Published April 27, 2011
‘Birther’ Strategy Backfires
“What do you think Ed? It is a distraction. This is a settled issue, the birth certificate online is the same certificate you get to get a driver’s license. Anyone born in Hawaii gets the same thing the campaign and the White House have provided to the press. I just think this is a distraction, an unfortunate distraction from the issues most Americans care about. Anyone watching this exchange would be appalled that this is what concerns us when so many issues are facing us.”
-- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney chiding CNN’s Ed Henry for asking why President Obama doesn’t allow the release of his original, long-form birth certificate.
President Obama reversed course today and answered critics, led by reality show host Donald Trump, who have called for him to release his original birth certificate.
Until now, the White House has stood by the president’s certificate of live birth, a health department document that attests to the existence of an actual birth certificate. The document has less information, but is valid proof of citizenship.
The new document doesn’t seem to reveal anything to contradict Obama’s claims, but the very fact that the president will have to answer Trump must be very galling. Remember, the longtime argument offered by the administration against releasing the document was that it would still not satisfy conspiracy theorists and doing so would only encourage them to make further demands.
The president addressed the press on the issue this morning just one day after his press secretary upbraided a reporter for even asking about such a thing.
It is always dangerous for politicians to retreat to the “more important things to do” defense when they don’t want to answer a question. It may be a temporary fix, but it also sets a new standard for what the politicians time out to be spent doing.
Case in point: In a snappish press conference on Tuesday, Press Secretary Jay Carney gave a belittling answer to CNN’s Ed Henry for asking why the president doesn’t put the doubts over his nativity to rest by releasing his long-form birth certificate.
Carney told Henry that Americans would be “appalled” by the question and that he should be talking about serious issues involving the economy and foreign affairs.
But Obama was scheduled to spend most of his day today doing things that have nothing to do with the economy or Libya or gas prices. He and his wife will record an interview with his early political patron, Oprah Winfrey, as part of her launch of a new cable network. Then, Obama will head to New York for another fundraiser with big donors.
Carney painted Obama into a corner by suggesting that he can’t deal with the distraction of answering the question about his birth certificate because he is working constantly to revive the economy and oversee three wars. How can he help Winfrey, raise money or even play golf by that standard?
Democrats long championed the idea of branding Republicans as kooks for believing that the president might not have been born in Hawaii. It explains why liberal outlets have given such lavish attention to Trump, who has embraced the issue.
But when a Gallup poll shows that only 38 percent of Americans are convinced of the president’s place of birth, the strategy of branding Republicans as “birthers” looks dubious. The fact that Obama has drawn a hard line against releasing his birth certificate amid such doubts was an unsustainable position amid legitimate inquiries from legitimate journalists like Henry.
A Spoonful of Crocker Helps the Panetta Go Down
"For the past 20 years, he has been a military pilot. An argument happened between him and the foreigners and we have to investigate that.”
-- Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, talking to Al Jazeera about the killing of six troops – identified as Americans by the network – by an Afghan officer inside the ministry’s headquarters. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
There hasn’t been a Democratic politician in charge of the Pentagon since former Wisconsin Rep. Les Aspin held the post in the first year of the Clinton administration, but the old model is coming back into vogue as President Obama prepares to send Leon Panetta to replace Secretary Robert Gates.
Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California who served as a budget broker and later chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s White House, will be a departure for the agency that has been led by careerists like Gates or Republicans like former Sen. William Cohen for 17 years.
Particularly alarming to Pentagon types is the word of what Panetta was selected – for his expertise in cutting Defense budgets expertise obtained during the slashing done at the end of the Cold War.
Panetta has kept mostly a low profile as head of the CIA, where he oversaw an ongoing expansion of the agency’s role in fighting a stealth war against Islamists in Pakistan and generally avoided political scraps on the Hill.
But the Panetta pick sends a clear message from the administration: the president is serious about ending the surge in Afghanistan and making big cuts at the Pentagon. Panetta is a budget guy, not a military guy.
