.”

The president did contemplate the possibility of defeat, but said he and his family “would be fine no matter what the outcome,” Ms. Cathey said. Mario Orosa, 44, a technical specialist at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, said he had asked Mr. Obama, “What was the last thing that made you really nervous?” The president replied, “I don’t remember.”

He is not a nervous man. But even his famous cool may be challenged on Tuesday night. For the “prop,” it is all over but the waiting, while Mr. Plouffe makes some calls and bothers some more folks.

    A President’s Last Race, Win or Lose, NYT, 4.11.2012,






Mr. Obama Comes Back


October 17, 2012
The New York Times


There is a price to pay when a president appears disengaged, and President Obama obviously learned how much his diffidence cost him in the first debate this month. On Tuesday night, in the second debate, he regained full command of his vision and his legacy, leaving Mitt Romney sputtering with half-answers, deceptions and one memorable error.

Instead of windy and lethargic answers, the president was crisp in reciting his accomplishments and persuasive in explaining how he has restarted economic growth. Instead of letting Mr. Romney get away with a parade of falsehoods and unworkable promises, he regularly and forcefully called his opponent wrong. Having left many supporters wondering after the first debate whether he really wanted another four years, he finally seemed like a man who was ready to fight for another term.

What he did not do was describe how a second term would be more successful than his first has been, and, in particular, show how he would cut through the thicket of Republican opposition if re-elected. He missed opportunities to call for a more forceful opposition to assault weapons in another term, and to put forward a clear immigration policy.

But the contrast with the weak and failed ideas that Mr. Romney proposed could not have been clearer. The president noted that he had signed legislation that increased pay equity for women; Mr. Romney not only refused to say whether he would have done so, but condescendingly said he had hired many women when he was the governor of Massachusetts and had given them flexible schedules.

Mr. Obama pointed out that Mr. Romney’s tax numbers did not add up, and called the plan a “sketchy deal”; Mr. Romney responded in a huff. “Of course they add up,” he said. “I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget.” Apparently he thinks it should be self-evident that a private equity mogul knows how to cut taxes drastically and still balance the budget, but it is not evident to any of the independent experts who have looked at his plan, as Mr. Obama icily pointed out.

The president reminded listeners that Mr. Romney’s immigration adviser was the author of Arizona’s radical, unconstitutional immigration law. And Mr. Romney himself repeated his cruel prescription to have undocumented immigrants “self-deport” by making it impossible for them to find work and aggressively demanding their identification papers. Mr. Obama offered the better, broader view on fixing immigration, though his own administration has also deported tens of thousands of noncriminals through a crackdown similar to Arizona’s law.

The president even got off a few good lines, pointing out that his pension was considerably smaller than Mr. Romney’s, and that his opponent was far more extreme than President George W. Bush in proposing to turn Medicare into a voucher system and to eliminate financing for Planned Parenthood. He finally took the opportunity to bring up Mr. Romney’s dismissal of 47 percent of the country as people who consider themselves victims and do not take personal responsibility for their lives.

But the most devastating moment for Mr. Romney was self-inflicted. Continuing his irresponsible campaign to politicize the death of the American ambassador to Libya, he said it took two weeks for the president to acknowledge that it was the result of an act of terror. As the moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, quickly pointed out, the president referred to it as an act of terror the next day, in the Rose Garden. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” asked Mr. Obama, having fully regained his stride and confidence.

Voters who watched the first debate might have been left with an impression that Mr. Romney was the candidate of ideas and that Mr. Obama’s reserves of energy and seriousness had been tapped out. On Tuesday night, those roles were reversed.

    Mr. Obama Comes Back, NYT, 17.10.2012,






Drop in Jobless Figure Gives Jolt to Race for President


October 5, 2012
The New York Times


The jobless rate abruptly dropped in September to its lowest level since the month President Obama took office, indicating a steadier recovery than previously thought and delivering another jolt to the presidential campaign.

The improvement lent ballast to Mr. Obama’s case that the economy is on the mend and threatened the central argument of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, that Mr. Obama’s failed stewardship is reason enough to replace him.

Employers added a modest 114,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department reported on Friday, but estimates for what had been disappointing gains in July and August were revised upward to more respectable levels.

Unemployment fell to 7.8 percent from 8.1 percent, crossing what had become a symbolic threshold in the campaign. Mr. Romney was deprived of a favorite line of attack, mocking the president for “43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent.”

The new numbers may have less economic than political import, since they represent only one month of data that can be quite volatile and give little indication that the plodding recovery has accelerated.

“We’ve been amazingly resilient thus far in the face of all these headwinds,” said Ellen Zentner, the senior United States economist for Nomura Securities International, referring to global obstacles like the slowdown in China and domestic ones like the looming expiration of tax breaks. “But it’s awfully hard to see getting significantly above that growth range given that these headwinds are still in place.”

Still, an energized Mr. Obama seized on the statistics as he campaigned in Virginia and Ohio, seeking to regain his footing after a listless performance in the first debate this week. Mr. Romney, whose muscular showing in Denver had emboldened his campaign, scrambled to play down the report, saying it merely confirmed that millions of Americans had given up looking for work.

In back-to-back rallies in Virginia, the president declared, “This country has come too far to turn back.” His Republican challenger then insisted, “We don’t have to stay on the path we’ve been on. We can do better.”

Some Romney backers, led by the former chief executive of General Electric, John F. Welch Jr., suggested that the White House had massaged the Labor Department data to make it more favorable. The Obama administration, economic experts and some Republicans dismissed that notion as a groundless conspiracy theory.

The jobs report was preceded by other signs of growing economic strength, including a jump in consumer confidence, the strongest auto sales in four years, rallying stock prices and, at long last, a stabilization of housing prices.

According to the monthly survey of employers, the bulk of the gains came from service jobs, particularly in education and health care. Though government downsizing has been a drag on the recovery, government over all added 10,000 jobs in September, the third consecutive month of gains.

The nation’s employers have added an average of 146,000 jobs a month in 2012, just ahead of the numbers that are considered necessary to absorb new workers into the labor force. “This is not what a real recovery looks like,” Mr. Romney said in a statement.

Areas of weakness included manufacturing, one of the bright spots that Mr. Obama has showcased throughout the re-election campaign. It lost 16,000 jobs after a revised 22,000 drop in August in the face of a global slowdown. The number of temporary jobs, usually considered a harbinger of future growth, fell 2,000. Speaking to a rain-soaked crowd of 9,000 at Cleveland State University, Mr. Obama said, “Today’s news should give us some encouragement. It shouldn’t be an excuse for the other side to talk down the economy just to try to score some political points.”

“We’ve made too much progress to return to the policies that led to this crisis in the first place,” the president said to cheers.

The nation now has nearly the same number of jobs as when Mr. Obama took office in January 2009. Since the economy stopped hemorrhaging jobs in February 2010, there has been an increase of more than 4.3 million. A mere 61,000-job increase would allow Mr. Obama to claim a net gain in jobs over his tenure.

The White House has already made that claim based on one measurement. In an annual recalibration last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said 400,000 more jobs were added in the 12 months that ended in March than previously thought. Such revisions are common, but the adjustment process is slow — that new benchmark will not be incorporated into the monthly jobs figures until early next year.

Mr. Romney, on other hand, said the lower rate spoke to a nation short of hope. The rate, he asserted, would be about 11 percent if the same percentage of people were looking for work now as on the day Mr. Obama was elected.

“If you just dropped out of the labor force, if you just give up and say, ‘Look, I can’t go back to work, I’m just going to stay home,’ if you just drop out altogether, why, you’re no longer part of the employment statistics, so it looks like unemployment is getting better,” Mr. Romney said at a farm equipment dealership in Abingdon, Va.

That was true in August, when the rate dropped to 8.1 percent, from 8.3 percent. But this time, the statistics showed that more people were working, not that discouraged job seekers had stopped looking for work.

The jobs report is based on two surveys, one of businesses and one of households, that can present different pictures.

While the survey of businesses showed mediocre growth, the household survey had a whopping increase of 873,000 people working in September. The household survey is much more volatile and prone to sampling error, but it captures aspects of the labor market that the business survey does not, like self-employment and household workers. Economists said that this month’s household survey probably overstated the improvement, but that its credibility was bolstered by an unexpectedly robust rise in consumer confidence.

The polling firm Gallup pinpointed the improvement in consumer confidence last month to the first day of the Democratic National Convention and attributed it almost entirely to increased optimism among Democrats, while confidence among Republicans remained at low levels. But Gallup could not say whether politics or economic conditions had driven the change.

The employment gains were not spread equally. While for older workers, the unemployment rate was the lowest in years, the unemployment rate for black men improved only 0.1 percentage point and the portion of all black men with jobs actually fell, to 57.5 percent.

There was no movement between August and September in a broader measure of underemployment, which includes the jobless who have stopped looking for work and those who work part time but would like to work full time. That stayed at 14.7 percent, though it is down from 16.4 percent a year earlier.

And 4.8 million people are in the group that has had the toughest time finding work — those who have been unemployed for longer than six months.

Sarah Thurman, a civil engineer in Kansas City, Mo., has been looking since May 2010. “The smaller firms are starting to post job openings, and that hasn’t been like that for over two years, but there’s so many of us without jobs that there’s so much competition,” she said. “I’m hearing from the headhunters that it’s going to be opening up, it’s going to be opening up — but when?”

Like Republicans and Democrats, consumers and businesses have divergent views of the economic situation. Consumers have brightened along with the better outlook for employment, calmer stock markets and whispers of rising home values.

Business leaders have been hanging back, more focused on a global slowdown and domestic concerns. They say they are uncertain what the election will mean for the business climate and are waiting in part for a resolution of the host of tax increases and budget cuts that will be set off at the end of the year if Congress fails to act.

The discrepancy between consumers’ mood and companies’ outlook can be easily explained, economists said. “Businesses are much more forward-looking,” said Ms. Zentner at Nomura.

In a survey of 400 chief financial officers conducted this summer, Grant Thornton, a management consulting firm, found that only 37 percent foresaw the possibility of adding workers while 18 percent said they expected to shrink over the next six months.

Harry Kazazian, the chief executive of Exxel Outdoors, a maker of camping equipment based in Alabama, said the election, the fiscal cliff and rapidly shifting regulations had put him in a cautious mood.

With sales on the rise, Exxel has slowly resumed a capital investment plan that it suspended three years ago. “We’re moving forward, but we’re doing it in steps rather than being much more aggressive and putting ourselves out there,” Mr. Kazazian said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if things start turning the other way, meaning down.”

But at a Walmart in Atlanta, shoppers were loosening the reins a bit, buying what they described as small indulgences like scented candle oil and seasonal beer.

Michael Peacock, 43, said that although his house was in foreclosure, he could sense enough activity in his chosen field, online marketing, that he could afford to turn down some work outside his specialty. “I’m not superconfident in the economy. But in my line of work, things have been getting better. There seems to be some improvement.”


John H. Cushman Jr. contributed reporting.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 5, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated the increase in jobs since February 2010 and the number of jobs needed for President Obama to claim an increase during his tenure. More than 4.3 million jobs have been added since February 2010, not more than 400,000, and an increase of 61,000 jobs, not 62,000, would allow Mr. Obama to claim a net gain. The earlier version also misidentified the city where Sarah Furman lives. She lives in Kansas City, Mo., not Kansas City, Kan.

    Drop in Jobless Figure Gives Jolt to Race for President, NYT, 6.10.2012,






Obama Tells U.N. New Democracies Need Free Speech


September 25, 2012
The New York Times


UNITED NATIONS — President Obama on Tuesday used his last major address on a global stage before the November election to deliver a strong defense of America’s belief in freedom of speech, challenging fledgling Arab and North African democracies to ensure that right even in the face of violence.

