History > 2009 > USA > Politics > White House /
20 April 2009
President Barack Obama
Obama Offers Tribute
to ‘a Defender of a Dream’
August 27, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY
OAK BLUFFS, Mass. — President Obama on Wednesday praised the
life and legacy of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, calling him “one of the most
accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy.”
“His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws, and reflected in millions
of lives,” Mr. Obama said. “In seniors who know new dignity, in families who
know new opportunity, in children who know education’s promise — and in all who
can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just, including
The president echoed the sentiment expressed by political figures of both
parties across America and around the world who paid tribute to the
An era of Democratic politics and 30 years separated Mr. Obama and Mr. Kennedy,
but they grew exceedingly close during the presidential race last year, when Mr.
Kennedy’s endorsement provided a critical lift to Mr. Obama’s candidacy. They
last saw each other nearly five months ago, but aides said they spoke
occasionally by phone, largely about the president’s challenge in remaking the
nation’s health care system.
The president did not mention legislation during a brief televised statement. It
was premature, administration officials said, to know if the senator’s death
would change the course of a bitter Congressional debate on health care.
“His extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end. His extraordinary work
lives on,” Mr. Obama said, speaking from the Blue Heron Farm in the town of
Chilmark. “For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was a defender of
Word that Mr. Kennedy had succumbed to brain cancer reached Mr. Obama as he
vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, just across the Nantucket Sound from the
Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. An aide woke up the president with the news
shortly after 2 a.m. He conveyed his condolences in a telephone call to Mr.
Kennedy’s wife, Vicki, at about 2:25 a.m., said Robert Gibbs, the White House
An American flag, which was lowered to half-staff shortly after sunrise in Oak
Bluffs, waved in the breeze against the backdrop of the rippling Atlantic.
Residents and tourists on this tiny Massachusetts island gathered around
televisions in cafes to watch coverage of the senator’s death.
“His fight has given us the opportunity that was denied us when his brothers
John and Robert were taken from us,” Mr. Obama said, “the blessing of time to
say thank you and goodbye.”
Funeral arrangements have not been announced, but aides said Mr. Obama would
deliver a eulogy at the funeral Mass. It is a bookend to his first appearance
with Mr. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, when Mr. Obama
was preceded on stage in Boston for his national political debut by Mr. Kennedy
in a symbolic showcase of the party’s dean and its new generation.
“I valued his wise counsel in the Senate, where, regardless of the swirl of
events, he always had time for a new colleague,” Mr. Obama said earlier
Wednesday in a statement. “I cherished his confidence and momentous support in
my race for the presidency.”
The decision by Mr. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Democratic Party, to support
Mr. Obama’s candidacy served as a critical moment in the long primary fight with
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. For weeks, the Clintons had implored Mr. Kennedy
to stay neutral in the race, but on Jan. 28, 2008, he said he grew troubled by
the tone of the campaign and issued his endorsement before campaigning across
the country on Mr. Obama’s behalf.
His decision to back Mr. Obama created a significant rift with former President
Bill Clinton, associates of both men have said, which forever changed their
relationship. Mr. Kennedy appeared with Mr. Obama at American University in
Washington, asking Democrats “to turn the page on the old politics of
misrepresentation and distortion.”
“He will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past,”
Mr. Kennedy said that day, interrupting his speech more than once to embrace Mr.
Obama. “He is a leader who sees the world clearly without being cynical.”
Mr. Obama told friends that appearing with Mr. Kennedy and other members of the
family at American University was among his favorite moments of the campaign.
As Mr. Kennedy’s battle with brain cancer wore on in recent months, he would
occasionally speak by telephone to Mr. Obama. There was considerable speculation
that during Mr. Obama’s vacation to Martha’s Vineyard this week, he would visit
Mr. Kennedy and his family, but aides said the senator’s condition was too grave
and a presidential visit would be too disruptive.
“For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the
civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his
name and resulted from his efforts,” Mr. Obama said in his statement on
Wednesday morning. He added, “The Kennedy family has lost their patriarch, a
tower of strength and support through good times and bad.”
Mr. Obama is scheduled to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard through Sunday. Aides
said that there were no immediate plans for him to visit the Kennedy family, but
his schedule was pending until funeral arrangements for the senator were
Others across the political landscape, both in the United States and abroad,
echoed the president’s sentiments early Wednesday.
Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the Senate majority leader, said: “The
Kennedy family and the Senate family have together lost our patriarch... . The
liberal lion’s mighty roar may now fall silent, but his dream shall never die.”
But Mr. Kennedy’s death also evoked impassioned expressions of sympathy and
respect from across the aisle.
A senior Senate Republican, Orrin Hatch of Utah, said, “I have to say there are
very few people in my lifetime that I’ve had more respect, and now reverence,
for, than Ted Kennedy.” He called the late lawmaker “an iconic, larger-than-life
United States senator whose influence cannot be overstated.”
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain called Senator Kennedy “a great and
good man” who had inspired “admiration, respect and devotion, not just in
America but around the world.”
He lauded Mr. Kennedy for his efforts to promote peace in Northern Ireland: “I
saw his focus and determination firsthand in Northern Ireland, where his
passionate commitment was matched with a practical understanding of what needed
to be done to bring about peace and to sustain it. I was delighted he could join
us in Belfast the day devolved government was restored. My thoughts and prayers
today are with all his family and friends as they reflect on the loss of a great
and good man.”
Obama Offers Tribute
to ‘a Defender of a Dream’, NYT, 27.8.2009,
Afghanistan Poses Tough Choices for Obama
August 24, 2009
Filed at 3:34 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- With the nation's top military officer calling the
situation in Afghanistan dire, President Barack Obama soon may face two equally
unattractive choices: increase U.S. troops to beat back a resilient enemy, or
stick with the 68,000 already committed and risk the political fallout if that's
Adm. Mike Mullen on Sunday described the situation in Afghanistan as ''serious
and deteriorating,'' but refused to say whether additional forces would be
''Afghanistan is very vulnerable in terms of (the) Taliban and extremists taking
over again, and I don't think that threat's going to go away,'' he said.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is
completing an assessment of what he needs to win the fight there. That review,
however, won't specifically address force levels, according to Mullen, the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But military officials privately believe McChrystal may ask for as many as
20,000 additional forces to get an increasingly difficult security situation in
Afghanistan under control. And one leading Republican is already saying
McChrystal will be pressured to ask for fewer troops than he requires.
''I think there are great pressures on General McChrystal to reduce those
estimates,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in an interview broadcast Sunday on
ABC's ''This Week.'' ''I don't think it's necessarily from the president. I
think it's from the people around him and others that I think don't want to see
a significant increase in our troops' presence there.''
Mullen also expressed concern about diminishing support among a war-weary
American public as the U.S. and NATO enter their ninth year of combat and
In joint TV interviews, Mullen and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said last
week's presidential election in Afghanistan was historic, given the threats of
intimidation voters faced as they headed to polling stations. It could be
several weeks, however, before it's known whether incumbent Hamid Karzai or one
of his challengers won.
Charges of fraud in the election are extensive enough to possibly sway the final
result, and the number of allegations is likely to grow, according to the
independent Electoral Complaints Commission, the U.N.-backed body investigating
Obama's strategy for defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida is a work in progress as
more U.S. troops are sent there, Mullen said.
Three years ago, the U.S. had about 20,000 forces in the country. Today, it has
triple that, on the way to 68,000 by year's end when all the extra 17,000 troops
that Obama announced in March are in place. An additional 4,000 troops will help
train Afghan forces.
Mullen said the security situation in Afghanistan needs to be reversed in the
next 12 to 18 months.
''I think it is serious and it is deteriorating, and I've said that over the
last couple of years, that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more
sophisticated,'' he said.
Just over 50 percent of respondents to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released
this past week said the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.
Mullen, a Vietnam veteran, said he's aware that public support for the war is
critical. ''Certainly the numbers are of concern,'' he said.
''We're just getting the pieces in place from the president's new strategy on
the ground now,'' he said. ''I don't see this as a mission of endless drift. I
think we know what to do.''
McChrystal's orders from Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were ''to go
out, assess where you are, and then tell us what you need,'' Mullen said.
''And we'll get to that point. And I want to, I guess, assure you or reassure
you that he hasn't asked for any additional troops up until this point in
time,'' he said.
Mullen and Eikenberry appeared on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' and CNN's ''State of
On the Net:
Afghanistan Poses Tough
Choices for Obama, NYT, 24.8.2009,
Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?
August 23, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — President Obama had not even taken office before supporters were
etching his likeness onto Mount Rushmore as another Abraham Lincoln or the
second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Yet what if they got the wrong predecessor? What if Mr. Obama is fated to be
another Lyndon B. Johnson instead?
To be sure, such historical analogies are overly simplistic and fatally flawed,
if only because each presidency is distinct in its own way. But the L.B.J. model
— a president who aspired to reshape America at home while fighting a losing war
abroad — is one that haunts Mr. Obama’s White House as it seeks to salvage
Afghanistan while enacting an expansive domestic program.
In this summer of discontent for Mr. Obama, as the heady early days give way to
the grinding battle for elusive goals, he looks ahead to an uncertain future not
only for his legislative agenda but for what has indisputably become his war.
Last week’s elections in Afghanistan played out at the same time as the debate
over health care heated up in Washington, producing one of those split-screen
moments that could not help but remind some of Mr. Johnson’s struggles to build
a Great Society while fighting in Vietnam.
“The analogy of Lyndon Johnson suggests itself very profoundly,” said David M.
Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. Mr. Obama, he said, must avoid
letting Afghanistan shadow his presidency as Vietnam did Mr. Johnson’s. “He
needs to worry about the outcome of that intervention and policy and how it
could spill over into everything else he wants to accomplish.”
By several accounts, that risk weighs on Mr. Obama these days. Mr. Kennedy was
among a group of historians who had dinner with Mr. Obama at the White House
earlier this summer where the president expressed concern that Afghanistan could
yet hijack his presidency. Although Mr. Kennedy said he could not discuss the
off-the-record conversation, others in the room said Mr. Obama acknowledged the
“He said he has a problem,” said one person who attended that dinner at the end
of June, insisting on anonymity to share private discussions. “This is not just
something he can turn his back on and walk away from. But it’s an issue he
understands could be a danger to his administration.”
Another person there was Robert Caro, the L.B.J. biographer who was struck that
Mr. Johnson made some of his most fateful decisions about Vietnam in the same
dining room. “All I could think of when I was sitting there and this subject
came up was the setting,” he said. “You had such an awareness of how things can
Without quoting what the president said, Mr. Caro said it was clear Mr. Obama
understood that precedent. “Any president with a grasp of history — and it seems
to me President Obama has a deep understanding of history — would have to be
very aware of what happened in another war to derail a great domestic agenda,”
Afghanistan, of course, is not exactly Vietnam. At its peak, the United States
had about 500,000 troops in Vietnam, compared with about 68,000 now set for
Afghanistan, and most of those fighting in the 1960s were draftees as opposed to
volunteer soldiers. Vietnam, therefore, reached deeper into American society,
touching more homes and involving more unwilling participants. But the politics
of the two seem to evoke comparisons.
Just as Mr. Johnson believed he had no choice but to fight in Vietnam to contain
communism, Mr. Obama last week portrayed Afghanistan as the bulwark against
international terrorism. “This is not a war of choice,” he told the Veterans of
Foreign Wars at their convention in Phoenix. “This is a war of necessity. Those
who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the
Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would
plot to kill more Americans.”
But while many Americans once shared that view, polls suggest that conviction is
fading nearly eight years into the war. The share of Americans who said the war
in Afghanistan was worth fighting slipped below 50 percent in a survey released
last week by The Washington Post and ABC News. A July poll by the New York Times
and CBS News showed that 57 percent of Americans think things are going badly
for the United States in Afghanistan, compared with 33 percent who think they
are going well.
That growing disenchantment in the countryside is increasingly mirrored in
Washington, where liberals in Congress are speaking out more vocally against the
Afghan war and newspapers are filled with more columns questioning America’s
involvement. The cover of the latest Economist is headlined “Afghanistan: The
Growing Threat of Failure.”
Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration official turned critic, wrote in
The New York Times last week that what he once considered a war of necessity has
become a war of choice. While he still supports it, he argued that there are now
alternatives to a large-scale troop presence, like drone attacks on suspected
terrorists, more development aid and expanded training of Afghan police and
His former boss, George W. Bush, learned first-hand how political capital can
slip away when an overseas war loses popular backing. With Iraq in flames, Mr.
Bush found little support for his second-term domestic agenda of overhauling
Social Security and liberalizing immigration laws. L.B.J. managed to create
Medicare and enact landmark civil rights legislation but some historians have
argued that the Great Society ultimately stalled because of Vietnam.
Mr. Obama has launched a new strategy intended to turn Afghanistan around,
sending an additional 21,000 troops, installing a new commander, promising more
civilian reconstruction help, shifting to more protection of the population and
building up Afghan security forces. It is a strategy that some who study
Afghanistan believe could make a difference.
But even some who agree worry that time is running out at home, particularly if
the strategy does not produce results quickly. Success is so hard to imagine
that Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan, this
month came up with this definition: “We’ll know it when we see it.”
The consequences of failure go beyond just Afghanistan. Next door is its
volatile neighbor Pakistan, armed with nuclear weapons and already seething with
radical anti-American elements.
“It could all go belly up and we could run out of public support,” said Ronald
E. Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and now president of the American
Academy of Diplomacy. “The immediate danger is we don’t explain to Americans how
long things take. I certainly get questions like, ‘Is the new strategy turning
things around? Is the civilian surge working?’ We’re not going to even get all
of those people on the ground for months.”
Others are not so sure that the new strategy will make a difference regardless
of how much time it is given. No matter who is eventually declared the winner of
last week’s election in Afghanistan, the government there remains so plagued by
corruption and inefficiency that it has limited legitimacy with the Afghan
public. Just as America was frustrated with successive South Vietnamese
governments, it has grown sour on Afghanistan’s leaders with little obvious
Lt. Col. Douglas A. Ollivant, a retired Army officer who worked on Iraq on the
National Security Council staff first for Mr. Bush and then for Mr. Obama, said
Afghanistan may be “several orders of magnitude” harder. It has none of the
infrastructure, education and natural resources of Iraq, he noted, nor is the
political leadership as aligned in its goals with those of America’s leadership.
“We’re in a place where we don’t have good options and that’s what everyone is
struggling with,” Colonel Ollivant said. “Sticking it out seems to be a 10-year
project and I’m not sure we have the political capital and financial capital to
do that. Yet withdrawing, the cost of that seems awfully high as well. So we
have the wolf by the ear.”
And as L.B.J. discovered, the wolf has sharp teeth.
Could Afghanistan Become
Obama’s Vietnam?, NYT, 23.8.2009,
Obama Moves to Reclaim the Debate on Health Care
July 23, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and JEFF ZELENY
WASHINGTON — President Obama tried on Wednesday to rally
public support for overhauling the nation’s health care system and said for the
first time that he would be willing to help pay for the plan by raising income
taxes on families earning more than $1 million a year.
“If I see a proposal that is primarily funded through taxing middle-class
families, I’m going to be opposed to that,” Mr. Obama said in a prime-time news
conference in the East Room of the White House. A surcharge on the
highest-income Americans, under consideration in the House, “meets my
principle,” he said.
On a day when the leader of fiscally conservative Democrats said a deal was a
long way off and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that she had the votes to
push a bill through, Mr. Obama used the news conference to take his message over
the heads of lawmakers and straight to the public. Conceding that “folks are
skeptical,” he sought to convince Americans that overhauling the nation’s health
care system would benefit them and strengthen the economy.
“If somebody told you that there is a plan out there that is guaranteed to
double your health-care costs over the next 10 years,” he said, “that’s
guaranteed to result in more Americans losing their health care, and that is by
far the biggest contributor to our federal deficit, I think most people would be
opposed to that,”
“That’s what we have right now,” he said. “So if we don’t change, we can’t
expect a different result.”
While Mr. Obama declared, “it’s my job, I’m the president,” he did not use the
appearance at the White House to make any fresh demands on Congress, which is
struggling to meet his timetable for both chambers to pass legislation before
members break for August recess. Mr. Obama did not repeat that demand Wednesday
Instead, he sounded cerebral as he delved into policy specifics for nearly an
hour and tried to link them to the concerns of ordinary Americans.
As he sought to reassure the public that a new health care system would be an
improvement, he also acknowledged that there would be changes that could be
unsettling, a point that is often raised by critics of overhauling the health
“Can I guarantee that there are going to be no changes in the health-care
delivery system? No,” Mr. Obama said. “The whole point of this is to try to
encourage changes that work for the American people and make them healthier.”
Health legislation is Mr. Obama’s highest legislative priority, and his success
or failure could shape the rest of his presidency. But while he is under
increasing pressure from leading Democrats to delve more deeply into the
negotiations by taking positions on specific policy issues, he largely resisted
doing so Wednesday night.
But the president did weigh in how the government might pay for the plan.
In addition to saying he would be open to taxing those households earning more
than $1 million — a scaled-back version of an earlier proposal that would have
imposed a surcharge on households earning $350,000 or more — he signaled that he
was also receptive to another idea under consideration in the Senate: taxing
employer-provided health benefits, as long as the tax did not fall on the middle
On Capitol Hill, Ms. Pelosi said Democrats remained on track to reach a deal on
major health care legislation. But she acknowledged that the process had slowed
in response to concerns among conservative Democrats about the cost of the bill,
and that some House Democrats were reluctant to embrace the income surtax on
high-earners without knowing whether the Senate would go along.
Indeed, even as Ms. Pelosi insisted that Congress was closer than ever to
achieving a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s health care system, leaders
of the Blue Dogs, a conservative faction of Democrats, said a deal was still a
long way off. Asked if the House Energy and Commerce Committee could resume work
on the bill by late Thursday, as House leaders hoped, Representative Charlie
Melancon, a Blue Dog from Louisiana, said: “No way.”
A senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said party leaders now believed it was
essential for Mr. Obama to be more specific about what he wanted in a health
care bill — and not just exhort Congress to pass one.
“The president needs to step in more forcefully and start making some
decisions,” said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not
want to be publicly identified as criticizing Mr. Obama. “Everyone appreciates
the fact that Obama has devoted so much time to health care. The bully pulpit is
powerful. But in view of the deadlines Congress has missed, we would like to
hear more from the president about what he wants in this bill.”
While he faces pressures from fellow Democrats, Mr. Obama is also fending off
attacks from Republicans who sense an opportunity to knock him off his stride by
arguing that the health care bill, estimated as costing more than $1 trillion
over the next decade, will not slow or reduce the growth of health spending.
The White House has been in a running debate this week with Senator Jim DeMint,
Republican of South Carolina, who predicted that health legislation would prove
to be Mr. Obama’s “Waterloo moment” and would break the president. To that, Mr.
Obama said: “This isn’t about me. I have great health insurance, and so does
every member of Congress.”
In his opening remarks Wednesday night, Mr. Obama said he was aware that many
Americans are asking, “What’s in this for me?” But he also tried to appeal to
the nation’s conscience, casting the issue as a matter of urgency to families
who are losing their life savings trying to pay for medical care and to
businesses burdened by trying to provide coverage to their employees.
Asked what the rush was to meet his August deadline for passage of House and
Senate bills, Mr. Obama replied: “I’m rushed because I get letters every day
from families that are being clobbered by health care costs. They ask me, ‘Can
you help?’ ”
In fact, there is another reason Mr. Obama is rushed: he knows time is not on
his side. The more Congress delays passage of a health bill, the more time his
Republican opponents will have to marshal their opposition and kill it.
“If you don’t set deadlines in this town, things don’t happen,” Mr. Obama said.
“The default position is inertia.”
David M. Herszenhorn and Robert Pear contributed reporting.
Obama Moves to
Reclaim the Debate on Health Care, NYT, 23.9.2009,
With Vigor, Obama Wades Into a Volatile Racial Issue
July 23, 2009
The New York Times
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
Americans got a rare glimpse Wednesday night of what it means to have a black
president in the Oval Office.
In response to a question at his prime-time news conference about the arrest of
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the black Harvard professor, in his own home over the
weekend, Mr. Obama declared that the Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted
Mr. Obama’s response was his most animated performance of the hourlong news
conference, and represented an extraordinary plunge by a president into a local
law-enforcement dispute. And it opened a window into a world from which Mr.
Obama is now largely shielded, suggesting the incident had struck a raw nerve
with the president.
In the public spotlight, Mr. Obama has sought to transcend, if not avoid, the
issue of race. As a candidate, he tried to confine his racial references to the
difficulty of catching a cab in New York, although he was forced to confront it
directly during the Pennsylvania primary when his pastor, Jeremiah Wright,
became an issue. And last week, at the 100th convention of the NAACP in New
York, he spoke in uncharacteristically personal terms about his rise to power as
a black man, while warning black Americans not to make excuses for their failure
Wednesday night’s press conference seemed to be a different deal as the
president leaped into a highly charged controversy that has ignited passions
across talk radio, the blogosphere and the old-fashioned water cooler.
But in fact, racial profiling was a major issue for Mr. Obama when he was in the
Illinois legislature. He was the chief sponsor of a bill, which became law, that
requires police to record the race, age and gender of all drivers they stop for
traffic violations and for those records to be analyzed for evidence of racial
And so the substance of his response was not as surprising as the fact that a
president so quickly joined the fray.
The police were called to Mr. Gates’s house after a report of a robbery in
progress. Mr. Gates, saying he was jimmying open a damaged front door, said he
told the police he lived in the house. Still, the police report said he e was
arrested for “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space.” He was held in
police custody for four hours, after which disorderly conduct charges against
him were dropped. Mr. Gates said he was the victim of racial profiling and has
demanded an apology but the police officer involved has said he has nothing to
Mr. Obama, asked Wednesday what the incident said about race relations in
America, noted up front that Mr. Gates is a friend and that his comments might
be biased. He said “words” had been exchanged and added:
“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what
role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us
would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in
arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own
home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this
incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans
and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just
a fact.” He added later that the incident was “a sign of how race remains a
factor in this society.”
He also used biting humor, grinning broadly as he imagined being in Mr. Gates’s
seemingly preposterous circumstance of being arrested after trying to get into
his own home.
“Here, I’d get shot,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his new address of 1600
The statement was a bit of political jujitsu that acknowledged the intense
security that surrounds any president while letting sink in the image of what
would happen to a black man who might seem to be breaking into the White House.
Mr. Obama’s response lit up the blogosphere immediately after the press
conference. The debate developing overnight was whether Mr. Obama had gone too
far in his response.
On nytimes.com, one commenter had this to say:
“I agree that there was probably some stupidity involved here, but I just don’t
think him weighing in on it benefits anyone. ... by the end of the week this
will be spun so ridiculously that you’d swear he called the Cambridge police
pigs while eating brie and sipping pinot noir.”
Another commenter posted this: “Why should the president remain neutral about
anything? He’s the PRESIDENT, for god’s sake. The last thing anyone wants is a
president who refuses to take a stand.”
It could not be determined how well Mr. Obama knows Mr. Gates. But the
professor, a widely respected expert in the field of race relations, had very
kind words for Mr. Obama’s pivotal speech on race relations after the Wright
affair threatened to sink his candidacy.
“I think it was brilliant,” Mr. Gates said of the speech in an interview with
Tavis Smiley at the time. “It is a great speech about race, and race relations,
particularly between black people and white people at the beginning of the 21st
With Vigor, Obama Wades
Into a Volatile Racial Issue, NYT, 23.7.2009,
A Defining Moment Nears for President
July 22, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON — Six months into his administration, President
Obama is at a pivotal moment. He has pushed through a $787 billion economic
stimulus package, bailed out Wall Street and, on Tuesday, managed to beat the
defense industry in the Senate, which voted to kill a high-profile fighter jet
But the public, and lawmakers, are growing skittish over Mr. Obama’s next big
plan, to remake the American health care system. How he handles the issue over
the next several weeks could shape the rest of his presidency, shedding light on
his political strength, his relationship with both parties in Congress and the
extent to which he is willing to bend in fighting for his agenda.
With some fellow Democrats balking over his insistence that both the House and
the Senate pass health legislation before the August recess, Mr. Obama has a
tough decision to make: Does he take a hard line, demanding that lawmakers stick
to his timetable — and risk losing the support of Republicans and moderate
Democrats? Or does he signal flexibility, allowing lawmakers to take their time
— and give opponents the chance to marshal their case against the bill?
“He’s got to be careful that while he ratchets up the pressure, he doesn’t bet
his whole presidency on whether this gets done before the August recess,” said
Kenneth M. Duberstein, who orchestrated President Ronald Reagan’s first-term
legislative strategy. “He has a broad, broad agenda that he’s in a rush to
enact, and if he’s not careful he will be viewed as a steamroller who tries to
get things fast and not necessarily right.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama will address the nation in a prime-time news conference.
Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said in an interview that the
president intended to use it as a “six-month report card,” to talk about “how we
rescued the economy from the worst recession” and the legislative agenda moving
forward, including health care and energy legislation, which squeaked through
the House and faces a tough road in the Senate.
Polls show that Mr. Obama is more popular than his own policies, a worrisome
sign for a president with such an ambitious agenda. Mickey Edwards, a former
Republican congressman who is now vice president of the Aspen Institute, said
Mr. Obama might be making a mistake in reading his election as a mandate for
“A lot of people supported Obama because they wanted to repudiate the Bush
administration,” said Mr. Edwards, who backed Mr. Obama for president. “I was
one of those people who supported him for reasons other than the policies he is
proposing. He seemed more thoughtful, more contemplative — I felt he had the
right temperament to be president. But I think his health care proposal goes
beyond what the public at the moment is ready to accept.”
Mr. Obama came into office promising a more bipartisan Washington tone, which he
has so far been unable to achieve. His actions in the coming weeks on health
care may determine his long-term relationship not only with Republicans but also
with his fellow Democrats.
“I think this will be a major factor in defining his presidency,” said Tom
Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, who remains a close adviser to the
White House on health issues. “Because he’s made it such an issue, and because
he has invested so much personal time and effort, this will, more than stimulus
and more than anything he has done so far, be a measure of his clout and of his
success early on. And because it is early on, it will define his subsequent
On the Republican side, one question is whether Mr. Obama will succumb to the
temptation to turn health care into a partisan fight, even as he tries to court
the opposing party. He is, after all, still a popular new president confronting
an unpopular Republican Party, and so it would be easy for him to demonize
Republicans as obstructionists who want to stand in the way of progress.
Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, gave Mr. Obama an opening to
do just that the other day, and the president took it. Mr. DeMint called health
care a “Waterloo moment” that could break Mr. Obama. The president struck back,
declaring, “This isn’t about me.” But if Mr. Obama extends that line of attack
to Republicans more broadly, and rams a bill through without their support, any
claim he may have to bipartisanship will quickly evaporate.
As for Democrats, Mr. Obama faces a balance-of-power conundrum. He has said all
along that he will set out broad principles for a bill and leave the details to
Congress. But now House Democrats in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog
Coalition, including seven who hold decisive votes on the Energy and Commerce
Committee, say they will not support the House bill without big changes.
One question for Mr. Obama is whether to try to strong-arm them, and face a
rebellion from some of the very same conservative Democrats who helped put him
in office. If he forces them to vote for a bill their constituents do not like,
on a timetable that feels too rushed for them, it could hurt them at home. That
could mean a bigger political problem for the White House: a resulting loss of
Democratic seats in the 2010 midterm elections.
Another question is how hard Mr. Obama will push Congress as a whole to adopt
his progressive agenda, not only on health care but also on climate change and a
variety of other issues.
The next few weeks, as the president tries to broker a health care deal, may
well tell Americans just how far he is willing to go.
A Defining Moment
Nears for President, NYT, 22.7.2009,
World Has Avoided Economic Disaster, Obama Says
July 10, 2009
Filed at 11:21 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
L'AQUILA, Italy (AP) -- Lasting worldwide recovery ''is still
a ways off,'' President Barack Obama declared Friday, but he also said at the
conclusion of a global summit that a disastrous economic collapse apparently has
Obama said world leaders had taken significant measures to address economic,
environmental and global security issues.
''Reckless actions by a few have fueled a recession that spans the globe,''
Obama said of the meltdown that began in the United States with a tumble in
housing prices and drastic slowing of business lending. The downturn now
threatens superpowers and emerging nations alike.
Obama urged national leaders to unite behind a global recovery plan that
includes stricter financial regulation and sustained stimulus spending.
''The only way forward is through shared and persistent effort to combat threats
to our peace, our peace, our prosperity and our common humanity wherever they
may exist. None of this will be easy,'' Obama told a news conference at the end
of the Group of Eight summit of major economic powers.
The president rejected suggestions that the summit fell short of expectations by
failing to call for tough new sanctions on Iran for its crackdown on democracy
advocates after its disputed presidential election.
''What we wanted is exactly what we got -- a statement of unity and strong
condemnation,'' Obama said. He said the leaders' declaration was even more
significant because it included Russia, ''which doesn't make statements like
Obama said world leaders will reevaluate their posture toward Iran at a meeting
in Pittsburgh in September of the world's 20 major industrial and developing
He cited ''the appalling events of Iran's presidential election'' and said the
world would ''take stock of Iran's progress'' and watch its behavior.
Leaders have made clear that for Iran to take its ''rightful place'' in the
world, the country must adhere to international standards and behave
responsibility, Obama said.
The president was next turning to more photogenic events: a meeting with the
pope and a stop in Africa.
Obama, his wife and senior advisers met Pope Benedict XVI and exchanged gifts
shortly before leaving Italy late Friday for Ghana. Obama and Benedict had
spoken by phone but had not met before.
''It's a great honor for me. Thank you so much,'' Obama said as he met the
Benedict asked Obama about the G-8 summit, eliciting Obama's assessment that it
was ''very productive.''
The cameras clattered while that sat down at the pope's desk.
''Your Holiness, I'm sure you're used to having your picture taken. I'm getting
used to it,'' Obama said.
Later in the day, Obama was to fly to Ghana on his first trip to sub-Saharan
Africa as president, but second visit to Africa. He gave a speech in Egypt last
On a pressing issue back home, Obama acknowledged that his top legislative
priority -- health care overhaul -- had encountered rocky going in Congress
during his overseas trip, with opposition building among both Republicans and
economically conservative Democrats.
