The Note, 6/4/2009: Breaches & Beginnings — Obama builds credibility — and learns tough part of tough love

By Caitlin Taylor

Jun 4, 2009 8:17am

By RICK KLEIN New beginnings, it turned out, started with an old voice: Osama bin Laden, providing the preamble. (One of those times the White House perhaps doesn’t mind a contributing voice.) Then President Obama started writing that new chapter he’s been talking so much about — in the book he started writing in November, when he brought a biography and a middle name that the Muslim world (and much of the non-Muslim world, too) never thought would achieve the presidency. Just like that — with a methodical, calibrated, powerful address in Cairo — the landscape looks and sounds new. (And will the president ever have as much credibility on Middle East issues as he does at this moment?  From the White House perspective, The Speech wasn’t about apologies — it was about respect. Like just about everything else in diplomacy, it was about finding shared self-interests to grasp with inexorable problems. “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity,” the president said. “The challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.” As lines no other president could have spoken echo through the Mideast and beyond –”I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims” — the ultimate success of this trip and what follows will be determined by whether Obama gets things done that presidents have been trying for decades to do. “It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true,” the president said.  In a region where words matter perhaps a little less with every passing year of conflict, it is a start. There’s a reason that tough love is tough. “Whether his expected call for America and Islam to come together can trump Mr. bin Laden’s call to arms is a question that could define Mr. Obama’s presidency in the years to come,” Jeff Zeleny and Helene Cooper write in The New York Times. “In a bid to make sure that Mr. Obama’s message will be heard, particularly among young people, the White House has mounted an unusually aggressive campaign, including a Web site created in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English where people outside the United States can sign up to receive the speech via text message. The State Department is to translate the speech into at least 13 languages.”    What wasn’t said: “The White House said Obama's speech contained no new policy proposals on the Middle East, and he issued an evenhanded call to Israel and Palestinians alike to live up to their international obligations,” Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal. What was said: “To punctuate his call for a two-state solution to end the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, Mr. Obama used the often avoided term ‘Palestine,’ ” Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times.  Will he be heard? “The speech — delivered in Egypt, where the political opposition can be jailed, beaten or outlawed — is a major test of Obama’s ability to translate his appealing rhetoric into real change at what he acknowledged is a ‘time of tension’ between Islam and the West,” Politico’s Mike Allen writes.    The instant reaction from Sean Hannity, to ABC’s Diane Sawyer on “Good Morning America”: “This is an extension of what has become an apology tour, that America is an arrogant country,” Hannity said.  “There are a lot of questions about what his real motivations are here, but it seemed like a political speech to me.” The instant reaction from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, per ABC’s Jake Tapper: It was a “wonderful speech,” she said. “He set forth a clear challenge to us and all in the world who share [our] hope for peace and security. . . . Now we have to get to work to translate that into concrete action.” (Secretary Clinton is George Stephanopoulos’ exclusive guest Sunday on “This Week” — exactly a year after she dropped out of the presidential race.   The White House wants perspective: This is, after all, just a speech, even if it’s a Speech. “Let me try to lower the expectation that one speech is going to deliver a silver bullet,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC’s Chris Cuomo, on “GMA” Thursday. The complex backdrop: “Obama is making the speech as part of an effort to lift U.S. standing with Muslims at a moment when the administration is working to reignite the Middle East peace process, waging war against Islamic insurgents in two countries and battling to choke off support for al-Qaeda and other terrorists,” Bloomberg’s Edwin Chen and Julianna Goldman write.  Part of the back story: “The White House did something it hasn't previously in preparing Obama to engage Muslims abroad: It called on American religious leaders and experts, including many Muslims, for advice,” Dan Gilgoff writes for US News & World Report. “About a half-dozen Muslim representatives involved in the process encouraged Obama to speak directly to Muslim grievances about U.S. foreign policy, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  “The President ‘cast a wide net’ within the US government and outside the US government in seeking advice for what to say, aides said,” per ABC’s Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller. “Administration officials stressed repeatedly that the President sees the speech as an opportunity to ‘continue a dialogue’ he’s had since the inauguration with the Muslim world.”  Hearing the message, to spread the message: “The White House said Obama wants to reach out to young people and journalists in Cairo. The audience for his speech will include nearly 500 correspondents from around the world, according to Ismail Khairat, chairman of Egypt's State Information Service,” USA Today’s Mimi Hall writes.  Who’s responsible for the hype? “Are speeches enough when it comes to the tangled, treacherous, tribal warfare of the Middle East? It seems to me that expectations are way out of control,” The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz writes.  