The Note, 5/21/2009: Thrilla in the Swamp -- Terror policies, in Washington split-screen


Obama vs. Cheney -- that’s a no-brainer, right?

Before you let poll numbers answer that one, the tale of the tape:

In the blue corner, we have a popular president coming off a lost round, leading a party that’s bobbing and weaving and ducking on issues it would generally rather not be talking about at all.

In the red corner, you have a deeply unpopular former vice president coming off two lost elections, yet representing a party that’s nurturing a rare victory -- and still delighting in having helped put the House speaker on the ropes.

(And playing in the pre-show is the little prison camp that could, our newest national treasure, the one that got 90 senators to vote to save it Wednesday. If you can’t find bipartisanship, sometimes it finds you. . . . )

The juxtaposition of the speeches ensures split-screen cable coverage -- and distracts from a White House that wants to recapture its own message.

It pretty much guarantees that the day will be covered as a political back-and-forth, with focus on the debate itself, not just the policies.

“At the exact same time President Obama is explaining his counterterrorism policies to the nation today, former Vice President Cheney will say those policies are making us less safe,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Thursday.

Cheney is an unpopular ex-politician defending an unpopular administration -- and a face, of course, Democrats don’t mind seeing represent the GOP.

And this is Obama we’re talking about, giving a speech, no less. (And will calling Democrats “socialists” help win an argument with the public?)

But President Obama has the more difficult path, in policy and rhetoric. He has to actually get things done, and -- unlike Cheney -- he has answer critics on both his right and his left. (Think that Cheney cares what the ACLU thinks?)

Obama speaks at 10:10 am ET, at the National Archives (alongside the Constitution, literally).

Cheney’s speech is scheduled to start at 10:45 am ET (but it will be delayed until Obama is finished -- and those in the audience will watch Obama on screens) across town, at the American Enterprise Institute.

Excerpts from Cheney’s speech: “When President Obama makes wise decisions,” the former vice president will say, per ABC’s Jonathan Karl, “he deserves our support. When he mischaracterizes the decisions we made, he deserves an answer.”

“Right now there is considerable debate in this city about the measures our administration took to defend the American people -- and especially about our methods of gathering intelligence. What I want to do today is set forth the strategic thinking that drove our policies . . . ”

The word from the White House: This is a chance to slow things down, as only a president can. This is less about details than grabbing hold of a debate that’s gotten away from Team Obama.

“What the president is going to try to do today is get control of the debate back,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported on “GMA.”

“Obama, in a bid to retake the initiative, plans an address today to forcefully defend his proposal for closing Guantanamo by year's end. In the morning speech at the National Archives in Washington, he also will address prospects for a controversial proposal to hold detainees indefinitely without trial, if necessary, and will reassert his argument that closing the prison would advance U.S. security,” Julian E. Barnes and Josh Meyer report for the Los Angeles Times. “Clearing the political and legal logjam will probably require the Obama administration to endorse additional policies unpopular with its political allies.”

“President Obama will do little to satisfy lawmakers’ hunger for a detailed plan on the closing of Guantánamo Bay when he delivers his national security speech Thursday morning,” The Hill’s Sam Youngman reports. “Instead, the president will lay out the reasoning behind some of his most controversial national security decisions.”

“We need some cover,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide.

Will this count? “What Obama will not do, however, is provide a detailed outline of which of the remaining Guantanamo prisoners will be released or transferred to other countries and under what conditions, and which will be tried in U.S. civil courts or in Bush-era military commissions,” Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post.

The ACLU’s Anthony Romero: “If he continues down this path, these policies will certainly become known in the history books as the Bush-Obama doctrine.”

Love, Karl Rove: “Barack Obama inherited a set of national-security policies that he rejected during the campaign but now embraces as president. This is a stunning and welcome about-face,” he writes in his Wall Street Journal column. Or not so much love: “Mr. Obama either had very little grasp of what governing would involve or, if he did, he used words meant to mislead the public. Neither option is particularly encouraging.”

“Members of Congress, his liberal base and his conservative opponents will be listening to hear exactly where he stands,” USA Today’s Richard Wolf and Mimi Hall report.