But he said he still was confident of getting the measure passed before Congress
begins its August recess.
Asked if that timetable was ''do or die,'' Obama responded: ''I never believe
anything is do or die. But I want to get it done by the August recess.''
On the world economy, Obama said that rising food prices mean millions more are
falling into desperate poverty ''and right now, at this defining moment, we face
a choice. We can either shape our future or let events shape it for us.''
''While our markets are improving and we appear to have averted global collapse,
we know that too many people are still struggling. So we agree that full
recovery is still a ways off.'' He said the world leaders felt ''it would be
premature to begin winding down our stimulus plans.''
Earlier in the week, the 186-nation International Monetary Fund released an
updated economic forecast, predicting that the global economy will shrink 1.4
percent this year, the worst performance in the post-World War II period. That
forecast was slightly worse than the 1.3 percent decline the IMF predicted in
The international lending agency did see prospects improving for next year with
global growth forecast to climb to 2.5 percent, up from an April projection of
Leaders at Friday's meetings also committed themselves to a $20 billion
initiative to help farmers in poor countries boost production.
Asked about his appeal to fellow leaders for the aid, Obama said he talked about
his father, who was born in Kenya.
''The telling point is when my father traveled to the United States from Kenya
to study ... the per capita income of Kenya was higher than South Korea's.''
Now, Obama said, South Korea is industrialized and relatively wealthy while
Kenya, as well as much of Africa, is still struggling economically.
''There is no reason why African countries can't do the same'' and rise out of
poverty with modern and open institutions, Obama said.
On nuclear weapons, Obama said the U.S. and Russia must show they're
''fulfilling their commitments'' to lead global efforts to curb the spread. If
the two superpowers show they can limit or eliminate these weapons, it would
strengthen their moral authority to speak to other potential nuclear nations
such as North Korea and Iran.
Obama said there is a need to build ''a system of international norms'' for
nuclear weapons. With respect to North Korea and Iran, he said, ''It's not a
matter of singling them out ... but a standard that everybody can live by.''
Six months in office, Obama said he supports a streamlining of summits -- the
G-8, G-20 and NATO -- and attending fewer of those meetings. He said the United
Nations is in need of reform, but international summits fill a gap left by a
U.N. structure that doesn't leverage its power as effectively as it could.
World Has Avoided
Economic Disaster, Obama Says, NYT, 10.9.2009,
Obama Implores Senate to Pass Climate Bill
June 27, 2009
Filed at 6:47 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hours after the House passed landmark
legislation meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions and create an
energy-efficient economy, President Barack Obama on Saturday urged senators to
show courage and follow suit.
The sharply debated bill's fate is unclear in the Senate, and Obama used his
weekly radio and Internet address to ratchet up pressure on the 100-seat
''My call to every senator, as well as to every American, is this,'' he said.
''We cannot be afraid of the future. And we must not be prisoners of the past.
Don't believe the misinformation out there that suggests there is somehow a
contradiction between investing in clean energy and economic growth.''
Obama said the bill would create jobs, make renewable energy profitable and
decrease America's dependence on foreign oil.
''It will spur the development of low-carbon sources of energy -- everything
from wind, solar and geothermal power to safer nuclear energy and cleaner
coal,'' he said.
House Democratic leaders said the bill helped accomplish one of Obama's campaign
promises and would make the U.S. a leader in international efforts to address
climate change when negotiations take place in Copenhagen later this year.
''We passed transformational legislation, which will take us into the future,''
said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after the 219-212 vote.
''For some it was a very difficult vote because the entrenched agents of the
status quo were out there full force, jamming the lines in their districts and
here, and they withstood that,'' Pelosi said.
The vote marked the first time either house of Congress has passed legislation
to curb global warming gases. The legislation, totaling about 1,200 pages, would
require the U.S. to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by
17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and by 83 percent by mid-century.
Success will be tougher in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid says he wants
to take up the legislation by the fall. Sixty 60 votes will be needed to
overcome any Republican filibuster.
The ''razor-thin vote in the House spells doom in the Senate,'' said Sen. James
Inhofe, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Senate's environment panel.
Reid, D-Nev., was more optimistic.
''The bill is not perfect, but it is a good product for the Senate,'' Reid said.
''Working with the president and his team, I am hopeful that the Senate will be
able to debate and pass bipartisan and comprehensive clean energy and climate
legislation this fall.''
Supporters and opponents agreed that the legislation would lead to higher energy
costs. But they disagreed on the impact on consumers.
Democrats pointed to two reports -- one from the nonpartisan Congressional
Budget Office and the other from the Environmental Protection Agency -- that
suggested average increases would be limited after tax credits and rebates were
taken into account. The CBO estimated the bill would cost an average household
$175 a year, the EPA $80 to $110 a year. But Republicans and industry groups say
the real figure would much higher.
The White House and congressional Democrats argued the bill would create
millions of green jobs as the nation shifts to greater reliance on renewable
energy sources such as wind and solar and development of more fuel-efficient
vehicles -- and away from use of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.
It will ''make our nation the world leader on clean energy jobs and
technology,'' said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who negotiated deals with dozens
of lawmakers in recent weeks to broaden the bill's support.
Republicans saw it differently.
This ''amounts to the largest tax increase in American history under the guise
of climate change,'' declared Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
In the Republicans' weekly radio and Internet address, House GOP leader John
Boehner of Ohio said, ''By imposing a tax on every American who drives a car or
flips on a light switch, this plan will drive up the prices for food, gasoline
But Obama said the measure would cost the average American about the price of a
postage stamp per day.
''It is paid for by the polluters who currently emit dangerous carbon
emissions,'' the president said. ''It provides assistance to businesses and
families as they make the gradual transition to clean energy technologies.''
In California alone, Obama said, 3,000 people will be employed to build a new
solar plant that will create 1,000 permanent jobs.
Associated Press writers Dina Cappiello and H. Josef Hebert contributed to this
On the Net: www.whitehouse.gov
Obama Implores Senate
to Pass Climate Bill, NYT, 28.6.2009,
Obama Assails Iran for Violent Response to Protests
June 24, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY and PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — President Obama harshly condemned the Iranian crackdown against
demonstrations on Tuesday, declaring the rest of the world “appalled and
outraged” and dismissing what he called “patently false and absurd” accusations
that the United States instigated the protests.
In his sharpest and most expansive comments on the crisis in Tehran since the
June 12 elections that the opposition called rigged, Mr. Obama deplored the
violence that has killed some protesters, including a young woman whose death
was captured on a video that has been played around the world.
“While this loss is raw and painful,” the president said, “we also know this:
those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.”
The president’s forceful comments, delivered during prepared remarks opening a
midday news conference at the White House, came after 10 days of more restrained
response by Mr. Obama, who expressed concern that a more prominent role would
play into the Iranian government’s hands. Even as he employed tougher language
on Tuesday, he emphasized repeatedly that the protests in Tehran have nothing to
do with the United States and rejected Iranian allegations of American
“They are an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place
within Iran’s borders,” he said. “This tired strategy of using tensions to
scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran. This is not about the
United States and the West. This is about the people of Iran, and the future
that they, and only they, will choose.”
Asked by reporters if in toughening his response he had been influenced by the
criticism of Republicans like Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Obama flashed
a wide smile and said, “What do you think?”
He went on to say that other politicians have the freedom to speak as they
choose, but he had to be more careful because he speaks for the country. “Only
I’m the president,” he said.
Mr. Obama also used the news conference to promote two domestic priorities, an
energy bill intended to reduce the emissions that create climate change and an
overhaul of the health care system. He argued that the two plans, which each
would introduce dramatic changes to wide swaths of the American economy, would
transform the nation for the future and be paid for without adding to the
His endorsement of the energy bill set for a vote in the House on Friday
represented his most explicit and full-throated pitch for the approach, which
was crafted by influential Democratic lawmakers and intended to help push it
past opposition. On health care, Mr. Obama continued arguing that reform “is not
a luxury” but “a necessity” without laying down non-negotiable positions on how
the legislation should be crafted.
A day after signing major legislation regulating tobacco, Mr. Obama acknowledged
that he still smokes cigarettes from time to time, something his aides refused
to discuss on Monday.
“As a former smoker, have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes,” he said in
response to a question. “Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don’t do
it in front of my kids. I don’t do it in front of my family. I would say I am 95
percent cured. But there are times where I mess up.”
The president was speaking in his fourth White House news conference since
taking office five months ago. It was intended to be Mr. Obama’s first formal
Rose Garden news conference, but aides moved the event inside into the briefing
room because temperatures outdoors were approaching 90 degrees.
It was a crowded scene inside the White House briefing room, a space notably
smaller than the formal setting of the East Room where prime-time news
conferences take place. Dozens of reporters and photographers lined the sides of
the room and spilled outside the doorway.
The midday appearance was the latest in the president’s aggressive media push,
which has included a series of interviews with broadcast and cable television
networks as he attempts to persuade Americans that his economic plan will create
jobs and bring an end to the recession. Yet as unemployment creeps toward 10
percent, several recent public opinion polls have found Americans are not
convinced that Mr. Obama’s pricy economic plans have kicked in.
Obama Assails Iran for
Violent Response to Protests, NYT, 24.6.2009,
Obama Announces Agreement With Drug Companies
June 22, 2009
Filed at 1:04 p.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Monday welcomed the
pharmaceutical industry's agreement to help close a gap in Medicare's drug
coverage, calling the pact a step forward in the push for overhaul of the
nation's health care system.
Obama said that drug companies have pledged to spend $80 billion over the next
decade to help reduce the cost of drugs for seniors and pay for a portion of
Obama's health care legislation. The agreement with the pharmaceutical industry
would help close a gap in prescription drug coverage under Medicare.
''This is a significant breakthrough on the road to health care reform, one that
will make a difference in the lives of many older Americans,'' Obama said in the
White House's Diplomatic Room.
He was joined by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Finance
Committee who struck the deal with the White House; Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.,
and Barry Rand, head of the senior citizens' advocacy group AARP. Notably absent
was a representative from the pharmaceutical association.
''It was always designed to be an AARP event,'' said Ken Johnson, spokesman for
the association. ''We don't think we should have been invited to it.''
Johnson said Billy Tauzin, the group's president and a former Republican
congressman from Louisiana, will attend a town hall meeting on health care that
Obama is staging at the White House on Wednesday.
Johnson said there are other parts to the agreement that have still not been
completed, but he declined to provide details.
''There are a lot of discussions going on right now, there are a lot of moving
pieces, there are a lot of elements to it that have not been finalized,''
The president used the opportunity to make his sternest call yet for action,
saying the drug agreement is one piece of ''health care reform I expect Congress
to enact this year.''
Obama said the move on Medicare will help correct an anomaly in the program that
provides a prescription drug benefit through the government health care program
for the elderly and disabled. Under the deal, drug companies will pay part of
the cost of brand name drugs for lower and middle-income older people in the
so-called ''doughnut hole.'' That term refers to a feature of the current drug
program that requires beneficiaries to pay the entire cost of prescriptions
after initial coverage is exhausted but before catastrophic coverage begins.
Obama said some Medicare beneficiaries will find at least a 50 percent discount
on prescription drugs. Obama says drug companies stand to benefit when more
Americans can afford prescription drugs.
The drug companies' investment would reduce the cost of drugs for seniors and
pay for a portion of Obama's proposed revamping of health care.
''This is an early win for reform,'' Rand said.
Under the agreement, part of the $80 billion would be used to halve the cost of
brand name drugs for Medicare recipients when they are in a coverage gap of the
program. AARP, which represents 40 million older Americans, has long lobbied to
eliminate that coverage gap completely.
The deal would affect about 26 million low- and middle-income recipients of the
program's enrollees, AARP said. It would apply to brand name and biologic drugs,
but not generics, the group said, and likely take effect in July 2010, assuming
drug overhaul legislation becomes law.
Under Medicare's Part D prescription drug program, recipients pay about 25
percent of the cost of their drugs until they and the government have paid
At that point, beneficiaries must cover the full cost of drugs until they have
spent $4,350 from their own pockets. When they reach that amount, Medicare's
catastrophic drug benefit takes effect, and recipients only pay 5 percent of
their drugs' costs until the end of the year.
Associated Press Writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.
Agreement With Drug Companies, NYT, 22.6.2009,
Obama Pushes Financial Reforms
June 21, 2009
The New York Times
By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON — President Obama, striking a forceful tone, said
that he will fight for his package to reform the financial regulatory system —
unveiled on Wednesday — as he tried to drum up support for his proposed Consumer
Financial Protection Agency.
In his weekly radio address aired Saturday morning, Mr. Obama promised to battle
what he called special interests and to push hard for regulatory reform.
“The American people sent me to Washington to stand up for their interests,” he
said. “And while I’m not spoiling for a fight, I’m ready for one.”
He took another punch at Washington and Wall Street—as he has been doing in the
past, and characterized the need for regulatory reform as “necessary to end” the
economic crisis now facing the country.
“As we continue to recover from an historic economic crisis, it is clear to
everyone that one of its major causes was a breakdown in oversight that led to
widespread abuses in the financial system,” Mr. Obama said. “An epidemic of
irresponsibility took hold from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street. And
the consequences have been disastrous. Millions of Americans have seen their
life savings erode; families have been devastated by job losses; business large
and small have closed their doors.”
The plan the president announced on Wednesday would give the Federal Reserve
greater supervisory authority over large financial institutions whose problems
pose potential risks to the economic system. It would separately expand the
reach of the Federal Deposit Insurance Cooperation to seize and break up
troubled financial institutions. And it would create a council of regulators,
led by the Treasury secretary, to fill in regulatory gaps.
In doing so, the plan seeks to give Washington the tools to police the shadow
system of finance that has grown up outside the government’s purview, and to
make it easier for regulators to head off problems at large, troubled
institutions or take control of them if they fail.
The Consumer Financial Protection Agency would require banks, mortgage lenders
and credit card companies to provide consumers with a more nutritious diet,
financially speaking. But the banking industry, which says it stands to lose
billions of dollars, is bracing for a fight as the administration’s plan to
overhaul the way the industry is regulated heads to Capitol Hill.
Banking officials have complained that the scope of the agency is too large.
Obama administration officials, for their part, argue that banking regulators in
the past have had an inherent conflict of interest between ensuring the safety
and soundness of institutions and protecting consumers.
“It is true that this crisis was caused in part by Americans who took on too
much debt and took out loans they simply could not afford,” Mr. Obama said. “But
there are also millions of Americans who signed contracts they did not always
understand offered by lenders who did not always tell the truth. Today, folks
signing up for a mortgage, student loan, or credit card face a bewildering array
of incomprehensible options. Companies compete not by offering better products,
but more complicated ones — with more fine print and hidden terms. It’s no
coincidence that the lack of strong consumer protections led to abuses against
consumers; the lack of rules to stop deceptive lending practices led to abuses
Financial Reforms, NYT, 21.6.2009,
Obama’s Pledge on Donations Faces Reality
June 19, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY
WASHINGTON — When President Obama arrived at the Mandarin
Oriental hotel for a fund-raising reception on Thursday night, the new White
House rules of political purity were in order: no lobbyists allowed.
But at the same downtown hotel on Friday morning, registered lobbyists have not
only been invited to attend an issues conference with Democratic leaders, but
they have also been asked to come with a $5,000 check in hand if they want to
stay in good favor with the party’s House and Senate re-election committees.
The practicality of Mr. Obama’s pledge to change the ways of Washington is
colliding once more with the reality of how money, influence and governance
interact here. He repeatedly declared while campaigning last year that he would
“not take a dime” from lobbyists or political action committees.
So to follow through with that promise, Mr. Obama is simply leaving the room.
For the first time in eight years, Democrats have a president of their own to
preside over their political fund-raising activities. And Mr. Obama’s rules have
hardly stopped the bustling intersection of money and politics. Not only are
members of Congress already engaged in their next races, but legislative battles
over health care, energy and financial regulation have also put a premium on
access and influence for many lobbyists and their clients.
“We shouldn’t feel satisfied,” Mr. Obama told the donors and several Democratic
lawmakers after listing achievements so far this year. “We’ve got a much longer
journey to travel, and this is when it gets hard.”
In the first five months of his administration, Mr. Obama has only occasionally
injected himself into the business of raising money. But the back-to-back
Democratic fund-raisers on Thursday night and Friday morning show how he is
striving to keep his word in turning away money from special interests without
leaving the party at a financial disadvantage to Republicans.
At the Mandarin Oriental — one of the city’s finest hotels, between the Potomac
River and the White House — a few hundred Democrats, and people eager to help
Democrats, arrived Thursday. The familiar faces of Democratic donors, like
Maurice Sonnenberg, a New York financier, and Wade Randlett, a San Francisco
technology executive, mingled with Alonzo Mourning, a seven-time N.B.A. All-Star
whose No. 33 jersey with the Miami Heat was retired this year.
To an audience of about 300 people, Mr. Obama asked for help finding solutions
on health care and other challenges. “To those who simply criticize without
offering new ideas of their own,” he said, “I have to ask, What’s your answer?”
The White House said the president had agreed to attend the event on Thursday
night, expected to raise $3 million, only if federal lobbyists were not on hand.
That is already the rule at the Democratic National Committee but not for the
House and Senate re-election committees. So for one night only, Democratic
leaders in Congress agreed to keep lobbyists out, but by morning those rules go
The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, dismissed a suggestion on
Thursday that the rules were a sleight of hand. He said no lobbyists would be on
hand when Mr. Obama addressed the donors, which is what he promised in the
“People know where the president stands,” Mr. Gibbs told reporters. Asked
whether Mr. Obama would agree with critics who suggested it was hypocritical, he
demurred and added, “We’re not taking their money.”
A ticket went for $5,000 on Thursday night, but most people contributed far
more. The top tier for contributors was $100,000, known as the United Committee,
which was assigned to those who donated their own money and helped raise even
more. Most people gave $30,400 per couple, which included a photograph with the
The gathering at the Mandarin Oriental was the third fund-raising event in the
past month for Mr. Obama, including events in California and Nevada. And this
week, concerned about falling behind Republicans in raising money, Democrats
sent an urgent appeal to lobbyists on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial
Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Please note that the Friday Issues Conference is NOT subject to lobbyist
restrictions, though the event is intended for personal contributions only,” a
finance official from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told
lobbyists in an e-mail message. “The Issues Conference is separate from the
D.S.C.C./D.C.C.C. events with President Obama.”
The Republican National Committee said Mr. Obama had not kept his word.
“This is the height of hypocrisy and just one more example of President Obama’s
rhetoric not squaring with reality,” said the Republican chairman, Michael
Steele. “Candidate Obama said lobbyists and special interests will not fund the
Democratic Party, but now the Democrats are cashing their checks as fast as they
come in, 364 days a year.”
Several Democratic lobbyists privately grumbled about being excluded from the
presidential reception, only to be asked to attend the Friday event. None would
speak openly for fear of agitating the White House or Democratic leaders in
Congress. But they and others suggested that changing the ways of Washington was
more of a challenge than Mr. Obama might have let on last year.
“You can say a lot of things while you’re running for election,” said Sheila
Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which
studies money and influence, “but putting them into practice once in office is a
different ball of wax.”
Before Mr. Obama arrived at the hotel on Thursday evening, Senator Harry Reid of
Nevada; the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California; and Vice President Joseph
R. Biden Jr. met with donors for lunch. At the evening event, one element was
added that was reminiscent of the Obama campaign, which thrived on major
contributions but always sought to highlight the stories of first-time donors.
Sitting among people who raised tens of thousands of dollars was Eric Wikner of
Lake Oswego, Ore. Mr. Wikner, a 66-year-old Air Force veteran, contributed $20
and won a free trip to Washington, a night at the Mandarin Oriental and the
chance to meet the president.
“It was very pleasant,” Mr. Wikner said by phone afterward. “Fund-raising is
something that I’ve been less aware of.
“It leaves room for a little cynicism that money buys votes, but realistically,
it’s the engine of the process.”
Obama’s Pledge on
Donations Faces Reality, NYT, 19.1.2009,
Outcry on Federal Same-Sex Benefits
June 18, 2009
The New York Times
By JIM RUTENBERG
WASHINGTON — The package of domestic partnership benefits that President
Obama established for federal workers on Wednesday drew the loudest protests
from some of those it was intended to help, gay men and lesbians who criticized
the move as too timid.
The administrative memorandum extending some partnership rights to federal
workers in same-sex relationships, which Mr. Obama signed late Wednesday, allows
administration personnel to take leave to care for sick partners and requires
the government to recognize their partners as household members when determining
overseas housing allocations for State Department employees, among other things.
But several of the nation’s most prominent gay and lesbian political leaders
quickly attacked the president for failing to extend full health care benefits
to the same-sex partners of federal workers, questioning the administration’s
explanation that it is precluded from doing so by the Defense of Marriage Act,
which Mr. Obama had vowed to repeal during his presidential campaign.
Their outcry put the administration on the defensive for an action it had hoped
would help address increasing complaints from gay activists who supported Mr.
Obama’s election but now say he is ignoring the issues he promised to address,
like a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay men and lesbians in
the military. And it has tested the balance the administration has tried to
strike between avoiding hot-button cultural issues that could distract it from
pushing its ambitious economic agenda and avoiding angering key liberal
constituencies that expect Mr. Obama to make good on campaign promises.
Fueling the protest, the president’s move came just days after the
administration filed a legal brief defending the constitutionality of the
Defense of Marriage Act — which defines marriage as between a man and a woman
only — in a case challenging the law.
“I think it’s insulting,” David Mixner, a prominent gay rights advocate, said of
the new benefits plan. “Without minimizing how it will improve lives to some
extent, what they said to us today is we will give you family leave, some things
like that, but the most important thing, health care, we’re not giving you.”
Mr. Mixner announced earlier this week that he was boycotting a coming
fund-raiser being hosted by the Democratic Party’s gay and lesbian committee and
featuring Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. because of what he considers the
administration’s inaction on gay issues, and he said the president’s memorandum
had not changed his mind.
Speaking from the Oval Office on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said the memorandum —
which represents his interpretation of existing law — represented just a start.
“This is only one step,” Mr. Obama said. “Unfortunately, my administration is
not authorized by existing federal law to provide same-sex couples with the full
range of benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.”
Mr. Obama said he would indeed work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act,
calling it “discriminatory.” He also announced his support for legislation that
would extend full health care benefits to federal workers, a measure whose
sponsors include Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and
Representative Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, both of whom stood behind
the president Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier, John Berry, the administration’s director of personnel management,
noted that the memorandum would extend some health-related benefits to same-sex
couples. For instance, Mr. Berry said, United States medical facilities overseas
would now be open to the partners of State Department employees.
But during an occasionally contentious conference call with reporters, Mr. Berry
acknowledged that some federal supervisors were already conferring some of the
benefits the administration was presenting as new. He did so after a blogger on
the call, John Aravosis, told him about a note on his AmericaBlog Web site from
a Defense Department employee, Lisa Polyak, who said the Army had allowed her to
take sick leave to care for a same-sex partner, and nonbiological child, under
Mr. Berry said, however, that Mr. Obama’s memorandum would ensure that such
decisions would not vary among supervisors.
“Not every supervisor is similarly situated,” he said. “What the president is
doing today is he is making this no longer optional; he is making this
He did not address accusations from some gay and lesbian activists that the
Defense of Marriage Act, which does not directly address domestic partnership
rights, did not in fact preclude the administration from extending full health
benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees.
But late Wednesday, Elaine Kaplan, general counsel for the office of personnel
management, said federal statutes dictated that many vital health care benefits
be conferred only to “spouses” and children of federal employees, effectively
making it a benefit of marriage as defined by the marriage act. Ms. Kaplan said
the new legislation the president is supporting would remedy that prohibition.
In the meantime, she said, his memorandum would cover those benefits that do not
fall under the more restrictive statutory language.
The debate resulted in a muddled message that added to the White House’s
struggles on gay issues this week.
When news leaked out Tuesday night that the president would extend benefits to
same-sex partners of federal employees, some gay and lesbian leaders mistakenly
took that to include health insurance and said they were let down to learn
Mr. Obama’s comments late Wednesday served to ameliorate some of the initial
confusion and dismay. For instance, Brad Levenson, a federal public defender in
California who is waging a well-publicized fight to secure health benefits for
his husband, expressed anger earlier in the day at the more limited scope of the
memorandum, saying it fell short of what he had been led to believe the previous
evening. Mr. Levenson called back later to say he took Mr. Obama at his word
that he would keep trying to do more.
But gay and lesbian activists said suspicion remained that the president was
trying to put their issues on the back burner to avoid the sort of furor that
former President Bill Clinton faced when he announced early in his term that
military recruiters would no longer ask applicants if they were homosexual.
“They decided early on that these gay issues were going to be trouble, and they
decided to avoid them,” said Richard Socarides, an adviser to the Clinton
administration on gay issues. “I think now they’re paying a much steeper price
than they ever thought they’d have to.”
Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.
Outcry on Federal
Same-Sex Benefits, NYT, 18.6.2009,
Cost Concerns as Obama Pushes Health Issue
June 16, 2009
The New York Times
By ROBERT PEAR and JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — President Obama went before a convention of receptive but wary
doctors on Monday to make the economic case for a health care overhaul, both for
the nation and for the physicians’ own bottom lines.
But as the president spoke at the annual conference of the American Medical
Association in Chicago, it became clear that one of the major health plans on
the table would cost at least $1 trillion over 10 years yet leave tens of
millions of people uninsured.
Congress is wrestling with how to pay for Mr. Obama’s vision to extend health
care to all Americans, and some lawmakers are considering tax increases and
spending cuts different from the ones he has proposed. House Democrats, for
example, are weighing a tax on soft drinks and a value-added tax, a broad-based
consumption tax similar to the sales taxes many states levy.
An analysis released Monday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office
raised the hurdles for draft legislation in the Senate just as its Health,
Education, Labor and Pensions Committee planned to begin voting on Wednesday.
The office concluded that a plan by the committee’s Democratic leaders, Senators
Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, would
reduce the number of uninsured only by a net 16 million people. Even if the bill
became law, the budget office said, 36 million people would remain uninsured in
That finding came as a surprise. Robert D. Reischauer, an economist who headed
the budget office when Congress tackled the health care issue in the Clinton
administration, said that if so many people remained uninsured, it might not be
feasible to cut special federal payments to hospitals that serve many low-income
Mr. Obama said Saturday that the government could save $106 billion over 10
years by cutting such hospital payments as more people gained coverage.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a senior Republican on both committees drafting
health legislation, said he found the office’s numbers stunning. He calculated
that the Kennedy bill would cost taxpayers $62,500 per uninsured person over the
Mr. Obama took the cost issue head on in Chicago. “The cost of inaction is
greater,” he told the doctors, because rising health care prices are “an
escalating burden on our families and businesses” and “a ticking time bomb for
the federal budget.”
Opening a week in which health care will dominate attention in Congress, the
president’s speech on Monday was the latest example of an oft-used ploy to press
his case: appearing before skeptical audiences, confident of his powers of
persuasion but willing as well to say what his listeners do not want to hear.
Mr. Obama spoke just days after the A.M.A. had signaled opposition to his
proposal for a public health insurance plan to compete with private insurers as
part of a menu of choices, much like the one for members of Congress.
“The public option is not your enemy,” Mr. Obama said. “It is your friend, I
believe.” Saying it would “keep the insurance companies honest,” the president
dismissed as “illegitimate” the claims of critics that a public insurance option
amounts to “a Trojan horse for a single-payer system” run by the government.
Mr. Obama twice referred to the use of such “fear tactics” about “socialized
medicine” in past legislative battles, without pointing out that the A.M.A., a
traditionally Republican-leaning group, was among those using the charge, as in
the mid-1960s debate over creating Medicare for people 65 and older.
Mr. Obama drew repeated applause, and even some standing ovations, when he
called for incentives to get more medical students to go into primary care
instead of the more lucrative specialty practices, and when he pledged to work
with doctors to reduce their often unnecessary “defensive medicine” to avoid
malpractice lawsuits. But scattered boos met his follow-up remark that he
opposed any cap on malpractice awards.
The president’s emphasis on reducing health care costs over expanding insurance
coverage, which dates to his campaign, reverses Democrats’ priorities of recent
years. Obama advisers say the focus on cost savings has appeal for all
Americans, not just the uninsured. Some advisers, including veterans of the
Clinton administration, say President Bill Clinton’s emphasis on covering the
uninsured helped doom his health care plan in 1994.
“We have made cost control a coequal objective, just as important as the
expansion of insurance coverage, which has traditionally been the dominant goal
for Democrats,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “The entire
discussion has to be centered on controlling or reducing costs.”
That rationale has been Mr. Obama’s answer to those who, after his election,
predicted that he would have to shelve his campaign promise to overhaul health
care to attend instead to an economy in crisis. “If we fail to act, premiums
will climb higher, benefits will erode further, the rolls of the uninsured will
swell to include millions more Americans, all of which will affect your
practice,” he told the A.M.A. members.
The practical problem for Mr. Obama is that by all accounts, the savings and
efficiencies he envisions will not occur quickly, certainly not in the 10-year
time frame of budget scorekeeping for purposes of passing legislation.
The budget office estimated that 39 million people would get coverage through
new “insurance exchanges.” But at the same time, it said, the number of people
with employer-provided health insurance would decline by 15 million, or about 10
percent, and coverage from other sources would fall by 8 million.
In effect, the office said, millions of people would get a better deal if they
bought insurance through an exchange because they could qualify for federal
subsidies not available if they stayed in their employers’ health plans.
Subsidies are expected to average $5,000 to $6,000 a person.
Mr. Obama assured skeptics in the audience: “You did not enter this profession
to be bean counters and paper pushers. You entered this profession to be
healers. And that’s what our health care system should let you be.”
On Wednesday, leaders of the Senate Finance Committee hope to unveil what will
be the one bipartisan measure in Congress.
Democrats on three House panels continue to meet privately to seek consensus on
a single plan. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee said they were
trying to decide whether to finance coverage of the uninsured with one
broad-based tax, like the value-added tax, or a combination of smaller taxes.
The value-added tax, common in other countries, is collected in stages from each
business that contributes to the production and sale of consumer goods.
Economists say a 5 percent VAT could have raised $285 billion last year.
But a VAT could violate Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge not to raise taxes on
households with incomes under $250,000 a year.