Back at home — a newly active role in healthcare from the White House — on the theory that it’s better to have your principles outlined on paper than to have senators outline them for you when reporters stake out your meetings. “One day after signaling a fresh willingness to consider taxing employer-sponsored health insurance, President Obama indicated yesterday a new openness toward a nationwide requirement that every American have health coverage,” Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post. “During the presidential primaries last year, Obama attacked then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's proposed individual mandate as a scheme to ‘go after people's wages.’ In the letter, however, he said he understands that key committees are ‘moving towards a principle of shared responsibility — making every American responsible for having health insurance coverage, and asking that employers share in the costs.’ “  “Obama said he is also ‘open’ to requiring individuals to obtain insurance coverage – which he opposed during his campaign — as long as there is a hardship exemption for those who cannot afford it, an approach similar to the system in Massachusetts,” The Boston Globe’s Lisa Wangsness reports. “He said he supports forcing employers to contribute to their employees' insurance but that there should be exemptions for small businesses.”  “Obama's letter, which came as lawmakers are finalizing their healthcare bills, represented a direct challenge to business groups long wary of requirements that they provide insurance or pay some kind of fee to help the government finance wider coverage,” the Los Angeles Times’ Noam M. Levey writes.  “He has signaled since his inauguration that he is pretty flexible on its details,” Time’s Karen Tumulty reports. “Not so much any more.”  Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is supremely confident: “It's gonna pass. It's gonna happen. There's no doubt about it,” Baucus tells Tumulty.  Tumulty writes: “It is now possible to glimpse the outlines of a Grand Deal among insurers, providers, business, labor and patients that would put most of its focus on lowering costs and establish a foundation for expanding coverage in years to come.” The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn sees “new money on the table”: “Now Obama is putting another $200 to $300 billion on the table. He's proposing to extract that money from savings in Medicare and Medicaid, beyond those already proposed. . . . the bottom line is that this moves the Democrats closer to solving the funding problem.”  On the Supreme Court — is Newt Gingrich helping lead his party back from the brink? (And what’s Rush Limbaugh’s play?) Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the NRSC, gets the politics: “As a member of the Judiciary Committee and the senator responsible for winning Republican Senate races next year, Mr. Cornyn worried that such disparaging attacks on the first Hispanic Supreme Court candidate would not only poison the confirmation hearings, but also undercut his party’s standing with an increasingly important voting bloc,” Carl Hulse reports in The New York Times.  “Mr. Cornyn argues that Republicans desperately need to become more inclusive, a factor that drove him to challenge the attacks on Judge Sotomayor and helps govern his view of the nomination. He said that he was all for a close examination of the nominee, but that scrutiny must focus on her judicial philosophy, qualifications and record, not her ethnicity or sex,” Hulse writes. Newt won’t be the last: “After an initial burst of often personal criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, some conservatives are scaling back their attacks and admitting that her judicial record is more moderate than her speeches that they've been trumpeting on talk radio, cable TV and YouTube,” Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy.  But — stoking the fires? “In public, Senate Republicans have kept their distance from conservative attacks on Sonia Sotomayor — but behind the scenes, they have encouraged activists to keep their crosshairs trained on the Supreme Court nominee,” The Hill’s Alexander Bolton writes. “Lanier Swann, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told a private meeting of conservative activists Wednesday to keep up their pressure on Sotomayor.”  On immigration — a family affair. “Zeituni Onyango, the president's aunt who is facing deportation from the United States, said today that she is going back to Kenya — as soon as tonight. Then, she said, she wasn't going,” The Boston Globe’s Maria Sacchetti reports. “Onyango, who recently turned 57, said she has moved out of her apartment in Boston public housing and is staying in an undisclosed location. Regardless of her travel plans, she said she planned to be in Boston for her next immigration hearing Feb. 4.”  Karl Rove keeps an eye on the economic numbers: “Mr. Obama has an ingenious approach to job losses: He describes them as job gains,” he writes in his Wall Street Journal column. “The difficulty for Mr. Obama will be when the public sees where his decisions lead — higher inflation, higher interest rates, higher taxes, sluggish growth, and a jobless recovery.”  Making Sen. Chuck Schumer’s day interesting: “Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney plans to announce a primary challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on her Web site Thursday morning, according to two sources including a member of New York’s congressional delegation,” CQ’s Jonathan Allen and Emily Cadei report.  New from the labor fight Thursday, announced with a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere: “Today a new coalition, Business Leaders for a Fair Economy, was launched and announced its public support for the Employee Free Choice Act. The coalition was formed to give businesses supportive of workers’ rights a voice and to promote employer backing of the Employee Free Choice Act.” 
The Kicker:  “I leave everything to God.” — Zeituni Onyango, President Obama’s aunt, facing deportation.  “We want lawmakers to know that members of the American Association for Nude Recreation enjoy their pastime within appropriate settings.” — AANR Executive Director Erich Schuttauf, explaining that nudists will be lobbying on Capitol Hill while wearing clothing. 
Today on “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast: James Zogby of the Arab American Institute; and Politico’s Jonathan Martin. 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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