The Note, 4/20/09: The Squeeze: Congress is back, and so are questions about Obama’s mettle


If you’re looking for your president, he’s right there in the middle.

That’s where he’s most comfortable, by nature. That’s where President Obama’s policy and political instincts lead him. That’s where he has the most options, the floor laid out before him and still any number of possible plays in his pocket.

With members of Congress back in town for a critical work period, a piece of convention wisdom is busy congealing: That the president wants to play nice, and not to fight.

This is a strain that’s haunted Obama since he was “Obambi” in early 2007 op-eds -- an image he successfully put to rest by outlasting a rough primary challenger and a tough general-election opponent.

But every so often it comes back again -- threatening to define a policy push around guesses about how much the president really wants something done.

Your meme-setting, in time for the last 10 days of the first 100: “President Obama is well known for bold proposals that have raised expectations, but his administration has shown a tendency for compromise and caution, and even a willingness to capitulate on some early initiatives,” David M. Herszenhorn and Jackie Calmes write in the Sunday New York Times. “His early willingness to deal or fold has left commentators, and some loyal Democrats, wondering: where’s the fight?”

It’s a vision that’s never really been tried before: “In Obama's state, government never supplants the market or stifles its inner workings -- the old forms of statism that didn't wash economically, and certainly not politically. But government does aggressively prod markets--by planting incentives, by stirring new competition--to achieve the results he prefers,” Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber write in The New Republic.   

Enough there for everybody to like (and dislike): “I did not invite the crises that I inherited, and I have always believed that our role as lawmakers is not to stifle the market, but to strengthen its ability to unleash creativity and innovation. But I also have a responsibility to take aggressive action to avoid an even deeper recession and to move this nation toward recovery,” President Obama tells Fortune’s Nina Easton.   

An indisputable sentence: “Direct, assertive and utterly self-assured, Obama has used his broad popularity, a driving ambition and a sweeping agenda to move America in a wholly new direction,” Faye Fiore and Mark Z. Barabak write in the Los Angeles Times.   

He’s also using the softer side. “Like a reality show set on the glorified soundstage at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the details of one family's life have captivated the country -- if not the world -- making the Obamas seem within reach, an ordinary family that just happens to be living an extraordinary existence,” Peter Wallsten and Fay Fiore write in the LA Times.   

“But these glimpses into the Obama household are far from spontaneous. Instead, they are part of a careful strategy that has helped bolster the new president's popularity and political clout -- even as he promotes some economic policies, such as bailouts for banks and automakers, that lack broad appeal.”

Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: “Right now, there's no such thing as too much Obama. . . . That helps, but it only goes so far.”

Coming Monday -- with the tea bags cleaned up, the president is back on spending (again), with a Cabinet meeting that signals a full-on return to domestic politics:

“The president -- who will return from a five-day trip to Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago later this weekend -- will convene his first full Cabinet meeting on Monday at the White House to focus on cost-cutting measures,” ABC’s Sunlen Miller reports.   

ABC’s Jake Tapper: “As part of his commitment to go line by line through the budget to cut spending and reform government he will challenge his Cabinet to cut a collective $100 million in the next 90 days.”

(The White House is calling this his first “full Cabinet meeting,” though there’s still an empty chair: Kathleen Sebelius’ nomination for Health and Human Services comes up for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday. “If she is confirmed by the Senate, Sebelius will complete a Cabinet that experts say is the most diverse in history. It will have seven women and nine racial and ethnic minorities among its 21 members -- and only eight white men. Average age: 54,” per USA Today’s Richard Wolf.)   

“Obama's order comes as he is under increasing pressure to show momentum toward his goal of eventually reducing the federal deficit, even as he goes about increasing spending in the short run to prop up the economy and support his priorities,” Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post.

