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History > 2009 > USA > Politics > White House / President (IV)

 

 

 

News Analysis

Obama,

Denied Full Victory on 2 Issues,

Takes Validation

 

December 20, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, likes to say that the only thing that is not negotiable is success. The last 48 hours offered a case study in how the president applies that maxim to governing.

After weeks of frustrating delays and falling poll numbers, Mr. Obama decided to take what he could get, declare victory and claim momentum on some of the administration’s biggest priorities, even if the details did not always match the lofty vision that underlined them.

From Copenhagen to Capitol Hill, the president determined the outer limits of what he could accomplish on climate change and health care and decided that was enough, at least for now. He brokered a nonbinding agreement with other world powers to fight global warming, averting the collapse of an international summit meeting. And he blessed a compromise on health care to guarantee the votes needed to pass the Senate.

Neither deal represented a final victory, and in fact some on the left in his own party argued that both of them amounted to sellouts on principle in favor of expediency. But both agreements served the purpose of keeping the process moving forward, inching ever closer toward Mr. Obama’s goals and providing a jolt of adrenaline for a White House eager to validate its first year in office.

Mr. Obama seemed encouraged by the progress. He had just left Denmark on Air Force One with the climate change agreement in hand when he reached Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, and heard of the health care deal. “He was, fair to say, pretty happy,” Mr. Reid later told reporters.

After landing in a Washington-area snowstorm and retiring for a few hours of rest, Mr. Obama appeared in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on a snowy Saturday. He called the health care deal “a major step forward” and the climate change agreement an “important breakthrough.”

Still, he acknowledged that neither was exactly what he had set out to achieve. On climate change, he said that the Copenhagen pact “is not enough” and that “we have a long way to go.” On health care, he noted that “as with any legislation, compromise is part of the process.”

In an interview, Mr. Emanuel said the developments showed that Mr. Obama “sets out the North Stars for us” in terms of broad and ambitious goals, but is willing to let his staff and allies haggle over the specifics. “He doesn’t negotiate the ends,” Mr. Emanuel said. “He’s very open to discussing alternative routes.”

Critics cautioned against making too much of the agreements. “They are pyrrhic victories,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill aide. “Neither deal will necessarily improve his poll ratings with swing voters, nor will they energize his base. And neither take the necessary steps to put the American economy back on track, which should be the only thing he is thinking about right now.”

The climate deal in particular may seem more than it is. With the Copenhagen conference unable to agree on binding limits on greenhouse gases linked to climate change, Mr. Obama settled for a three-page agreement with no short or midterm goals but a long-term commitment to prevent world temperatures from rising by more than two degrees by midcentury.

The health care legislation is much further along, and while it compromised on abortion and abandoned a government-run health plan, it still includes many changes long favored by Democrats. If it passes the Senate this week as now appears probable, it stands a much better chance of actually becoming law, culminating decades of largely failed efforts to revamp the nation’s health care system.

Mr. Obama has put a high value on process and keeping things moving, recognizing that history generally does not remember the to and fro, only the big sweep of presidential accomplishments. He may not get the health care plan he envisioned but, if the legislation passes, he will insure 30 million more people, stop insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and at least try to rein in costs. He will not end climate change in his presidency, and may not get the market-based emission caps he wants, but he may move the country, and the world, toward meaningful action.

Of course, to many on both sides of the aisle, there is a less sympathetic narrative. To the left, Mr. Obama seems increasingly to lack the fire to fight on matters of principle. To the right, he appears to be overreaching, saddling the country with debt and the weight of a bloated and overly intrusive government.

Yet whatever their merits, coming at the end of a tough first year, the developments of the past couple of days were something of a balm for the Obama White House. Little this year has come as easily as Mr. Obama and his team once imagined, but as they sort through the balance sheet, they argue that the mediocre poll ratings do not reflect the record.

Mr. Emanuel noted that a year ago, the economy was on the brink of a depression and the financial and auto industries were near collapse. Today, the economy is growing again, and banks and one of the large car companies are repaying government bailouts, although unemployment remains perilously high and the national debt is soaring.

He also ticked off a series of legislative measures that passed with little notice — an expansion of health care for lower-income children, new regulations on the tobacco and credit card industries and an overhaul of military acquisition. With health care now looking closer to passage, Mr. Emanuel called it the “most significant legislative first year of a first-term president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Even so, White House officials are frustrated at the difficulties they have had. As they talk about their agenda for 2010, some Democrats have suggested looking for a few easy, popular initiatives as sort of a breather between the big-ticket, often polarizing proposals that dominated 2009.

The problem, as they noted, is that they had expected some of this year’s proposals to be more popular, only to discover otherwise in a treacherous political climate.

Obama, Denied Full Victory on 2 Issues, Takes Validation, NYT, 20.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/us/politics/20obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Op-Ed Columnist

Obama’s Christian Realism

 

December 15, 2009
The New York Times
By DAVID BROOKS

 

If you were graduating from Princeton in the first part of the 20th century, you probably heard the university president, John Hibben, deliver one of his commencement addresses. Hibben’s running theme, which was common at that time, was that each person is part angel, part devil. Life is a struggle to push back against the evils of the world without succumbing to the passions of the beast lurking inside.

You might not have been paying attention during the speech, but as you got older a similar moral framework was floating around the culture, and it probably got lodged in your mind.

You, and others of your era, would have been aware that there is evil in the world, and if you weren’t aware, the presence of Hitler and Stalin would have confirmed it. You would have known it is necessary to fight that evil.

At the same time, you would have had a lingering awareness of the sinfulness within yourself. As the cold war strategist George F. Kennan would put it: “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us.”

So as you act to combat evil, you wouldn’t want to get carried away by your own righteousness or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting.

As a matter of policy, you would have thought it wise to constrain your own power within institutions. America should fight the Soviet Union, but it should girdle its might within NATO. As Harry Truman said: “We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.”

And you would have championed the spread of democracy, knowing that democracy is the only system that fits humanity’s noble yet sinful nature. As the midcentury theologian Reinhold Niebuhr declared: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

You would, in short, have been a cold war liberal.

Cold war liberalism had a fine run in the middle third of the 20th century, and it has lingered here and there since. Scoop Jackson kept the flame alive in the 1970s. Peter Beinart wrote a book called “The Good Fight,” giving the tendency modern content.

But after Vietnam, most liberals moved on. It became unfashionable to talk about evil. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation. Some blamed conflicts on weapons systems and pursued arms control. Some based their foreign-policy thinking on being against whatever George W. Bush was for. If Bush was an idealistic nation-builder, they became Nixonian realists.

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.

Obama’s race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln’s second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2002, Obama spoke against the Iraq war, but from the vantage point of a cold war liberal. He said he was not against war per se, just this one, and he was booed by the crowd. In 2007, he spoke about the way Niebuhr formed his thinking: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

His speeches at West Point and Oslo this year are pitch-perfect explications of the liberal internationalist approach. Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.

More than usual, he talked about the high ideals of the human rights activists and America’s history as a vehicle for democracy, prosperity and human rights. He talked about America’s “strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.” Most of all, he talked about the paradox at the core of cold war liberalism, of the need to balance “two seemingly irreconcilable truths” — that war is both folly and necessary.

He talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor.

Obama has not always gotten this balance right. He misjudged the emotional moment when Iranians were marching in Tehran. But his doctrine is becoming clear. The Oslo speech was the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life.

 

Bob Herbert is off today.

    Obama’s Christian Realism, NYT, 15.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/15/opinion/15brooks.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Presses Biggest Banks to Lend More

 

December 15, 2009
The New York Times
By HELENE COOPER and ERIC DASH

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama pressured the heads of the nation’s biggest banks on Monday to take “extraordinary” steps to revive lending for small businesses and homeowners, prompting assurances from some financial institutions that they would do more even as they continued to shed their supplicant status in Washington.

Meeting with top executives from 12 financial institutions, Mr. Obama sent a clear message that the industry had a responsibility to help nurse the economy back to health and do more to create jobs in return for the huge federal bailout last year that kept Wall Street and the banking system afloat.

But Mr. Obama also confronted the limits of his power to jawbone the industry as banking companies continued to repay government money received in the bailout. Citigroup and Wells Fargo, two of the biggest, announced on Monday that they were doing precisely that.

If the banks came hat in hand to Washington a year ago to assure their survival, they returned on Monday in a much stronger position to deal with the government. As they scurry to repay the government and escape its influence over their operations, they have been fighting elements of legislation to regulate their industry more tightly.

At the same time, the banks are seeking to restore executive pay to high levels and asserting that the government’s demand that they hold bigger financial buffers against possible losses makes it hard for them to issue more loans.

During the hourlong meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Mr. Obama prodded the executives to stop fighting the regulation legislation intended to deal with the problems that led to the financial crisis, White House officials said.

“I made very clear that I have no intention of letting their lobbyists thwart reforms necessary to protect the American people,” Mr. Obama said in remarks after the meeting. “If they wish to fight common sense consumer protections, that’s a fight I’m more than willing to have.”

The heads of three of the biggest companies — Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup — did not even make it to the White House meeting in person. They had waited until Monday morning to travel on commercial flights to Washington and then were held up by fog.

By contrast, James E. Rohr, PNC Financial’s chief executive, drove his own car on Sunday evening to Washington from Pittsburgh, stopping at a Wendy’s for a sandwich en route. Other chief executives made sure they would arrive on time: Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase flew into Washington on one of the bank’s private jets, while Kenneth D. Chenault of American Express took Amtrak.

Executives at the meeting said that Mr. Obama had told the missing three that he understood that their flight had been canceled. But he directed strong words at the industry afterward.

“America’s banks received extraordinary assistance from American taxpayers to rebuild their industry,” Mr. Obama said. “Now that they’re back on their feet, we expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild our economy.”

He added, “Ultimately in this country we rise and fall together; banks and small businesses, consumers and large corporations.”

In the glare of the presidential spotlight, Bank of America used the occasion to say it would increase lending to small and mid-size businesses by $5 billion next year over what it lent to them in 2009. JPMorgan Chase announced a similar increase in early November and recently experienced an increase in new applications for loans.

Wells Fargo said in a statement on Monday that it expected to increase lending in 2010 as much as 25 percent, to more than $16 billion, for firms with $20 million or less in annual revenue.

The banking executives promised Mr. Obama that they would take second looks at loans they had denied over the last year. Richard K. Davis, the chief executive of US Bancorp, told reporters after the meeting that the executives were aware of the public perception that they were profiting with hefty bonuses at taxpayer expense, and that they realized they were “under a microscope” and needed to align themselves more closely with the needs of consumers.

But he cautioned that banks had a responsibility to carefully evaluate the qualifications of each client, lest there be a repeat of the bad lending practices that contributed to the financial crisis to begin with.

“We simply want to assure that we make qualified loans,” he said.

White House officials acknowledged that beyond the legislation on Capitol Hill, the administration’s leverage to prod the bankers, particularly on lending, was limited. But Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said that Mr. Obama would keep up the public pressure. “I think that the bully pulpit can be a powerful thing,” he said.

In calling the bankers to the White House, Mr. Obama was seeking to capitalize on public anger over the continuation of big bonuses for Wall Street executives, coupled with the slow pace of renewed lending by institutions bailed out by taxpayers.

During Monday’s meeting, Mr. Obama did not repeat the language he used in an interview on “60 Minutes” on CBS Sunday night, in which he termed the bank executives “fat cats.” During the meeting, “he didn’t call us any names,” Mr. Davis said, adding that “we agree viscerally that more lending needs to be done.”

But with the unemployment rate at 10 percent, the White House needs to move the conversation from visceral to specific, administration officials said. Mr. Obama pressed the bankers to come up with possible solutions, according to administration officials and industry officials. In contrast to the lecturing tones of a similar meeting last March, several people in attendance Monday described this session as more constructive.

“There were no pitchforks, no fat cat bankers,” said Mr. Rohr of PNC.

Several of the chief executives, armed with statistics about initiatives to hire new bankers, replied that they were very focused on lending. Some, like Mr. Davis of US Bancorp, raised ideas like giving a second look to previously denied loans. Others proposed cutting the red tape on Small Business Administration loans.

Mr. Obama will meet next week with representatives of smaller banks, where he is expected to sound similar tones.

 

Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Eric Dash from New York.

    Obama Presses Biggest Banks to Lend More, NYT, 15.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/15/business/economy/15obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Says Afghan Buildup Must Show Results

 

December 14, 2009
The New York Times
By DERRICK HENRY

 

President Obama said in a taped interview that military officials should know by the end of December 2010 whether a strategy to secure population centers in Afghanistan is meeting its objectives.

“If the approach that’s been recommended doesn’t work, we’re going to be changing approaches,” Mr. Obama said in the interview that aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday night.

The interview was conducted last week at the White House, before the president traveled to Europe to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday. Much of the interview focused on Mr. Obama’s decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

Under Mr. Obama’s strategy, the additional 30,000 troops he added to forces in Afghanistan would begin withdrawing in July 2011 as part of a transition phase.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, has suggested that the United States wants the new forces to blunt the Taliban’s recent momentum and to buy time to train Afghan soldiers and police officers to take over security duties.

Mr. Obama said that he had set the 2011 deadline to put Afghan officials on notice that the United States does not intend to carry the entire burden of securing the nation.

“That’s not what the American people signed off for when they went into Afghanistan in 2001,” Mr. Obama said. “They signed up to go after Al Qaeda.”

Mr. Obama also said that the United States would need more cooperation from Pakistan in pursuing Al Qaeda because tribal territories that straddle the border along Afghanistan and Pakistan harbor enemy fighters.

The interview came as Mr. Obama approached his first anniversary in the White House and some of the public’s enthusiasm for his agenda has waned. Ever since Mr. Obama took office, critics of his leadership style have accused him of tackling too many initiatives at once. Recently, his approval rating in some polls has dwindled to 50 percent or below.

The interviewer, Steve Kroft also asked the president his thoughts about some Wall Street banks that had recently recovered enough to repay government loans, but once again are giving large bonuses to employees. At three of the largest banks, bonuses are expected to total about $30 billion.

“I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers on Wall Street,” Mr. Obama said. He said the only firms paying out such large bonuses were the ones that had paid back money used from the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP.

“What’s most frustrating me right now is you’ve got these same banks who benefited from taxpayers’ assistance who are fighting tooth and nail with their lobbyists up on Capitol Hill fighting against financial regulatory reform,” Mr. Obama said. He added that he thought that giving the bonuses may have been a motivation in some cases for banks to repay their TARP loans.

Mr. Obama was also asked if he thought the latest health care bill would pass.

“Yes,” he replied, then added that he thought the bill would pass before Christmas Day. Health care reform was a signature issue during Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign. This week, the Congressional Budget Office was expected to complete the latest cost projections of the latest version of the health care bill being promoted by Senator Harrry Reid, the majority leader.

The interview also touched on the Nov. 24 incident in which a Virginia couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, slipped past multiple layers of high-level White House security to attend Mr. Obama’s first state dinner without being on the guest list. The breach put a spotlight on Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary, who has acknowledged that no one from her office was at the checkpoint to help identify guests.

Mr. Obama said the incident angered him, but he did not directly address Ms. Rogers, who was invited to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee, which held a hearing into the security lapse. Ms. Rogers did not appear and the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, cited the separation of powers and a history of White House staff not testifying before Congress.

“I was unhappy with everybody who was involved in the process,” Mr. Obama said. “It was a screw-up.”

    Obama Says Afghan Buildup Must Show Results, NYT, 14.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/14/us/politics/14obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Op-Ed Contributor

Obama’s Condolence Problem

 

December 12, 2009
The New York Times
By PAUL STEINBERG

 

WASHINGTON

THE recent revelation that the families of service members who are suicides do not receive presidential condolence letters created a stir, evoking questions of fairness and raising concerns about a lack of compassion from our leaders.

Yet the issue is far more complicated than that. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with stigmatizing suicide while doing everything possible to de-stigmatize the help soldiers need in dealing with post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts.

The key question is to what extent any action we take after a suicide inadvertently glorifies it. Early Christians realized that they were losing too many believers to the attractions of martyrdom. A halt to this epidemic of provoking martyrdom by suicide was brought about in the fourth century when St. Augustine codified the church’s disapproval of suicide and condemned the taking of one’s own life as a grievous sin.

Canonical law ultimately pushed civil law in too harsh a direction. Only in 1961 did England repeal its law making suicide a crime. As late as 1974 in the United States, suicide was still considered a crime in eight states.

Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? Now that first-rate treatments for depression and post-traumatic stress have evolved and are readily available, and people with emotional problems do not have to suffer quietly, are we taking away the shame of suicide?

For more than 30 years, we in the mental-health field have been aware of the prevalence of copycat suicides. Whenever the news of a well-known figure killing himself hits the front pages, a significant bump in suicides, reflecting copycat deaths, invariably follows in the next few days. Strikingly, there is no corresponding decline in suicides in the weeks after this bump — forcing us to conclude that the victims are people who would not have otherwise killed themselves.

The hard truth is that any possible glorification of suicide — even reports of suicide — make the taking of one’s life a more viable option. If suicide appears to be a more reasonable way of handling life’s stresses than seeking help, then suicide rates increase.

Certainly, a presidential condolence letter after one’s death is not exactly the same encouragement for suicide as the purported Muslim promise of a gift of 72 virgins after death. But the increasing number of suicides in the military suggests that we need to find the right balance between concern for the spouses, children and parents left behind, and any efforts to prevent subsequent suicides in the military.

As a psychiatrist formerly working on college campuses, I, along with my colleagues, was concerned with how we handled the funerals and aftermaths of even accidental deaths of students. Compassion for those left behind arose naturally; at the same time, we did not want to glorify the death to a point that lonely, distressed students might consider death better than life.

A difficult balancing act, to be sure. For people under 30, suicide is highly correlated with impulsivity and suggestibility. Thus college campuses and military installations, with their young populations, must be particularly aware of the possibility of copycat suicides and the dangers of a veneration of death.

President Obama, as commander in chief, has to balance the wishes of families with the demands of public health. In light of the condolence-letter controversy, the administration is appropriately reviewing the policy that has been in place for at least 17 years — and may indeed want to consider leaving it as it is. But as a country, let’s focus our energies on doing everything we can to diminish inadvertent incentives that might increase self-inflicted deaths.

 

Paul Steinberg, a former director of the counseling and psychiatric service at Georgetown University, is a psychiatrist.

    Obama’s Condolence Problem, NYT, 12.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/12/opinion/12steinberg.html

 

 

 

 

 

Accepting Peace Prize, Obama Offers ‘Hard Truth’

 

December 11, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY

 

OSLO — President Obama used his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday to defend the idea that some wars were necessary and just, remind the world of the burden the United States had borne in the fight against oppression and appeal for greater international efforts for peace.

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflicts in our lifetimes,” Mr. Obama said, addressing the paradox of receiving an award for peace as commander in chief of a nation that is escalating the war in Afghanistan as it continues to fight in Iraq. “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

He delivered a mix of realism and idealism, implicitly criticizing both the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as inadequately appreciating the dangers of the world, and President George W. Bush as too quick to set aside fundamental American values in pursuit of security. And he embraced the concept of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special role as a defender of liberty, even as he promoted multilateralism.

In that way, he continued a pattern evident throughout his public career of favoring pragmatism over absolutes.

The address — delivered at once to a European audience that has grown skeptical about American power and to a domestic audience watching closely to see how he would handle the acceptance of an award that even he acknowledged he did not yet deserve — represented one of the broadest declarations of his foreign policy doctrine. He said that others deserved the award more, noting that his “accomplishments are slight,” but he accepted the prize with a strong endorsement of America’s place in the world.

“Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this,” Mr. Obama said. “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”

The Nobel lecture, a 36-minute address that the president and his aides completed on an overnight flight from Washington, carried echoes of several American presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Mr. Bush, but Mr. Obama singled out one above all: John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Obama cited Mr. Kennedy’s focus on “not a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”

Mr. Obama called for more robust international sanctions against nations like Iran and North Korea that defy demands for them to curtail their nuclear programs.

Weeks after being criticized for not speaking out more publicly in defense of human rights while in China, he suggested that quiet diplomacy was sometimes the most productive path, even if it “lacks the satisfying purity of indignation.”

The ceremony was the focal point of a series of events celebrating Mr. Obama’s entry into the ranks of Nobel laureates. On Thursday night, the president and his wife, Michelle, appeared in a window of the Grand Hotel, waving to thousands of people below who had gathered for a torch-light parade.

Trumpets sounded when Mr. Obama walked down the long aisle of a soaring auditorium to deliver his address. He escorted his wife, who took her seat in the front row, before he assumed his position on the stage and faced the king and queen of Norway.

The Nobel chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, opened the ceremony by explaining how the committee came to its decision two months ago. He said Mr. Obama’s leadership had been a “call to action for all of us.” As he invoked the story of Dr. King, the winner of the prize in 1964, he turned to Mr. Obama, saying, “Dr. King’s dream has come true.”

Mr. Obama pursed his lips and nodded gently as the audience applauded loudly. When he was presented his gold medal and Nobel diploma, he received a standing ovation that stretched for more than a minute. The crowd did not rise again until the conclusion of his remarks.

Mr. Obama’s speech was sober, with his remarks only sparingly interrupted by applause. He was applauded when he renewed his pledge to ban torture and close the prison at the American base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

“We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend,” Mr. Obama said. “And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it is easy, but when it is hard.”

To a European audience of academics, diplomats and Nobel laureates, he said there was “a deep ambivalence about military action today,” which he said he suspected was rooted in “a reflexive suspicion of America.” But he offered a forceful defense of the United States, saying the lessons of history should ease those suspicions. And he urged his audience to envision a hopeful future.

“Let us reach for the world that ought to be,” he said, “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”

He did not dwell on the specifics of his announcement last week that he would send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan. But that decision, which attracted scores of peaceful demonstrators here, set the framework that Mr. Obama returned to again and again as he sought to explain his policy as an extension of the post-World War II system that contained the cold war.

“A decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats,” Mr. Obama said. “The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsize rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.”

Mr. Obama, who is scheduled to stay in Oslo for about 26 hours, miffed some Norwegians by not participating in some of the traditional events surrounding the peace prize ceremony, including a luncheon and a concert.

Mr. Obama, sensitive to the criticism, explained the brevity of his visit. “I only wish that my family could stay longer in this wonderful country,” he told reporters, “but I still have a lot of work to do back in Washington, D.C., before the year is done.”

The president is scheduled to return to Washington on Friday.

 

Walter Gibbs contributed reporting.

    Accepting Peace Prize, Obama Offers ‘Hard Truth’, 11.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/11/world/europe/11prexy.html

 

 

 

 

 

How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan

 

December 6, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER

 

WASHINGTON — On the afternoon he held the eighth meeting of his Afghanistan review, President Obama arrived in the White House Situation Room ruminating about war. He had come from Arlington National Cemetery, where he had wandered among the chalky white tombstones of those who had fallen in the rugged mountains of Central Asia.

How much their sacrifice weighed on him that Veterans Day last month, he did not say. But his advisers say he was haunted by the human toll as he wrestled with what to do about the eight-year-old war. Just a month earlier, he had mentioned to them his visits to wounded soldiers at the Army hospital in Washington. “I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years,” he said then.

The economic cost was troubling him as well after he received a private budget memo estimating that an expanded presence would cost $1 trillion over 10 years, roughly the same as his health care plan.

Now as his top military adviser ran through a slide show of options, Mr. Obama expressed frustration. He held up a chart showing how reinforcements would flow into Afghanistan over 18 months and eventually begin to pull out, a bell curve that meant American forces would be there for years to come.

“I want this pushed to the left,” he told advisers, pointing to the bell curve. In other words, the troops should be in sooner, then out sooner.

When the history of the Obama presidency is written, that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war. By moving the bell curve to the left, Mr. Obama decided to send 30,000 troops mostly in the next six months and then begin pulling them out a year after that, betting that a quick jolt of extra forces could knock the enemy back on its heels enough for the Afghans to take over the fight.

The three-month review that led to the escalate-then-exit strategy is a case study in decision making in the Obama White House — intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar in Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner.”

Mr. Obama peppered advisers with questions and showed an insatiable demand for information, taxing analysts who prepared three dozen intelligence reports for him and Pentagon staff members who churned out thousands of pages of documents.

This account of how the president reached his decision is based on dozens of interviews with participants as well as a review of notes some of them took during Mr. Obama’s 10 meetings with his national security team. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but their accounts have been matched against those of other participants wherever possible.

Mr. Obama devoted so much time to the Afghan issue — nearly 11 hours on the day after Thanksgiving alone — that he joked, “I’ve got more deeply in the weeds than a president should, and now you guys need to solve this.” He invited competing voices to debate in front of him, while guarding his own thoughts. Even David Axelrod, arguably his closest adviser, did not know where Mr. Obama would come out until just before Thanksgiving.

With the result uncertain, the outsize personalities on his team vied for his favor, sometimes sharply disagreeing as they made their arguments. The White House suspected the military of leaking details of the review to put pressure on the president. The military and the State Department suspected the White House of leaking to undercut the case for more troops. The president erupted at the leaks with an anger advisers had rarely seen, but he did little to shut down the public clash within his own government.

“The president welcomed a full range of opinions and invited contrary points of view,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview last month. “And I thought it was a very healthy experience because people took him up on it. And one thing we didn’t want — to have a decision made and then have somebody say, ‘Oh, by the way.’ No, come forward now or forever hold your peace.”

The decision represents a complicated evolution in Mr. Obama’s thinking. He began the process clearly skeptical of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops, but the more he learned about the consequences of failure, and the more he narrowed the mission, the more he gravitated toward a robust if temporary buildup, guided in particular by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Yet even now, he appears ambivalent about what some call “Obama’s war.” Just two weeks before General McChrystal warned of failure at the end of August, Mr. Obama described Afghanistan as a “war of necessity.” When he announced his new strategy last week, those words were nowhere to be found. Instead, while recommitting to the war on Al Qaeda, he made clear that the larger struggle for Afghanistan had to be balanced against the cost in blood and treasure and brought to an end.

Aides, though, said the arduous review gave Mr. Obama comfort that he had found the best course he could. “The process was exhaustive, but any time you get the president of the United States to devote 25 hours, anytime you get that kind of commitment, you know it was serious business,” said Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser. “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”

 

Taking Control of a War

Mr. Obama ran for president supportive of the so-called good war in Afghanistan and vowing to send more troops, but he talked about it primarily as a way of attacking Republicans for diverting resources to Iraq, which he described as a war of choice. Only after taking office, as casualties mounted and the Taliban gained momentum, did Mr. Obama really begin to confront what to do.

Even before completing a review of the war, he ordered the military to send 21,000 more troops there, bringing the force to 68,000. But tension between the White House and the military soon emerged when General Jones, a retired Marine four-star general, traveled to Afghanistan in the summer and was surprised to hear officers already talking about more troops. He made it clear that no more troops were in the offing.

With the approach of Afghanistan’s presidential election in August, Mr. Obama’s two new envoys — Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative to the region, and Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired commander of troops in Afghanistan now serving as ambassador — warned of trouble, including the possibility of angry Afghans marching on the American Embassy or outright civil war.