Cost Concerns as Obama
Pushes Health Issue, NYT, 16.6.2009,
At the White House, a Blend of Jazz Greats and Hopefuls
June 16, 2009
The New York Times
By BEN RATLIFF
WASHINGTON — It was not the full-force,
let-a-thousand-saxophones-bloom, this-is-our-music festival that some might have
wished from a White House where the language of jazz seems to have a place, at
least in the president’s iPod. But it was a good start.
On Monday afternoon, Michelle Obama invited about 150 high school jazz students
to the White House for a program called Jazz Studio. There was a student clinic
including five members of the Marsalis family and the clarinetist Paquito
D’Rivera, and then a short concert introduced by the first lady.
Before some readers begin feeling too righteous, it’s important to know that the
event wasn’t a pure, stand-alone expression of love for jazz; it was the first
in a series of three very different musical events in the White House this year.
So if the short afternoon event was largely symbolic for those on the sidelines,
quickly and easily establishing the notion that the new administration is
interested in musical genres other than country, it was a useful, practical
event for the students.
The young musicians were divided into three groups of 50, and the workshop
themes were “American History and Jazz,” “Syntax of Jazz,” “The Blues Experience
and Jazz” and “Duke Ellington and Swing.” Other workshop leaders included the
saxophonist Todd Williams, the trumpeter Sean Jones and the pianist Eli Yamin.
The event was organized in conjunction with the Duke Ellington School of the
Arts and the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival in Washington, Jazz at Lincoln Center
in New York City, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and several other
The Marsalises — especially Wynton and his father, Ellis — are born teachers,
and, at least during the part of their hourlong clinic that journalists were
allowed to watch, they packed important, basic lessons about jazz history and
practice into short spaces. The students drank it in, and the teachers beamed.
After the elder Mr. Marsalis talked for a while about individual expression in
jazz and the birth of swing rhythm, the students traded 12-bar improvisations
with the master musicians on a blues tune. And then Wynton Marsalis doled out
bits of advice, without aiming them at particular players. The advice: never
slink off looking mad at yourself after your solo, don’t abuse the rhythm
section and play shorter.
“The blues forces us to feel vocal elements in our playing,” Mr. Marsalis said,
“and it keeps us from going” — here he played a fast, ripping, show-off
improvisation that wasn’t vocal at all. “Now, I’m going to play, and Branford is
going to imitate.”
The students quickly jumped in. None were virtuosos; some, including a trumpeter
from New York, Ivan Rosenberg, were quite good. Perhaps sensing a competitive
spirit, Mr. Marsalis pushed Mr. Rosenberg into smeared, highly expressive
whines; finally he played a whinnying phrase that trailed into fast, articulated
notes. “I can’t do that, man,” Mr. Rosenberg said, laughing and backing off.
Sharing a stage with Wynton Marsalis, who teaches constantly on the road, is not
out of the realm of possibility for a gifted young jazz musician. But doing it
at the White House can make you starry-eyed.
“That was crazy,” said Phillip Slyde, an able 17-year-old alto saxophonist who
played question-and-answer with Mr. D’Rivera. He came up from New Orleans the
day before, he said. He was recuperating from nerves, in the expectant hush
before Mrs. Obama’s arrival.
Kyle Wedberg, the president of his school, the New Orleans Center for Creative
Arts, appeared behind him. “This says that normal, everyday Americans have a
place in this White House, versus people that have some leverage to get in
here,” Mr. Wedberg said, breathlessly. “We changed 14 lives today. That’s
amazing: it’s a great use of this public facility.”
In her four-minute speech, Mrs. Obama brushed across two well-known thoughts
about jazz — that it “may be America’s greatest gift to the world” and that
“there is no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble” — but she
basically made way for the closing concert, which put Mr. D’Rivera and Mr.
Marsalis in front of a young band, including the pianist Tony Madruga and the
saxophonist Elijah Easton.
Mr. D’Rivera played embroidered versions of famous jazz melodies on the
clarinet, encouraging the student audience to guess their titles and composers.
When he played a famous Dizzy Gillespie phrase, the audience — including Mrs.
Obama, seated in the front row with her daughters — answered promptly with the
correct response: “Salt peanuts, salt peanuts.” “Ahhh!” Mr. D’Rivera shouted,
looking extremely pleased. “Michelle knows it!”
The next event in the White House music series, with details
to be announced later in the summer, will focus on country music.
At the White House, a
Blend of Jazz Greats and Hopefuls, NYT, 16.6.2009,
Obama Addresses Paying for Health Care Reforms
June 14, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — The White House said Saturday that President
Obama intends to pay for his health care overhaul partly by cutting more than
$200 billion in expected reimbursements to hospitals over the next decade — a
proposal that is likely to provoke a backlash from cash-strapped medical
institutions around the country.
Mr. Obama has insisted that his plan will not add to the federal deficit, and he
had already set aside in his budget what he calls a $635 billion “down payment”
toward the overall 10-year cost of the overhaul, which is expected to top $1
trillion. But Republicans and some Democratic legislators have been pressing him
for details on how he would cover the rest. On Saturday, he used his weekly
Internet and radio address to do so.
Mr. Obama said he had identified “an additional $313 billion in savings that
will rein in unnecessary spending and increase efficiency and the quality of
care,” bringing the total to nearly $950 billion. He did not offer a specific
breakdown, but advisers said that in addition to the more than $200 billion in
lowered hospital reimbursements, the president expects $75 billion in savings
over 10 years by getting better prices for prescription drugs, and $22 billion
in other savings.
“These savings will come from common sense changes,” Mr. Obama said in his
address. “For example — if more Americans are insured, we can cut payments that
help hospitals treat patients without health insurance.”
He added: “If the drug makers pay their fair share, we can cut government
spending on prescription drugs. And if doctors have incentives to provide the
best care instead of more care, we can help Americans avoid the unnecessary
hospital stays, treatments, and tests that drive up costs.”
Saturday’s announcement comes amid an intense push by the White House to sell
Mr. Obama’s health care plan, his highest legislative priority. Broadly
speaking, Mr. Obama wants to extend coverage to the nation’s 45 million
uninsured, preserve consumer choice and cut rising health care costs. He has
argued that fixing the nation’s broken health care system is crucial to the
economic health of the United States.
But as Congress contemplates the details of the legislation, the question of how
to pay for the plan is among the thorniest it will face. Already, one of Mr.
Obama’s early proposals — limiting tax deductions for high income people — has
run into major roadblocks on Capitol Hill. By providing details in his weekly
address on Saturday, Mr. Obama may be hoping to give lawmakers the political
leeway to adopt other cost-saving measures.
The administration expects to achieve the lowered hospital payments in two major
ways, by slowing the growth of reimbursements. First, said Mr. Obama’s budget
director, Peter M. Orszag, payments to hospitals will be reduced to try to
encourage them to work more productively and efficiently.
Mr. Orszag said hospitals could figure out ways of treating patients “more
effectively, through health information technology, a nurse coordinator instead
of an unnecessary specialist,” for example. These “productivity adjustments”
would account for $110 billion in savings.
Second, the administration expects to lower payments to hospitals that treat
large numbers of low-income patients. Medicare and Medicaid make special extra
payments to these hospitals, but Mr. Orszag said those payments will become less
necessary over time, as more of the nation’s 45 million uninsured acquire
coverage through the new program. This would account for $106 billion in
But hospital administrators, already nervous about lowered reimbursements, are
likely to oppose such cuts. Less than 24 hours before Mr. Obama’s radio address,
the president of the American Hospital Association, Richard J. Umbdenstock,
issued a call to action to his members across the country, warning that Congress
might cut provider payments.
Mr. Umbdenstock asked hospitals to "push back" against the proposed cuts.
"Payment cuts are not reform," he said, denouncing "blunt cuts that cripple
hospitals’ ability to do better for their patients."
Dr. Patricia A. Gabow, chief executive of the Denver Health and Hospital
Authority, which operates a 477-bed public hospital, said it would be "pretty
risky" for Congress to cut payments to safety net hospitals before knowing
whether new legislation actually reduced the amount of uncompensated care they
"What about homeless people, the chronically mentally ill, substance abusers and
people with low literacy?” Dr. Gabow asked. "You think they will be using the
federal health insurance exchange to enroll in insurance plans? I don’t think
Kenneth E. Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, said
the proposed cuts could be "devastating to hospitals that serve inner-city
Mr. Raske noted that none of the major proposals in Congress would provide
health insurance to illegal immigrants, and many of them would still be unable
to pay their hospital bills. In addition, he said, the federal payments will
still be needed because "Medicaid woefully underpays for outpatient clinics” and
other services in some states, including New York.
Five Congressional committees are working at a feverish pace to meet the
president’s goal of passing a health care bill that he can sign by October.
The Democratic chairman of the Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus of Montana,
intends to unveil his plan this week. Aides said it would include a proposal to
tax some employer-provided health benefits, a notion that Mr. Obama sharply
criticized during his campaign for the White House. Workers might, for example,
have to pay income tax on the value of family coverage exceeding $15,000 a year.
Labor unions, many employers and many House Democrats oppose such a tax, saying
it would destabilize the employer-based system of health insurance on which
millions of Americans depend.
The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation said a proposal like Mr. Baucus’s
could raise more than $400 billion over 10 years. Mr. Obama did not mention
taxing health benefits in his Saturday address.
Paying for Health Care Reforms, NYT, 14.6.2009,
Obama Urges Effort on Health Care
June 7, 2009
The New York Times
By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON — President Obama, signaling the start of his
health care push, called on Congress and his government to tackle “the root
causes of skyrocketing health care costs.”
In his weekly radio and Internet address on Saturday morning, Mr. Obama said
that he wants to see health care reform that is built around lowering costs,
improving quality and coverage and protecting consumer choice.
“That means if you like the plan you have, you can keep it,” the president said.
“If you like the doctor you have, you can keep your doctor, too. The only change
you’ll see are falling costs as our reforms take hold.”
Just how he plans to achieve that remains up in the air; the address was long on
broad goals and short on specifics. Mr. Obama said that he had made it clear to
Congress that health reform should not add to the budget deficit.
“We’ll work with Congress to fully cover the costs through rigorous spending
reductions and appropriate additional revenues,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ll
eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in our health care system, but we’ll also take
on key causes of rising costs — saving billions while providing better care to
the American people.”
Mr. Obama has been gearing up for a battle over health care reform since he took
office, convening a health care summit and inviting industry leaders to the
White House, where they publicly pledged to cut $2 trillion in health care costs
over the next decade.
“Simply put, the status quo is broken,” Mr. Obama said in the address. “We
cannot continue this way. If we do nothing, everyone’s health care will be put
in jeopardy. Within a decade, we’ll spend one dollar out of every five we earn
on health care — and we’ll keep getting less for our money.”
The address came as Mr. Obama neared the end of his trip abroad. On Saturday he
was in France, attending the commemoration ceremonies surrounding the 65th
anniversary of D-Day.
Obama Urges Effort on
Health Care, NYT, 7.6.2009,
Obama Calls for Alliances With Muslims
June 5, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY and ALAN COWELL
CAIRO — President Obama pledged on Thursday to “seek a new beginning between
the United States and Muslims around the world,” imploring America and the
Islamic world to drop their suspicions of one another and forge new alliances to
confront violent extremism and heal religious divides.
“We have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world we seek,” he
said. “A world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American
troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure
in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a
world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s
children are respected.”
He dwelled on Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan but reserved some of his sharpest
words for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He offered no major initiatives on
the Middle East peace process although he put Israelis and Palestinians on
notice that he intends to deal directly with what he sees as intransigence on
key issues, evoking the concerns of both parties but asking both to shift ground
The speech in Cairo, which he called a “timeless city,” redeemed a promise he
made nearly two years ago while running for president. It was, perhaps, the
riskiest speech of his young presidency, and Mr. Obama readily conceded that not
every goal would be easily or quickly achieved.
“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims
around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one
based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be
in competition,” he said. “Instead, they overlap, and share common principles —
principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human
His message was sweeping and forceful — at times scolding and combative —
promoting democracy in Egypt, warning Israelis against building new settlements,
and acknowledging that the United States had fallen short of its ideals,
particularly in the Iraq war. It also evoked a new and nuanced tone, and some of
Mr. Obama’s language drew appreciative applause from his audience of 3,000
invited guests in the Major Reception Hall at Cairo University.
Several times, for instance, he spoke of “Palestine,” rather than the more
ambiguous term often used by American leaders, “future Palestinian state.” And,
in reference to the Palestinians, he pointedly mentioned “the daily humiliations
— large and small — that come with occupation.”
He described the bond between the United States and Israel as “unbreakable,” and
urged Hamas, the Islamic militant group in control of the Gaza Strip, to stop
violence. But in his next breath, Mr. Obama said Israel must curtail its
expansion of West bank settlements and recognize Palestinian aspirations for
statehood. He also acknowledged that Hamas, which the United States labels a
terrorist organization, “does have some support among some Palestinians.”
“But they also have responsibilities,” Mr. Obama said, listing them as “to end
violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
“Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be
denied, neither can Palestine’s,” Mr. Obama said. “The United States does not
accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction
violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time
for these settlements to stop.”
And, while Israel’s hawkish government has not accepted a so-called two-state
solution, Mr. Obama said: “The only resolution is for the aspirations of both
sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in
peace and security.”
“This is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest and the
world’s interest,” he said. In the Middle East, “too many tears have been shed;
too much blood has been shed.”
The address drew initial support from Palestinians. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a
spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called it “a good start and
an important step towards a new American policy.”
“It was honest, is the first word that comes to mind,” said Hossam Bahgat,
executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an
independent human rights organization.
Mr. Bahgat, who attended the speech at Cairo University, said that one of the
most important elements of the speech was what was left out. “I think it was
remarkable the speech left out the term terrorism completely,” he said. “It may
have been a paradigm shift for the United States, away from using this
politically charged word.”
But others in the region faulted it. The President, some noted, did not offer
any new initiatives, did not lay out a time line for progress towards a Middle
East settlement and asked his audience to accept an view which gave equal weight
to Israeli and Palestinian concerns.
That part did not go down well, people in the region said.
“I feel it is important historically, but it will bring nothing new,” said Hasim
Fouad, 24, a reporter with the independent Egyptian newspaper Al Dustour.
Mr. Obama strode onto the stage to loud applause and a standing ovation in the
conference hall. He conceded that his speech came at “a time of great tension
between the United States and Muslims around the world.”
But he sought to explain that he represented the new face of American
leadership. He did not mention the name of George W. Bush, who preceded him in
office, and whose policies contributed to the mistrust.
“America is not and never will be at war with Islam. We will, however,
relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our
security,” Mr. Obama said. “Because we reject the same thing that people of all
faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children.” Mr. Obama
said: “I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States
to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. But that
same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do
not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a
Mr. Obama offered few details for how to solve myriad problems and conflicts
around the globe, but he offered up his own biography as a credible connection
to his audience. While the message touched upon a litany of challenges, it
boiled down to simply this: Barack Hussein Obama was standing at the podium as
the American president.
“I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a
greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum,” Mr.
Obama said, delivering a common greeting signifying peaceful intent.
Mr. Obama said the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001
caused “enormous trauma to our country.” He offered no direct criticism of the
previous administration, but reminded his audience that he has “unequivocally
prohibited the use of torture” and has ordered the prison to be closed at
Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases it
led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals,” Mr. Obama said. “We
are taking concrete actions to change course.”
The president divided his speech into seven sections, often sounding like the
university professor he was before he sought political office. He touched on
“sources of tension” from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, democracy, religious
freedom, women’s rights and economic development and opportunity.
He said the Iraq war had been a “war of choice that provoked strong differences
in my country and around the world.”
“Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the
tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded
America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to
resolve our problems whenever possible.”
By contrast, he described America’s military presence in Afghanistan as a
necessity after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan,” he said.
“We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be
confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan, and now
Pakistan, determined to kill as many Americans as possible. But that is not yet
Turning to Iran’s contentious nuclear program, he said any nation “should have
the right to access to peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its
responsibilities” under international regulations to counter the proliferation
of nuclear weapons.
Iran maintains its nuclear enrichment program is for peaceful civilian purposes
but many in the West suspect it is designed to build a nuclear bomb. “This is
not simply about America’s interests,” Mr. Obama said, “It is also about
preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region
and the world down a hugely dangerous path.”
As his visit to the region began Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Obama was
greeted with reminders of the vast gulfs his address must bridge, as voices as
disparate as Al Qaeda’s and the Israeli government’s competed to shape how Mr.
Obama’s message would be heard.
In a new audiotape, Osama bin Laden condemned Mr. Obama for planting what he
called new seeds of “hatred and vengeance” among Muslims, while in Jerusalem,
senior Israeli officials complained that Mr. Obama was rewriting old
understandings by taking a harder line against new Israeli settlements.
Jeff Zeleny reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from London. Helene Cooper
contributed reporting from Washington, and Michael Slackman from Cairo.
Obama Calls for
Alliances With Muslims, NYT, 5.6.2009,
Senators Set to Visit White House to Discuss Health Care
June 2, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — President Obama will meet with influential Senate Democrats on
Tuesday to discuss overhauling health care, as the White House releases a report
asserting that revamping the system would increase the income of a typical
family of four by $2,600 in 2020, and by $10,000 in 2030.
The Democrats on two Senate committees that are drafting health legislation have
been invited to the White House to meet with Mr. Obama, hours before he leaves
for the Middle East and Europe. As part of a push to secure Congressional
passage of a bill this year, the administration will also make the case on
Tuesday that reforming health care is critical to fixing the economy.
“If we don’t do this we’re going to be facing a real mess 30 years from now,”
Christina Romer, the chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers,
told reporters Monday on a conference call to discuss her new report, “The
Economic Case for Health Care Reform.”
Also, six health care organizations followed up Monday on a commitment they made
last month to Mr. Obama to trim $2 trillion in health care costs over 10 years.
The groups, representing doctors, hospitals, drug companies and a labor union,
proposed eliminating unnecessary medical tests and procedures, slashing red tape
and better managing chronic diseases.
They said the potential savings could be $1 trillion to $1.7 trillion over 10
Health care spending in the United States accounts for 18 percent of the gross
domestic product, according to the White House report, and is expected to rise
sharply, to as much as 28 percent in 2030 and 34 percent in 2040. The
administration says it can slow the growth of health spending even as it expands
coverage to the more than 45 million people who are now uninsured.
Republicans are doubtful. Referring to the health care groups’ proposals,
Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance
Committee, said Monday, “I’m skeptical that these proposals will add up to
anywhere near $2 trillion.”
The House Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, called the
White House report “nothing more than smoke and mirrors,” and said the
administration had not offered a credible plan to expand coverage “without
raising taxes or rationing care.”
The White House report — 51 pages, with charts, graphs and algebraic formulas —
estimated that slowing the growth rate of health care spending by 1.5 percent a
year would increase economic output by more than 2 percent in 2020 and nearly 8
percent in 2030. The report also states that revamping the health care system
would “prevent disastrous increases in the federal budget deficit.”
The 1.5 percent figure was cited as a goal by the six organizations that
proposed cost savings to the president. Each submitted recommendations, though
it was not clear how much each was willing to sacrifice.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, representing drug
companies, advocated greater use of certain prescription drugs, like medicines
for high blood pressure — a move it said could save lives and money by keeping
people healthier and reducing hospital admissions.
Doctors, represented by the American Medical Association, promised to try to
curb the overuse of imaging services, like magnetic resonance imaging of the
knee and the shoulder, and to reduce surgeries that might not be necessary, like
Caesarean section deliveries and angioplasties in patients with stable coronary
The Service Employees International Union said Medicaid and Medicare could save
money by encouraging the use of home care services, instead of nursing homes.
The union recommended that the federal government temporarily increase Medicaid
payments to the states for home- and community-based services.
America’s Health Insurance Plans, representing insurers, vowed to establish
standard claim forms and Web sites that allowed doctors to communicate more
easily with insurers.
Congress may try to put some proposals into legislation, to help offset the
costs of providing coverage for millions of the uninsured. This week, the
chairmen of the two relevant Senate committees are finishing legislation to be
considered by their panels this month.
Senators Set to Visit
White House to Discuss Health Care Overhaul, NYT, 2.6.2009,
Obama Talks Health Care Before Leaving for Mideast
June 2, 2009
Filed at 4:57 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama holds talks on health care today
and signs a measure paving the way to honor former President Ronald Reagan
before traveling to the Middle East.
The White House says the president will meet with Senate Democratic leaders to
discuss how to get rising health care costs under control.
The president later will sign the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act. The
measure sets up a commission to plan and carry out activities honoring the late
president in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth, in 2011.
Obama leaves in the evening on his overseas trip aimed at reaching out to the
world's 1.5 billion Muslims. The president will visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He
will deliver a long-promised speech in Cairo.
Obama Talks Health Care
Before Leaving for Mideast, NYT, 2.6.2009,
Obama’s Face (That’s Him?) Rules the Web
May 31, 2009
Thje New York Times
By RANDY KENNEDY
Mimi Torchia Boothby’s job as a technician puts her outside a wind tunnel
every weekday at the Boeing plant south of Seattle, but in her free time two
years ago she took up watercolors. Among her favorite subjects are cats, idyllic
scenes of Italy — and, of course, Barack Obama, whose contemplative,
sun-splashed portrait she completed a few weeks after his election as president.
She was so happy with it she started offering fine prints of it on the Web, her
first proud professional act as an artist, and has since sold more than two
dozen at $40 apiece. “Talk about viral,” Ms. Boothby, 57, said. “Most of the
people who bought them were people I didn’t even know.”
Perhaps not since John F. Kennedy, whose dusty portraits can still be seen in
kitchens and barbershops and alongside the antique beer cans at bars like
Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, has a presidency so fanned the flames of painterly
ardor among hobbyist and professional artists.
Mr. Obama’s campaign was well known for inspiring art, including Shepard
Fairey’s ubiquitous “Hope” poster, a version of which is now in the National
Portrait Gallery in Washington. Months after the election, with the glow of the
administration’s first 100 days dimming, it might have been expected that
enthusiasm for Obama art would be dimming, too.
Yet the still-ample offerings of original paintings of the president and the
first family on eBay and at places like the annual Affordable Art Fair in New
York — along with a crop of presidential-art-obsessed Internet sites including
obamaartreport.com, artofobama.com and, inevitably,
badpaintingsofbarackobama.com — are indications that it might just be a growth
The phenomenon has been a boon to the near-anonymous painting factories crowded
together in the suburbs of Shenzhen, China, famous for cranking out copies of
masterpieces, along with landscapes and semitasteful nudes. Another one,
seemingly based in Germany, offers stately Obamas amid air-brushy likenesses of
Tupac Shakur, Bruce Lee and Al Pacino (in his “Scarface” role), advertised as
“real hand-embellished” paintings on canvas.
Market interest has also helped small-time artists like Dan Lacey, of tiny Elko,
Minn., a self-described disillusioned conservative who made a name for himself
last year in the blogosphere with his inexplicably strange portraits of Senator
John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin depicted with pancakes stacked on top of their
Lately, he has turned to Mr. Obama, cranking out both eBay-ready conventional
portraits — “I hate to say this, but I can do ones like that in about an hour,”
he said — and even stranger works that have tended toward portrayals of the 44th
president naked on a unicorn, often performing gallant deeds like wrestling a
bear on Wall Street or taking the controls of the US Airways flight that landed
in the Hudson River.
“There’s a consistent demand for Obama, both for things that are funny and also
for the serious, sort of Aaron Shikler kinds of treatments,” said Mr. Lacey,
referring to the artist who painted well-known portraits of the Kennedy family.
Among Mr. Lacey’s eBay customers are Carla Pasley, an administrator for a
consumer products company in Kansas City, Mo., who said she is generally
apolitical but bought an Obama portrait simply because she found it “really
pretty,” and Gary Rogers Wares, a manager at a stationery and gift manufacturer
in Culver City, Calif., who has a gold-hued Obama in his office behind his desk
and just won another one at auction for $28.
“I wanted a painting because it’s something unique, and as far as I’m concerned
it’s unique, just like our president is,” Mr. Wares said. “This is historic and
you want something that feels like an heirloom.”
The White House, asked if the president and first lady commonly received gifts
of paintings of themselves, responded with characteristic reticence: “On
background, I can pass along that among other things, the Obamas are given works
of art that include images of the President and symbols from the campaign,” a
If Mr. Obama has not yet fixed the country’s economy or solved its security
problems, he at least seems to have postponed the withering of original art’s
“aura,” or power, in a world of easy reproduction, as famously foreseen by the
philosopher Walter Benjamin.
Indeed, a 90-day search by eBay under the category of Obama paintings, most of
them original creations, not posters or prints, found 787 works offered for sale
from mid-February to mid-May, generating almost $20,000 at an average price of
$118 a painting, said Karen Bard, a spokeswoman. Production generally seems to
be running well ahead of demand.
High-dollar works by well-known artists seem not to fare as well — an Obama
painting by Peter Max listed with a buy-it-now price of $17,000 has had no
takers so far. But paintings in a wild variety of styles — Cubist, Pop,
post-Impressionist, folk arty, street arty and what might be described as
neo-Tolkienesque — have sold in the two-figure and even three-figure range.
Gabriel McGovern, a Web designer in Portland, Ore., who started artofobama.com
during the presidential campaign last summer, said he had not intended to
continue it past the election but had been receiving such a steady stream of
submissions — commercial works, personal works, works photographed on the
streets, 300 or so images of paintings and other kinds of art that he has not
yet had time to post — that he decided to keep the site going.
“My favorites are the first-time painters,” he said. “It might not even really
look like Obama — in fact, not much at all — but they not only paint it, they go
out and find a forum on the Web where they can post it so everyone can see it.”
Ms. Boothby said she is now managing to make a little money on the side with her
brushes and easel and credits Mr. Obama. “I think that portrait I did of the
president was kind of a touchstone for my confidence, painting-wise,” she wrote
in an e-mail message. “I’m not sure I would have been able to start doing
commissions if I hadn’t gotten as warm a reception as I did for that one
Mr. Lacey, who admits to parting with paintings for as little as $1 on the Web,
said he sold his president-wrestling-a-bear fantasia for $600 and recently
received a commission for a unicorn-themed Obama. He intends to ride the surging
presidential art wave as long as it will keep him afloat.
During the previous administration, he said, he had also tried his hand at some
portraits of George W. Bush but added, in a tone that mingled regret with
professional candor, “You really couldn’t sell them.”
Obama’s Face (That’s
Him?) Rules the Web, NYT, 31.5.2009,
Court Choice Pushes ‘Identity Politics’ to Forefront
May 31, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — In the heat of his primary battle last year, Barack Obama
bemoaned “identity politics” in America, calling it “an enormous distraction”
from the real issues of the day. Many thought his inauguration as the first
African-American president this year was supposed to usher in a new post-racial
But four months later, identity politics is back with a vengeance. A president
who these days refers to his background obliquely when he does at all chose a
Supreme Court candidate who openly embraces hers. Critics took issue with her
past statements and called her a “reverse racist.” And the capital once again
has polarized along familiar lines.
The selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor brought these issues to the fore again
for several reasons. Mr. Obama’s selection process was geared from the beginning
toward finding a female or minority candidate, or both. Only one of the nine
vetted candidates was an Anglo male, and all four finalists he interviewed were
women. One of Judge Sotomayor’s most prominent cases involved an
affirmative-action claim. And her comment on her Latina background shaping her
jurisprudence provided fodder for opponents.
“He didn’t pick a post-racial candidate,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a leading
conservative scholar on race relations and the author of a book called “Voting
Rights — And Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections.” “She’s a
quintessential spokesman for racial spoils.”
The White House argued that Judge Sotomayor’s opponents were picking through her
past remarks to wield her words against her. “What the election of Obama said is
people want to move forward rather than backwards, and I think that’s still
true,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser. “Americans are
savvier and more thoughtful than some of the demagogues give them credit.”
The Supreme Court seems to promote this sort of discussion more than any other
forum in public life, perhaps because it has so few seats and they come open so
rarely. Of the 110 people who have served on the court, only four were not white
males. Every president over the last generation has at least flirted with the
temptation to name a “first” — or at least a second or third.
Aides said that despite Mr. Obama’s own low-key approach to ethnicity, naming
the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court held great appeal for the president,
though they said it was only one of many factors. Mr. Obama has written a
best-selling book about his roots as the son of a white mother and black father
and well understood the political power of his being the first African-American
president just as he understands the power of the first Hispanic justice.
He has used symbols to celebrate the history of his ascension, like inviting
civil rights figures to his inauguration, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the
elite, segregated World War II corps. He has also brought a more diverse team
and set of visitors to the White House.
But since his major speech on race during the primaries when he disavowed the
inflammatory rhetoric of his minister, he has avoided overt discussion of the
issue. The rare times he refers to his background are usually subtle and framed
as a message about America as a place of opportunity. Since becoming president,
he has not talked much about discrimination or disparities. Judge Sotomayor, by
contrast, has more openly addressed her differences with other judges.
“Obama has sought to transcend ethnic differences and has emphasized his own
post-racial identity to appeal to as many Americans as possible,” said William
Burck, a deputy White House counsel under President George W. Bush. “It seems
that Judge Sotomayor considers her ethnicity to be a central part of who she is,
not just as a private citizen but also as a lawyer and a judge.”
Much of that assessment stems not just from Judge Sotomayor’s membership in
groups that brought discrimination claims or her ruling against white
firefighters in a New Haven affirmative action case, but from a single speech
she gave at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001.
The speech addressed the role personal backgrounds play in rendering decisions
and concluded that “our gender and national origins may and will make a
difference in our judging.”
“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences
would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t
lived that life,” she said.
Mr. Obama and his advisers knew of her remarks when he made the selection, but
they concluded that any of the finalists would have some quotation or action
that would attract criticism. They reject the notion that they fostered identity
politics through a selection process focused on adding diversity to the court,
noting that Judge Sotomayor has more experience on the bench than any current
justice did when nominated.
“Yes, I think he thinks there’s value in having a Supreme Court that has a
diversity of experience and diversity of points of view,” Mr. Axelrod said of
the president, “but that was not the principal criteria that he applied. The
principal criteria he applied was, is the person an excellent judge?”