The speech was in many ways a balancing act for Mr. Obama, who has had to contend with angry anti-American demonstrations throughout the Middle East during the past several weeks, and a Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, who says the president has projected weakness in his foreign policy. Mr. Romney has criticized the administration for issuing what he called “an apology for American values” in its initial response to the demonstrations.

Mr. Obama’s message seemed intended to appeal to a domestic audience as much as to the world leaders at the General Assembly.

In a 30-minute address, he affirmed what he said “are not simply American values or Western values — they are universal values.” He vowed to protect the enduring ability of Americans to say what they think. He promised that the United States “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” And he asserted that the flare-up of violence over a video that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad would not set off a retreat from his support of the Arab democracy movement.

Mr. Romney was also in New York on Tuesday, talking about foreign aid at a forum sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative, where Mr. Obama also spoke after his United Nations address. But Mr. Romney was left to make his own case on a much smaller stage, where the host was former President Bill Clinton, an Obama surrogate.

Mr. Romney called for a rethinking of how American foreign aid is disbursed, suggesting that it could be tied directly to how governments and organizations work to open up their markets and encourage employment. “The aim of a much larger share of our aid must be the promotion of work and the fostering of free enterprise,” he said.

That idea is bound to set off debate, since many labor rights organizations — and in fact, many American labor unions — argue that free trade pacts like the ones advocated by Mr. Romney serve only to ship jobs overseas.

Mr. Romney managed a smile when Mr. Clinton, who has been slamming him in swing states on behalf of Mr. Obama, introduced him, and he even joked about the help Mr. Clinton has been giving his rival on the campaign trail. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good,” Mr. Romney said.

Mr. Obama appeared to relish the larger canvas of the United Nations and his subject, freedom of speech and why in the United States, even making “a crude and disgusting video” is a right of all citizens.

“As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day,” Mr. Obama said. “And I will defend their right to do so.” For that, he received cheers in the cavernous hall.

The president worked to explain — before a sometimes skeptical audience that has never completely bought into the American idea that even hateful speech is protected — why the United States values its First Amendment so highly.

“We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities,” Mr. Obama said. “We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.” He said Americans “have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their view.”

Just two weeks after the beginning of violent anti-American protests that led to the deadly attacks on American diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, Mr. Obama vowed that even as the United States worked to bring the killers to justice, he would not back down from his support of democratic freedoms in the Muslim world.

“It is time to marginalize those who, even when not resorting to violence, use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as the central principle of politics,” Mr. Obama said. “For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who do resort to violence.”

On Iran, Mr. Obama warned that time to diplomatically resolve the Iranian nuclear issue “is not unlimited.” But he refused to go further than what he has said in the past, that “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” despite pleas from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to establish a new “red line” that Iran cannot cross without provoking military intervention.

“America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe there is still time and space to do so,” Mr. Obama said. “We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace.”

He devoted most of his remarks to the Arab democracy movement and its fallout. Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of Mr. Obama’s deputy national security advisers, worked on the speech, but as a starting point he had the president’s own thoughts after he learned of the attacks in Benghazi that claimed the lives of the four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Mr. Obama had accompanied Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the State Department to console grieving employees there, and spoke off the cuff, a senior administration official said, about the devotion of diplomats like Mr. Stevens and the American ideals that they put themselves in the line of fire to uphold.

He returned to that subject at the United Nations on Tuesday. “There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents,” Mr. Obama told the General Assembly. “There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.”

It was the president’s first truly expansive response to the unrest that erupted over the video made in the United States, and it came just as his campaign was battling attacks from Republicans over his foreign policy. Mr. Romney, at the Clinton conference, did not repeat those accusations. Nor did the president, in either his remarks at the General Assembly or at his appearance at the Clinton forum, make his own partisan attack.

But the presidential election seemed to be a subtext, and while Mr. Romney was the first up at bat in the dueling speeches on Tuesday, Mr. Obama had the more presidential forum in the high-ceilinged General Assembly chamber. After the ritual of waiting for 10 seconds in a chair just below the stage while he was introduced, Mr. Obama walked to the lectern.

“I would like to begin today by telling you about an American named Chris Stevens,” he said. He spoke of Mr. Stevens’s “love and respect” for the people of North Africa and the Middle East, of his penchant for “walking the streets of the cities where he worked, tasting the local food, meeting as many people as he could, speaking Arabic and listening with a broad smile.”

At the close of his remarks, he returned to the slain American envoy. “Today,” he said, “I promise you this: Long after these killers are brought to justice, Chris Stevens’s legacy will live on in the lives he touched.”


Ashley Parker contributed reporting from New York.

    Obama Tells U.N. New Democracies Need Free Speech, NYT, 25.9.2012,






Obama’s Speech

to the United Nations General Assembly — Text


September 25, 2012
The New York Times


Following is a text of President Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, as released by the White House:

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentleman: I would like to begin today by telling you about an American named Chris Stevens.

Chris was born in a town called Grass Valley, California, the son of a lawyer and a musician. As a young man, Chris joined the Peace Corps, and taught English in Morocco. And he came to love and respect the people of North Africa and the Middle East. He would carry that commitment throughout his life. As a diplomat, he worked from Egypt to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Libya. He was known for walking the streets of the cities where he worked -- tasting the local food, meeting as many people as he could, speaking Arabic, listening with a broad smile.

Chris went to Benghazi in the early days of the Libyan revolution, arriving on a cargo ship. As America’s representative, he helped the Libyan people as they coped with violent conflict, cared for the wounded, and crafted a vision for the future in which the rights of all Libyans would be respected. And after the revolution, he supported the birth of a new democracy, as Libyans held elections, and built new institutions, and began to move forward after decades of dictatorship.

Chris Stevens loved his work. He took pride in the country he served, and he saw dignity in the people that he met. And two weeks ago, he traveled to Benghazi to review plans to establish a new cultural center and modernize a hospital. That’s when America’s compound came under attack. Along with three of his colleagues, Chris was killed in the city that he helped to save. He was 52 years old.

I tell you this story because Chris Stevens embodied the best of America. Like his fellow Foreign Service officers, he built bridges across oceans and cultures, and was deeply invested in the international cooperation that the United Nations represents. He acted with humility, but he also stood up for a set of principles -- a belief that individuals should be free to determine their own destiny, and live with liberty, dignity, justice, and opportunity.

The attacks on the civilians in Benghazi were attacks on America. We are grateful for the assistance we received from the Libyan government and from the Libyan people. There should be no doubt that we will be relentless in tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice. And I also appreciate that in recent days, the leaders of other countries in the region -- including Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen -- have taken steps to secure our diplomatic facilities, and called for calm. And so have religious authorities around the globe.

But understand, the attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America. They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded -- the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully; that diplomacy can take the place of war; that in an interdependent world, all of us have a stake in working towards greater opportunity and security for our citizens.

If we are serious about upholding these ideals, it will not be enough to put more guards in front of an embassy, or to put out statements of regret and wait for the outrage to pass. If we are serious about these ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of the crisis -- because we face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes that we hold in common.

Today, we must reaffirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens -- and not by his killers. Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.

It has been less than two years since a vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest the oppressive corruption in his country, and sparked what became known as the Arab Spring. And since then, the world has been captivated by the transformation that’s taken place, and the United States has supported the forces of change.

We were inspired by the Tunisian protests that toppled a dictator, because we recognized our own beliefs in the aspiration of men and women who took to the streets.

We insisted on change in Egypt, because our support for democracy ultimately put us on the side of the people.

We supported a transition of leadership in Yemen, because the interests of the people were no longer being served by a corrupt status quo.

We intervened in Libya alongside a broad coalition, and with the mandate of the United Nations Security Council, because we had the ability to stop the slaughter of innocents, and because we believed that the aspirations of the people were more powerful than a tyrant.

And as we meet here, we again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop and a new dawn can begin.

We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values -- they are universal values. And even as there will be huge challenges to come with a transition to democracy, I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people, and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.

So let us remember that this is a season of progress. For the first time in decades, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans voted for new leaders in elections that were credible, competitive, and fair. This democratic spirit has not been restricted to the Arab world. Over the past year, we’ve seen peaceful transitions of power in Malawi and Senegal, and a new President in Somalia. In Burma, a President has freed political prisoners and opened a closed society, a courageous dissident has been elected to parliament, and people look forward to further reform. Around the globe, people are making their voices heard, insisting on their innate dignity, and the right to determine their future.

And yet the turmoil of recent weeks reminds us that the path to democracy does not end with the casting of a ballot. Nelson Mandela once said: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and that businesses can be opened without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear, and on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people.

In other words, true democracy -- real freedom -- is hard work. Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissidents. In hard economic times, countries must be tempted -- may be tempted to rally the people around perceived enemies, at home and abroad, rather than focusing on the painstaking work of reform.

Moreover, there will always be those that reject human progress -- dictators who cling to power, corrupt interests that depend on the status quo, and extremists who fan the flames of hate and division. From Northern Ireland to South Asia, from Africa to the Americas, from the Balkans to the Pacific Rim, we’ve witnessed convulsions that can accompany transitions to a new political order.

At time, the conflicts arise along the fault lines of race or tribe. And often they arise from the difficulties of reconciling tradition and faith with the diversity and interdependence of the modern world. In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they’re willing to tolerate freedom for others.

That is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.

It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well -- for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and every faith. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion, we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.

I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. And the answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.

Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day -- (laughter) -- and I will always defend their right to do so.

Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.

We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

Now, I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. We recognize that. But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how do we respond?

And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There’s no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.

In this modern world with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world. We empower the worst of us if that’s how we respond.

More broadly, the events of the last two weeks also speak to the need for all of us to honestly address the tensions between the West and the Arab world that is moving towards democracy.

Now, let me be clear: Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not and will not seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad. We do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue, nor do we assume that the violence of the past weeks or the hateful speech by some individuals represent the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims, any more than the views of the people who produced this video represents those of Americans. However, I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders in all countries to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism.

It is time to marginalize those who -- even when not directly resorting to violence -- use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel, as the central organizing principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes an excuse, for those who do resort to violence.

That brand of politics -- one that pits East against West, and South against North, Muslims against Christians and Hindu and Jews -- can’t deliver on the promise of freedom. To the youth, it offers only false hope. Burning an American flag does nothing to provide a child an education. Smashing apart a restaurant does not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an embassy won’t create a single job. That brand of politics only makes it harder to achieve what we must do together: educating our children, and creating the opportunities that they deserve; protecting human rights, and extending democracy’s promise.

Understand America will never retreat from the world. We will bring justice to those who harm our citizens and our friends, and we will stand with our allies. We are willing to partner with countries around the world to deepen ties of trade and investment, and science and technology, energy and development -- all efforts that can spark economic growth for all our people and stabilize democratic change.

But such efforts depend on a spirit of mutual interest and mutual respect. No government or company, no school or NGO will be confident working in a country where its people are endangered. For partnerships to be effective our citizens must be secure and our efforts must be welcomed.

A politics based only on anger -- one based on dividing the world between “us” and “them” -- not only sets back international cooperation, it ultimately undermines those who tolerate it. All of us have an interest in standing up to these forces.

Let us remember that Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of extremism. On the same day our civilians were killed in Benghazi, a Turkish police officer was murdered in Istanbul only days before his wedding; more than 10 Yemenis were killed in a car bomb in Sana’a; several Afghan children were mourned by their parents just days after they were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul.