“There are 10 ways this can turn out,” one administration official said, summing up the envoys’ presentation, “and 9 of them are messy.”

The worst did not happen, but widespread fraud tainted the election and shocked some in the White House as they realized that their partner in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, was hopelessly compromised in terms of public credibility.

At the same time, the Taliban kept making gains. The Central Intelligence Agency drew up detailed maps in August charting the steady progression of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, maps that would later be used extensively during the president’s review. General McChrystal submitted his own dire assessment of the situation, warning of “mission failure” without a fresh infusion of troops.

While General McChrystal did not submit a specific troop request at that point, the White House knew it was coming and set out to figure out what to do. General Jones organized a series of meetings that he envisioned lasting a few weeks. Before each one, he convened a rehearsal session to impose discipline — “get rid of the chaff,” one official put it — that included Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and other cabinet-level officials. Mr. Biden made a practice of writing a separate private memo to Mr. Obama before each meeting, outlining his thoughts.

The first meeting with the president took place on Sept. 13, a Sunday, and was not disclosed to the public that day. For hours, Mr. Obama and his top advisers pored through intelligence reports.

Unsatisfied, the president posed a series of questions: Does America need to defeat the Taliban to defeat Al Qaeda? Can a counterinsurgency strategy work in Afghanistan given the problems with its government? If the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, would nuclear-armed Pakistan be next?

The deep skepticism he expressed at that opening session was reinforced by Mr. Biden, who rushed back overnight from a California trip to participate. Just as he had done in the spring, Mr. Biden expressed opposition to an expansive strategy requiring a big troop influx. Instead, he put an alternative on the table — rather than focus on nation building and population protection, do more to disrupt the Taliban, improve the quality of the training of Afghan forces and expand reconciliation efforts to peel off some Taliban fighters.

Mr. Biden quickly became the most outspoken critic of the expected McChrystal troop request, arguing that Pakistan was the bigger priority, since that is where Al Qaeda is mainly based. “He was the bull in the china shop,” said one admiring administration official.

But others were nodding their heads at some of what he was saying, too, including General Jones and Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

 

A Review Becomes News

The quiet review burst into public view when General McChrystal’s secret report was leaked to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post a week after the first meeting. The general’s grim assessment jolted Washington and lent urgency to the question of what to do to avoid defeat in Afghanistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the regional commander, secretly flew to an American air base in Germany for a four-hour meeting with General McChrystal on Sept. 25. He handed them his troop request on paper — there were no electronic versions and barely 20 copies in all.

The request outlined three options for different missions: sending 80,000 more troops to conduct a robust counterinsurgency campaign throughout the country; 40,000 troops to reinforce the southern and eastern areas where the Taliban are strongest; or 10,000 to 15,000 troops mainly to train Afghan forces.

General Petraeus took one copy, while Admiral Mullen took two back to Washington and dropped one off at Mr. Gates’s home next to his in a small military compound in Washington. But no one sent the document to the White House, intending to process it through the Pentagon review first.

Mr. Obama was focused on another report. At 10 p.m. on Sept. 29, he called over from the White House residence to the West Wing to ask for a copy of the first Afghanistan strategy he approved in March to ramp up the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban while increasing civilian assistance. A deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, brought him a copy to reread overnight. When his national security team met the next day, Mr. Obama complained that elements of that plan had never been enacted.

The group went over the McChrystal assessment and drilled in on what the core goal should be. Some thought that General McChrystal interpreted the March strategy more ambitiously than it was intended to be. Mr. Biden asked tough questions about whether there was any intelligence showing that the Taliban posed a threat to American territory. But Mr. Obama also firmly closed the door on any withdrawal. “I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan,” he told his advisers.

Tension with the military had been simmering since the leak of the McChrystal report, which some in the White House took as an attempt to box in the president. The friction intensified on Oct. 1 when the general was asked after a speech in London whether a narrower mission, like the one Mr. Biden proposed, would succeed. “The short answer is no,” he said.

White House officials were furious, and Mr. Gates publicly scolded advisers who did not keep their advice to the president private. The furor rattled General McChrystal, who, unlike General Petraeus, was not a savvy Washington operator. And it stunned others in the military, who were at first “bewildered by how over the top the reaction was from the White House,” as one military official put it.

It also proved to be what one review participant called a “head-snapping” moment of revelation for the military. The president, they suddenly realized, was not simply updating his previous strategy but essentially starting over from scratch.

The episode underscored the uneasy relationship between the military and a new president who, aides said, was determined not to be as deferential as he believed his predecessor, George W. Bush, was for years in Iraq. And the military needed to adjust to a less experienced but more skeptical commander in chief. “We’d been chugging along for eight years under an administration that had become very adept at managing war in a certain way,” said another military official.

Moreover, Mr. Obama had read “Lessons in Disaster,” Gordon M. Goldstein’s book on the Vietnam War. The book had become a must read in the West Wing after Mr. Emanuel had dinner over the summer at the house of another deputy national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and wandered into his library to ask what he should be reading.

Among the conclusions that Mr. Donilon and the White House team drew from the book was that both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory — clearly driving the Obama advisers to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

 

The Pakistan Question

While public attention focused on Afghanistan, some of the most intensive discussion focused on the country where Mr. Obama could send no troops — Pakistan. Pushed in particular by Mrs. Clinton, the president’s team explored the links between the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Mr. Obama told aides that it did not matter how many troops were sent to Afghanistan if Pakistan remained a haven.

Many of the intelligence reports ordered by the White House during the review dealt with Pakistan’s stability and whether its military and intelligence services were now committed to the fight or secretly still supporting Taliban factions. According to two officials, there was a study of the potential vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, posing questions about potential insider threats and control of the warheads if the Pakistani government fell.

Mr. Obama and his advisers also considered options for stepping up the pursuit of extremists in Pakistan’s border areas. He eventually approved a C.I.A. request to expand the areas where remotely piloted aircraft could strike, and other covert action. The trick would be getting Pakistani consent, which still has not been granted.

On Oct. 9, Mr. Obama and his team reviewed General McChrystal’s troop proposals for the first time. Some in the White House were surprised by the numbers, assuming there would be a middle ground between 10,000 and 40,000.

“Why wasn’t there a 25 number?” one senior administration official asked in an interview. He then answered his own question: “It would have been too tempting.”

Mr. Gates and others talked about the limits of the American ability to actually defeat the Taliban; they were an indigenous force in Afghan society, part of the political fabric. This was a view shared by others around the table, including Leon E. Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., who argued that the Taliban could not be defeated as such and so the goal should be to drive wedges between those who could be reconciled with the Afghan government and those who could not be.

With Mr. Biden leading the skeptics, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen increasingly aligned behind a more robust force. Mrs. Clinton wanted to make sure she was a formidable player in the process. “She was determined that her briefing books would be just as thick and just as meticulous as those of the Pentagon,” said one senior adviser. She asked hard questions about Afghan troop training, unafraid of wading into Pentagon territory.

After a meeting where the Pentagon made a presentation with impressive color-coded maps, Mrs. Clinton returned to the State Department and told her aides, “We need maps,” as one recalled. She was overseas during the next meeting on Oct. 14, when aides used her new maps to show civilian efforts but she participated with headphones on from her government plane flying back from Russia.

Mr. Gates was a seasoned hand at such reviews, having served eight presidents and cycled in and out of the Situation Room since the days when it was served by a battery of fax machines. Like Mrs. Clinton, he was sympathetic to General McChrystal’s request, having resolved his initial concern that a buildup would fuel resentment the way the disastrous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan did in the 1980s.

But Mr. Gates’s low-wattage exterior masks a wily inside player, and he knew enough to keep his counsel early in the process to let it play out more first. “When to speak is important to him; when to signal is important to him,” said a senior Defense Department official.

On Oct. 22, the National Security Council produced what one official called a “consensus memo,” much of which originated out of the defense secretary’s office, concluding that the United States should focus on diminishing the Taliban insurgency but not destroying it; building up certain critical ministries; and transferring authority to Afghan security forces.

There was no consensus yet on troop numbers, however, so Mr. Obama called a smaller group of advisers together on Oct. 26 to finally press Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates. Mrs. Clinton made it clear that she was comfortable with General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 troops or something close to it; Mr. Gates also favored a big force.

Mr. Obama was leery. He had received a memo the day before from the Office of Management and Budget projecting that General McChrystal’s full 40,000-troop request on top of the existing deployment and reconstruction efforts would cost $1 trillion from 2010 to 2020, an adviser said. The president seemed in sticker shock, watching his domestic agenda vanishing in front of him. “This is a 10-year, trillion-dollar effort and does not match up with our interests,” he said.

Still, for the first time, he made it clear that he was ready to send more troops if a strategy could be found to ensure that it was not an endless war. He indicated that the Taliban had to be beaten back. “What do we need to break their momentum?” he asked.

Four days later, at a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 30, he emphasized the need for speed. “Why can’t I get the troops in faster?” he asked. If they were going to do this, he concluded, it only made sense to do this quickly, to have impact and keep the war from dragging on forever. “This is America’s war,” he said. “But I don’t want to make an open-ended commitment.”

 

Bridging the Differences

Now that he had a sense of where Mr. Obama was heading, Mr. Gates began shaping a plan that would bridge the differences. He developed a 30,000-troop option that would give General McChrystal the bulk of his request, reasoning that NATO could make up most of the difference.

“If people are having trouble swallowing 40, let’s see if we can make this smaller and easier to swallow and still give the commander what he needs,” a senior Defense official said, summarizing the secretary’s thinking.

The plan, called Option 2A, was presented to the president on Nov. 11. Mr. Obama complained that the bell curve would take 18 months to get all the troops in place.

He turned to General Petraeus and asked him how long it took to get the so-called surge troops he commanded in Iraq in 2007. That was six months.

“What I’m looking for is a surge,” Mr. Obama said. “This has to be a surge.”

That represented a contrast from when Mr. Obama, as a presidential candidate, staunchly opposed President Bush’s buildup in Iraq. But unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama wanted from the start to speed up a withdrawal as well. The military was told to come up with a plan to send troops quickly and then begin bringing them home quickly.

And in another twist, Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of transparency and had been announcing each Situation Room meeting publicly and even releasing pictures, was livid that details of the discussions were leaking out.

“What I’m not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room,” he scolded his advisers. “It’s a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.”

His advisers sat in uncomfortable silence. That very afternoon, someone leaked word of a cable sent by Ambassador Eikenberry from Kabul expressing reservations about a large buildup of forces as long as the Karzai government remained unreformed. At one of their meetings, General Petraeus had told Mr. Obama to think of elements of the Karzai government like “a crime syndicate.” Ambassador Eikenberry was suggesting, in effect, that America could not get in bed with the mob.

The leak of Ambassador Eikenberry’s Nov. 6 cable stirred another storm within the administration because the cable had been requested by the White House. The National Security Council had told the ambassador to put his views in writing. But someone else then passed word of the cable to reporters in what some in the process took to be a calculated attempt to head off a big troop buildup.

The cable stunned some in the military. The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official, was “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” — military slang for an expression of shock. Among the officers caught off guard were General McChrystal and his staff, for whom the cable was “a complete surprise,” said another official, even though the commander and the ambassador meet three times a week.

 

A Presidential Order

By this point, the idea of some sort of time frame was taking on momentum. Mrs. Clinton talked to Mr. Karzai before the Afghan leader’s inauguration to a second term. She suggested that he use his speech to outline a schedule for taking over security of the country.

Mr. Karzai did just that, declaring that Afghan forces directed by Kabul would take charge of securing population centers in three years and the whole country in five. His pronouncement, orchestrated partly by Mrs. Clinton and diplomats in Kabul, provided a predicate for Mr. Obama to set out his own time frame.

The president gathered his team in the Situation Room at 8:15 p.m. on Nov. 23, the unusual nighttime hour adding to what one participant called a momentous wartime feeling. The room was strewn with coffee cups and soda cans.

Mr. Obama presented a revised version of Option 2A, this one titled “Max Leverage,” pushing 30,000 troops into Afghanistan by mid-2010 and beginning to pull them out by July 2011. Admiral Mullen came up with the date at the direction of Mr. Obama, despite some misgivings from the Pentagon about setting a time frame for a withdrawal. The date was two years from the arrival of the first reinforcements Mr. Obama sent shortly after taking office. Mr. Biden had written a memo before the meeting talking about the need for “proof of concept” — in other words, two years ought to be enough for extra troops to demonstrate whether a buildup would work.

The president went around the room asking for opinions. Mr. Biden again expressed skepticism, even at this late hour when the tide had turned against him in terms of the troop number. But he had succeeded in narrowing the scope of the mission to protect population centers and setting the date to begin withdrawal. Others around the table concurred with the plan. Mr. Obama spoke last, but still somewhat elliptically. Some advisers said they walked out into the night after 10 p.m., uncertain whether the president had actually endorsed the Max Leverage option or was just testing for reaction.

Two days later, Mr. Obama met with Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker and a critic of the Afghan war. The president outlined his plans for the buildup without disclosing specific numbers. Ms. Pelosi was unenthusiastic and pointedly told the president that he could not rely on Democrats alone to pass financing for the war.

The White House had spent little time courting Congress to this point. Even though it would need Republican support, the White House had made no overtures to the party leaders.

But there was back-channel contact. Mr. Emanuel was talking with Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who urged him to settle on a troop number “that began with 3” to win Republican support. “I said as long as the generals are O.K. and there is a meaningful number, you will be O.K.,” Mr. Graham recalled.

The day after Thanksgiving, Mr. Obama huddled with aides from 10:30 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. refining parameters for the plan and mapping out his announcement. He told his speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, that he wanted to directly rebut the comparison with Vietnam.

On the following Sunday, Nov. 29, he summoned his national security team to the Oval Office. He had made his decision. He would send 30,000 troops as quickly as possible, then begin the withdrawal in July 2011. In deference to Mr. Gates’s concerns, the pace and endpoint of the withdrawal would be determined by conditions at the time.

“I’m not asking you to change what you believe,” the president told his advisers. “But if you do not agree with me, say so now.” There was a pause and no one said anything.

“Tell me now,” he repeated.

Mr. Biden asked only if this constituted a presidential order. Mr. Gates and others signaled agreement.

“Fully support, sir,” Admiral Mullen said.

“Ditto,” General Petraeus said.

Mr. Obama then went to the Situation Room to call General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The president made it clear that in the next assessment in December 2010 he would not contemplate more troops. “It will only be about the flexibility in how we draw down, not if we draw down,” he said.

Two days later, Mr. Obama flew to West Point to give his speech. After three months of agonizing review, he seemed surprisingly serene. “He was,” said one adviser, “totally at peace.”

 

Reporting was contributed by Elisabeth Bumiller, Helene Cooper, Carlotta Gall, Carl Hulse, Mark Landler, Mark Mazzetti, David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Scott Shane and Thom Shanker.

    How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan, NYT, 6.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/world/asia/06reconstruct.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Turns to Job Creation, but Warns of Limited Funds

 

December 4, 2009
The New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES

 

WASHINGTON — After months of focusing on Afghanistan and health care, President Obama turned his attention on Thursday to the high level of joblessness, but offered no promise that he could do much to bring unemployment down quickly even as he comes under pressure from his own party to do more.

At a White House forum, scheduled for the day before the government releases unemployment and job loss figures for November, Mr. Obama sought new ideas from business executives, labor leaders, economists and others. Confronted with concern that his own ambitious agenda and the uncertain climate it has created among employers have slowed hiring, the president defended his policies.

Mr. Obama said he would entertain “every demonstrably good idea” for creating jobs, but he cautioned that “our resources are limited.”

The president said he would announce some new ideas of his own next week. One of those, he indicated when he participated in a discussion group on clean energy, would be a program of weatherization incentives for homeowners and small businesses modeled on the popular “cash for clunkers” program.

On Capitol Hill, Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, told senators at a sometimes testy hearing on his confirmation for a second term, “Jobs are the issue right now.”

“It really is the biggest challenge, the most difficult problem that we face right now,” Mr. Bernanke added, citing in particular the inability of many credit-worthy small businesses to get bank loans.

In the House, where lawmakers are particularly sensitive to the employment issue since they all face re-election next year, Democratic leaders on Thursday were finishing work on a jobs bill for debate this month. It would extend expiring federal unemployment benefits for people who have been out of jobs for long periods, and provide up $70 billion for roads and infrastructure projects and for aid to small business. House Democrats plan to pay for the plan by drawing from the $700 billion fund set up last year to bail out financial institutions.

The House also passed legislation on Thursday that would freeze the federal tax on large estates at its current level. Under current law, the tax would have disappeared entirely next year, only to reappear at much higher levels in 2011. The vote highlighted the raft of fiscal issues facing the administration and Congress and the tension between addressing budget deficits and taking potentially expensive actions to help the economy.

Mr. Obama’s jobs event captured the political and policy vise now squeezing the president and his party at the end of his first year. It came on the eve of a government report that is expected to show unemployment remaining in double digits, and two days after Mr. Obama emphasized as he ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan that he did not want the financial burdens of the war to overwhelm his domestic agenda.

Both the domestic and the military demands on the administration are raising costs unanticipated when Mr. Obama took office, even as pressures build to arrest annual budget deficits now exceeding $1 trillion. Those demands are also eroding the broad support that swept Mr. Obama into office, especially among independent voters, and igniting a guns-versus-butter budget debate in his own party not seen since the Vietnam era.

While liberals are calling for ambitious job-creating measures along the lines of the New Deal and Republicans want to scale back government spending programs, Mr. Obama talked at the White House on Thursday of limited programs that he suggested could provide substantial bang for the buck when it comes to job creation. Among them was the weatherization program.

Called “cash for caulkers,” it would enlist contractors and home-improvement companies like Home Depot — whose chief executive was on the panel — to advertise the benefits, much as car dealers did for the clunkers trade-ins this year.

Yet that relatively modest proposal underscores the limits of the government’s ability to affect a jobless recovery with the highest unemployment rate in 26 years — and Mr. Obama acknowledged as much. Just as he said in Tuesday’s Afghanistan speech that the nation could not afford an open-ended commitment there, especially when the economy is so weak and deficits so high, Mr. Obama emphasized at the jobs forum that the government had already done a lot with his $787 billion economic stimulus package and the $700 billion financial bailout that he inherited.

“I want to be clear: While I believe the government has a critical role in creating the conditions for economic growth, ultimately true economic recovery is only going to come from the private sector,” he told his audience, which included executives and some critics from American Airlines, Boeing, Nucor, Google, Walt Disney and FedEx.

Mr. Obama told the chief executives that he wanted to know: “What’s holding back business investment and how we can increase confidence and spur hiring? And if there are things that we’re doing here in Washington that are inhibiting you, then we want to know about it.”

He got a blunt answer from Fred P. Lampropoulos, founder and chief of Merit Medical Systems Inc., a medical device manufacturer in the Salt Lake City area. Mr. Lampropoulos said some in his discussion group agreed that businesses were uncertain about investment because “there’s such an aggressive legislative agenda that businesspeople don’t really know what they ought to do.” That uncertainty, he added, “is really what’s holding back the jobs.”

The president acknowledged, “This is a legitimate concern,” one that he and his advisers had discussed before he took office.

But Mr. Obama said he had decided that “if we keep on putting off tough decisions about health care, about energy, about education, we’ll never get to the point where there’s a lot of appetite for that.”

The argument that Democrats’ ambitions are unnerving business is one that Republicans have been making lately, and it was prominent Thursday when House Republican leaders held a competing round table on jobs with conservative economists.

“The American people are asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ but all they are getting from Washington Democrats is more spending, more debt and more policies that hurt small businesses,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House minority leader.

But W. James McNerney Jr., the head of the Boeing Company, said in an interview after the president’s forum, “If you ask me what creates the uncertainty I’m dealing with, it’s more the state of the economy.”

The administration’s domestic agenda is a problem only to the extent that it “is crowding out their attention” to the economy, Mr. McNerney said, adding, “I think the purpose of today was to convince us that there’s at least a half-pivot in the other direction.”

    Obama Turns to Job Creation, but Warns of Limited Funds, NYT, 4.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/us/politics/04jobs.html

 

 

 

 

 

Editorial

The Afghanistan Speech

 

December 2, 2009
The New York Times

 

Americans have reason to be pessimistic, if not despairing, about the war in Afghanistan. After eight years of fighting, more than 800 American lives lost and more than 200 billion taxpayer dollars spent, the Afghan government is barely legitimate and barely hanging on in the face of an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency.

In his speech Tuesday night, President Obama showed considerable political courage by addressing that pessimism and despair head-on. He explained why the United States cannot walk away from the war and outlined an ambitious and high-risk strategy for driving back the Taliban and bolstering the Afghan government so American troops can eventually go home.

For far too long — mostly, but not only, under President George W. Bush — Afghanistan policy has had little direction and no accountability. Mr. Obama started to address those problems at West Point, although the country needs to hear more about how he intends to pay for the war and how he will decide when Afghanistan will be able to stand on its own.

The president’s prolonged and leak-ridden policy review had fanned doubts here and abroad about Mr. Obama’s commitment. He showed no reluctance on Tuesday night. He said he decided to send more troops because he is “convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” which he called “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda.”

“This is no idle danger,” Mr. Obama said, “no hypothetical threat.” He warned that new attacks were being plotted in the region, and raised the terrifying prospect of an unchecked Al Qaeda taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Mr. Obama’s decision to send an additional 30,000 troops — and ask NATO allies for several thousand more — is unlikely to end the political debate. Republicans are certain to point out that it is still short of the 40,000 requested by the top field commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and object to the president’s pledge of a quick drawdown. Many Democrats and the president’s own vice president had opposed any escalation.

At this late date, we don’t know if even 100,000 American troops plus 40,000 from NATO will be enough to turn the war around. But we are sure that continuing President Bush’s strategy of fighting on the cheap (in January 2008, the start of Mr. Bush’s last year in office and more than six years after the war began, there were only 27,000 American troops in Afghanistan) is a guarantee of defeat.

Mr. Obama said he planned to move those 30,0000 troops in quickly — within six months — to break the Taliban’s momentum, secure key population centers, speed up training of Afghan security forces and then hand over control to Afghan authorities. He said he expected to be able to start drawing down American forces in July 2011. But he made no promise about when all American combat troops would be gone, saying only that the decision would be based on conditions on the ground.

Over all, we found the president’s military arguments persuasive.

The Afghan people have no love for the Taliban’s medieval ideas and brutality, but the Karzai government’s failure to provide basic services or security has led many to conclude that they have no choice but to submit. Driving the Taliban back swiftly and decisively from key cities and regions should help change that calculation. Coupled with an offer of negotiations, it may also peel away less committed fighters.

There is no point in doing that unless there is a minimally credible Afghan government to “hold” those areas. There is no chance of that unless Mr. Karzai ends the corruption and appoints competent officials. One of Mr. Obama’s biggest challenges is figuring out how to goad him into doing that, without further damaging the Afghan leader’s legitimacy, or driving him even deeper into his circle of unsavory cronies and warlords.

In his speech Mr. Obama sought to put Mr. Karzai on notice, but more gently than we would have. “The days of providing a blank check are over,” he said, vowing that his government “will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance.”

We hope that the president and his aides — who failed to stop Mr. Karzai from trying to steal his re-election — are a lot more specific and a lot more forceful with the Afghan leader in private.

Mr. Obama faced a similar balancing act with Pakistan. He forcefully argued that Pakistan’s survival also depends on defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban but gave the Pakistani government more credit than we would have for seeing that.

Pakistani officials insist they understand the threat but question Washington’s staying power. Mr. Obama said the United States will support Pakistan’s “security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent.” But it will take a lot more cajoling and pressure to finally persuade Islamabad to stop hedging its bets and fully take on the extremists.

For years President Bush sought to disguise the true cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars. So it was a relief to hear the president put a credible price tag on his escalation — he said it is likely to cost an additional $30 billion next year — and promise to work with Congress to pay for it. He and Congress need to address that issue quickly and credibly.

We are eager to see American troops come home. We don’t know whether Mr. Obama will be able to meet his July 2011 deadline to start drawing down forces.

For that to happen, there will have to be a lot more success at training Afghan forces and improving the government’s effectiveness.

Still, setting a deadline — so long as it is not set in stone — is a sound idea. Mr. Karzai and his aides need to know that America’s commitment is not open-ended. Mr. Obama’s generals and diplomats also need to know that their work will be closely monitored and reviewed.

Otherwise, Mr. Obama will be hard pressed to keep his promise that this war, already the longest in American history, will not go on forever.

    The Afghanistan Speech, NYT, 2.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/opinion/02wed1.html

 

 

 

 

 

News Analysis

With Troop Pledge, New Demands on Afghans

 

December 2, 2009
The New York Times
By DEXTER FILKINS

 

President Obama’s commitment Tuesday night to redouble America’s campaign in Afghanistan left unanswered what is perhaps the most decisive question of all: will the Afghans step up too?

In ordering the accelerated deployment of 30,000 fresh American troops to the country, Mr. Obama made clear that he would demand a far greater effort from President Hamid Karzai to stanch corruption in his government and from Afghan soldiers and police officers to fight Taliban insurgents.

The extra American soldiers, the president said, would be on the ground only for a limited time to ensure the Afghans followed through.

But that is the heart of the problem: in laying down the gauntlet for the Afghans, Mr. Obama is setting criteria for success that he and his field commanders may be able to influence, but that ultimately they will not be able to control.

The most immediate challenge is President Karzai himself, the onetime Western favorite who presides over what is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt governments in the world. The graft permeating the Afghan government is so vast that for ordinary Afghans, it has begun to call into question the very legitimacy of Mr. Karzai’s government — and for Americans, the wisdom of fighting and dying to support it.

Only last month, Mr. Karzai was declared the winner in nationwide elections that were tainted by extraordinary levels of fraud — nearly all of which independent election observers found was orchestrated on his behalf. Mr. Karzai’s own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is suspected of bring a central player in the country’s opium trade, a primary source of money for Taliban insurgents.

“We have to have a better government because all these soldiers will be sent to benefit this corrupt government,” said Noorulhaq Uloomi, an Afghan member of Parliament. “This government is corrupt from top to bottom.”

Mr. Obama appears to be hoping that a precise timetable for the beginning of an American withdrawal — 18 months from now — will goad Mr. Karzai to act. In this way, Mr. Obama is trying to resolve a central conundrum of American policy: how to force Mr. Karzai to curb corruption in his government without substantially weakening him if he fails.

One clue to President Obama’s approach is that he intends to curtail the amount of American money going directly to Mr. Karzai and the central government in Kabul. Instead, the president intends to channel more American money directly to local officials in the provinces.

But beyond that, Mr. Obama did not specify in his speech what he would do if Mr. Karzai failed to make the changes the president is calling for.

Mr. Karzai, now in his eighth year as president, has consistently resisted previous American demands that he clean up his government. Only last month, he reportedly refused the latest American demand, made by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, that he remove Ahmed Wali Karzai from his base in Kandahar.