The White House has been somewhat surprised by the intensity of the focus on
identity, much of it fanned by round-the-clock cable coverage. The talk show
host Rush Limbaugh declared Judge Sotomayor a “reverse racist” and described Mr.
Obama as “an angry man with a chip on his shoulder.”
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, wrote that a white man saying the
reverse would have to withdraw so a “Latina woman racist should also withdraw.”
Mr. Obama and his aides responded by denouncing her critics while saying she had
used a poor choice of words. “I’m sure she would have restated it,” Mr. Obama
said on Friday. “But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she
wrote, what’s clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will
give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going
through — that will make her a good judge.”
The White House and its liberal supporters also dug up quotes from
Republican-appointed justices, including Samuel A. Alito Jr., who said at his
confirmation hearing that his immigrant roots played into his consideration of
“When a case comes before me involving, let’s say, someone who is an immigrant —
and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases,” he said
at the hearing, “I can’t help but think of my own ancestors because it wasn’t
that long ago when they were in that position.”
Representative Nydia M. Velázquez of New York, a Democrat and chairwoman of the
Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said, “So help me God, I just don’t know what is
different between what he said and what she said.” Ms. Velázquez added, “I think
some people want to create a commotion here that scores political points.”
The White House is counting on the notion that when the points are counted, it
will have scored more. Mr. Obama won 67 percent of Hispanic votes last year,
according to exit polls, and his political advisers would like to lock down a
large constituency that remains in play between the two parties. The calculation
in the president’s circle is that Republicans will shoot themselves by attacking
the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee.
“If there are critics out there who try to engage in some kind of playing the
politics of race, they’re going to do so at their own peril because I think the
country is past that,” said Joel Benenson, the president’s pollster.
Ms. Thernstrom, a Republican appointee to the United States Commission on Civil
Rights, said the real question was what the episode revealed about Mr. Obama. Is
he the apostle of a post-racial society or a more subtle player in the country’s
age-old identity politics or something in between? “I think he’s a complicated
person,” she said.
Court Choice Pushes
‘Identity Politics’ to Forefront, NYT, 31.5.2009,
Sotomayor Pick a Product of Lessons From Past Battles
May 28, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER and ADAM NAGOURNEY
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s aides were laying down the law. They had
invited liberal activists to the White House two weeks ago to discuss his coming
Supreme Court selection, but they were not asking for candidates.
Instead, they told the activists not to lobby for their favorites in the news
media or talk down candidates they opposed. The message, as one surprised
visitor heard it, was “get on board or get out of the way.”
In the months leading up to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s selection this week, the
White House methodically labored to apply lessons from years of nomination
battles to control the process and avoid the pitfalls of the past, like
appearing to respond to pressure from the party’s base or allowing candidates to
be chewed up by friendly fire.
The selection process for Mr. Obama’s first Supreme Court nomination brought
together a group that had been thinking about this moment for a long time, from
a president who taught constitutional law to a vice president who voted on the
confirmation of every member of the current court. Sitting in the room were
advisers like Ronald A. Klain and Cynthia Hogan, who have been involved in
nomination fights going back to Clarence Thomas.
Even before Justice David H. Souter publicly announced nearly four weeks ago
that he was retiring, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff who lived
through two nominations during Bill Clinton’s presidency, commissioned a
strategy memorandum from Mr. Klain intended to dictate the process. Secrecy was
paramount. As the decision neared, aides disguised meetings on the subject even
on the president’s internal schedule by blocking out time under the label “Chief
of Staff Strategy.”
From the beginning, Mr. Obama had been focused on Judge Sotomayor, a federal
appeals court judge from New York, officials said Wednesday. She had a
compelling life story, Ivy League credentials and a track record on the bench.
She was a Latina. She was a woman. She checked “each of the grids,” as Mr.
Obama’s team later put it. And by the time the opportunity arrived, it became
her nomination to lose.
Over the course of the last four weeks, Mr. Obama nursed doubts about Judge
Sotomayor and entertained alternatives, aides said. He called around, asking
allies about her reputation for brusqueness. At times, he grew increasingly
enamored of other candidates, particularly Judge Diane P. Wood, whom he knew
from Chicago. But by the time Judge Sotomayor left the White House last Thursday
after what Mr. Obama told aides was a “dense discussion” of constitutional law,
he was pretty much sold.
“You had to knock her off the pedestal,” Mr. Emanuel said, “and nobody did.”
The selection process got its start in the weeks after Mr. Obama’s election last
fall when he gathered advisers in a conference room in downtown Chicago one day.
The court was on his mind.
“Just because we don’t have a vacancy right now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work
on it,” he told the group, according to participants. “The day we get a vacancy,
we want to have a short list of people ready.”
Mr. Obama already had one in mind and threw out several names, including Judge
Sotomayor, aides said. His new White House counsel, Gregory B. Craig, got to
work assembling more names. In mid-April, the White House privately got word
from Justice Souter that he was preparing to retire at the end of the term in
June, and preparations accelerated.
By the time Justice Souter’s decision leaked on April 30, officials said, the
White House had full dossiers on nearly all of the major candidates and within
days Mr. Obama was given 10-page memorandums on each of them to study over the
weekend. By the next week, Mr. Craig’s office gave him 60- to 70-page
memorandums on each prospect.
Mr. Obama, who was president of the law review at Harvard and married a Harvard
Law School graduate, recently said he became so engrossed in the memorandums
that he missed a basketball game one night.
“He didn’t need a Constitutional Law 101 primer to prepare for this,” said
Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who spoke with Mr. Obama about the
process in early May.
“There were five things that were on his mind: age, experience, independence,
confidence and diversity,” Mr. Ogletree recalled. “And when I say diversity,
it’s not just background and race; I mean diversity of experience, of character,
of judgment and of points of view.”
With Mr. Craig also dealing with national security issues, Mr. Emanuel recruited
Mr. Klain and Ms. Hogan from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s office to run
the day-to-day process. Mr. Klain, the vice president’s chief of staff, had been
involved in nomination fights in the Clinton White House and on Mr. Biden’s
Senate staff, while Ms. Hogan, the vice president’s counsel, worked for the
Judiciary Committee during three confirmations.
“We wanted people who had been through this before,” said David Axelrod, the
president’s senior adviser. “This was not an accident.”
Recalling nominations that had foundered on poor research, the White House team
assigned two inside lawyers to vet each candidate’s public speeches and rulings
and recruited outside law firms to examine each candidate’s personal finances,
taxes, medical history and ethics.
In the end, the White House considered nine candidates. In addition to Judges
Sotomayor and Wood, officials said they were Solicitor General Elena Kagan;
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of
Michigan; Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears of the Georgia Supreme Court; Justice
Carlos R. Moreno of the California Supreme Court; Judge Merrick B. Garland of
the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and
Judge Ruben Castillo of Federal District Court in Illinois.
Mr. Obama quickly found himself being lobbied by fellow Democrats. In an
interview, Representative Jose E. Serrano of New York described a campaign he
and his colleague Representative Nydia M. Velázquez conducted on behalf of Judge
Sotomayor that included a personal plea at the Cinco de Mayo celebration at the
Hoping to shut off as much outside pressure as possible, the White House
summoned leaders of liberal groups for a series of meetings, at the White House
and elsewhere. The deputy White House chief of staff, Jim Messina, issued the
edict about not floating names through the news media or engaging in daily
battles about the pros and cons of various candidates, warning that it would be
“counterproductive,” participants said.
As he narrowed his choices, aides said, Mr. Obama kept asking for more original
writings by the candidates, and he called every member of the Judiciary
Committee, something few if any presidents have done.
In his conversations with senators, Mr. Obama did not let on whom he was
thinking about, but described what kind of nominee he was looking for and asked
for names. “I don’t think he saw the process as him saying, ‘Which of these five
people would you oppose or support,’ ” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont,
the Judiciary Committee chairman.
“He asked if I had any suggestions for nominees,” said Senator Charles E.
Grassley, Republican of Iowa, a member of the committee for 29 years. “This is
the first time I’ve ever been called by a president on a Supreme Court
nomination, be it a Republican or a Democrat.”
As the president deliberated, Mr. Klain, Ms. Hogan and Dan Pfeiffer, the deputy
communications director, began meeting with prospective finalists. To preserve
secrecy, they held several sessions around the table of Ms. Hogan’s home in
Bethesda, Md. Judge Sotomayor was first interviewed by telephone so she would
not be seen coming to Washington.
Four candidates were invited to the White House to interview with Mr. Obama:
Judges Sotomayor and Wood, Ms. Kagan and Ms. Napolitano. It was not lost on
those under consideration that none who made it to the final stage were men.
“I think they ended up making a bad evidentiary record for themselves by not
interviewing one male,” said a judge whose name came up early in the process.
Impressed by Judge Sotomayor, Mr. Obama gathered his team around noon Monday in
the dining room off the Oval Office. “I’m almost there,” he said as he ate a
salad, one participant recalled. “I think it’s going to be her.”
By 9 p.m., he had called to offer her the job.
“He ended up where we started out,” Mr. Craig said. “After all the work, he was
thinking about Sonia Sotomayor at the beginning and he was thinking about her at
the end. She withstood four months, five months of intense scrutiny by the White
House counsel’s office and third parties.”
Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.
Sotomayor Pick a Product
of Lessons From Past Battles, NYT, 28.5.2009,
On Sotomayor, Some Abortion Rights Backers Show Unease
May 28, 2009
The New York Times
By CHARLIE SAVAGE
WASHINGTON — In nearly 11 years as a federal appeals court judge, President
Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, has never directly ruled
on whether the Constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion. But when
she has written opinions that touched tangentially on abortion disputes, she has
reached outcomes in some cases that were favorable to abortion opponents.
Now, some abortion rights advocates are quietly expressing unease that Judge
Sotomayor may not be a reliable vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973
abortion rights decision. In a letter, Nancy Keenan, president of Naral
Pro-Choice America, urged supporters to press senators to demand that Judge
Sotomayor reveal her views on privacy rights before any confirmation vote.
“Discussion about Roe v. Wade will — and must — be part of this nomination
process,” Ms. Keenan wrote. “As you know, choice hangs in the balance on the
Supreme Court as the last two major choice-related cases were decided by a
Because Judge Sotomayor is the choice of a president who supports abortion
rights at a time when Democrats hold a substantial majority in the Senate, both
sides in the debate have tended to assume she could be counted on to preserve
the Roe decision.
Immediately after Mr. Obama announced his selection on Tuesday, leaders of
several other abortion rights groups spoke out in support of Judge Sotomayor,
and several conservative groups opposed to abortion rights attacked her, saying
they were convinced that the president would not nominate someone who opposed
But in his briefing to reporters on Tuesday, the White House spokesman, Robert
Gibbs, was asked whether Mr. Obama had asked Judge Sotomayor about abortion or
privacy rights. Mr. Gibbs replied that Mr. Obama “did not ask that
Presidents have miscalculated in their assumptions about the abortion views of
Supreme Court nominees before. When the first President Bush nominated David H.
Souter in 1990 to fill the seat that Judge Sotomayor would assume if confirmed,
Mr. Souter was known as a “stealth nominee” with no paper trail on abortion.
But conservative and liberal advocates alike believed that Justice Souter would
vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, so much so that abortion rights advocates
protested outside his confirmation hearing with signs reading “Stop Souter, or
Women Will Die.” Then, two years later, Justice Souter shocked the political
world by voting to uphold abortion rights.
As president, Mr. Obama has sought to avoid being drawn into the culture wars of
the last several decades and has encouraged each side in the abortion debate to
be respectful of the other’s opinions. But there are clear political advantages
to his choice for the court not being perceived as having a strong position on
Judge Sotomayor’s views on abortion rights could still become clear if a past
writing comes to light. During Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s confirmation
process in late 2005, for example, the National Archives released an old Justice
Department job application in which he said the Constitution does not protect a
right to an abortion.
But at this point, Judge Sotomayor’s views are as unknown as Justice Souter’s
were in 1990, said Steven Waldman, the editor in chief of BeliefNet.com, a
religious Web site, where he has blogged about her lack of an abortion rights
“Everyone is just assuming that because Obama appointed her, she must be a
die-hard pro-choice activist,” Mr. Waldman said, “but it’s really quite amazing
how little we know about her views on abortion.”
None of the cases in Judge Sotomayor’s record dealt directly with the legal
theory underlying Roe v. Wade — that the Constitution contains an unwritten
right to privacy in reproductive decisions as a matter of so-called substantive
due process. Several of her opinions invoke substantive due process in other
areas, however, like the rights of parents and prisoners.
She has also had several cases involving abortion-related disputes that turned
on other legal issues. While those cases cannot be taken as a proxy for her
views on the constitutionality of abortion, she often reached results favorable
to abortion opponents.
In a 2002 case, she wrote an opinion upholding the Bush administration policy of
withholding aid from international groups that provide or promote abortion
“The Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the
anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position,” she wrote, “and can do so
with public funds.”
In a 2004 case, she largely sided with some anti-abortion protesters who wanted
to sue some police officers for allegedly violating their constitutional rights
by using excessive force to break up demonstrations at an abortion clinic. Judge
Sotomayor said the protesters deserved a day in court.
Judge Sotomayor has also ruled on several immigration cases involving people
fighting deportation orders to China on the grounds that its population-control
policy of forcible abortions and birth control constituted persecution.
In a 2007 case, she strongly criticized colleagues on the court who said that
only women, and not their husbands, could seek asylum based on China’s abortion
policy. “The termination of a wanted pregnancy under a coercive population
control program can only be devastating to any couple, akin, no doubt, to the
killing of a child,” she wrote, also taking note of “the unique biological
nature of pregnancy and special reverence every civilization has accorded to
child-rearing and parenthood in marriage.”
And in a 2008 case, she wrote an opinion vacating a deportation order for a
woman who had worked in an abortion clinic in China. Although Judge Sotomayor’s
decision turned on a technicality, her opinion described in detail the woman’s
account of how she would be persecuted in China because she had once permitted
the escape of a woman who was seven months pregnant and scheduled for a forced
abortion. In China, to allow such an escape was a crime, the woman said.
Phillip Jauregui, president of the conservative Judicial Action Group, said he
was not convinced by any anti-abortion overtones to such rulings because, he
said, even “the most radical feminist” would object to forcing women to abort
Mr. Waldman of BeliefNet.com also noted that Judge Sotomayor was raised Roman
Catholic, although there are many judges who do not follow the church’s dogma —
like opposing abortion and the death penalty — in their jurisprudence.
Moreover, he said, it is significant that as a group, Hispanics include a higher
percentage of abortion opponents than many other parts of the Democratic Party’s
coalition. Judge Sotomayor’s parents moved from Puerto Rico.
“At the very least, she grew up in a culture that didn’t hold the pro-life
position in contempt,” Mr. Waldman said.
Mr. Jauregui said he agreed with Ms. Keenan that Judge Sotomayor ought to say
what she believed about Roe v. Wade before any confirmation vote.
“I don’t think, when we’re talking about a job as important as a justice who
could serve for decades, that it’s acceptable for someone to be stealth,” he
On Sotomayor, Some
Abortion Rights Backers Show Unease, NYT, 28.5.2009,
US Makes Overture to Cuba on Legal Immigration
May 23, 2009
Filed at 3:50 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is making another overture to Cuba,
asking the island's communist government to resume talks that his predecessor
halted on legal immigration of Cubans to the United States.
Obama's proposal would reopen discussions that had been closed off by former
President George W. Bush since they were last held in mid-2003. His move comes
ahead of the United States' attendance at a high-level meeting early next month
of the Organization of American States, where Cuba's possible re-entry into the
regional bloc will be discussed.
The State Department said Friday it had proposed restarting the talks to
''reaffirm both sides' commitment to safe, legal and orderly migration, to
review trends in illegal Cuban migration to the United States and to improve
operational relations with Cuba on migration issues.''
In April, Obama decided to rescind restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans
with family there and on the amount of money they can send to their relatives on
Obama ''wants to ensure that we are doing all we can to support the Cuban people
in fulfilling their desire to live in freedom,'' Darla Jordan, a department
spokeswoman, said Friday. ''He will continue to make policy decisions
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will attend the June 2 meeting in
Honduras, told lawmakers this past week that the U.S. would not support Cuba's
membership in the organization until and unless President Raul Castro's regime
makes democratic reforms and releases political prisoners.
She and Obama have also said that broader engagement with Cuba, including the
possible lifting of the U.S. embargo on the island, is dependent on such steps.
There was no immediate reaction from the Cuban government on Friday, but
communist officials were angered when the Bush administration decided to scuttle
the talks on grounds they were not crucial for monitoring agreements aimed at
preventing a mass exodus from the island.
In Miami on Friday, the influential Cuban American National Foundation welcomed
the news, saying resumed migration talks could be ''an opportunity to resolve
issues of United States national interest.''
However, three Cuban-American members of Congress from Florida denounced the
move as ''another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the
''The United States suspended the 'migration talks' with the Cuban dictatorship
in January 2004 because the Cuban regime refused to comply with basic aspects of
the Migration Accord of 1995,'' Republican Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, his
brother Mario and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said in a statement. ''The Cuban regime
continues to violate the accord by denying hundreds of exit permits annually to
Cuban nationals who have received visas to enter the United States. The Obama
administration should first insist that the Castro dictatorship complies with
the accord before renewing 'talks.'''
The twice-yearly meetings in alternating countries had been the highest level
contacts between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations.
The suspension of the talks occurred during an especially prickly period during
which then-president Fidel Castro publicly criticizing James Cason, at the time
head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as a ''bully'' and Washington
condemning Havana for a crackdown that rounded up 75 dissidents and sentenced
them to long prison terms.
The talks were created so the countries could track adherence to 1994 and 1995
accords designed to promote legal, orderly migration between the two countries.
The aim was to avoid a repeat of the summer of 1994, when tens of thousands of
Cubans took to the sea in flimsy boats.
Associated Press writer Anita Snow in Havana contributed to this report.
US Makes Overture to
Cuba on Legal Immigration, NYT, 23.5.2009,
Obama Is Embraced at Annapolis
May 23, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Nobody protested President Obama’s commencement address
Friday morning at the United States Naval Academy. Nobody told Mr. Obama he was
undeserving of an honorary degree. Instead, under a nearly cloudless blue sky,
the president was treated to a 21-gun salute, a Blue Angels flyover — and a
respite from the controversy that has dogged him at two previous graduation
It was Mr. Obama’s first commencement speech as president to graduates of a
military academy — a rite of passage for every commander in chief — and he
pledged to harness diplomacy and economic aid alongside military power to defend
the nation and provide fighting forces with everything they need to succeed in
“As long as I am your commander in chief,” Mr. Obama said, “I will only send you
into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary, and with the strategy and the
well-defined goals, the equipment and the support that you need to get the job
The 23-minute address came one day after Mr. Obama, in a lengthier speech at the
National Archives in Washington, offered a far-reaching defense of his
antiterrorism policies, including his decision to close the American military
prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. On Friday, he repeated his message that in an
age of terrorism, he can both protect Americans from attack and uphold
fundamental American values.
As the debate on national security policy proceeds, Mr. Obama said, “we must
remember this enduring truth: The values and ideals in those documents are not
simply words written into aging parchment; they are the bedrock of our liberty
and our security.”
There was a special guest among the 30,000 people who attended the ceremony:
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran for president against Mr.
Obama in 2008, and is a 1958 graduate of the academy. Mr. McCain’s son and
namesake, John S. McCain IV, was among those graduating on Friday.
Mr. McCain sat unobtrusively in the audience with his wife, Cindy; an
administration official said that out of respect for the McCains’ wishes, the
president made no mention of the couple or their son. But when the younger Mr.
McCain was called to the podium to receive his diploma, there was a huge roar
from the crowd, and Mr. Obama spent an extra few moments with him, and gave him
an enthusiastic couple of claps on the shoulder.
This has been a spring of graduation drama for Mr. Obama. Arizona State
University provoked a national furor by declining to give him an honorary
degree, reasoning that “his body of work is yet to come.” The president, in his
speech there, gamely agreed.
At Notre Dame, abortion opponents boycotted Mr. Obama’s speech. Mr. Obama did
not duck the issue, but rather embraced it with a call for greater
understanding, “open hearts, open mind, fair-minded words” in the abortion
There was no such controversy here in Annapolis, where midshipmen are more apt
to say “Yes, sir” than to protest. Clad in sparkling summer dress whites, the
graduates greeted their new commander in chief with hoots, hollers and raucous
applause. Mr. Obama, in return, praised them for the path they had chosen — a
notable contrast, he suggested, to the pursuit of wealth that helped foster the
current economic crisis.
“These Americans have embraced the virtues that we need most right now:
self-discipline over self-interest; work over comfort; and character over
celebrity,” the president said. “After an era when so many institutions and
individuals have acted with such greed and recklessness, it’s no wonder that our
military remains the most trusted institution in our nation.”
When all the diplomas had been handed out, the 2009 class president, Ensign
Andrew R. Poulin, summoned Mr. Obama back to the podium to present him with a
black flight jacket emblazoned on the back with gold block letters that read
“commander in chief.”
“It even has pockets for your Blackberry, and you will look sharp on the
basketball court with this, sir,” Ensign Poulin said.
Mr. Obama took off his blue suit coat, slipped on the jacket, and flashed the
graduates a thumbs up.
Obama Is Embraced at
Annapolis, NYT, 23.5.2009,
Leadership Long Delayed
May 23, 2009
The New York Times
For anyone eager to see the United States take a serious leadership role on
the issue of global warming, this week was enormously encouraging.
It began with the White House’s announcement that it will impose the first-ever
limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. It ended with a House
committee approving a comprehensive energy and global warming bill — an
important first step on legislation that seeks to reduce America’s dependence on
foreign oil, reverse emissions of carbon dioxide and create millions of clean
In fairly short order, President Obama and a Democratically controlled Congress
have made the lassitude and indifference of the Bush years seem like ancient
history. And they have greatly improved the prospects that American negotiators
will arrive at the next round of global climate negotiations in Copenhagen with
a credible strategy in hand and with the leverage to encourage other major
emitters like China to get cracking.
The trick now will be to sustain the momentum — at home and internationally.
The legislation approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee must survive
scrutiny by other committees and, of course, the whole House. Even after the
strong endorsement of expert scientists, only one of the committee’s Republicans
— Mary Bono Mack of California — voted for the bill. And then comes the Senate,
where 60 votes are required to overcome a filibuster and where a climate change
bill crashed to defeat last year.
The House bill’s main architect, Representative Henry Waxman of California, and
his chief lieutenant, Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, have
politically tailored this bill to do better.
It calls for a 17 percent reduction in 2005 levels of greenhouse gas emissions
by 2020 — and 83 percent by 2050. It would put a price on carbon through a
cap-and-trade system that would impose a steadily declining ceiling on emissions
while allowing polluters to trade permits, or allowances, to give them more
flexibility in meeting their targets. It also mandates greater use of renewable
power sources like wind and solar, sets tough new efficiency standards for
buildings and invests in cleaner energy technologies, largely through the sale
of carbon allowances.
To placate politicians from industrial states that rely heavily on coal, and
whose energy costs are likely to rise, the bill includes a variety of mechanisms
to help industries make the near-term transition to cleaner and more efficient
ways of creating energy. The most prominent of these are “ offsets” that would
allow polluters to satisfy their own emissions-reduction obligations by
investing in carbon-reducing programs elsewhere, like preventing deforestation.
Critics says these and other provisions are too generous to polluters, and in
truth the bill is not as strong as it should be. But anything more might well
fail, as other bills have failed, and then the country would be back to Square
1. As it is, the bill represents an ambitious first step toward a solution too
long delayed for a problem too long denied.
Leadership Long Delayed,
President’s Detention Plan
Tests American Legal Tradition
May 23, 2009
The New York Times
By WILLIAM GLABERSON
President Obama’s proposal for a new legal system in which terrorism suspects
could be held in “prolonged detention” inside the United States without trial
would be a departure from the way this country sees itself, as a place where
people in the grip of the government either face criminal charges or walk free.
There are, to be sure, already some legal tools that allow for the detention of
those who pose danger: quarantine laws as well as court precedents permitting
the confinement of sexual predators and the dangerous mentally ill. Every day in
America, people are denied bail and locked up because they are found to be a
hazard to their communities, though they have yet to be convicted of anything.
Still, the concept of preventive detention is at the very boundary of American
law, and legal experts say any new plan for the imprisonment of terrorism
suspects without trial would seem inevitably bound for the Supreme Court.
Mr. Obama has so far provided few details of his proposed system beyond saying
it would be subject to oversight by Congress and the courts. Whether it would be
constitutional, several of the legal experts said in interviews, would most
likely depend on the fairness of any such review procedures.
Ultimately, they suggested, the question of constitutionality would involve a
national look in the mirror: Is this what America does?
“We have these limited exceptions to the principle that we only hold people
after conviction,” said Michael C. Dorf, a constitutional law professor at
Cornell. “But they are narrow exceptions, and we don’t want to expand them
because they make us uncomfortable.”
In his speech on antiterrorism policy Thursday, Mr. Obama, emphasizing that he
wanted fair procedures, sought to distance himself from what critics of the Bush
administration saw as its system of arbitrary detention.
“In our constitutional system,” Mr. Obama said, “prolonged detention should not
be the decision of any one man.”
But Mr. Obama’s critics say his proposal is Bush redux. Closing the prison at
Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and holding detainees domestically under a new system of
preventive detention would simply “move Guantánamo to a new location and give it
a new name,” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional
Rights. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested this month that as many as
100 detainees might be held in the United States under such a system.
Mr. Obama chose to call his proposal “prolonged detention,” which made it sound
more reassuring than some of its more familiar names. In some countries, it is
called “administrative detention,” a designation with a slightly totalitarian
ring. Some of its proponents call it “indefinite detention,” which evokes the
Bush administration’s position that Guantánamo detainees could be held until the
end of the war on terror — perhaps for the rest of their lives — even if
acquitted in war crimes trials.
Mr. Obama’s proposal was a sign of the sobering difficulties posed by the
president’s plan to close the Guantánamo prison by January. The prolonged
detention option is necessary, he said, because there may be some detainees who
cannot be tried but who pose a security threat.
These, he said, are prisoners who in effect remain at war with the United
States, even after some seven years at Guantánamo. He listed as examples
detainees who received extensive explosives training from Al Qaeda, have sworn
allegiance to Osama bin Laden or have otherwise made it clear that they want to
Other countries, including Israel and India, have had laws allowing indefinite
detention of terrorism suspects, said Monica Hakimi, an assistant professor of
law at the University of Michigan who has written about the subject. But, she
said, few provide for essentially unending detention, and several European
countries have restricted preventive detention to days or weeks.
Mr. Obama’s proposal, Professor Hakimi said, appears to be “an aggressive
approach that is not commonly taken in other Western developed countries.”
In a letter to the president on Friday, Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of
Wisconsin, said he was not sure Mr. Obama’s idea would prove constitutional, and
added that “such detention is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have
historically criticized around the world.”
Some critics of the Bush administration, who have become critics of Mr. Obama as
well, have long said they are skeptical that there are detainees who are a
demonstrable risk to the country but against whom the government can make no
But some proponents of an indefinite detention system argue that Guantánamo’s
remaining 240 detainees include cold-blooded jihadists and perhaps some so
warped by their experience in custody that no president would be willing to free
them. And among them, the proponents say, are some who cannot be tried, in part
for lack of evidence or because of tainted evidence.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Obama’s
proposal was contrary to the path his administration apparently hoped to take
when he took office. But that was before he and his advisers had access to
detailed information on the detainees, said Mr. Wittes, who in a book last year
argued for an indefinite detention system.
“This is the guy who has sworn an oath to protect the country,” he said, “and if
you look at the question of how many people can you try and how many people are
you terrified to release, you have to have some kind of detention authority.”
Civil liberties lawyers say American criminal laws are written broadly enough to
make it relatively easy to convict terrorism suspects. They say Mr. Obama has
not made the case persuasively that there is a worrisome category of detainees
who are too dangerous to release but who cannot be convicted. The reason to have
a criminal justice system at all, they say, is to trust it to decide who is
guilty and who is not.
“If they cannot be convicted, then you release them,” said Jameel Jaffer, a
lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union. “That’s what it means to have a
Plan Tests American Legal Tradition, NYT, 23.5.2009,
Obama Mounts Defense of Detainee Plan
May 22, 2009
The New York Times
By DAVID STOUT and BRIAN KNOWLTON
WASHINGTON — President Obama delivered an impassioned defense
of his administration’s anti-terrorism policies on Thursday, reiterating his
determination to close the prison at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba in
the face of growing Congressional pressure and declaring that America will
remain strong if it stands by its basic precepts.
The president said that what has gone on at Guantánamo for the past seven years
has demonstrated an unjust, haphazard “ad hoc approach” that has undermined
rather than strengthened America’s safety, and that moving its most dangerous
inmates to the United States is both practical and in keeping with the country’s
Moreover, he said that transferring some Guantánamo detainees to highly secure
prisons in the United States would in no way endanger American security.
Speaking at the National Archives, which houses the Constitution and other
documents embodying America’s system of government and justice, the president
promised to work with Congress to develop a safe and fair system for dealing
with a particularly thorny problem: what to do with those Guantánamo detainees
who, for one reason or another, cannot be prosecuted in civilian or military
courts “yet who pose a clear danger to the American people” and therefore cannot
simply be released.
“I want to be honest: this is the toughest issue we will face,” the president
said, pledging to help devise “clear, defensible and lawful standards for those
who fall in this category,” meaning former Taliban commanders, Al Qaeda-trained
explosives experts, acolytes of Osama bin Laden and others whose hatred of
America is deep and uncompromising.
Imprisoning people indefinitely without charging them is generally contrary to
principles of American justice, a reality that the American Civil Liberties
Union alluded to after the president’s speech.
“We welcome President Obama’s stated commitment to the Constitution, the rule of
law and the unequivocal rejection of torture,” said Anthony Romero, the
A.C.L.U.’s executive director. “But unlike the president, we believe that
continuing with the failed military commissions and creating a new system of
indefinite detention without charge is inconsistent with the values that he
expressed so eloquently at the National Archives today.”
President Obama said that, despite the evil intentions of some Guantánamo
detainees and the undeniable fact that Al Qaeda terrorists are determined to
attack America again, United States citizens should not feel uneasy about a
relatively small number of detainees being imprisoned in the American homeland.
