The Note, 3/20/2009: So Special — Obama loses a week, as a great communicator doesn’t communicate

By Caitlin Taylor

Mar 20, 2009 8:10am

By RICK KLEIN Outrage, real or manufactured, has real consequences. Jokes about the Special Olympics, funny or not, aren’t funny. The blame game, no matter who’s really to blame, leaves no one blameless.  A White House vegetable garden wouldn’t be complete without arugula. (Really.) Being the man who met the moment does not guarantee that he’ll meet every moment. This has been the Obama administration’s lost week — an anger-filled race to get out in front of a story that the White House has variously underestimated, fueled, belittled, and sought to channel. All President Obama has to do is revive the economy and end a war and fix healthcare and rescue schools and save the planet. But first he’s had to spend a week trying to get back a few million dollars from a government-owned insurance company. (Fighting with an insurance company — now there’s a populist opportunity, right up there with rooting against Duke.)  The biggest shock: A message maestro can’t break through — not even with Jay Leno’s help (and it probably wasn’t helpful). (Leno, deadpan, on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner: “I love that it’s all his problem.” [Laughter.] The president: “No, no, no . . . ) The best of communicators — failing to communicate: “The sluggish and unsteady response to the uproar over AIG bonuses highlights a larger problem of his White House: Obama’s surprisingly uneven campaign to educate people about the economic crisis and convince Washington and the broader public that he is in command of circumstances,” Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write. “The discipline and strategic focus of the campaign have yet to move into the White House. The story of the day often catches the president flat-footed or on the defensive — and regularly undercut by fellow Democrats.”  Will he be able to meet this moment? “He is willowy when people yearn for solid, reed-like where they hope for substantial, a bright older brother when they want Papa, cool where they probably prefer warmth,” Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal column. “The president seems everywhere and nowhere, not fully focused on the matters at hand.”  A continuing messaging disconnect, when David Axelrod declares that “People are not sitting around their kitchen tables thinking about AIG,” even as the president talks about “our anger.”  “A huge majority of Americans, most of whom are not millionaires, are really angry and has a right to be angry,” David Sirota writes at Open Left. “And we’re not talking sorta angry, we’re talking about Gallup’s new poll showing a whopping 84% of Americans saying they are ‘outraged’ or ‘bothered’ by the AIG mess. The only question, then, is why the president is letting his aides contradict him and disparage the majority of the country?”  Room for more outrage? “At least 13 companies who have received some of the $300 billion in TARP funds owe hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe reports. “Two of the companies owe more than $100 million in taxes, said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight. Altogether, the 13 companies owed the government more than $220 million in unpaid taxes, he said.”  Did Leno help? How many quotes from the appearance are likely to be remembered, other than this one: “It was like Special Olympics or something,” the president said of bowling a 129, per ABC’s Jake Tapper.  Somebody get a Kennedy on the line . . . Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver tells ABC’s Robin Roberts that the president called him even before “The Tonight Show” aired — and wants some athletes over for basketball or bowling. “He expressed his disappointment and he apologized, in a way that was very moving,” Shriver said on “Good Morning America.” “It’s important to see that words hurt, and words do matter. And these words that in some respect can be seen as humiliating or a put-down of people with special needs do cause pain, and they do result in stereotypes. They do result in behavior that is neglectful and almost oppressive of people with special needs.” “One of the dangers of going on that show is that something you might say in a bar, when you’re not president of the United States, might get a laugh, but when you’re president of the United States, it ends up leading ‘Good Morning America,’ ” former White House press secretary Dana Perino said on “GMA.” “They’ve been, for a week now, in the midst of a total distraction. . . . They’ve given the Republicans a real opportunity here. . . . They’ve had some self-inflicted wounds.” James Carville counters: “Give the guy some credit — they’ve pushed a lot of stuff out there real early.” The official statement, out even before Leno aired: “The president made an off-hand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics,” White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said. “He thinks the Special Olympics is a wonderful program that gives an opportunity for people with disabilities from around the world.” The strategy we get . . . “Obama went on the show for the same reason that other famous people do — to promote his latest project — and for the same reason that other famous people do: to clear up ‘A Few Misconceptions About Some Horrible Things You May Have Heard’ before a large national audience, predisposed by habit to already be in a good mood,” Robert Lloyd writes in the Los Angeles Times. “Now this is the sort of remark that, sadly, has become commonplace in contemporary humor. But it’s nothing you’d want your president to say, or even to think.”    “Conservative bloggers instantly seized on the President’s remark, calling it ‘insensitive,’ ” Bill Hutchinson writes in the New York Daily News. (They have worse labels, too.) A surprise video message — from the president “to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran: “In this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders,” the president says. “We have serious differences that have grown over time.  My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats.  We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” What the president was missing in Washington: “The case of the missing AIG bonus limits has become a tale of political intrigue and Democratic infighting that could threaten the re-election chances of a top senator and the credibility — if not the career — of one of President Obama’s top advisers,” the AP’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes. How likely is this to be a productive exchange of views? “Treasury staff were working with Sen. [Christopher] Dodd’s staff throughout this process,” Geithner tells CNN. ABC’s Jonathan Karl and Matthew Jaffe: “Geithner said he did not personally talk to Dodd or Dodd’s staff about the provision, which exempted employees who signed contracts before February from tough new executive compensation limits that Dodd and others included in the stimulus. Staffers at the Treasury Department were concerned that the provision would not stand up to legal challenges without the exemption for existing contracts.” The RNC has a new Web video going out Friday — complete with a tongue-tied Robert Gibbs and Sen. Dodd. How’s that timeline looking? “Interviews with senior Federal Reserve and Treasury officials, as