The White House is also expected to announce today that one of the heroes of President George W. Bush’s Iraq surge strategy, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, has accepted the post as the new ambassador to Afghanistan.
This will, for a limited time, put Crocker back on the same team with Gen. David Petraeus, who is wrapping up his tour as the commander in Afghanistan. Obama is reportedly going to pass over Petraeus to replace outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and is instead offering the surge strategist the chance to replace Panetta.
The Crocker pick thrills the dwindling flock of hawks in Congress who have long rhapsodized over the Crocker-Petraeus partnership. Crocker will replace retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, a blunt critic of Obama’s nation-building surge in Afghanistan.
But the Panetta pick will likely overshadow the 2007 nostalgia spurred by the Crocker nomination. At a time when hawks are calling for Obama to step up the prosecution of the wars in Libya and Afghanistan, Panetta will be looking for ways to pare back.
Crocker’s job will likely not be to expand the surge, but to try to hold together the rapidly fraying relationship with Afghanistan for as long as possible. He has long experience there and in other Muslim nations and is the government’s top man for the region.
With the Wall Street Journal report that Pakistan is trying to convince our already balky allies in Kabul to team up with them and the Chinese instead of the U.S. and India, Crocker will clearly have his work cut out for him.
As for ending the surge, the Taliban spring offensive brought with it today what seems like another example of using uniformed Afghans to kill Americans. This time it was apparently an Air Force general who opened fore inside a meeting of coalition partners. If it was a terrorist attack, it would be the fourth such strike in three weeks by a uniformed Afghan.
There will be standing up the Afghan military so the U.S. forces can stand down if the native institutions are so deeply compromised by the baddies.
Gas Prices Test Obama’s Political Patience
“There are a whole bunch of investments that we can make that will finally deal with this energy problem in a serious way, but we can't do it if we're still basically subsidizing the energy of yesterday.”
-- President Obama in an interview with Cleveland’s WKYC discussing his plan to end tax breaks for oil companies.
President Obama’s reelection bid is beset by the skyrocketing price of gasoline – which has more than doubled since he took office – and is cycling through different lines in his bid to push back that his policies are partly to blame for higher prices.
On Tuesday, Obama announced that he is looking to strip $4 billion in tax breaks from U.S. oil producers and then use the money to subsidize green energy programs. This comes on the heels of his creation of a Justice Department task force to investigate any instances of gouging or price manipulation.
The political problem with these plans is that even their proponents allow that they will not bring down prices, and might actually increase them if enacted.
There are lots of reasons for $4 gas. The weak U.S. dollar, increased worldwide demand and instability in the Middle East lead the list, but another contributing factor is the reduction in domestic production under Obama’s post-BP-spill crackdown on offshore drilling. Traders know there will be no domestic expansion to offset international constraints.
Obama has previously said that the American economy could “ride out” the current spike in gas prices, and members of his administration have argued that higher gas prices will be a necessary part of pushing Americans away from fossil fuels and into environmentally friendly sources. But, with the economy looking shakier and voters getting riled up about having their stagnant incomes snatched by high prices, Obama must be seen as engaged on the subject.
His responses, though, suggest that Obama still believes in the “ride out” theory. Obama has not embraced the proposals to actually bring down prices in the foreseeable future. Republicans want Obama to open up offshore drilling in a move that would signal to commodities markets the availability of future production but not immediate relief. Democrats want Obama to release some of the government’s Strategic Oil Reserve, which would cause a short-term dip in oil prices as the government-held crude hit the market, but then can actually drive prices up later when the government buys oil to fill its tank back up.
Every indication is that gas prices and other energy prices will continue their march skyward over the next several months. At some point, Obama will likely succumb to pressure from his party to tapping the government’s emergency reserves. But as President George W. Bush learned, that’s almost an admission of defeat.
