The Note, 4/17/09: Worldly Woes — Obama seeks middle as domestic, national-security politics follow him south

By Caitlin Taylor

Apr 17, 2009 8:31am

By RICK KLEIN It’s a foreign trip, but White House aides got to bring domestic political considerations with them. So far, less than 24 hours after leaving the country, President Obama has grappled with guns, drugs, borders, trade, torture, and Cuba — quite the colorful start. They’re part of that larger field of issues that President Obama would probably (not-so) secretly rather not have to deal with right now. (And since the campaign looms over the White House still — what better day for Sarah Palin and Steve Schmidt to make some news? Don’t miss Palin’s comments in Indiana Thursday, on her most recent pregnancy: “It could be easy to think maybe of trying to change the circumstances. No one would know. No one would ever know.”) Obama is a politician animated by caution — and that’s what we’re seeing on display in just about all of the tough issues popping onto his plate. Try to keep this all straight: He’s for the assault-weapons ban but won’t press it now; he released the torture memos but won’t prosecute those who acted on them; he’s letting the NAFTA rhetoric fade along with memories of his primary campaign. The president heads to Trinidad and Tobago Friday for the Summit of the Americas — and that means more outside pressure. “He will face a group of leaders far less forgiving than their European counterparts were about the United States’ central role in the global financial crisis,” Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post. “Obama will encounter several Latin American leaders who have long criticized the economic mix of free trade, privatization and public-debt reduction known as ‘the Washington consensus.’ Although Obama will signal the same change in tone and approach from the Bush administration that he delivered to Europe, his audience will be different in its politics and personality.”  “Cuba’s not invited to the big party in Trinidad and Tobago, but it will crash it anyway,” The Miami Herald’s Myriam Marquez writes. “It’ll be the pesky ghost at the table, pushing, shoving and booing — all in an effort to derail President Barack Obama’s first foray Friday into Latin America’s often messy love-hate relationship with the United States.”  “Latin American leaders are seeking more than re-engagement. They are looking to redefine the relationship,” Alexei Barrionuevo writes in The New York Times.  How long before this storyline gets dangerous for the White House? “Mr. Obama so far appears to be presiding over a foreign policy that may seem more different than it really is,” Peter Baker writes in The New York Times. “As Mr. Obama heads to Mexico on Thursday for his second foreign trip of the month, he is bringing with him many of the same American interests as his predecessor, even if they are wrapped in a different package.”  The TV moment: “All eyes will be on any interaction between President Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,” per ABC’s Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller. “The two leaders will not have a formal one-on-one meeting, but that doesn’t mean the two will not have at least some face time together.” Before we get there — gun casualties: “President Obama signaled [Thursday] that he will not push for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban in the United States even though he still believes that the ban ‘made sense,’ ” ABC’s Karen Travers, Jake Tapper, and Sunlen Miller write. “Obama pledged during the presidential campaign to reinstate the ban, which expired in 2004, but today said doing so would mean facing difficult political challenges.”  “Despite Obama’s high approval ratings and solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, his comments indicated that the political clout of gun rights advocates, including many Republicans as well as conservative Democrats, made it doubtful he could resurrect an assault gun ban,” Peter Nicholas and Tracy Wilkinson write in the Los Angeles Times.  “The drug violence dominated their public appearance on a day when the Mexican military engaged in a firefight with suspected drug traffickers in the southern state of Guerrero. The battle left 15 smugglers and one soldier dead, and the military said it confiscated assault rifles and grenades in the aftermath,” per The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson.  What about that campaign vow? “The muted advocacy from the elected officials they consider allies in the political warfare over guns has been disheartening for gun control advocates,” per ABC’s David Chalian.  Said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: “It’s frustrating that there hasn’t been a response from the White House.” Forget the assault-weapons ban — can he even get the treaty he’s vowing to press for in its stead? “On Capitol Hill, a senior Democratic official said that despite the president’s urging, it would be difficult to move forward on the long-stalled treaty given the Senate’s already crowded agenda, as well as a continuing Democratic reluctance to engage in a politically charged debate over guns,” The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes. “The National Rifle Association said Thursday that it would ‘continue to vigorously oppose any international effort to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding American gun owners.’ “  On the torture memos — another move that might irk the left as much as it will the right. Probably all that will come out of the case: “President Obama threw open the curtain Thursday on harsh interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration against terrorism suspects, but he said CIA officers would not be prosecuted for their actions,” USA Today’s Richard Wolf and Peter Eisler report.  The left will just love this: “As for the decision not to prosecute CIA officers, another senior administration official noted that Mr. Obama’s responsibilities changed when he moved from candidate to president and began receiving daily threat briefings,” The Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman and Evan Perez write. “It’s a different set of responsibilities,” the official said. “He’s sitting in the Oval Office.”  Pushback from the right: “The ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, just told me that he’s ‘disappointed’ by the release of these memos,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reports. “Bond believes the administration ‘released far too much information,’ adding that he thinks Al Qaeda will use this information to train their followers to resist interrogation and that it will provide ‘propaganda for Al Qaeda’s media machine.’ Bottom line: Bond believes this release will ‘make us less safe and ‘heighten anger’ in parts of the world ‘where we’re trying to make friends.’ “  Michael Hayden and Michael Mukasey, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, bringing up 9/11: “The release of these opinions was unnecessary as a legal matter, and is unsound as a matter of policy. Its effect will be to invite the kind of institutional timidity and fear of recrimination that weakened intelligence gathering in the past, and that we came sorely to regret on Sept. 11, 2001.”  It was a tough call, David Axelrod tells Politico’s Mike Allen and Josh Gerstein: “He thought very long and hard about it, consulted widely, because there were two principles at stake,” Axelrod said. “One is the sanctity of covert operations and keeping faith with the people who do them, and the impact on national security, on the one hand. And the other was the law and his belief in transparency.”  Also following the president south: “Steven Rattner, the leader of the Obama administration’s auto task force, was one of the executives involved with payments under scrutiny in a probe of an alleged kickback scheme at New York state’s pension fund, according to a person familiar with the matter,” The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Lattman and Craig Karmin write. “A Securities and Exchange Commission complaint says a ‘senior executive’ of Mr. Rattner’s investment firm met in 2004 with a politically connected consultant about a finder’s fee. Later, the complaint says, the firm received an investment from the state pension fund and paid $1.1 million in fees.”  The New York Times’ Danny Hakim and Louise Story: “Mr. Rattner’s selection for the auto job was a topic of much speculation beginning in January, but it took several weeks to be settled. Two people close to the Obama administration said there were a handful of concerns about Mr. Rattner before he was named to his new position, but they declined to elaborate on what those concerns were.”  Those “green shoots” may not be green: Paul Krugman has some reasons the recovery might not be here quite yet. “Things are still getting worse. . . . Some of the good news isn’t convincing. . . . There may be other shoes yet to drop. . . . Even when it’s over, it won’t be over.”  This issue will be back for the president when he returns: “Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that the Obama administration would move cautiously in shifting policies on gays serving openly in the military, but he signaled that service members should prepare for possible changes,” Julian E. Barnes reports in the Los Angeles Times. “In his most extensive remarks to date about the ongoing ban on gays who serve openly, Gates said he and other military leaders had ‘begun a dialogue’ with President Obama about the issue.”  Making news back in Washington: Former McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt speaks to the Log Cabin Republicans Friday. “Schmidt will use a speech Friday to Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, to urge conservative Republicans to drop their opposition to same-sex marriage,” CNN’s Dana Bash reports.  ABC’s Teddy Davis has some excerpts: “There is a sound conservative argument to be made for same-sex marriage. I believe conservatives, more than liberals, insist that rights come with responsibilities. No other exercise of one’s liberty comes with greater responsibilities than marriage,” Schmidt plans to say. "It cannot be argued that marriage between people of the same sex is un-American or threatens the rights of others. On the contrary, it seems to me that denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence — liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." (Wait — didn’t he see the “gathering storm” ad?)  Guess who popped up in Indiana Thursday: “On just her second trip outside the state this year, [Gov. Sarah] Palin reflected a bit on the experience of last year’s campaign, repeated her call for energy independence and called on states to reject federal stimulus money. But it was her emotional and personal talk about the birth of her son Trig that was most revealing,” ABC’s Kate Snow reports.  “It was a time when I had to ask myself was I gonna walk the walk or I was gonna talk the talk,” said Palin, R-Alaska.  