The Note, 4/28/2009: Pigged Out — Outside crises test Obama — and eclipse 100-day messaging

By Caitlin Taylor

Apr 28, 2009 7:47am

By RICK KLEIN This is a fun day to play an old game: What would we be buzzing about if George W. Bush was still president? What, that is, would the storyline be the day after a fighter jet and a plane used as Air Force One spooked New York City, all for a photo op? And two days after the president went golfing in the midst of a “public health emergency”? President Obama probably doesn’t have to find out — and therein rests a very big secret to his early success. This is Day 99, and proclamations to the contrary notwithstanding, the honeymoon is not over. The president has a deep (and maybe still deepening) reservoir of public support — including, perhaps most significantly, a claim on the nation’s optimism. Another poll confirms it: The country wants Obama to succeed, even if the nation is a smidge less sure of what that success should look like.  Yet presidencies rise and fall on crises, and Obama continues to get a constant stream. Swine flu has made interrogation memos somehow less urgent — and Tuesday Capitol Hill gets into the game, with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, jumping the line to chair the first congressional hearing, at 1 pm ET. If you don’t think the White House gets the politics, you’re just wrong: “The Obama administration dispatched high-level officials from several agencies Monday to allay concerns about swine flu and to demonstrate that it was fully prepared to confront the outbreak even as the president said there was ‘not a cause for alarm,’ ” Robert Pear and Gardiner Harris write for The New York Times.  “As the administration responds to its first domestic emergency, it is building on concrete preparations made during the tenure of President George W. Bush that have won praise from public health experts. But its actions are also informed by what Mr. Bush learned in his response to Hurricane Katrina: that political management of a crisis, and of public expectations, can be as important as the immediate response.” “Aides said they were mindful that how the president conducted himself in this period, both substantively and stylistically, would be long remembered. But they adamantly rejected the idea that this situation was at all comparable to that of the hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005,” Pear and Harris write. How often does the White House put out statements from foreign governments? “Mr. Felipe Solis, Director of Mexico’s National Anthropology Museum died on April 23rd, a week after he welcomed Presidents Obama and Calderon at the Museum,” said Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy to the US, said in a statement emailed to White House reporters, ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. “He died of complications of a preexisting condition and not of swine flu.”  “Swine flu politics is back. It helped claim the career of a president more than 30 years ago. As if Barack Obama needed any more headaches,” Craig Crawford writes for CQ Politics.  Losing message control: “Given the attention being paid to the swine flu, it’s hard to imagine that by Wednesday the nation will be interested in anything else but whether there are any more than the 40 known cases of the disease in the United States and what if anything can be done to stop is spread,”’s Chris Cillizza writes on White House plans to mark the 100th day.  You know it’s going to be asked (and Sunday’s golf outing will provide the ready comparisons): “Will swine flu turn out to be President Obama’s Katrina times a thousand?” Michelle Richmond blogs for the San Francisco Chronicle.  The Boston Globe editorializes: “The swine flu outbreak offers an unexpected political challenge for President Obama, and a readiness test for the nation’s public health system. So far, Obama is doing what he can to send the right message to the public: Don’t panic over the swine flu threat, but don’t ignore it either.”  “Back when we were ducking and covering in fear of a Soviet attack, these first few cases of swine flu might have gone undetected. Like most flu outbreaks, this one probably will be contained. In the meantime, I’m going to wash my hands a lot more often than usual,” Eugene Robinson writes in The Washington Post.  Your government in action: “Congress rushed to respond Monday to the swine flu outbreak as the death toll south of the border mounted, the Obama administration urged Americans to avoid travel to Mexico, and fears of a worldwide pandemic grew,” Roll Call’s Steven T. Dennis writes.  “Reports of swine flu outbreaks have come in from five different states so far, but all Washington has caught is a contagious case of finger-pointing,” Politico’s Erika Lovley writes.  Those vacancies were bound to matter at some point: “President Obama’s administration is attempting to implement a never-before-tested pandemic response plan while dozens of key public health and emergency response jobs in the administration remain vacant,” Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu write in The Washington Post. “An immediate pandemic outbreak would pose immense challenges to a presidential team operating without much experience and without a long-standing plan. A National Pandemic Strategy and Implementation Plan was developed in 2005 and 2006, but has never been fully tested.”  “Having the top 20 unfilled is a significant problem for the long term,” said Michael Leavitt, HHS Secretary under President Bush. Who’s in charge here? “Faced with the international outbreak of swine flu and mounting concern about the threat to Americans, the Obama administration is relying on a member of the president’s Cabinet with almost no background in medicine: Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security,” Noam Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times. “Napolitano’s visibility has been further elevated because the posts of secretary of Health and Human Services, surgeon general and director of the CDC have not been filled. The White House has repeatedly said that those vacancies were not handicapping the government’s response to the flu outbreak.”  “A review of The Washington Post’s Head Count appointee tracking project finds that Obama has tapped five people for HHS jobs including Sebelius, but still needs to fill 15 other positions. When finally confirmed, they will hire staff to fill out other key roles across the federal health policy system,” Ed O’Keefe writes at The Washington Post’s “Federal Eye” blog.  “Philharmonics play without a conductor,” a top federal health official told ABC’s Lisa Stark and Kate Barrett. “There are a lot of people ’round who have been breathing this stuff for a long time.”  Bad timing for a budget cut: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is drawing bloggers’ ire for her role in cutting $870 million for pandemic flu. “Her office put out a statement this afternoon in which her Communications Director defends the cut in stimulus funding for pandemic flu preparedness and says Collins simply wanted flu funding to go through normal channels,” ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf reports.  Plenty of questions to be asked: “Congress over the past four years has trimmed federal spending aimed at fighting a flu pandemic, most recently in this year’s stimulus bill,” Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times.  Here on Day 99, Obama will get his full Cabinet (remember when he was setting a record pace for nominations?): Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, D-Kan., is on track to be confirmed by the Senate as HHS secretary Tuesday. “Overhauling health care was going to be tough enough for Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius,” McClatchy’s David Goldstein writes. “However, the growing scare over swine flu is likely to command her attention, if, as expected, the Senate on Tuesday confirms her as secretary of health and human services, the final vacancy in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.”  The budget is moving along in Congress this week — with a House vote possible Tuesday, and final passage possible in the Senate in time for Wednesday night’s press conference. President Obama makes a late morning stop at the FBI, and hosts members of Congress at the White House in the afternoon. Also commanding attention: angry New Yorkers. “As secret missions go, this one was a flop,” Suzanne Sataline, Jonathan D. Rockoff and Christopher Conkey write in The wall Street Journal. “On Monday morning, one of the 747s used to ferry around the U.S. president was dispatched to the Statue of Liberty, escorted by a fighter jet. Assignment: Get some fresh glamour shots of the plane. The Air Force said the flight needed to remain confidential. So while New York police knew about it, as did at least one person in the mayor’s office, regular New Yorkers remained in the dark.”  “SCARE FORCE ONE,” screams the New York Post. ” ‘Air Farce One’ played out over lower Manhattan yesterday — in a terrifyingly bizarre military photo op that sent office workers fleeing from their buildings fearing a new 9/11-type attack,” Murray Weiss, David Seifman, and Jeremy Olshan write. (And check out Robert Gibbs’ photo in the graphic of the flight plan.)  “Flashback to 9/11,” and “Plane stupid,” read the New York Daily News headlines. “Sources said the chief reason for the panic-inducing flight was to create souvenir pictures of Air Force One flying over the Statue of Liberty to be given out — like a presidential tie clip — to family, friends or supporters,” Ken Bazinet and company write.  Your cool, calm president: “A White House official tells ABC News that President Obama was ‘furious’ to hear about the incident this morning when Air Force One and Air Force fighter jets appeared to be flying into the Manhattan skyline,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. “When President Obama was told about the incident, he was ‘furious,’ a White House official says. [Louis] Caldera was called into a meeting with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina. ‘It didn’t sound like a fun meeting,’ the White House official says.”  “Still, federal officials provided few details and wouldn’t say why the public and area building security managers weren’t notified. They also wouldn’t address why someone thought it was a wise decision to send two jets into New York City, all for a few photos with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop,” per the AP’s Sara Kuglerula Ilnytzky.  In the meantime, that 100th day narrative takes hold: “Americans seem to have high hopes for the president; 72 percent said they were optimistic about the next four years. By and large, Americans expect him to make significant progress in health care, energy and immigration policy, issues central to his ambitious domestic agenda,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Marjorie Connelly write in The New York Times, on the new NYT/CBS poll.  “But while Americans clearly have faith in Mr. Obama, the poll revealed something of a disconnect between what the public thinks the president has already accomplished and what it expects him to achieve,” they write. “Fewer than half of those surveyed, 48 percent, said Mr. Obama had begun to make progress on one of his major campaign promises, changing the way business is conducted in Washington. And just 39 percent said he had begun to make progress on another major promise, cutting taxes for middle-class Americans, even though the stimulus bill he signed into law does include a middle class tax cut.” Will only outside events matter? “For now, what Republicans have to realize is that they have little power to affect Obama’s popularity. If it falls, it will be because of what he does, and not because of Republican strategy. All the GOP can do is be ready when the time comes,” Byron York writes in his Washington Examiner column.  Is the argument over the first 100 days over? “It’s the next 1,361 days that should be the worry. Obama’s presidency will be defined by how he handles the stresses inherent in his ambition domestically, his humility abroad, and his polarizing approach politically,” National Review’s Rich Lowry writes. “Fired by the belief history was on his side, Bush made a play for the ages. Obama is doing the same. That much is clear after 100 Days.”  Not even asking IF he’s a success: “The real question is, why has Obama been so successful?” Fareed Zakaria writes for Newsweek. “Many commentators have focused on his calm leadership style, his deliberative methods and his tight teamwork. That’s all true, but there is a larger explanation for the success so far. Obama has read the country and the political moment correctly. He understands that America in 2009 is in a very different place now.”  “Barack Obama has used the first 100 days of his presidency to repudiate the go-it-alone tone of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, announcing to friends and foes alike that America will lead the world by listening to it,” Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan report.  More kind (sort of) words from GOPers: “I am pleasantly surprised,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “He’s got some very difficult problems to handle, and I think he’s done well in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Arianna Huffington gives out high marks: “For the last eight years, we suffered from the soft bigotry of low presidential expectations. Taken as a whole, Obama’s first 100 days have been an inspiring change from a White House that expected as little from us as it did from itself. The road ahead is indeed going to be long and steep. But at least we’re on the right road.” Breaking Tuesday — pressure on Obama’s left: “President Barack Obama is receiving a ‘D’ for his handling of state secrets in a “rule of law” report card prepared by fellow Democrat Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin senator who chairs a subcommittee on the Constitution,” per ABC’s Teddy Davis. “I recognize that some of these issues will take time, but given how important these issues are to the country, Americans deserve a fair assessment of the administration’s progress,” Feingold told ABC News. Per Davis: “Obama’s ‘D’ on state secrets, which Feingold characterized as ‘disturbing,’ is a timely reminder that this is one area where the new president has caused concern among some progressives.” From the other side: “Dr. Frank Page, one of the key conservative evangelicals on President Obama’s Faith Council tells The Brody File that when it comes to the social issues surrounding President Obama’s presidency he has been disappointed and not very encouraged by the first 100 days in office,” David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network reports.  From Treasury on Tuesday, per ABC’s Matt Jaffe: “A senior administration official says that later today Treasury and HUD will release new details on efforts to help ‘bring relief to responsible homeowners under the Administration’s Making Home Affordable Program, including an effort to achieve greater affordability for homeowners by lowering payments on their second mortgages as well as a set of measures designed to help underwater borrowers stay in their homes.’ ” This would have been fun: “Watching Dick Cheney defend the Bush administration’s interrogation policies, it’s been hard to escape the impression that both the Republican Party and the country would be better off today if Cheney, rather than John McCain, had been a candidate for president in 2008,” Ross Douthat writes in his debut column for The New York Times.  “If a Cheney defeat could have been good for the Republican Party; a Cheney campaign could have been good for the country. The former vice-president’s post-election attacks on Obama are bad form, of course, under the peculiar rules of Washington politesse. But they’re part of an argument about the means and ends of our interrogation policy that should have happened during the general election and didn’t — because McCain wasn’t a supporter of the Bush-era approach, and Obama didn’t see a percentage in harping on the topic.” The Kicker: “It’s so stupid because they tell you about every fire drill, but they didn’t tell us about this.” — Dominick Caglioti, Mercantile Exchange employee, on the planes that hovered low over Manhattan. “Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision. While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it’s clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused.” — Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office, taking the fall. Don’t miss “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast, hosted Tuesday by David Chalian and Karen Travers, at noon ET. Tuesday’s guest: Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times and, fact-checking Obama’s first 100 days, and Republican strategist Kevin Madden. 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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