The Note, 5/19/2009: Better Days — A rosy Rose Garden day, but bigger challenges loom for Obama

By Caitlin Taylor

May 19, 2009 8:17am

By RICK KLEIN The compromise zone is a comfortable one for President Obama. He can find hopes and dreams there. But not too many folks in town want him much to stay. Tuesday’s event announcing new fuel standards for cars is the kind the president loves: The major stakeholders are coming together to announce an agreement, with the president in the middle of it all. It’s already vintage Obama. But there’s darkness on the edge of town. It’s the policy kind that will remind us that, for all the Rose Garden announcements, the actual real work of major domestic policy is happening in dreary (and dangerous) mark-ups on Capitol Hill. It’s the political kind that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., leaves behind Tuesday so he can avoid a lonesome day — as he’s set to get a battering on the central initiatives of his time in office, rendering unkind judgment on that new style of leadership. It’s the policy/political kind around national security that won’t let itself get crowded out by other news. (Particularly not with CIA Director Leon Panetta visiting Capitol Hill Tuesday, and Senate votes looming on Guantanamo Bay.) And it’s the political/policy kind championed by Republicans — who think they’ve found a battle they can win over Gitmo. (And don’t miss RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s decision to hit restart on Tuesday. No more rearview mirrors, he’s declaring — and, he says, the GOP comeback has begun.)  The president brings the players together at the Rose Garden for the major announcement on auto emissions, at 12:15 pm ET. You don’t have to understand cap-and-trade — or watch that particular sausage get made in committee — to get that this is a big one. “In sweeping new changes, the White House will order automakers to significantly increase the gas mileage of the cars they make, and significantly reduce the amount of pollution they emit,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Jake Tapper and Kristina Wong report. “Sources familiar with the changes tell ABC News the new national Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard will require an average of 35 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by the year 2016 — four years ahead of schedule.”  “The measures are significant steps forward for the administration’s energy agenda by cutting greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change and by easing U.S. dependence on oil, most of which is imported,” Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post. “That predictability won’t come cheap. A senior administration official said the new standards would raise the cost of an average car by $1,300, $600 of which could be attributed to the rules being announced today.”  “The plan marks the first time there has been a nationwide standard for emissions of greenhouse gasses, and it will require an average mileage standard of 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2016,” Politico’s Mike Allen and Eamon Javers report. Can automakers handle higher production costs? “Regulatory certainty by itself doesn’t bring market acceptance or technology breakthroughs. Among the risks that auto makers and dealers face is the need to produce and maintain a highly efficient fleet of hybrids, electric cars and advanced gasoline engines at prices that customers can afford,” Stephen Power and Christopher Conkey writes in The Wall Street Journal.  “Obama’s Fuel Deal May Be a Game-Changer,” reads the Detroit Free Press headline. “The rules could radically reshape the U.S. automotive industry by forcing automakers to push higher levels of technology such as hybrid-electric drives into vehicles faster than once planned,” Justin Hyde writes for the Free Press. “The deal fulfills Obama’s campaign promise to push Detroit and other automakers toward more fuel-stingy vehicles, but will also sharply raise the industry’s costs for meeting regulations.”  (And your SCOTUS speculation gets driven by the same event: “Gov. Jennifer Granholm will be at the White House Tuesday for a meeting on setting a national fuel standard for automobiles, according to a person familiar with the meeting who was not authorized to speak publicly about it,” the Free Press reported.)  The political end: “Obama puts climate change back on the front page at a time when a House legislative markup would have been buried in most news coverage. And by being pro-active — with industry players on board — on a major pollution initiative, the Republican committee plan of death by amendment will start to look more like obstruction,” Martin Kady II writes for Politico.  Cap-and-trade news can wait (and it will have to wait, anyway): “Congress’ chief scorekeeper says the global warming bill moving through Congress will either be scored as a major tax increase or a massive expansion of the federal government — and either one could give opponents substantial ammunition to complicate Democrats’ efforts to pass a bill,” the Washington Times’ Amanda DeBard and Stephen Dinan report.  It will all maybe dominate news coverage for a half a cycle or so. “So much for looking forward,” Roll Call’s Emily Pierce and Tory Newmyer write. “Instead of talking up their grand plans for changing the direction of the country and moving past the partisan bitterness, Congressional Democrats can’t seem to get out of this debate over the harsh interrogations of terror suspects during President George W. Bush’s first term.”  