Moreover, much if not most of the corruption that pervades Mr. Karzai’s government involves not so much Afghan officials’ stealing American money as it does their enriching themselves off the country’s booming opium trade. Afghan police officers say that high-ranking jobs in the force, for instance, are often auctioned off for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars; the Afghans who secure those jobs then often use their positions to reap even more money by facilitating the movement of narcotics.

Yet for all the worries about corruption, President Obama’s far larger gamble is the plan to train the Afghan police and army to take over for the Americans — and eventually allow them to go home. Even by their numbers alone, the Afghan forces are woefully inadequate: there are currently about 90,000 Afghan soldiers and about 93,000 Afghan police officers. In a country of about 30 million, that is nowhere near the number that will ultimately be needed to bring order to that fractious land. (Security forces in Iraq, which has a smaller population, now total about 600,000.)

President Obama and his field commanders intend to rapidly expand the rank of Afghans under arms to about 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police officers.

They also intend to augment those forces by supporting local defense forces — Afghan militias — in villages and towns. Turning groups of former insurgents into neighborhood defense forces was a decisive factor in reducing the violence in Iraq.

But the far more worrying prospect is the quality of the Afghan troops and officers. While many Afghans have demonstrated an eagerness to fight the Taliban, the Afghan Army and police have shown themselves unable to maintain themselves in the field, to purge their ranks of corruption, to mount operations at night or to operate any weapon more complicated than a rifle.

One example often cited by American trainers: the bureaucratic skills and literacy levels necessary to administer a large force have not materialized, even after years of mentoring. When it comes to paying their soldiers, keeping them fed, providing them with ammunition and equipment, tracking who is on leave and who is injured, most Afghan units perform very poorly. These tasks — essential to the readiness of any army — are almost invariably performed by American or NATO soldiers.

Indeed, American trainers often spend large amounts of time verifying that Afghan rosters are accurate — that they are not padded with “ghosts” being “paid” by Afghan commanders who quietly collect the bogus wages.

“The focus of the training program has always been ‘more soldiers’ at the expense of quality training,” said an American involved in training Afghan forces, who demanded that his name be withheld because he was still working with Afghan soldiers. “There are no ‘tests.’ A soldier does not have to master any task prior to graduating. Attendance equals graduation.”

When it comes to such grim assessments, the struggle in Afghanistan is colored by that other American war, the one in Iraq. In that country, for nearly four years, the war went horribly wrong — and then, suddenly, conditions markedly improved. Many factors contributed to the turnaround, not least the rapid and temporary influx of American forces known as the “surge.”

President Obama is hoping for a similar turnabout now. But Afghanistan is a different country from Iraq, and one that makes a temporary surge of soldiers more of a gamble.

In Iraq, both the population and insurgency are concentrated in cities. Afghanistan, by contrast, is a largely rural country, with the population spread across a mountainous and remote terrain. The Afghan insurgency is, too, making it far more difficult to pin down.

In the end, training Afghan soldiers and pressuring Afghan officials will succeed only if the American-led war has the support of ordinary Afghans themselves. And it’s among them — in the streets — that the war will ultimately be lost or won.

“We’re in a battle to win over what the average Afghan wants for their country,” an American military official said, “and whether they have more faith in their own government.”

 

Carlotta Gall and Richard A. Oppel Jr. contributed reporting from Kabul. C. J. Chivers also contributed reporting.

    With Troop Pledge, New Demands on Afghans, NYT, 2.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/world/asia/02afghan.html

 

 

 

 

 

News Analysis

Two Messages for Two Sides

 

December 2, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER and ADAM NAGOURNEY

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama went before the nation on Tuesday night to announce that he would escalate the war in Afghanistan. And Mr. Obama went before the nation to announce that he had a plan to end the war in Afghanistan.

If the contrasting messages seemed jarring at first, they reflect the obstacles Mr. Obama faces in rallying an increasingly polarized country that itself is of two minds about what to do in Afghanistan. For those who still support the war, he is sending more troops. For those against it, he is offering the assurance of the exit ramp.

He used language intended to appeal to different parts of the spectrum, at times echoing former President George W. Bush in reasserting America’s moral authority in the world while repudiating what he sees as the mistakes of the Bush years and insisting that “America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.” He tried to persuade people on both sides of the divide — and a Congress that must finance the war — to swallow their misgivings and come together long enough to see if his strategy works.

“It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united,” he told a national television audience from the United States Military Academy at West Point, evoking the memory of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, organized from Afghan soil. “I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fiber of my being that we, as Americans, can still come together behind a common purpose.”

Yet his answer to perhaps the most vexing decision to confront him yet in his presidency is one that may frustrate both sides more than it satisfies them, as suggested by the initial reaction. “The way that you win wars is you break the enemy’s will, not announce when you are leaving,” Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said Tuesday before meeting with Mr. Obama at the White House, where he delivered much the same message in person.

Norman Solomon, national co-chairman of the Progressive Democrats of America’s antiwar campaign, hung up from a conference call with fellow activists to say that they were all “totally unhappy” and to compare Mr. Obama’s decision to the escalations of Vietnam. “This is a clear case of a president getting in deeper and deeper and proclaiming to see light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Still, for all the complaints, the response was much more measured than when Mr. Bush announced his own “surge” of extra troops to Iraq nearly three years ago, a reminder that Mr. Obama is in a stronger position than his predecessor was then and a sign that the blend of policies may temper opposition.

Representative Ike Skelton, Democrat of Missouri and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Obama’s plan generated little of the fireworks of the Bush years when he briefed Congressional leaders of both parties at the White House on Tuesday afternoon before flying to West Point. “No one dissented,” Mr. Skelton said. “Not a lot of us spoke.”

When he got to West Point, Mr. Obama spoke for 33 minutes to an audience of baby-faced soldiers, some of whom may be sent off to the unforgiving mountains of Afghanistan in the months and years ahead. He spoke firmly and at times rapidly, never smiling. Uncharacteristically, he looked away from the teleprompters and directly into the camera near the end of his speech: “America, we are passing through a time of great trial.”

Mr. Obama addressed multiple players, warning Afghan leaders to step up their efforts, reassuring Pakistanis of American solidarity and appealing to NATO allies for more troops. And he directly took on concerns and arguments raised by critics.

To Democrats who supported his campaign last year only to rebel at a further troop buildup, he noted that he had opposed the war in Iraq from the start and he rejected comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. “If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow,” he said.

And yet, Mr. Obama at times sounded like Mr. Bush in justifying this war. He celebrated the United States as a nation “founded in resistance to oppression” and talked about its long record of sacrifice in “advancing frontiers of human liberty.”

He also warned of the perils on an unchecked Qaeda. “This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and Al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on Al Qaeda,” he said.

The president also used the moment to directly reject other options. To withdraw, he said, would “create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks.” To keep troop levels the same, he said, “would simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through.” And to fail to set a time frame for withdrawal, he said, “would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade.”

Although Mr. Obama had spoken during his presidential campaign of the need to send troops to Afghanistan, that was hardly a central theme of his campaign, and he made it clear Tuesday that he was aware of the unease among Democrats that the expanded effort in Afghanistan would take resources away from domestic priorities. He repeatedly cited the poor economy and explicitly stated that cost was a factor in his deliberations.

Still, Mr. Obama may have made his task even harder with his public display of uncertainty in the three months since Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal first warned of failure in Afghanistan without more troops. Now he has to demonstrate that he really is committed to the war — and to the strategy he has come up with to win it.

His message is “heavily laced with language aimed at mollifying his base, which is strongly antiwar, rather than reassuring the middle and those who support the war now,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University specialist on wartime public opinion and a former Bush adviser. “It’s a triangulation heavy on trying to win over the people who probably can’t be won over. And a lot of that messaging could sow doubts.”

    Two Messages for Two Sides, NYT, 2.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/world/asia/02assess.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Adds Troops, but Maps Exit Plan

 

December 2, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and HELENE COOPER

 

WEST POINT, N.Y. — President Obama announced Tuesday that he would speed 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in coming months, but he vowed to start bringing American forces home in the middle of 2011, saying the United States could not afford and should not have to shoulder an open-ended commitment.

Promising that he could “bring this war to a successful conclusion,” Mr. Obama set out a strategy that would seek to reverse Taliban gains in large parts of Afghanistan, better protect the Afghan people, increase the pressure on Afghanistan to build its own military capacity and a more effective government and step up attacks on Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

“America, we are passing through a time of great trial,” Mr. Obama said. “And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.”

The military escalation Mr. Obama described and defended in his speech to a national television audience and 4,000 cadets at the United States Military Academy here, the culmination of a review that lasted three months, could well prove to be the most consequential decision of Mr. Obama’s presidency.

In his 33-minute address, he sought to convince an increasingly skeptical nation that the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the continued existence of Al Qaeda across the border in Pakistan — what he called a “cancer” on the region — were direct threats to the United States, and that he could achieve the seemingly contradictory goals of expanding American involvement in the war even as he sought to bring it to a close.

The scene in the hall was striking and somber: row after row of cadets, in their blue-gray uniforms, listening intently to a strategy that could put many of them in harm’s way. “If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow,” Mr. Obama said. “So no, I do not make this decision lightly.” He called on foreign allies to step up their commitment, declaring, “This is not just America’s war.”

He delivered a pointed message to Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, saying, “The days of providing a blank check are over.”

Addressing critics who have likened Afghanistan to Vietnam, Mr. Obama called the comparison “a false reading of history.” And he spoke directly to the American people about the tough road ahead.

“Let me be clear: none of this will be easy,” Mr. Obama said. “The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society, and our leadership in the world.”

With the economy weak and the issue of jobs foremost on Americans’ minds, the president conceded that the new strategy would carry an expensive price tag, which he put at an additional $30 billion in the first year.

Yet with some Democrats talking of a war surtax, Mr. Obama offered no details of how he intended to pay for his new policy, saying only that he was “committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly.”

White House advisers said they expected the administration would do so in the coming weeks, as officials including Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testify on Capitol Hill starting Wednesday.

The approach laid out by Mr. Obama — not so much a new strategy as a doubling down on the one he embraced earlier this year — incorporated the basic goals and came close to the force levels proposed in the counterinsurgency plan that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, put forward in September.

In that report, General McChrystal said, in stark language, that unless significantly more troops were sent, the war in Afghanistan was likely to be lost.

But by including an explicit timetable to begin a withdrawal, Mr. Obama highlighted the seemingly conflicting pressures defining the debate over how to proceed: to do what is necessary to ensure that the region is not a launching pad for attacks on the United States and its allies, and to disengage militarily as quickly as possible.

Senior administration officials suggested, however, that any initial withdrawal starting in mid-2011 could be very limited, depending on the military situation at that point.

“The pace, the nature and the duration of that transition are to be determined down the road by the president based on the conditions on the ground,” said Michèle A. Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy.

The initial political reactions showed the crosscurrents facing the White House. Republicans applauded the buildup of troops but questioned the commitment to a timetable for bringing them home.

“Setting a draw-down date before this surge has even begun is a mistake, and it sends a mixed message to both our friends and our enemies regarding our long-term commitment to success,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.

But among many Democrats, the response ranged from noncommittal to outright opposition.

“I see no good reason for us to send another 30,000 or more troops to Afghanistan when we have so many pressing issues — like our economy — to deal with in this country,” said Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York.

Mr. Obama is calculating, administration officials said, that the explicit promise of a drawdown will impress upon the Afghan government that his commitment is not open-ended.

Mr. Obama was less clear publicly on how he planned to address the issue of Pakistan, which many administration officials say will prove to be a far more intractable problem in the long term than Afghanistan.

Administration officials said that Mr. Obama had signed off on a plan by the Central Intelligence Agency to expand C.I.A. activities in Pakistan. The plan calls for more strikes against militants by drone aircraft, sending additional spies to Pakistan and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the country.

The expanded operations could include drone strikes in the southern province of Baluchistan, where senior Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding, officials said.

The new Afghanistan strategy draws heavily on lessons learned from Mr. Bush’s “surge” and strategy shift in Iraq in 2007, which Mr. Obama opposed.

In addition to the influx of troops and the training of the Afghan Army, administration officials said they were taking other lessons from the Iraq buildup, like empowering local security forces to stand up to Taliban militants in their communities and enhancing the training of national forces by embedding American troops with Afghan counterparts and later pairing American and Afghan units to fight side by side.

The 30,000 troops that Mr. Obama is sending are part of what one administration official characterized as a short-term, high-intensity effort to regain the initiative against the Taliban.

Administration officials said that they were hoping to get a commitment for an additional 5,000 to 8,000 troops from NATO allies — perhaps as early as Friday at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels — which would bring the number of additional troops in Afghanistan to close to the 40,000 that General McChrystal was seeking.

Mr. Obama is sending three of the four brigades requested by General McChrystal. The first Marines will begin arriving as early as Christmas, and all forces will be in place by May, a senior administration official said.

The 30,000 new American troops will focus on securing and protecting the country’s top population centers, including Kabul, Khost and Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital. Military officials said that two brigades would go south, with the third going to eastern Afghanistan.

Military officers said that they could maintain pressure on insurgents in remote regions by using surveillance drones and reports from people in the field to find pockets of Taliban fighters and to guide attacks, in particular by Special Operations forces.

The strategy also includes expanded economic development and reconciliation with less radical members of the Taliban.

In addition, Mr. Obama is making tougher demands on the Afghan government; he spent an hour on the phone Monday with Mr. Karzai, White House officials said, and pressed him on the need to combat the corruption and drug trafficking, which many Western officials say has fueled the resurgence of the Taliban.

During the conversation, Mr. Obama, described by one White House official as “very explicit,” pressed Mr. Karzai on the need to take steps that would show progress. Mr. Obama congratulated Mr. Karzai on setting up a corruption task force, but also pressed him on the need to make sure that officials appointed by the government are untainted by corruption.

 

Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported from West Point, and Helene Cooper from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Peter Baker, David E. Sanger, Mark Mazzetti, Carl Hulse and Mark Landler from Washington, and Carlotta Gall from Kabul, Afghanistan.

    Obama Adds Troops, but Maps Exit Plan, NYT, 2.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/world/asia/02prexy.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Sets Faster Troop Deployment to Afghanistan

 

December 2, 2009
Rhe New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER and PETER BAKER

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama has decided to expedite the deployment of 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan over the next six months, in an effort to reverse the momentum of Taliban gains and create urgency for the government in Kabul to match the American surge with one using its own forces, according to senior administration officials.

In bringing the total American force to nearly 100,000 troops by the end of May, the administration will move far faster than it had originally planned. Until recently, discussions focused on a deployment that would take a year, but Mr. Obama concluded that the situation required “more, sooner,” as one official said, explaining some of the central conclusions Mr. Obama reached at the end of a nearly three-month review of American war strategy.

The officials insisted on anonymity to discuss the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that Mr. Obama will formally announce on Tuesday night in a nationally televised address from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The strategy aims to prevent Al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan, whose territory it used to prepare the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and to keep Taliban insurgents from toppling the government there. The 30,000 new American troops will focus on securing a number of population centers in Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest, including Kandahar in the south and Khost in the east, the officials said. The American forces, they said, will pair up with specific Afghan units in an effort to end eight years of frustrating attempts to build them into an independent fighting force.

Mr. Obama has concluded that the strategy for dealing with the Taliban should be to “degrade its ability,” in the words of one of the officials deeply involved in the discussions, so that the Afghan forces are capable of taking them on. At the same time the president’s strategy calls for “carving away at the bottom” of the Taliban’s force structure by reintegrating less committed members into tribes and offering them paid jobs in local and national military forces.

“We want to knock the Taliban back, giving us time and space to build the Afghans up mainly in the security front but also in governance and development as well,” said one senior administration official. By weakening the Taliban through a quick infusion of troops, the official said, the administration hopes to make it a more manageable enemy for the Afghans to take on themselves.

For Mr. Obama, the strategy is a huge gamble in a war that has already gone on for eight years. Polls show that Americans are increasingly tired of the conflict and doubtful of American goals.

Success, the administration officials said in their fullest discussion yet of the thinking behind Mr. Obama’s approach, depends in large part on the cooperation of an Afghan government whose legitimacy is more in question than ever in the wake of elections marred by extensive fraud.

It also hinges on the success of a renewed relationship with a Pakistani government whose civilian leadership is exceptionally weak, whose military and intelligence services are distrustful of the United States and its commitment and whose willingness to take on elements of the Taliban directing attacks against American troops from Pakistani territory is still unproven.

While the number of troops Mr. Obama is deploying falls short of the figure sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, his commander in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is also counting on reinforcements from American allies. Those allies currently have nearly 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, but European and Canadian officials have said they doubt Mr. Obama will get more than a few thousand more.

The new strategy draws heavily on lessons learned from President George W. Bush’s “surge” and strategy shift in Iraq in 2007, which Mr. Obama opposed as a senator and presidential candidate. Mr. Obama’s advisers are even referring to his troop buildup as an “extended surge.”

However officials said that Mr. Obama in his speech will give a time frame — something Mr. Bush did not do — for when the United States will start pulling the reinforcements out and begin turning over security responsibilities to Afghan forces one province at a time.

Mr. Obama’s aides would not say how specific he would be on Tuesday night about the time frame of the American presence. But clearly it would be well more than a year. That would take him to 2011 or 2012 — when Mr. Obama is up for re-election — before the troop levels would begin to fall again to fulfill the president’s oft-repeated assertion that he would offer no “open-ended commitment” to the Afghan government.

It is that date that is bound to be the focus of attention for his own party, at a time when many Democrats are openly opposed to sending more troops. Some have questioned how Mr. Obama can simultaneously argue for a troop increase and a relatively quick pull-back. But in interviews, administration officials said that without the accelerated deployment, there was little hope of being able to stabilize the situation in the region enough to start withdrawals.

“This is to speed the process,” one said.

The plan envisions that some troops would remain as a “light footprint” — a force that would probably stay behind in a reserve or supporting role for years to come — as the United States has done in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Bosnia.

A critical part of Mr. Obama’s strategy is to succeed in an area where Mr. Bush failed: Training a reliable Afghan force, not only the national army but a series of local forces as well. Currently, the Afghan army is in the lead in only one of 34 provinces in the country, around the capital of Kabul.

In addition to the influx of troops, administration officials said they are taking other lessons from the Iraq surge, such as empowering local security forces to stand up to Taliban militants in their communities and enhancing the training of national forces by embedding American troops with Afghan counterparts and later pairing similarly sized American and Afghan units to fight side by side.

“We learned a lot of lessons, painful lessons, out of Iraq on how to do training,” said one official involved in the discussions.

The lengthy process that led to Mr. Obama’s decision started out with sharp disagreements among his top advisers, but administration officials said that the intensive reviews and discussions ultimately led the participants to coalesce around the new strategy.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. initially opposed any substantial increase in troops in Afghanistan, arguing that Pakistan was a far more important priority, since that is where Al Qaeda is now largely based. He was joined in that view by Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the retired commander now serving as American ambassador to Afghanistan, who described the growing resentment of the American military among the Afghan people.

On the other side of the deliberations were Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who warned that the American mission would fail without more troops and sought another 40,000, and military leaders who supported him, like Gen. David H. Petraeus, the regional commander, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Among those who helped steer the review toward the eventual result was Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Mr. Obama spent more than 20 hours in 10 meetings in the Situation Room with his top national security advisers from Sept. 13 until last Sunday. He also conducted other meetings with smaller groups or consulted with select advisers. The early meetings focused intently on what the American goals should be, not even addressing the question of troop levels until later in the process, officials said.

Along the way, they said, the intelligence community produced nearly three dozen fresh assessments of various related issues, like who the enemy was, where they were concentrated, what their capabilities were, what would happen under certain circumstances — including political collapse in Pakistan — and what a “game changer” would be in the war.

The central mission of the new strategy is the same as that described by the White House after its last review in March — to focus on destroying Al Qaeda, the group that mounted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that still appears to have the reach to attack the United States. But regarding the Taliban, the administration’s latest review concluded that it needed only to degrade the capability of its various groups, some of which have close ties with Al Qaeda, on the assumption that they are indigenous and cannot be wiped out entirely.

Mr. Obama has sought to narrow America’s mission. There will be no talk of turning Afghanistan into a democracy — one of Mr. Bush’s central goals — and no discussion of “nation-building,” the officials said. But as they described it, some rudimentary nation-building is part of the plan, including helping the central government improve governance and curb corruption.

Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, has made such promises in the past and never delivered; since he took office last month following an election marked by widespread fraud, he has made a series of new commitments to the United States, officials insist.

But clearly Mr. Obama does not trust the central government with much of the new American aid. Money will go to individual ministries depending on their performance, American officials have said in recent weeks. The United States, officials said, will also funnel more money and other assistance through local leaders to foster change from the bottom up, avoiding the country’s corrupt central government.

That is bound to foster some resentment inside Mr. Karzai’s government because it creates a direct link between the United States and local governments and leaders, a process that could further weaken Mr. Karzai’s authority over parts of the nation.

The meetings that determined Mr. Obama’s policy began with a heavy focus not on Afghanistan but on its neighbor, Pakistan. Mr. Obama will say far less about that country on Tuesday night, partly because so much of the activity there involves classified C.I.A. missions, including drone strikes on suspected Qaeda and Taliban leadership, and Special Forces raids over the border.

The number of drone strikes has increased drastically since Mr. Obama took office, although they have been scaled back in recent months because of fears of civilian casualties, which has led to an anti-American backlash in Pakistan.

But the Pakistani government is also especially sensitive to any suggestion that it is acting on Washington’s behalf, so Mr. Obama is not expected to be specific about his efforts to get the country to go after Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader operating from the western city of Quetta, or the Haqqani network, which directs attacks in eastern Afghanistan and Kabul.

In recent weeks, senior American officials have flown to Islamabad with offers of deeper military cooperation, intelligence sharing and aid to encourage it to do more to take on Qaeda and Taliban elements in the forbidding tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Mr. Obama’s advisers said that despite the country’s political chaos, they have been impressed by Pakistan’s efforts in recent months to move aggressively against insurgents.

“Pakistan has done a lot,” said one senior official. “Pakistan needs to do a lot more.”

 

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Landler from Washington; Steven Erlanger from Paris; and John F. Burns from London.

    Obama Sets Faster Troop Deployment to Afghanistan, NYT, 1.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/world/asia/02policy.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Telephones Thanks to 10 US Service Members

 

November 26, 2009
Filed at 1:50 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama enjoyed a quiet first Thanksgiving at the White House, telephoning U.S. servicemen and women stationed around the world and spending time in the company of his family and friends.

Obama placed calls from the Oval Office to 10 U.S. servicemen and women -- two each in the Army, Navy, Air Force, the Marines and the Coast Guard -- stationed in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the Arabian Gulf.

The commander in chief, who spent the past several weeks conducting an intensive review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, called to wish them Happy Thanksgiving and to let them know that he and first lady Michelle Obama are ''truly thankful for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the nation,'' according to a statement Thursday from the White House.

Obama plans next Tuesday to announce the results of that review -- a new battle plan for Afghanistan, including an increase in U.S. forces and a strategy for ending America's military involvement there. Obama promised this week to ''finish the job'' started eight years ago, and will lay out the course for doing so in an address to the nation Tuesday from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Afghanistan, the Senate's coming debate on health care, climate change, the economy and other issues were likely to remain high on Obama's agenda during the long weekend. The president was staying in Washington, and had no public events scheduled through Sunday.

In his weekly radio and Internet address Thursday, delivered two days earlier than usual, Obama acknowledged the economic difficulties of the past year and discussed the tax cuts and other steps his administration has taken to help millions of people who are feeling pinched.

He reminded listeners that there's a lot still to be thankful for, such as the kindness of loved ones, the pride they feel in their communities and their country, and the men and women in uniform who are stationed in harm's way.

The White House revealed little about who would be joining the Obamas on their first Thanksgiving as America's first family. They were spending time with relatives and friends, possibly including some who arrived earlier in the week and attended a state dinner Tuesday for India. They include Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her husband, Konrad; and Obama friends Eric Whitaker and Martin Nesbitt.

No word on the holiday dinner menu, either, beyond ''traditional foods and family favorites.''

It's a safe bet, however, that Obama will have some turkey. On Wednesday, while participating in that traditional presidential rite of passage -- pardoning a turkey -- Obama said he had planned to eat the turkey named Courage because it's a ''good-looking bird.''

He credited ''the interventions of Malia and Sasha,'' his daughters, with saving Courage's life.

    Obama Telephones Thanks to 10 US Service Members, NYT, 26.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/11/26/us/politics/AP-US-Obama-Thanksgiving.html

 

 

 

 

 

White House Begins Campaign to Promote Science and Math Education

 

November 24, 2009
The New York Times
By KENNETH CHANG

 

To improve science and mathematics education for American children, the White House is recruiting Elmo and Big Bird, video game programmers and thousands of scientists.

President Obama announced on Monday a campaign to enlist companies and nonprofit groups to spend money, time and volunteer effort to encourage students, especially in middle and high school, to pursue science, technology, engineering and math.

“You know the success we seek is not going to be attained by government alone,” Mr. Obama said kicking off the initiatives. “It depends on the dedication of students and parents, and the commitment of private citizens, organizations and companies. It depends on all of us.”

Mr. Obama, accompanied by students and a robot that scooped up and tossed rocks, also announced an annual science fair at the White House.

“If you win the N.C.A.A. championship, you come to the White House,” he said. “Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too.

“Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House, we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.”

The campaign, called Educate to Innovate, focuses mainly on activities outside the classroom. For example, Discovery Communications has promised to use two hours of the afternoon schedule on its Science Channel cable network for commercial-free programming geared toward middle school students.

Science and engineering societies are promising to provide volunteers to work with students in the classroom, culminating in a National Lab Day in May.

The MacArthur Foundation and technology industry organizations are giving out prizes in a contest to develop video games that teach science and math.

“The different sectors are responding to the president’s call for all hands on deck,” John P. Holdren, the White House science adviser, said in an interview last week.

The other parts of the campaign include a two-year focus on science on “Sesame Street,” the venerable public television children’s show, and a Web site, connectamillionminds.com, set up by Time Warner Cable, that provides a searchable directory of local science activities. The cable system will contribute television time and advertising to promote the site.

The White House has also recruited Sally K. Ride, the first American woman in space, and corporate executives like Craig R. Barrett, a former chairman of Intel, and Ursula M. Burns, chief executive of Xerox, to champion the cause of science and math education to corporations and philanthropists.

Dr. Ride said their role would be identifying successful programs and then connecting financing sources to spread the successes nationally. “The need is funding,” she said. “There is a lot of corporate interest and foundation interest in this issue.”

Administration officials say that the breadth of participation in Educate to Innovate is wider than in previous efforts, which have failed to produce a perceptible rise in test scores or in most students’ perceptions of math and science. In international comparison exams, American students have long lagged behind those in much of Asia and Europe.

But some education experts said the initiatives did little to address some core issues: improving the quality of teachers and the curriculum.

“I think a lot of this is good, but it is missing more than half of what needs to be done,” said Mark S. Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. “It has nothing to do with the day-to-day teaching,” said Dr. Schneider, who was the commissioner of education statistics at the Department of Education from 2005 to 2008.