The impulse towards intolerance and violence may initially be focused on the West, but over time it cannot be contained. The same impulses toward extremism are used to justify war between Sunni and Shia, between tribes and clans. It leads not to strength and prosperity but to chaos. In less than two years, we have seen largely peaceful protests bring more change to Muslim-majority countries than a decade of violence. And extremists understand this. Because they have nothing to offer to improve the lives of people, violence is their only way to stay relevant. They don’t build; they only destroy.

It is time to leave the call of violence and the politics of division behind. On so many issues, we face a choice between the promise of the future, or the prisons of the past. And we cannot afford to get it wrong. We must seize this moment. And America stands ready to work with all who are willing to embrace a better future.

The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt -- it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted, “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” The future must not belong to those who bully women -- it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons.

The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources -- it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs, the workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the women and men that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support.

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.

Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims and Shiite pilgrims. It’s time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, that’s the vision we will support.

Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on a prospect of peace. Let us leave behind those who thrive on conflict, those who reject the right of Israel to exist. The road is hard, but the destination is clear -- a secure, Jewish state of Israel and an independent, prosperous Palestine. Understanding that such a peace must come through a just agreement between the parties, America will walk alongside all who are prepared to make that journey.

In Syria, the future must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people. If there is a cause that cries out for protest in the world today, peaceful protest, it is a regime that tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings. And we must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence.

Together, we must stand with those Syrians who believe in a different vision -- a Syria that is united and inclusive, where children don’t need to fear their own government, and all Syrians have a say in how they are governed -- Sunnis and Alawites, Kurds and Christians. That’s what America stands for. That is the outcome that we will work for -- with sanctions and consequences for those who persecute, and assistance and support for those who work for this common good. Because we believe that the Syrians who embrace this vision will have the strength and the legitimacy to lead.

In Iran, we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads. The Iranian people have a remarkable and ancient history, and many Iranians wish to enjoy peace and prosperity alongside their neighbors. But just as it restricts the rights of its own people, the Iranian government continues to prop up a dictator in Damascus and supports terrorist groups abroad. Time and again, it has failed to take the opportunity to demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful, and to meet its obligations to the United Nations.

So let me be clear. America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited. We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. And make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

We know from painful experience that the path to security and prosperity does not lie outside the boundaries of international law and respect for human rights. That’s why this institution was established from the rubble of conflict. That is why liberty triumphed over tyranny in the Cold War. And that is the lesson of the last two decades as well.

History shows that peace and progress come to those who make the right choices. Nations in every part of the world have traveled this difficult path. Europe, the bloodiest battlefield of the 20th century, is united, free and at peace. From Brazil to South Africa, from Turkey to South Korea, from India to Indonesia, people of different races, religions, and traditions have lifted millions out of poverty, while respecting the rights of their citizens and meeting their responsibilities as nations.

And it is because of the progress that I’ve witnessed in my own lifetime, the progress that I’ve witnessed after nearly four years as President, that I remain ever hopeful about the world that we live in. The war in Iraq is over. American troops have come home. We’ve begun a transition in Afghanistan, and America and our allies will end our war on schedule in 2014. Al Qaeda has been weakened, and Osama bin Laden is no more. Nations have come together to lock down nuclear materials, and America and Russia are reducing our arsenals. We have seen hard choices made -- from Naypyidaw to Cairo to Abidjan -- to put more power in the hands of citizens.

At a time of economic challenge, the world has come together to broaden prosperity. Through the G20, we have partnered with emerging countries to keep the world on the path of recovery. America has pursued a development agenda that fuels growth and breaks dependency, and worked with African leaders to help them feed their nations. New partnerships have been forged to combat corruption and promote government that is open and transparent, and new commitments have been made through the Equal Futures Partnership to ensure that women and girls can fully participate in politics and pursue opportunity. And later today, I will discuss our efforts to combat the scourge of human trafficking.

All these things give me hope. But what gives me the most hope is not the actions of us, not the actions of leaders -- it is the people that I’ve seen. The American troops who have risked their lives and sacrificed their limbs for strangers half a world away; the students in Jakarta or Seoul who are eager to use their knowledge to benefit mankind; the faces in a square in Prague or a parliament in Ghana who see democracy giving voice to their aspirations; the young people in the favelas of Rio and the schools of Mumbai whose eyes shine with promise. These men, women, and children of every race and every faith remind me that for every angry mob that gets shown on television, there are billions around the world who share similar hopes and dreams. They tell us that there is a common heartbeat to humanity.

So much attention in our world turns to what divides us. That’s what we see on the news. That’s what consumes our political debates. But when you strip it all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes with faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people -- and not the other way around.

The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations, for our own people and for people all across the world. That was our founding purpose. That is what our history shows. That is what Chris Stevens worked for throughout his life.

And I promise you this: Long after the killers are brought to justice, Chris Stevens’s legacy will live on in the lives that he touched -- in the tens of thousands who marched against violence through the streets of Benghazi; in the Libyans who changed their Facebook photo to one of Chris; in the signs that read, simply, “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.”

They should give us hope. They should remind us that so long as we work for it, justice will be done, that history is on our side, and that a rising tide of liberty will never be reversed.

Thank you very much.

    Obama’s Speech to the United Nations General Assembly — Text, NYT, 25.9.2012,






In Arab Spring, Obama Finds a Sharp Test


September 24, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Hosni Mubarak did not even wait for President Obama’s words to be translated before he shot back.

“You don’t understand this part of the world,” the Egyptian leader broke in. “You’re young.”

Mr. Obama, during a tense telephone call the evening of Feb. 1, 2011, had just told Mr. Mubarak that his speech, broadcast to hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, had not gone far enough. Mr. Mubarak had to step down, the president said.

Minutes later, a grim Mr. Obama appeared before hastily summoned cameras in the Grand Foyer of the White House. The end of Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Mr. Obama said, “must begin now.” With those words, Mr. Obama upended three decades of American relations with its most stalwart ally in the Arab world, putting the weight of the United States squarely on the side of the Arab street.

It was a risky move by the American president, flying in the face of advice from elders on his staff at the State Department and at the Pentagon, who had spent decades nursing the autocratic — but staunchly pro-American — Egyptian government.

Nineteen months later, Mr. Obama was at the State Department consoling some of the very officials he had overruled. Anti-American protests broke out in Egypt and Libya. In Libya, they led to the deaths of four Americans, including the United States ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. A new Egyptian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood was dragging its feet about condemning attacks on the American Embassy in Cairo.

Television sets in the United States were filled with images of Arabs, angry over an American-made video that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad, burning American flags and even effigies of Mr. Obama.

Speaking privately to grieving State Department workers, the president tried to make sense of the unfolding events. He talked about how he had been a child abroad, taught to appreciate American diplomats who risked their lives for their country. That work, and the outreach to the Arab world, he said, must continue, even in the face of mob violence that called into question what the United States can accomplish in a turbulent region.

In many ways, Mr. Obama’s remarks at the State Department two weeks ago — and the ones he will make before the General Assembly on Tuesday morning, when he addresses the anti-American protests — reflected hard lessons the president had learned over almost two years of political turmoil in the Arab world: bold words and support for democratic aspirations are not enough to engender good will in this region, especially not when hampered by America’s own national security interests.

In fact, Mr. Obama’s staunch defense of democracy protesters in Egypt last year soon drew him into an upheaval that would test his judgment, his nerve and his diplomatic skill. Even as the uprisings spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, the president’s sympathy for the protesters infuriated America’s allies in the conservative and oil-rich Gulf states. In mid-March, the Saudis moved decisively to crush the democracy protests in Bahrain, sending a convoy of tanks and heavy artillery across the 16-mile King Fahd Causeway between the two countries.

That blunt show of force confronted Mr. Obama with the limits of his ability, or his willingness, to midwife democratic change. Despite a global outcry over the shooting and tear-gassing of peaceful protesters in Bahrain, the president largely turned a blind eye. His realism and reluctance to be drawn into foreign quagmires has held sway ever since, notably in Syria, where many critics continue to call for a more aggressive American response to the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Mr. Obama’s journey from Cairo to the Causeway took just 44 days. In part, it reflected the different circumstances in the countries where protests broke out, despite their common origins and slogans. But his handling of the uprisings also demonstrates the gap between the two poles of his political persona: his sense of himself as a historic bridge-builder who could redeem America’s image abroad, and his more cautious adherence to long-term American interests in security and cheap oil.

To some, the stark difference between the outcomes in Cairo and Bahrain illustrates something else, too: his impatience with old-fashioned back-room diplomacy, and his corresponding failure to build close personal relationships with foreign leaders that can, especially in the Middle East, help the White House to influence decisions made abroad.


A Focus on Respect

In many ways, Mr. Obama’s decision to throw American support behind change in the Arab world was made well before a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire and ignited the broadest political challenge to the region in decades.

Mr. Obama, whose campaign for the presidency was in part set in motion by his early opposition to the Iraq war, came into office in January 2009 determined that he would not repeat what he viewed as the mistakes of his predecessor in pushing a “freedom agenda” in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world, according to senior administration officials.

Instead, he focused on mutual respect and understanding. During a speech to the Arab world in 2009 from Cairo, the president did talk about the importance of governments “that reflect the will of the people.” But, he added pointedly, “there is no straight line to realize this promise.”

Two weeks later, as large street protests broke out in Iran after disputed presidential elections, Mr. Obama followed a low-key script, criticizing violence but saying he did not want to be seen as meddling in Iranian domestic politics.

Months later, administration officials said, Mr. Obama expressed regret about his muted stance on Iran. “There was a feeling of ‘we ain’t gonna be behind the curve on this again,’ ” one senior administration official said. He, like almost two dozen administration officials and Arab and American diplomats interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

By the time the Tunisian protests broke out in January 2011 — an angry Mr. Obama accused his staff of being caught “flat-footed,” officials said — the president publicly backed the protesters. But the real test of the new muscular posture came 11 days later, when thousands of Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square in Cairo for a “day of rage.”

Mr. Obama felt keenly, one aide said, the need for the United States, and for he himself, to stand as a moral example. “He knows that the protesters want to hear from the American president, but not just any American president,” a senior aide to Mr. Obama said. “They want to hear from this American president.” In other words, they wanted to hear from the first black president of the United States, a symbol of the possibility of change.

If the president felt a kinship with the youthful protesters, he seems to have had little rapport with Egypt’s aging president, or, for that matter, any other Arab leaders. In part, this was a function of time: he was still relatively new to the presidency, and had not built the kind of cozy relationship that the Bush family, for instance, had with the Saudis.

But Mr. Obama has struggled with little success to build better relations with key foreign leaders like Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

In any case, after an awkward phone call between the American and Egyptian presidents on Jan. 28, Mr. Obama sent a senior diplomat with long experience in Egypt, Frank G. Wisner, to make a personal appeal to the Egyptian leader. But Mr. Mubarak balked. Meanwhile, the rising anger in Cairo’s streets led to a new moment of reckoning for Mr. Obama: Feb. 1.

That afternoon at the White House, top national security officials were meeting in the Situation Room to decide what to do about the deteriorating situation in Egypt. Thirty minutes into it, the door opened and the president walked in, crashing what was supposed to be a principals’ meeting.

Attending were Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen; and the national security adviser, Tom Donilon. Margaret Scobey, the ambassador in Cairo, appeared on the video conference screen.

The question on the table would have been unthinkable just a week before. Should Mr. Obama call for Mr. Mubarak to step down?

Midway through the meeting, an aide walked in and handed a note to Mr. Donilon. “Mubarak is on,” he read aloud.

Every screen in the Situation Room was turned to Al Jazeera, and the Egyptian leader appeared, making a much-anticipated address. He said he would not run again, but did not offer to step down. “This is my country,” he said. “I will die on its soil.”