Said a Democratic aide: “I think there’s a way to make lemonade out of lemons here.” (Let’s taste it…) Pelosi “is suddenly fighting for her reputation, if not her job, in response to GOP assertions that she had been briefed on the waterboarding and didn’t object,” The Boston Globe’s Peter Canellos writes. “Now, the controversy is likely to become a test of President Obama’s leadership — not to rally the country, but to quell dissension in his own ranks. . . . Obama – the only figure with enough power and credibility to force the House Democrats into line — is likely to do what it takes to keep her in the speaker’s chair, as long as she can be effective.”  Where it gets more dangerous: “The Central Intelligence Agency gave House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., advanced warning before CIA Chief Leon Panetta sent a memo to employees at the spy agency that countered Pelosi’s claim that the agency lied to Congress about waterboarding,” Susan Ferrechio writes in the Washington Examiner.  “Sensing blood, Republican officials have turned the friction between Nancy Pelosi and the Central Intelligence Agency into significant political hay,” Huffington Post’s Sam Stein writes. “The key message is standard Republican fare: while Pelosi is attacking the CIA, the GOP is defending those who work to keep our nation safe.”  CIA Director Leon Panetta hits the Hill Tuesday to meet privately with lawmakers — and first, spoke Monday: “In an apparent reference to the furor surrounding the dispute between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the CIA over whether she was informed in 2002 that the agency was practicing waterboarding, he said that when lawmakers use ‘political clubs’ to beat each other up, ‘the country pays a price,’ ” per Roll Call’s Keith Koffler.  Where the story goes next? “The CIA is girding itself for more public scrutiny and is questioning whether agency personnel can conduct interrogations effectively under rules set out for the U.S. military,” Walter Pincus reports in The Washington Post. “Harsh interrogations were only one part of its clandestine activities against al-Qaeda and other enemies, and agency members are worried that other operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan will come under review, the officials said. . . . The Obama administration’s decisions to close the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, make public Justice Department memos sanctioning harsh interrogation, and ban techniques authorized by the Bush administration are affecting the agency’s operations.”  Where else it could head: “When he announced changes to the military commission system for prosecuting detainees at Guantánamo Bay on Friday, President Obama said his reforms ‘will begin to restore the commissions as a legitimate forum,’ ” William Glaberson writes in The New York Times. “But as details of the plan emerged Monday, it was clear that military commission trials would be subject to new legal challenges raising many of the same issues that plagued the Bush administration’s effort to prosecute detainees for the last seven years.”  “President Barack Obama’s decision to adopt many Bush administration national-security tactics — albeit with new legal trappings — could turn into a political coup by bringing him Republican support. Or it could produce a political mess by alienating liberals who favor a more complete break from the Bush era,” Evan Perez and Naftali Bendavid write for The Wall Street Journal.  Gitmo votes, soon: “Senate Republicans settled Monday on their first line of attack in the battle over closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay: No detainees can come to American soil,” Politico’s David Rogers reports. “With the blessing of his party leaders, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) is expected to offer the language as an amendment to a $91.3 billion wartime spending bill that could come before the Senate as early as Tuesday.”  “I bet we have the [votes] to strip out anything from that budget, from that supplemental budget that would be used to close down Guantanamo Bay or to move prisons — to move these individuals onto the soil of the United States,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., just back from a trip to Guantanamo, said on ABCNews.com’s “Top Line” Monday.  Can this count as Democratic unity? “We’ll have some debate in the conference, but I think we can come together on one thing, that the money should not be spent until there’s a plan,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, tells The Hill’s Roxana Tiron.  As for Republican unity — a major push by Michael Steele to make it come together. He delivers his first formal speech to RNC members Tuesday at National Harbor, Md., with a 1 pm ET speech declaring the period of Republican soul-searching to be over. “The era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over. It is done,” Steele plans to say, according to advance excerpts provided to ABC News. “From this point forward, we will focus all of our energies on winning the future.”  “Our comeback is well underway out in the states, I can assure you of that,” he plans to say. 