Dr. Holdren said the initiatives, which are financed almost entirely by the participating companies and foundations and not the government, complement the Race to the Top program of the Department of Education, which will dispense $4.35 billion in stimulus financing to states for innovative education programs. The Race to the Top rules give extra points to applications that emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects.

“The president has made it very clear it is a big priority,” Dr. Holdren said.

In April, Mr. Obama, speaking at the National Academy of Sciences, promised a “renewed commitment” that would move the United States “from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade.”

To achieve this goal, Mr. Obama talked of “forging partnerships.” Monday’s announcement contains the first wave of such partnerships, officials said.

David M. Zaslav, the president and chief executive of Discovery, said Mr. Obama’s words about science education inspired Discovery to come up with the idea of two hours of programming, a mix of old and new content, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays on the Science Channel. The idea is that students coming home from school will have a ready means to learn more science.

“We took that to the administration,” Mr. Zaslav said. “They loved it.”

The lack of commercials is “a big statement by us that it’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about reinforcing the importance of science to kids and inspiring them.”

The programming is to begin next year; the date has not been set yet.

The foundation of Jack D. Hidary, an entrepreneur who earned his fortune in finance and technology, worked with the National Science Teachers Association, the MacArthur Foundation and the American Chemical Society to create a Web site, nationallabday.org, that matches scientists willing to volunteer their time and teachers describing what projects they hope to incorporate into their classes.

For example, Mr. Hidary said, a project could involve students’ recording of birdsongs and comparing them with others from elsewhere. “That’s actually scientifically useful,” he said. “Kids can actually perform useful science.”

The projects are to culminate in National Lab Day, which schools will hold the first week of May, but the projects will typically spread over several months. Mr. Hidary said students learn better with hands-on inquiries.

“We are not about one-offs,” he said. “We’re not looking for bringing in a scientist for a day.”

After the chemical society joined the effort, other scientific organizations also signed on, Mr. Hidary said, adding, “Each one is coming, upping the ante.”

For the video game challenge, the idea is to piggyback on the interest children already have in playing the games. “That’s where they are,” said Michael D. Gallagher, chief executive of the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group and one of the sponsors. “This initiative is a recognition of that.”

Sony is expected to donate 1,000 PlayStation 3 game consoles and copies of the game LittleBigPlanet to libraries and community organizations in low-income areas. Part of the competition will consist of children creating new levels in LittleBigPlanet that incorporate science and math. The other part will offer a total of $300,000 in prize money to game designers for science and math games that will be distributed free.

“We’re finding extraordinary engagement with games,” said Connie Yowell, director of education for MacArthur. If the engagement is combined with a science curriculum, she said, “then I think we have a very powerful approach.”

Some of the initiatives were already in the works and would have been rolled out regardless of the administration’s campaign. “Sesame Street” already planned to incorporate nature into this year’s season, but has now decided to add discussions of the scientific method in next year’s episodes.

“We’ve really never kind of approached it that way before,” said Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive of the Sesame Workshop.

Time Warner Cable had already decided to devote 80 percent of its philanthropy efforts to science and math education before Mr. Obama’s speech in April. But the company adjusted its project to fit in with the others.

“Being part of a bigger effort,” said Glenn A. Britt, the chief executive, “increases the chances that the effort will be successful.”

    White House Begins Campaign to Promote Science and Math Education, NYT, 24.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/science/24educ.html

 

 

 

 

 

On Politics

An Unsurprising Slide for Obama

 

November 24, 2009
The New York Times
By ADAM NAGOURNEY

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama returned from his trip to Asia facing some unsettling news: two new public-opinion polls showing that his approval rating has dipped below 50 percent for the first time. To many of his critics, who chafed as Mr. Obama enjoyed broad support among Americans even though many were critical of his handling of specific issues like the economy, this erosion is a tipping-point, the end of Mr. Obama’s perceived near-invulnerability.

For a number of reasons, the slide is not a surprise. Coming less than a year into his presidency, not to mention almost a full year before the 2010 Congressional elections, though, the long-term political significance of the slide is anything but clear.

Still, there is cause for the White House to be concerned, and for Republicans to sense an opportunity. The poll numbers worry Democratic strategists who are preparing for the already tough mid-term elections. They are well aware of the significance of presidential approval ratings in predicting the outcome — and particularly of what happens when a president’s approval rating is below 50 percent in the two months before a mid-term election.

Mr. Obama’s decline a year into his term comes as he struggles through a decidedly sour climate. The unemployment rate has jumped above 10 percent and shows no sign of abating. At this point, even if Mr. Obama cannot be blamed for causing the economic decline, Americans are growing impatient with him to fix it.

His main legislative initiative — the health care bill — is the subject of a messy fight in Congress, displaying Washington in the very bitter partisan light that Mr. Obama promised to end. It has provided Republicans with a platform to stir concerns that Mr. Obama is using the health care overhaul to expand the role of government beyond the comfort level of many Americans; polls suggest that these arguments have helped sow significant doubts.

And not incidentally, the president has been out of the country for the past 10 days. As Mr. Obama learned when he went overseas as a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008, his approval ratings tend to drift down when he travels abroad. It presumably did not help matters that much of the media coverage of Mr. Obama’s visit to China was critical of the way he dealt with Chinese leaders.

Mr. Obama’s aides argue that the political culture of Washington is too fixated on each new bit of approval-rating data.

“I think the history of these things is that Washington becomes absorbed with them,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “But not every day is Election Day. There’s not all that much relationship about what these things mean and what’s going to happen in an election a year — or three years — in advance.”

Still, there does seem to be the suggestion of a trend here. One of the interesting things about Mr. Obama’s presidency has been the gap between how Americans are judging his handling of various issues — particularly the economy and Afghanistan — and their view of him. It has made Republicans wary of attacking Mr. Obama himself as they try for gains next year.

“We need to be careful,” Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, head of the Republican Governors Association, told Republicans meeting in Austin last week. “We need to treat this president respectfully. We need to make this about policies, not personalities. This is a guy that people like.”

But Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, has long argued that the gap between the public’s views of Mr. Obama and of his policies is politically significant, and that it is only a matter of time before the two measures meet. If that happens, Republicans could find it easier to engage Mr. Obama, whether by challenging him on policies in Washington, or running against him in Congressional elections next year, the way Democrats ran against George W. Bush in the 2006 midterms.

Separate surveys by Gallup and by Quinnipiac University at the end of the week each showed Mr. Obama’s job approval rating slipping below 50 percent for the first time: 49 percent in the Gallup poll and 48 percent in the Quinnipiac poll. A CBS News poll earlier in the week put it at 53 percent; that poll found that 49 percent of respondents approved of his handling of the economy, down from 54 percent in October, and 43 percent disapproved of his handling of the war in Afghanistan.

If Congress passes a health care overhaul, the White House — and many independent analysts — believe the achievement of a signature campaign promise is likely to push the president’s approval ratings back up again. A decline in the unemployment rate over the next six months could have much the same effect. As Mr. Barbour said, “The American people want their president to succeed.”

History suggests that Mr. Obama’s approval rating could be one of the key factors in determining how his fellow Democrats fare in the mid-term election. It is an urgent concern for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has distributed a slide-show presentation to supporters that charts the correlation between a president’s rating and his party’s performance in mid-term congressional elections. For the past 50 years, almost without exception, the party has lost seats whenever its president’s average approval rating in September and October before the election dropped below 50 percent.

Republicans, at least as of today, are envisioning trying to tie Mr. Obama to Democrats in marginal districts who would prefer not to be too closely associated with him and his policies, the way Democrats used Mr. Bush against Republican candidates — a development that would have seemed farfetched six months ago.

Mr. Axelrod did not dispute the notion that the fate of some Democratic incumbents could rest on how popular Mr. Obama is next summer. In fact, that is precisely the argument White House officials are making to nervous Democrats in urging them to rally around the health care bill, rather than risk having Mr. Obama suffer a debilitating defeat that could turn Americans against him.

“We’re in this together,” Mr. Axelrod said on Sunday. “But the folks who are running next year have the most immediate stake in the success of health insurance reform. Having come this far on something of such importance, it’s hard to see the political benefit of failure now.”

A collapse of the health care initiative could be a major problem for the Democrats, possibly for years to come. Democrats in Congress would have less than a year to rebound. Mr. Obama would have three.

An impossible task? Bill Clinton saw his health care plan collapse early in his first term, and he managed to rebuild himself politically in time to cruise to reelection in 1996, even after his party took a drubbing in the 1994 midterms.

Ronald Reagan’s average job approval rating in the months before his first mid-term Congressional election, in 1982, was 42 percent — and Republicans that November lost 26 seats. And who remembers that? Two years later, Reagan carried 49 states as he galloped to a second term over Walter F. Mondale.

    An Unsurprising Slide for Obama, NYT, 24.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/us/politics/24nagourney.html

 

 

 

 

 

Guantánamo Won’t Close by January, Obama Says

 

November 19, 2009
The New York Times
By JACK HEALY

 

President Obama acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that his administration would miss a self-imposed deadline to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, by mid-January, admitting the difficulties of following through on one of his first pledges as president.

“Guantánamo, we had a specific deadline that was missed,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with NBC News in Beijing during his weeklong trip to Asia. Hours after he spoke, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. defended the administration’s decision to try five suspected terrorists in New York City — a move closely tied to its efforts to close Guantánamo.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Holder reiterated that prosecutors would seek the death penalty against the men, and rebuffed criticisms that a civilian trial afforded the defendants too much regard, or would jeopardize national security.

“We need not cower in the face of this enemy,” Mr. Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Our institutions are strong. Our infrastructure is sturdy. Our resolve is firm, and our people are ready.

Mr. Obama, in the NBC interview, also stood behind the decision to prosecute Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-avowed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that any anger at the civilian trial would disappear “when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.”

“I have complete confidence in the American people and our legal traditions and the prosecutors,” he said.

On Guantánamo, Mr. Obama said that he now hoped to shut down the detention facility sometime next year, but he did not set a new deadline.

“We are on a path and a process where I would anticipate that Guantánamo will be closed next year,” Mr. Obama said in a separate interview with Fox News. “I’m not going to set an exact date because a lot of this is also going to depend on cooperation from Congress.”

The prospects for fully shutting down Guantánamo have been dimming for months as the administration stumbled over a litany of political and logistical tripwires. Gregory B. Craig, the White House counsel who drafted the order to close the facility, announced last week that he was stepping down. During the presidential campaign last year, Mr. Obama railed against the detention complex on an American military base in Cuba, calling it a symbol used by terrorists to recruit new members. Within days of his inauguration, he ordered Guantánamo closed by January.

But his plans to relocate the prison’s 200 remaining inmates to other countries or to other detention centers in the United States have been stymied by opposition from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as residents who live close to prisons that could house terrorists.

Most recently, the administration said it was considering sending terrorism suspects from Guantánamo to a maximum-security state prison in Thomson, Ill., about 150 miles west of Chicago, though some other prisons are also under consideration.

Last week, the Department of Justice decided that five terrorism suspects — including Mr. Mohammed — would be prosecuted in federal court in New York City, rather than face military tribunals.

Mr. Holder said that the prosecutions in a civilian court was an important milestone toward closing the Guantánamo detention center, even as critics like Rudolph W. Giuliani, New York’s former Republican mayor, accused the administration of making the city a target.

When asked what might happen to any of the four defendants who are acquitted, Mr. Holder said: "Failure is not an option. These are cases that have to be won. I don’t expect that we will have a contrary result."

With that, Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said sarcastically, "It just seemed to me ludicrous, but I’m a farmer, not a lawyer."

Mr. Holder insisted the suspects would be convicted, but that in any case, "that doesn’t mean that person would be released into our country."

 

Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

    Guantánamo Won’t Close by January, Obama Says, NYT, 19.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/19/us/19gitmo.html

 

 

 

 

 

Editorial

Obama’s Judicial Nominations

 

November 17, 2009
The New York Times

 

The Obama administration is off to a slow start on judicial nominations, but the Senate, which has delayed in confirming the choices President Obama has made, also bears a good part of the blame. The administration and the Senate leadership should pick up the pace of nominations and confirmations in order to restore some balance to a federal judiciary that was pushed sharply to the right by former President George W. Bush.

Appointing federal judges, who have enormous power and serve for life, is one of the most important presidential responsibilities. President Bush, who was intent on leaving an ideological imprint on the judiciary, made his nominations quickly and pushed hard to have them confirmed. By the end of his first year, according to a report by the liberal group Alliance for Justice, he had nominated 65 federal judges and 28 were confirmed.

By that measure — and those of the Clinton and Reagan years — Mr. Obama has moved slowly. As of Nov. 4, he had nominated just 26 appellate and district court judges, and only four of them had been confirmed. Even considering that selecting Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court and getting her confirmed took time, the administration’s pace has been disappointing.

On the confirmation side, the fault lies with the Senate. Obama nominees who have been reported out of the Judiciary Committee have waited months for a vote from the full Senate, far longer than is necessary.

Senate Republicans have been doing their best to drag things out. In March, every Republican senator signed an outrageous letter to the White House warning that they would filibuster any nominee from their home states if they did not approve the choice in advance. That was a dizzying reversal. In the Bush years, Senate Republicans professed to be so upset about Democrats’ filibustering that their majority leader threatened the “nuclear option,” which would have eliminated the use of filibusters for all judicial nominations.

Senate Democrats used the filibuster very selectively against Bush nominees who were true extremists. The real outrage was who was approved. Jay Bybee, the author of the infamous legal memorandums justifying the use of torture, is now a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

The Democrats also allowed J. Leon Holmes to be confirmed to the federal bench in Arkansas. He had made a number of offensive statements about women, African-Americans and gay people. In 1997, he wrote that in marriage, “the woman is to place herself under the authority of the man.”

Republican senators, by contrast, are unreasonably opposing good nominees who are well within the legal mainstream. A current example is David Hamilton, a distinguished federal district court judge in Indiana who has been nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. Judge Hamilton has decidedly moderate legal views and strong centrist credentials, including the enthusiastic endorsement of Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican. Judge Hamilton in no way resembles extreme Bush nominees that Democrats opposed.

There is a good chance the Senate will vote on Judge Hamilton this week. Republicans who oppose him may be trying to send a message that even moderate nominees will have a rough time so the White House should steer clear of more controversial choices.

The Obama administration should not be deterred. After eight years of flawed Bush nominations, it should work hard to fill every judicial vacancy with the best possible judges — and it should act as quickly as possible.

    Obama’s Judicial Nominations, NYT, 17.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/opinion/17tue1.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Salutes Fallen Americans on Veterans Day

 

November 12, 2009
The New York Times
By BRIAN KNOWLTON

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama began his Wednesday, Veterans Day, by paying solemn tribute to Americans who have died in past and present wars, before preparing to shift focus and resume charting the way forward in the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan.

The day began officially for the president and his wife, Michelle, in the East Room — the largest room in the White House, often used for ceremonial occasions — as hosts for a Veterans Day breakfast. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his wife, Jill, also attended, but the White House released no guest list to the closed event.

Both couples then traveled across the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony, part of a long-standing tradition and one that holds special poignance for a president overseeing two wars.

Speaking at the Memorial Amphitheater, Mr. Obama said, "Our servicemen and women have been doing right by America for generations."

He added: “There is no tribute, no commemoration, no praise that can truly match the magnitude of your service and your sacrifice. As long as I am commander-in-chief, American’s going to do right by them."

At 2:30 p.m., President Obama is to meet in the White House with more than a dozen of his top national security advisers to weigh options for moving forward with the Afghan war and dealing with the threat posed by the presence of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Mr. Obama will be considering four options for Afghanistan, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said Monday. Other officials said that three of the four options call for levels ranging from 20,000 additional troops at the low end to about 40,000 more — essentially embracing the request of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the American commander of forces in Afghanistan — at the high end. It was unclear what the fourth option, added recently, would entail.

The president was not expected to make a decision on Wednesday, but continue to mull the options during a week-long trip to Asia that begins Thursday, officials said; a decision is said to be likely no later than the first week of December.

This is Mr. Obama’s first Veterans Day as president. A year ago, when he was the freshly minted president-elect, it was President George W. Bush who traveled to New York for solemn ceremonies where other speakers praised him for the absence of another terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

The scene was somewhat more grim on Veterans Day seven years earlier, when President Bush was joined in New York by United Nations Secretary General Kofi A. Annan, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and other dignitaries including Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was a senator from New York at the time.

The memorial service was held at the site of the World Trade Center collapse on the two month anniversary of the attacks. Only days earlier, another body had been found in the rubble.

    Obama Salutes Fallen Americans on Veterans Day, NYT, 11.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/12/us/12obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Remarks of President Barack Obama

 

November 11, 2009
The New York Times
 

Remarks of President Obama, as Prepared for Delivery for the memorial service at Fort Hood, Tex.

 

We come together filled with sorrow for the thirteen Americans that we have lost; with gratitude for the lives that they led; and with a determination to honor them through the work we carry on.

This is a time of war. And yet these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of this great American community. It is this fact that makes the tragedy even more painful and even more incomprehensible.

For those families who have lost a loved one, no words can fill the void that has been left. We knew these men and women as soldiers and caregivers. You knew them as mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; sisters and brothers.

But here is what you must also know: your loved ones endure through the life of our nation. Their memory will be honored in the places they lived and by the people they touched. Their life's work is our security, and the freedom that we too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that is their legacy.

Neither this country – nor the values that we were founded upon – could exist without men and women like these thirteen Americans. And that is why we must pay tribute to their stories.

Chief Warrant Officer Michael Cahill had served in the National Guard and worked as a physician's assistant for decades. A husband and father of three, he was so committed to his patients that on the day he died, he was back at work just weeks after having a heart attack.

Major Libardo Eduardo Caraveo spoke little English when he came to America as a teenager. But he put himself through college, earned a PhD, and was helping combat units cope with the stress of deployment. He is survived by his wife, sons and step-daughters.

Staff Sergeant Justin DeCrow joined the Army right after high school, married his high school sweetheart, and had served as a light wheeled mechanic and Satellite Communications Operator. He was known as an optimist, a mentor, and a loving husband and father.

After retiring from the Army as a Major, John Gaffaney cared for society's most vulnerable during two decades as a psychiatric nurse. He spent three years trying to return to active duty in this time of war, and he was preparing to deploy to Iraq as a Captain. He leaves behind a wife and son.

Specialist Frederick Greene was a Tennessean who wanted to join the Army for a long time, and did so in 2008 with the support of his family. As a combat engineer he was a natural leader, and he is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Specialist Jason Hunt was also recently married, with three children to care for. He joined the Army after high school. He did a tour in Iraq, and it was there that he re-enlisted for six more years on his 21st birthday so that he could continue to serve.

Staff Sergeant Amy Krueger was an athlete in high school, joined the Army shortly after 9/11, and had since returned home to speak to students about her experience. When her mother told her she couldn't take on Osama bin Laden by herself, Amy replied: "Watch me."

Private First Class Aaron Nemelka was an Eagle Scout who just recently signed up to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the service – diffuse bombs – so that he could help save lives. He was proudly carrying on a tradition of military service that runs deep within his family.

Private First Class Michael Pearson loved his family and loved his music, and his goal was to be a music teacher. He excelled at playing the guitar, and could create songs on the spot and show others how to play. He joined the military a year ago, and was preparing for his first deployment.

Captain Russell Seager worked as a nurse for the VA, helping veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress. He had great respect for the military, and signed up to serve so that he could help soldiers cope with the stress of combat and return to civilian life. He leaves behind a wife and son.

Private Francheska Velez, the daughter of a father from Colombia and a Puerto Rican mother, had recently served in Korea and in Iraq, and was pursuing a career in the Army. When she was killed, she was pregnant with her first child, and was excited about becoming a mother.

Lieutenant Colonel Juanita Warman was the daughter and granddaughter of Army veterans. She was a single mother who put herself through college and graduate school, and served as a nurse practitioner while raising her two daughters. She also left behind a loving husband.

Private First Class Kham Xiong came to America from Thailand as a small child. He was a husband and father who followed his brother into the military because his family had a strong history of service. He was preparing for his first deployment to Afghanistan.

These men and women came from all parts of the country. Some had long careers in the military. Some had signed up to serve in the shadow of 9/11. Some had known intense combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some cared for those did. Their lives speak to the strength, the dignity and the decency of those who serve, and that is how they will be remembered.

That same spirit is embodied in the community here at Fort Hood, and in the many wounded who are still recovering. In those terrible minutes during the attack, soldiers made makeshift tourniquets out of their clothes. They braved gunfire to reach the wounded, and ferried them to safety in the backs of cars and a pick-up truck.

One young soldier, Amber Bahr, was so intent on helping others that she did not realize for some time that she, herself, had been shot in the back. Two police officers – Mark Todd and Kim Munley – saved countless lives by risking their own. One medic – Francisco de la Serna – treated both Officer Munley and the gunman who shot her.

It may be hard to comprehend the twisted logic that led to this tragedy. But this much we do know – no faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. And for what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice – in this world, and the next.

These are trying times for our country. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the same extremists who killed nearly 3,000 Americans continue to endanger America, our allies, and innocent Afghans and Pakistanis. In Iraq, we are working to bring a war to a successful end, as there are still those who would deny the Iraqi people the future that Americans and Iraqis have sacrificed so much for.

As we face these challenges, the stories of those at Fort Hood reaffirm the core values that we are fighting for, and the strength that we must draw upon. Theirs are tales of American men and women answering an extraordinary call – the call to serve their comrades, their communities, and their country. In an age of selfishness, they embody responsibility. In an era of division, they call upon us to come together. In a time of cynicism, they remind us of who we are as Americans.

We are a nation that endures because of the courage of those who defend it. We saw that valor in those who braved bullets here at Fort Hood, just as surely as we see it in those who signed up knowing that they would serve in harm's way.

We are a nation of laws whose commitment to justice is so enduring that we would treat a gunman and give him due process, just as surely as we will see that he pays for his crimes.

We are a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses. And instead of claiming God for our side, we remember Lincoln's words, and always pray to be on the side of God.

We are a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal. We live that truth within our military, and see it in the varied backgrounds of those we lay to rest today. We defend that truth at home and abroad, and we know that Americans will always be found on the side of liberty and equality. That is who we are as a people.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. It is a chance to pause, and to pay tribute – for students to learn of the struggles that preceded them; for families to honor the service of parents and grandparents; for citizens to reflect upon the sacrifices that have been made in pursuit of a more perfect union.

For history is filled with heroes. You may remember the stories of a grandfather who marched across Europe; an uncle who fought in Vietnam; a sister who served in the Gulf. But as we honor the many generations who have served, I think all of us – every single American – must acknowledge that this generation has more than proved itself the equal of those who have come before.

We need not look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes.

This generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen have volunteered in a time of certain danger. They are part of the finest fighting force that the world has ever known. They have served tour after tour of duty in distant, different and difficult places. They have stood watch in blinding deserts and on snowy mountains. They have extended the opportunity of self-government to peoples that have suffered tyranny and war. They are man and woman; white, black, and brown; of all faiths and stations – all Americans, serving together to protect our people, while giving others half a world away the chance to lead a better life.

In today's wars, there is not always a simple ceremony that signals our troops' success – no surrender papers to be signed, or capital to be claimed. But the measure of their impact is no less great – in a world of threats that no know borders, it will be marked in the safety of our cities and towns, and the security and opportunity that is extended abroad. And it will serve as testimony to the character of those who serve, and the example that you set for America and for the world.

Here, at Fort Hood, we pay tribute to thirteen men and women who were not able to escape the horror of war, even in the comfort of home. Later today, at Fort Lewis, one community will gather to remember so many in one Stryker Brigade who have fallen in Afghanistan.

Long after they are laid to rest – when the fighting has finished, and our nation has endured; when today's servicemen and women are veterans, and their children have grown – it will be said of this generation that they believed under the most trying of tests; that they persevered not just when it was easy, but when it was hard; and that they paid the price and bore the burden to secure this nation, and stood up for the values that live in the hearts of all free peoples.

So we say goodbye to those who now belong to eternity. We press ahead in pursuit of the peace that guided their service. May God bless the memory of those we lost. And may God bless the United States of America.

    Remarks of President Barack Obama, NYT, 11.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/us/11transcript.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Seeks Revision of Plan’s Abortion Limits

 

November 10, 2009
The New York Times
By ROBERT PEAR

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama suggested Monday that he was not comfortable with abortion restrictions inserted into the House version of major health care legislation, and he prodded Congress to revise them.

“There needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we’re not changing the status quo” on abortion, Mr. Obama said in an interview with ABC News. “And that’s the goal.”

On the one hand, Mr. Obama said, “we’re not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions.”

On the other hand, he said, he wanted to make sure “we’re not restricting women’s insurance choices,” because he had promised that “if you’re happy and satisfied with the insurance that you have, it’s not going to change.”

Before passing its health bill on Saturday, the House adopted an amendment that would block the use of federal money for “any health plan that includes coverage of abortion,” except in the case of rape or incest or if the life of a pregnant woman is in danger.

Some private insurance now covers abortion. Under the bill, most private insurers would receive federal subsidies on behalf of low- and middle-income people.

The Senate is working on its own version of health legislation.

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and pivotal centrist courted by the White House, delivered a blistering critique of the Senate bill on Monday, saying she could not support it because it would increase insurance costs for many middle-income families and small businesses.

“We should rewrite the whole bill,” Ms. Collins said. “There is considerable unease on both sides of the aisle about the impact of this bill, and as more analysis is done, I believe those concerns will only grow.”

Ms. Collins and the other Maine senator, Olympia J. Snowe, are among the few Republicans who had been considered potential supporters of the bill, drafted mainly by Senate Democrats with help from the White House.

Ms. Collins appeared to dash those hopes on Monday, even as she affirmed her belief that Democrats and Republicans could still find significant areas of agreement.

Summarizing her study of the bill over the past 10 weeks, Ms. Collins said it was “too timid” in revamping the health care system to reward high-quality care. She said the bill included “billions of dollars in new taxes and fees that will drive up the cost of health insurance premiums.”

And she noted that many of the taxes would take effect before the government started providing subsidies to low- and middle-income people to help them buy insurance.

Thus, Ms. Collins said, “there will be a gap for even low-income people where the effect of these fees will be passed on to consumers and increase premiums before any subsidies are available to offset those costs.”

The bill sets standards for the value of insurance policies, stipulating that they must cover at least 65 percent of medical costs, on average.

Most policies sold in the individual insurance market in Maine do not meet those standards, Ms. Collins said, so many insurers would have to raise premiums to comply with the requirements. As a result, she said, the premium for a 40-year-old buying the most popular individual insurance policy in Maine would more than double, to $455 a month.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, has tried to answer such criticism, saying that many of the current policies provided meager bare-bones coverage.

The Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has drafted a health bill that he hopes to take to the Senate floor within weeks. He is waiting for a cost analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

Supporters of the Senate bill said they believed that their efforts would gain momentum from the approval of a broadly similar bill in the House on Saturday by a vote of 220 to 215. But Representative Robert E. Andrews, Democrat of New Jersey and an architect of the House bill, said, “The hardest part is still ahead of us.”