“Mr. Obama noted that cost cutting is critical given the exploding federal budget deficit. It's also important politically: He is proposing new spending on a variety of programs, including health care and education, and wants to be seen as fiscally responsible at the same time,” The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler writes

Maybe taking a little away from the fiscal discipline argument . . . Meet the runway for nobody, the latest nominee for stimulus poster project. (And if projects like this come to define the stimulus, the political battle will be over -- advantage, GOP.)

“The John Murtha airport sits on a windy mountain two hours east of Pittsburgh, a 650-acre expanse of smooth tarmac, spacious buildings, a helicopter hangar and a National Guard training center,” The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig reports. “The key to the airport's gleaming facilities -- and, indeed, its continued existence -- is $200 million in federal funds in the past decade and the powerful patron who steered most of that money here. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) is credited with securing at least $150 million for the airport. It was among the first in the country to win funding from this year's stimulus package: $800,000 to repave a backup runway.”

The idea was for a quick infusion of cash, right? “The federal government has committed $60 billion so far for projects from the $787 billion economic stimulus package President Obama signed two months ago, prompting concerns that the money isn't moving fast enough to halt the deepening recession,” per USA Today’s Brad Heath

Welcome back to town, Mr. President: “President Obama is running into stiff Congressional resistance to his plans to raise money for his ambitious agenda, and the resulting hole in the budget is threatening a major health care overhaul and other policy initiatives,” Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times. “The unwillingness to embrace some of the major White House tax and revenue proposals has frustrated administration officials. They note that lawmakers, many of them supporters of the president’s ambitious agenda, clamor to hold down the deficit while balking at the proposals to finance his program.”   

Healthcare and cap-and-trade, agenda partners (for now): “Both issues are complex and politically difficult, and Capitol Hill has rarely completed landmark legislation on two fronts in one year. With four months gone in 2009 and the 2010 election looming, the window for substantive legislative action will narrow sharply,” Greg Hitt reports in The Wall Street Journal.   

Defining cap-and-trade: “A growing number of lawmakers who are deeply involved in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases and global warming are beginning to question ‘cap-and-trade,’ the current hot-button solution to the problem,” McClatchy’s Les Blumenthal reports

“I have serious concerns about how a cap-and-trade program might allow Wall Street to distort a carbon market for its own profits,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Blumenthal continues: “Cantwell and others are leaning toward a system, dubbed cap-and-dividend, that would cap carbon dioxide emissions and require companies to pay for their credits or allowances. The money raised would be distributed to taxpayers, who likely would face higher utility bills as utilities pass along the added costs of curbing greenhouse gases.”

This will shape things on the Hill: “President Obama’s top economic advisers have determined that they can shore up the nation’s banking system without having to ask Congress for more money any time soon, according to administration officials,” Edmund L. Andrews writes in The New York Times. “In a significant shift, White House and Treasury Department officials now say they can stretch what is left of the $700 billion financial bailout fund further than they had expected a few months ago, simply by converting the government’s existing loans to the nation’s 19 biggest banks into common stock.”

Don’t forget the calendar: During this season of gun-violence anniversaries, this is a legislative push that isn’t.

“Our president can deal with all manner of big problems, but the American gun lobby is just too strong to let him push a rational and limited gun regulation through Congress,” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes. “It's particularly infuriating that Obama offered this statement of powerlessness just a few days before today's 10th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado -- and just after a spree of mass homicides across the United States took the lives of least 57 people.” 

On Bush-era harsh-treatment memos -- no prosecutions of their authors will be forthcoming, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week.”

“Those who devised policy, he believes that they were -- should not be prosecuted either, and that's not the place that we go,” Emanuel said. “As he said in that letter, and I would really recommend people look at the full statement . . . in that second paragraph, "this is not a time for retribution." It's time for reflection. It's not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back and any sense of anger and retribution.”

“His remarks reflect the White House's effort to claim a middle ground after the release of the memos, which had been top secret, angered backers of the Bush administration's interrogation policy,” R. Jeffrey Smith reports in The Washington Post.

