The Note, 5/6/2009: Obama’s War: President owns a policy — amid domestic-policy truce

By Theresa Cook

May 6, 2009 8:26am

If one war vaulted him to the presidency, it’s another war that’s likely to shape his success in the job.

The conflict in Afghanistan and the closely related situation in Pakistan are all President Obama’s now — and it’s telling that he’s taking ownership, with Wednesday’s meetings with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan.

This is where the Obama promise meets reality: His public diplomacy needs to prevail on two different presidents and populations with two different sets of interests.

Back home, he’s got a weary and distracted American public, plus a Congress of his own party that’s put him on notice. (Might the most important ally in this fight be not from Afghanistan or Pakistan but from Wisconsin — as in, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey?)

(Not to mention the way the president’s domestic agenda is fighting its way through a peculiarly congressional form of a truce.)
Taking ownership — and expecting judgment: “With concerns growing over the security situation in Pakistan, President Obama will convene a trilateral meeting today with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan to discuss how the three nations can work together to stabilize the region,” ABC’s Jake Tapper and Karen Travers report. “White House officials say that Obama will push Karzai and Zardari to commit to work more intensely and cooperatively to fight al Qaeda and other extremists.” The president will “hastily overhaul a painstakingly developed security strategy that was unveiled only five weeks ago but already has become badly outdated,” Paul Richter and Christi Parsons write, in the Chicago Tribune. “On Wednesday, Obama will press Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to intensify his country’s fight against the insurgency, step up economic development efforts and reach out to political rivals to broaden the fragile government’s base of support.” The personal challenge, and the political one: “President Barack Obama will aim to dispel mutual mistrust,” Bloomberg’s Indira A.R. Lakshmanan and Viola Gienger report. “A main purpose of the meetings will be for the leaders to reassure one another that each is a reliable partner. U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned about the Pakistani military’s willingness and ability to fight an insurgency that threatens the nuclear-armed country’s stability and hampers the American and NATO war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.” “The Obama administration has criticized both presidents at times for ineffectiveness, while also seeking their backing for U.S. priorities in the region. Concern over Mr. Zardari rose recently when Taliban militants advanced near Islamabad,” Peter Spiegel and Jay Solomon write in The Wall Street Journal. The Obama stamp on policy: “Obama intends to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports in The Washington Post. “The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funneling more money to local governors.” “A new operation in Swat may signal the harder stance American officials have been looking for. But the question remains whether the Pakistani military has the will and ability to sustain its operations against the insurgents, the vast majority of whom are Pakistani,” Carlotta Gall writes in The New York Times. Beyond the stagecraft, some dynamics to weigh: “American officials don’t have much confidence in either leader — a fact they haven’t tried to conceal. Most Afghans and Pakistanis share their doubts. But if there is any hope of defeating the Taliban, Mr. Obama will have to find a way to work with both men — and find the right mixture of support and blunt pressure to get them to do what is necessary to save their countries,” The New York Times editorial reads. “To pull that off, Mr. Obama also needs the backing of Congress, where members of his party have become increasingly impatient.” On the precipice: “The greatest danger is that Pakistan’s weak institutions and uncertain leaders lose their will to defeat the Islamists. That is how the Shah of Iran fell in 1979. We don’t want a repeat in Islamabad,” per The Wall Street Journal editorial. As for the war back home: “After winning most battles during his first 100 days, President Obama has begun to hit hurdles in Congress over the twin pillars of his domestic agenda, taking flak from his party’s left for not going far enough on health care and seeing his greenhouse gas emissions plan stalled by moderate Democrats and regional concerns,” The Washington Times’ Christina Bellantoni and Tom LoBianco report. Said former DNC chairman Howard Dean: “If we can’t deliver a real choice to the American people and real reform, I think we lose seats in the midterm election. I think we’re going to have a hard time getting the president re-elected.”  