The House and Senate bills differ in at least five ways: how to configure a new government insurance plan; whether to require employers to provide coverage to employees; whether to finance the legislation with a tax on high-income people or a tax on high-cost insurance plans; how strictly to limit coverage of abortion; and whether illegal immigrants should have access to new insurance marts, or exchanges.

The House bill imposes more stringent restrictions on the coverage of abortion.

Ms. Collins said the Senate Finance Committee “did a good job of putting up a firewall that would prevent federal funds from being used to finance abortions.” But she added, “If Congress makes the mistake of establishing a new government-owned insurance company, it would need to extend the prohibition to that company because it is using federal funds.”

    Obama Seeks Revision of Plan’s Abortion Limits, NYT, 10.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/10/health/policy/10health.html

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Considers Reining In ‘Too Big to Fail’ Institutions

 

October 26, 2009
The New York Times
By STEPHEN LABATON

 

WASHINGTON — Congress and the Obama administration are about to take up one of the most fundamental issues stemming from the near collapse of the financial system last year — how to deal with institutions that are so big that the government has no choice but to rescue them when they get in trouble.

A senior administration official said on Sunday that after extensive consultations with Treasury Department officials, Representative Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, would introduce legislation as early as this week. The measure would make it easier for the government to seize control of troubled financial institutions, throw out management, wipe out the shareholders and change the terms of existing loans held by the institution.

The official said the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, was planning to endorse the changes in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday.

The White House plan as outlined so far would already make it much more costly to be a large financial company whose failure would put the financial system and the economy at risk. It would force such institutions to hold more money in reserve and make it harder for them to borrow too heavily against their assets.

Setting up the equivalent of living wills for corporations, that plan would require that they come up with their own procedure to be disentangled in the event of a crisis, a plan that administration officials say ought to be made public in advance.

“These changes will impose market discipline on the largest and most interconnected companies,” said Michael S. Barr, assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions. One of the biggest changes the plan would make, he said, is that instead of being controlled by creditors, the process is controlled by the government.

Some regulators and economists in recent weeks have suggested that the administration’s plan does not go far enough. They say that the government should consider breaking up the biggest banks and investment firms long before they fail, or at least impose strict limits on their trading activities — steps that the administration continues to reject.

Mr. Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, said his committee would now take up more aggressive legislation on the topic, even as lawmakers and regulators continue working on other problems highlighted by the financial crisis, including overseeing executive pay, protecting consumers and regulating the trading of derivatives.

Illustrative of the mood of fear and anger over the huge taxpayer bailouts was Mr. Frank’s recent observation that critics of the administration’s health care proposal had misdirected their concerns — Congress would not be adopting death panels for infirm people but for troubled companies.

The administration and its Congressional allies are trying, in essence, to graft the process used to resolve the troubles of smaller commercial banks onto both large banking conglomerates and nonbanking financial institutions whose troubles could threaten to undermine the markets.

That resolution process gives the government far more sweeping authority over the institution and imposes major burdens on lenders to the companies that they would not ordinarily face when companies go into bankruptcy instead of facing a takeover by the government.

Deep-seated voter anger over the bailouts of companies like the American International Group, Citigroup and Bank of America has fed the fears of lawmakers that any other changes in the regulatory system must include the imposition of more onerous conditions on those financial institutions whose troubles could pose problems for the markets.

Some economists believe the mammoth size of some institutions is a threat to the financial system at large. Because these companies know the government could not allow them to fail, the argument goes, they are more inclined to take big risks.

Also, under the current regulatory structure, the government has limited power to step in quickly to resolve problems at nonbank financial institutions that operate like the failed investment banks Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, and like the giant insurer A.I.G.

As Wall Street has returned to business as usual, industry power has become even more concentrated among relatively few firms, thus intensifying the debate over how to minimize the risks to the system.

Some experts, including Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, and Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, have proposed drastic steps to force the nation’s largest financial institutions to shed their riskier affiliates.

In a speech last week, Mr. King said policy makers should consider breaking up the largest banks and, in effect, restore the Depression-era barriers between investment and commercial banks.

“There are those who claim that such proposals are impractical. It is hard to see why,” Mr. King said. “What does seem impractical, however, are the current arrangements. Anyone who proposed giving government guarantees to retail depositors and other creditors, and then suggested that such funding could be used to finance highly risky and speculative activities, would be thought rather unworldly. But that is where we now are.”

The prevailing view in Washington, however, is more restrained. Daniel K. Tarullo, an appointee of President Obama’s, last week dismissed the idea of breaking up big banks as “more a provocative idea than a proposal.”

At a meeting Friday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, said in response to a question by a former Bank of England deputy governor that he would prefer “a more subtle approach without losing the economic benefit of multifunction, international firms.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers generally agree that the “too big to fail” policy of taxpayer bailouts for the giants of finance needs to be curtailed. But the fine print — how to reduce the policy and moral hazards it has encouraged — has provoked fears on Wall Street.

Even before Mr. Frank unveils his latest proposals, industry executives and lawyers say its approach could make it unnecessarily more expensive for them to do business during less turbulent times.

“Of course you want to set up a system where an institution dreads the day it happens because management gets whacked, shareholders get whacked and the board gets whacked,” said Edward L. Yingling, president of the American Bankers Association. “But you don’t want to create a system that raises great uncertainty and changes what institutions, risk management executives and lawyers are used to.”

T. Timothy Ryan, the president of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said the market crisis exposed that “there was a failure in the statutory framework for the resolution of large, interconnected firms and everyone knows that.” But he added that many institutions on Wall Street were concerned that the administration’s plan would remove many of the bankruptcy protections given to lenders of large institutions.

    U.S. Considers Reining In ‘Too Big to Fail’ Institutions, NYT, 26.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/business/economy/26big.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Makes First Trip to New Orleans as President

 

October 15, 2009
Filed at 2:02 p.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times

 

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- President Barack Obama, who accused the Bush administration of standing by ''while a major American city drowns,'' flew to New Orleans Thursday to hear directly about its 4-year-long struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

It was Obama's first visit since he assumed the presidency from George W. Bush. He flew in to listen to city residents describe the hardships they've encountered since that harrowing time in the summer of 2005 when Katrina ravaged much of the Gulf Coast.

Some 1,600 people were killed in Louisiana and Mississippi -- and damages have been estimated at roughly $40 billion. It's a cost more starkly visible in the blighted neighborhoods of creaky houses, boarded-up businesses, structure after structure awaiting demolition and critical recovery work not yet commenced.

The storm was a natural disaster that also turned into a political one for Bush; the Federal Emergency Management Agency was widely criticized for a slow response, and local officials have complained that the Bush administration often stubbornly refused to pay for work that should have qualified for federal aid.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has credited Obama's team with bringing a more practical and flexible approach to the reconstruction process. ''There's a sense of momentum and a desire to get things done,'' he said in August.

Some residents have criticized Obama for making such a brief visit -- he was expected to be in and out of the city in just a few hours -- and people in Mississippi, which took a direct hit from Katrina, were miffed that the president was skipping them.

Obama visited a school with his education secretary, Arne Duncan. Both men walked around the room and talked to students seated at 10 round tables. The president also was holding a town hall meeting. Afterward, he was heading west to San Francisco to help the Democratic Party raise money.

Obama also went outside and spoke to the rest of the school. He talked about growing up without a father and how hard he studied.

''I'm especially glad to come back here because I remember four years ago right after the storm, you know, a lot of people felt forgotten ... You now see a school that is doing much better,'' he said.

''I'm greatly disappointed he's not coming to Mississippi,'' said Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., where almost every standing structure was destroyed or damaged. ''There was no city hit harder than Waveland.''

The White House said Obama is committed to Mississippi's recovery as well.

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton said Obama had seen the damage on past visits. Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Louisiana, Burton said that Obama had sent more Cabinet secretaries and other administration officials to the Gulf Coast region than virtually any other corner of the country. Burton also said the administration has freed up billions of dollars in aid for the region and has helped cut red tape.

With Thursday's visit, ''the president is here to listen.''

He might be in for an earful.

Even before Air Force One touched down, people who won tickets in an Internet lottery for a town hall where Obama would answer their questions lined up by the hundreds outside the 1,500-seat University of New Orleans fitness center.

About 100 demonstrators were nearby. Some protested Obama's health care proposals; others chanted support for him.

''I'm a small business owner and the things he has proposed are going to collapse my business,'' said Tom Clement, 62, who came from Baton Rouge, where he runs a landscape contracting business with five employees.

Audrey Royal, 50, who brought her 11-year-old granddaughter to the event, said it's too early to evaluate the Obama administration's efforts.

''Nothing happens in nine months. I really don't blame anybody,'' said Royal. She said she and her husband lived in a FEMA trailer until April of this year while rebuilding their home. She said repairs cost more than $100,000 but that a federal-state hurricane rebuilding program only provided $55,000. They had no insurance to make up the difference, Royal said.

''It takes a lot of people to make it happen. It's just time, money and patience,'' she added.

When Obama became president, FEMA said more than 120 Louisiana reconstruction projects were stalled in federal-state disputes. Since January, 76 of those have been resolved. But there's still much work remaining.

While it's Obama's first trip to New Orleans, it's the administration's 18th trip to the city. Administration officials also have made 35 trips to the Gulf Coast since March.

By the time Obama took office, the federal government had committed more than $126 billion to rebuilding Gulf Coast communities affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In the past nine months, the administration says more than $1.4 billion in additional federal aid has gone toward repairing and rebuilding Louisiana and $160 million more to Mississippi.

But the impact from Katrina is still visible in places like New Orleans. Across from a school Obama planned to visit, firefighters work out of a trailer and a storm-shuttered community center awaits demolition.

------

Associated Press writers Becky Bohrer and Mike Kunzelman in New Orleans contributed to this report.

    Obama Makes First Trip to New Orleans as President, NYT, 16.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/10/15/us/AP-US-Obama-New-Orleans.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Says He’s ‘Surprised’ and ‘Humbled’ by Nobel Prize

 

October 10, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and WALTER GIBBS

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” a surprising honor that came less than nine months after he made United States history by becoming the country’s first African-American president.

The award, announced in Oslo by the Nobel Committee while much of official Washington — including the president — was still asleep, cited in particular the president’s efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

“He has created a new international climate,” the committee said.

For Mr. Obama, at 48 one of the nation’s youngest presidents, the award is an extraordinary recognition that puts him in the company of world leaders such as Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who won for helping to bring an end to the cold war, and Nelson Mandela, who sought an end to apartheid. But it is also a potential political liability at home; already, Republicans are criticizing the president, contending he won more for his “star power” than his actual achievements.

Appearing in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama said he was ‘’surprised and deeply humbled” by the committee’s decision, and quickly put to rest any speculation that he might not accept the honor. Describing the award as an “affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations,” he said he would accept it as “a call to action.”

“To be honest,” the president said “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize, men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.”

The news shocked people in Oslo — where an audible gasp escaped the audience when the decision was announced — and in Washington, where top advisers to Mr. Obama said they had no idea it was coming. The president was awakened shortly before 6 a.m. by his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, who delivered the news.

“There has been no discussion, nothing at all,” said Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, in a brief early morning telephone interview.

The prize will be awarded in Oslo on Dec. 10, and the White House said Mr. Obama would attend the ceremony. Mr. Gibbs said the president told him that he would donate the prize money, roughly $1.4 million, to charity.

In perhaps a reflection of the awkwardness the prize has created within the White House, there was no air of celebration or flood of congratulatory telephone calls. Mr. Gibbs said he did not know if the president had heard from any of his predecessors. And the spokesman declined to share the president’s precise reaction to the news, saying only that Mr. Obama was “very surprised.”

In one sense, the award was a rebuke to the foreign policies of Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, some of which the president has sought to overturn. Mr. Obama made repairing the fractured relations between the United States and the rest of the world a major theme of his campaign for the presidency. Since taking office as president he has pursued a range of policies intended to fulfill that goal. He has vowed to pursue a world without nuclear weapons, as he did in a speech in Prague earlier this year; reached out to the Muslim world, delivering a major speech in Cairo in June; and sought to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the committee said in its citation. “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

But while Mr. Obama has generated considerable good will overseas — his foreign counterparts are eager to meet with him, and polls show he is hugely popular around the world — many of his policy efforts have yet to bear fruit, or are only just beginning to do so. North Korea has defied him with missile tests; Iran, however, recently agreed to restart nuclear talks, which Mr. Obama has called “a constructive beginning.”

In that sense, Mr. Obama is unlike past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize such as former President Jimmy Carter, who won in 2002 for what presenters cited as decades of “untiring efforts” to seek peaceful end to international conflicts. (Mr. Carter failed to win in 1978, as some had expected, after he brokered a historic peace deal between Israel and Egypt.)

Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and a former prime minister of Norway, said the president had already contributed enough to world diplomacy and international understanding to earn the award.

“We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year,” Mr. Jagland said. “We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.”

Reaction from around the world was mixed, with some leaders and analysts applauding the president’s peace initiatives and others saying the award seemed premature and based on good intentions rather than actual accomplishments.

The honor comes as Mr. Obama faces considerable challenges at home. On the domestic front, he is trying to press Congress to pass major legislation overhauling the nation’s health care system. On the foreign policy front, he is wrestling with declining support in his own party for the war in Afghanistan. The White House is engaged in an internal debate over whether to send more troops there, as Mr. Obama’s commanding general has requested.

Even before Mr. Obama appeared in the Rose Garden to discuss the award, he was facing criticism from the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.

“The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’ It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights,” Mr. Steele said in a statement. “One thing is certain — President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.”

Mr. Obama’s rival in last year’s presidential election, the Republican senator John McCain, said on CNN this morning: “I think part of their decision-making was expectations. And I’m sure the president understands that he now has even more to live up to.”

Mr. Obama suffered a rejection on the world stage only last Friday when he traveled to Copenhagen to press the United States’ unsuccessful bid to host the Olympics in Chicago. Mr. Emanuel, who heard the news at 5 a.m. when he was heading out for his morning swim, said he joked to his wife, “Oslo beats Copenhagen.”

But rebuffs have been rare for Mr. Obama as he has traveled the world these past nine months — from Africa to Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, with a trip to Asia planned for November.

In April, just hours after North Korea tested a ballistic missile in defiance of international sanctions, he told a huge crowd in Prague that he was committed to “a world without nuclear weapons.”

In June, he traveled to Cairo, fulfilling a campaign pledge to deliver a speech in a major Muslim capital. There, in a speech that was interrupted with shouts of, “We love you!” from the crowd, Mr. Obama said he sought a “new beginning” and a “fresh relationship” based on mutual understanding and respect.

Mr. Obama’s foreign policy has been criticized bitterly among neoconservatives like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who have suggested his rhetoric is naïve and his inclination to talk to America’s enemies will leave the United States vulnerable to another terrorist attack.

In its announcement of the prize, the Nobel Committee seemed to reject that line of thinking.

“Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics,” the committee wrote. “Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.”

Interviewed later in the Nobel Committee’s wood-paneled meeting room, surrounded by photographs of past winners, Mr. Jagland brushed aside concerns expressed by some critics that Mr. Obama remains untested.

“The question we have to ask is who has done the most in the previous year to enhance peace in the world,” Mr. Jagland said. “And who has done more than Barack Obama?”

He compared the selection of Mr. Obama with the award in 1971 to the then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt for his “Ostpolitik” policy of reconciliation with communist eastern Europe.

“Brandt hadn’t achieved much when he got the prize, but a process had started that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Mr. Jagland said. “We have to get the world on the right track again,” he said. Without referring specifically to the Bush era, he continued: “Look at the level of confrontation we had just a few years ago. Now we get a man who is not only willing but probably able to open dialogue and strengthen international institutions.”

President Obama is the third leading American Democrat to win the prize this decade, following former Vice President Al Gore in 2007 along with the United Nations climate panel and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002.

Mr. Obama is also the third sitting American president to win the prize; the others were Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Mr. Carter won more than 20 years after he left office.

The prize was won last year by the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari for peace efforts in Africa and the Balkans.

Mr. Obama arrived in the Rose Garden looking serious to the point of appearing stern, but quickly tried to put a lighter touch on the development. He told reporters that his daughters had quickly brought him down to size after he received the news. Malia, 11, told him that it was the birthday of their dog, Bo, Mr. Obama said, and Sasha, 8, reminded him that they had a three-day weekend coming up.

“It’s good to have kids to keep things in perspective,” the president said.



Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported from Washington, Walter Gibbs from Oslo. Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London, and Richard Berry from Paris.

    Obama Says He’s ‘Surprised’ and ‘Humbled’ by Nobel Prize, NYT, 10.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/10/world/10nobel.html

 

 

 

 

 

In Surprise, Obama Wins Nobel for Diplomacy

 

October 10, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and WALTER GIBBS

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

In a stunning surprise, the Nobel Committee announced in Oslo that it has awarded the annual prize to the president “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The award cited in particular Mr. Obama’s effort to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal.

“He has created a new international climate,” the committee said.

The announcement, coming extraordinarily early in Mr. Obama’s presidency — less than nine months after he took office as the first African American president — shocked people from Norway to Washington.

The White House had no idea it was coming.

“There has been no discussion, nothing at all,” said Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, in a brief telephone interview.

Mr. Emanuel said he had not yet spoken directly to the president, but that he believed Mr. Obama may have been informed of the award by his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. There was no official comment from the White House. However, a senior administration official said in an e-mail message that Mr. Gibbs called the White House shortly before 6 a.m. and woke the president with the news.

“The president was humbled to be selected by the committee,” the official said, without adding anything further.

Mr. Obama made repairing the fractured relations between the United States and the rest of the world a major theme of his campaign for the presidency and since taking office as president, he has pursued a range of policies intended to fulfill that goal. He has vowed to pursue a world without nuclear arms, as he did in a speech in Prague earlier this year, reached out to the Muslim world, delivering a major speech in Cairo in June, and sought to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the committee said in its citation. “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

But while Mr. Obama has generated considerable good will overseas — his foreign counterparts are eager to meet with him, and polls show he is hugely popular around the world — many of his policy efforts have yet to bear fruit, or are only just beginning to. North Korea has defied him with missile tests; Iran, however, recently agreed to restart nuclear talks, which Mr. Obama has called “a constructive beginning.”

In that sense, Mr. Obama is unlike past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize such as former President Jimmy Carter, who won in 2002 for what presenters cited as decades of “untiring efforts” to seek peaceful end to international conflicts. (Mr. Carter failed to win in 1978, as some had expected, after he brokered a historic peace deal between Israel and Egypt.)

Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and a former prime minister of Norway, said the president had already contributed enough to world diplomacy and international understanding to earn the award.

“We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year,” Mr. Jagland said. “We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.”

The prize comes as Mr. Obama faces considerable challenges at home. On the domestic front, he is trying to press Congress to pass major legislation overhauling the nation’s health care system. On the foreign policy front, he is wrestling with declining support in his own party for the war in Afghanistan. The White House is engaged in an internal debate over whether to send more troops there, as Mr. Obama’s commanding general has requested.

Mr. Obama also suffered a rejection on the world stage when he traveled to Copenhagen only last Friday to press the United States’ unsuccessful bid to host the Olympics in Chicago. Mr. Emanuel, who heard the news at 5 a.m. when he was heading out for his morning swim, said he joked to his wife, “Oslo beats Copenhagen.”

But rebuffs have been rare for Mr. Obama as he has traveled the world these past nine months — from Africa to Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, with a trip to Asia planned for November.

In April, just hours after North Korea tested a ballistic missile in defiance of international sanctions, he told a huge crowd in Prague that he is committed to “a world without nuclear weapons.”

In June, he traveled to Cairo, fulfilling a campaign pledge to deliver a speech in a major Muslim capital. There, in a speech that was interrupted with shouts of “We love you!” from the crowd, Mr. Obama said he sought a “new beginning” and a “fresh relationship” based on mutual understanding and respect.

“I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors,” the president said then. “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, to seek common ground.”

But Mr. Obama’s foreign policy has been criticized bitterly among neoconservatives like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who have suggested his rhetoric is naïve and his inclination to talk to America’s enemies will leave the United States vulnerable to another terrorist attack.

In its announcement of the prize, the Nobel Committee seemed to directly refute that line of thinking.

“Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics,” the committee wrote. “Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.”

Interviewed later in the Nobel Committee’s wood-paneled meeting room, surrounded by photographs of past winners, Mr. Jagland brushed aside concerns expressed by some critics that Mr. Obama remains untested.

“The question we have to ask is who has done the most in the previous year to enhance peace in the world,” Mr. Jagland said. “And who has done more than Barack Obama?”

He compared the selection of Mr. Obama with the award in 1971 to the then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt for his “Ostpolitik” policy of reconciliation with communist eastern Europe.

“Brandt hadn’t achieved much when he got the prize, but a process had started that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Mr. Jagland. “The same thing is true of the prize to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, for launching perestroika. One can say that Barack Obama is trying to change the world, just as those two personalities changed Europe.”

“We have to get the world on the right track again,” he said. Without referring specifically to the Bush era, he continued: “Look at the level of confrontation we had just a few years ago. Now we get a man who is not only willing but probably able to open dialogue and strengthen international institutions.”

President Obama was the third leading American Democrat to win the prize in 10 years, following former Vice President Al Gore in 2007 along with the United Nations climate panel and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002.

The last sitting American president to win the prize was Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Theodore Roosevelt was selected in 1906 while in the White House and Mr. Carter more than 20 years after he left office.

The prize was won last year by the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari for peace efforts in Africa and the Balkans.

The prize is worth the equivalent of $1.4 million and is to be awarded in Oslo on Dec. 10.

The full citation read: “The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

“Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the United States is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.”

 

Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported from Washington and Walter Gibbs from Oslo, Norway. Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London and Richard Berry from Paris.

    In Surprise, Obama Wins Nobel for Diplomacy, NYT, 10.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/10/world/10nobel.html

 

 

 

 

 

8 Years in, Obama Weighs Afghanistan Options

 

October 7, 2009
Filed at 3:10 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

WASHINGTON (AP) -- On the eighth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama is gathering his national security team for another strategy session.

Obama is examining how to proceed with a worsening war that has claimed nearly 800 U.S. lives and sapped American patience. Launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to defeat the Taliban and rid al-Qaida of a home base, the war has lasted longer than ever envisioned.

House and Senate leaders of both parties emerged Tuesday from a nearly 90-minute conversation with Obama with praise for his candor and interest in listening. But politically speaking, all sides appeared to exit where they entered, with Republicans pushing Obama to follow his military commanders and Democrats saying he should not be rushed.

Obama said the war would not be reduced to a narrowly defined counterterrorism effort, with the withdrawal of many U.S. forces and an emphasis on special operations forces that target terrorists in the dangerous border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two senior administration officials say such a scenario has been inaccurately characterized and linked to Vice President Joe Biden, and that Obama wanted to make clear he is considering no such plan.

The president did not show his hand on troop increases. His top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has bluntly warned that more troops are needed to right the war, perhaps up to 40,000 more. Obama has already added 21,000 troops this year, raising the total to 68,000.

Obama also gave no timetable for a decision, which prompted at least one pointed exchange.

Inside the State Dining Room, where the meeting was held, Obama's Republican opponent in last year's presidential race, Sen. John McCain, told Obama that he should not move at a ''leisurely pace,'' according to people in the room.

That comment later drew a sharp response from Obama, they said. Obama said no one felt more urgency than he did about the war, and there would not be nothing leisurely about it.

Obama may be considering a more modest building of troops -- closer to 10,000 than 40,000 -- according to Republican and Democratic congressional aides. But White House aides said no such decision has been made.

The president insisted that he will make a decision on troops after settling on the strategy ahead. He told lawmakers he will be deliberate yet show urgency.

''We do recognize that he has a tough decision, and he wants ample time to make a good decision,'' said House Republican leader John Boehner. ''Frankly, I support that, but we need to remember that every day that goes by, the troops that we do have there are in greater danger.''

What's clear is that the mission in Afghanistan is not changing. Obama said his focus is to keep al-Qaida terrorists from having a base from which to launch attacks on the U.S or its allies. He heard from 18 lawmakers and said he would keep seeking such input even knowing his final decision would not please them all.

Obama's emphasis on building a strong strategy did not mean he shed much light on what it would be. He did, though, seek to ''dispense with the more extreme options on either side of the debate,'' as one administration official put it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-door meeting.

The president made clear he would not ''double down'' in Afghanistan and build up U.S forces into the hundreds of thousands, just as he ruled out withdrawing forces and focusing on a narrow counterterrorism strategy.

''Half-measures is what I worry about,'' McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters. He said Obama should follow recommendations from those in uniform and dispatch thousands of more troops to the country -- similar to what President George W. Bush did during the 2008 troop ''surge'' in Iraq.

Public support for the war in Afghanistan is dropping. It stands at 40 percent, down from 44 percent in July, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. A total of 69 percent of self-described Republicans in the poll favor sending more troops, while 57 percent of self-described Democrats oppose it.

The White House said Obama won't base his decisions on the mood on Capitol Hill or eroding public support for the war.

''The president is going to make a decision -- popular or unpopular -- based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country,'' press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.

------

Associated Press writers Pamela Hess, Jim Kuhnhenn, Anne Flaherty, Anne Gearan, Jennifer Loven, Robert Burns, Philip Elliott and Charles Babington contributed to this report.

    8 Years in, Obama Weighs Afghanistan Options, NYT, 7.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/10/07/us/politics/AP-US-US-Afghanistan.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Rejects Race as Lead Cause of Criticism

 

September 19, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he did not believe his race was the cause of fierce criticism aimed at his administration in the contentious national debate over health care, but rather that the cause was a sense of suspicion and distrust many Americans have in their government.

“Are there people out there who don’t like me because of race? I’m sure there are,” Mr. Obama told CNN. “That’s not the overriding issue here.”

In five separate television interviews at the White House, Mr. Obama said he did not agree with former President Jimmy Carter’s assertion that racism was fueling the opposition to his administration. He described himself as just the latest in a line of presidents whose motives had been questioned because they were trying to enact major change.

Mr. Obama will appear on five Sunday talk shows — an unprecedented step for a president — to promote his health care plan. The television networks broadcast brief parts of their interviews on Friday evening, all of which focused on a question the White House has sought to avoid all week: Has race played a role in the debate?

Mr. Obama, the nation’s first black president, said “race is such a volatile issue in this society” that he conceded it had become difficult for people to tell whether it was simply a backdrop of the current political discussion or “a predominant factor.”

“Now there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right,” he told ABC News. “And I think that that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol.”

The president spoke to anchors from three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC as well as the cable networks CNN and Univision.

He conceded that many people were skeptical of the health care legislation making its way through Congress.

“The overwhelming part of the American population, I think, is right now following this debate, and they are trying to figure out, is this going to help me?” Mr. Obama said in one of the interviews. “Is health care going to make me better off?”

But even as the White House sought to push it aside, the issue of race persisted through the week, with some critics saying it was the reason a Republican lawmaker was disrespectful to the president last week, calling him a liar as Mr. Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. The television interviews on Friday were the first time Mr. Obama had weighed in.