In the Situation Room, there was silence. Then the president spoke. “That’s not going to cut it,” he said.


Seeing the Inevitable

If this were Hollywood, the story of Barack Obama and the Arab Spring would end there, with the young American president standing with the protesters against the counsel of his own advisers, and hastening the end of the entrenched old guard in Egypt. In the Situation Room, Mr. Gates, Admiral Mullen, Jeffrey D. Feltman, then an assistant secretary of state, and others balked at the inclusion in Mr. Obama’s planned remarks that Mr. Mubarak’s “transition must begin now,” arguing that it was too aggressive.

Mr. Mubarak had steadfastly stood by the United States in the face of opposition from his own public, they said. The president, officials said, countered swiftly: “If ‘now’ is not in my remarks, there’s no point in me going out there and talking.”

John O. Brennan, chief counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Obama, said the president saw early on what others did not: that the Arab Spring movement had legs. “A lot of people were in a state of denial that this had an inevitability to it,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “And I think that’s what the president clearly saw, that there was an inevitability to it that would clearly not be turned back, and it would only be delayed by suppression and bloodshed.”

So “now” stayed in Mr. Obama’s statement. Ten days later, Mr. Mubarak was out. Even after the president’s remarks, Mrs. Clinton was still publicly cautioning that removing Mr. Mubarak too hastily could threaten the country’s transition to democracy.

In the end, many of the advisers who initially opposed Mr. Obama’s stance now give him credit for prescience. But there were consequences, and they were soon making themselves felt.


Angry Reactions

On Feb. 14, in the tiny island monarchy of Bahrain, Internet calls for a “day of rage” led to street rallies and bloody clashes with the police. The next day at a news conference in Washington, Mr. Obama seemed to suggest that this revolt was much like the others. His message to Arab allies, he said, was “if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change.”

But in the following weeks, Mr. Obama fell silent. Away from the public eye, he was coming under assault from leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, even Israel. Angry at the treatment of Mr. Mubarak, which officials from the Gulf states feared could forecast their own abandonment, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates drew a line in the sand. Some American and Arab diplomats say that response could have been avoided if Mr. Obama had worked quietly to ease Mr. Mubarak out, rather than going public.

On March 14, White House officials awoke to a nasty surprise: the Saudis had led a military incursion into Bahrain, followed by a crackdown in which the security forces cleared Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, by force. The moves were widely condemned, but Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton offered only veiled criticisms, calling for “calm and restraint on all sides” and “political dialogue.”

The reasons for Mr. Obama’s reticence were clear: Bahrain sits just off the Saudi coast, and the Saudis were never going to allow a sudden flowering of democracy next door, especially in light of the island’s sectarian makeup. Bahrain’s people are mostly Shiite, and they have long been seen as a cat’s paw for Iranian influence by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In addition, the United States maintains a naval base in Bahrain that is seen as a bulwark against Iran, crucial for maintaining the flow of oil from the region.

“We realized that the possibility of anything happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality,” said William M. Daley, President Obama’s chief of staff at the time. “For the global economy, this couldn’t happen. Yes, it was treated differently from Egypt. It was a different situation.”

Some analysts credit Mr. Obama for recognizing early on that strategic priorities trumped whatever sympathy he had for the protesters. Others say the administration could have more effectively mediated between the Bahraini government and the largely Shiite protesters, and thereby avoided what has become a sectarian standoff in one of the world’s most volatile places.

If Mr. Obama had cultivated closer ties to the Saudis, he might have bought time for negotiations between the Bahraini authorities and the chief Shiite opposition party, Al Wefaq, according to one American diplomat who was there at the time. Instead, the Saudis gave virtually no warning when their forces rolled across the causeway linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the ensuing crackdown destroyed all hopes for a peaceful resolution.

The lingering resentment over Mr. Mubarak’s ouster had another apparent consequence. Mrs. Clinton’s criticism of the military intervention in a Paris television interview angered officials of the United Arab Emirates, whose military was also involved in the Bahrain operation and who shared the Saudis’ concern about the Mubarak episode.

The Emiratis promptly threatened to withdraw from the coalition then being assembled to support a NATO-led strike against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader. The Emiratis knew they were needed to give the coalition legitimacy. They quickly named their price for staying on board, according to Arab and Western diplomats familiar with the episode: Mrs. Clinton must issue a statement that would pull back from any criticism of the Bahrain operation.

The statement, hastily drafted and vetted by Emirati and American officials, appeared soon afterward, in the guise of a communiqué on Libya.

The tensions between Mr. Obama and the Gulf states, both American and Arab diplomats say, derive from an Obama character trait: he has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders. “He’s not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him,” said one United States diplomat. “But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions.”


A Lack of Chemistry

Arab officials echo that sentiment, describing Mr. Obama as a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics. “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.

“You can’t accomplish what you want to accomplish” with such an impersonal style, the diplomat said.

Mr. Obama’s advisers argue that when he does reach out, he is more effective — as in a phone call last week to Mohamed Morsi, the new president of Egypt. After Mr. Morsi’s initial tepid response to the attacks on the embassy in Cairo, a fed-up Mr. Obama demanded a show of support. Within an hour, he had it.

“Were he to be calling all the time, it would run counter to our assertion that we won’t dictate the outcome of every decision in every country,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a top national security aide. Limiting his outreach, Mr. Rhodes said, “heightens the impact of presidential engagement” when Mr. Obama does get on the phone.

Still, there remains concern in the administration that at any moment, events could spiral out of control, leaving the president and his advisers questioning their belief that their early support for the Arab Spring would deflect longstanding public anger toward the United States.

For instance, Mr. Feltman, the former assistant secretary of state, said, “the event I find politically most disturbing is the attack on Embassy Tunis.” Angry protesters breached the grounds of the American diplomatic compound there last week — in a country previously known for its moderation and secularism — despite Mr. Obama’s early support for the democracy movement there. “That really shakes me out of complacency about what I thought I knew.”

    In Arab Spring, Obama Finds a Sharp Test, NYT, 24.9.2012,






In Tight Race, Obama Wields All Levers of Power in Reach


September 19, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — For months, government lawyers and economists worked behind the scenes to develop a trade case against China. Then last month came a eureka moment: They confirmed the existence of a Chinese subsidy program for automobiles and parts that in their view violated international trade rules. They finished a complaint, circulated it among agencies and proposed a time frame for filing.

That’s when President Obama’s political team took over, providing a textbook example of how an incumbent can harness the power of the office to bolster the case for re-election. Rather than leave it to the trade office to announce the complaint, Mr. Obama decided to do it himself. Aides scheduled it for a campaign swing to the auto-dependent battleground state of Ohio, leaked it to the state’s largest newspaper, then sent other journalists a link to the resulting story plus voter-friendly talking points.

Every president lives at the intersection of policy and politics, never more so than during a campaign season. Locked in a tight race with Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama and his team have been pulling every lever of the federal government within reach, announcing initiatives aimed at critical constituencies, dispatching cabinet secretaries to competitive areas, coordinating campaign events to match popular government actions and forestalling or even reversing other government decisions that could hurt the president’s chances of a second term.

On Friday, Mr. Obama will designate Chimney Rock in Colorado a national monument, preserving thousands of acres and aiding tourism in another swing state, a decision shared Wednesday with a Denver newspaper. When he flew to Iowa last month, Mr. Obama arrived just as his administration announced drought relief for farmers and released a report promoting his support for wind power. After critics attacked him for inhibiting oil and gas production by considering an obscure lizard for the endangered species list, the administration decided it wasn’t so endangered after all.

Some of the most significant policy announcements of recent months were keyed to important voter blocs. Mr. Obama reversed position to endorse same-sex marriage before attending a big-dollar fund-raiser with gay and lesbian leaders. Just before addressing a national Latino organization, he used executive power to allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country if they had come as children.

White House officials acknowledged that they calibrate announcements and trips to maximize the advantages of incumbency but said the policy decisions themselves were made on substance. They also noted that while cabinet secretaries travel to swing states, they also travel to states that are not competitive. And they said that on some level it is impossible to separate the candidate from the president.

“The president is not going to put off what he believes are important actions, such as protecting jobs for American workers, until after the election,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman. “These decisions are made on the merits by professionals with the relevant policy expertise, are often months in the making and always reflect the president’s longstanding positions.”

Republicans, naturally, see it differently. “He looks like he is aiding his re-election with the power of the Oval Office,” said Matt Schlapp, who was White House political director for President George W. Bush. “He looks worried, reactive. It’s fair to ask that if this China decision was for policy issues alone then why wait until right before the first debate to announce it?”

Each White House tests the boundaries. President Bill Clinton used the Lincoln Bedroom to entertain financial donors. Mr. Bush’s strategist, Karl Rove, oversaw an “asset deployment team” that managed trips and grant announcements. Both got in trouble. Mr. Clinton’s fund-raising triggered Congressional investigations while the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency, concluded that the Bush White House violated federal law by creating a “political boiler room” coordinating campaign activities.

The same agency determined last week that Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, violated the law by advocating Mr. Obama’s re-election during an official trip to North Carolina. The trip was reclassified to political and the cost reimbursed. “Keeping the roles straight can be a difficult task, particularly on mixed trips that involve both campaign and official stops on the same day,” Ms. Sebelius wrote investigators.

Other cabinet secretaries have had active travel schedules to important electoral states. Since July, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has traveled to at least 15 states for public events, according to his schedule, including Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado. During the same period in 2010, he traveled to 10 states, according to agency records. At various stops, Mr. Salazar promoted Mr. Obama’s energy and conservation policies.

Mr. Salazar took an airboat tour of the Everglades in Florida days after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited to announce $80 million for an Everglades protection program. Mr. Vilsack hinted at why that small chunk of Florida had received so much attention when he appeared at the opening of Mr. Obama’s campaign office in Port St. Lucie. “You win Florida and you win the presidency,” Mr. Vilsack said at the event. “And I have been told you win this region, you win Florida.”

While announcing new initiatives during campaign season is standard practice, Mr. Obama’s team also seems focused on stopping policies that may be politically hazardous. In June, the Interior Department rejected their own plans to designate a lizard known as the dunes sagebrush as endangered by oil and gas activities. After analysis, the department declared that “the lizard is no longer in danger of extinction.”

“The administration did not want to face criticism from the oil and gas industry during an election year,” said Taylor McKinnon, a public lands advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Blake Androff, an Interior Department spokesman, said the decision was “based entirely on the best available science and in accordance with the law,” not politics, and came only after industry and state officials agreed to voluntary conservation measures.

He added that Mr. Salazar’s travel was also extensive in non-election years, reflecting the job of overseeing hundreds of millions of acres of public land. A spokesman for Mr. Vilsack said his Florida trip was planned so he could spend one day on official business and another stumping for Mr. Obama on his own time. But on Tuesday, the same day a reporter inquired about the mixing of politics and policy on the trip, the Obama campaign sent a check for $1,606.24 to reimburse taxpayers for airfare and hotel — timing that Agriculture Department officials said was a coincidence.

When it came to the China case, officials said it was in the works for much of the year but took months to find evidence of unfair trading practices. They went down a number of blind alleys before getting the first indication of the Chinese subsidy program over the summer. Then last month, they determined it was real and deemed it a violation. At that point, officials said, there was no justification to delay filing.

And if it happened to help the campaign, Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters, “I’ll let our opponents and all you guys assess whether or not there’s a political benefit for the president.”

    In Tight Race, Obama Wields All Levers of Power in Reach, NYT, 19.9.2012,






Obama Makes Case for 2nd Term:

‘Harder’ Path to ‘Better Place’


September 6, 2012
The New York Times


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for a second term on Thursday night, making a forceful argument that he had rescued the economy from disaster and ushered in a recovery that would be imperiled by a return to Republican stewardship.