Plus, a new attempt, on an old issue: “Key lawmakers from both parties have held tentative talks about overhauling the Social Security system, and Congress could turn its attention to the federal retirement program as soon as this fall if a bipartisan consensus emerges, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said yesterday,” Lori Montgomery reports in The Washington Post. “So far, Democrats have found a willing partner in the Senate, where Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has stated his desire to work with President Obama to make changes to keep Social Security solvent.” Hoyer, D-Md., plans to expand on his ideas at Wednesday’s Bipartisan Policy Center symposium on the debt “and its threat to future American economic prosperity,” also featuring former Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M. Hoyer speaks at 12:30 pm ET: “Of our entitlement programs, I believe we would have the easiest challenge in reforming Social Security,” he plans to say, according to advance excerpts provided to The Note. “Here, the options are well and widely understood. We can bring in more revenues. We can restrain the growth of benefits, particularly for higher-income workers, while we strengthen the safety net for lower-income workers. And/or we can raise the retirement age, recognizing that our life expectancy is significantly higher today. What is missing here is not ideas — it is political will.” Also Wednesday: President Obama hosts Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mon., and ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — just maybe to talk healthcare. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius continues to rally the troops. With new reports on health disparities and healthcare quality out today, Sebelius speaks to nurses Wednesday. “Health care form must be focused on the basics: reducing costs, ensuring choice, focusing care on prevention and wellness and covering all Americans,” she plans to say, according to advance excerpts. “We will improve the quality of health care. And we will defy the pundits and the politicians who say health reform can’t be done.” One political problem looks like it’s getting solved for Obama: “An internal Justice Department inquiry has concluded that Bush administration lawyers committed serious lapses of judgment in writing secret memorandums authorizing brutal interrogations but that they should not be prosecuted, according to government officials briefed on its findings,” David Johnston and Scott Shane report in The New York Times. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “This is the only outstanding Justice Department investigation into the Bush-era interrogation memos. Attorney General Eric Holder has no plans to open another investigation. So, based on current facts, it is highly unlike that this will lead to any prosecutions.” They’ll like that development — but they’re looking at the next one, too. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., team up for a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the future of Gitmo detainees (but who wrote more of it, really?): “We would strenuously oppose any effort to try enemy combatants in our civilian courts. By an overwhelming bipartisan vote in 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which set forth procedures for trying enemy combatants for war crimes.” Annals of oversight: “Although President Obama has vowed that citizens will be able to track ‘every dime’ of the $787 billion stimulus bill, a government website dedicated to the spending won’t have details on contracts and grants until October and may not be complete until next spring — halfway through the program,” USA Today’s Matt Kelley writes. Annals of outrage: “AIG, the recipient of approximately $180 billion in government bailout aid, paid out over $454 million in bonuses company-wide in 2008,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe reports. “The embattled insurance company, which ignited a heated controversy in March for dishing out $165 million in retention payments to employees in its troubled Financial Products division, revealed the bonuses in response to written questions from Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. The $454 million number is now the third different figure that AIG has disclosed for its 2008 bonuses, with each number far larger than the previous one.” Tomorrow’s headlines today: “Regulators have told Bank of America Corp. that the company needs to take steps to address a roughly $35 billion capital shortfall based on results of the government’s stress tests,” Dan Fitzpatrick and Damian Paletta report in The Wall Street Journal. “If the U.S. government ends up with more common stock in Bank of America, it also could test the Obama administration’s assertion that banks receiving ‘exceptional’ assistance might face the removal of management or directors.” He switched for this? “The Senate last night stripped Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) of his seniority on committees, a week after the 29-year veteran of the chamber quit the Republican Party to join the Democrats,” Paul Kane reports in The Washington Post. “In announcing his move across the aisle last week, Specter asserted that  Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had assured him he would retain his seniority in the Senate and on the five committees on which he serves. Specter’s tenure ranked him ahead of all but seven Democrats. Instead, though, on a voice vote last night, the Senate approved a resolution that made Specter the most junior Democrat on four committees for the remainder of this Congress.” And for this? (What did the maneuvering and endorsements get Democrats, exactly?) “How this was done gives me grave concerns. That’s not the ideal that we came to Washington for,” Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., told ABC News, as he inches closer to a primary run.  