The Note, 4/27/2009: Marks & Hallmarks — Can Obama’s popularity push less popular agenda?

By Caitlin Taylor

Apr 27, 2009 8:10am

By RICK KLEIN Welcome to the right track — where you can still hear the rumbling from the wrong track. Maybe Hallmark makes a card that sums it all up: “Congratulations! Hope the economy gets well in the next 100 days. May the pirates, the Netroots, the tea partiers, and the swine flu find a fairy tale to haunt instead . . .” Amid the 100-day glow, against the backdrop of all the drama he’s already experienced, President Obama’s central political challenge remains what it was on Day One (and may be the same on Day 1,000): The president is more popular than what he’s doing, and what he needs still to do. (There’s a deficit that definitely matters. If it doesn’t earn a Hallmark, it may yet leave a mark.) “What’s important is that he now enjoys the power of public confidence. He will need all the backing he can muster as he moves into what is likely to be an even more difficult phase of his presidency,” The Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes.  “This we already know: Obama’s engaging opening act has captivated most Americans, judging by the polls,” Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News.  (And look who’s taking credit for making it all happen in the first place.) Honeymoons won’t matter when it comes to the big items on the agenda — to say nothing of the big distractions that make themselves known. Of promises still to be fulfilled: “For all he and his supporters have to celebrate, overcoming political divisions — an Obama pledge — is not among them,” ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes. “His 69 percent job approval rating in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll is almost exactly the average for an elected president at 100 days in polls back to Dwight Eisenhower. But it belies a more modern partisan gap: Ninety-three percent of Democrats approve. Only 36 percent of Republicans agree.”  Remember that the latest storyline will stick around: “Overall, the public is about evenly divided on the questions of whether torture is justifiable in terrorism cases and whether there should be official inquiries into any past illegality involving the treatment of terrorism suspects,” Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta write in The Washington Post. “About half of all Americans, and 52 percent of independents, said there are circumstances in which the United States should consider employing torture against such suspects.”  His personal popularity only lasts so far. But maybe just so far is enough. “Obama is more popular than his policies; for instance, most Americans like him a lot, but they dislike his bank bailouts. Republican critics insist that this disconnect ultimately will bring him down, but they’re forgetting their history,” Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Back in the ’80s, Reagan’s persona was always more popular than his agenda. Shortly after he marked his first 100 days, the Gallup Poll said: ‘While the public generally admires Reagan for his personal attributes . . . many people are either dubious or downright skeptical about the effectiveness of the president’s approaches to [the nation's economic] problems.’ “  Or at least it’s enough so long as he’s in motion. Jonathan Alter, in Newsweek: “Barack Obama has put more points on the board than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, and his public investment greatly exceeds Roosevelt’s in constant dollars. The only president he falls short of is Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. Even if you think he’s wrong, Obama deserves high marks for articulating a new vision and getting Congress to act. But he still gets an "incomplete" for the term. That’s because his ethos is to do ‘what works.’ Problem is, we don’t know yet what will.” Changes to believe in: “Bush focused on the Iraq war; Obama has placed more of an emphasis on Afghanistan. Obama wants the government to have a role in reshaping the nation’s health care system; Bush preferred to take smaller steps so individuals could buy private health insurance,” USA Today’s David Jackson writes.  “If Bill Clinton once lamented that he didn’t have a true crisis during his presidency, Obama confronts the opposite environment and has responded with an agenda as broad as the range of troubles the nation faces,” Bloomberg’s Michael Tackett.  Said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn: “At the beginning of his presidency, President Obama is doing very well. . . . But I am afraid if you try to do 17 things at once, he won’t do the one or two things as well as he should.” Said David Axelrod: “We are just at the beginning of a long march.” A march through unpredictable territory continues with the swine flu. President Obama speaks Monday morning at the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting, in Washington — what better venue to reference the news of the day? Launched Monday: AOL’s “Politics Daily,” stacked with big names from political journalism.  Carl Cannon likes the Obama style: “He is as velvety smooth as a cold glass of Guinness, this new president of ours–and even boasts a drop or two of Irish blood on his mother’s side — not to mention the good looks of a Kennedy, the even keel of a Roosevelt, the understated swagger of an Eisenhower. He has riding shotgun with him a First Lady who is simultaneously hip and squared away, and two little girls so pretty and poised they might have come from Central Casting.”  (Don’t miss Walter Shapiro on President McCain’s first 100 days: “Nothing better symbolizes McCain’s man-in-the-arena emulation of TR than his impromptu mid-February flight (the White House press corps was given 45 minutes’ notice before departure) to Johnstown, Pa., in the midst of a protracted showdown with Congress over the stimulus package. Fulfilling his oft-repeated campaign pledge to make the authors of earmarks ‘famous,’ the president stood in the eerily empty main concourse of the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport on a Friday afternoon and mockingly declared: ‘This isn’t an airport in need of stimulus money. This is a museum of wasteful government spending.’ “)  One source of maybe a little angst: “Even while trying to do big things, Obama has shown a pragmatic side. Instead of blowing up the status quo and starting over in fashioning healthcare and financial reforms, he aims to build on what already exists,” Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor.  Defying labels: “Obama, on the whole, has been as crisp a decision maker and as calm an influence on his aides and his country as he was during the campaign,” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post column. “But the most intriguing aspect of Obama’s presidency so far may be the way in which he combines intelligence and intellect.”  McClatchy’s Steven Thomma: “At the 100-day mark, he’s putting his own style on the presidency. Opportunistic. Pragmatic. Confident. Deliberate. Polite to friend and foe alike. Partisan. Polarizing. A better talker than George W. Bush. A more disciplined manager than Bill Clinton.”  “Far more than anything else, President Barack Obama’s first 100 days have been marked by an ideological shift to traditional Democratic policies in tackling the U.S. recession,” Reuters’ Steve Holland writes. “How much of his agenda he will be able to navigate through the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress remains an open question, because even some Democrats fret at the costs — for starters, a record $3.55 trillion budget for fiscal 2010.”  The deficits that can make it all crash down: “The small stuff, such as Obama’s directive to his agencies to cut a total of $100 million from their budgets, may score political points for the president,” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt writes. “He’s talked a good game on some of the bigger-ticket items, while showing no inclination to fight for them. His apologists say he has higher priorities. If it persists, this will produce one of two train wrecks: decimating his health-care and energy initiatives or imperiling a long term, fiscally sound economy.”  The politics that can make it all crash down: “Since last year’s campaign, President Obama has vowed repeatedly not to increase taxes for families making less than $250,000 a year,” Lori Montgomery and V. Dion Haynes write in The Washington Post. “That pledge, while politically popular, has left him with just two primary sources of funding for his ambitious social agenda: about 3 million high-earning families and the nation’s businesses. . . . Across the nation, many business owners are watching anxiously as the president undertakes expensive initiatives to overhaul health care and expand educational opportunities, while also reining in runaway budget deficits.”  Wait — you sure he wants this? Politico’s Jonathan Martin: “With the still-boiling debate over torture ongoing, one of the Big Three car companies on the verge of bankruptcy and even an outbreak of swine flu dominating the headlines, Obama and his aides may be able to lessen the focus on the traditional milestone they deride as an overwrought ‘Hallmark holiday.’ “  Rarely a positive development: “"Maybe there’s an element of settling old political scores here,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” of the push for investigating Bush-era interrogation techniques. “We need to put this behind us, we need to move forward.”  On the memos, Obama “looked like a willow bending beneath hot winds from his hyperliberal base, which still luxuriates in loathing the Bush administration,” George Will writes for Newsweek. “Obama shut the door on possible prosecutions of Bush officials for authorizing torture, then two days later he left the door ajar. But to read the memos is to realize what quicksand the Obama administration would step into if it tried to hold the authors of them legally accountable.”  What do conservatives want out of this? Pajamas Media’s Jennifer Rubin: “Conservatives are torn. On the one hand, a ‘truth commission’ to investigate enhanced interrogation techniques employed by the Bush administration would criminalize policy differences, potentially tag the Bush administration’s good faith efforts to prevent a second 9/11 as “war crimes,” and tear the country asunder. All that strikes conservatives as dangerous in the extreme. And yet … the temptation to plunge into the abyss is palpable.”  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, scrambling the deck. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pressed him repeatedly over whether Iran would recognize Israel if the Palestinians agreed to a two-state solution: “Whatever decision they take is fine with us,” he said. “We are not going to determine anything. Whatever decision they take, we will support that. We think that is the right of the Palestinian people, however we fully expect other states to do so as well.”  