Describing himself as “mindful of my own failings,” Mr. Obama conceded the country’s continuing difficulties while defending his record and pleading for more time to carry out his agenda. He laid out a long-term blueprint for revival in an era obsessed with short-term expectations.

“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy; I never have,” Mr. Obama told a packed arena of 20,000 party leaders and activists. “You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”

He added: “But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I’m asking you to choose that future.”

The president’s appearance at the Time Warner Cable Arena underscored the tumultuous journey he and the country have been on since his first nomination in Denver. Four years after fireworks consecrated his storybook campaign to become the nation’s first black president, Mr. Obama took the stage on Thursday as a politician who had come down to earth and was locked in the fight of his life against the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

The stirring outsider’s message had become a policy-laden appeal for continuity; the mantra of reform was now a vigorous defense of his current course. The “Change” signs waved in the audience in 2008 had been replaced with placards saying “Forward.” The word “promise,” which he used 32 times in his acceptance speech in 2008, came up just 7 times on Thursday night. Even the traditional balloon drop was missing since a last-minute site change made it impossible.

Mr. Obama issued a string of promises, including one million new manufacturing jobs and $4 trillion in deficit reductions. But he was largely making the case that he had put in place the foundation for a revived country if voters only give it enough time to work. If at times it had the feel of a State of the Union address, that was an intentional effort to jab at Mr. Romney to be more specific about how he would carry out his promises, maximizing the gulf between the parties.

“They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last 30 years.”

Mr. Obama’s speech punctuated back-to-back political conventions in which the two parties, if nothing else, delivered radically different visions for how to end the economic malaise that has afflicted the country since 2008, and framed the two-month spring to Election Day.

A week after Mr. Romney sought to appeal to American disappointment with Mr. Obama, the president pressed his case that the Republican candidate is so disconnected from the struggles of the middle class that he has no idea how to address them. In sharp language, he linked Mr. Romney and his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, to what he long described as failed trickle-down economic policies that favor the wealthy, reflecting what has become a central theme.

“On every issue, the choice you face won’t just be between two candidates or two parties,” Mr. Obama said. “When all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.”

The Romney campaign released a reaction to the president’s speech before it was even delivered, assailing Mr. Obama as having failed to create enough jobs, cut the deficit in half or increase incomes. “This is a time not for him to start restating new promises, but to report on the promises he made,” Mr. Romney said in the taped statement. “I think he wants a promises reset. We want a report on the promises he made.”

Introducing Mr. Obama on Thursday night was Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who offered testimony to the president’s leadership on everything from the economy to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. “Bravery resides in the heart of Barack Obama,” he said. “This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart and steel in his spine.”

Mr. Biden was left to take the tougher shots at Mr. Romney, the former head of the private equity firm Bain Capital and former governor of Massachusetts. Noting that Mr. Romney had promised to take a jobs tour, Mr. Biden said, “Well, with his support for outsourcing, it’s going to have to be a foreign trip.”

He went on to note that Mr. Romney opposed the federal bailout of the auto industry. “I think he saw it the Bain way,” Mr. Biden said, adding: “The Bain way may bring your firm the highest profits. But it’s not the way to lead our country from the highest office.”

Mr. Biden’s nomination for a second term as vice president was approved by the convention by acclamation after his son Beau, the attorney general of Delaware, put his name up for consideration in a speech that left the vice president teary-eyed for the second consecutive night.

The emotion in the packed hall crested early, when former Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, her step faltering, walked tentatively onto the stage in a surprise appearance to lead the pledge of allegiance. Mrs. Giffords, who was shot in the head by a would-be assassin in Tucson, is still recovering, and she stumbled over the word “indivisible.” But she got through the pledge in her first real public speaking since the shooting, and blew kisses to the crowd, which surged to its feet in ovation, chanting “Gabby! Gabby!”

Given that Mr. Romney spent little time on foreign policy during his acceptance speech, it was a foregone conclusion that Mr. Obama would devote time to national security, an area where Democrats believe they have carved out a surprising advantage. They paraded a host of war veterans across the stage, some of whom chided the Republicans as taking little notice of them in Tampa last week.

“Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago,” Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said, turning a Republican line critical of the president into an argument for his re-election.

Mr. Obama said Republicans “want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly,” and Mr. Biden appeared to choke up reciting the numbers of war dead and wounded.

Still, the heart of the argument between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney is about the role of government. “This is what the election comes down to,” Mr. Obama said. “Over and over, we’ve been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way, that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.”

Highlighting Medicare, which Mr. Ryan has proposed overhauling, the president said, “No American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies.”

The president’s speech culminated a three-day convention that included a retinue of Hollywood celebrities and even a former Republican governor, Charlie Crist of Florida, plus a strong focus on social issues like same-sex marriage.

But like its Republican equivalent last week, it did not always go according to script, including an embarrassing floor fight over Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and a late decision to move the president’s speech to the Time Warner Cable Arena from the Bank of America Stadium because of inclement weather.

With thunder, lightning and rain forecast — convention goers huddled under plastic sheets as they darted between sites — organizers were left with some 65,000 supporters — many of them traveling from all over the country — without the chance to see the president in person.

The president’s aides understood they could never re-create the power of the past but hoped to convince voters that more has been done than commonly recognized. The “promises kept” theme was intended to address the same swing voters Mr. Romney sought last week to win over.

Mr. Obama directly acknowledged the disappointments. “While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings,” he said. But he added, “I have never been more hopeful about America, not because I think I have all the answers, not because I’m naïve about the magnitude of our challenges. I’m hopeful because of you.”

The president appeared to become emotional toward the end of his speech as he spoke of wounded veterans who somehow managed to walk and run and bike on prosthetic legs. He said he did not know if they would vote for him, but added that they nonetheless gave him hope that difficulties could be overcome.

His voice started to break. “If you share that faith with me, if you share that hope with me, I ask you tonight for your vote,” he said.

    Obama Makes Case for 2nd Term: ‘Harder’ Path to ‘Better Place’, NYT, 6.9.2012,






Pushed by Obama, Democrats Alter Platform Over Jerusalem


September 5, 2012
The New York Times


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Obama, seeking to quell a storm of criticism from Republicans and pro-Israel groups, directed the Democratic Party on Wednesday to amend its platform to restore language declaring Jerusalem the Israeli capital.

The change, approved in a voice vote that had to be taken three times because of a chorus of noes in the arena, reinstated the line “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel” in a section that describes Mr. Obama’s policy toward the country. That sentence was in the 2008 platform, but the Democrats removed it this year, saying that they wanted to spotlight other elements of Mr. Obama’s policy and that the platform should reflect a sitting president rather than a candidate for office.

After a day of protests, however, and the prospect of an onslaught of Republican attack ads, the president and the Democrats abruptly reversed course. The chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, said in a statement that the change was made to “maintain consistency with the personal views expressed by the president and in the Democratic Party platform in 2008.”

A senior administration official emphasized that the president had intervened to bring the platform in line with his own views. “The president expressed his view in 2008, and it hasn’t changed,” the official said. “The party platform has not changed from 2008. And the position of the United States government hasn’t changed in decades as it relates to Israel’s capital and peace negotiations.”

Delegates also voted to put “God” back in the platform, amending a section about the government’s role in helping people reach their “God-given potential.” The removal of “God-given” had left the platform without any references to God, giving Republicans a target to paint the party as out of touch with family values.

The changes were meant to be a routine bit of business, conducted by the convention’s chairman, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. But they turned into a minor spectacle after the hall seemed balanced between yes and no votes, providing an unruly start to an evening meant to showcase attacks on Mitt Romney by former President Bill Clinton and others.

The Romney campaign pounced, saying that “Mitt Romney has consistently stated his belief that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” Claiming that Mr. Obama had refused to state his position, Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said, “Now is the time for President Obama to state in unequivocal terms whether or not he believes Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”

The restoration of Jerusalem puts the platform, a largely symbolic document, at odds with the official position of the government, which is that the city’s status should be determined in a negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, proposed including language about Jerusalem’s status as the Israeli capital in written testimony to the platform drafting committee. People close to the group said it was troubled by the omission of Jerusalem.

“We welcome reinstatement to the Democratic platform of the language reaffirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” the group said in a statement after the vote.

The political status of Jerusalem is one of the most contentious issues in any potential peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority asserting that the holy city is their capital.

Among those shouting “no” on the convention floor was a delegate from Washington State, Majid al-Bahadli, who said, “Jerusalem is Arab and Jewish and Christian; it cannot be for one country.” Mr. Bahadli, an Iraqi-American who said he had been in a prisoner of war camp under Saddam Hussein, said the vote process was undemocratic.

The drafting committee held two public hearings on the text, a Democratic official said, and none of the Jewish advocacy groups in attendance, including Aipac, proposed inserting language on Jerusalem. People close to the advocacy groups said that the committee shared only “flashes” of the language with them.

The Democrats have accused Republicans of making Israel a political football by painting Mr. Obama as an unreliable partner. But it is the Democrats who have tripped up on Israel at their convention this week.

On Tuesday, Ms. Wasserman Schultz got into a dispute with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, when she told a Democratic training group that Mr. Oren had accused Republicans of endangering Israel by criticizing Mr. Obama’s record on it.

Mr. Oren issued a statement saying: “I categorically deny that I ever characterized Republican policies as harmful to Israel. Bipartisan support is a paramount national interest for Israel, and we have great friends on both sides of the aisle.”


Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.

    Pushed by Obama, Democrats Alter Platform Over Jerusalem, NYT, 5.9.2012,






Obama Delivers Defense of His Policy Efforts


July 25, 2012
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — President Obama wrapped up a three-day fund-raising swing with an emotional appearance here at the National Urban League conference, issuing a robust defense of his efforts to make higher education more affordable, to increase training programs for young people and to expand access to health care.

“From the highest court in the land, health care reform is here to stay,” the president said in a no-holds-barred presentation of what he considers the accomplishments of his term.

Announcing an education initiative for African-Americans, the president challenged his mostly black audience to take advantage of the government programs he has fought to put in place.

“I want all these young people to be getting a higher education, and I don’t want them loaded with thousands of dollars of debt,” Mr. Obama said, to a standing ovation.

Then he paused: “Of course that means all of y’all got to hit the books. Don’t cheer and then don’t do your homework.”

The president also spoke of the need to do more to keep guns out of the hands of troubled people, in the wake of the shootings last week at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Besides saying that federal and local efforts should be redoubled, he called on families to step in, as well.

“We have no greater mission as a country than to keep our young people safe,” Mr. Obama said. “But we have to understand that when a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill.”

Before Mr. Obama spoke, many members of the audience in the convention center here were moved to tears by a video that showed the highlights of the civil rights movement. Set to words and music of the black spiritual anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the video montage included the visages of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall.

It ended, as everyone knew it would, with the Obama family and America’s first black president, but that foregone conclusion did not seem to affect the emotional punch.

By the time Mr. Obama walked onto the stage, the audience had been on its feet cheering for five minutes straight.

Mr. Obama spoke about his early days as a community organizer in Chicago, and cast his efforts to retain the presidency in historical terms, talking about “the belief that in America, change is always possible.”

“Our union may not be perfect, but it is perfectible,” he said, adding that “we can strive through effort, through blood and sweat and tears until it is the place we imagined.”

In response to the speech, an aide to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign said that Mr. Romney would be a better choice for black voters because of his experience in business and as governor of Massachusetts.