She said she learned she was pregnant with Trig while she was out of the state at an oil and gas conference. “There just for a fleeting moment I thought, I knew, nobody knows me here. Nobody would ever know. I thought, wow, it is easy. It could be easy to think maybe of trying to change the circumstances. No one would know. No one would ever know,” Palin said. Mark McKinnon weighs in on Palin’s post-campaign performance: “I’d give her, you know, a passing grade — but just barely,” he said on’s “Top Line.” “But listen, she’s a rock star in the Republican Party and you know, as long as she can . . . do her job at home adequately then she’s going to continue to be a big player on the national scene for years to come.”  Guess who else was there? “On Thursday night, [RNC Chairman Michael] Steele took pains to assure the sold-out banquet crowd of 2,180 and almost 800 more watching a satellite feed in The Centre’s auditorium of his anti-abortion bonafides,” Thomas B. Langhorne reports in the Evansville Courier Press.  Said Steele: “Don’t let the noise [over the GQ interview] distract you from heeding the call to action.” Wonder how this happens: “Three senior House Democrats revealed sharp declines in donations for the first quarter of 2009 after the shuttering of a lobbying firm that in previous election cycles helped steer millions of dollars in donations to their political committees from its lobbyists and earmark-seeking clients,” Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post. “Reps. John P. Murtha (Pa.), Peter J. Visclosky (Ind.) and James P. Moran Jr. (Va.) have taken in 58 percent less in combined campaign contributions this year compared with the first quarter of 2007, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.”  Anyone believe this? “The feud between Howard Dean and Rahm Emanuel appears to be over,” The Hill’s Michael Sandler reports. “Dean told The Hill that he recently had lunch with the White House chief of staff, signaling a thaw in their once icy relationship.”  Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., responds to the dust-up over his comments on taking money out of banks: “That was done long ago. That part of the economic crisis is over. And it was I think helpful. I think to people who heard me speak to give them a firsthand understanding of my frame of mind in that early week,” Burr tells WTVD-TV, the ABC affiliate in Raleigh-Durham.  EFCA action continues . . . This from a memo being sent out by the AFL-CIO Friday morning: “Over the Congressional recess America’s workers participated in a massive wave of grassroots activities in support of the Employee Free Choice Act – it was the LARGEST GRASSROOTS ACTION since the general election mobilization.” “By the numbers: Over 400 – number of grassroots events held in support of the Employee Free Choice Act including forums, community town halls, roundtables, letter delivery events, and marches.  Over 27,000 – letters to Congress in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. § Almost 100,000 – phone calls to Congress in support of the Employee Free Choice Act.” On the other side: “Six Republican governors, including a couple big ones, are publicly coming out against the Employee Free Choice Act today. South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, Georgia’s Sonny Perdue, Idaho’s Butch Otter, South Dakota’s Mike Rounds and Texas’s Rick Perry will release a statement calling the labor-backed bill ‘absolutely unacceptable,’ ” per Politico’s Alexander Burns.  The legacy of that Georgetown speech: “The White House denied that there was any effort to specifically cover up religious imagery or symbols and noted that on the wall directly behind the president there are two religious paintings and there is other imagery throughout the hall,” writes ABC’s Karen Travers. “Georgetown officials said that the White House requested the backdrop and asked that all signs and symbols behind the stage be covered up.”  The Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody: “The White House says any suggestion that the administration purposely covered a cross and a Catholic religious monogram during President Obama’s speech this week at Georgetown are ‘simply false.’ “  It’s Oprah Twitter day! “Let future historians note that the expectation is Winfrey — who already has reached out to her minions through television, film, magazine, satellite radio and Web site — is poised to post her first Tweet on with Friday’s live 9 a.m. [CT] broadcast on Chicago’s WLS-Ch. 7,” the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal reports.  “Besides [Evan] Williams and [Ashton] Kutcher, Oprah was keeping tabs on updates from  Kutcher’s wife, Demi Moore (‘mrskutcher’); basketball star Shaquille Oneal (‘THE_REAL_SHAQ’), TV hosts Jimmy Fallon (‘jimmyfallon’), Ellen DeGeneres (‘TheEllenShow’) and George Stephanopoulos (‘GStephanopoulos’); best friend Gayle King (‘kinggayle’) and Sheri Salata (‘SheriSalata’), who is executive producer of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ ” Stephanopoulos’ new followers will get an all-star lineup on Sunday’s program: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, headline “This Week.” The Kicker: “I don’t think there’s a lot of ill will between myself and Rahm Emanuel.” — Howard Dean, making nice. “In 2008, his polling was accurate and advice was helpful even though the campaign didn’t prevail. As President Kennedy said, victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. I remain grateful for his hard work and loyalty.” — President Clinton, standing behind his man Mark Penn, to Time’s Karen Tumulty. Don’t miss “Top Line,”’s new daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET.  Follow The Note on Twitter: For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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