“Look, I said during the campaign there’s some people who still think through a prism of race when it comes to evaluating me and my candidacy. Absolutely,” Mr. Obama told NBC News. “Sometimes they vote for me for that reason; sometimes they vote against me for that reason.”

But he said that the matter was really “an argument that’s gone on for the history of this republic. And that is, what’s the right role of government?”

The president said the contentious health care debate, which came on the heels of extraordinary government involvement in bailing out banks and automobile companies, had led to a broader discussion about the role of government in society.

“I think that what’s driving passions right now is that health care has become a proxy for a broader set of issues about how much government should be involved in our economy,” Mr. Obama told CBS News. “Even though we’re having a passionate disagreement here, we can be civil to each other, and we can try to express ourselves acknowledging that we’re all patriots, we’re all Americans and not assume the absolute worst in people’s motives.”

The president used the media blitz to add his own commentary about the news media.

He said he blamed cable television and blogs, which he said “focus on the most extreme element on both sides,” for much of the inflamed rhetoric.

“The easiest way to get 15 minutes of fame,” Mr. Obama said, “is to be rude to someone.”

    Obama Rejects Race as Lead Cause of Criticism, NYT, 19.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/19/health/policy/19obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

White House to Scrap Bush’s Approach to Missile Shield

 

September 18, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER and NICHOLAS KULISH

 

WASHINGTON —President Obama announced on Thursday that he would scrap former President George W. Bush’s planned missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic and instead deploy a reconfigured system aimed more at intercepting shorter-range Iranian missiles.

Mr. Obama decided not to deploy a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic or 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland, as Mr. Bush had planned. Instead, the new system his administration is developing would deploy smaller SM-3 missiles, at first aboard ships and later probably either in southern Europe or Turkey, officials said.

“President Bush was right that Iran’s ballistic missile program poses a significant threat,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House. But he said new assessments of the nature of the Iranian threat required a different system that would use existing technology and different locations. “This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program.”

The decision amounts to one of the biggest national security reversals by the new administration, one that has upset Czech and Polish allies and pleased Russia, which has adamantly objected to the Bush plan. But Obama administration officials stressed that they were not abandoning missile defense, only redesigning it to meet the more immediate Iranian threat.

“We value the U.S. president’s responsible approach towards implementing our agreements,” President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia said Thursday in an address on national television, news agencies reported. “I am ready to continue the dialogue,” he said.

Mr. Obama called the leaders of both Poland and the Czech Republic before making his announcement and said he “reaffirmed our deep and close ties.” In speaking with reporters, he also reiterated America’s commitment under Article V of the NATO charter that states that an attack on one member is an attack on the entire alliance.

But he also repeated that Russia’s concerns about the original missile defense plan were “entirely unfounded” because both then and now it is aimed only at Iran or other rogue states. He offered again to work with Russia on a joint missile defense program.

The decision drew immediate Republican criticism for weakening the missile defenses Mr. Bush envisioned.

“Scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more then empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House minority leader. “It shows a willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world, while taking one of the most important defenses against Iran off the table.”

Anticipating the criticism, Mr. Obama said the decision was based on the unanimous recommendation of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he sent Mr. Gates, a Republican first appointed by Mr. Bush, to discuss the decision with reporters.

Mr. Gates said the new system would actually put defenses in place sooner than the Bush plan and noted that land-based interceptor missiles would eventually be located in Europe, including possibly Poland or the Czech Republic.

To say that the Obama administration was scrapping missile defense, Mr. Gates said, is “misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing.” He added that the new configuration “provides a better missile defense capability” than the one he had recommended to Mr. Bush.

Administration officials said the Bush missile defense architecture was better designed to counter potential long-range missiles by Iran, but recent tests and intelligence have indicated that Tehran is moving more rapidly toward developing short- and medium-range missiles. Mr. Obama’s advisers said their reconfigured system would be more aimed at that threat by stationing interceptor missiles closer to Iran.

It was only clear late last month that the Obama administration was seriously considering alternative plans.

In arranging post-midnight calls by Mr. Obama to Czech and Polish leaders, and quickly sending a top State Department official to Europe, the administration was scrambling to notify and assure the European allies early Thursday morning as word of its decision was already leaking out in Washington. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the administration would jettison the Bush architecture.

But it made for unfortunate timing, as Thursday is the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, a date fraught with sensitivity for Poles who viewed the Bush missile defense system as a political security blanket against Russia. Poland and many other countries in the former Soviet sphere worry that Mr. Obama is less willing to stand up to Russia. Mr. Bush had developed a special relationship with Eastern Europe as relations between Washington and Moscow deteriorated. The proposal to deploy parts of the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic were justified on the grounds that they would protect Europe and the eastern coast of the United States against any possible missile attacks from Iran.

But the Polish and Czech governments also saw the presence of American military personnel based permanently in their countries as a protection against Russia. Moscow strongly opposed the shield and claimed it was aimed against Russia and undermined national security. The United States repeatedly denied such claims.

Mr. Obama’s advisers have said their changes to missile defense were motivated by the accelerating Iranian threat, not by Russian complaints. But the announcement comes just days before a private meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev that is schedule to take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly opening in New York.

The administration’s four-phase plan would deploy existing SM-3 interceptors using the sea-based Aegis system in 2011, then after more testing deploy in 2015 an improved version of the interceptors both on ships and on land along with advanced sensors. A still more advanced version of the interceptors would be deployed in 2018 and yet another generation in 2020, the latter with more capacity to counter possible future intercontinental missiles.

By doing so, officials said, they would be getting the first defenses actually in place seven years earlier than the Bush plan, which envisioned deploying in 2018 the bigger ground-based interceptors that are still being developed. The Obama review of missile defense was influenced in large part by evidence that Iran has made significant progress toward developing medium-range missiles that could threaten Europe, even as the prospects of an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States remain distant.

In May, Iran launched the Sejil-2, the first successful test of a solid-fuel missile. With an estimated range of around 1,200 miles, it could strike Israel or many parts of Europe. Unlike Iran’s liquid-fuel missiles, a solid-fuel missile can be stored, moved around and fired on shorter notice, and thus is considered by military experts to be a greater threat.

The Obama team relied heavily on research by a Stanford University physicist, Dean Wilkening, who presented the government with research this year arguing that Poland and the Czech Republic were not the most effective places to station a missile defense system against the most likely Iranian threat. Instead, he said, more optimal places to station missiles and radar systems would be in Turkey or the Balkans.

“If you move the system down closer to the Middle East,” it would “make more sense for the defense of Europe, Mr. Wilkening said in an interview.

Mr. Wilkening said the new administration did not want to simply abandon missile defense but orient it for a different threat than the Bush team saw. “The Obama administration is more interested in missile defense as a valuable instrument, a valuable aspect of our military posture than I would have thought,” he said.

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s Parliament, said in an interview on Thursday that the decision would give a major boost to relations between the two countries. Mr. Margelov said it would in particular help negotiations when Mr. Obama meets with Mr. Medvedev at the United Nations next week.

“For Russia, it is a victory for common sense,” Mr. Margelov said. “It another positive signal that we have received from Washington that makes the general climate very positive.”

But Mr. Margelov expressed doubt that the decision would make Moscow more willing to support a push by the United States to increase sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities. The Kremlin said last week that it would essentially block new sanctions, playing down Western concerns that Iran had made progress in its bid for nuclear weapons.

 

Peter Baker reported from Washington and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin. Judy Dempsey contributed reporting from Berlin, and Clifford J. Levy from Moscow.

    White House to Scrap Bush’s Approach to Missile Shield, NYT, 17.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/world/europe/18shield.html

 

 

 

 

 

Political Memo

As Race Debate Grows, Obama Steers Clear of It

 

September 17, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY and JIM RUTENBERG

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama has long suggested that he would like to move beyond race. The question now is whether the country will let him.

He woke up on Wednesday to a rapidly intensifying debate about how his race factors into the broader discussion of civility in politics, a question prompted in part by former President Jimmy Carter’s assertion Tuesday that racism was behind a Republican lawmaker’s outburst against Mr. Obama last week as the president addressed a joint session of Congress.

Even before that, several conservatives had accused their liberal counterparts of unfairly tainting them as racists for engaging in legitimate criticism of the White House.

Mr. Obama’s response to all this, aides say, has been to tell his staff not to be distracted by the charges and to focus on health care and the rest of his policy agenda.

“He could probably give a very powerful speech on race, just as he did in the course of the campaign,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “But right now his top domestic priority is health care reform. It’s difficult, challenging and complicated. And if he leads by example, our country will be far better off.”

During the presidential campaign, when he disavowed the incendiary remarks of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., he took the opportunity to explain his views on race in America and invite reconciliation. And after he stumbled in July in accusing the police of “acting stupidly” by arresting the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., he used the occasion for what he called a teachable moment.

But this time the White House has made clear that it does not want to engage on the topic, which beyond threatening to distract attention from the health care push could also put further strain on Mr. Obama’s broad but tenuous electoral coalition of liberals and moderates, Democrats and independents.

Signaling that he had no intention of lending his voice to Mr. Carter’s accusation, the president declined to answer a reporter’s question on the subject in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

And his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told reporters again and again at the daily White House briefing that Mr. Obama did not share Mr. Carter’s views on the motivations of Representative Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who shouted “You lie!” during Mr. Obama’s address.

Even as several leading Congressional Democrats distanced themselves from Mr. Carter’s comments, some liberals pointed Wednesday to what they describe as an increasing number of racially tinged attacks. At last weekend’s conservative protest in Washington, there were Confederate flags, references on placards to sending Mr. Obama to Africa and pictures of him in whiteface, as the Joker in the last “Batman” movie. There are also, of course, the continuing questions from some on the right about his United States citizenship.

But a number of prominent conservatives say critics have been smeared by many of the president’s supporters.

On his radio program this week, Rush Limbaugh said, “Today, it’s all based in racism — the criticism of Obama’s health care plan or whatever.” On Fox News, former Speaker Newt Gingrich added, “I think it’s very destructive for America to suggest that we can’t criticize a president without it being a racial act.”

It is difficult to gauge the extent to which the vitriol that has come Mr. Obama’s way is racially motivated and the extent to which it is simply akin to that directed at his white predecessors.

Former officials who served under President George W. Bush have been quick to recall this week that protesters frequently compared him to Hitler and that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, called him a “loser” and a “liar.”

In an interview Wednesday shortly after meeting privately with Mr. Obama in the Oval Office, Colin L. Powell, secretary of state under Mr. Bush, said: “You can find pictures where Bush was called all kinds of names, with all sorts of banners being held up and burned in effigy. I’ve seen it in every presidency.”

Mr. Powell said he believed that Mr. Obama might be facing even more apparent hostility but that the blame lay not necessarily in racial bias, but instead with the partisan culture of the Internet and cable news and the way they amplify the more extreme voices.

“The issue there is not race, it’s civility,” Mr. Powell said. “This is not to say that we are suddenly racially pure, but constantly talking about it and reducing everything to black versus white is not helpful to the cause of restoring civility to our public dialogue.”

Other supporters of Mr. Obama, however, say they cannot help seeing overt racism in some of the conservative attacks.

“You cannot act like you don’t have several hundred years of racial context here, where a painted face has a racial context to it in this country,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who helped on Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign and has studied race extensively.

Mr. Belcher and other Obama allies said that some race-based discomfort was inevitable, especially among very conservative white voters who see Mr. Obama’s rise as reflecting a shift in the social order that comes at their expense.

Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said: “It’s difficult, because people haven’t seen this before. They’ve never seen a black president wanting to talk to their children, a black man saying, ‘We can do better.’ ”

Mr. Obama has many top aides who are white and have spent years dealing with race in the context of politics. He also has a close group of African-American advisers and friends for whom a racial conversation like the one bubbling up this week is not an abstract issue but a way of life. There have been occasional tensions between the two groups in the past, but on Wednesday, at least, there were no obvious signs of disagreement.

His goal, Mr. Obama has told both camps, is to be seen as a president who happens to be black rather than the nation’s first black president.

    As Race Debate Grows, Obama Steers Clear of It, NYT, 17.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/us/politics/17obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

On Wall Street, Obama Pushes Stricter Finance Rules

 

September 15, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY

 

President Obama came to Wall Street on Monday to tout how the nation’s economic outlook has improved from a year ago, but he called on Congress to pass stronger financial regulations this year, as he offered a sharp admonition that “there are some in the financial industry who are misreading this moment.”

“Instead of learning the lessons of Lehman and the crisis from which we are still recovering, they are choosing to ignore them,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan. “They do so not just at their own peril, but at our nation’s.”

The president offered no new policy proposals during a lunchtime speech but sought to use the one-year anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers as a moment to mark how the country’s financial system has moved beyond the brink of collapse. As he urged lawmakers to adopt new regulations for Wall Street, he asked executives to accept tougher oversight.

“I want everybody here to hear my words,” Mr. Obama said. “We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses. Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for consequences, and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall.”

Mr. Obama touted the administration’s plans to increase capital cushions at big banks, give the Federal Reserve new powers to oversee system-wide risks to the financial system and establish a new consumer-protection agency, which would have broad powers over home mortgages and other consumer loans.

Mr. Obama also urged banks to adopt changes before Congress acts by simplifying the language they use with consumers, overhauling their pay structures or allowing shareholders vote on 2009 bonuses.

Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement that the policies of the Obama administration have not improved the economic lot for many Americans.

“For more than 3 million Americans who have lost their jobs this year, the president’s policies have been a failure,” Mr. Steele said in a statement released after the speech. “His $787 billion stimulus bill has led to wasteful spending but hasn’t created the jobs he promised.”

Mr. Obama’s appearance on Wall Street comes a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers touched off a series of extraordinary government interventions in the nation’s business sector. The anniversary also marks the moment that Mr. Obama became steeped in the financial crisis, which dominated the closing chapter of his campaign with Senator John McCain of Arizona.

It was one year ago that Mr. McCain declared “the fundamentals of our economy are strong,” a remark Mr. Obama instantly seized upon to portray his Republican rival as out of touch with hardships facing Americans. The argument helped Mr. Obama win the White House, where he inherited an economic crisis. Now, he fully owns it.

“Full recovery of the financial system will take a great deal more time and work, the growing stability resulting from these interventions means we are beginning to return to normalcy,” Mr. Obama said, speaking to an audience of a few hundred people in Federal Hall. “But what I want to emphasize is this: normalcy cannot lead to complacency.”

The president spoke beneath the dome of the building where the nation’s founding fathers once argued sharply over the role that government should play in the country’s economy. Mr. Obama noted the historic setting, saying: “Two centuries later, we still grapple with these questions — questions made more acute in moments of crisis.”

To an audience of a few hundred Wall Street executives, lawmakers and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, Mr. Obama said he would push Congress to pass legislation to “guard against the kind of systemic risks we have seen.” The president was welcomed warmly, but the speech was interrupted only once by applause.

“The fact is, many of the firms that are now returning to prosperity owe a debt to the American people,” Mr. Obama said. “Though they were not the cause of the crisis, American taxpayers through their government took extraordinary action to stabilize the financial industry. They shouldered the burden of the bailout and they are still bearing the burden of the fallout.”

While some Democrats say the health care debate in Washington makes it unlikely that financial reform can be undertaken, Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said he was committed to pursuing the measure this year. The president acknowledged Mr. Frank, who was sitting near the stage, and said the administration wanted to work with the financial industry in crafting the legislation.

“We have a responsibility to write and enforce these rules to protect consumers of financial products, taxpayers, and our economy as a whole,” Mr. Obama said. “Yes, they must be developed in a way that does not stifle innovation and enterprise.”

He added, “The old ways that led to this crisis cannot stand.”

In response to the financial crisis, the Obama administration proposed a series of new financial regulation, included oversight of the risk that large financial institutions pose to the economy, new ways for the government to dismantle fallen companies and a new regulator to oversee financial products for consumers.

“At the same time, what we must do now goes beyond just these reforms,” Mr. Obama said. “For what took place one year ago was not merely a failure of regulation or legislation; it was not merely a failure of oversight or foresight. It was a failure of responsibility that allowed Washington to become a place where problems — including structural problems in our financial system — were ignored rather than solved.”

Following the speech, the president was heading off to have lunch with former President Bill Clinton before returning to Washington later Monday afternoon.

 

Jack Healy contributed reporting.

    On Wall Street, Obama Pushes Stricter Finance Rules, NYT, 15.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/15/business/15obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Text of Obama’s Speech on Financial Reform

 

September 15, 2009
The New York Times

 

Following is the text of President Obama’s address on financial reform, as prepared for delivery on Monday at Federal Hall in New York and released by the White House:

 

Thank you all for being here and for your warm welcome. It’s a privilege to be in historic Federal Hall. It was here more than two centuries ago that our first Congress served and our first President was inaugurated. It was here, in the early days of our Republic, that Hamilton and Jefferson debated how best to administer a young economy and to ensure that our nation rewarded the talents and drive of its people. Two centuries later, we still grapple with these questions — questions made more acute in moments of crisis.

It was one year ago that we experienced just such a crisis. As investors and pension-holders watched with dread and dismay, and after a series of emergency meetings often conducted in the dead of the night, several of the world’s largest and oldest financial institutions had fallen, either bankrupt, bought, or bailed out: Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, Washington Mutual, Wachovia. A week before this began, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had been taken over by the government. Other large firms teetered on the brink of insolvency. Credit markets froze as banks refused to lend not only to families and businesses but to one another. Five trillion dollars of Americans’ household wealth evaporated in the span of just three months.

Congress and the previous administration took difficult but necessary action in the days and months that followed. Nevertheless, when this administration walked through the door in January, the situation remained urgent. The markets had fallen sharply; credit was not flowing. It was feared that the largest banks — those that remained standing — had too little capital and far too much exposure to risky loans. And the consequences had spread far beyond the streets of lower Manhattan. This was no longer just a financial crisis; it had become a full-blown economic crisis, with home prices sinking, businesses struggling to access affordable credit, and the economy shedding an average of 700,000 jobs each month.

We could not separate what was happening in the corridors of our financial institutions from what was happening on factory floors and around kitchen tables. Home foreclosures linked those who took out home loans and those who repackaged those loans as securities. A lack of access to affordable credit threatened the health of large firms and small businesses, as well as all those whose jobs depended on them. And a weakened financial system weakened the broader economy, which in turn further weakened the financial system.

The only way to address successfully any of these challenges was to address them together, and so this administration — with terrific leadership by my Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, as well the Chair of my Council of Economic Advisers, Christy Romer, and the Chair of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers — moved quickly on all fronts, initializing a financial stability plan to rescue the system from the crisis and restart lending for all those affected by the crisis. By opening and examining the books of large financial firms, we helped restore the availability of two things that had been in short supply: capital and confidence. By taking aggressive and innovative steps in credit markets, we spurred lending not just to banks, but to folks looking to buy homes or cars, take out student loans, or finance small businesses. Our home ownership plan has helped responsible homeowners refinance to stem the tide of lost homes and lost home values.

And the recovery plan is providing help to the unemployed and tax relief for working families, all while spurring consumer spending. It’s prevented layoffs of tens of thousands of teachers, police officers, and other essential public servants. And thousands of recovery projects are underway all across America, putting people to work building wind turbines and solar panels, renovating schools and hospitals, and repairing our nation’s roads and bridges.

Eight months later, the work of recovery continues. And although I will never be satisfied while people are out of work and our financial system is weakened, we can be confident that the storms of the past two years are beginning to break.

In fact, while there continues to be a need for government involvement to stabilize the financial system, that necessity is waning. After months in which public dollars were flowing into our financial system, we are finally beginning to see money flowing back to the taxpayers. This doesn’t mean taxpayers will escape the worst financial crisis in decades unscathed. But banks have repaid more than $70 billion, and in those cases where the government’s stake has been sold completely, taxpayers have actually earned a 17-percent return on their investment. Just a few months ago, many experts from across the ideological spectrum feared that ensuring financial stability would require even more tax dollars. Instead, we’ve been able to eliminate a $250 billion reserve included in our budget because that fear has not been realized.

While full recovery of the financial system will take a great deal more time and work, the growing stability resulting from these interventions means we are beginning to return to normalcy. But what I want to emphasize is this: normalcy cannot lead to complacency.

Unfortunately, there are some in the financial industry who are misreading this moment. Instead of learning the lessons of Lehman and the crisis from which we are still recovering, they are choosing to ignore them. They do so not just at their own peril, but at our nation’s. So I want them to hear my words: We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses. Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for consequences, and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall.

That’s why we need strong rules of the road to guard against the kind of systemic risks we have seen. And we have a responsibility to write and enforce these rules to protect consumers of financial products, taxpayers, and our economy as a whole. Yes, they must be developed in a way that does not stifle innovation and enterprise. And we want to work with the financial industry to achieve that end. But the old ways that led to this crisis cannot stand. And to the extent that some have so readily returned to them underscores the need for change and change now. History cannot be allowed to repeat itself.

Instead, we are calling on the financial industry to join us in a constructive effort to update the rules and regulatory structure to meet the challenges of this new century. That is what my administration seeks to do. We have sought ideas and input from industry leaders, policy experts, academics, consumer advocates, and the broader public. And we’ve worked closely with leaders in the Senate and House, including Senators Chris Dodd and Richard Shelby, and Congressman Barney Frank, who are now working to pass regulatory reform through Congress.

Taken together, we are proposing the most ambitious overhaul of the financial system since the Great Depression. But I want to emphasize that these reforms are rooted in a simple principle: we ought to set clear rules of the road that promote transparency and accountability. That’s how we’ll make certain that markets foster responsibility, not recklessness, and reward those who compete honestly and vigorously within the system, instead of those who try to game the system.

First, we’re proposing new rules to protect consumers and a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency to enforce those rules. This crisis was not just the result of decisions made by the mightiest of financial firms. It was also the result of decisions made by ordinary Americans to open credit cards and take on mortgages. And while there were many who took out loans they knew they couldn’t afford, there were also millions of Americans who signed contracts they didn’t fully understand offered by lenders who didn’t always tell the truth.

This is in part because there is no single agency charged with making sure it doesn’t happen. That is what we’ll change. The Consumer Financial Protection Agency will have the power to ensure that consumers get information that is clear and concise, and to prevent the worst kinds of abuses. Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about loan contracts designed to be unintelligible, hidden fees attached to their mortgages, and financial penalties — whether through a credit card or debit card — that appear without warning on their statements. And responsible lenders, including community banks, doing the right thing shouldn’t have to worry about ruinous competition from unregulated competitors.

Now there are those who are suggesting that somehow this will restrict the choices available to consumers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The lack of clear rules in the past meant we had innovation of the wrong kind: the firm that could make its products look best by doing the best job of hiding the real costs won. For example, we had “teaser” rates on credit cards and mortgages that lured people in and then surprised them with big rate increases. By setting ground rules, we’ll increase the kind of competition that actually provides people better and greater choices, as companies compete to offer the best product, not the one that’s most complex or confusing.

Second, we’ve got to close the loopholes that were at the heart of the crisis. Where there were gaps in the rules, regulators lacked the authority to take action. Where there were overlaps, regulators often lacked accountability for inaction. These weaknesses in oversight engendered systematic, and systemic, abuse.

Under existing rules, some companies can actually shop for the regulator of their choice — and others, like hedge funds, can operate outside of the regulatory system altogether. We’ve seen the development of financial instruments, like derivatives and credit default swaps, without anyone examining the risks or regulating all of the players. And we’ve seen lenders profit by providing loans to borrowers who they knew would never repay, because the lender offloaded the loan and the consequences to someone else. Those who refuse to game the system are at a disadvantage.

Now, one of the main reasons this crisis could take place is that many agencies and regulators were responsible for oversight of individual financial firms and their subsidiaries, but no one was responsible for protecting the whole system. In other words, regulators were charged with seeing the trees, but not the forest. And even then, some firms that posed a “systemic risk” were not regulated as strongly as others, exploiting loopholes in the system to take on greater risk with less scrutiny. As a result, the failure of one firm threatened the viability of many others. We were facing one of the largest financial crises in history and those responsible for oversight were caught off guard and without the authority to act.

That’s why we’ll create clear accountability and responsibility for regulating large financial firms that pose a systemic risk. While holding the Federal Reserve fully accountable for regulation of the largest, most interconnected firms, we’ll create an oversight council to bring together regulators from across markets to share information, to identify gaps in regulation, and to tackle issues that don’t fit neatly into an organizational chart. We’ll also require these financial firms to meet stronger capital and liquidity requirements and observe greater constraints on their risky behavior. That’s one of the lessons of the past year. The only way to avoid a crisis of this magnitude is to ensure that large firms can’t take risks that threaten our entire financial system, and to make sure they have the resources to weather even the worst of economic storms.

Even as we’ve proposed safeguards to make the failure of large and interconnected firms less likely, we’ve also proposed creating what’s called “resolution authority” in the event that such a failure happens and poses a threat to the stability of the financial system. This is intended to put an end to the idea that some firms are “too big to fail.” For a market to function, those who invest and lend in that market must believe that their money is actually at risk. And the system as a whole isn’t safe until it is safe from the failure of any individual institution.

If a bank approaches insolvency, we have a process through the FDIC that protects depositors and maintains confidence in the banking system. This process was created during the Great Depression when the failure of one bank led to runs on other banks, which in turn threatened the banking system. And it works. Yet we don’t have any kind of process in place to contain the failure of a Lehman Brothers or AIG or any of the largest and most interconnected financial firms in our country.

That’s why, when this crisis began, crucial decisions about what would happen to some of the world’s biggest companies — companies employing tens of thousands of people and holding trillions of dollars in assets — took place in hurried discussions in the middle of the night. And that’s why we’ve had to rely on taxpayer dollars. The only resolution authority we currently have that would prevent a financial meltdown involved tapping the Federal Reserve or the federal treasury. With so much at stake, we should not be forced to choose between allowing a company to fall into a rapid and chaotic dissolution that threatens the economy and innocent people, or forcing taxpayers to foot the bill. Our plan would put the cost of a firm’s failure on those who own its stock and loaned it money. And if taxpayers ever have to step in again to prevent a second Great Depression, the financial industry will have to pay the taxpayer back — every cent.

Finally, we need to close the gaps that exist not just within this country but among countries. The United States is leading a coordinated response to promote recovery and to restore prosperity among both the world’s largest economies and the world’s fastest growing economies. At a summit in London in April, leaders agreed to work together in an unprecedented way to spur global demand but also to address the underlying problems that caused such a deep and lasting global recession. This work will continue next week in Pittsburgh when I convene the G20, which has proven to be an effective forum for coordinating policies among key developed and emerging economies and one that I see taking on an important role in the future.

Essential to this effort is reforming what’s broken in the global financial system — a system that links economies and spreads both rewards and risks. For we know that abuses in financial markets anywhere can have an impact everywhere; and just as gaps in domestic regulation lead to a race to the bottom, so too do gaps in regulation around the world. Instead, we need a global race to the top, including stronger capital standards, as I’ve called for today. As the United States is aggressively reforming our regulatory system, we will be working to ensure that the rest of the world does the same.