On talking nukes without preconditions: “No, No,” Ahmadinejad replied. “We should just have a clear-cut framework for talks. The agenda should be clear.”  Also causing reverberations back home: “The Obama administration, already on treacherous political ground because of its outreach to traditional adversaries such as Iran and Cuba, has opened the door a crack to engagement with the militant group Hamas,” the Los Angeles Times’ Paul Richter writes.  (Today on ABCNews.com’s “Top Line” — the Israeli perspective, with Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel’s deputy chief of mission to the United States.) Taking credit where it’s (maybe) due. (What does this mean for relationships in the Senate?) “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid encouraged Barack Obama to run for president in early 2007, telling the then-freshman senator if wanted the White House, he could win it, according to an epilogue to Reid’s autobiography to be released next month,” the Las Vegas Sun’s Lisa Mascaro.  “Reid said he invited Obama to his office off the Senate floor ostensibly to discuss other matters. But actually the majority leader brought the young senator in to tell him, as Reid writes in the book, ‘If you want to be president, you can be president now.’ ” Mascaro continues: ” ‘I think he was kind of surprised by the conversation,’ Reid told the Sun last week. Reid could not recall the exact date of their talk. Obama filed papers to run in mid-January 2007, with a public plan to announce his formal candidacy almost a month later.  “This new, final chapter is a game-changer in the Reid-Obama relationship and reveals a deeper and potentially more intimate bond between the two men than Washington may have realized. The disclosure also forces a reassessment of Reid’s steadfast neutrality during the prolonged Democratic presidential nomination of 2008.” Taking stock when it’s (maybe) overdue: “Only 614 more days until 2010 and a new Congress,” Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times. “Republicans point proudly to their ability to close ranks, noting that only three Senate Republicans backed the $787 billion economic stimulus measure (though they provided the crucial margin of victory) while not a single Republican voted for budgets approved by the House and Senate. They rightfully note that they have so far held the line against a measure that would ease union organizing in the workplace.  “They say they are reconnecting with their core voters by emphasizing what they see as profligate Democratic spending. And they believe they are laying the groundwork for a comeback by putting themselves solidly on the right side of multiple issues in preparation for a public souring on the Democratic agenda on spending, health care, energy, etc.,” Hulse writes. Making their jobs easier: Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa. “A string of federal criminal investigations of contractors or lobbyists close to Mr. Murtha, the top Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, are threatening to undermine his backroom clout,” David Kirkpatrick reports in The New York Times.  “In the weeks since the news that prosecutors had raided the offices of the PMA Group — a lobbying firm founded by a former Murtha associate that became a gateway to his office and his biggest source of campaign money — about two dozen rank-and-file Democrats have risked his wrath by calling for a House ethics investigation of the matter. One Democrat has even foresworn seeking earmarks for the military contractors in his district because of ethical concerns about the process.” Can he avoid this fight? How’s this for lobbying: “The evolution in public policy concerning the manufacture, sale and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons like AK-47s, AR-15s and Uzis has been very disturbing. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and I all supported a ban on these formidable firearms, and one was finally passed in 1994,” former President Jimmy Carter writes in a New York Times op-ed.  “Even as Obama has packed his agenda during his first 100 days in office, he has mostly bypassed the contentious gun issue, despite its importance in Chicago and other urban areas,” John McCormick writes in the Chicago Tribune.  Per ABC’s Jake Tapper, President Obama took advantage of the nice weather Sunday and went golfing — and lost to trip director Marvin Nicholson.  The Washington Examiner’s Julie Mason: “Obama may have hit the links, but the White House still kept news photographers far away — now that he’s president, there are no actual shots of him playing.”  Newsweek’s Holly Bailey writes on Obama’s struggles with bubbles — the security kind.  The Kicker: “I like engaging with people.” — Vice President Joe Biden, having engaged with “60 Minutes” for a piece. Don’t miss “Top Line,” ABCNews.com’s daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET. Monday’s guests: Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff, deputy chief of mission in Israel’s Washington embassy, and Jennifer Rubin of Pajamas Media and Commentary Magazine. 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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