The Note, 5/26/2009: Supreme Distractions — We all know what time it is — and how to control the clock again

By Caitlin Taylor

May 26, 2009 8:16am

By RICK KLEIN Is something wrong with the picture when you’re looking forward to a Supreme Court fight? The crisis involving North Korea, coming on the heels of the domestic debate over Guantanamo Bay, is enough to make one pine for SCOTUS talk — arguably the area that Team Obama has kept the strongest control over. (Maybe because there’s so much other stuff going on — but doesn’t the search for Justice David Souter’s replacement seem, well, sane? No matter what time it is in foreign policy, who controls the SCOTUS clock?) A Memorial Day that was supposed to be about barbecues, remembrances, and even some presidential golf was instead about a major international crisis presenting a direct challenge to the United States and the international approach of its new president.  You can check your watch if you must, but once again, this is President Obama being tested. As with every time North Korea blasts itself a headline, this is about more than whether an unpredictable and isolated nation should be allowed to have nuclear weapons. The real testing is happening in foreign capitals thousands of miles away, as the Obama administration seeks to influence the response of erstwhile allies, each with their own complicated motives and interests. But first — intriguingly — you can fight fire with a flare. There’s just enough time on the presidential and vice-presidential schedules Tuesday for a Supreme Court announcement before they head west for the day. “There is a very good chance this could happen today — the decision we’ve all been waiting for on the Supreme Court,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported on “Good Morning America” Tuesday. “There’s this window of opportunity this morning where an announcement could be made. . . . An administration official tells me this morning to stay on your toes.”  Stephanopoulos’ short list: Judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, with some buzz still around Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The same short list, from The New York Times’ Peter Baker: “The president has narrowed his list to four, according to people close to the White House — two federal appeals judges, Sonia Sotomayor of New York and Diane P. Wood of Chicago, and two members of his administration, Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.”  He continues: “While it is possible Mr. Obama has a surprise in the works, those on this list are cut from molds similar to those of the two Clinton appointees, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. They are liberal on most issues that divide the court — and surely too liberal for many Republican senators — but have not been the outspoken leaders of the legal left that advocates crave.” ABC’s Jan Crawford Greenburg: “Sources close to the selection process say the short list’s leading contenders are federal appeals court judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan. . . . Recent comments by the president point the focus to two front-runners: Sotomayor and Wood, because they both bring significant judicial and life experience to the table.”  In case the president cares: “Several senators, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have said they would prefer a nominee with experience in elected office,” The Hill’s Reid Wilson writes. “Obama held an event last week that included two potential Court picks — Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D). Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, is also thought to be on the short list.”  Just in time for the confirmation fight: A decision is expected Tuesday from the California Supreme Court, on gay marriage. “Today’s ruling decides whether voters had the right, when 52 percent of them approved Proposition 8 in November, to amend the state Constitution to solidify the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” Meredith May writes in the San Francisco Chronicle. “If the justices uphold Prop. 8, they will also decide whether to dissolve the marriages of 18,000 same-sex couples who wed before the Nov. 4 election.”  As for North Korea, there’s context both foreign and domestic: This comes after a week where the president faced down new challenges over his approach to national-security. (If he is Mr. Spock, or if he aspires to be, maybe this is when we find out.) Congress, the president saw last week, can act like its own Security Council; some senators are strong enough to hold veto cards, and all members are taking this independent judgment thing seriously.