A healthy economy in the 21st Century also depends upon our ability to buy and sell goods in markets across the globe. And make no mistake, this administration is committed to pursuing expanded trade and new trade agreements. It is absolutely essential to our economic future. But no trading system will work if we fail to enforce our trade agreements. So when, as happened this weekend, we invoke provisions of existing agreements, we do so not to be provocative or to promote self-defeating protectionism. We do so because enforcing trade agreements is part and parcel of maintaining an open and free trading system.

And just as we have to live up to our responsibilities on trade, we have to live up to our responsibilities on financial reform as well. I have urged leaders in Congress to pass regulatory reform this year and both Congressman Frank and Senator Dodd, who are leading this effort, have made it clear that that’s what they intend to do. Now there will be those who defend the status quo. There will be those who argue we should do less or nothing at all. But to them I’d say only this: do you believe that the absence of sound regulation one year ago was good for the financial system? Do you believe the resulting decline in markets and wealth and employment was good for the economy? Or the American people?

I’ve always been a strong believer in the power of the free market. I believe that jobs are best created not by government, but by businesses and entrepreneurs willing to take a risk on a good idea. I believe that the role of government is not to disparage wealth, but to expand its reach; not to stifle markets, but to provide the ground rules and level playing field that helps to make them more vibrant — and that will allow us to better tap the creative and innovative potential of our people. For we know that it is the dynamism of our people that has been the source of America’s progress and prosperity.

So I certainly did not run for President to bail out banks or intervene in the capital markets. But it is important to note that the very absence of common-sense regulations able to keep up with a fast-paced financial sector is what created the need for that extraordinary intervention. The lack of sensible rules of the road, so often opposed by those who claim to speak for the free market, led to a rescue far more intrusive than anything any of us, Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative, would have proposed or predicted.

At the same time, what we must do now goes beyond just these reforms. For what took place one year ago was not merely a failure of regulation or legislation; it was not merely a failure of oversight or foresight. It was a failure of responsibility that allowed Washington to become a place where problems — including structural problems in our financial system — were ignored rather than solved. It was a failure of responsibility that led homebuyers and derivative traders alike to take reckless risks they couldn’t afford. It was a collective failure of responsibility in Washington, on Wall Street, and across America that led to the near-collapse of our financial system one year ago.

Restoring a willingness to take responsibility — even when it is hard — is at the heart of what we must do. Here on Wall Street, you have a responsibility. The reforms I’ve laid out will pass and these changes will become law. But one of the most important ways to rebuild the system stronger than before is to rebuild trust stronger than before — and you do not have to wait for a new law to do that. You don’t have to wait to use plain language in your dealings with consumers. You don’t have to wait to put the 2009 bonuses of your senior executives up for a shareholder vote. You don’t have to wait for a law to overhaul your pay system so that folks are rewarded for long-term performance instead of short-term gains.

The fact is, many of the firms that are now returning to prosperity owe a debt to the American people. Though they were not the cause of the crisis, American taxpayers through their government took extraordinary action to stabilize the financial industry. They shouldered the burden of the bailout and they are still bearing the burden of the fallout — in lost jobs, lost homes and lost opportunities. It is neither right nor responsible after you’ve recovered with the help of your government to shirk your obligation to the goal of wider recovery, a more stable system, and a more broadly shared prosperity.

So I want to urge you to demonstrate that you take this obligation to heart. To put greater effort into helping families who need their mortgages modified under my administration’s homeownership plan. To help small business owners who desperately need loans and who are bearing the brunt of the decline in available credit. To help communities that would benefit from the financing you could provide, or the community development institutions you could support. To come up with creative approaches to improve financial education and to bring banking to those who live and work entirely outside the banking system. And, of course, to embrace serious financial reform, not fight it.

Just as we are asking the private sector to think about the long term, Washington must as well. When my administration came through the door, we not only faced a financial crisis and costly recession, we also found waiting a trillion-dollar deficit. Yes, we have had to take extraordinary action in the wake of an extraordinary economic crisis. But I am committed to putting this nation on a sound and secure fiscal footing. That’s why we’re pushing to restore pay-as-you-go rules, because I will not go along with the old Washington ways which said it was OK to pass spending bills and tax cuts without a plan to pay for it. That’s why we’re cutting programs that don’t work or are out of date. And that’s why I’ve insisted that health insurance reform not add a dime to the deficit, now or in the future.

There are those who would suggest that we must choose between markets unfettered by even the most modest of regulations — and markets weighed down by onerous regulations that suppress the spirit of enterprise and innovation. But if there is one lesson we can learn from the last year, it is that this is a false choice. Common-sense rules of the road do not hinder the markets but make them stronger. Indeed, they are essential to ensuring that our markets function, and function fairly and freely.

One year ago, we saw in stark relief how markets can err; how a lack of common-sense rules can lead to excess and abuse; how close we can come to the brink. One year later, it is incumbent on us to put in place those reforms that will prevent this kind of crisis from ever happening again; that reflect the painful but important lessons we’ve learned; and that will help us move from a period of recklessness and crisis to one of responsibility and prosperity. That is what we must do. And I’m confident that is what we will do.

Thank you.

    Text of Obama’s Speech on Financial Reform, NYT, 15.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/15/business/15obamatext.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Speaks at 9/11 Commemoration

 

September 12, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG

 

WASHINGTON — On a gray rainy day in the nation’s capital — so unlike the bright sunny morning eight years ago when terrorists slammed planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon — President Obama called upon Americans to “renew our common purpose” with a day of service and remembrance of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Through their own lives and through you, the loved ones they left behind, the men and women who lost their lives eight years ago today leave a legacy that still shines brightly in the darkness and that calls on all of us to be strong and firm and united,” Mr. Obama said during a memorial service at the Pentagon. “That is our calling today and in all the Septembers still to come.”

Mr. Obama and his wife Michelle began the day of commemoration on the White House South Lawn, where they and some 200 members of the White House staff observed a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., the moment the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center.

It had been raining heavily here, but stopped moments before the Obamas emerged. A bell rang three times and they bowed their heads. They placed their hands over their hearts while a bugler played taps.

The president took a deep breath before he and Mrs. Obama turned silently and walked back into the White House. The staff, including Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, and David Axelrod, the senior adviser, stood silently by for a few moments more.

Then the rain resumed.

Mr. Obama then traveled across the Potomac River to speak briefly at the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77, hijacked by five terrorists after taking off from Dulles International Airport bound for Los Angeles, crashed at 9:37 a.m.

An outdoor memorial now marks the spot with 184 benches, each representing one victim of the attack — 59 on the plane, and 125 on the ground. Mr. Obama placed a wreath there, after addressing an audience that included Defense Secretary Robert Gates, military officials and family members of the victims.

“Mindful that the work of protecting America is never finished, we will do everything in our power to keep America safe,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama is observing his first Sept. 11 as president — eight years ago he was still a state senator in Illinois — and is hoping to use the anniversary and the ones that follow to encourage a spirit of volunteerism. At noon in Washington, there is to be a service at the National Cathedral, and a number of organizations are bringing together students and others for a day of volunteer service, in answer to Mr. Obama’s call.

“On a day when others sought to sap our confidence, let us renew our common purpose, let us remember how we came together as one nation, as one people, as Americans united,” Mr. Obama said. “Such sense of purpose need not be a fleeting moment.”

 

John H. Cushman Jr. contributed reporting.

    Obama Speaks at 9/11 Commemoration, NYT, 12.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/12/us/12capital.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Cites Rising Uninsured in Follow-Up to Speech

 

September 11, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and JEFF ZELENY

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama, seeking to buttress his case for the kind of comprehensive health care overhaul that has eluded Washington for decades, told an audience of nurses on Thursday that the number of uninsured Americans rose by nearly 6 million as the recession intensified during the last 12 months.

“Now is the time to act,” Mr. Obama said, “and I will not permit reform to be postponed or imperiled by the usual ideological diversions.”

On the morning after Mr. Obama’s blunt address on health care to a joint session of Congress, he addressed the nurses on the White House campus — and received the endorsement of their professional association, administration officials said. He used his brief appearance to reinforce Wednesday night’s message that his plan will bring “security and stability” to those who have insurance, and coverage to those who do not.

The event marked the beginning of what the White House regards as the final, crucial phase of the health care debate, in which Mr. Obama will move aggressively to try to close the deal with lawmakers and the American public. The president intends to meet later Thursday at the White House with centrist Democrats, whose support is essential to passing legislation in the Senate. On Saturday, he will return to his bully pulpit, with a campaign-style rally in Minneapolis.

“Most Americans do have insurance and have never had less security and stability than they do right now,” Mr. Obama told the nurses, “because they’re subject to the whims of health insurance companies.”

The White House said the assertion that there are 6 million more unemployed Americans came from a new Gallup Survey that tracked changes in the number of uninsured between September 2008 and today.

Mr. Obama vowed on Wednesday night that he would “not waste time” with those who have made a political calculation to oppose him. But he left the door open to working with Republicans to cut health costs and expand coverage to millions of Americans.

The White House offensive comes after a rocky August, in which many lawmakers held public meetings that deteriorated into shouting matches over health care.

The president placed a price tag on the plan of about $900 billion over 10 years, which he said was “less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” And he sought to reassure the elderly and the Americans who already have insurance that they would not be worse off.

As expected, Mr. Obama repeated his support for a government insurance plan to compete with the private sector, though he said he would consider alternatives to the “public option.”

He sketched out a vision for a plan in which it would be illegal for insurers to drop sick people or deny them coverage for pre-existing conditions, and in which every American would be required to carry health coverage, just as drivers must carry auto insurance.

Mr. Obama did embrace some fresh proposals. He announced a new initiative to create pilot projects intended to curb medical malpractice lawsuits, a cause important to physicians and Republicans.

He endorsed a plan, included in a proposal by Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to help pay for expanding coverage by taxing insurance companies that offer expensive, so-called gold-plated insurance plans. And the president promised to include a provision that “requires us to come forward with more spending cuts” if the savings he envisions do not materialize.

Republicans seemed primed for a fight; many, like Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who has been deeply involved in health negotiations, released statements about the speech even before it began. Mr. Grassley called on Mr. Obama to “start building the kind of legislation that could win the support of 70 to 80 senators,” a goal Mr. Grassley said could not be achieved if the bill contained a new government plan.

 

David Stout contributed reporting.

    Obama Cites Rising Uninsured in Follow-Up to Speech, NYT, 11.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/11/us/politics/11obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

News Analysis

Aim of Obama Health Speech: Reigniting a Presidency

 

September 10, 2009
The New York Times
By ADAM NAGOURNEY

 

WASHINGTON — On one level, President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night was what it seemed: an attempt to corral lawmakers into approving the signature initiative of his presidency, the health care overhaul that has eluded Washington, as Mr. Obama said, for 65 years.

But the speech was about more than health care.

It was an attempt by this still new president to display his authority to a Congress that had begun to question his fortitude, to show that he was as strong a political leader as he was a political candidate and to show that he was not — to use the shorthand of the day — another Jimmy Carter: professorial, aloof, a micromanager who perhaps was not ready to be the nation’s chief executive.

It is one thing to create and surf a political movement, as Mr. Obama did in capturing the White House. It is quite another to lead an uneasy country and a politically divided Congress toward tough decisions that create winners and losers.

“That’s what this is about,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant. “We know he can be a candidate; he may even have the right ideas. Now he has to reach down there and make something big happen in the country — either a lot of Americans changing their minds, or members of Congress backing his agenda even if it puts their own political hides at risk. Can he get people to do these things?”

For nearly an hour, Mr. Obama spoke strongly and passionately, pausing only to acknowledge the repeated cheers from his audience as he made what appeared to be his clearest and most concise case yet on a complicated issue that had repeatedly defied his communications skills.

He managed to invest his case with both economic and emotional urgency — particularly when he invoked the memory of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose widow, Victoria, was in the audience — without getting bogged down in too many details.

Mr. Obama had clearly decided to speak more to the American people watching on television than to the lawmakers arrayed in front of him in the House chamber. On this evening, at least, Congress was part of the political theater, both in the form of the constant applause from fellow Democrats and in the person of the Republican congressman who yelled out “lie” when Mr. Obama asserted that nothing in his plan would provide coverage for illegal immigrants.

It will take time to see if this works. Bill Clinton gave a similarly well-received address on this very subject in the chamber 16 years ago, to an audience that included many of the same people, among them his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then an author of an ambitious health care plan, now secretary of state.

But there was a key difference between Mr. Clinton in 1993 and Mr. Obama today. For Mr. Clinton, it was the beginning of the process; Mr. Obama was ushering in what he hopes to be an endgame, at a moment, as he noted, when four Congressional committees have already reported out bills.

In a recognition of the current political atmosphere, Mr. Obama used his speech to ease away from what had been another defining aspect of his candidacy: the promise to transcend the partisanship in Washington.

He did offer gestures across the aisle, embracing an idea from Senator John McCain of Arizona that would insure the poor against catastrophic medical expenses and endorsing some sort of medical malpractice limits that Republicans have long championed.

But in a climate where at this point he might be lucky to get more than one or two Republican votes from Congress, those were seen by Republicans and Democrats alike mostly as an effort by the White House to get credit for trying and so insulate the administration from criticism that it was trying to jam a bill through on its terms. For the White House, one of the more worrisome events of this summer has been an erosion of independent voters’ support for this president and his health care plan.

Though Mr. Obama spoke of a plan that “incorporates ideas from many people in this room tonight, Democrats and Republicans,” he used the kind of tough, confrontational language that suggested the extent to which the White House would seek to portray Republicans as recalcitrant and standing in the face of a historical tide.

“Know this,” he said: “I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it.”

Matthew Dowd, a onetime adviser to former President George W. Bush, argued in an interview that Mr. Obama would not succeed unless he trimmed back on his plan, defying liberal Democrats and appealing to Republicans.

“You cannot sell the country on something it doesn’t want,” Mr. Dowd said.

Mr. Obama is most engaged when his back is to the wall, typically after a period of drift. Again and again throughout his career, he has risen to the occasion: The November 2007 speech at a dinner of Democrats in Iowa that put him on the road to victory there, his speech that defused the controversy over racially charged remarks by his onetime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., even the speech he gave to Democrats at the 2004 convention in Boston that elevated him to fame.

But as he struggles with the adjustment from campaigning to governing, the battle he is trying to bring to a successful close may prove the toughest test of all.

For his first six months in Washington, Mr. Obama was carried by the momentum of the excitement of his election, by the adrenaline of dealing with the financial crisis that greeted him and by his own popularity. Now, with polls suggesting that all that is beginning to fade, and with Republicans regrouping, he is faced with a need to show that the leadership strengths he displayed as a candidate can be transferred to the office of the presidency.

    Aim of Obama Health Speech: Reigniting a Presidency, NYT, 10.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/us/politics/10assess.html

 

 

 

 

 

Text

Obama’s Health Care Speech to Congress

 

September 10, 2009
The New York Times

 

Following is the prepared text of President Obama’s speech to Congress on the need to overhaul health care in the United States, as released by the White House.

 

Madame Speaker, Vice President Biden, Members of Congress, and the American people:

When I spoke here last winter, this nation was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month. Credit was frozen. And our financial system was on the verge of collapse.

As any American who is still looking for work or a way to pay their bills will tell you, we are by no means out of the woods. A full and vibrant recovery is many months away. And I will not let up until those Americans who seek jobs can find them; until those businesses that seek capital and credit can thrive; until all responsible homeowners can stay in their homes. That is our ultimate goal. But thanks to the bold and decisive action we have taken since January, I can stand here with confidence and say that we have pulled this economy back from the brink.

I want to thank the members of this body for your efforts and your support in these last several months, and especially those who have taken the difficult votes that have put us on a path to recovery. I also want to thank the American people for their patience and resolve during this trying time for our nation.

But we did not come here just to clean up crises. We came to build a future. So tonight, I return to speak to all of you about an issue that is central to that future – and that is the issue of health care.

I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last. It has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for health care reform. And ever since, nearly every President and Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, has attempted to meet this challenge in some way. A bill for comprehensive health reform was first introduced by John Dingell Sr. in 1943. Sixty-five years later, his son continues to introduce that same bill at the beginning of each session.

Our collective failure to meet this challenge – year after year, decade after decade – has led us to a breaking point. Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy. These are not primarily people on welfare. These are middle-class Americans. Some can't get insurance on the job. Others are self-employed, and can't afford it, since buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer. Many other Americans who are willing and able to pay are still denied insurance due to previous illnesses or conditions that insurance companies decide are too risky or expensive to cover.

We are the only advanced democracy on Earth – the only wealthy nation – that allows such hardships for millions of its people. There are now more than thirty million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.

But the problem that plagues the health care system is not just a problem of the uninsured. Those who do have insurance have never had less security and stability than they do today. More and more Americans worry that if you move, lose your job, or change your job, you'll lose your health insurance too. More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won't pay the full cost of care. It happens every day.

One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it. Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer more than doubled in size. That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.

Then there's the problem of rising costs. We spend one-and-a-half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren't any healthier for it. This is one of the reasons that insurance premiums have gone up three times faster than wages. It's why so many employers – especially small businesses – are forcing their employees to pay more for insurance, or are dropping their coverage entirely. It's why so many aspiring entrepreneurs cannot afford to open a business in the first place, and why American businesses that compete internationally – like our automakers – are at a huge disadvantage. And it's why those of us with health insurance are also paying a hidden and growing tax for those without it – about $1000 per year that pays for somebody else's emergency room and charitable care.

Finally, our health care system is placing an unsustainable burden on taxpayers. When health care costs grow at the rate they have, it puts greater pressure on programs like Medicare and Medicaid. If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined. Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close.

These are the facts. Nobody disputes them. We know we must reform this system. The question is how.

There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada's, where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everyone. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end the employer-based system and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have. Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn't, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch. And that is precisely what those of you in Congress have tried to do over the past several months.

During that time, we have seen Washington at its best and its worst.

We have seen many in this chamber work tirelessly for the better part of this year to offer thoughtful ideas about how to achieve reform. Of the five committees asked to develop bills, four have completed their work, and the Senate Finance Committee announced today that it will move forward next week. That has never happened before. Our overall efforts have been supported by an unprecedented coalition of doctors and nurses; hospitals, seniors' groups and even drug companies – many of whom opposed reform in the past. And there is agreement in this chamber on about eighty percent of what needs to be done, putting us closer to the goal of reform than we have ever been.

But what we have also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government. Instead of honest debate, we have seen scare tactics. Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise. Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge. And out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned.

Well the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care.

The plan I'm announcing tonight would meet three basic goals:

It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance to those who don't. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government. It's a plan that asks everyone to take responsibility for meeting this challenge – not just government and insurance companies, but employers and individuals. And it's a plan that incorporates ideas from Senators and Congressmen; from Democrats and Republicans – and yes, from some of my opponents in both the primary and general election.

Here are the details that every American needs to know about this plan:

First, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, Medicare, Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have. Let me repeat this: nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.

What this plan will do is to make the insurance you have work better for you. Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition. As soon as I sign this bill, it will be against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick or water it down when you need it most. They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime. We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they get sick. And insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies – because there's no reason we shouldn't be catching diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer before they get worse. That makes sense, it saves money, and it saves lives.

That's what Americans who have health insurance can expect from this plan – more security and stability.

Now, if you're one of the tens of millions of Americans who don't currently have health insurance, the second part of this plan will finally offer you quality, affordable choices. If you lose your job or change your job, you will be able to get coverage. If you strike out on your own and start a small business, you will be able to get coverage. We will do this by creating a new insurance exchange – a marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to shop for health insurance at competitive prices. Insurance companies will have an incentive to participate in this exchange because it lets them compete for millions of new customers. As one big group, these customers will have greater leverage to bargain with the insurance companies for better prices and quality coverage. This is how large companies and government employees get affordable insurance. It's how everyone in this Congress gets affordable insurance. And it's time to give every American the same opportunity that we've given ourselves.

For those individuals and small businesses who still cannot afford the lower-priced insurance available in the exchange, we will provide tax credits, the size of which will be based on your need. And all insurance companies that want access to this new marketplace will have to abide by the consumer protections I already mentioned. This exchange will take effect in four years, which will give us time to do it right. In the meantime, for those Americans who can't get insurance today because they have pre-existing medical conditions, we will immediately offer low-cost coverage that will protect you against financial ruin if you become seriously ill. This was a good idea when Senator John McCain proposed it in the campaign, it's a good idea now, and we should embrace it.

Now, even if we provide these affordable options, there may be those – particularly the young and healthy – who still want to take the risk and go without coverage. There may still be companies that refuse to do right by their workers. The problem is, such irresponsible behavior costs all the rest of us money. If there are affordable options and people still don't sign up for health insurance, it means we pay for those people's expensive emergency room visits. If some businesses don't provide workers health care, it forces the rest of us to pick up the tab when their workers get sick, and gives those businesses an unfair advantage over their competitors. And unless everybody does their part, many of the insurance reforms we seek – especially requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions – just can't be achieved.

That's why under my plan, individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance – just as most states require you to carry auto insurance. Likewise, businesses will be required to either offer their workers health care, or chip in to help cover the cost of their workers. There will be a hardship waiver for those individuals who still cannot afford coverage, and 95% of all small businesses, because of their size and narrow profit margin, would be exempt from these requirements. But we cannot have large businesses and individuals who can afford coverage game the system by avoiding responsibility to themselves or their employees. Improving our health care system only works if everybody does their part.

While there remain some significant details to be ironed out, I believe a broad consensus exists for the aspects of the plan I just outlined: consumer protections for those with insurance, an exchange that allows individuals and small businesses to purchase affordable coverage, and a requirement that people who can afford insurance get insurance.

And I have no doubt that these reforms would greatly benefit Americans from all walks of life, as well as the economy as a whole. Still, given all the misinformation that's been spread over the past few months, I realize that many Americans have grown nervous about reform. So tonight I'd like to address some of the key controversies that are still out there.

Some of people's concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.

There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false – the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up – under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.

My health care proposal has also been attacked by some who oppose reform as a "government takeover" of the entire health care system. As proof, critics point to a provision in our plan that allows the uninsured and small businesses to choose a publicly-sponsored insurance option, administered by the government just like Medicaid or Medicare.

So let me set the record straight. My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition. Unfortunately, in 34 states, 75% of the insurance market is controlled by five or fewer companies. In Alabama, almost 90% is controlled by just one company. Without competition, the price of insurance goes up and the quality goes down. And it makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly – by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest; by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage; and by jacking up rates.

Insurance executives don't do this because they are bad people. They do it because it's profitable. As one former insurance executive testified before Congress, insurance companies are not only encouraged to find reasons to drop the seriously ill; they are rewarded for it. All of this is in service of meeting what this former executive called "Wall Street's relentless profit expectations."

Now, I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business. They provide a legitimate service, and employ a lot of our friends and neighbors. I just want to hold them accountable. The insurance reforms that I've already mentioned would do just that. But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange. Let me be clear – it would only be an option for those who don't have insurance. No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5% of Americans would sign up.

Despite all this, the insurance companies and their allies don't like this idea. They argue that these private companies can't fairly compete with the government. And they'd be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option. But they won't be. I have insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects. But by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits, excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers. It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities.

It's worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option of the sort I've proposed tonight. But its impact shouldn't be exaggerated – by the left, the right, or the media. It is only one part of my plan, and should not be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles. To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it. The public option is only a means to that end – and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal. And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have.

For example, some have suggested that that the public option go into effect only in those markets where insurance companies are not providing affordable policies. Others propose a co-op or another non-profit entity to administer the plan. These are all constructive ideas worth exploring. But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice. And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.

Finally, let me discuss an issue that is a great concern to me, to members of this chamber, and to the public – and that is how we pay for this plan.

Here's what you need to know. First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – either now or in the future. Period. And to prove that I'm serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don't materialize. Part of the reason I faced a trillion dollar deficit when I walked in the door of the White House is because too many initiatives over the last decade were not paid for – from the Iraq War to tax breaks for the wealthy. I will not make that same mistake with health care.

Second, we've estimated that most of this plan can be paid for by finding savings within the existing health care system – a system that is currently full of waste and abuse. Right now, too much of the hard-earned savings and tax dollars we spend on health care doesn't make us healthier. That's not my judgment – it's the judgment of medical professionals across this country. And this is also true when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid.

In fact, I want to speak directly to America's seniors for a moment, because Medicare is another issue that's been subjected to demagoguery and distortion during the course of this debate.

More than four decades ago, this nation stood up for the principle that after a lifetime of hard work, our seniors should not be left to struggle with a pile of medical bills in their later years. That is how Medicare was born. And it remains a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next. That is why not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.

The only thing this plan would eliminate is the hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud, as well as unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies – subsidies that do everything to pad their profits and nothing to improve your care. And we will also create an independent commission of doctors and medical experts charged with identifying more waste in the years ahead.

These steps will ensure that you – America's seniors – get the benefits you've been promised. They will ensure that Medicare is there for future generations. And we can use some of the savings to fill the gap in coverage that forces too many seniors to pay thousands of dollars a year out of their own pocket for prescription drugs. That's what this plan will do for you. So don't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut – especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past, and just this year supported a budget that would have essentially turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program. That will never happen on my watch. I will protect Medicare.

Now, because Medicare is such a big part of the health care system, making the program more efficient can help usher in changes in the way we deliver health care that can reduce costs for everybody. We have long known that some places, like the Intermountain Healthcare in Utah or the Geisinger Health System in rural Pennsylvania, offer high-quality care at costs below average. The commission can help encourage the adoption of these common-sense best practices by doctors and medical professionals throughout the system – everything from reducing hospital infection rates to encouraging better coordination between teams of doctors.

Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan. Much of the rest would be paid for with revenues from the very same drug and insurance companies that stand to benefit from tens of millions of new customers. This reform will charge insurance companies a fee for their most expensive policies, which will encourage them to provide greater value for the money – an idea which has the support of Democratic and Republican experts. And according to these same experts, this modest change could help hold down the cost of health care for all of us in the long-run.

Finally, many in this chamber – particularly on the Republican side of the aisle – have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of health care. I don't believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I have talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs. So I am proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine. I know that the Bush Administration considered authorizing demonstration projects in individual states to test these issues. It's a good idea, and I am directing my Secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on this initiative today.

Add it all up, and the plan I'm proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years – less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration. Most of these costs will be paid for with money already being spent – but spent badly – in the existing health care system. The plan will not add to our deficit. The middle-class will realize greater security, not higher taxes. And if we are able to slow the growth of health care costs by just one-tenth of one percent each year, it will actually reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the long term.

This is the plan I'm proposing. It's a plan that incorporates ideas from many of the people in this room tonight – Democrats and Republicans. And I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead. If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen. My door is always open.

But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it. I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now.

Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true.

That is why we cannot fail. Because there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed – the ones who suffer silently, and the ones who shared their stories with us at town hall meetings, in emails, and in letters.

I received one of those letters a few days ago. It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy. He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal. He asked that it be delivered upon his death.

In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, and his children, who are here tonight . And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform – "that great unfinished business of our society," he called it – would finally pass. He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that "it concerns more than material things." "What we face," he wrote, "is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."