For now, Obama is looking to use the high gas prices to seek policy changes he already wanted – more constraints on commodities traders and an end to oil company tax credits – but if the forecasts are correct, Obama will soon be willing to try almost anything to bring prices down.
Senate Dems Squabble Over Debt Ceiling Hike
"I mean, the idea that the United States would take the risk — people would start to believe we won't pay our bills — is a ridiculous proposition, irresponsible, completely unacceptable basic risk for us to take."
-- Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner talking to reporters about the debate over the soon-to-be breached federal debt ceiling.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has cash reserves enough to keep the government running at current levels until early July. The money is from the proceeds of the sale of GM stock by the government, paybacks from bank bailouts, etc.
But the government will hit its $14.3 trillion credit limit sometime in the next week, at which point Geithner will start burning through his reserves. Once the reserves are gone, the government will have to start shutting down operations to compensate for the 40 percent of current expenditures currently being borrowed.
The reductions in government functions would be deep because so much of what the government spends is in interest for existing debt. The loss of the debt-fueled spending would have to come directly out of regular government functions in order to avoid a credit default.
Very few House Republicans are likely to back an increase in the debt ceiling unless it came with fantastic spending cuts and constraints. They would much rather have a partial shutdown than vote to expand borrowing power. The more likely scenario for any debt ceiling increase is that it originates in the Senate and then passes the House with a minimal number of Republican votes.
Senate Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin are increasing their demands for what they want in return for a politically poisonous vote. Remember, to move the legislation, President Obama will need his 53 fellow Democrats in the Senate on board and then add seven moderate Republicans to the mix. To get that kind of support, Obama will have to agree to some substantial caps on future spending.
Bernanke Offers Markets Half a Loaf
"(Ben Bernanke) would not like it if the post-mortems said all he did was blow smoke and speak gobbledygook.”
-- Former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder talking to the Associated Press about today’s first-ever press conference to be held by a Fed chairman.
The financial press is panting like paparazzi waiting outside a nightclub for Lindsay Lohan because Federal reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is going to hold the first ever press conference in the history of the formerly secretive central bank.
The bank was secretive when its sole function was to protect the value of the dollar. That required a hushed, nearly mystical approach to public relations. The bank’s newer mandate requires it to both protect the dollar and fight unemployment… by manipulating the dollar.
Having such a broad, and often contradictory, mandate means that the bank is under intense political scrutiny. Liberals want a slushier dollar to keep stimulating the economy. Conservatives want the Fed to start tightening up before crippling inflation kicks in.
Bernanke has been able to deal with these questions on Capitol Hill mostly because lawmakers are more interested in making speeches than getting answers. Only in Congress is it considered normal for a 500-word question to be fully met with a five-word answer.
The financial reporters will give Bernanke a harder time today, especially since he will likely be making a little bit of news.
The wide expectation is that with the economy sputtering (British first quarter growth was .5 percent and American numbers out this week are expected to be only a point better), Bernanke will announce that the bank will “reinvest” the proceeds of it’s $900 billion program of printing money to buy government debt.
Some of the bonds bought by the bank have matured, which means a return of the original investment plus interest. Financial pressies say that the chairman today will announce that the bank will pour that money back into U.S. debt, which pleases Wall Street.
They like stimulus and are not interested in seeing bond prices increase. The bonds the government buys from itself, the lower bond prices will be.
Other than that, though, Bernanke will work very hard to say as little as possible when answering the questions. His message will be steady as she goes. It will be the job of financial reporters to knock him off his game.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“We now have 10,000 Boomers a day retiring, and will for 20 years. It's demographic, which is inexorable…The reason is the medical technology. In the old days, you died of pneumonia or heart attack. It’s a terrible way to go, but from a societal perspective, it's cheap. Today you live in to old age and we die of cancers and dementias, and they are extremely expensive and intensive care… We welcome the medical advances, but the costs are astronomical…Unless we find a way to deal with the healthcare issue, we will go over a cliff.”