This week about Obama:
1. Obama's Muslim toss
2. Obama: Wall Street 'Arrogance and Greed' Won't Be Tolerated
3. Obama finds that partisanship still lives in Washington
4. Guantanamo judge defies Obama
Obama's Muslim toss
Sunday, February 1st 2009
As the reader may have noticed, what usually passes for the real world has wasted no time in brusquely overrunning the celebratory mood of Barack Obama's inauguration.
An hour before the new president was scheduled to meet with them last week, Senate Republicans put their heads together and vowed to oppose his all-important stimulus package, no matter what: a piece of bad faith that, at a stroke, disclosed as futile Obama's painstaking wooing of Republicans in the earnest hope of issuing in an era of bipartisanship.
Obama had early signed an executive order halting military trials at Guantanamo. But on Thursday a military judge defied the order, refusing to stop the trial of the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer, the USS Cole.
(A Pentagon spokesman assured reporters that, notwithstanding the judge's defiance, there would be 'no ifs, ands or buts' about obeying the president's executive order and "no proceedings continuing down at Gitmo with military commissions.") And on Friday, Reuters reported (under the headline, "North Korea, trying to jolt Obama, warns South") that North Korea had announced it was scrapping all accords with South Korea, a move which seemed sure to ratchet up tension and the chances of a military clash on the North-South border.
Such setbacks almost obscured Obama's biggest toss of his brief tenure: granting his first post-inauguration television interview to an Arab station, al Arabiya, and the tone and substance of that interview.
In it, Obama promised "a new partnership" with the Muslim world; talked about the need for mutual respect; and avowed America's willingness "to listen". Careful to reiterate US support for its ally Israel, he nonetheless implicitly distinguished between Israeli hawks and doves and appealed to the latter, claiming that "there are Israelis who recognise that it is important to achieve peace [and who] will be willing to make sacrifices if there is serious partnership on the other side."
Then Obama again quietly drew attention to the suffering of the Palestinians, an almost heretical perspective to America's pro-Zionist hardliners. "The bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is," he told al Arabiya, "is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves?"
When the interviewer mentioned the peremptory attacks on Obama by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, Obama interrupted him saying, "Yes, I noticed this. They seem nervous" (an observation this column has repeatedly made).
Al Qaeda's "nervousness", Obama suggested, was due to its ideas being "bankrupt" (a welcome finessing of the Bush Administration's "They hate us for our freedoms"); to their understanding that if and when he closed Guantanamo and withdrew from Iraq, Al Qaeda would lose its main recruiting tools; and to the simple fact that "I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But America was not born as a colonial power, and the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that."
Obama has long avoided the phrase, "the war on terror". Now he emphasised that "the language we use matters," and promised to "be very clear in distinguishing between organisations like Al Qaeda and people who may disagree with my administration or have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful."
Lastly (and this, surely, was noted in Tel Aviv), Obama ducked a question as to whether the US would "ever live with a nuclear Iran," saying only that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons had not been "helpful". And he repeated the rhetorical construct from his inaugural address, that "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."
Obama's al Arabiya interview was clearly the start of a campaign to win the hearts and minds of Muslims the world over, already galvanised by the thought of a Hussein in the White House; and if Al Qaeda was nervous before, they had a right to be even more nervous now.
So too did Al Qaeda's mirror image, the US neocons with their fantasies of global domination, and their voices in the US media; and indeed the latter wasted no time in jumping all over Obama's performance. (Charles Krauthammer, "An Unnecessary Apology": "America did not just respect Muslims, it bled for them [in Iraq]." Obama had indulged in "gratuitous disparagement of the country he is now privileged to lead."And so on.)
The acid test of Obama's foreign policy may well come, not in Palestine, after all, but in the Afghanistan/Pakistan mountains. It's hard to see how Obama will stop the Taliban there, given the badly depleted military and economic resources of the Bush-weakened America he now leads.
But among the great law-abiding masses of Muslims everywhere, last week's al Arabiya interview was likely to be a powerful pitch.
Obama: Wall Street 'Arrogance and Greed' Won't Be Tolerated
Says Administration Will Crack Down on Banks' Executive Bonuses
By JOHN HENDREN
WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2009—
President Obama, usually cool, was visibly angry in his weekly address, chastising corporate bankers for the second time this week for accepting taxpayer bailout money and then doling out $18 billion in executive bonuses.
"The American people will not excuse or tolerate such arrogance and greed," Obama said in the video and radio message released today. "Even as they petitioned for taxpayer assistance, Wall Street firms shamefully paid out nearly $20 billion in bonuses for 2008."
Administration officials challenged a report in The Washington Post that suggested Obama was unlikely to tighten restrictions on compensation for banks that accept bailout funds, saying the report was "simply untrue."
White House and Treasury officials said the president will soon crack down on those big bonuses, shareholder enrichment and overall accountability.
Banking executives have long argued that they need to pay bonuses to retain quality executives.