This makes it more interesting: “President Obama told human rights advocates at the White House on Wednesday that he was mulling the need for a ‘preventive detention’ system that would establish a legal basis for the United States to incarcerate terrorism suspects who are deemed a threat to national security but cannot be tried,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in The New York Times. “The two participants, outsiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the session was intended to be off the record, said they left the meeting dismayed.” “Obama was succinct about his reversal, according to one person at the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private: ‘He said, “I was a constitutional law scholar. Now I'm commander in chief,” ’ ” per The Boston Globe’s Joseph Williams.

Thanks for the help: “The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing, radicalizing others,” said FBI Director Robert Mueller.

This also makes it more interesting: “An unreleased Pentagon report concludes that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has returned to terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials,” Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times.

As does this: “A top al-Qaida suspect held at Guantanamo Bay will be sent to New York for trial, an Obama administration official said Wednesday, a major step in President Barack Obama's plan to close the detention center by early next year. Ahmed Ghailani would be the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the U.S. and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court,” per the AP’s Devlin Barrett.

(And this: “The FBI and NYPD busted a four-man homegrown terror cell Wednesday night that was plotting to blow up two Bronx synagogues while simultaneously shooting a plane out of the sky, sources told the Daily News.”)

Don’t forget who won the last round: “Republicans have searched mightily for a good political issue this year as their traditional three Gs -- gays, guns and God -- have lost some steam. Now a fourth G -- Guantanamo Bay -- is handing them big boost, forcing President Barack Obama on the defensive,” the AP’s Charles Babington writes.

This will be one of the rare days where the president himself will have trouble breaking through cleanly:

“In typical Obama fashion, he will try to work his way out of a jam by putting his decision in the largest possible philosophical context,” Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek. “But even as Obama is speaking, who will be clearing his throat at a podium across town? Why, Dick Cheney, of course. The former vice president hasn't singlehandedly created this situation, but he has adroitly capitalized on it.”

“Meanwhile, Obama and his team have yet to get ruffled like Frazier before the fight,” Time’s Michael Scherer writes. “The polls, which show continued Republicans flailing, even on issues like national security, offer little concern. ‘They may see this as their life preserver,’ David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, told me yesterday. ‘But they also may be out in deep water without any assistance.’ ”

“Even Obama can't simply wish the past away. He needs to be more forthcoming about why he has changed his mind on some issues,” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post column. “The administration regularly talks about protecting American values and American security. Even a verbal magician such as Obama can't get around the fact that doing both involves hard trade-offs. To get back to the economy, health care, energy and education, Obama has to answer his civil libertarian critics and Dick Cheney at the same time.”

“Donning a professorial gown is risky at a time when Democrats and Republicans in Congress, along with the American people, wants details from the administration, particularly about whether dangerous detainees might be imprisoned in the United States,” The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder writes.

How to explain this metamorphosis? “What we have witnessed in the last few weeks is Barack Obama trying on and fitting himself to the role of commander in chief,” David Broder writes in his column. “The political cost is not yet high, but those who remember Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter know that over time, it can be dangerous for a Democratic president to lose the support of the liberal activists.”

Back on Capitol Hill -- any chance Republicans will let the House slip into recess without forcing a vote on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her battle with the CIA?

Look for some kind of GOP resolution before the break -- on ordering a House intelligence committee investigation, if not something stronger.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, on’s “Top Line” Thursday: “The speaker’s intelligence security credentials are in question. I think this Congress needs to consider whether we would suspend that and ask her whether she will step down or step aside until such time as this matter is cleared up.”

How did we get here? “Pelosi, the most powerful speaker in a generation, has mastered the inside game of Hill politics -- brokering compromises, soothing bruised egos and, above all, keeping her party’s factions happy enough to stay in the fold yet not so happy to make others get jealous. But like an intimidating power forward with an iffy jump shot, Pelosi has proved considerably less adept at the outside game -- a point brought home by her inability to quell the firestorm over the waterboarding briefing,” Politico’s Glenn Thrush writes.

“If Obama is a rookie acting like a veteran, Pelosi, a career politician, has all too often filled the role of the bumbler in 2009,” Time’s Jay Newton-Small writes. “For all her careful planning, Pelosi can be rash, even impetuous, when confronted with a surprise, as she was at her CIA presser.”