Tara Wall, a senior communications adviser for the campaign, said in a statement: “As black Americans, we all take pride in Barack Obama’s historic election — but unfortunately his performance as president has not matched that enthusiasm. He’s disappointed black small business owners, failed to address rising black unemployment — which now stands at over 14 percent, and is double that among our youth — and failed to address the widening economic disparity gap.”

Mr. Obama’s appearance Wednesday before the National Urban League came at the end of the day when the issue of race flared up in the campaign.

Earlier Wednesday Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. sharply criticized what he called a “feeble attempt by the Romney campaign to score political points” overseas.

He was referring to an article in London’s Daily Telegraph — in which an unidentified Romney adviser suggests that because Mr. Romney is white he has more in common with Britain than Mr. Obama does.

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser is quoted as telling the newspaper. “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.”

Mr. Biden, in a statement that the Obama camp e-mailed to reporters, said the comments were “a disturbing start to a trip designed to demonstrate Governor Romney’s readiness to represent the United States on the world’s stage.”

He called it “just another feeble attempt by the Romney campaign to score political points at the expense of this critical partnership.”

Furious Romney campaign aides lashed back.

“Today, the race for the highest office in our land was diminished to a sad level when the vice president of the United States used an anonymous and false quote from a foreign newspaper to prop up their flailing campaign,” a Romney spokesman, Ryan Williams, said in a statement. “The president’s own press secretary has repeatedly discredited anonymous sources, yet his political advisers saw fit to advance a falsehood.”

Obama aides were not backing down.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to New Orleans, Jennifer Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman, declined to characterize the remark as race-baiting, but said, “There are countless examples, which I’m happy to provide, of occasions where Mitt Romney and his surrogates have questioned whether the president understood America or freedom, and that really goes over a line that we think they shouldn’t.”

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, called the remark “gratuitously ignorant of the facts.”

    Obama Delivers Defense of His Policy Efforts, NYT, 25.7.2012,






Obama and Romney

Do Not Change Course Over Outcry on Gun Violence


July 23, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, echoed each other in embracing the role of national grief counselor in the wake of the deadly rampage in Colorado last week, offering stirring words of condolence and comfort.

But neither has responded to calls for a renewed debate over how to prevent gun violence. Asked on Sunday whether Mr. Obama favored new gun control initiatives, his spokesman, Jay Carney, twice said the main focus of the president — who four years ago called for an assault-weapons ban — was to “protect Second Amendment rights.”

“He believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons,” Mr. Carney said on Air Force One as the president flew to Colorado to meet with survivors of the mass shooting.

“If he had said almost anything else it would be used in a fund-raising appeal by the N.R.A.,” said Representative Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon. “There are very few political leaders that think there is any opportunity in a constructive way to do something in this political climate.”

For his part, Mr. Romney reiterated Monday that he saw no need to renew the federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004.

“I still believe that the Second Amendment is the right course to preserve and defend and don’t believe that new laws are going to make a difference in this type of tragedy,” Mr. Romney told CNBC.

Both candidates have supported gun control in the past, but their views shifted as Americans have backed away from stricter gun laws, and both men have felt a political sting from earlier positions.

Mr. Obama’s remark in 2008 that rural voters “cling to guns or religion” wreaked political damage on him four years ago, exposing him to charges of elitism.

Mr. Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, signed a ban on assault weapons and quadrupled the fee for gun licenses — positions used to attack him in the primary race and pry away support by the Republican base.

Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who favors a federal ban on the type of assault weapon used in the shooting in Aurora, Colo., in which 12 people died and 58 were wounded, said even lesser gun control measures had no future in Congress.

“The political reality is at this point the American people have made the decision that gun control is ineffective, that people have the right to have weapons, and the government can’t be trusted and they’d rather trust themselves with a gun,” Mr. King said.

Surveys show support for gun control has never been lower. An annual Gallup poll of the issue in October last year found that for the first time, a majority, 53 percent, opposed a ban on semiautomatic guns, or assault rifles, and a record low 26 percent favored banning handguns. Support for stricter laws were down in all subgroups, with 64 percent of Democrats favoring stricter laws, 37 percent of independents and 31 percent of Republicans.

The reason gun control is seen as a political loser in both parties, said Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment expert at the University of California, Los Angeles law school, is that while few advocates of restrictions are single-issue voters, many opponents will vote and donate money based on the issue.

“Romney doesn’t want to offend the base he needs to turn out,” said Mr. Winkler, who wrote a book last year, “Gunfight,” about the political battle over gun rights. “Obama doesn’t want to offend the swing voters who might base their vote on the right to bear arms.”

Calls for a renewed debate over gun violence arise regularly after horrific shootings, including those at an Army post in Fort Hood, Tex., and at a political event held last year by Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

But in the last few years, bills have been introduced — to restrict sales of 100-bullet magazines or to tighten background checks — that do not go anywhere.

Supporters of gun control regularly point to the power of the National Rifle Association, whose 4.3 million members make it one of the most effective advocacy groups in Washington.

“Politicians go to the N.R.A., Democrats and Republicans, and they basically read a script, which is not much different from a hostage video,” said Steve Schmidt, an experienced Republican strategist.

At this year’s N.R.A. convention in April, Mr. Romney raised the prospect of Mr. Obama, in a second term, appointing another Supreme Court justice less favorable to the Second Amendment, and he pledged support of controversial “stand your ground” laws.

But Mr. King said that the gun-rights lobby was not the primary impediment to tighter gun laws. There has been a cultural shift in the country, he said, since traumatic gun violence in the 1960s, including political assassinations, led to gun restrictions. “It’s taken me a while to figure this out,” Mr. King said. “The majority of American people are very attached to their guns. They look on any attempt to regulate or control them as an infringement.

“It’s almost something not debated,” he said. “It is just accepted.”

    Obama and Romney Do Not Change Course Over Outcry on Gun Violence, NYT, 23.7.2012,   






Obama Consoles Aurora as City Begins Healing


July 22, 2012
The New York Times


AURORA, Colo. — President Obama came to this city on Sunday to meet with survivors of the shooting rampage at a movie theater last week, visiting the victims and their families and leading the country in mourning the 12 people killed in the attack.

“Even in the darkest of days, life continues and people are strong,” Mr. Obama said. He described sharing hugs, tears and laughs as he heard stories about loved ones lost and acts of heroism.

“I come to them not so much as president as I do as a father and as a husband,” he said.

Across the city, residents gathered at makeshift memorials to grieve as a community while condolences poured in from near and far, from Hollywood to the Vatican. As the families of victims struggled with their loss, new details emerged about the shooting suspect, James E. Holmes, and what happened when a gunman fired into a crowded theater during a midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” on Friday.

The carnage could have been worse, but one of Mr. Holmes’s weapons, a high-powered semiautomatic rifle, jammed during the shooting, a law enforcement official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said Sunday.

Police Chief Dan Oates of Aurora said that while they were making progress in the case, the investigation would take time.

“We’re focusing on how he got the materials that he got that were used in the shooting, that were used in the apartment,” he said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We’re focusing on anyone who knew him and statements he may have made. We’re building a case to show that this was a deliberative process by a very intelligent man who wanted to do this.”

The police believe that Mr. Holmes began planning his rampage for months, when he began acquiring the materials that he would use in both the shooting and to rig his apartment.

There were also clues as to how Mr. Holmes might have paid for the weapons and other materials he acquired. He was receiving a $26,000 stipend, in monthly installments of $2,166, for a National Institutes of Health neuroscience training grant for the graduate program he was enrolled in at the University of Colorado-Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, a spokeswoman said. Mr. Holmes withdrew from the program last month without explanation, the university said.

Mr. Holmes was being held in solitary confinement at an Aurora jail, awaiting his arraignment Monday morning.

Mr. Obama never mentioned Mr. Holmes by name during his remarks, instead referring to “the perpetrator of this evil act.”

“In the end, after he has felt the full force of our justice system, what will be remembered are the good people who were impacted by this tragedy,” Mr. Obama said.

The president focused his remarks on the “remarkable” stories he was told.

“Most of the conversation was filled with memory,” Mr. Obama said. “It was an opportunity for families to describe how wonderful their brother or their son or daughter was, and the lives that they had touched and the dreams that they had held for the future.”

He told the story of one girl he met, Allie Young, 19, who was shot in the neck. She survived, Mr. Obama said, because her 21-year-old friend, Stephanie, laid by her side and stanched her bleeding even as shots continued to ring out.

“Allie told Stephanie she needed to run. Stephanie refused to go,” the president said. “Because of Stephanie’s timely actions, I just had a conversation with Allie downstairs and she is going to be fine.”

The president spoke at the University of Colorado Medical Center, where 23 of the victims from the shooting were treated. By the time he arrived on Sunday, one was dead, 12 had been released, leaving 10 patients: 7 still in critical condition and 3 in good condition, a hospital spokesman said.

The president, along with his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, suspended all campaigning for the weekend. Mr. Romney, speaking at a fund-raiser in San Fransisco Sunday night, praised Mr. Obama’s decision to travel to Aurora.

Condolences poured into the small Colorado city from across the country and around the world. Pope Benedict XVI added his condolences during his Sunday morning blessing.

“I was deeply shocked by the senseless violence,” he said.

In Aurora, hundreds of people gathered throughout the day around a growing memorial across the street from the theater. A collection of teddy bears, flowers, posters, candles and notes steadily grew as friends, families and strangers gathered, seeking solace in community.

In the evening, thousands of people, including families of the victims, members of the military and elected officials, attended a prayer vigil held at the Aurora Municipal Center

Several young people wearing Batman T-shirts lined up and held a sign that read, “Like the Dark Knight we will rise again.”

“His story was that we’re all capable of rising above tragedy and being great heroes, and that’s the message we’re trying to portray,” said Kronda Seibert, 26, who was wearing one of the T-shirts.

On top of a small hill overlooking the memorial by the theater, Greg Zanis erected 12 white crosses in honor of each of the dead.

It was a familiar task for Mr. Zanis. After the Columbine High School shooting more than a decade ago, he delivered 15 crosses to Littleton, Colo., for those who had died. Mr. Zanis, who builds electric cars for a living, has made it a weekend hobby to build and deliver crosses to people around the country who have experienced tragedy. He said he had received calls asking him to bring crosses to Aurora, so he constructed them Saturday morning and then made the 16-hour drive from his home in Aurora, Ill.

Lori Furman, 53, laid a bouquet of gladiolus on the memorial Sunday morning when she visited with her husband, Ray. Both wore black ribbons that they got at church earlier in the morning.

“It’s been a hard summer,” Ms. Furman said. “We had friends, acquaintances who lost their homes in the fire. Now this.”

Standing next to the memorial, Jeannie Donelson removed her sunglasses and dried her eyes with a scrunched tissue. This tragedy was close to home. One of the boys who died was a friend of her niece and nephew. The 6-year-old victim was related to a friend of her niece’s.

“I guess just to be able to say goodbye,” Ms. Donelson, 49, said of why she visited the memorial. “Bring some closure.”

Moses Kalemba and his wife, Theopista, arrived from New Hampshire hours after the shooting for a wedding on Sunday. “I wouldn’t say we felt obligated,” Mr. Kalemba said of their visit to the memorial. “We just felt it was the right thing to do. I think this kind of tragedy is one of those things that really gets to you.”

Residents who had been displaced by the threat of explosives in Mr. Holmes’s apartment were looking to return to their normal routines.

Lugging his work uniform and a shopping bag with leftover chicken and cheesecake, Jimmy Davis said the end was in sight, literally, as he strode toward his small apartment building early Sunday after spending two nights in a nearby motel.

“I feel like a hurricane victim or something,” he said. “But now I am going home, turning on the air-conditioner and chilling out.”