This week, ABC News asked all 26 banks that have received $1 billion or more in bailout funds if they gave executive bonuses for 2008. Of the 22 that responded, 19 said they've either paid bonuses, or might still.
Synovus and one other bank, which did not want to be identified because it had not informed associates, said they would not be paying bonuses for last year.
Yet government strings come at a cost. Several healthy banks have recently declined money from the bailout fund aimed at persuading them to loosen credit and foster lending to boost the economy.
Rick Adams, executive vice president of United Bankshares Inc. of Charleston, W.Va., told ABC News the bank has declined $197 million in government funds in order to keep the government out of the boardroom, citing the government's ability to change the rules unilaterally and limit dividends, which have increased at the bank for 35 consecutive years.
"That was one of the factors," Adams said. "We're in a position to weather the tough times ... but the terms of the conditions was also a factor."
Nevertheless, the laments of bankers have been pilloried on Capitol Hill.
"We have a bunch of idiots on Wall Street that are kicking sand in the face of the American taxpayer," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Friday on the Senate floor.
Wall Street greed has been panned on late night television, as when Jay Leno recently lampooned former Merrill Lynch and Bank of America executive John Thain, who spent $1.2 million redecorating his office.
"Then he gave billions of dollars to former Merrill Lynch employees," Leno said, deadpan. "They're calling this the biggest Wall Street scandal since Friday."
Banking excess has been lamented in the labor movement.
"Giving themselves $20 billion for the worst year we've had sine 1929 flies in the face of anything that make sense," Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO labor union, told ABC News.
Trumka says excessive executive compensation contributed to the risk-taking that caused the collapse of the financial industry. With executive bonuses tied to revenue, he said, executives were encouraged to take bigger risks in particular on housing loans for risky borrowers who later defaulted.
"All of that contributed to the collapse," Trumka said. "We need to rein that in. We need to reregulate them and we need to arm investors with the tools to be able to control companies and manage this risk so investors don't get hurt in the long term."
Obama finds that partisanship still lives in Washington
By STEVEN THOMMA
As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to change politics, to make it more civil, to reach out to Republicans and to find bipartisan answers to the nation's pressing problems.
Well, score a big one for civility. President Obama has met repeatedly with Republicans, inviting several for cocktails at the White House last week even after they voted against his proposed $819 billion plan to boost the economy. He's asked more over on Sunday to watch the Super Bowl.
He's batting zero so far in the quest for bipartisanship, however. After watching congressional Democrats move the stimulus proposal more toward spending and away from the tax cuts that Republican prefer, he failed to muster a single Republican vote for the package in the House of Representatives.
Does it matter?
Not when it comes to passing legislation. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Obama has enough popularity, a nationwide hunger for action to address a crisis and big enough majorities in Congress to get pretty much what he wants with nominal bargaining in the Senate to reach the necessary 60 votes.
Lots of Democrats and their liberal supporters seem to want that. To the victors go the spoils, they say. "House Republicans? Screw them," said liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos.
Obama, however, wants broader support to help convince the country that the recovery plan will work, which is key to rebuilding shattered confidence and getting Americans to start spending again.
"A lot of it has to do with politics down the road," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "From the president's point of view, if it doesn't work, it would help if he could say there were more than Democratic fingerprints on it. It would provide him some political cover."
Some GOP support also would make it harder for the Republicans to hammer Democrats in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. Most important, Obama needs it to change the tone of politics as he promised to do.
"Old habits die hard in this town. We get that," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "But the president understands that changing the way Washington works isn't likely to happen in just 10 days."
No it isn't, and certainly not in these first 10 days.
Pressed in one meeting to add more tax cuts to the stimulus package, Obama joked that he didn't have to make concessions on that big part of the agenda. "I won," he told Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. "So I think on that one, I trump you."
Gibbs said later that it was a joke. "Everybody laughed," he said. "This wasn't cowboy diplomacy."
The fact, however, is that Obama's made only one symbolic bipartisan gesture, urging his fellow Democrats to drop a proposal to spend less than half a billion dollars on family planning.
After first urging $3 in spending for every $2 in tax cuts, the ratio changed, and neither the president nor the House Democrats budged on the plan's allocation of $2 in new spending to every $1 in tax cuts.
"Yes, elections have consequences, but where's the bipartisanship, Mr. Obama?" asked conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh last week as he led a high-profile campaign against the proposal - a profile raised all the more by Obama's persistent criticism of it.
Limbaugh pressed for a realignment of the stimulus proposal to match the 2008 election results, with 54 percent going to spending and 46 percent going to tax cuts. (He didn't propose such a bipartisan approach after the last change of power, when Republican George W. Bush got fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore did.)
Obama still could push for concessions in the Senate. His aides are confident that he'll win some Republican votes there, and then in the House when the measure returns there.
A student of history, Obama's keenly aware of what happened to his party the last time it took over the White House and pushed through new economic policies.