Steele writes in an op-ed, in Politico: “Republicans are emerging once again with the energy, the focus, and the determination to turn our timeless principles into new solutions for the future. . . . Second, the Republican Party will not shy away from voicing our opposition to the president’s policies. His honeymoon is over.”  Maybe complicating efforts to move forward: “When Michael S. Steele took over as chairman of the Republican National Committee earlier this year, he brought along longtime personal assistant Belinda Cook and gave her a salary nearly three times what her predecessor made. Mrs. Cook’s son, Lee, also landed an RNC job,” Ralph Z. Hallow reports in the Washington Times. “Mr. Steele hired another family friend, Angela Sailor, to be the party’s outreach director at a salary of $180,000, more than double her predecessor’s compensation, though new responsibilities have been added to the job.”  Might this help GOP messaging? “To pay for an overhaul of the nation’s health system, Senate leaders have formally laid out proposals for new taxes on everything from employer-sponsored health-care benefits and nonprofit hospitals to alcohol and sugary drinks,” The Wall Street Journal’s Janet Adamy writes. “A bipartisan outline released Monday by the Senate Finance Committee suggests peeling back a number of tax exemptions to pay for expanding health insurance to the nation’s 46 million uninsured. They are just options at this point, but they signal where lawmakers are headed as they try to pass a health-care package by August.”  And watch out, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. AFSCME is joining a few other unions in attacking Wyden’s plan to tax healthcare benefits — just maybe thinking about others who are considering similar proposals. “The last thing we need is to pay more,” a new radio ad says. “But Senator Ron Wyden would tax the health care benefits we get at work — as if they were income. Taxing health benefits? That doesn’t make sense."  Not a bad day for Gov. Schwarzenegger to be a few thousand miles away . . . “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing a drubbing at the polls on Tuesday as California voters prepare to weigh in on six budget-related ballot measures backed by the former action movie star,” ABC’s Teddy Davis reports. “Even if all of the ballot measures were to pass on Tuesday, the state is facing a deficit of $15.4 billion. If the measures do not pass, the state’s budget shortfall gets even worse.”  “The battle over six state budget propositions on today’s ballot sputtered to a close Monday with a burst of low-profile campaigning that belied the gravity of California’s fiscal crisis,” the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Finnegan and Michael Rothfeld report.  “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose legacy will be shaped in part by the election’s results, made a final pitch to voters before leaving the state ahead of the results. The governor is scheduled to join President Obama at the White House today for an announcement on auto emission rules. His absence in the face of widely forecast defeat drew mockery from his foes.” Also on the ballot in California, per Political Wire: “Endorsements, a hefty war chest and an effective absentee ballot program appear to have put Judy Chu (D) in position to succeed former Rep.-turned-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (D-CA) in today’s CA-30 special election.”  Making the NRSC’s day: “Nearly half of Nevadans have had enough of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as the powerful Democrat heads into his re-election campaign, a new Las Vegas Review-Journal poll finds,” Molly Ball reports. “About a third of the state’s voters would re-elect Reid if the 2010 election were held today, according to the poll, but 45 percent say they would definitely vote to replace him. Seventeen percent would consider another candidate.”  Rendering judgment on EFCA: “The legislation has produced one of the biggest surprises in Washington since Democrats swept the White House and Congress: The nation’s labor unions, which organized so effectively last year to help elect President Obama, have been outmaneuvered so far on their top priority by their opponents in the business community,” the Los Angeles Times’ Tom Hamburger reports.  Your tax dollars at work — to help federal workers spend your tax dollars: The General Services Administration has ads up in Washington’s Union Station, to advertise stimulus-related services available to federal agencies. “Let’s Make Progress TOGETHER,” the ad says.  Washington-area drivers get their own signage: “Lawmakers and Capitol Hill staffers (and journalists) who drive to work across the Potomac on I-395, where workers are adding a lane, and get off at the House and Senate exit during stop and go traffic during rush hour, are treated to a large new sign that has more to do with branding than with road work information,” ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf reports.  Your hilarious ponderable for the day: “In an unusual attempt to forge an alliance between two of the most prominent families in American politics, John Coale, a Washington-area Democratic donor and onetime adviser to Sarah Palin, urged the conservative Alaska governor to use her political action committee to help retire the presidential campaign debt of Hillary Clinton,” Jonathan Martin reports for Politico.  The Kicker: “Contributors who chose between heating their homes and sending in a contribution because they believe in Sarah would be crushed.” — Sarah Palin adviser Meg Stapleton, declining the concept of having Palin pay down Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign debt. “I don’t know about you, but I personally felt vindicated when Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness, went where no filly has gone in 85 years.” — Secretary of State Clinton, not mentioning the last time she rooted for a filly in the Triple Crown. Watch “Top Line,” ABCNews.com’s daily political Webcast, at noon ET.  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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