The Hugo book club: “At President Obama's meeting with the heads of South American countries [Saturday] morning, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood, walked over to him, and presented him with a copy of ‘Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent’ by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano,” per ABC’s Jake Tapper.

It’s now No. 2 at Amazon.

“President Chavez is better at positioning the cameras,” President Obama said at his news conference Sunday.

Said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., on CNN: “I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez.”

White House’s response? “They feel they were being courteous, and there is no harm in that,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Monday.

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt sees a feckless opposition: “There is a case to be made against this administration’s foreign and domestic policies. It just isn’t being made by the chief opposition. The Republican governor of Texas won’t dismiss calls for secession, an issue that was settled on those Gettysburg fields,” Hunt writes in his column. “This, as much as Obama’s persuasive communication skills, political acumen, strong advisers and appealing positions, may explain why the president remains so popular and Republicans so unpopular.”

Defining the healthcare fight: “Republicans look across the health reform battlefield and see the Democrats organized, energized and flush with cash -- with several groups lined up to promote the president’s plan, and a message honed by years of preparation. Then they look into their own camp -- and get nervous,” Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown writes

More, from the AP’s David Espo: “Three months into the new Congress, Republicans are struggling to reinvent themselves on the fly as they adjust to life without a president of their own party or a majority in the House and Senate. Opposition to President Barack Obama's policies is relatively easy to achieve. But developing alternatives that can appeal outside the party's conservative core seems more difficult.”   

Leading the opposition (such as it is): “I think my influence on these issues has been raised, ironically, because of the Commerce exercise,” Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the former Commerce secretary-designate, tells The Boston Globe’s Sasha Issenberg. “I'm not saying anything that's different from what I have always said, but in our culture there's a little bit of notoriety that comes when you get your 15 minutes.”   

Issenberg writes: “Rather than drum him out, Republicans have put Gregg -- and his seemingly endless collection of line graphs and pie charts predicting budgetary doom -- forward as a spokesman.”

Helping a party find its identity? Sen. John McCain’s daughter, Meghan. “John McCain's 24-year old daughter told the Log Cabin Republicans on Saturday that ‘old school Republicans’ are ‘scared s**tless’ of the future in a speech calling for a new brand of Republicanism,” ABC’s Teddy Davis reports.   

“I think we're seeing a war brewing in the Republican Party,” said Meghan McCain. “But it is not between us and Democrats. It is not between us and liberals. It is between the future and the past.”   

What side does that put Rudy on? “Rudy Giuliani is declaring war on gay marriage -- vowing to use his strong opposition of it against the Democrats if he runs for governor next year,” The New York Post’s Fredric U. Dicker reports

“This will create a grass-roots movement. This is the kind of issue that, in many ways, is somewhat beyond politics,” said Giuliani.

“I think gay marriage will obviously be an issue for any Republican next year because Republicans are either in favor of the position I'm in favor of, civil unions, or in many cases Republicans don't even favor civil unions.”

New push in the Minnesota Senate race: Democracy for America launched its “Dollar a Day to Make Norm Go Away” campaign, the brainchild of Adam Green

Huffington Post’s Sam Stein: “The ‘Dollar a Day to Make Norm Go Away’ campaign is being launched by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a newly formed group designed to get progressive candidates into elected office. But it's getting a friendly push by Democracy for America, Howard Dean's political arm, which will blast the petition to its more than one million members.”

New from the DSCC Monday: “Wrecking Ball,” a Web video starring some in-cycle GOP senators in not-so-flattering still frames.

The Kicker:

“I am concerned about the environment. I love to wear black. I think government is best when it stays out of people's lives and business as much as possible. I love punk rock. I believe in a strong national defense. I have a tattoo. I believe government should always be efficient and accountable. I have lots of gay friends. And yes, I am a Republican.” -- Meghan McCain, to strong applause at the Log Cabin Republican meeting.

“It's the lack of women's bathrooms in the Capitol.” -- Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., asked the most difficult part of being pregnant while serving in Congress. 

Don’t miss “Top Line,”’s new daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET. 

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