The Note, 5/14/2009: Those Who Brung Him -- Obama, Dems wrestle themselves on national security


There’s such a thing as too much transparency.

The harsh lessons of governance are such that instances arise where you can do no right. And situations emerge where you end up doing everybody wrong.

President Obama’s reversal on the release of photographs of prisoner abuse has the immediate impact of enraging some friends, pleasing some non-friends, and leaving the political world wondering how it all could have gone down like this.

In the broader context, it’s cast as a sign of political maturation, maybe even classic Obama pragmatism. This is what it’s like to be commander-in-chief -- one of those tough choices where there’s no easy answer, and no shame in reversing yourself.

But that doesn’t mean no consequences. This contributes to a growing sense that Team Obama has generally treated the left like air: It’s there and vital, and while you can’t live without it, it’s not liable to go anywhere.

Stories like this burn critical oxygen. And it’s part of a volatile mix of national-security storylines: Toss in Gitmo, Afghanistan policy, the clamor for prosecutions, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and what she knew/what she did about harsh interrogations, and you’ve got a party that’s struggling with its new responsibilities.

(And did Dick Cheney just win a round?)

“President Obama yesterday chose secrecy over disclosure,” Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post. “Civil liberties and human rights advocates said the reversal would serve to maintain the Bush administration's legacy of secrecy.” 

The ACLU’s Amrit Singh: The Obama administration “has essentially become complicit with the torture that was rampant during the Bush years by being complicit in its coverup.”

And can the administration wedge this one past the left? “The Obama administration is weighing plans to detain some terror suspects on U.S. soil -- indefinitely and without trial -- as part of a plan to retool military commission trials that were conducted for prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” Evan Perez writes in The Wall Street Journal. “The proposal being floated with members of Congress is another indication of President Barack Obama's struggles to establish his counter-terrorism policies, balancing security concerns against attempts to alter Bush-administration practices he has harshly criticized.”

That announcement could come as soon as Thursday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported on “Good Morning America.”

“The president has showed he’s on the side of the troops,” Stephanopoulos said. “[Vice President Dick Cheney’s] arguments have started to get some traction. And you are starting to see the president move more toward the military on this thicket of issues.”

The photo release puts the president “on a confrontational course with his liberal base. But it is a showdown he is willing to risk -- and may even view as politically necessary,” Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook write for the Los Angeles Times

“The move is a complete 180,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. “The bottom line, a source close to the President tells ABC News, is that he thinks these photographs -- released at a very critical time in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- would hand the terrorists an opportunity to inflame sentiment against the U.S.” 

Feeling it from all sides: “The president's right flank is under fire as well,” Tapper reported on “GMA” Thursday. “Anti-abortion Notre Dame students are protesting the honorary degree their school is this Sunday giving the president, who supports abortion rights and lifted the ban on federally funding embryonic stem-cell research.”

“Mr. Obama changed his mind after seeing the photographs and getting warnings from top Pentagon officials that the images, taken from the early years of the wars, would ‘further inflame anti-American opinion’ and endanger troops in two war zones,” Jeff Zeleny and Thom Shanker write in The New York Times. “Several left-leaning groups, which had been fierce critics of the Bush administration, said they were stunned by the decision.” 

It’s the “education of the new president on the complicated, combustible issue of torture,” Politico’s Ben Smith and Josh Gerstein write. “It also marked a growing recognition inside the White House of how explosive the question of torture has become -- swamping his predecessor’s legacy, entangling the speaker of the House and threatening to overwhelm Obama’s agenda.”

Talking Points Memo: “Obama Admin Falls Back On Bushism.” 

“You cannot show weakness in the face of this shamelessness,” Andrew Sullivan blogs. “Maybe it's a long game and accountability is a dish best served cold and late. But what if there's always a reason in an endless war of occupation of multiple countries not to serve it at all?” 