Watch the Netroots stir: “Should a Draft Sestak movement be created to take on Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary?” is the *question being posed* by a wide collection of liberal blogs on Wednesday. How should they read this? “There’s still time for the Minnesota courts to do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner,” Specter, maybe not a loyal Democrat after all, says in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Plus: “Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge is seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate in next year’s Republican primary, as some leaders of the party seek a moderate candidate to counter Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democrats,” Thomas Fitzgerald reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Several Republicans familiar with Ridge’s thinking said he missed politics and public service. One person who has spoken with him quoted the former governor as saying he was ‘extremely intrigued’ with the idea.” The Supreme Court team: “The selection of a small and very senior group of administration officials to help manage the nomination is designed, in part, to avoid the kinds of leaks that angered several Cabinet nominees during Obama’s transition. It departs from a decision-making process that on other important issues has involved a wider range of people inside and outside the West Wing, although the circle will grow once a choice is made and the center of gravity moves to Capitol Hill,” Scott Wilson and Robert Barnes write for The Washington Post. (And the early pushback against Judge Sonia Sotomayor continues. The latest is a video that popped up yesterday, where Sotomayor said in 2005, “the court of appeals is where policy is made.”) New from the DNC Wednesday: Republican “Survivor” — with Mitt, John B., Sarah, Jeb and company “marooned” in a fun Web video. News from the RNC: “Capitulating to critics on the Republican National Committee, embattled Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele has signed a secret pact agreeing to controls and restraints on how he spends hundreds of millions of dollars in party funds and contracts, The Washington Times has learned,” Ralph Z. Hallow reports. The tragedy of Jeb: “The Republican Party has a quite appealing presidential prospect for 2012: Creative ideas, articulate style, pleasant personality, and experience running an important swing state,” Jill Lawrence writes for Politics Daily. “There’s just one problem with this guy. You guessed it, right? His last name is Bush.” The tragedy of John: “Now the former candidate is being hauled back into the spotlight this week by federal prosecutors, who are investigating whether any laws were broken in an attempt to buy Hunter’s silence. But Elizabeth Edwards, too, has chosen to pull her now-reclusive husband back into the public eye with a tour for her new book, ‘Resilience,’ which opened with appearances in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon,” Politico’s Ben Smith writes. “And the book and the investigation into questions of payments to Edwards’ mistress carry the same message. As Elizabeth Edwards wrote in her book: ‘He should not have run.’ ” Says Elizabeth Edwards, in an interview with Oprah that airs Thursday: “I’ve seen a picture of the baby. I have no idea. It doesn’t look like my children, but I don’t have any idea.”  Bristol Palin, on “Good Morning America” Wednesday, on how hard it was to tell her parents she was pregnant: “Harder than labor.” And: “I knew from the second I found out that I was pregnant that I was gonna keep the baby.” Plus: “I’d love Levi to be a part of his life, and I know that he will be.” Meet Mayor Dave Bing (coming soon to the White House basketball court?): “Bing’s stunning victory by a 4-point margin in Tuesday’s special mayoral election signaled the desire of Detroit voters to abandon the status quo of local politics,” per the Detroit Free Press. Christopher Christie gets targeted in New Jersey: “Allies of New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Jon S. Corzine, are so worried about his re-election prospects that they are going to start spending and advertising heavily — in the Republican primary,” David M. Halbfinger writes in The New York Times. “Mr. Corzine’s allies plan to attack the Republican they consider more formidable, former federal prosecutor Christopher J. Christie, in an attempt to knock him out in the June primary, according to people briefed on the matter.” New from Wednesday: A healthcare ad, running in Montana, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. (Check your congressional directory to find out why.) “More healthy people living longer,” says one undertaker. “This guy’s killing us,” says the other.  Also Wednesday: Fifty-eight political donors who’ve given more than $16 million between them sign a letter going to House and Senate offices, in support of the Fair Elections Now Act. The letter reads: “With so much at stake in Washington today, we believe it is shortsighted to continue down the present unsustainable path of skyrocketing campaign spending. The Fair Elections Now Act is a common sense idea whose time has come, a change that will set us on a better path in the years ahead.” The Kicker: “They have never been a 13-year-old girl.” — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to USA Today, on being the only female Supreme Court justice. “Do you realize that under our dynamic leadership of our leader, we have gone from 55 and probably to 40 [Senate seats] in two election cycles, and if the tea leaves that I read are correct, we will wind up with about 36 after this election cycle.” — Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., continuing his campaign against Senate GOP leadership (and maybe predicting his own defeat). Don’t miss “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET. Today’s guests: House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., on the future of the Republican Party and Ana Marie Cox of Air America and The Daily Beast. 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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