Dmitri Shchekochikhin, 27, an international fellow and researcher from Moscow who is studying heart and kidney disease at the same university Mr. Holmes had attended, was not so fortunate. He lived in Mr. Holmes’s building and on Sunday was allowed only to recover some essentials: two cellphones, a computer, a thumb drive, a pair of shoes and a bag of clothes.

Unshaven and seeming agitated, Mr. Shchekochikhin, who has been staying with friends, said he took only his passport, wallet and plane tickets with him after the police instructed him to evacuate in the early hours of Friday.

“I had finished a big project and then drank a bottle of dry, red wine and fell asleep,” he said. Several hours later, the police banged on his door.


John Eligon and Serge F. Kovaleski reported from Aurora,

and Marc Santora from New York.

Reporting was contributed by Dan Frosch, Jack Healy, Helene Cooper

and Erica Goode.

    Obama Consoles Aurora as City Begins Healing, NYT, 22.7.2012,






Obama Visits Colorado as Firefighting Progresses


June 29, 2012
The New York Times


COLORADO SPRINGS — As President Obama arrived here on Friday to tour the aftermath of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, fire crews said they were slowly hemming in the blaze and beginning to reopen a few neighborhoods where residents had fled gales of ash and smoke.

Although plumes of smoke still curled skyward from the mountains above Colorado’s second-largest city, local authorities said the 17,000-acre blaze was not spreading and had been 25 percent contained. And some of the 32,000 people evacuated earlier this week returned home, unloading the suitcases, photo albums and pets they had hurriedly packed up as the fires descended down the hillsides.

But as officials reported tentative progress, they also offered a clearer picture of the extent of the damage. At least two bodies were found in a burned home, and fewer than 10 people were unaccounted for. More than 340 homes have been destroyed. Aerial photographs published by The Denver Post showed blocks of subdivisions reduced to ash and splinters, some homes standing intact while the ones next door were burned flat.

In some of the worst-hit neighborhoods, which Mr. Obama visited, expensive homes had collapsed into heaps of rubble, with only their chimneys still standing. Burned trees stood like charred skeletons, and the shells of abandoned cars squatted in the streets.

“In some of these subdivisions, the devastation is enormous,” Mr. Obama said after he walked through the area. “It’s still early in the fire season, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

On Friday, Mr. Obama declared a national disaster here and in another fire-stricken county in northern Colorado, making them eligible for federal funds.

The blaze, known as the Waldo Canyon fire, is only one of nearly five dozen wildfires raging across the arid West. The unusually fierce early-season fires have placed a heavy strain on the government’s firefighting resources, prompting criticism by some Republican politicians that the Forest Service was not moving quickly enough to corral additional large air tankers to douse the blazes.

“Every hour that goes by is an hour that could be that turning point,” Representative Elton Gallegly, Republican of California, said in an interview. “That’s what’s so doggone frustrating.”

In northern Colorado, firefighters were still struggling to contain a sprawling blaze in the foothills outside Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University. In western Colorado, a blaze erupted outside Grand Junction along Interstate 70, the state’s major east-west artery, and quickly grew to 16,750 acres, prompting 50 calls for evacuation.

Throughout the day, as evacuees in Colorado Springs passed time on shelter cots or downed cup after cup of coffee, fire crews said they were focused on trying to contain another flank of the fire. Helicopters and tankers buzzed through the hazy skies west of the city, and Rich Harvey, the fire’s incident commander, said crews were “putting muscle on the ground in front of this fire.”

Even without any rain, fire officials said that lighter breezes and less intense temperatures were helping their efforts.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Colorado Springs residents who had been forced to evacuate learned at a meeting on Thursday night whether their homes had been gutted or had survived.

The owners of the Flying W Ranch, which hosted popular cowboy-themed suppers and summertime concerts, said the ranch had burned to the ground, and two members of the Flying W Wranglers, a musical cowboy quartet, had lost their homes.

“We ask that you pray for all the families within the area,” the ranch’s staff wrote in a message on its Web site, “and we assure you we will do our best to hopefully rebuild.”

Other residents, like Timitra Stewart, 32, were still in the dark but feared the worst.

“It looks like my house is gone,” said Ms. Stewart, a stay-at-home mother of four. She said she was chased from her hillside home in the Wilson Ranch neighborhood by a “volcanic eruption” of advancing flames. “It came down that hill so fast. We were covered in smoke. The flames were right there.”

Ms. Stewart said she had bundled her children into her car with a few belongings and raced away. She has not been home since Tuesday. And with scant insurance to cover her belongings, she said she dreaded what she would find when she returned home.

“It’s devastating for all of us,” she said.

    Obama Visits Colorado as Firefighting Progresses, NYT, 29.6.2012,






Obama Was Pushed by Drug Industry, E-Mails Suggest


June 8, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — After weeks of talks, drug industry lobbyists were growing nervous. To cut a deal with the White House on overhauling health care, they needed to be sure that President Obama would stop a proposal intended to bring down medicine prices.

On June 3, 2009, one of the lobbyists e-mailed Nancy-Ann DeParle, the president’s health care adviser. Ms. DeParle reassured the lobbyist. Although Mr. Obama was overseas, she wrote, she and other top officials had “made decision, based on how constructive you guys have been, to oppose importation” on a different proposal.

Just like that, Mr. Obama’s staff signaled a willingness to put aside support for the reimportation of prescription medicines at lower prices and by doing so solidified a compact with an industry the president had vilified on the campaign trail. Central to Mr. Obama’s drive to remake the nation’s health care system was an unlikely collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry that forced unappealing trade-offs.

The e-mail exchange three years ago was among a cache of messages obtained from the industry and released in recent weeks by House Republicans — including a new batch put out Friday detailing the industry’s advertising campaign supporting Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul. The broad contours of his dealings with the industry were known in 2009, but the newly public e-mails open a window into the compromises underlying a health care law now awaiting the judgment of the Supreme Court.

Mr. Obama’s deal-making in 2009 represented a pivotal moment in his young presidency, a juncture where the heady idealism of the campaign trail collided with the messy reality of Washington policy making. A president who had promised to negotiate on C-Span cut a closed-door deal with a powerful lobby, signifying to disillusioned liberal supporters a loss of innocence, or perhaps even the triumph of cynicism.

But the bargain was one that the president deemed necessary to forestall industry opposition that had thwarted efforts to cover the uninsured for generations. Without the deal, in which the industry agreed to provide $80 billion to expand coverage in exchange for protection from policies that would cost more, Mr. Obama calculated he might get nowhere.

“Throughout his campaign, President Obama was clear that he would bring every stakeholder to the table in order to pass health reform, even longtime opponents like the pharmaceutical industry,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said Friday. “He understood correctly that the unwillingness to work with people on both sides of the issue was one of the reasons why it took a century to pass health reform.”

Republicans see the deal as hypocritical. “He said it was going to be the most open and honest and transparent administration ever and lobbyists won’t be drafting the bills,” said Representative Michael C. Burgess of Texas, a Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee examining the deal. “Then when it came time, the door closed, the lobbyists came in and the bills were written.”

Some liberals bothered by the deal in 2009 now find the Republican criticism hard to take given the party’s longstanding ties to the industry.

“Republicans trumpeting these e-mails is like a fox complaining someone else raided the chicken coop,” said Robert Reich, who was labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. “Sad to say, it’s called politics in an era when big corporations have an effective veto over major legislation affecting them and when the G.O.P. is usually the beneficiary.”

In a statement, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry lobby known as PhRMA, called its interactions with the White House part of its mission to “ensure patient access” to high-quality medicine: “Before, during and since the health care debate, PhRMA engaged with Congress and the administration to advance these priorities,” the lobby statement said.

If the negotiations resembled deal-making by past presidents, what distinguished them was that Mr. Obama had strongly rejected business as usual. During his campaign, he singled out the power of the pharmaceutical industry and its chief lobbyist, former Representative Billy Tauzin, a Democrat-turned-Republican from Louisiana.

“The pharmaceutical industry wrote into the prescription drug plan that Medicare could not negotiate with drug companies,” Mr. Obama said in a campaign advertisement, referring to 2003 legislation. “And you know what? The chairman of the committee who pushed the law through went to work for the pharmaceutical industry making $2 million a year.”

Mr. Obama continued: “That’s an example of the same old game playing in Washington. You know, I don’t want to learn how to play the game better. I want to put an end to the game playing.”

The e-mails document tumultuous negotiations, at certain times transactional, at others prickly. Each side suspected the other of operating in bad faith. Led by Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff at the time, and Jim Messina, his deputy, the White House appeared deeply involved, and not averse to pressure tactics.

In May, the White House was upset industry had not signed on to a joint statement. One industry official urged colleagues to sign: “Rahm is already furious. The ire will be turned on us.” By June, tension flared again. “Barack Obama is going to announce in his Saturday radio address support for rebating all of D unless we come to a deal,” wrote Bryant Hall, a PhRMA lobbyist, referring to a Medicare Part D change that would cost the industry.

A public confrontation was averted and an agreement announced, negotiated down to $80 billion from $100 billion. “We got a good deal,” Mr. Hall wrote.

The White House thought it did, too, and defended it against Democrats in Congress. “WH is working on some very explicit language on importation to kill it in health care reform,” Mr. Hall wrote in September.

Mr. Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago; Mr. Messina, now the president’s campaign manager; Ms. DeParle, now deputy White House chief of staff; and Mr. Bryant, now heading his own firm, all declined to comment.

The e-mails released Friday also underscored detailed discussions about an advertising campaign supporting Mr. Obama’s health overhaul. “They plan to hit up the ‘bad guys’ for most of the $,” a union official wrote after an April meeting. “They want us to just put in enough to be able to put our names in it — he is thinking @100K.” In July, Mr. Hall wrote, “Rahm asked for Harry and Louise ads thru third party,” referring to the characters the industry had used to defeat Mr. Clinton’s health care proposal 15 years earlier.

Industry and Democratic officials said advertising was an outgrowth of the deal, not its goal. The industry traditionally advertises for legislation it supports.

In the end, balky House Democrats imposed additional conditions on the industry that pushed the cost above $100 billion, but the more sweeping policies it feared remained out of the legislation. Mr. Obama signed it in March 2010. He had the victory he wanted.

    Obama Was Pushed by Drug Industry, E-Mails Suggest, NYT, 8.6.2012,






Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran


June 1, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons, according to participants in the program.

Mr. Obama decided to accelerate the attacks — begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games — even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran’s Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet. Computer security experts who began studying the worm, which had been developed by the United States and Israel, gave it a name: Stuxnet.

At a tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days of the worm’s “escape,” Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Leon E. Panetta, considered whether America’s most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts had been fatally compromised.

“Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked, according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.

Told it was unclear how much the Iranians knew about the code, and offered evidence that it was still causing havoc, Mr. Obama decided that the cyberattacks should proceed. In the following weeks, the Natanz plant was hit by a newer version of the computer worm, and then another after that. The last of that series of attacks, a few weeks after Stuxnet was detected around the world, temporarily took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time to purify uranium.

This account of the American and Israeli effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program is based on interviews over the past 18 months with current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts. None would allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day.

These officials gave differing assessments of how successful the sabotage program was in slowing Iran’s progress toward developing the ability to build nuclear weapons. Internal Obama administration estimates say the effort was set back by 18 months to two years, but some experts inside and outside the government are more skeptical, noting that Iran’s enrichment levels have steadily recovered, giving the country enough fuel today for five or more weapons, with additional enrichment.

Whether Iran is still trying to design and build a weapon is in dispute. The most recent United States intelligence estimate concludes that Iran suspended major parts of its weaponization effort after 2003, though there is evidence that some remnants of it continue.