“Barack Obama just crumbled and will follow Cheney's command,” Cenk Uygur writes for Huffington Post

Where it gets even trickier: “Congressional Democrats are voicing growing unease over the Obama administration’s national security policies, including the seemingly open-ended commitment in Afghanistan and the nettlesome question of what to do with prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” David M. Herszenhorn writes in The New York Times

And Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., speaks! “We keep asking for a plan” for Afghanistan, Murtha said. “I think the Democrats are nervous just because they haven’t seen a plan yet.”

“Senate Democrats may be having second thoughts about giving President Barack Obama money to close down the military prison and terrorism detainee center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” Roll Call’s Emily Pierce writes. “One senior Senate Democratic aide acknowledged that the majority might not have the votes to retain the funding once the bill hits the Senate floor next week.” 

Then there’s Pelosi, D-Calif., who takes questions on what she knew about waterboarding and other interrogation techniques at her 10:45 am ET press conference Thursday.

“The intelligence briefings received by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2002 have developed into a recurring distraction for congressional Democrats,” per ABC News. “Instead of arguing over whether waterboarding and other techniques are legal, and whether they represent the right policies, Democrats are on the defensive as questions swirl over what one of the most prominent party leaders knew, and what she did about it.” 

Karl Rove calls out Pelosi in his Wall Street Journal column. Sub-head: “Nancy Pelosi was an accomplice to 'torture.' ”

Rove writes: “It is disgraceful that Democrats who discovered their outrage years after the fact are now braying for disbarment of the government lawyers who justified EITs and the prosecution of Bush administration officials who authorized them. Mrs. Pelosi is hip-deep in dangerous waters, and they are rapidly rising.” 

The debate is a little broader than the one Democrats wanted: “A top adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and one-time director of the Sept. 11 commission Wednesday decried the Bush administration's use of enhanced interrogation techniques, calling it a ‘mistake’ by officials and lawmakers from both political parties,” the Washington Times’ Kara Rowland writes

Philip Zelikow: “It was a collective failure in which a number of officials and members of Congress and staffers of both parties played a part.”

On another day, in another context, the buzz might be out of Arizona State, where the president chose to embrace the controversy over his appearance.

How’s this for a turn: “I come to embrace the notion that I haven’t done enough in my life,” the president said. “I heartily concur. I come to confirm that one’s title, even a title like president of the United States, says very little about how well one’s life has been led -- and that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve.” 

“In his speech here to a stadium full of people who waited hours in temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, Mr. Obama said the degree controversy underscored that the nation needs ‘a fundamental change of perspective and attitude,’ one that values substance over appearance, character over celebrity and wise investments over ‘get rich quick schemes,’ ” The New York Times’ Peter Baker reports

“Obama sought to put to rest the degree controversy, repeatedly joking about it during his speech. The president said the great American story is young people following their passions and not doing it for money,” The Arizona Republic’s Dan Nowicki, Anne Ryman and Ronald J. Hansen report

President Obama on Thursday holds a noon ET town hall in New Mexico, to talk “credit card reform and the need for greater consumer protections. He will then take questions from the audience,” per The White House.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks on board the USS Ronald Reagan in San Diego, and headlines an evening DNC fundraiser while in town.

On healthcare -- trying to move beyond illusions of momentum.

“After Republicans heard from pollster Frank Luntz last week to help them craft their message on health care, Senate Democrats got a visit from David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant and senior adviser to President Obama,” CQ’s Drew Armstrong reports. “Axelrod was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to help hone talking points that the Democrats’ health care overhaul would bring down costs, give more people access to coverage and allow people to keep their plan if they want.” 

Said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.: “I think there was some unease that we didn’t have a strategy. [Axelrod] was coming up to reassure the Senate that they do have a strategy.”

About that stimulus update: “In his first quarterly report on the nation's stimulus package, Vice President Joe Biden uses anecdotes to paint a glowing picture of an economy on the rebound. In reality, the picture is incomplete and the colors far more muted,” the AP’s Matt Apuzzo reports. “Capturing the full effect of the stimulus at this early stage is difficult, but the administration has set high bars for success. In championing those successes, however, the White House plays a little loose with the facts.” 