“As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: nobody has ever
escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of
convicted terrorists,” the president said. “As Senator Lindsey Graham said: ‘The
idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the
United States is not rational.’”
The problem of what to do with the Guantánamo detainees “was not caused by my
decision to close the facility,” Mr. Obama said. “The problem exists because of
the decision to open Guantánamo in the first place.”He said that “faced with an
uncertain threat” and “a sincere desire to protect the American people,” the
government — aided by Democrats and Republicans, politicians journalists and
citizens — “went off course.”
Only minutes after Mr. Obama finished speaking, former Vice President Dick
Cheney offered a far different perspective, defending the anti-terrorism
policies of the Bush administration, asserting that the country had never lost
“its moral bearings” and criticizing some of President Obama’s approaches. Taken
together, the speeches of President Obama and the former vice president outlined
a fundamental debate over the proper balance between personal liberties and
national security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.
Both speeches came in a week in which Congress has been wrestling with detention
issues. The Senate by a lopsided vote of 90-6 rebuffed the president over
financing for closing down the detention center. Republicans and Democrats alike
argued that the White House had yet to outline a realistic plan for what to do
with the remaining detainees after the center is closed.
The supermax prisons to which Mr. Obama alluded, familiar to viewers of
cable-television crime programs, are fortress-like structures of concrete and
steel where the inmates — the worst of the worst of hardened criminals — live in
“I know that creating such a system poses unique challenges,” Mr. Obama said.
“Other countries have grappled with this question, and so must we. But I want to
be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for
Guantanamo detainees — not to avoid one. In our constitutional system, prolonged
detention should not be the decision of any one man.”
The president said Americans should resist the temptation to indulge in
“finger-pointing” over mistakes. But he offered scathing criticism of the
presidency of George W. Bush, referring repeatedly to the missteps, in Mr.
Obama’s view, of “the past eight years” and declaring that the harsh
interrogation methods used at Guantanamo have fomented terrorism.
In an address punctuated several times by applause, the president asserted over
and over that fidelity to American values is not a luxury to be dispensed with
in times of crisis but, rather, the compass that will steer the country to
safety in an age of terrorism.
“We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but
because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe,” he said.
The president has said he wants the Guantánamo detention camp closed by January
2010, but he did not mention any timetable in his speech on Thursday. Senator
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, said the president
should avoid an “arbitrary timeline,” but the senator was critical of the
“With all due respect to the president, what we need here is not a speech but a
plan,” Mr. McConnell said. “And a plan is what was clearly missing from the
Another Republican senator, John Cornyn of Texas, was harsher in his criticism,
accusing the president of “downgrading the global war on terror to a law
enforcement action” and of complaining incessantly of problems that he
Shortly after President Obama finished his speech, television networks cut away
to Mr. Cheney’s speech, titled “Keeping America Safe,” delivered to the American
Mr. Cheney gave the president some credit for “wise decisions,” notably in some
of the steps he has taken in Afghanistan and in reversing his plan to release
photographs of detainee abuse. But the former vice president was vigorous in his
defense of the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees that the Obama
administration has denounced, saying that skilled and trained C.I.A. agents had
gained invaluable intelligence, using methods ruled legal by administration
lawyers, that had saved lives.
Mr. Cheney was sharply critical of Mr. Obama’s decision to release documents
detailing the Bush administration debate on what interrogation techniques could
legally be employed. Releasing the memos, Mr. Cheney said, “was flatly contrary
to the national security interest of the United States,” undercutting
anti-terror efforts by United States allies around the world, and leaving C.I.A.
agents unsure of high-level backing “when the going gets tough.”
Mr. Cheney suggested that the new administration was making a deeply flawed and
risky calculation that the Sept. 11 attacks were in effect one-time event and
not a persistent, existential threat. Mr. Cheney also offered a withering
critique of the suggestion that the Obama team was seeking middle ground in
policies on terrorism.
“In the fight against terrorism,” he said, “there is no middle ground, and
half-measures keep you half-exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed
terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist
ouf of the United States.”
In addition, Mr. Cheney, a fierce opponent of releasing information about the
government’s wiretapping efforts, criticized The New York Times for its coverage
of the practice, which he said “let us intercept calls and track contacts
between al-Qaeda operatives and persons inside the United States.” “It impressed
the Pulitzer committee,” he said, “but it damn sure didn’t serve the interests
of our country, or the safety of our people.”
As for the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, Mr. Cheney suggested
that Mr. Obama was short-sightedly playing to foreign audiences. “It’s easy to
receive applause in Europe for closing Guantánamo,” he said. “But it’s tricky to
come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and
America’s national security.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Jeff Zeleny and Kate Phillips contributed
Obama Mounts Defense
of Detainee Plan, NYT, 22.5.2009,
Text: Obama’s Speech on National Security
May 21, 2009
The New York Times
Following is a text of President Obama’s speech on Thursday on
national security issues, as released by the White House.
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. Please be seated.
Thank you all for being here. Let me just acknowledge the presence of some of my
outstanding Cabinet members and advisors. We've got our Secretary of State,
Hillary Clinton. We have our CIA Director Leon Panetta. We have our Secretary of
Defense William Gates; Secretary Napolitano of Department of Homeland Security;
Attorney General Eric Holder; my National Security Advisor Jim Jones. And I want
to especially thank our Acting Archivist of the United States, Adrienne Thomas.
I also want to acknowledge several members of the House who have great interest
in intelligence matters. I want to thank Congressman Reyes, Congressman
Hoekstra, Congressman King, as well as Congressman Thompson, for being here
today. Thank you so much.
These are extraordinary times for our country. We're confronting a historic
economic crisis. We're fighting two wars. We face a range of challenges that
will define the way that Americans will live in the 21st century. So there's no
shortage of work to be done, or responsibilities to bear.
And we've begun to make progress. Just this week, we've taken steps to protect
American consumers and homeowners, and to reform our system of government
contracting so that we better protect our people while spending our money more
wisely. (Applause.) The -- it's a good bill. (Laughter.) The engines of our
economy are slowly beginning to turn, and we're working towards historic reform
on health care and on energy. I want to say to the members of Congress, I
welcome all the extraordinary work that has been done over these last four
months on these and other issues.
In the midst of all these challenges, however, my single most important
responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe. It's the first
thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It's the last thing that
I think about when I go to sleep at night.
And this responsibility is only magnified in an era when an extremist ideology
threatens our people, and technology gives a handful of terrorists the potential
to do us great harm. We are less than eight years removed from the deadliest
attack on American soil in our history. We know that al Qaeda is actively
planning to attack us again. We know that this threat will be with us for a long
time, and that we must use all elements of our power to defeat it.
Already, we've taken several steps to achieve that goal. For the first time
since 2002, we're providing the necessary resources and strategic direction to
take the fight to the extremists who attacked us on 9/11 in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. We're investing in the 21st century military and intelligence
capabilities that will allow us to stay one step ahead of a nimble enemy. We
have re-energized a global non-proliferation regime to deny the world's most
dangerous people access to the world's deadliest weapons. And we've launched an
effort to secure all loose nuclear materials within four years. We're better
protecting our border, and increasing our preparedness for any future attack or
natural disaster. We're building new partnerships around the world to disrupt,
dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates. And we have renewed American
diplomacy so that we once again have the strength and standing to truly lead the
These steps are all critical to keeping America secure. But I believe with every
fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe
unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. The documents that we
hold in this very hall -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the
Bill of Rights -- these are not simply words written into aging parchment. They
are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that
shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the
I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these
documents. My father came to these shores in search of the promise that they
offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn their truths when I lived
as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations
of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words -- "to form a more perfect
union." I've studied the Constitution as a student, I've taught it as a teacher,
I've been bound by it as a lawyer and a legislator. I took an oath to preserve,
protect, and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I
know that we must never, ever, turn our back on its enduring principles for
I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most
cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens
our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best
national security asset -- in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of
Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from
a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation
in the world.
It's the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing
they'd receive better treatment from America's Armed Forces than from their own
It's the reason why America has benefitted from strong alliances that amplified
our power, and drawn a sharp, moral contrast with our adversaries.
It's the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism and
outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free peoples
everywhere in the common cause and common effort of liberty.
From Europe to the Pacific, we've been the nation that has shut down torture
chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is who we are. And
where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America
must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are more resilient than a
After 9/11, we knew that we had entered a new era -- that enemies who did not
abide by any law of war would present new challenges to our application of the
law; that our government would need new tools to protect the American people,
and that these tools would have to allow us to prevent attacks instead of simply
prosecuting those who try to carry them out.
Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of
hasty decisions. I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a
sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that all too
often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that
all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological
predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles,
too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer
afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and
Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent.
In other words, we went off course. And this is not my assessment alone. It was
an assessment that was shared by the American people who nominated candidates
for President from both major parties who, despite our many differences, called
for a new approach -- one that rejected torture and one that recognized the
imperative of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We
do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so
with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and
balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that
were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for
fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable -- a framework
that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and
that failed to use our values as a compass. And that's why I took several steps
upon taking office to better protect the American people.
First, I banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques by the
United States of America. (Applause.)
I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to
keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As Commander-in-Chief, I see the
intelligence. I bear the responsibility for keeping this country safe. And I
categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of
interrogation. (Applause.) What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They
alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and
increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of
others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less
likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that
Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not
advance our war and counterterrorism efforts -- they undermined them, and that
is why I ended them once and for all. (Applause.)
Now, I should add, the arguments against these techniques did not originate from
my administration. As Senator McCain once said, torture "serves as a great
propaganda tool for those who recruit people to fight against us." And even
under President Bush, there was recognition among members of his own
administration -- including a Secretary of State, other senior officials, and
many in the military and intelligence community -- that those who argued for
these tactics were on the wrong side of the debate, and the wrong side of
history. That's why we must leave these methods where they belong -- in the
past. They are not who we are, and they are not America.
The second decision that I made was to order the closing of the prison camp at
Guantanamo Bay. (Applause.)
For over seven years, we have detained hundreds of people at Guantanamo. During
that time, the system of military commissions that were in place at Guantanamo
succeeded in convicting a grand total of three suspected terrorists. Let me
repeat that: three convictions in over seven years. Instead of bringing
terrorists to justice, efforts at prosecution met setback after setback, cases
lingered on, and in 2006 the Supreme Court invalidated the entire system.
Meanwhile, over 525 detainees were released from Guantanamo under not my
administration, under the previous administration. Let me repeat that:
Two-thirds of the detainees were released before I took office and ordered the
closure of Guantanamo.
There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is
America's strongest currency in the world. Instead of building a durable
framework for the struggle against al Qaeda that drew upon our deeply held
values and traditions, our government was defending positions that undermined
the rule of law. In fact, part of the rationale for establishing Guantanamo in
the first place was the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the
law -- a proposition that the Supreme Court soundly rejected. Meanwhile, instead
of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that
helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of
Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever
So the record is clear: Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo
has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies.
It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy
that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it
open far exceed the complications involved in closing it. That's why I argued
that it should be closed throughout my campaign, and that is why I ordered it
closed within one year.
The third decision that I made was to order a review of all pending cases at
Guantanamo. I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it would be difficult
and complex. There are 240 people there who have now spent years in legal limbo.
In dealing with this situation, we don't have the luxury of starting from
scratch. We're cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess -- a
misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that
my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily basis, and
it consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on
better protecting our country.
Indeed, the legal challenges that have sparked so much debate in recent weeks
here in Washington would be taking place whether or not I decided to close
Guantanamo. For example, the court order to release 17 Uighurs -- 17 Uighur
detainees took place last fall, when George Bush was President. The Supreme
Court that invalidated the system of prosecution at Guantanamo in 2006 was
overwhelmingly appointed by Republican Presidents -- not wild-eyed liberals. In
other words, the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused
by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision
to open Guantanamo in the first place. (Applause.)
Now let me be blunt. There are no neat or easy answers here. I wish there were.
But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go
away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo. As President, I refuse to allow
this problem to fester. I refuse to pass it on to somebody else. It is my
responsibility to solve the problem. Our security interests will not permit us
to delay. Our courts won't allow it. And neither should our conscience.
Now, over the last several weeks, we've seen a return of the politicization of
these issues that have characterized the last several years. I'm an elected
official; I understand these problems arouse passions and concerns. They should.
We're confronting some of the most complicated questions that a democracy can
face. But I have no interest in spending all of our time relitigating the
policies of the last eight years. I'll leave that to others. I want to solve
these problems, and I want to solve them together as Americans.
And we will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we
discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I've heard words that,
frankly, are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that
have more to do with politics than protecting our country. So I want to take
this opportunity to lay out what we are doing, and how we intend to resolve
these outstanding issues. I will explain how each action that we are taking will
help build a framework that protects both the American people and the values
that we hold most dear. And I'll focus on two broad areas: first, issues
relating to Guantanamo and our detention policy; but, second, I also want to
discuss issues relating to security and transparency.
Now, let me begin by disposing of one argument as plainly as I can: We are not
going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we
release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people.
Where demanded by justice and national security, we will seek to transfer some
detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold all manner of
dangerous and violent criminals within our borders -- namely, highly secure
prisons that ensure the public safety.
As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following face: Nobody has ever
escaped from one of our federal, supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of
convicted terrorists. As Republican Lindsey Graham said, the idea that we cannot
find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is
We are currently in the process of reviewing each of the detainee cases at
Guantanamo to determine the appropriate policy for dealing with them. And as we
do so, we are acutely aware that under the last administration, detainees were
released and, in some cases, returned to the battlefield. That's why we are
doing away with the poorly planned, haphazard approach that let those detainees
go in the past. Instead we are treating these cases with the care and attention
that the law requires and that our security demands.
Now, going forward, these cases will fall into five distinct categories.
First, whenever feasible, we will try those who have violated American criminal
laws in federal courts -- courts provided for by the United States Constitution.
Some have derided our federal courts as incapable of handling the trials of
terrorists. They are wrong. Our courts and our juries, our citizens, are tough
enough to convict terrorists. The record makes that clear. Ramzi Yousef tried to
blow up the World Trade Center. He was convicted in our courts and is serving a
life sentence in U.S. prisons. Zacarias Moussaoui has been identified as the
20th 9/11 hijacker. He was convicted in our courts, and he too is serving a life
sentence in prison. If we can try those terrorists in our courts and hold them
in our prisons, then we can do the same with detainees from Guantanamo.
Recently, we prosecuted and received a guilty plea from a detainee, al-Marri, in
federal court after years of legal confusion. We're preparing to transfer
another detainee to the Southern District Court of New York, where he will face
trial on charges related to the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania -- bombings that killed over 200 people. Preventing this detainee from
coming to our shores would prevent his trial and conviction. And after over a
decade, it is time to finally see that justice is served, and that is what we
intend to do. (Applause.)
The second category of cases involves detainees who violate the laws of war and
are therefore best tried through military commissions. Military commissions have
a history in the United States dating back to George Washington and the
Revolutionary War. They are an appropriate venue for trying detainees for
violations of the laws of war. They allow for the protection of sensitive
sources and methods of intelligence-gathering; they allow for the safety and
security of participants; and for the presentation of evidence gathered from the
battlefield that cannot always be effectively presented in federal courts.
Now, some have suggested that this represents a reversal on my part. They should
look at the record. In 2006, I did strongly oppose legislation proposed by the
Bush administration and passed by the Congress because it failed to establish a
legitimate legal framework, with the kind of meaningful due process rights for
the accused that could stand up on appeal.
I said at that time, however, that I supported the use of military commissions
to try detainees, provided there were several reforms, and in fact there were
some bipartisan efforts to achieve those reforms. Those are the reforms that we
are now making. Instead of using the flawed commissions of the last seven years,
my administration is bringing our commissions in line with the rule of law. We
will no longer permit the use of evidence -- as evidence statements that have
been obtained using cruel, inhuman, or degrading interrogation methods. We will
no longer place the burden to prove that hearsay is unreliable on the opponent
of the hearsay. And we will give detainees greater latitude in selecting their
own counsel, and more protections if they refuse to testify. These reforms,
among others, will make our military commissions a more credible and effective
means of administering justice, and I will work with Congress and members of
both parties, as well as legal authorities across the political spectrum, on
legislation to ensure that these commissions are fair, legitimate, and
The third category of detainees includes those who have been ordered released by
the courts. Now, let me repeat what I said earlier: This has nothing to do with
my decision to close Guantanamo. It has to do with the rule of law. The courts
have spoken. They have found that there's no legitimate reason to hold 21 of the
people currently held at Guantanamo. Nineteen of these findings took place
before I was sworn into office. I cannot ignore these rulings because as
President, I too am bound by the law. The United States is a nation of laws and
so we must abide by these rulings.
The fourth category of cases involves detainees who we have determined can be
transferred safely to another country. So far, our review team has approved 50
detainees for transfer. And my administration is in ongoing discussions with a
number of other countries about the transfer of detainees to their soil for
detention and rehabilitation.
Now, finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot
be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. And I have to
be honest here -- this is the toughest single issue that we will face. We're
going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who
pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may
be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases
because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the
security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who've
received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, or commanded
Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or
otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who,
in effect, remain at war with the United States.
Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American
people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United
States, and those that we capture -- like other prisoners of war -- must be
prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must recognize that
these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can't be based simply on what
I or the executive branch decide alone. That's why my administration has begun
to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the
rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who
fall into this category. We must have fair procedures so that we don't make
mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any
prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.
I know that creating such a system poses unique challenges. And other countries
have grappled with this question; now, so must we. But I want to be very clear
that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for the remaining
Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred. Our goal is not to avoid a
legitimate legal framework. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention
should not be the decision of any one man. If and when we determine that the
United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of
war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional
oversight. And so, going forward, my administration will work with Congress to
develop an appropriate legal regime so that our efforts are consistent with our
values and our Constitution.
Now, as our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics
in Congress will be difficult. These are issues that are fodder for 30-second
commercials. You can almost picture the direct mail pieces that emerge from any
vote on this issue -- designed to frighten the population. I get it. But if we
continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes.
And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they
will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.
I have confidence that the American people are more interested in doing what is
right to protect this country than in political posturing. I am not the only
person in this city who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution -- so did each
and every member of Congress. And together we have a responsibility to enlist
our values in the effort to secure our people, and to leave behind the legacy
that makes it easier for future Presidents to keep this country safe.
Now, let me touch on a second set of issues that relate to security and
National security requires a delicate balance. One the one hand, our democracy
depends on transparency. On the other hand, some information must be protected
from public disclosure for the sake of our security -- for instance, the
movement of our troops, our intelligence-gathering, or the information we have
about a terrorist organization and its affiliates. In these and other cases,
lives are at stake.
Now, several weeks ago, as part of an ongoing court case, I released memos
issued by the previous administration's Office of Legal Counsel. I did not do
this because I disagreed with the enhanced interrogation techniques that those
memos authorized, and I didn't release the documents because I rejected their
legal rationales -- although I do on both counts. I released the memos because
the existence of that approach to interrogation was already widely known, the
Bush administration had acknowledged its existence, and I had already banned
those methods. The argument that somehow by releasing those memos we are
providing terrorists with information about how they will be interrogated makes
no sense. We will not be interrogating terrorists using that approach. That
approach is now prohibited.
In short, I released these memos because there was no overriding reason to
protect them. And the ensuing debate has helped the American people better
understand how these interrogation methods came to be authorized and used.
On the other hand, I recently opposed the release of certain photographs that
were taken of detainees by U.S. personnel between 2002 and 2004. Individuals who
violated standards of behavior in these photos have been investigated and they
have been held accountable. There was and is no debate as to whether what is
reflected in those photos is wrong. Nothing has been concealed to absolve
perpetrators of crimes. However, it was my judgment -- informed by my national
security team -- that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion
and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning, and inaccurate
brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.
In short, there is a clear and compelling reason to not release these particular
photos. There are nearly 200,000 Americans who are serving in harm's way, and I
have a solemn responsibility for their safety as Commander-in-Chief. Nothing
would be gained by the release of these photos that matters more than the lives
of our young men and women serving in harm's way.
Now, in the press's mind and in some of the public's mind, these two cases are
contradictory. They are not to me. In each of these cases, I had to strike the
right balance between transparency and national security. And this balance
brings with it a precious responsibility. There's no doubt that the American
people have seen this balance tested over the last several years. In the images
from Abu Ghraib and the brutal interrogation techniques made public long before
I was President, the American people learned of actions taken in their name that
bear no resemblance to the ideals that generations of Americans have fought for.
And whether it was the run-up to the Iraq war or the revelation of secret
programs, Americans often felt like part of the story had been unnecessarily
withheld from them. And that caused suspicion to build up. And that leads to a
thirst for accountability.
I understand that. I ran for President promising transparency, and I meant what
I said. And that's why, whenever possible, my administration will make all
information available to the American people so that they can make informed
judgments and hold us accountable. But I have never argued -- and I never will
-- that our most sensitive national security matters should simply be an open
book. I will never abandon -- and will vigorously defend -- the necessity of
classification to defend our troops at war, to protect sources and methods, and
to safeguard confidential actions that keep the American people safe. Here's the
difference though: Whenever we cannot release certain information to the public
for valid national security reasons, I will insist that there is oversight of my
actions -- by Congress or by the courts.
We're currently launching a review of current policies by all those agencies
responsible for the classification of documents to determine where reforms are
possible, and to assure that the other branches of government will be in a
position to review executive branch decisions on these matters. Because in our
system of checks and balances, someone must always watch over the watchers --
especially when it comes to sensitive administration -- information.
Now, along these same lines, my administration is also confronting challenges to
what is known as the "state secrets" privilege. This is a doctrine that allows
the government to challenge legal cases involving secret programs. It's been
used by many past Presidents -- Republican and Democrat -- for many decades. And
while this principle is absolutely necessary in some circumstances to protect
national security, I am concerned that it has been over-used. It is also
currently the subject of a wide range of lawsuits. So let me lay out some
principles here. We must not protect information merely because it reveals the
violation of a law or embarrassment to the government. And that's why my
administration is nearing completion of a thorough review of this practice.
And we plan to embrace several principles for reform. We will apply a stricter
legal test to material that can be protected under the state secrets privilege.
We will not assert the privilege in court without first following our own formal
process, including review by a Justice Department committee and the personal
approval of the Attorney General. And each year we will voluntarily report to
Congress when we have invoked the privilege and why because, as I said before,
there must be proper oversight over our actions.
On all these matters related to the disclosure of sensitive information, I wish
I could say that there was some simple formula out there to be had. There is
not. These often involve tough calls, involve competing concerns, and they
require a surgical approach. But the common thread that runs through all of my
decisions is simple: We will safeguard what we must to protect the American
people, but we will also ensure the accountability and oversight that is the
hallmark of our constitutional system. I will never hide the truth because it's
uncomfortable. I will deal with Congress and the courts as co-equal branches of
government. I will tell the American people what I know and don't know, and when
I release something publicly or keep something secret, I will tell you why.
Now, in all the areas that I've discussed today, the policies that I've proposed
represent a new direction from the last eight years. To protect the American
people and our values, we've banned enhanced interrogation techniques. We are
closing the prison at Guantanamo. We are reforming military commissions, and we
will pursue a new legal regime to detain terrorists. We are declassifying more
information and embracing more oversight of our actions, and we're narrowing our
use of the state secrets privilege. These are dramatic changes that will put our
approach to national security on a surer, safer, and more sustainable footing.
Their implementation will take time, but they will get done.
There's a core principle that we will apply to all of our actions. Even as we
clean up the mess at Guantanamo, we will constantly reevaluate our approach,
subject our decisions to review from other branches of government, as well as
the public. We seek the strongest and most sustainable legal framework for
addressing these issues in the long term -- not to serve immediate politics, but
to do what's right over the long term. By doing that we can leave behind a
legacy that outlasts my administration, my presidency, that endures for the next
President and the President after that -- a legacy that protects the American
people and enjoys a broad legitimacy at home and abroad.
Now, this is what I mean when I say that we need to focus on the future. I
recognize that many still have a strong desire to focus on the past. When it
comes to actions of the last eight years, passions are high. Some Americans are
angry; others want to re-fight debates that have been settled, in some cases
debates that they have lost. I know that these debates lead directly, in some
cases, to a call for a fuller accounting, perhaps through an independent
I've opposed the creation of such a commission because I believe that our
existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability.
The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by
the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department
of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws
or miscarriages of justice.
It's no secret there is a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing
fingers at one another. And it's no secret that our media culture feeds the
impulse that lead to a good fight and good copy. But nothing will contribute
more than that than a extended relitigation of the last eight years. Already,
we've seen how that kind of effort only leads those in Washington to different
sides to laying blame. It can distract us from focusing our time, our efforts,
and our politics on the challenges of the future.
We see that, above all, in the recent debate -- how the recent debate has
obscured the truth and sends people into opposite and absolutist ends. On the
one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the
unique challenges posed by terrorism, and would almost never put national
security over transparency. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are
those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: "Anything goes."
Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to
justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do
whatever he wants -- provided it is a President with whom they agree.
Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right. The
American people are not absolutist, and they don't elect us to impose a rigid
ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for
our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach
difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense. That,
after all, is the unique genius of America. That's the challenge laid down by
our Constitution. That has been the source of our strength through the ages.
That's what makes the United States of America different as a nation.
I can stand here today, as President of the United States, and say without
exception or equivocation that we do not torture, and that we will vigorously
protect our people while forging a strong and durable framework that allows us
to fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law. Make no mistake: If we fail
to turn the page on the approach that was taken over the past several years,
then I will not be able to say that as President. And if we cannot stand for our
core values, then we are not keeping faith with the documents that are enshrined
in this hall. (Applause.)
The Framers who drafted the Constitution could not have foreseen the challenges
that have unfolded over the last 222 years. But our Constitution has endured
through secession and civil rights, through World War and Cold War, because it
provides a foundation of principles that can be applied pragmatically; it
provides a compass that can help us find our way. It hasn't always been easy. We
are an imperfect people. Every now and then, there are those who think that
America's safety and success requires us to walk away from the sacred principles
enshrined in this building. And we hear such voices today. But over the long
haul the American people have resisted that temptation. And though we've made
our share of mistakes, required some course corrections, ultimately we have held
fast to the principles that have been the source of our strength and a beacon to
Now this generation faces a great test in the specter of terrorism. And unlike
the Civil War or World War II, we can't count on a surrender ceremony to bring
this journey to an end. Right now, in distant training camps and in crowded
cities, there are people plotting to take American lives. That will be the case
a year from now, five years from now, and -- in all probability -- 10 years from
now. Neither I nor anyone can stand here today and say that there will not be
another terrorist attack that takes American lives. But I can say with certainty
that my administration -- along with our extraordinary troops and the patriotic
men and women who defend our national security -- will do everything in our
power to keep the American people safe. And I do know with certainty that we can
defeat al Qaeda. Because the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their
ranks and alienate America from our allies, and they will never be able to do
that if we stay true to who we are, if we forge tough and durable approaches to
fighting terrorism that are anchored in our timeless ideals. This must be our
I ran for President because I believe that we cannot solve the challenges of our
time unless we solve them together. We will not be safe if we see national
security as a wedge that divides America -- it can and must be a cause that
unites us as one people and as one nation. We've done so before in times that
were more perilous than ours. We will do so once again.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
Text: Obama’s Speech
on National SecuritY, NYT, 22.5.2009,
Obama Prods Netanyahu, Iran in Mideast Foray
May 19, 2009
Filed at 12:38 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Monday opened his deepest foray
into the Middle East quagmire, telling Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu he must
stop Jewish settlements and should grasp a ''historic opportunity'' to make
peace with the Palestinians.
Obama also had pointed words for Iran on a second major Mideast dispute, warning
the Iranians they had until year's end to get serious about talks with the world
community on curbing their nuclear ambitions. ''We're not going to have talks
forever,'' the president said.
Obama and Netanyahu spoke highly of their hopes for progress in the Mideast
after a lengthy private meeting in the Israeli's first visit to the White House
since Obama became president and Netanyahu began his second stint as prime
minister. Yet the new president was firm in insisting the Israelis move toward
peace with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu stuck to his stance that Israel
cannot negotiate with people who deny its right to exist.
The two leaders found fruitful grounds for agreement on Iran.
Israel is deeply concerned about Iran's perceived attempts to build a nuclear
weapon, believing the virulently anti-Israeli regime might naturally target the
Jewish state the lies in easy range of Tehran's missile technology.
Beyond that, the Iranians have been a key sponsor of anti-Israeli Islamic
militants who refuse -- as does Tehran -- to accept Israel's existence. Most
dangerously, the Iranian-funded and armed Hamas organization currently runs the
Gaza Strip, while Hezbollah, the other Iranian proxy, has historically harassed
Israel with rocket attacks from Lebanon on the north.
The Bush administration diplomatically bludgeoned Iran over its nuclear efforts
but refused to formally engage the Islamic government in Tehran. Obama, deeply
concerned that a nuclear-armed Iran could spark an arms race in the Middle East
and deepen the threat to Israeli security, has changed course and seeks to
engage the Iranians in direct talks.
So far there has been no positive Iranian response. Obama said he assumed the
country's leadership was distracted with its presidential election campaign but
thought he would be able to gauge Iranian seriousness in the coming months.
''We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they
are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making
progress and that there's a good-faith effort to resolve differences,'' the
Iran insists its nuclear program is intended solely for civilian electricity
With Netanyahu at his side, Obama said he had told the new Israeli leader during
more than two-hours of talks that his government must move quickly to resume
peace talks with the Palestinians and had insisted negotiations start from a
previous agreement on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in
the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
''We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the prime
minister that he has a historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this
issue during his tenure,'' Obama said. ''That means that all the parties
involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed
Obama told reporters that serious negotiations between Israel and the
Palestinians would be possible only if Netanyahu ordered an end to the expansion
of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, land that would make up the Palestinian
state along with the Gaza Strip.
''There is a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements;
that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward,'' Obama
said, referring to past negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Netanyahu said he was ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians
immediately but he also said any agreement depended on their acceptance of
Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. It was not immediately clear in the
way he phrased the response whether Netanyahu was demanding that as a
precondition for talks.