Meet your loyal Democrat: “The CIA has a very bad record when it comes to -- I was about to say ‘candid’; that’s too mild -- to honesty,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., per The Hill’s Alexander Bolton and Reid Wilson.

SCOTUS scuttlebutt: “President Obama has interviewed his first prospective Supreme Court candidate, sitting down privately in the White House for a conversation with Judge Diane P. Wood, an official confirmed Wednesday,” The New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny reports. “White House aides are preparing for an announcement no sooner than late next week.”

Wood “is among the top three prospects Obama is considering, along with Judge Sonia Sotomayor and Solicitor General Elena Kagan, sources tell me,” per ABC’s Jan Crawford Greenburg. “Like those two, she's filled out the exhaustive questionnaire and undergone the intensive vetting and FBI background check. . . . Sources tell me Obama has not decided whom he will choose. But of the three, Wood comes closest to meeting the criteria he has laid out in a justice.”

The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes and Shailagh Murray narrow the buzz to two: “Wood was among a group of past, present, soon-to-be-past and perhaps future Supreme Court justices at the Georgetown event, the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary,” they write. “Several others mentioned as possibilities to succeed Souter also attended, but most of the buzz centered on Wood and Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who gave the keynote address.”

Elsewhere, the Democrats still get to be Democrats, and RNC Chairman Michael Steele gets to still be chairman of the RNC.

“The Republican National Committee passed a resolution at a special session Wednesday condemning President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress for leading the United States toward socialism, a victory for the party's beleaguered chairman who sought the toned-down language in the measure,” Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times. “RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele adamantly had opposed the initial version of the resolution that had -- presumptuously, some Republicans thought -- called on the Democrats to rename themselves ‘the Democratic Socialist Party.’ ”

“Give credit where it's due: RNC Chairman Michael Steele managed some successful party leadership today,” Robert Schlesinger blogs for US News & World Report. “Though in all fairness, that leadership essentially took the form of convincing his fellow Republicans not to dress up in a collective clown suit and convey their policy preferences through air horn blasts.”

Is Steele any stronger? “With a dwindling minority, tough congressional races coming up and a popular president, Steele may soon find out that his own era of apologizing is just getting started,” Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson writes.

“The longer-term problem for Steele -- and for establishment Republicans across the country -- presented by the ‘Democrat Socialist Party’ debate is that the 168 committee members represent the most conservative element of the party and have almost no concern for how passing a resolution like that would play (and be played by Democrats) to the average independent or moderate voter,”’s Chris Cillizza writes. “Put simply: these committeemen and committeewomen identify far more with the Dick Cheney/Rush Limbaugh wing of the party than they do with the Charlie Crist/Colin Powell side.” Coming from the AFL-CIO Thursday -- plans for the Memorial Day recess: “Working families across the country are ramping up for the biggest recess week yet, including more than a dozen candlelight vigils, 20 economic community roundtables, phone banking parties and deliveries of personal letters to offices of members of Congress. In total, working families will participate in more than 200 events large and small, write 25,000 handwritten letters, and make 40,000 calls to demand Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.”

Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., loses a round in the stimulus fight -- and now goes to court: “Gov. Mark Sanford is taking the General Assembly to court after lawmakers required him to accept $350 million in disputed federal money by overriding his budget vetoes. Sanford quickly announced the federal suit after the Senate voted 34-11 on a state budget that forces him to accept the money,” The State’s John O’Connor reports.

The Macker’s big test -- will Virginia Democrats forgive and forget when it comes to the unforgettable Terry McAuliffe? National Journal’s John Mercurio: “Thanks to a radio ad run by one of his rivals, the closing days of the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign have revived the tensions of 2008 in a way that's forcing candidates to debate who loves Obama the most. Even more intriguingly, the election is shaping up as the first high-profile test of whether Democrats -- especially African Americans, who fueled Obama's lopsided victory there last February -- have welcomed the Clintons back into the fold.”

The Kicker:

“If girls realized the consequences of sex, nobody would be having sex. . . . Trust me. Nobody.” -- Bristol Palin, finding her privacy on the cover of People magazine.

“Did you guys see my house? . . . I'm trying to figure out if my lawn is getting mowed there.” -- President Obama, to the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis.

Today on “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast: Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; and Politico’s Jonathan Martin. Noon ET.

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