I've thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days – the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and sometimes angry debate.

For some of Ted Kennedy's critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. In their mind, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.

But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here – people of both parties – know that what drove him was something more. His friend, Orrin Hatch, knows that. They worked together to provide children with health insurance. His friend John McCain knows that. They worked together on a Patient's Bill of Rights. His friend Chuck Grassley knows that. They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.

On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick; and he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent – there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.

That large-heartedness – that concern and regard for the plight of others – is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

This has always been the history of our progress. In 1933, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism. But the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter – that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

What was true then remains true today. I understand how difficult this health care debate has been. I know that many in this country are deeply skeptical that government is looking out for them. I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road – to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term.

But that's not what the moment calls for. That's not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test.

Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character. Thank you, God Bless You, and may God Bless the United States of America.

    Obama’s Health Care Speech to Congress, NYT, 10.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/us/politics/10obama.text.html

 

 

 

 

 

In Lawmaker’s Outburst, a Rare Breach of Protocol

 

September 11, 2009
The New York Times
By CARL HULSE

 

WASHINGTON — It was a rare breach of the protocol that governs ritualistic events in the Capitol.

In an angry and very audible outburst, Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, interrupted President Obama’s speech Wednesday night with a shout of “You lie!”

Though he later apologized, his eruption — in response to Mr. Obama’s statement that Democratic health proposals would not cover illegal immigrants — stunned members of both parties in the House chamber.

Democrats said it showed lack of respect for the office of the presidency and was reminiscent of Republican disruptions at recent public forums on health care.

“I was embarrassed for the chamber and a Congress I love,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “It demeaned the institution.”

He said that he had not spoken to President Obama since the speech. But, “knowing the president, I’m sure he accepted the apology,” The Associated Press reported.

After the speech, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff who sat a few rows in front of Mr. Wilson, said he immediately approached senior Republican lawmakers to encourage them to identify the heckler and urge him to issue an apology quickly.

“No president has ever been treated like that. Ever,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Other Democrats said they did not want to dwell on the outburst or allow it to overshadow what they saw as an effective address by the president. But they also said it bolstered their contention that some Republicans were not interested in constructive dialogue, and they noted that Democratic plans specifically barred coverage for illegal immigrants.

Republicans also said the heckling was out of line. “I think we ought to treat the president with respect,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, “and anything other than that is not appropriate.”

And the House Republican whip, Eric I. Cantor of Virginia, told ABC on Thursday: “Obviously, the president of the United States is always welcome on Capitol Hill. He deserves respect and decorum.” He said that Mr. Wilson’s apology “was the appropriate thing to do.”

But Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic leader, said Thursday he considered Mr. Wilson’s apology insufficient. “I think, frankly, he ought to apologize to the House as well,” he told MSNBC.

Mr. Wilson seemed rattled in the wake of his comment, and quickly left the chamber at the end of the speech.

His office later issued an apology, saying: “This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”

Mr. Wilson also phoned the White House and reached Mr. Emanuel, who accepted an apology on behalf of the president.

Democratic campaign officials said that in the first eight hours after Mr. Wilson’s outburst gained attention, his potential Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, received nearly 3,000 individual campaign contributions totaling about $100,000. At the same time, some Republican officials and party allies pushed back, saying too much was being made of the incident and that past presidents had been treated roughly during Congressional addresses.

Critical body language and murmurs of disapproval are typical at presidential addresses and part of the political theater. But members of both parties were trying to recollect such a pointed attack from an individual lawmaker at a presidential address and noted that a similar remark could draw a formal reprimand if delivered at a routine session of the House.

When President Clinton addressed Congress in 1993 to push his health care plan, “both sides of the aisle received the President warmly,” according to a report in The New York Times at the time.

“But when he began talking about raising taxes on tobacco to pay for the plan, or the need to cut Medicare and Medicaid, many on the Republican side of the aisle began snickering, shaking their heads skeptically and making faces at each other,” the article said.

    In Lawmaker’s Outburst, a Rare Breach of Protocol, NYT, 11.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/11/us/politics/11Wilson.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Vows to ‘Deliver on Health Care’

 

September 10, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and JEFF ZELENY

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama confronted a critical Congress and a skeptical nation on Wednesday, decrying the “scare tactics” of his opponents and presenting his most forceful case yet for a sweeping health care overhaul that has eluded Washington for generations.

In blunt language before a rare joint session of Congress, Mr. Obama vowed that he would “not waste time” with those who have made a political calculation to oppose him, but left the door open to working with Republicans to cut health costs and expand coverage to millions of Americans.

“The time for bickering is over,” the president declared. “The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action.”

The president was greeted by booming applause from Democrats and polite handshakes from Republicans. But the political challenge at hand soon became clear as several Republican lawmakers heckled Mr. Obama when he dismissed the notion that so-called death panels would deny care to the elderly.

“It is a lie, plain and simple,” Mr. Obama declared.

“You lie!” Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled back after Mr. Obama said it was not true that the Democrats were proposing to provide health coverage to illegal immigrants.

The 47-minute speech was an effort by Mr. Obama to regain his political footing on health care, his highest legislative priority. He insisted throughout that he had not closed the door on reaching a bipartisan compromise. He gave a nod to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and embraced his proposal to create a high-risk pool to help cover people with pre-existing conditions against catastrophic expenses.

And, with the widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy sitting in the House gallery, the president appealed to the nation’s conscience, reading a letter Mr. Kennedy had written in May with instructions that it be delivered to the president upon his death. In it, Mr. Kennedy wrote that health care was “above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have been advocating universal health care without success, and Mr. Obama vowed to fare better. “I am not the first president to take up this cause,” he said, “but I am determined to be the last.”

The speech came after a rocky August for the White House, in which many lawmakers held public meetings that deteriorated into shouting matches over health care.

After months of insisting he would leave the specifics to lawmakers, Mr. Obama used the speech to present his most detailed outline yet of a plan he said would provide “security and stability” to those who have insurance and cover those who do not, all without adding to the federal deficit.

The president placed a price tag on the plan of about $900 billion over 10 years, which he said was “less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” But he devoted much of his address to making the case for why such a plan is necessary, and sought to reassure the elderly and the Americans who already have insurance that they would not be worse off.

As expected, Mr. Obama repeated his support for a government insurance plan to compete with the private sector, though he said he would consider alternatives to the “public option.”

He sketched out a vision for a plan in which it would be illegal for insurers to drop sick people or deny them coverage for pre-existing conditions, and in which every American would be required to carry health coverage, just as drivers must carry auto insurance.

Mr. Obama did embrace some fresh proposals. He announced a new initiative to create pilot projects intended to curb medical malpractice lawsuits, a cause important to physicians and Republicans.

He endorsed a plan, contained in a draft proposal being circulated by Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to help pay for expanding coverage by taxing insurance companies that offer expensive, so-called gold-plated insurance plans.

And, seeking to reassure those who worry he will run up the federal deficit, Mr. Obama promised to include a provision that “requires us to come forward with more spending cuts” if the savings he envisions do not materialize.

In embracing Mr. McCain and the malpractice projects, the White House appeared to be seeking to lay the groundwork for an argument that the final bill would be bipartisan not because it garners Republican votes but because it contains Republican ideas. That is the same argument Mr. Obama used when the economic recovery package passed with just three Republican votes.

Republicans seemed primed for a fight; many, like Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who has been deeply involved in health negotiations, released statements about the speech even before it began. Mr. Grassley called on Mr. Obama to “start building the kind of legislation that could win the support of 70 to 80 senators,” a goal Mr. Grassley said could not be achieved if the bill contained a new government plan.

In the Republican response, Representative Charles Boustany Jr. of Louisiana, a heart surgeon, agreed that the health care system needed an overhaul. But he urged the president to start anew, focusing on a “common-sense, bipartisan plan.”

An hour after the speech, Mr. Wilson, the heckler, issued an apology for his outburst.

The speech was the president’s second address before a joint session of Congress. But the political backdrop on Wednesday was far different from his appearance in the House chamber on the 36th day of his term, when an optimistic wave of momentum was at his back and his Republican rivals were dispirited and in disarray.

“What we have also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government. Instead of honest debate, we have seen scare tactics,” Mr. Obama said. “Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise. Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge.”

He added, “And out of this blizzard of charges and countercharges, confusion has reigned.”

While Mr. Obama was addressing lawmakers inside the ornate House chamber, the much more important audience was outside Washington: the 180 million Americans who already have health insurance and who remain skeptical that Mr. Obama’s plan will change things for the better. Inside the chamber, the president drew laughter when he said, “there remain some significant details to be ironed out.”

For Mr. Obama, the speech was a go-for-broke moment; there is no more dramatic venue for a president than an address to a joint session to Congress. For many Democrats, the speech evoked memories of a similar health care address by President Bill Clinton, 16 years ago this month. Mr. Clinton called for “security, simplicity, savings, choice, quality and responsibility” — the same broad themes Mr. Obama evoked Wednesday night.

The architect of the Clinton plan, of course, was Mr. Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, sat quietly in the House gallery, holding the hand of Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Mr. Kennedy’s widow. Mrs. Clinton, now Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, sat in the front row, smiling and shaking hands.

    Obama Vows to ‘Deliver on Health Care’, NYT, 10.09.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/us/politics/10obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Exhorts Kids to Pay Attention in School

 

September 7, 2009
The New York Times
Filed at 12:22 p.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama plans to tell the nation's school children that they ultimately are most responsible for their own education.

The White House posted Obama's remarks, scheduled for Tuesday, in advance on its Web site.

Obama's planned talk has been controversial, with several conservative organizations and individuals accusing him of trying to delve too directly into local education. But White House officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have said the charges are silly.

In the remarks set for Tuesday, Obama tells young people that all the work of parents, educators and others won't matter ''unless you show up for those schools, pay attention to those teaches.''

    Obama Exhorts Kids to Pay Attention in School, NYT, 7.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/09/07/us/politics/AP-US-Obama-School-Speech.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Says US Still Faces Complex Economic Crisis

 

September 7, 2009
Filed at 12:21 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama said Monday the country still faces a ''vast and complex'' economic crisis and is pledging to work with business and labor to make things better.

In a Labor Day statement the White House released as he headed for a union picnic in Ohio, Obama voiced confidence that ''working Americans will help our nation emerge from this crisis.''

He also paid tribute in the holiday proclamation to the contributions that working people have made over the course of history, saying they have ''carried us through times of challenge and uncertainty.''

Obama chose a Labor Day union picnic in Cincinnati as the backdrop to announce his selection of Ron Bloom as senior counselor for manufacturing policy. Bloom planned to travel there with the president for an afternoon announcement at the AFL-CIO event.

Bloom was senior adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as part of the auto industry task force since February. Bloom, a Harvard Business School graduate, previously advised the United Steelworkers union and worked as an investment banker.

Bloom will work with the National Economic Council to lead policy development and planning for Obama's work to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, the White House said.

Obama's speech to union members was the first of at least three speeches this week.

Earlier Monday, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who will join Obama at the Ohio labor event, said Monday she sees ''stabilization occurring'' in the job market, saying some sectors have shown improvement.

But in an interview on NBC's ''Today'' show, Solis also said, ''It's certainly not somewhere where we need it to be right now.'' She said the administration is deploying ''everything in our toolbox'' to try to steady shaky labor markets, adding that job-training efforts will be stepped up this fall.

''I would first of all say that we understand that ... this number (9.7 jobless rate) is very unacceptable,'' Solis said. ''What I would like to say this Labor Day is, 'Don't be discouraged. Come visit our offices, get to know our staff, figure out if you need to plan out a new job, a new career, get into a new education program.' ''

Obama's remarks were expected to touch on health care in advance of a Wednesday evening address to Congress on his proposed overhaul. On Tuesday, Obama will speak to American children as they begin the school year.

The AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic normally draws up to 20,000 people, union spokesman Eddie Vale said. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka were expected to welcome Obama to the gathering.

-----

On the Net:

AFL-CIO: http://www.aflcio.org/

    Obama Says US Still Faces Complex Economic Crisis, NYT, 7.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/09/07/us/politics/AP-US-Obama-Labor-Day.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Faces a Critical Moment for His Presidency

 

September 7, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama returned to the White House from his summer break on Sunday determined to jump-start his struggling presidency by reasserting command of the health care debate and recalibrating expectations that some advisers believe got away from him.

With his honeymoon seemingly over and his White House on the defensive, Mr. Obama faces what friends and foes alike call a make-or-break moment in his young administration. Because he has elevated health care to such a singular priority, advisers said he must force through a credible plan or risk crippling his presidency.

“It goes without saying that a lot is riding now on his ability to re-energize the health care debate and bring it home to a successful conclusion,” said John D. Podesta, who ran Mr. Obama’s transition and still advises him on health care, energy and other issues. “Nothing will influence the perception of the presidency more than whether he can be successful in getting a health care bill through the Congress.”

Recognizing the stakes, Mr. Obama has worked on a strategy for autumn to regain the initiative. He talked on Thursday from Camp David with Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and Harry M. Reid, the Senate majority leader. He spent part of Sunday working on this week’s speech to the nation and dispatched top surrogates to the talk shows to try to reframe the health care debate. And he has two meetings scheduled for Monday with his health policy and political advisers planned around a trip to Cincinnati to observe Labor Day.

As much as health care has consumed the president, other vexing issues await him in the fall. In the coming weeks, he will decide whether to order thousands more troops to Afghanistan and pursue new sanctions against Iran. He will host a meeting of the Group of 20 nations to spur the world economy and push forward with arms control negotiations with Russia.

Now, as he prepares for Wednesday’s address before a joint session of Congress, Mr. Obama and his team are simultaneously trying to figure out how they got into this dilemma and how to get out of it. An administration that swept into office just seven months ago on a wave of hope and optimism has burned through good will and public patience in swift fashion and now finds itself under fire from both the left and the right.

He faces a crisis of expectations tough to manage. Can he form a health care compromise that satisfies both his liberal base and fiscal conservatives in his own party, much less the other one? Can he stanch the slide in support for the war in Afghanistan even as he considers sending more troops? Can he soothe discontent with an economy that appears to have bottomed out but remains moribund? Can he change the tenor of debate in a capital that seems as polarized as ever?

“To govern is to make choices, and to make choices is to make some unhappy,” David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, said in an interview. “He made some very tough decisions that pulled us away” from a new Great Depression. “But he had to expend some political capital to do that. He’s expending some capital to do something that’s very important, which is to bring security and health care to people who don’t have it.”

Some Republicans said Mr. Obama’s fundamental mistake was believing his election presaged a larger ideological shift in the country. “If they thought that his popularity and the good will he had would support liberal policies, they were wrong,” said Charles R. Black, a Republican strategist who worked last year for Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Obama’s Republican presidential opponent.

White House officials have signaled that they are prepared to scale back their aspirations for the health care legislation. In private conversations, some said they would be happy even if they end up with a pared-back program that can serve as a basis for future efforts.

One element clearly on the table is a proposed government-backed health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. Just as they have in recent weeks, White House officials indicated Sunday that Mr. Obama would continue to push for the so-called public option but they did not make it a condition of signing whatever bill lands on his desk.

Mr. Axelrod, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said the public option “is a valuable tool” but added that “it shouldn’t define the whole health care debate.” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” that Mr. Obama would “draw some lines in the sand” on Wednesday but “I doubt we’re going to get into heavy veto threats.”

The conundrum for the president, though, was on display during a roundtable discussion later on the same program. Robert Dole, the former Republican senator from Kansas and onetime presidential nominee, said a public option would never pass the Senate. Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California and a leader of Congressional liberals, said no plan could pass with House without a public option.

Mr. Obama is hardly the first president to run into trouble after the bunting and balloons have vanished, but his slipping support has fueled a narrative about a young and relatively inexperienced president who overinterpreted his mandate and overreached in his policies. His job approval rating has fallen to 56 percent from 62 percent since February in polls taken by The New York Times and CBS News. Other surveys register an even sharper drop.

But his overall standing with the public is still healthy, and his first seven months have not been as rocky as those of Bill Clinton or Gerald R. Ford. Mr. Clinton, at least, later recovered enough to win re-election. And Mr. Obama showed during last year’s campaign that he has the capacity to ride out rough moments. If he ultimately gets some form of health care program passed that he can call a victory, this turbulence may ultimately be forgotten.

Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, said the backlash to Mr. Obama’s spending and health care proposals had eroded his support but not fundamentally shifted the nation’s politics. “The American people are sort of returning to where they were,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve made a big swing to the right. They’re returning to their centrist moorings.”

Of all the challenges Mr. Obama faces this fall, health care has come to dominate so much that the fate of the rest of his domestic program, particularly climate change legislation and new regulations on the financial industry, may depend in part on whether he wins this fight.

“He’s gone all in,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a Democratic-oriented advocacy organization, using a poker term. “Everyone’s watching. The bets are all on the table. And we’re just waiting to see what the cards say.”

    Obama Faces a Critical Moment for His Presidency, NYT, 7.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/07/us/politics/07obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Clinton’s Health Defeat Sways Obama’s Tactics

 

September 6, 2009
Th New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES

 

WASHINGTON — Before Congress’s August break, the chief aides to Senate Democrats met in a nondescript Senate conference room with three former advisers to President Bill Clinton. The topic: lessons learned the last time a Democratic president tried, but failed disastrously, to overhaul the health care system.

With the aides as divided as their bosses on President Obama’s signature initiative, their typically tedious weekly session turned hotly spirited. So the Clinton White House veterans — John D. Podesta, a former senior adviser; Steve Ricchetti, a Congressional lobbyist; and Chris Jennings, a health policy aide — homed in on their ultimate lesson of the failure 15 years ago, that there is a political cost to doing nothing.

In 1994, Democrats’ dysfunction over fulfilling a new president’s campaign promise contributed to the party’s loss of its 40-year dominance of Congress. Now that memory is being revived, and it is the message the White House and Congressional leaders will press when lawmakers return this week, still divided and now spooked after the turbulent town-hall-style meetings, downbeat polls and distortions of August.

Republicans early on united behind the lesson they took from the past struggle, that they stand to gain politically in next year’s elections if Democrats do nothing. But the Democrats’ version similarly resonates with all party factions, giving Mr. Obama perhaps his best leverage to unify them to do something. In now-familiar financial parlance, this one is “too big to fail.”

“Certainly if you undercut your own leadership, that shortens the honeymoon and could possibly even cripple the administration,” said Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a Democrat and member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition who opposed the Clinton plan and has criticized current efforts. “And no one here wants that.”

That 15-year-old lesson underscores how much the Clinton debacle has defined Mr. Obama’s drive for his domestic priority from the beginning, providing a tip sheet for what not to do. Even Mr. Obama’s decision to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night to jumpstart his health initiative left some aides wary, given the inevitable parallels with Mr. Clinton’s September address 16 years ago to introduce his ill-fated plan.

Before Mr. Obama was elected, advisers began debriefing Clinton veterans to draft “lessons learned” memorandums. According to interviews with more than a dozen participants in the debates then and now, those lessons have helped the president’s proposals progress further through Congress’s committees than the plan advocated by Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton did. All the while, the administration has held the tentative support of powerful associations for doctors, nurses, seniors, hospitals, drug makers and, as Mr. Obama recently put it, “even the insurance companies,” which did the most to defeat the Clintons.

But Mr. Obama’s performance has also raised questions about whether the administration has drawn too much from some lessons and underestimated some hurdles unique to today’s battle.

The losses of two important confidants — former Senator Tom Daschle’s withdrawal as Mr. Obama’s choice for health and human services secretary amid a tax controversy, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s long illness and death — have been “incalculable” setbacks for pushing legislation through Congress, said a top aide to Mr. Obama. Neither the House nor the Senate met his deadline for passing legislation before August.

Yet even if the administration did everything right, drafting legislation this complicated is never going to be easy.

“That period of defining the issue and developing the pieces and the resources to actually legislate is a relatively smooth river,” said Charles Kahn, an insurance industry lobbyist in the 1990s who now represents for-profit hospitals. Once Congress starts filling in the details, he continued, “then you hit the rapids. And they’ve hit the rapids now.”

Mr. Obama has two disadvantages that Mr. Clinton did not. The deep recession has stoked concerns about deficits, and moderate Republicans willing to cut deals are nearly extinct.

But Mr. Obama also has advantages flowing from his election by a 53 percent majority — the highest number for a Democrat since 1964 and 10 percentage points more than Mr. Clinton won. Congressional Democrats, while hardly of one mind, are still more unified behind him than they were behind Mr. Clinton, committee leaders are more respectful and Mr. Obama is richer in campaign money and grass-roots support.

Add to that, Democrats say, the benefits of the lessons of the Clinton era:

Lesson 1: Failure Is Not an Option.


As the Clinton-era veterans attest, and the Obama team is now arguing to Democrats, voting for a health bill might be difficult politically, but doing nothing at this point would be worse.

“When a party fails to govern, it fails electorally,” said Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton aide who now is Mr. Obama’s chief of staff.

 

Lesson 2: Know your audience — insured taxpayers.

Even as a candidate, Mr. Obama showed that he was trying to avoid his predecessor’s mistakes.

Mr. Clinton had promised universal coverage, emphasizing care for the uninsured — roughly 37 million then, now 46 million. That left the many more Americans with insurance, however flawed, to wonder what the complex and initially costly changes would mean for them.

By the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama’s Democratic rivals, including Mrs. Clinton, were again promising universal coverage. Mr. Obama never did, except for children. He emphasized that insured Americans would see lower costs, more choices and better coverage.

Then, as now, he more often cited as potential beneficiaries not the mostly poor uninsured but the working and middle classes, people like his mother, who had insurance but fought her carrier all the while she was dying of cancer. When he spoke of covering the uninsured, Mr. Obama argued that doing so would also help the insured because hospitals, doctors and insurers would no longer have to pass on unpaid expenses in higher premiums and prices to paying patients.

But for all his efforts, when Congress began writing legislation and its analysts priced the various proposals this summer, the sticker shock drew taxpayers’ attention — just as in Mr. Clinton’s time — to the main expense, which was covering the uninsured. Democrats’ plans would expand Medicaid for the poor and subsidize both low-income workers buying insurance and small businesses seeking coverage for employees.

So, just as in 1994, “people are trying to figure out what they’re getting aside from additional costs” for taxpayers, said Howard Paster, Mr. Clinton’s chief Congressional lobbyist. “At the end of the day, most people will complain about their insurance company, will grumble about costs, but they’re ultimately satisfied with the health care they’re getting.”

Some Democrats compare the current moment to the early spring of 1994. The insurance lobby’s “Harry and Louise” commercials against the Clinton plan had come to embody the angst of the insured middle-class. Democratic lawmakers were panicky. “It became irrevocably lost,” said Mr. Daschle, who as a Senate Democratic leader was at the center of that debate.

Mr. Obama has more recently been spotlighting features that will appeal to the insured middle class, the proposed “consumer protections” that will not cost taxpayers. Among them, companies must cover anyone regardless of medical history, cannot drop policyholders who become sick and must cover preventive care like mammograms.

 

Lesson 3: Move before the honeymoon ends.

This is one of the lessons Mr. Obama may have learned too well.

In 1993 Mr. Clinton delayed his push for a health care bill until late that first year, by which time he was weakened by other legislative battles and personal controversies. Mr. Obama, by contrast, moved quickly to exploit his post-inaugural momentum, amid the demands of the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

But some say he moved too quickly, setting the August deadline for the House and the Senate to each pass their bills, then appearing to take a loss when neither acted.

“The biggest mistake Obama made, and I want him to succeed, is trying to rush it,” said former Senator Bob Dole, who as Republican leader in the 1990s first negotiated with Mr. Clinton and then led the opposition. “Why put some arbitrary deadline on a piece of legislation that’s going to affect every American?”

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama, like Mr. Clinton, has lost some leverage and luster as his poll numbers have weakened.

 

Lesson 4: Leave the details to Congress.

Mr. Obama got a faster start than Mr. Clinton by not repeating his mistake of trying to write the law for the lawmakers. The Clintons’ secretive labors on a 1,342-page bill cost nine months and stoked resentment among Congress’s proud Democratic committee barons, who felt left out.

Mr. Obama went to the other extreme. He produced no plan, only fairly specific directives. He said he wanted to create “exchanges” offering private insurance plans and a public option. He called for insurance subsidies for individuals and small businesses. And he advocated changes in Medicare and Medicaid payments to give the health industry incentives to control costs and improve care.

While Congressional Democrats welcomed the partnership, some now wonder if the president did not “overlearn the lessons of 1994 by giving Congress too much leeway,” as Mr. Cooper of the Blue Dog Coalition put it.

Administration officials counter that the president’s initiative would not otherwise have gotten as far as it has, with bills passed in four out of five committees, if he had not initially deferred to Congress. But with the fifth and most crucial panel, the Senate Finance Committee, still struggling for a bipartisan alternative, the president will most likely serve notice with Wednesday night’s speech that he is taking the lead, with what aides call a “more prescriptive” legislative blueprint for Democrats to get behind.

“They’re not going to get the ball over the finish line without his direct help and intervention,” said Mr. Podesta, the former Clinton lieutenant, who headed Mr. Obama’s post-election transition.

 

Lesson 5: Co-opt the opposition.

In a lesson that holds some irony for Mr. Obama given his campaign against special interests, he has mostly rejected the Clintons’ industry-bashing populism. That has helped keep powerful groups at the table, to prevent their allying against him as they did against Mr. Clinton.

The president privately reached early deals with the for-profit hospital group represented by Mr. Kahn, who led the “Harry and Louise” campaign, and with the drug manufacturers lobby. The industries agreed to accept roughly $230 billion in reduced Medicare and Medicaid payments over 10 years to help offset the cost of a health care bill, and the White House committed to support the deals through the legislative process despite liberals’ demands for bigger concessions.

For older Americans, the administration agreed with the advocacy group AARP that any bill would eliminate the gap in Medicare coverage of prescription drugs.

“People have underestimated the strategic value of some of these alliances in terms of being able to keep this thing going,” said a former Clinton aide, who asked not to be identified because he now lobbies for several industries.

The Obama team’s outreach extended even to the insurance industry, until the administration began going after it last month to shore up public support. White House officials remain divided over the tactic, with some fearful of provoking the deep-pocketed industry’s fury — as the Clintons did.

 

Lesson 6: Take what you can get.

What optimism remains among Democrats stems from their belief that Mr. Obama, unlike the Clintons, will take half a loaf and declare victory, and that most Democrats, mindful of 1994’s election debacle, will go along.

In his 1994 State of the Union address, Mr. Clinton famously waved a pen and threatened to veto any bill that did not “guarantee every American” private health insurance. Even an aide who recommended that uncompromising signal, Paul Begala, now says it was a mistake. Others have said the White House forfeited a chance to compromise with Mr. Dole and other Senate Republicans.

The question for Mr. Obama is whether he will have any Republicans with whom to compromise. More likely, he will have to mediate between the liberals and conservatives in his own party.

    Clinton’s Health Defeat Sways Obama’s Tactics,n NYT, 6.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/health/policy/06lessons.html