President Obama on Tuesday will make his selection for the Supreme Court, with a 10:15 am ET announcement at the White House, ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. “Acutely aware that their response to the explosion in the mountains of Kilju, not far from the Chinese border, would be seen as an early test of a new administration, Mr. Obama’s aides said they were determined to organize a significantly stronger response than the Bush administration had managed after the North’s first nuclear test, in October 2006,” David E. Sanger reports in The New York Times. “But as they had meetings every few hours — including a lengthy session in the Situation Room on Monday evening — some of Mr. Obama’s aides acknowledged that the administration’s options were limited.” “When asked whether Mr. Obama would seek to intercept North Korean shipping, a step that could paralyze the country’s trade, a senior administration official said, ‘That’s getting ahead of ourselves,’ ” Sanger writes. “Another senior official, however, said, ‘Other than having the Chinese cut off their oil, it might be the only step that would show them we are serious.’ ” “A senior administration official said the White House was more optimistic about getting strong sanctions from the Security Council, in part because of the reaction of China, North Korea’s key ally and benefactor,” The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Ramstad, Jay Solomon, and Peter Spiegel write.  “We have Russia and China that have stepped in, and together, we have increased the pressure,” UN Ambassador Susan Rice told Chris Cuomo on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday. “[The North Koreans] are trying to test whether they can intimidate the international community. . . . The pressure on North Korea will only increase if they continue on this course.” North Korea’s nuclear test is “a direct challenge to the new US administration’s more conciliatory approach to ending North Korea’s nuclear program,” Bryan Bender writes in The Boston Globe. “Indeed, yesterday’s test came just weeks after Obama’s special envoy, Stephen W. Bosworth, was dispatched to North Korea with a message that the United States may be willing to engage in direct talks, a sign of respect that North Korea has long sought.”  “So this is what a ’3 a.m. moment’ looks like,” USA Today’s Brian Winter, Susan Page and Calum MacLeod write.  About that new approach: “President Obama came into office saying he wanted to demonstrate that engagement with hostile nations is more effective than antagonism, but North Korea’s nuclear test now leaves the young administration with critical choices about its response,” Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post. “Does it ramp up the pressure with new and tougher sanctions? Does it not overreact and essentially stand pat? Or will it, like the Bush administration after North Korea’s first test in 2006, shift course and redouble efforts at engagement and diplomacy?”  The Wall Street Journal editorial: “Kim’s strategy is to keep escalating until he extorts more money, aid and global recognition. This time in particular he’s testing President Obama and his vow to ‘engage’ the world’s rogues.”  “Is it possible that today’s nuclear test will finally convince diplomats that the North Korea they see is the one they get: that perhaps, on the question of nukes, it simply can’t be bribed?” Time’s Bill Powell writes.  Add to the mix: “Instead of tweaking the United States, the latest nuclear test may have been aimed at shoring up an ailing Kim Jong Il’s support from the country’s military establishment, many analysts said, perhaps to ensure that power remains within the Kim family,” the Los Angeles Times’ John M. Glionna reports.  Does Obama want to be Spock? “If Obama, munching popcorn in the White House screening room, saw in ‘Star Trek’ a sign of how the world might regard his overtures to Iran and other enemies of the United States, he can’t have been too satisfied,” Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe. “The president has positioned himself as a realist who nonetheless believes there is a benefit in presenting a less threatening face to the world. His critics, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, consider making overtures to enemies a form of weakness and argue that history, if not nature itself, compels a perpetually hard-line stance on national security.”  Helping out — from China: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi later this week will press China’s leaders to use their influence to bring North Korea back to negotiations on its nuclear program,” The Hill’s Ian Swanson writes. “Pelosi (D-Calif.) said her delegation had always planned to press the Chinese on the issue, but North Korea’s announcement Monday that it had successfully completed a nuclear test made the need more urgent.”  The speaker’s Tuesday speech: “We have come here, in the spirit of cooperation, because we believe China and the United States can, and must, confront the challenge of climate change together,” Pelosi said in her speech to the U.S.-China Clean Energy Forum, per the speaker’s office. Still hearing about it — in China: “A series of talking points handed out to rank-and-file GOP members before they headed home to their districts for a weeklong break urged lawmakers to keep the heat on Pelosi and keep the story alive,” Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reports. “Republicans demand the facts on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques,” says the memo from GOP conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind. “For years, the speaker said she did not know terror suspects were subject to enhanced interrogation techniques. But now, the speaker says that, in 2003, she learned these techniques were in fact used and accused the CIA of ‘misleading’ Congress.”  Related to last week’s challenges: “President Barack Obama is still deciding whether to go to federal court with the death penalty cases against five men accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a Defense Department official has notified the thousands of victim family members,” Carol Rosenberg reports in The Miami Herald.  President Obama travels to Las Vegas Tuesday afternoon, for a late-night fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. It’s the fundraising event for an individual lawmaker Obama has done as president. Politics, anyone (or everyone)? “Just four months in office, President Barack Obama and his White House are taking steps to shore up Democratic Congressional majorities in next year’s midterm elections,” Jonathan Weisman writes in a Wall Street Journal story you will see again. “This month, the president tried — but failed — to recruit a high-profile candidate for a Senate contest in North Carolina. He stepped in to head off a primary battle for the New York Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. He promised to back Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned Democrat, if a Democratic challenger emerged. And this week he will go to Las Vegas and Los Angeles to raise cash for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic National Committee.”  Reid’s race gets the Adam Nagourney treatment, in The New York Times: “Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has emerged as a tempting target for Republicans as he prepares for re-election next year: unpopular at home, identified with partisan battles in Washington and shadowed by the memory of the election defeat suffered by the last Democrat who held his job, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.”  Said Reid: “What I learned from him is you have to prepare for the worst. . . . I’ve done that. I’m not sure Tom did that.” (Plus he says he plans to raise $25 million for his re-election bid — a sum that would set a Nevada record.) Las Vegas Sun editor Brian Greenspun welcomes the president to town: “If we look at him the way the casinos might look at one of their whales, it is abundantly clear to me that he can leave a whole lot more money in our city than all the gamblers combined. And by betting taxpayer dollars on worthy projects and ideas in the Silver State, our president can express his belief in our future far better than some people in this state.”  Got another photo op for David Brooks not to be impressed by? “Some say these are just meaningless promises that ignore hard choices and that no one has any intention of keeping. But this is ungenerous. At these events, the president has taken former rivals and has joined them in the holy bonds of mutual fantasy. He has taken a divided nation and has given us photo-ops to bind us and remind us of our common humanity. Business lies down with government. Management embraces labor. You call it what you will; I call it beautiful.”  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is next in Lois Romano’s “Voices of Power” series, in The Washington Post. “I think he’s a better basketball player than I am,” the secretary says of the president.  Keeping up the EFCA fight: The Workforce Fairness Institute is out with a new radio actuality: “The Employee Free Choice Act is being debated now in Congress. Critics say the bill will infringe on workers’ writes and it will subject negotiations to mandatory, binding arbitration. Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman says our nation’s veterans fought to protect our rights. And he says, now, those rights are seriously threatened.” Best sparring partner for Carville since Frank the Tank: Tuesday night in New York, and Wednesday in Boston, Charlie Rose interviews James Carville and Karl Rove.    The Kicker: “Apparently our money is good enough for the president, but our tourism, jobs and economic future are not.” — Gov. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., turning down an offer of an airport handshake with the president, as Las Vegas blames its downturn in part on presidential remarks.    “Suffice it to say you can disagree with me plenty without using B—- F—- and President of the United States’ name in the same sentence.” — Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Twittering as @clairecmc. Today on “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast: Doug Kendall, founder and president of the Constitutional Accountability Center; and GOP strategist Phil Musser. 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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