George Will leads a new line of attack: “The Obama administration's agenda of maximizing dependency involves political favoritism cloaked in the raiment of ‘economic planning’ and ‘social justice’ that somehow produce results superior to what markets produce when freedom allows merit to manifest itself, and incompetence to fail. The administration's central activity -- the political allocation of wealth and opportunity -- is not merely susceptible to corruption, it is corruption.” 

Thursday from Treasury, the administration’s housing plan gets an expansion with a 10:45 am ET press conference.

An official tells ABC’s Matthew Jaffe: “With the Making Home Affordable program delivering much-needed relief to homeowners and to our economy just over two months after the release of program guidelines, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan will provide an update on the program’s impact on stemming the housing crisis and keeping families in their homes and will announce new expanded options for homeowners facing foreclosure.  Thus far, more than 55,000 Home Affordable Modification offers have been extended to qualifying borrowers.”

No Supreme Court pick yet, but the National Republican Trust PAC wants Republican senators to oppose it (probably): “He wants an ‘activist judge’ on the Court.  It is up to you and your fellow Republican colleagues to stop such a nomination.  I believe you will find, Sen. Hatch, your constituents will hold you accountable should you concede to the President’s nomination OF AN ACTIVIST JUDGE,” reads the letter to Republican senators sent Wednesday. “As you may recall, the National Republican Trust PAC held former Sen. Arlen Specter accountable after he voted in favor of the President’s stimulus package.  The gentleman from Pennsylvania no longer resides within our political party.”

Maybe soon? “President Obama told senators at a White House meeting yesterday that he would review names of potential Supreme Court nominees over the weekend, leading participants to believe an announcement could come within days, according to senior Senate aides who were briefed on the gathering,” Shailagh Murray reports in The Washington Post

In Minnesota, the drumbeat grows louder: “FBI agents in Minnesota have begun asking questions about the relationship between former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and a close friend and donor, according to a Minnesota source to whom the agents talked,” Dave Orrick and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger write in the St. Paul Pioneer Press

“The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the ‘main topic’ of the two agents' questions surrounded an allegation that Bloomington financier Nasser Kazeminy paid for suits and other items Coleman and his wife shopped for at Neiman-Marcus in Minneapolis.”

From the annals of unity: “Fourteen minutes after Gov. Charlie Crist announced his U.S. Senate bid, the national Republican party endorsed him over former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio,” Beth Reinhard writes for the Miami Herald. “But nationwide, there are scattered signs that the GOP is not completely united behind Crist, who campaigned alongside President Barack Obama in Fort Myers for the Democrat's spending plan earlier this year.” 

2012 rumblings: “Nevada Sen. John Ensign has added two stops to a scheduled trip to Iowa early next month, a move that will further stoke speculation that he has an eye on running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012,”’s Chris Cillizza reports. “Ensign was already scheduled to be in Iowa on June 1 to give a speech in Sioux City as part of the American Future Fund's Conservative lecture series. He will now also make a stop in Sioux Center to tour Trans Ova Genetics and will host a meet and greet at the Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor on Le Mars, which, as any good political junkie knows, is the ice cream capital of the United States.” 

(Ensign, R-Nev., will be the featured guest on’s “Top Line” Thursday, live at noon ET.)

The Kicker:

“But I do think we all learned an important lesson. I learned to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket. It won't happen again. President Crow and Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.” -- President Obama, at Arizona State.

“What I find so remarkable is that these politically motivated attacks fail to show that what Carrie and I believe is also what President Obama and Secretary Clinton believe - marriage is between a man and a woman.” -- Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska, defending Carrie Prejean, while tweaking a few Democrats.

Today on “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast: Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Sam Youngman of The Hill. Noon ET. 

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