well as members of Congress, leave little doubt that the bonus program was a disaster hiding in plain sight. Mr. Geithner is not the only one who appears not to have understood the populist fury the bonuses would set off,” Edmund L. Andrews and Jackie Calmes write in The New York Times. “Career staff officials at the Treasury, Fed and Federal Reserve Bank of New York exchanged e-mail messages about the A.I.G. bonus program as early as late February, according to a person familiar with the matter. A.I.G. itself revealed the bonus plan in regulatory filings last September.” Jane Hamsher picks up on overlooked portion of Wednesday’s hearing: “Elijah Cummings shot huge holes through the stories of both Timothy Geithner and Edward Liddy yesterday during the AIG hearing on Capitol Hill,” she writes at Huffington Post. Said Cummings, in his question to Liddy: “The media has been focused on the $165 million installment of the $450 million retention program for AIG Financial Products Division. However, for months, you and I have been going back and forth overall about the one billion dollars retention program that covers thousands of employees throughout AIG.” And does the timeline really matter? “Why didn’t he know about the bonuses earlier? And when he did get clued in, why didn’t he do anything to head off what was obviously going to be a distracting and perhaps damaging controversy?” Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post column. “A simpler way of asking the Geithner question is: Does he get it?” What’s he looking to get done again? “President Obama’s $3.55-trillion budget has stumbled into a series of economic and political pitfalls that threaten to undercut his grandest ambitions,” Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times. “Into that tinderbox, a lit match has come from new deficit estimates. . . . The Congressional Budget Office report today is expected to reflect a worsening deficit outlook in part because economic conditions have deteriorated in the two months since the administration set its budget assumptions. The office is expected to project lower revenue and higher spending than what Obama’s budget assumed.” What’s getting done fast (but do Republicans really want to delay this?): “The Senate plans to vote next week on steep levies on employee bonuses after the House overwhelmingly approved a 90 percent tax on bonuses at American International Group Inc. and other companies receiving bailout funds,” per Bloomberg’s Ryan J. Donmoyer. “The Senate’s proposal on companies that got the federal money would place a 70 percent tax on the bonuses. Half that amount would be paid by employees, half by the companies.” Reconcile this: “Congressional Democratic leaders and the Obama White House are likely to use a parliamentary procedure to win passage this year of a national health-insurance program, people familiar with the discussions said Thursday,” Jonathan Weisman and John D. McKinnon write in The Wall Street Journal. “For Congress to pass such a monumental program using a special maneuver would be unusual. . . . Employing the tactic would almost certainly lead to more partisan clashes as President Barack Obama’s budget starts down the legislative path in coming days.” More details, from The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery and Ceci Connolly: “House Democrats, in consultation with the White House, will give Republican lawmakers until September to reach a compromise on President Obama’s signature health-care initiative — otherwise, they will use a shortcut to move the measure through Congress without Republican votes.” (Quite a deadline — given that Congress is set to be on recess in August.) Tom Daschle makes the case, in a Washington Post op-ed: “When I withdrew from consideration to be secretary of health and human services, some pundits said health reform had received a devastating blow. While it would be flattering for me to believe that, it would also be completely wrong,” he writes. “It is disappointing that I will not be inside the administration, pushing for health reform. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be pushing for it.” The healthcare argument heats up in the states — Health Care for America Now debuts a new TV ad, targeting Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. David Brooks buys the too-much-at-once argument: “The president of the United States has decided to address this crisis while simultaneously tackling the four most complicated problems facing the nation: health care, energy, immigration and education. Why he has not also decided to spend his evenings mastering quantum mechanics and discovering the origins of consciousness is beyond me,” he writes in his New York Times column. “The results of this overload are evident on Capitol Hill. The banking plan is incomplete, and there is zero political will to pay for it. The president’s budget is being nibbled to death. The revenue ideas are dying one by one, while the spending ideas expand.” Something else that simply must get done: groundbreaking Friday for the White House vegetable garden. “The 1,100-square-foot garden will include 55 kinds of vegetables, including peppers, spinach and, yes, arugula,” Jane Black reports in The Washington Post. The Boston Globe’s Sasha Issenberg travels across the pond to glimpse Howard Dean in a sort of happy journey into the wilderness: “Now, unlike virtually all the other leaders of the Democratic comeback, Dean is out of office. He is easing into an exile as a Democratic version of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spent the Bush years operating as a freelance visionary and policy entrepreneur, a permanent creature of the political margins credited with having successfully plotted his party’s recapture of power but not long trusted to actually wield it,” Issenberg writes. Take this, Mr. President (and Mr. Emanuel): “Everybody likes to think they did it all by themselves,” Dean said in an interview. “I don’t believe in the great-man theory of history. You really have to see change as a continuum. It doesn’t come in packets, it comes in waves.” Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska, wants construction money — but not education funds. (And we thought the people of Ketchikan could use a school . . . ) Sean Cockerham, in the Anchorage Daily News: “Gov. Sarah Palin is refusing to accept more than 30 percent of the federal economic stimulus money being offered to Alaska, including dollars for schools, energy assistance and social services. The news Thursday drew anger from those who accused Palin of putting her national political aspirations ahead of the state’s interests, and admiration from others who say she has courage to turn down money that would expand government. The state Legislature will have an opportunity to override her decision.” The Kicker: “I do think in Washington it’s a little bit like ‘American Idol,’ except everybody is Simon Cowell.” — President Obama, to Jay Leno, in the line he wished would be the most-quoted from his appearance. “Look, he’s a competitive guy — I just don’t think they’ve got the inside game to go all the way. But I look forward to him proving me wrong.” — President O, to Coach K. Follow The Note on Twitter: http://twitter.com/thenote For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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