''There's never been a time when Arabs and Israelis see a common threat the way
we see it today,'' Netanyahu said, speaking of a sense of urgency felt
throughout the Arab world about Iran's nuclear program.
The Israeli leader did not respond publicly to Obama's demand on an end to the
expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and refused again to say he
was ready to negotiate a so-called two-state solution to the nearly 60-year
dispute with the Palestinians. The plan, endorsed by the United States and other
parties pushing for peace between the historic foes, calls for establishment of
a Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
Palestinians offered praise for Obama but expressed disappointment with
Netanyahu ''did not mention a commitment to a two-state solution, and we need to
see American action against this policy,'' said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visits the White House on May 28.
Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, issue a similar assessment:
''Mr. Netanyahu failed to mention the two-state solution, signed agreements and
the commitment to stop settlement activity. He said he wants the Palestinians to
govern themselves. The question to Mr. Netanyahu is, 'How can I govern myself
while your occupation continues everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza, and how
can I govern myself under your wall, roadblocks and settlement activities?'''
AP writers Amy Teibel, traveling with Netanyahu, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah,
the West Bank, and Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Obama Prods Netanyahu,
Iran in Mideast Foray, NYT, 19.5.2009,
At Notre Dame, Obama Delves Into Abortion Debate
May 18, 2009
Filed at 8:10 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- Facing protests and controversy,
President Barack Obama pressed for a change in tone in the nation's divisive
debate over abortion.
Addressing the issue head-on at the University of Notre Dame, one of the leading
Catholic universities, Obama told graduates on Sunday that while the two sides
may never agree on the issue, there is some common ground.
''We can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to
make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions,'' Obama told the university's
Obama called for ''open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words'' in the public
debate over the issue, arguing that there was no reason to reduce the other side
The president's stance on abortion -- he supports abortion rights but says the
procedure should be rare -- sparked outrage among Catholics when Notre Dame
invited him to deliver the commencement speech and receive an honorary degree.
The Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations believe that abortion
and the use of embryos for stem-cell research amount to the destruction of human
life, are morally wrong and should be banned.
At the university police said 37 people were arrested Sunday on trespassing
charges while protesting Obama's speech. Two others face both trespassing and
resisting arrest charges.
Among those arrested was Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff identified as ''Roe'' in
the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. She now opposes
abortion and joined more than 300 anti-abortion demonstrators at the
university's front gate.
Obama entered the graduation ceremony to thunderous applause and a standing
ovation from many in the crowd of 12,000. But as the president began his
commencement address, at least three protesters interrupted his speech. One
yelled, ''Stop killing our children.''
The president ceded no ground on the abortion issue, but asked those on both
sides of the debate to ''work together to reduce the number of women seeking
abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more
available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to
The abortion issue is again at the forefront as Obama considers potential
nominees to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the retirement of Justice
David Souter. Abortion opponents are determined to see Roe v. Wade overturned,
but only four court justices out of nine have backed that position. Souter has
opposed arguments for overturning the ruling.
Before returning to Washington, the president stopped in Indianapolis for two
fundraisers. About 40 people attended a $15,000 per couple Democratic National
Committee event, which raised between $300,000 and $400,000.
About 650 people attended a second fundraiser for four Indiana Democratic
congressmen. Tickets ranged between $250 and $5,000 per person.
Indiana is a traditionally Republican-leaning state that Obama carried in the
Associated Press writers Tom Coyne in South Bend and Steven R. Hurst in
Washington contributed to this report.
At Notre Dame, Obama
Delves Into Abortion Debate, NYT, 18.5.2009,
John Cole, Scranton, PA
The Scranton Times
16 May 2009
President Barack Obama turns into former President George W.
to Keep Tribunals for Detainees
May 15, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
WASHINGTON — President Obama has decided to keep the military
commission system that his predecessor created to try suspected terrorists but
will ask Congress to expand the rights of defendants to contest the charges
against them, officials briefed on the plan said Thursday.
Mr. Obama will ask for an additional 120-day delay in nine pending hearings
before commissions so the administration can revamp the procedures to provide
more due process to detainees, the officials said. The new system would limit
the use of hearsay, ban evidence gained from cruel treatment, give defendants
more latitude to pick their own lawyers and provide more protection if they do
The decision, to be announced Friday, could set off more criticism from civil
libertarian and liberal groups that have increasingly complained that Mr. Obama
has not made a sharper break from former President George W. Bush’s terrorism
policies. During last year’s presidential campaign, Mr. Obama called the
military commission system put in place by Mr. Bush “an enormous failure” and
vowed to “reject the Military Commissions Act.”
But aides pointed out Thursday that he never rejected the possibility of using
military commissions altogether if they could be made fairer, and they pointed
to legislation he supported as a senator in 2006 intended to do just that. They
noted that some defendants would continue to be tried in American civilian
courts and said they were trying to create a “durable, multilayered option,” as
one put it.
The president’s decision came as Congress is increasing pressure on the
administration to come up with a plan for dealing with detainees at the prison
at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which Mr. Obama has promised to close by next Jan. 22.
On Thursday, the House voted to direct Mr. Obama to provide a detailed plan for
closing the prison and said no money would be authorized to close it until
Congress reviewed the plan.
When he took office, Mr. Obama froze military commissions until May 20, and many
observers thought that would spell the end of the system. But as his advisers
deliberated, they concluded that trying all detainees in civilian courts was not
workable and that the commissions could be fixed along the lines of the 2006
Even with the additional rights Mr. Obama is proposing, defendants would still
not enjoy the same protections as in civilian courts. Hearsay, for example, is
generally not allowed in American courts. In Mr. Bush’s military commission
system, it was allowed unless the defendant could prove it was unreliable. Mr.
Obama’s plan would shift the burden, allowing its use only if the prosecution
can prove its reliability.
The House’s directive to Mr. Obama about the detention center came as it
approved a $96.7 billion emergency financing measure for the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan by a vote of 368 to 60, with 168 Republicans joining the Democratic
majority in support. In a sign of Democratic discomfort with Mr. Obama’s war
policies, 51 Democrats voted against the war spending measure.
And in a clear rebuke to Mr. Obama, Democratic leaders refused to include $80
million the White House had sought for closing Guantánamo. Senate Democrats also
said the administration must provide a plan for relocating more than 200
detainees still held at the prison. The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced
its version of the military spending bill Thursday with the $80 million but
banned the transfer of detainees to the United States.
Republicans said the directives included in the war spending bills were an
acknowledgement by Democrats that Mr. Obama had failed so far to offer a
concrete solution to the tricky question of where to put the detainees after the
Obama Planning to Keep Tribunals for
Detainees, NYT, 15.5.2009,
On Abortion, Obama Is Drawn Into Debate He Hoped to Avoid
May 15, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON — In nearly four months in office, President Obama
has pursued a careful two-pronged strategy on abortion, enacting policies that
secure a woman’s right to the procedure while vowing to move beyond the culture
wars that have divided the nation on the issue for more than three decades.
Now, Mr. Obama is suddenly in the thick of the battle he had hoped to transcend,
and his delicate balancing act is being put to the test.
The confluence of two events — his commencement speech on Sunday at the
University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, and his forthcoming choice of a candidate
to replace Justice David H. Souter, who is retiring from the Supreme Court —
threaten to upend Mr. Obama’s effort to “tamp down some of the anger” over
abortion, as he said in a news conference last month, and to distract from his
other domestic priorities, like health care.
The invitation from Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic institution, has riled
opponents of abortion, who object to giving such a platform to a supporter of
abortion rights. The local bishop has vowed to boycott the ceremony. Some
graduating seniors are planning to protest it. Conservatives, frustrated by what
they regard as Mr. Obama’s skillful efforts to paint himself as a moderate, are
all over the airwaves denouncing him as “the most radical, pro-abortion of any
American president,” as Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, said on Fox News.
The White House must now decide whether to engage in the debate and, if so, how
deeply. Mr. Obama’s communications adviser, Anita Dunn, said in an interview
that the president was likely to “make reference to the controversy” in his
speech on Sunday. “You can’t ignore it,” Ms. Dunn said, “but at the same time,
you can’t allow it to become the focus of a day that’s actually supposed to be
about the graduates.”
While the address has galvanized abortion opponents, the Supreme Court opening
has galvanized backers of abortion rights. Both sides expect Mr. Obama to pick a
candidate who would uphold Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a
constitutional right to abortion. But interest groups are taking no chances.
“Take Action: Protect a Woman’s Right to Choose!” declared the Center for
Reproductive Rights in an e-mail message to supporters on Wednesday.
Mr. Obama frames his position on abortion as a nuanced one — he calls it a “a
moral and ethical issue” best left to women and doctors — and he envisions
himself forging consensus around causes like reducing unintended pregnancies and
promoting adoption. As he said in a 2007 speech to Planned Parenthood, “Culture
wars are so ’90s.”
As president, Mr. Obama, who during the campaign answered a question about when
human life begins by saying it was “above my pay grade,” has tried to straddle
the abortion divide. He has done so partly by reaching out to religious
conservatives, partly by avoiding the most contentious legislative battles and
partly by reversing the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, a faithful
ally of abortion opponents, in piecemeal fashion — all while the nation has been
consumed by the economic crisis.
He has named abortion rights advocates to top jobs; Dawn Johnsen, a former legal
director of Naral Pro-Choice America, is his pick to run the Justice
Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He has repealed the so-called Mexico City
rule, which prohibited tax dollars from going to organizations that provide
abortions overseas; lifted Mr. Bush’s limits on embryonic stem cell research;
stripped financing for abstinence-only sex education; and is seeking to undo a
last-minute Bush regulation giving broad protections to health providers who
refuse to take part in abortions.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said she
told allies that their movement was emerging from “eight years in the
But even as Mr. Obama has delighted abortion rights advocates, he has dialed
back some earlier ambitions. In 2007, he promised Planned Parenthood that “the
first thing I’d do as president” would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act,
which effectively codifies Roe v. Wade. Now he says the bill is “not my highest
legislative priority,” as he put it at a recent news conference.
Mr. Obama is also reaching out. At his direction, his top domestic policy
adviser, Melody C. Barnes, is convening a series of discussions with people on
both sides of the debate, with a goal to draft a set of policy recommendations
by late summer.
“What we’ve said to people is, ‘This isn’t an opportunity to relitigate Roe v.
Wade,’ ” Ms. Barnes said. “The president wants us to talk about reducing
unintended pregnancies, but he doesn’t want this to be the conversation that
never ends. His goal is to get something done.”
David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta
who backed Mr. Obama despite their differences on abortion, has participated in
the talks. He said the president was sending a message to moderate Catholics and
evangelicals that “he clearly knows what the bright red lines are and is trying
to avoid stepping over them.”
But religious conservatives and more ardent abortion opponents who have not been
included say Mr. Obama is trying to have it both ways. Charmaine Yoest,
president of Americans United for Life, an advocacy group, said that if the
president really wanted to forge consensus, he would advocate rules allowing
parents to be notified if their teenage daughters sought an abortion and banning
the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. As an Illinois state senator, Mr.
Obama voted “present” on such initiatives, enabling their defeat.
“Moderate rhetoric, hard-left policies,” said Senator Sam Brownback, Republican
of Kansas, a vocal abortion opponent, assessing Mr. Obama’s approach.
Polls show that the American public is deeply conflicted over abortion and that
support has declined steadily over the years. In 1995, roughly 60 percent of
Americans believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Last month, in
a survey by the Pew Research Center, that number stood at 46 percent. A Gallup
survey that examined seven decisions early in Mr. Obama’s presidency found that
the least popular was the one to overturn the ban on sending tax dollars to
organizations that provide abortions overseas.
Douglas W. Kmiec, a constitutional scholar and former Notre Dame professor who
was an outspoken critic of abortion when he worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan
and the elder George Bush, said he had been advising the White House to use the
speech at the university on Sunday to tackle the controversy head on, with the
president making the case that “we already have agreement, we both respect life,
we both view abortion as a moral tragedy.”
But as to whether Mr. Obama can indeed transcend the culture wars, Mr. Kmiec
“If there’s anybody who can, it’s the president,” he said. “Whether the culture
wars will let him is the question, and the answer is unknown.”
On Abortion, Obama Is
Drawn Into Debate He Hoped to Avoid, NYT, 15.5.2009,
Experts Say Obama May Have to Stonewall on Prisoner Abuse
May 15, 2009
The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s strongest option as it
fights to keep hundreds of photographs of prisoner abuse secret may be to
classify the photos and claim they are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom
of Information Act, experts on government secrecy said on Thursday.
“A statement from the president of the United States that the security of U.S.
forces is at stake would be taken very seriously by the courts,” said Steven
Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of
American Scientists. But Mr. Aftergood added that courts might question why the
material had not previously been classified in years of litigation under the
“It might lead a court to view the national security claim as flimsy and
opportunistic,” he said.
Christopher J. Farrell, of the conservative Judicial Watch, said that at the
very least, the administration should be able to delay the release of the photos
by months or years. “They can slow-walk and foot-drag and stonewall,” Mr.
Farrell said. “My experience is that when the government doesn’t want to release
something, it finds a way.”
With the public release of the photographs to the American Civil Liberties Union
scheduled for May 28, President Obama reversed course on Wednesday and directed
the Justice Department to oppose the release.
Mr. Obama said that after consulting Pentagon officials and military commanders
in Iraq and Afghanistan, where most of the abuse photographs were taken, he had
decided that their release could prove so incendiary that it could endanger
American troops in the war zones.
“The publication of these photos would not add to our understanding of what was
carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” the president said.
“In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to
further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
The president’s decision was welcomed by Republicans in Congress who had called
on him to reconsider but was sharply criticized by the A.C.L.U., whose
long-running Freedom of Information Act lawsuit has resulted in the release of
thousands of documents, including most recently Justice Department legal
memorandums authorizing waterboarding and other brutal interrogation methods.
The Bush administration initially resisted releasing an original set of 21 abuse
photos and lost both in federal district court in New York and at the Court of
Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Obama administration initially decided not
to take the case to the Supreme Court and agreed with the A.C.L.U. to release
the photos on May 28.
The precise number of photographs in question, and where they were taken, has
not been revealed by the government. The government said in an April court
filing that in addition to 44 photos previously identified as showing prisoner
abuse, “a substantial number of other images” contained in Army criminal
investigative files also appeared to be covered by the case.
A.C.L.U. officials have speculated that as many as 2,000 photographs might be at
stake. A government officials who would speak only on condition of anonymity
said on Thursday the likely total is over 1,000.
In its previous appeal, the government sought to block release of the
photographs by citing privacy issues and an exemption to the Freedom of
Information Act for material that could “endanger the life or physical safety
off an individual.” But the A.C.L.U. had agreed to block identifying facial
features of prisoners and government employees, and it argued that the safety
exemption was aimed at law enforcement officers and informants. The appeals
court rejected the government’s arguments.
But by classifying the photographs, the government could make the case that new
information from the battlefields showed that national security required
withholding the photographs.
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archive at George
Washington University, said it is very rare for a court to second-guess
decisions of the executive branch on classification and directly order the
declassification of documents. But she noted that the law requires that
documents be “properly classified,” and the A.C.L.U. could challenge such a
Amrit Singh, an A.C.L.U. lawyer who has worked for years on the case, said her
organization would indeed assert that any classification now would be improper.
She said the Freedom of Information Act exists precisely for situations like the
photographs: as a curb to government abuses.
“These photographs communicate what words cannot communicate,” said Ms. Singh.
“That’s exactly why they must be released. The whole point of the Freedom of
Information Act is to disclose government misconduct so that the government can
be held responsible.”
Experts Say Obama May
Have to Stonewall on Prisoner Abuse Photos, NYT, 15.5.2009,
Obama Moves to Bar Release of Detainee Abuse Photos
May 14, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY and THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Wednesday that he would
fight to prevent the release of photographs documenting abuse of prisoners in
Iraq and Afghanistan by United States military personnel, reversing his position
on the issue after commanders warned that the images could set off a deadly
backlash against American troops.
The administration said last month that it would not oppose the release of the
pictures, but Mr. Obama changed his mind after seeing the photographs and
getting warnings from top Pentagon officials that the images, taken from the
early years of the wars, would “further inflame anti-American opinion” and
endanger troops in two war zones.
The decision in effect tossed aside an agreement the government had reached with
the American Civil Liberties Union, which had fought to release photographs of
incidents at Abu Ghraib and a half-dozen other prisons. The Justice Department
informed the United States District Court in New York, which had backed the
A.C.L.U.’s request, that it would appeal the ruling, citing “further reflection
at the highest levels of government.”
To explain his position, which was sharply criticized by the A.C.L.U., Mr. Obama
spoke at the White House before flying to Arizona to deliver a commencement
address. He suggested that the new mission in Iraq and Afghanistan could be
imperiled by an old fight.
“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our
understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of
individuals,” Mr. Obama told reporters on the South Lawn. “In fact, the most
direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame
anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he had changed his mind about releasing
the photographs, and suggested the president did as well, because of the strong
views of the top commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen.
David D. McKiernan, who is being replaced.
In Iraq, American combat forces are withdrawing from urban areas and reducing
their numbers nationwide. In Afghanistan, more than 20,000 new troops are
flowing in to combat an insurgency that has grown in potency ahead of national
elections in August.
The A.C.L.U. had prevailed in the case at the federal trial court level and
before an appeals court panel. The photographs were set to be released on May 28
under an agreement with the Pentagon and the White House. But as that date
approached, military officials expressed growing unease to Mr. Gates, who then
discussed the issue with the president.
Officials who have seen the photos describe them as falling into two categories:
Abu Ghraib-style personal snapshots taken by soldiers; and photos taken by
military criminal investigators documenting allegations of abuse, including
autopsy photos of prisoners who died in custody.
Many of the photos may recall those taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq,
which showed prisoners naked or in degrading positions, sometimes with Americans
posing smugly nearby, and caused an uproar in the Arab world and elsewhere when
they came to light in 2004.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., said the decision to
fight the release of the photos was a mistake. He said officials had described
them as “worse than Abu Ghraib” and said their volume, more than 2,000 images,
showed that “it is no longer tenable to blame abuse on a few bad apples. These
were policies set at the highest level.”
One Pentagon official involved in the discussion said the photos showed
detainees in humiliating positions, but said they were not as provocative as
pictures of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. The official said that the photos
showed detainee nudity, and that some included images of detainees shackled for
transfer. Other photographs showed American military personnel members with
weapons drawn, pointing at detainees in what another official said had the
appearance of “a war trophy.”
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe photographs that are
the subject of continuing litigation.
During the court case, Pentagon officials had fought the release of the
photographs, connected with investigations between 2003 and 2006, on the grounds
that their release could harm American military personnel overseas and that the
privacy of detainees would be violated. But the United States Court of Appeals
for the Second Circuit, in upholding a lower court ruling, said the public
interest involved in release of the pictures outweighed a vague, speculative
fear of danger to the American military or violation of the detainees’ privacy.
Last month, the administration said it had agreed to release the images, in part
because it did not believe it could persuade the Supreme Court to review the
case. But Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that the
president did not believe that the government had made the strongest possible
case to the court about the ramifications of releasing the photographs,
particularly on “what the release of these would do to our national security.”
The release of these detainee photographs, Pentagon and military officials said,
could provoke outrage and, in particular, be used by violent extremists to stoke
attacks and recruit suicide bombers. Military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan
were said to be particular targets of such attacks, but officials said civilians
also might be extremists’ targets.
Several left-leaning groups, which had been fierce critics of the Bush
administration, said they were stunned by the decision. Human Rights Watch
called it a blow to transparency and accountability. And Mr. Romero, the
executive director of the A.C.L.U., suggested that the Obama administration was
“covering up not only for the Bush White House, but for itself.”
Asked whether release of the photos might not help Al Qaeda or provoke violence
in the Muslim world, Mr. Romero said, “The greatest recruitment tool for Al
Qaeda and violent jihadis has been the use of torture.”
In his remarks at the White House, Mr. Obama spoke out forcefully against
torture and said he had impressed upon military commanders “that the abuse of
detainees in our custody is prohibited and will not be tolerated.” But as
commander in chief, he said, the well-being of American forces carrying out his
strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq outweighed the call to release the images.
“Moreover,” he said, “I fear the publication of these photos may only have a
chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.”
Elisabeth Bumiller and Scott Shane contributed reporting.
Obama Moves to Bar
Release of Detainee Abuse Photos, NYT, 14.5.2009,
Obama Urges Congress to Act on Credit Card Bill
May 14, 2009
Filed at 2:00 p.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) -- President Barack Obama urged Congress on Thursday to
quickly send him legislation ending abusive credit card practices. But his
populist appeal also included a stern warning to shoppers whose eyes are bigger
than their budgets.
''There's no doubt that people need to accept responsibility,'' Obama said at a
town hall-style appearance at a high school here. ''This is not free money --
it's debt and you should not take on more than you can handle.''
Obama's event began with a testimonial from a woman who said she had been
mistreated by her credit card company when her interest rate inexplicably and
suddenly shot up to 30 percent. Obama's audience also included several dozen
other people who have expressed frustrations in letters and e-mails to the
president about their credit card companies.
He asked for accountability from individual citizens who often buy far more than
they can afford.
''Banks are businesses too. So they have a right to insist that timely payments
are made,'' Obama said.
Still, his main purpose in appearing here was to lobby Congress from afar to
make it harder for credit card companies to hike interest rates precipitously,
charge unfair late fees, or impose other impossible conditions on consumers.
''Those days are over,'' he said.
''This is America and we don't begrudge a company's success when that success is
based on honest dealings with consumers,'' Obama said. ''We need reform to
restore some sense of balance.''
With Obama demanding a bill on his desk by Memorial Day, the House has approved
legislation containing some of the protections Obama seeks. A slightly different
version is pending in the Senate, where a vote could come as early as this week.
Both measures would ban interest rate increases on previous balances in most
cases, and require that customers be given 45 days notice before their rates are
hiked. The bills also would deter companies from giving a credit card to minors.
The issue is a top one for Obama, particularly as the recession continues and
consumers complain about being abused by credit card issuers. Nearly 80 percent
of U.S. households have a credit card, and just under half carry a balance,
according to the White House.
Obama also discussed the bill in his radio and Internet address last Saturday.
And he had industry representatives come to the White House for a meeting last
''We didn't agree on anything -- everything -- as you might imagine,'' Obama
said about the meeting, then laughing as he realized his verbal mistake. ''That
was a slip of the tongue,'' he joked. ''We didn't agree on everything.''
Indeed, as the industry isn't sitting quiet.
The American Bankers Association has warned senators that the measure could
backfire by restricting credit for consumers at a time when they need it the
most. The industry also argues that new rules by the Federal Reserve, scheduled
to take effect in July 2010, address many of the concerns expressed by Obama and
members of Congress. Obama doesn't believe those rules go far enough to fix the
Obama Urges Congress to
Act on Credit Card Bill, NYT, 14.5.2009,
Obama Unveils New Budget Cuts
May 8, 2009
The New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday unveiled nearly $17 billion in
additional budget cuts for the coming fiscal year to underscore what he called
an “ongoing” effort to find savings at a time when the government’s costs for
bailouts, health care and wars are mounting far faster.
“We can no longer afford to spend as if deficits do not matter and waste is not
our problem,” said Mr. Obama, who was joined at the White House by Peter R.
Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Rob Nabors, his
deputy. “We can no longer afford to leave the hard choices for the next budget,
the next administration — or the next generation.”
The savings for the budget year starting Oct. 1 represent the sum of Mr. Obama’s
promised “line by line” scrubbing of the federal budget, and the the proposed
cuts amount to about 1.4 percent of the $1.2 trillion deficit that is projected
for the fiscal year 2010.
Administration advisers called the cuts just a beginning, but some Republicans
said they were less than impressed.
“While we appreciate the newfound attention to saving taxpayer dollars from this
administration, we respectfully suggested that we should do far more," said
Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader.
The president’s 10-year budget outline, released in February, shows the deficit
declining by his final year in office to $533 billion, mostly through
assumptions about economic growth when the recession ends and which many
economists consider somewhat optimistic.
The $17 billion would be saved by ending or reducing 121 federal programs.
Mr. Obama listed some of them: a long-range radio navigation system that costs
$35 million but has been rendered obsolete by global positioning systems; a
literacy program that spends half its financing on overhead, and will be
absorbed by other Education Department efforts; and the position of education
attaché to UNESCO, based in the United States Embassy in Paris.
“Participation in UNESCO is very important,” Mr. Obama said, “but we can save
this money and still participate using e-mail, teleconferencing, and a small
The the 131-page budget document released Thursday showed spending in 2008 of
$77,000 to rent living quarters for the attaché, and $21,000 for travel
expenses, and the president noted that eliminating the position would save
$632,000 a year.
An additional $142 million would be saved by ending a program to clean up
abandoned mines. But eliminating the financing illustrates the difficulties the
administration could face in Congress, where, as administration officials
acknowledged, every program has its patrons. When Mr. Obama proposed cuts in the
program as part of his budget outline, Western state lawmakers objected.
“None of this will be easy,” he said.
That is certainly true for about half of the savings that administration
officials say will come from military programs. The savings proposals, outlined
last month by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as part of a comprehensive
reordering of military spending priorities, drew howls of protest from
supporters in Congress and the arms industry.
Among Mr. Gates’s targets are missile defense programs, the Army’s costly Future
Combat Systems, Navy shipbuilding, the advanced F-22 fighter jets and a
state-of-the-art helicopter fleet for the president.
“This is a product of going through the budget line-by-line,” as Mr. Obama has
promised since his presidential campaign, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of
staff, said. “It’s a constant, cumulative effort on this front to find savings
and find reductions.”
While the $17 billion in projected savings represents a small portion of the
proposed budget, Mr. Obama insisted that “that’s a lot of money, even by
Washington standards.” It was enough to pay for a $2,500 tuition tax credit for
millions of students, for larger Pell education grants, he said, “with enough
money left over to pay for everything we do to protect the National Parks.”
“For every dollar we seek to save there will be those who have an interest in
seeing it spent,” the president said. “That’s how unnecessary programs survive
year after year. That’s how budgets swell.”
But, he added, “We cannot accept business as usual.”
Brian Knowlton contributed reporting
Obama Unveils New Budget
Cuts, NYT, 8.5.2009,
Obama Budget Rescinds Oil, Gas Industry Tax Breaks
May 7, 2009
Filed at 12:40 p.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama wants to end $26 billion in oil and
gas industry tax breaks, calling them ''unjustifiable loopholes'' in the tax
system that other companies do not get.
Obama's proposed fiscal 2010 budget, details of which were released Thursday,
also more clearly spells out his intention to shut down a proposed nuclear waste
dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and calls for ending a government subsidy that
helps utilities license and plan for new nuclear power plants.
The oil and gas industry tax breaks have often been targeted by congressional
Democrats in recent years, but they have not been able to muster enough votes to
rescind them. Most Republicans and the Bush administration vigorously defended
the tax benefits, saying they're needed to boost domestic oil and gas
In the budget statement, Obama said the tax breaks, which are expected to save
the oil and gas industry more than $26 billion over the next 10 years, are
''unjustifiable loopholes ... costly to the American taxpayer and do little to
incentivize production or reduce energy prices.''
The White House last February outlined in general terms its proposed budget for
the fiscal year beginning in October. But the documents released Thursday
provided details including specific numbers.
The budget would provide $197 million for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste
project in Nevada, but directs that the money be spent to ''explore
alternatives'' to the Nevada site and ongoing licensing activities that have yet
to be terminated. It provides no money for site access, new engineering or land
Closing down the Yucca project 90 miles from Las Vegas has long been a
relentless ambition of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Obama, during
his presidential campaign, promised Nevada voters that he would look for other
ways to address the disposal of highly radioactive waste from commercial power
Obama also wants to end a research program for using nuclear power plants to
develop hydrogen fuel for transportation and cancel further subsidies to the
nuclear industry to help license and plan for new nuclear power reactors. The
budget eliminates $168 million that had been earmarked for the reactor program
next fiscal year.
A program to develop a more reliable nuclear warhead that the Bush
administration had touted as necessary for easier maintenance of the country's
aging nuclear stockpile also was singled out for elimination. The budget cuts
$60 million that had been earmarked for design work for the replacement warhead.
Obama Budget Rescinds
Oil, Gas Industry Tax Breaks, NYT, 7.5.2009,
After the Great Recession
May 3, 2009
The New York Times
By DAVID LEONHARDT
On April 14, President Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University, trying
to explain why he was taking on so many economic issues so early in his
administration. He argued that the country needed to break its bubble-and-bust
cycle and cited the New Testament in calling for a new economic foundation for
the nation. This foundation would be built on better schools, alternative
energy, more affordable health care and a more regulated Wall Street, he said.
Later that afternoon (shortly before the Obama family introduced its new dog,
Bo, on the South Lawn of the White House), I sat down with the president to talk
about how his agenda might change daily life in this country.
This was our third interview about the economy, the first two occurring during
last year’s campaign. And while the setting was decidedly more formal this time
— the Oval Office — the interview felt as conversational as those earlier ones.
We sat at the far end of the office from his desk and spoke for 50 minutes. None
of his economic advisers were there. As the conversation progressed, Obama spoke
in increasingly personal terms. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of
At the end of our conversation, when I asked him if he was reading anything
good, he said he had become sick enough of briefing books to begin reading a
novel in the evenings — “Netherland,” by Joseph O’Neill.
I. The Future of Finance
Q: The idea here is to look beyond the current moment and try to think about
what American life is going to be like on the other side of the so-called Great
Recession. And so I thought it might make sense to start where the trouble
started — finance. People who want to get a sense for how you think about
education and jobs and all sorts of other issues can get a really good sense for
your thinking by reading “The Audacity of Hope,” or by reading your old
speeches, where you basically lay out your learning curve. But there’s no
chapter on finance in “The Audacity of Hope.” And so I wonder if you would be
willing to describe a little bit of your learning curve about finance, and what
you envision finance being in tomorrow’s economy: Does it need to be smaller?
Will it inevitably be smaller?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I think that we should distinguish between
finance as the lifeblood of our economy and finance as a significant industry
where we have a comparative advantage — right? So in terms of just growing our
economy, we’ve got to have enough credit out there to fund businesses, large and
small, to allow consumers the flexibility to make long-term purchases like cars
or homes. So that’s not going to change. And I would be concerned if our credit
market shrunk in ways that did not allow for the financing of long-term growth.