Iran initially denied that its enrichment facilities had been hit by Stuxnet, then said it had found the worm and contained it. Last year, the nation announced that it had begun its own military cyberunit, and Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, the head of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization, said that the Iranian military was prepared “to fight our enemies” in “cyberspace and Internet warfare.” But there has been scant evidence that it has begun to strike back.

The United States government only recently acknowledged developing cyberweapons, and it has never admitted using them. There have been reports of one-time attacks against personal computers used by members of Al Qaeda, and of contemplated attacks against the computers that run air defense systems, including during the NATO-led air attack on Libya last year. But Olympic Games was of an entirely different type and sophistication.

It appears to be the first time the United States has repeatedly used cyberweapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure, achieving, with computer code, what until then could be accomplished only by bombing a country or sending in agents to plant explosives. The code itself is 50 times as big as the typical computer worm, Carey Nachenberg, a vice president of Symantec, one of the many groups that have dissected the code, said at a symposium at Stanford University in April. Those forensic investigations into the inner workings of the code, while picking apart how it worked, came to no conclusions about who was responsible.

A similar process is now under way to figure out the origins of another cyberweapon called Flame that was recently discovered to have attacked the computers of Iranian officials, sweeping up information from those machines. But the computer code appears to be at least five years old, and American officials say that it was not part of Olympic Games. They have declined to say whether the United States was responsible for the Flame attack.

Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons — even under the most careful and limited circumstances — could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.

“We discussed the irony, more than once,” one of his aides said. Another said that the administration was resistant to developing a “grand theory for a weapon whose possibilities they were still discovering.” Yet Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.

If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work. Israel could carry out a conventional military attack, prompting a conflict that could spread throughout the region.

A Bush Initiative

The impetus for Olympic Games dates from 2006, when President George W. Bush saw few good options in dealing with Iran. At the time, America’s European allies were divided about the cost that imposing sanctions on Iran would have on their own economies. Having falsely accused Saddam Hussein of reconstituting his nuclear program in Iraq, Mr. Bush had little credibility in publicly discussing another nation’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranians seemed to sense his vulnerability, and, frustrated by negotiations, they resumed enriching uranium at an underground site at Natanz, one whose existence had been exposed just three years before.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took reporters on a tour of the plant and described grand ambitions to install upward of 50,000 centrifuges. For a country with only one nuclear power reactor — whose fuel comes from Russia — to say that it needed fuel for its civilian nuclear program seemed dubious to Bush administration officials. They feared that the fuel could be used in another way besides providing power: to create a stockpile that could later be enriched to bomb-grade material if the Iranians made a political decision to do so.

Hawks in the Bush administration like Vice President Dick Cheney urged Mr. Bush to consider a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities before they could produce fuel suitable for a weapon. Several times, the administration reviewed military options and concluded that they would only further inflame a region already at war, and would have uncertain results.

For years the C.I.A. had introduced faulty parts and designs into Iran’s systems — even tinkering with imported power supplies so that they would blow up — but the sabotage had had relatively little effect. General James E. Cartwright, who had established a small cyberoperation inside the United States Strategic Command, which is responsible for many of America’s nuclear forces, joined intelligence officials in presenting a radical new idea to Mr. Bush and his national security team. It involved a far more sophisticated cyberweapon than the United States had designed before.

The goal was to gain access to the Natanz plant’s industrial computer controls. That required leaping the electronic moat that cut the Natanz plant off from the Internet — called the air gap, because it physically separates the facility from the outside world. The computer code would invade the specialized computers that command the centrifuges.

The first stage in the effort was to develop a bit of computer code called a beacon that could be inserted into the computers, which were made by the German company Siemens and an Iranian manufacturer, to map their operations. The idea was to draw the equivalent of an electrical blueprint of the Natanz plant, to understand how the computers control the giant silvery centrifuges that spin at tremendous speeds. The connections were complex, and unless every circuit was understood, efforts to seize control of the centrifuges could fail.

Eventually the beacon would have to “phone home” — literally send a message back to the headquarters of the National Security Agency that would describe the structure and daily rhythms of the enrichment plant. Expectations for the plan were low; one participant said the goal was simply to “throw a little sand in the gears” and buy some time. Mr. Bush was skeptical, but lacking other options, he authorized the effort.

Breakthrough, Aided by Israel

It took months for the beacons to do their work and report home, complete with maps of the electronic directories of the controllers and what amounted to blueprints of how they were connected to the centrifuges deep underground.

Then the N.S.A. and a secret Israeli unit respected by American intelligence officials for its cyberskills set to work developing the enormously complex computer worm that would become the attacker from within.

The unusually tight collaboration with Israel was driven by two imperatives. Israel’s Unit 8200, a part of its military, had technical expertise that rivaled the N.S.A.’s, and the Israelis had deep intelligence about operations at Natanz that would be vital to making the cyberattack a success. But American officials had another interest, to dissuade the Israelis from carrying out their own pre-emptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. To do that, the Israelis would have to be convinced that the new line of attack was working. The only way to convince them, several officials said in interviews, was to have them deeply involved in every aspect of the program.

Soon the two countries had developed a complex worm that the Americans called “the bug.” But the bug needed to be tested. So, under enormous secrecy, the United States began building replicas of Iran’s P-1 centrifuges, an aging, unreliable design that Iran purchased from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear chief who had begun selling fuel-making technology on the black market. Fortunately for the United States, it already owned some P-1s, thanks to the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

When Colonel Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003, he turned over the centrifuges he had bought from the Pakistani nuclear ring, and they were placed in storage at a weapons laboratory in Tennessee. The military and intelligence officials overseeing Olympic Games borrowed some for what they termed “destructive testing,” essentially building a virtual replica of Natanz, but spreading the test over several of the Energy Department’s national laboratories to keep even the most trusted nuclear workers from figuring out what was afoot.

Those first small-scale tests were surprisingly successful: the bug invaded the computers, lurking for days or weeks, before sending instructions to speed them up or slow them down so suddenly that their delicate parts, spinning at supersonic speeds, self-destructed. After several false starts, it worked. One day, toward the end of Mr. Bush’s term, the rubble of a centrifuge was spread out on the conference table in the Situation Room, proof of the potential power of a cyberweapon. The worm was declared ready to test against the real target: Iran’s underground enrichment plant.

“Previous cyberattacks had effects limited to other computers,” Michael V. Hayden, the former chief of the C.I.A., said, declining to describe what he knew of these attacks when he was in office. “This is the first attack of a major nature in which a cyberattack was used to effect physical destruction,” rather than just slow another computer, or hack into it to steal data.

“Somebody crossed the Rubicon,” he said.

Getting the worm into Natanz, however, was no easy trick. The United States and Israel would have to rely on engineers, maintenance workers and others — both spies and unwitting accomplices — with physical access to the plant. “That was our holy grail,” one of the architects of the plan said. “It turns out there is always an idiot around who doesn’t think much about the thumb drive in their hand.”

In fact, thumb drives turned out to be critical in spreading the first variants of the computer worm; later, more sophisticated methods were developed to deliver the malicious code.

The first attacks were small, and when the centrifuges began spinning out of control in 2008, the Iranians were mystified about the cause, according to intercepts that the United States later picked up. “The thinking was that the Iranians would blame bad parts, or bad engineering, or just incompetence,” one of the architects of the early attack said.

The Iranians were confused partly because no two attacks were exactly alike. Moreover, the code would lurk inside the plant for weeks, recording normal operations; when it attacked, it sent signals to the Natanz control room indicating that everything downstairs was operating normally. “This may have been the most brilliant part of the code,” one American official said.

Later, word circulated through the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, that the Iranians had grown so distrustful of their own instruments that they had assigned people to sit in the plant and radio back what they saw.

“The intent was that the failures should make them feel they were stupid, which is what happened,” the participant in the attacks said. When a few centrifuges failed, the Iranians would close down whole “stands” that linked 164 machines, looking for signs of sabotage in all of them. “They overreacted,” one official said. “We soon discovered they fired people.”

Imagery recovered by nuclear inspectors from cameras at Natanz — which the nuclear agency uses to keep track of what happens between visits — showed the results. There was some evidence of wreckage, but it was clear that the Iranians had also carted away centrifuges that had previously appeared to be working well.

But by the time Mr. Bush left office, no wholesale destruction had been accomplished. Meeting with Mr. Obama in the White House days before his inauguration, Mr. Bush urged him to preserve two classified programs, Olympic Games and the drone program in Pakistan. Mr. Obama took Mr. Bush’s advice.

The Stuxnet Surprise

Mr. Obama came to office with an interest in cyberissues, but he had discussed them during the campaign mostly in terms of threats to personal privacy and the risks to infrastructure like the electrical grid and the air traffic control system. He commissioned a major study on how to improve America’s defenses and announced it with great fanfare in the East Room.

What he did not say then was that he was also learning the arts of cyberwar. The architects of Olympic Games would meet him in the Situation Room, often with what they called the “horse blanket,” a giant foldout schematic diagram of Iran’s nuclear production facilities. Mr. Obama authorized the attacks to continue, and every few weeks — certainly after a major attack — he would get updates and authorize the next step. Sometimes it was a strike riskier and bolder than what had been tried previously.

“From his first days in office, he was deep into every step in slowing the Iranian program — the diplomacy, the sanctions, every major decision,” a senior administration official said. “And it’s safe to say that whatever other activity might have been under way was no exception to that rule.”

But the good luck did not last. In the summer of 2010, shortly after a new variant of the worm had been sent into Natanz, it became clear that the worm, which was never supposed to leave the Natanz machines, had broken free, like a zoo animal that found the keys to the cage. It fell to Mr. Panetta and two other crucial players in Olympic Games — General Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael J. Morell, the deputy director of the C.I.A. — to break the news to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.

An error in the code, they said, had led it to spread to an engineer’s computer when it was hooked up to the centrifuges. When the engineer left Natanz and connected the computer to the Internet, the American- and Israeli-made bug failed to recognize that its environment had changed. It began replicating itself all around the world. Suddenly, the code was exposed, though its intent would not be clear, at least to ordinary computer users.

“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” one of the briefers told the president, “and we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”

Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” he said. “They went too far.”

In fact, both the Israelis and the Americans had been aiming for a particular part of the centrifuge plant, a critical area whose loss, they had concluded, would set the Iranians back considerably. It is unclear who introduced the programming error.

The question facing Mr. Obama was whether the rest of Olympic Games was in jeopardy, now that a variant of the bug was replicating itself “in the wild,” where computer security experts can dissect it and figure out its purpose.

“I don’t think we have enough information,” Mr. Obama told the group that day, according to the officials. But in the meantime, he ordered that the cyberattacks continue. They were his best hope of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program unless economic sanctions began to bite harder and reduced Iran’s oil revenues.

Within a week, another version of the bug brought down just under 1,000 centrifuges. Olympic Games was still on.

A Weapon’s Uncertain Future

American cyberattacks are not limited to Iran, but the focus of attention, as one administration official put it, “has been overwhelmingly on one country.” There is no reason to believe that will remain the case for long. Some officials question why the same techniques have not been used more aggressively against North Korea. Others see chances to disrupt Chinese military plans, forces in Syria on the way to suppress the uprising there, and Qaeda operations around the world. “We’ve considered a lot more attacks than we have gone ahead with,” one former intelligence official said.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly told his aides that there are risks to using — and particularly to overusing — the weapon. In fact, no country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.

This article is adapted from “Confront and Conceal:

Obama’s Secret Wars

and Surprising Use of American Power,”
to be published by Crown on Tuesday.

    Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran, NYT, 1.6.2012,




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