Bill Clinton pushed through tax increases in 1993 with a narrow partisan majority, punctuated by the taunts of House Republicans to Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania, the House Democrat who cast the final, decisive vote for the tax plan.
Republicans rallied against what they called the "biggest tax increase in history" as well as the rest of the Clinton agenda, defeating her and seizing control of Congress the following year.
Yet Obama also faces some pressure from his party's liberal wing not only to get what it wants, but also to punish the Republicans.
"Bottom line, there is nothing inherently good about bipartisanship," Moulitsas wrote on dailykos.com.
"The only thing that matters is whether a solution is good or not. Consider that two of Bush's biggest disasters, his tax cuts and Iraq, were bipartisan affairs. Getting votes from the opposite party doesn't make the underlying legislation any more likely to succeed. If anything, our nation would've been better served with more partisanship during those times."
Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 won approval for the National Industrial Recovery Act, a keystone of the New Deal, with overwhelming Democratic support and a small fraction of Republican votes. In the Senate, for example, he got four of 28 Republican votes. Democrats went on to gain even more seats in both the 1934 and 1936 elections.
In 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan got his massive tax cuts through Congress with wide bipartisan support, including a majority of the Democrats voting in both the House and the Senate. The Republicans went on to lose seats in the next elections.
Republican George W. Bush in 2001 won his tax cuts with bipartisan support, including 12 Democrats in the Senate and 28 in the House. He went on to gain seats in the 2002 midterm elections, though those were influenced much more by the 2001 terrorist attacks, not the tax cuts.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent David Lightman contributed to this report.)
Guantanamo judge defies Obama
Army Col. James L. Pohl rejects the president's request to stop proceedings at the military tribunal. He says the proposal is 'not reasonable.'
By Carol J. Williams
January 30, 2009
The chief judge at the Guantanamo Bay war crimes court Thursday rejected President Obama's call to halt the prosecution of terrorism suspects, ruling that a delay in the case of a Saudi accused in the Cole attack would "not serve the interests of justice."
Army Col. James L. Pohl said the government's request to postpone until May the Feb. 9 arraignment of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri was "not reasonable."
Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case already had agreed to Obama's request for a four-month suspension in the proceedings to review the military commissions process created under former President Bush.
Legal scholars and Pentagon officials said Pohl's ruling was not insubordination because Obama's proposal was a request, not an order.
Pohl pointed out that the rules for military commissions adopted by Congress in 2006 gave the military judges "sole authority" to grant delays once charges had been referred for trial.
"Technically, it's within the judge's discretion to treat this as a request or a motion on the part of the prosecutors and the government," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "We like to think that even military judges are independent, to some extent, of the commander in chief.
"But given the clear message in the executive orders of last week, it's difficult to understand why that request wouldn't be granted," Tobias added. "If the issue is really forced, the judge would probably have to yield."
One factor in the judge's decision to proceed with Nashiri case could be that some evidence against the Saudi would not be admissible in U.S. federal court, where critics of Guantanamo want the war crimes cases moved.
Nashiri is one of the terrorism suspects the Bush administration admitted waterboarding, an interrogation method in which a person is made to feel he is drowning. Eric H. Holder Jr., Obama's nominee to be attorney general, called the technique torture during his confirmation hearing last week, and Obama has signed an executive order banning torture.
"Judge Pohl's decision to unabashedly move forward in the Al Nashiri military commission case shows how officials held over from the Bush administration are exploiting ambiguities in President Obama's executive order as a strategy to undercut the president's unequivocal promise to shut down Guantanamo and end the military commissions," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Legal analysts said they doubted the standoff between Obama and Pohl would be allowed to mushroom.
The top official in the tribunal, former Pentagon judge and Bush appointee Susan J. Crawford, has the authority to step in and drop the capital charges against Nashiri, said his Navy defense lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Reyes.
Crawford recently indicated a desire to distance herself from the legacy of Guantanamo by refusing to prosecute Mohammed Qahtani, a prisoner suspected of aiding the Sept. 11 plotters, on the grounds that his treatment under interrogation amounted to torture.
She also dropped charges in October against five prisoners connected with Al Qaeda recruiter Abu Zubaydah without explanation, stirring speculation that the government had been relying on evidence produced by "enhanced interrogation techniques" that wouldn't be admissible even in the war crimes court.
Still, Guantanamo's supporters in the Pentagon have continued to push ahead with trials. Just days before Obama's inauguration, military prosecutors filed new terrorism charges against three of the five men Crawford dropped charges against.
A Pentagon spokesman insisted that Obama's call for a halt in the proceedings would be honored.
"The Department of Defense is currently reviewing Judge Pohl's ruling. We will be in compliance with the president's orders regarding Guantanamo," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey D. Gordon, a public affairs officer.
Military judges presiding over two other cases at Guantanamo, including that of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others, agreed to suspend those proceedings last week after Obama made the request.