What that means is not only do we have to have a healthy banking sector, but
we’re going to have to figure out what we do with the nonbanking sector that was
providing almost half of our credit out there. And we’re going to have to
determine whether or not as a consequence of some of the steps that the Fed has
been taking, the Treasury has been taking, that we see the market for
securitized products restored.
I’m optimistic that ultimately we’re going to be able to get that part of the
financial sector going again, but it could take some time to regain confidence
What I think will change, what I think was an aberration, was a situation where
corporate profits in the financial sector were such a heavy part of our overall
profitability over the last decade. That I think will change. And so part of
that has to do with the effects of regulation that will inhibit some of the
massive leveraging and the massive risk-taking that had become so common.
Now, in some ways, I think it’s important to understand that some of that wealth
was illusory in the first place.
So we won’t miss it?
THE PRESIDENT: We will miss it in the sense that as a consequence of
25-year-olds getting million-dollar bonuses, they were willing to pay $100 for a
steak dinner and that waiter was getting the kinds of tips that would make a
college professor envious. And so some of the dynamic of the financial sector
will have some trickle-down effects, particularly in a place like Manhattan.
But I actually think that there was always an unsustainable feel about what had
happened on Wall Street over the last 10, 15 years, and it’s not that different
from the unsustainable nature of what was happening during the dot-com boom,
where people in Silicon Valley could make enormous sums of money, even though
what they were peddling never really had any signs it would ever make a profit.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Silicon Valley is still not a huge, critical,
important part of our economy, and Wall Street will remain a big, important part
of our economy, just as it was in the ’70s and the ’80s. It just won’t be half
of our economy. And that means that more talent, more resources will be going to
other sectors of the economy. And I actually think that’s healthy. We don’t want
every single college grad with mathematical aptitude to become a derivatives
trader. We want some of them to go into engineering, and we want some of them to
be going into computer design.
And so I think what you’ll see is some shift, but I don’t think that we will
lose the enormous advantages that come from transparency, openness, the
reliability of our markets. If anything, a more vigorous regulatory regime, I
think, will help restore confidence, and you’re still going to see a lot of
global capital wanting to park itself in the United States.
Are there tangible ways that Wall Street has made the average person’s life
better in the way that Silicon Valley has?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that some of the democratization of finance is
actually beneficial if properly regulated. So the fact that large numbers of
people could participate in the equity markets in ways that they could not
previously — and for much lower costs than they used to be able to participate —
I think is important.
Now, the fact that we had such poor regulation means — in some of these markets,
particularly around the securitized mortgages — means that the pain has been
democratized as well. And that’s a problem. But I think that overall there are
ways in which people have been able to participate in our stock markets and our
financial markets that are potentially healthy. Again, what you have to have,
though, is an updating of the regulatory regimes comparable to what we did in
the 1930s, when there were rules that were put in place that gave investors a
little more assurance that they knew what they were buying.
There was this great debate among F.D.R.’s advisers about whether you had to
split up companies — not just banks — you had to split up companies in order to
regulate them effectively, or whether it was possible to have big, huge,
sprawling, powerful companies — even not just possible, but better — and then
have strong regulators. And it seems to me there’s an analogy of that debate
now. Which is, do you think it is O.K. to have these “supermarkets” regulated by
strong regulators actually trying to regulate, or do we need some very different
modern version of Glass-Steagall, (1)
THE PRESIDENT: You know, I’ve looked at the evidence so far that indicates that
other countries that have not seen some of the problems in their financial
markets that we have nevertheless don’t separate between investment banks and
commercial banks, for example. They have a “supermarket” model that they’ve got
strong regulation of.
THE PRESIDENT: Canada being a good example. (2) And they’ve actually done a good
job in managing through what was a pretty risky period in the financial markets.
So — that doesn’t mean that, for example, an insurance company like A.I.G.
grafting a hedge fund on top of it is something that is optimal. Even with the
best regulators, if you start having so much differentiation of functions and
products within a single company, a single institution, a conglomerate,
essentially, things could potentially slip through the cracks. And people just
don’t know what they’re getting into. I mean, I guarantee you that the average
A.I.G. insurance policyholder had no idea that this stuff was going on. And in
that sense I think you can make an argument that there may be a breaking point
in which functions are so different that you don’t want a single company doing
But when it comes to something like investment banking versus commercial
banking, the experience in a country like Canada would indicate that good,
strong regulation that focuses less on the legal form of the institution and
more on the functions that they’re carrying out is probably the right approach
II. The Ticket to the Middle Class
Staying on the Great Depression, it led to a surge in high-school graduation. A
high-school diploma during that decade or two went from being elite to the norm,
and it became a ticket to the middle class. I’m curious what you think today’s
ticket to the middle class is. Do you want everybody aspiring to a
four-year-college degree? Is a two-year or vocational degree enough? Or is
simply attending college, whether or not you graduate, sufficient to reach the
THE PRESIDENT: We set out a goal in my speech to the joint session that said
everybody should have at least one year of post-high-school training. And I
think it would be too rigid to say everybody needs a four-year-college degree. I
think everybody needs enough post-high-school training that they are competent
in fields that require technical expertise, because it’s very hard to imagine
getting a job that pays a living wage without that — or it’s very hard at least
to envision a steady job in the absence of that.
And so to the extent that we can upgrade not only our high schools but also our
community colleges to provide a sound technical basis for being able to perform
complicated tasks in a 21st-century economy, then I think that not only is that
good for the individuals, but that’s going to be critical for the economy as a
I want to emphasize, though, that part of the challenge is making sure that
folks are getting in high school what they need as well. You know, I use my
grandmother as an example for a lot of things, but I think this is telling. My
grandmother never got a college degree. She went to high school. Unlike my
grandfather, she didn’t benefit from the G.I. Bill, even though she worked on a
bomber assembly line. She went to work as a secretary. But she was able to
become a vice president at a bank partly because her high-school education was
rigorous enough that she could communicate and analyze information in a way
that, frankly, a bunch of college kids in many parts of the country can’t. She
could write —
Today, you mean?
THE PRESIDENT: Today. She could write a better letter than many of my — I won’t
say “many,” but a number of my former students at the University of Chicago Law
School. So part of the function of a high-school degree or a community-college
degree is credentialing, right? It allows employers in a quick way to sort
through who’s got the skills and who doesn’t. But part of the problem that we’ve
got right now is that what it means to have graduated from high school, what it
means to have graduated from a two-year college or a four-year college is not
always as clear as it was several years ago.
And that means that we’ve got to — in our education-reform agenda — we’ve got to
focus not just on increasing graduation rates, but we’ve also got to make what’s
learned in the high-school and college experience more robust and more
I was in West Virginia recently talking to some college students, and these are
kids in college, fully intending to graduate, and yet they were still telling me
they’re not sure whether a college education is worth it. They’re going to be
graduating in a recession. They’re worried their jobs will go to China. You hear
these things all the time. What would you say — there are a large number of very
thoughtful people who have those concerns — what would you say to them?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I’d start off by saying just look at the statistics.
The unemployment rate for high-school graduates is at least three times what it
is for a college graduate. So it’s true that in this recession you’re seeing
white-collar jobs impacted. Even before the recession, it’s true that you saw
some outsourcing of white-collar jobs. But if you’re working the odds, your
likelihood of getting a job that pays you a good, solid middle-class wage is
vastly increased upon graduating from college — unless you’re LeBron James. And
so I think the evidence (3) speaks for itself.
Now, what is true is that a postgraduate education that isn’t giving you skills
that are measurable in some way, that provide you with some differentiation,
means that you’re going to have a little bit of a harder time. I would argue
that anybody — that young people generally are going to benefit from a good,
solid liberal-arts education. That’s what I got.
If you’re only going to go to school for two years, though, then making sure
that you’re enrolled in a program where at the end of that journey you can see a
job or a career or a field that’s growing instead of contracting certainly can
make some sense.
But, again, I think the big challenge that we’ve got on education is making sure
that from kindergarten or prekindergarten through your 14th or 15th year of
school, or 16th year of school, or 20th year of school, that you are actually
learning the kinds of skills that make you competitive and productive in a
modern, technological economy.
That’s why I don’t just want to see more college graduates; I also want to
specifically see more math and science graduates, I specifically want to see
more folks in engineering. I think part of the postbubble economy that I’m
describing is one in which we are restoring a balance between making things and
providing services, whether it’s marketing or catering to people or servicing
folks in some way. Those are all good jobs, and we’re not going to return to an
economy in which manufacturing is as large a percentage as it was back in the
1940s just because of automation and technological advance.
And there are advantages to service jobs, right? Less injury —
THE PRESIDENT: Less injury, less strain. And I’ve always claimed that if a
Wal-Mart associate was getting paid 25 bucks an hour like the autoworker, then
there’s no reason for complaint.
Although I do think that there’s a culture of making things in a factory that
appeals to people and that I understand. Whenever I’d walk into a factory during
the campaign and would see these big turbines — things that, you know, you’d
say, well, this is neat stuff — in a way you wouldn’t when you walk into a
But the broader point is that if you look at who our long-term competition will
be in the global economy — China, India, the E.U., Brazil, Korea — the countries
that are producing the best-educated work force, whose education system
emphasizes the sciences and mathematics, who can translate those technology
backgrounds or those science backgrounds into technological applications, they
are going to have a significant advantage in the economy. And I think that we’ve
got to have enough of that in order to maintain our economic strength.
III. The New Gender Gap
Those factories are obviously filled disproportionately with men. There’s a way
in which that reminds me of your grandparents, even though I know your
grandfather wasn’t a factory worker. You talk about the fact that your
grandmother outearned your grandfather. And in a way your family was a
forerunner of a much larger trend: There’s still sexism, there’s still a pay
gap, clearly, but the pay of men has stagnated, and the pay of women has gone
I think there are a lot of men out there today, working at G.M. and Chrysler and
other places, who feel the same kind of dejection (4) that your grandfather did.
What do you think the future of work looks like for men?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s an interesting question, because as I said, you
know, you go in to factories all across the Midwest and you talk to the men who
work there — they’ve got extraordinary skill and extraordinary pride in what
they make. And I think that for them, the loss of manufacturing is a loss of a
way of life and not just a loss of income.
I think a healthy economy is going to have a broad mix of jobs, and there has to
be a place for somebody with terrific mechanical aptitude who can perform highly
skilled tasks with his hands, whether it’s in construction or manufacturing. And
I don’t think that those jobs should vanish. I do think that they will
constitute a smaller percentage of the overall economy. And so what we’re going
to have to do is, with a younger generation, find new places for that kind of
The possibilities are there, though. I spoke during the campaign of this company
that I visited, McKinstry, in Seattle, where you’ve got a bunch of welders and
tradesmen who are now retrofitting buildings. They’re not performing the same
kind of manufacturing that their fathers might have, but with similar skill sets
they are now making hospitals and schools and office buildings much more energy
efficient, and then that’s providing enormous value to the economy as a whole.
In shaping our recovery package, one of the things I was pushing very hard was
the smart grid (5) as a big project similar to the Interstate that could have
some enormous ramifications for energy utilization. One of the biggest
constraints that we’ve got in building a smart grid in addition to siting
issues, which are sort of classic political jurisdictional battles, is actually
we don’t have enough trained electricians to lay down those lines. Now, you
can’t tell me that there aren’t a whole bunch of men and women out there who are
interested in those jobs. But somehow we have not done a good job of matching up
the training with the need out there. And that’s one of the things where
government can help, help to guide and steer our education process in a way that
meets future needs and not just the needs of the past.
Would you also encourage men to become more comfortable working in fields that
they traditionally have not? I mean, nursing is a very well-paying field.
There’s a shortage there.
THE PRESIDENT: I mean, nursing, teaching are all areas where we need more men.
I’ve always said if we can get more men in the classroom, particularly in inner
cities where a lot of young people don’t have fathers, that could be of enormous
Now, as you and I both know, in a lot of those fields they have been underpaid
because they were predominantly women’s fields. And so part of what we have to
do is to recognize that women are just as likely to be the primary bread earner,
if not more likely, than men are today. As a consequence, eliminating the pay
gap between men and women, and the pay gap between fields, becomes critically
important. And we’ve already taken action, for example, with the Lilly Ledbetter
bill (6) to try to move in that direction.
I think that if you start seeing nursing pay better and teaching pay better, and
some of these other professions, you’re going to see more men in those fields,
although there’s a little bit of a chicken and an egg — if you start getting
more men in those fields, then the stereotypes about this being a woman’s field
and all the gender stereotypes that arise out of thinking that somehow they’re
not the primary breadwinner, those stereotypes start being whittled away.
Did Michelle ever make more than you did?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, sure.
Probably only for a brief time, because I was working three jobs most of the
time that I was in the State Senate. I was still practicing law and I was still
teaching. So when you kind of put everything together, I think I was still
making a little bit more. But when I started campaigning for the U.S. Senate and
I had to drop some of those jobs, then she carried us for a couple years.
IV. Where the Economists are Coming From
I want to talk broadly about policy. When you and I spoke during the campaign,
you made it clear that you had thought a lot about the economic debates within
the Clinton administration. And you said that you wanted to have a Robert Rubin
type and a Robert Reich type having a vigorous debate in front of you. And
clearly you have a spectrum of Democrats within your economic-policy team.
THE PRESIDENT: But I don’t have Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz. (7) (Laughter.)
No, this wasn’t about them. But they have made it clear that they are not
working in your administration, haven’t they?
But in your inner circle, it really is dominated by Rubin protégés. And I’d be
interested if —
THE PRESIDENT: You know, the — I mean, look, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner
obviously worked at Treasury under Rubin.
And Peter Orszag, I think.
THE PRESIDENT: And Orszag — fair enough. You know, Christy Romer didn’t.
Jared Bernstein doesn’t — and Jared sits here every morning as part of my
economic team. And Austan Goolsbee doesn’t. (8)
I mean, the truth is that what I’ve been constantly searching for is a ruthless
pragmatism when it comes to economic policy. It is probably true that, given the
financial crisis that had arisen, that the fact that both Tim and Larry had
familiarity with financial crises was a plus, because I thought that we needed
some people who could hit the ground running and would be comfortable dealing
with some very large and difficult economic issues. And frankly, that list is
pretty small, because the last Democratic president we had was Bill Clinton; he
was on the scene for eight years, and for a big chunk of that time, Bob Rubin
was his primary economic-policy maker. So it’s not surprising that anybody who
had experience in those fronts was going to be coming out of a shop that would
have been influenced by that.
Keep in mind, though, I mean, I have enormous respect for somebody like Joe
Stiglitz. I read his stuff all the time. I actually am looking forward to having
these folks in for ongoing discussion. Somebody who has enormous influence over
my thinking is Paul Volcker, who is robust enough that, having presided over the
Carter and Reagan years, he’s still sharp as a tack and able to give me huge
advice and to provide some counterbalance.
The last point I’d make, though, is I think that — and I may have mentioned this
to you — but now that I think about it, maybe it was post-election. When I first
started having a round table of economic advisers, and Bob Reich was part of
that, and he was sitting across the table from Bob Rubin and others, what you
discovered was that some of the rifts that had existed back in the Clinton years
had really narrowed drastically.
They agree a lot more than they used to, but not entirely.
THE PRESIDENT: Not entirely. But, I mean, the fact is that Larry Summers right
now is very comfortable making arguments, often quite passionately, that Bob
Reich used to be making when he was in the Clinton White House. Now Larry might
not like me saying that —
Larry Summers is the new Bob Reich —
THE PRESIDENT: — that he’s become a soft touch. But, no, I think that one of the
things that we all agree to is that the touchstone for economic policy is, does
it allow the average American to find good employment and see their incomes
rise; that we can’t just look at things in the aggregate, we do want to grow the
pie, but we want to make sure that prosperity is spread across the spectrum of
regions and occupations and genders and races; and that economic policy should
focus on growing the pie, but it also has to make sure that everybody has got
opportunity in that system.
I also think that there’s very little disagreement that there are lessons to be
learned from this crisis in terms of the importance of regulation in the
financial markets. And I think that this notion that there is somehow resistance
to that — to those lessons within my economic team — just isn’t borne out by the
discussions that I have every day.
If anything, the only thing I notice, I think, that I do think is something of a
carry-over from Bob Rubin — I see it in Larry, I see it in Tim — is a great
appreciation of complexity.
And a willingness to admit what you don’t know, in many cases.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, exactly. And so what that means is that, as we’re making
economic policy, I think there is a certain humility about the consequences of
the actions we take, intended and unintended, that may make some outside
observers impatient. I mean, you’ll recall Geithner was just getting hammered
for months. But he, I think, is very secure in saying we need to get these
things right, and if we act too abruptly, we can end up doing more harm than
good. Those are qualities that I think have been useful.
V. Postreform Health care
You have suggested that health care is now the No. 1 legislative priority. It
seems to me this is only a small generalization — to say that the way the
medical system works now is, people go to the doctor; the doctor tells them what
treatments they need; they get those treatments, regardless of cost or, frankly,
regardless of whether they’re effective. I wonder if you could talk to people
about how going to the doctor will be different in the future; how they will
experience medical care differently on the other side of health care reform.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I do think consumers have gotten more active in
their own treatments in a way that’s very useful. And I think that should
continue to be encouraged, to the extent that we can provide consumers with more
information about their own well-being — that, I think, can be helpful.
I have always said, though, that we should not overstate the degree to which
consumers rather than doctors are going to be driving treatment, because, I just
speak from my own experience, I’m a pretty-well-educated layperson when it comes
to medical care; I know how to ask good questions of my doctor. But ultimately,
he’s the guy with the medical degree. So, if he tells me, You know what, you’ve
got such-and-such and you need to take such-and-such, I don’t go around arguing
with him or go online to see if I can find a better opinion than his.
And so, in that sense, there’s always going to be an asymmetry of information
between patient and provider. And part of what I think government can do
effectively is to be an honest broker in assessing and evaluating treatment
options. And certainly that’s true when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, where
the taxpayers are footing the bill and we have an obligation to get those costs
And right now we’re footing the bill for a lot of things that don’t make people
THE PRESIDENT: That don’t make people healthier. So when Peter Orszag and I talk
about the importance of using comparative-effectiveness studies (9) as a way of
reining in costs, that’s not an attempt to micromanage the doctor-patient
relationship. It is an attempt to say to patients, you know what, we’ve looked
at some objective studies out here, people who know about this stuff, concluding
that the blue pill, which costs half as much as the red pill, is just as
effective, and you might want to go ahead and get the blue one. And if a
provider is pushing the red one on you, then you should at least ask some
Won’t that be hard, because of the trust that people put in their doctors, just
as you said? Won’t people say, Wait a second, my doctor is telling me to take
the red pill, and the government is saving money by saying take the blue —
THE PRESIDENT: Let me put it this way: I actually think that most doctors want
to do right by their patients. And if they’ve got good information, I think they
will act on that good information.
Now, there are distortions in the system, everything from the drug salesmen and
junkets to how reimbursements occur. Some of those things government has control
over; some of those things are just more embedded in our medical culture. But
the doctors I know — both ones who treat me as well as friends of mine — I think
take their job very seriously and are thinking in terms of what’s best for the
patient. They operate within particular incentive structures, like anybody else,
and particular habits, like anybody else.
And so if it turns out that doctors in Florida are spending 25 percent more on
treating their patients as doctors in Minnesota, and the doctors in Minnesota
are getting outcomes that are just as good — then us going down to Florida and
pointing out that this is how folks in Minnesota are doing it and they seem to
be getting pretty good outcomes, and are there particular reasons why you’re
doing what you’re doing? — I think that conversation will ultimately yield some
significant savings and some significant benefits.
Now, I actually think that the tougher issue around medical care — it’s a
related one — is what you do around things like end-of-life care —
Yes, where it’s $20,000 for an extra week of life.
THE PRESIDENT: Exactly. And I just recently went through this. I mean, I’ve told
this story, maybe not publicly, but when my grandmother got very ill during the
campaign, she got cancer; it was determined to be terminal. And about two or
three weeks after her diagnosis she fell, broke her hip. It was determined that
she might have had a mild stroke, which is what had precipitated the fall.
So now she’s in the hospital, and the doctor says, Look, you’ve got about —
maybe you have three months, maybe you have six months, maybe you have nine
months to live. Because of the weakness of your heart, if you have an operation
on your hip there are certain risks that — you know, your heart can’t take it.
On the other hand, if you just sit there with your hip like this, you’re just
going to waste away and your quality of life will be terrible.
And she elected to get the hip replacement and was fine for about two weeks
after the hip replacement, and then suddenly just — you know, things fell apart.
I don’t know how much that hip replacement cost. I would have paid out of pocket
for that hip replacement just because she’s my grandmother. Whether, sort of in
the aggregate, society making those decisions to give my grandmother, or
everybody else’s aging grandparents or parents, a hip replacement when they’re
terminally ill is a sustainable model, is a very difficult question. If somebody
told me that my grandmother couldn’t have a hip replacement and she had to lie
there in misery in the waning days of her life — that would be pretty upsetting.
And it’s going to be hard for people who don’t have the option of paying for it.
THE PRESIDENT: So that’s where I think you just get into some very difficult
moral issues. But that’s also a huge driver of cost, right?
I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are
accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here.
So how do you — how do we deal with it?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that there is going to have to be a conversation
that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to
have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. It is very
difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal
political channels. And that’s part of why you have to have some independent
group that can give you guidance. It’s not determinative, but I think has to be
able to give you some guidance. And that’s part of what I suspect you’ll see
emerging out of the various health care conversations that are taking place on
the Hill right now.
VI. Out of the Rough?
Do you think this recession is a big-enough event to make us as a country
willing to make some of the sorts of hard choices that we need to make on health
care, on taxes in the long term — which will not cover the cost of government —
on energy? Traditionally those choices get made in times of depression or war,
and I’m not sure whether this rises to that level.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, part of it will depend on leadership. So I’ve got to make
some good arguments out there. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do since I
came in, is to say now is the time for us to make some tough, big decisions.
The critics have said, you’re doing too much, you can’t do all this at once,
Congress can’t digest everything. I just reject that. There’s nothing inherent
in our political process that should prevent us from making these difficult
decisions now, as opposed to 10 years from now or 20 years from now.
It is true that as tough an economic time as it is right now, we haven’t had 42
months of 20, 30 percent unemployment. And so the degree of desperation and the
shock to the system may not be as great. And that means that there’s going to be
more resistance to any of these steps: reforming the financial system or
reforming our health care system or doing something about energy. On each of
these things — you know, things aren’t so bad in the eyes of a lot of Americans
that they say, We’re willing to completely try something new.
But part of my job I think is to bridge that gap between the status quo and what
we know we have to do for our future.
Are you worried that the economic cycle will make that much harder? I mean,
Roosevelt took office four years after the stock market crashed. You took office
four months after Lehman Brothers collapsed. At some point people may start
saying, Hey, why aren’t things getting better?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s something that we think about. I knew even before the
election that this was going to be a very difficult journey and that the economy
had gone through a sufficient shock and that it wasn’t going to recover right
In some ways it’s liberating, though, in the sense that whether I’m a one-termer
or a two-termer, the problems are big enough and fundamental enough that I can’t
sort of game it out. It’s not one of these things where I can say, Oh, you know
what, if I time it just right, then the market is going to be going up and
unemployment will be going down right before re-election. These are much bigger,
much more systemic problems. And so in some ways you just kind of set aside the
What I’m very confident about is that given the difficult options before us, we
are making good, thoughtful decisions. I have enormous confidence that we are
weighing all our options and we are making the best choices. That doesn’t mean
that every choice is going to be right, is going to work exactly the way we want
it to. But I wake up in the morning and go to bed at night feeling that the
direction we are trying to move the economy toward is the right one and that the
decisions we make are sound.
David Leonhardt is an economics columnist for The Times and a staff writer
for the magazine.
After the Great
Recession, NYT, 3.5.2009,
Analysis: Obama Channels FDR Amid Crises
April 30, 2009
Filed at 3:14 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Banks failing and the economy in shambles, the new U.S.
president reassured a nationwide audience that his administration was putting
America back on the right track.
''It was the government's job to straighten out this situation and do it as
quickly as possible,'' Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in the first of a series
of radio addresses dubbed fireside chats, ''and the job is being performed.''
More than seven decades later, Barack Obama borrowed heavily from FDR's playbook
as he tried to slip as effortlessly into the role of comforter in chief. ''Every
American should know that their entire government is taking the utmost
precautions and preparations,'' Obama said of the flu outbreak Wednesday night.
Balancing two wars, a creaky economy and -- now, suddenly -- a flu bug of
near-pandemic proportions, this new president used his third prime-time news
conference to assure America that its oft-derided government could rise to the
challenge. At the same time, he sought to inspire citizens to help themselves
rather than rely solely on Washington.
This is not to say Obama will be as popular or successful as Roosevelt, a
president whose record is still vulnerable to criticism. But the parallels
between these two relatively young, challenged-by-crises presidents are too
tempting to ignore -- particularly when Obama seems to be channeling FDR as a
Like Roosevelt, Obama inherited a global economic crisis and moved quickly to
address it, drawing stiff criticism even as he tried to lower expectations for a
''Our troubles will not be over tomorrow,'' FDR said during an Oct. 22, 1933,
radio address, ''but we are on our way, and we are headed in the right
Reading from the same script, Obama declared Wednesday night, ''I think we're
off to a good start, but it's just a start. I'm proud of what we've achieved,
but I'm not content. I'm pleased with our progress, but I'm not satisfied.
So far, Americans seem to be giving Obama credit for trying.
An AP-GfK poll marking Obama's first 100 days in office found that, for the
first time in years, more people think the country is headed in the right
direction than not. The percentage of ''right direction'' voters has jumped a
remarkable 31 points since October, the month before Obama's election.
Roosevelt managed to retain the public's support throughout the Great
Depression, despite signs that much of his New Deal didn't work. He had a gift
of inspiring confidence in the future.
Are Obama's gifts as great?
He has benefited from his political team's ability to use new media -- such as
YouTube and text messaging -- to get his views out to a fast-changing public.
Roosevelt used new media, too: the radio.
This was Obama's third prime-time news conference. He's on TV all the time. And
yet, the AP-GfK poll shows that few people think Obama is overexposed.
Read the transcripts of FDR's fireside chats. You'll find that he spoke in
plain, sometimes folksy language to methodically explain the nation's problems
and outline his proposed solutions. Agree or not with Obama's politics, it's
hard to argue that he doesn't communicate as effectively as Roosevelt.
While FDR patiently explained to Americans that a bank doesn't keep people's
money in vaults (''it invests your money''), Obama didn't think it was beneath
his office to offer health tips for the flu.
''I've asked every American to take the same steps you would take to prevent any
other flu: keep your hands washed, cover your mouth when you cough, stay home
from work if you're sick and keep your children home from school if they're
sick,'' Obama said.
''We'll continue to provide regular updates to the American people as we receive
more information,'' Obama said more than seven decades after Roosevelt promised
to give Americans regular radio updates.
''And everyone should rest assured that this government is prepared to do
whatever it takes to control the impact of this virus.''
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Ron Fournier is Washington bureau chief for The Associated
Analysis: Obama Channels
FDR Amid Crises, NYT, 30.4.2009,
Obama’s Stand in Auto Crisis Shows Early Resolve
April 29, 2009
The New York Times
By JIM RUTENBERG, PETER BAKER and BILL VLASIC
WASHINGTON — By the time he sat down in the Oval Office to brief Michigan’s
Congressional delegation, President Obama had made up his mind. Days earlier, he
had decided to oust the head of General Motors and give it and Chrysler weeks to
fix themselves. If they could not, he was prepared to let them go bankrupt, a
prospect fraught with economic and political repercussions.
Some lawmakers on the conference call that Sunday night last month thought he
was bluffing. No president had ever let one of the Big Three car makers go
bankrupt. Surely Mr. Obama would not be the first.
“You need to say that to get people to the table, and we totally understand
that,” Representative Sander M. Levin, Democrat of Michigan, told Mr. Obama,
according to two people privy to the conversation.
Mr. Obama corrected him. “I don’t want you to leave with that impression,” the
president said. “I’m telling you that because it’s a real possibility.”
For a new president, the automobile industry crisis has tested the boundaries of
his activist approach and the acuity of his political instincts. As with so many
issues in his action-packed 100 days in office, Mr. Obama confronted choices few
of his predecessors encountered. His ongoing intervention in an iconic sector of
the economy offers a case study in the education, management and decision-making
of a fledgling president.
Tutored by veterans of past administrations, Mr. Obama, often after dinner with
his wife and daughters, devoured briefing papers until midnight to master the
intricacies of the auto industry. But he had advisers deal directly with the car
companies and never spoke with the G.M. chief executive he effectively fired.
Methodical and dispassionate, Mr. Obama aggravated powerful players in Congress
and the unions that helped elect him, then moved to assuage them. He encouraged
internal debate but was forced to head off tensions as his treasury secretary
and White House economic adviser maneuvered for position. In the end, he
struggled with the proper balance between government power and market forces, a
theme that has defined his first months in office.
“The issues were obvious — balancing his interest in seeing the companies
survive and prosper for the benefit of the workers and communities in which they
operate and all the offshoot businesses, versus the interests of American
taxpayers,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser. “And overlaid on
that is, when is it appropriate for the government to intervene?”
But for all Mr. Obama’s confidence — even some friends refer to a certain
cockiness — this is a president just four years out of the Illinois legislature
and very much learning on the job. His instincts for compromise, seen frequently
in dealings with Congress, have left him facing questions about his willingness
to face down powerful interests.
With G.M. and Chrysler restructuring as he demanded, the ultimate success of Mr.
Obama’s strategy may rest in part on how far he will go to take on
constituencies like unions that have been vital to his political standing.
He has set the country further down a road where the government owns a fair
share of the banking and insurance sectors and now may become the majority owner
of G.M. Critics warn he is overreaching. “We’re crossing a threshold here that’s
not one that’s normal in this country,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of
The process hurtled toward another critical juncture as Chrysler rushed to
finalize a deal with creditors and unions and form an alliance with Fiat, the
Italian carmaker, by the Thursday deadline set by Mr. Obama. Whatever doubts Mr.
Levin once harbored, most of the players have concluded that the president was
Opportunity in Crisis
Mr. Obama was elected the same week the Big Three reported their worst monthly
sales in a quarter-century, suddenly thrusting the future of the industry onto
his agenda. When he met with prominent Democratic economic figures in an ornate
hotel banquet room in Chicago days after the election, the car industry was the
lead topic. Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan recalled that even there, the
notion of bankruptcy crept into a conversation otherwise steeped in possibility.
A reconstruction of the events since then, based on interviews with roughly two
dozen participants, found that the discussions began with a heady optimism that
the crisis could provide an opportunity to push the industry to produce cleaner
“cars of the future,” an idea Mr. Obama had often invoked.
But the first decision Mr. Obama faced was whether to let automakers go bankrupt
At that point, he said no. An unstructured bankruptcy would send shockwaves
through the economy and endanger tens of thousands of jobs. So Mr. Obama
effectively began his presidency by prodding President George W. Bush and
Congress, in public statements, private meetings and personal telephone calls,
to provide a temporary bailout.
A former community organizer with little business experience, Mr. Obama had
developed a basic knowledge of the auto industry during the campaign, touring
factories, stumping with Ron Gettelfinger, a powerful ally as president of the
United Auto Workers, and meeting with William Clay Ford Jr., the executive
chairman of Ford who later recalled discussing “the electrification of our
As Mr. Obama prepared to take office, he increasingly relied on his closest
aides, primarily Lawrence H. Summers, his newly tapped economic adviser, and
Timothy F. Geithner, who would become his treasury secretary. Few in his inner
orbit had much experience in business, much less the auto industry.
Mr. Obama grew irritated at the auto executives, who in his view had a long
history of bad decisions. “What are these guys thinking?” Mr. Axelrod remembered
Mr. Obama asking when the chief executives of Chrysler, Ford and G.M. flew to
Washington aboard corporate jets to request a bailout. On NBC’s “Meet the Press”
in December, Mr. Obama castigated automakers for “repeated strategic mistakes”
and “failure to adapt to changing times,” adding that voters were “fed up” — and
so was he.
But his tough language angered some Democratic allies, like Representative John
D. Dingell and Senator Carl Levin, both of Michigan, who scolded him as talking
down the industry. “He comes from Illinois, which is auto-producing country, but
apparently not his part of Illinois,” Mr. Dingell said. “Had he had an auto
factory in his town, he’d have had a better understanding of what was going on.”
‘Not a Motel Chain’
As Inauguration Day approached, G.M. and Chrysler were living on borrowed time —
thanks to $17.4 billion in federal loans approved by Mr. Bush — and Mr. Obama
was juggling multiple, conflicting pressures, and trying to figure out how to
manage the process.
Washington was buzzing with talk of a “car czar” who would restructure the
industry; the presumed front-runner was Steven Rattner, a savvy New York
financier and prominent Democratic fund-raiser with no real auto-industry
Michigan lawmakers and union leaders took the reports as a sign that Mr. Obama
was taking a cold business-oriented approach. Carl Levin, Sandy Levin’s brother,
protested. “I was very blunt with Larry Summers, very direct,” he said. “This is
not a motel chain. This is an industry whose future is tied up with the future
of this country.”
Union leaders similarly complained about Mr. Rattner and the lack of labor
voices around Mr. Obama. “I’ve made that point a lot,” said Leo W. Gerard,
president of the United Steelworkers.
At the same time, Mr. Obama faced internal politics. A car czar would presumably
need a boss, but Mr. Obama had created an economic team without making clear
whether Mr. Geithner or Mr. Summers was top dog. Putting one of them in charge
of the auto situation would be a slight to the other.
Mr. Obama, who prides himself on getting strong personalities to work together,
decided not to “outsource” the job to a single car czar and instructed Mr.
Summers and Mr. Geithner to sort it out. After what one official called “a lot
of back and forth” with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, Mr.
Summers and Mr. Geithner agreed on a cabinet-level task force reporting to them
both. In a nod to labor, Mr. Rattner’s partner in leading the task force would
be Ron Bloom, a longtime adviser to Mr. Gerard’s union. Mr. Obama approved.
“He said he wanted to make sure that we had good people — that we had very good
people — working on it, and a range or perspectives,” Mr. Summers said in an
What few knew was that Mr. Rattner’s solicitation of business from the New York
State pension fund was under investigation. Mr. Rattner informed Mr. Obama’s
vetting team, which concluded that he was not facing charges, but no one told
key players like Mr. Summers, who learned from the news media.
The task force was announced the same day G.M. and Chrysler submitted
restructuring plans. By 10 the next morning, Obama aides were sorting through
the companies’ financial straits in a Treasury Department conference room
quickly filled with strewn paper, takeout food containers and empty Diet Coke
cans. Mr. Obama did not speak with them as they worked, relying instead on
updates from Mr. Summers and Mr. Geithner and memos stuffed into the briefing
binder he took home each night.
Mr. Rattner and Mr. Bloom flew to Detroit to meet with G.M. and Chrysler
executives and Mr. Gettelfinger, who was keeping a low public profile.
The task force quickly concluded the car companies were in worse shape than
suspected, especially Chrysler. But unlike the banks, which had received
hundreds of billions of dollars of federal money, the car industry lacked one
form of protection: In the minds of officials, including the president, they
were not too big to fail.
‘You Do It, You Own It’
At 10:15 a.m. on Thursday, March 26, Mr. Obama sank into his chair in the Oval
Office and listened to his advisers discuss the fates of G.M. and Chrysler. As
Mr. Summers ran through figures, Mr. Obama coolly cut him off, saying: “I know
that. I read that memo.” Mr. Obama had stayed up the previous evening reading a
task force “decision memo” laying out options.
Mr. Obama had often said that he would focus on the hardest decisions, leaving
easier calls to deputies. The decision that generated the biggest headlines fell
in that easier category: He readily accepted a recommendation to push out G.M.’s
chief executive, Rick Wagoner, and order the new leadership to produce more
aggressive plans to save their company, according to Mr. Geithner, Mr. Summers
and other aides.
A half-hour into the meeting, an aide entered the Oval Office and slipped Mr.
Obama a note informing him another meeting was to begin. The president told
advisers he needed more time to decide Chrysler’s fate. He then headed off for a
day consumed by a new strategy for Afghanistan, a threatened rocket launch by
North Korea and the evacuation of a flooded Fargo, N.D. (“What is this, a ‘West
Wing’ episode?” Mr. Axelrod recalled asking Mr. Emanuel.)
At 6 p.m., the president reconvened his auto advisers in the Roosevelt Room. By
then, Mr. Obama had reached what Mr. Geithner called “a fork in the road
judgment” on Chrysler that would not be popular with his union backers or his
Michigan allies. “We were not prepared to spend what they needed to stand alone,
because they were not viable,” Mr. Geithner said.
The question became whether to let Chrysler slip into bankruptcy or to give it
another month to finalize a life-saving alliance with Fiat, participants said.
Some argued to let Chrysler go. Others argued a bankruptcy would ripple beyond
the company to its extensive network of suppliers and dealers.
No longer was the discussion focused on using the crisis to build a clean-energy
auto industry. Instead, the issue was more fundamental: Was survival even an
option? Advisers agonized over whether to make clear bankruptcy was possible
even if the companies were given more time. Just uttering “the B-word,” as some
called it, could scare the country.
Sitting at a long conference table, scratching notes on briefing papers, Mr.
Obama peppered advisers with questions and solicited opposing opinions,
according to people in the room: How many jobs would a bankruptcy cost? How much
exposure would taxpayers have? Would keeping Chrysler afloat just add to the
inventory of unsold cars?
“He wants to know all the bad things, all the risks, and all the dark things,”
Mr. Geithner said.
As is his habit, Mr. Obama called on people who had not spoken and pressed those
who sounded tentative. “When he feels he’s getting thoughtful answers, he tends
to move on,” Mr. Summers said. “When he feels like he’s not getting thoughtful
answers, he becomes more concerned.”
After 75 minutes, Mr. Obama determined he would give the companies one last
chance while making clear bankruptcy awaited should they fail. Either way, Mr.
Wagoner was out.
With his chief political aide, Mr. Axelrod, and chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs,
Mr. Obama sorted through the political implications. Mr. Obama and his team had
long believed that the public was hungry for greater regulation. Mr. Obama’s
popularity also gave him room to maneuver.
Yet Americans have traditionally shown uneasiness with government involvement in
the private sector. Mr. Axelrod said that if anything, the plan had more
political risk than reward.
With supreme faith in his ability to explain anything to the country, Mr. Obama
shrugged off concerns and said he would openly signal that bankruptcy was a
possibility, advisers recalled.
The next morning, Mr. Rattner pulled Mr. Wagoner aside before a meeting at the
Treasury Department and told him to resign immediately. With no contact from Mr.
Obama, as far as advisers know, Mr. Wagoner ended his 31-year career at G.M.,
although the news was not announced for days.
When Mr. Obama got on the phone with the Michigan delegation two nights later to
inform them, he did not invite debate. “We weren’t asked about it,” Carl Levin
recalled. “We were notified.”
At the suggestion of Senator Debbie Stabenow, another Michigan Democrat, Mr.
Obama revised his speech the next day to praise advances at Buick and Chevrolet.
But he did not flinch from what he was doing. Thirty years earlier, Jimmy Carter
left no fingerprints when he pushed out the head of Chrysler. Mr. Obama had no
problem with anyone knowing he had toppled a giant.
“His feeling,” Mr. Axelrod said, “was, you do it, you own it.”
Playing Poker, No Bluffs
For good or ill, Mr. Obama has done a lot in his first 100 days, and now owns a
lot. The auto crisis forced him to look at options once unthinkable, and, like
many challenges, remains unresolved.
In terms of leadership style, Mr. Obama at times has seemed like a cross between
his two most recent predecessors — intellectually curious, philosophically
flexible and eager for input like Bill Clinton, while disciplined, willing to
delegate and comfortable with bold decisions like George W. Bush.
Unlike Mr. Bush, who preferred that his memos be kept to two pages, Mr. Obama
has not trusted instinct during the auto-industry crisis so much as conduct a
law school-style review of his options. Unlike Mr. Clinton, who was famous for
making phone calls late at night without his aides knowing, Mr. Obama generally
did not reach out independently to auto executives, union leaders or
Yet in his first three months, he has struggled to avoid the isolation that has
beset so many predecessors. Upon taking office, Mr. Obama set up a group of
outside economic advisers to provide him an array of opinions. “He doesn’t want
to get insulated,” said one member, Richard L. Trumka, the secretary-treasurer
of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
But as the auto-industry talks accelerated, Mr. Obama relied mainly on his core
advisers. Mr. Geithner was the only cabinet secretary in the room when the
president made his decision. The outside economic panel has not formally met
with Mr. Obama since its February inception, though its chairman has.
Mr. Obama is learning fast that he cannot be all things to all constituencies,
and the labor leaders who did so much for him during the campaign sometimes
chafe at his approach. The U.A.W. last week called on members to send e-mail
messages to the White House demanding that it “stand up for the interests of
workers and retirees in these restructuring negotiations.”
As with his predecessors, strength at times can be weakness. Mr. Obama’s
confidence has been a powerful asset at a time of national anxiety, even as
close advisers acknowledge that it risks blinding him to the drawbacks of some
decisions. In the end, Mr. Obama is gambling that his judgment is the right one
to salvage an industry at the heart of America’s economic self-image.
“At this point, the administration is just playing poker,” Mr. Dingell said. “If
he gets the damn loans and saves the industry, I guess I won’t be able to
And if Mr. Obama does not, the next 100 days promise to be even more challenging
than the first.
Obama’s Stand in Auto
Crisis Shows Early Resolve, NYT, 29.4.2009,
April 29, 2009
The New York Times
Crises, not days, is the first word that comes to mind when we think about
the number 100 and Barack Obama’s presidency.
The list of failed policies and urgent threats bequeathed to him by former
President George W. Bush could easily be that long. In his first 14 weeks plus
two days, President Obama has made a strong start at addressing many of the most
He is trying to rebuild this country’s shattered reputation with his pledge to
shut down the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, his offer to talk with Iran
and Syria, and, yes, that handshake with Venezuela’s blow-hard president, Hugo
Mr. Obama has not allowed a once-in-four-generations recession — or politically
driven charges that he is over-reaching — to rob him of his ambition. He is
right that there can be no lasting recovery until the country reforms its health
care system and tackles the clear and present danger of global climate change.
The government is promoting women’s reproductive rights. It is restoring
regulations to keep water clean and food safe. The White House has promised to
tackle immigration reform this year.
Mr. Obama and the country still have a long way to go. The Taliban’s power grabs
in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a reminder of why the White House must chart a
swift exit from Iraq so it can focus on the real front in the war on terror.
Recent horrifying bombings are a reminder of how far Iraq is from political
conciliation and how much remains to be done to ensure an orderly exit.
We are skeptical that the bank rescue plan is aggressive enough to salvage those
that are at the edge of insolvency or protect the taxpayers’ investment.
We know that President Obama, and many voters, don’t want the fight, but until
there is a full investigation of detainee abuse, “extraordinary rendition” and
the other outlaw policies authorized during the Bush years, there is no way to
ensure they will never be repeated.
These are very tough times, but Mr. Obama seems to have lifted the spirits of a
divided and fearful nation. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 72
percent of Americans said they were optimistic about the next four years. They
also recognized that some problems may be too difficult to solve even in four
Here is a look, by no means comprehensive, at the president’s early efforts:
THE WORLD Mr. Obama has promised to quickly bring home American troops from one
of the longest and most divisive wars in American history. He must now persuade
Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government to reconcile with the Sunnis and to defuse
tensions with the Kurds. Iraq still has not agreed on a law to equitably share
its oil resources. Thousands of members of the Sunni Awakening Councils, the
former insurgents whose decision to switch sides helped change the course of the
war, are still waiting for promised government jobs.
Mr. Obama pressed his advisers to come up with a comprehensive plan for the
dangerously inter-related conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now they must
implement it — and quickly. Last week, the Taliban advanced within 60 miles of
Islamabad. Pakistan’s leaders still do not seem to grasp the mortal threat.
The president has begun new negotiations with Russia to reduce nuclear arsenals.
The Pentagon has started to make the tough choices to shift spending to weapons
needed by troops fighting today’s wars. Mr. Obama’s commitment to
Israeli-Palestinian peace is already being tested by Israel’s new prime
minister, who says he doesn’t believe in a two-state solution.
Americans can feel both pride and relief at the enthusiastic welcome Mr. Obama
has received in his early travels abroad. The president will soon have to find
ways to leverage that popularity. He must persuade European allies to contribute
more troops and resources to Afghanistan. If negotiations with Iran fail, he
will have to convince Europe, Russia and China to impose tough sanctions to try
to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
THE ECONOMY After eight dismal years, the president’s stimulus bill, his budget
and even the flawed bank rescue strategy offer a welcome return to the rational
proposition that some problems are so big that the government must step in. Our
main concern is that he has been too reluctant to challenge traditional
interests on Wall Street or Capitol Hill.
His attempt at bipartisan consensus-building crashed against Republicans’
obstruction of the stimulus package and weakened the final legislation. The $787
billion stimulus is small when compared with the size of the contraction; the
3.5 million new jobs projected pale against the 5 million lost since the end of
The administration has been similarly timid on the banking crisis. The White
House is so far refusing to consider a temporary takeover of foundering banks —
the best way to ensure that they are efficiently restructured and the taxpayers’
money is protected. Instead, the administration has offered hundreds of billions
in subsidized loans to hedge funds and other private investors to entice them to
offer inflated prices for bad assets.
We are concerned that Mr. Obama’s anti-foreclosure plan — which relies on
lenders to voluntarily modify troubled loans — will falter unless Congress
quickly reforms the bankruptcy code. All of this fosters the belief that the
White House and Congress will not stand up to the banks. It is also likely to
slow the recovery.
CIVIL LIBERTIES Less than 12 hours after taking office, Mr. Obama halted the
military tribunals at Guantánamo. Then he ordered the detention camp closed
within a year. He has issued orders to prohibit torture and shut secret prisons
overseas and to create a detainee policy based on the law and Constitution
rather than Mr. Bush’s grandiose visions of executive power.
Earlier this month, Mr. Obama overruled his C.I.A. director and ordered the
release of four horrifying memos on prisoner interrogation written by the Bush
Justice Department. He has ruled out punishing C.I.A. interrogators who
participated in the detainees’ abuse and reluctantly decided to leave it to the
Justice Department to make the call about other prosecutions.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama has not dropped overly broad state secrets claims used
by the Bush team to try to block lawsuits on rendition, torture and illegal
wiretapping. He needs to rethink that position as well as his opposition to a
full public inquiry to determine why, how and by whom so many orders were given
to violate the law and the most cherished Constitutional rights.
ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT Mr. Obama and his new team have been as aggressive on
these issues as Mr. Bush was passive or obstructionist. The Environmental
Protection Agency quickly issued a formal determination that greenhouse gases
endanger the public health and welfare — the necessary prelude to regulating
those pollutants. The Interior Department has rejected Mr. Bush’s
industry-driven drill-anywhere policies in favor of a more balanced approach to
The stimulus package includes money to encourage energy efficiency, renewable
energy sources, higher-mileage cars and coal that is truly clean. Mr. Obama has
also endorsed, in general terms, legislation that would put strict caps on
greenhouse gas emissions and invest in technologies to make it easier to achieve
HEALTH CARE Far too many Americans still have no health insurance; those who do
pay too much and the quality of care is too low. Mr. Obama’s bold 10-year budget
plan proposed a substantial $634 billion down payment to widen coverage and
improve the delivery of care. He offered sensible proposals to pay for these
reforms — including higher taxes on the rich and eliminating unjustified
subsides for private Medicare plans — that met with immediate Congressional
This is going to be a tough fight. Mr. Obama must keep reminding Americans that
reforms are essential for their personal health and the nation’s economic
EDUCATION Mr. Obama has demonstrated a welcome breadth of knowledge on education
but will need to use bare-knuckled clout to get needed changes. That is
especially true of his student loan plan, which would end wasteful subsidies to
private lenders and permit college students to borrow directly from the
government. The president’s plan for using stimulus money to force reforms that
the states were supposed to carry out under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002
will also require energy, vigilance and an end to loopholes in education
During the campaign, then-Senator Obama declared that “government cannot solve
all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for
ourselves.” In his first 100 days, President Obama has started to show Americans
just what he meant.
One Hundred, NYT,
Obama Resisting Push for Interrogation Panel
April 24, 2009
The New York Times
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and CARL HULSE
WASHINGTON — The White House and the Democratic leadership in the Senate
signaled on Thursday that they would block for now any effort to establish an
independent commission to investigate the Bush administration’s approval of
harsh interrogation techniques.
In doing so, they sought to reduce pressure for a full inquiry — from, among
others, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi — that has grown more intense since
President Obama suggested on Tuesday that he would be open to such an
investigation. While the White House has contended that Mr. Obama never actively
supported an inquiry, his firmer opposition to the possibility, communicated to
Congressional leaders in meetings on Wednesday night and Thursday, represented a
shift in emphasis.
Meeting with the Democratic leadership on Wednesday night, Mr. Obama said a
special inquiry would steal time and energy from his policy agenda, and could
mushroom into a wider distraction looking back at the Bush years, people briefed
on the discussion said. Mr. Obama, they said, repeated much the same message on
Thursday at a bipartisan meeting with Congressional leaders.
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and other top Senate Democrats
endorsed Mr. Obama’s view on Thursday, telling reporters at a news conference at
the Capitol that they preferred to wait for the results of an investigation by
the Senate Intelligence Committee expected late this year
“I think it would be very unwise, from my perspective, to start having
commissions, boards, tribunals, until we find out what the facts are,” Mr. Reid
said. “And I don’t know a better way of getting the facts than through the
Intelligence Committee. I think that’s a pretty good way to do it.”
At the White House, Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said that it was “not a
time for retribution” and that “we’re all best suited looking forward.”
Ms. Pelosi, however, renewed her call for an independent panel to investigate
the waterboarding and other harsh techniques approved by the Bush
administration, a position shared by many of the more liberal Democrats in the
“I have always been for a truth commission, because I think this is very
important,” Ms. Pelosi said.
She added that her only question was what level of immunity to grant to
potential witnesses before such a commission.
Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, used the
White House meeting to push for the release of more memorandums documenting the
use of the harsh techniques, suggesting they could show that the interrogation
methods were effective, as former Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed.
The president did not foreclose the release of more documents, officials briefed
on the session said. But Mr. Obama suggested to Mr. Boehner that the additional
information would not be definitive on the value of the information obtained
from the detainees, they said.
Although a full-scale independent inquiry now appears unlikely anytime soon, the
Bush administration’s use of waterboarding and other techniques that critics say
crossed the line into torture could still be examined by a variety of
Congressional panels in addition to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Mr. Reid, who repeatedly denounced the use of harsh interrogation techniques
when George W. Bush was president, suggested that naming a special panel would
signal an intent to exact “retribution,” and he sought to paper over the
disagreement with members of his own caucus, like Senator Patrick J. Leahy of
Vermont, who have joined human rights groups in demanding a commission.
Mr. Reid said it was premature to act without the facts that will be provided by
the Intelligence Committee. “They will make a public report,” he said. “I hope
that it will come toward the end of this year.”
But it is actually unclear how much of the panel’s findings will ever be made
public. The chairwoman of the committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California,
has said it is too early to know how much can be reported publicly about an
investigation that is dealing largely with classified information.
While the issue is getting less attention, Congress is also showing uncertainty
over whether and how to pursue a broad investigation into the causes of the
economic crisis. Some lawmakers have argued for a special Congressional
committee to handle the inquiry while others want an outside panel with no
Congressional ties to take on the job, to avoid any conflicts of interest.
Such differences when considering extraordinary Congressional investigations are
not unusual, and it can sometimes take time for lawmakers and the White House to
settle on an approach. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration at
first strongly resisted any investigation. One was eventually initiated by the
two Congressional Intelligence Committees before the independent Sept. 11
commission was established.
Mrs. Feinstein said her committee was best-equipped to carry out an inquiry. Its
investigation began in early March, and aides said the panel had identified and
requested a “voluminous amount of documents” related to C.I.A. detention and
Mr. Boehner said the calls for a special tribunal were wrongheaded, adding that
Ms. Pelosi and other legislative leaders had been briefed on the interrogation
techniques long ago.
“There’s nothing here that should surprise her,” Mr. Boehner said at a news
Other Republicans have called on the Obama administration to release
still-secret documents that detail the information gleaned from suspects using
the disputed interrogation methods. On Thursday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder
Jr. indicated a willingness to do so.
“It is certainly the intention of this administration not to play hide and seek,
or not to release certain things,” Mr. Holder said in testimony before the House
Obama Resisting Push for
Interrogation Panel, NYT, 24.4.2009,
Obama Joins World Leaders Tackling Economic Crisis
April 2, 2009
The New York Times
Filed at 2:39 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LONDON (AP) -- After dropping in at the palace and dining late at 10 Downing
St., President Barack Obama rolls up his sleeves with world leaders for a full
day of economic summitry -- and more first-time meetings with key U.S. allies.
The G-20 summit convenes Thursday at the Excel Centre in London's Docklands
district. The leaders hope to approve language vowing tough, coordinated rules
for financial markets, plus efforts to spark global recovery while avoiding
costly trade disputes.
Obama told reporters the summit will reflect ''enormous consensus'' on how to
grapple with the world's gravest economic crisis since World War II.
Ahead of the Thursday session, the president was sitting down for the first time
with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, amid intelligence reports that
North Korea is poised to launch an advanced missile. Pyongyang says it's a
satellite launch, but Washington suspects a test of nuclear-capable technology
and calls any launch ''provocative.''
Obama also has meetings scheduled with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. He will likely reassure Singh about plans to boost
aid to India's rival, Pakistan. With the Saudi leader, oil prices and Mideast
peace efforts are on the agenda, with perhaps a delicate question about the
king's recent shake-up in succession plans.
On Wednesday, Obama had his introduction to British royalty with an audience at
Buckingham Palace. He and his wife, Michelle, were presented to Queen Elizabeth
II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Most noteworthy about the meeting may have been a gift Obama gave the queen: an
iPod loaded with classic show tunes, including several from ''Camelot,'' which
was based on the King Arthur legend, and ''My Fair Lady,'' which was set in
Afterward, the queen posed with all the G-20 leaders for a summit class picture.
Then each drove in a separate motorcade to 10 Downing St., Prime Minister Gordon
Brown's official residence.
Dinner was served up by ''Naked Chef'' cookbook author Jamie Oliver: Welsh lamb
and seasonal vegetables with Irish soda bread on the side. Obama was glimpsed
briefly at a table chatting with Germany's Angela Merkel and South Korea's Lee.
His meetings Wednesday included Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, with whom
Obama agreed to seek a new treaty slashing nuclear stockpiles, and Chinese
President Hu Jintao.
Obama plans to visit Moscow in July and China later in the year.
Obama Joins World
Leaders Tackling Economic Crisis, NYT, 2.4.2009,
In Europe, Obama Faces Calls for Rules on Finances
April 2, 2009
The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER and MARK LANDLER
LONDON — In his first full day in Europe, President Obama conceded Wednesday
that the United States had “some accounting to do” for failures that led to the
world’s financial crisis, even as he tried to brush past heavy pressure from
Germany and France to accept global financial regulations that could reach well
inside American borders.
Speaking on the eve of a summit meeting here to address the financial crisis,
Mr. Obama acknowledged that regulatory failures in the United States had a role
in the meltdown, but he urged world leaders to focus on solutions rather than on
placing blame. He also cautioned that the United States was unlikely to return
to its role as a “voracious consumer market,” and he urged other nations to do
more to revive growth in their home markets.
Despite calls for unity from Mr. Obama and the British prime minister, Gordon
Brown, the host of the Group of 20 meeting that will formally begin Thursday, a
rift intensified over Anglo-American calls for greater fiscal stimulus spending
and French and German demands for more intrusive global regulation of financial
While President Nicolas Sarkozy of France did not repeat an earlier threat to
walk out of the conference — “I just got here,” he joked — he made it clear he
would reject an agreement that puts off stringent new regulations on banks, tax
havens, and hedge funds.
“The decisions need to be taken now, today and tomorrow,” he said. “This has
nothing to do with ego. This has nothing to do with temper tantrums. When it
comes to historic moments, you can’t circumvent them.”
Mr. Sarkozy added that tougher regulation — he has called for a “global
regulator” that would be able to reach inside the borders of the United States
and other large nations to deal with international financial firms — is
“The compromise has to come from all countries around the world,” he said.
Saying he trusted Mr. Obama, Mr. Sarkozy said he did not want to point fingers
about the crisis. But then, in a verbal jab he has used before, he added, “The
crisis didn’t actually spontaneously erupt in Europe.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany rejected Mr. Obama’s plea for other nations
to follow America’s lead and pledge greater fiscal spending to stimulate their
economies. She said more spending was not worth debating. “That is not a
bargaining chip,” she said, adding, by contrast, “Regulation is something that
is in everyone’s interest.”
By the time Mr. Obama ended his evening at Buckingham Palace and a working
dinner for the leaders assembling here — representing a group as diverse as the
established European powers and Japan to Indonesia, India, Saudi Arabia and the
Netherlands — it appeared likely that countries would divide into two or three
The United States, Britain and Japan will push for more immediate stimulus and
“systemic risk” regulators that mostly operate within national borders; Germany
and France will push the opposite position, probably with some support from the
That leaves China and Russia, among others, to exploit the division to play a
significant role, though if tradition holds the major differences are likely to
be smoothed out in wording in a final communiqué that each country interprets
Mr. Obama and Mr. Brown used a joint news conference earlier in the day to
emphasize that differences with France and Germany were “vastly overstated.”
Mr. Brown argued that the world had learned the hard lessons of a similar summit
meeting here in 1933, which ended in failure. That outcome will not be repeated,
Mr. Brown argued.
Mr. Obama also met for the first time with President Hu Jintao of China, the
nation that is essentially being asked to bankroll much of the upward of $2
trillion in deficits the United States will run up this year to finance its
recovery package, bailouts for Wall Street and Detroit, and two wars.
But in a meeting that American officials described as “businesslike” Mr. Hu
apparently said nothing about previous Chinese cautions that the country would
have to be convinced that the United States had a long-term plan to bring down
its deficits before it invested more heavily in American securities.
In essence, the United States is pressing Europe and other nations to spend more
now — when a coordinated stimulus could do the most good. But over the long
term, Mr. Obama appeared to be preparing the world for a reshaped global economy
in which the United States no longer was the ultimate export market for the
world’s established and emerging powers.
Speaking alongside Mr. Brown after the two men met, Mr. Obama warned against
returning the United States to the habits of the past decade, and the twin trade
and budget deficits they created.
“The United States will do its share,” he said, “but I think that one of the
things that Gordon and I spoke about is the fact that in some ways the world has
become accustomed to the United States being a voracious consumer market and the
engine that drives a lot of economic growth worldwide. And I think that in the
wake of this crisis, even as we’re doing stimulus, we have to take into account
our own deficits.”
He said he and fellow leaders had an “enormous consensus” on the need to take
bold steps to revive growth, and urged them to focus on what they can achieve at
home. “If there is going to be renewed growth it can’t just be the United States
as the engine, everybody is going to have to pick up the pace,” he said.
But Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy laid out a different argument: that the United
States had only now begun to understand the cost of poorly regulated free-market
capitalism, and must now bow to the European model. “The foundation for this new
financial architecture must be laid now,” Mrs. Merkel said. “That is why we seem
to be so tough.”
The German chancellor, who is scheduled to met Mr. Obama one-on-one this
weekend, rejected attempts to link the American and British demands for fiscal
stimulus programs to the French and German agenda on regulations. Although
Germany did carry out a reasonably large stimulus package this year, it has not
agreed to one for 2010.
Mr. Sarkozy said France had made a gesture to the United States by rejoining the
command structure of the NATO alliance, and he implied that the United States
needed to make a similar gesture in the regulatory arena.
Helene Cooper reported from London and Alan Cowell from Paris. Matthew Saltmarsh
contributed reporting from Paris and Julia Werdigier and Mark Landler from
In Europe, Obama Faces Calls for
Rules on Finances, NYT, 2.4.2009,