Mubarak Tests Obama’s Softer Stance

Obama Softened Stance on Egyptian Hardliner Mubarak

“I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

-- Vice President Joe Biden to PBS discussing the crackdown by Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt since 1981, against dissidents.

A new cache of Wikileaked cables show that part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy of “engagement” included easing public pressure on the Mubarak regime in Egypt to improve its stance on human rights.

While George W. Bush had hectored the 82-year-old secular ruler of the most populous Arab nation for running what is essentially a police state in which dissidents disappear, personal privacy is not recognized, common criminals are tortured and media outlets speaking against the government may draw a visit from intelligence agents.

President Obama opted to give his June 2009 address to the Muslim World, dubbed “A New Beginning” by the White House, from Cairo, a strong a sign of support for Mubarak. The cables reveal that the aim of the softer approach was to bring Mubarak into a larger effort for pan-Islamic engagement by Obama, but that Mubarak was deeply concerned about U.S. overtures to Iran.

As the tear gas flies and water cannons blast in Cairo today, the cables pose a new problem for the Obama administration. While there has already been much public discussion about the mild response to the crackdown from Washington, the Wikileaks show the public that a softer stance on Mubarak’s authoritarian tendencies has been a deliberate strategy of the administration.

Obama’s muted response to the uprisings in Iran last year drew similar questions from human rights advocates, but this time, there is a paper trail for the policy of non-intervention

Mubarak has ordered all electronic communication in the country shut down via an Internet kill switch and there are worldwide concerns that his army, still loyal to the president, may move with more blunt force against protesters today.

The danger is great.

The riots seem to have been driven by frustration with skyrocketing food and fuel prices combined with longstanding resentment of Mubarak’s heavy hand. But the Muslim Brotherhood, the tip of the Islamist spear in the Middle East, is helping to foment the rebellion, presumably with the help of its patrons in Tehran. And there is little in the way of a legitimate, secular opposition to counteract the Islamist push because Mubarak has so effectively stifled dissent in his 30-year rule.

If the Mubarak regime can survive the current turmoil long enough to develop a plan for a transfer of power, the great fear is that, as is currently happening in Lebanon, Iranian-allied Islamists may take power and deprive the West of a key partner in preventing war between Arabs and Israelis.

New Administration Study Reveals: Obamacare is Great

“Without the Affordable Care Act, consumers and businesses would face higher premiums, fewer insurance choices, and rapidly rising health care costs.”

-- Statement from Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

President Obama today is expected to continue his defense of his national health care law in a speech to a group of the law’s supporters.

Ahead of Obama’s remarks, the Department of Health and Human Services will release a new report that the agency says will show “more freedom and control in their health care choices by reducing premiums for families and driving down costs for businesses.”

Politico says the report will project a savings of 14 percent to 20 percent for those buying policies through government-subsidized insurance exchanges in 2014 compared to what they would have paid without the new program.

But, the idea that some people would spend less under the law has never been much in question. The debate over the president’s law has focused on the overall cost to taxpayers, effect on the deficit, constraints on small business, reduced access to care to those already covered and the constitutionality of the insurance mandate.

So, it’s not likely that the new report will convince anyone already opposed or even skeptical of the president’s plan. But what it will do is provide a talking point to keep supporters fired up about keeping the law in place.

While there were many political benefits to pushing off most of the law until after Obama’s reelection campaign, one downside is that it’s hard to keep true believers fired up and ready to go with the law under constant assault on Capitol Hill, in the courts and from a series of reports that suggest higher costs and greater disruptions than originally promised.

Today’s report and Obama’s speech are part of an effort to solidify support on the left for the plan so that there are political consequences for Senate Democrats who don’t fight efforts to repeal key provisions of the president’s law.

Tax Plan May Target Small Business Income

“A lot of people have suggested that we look at business income generated outside what we call the corporate sector. There is a lot of income there and many of the distortions in the corporate sector affect them too. It's worth taking a look at.”

-- Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to the Wall Street Journal on whether small businesses should be brought under corporate tax rules.

The Obama administration is keen on a plan that would lower business tax rates, but insists that any changes maintain or increase the amount of business tax currently being paid.

The idea is basically that lower rates but fewer loopholes mean businesses will benefit from a simpler system and the administration can encourage the private-sector choices it favors, like high-tech and green investment, with tax-code nudges.

But, at a time of gargantuan deficits and calls from the president for yet more new spending, even short-term disruptions in the government’s cash flow from corporations are unacceptable to the administration.

One way to potentially make up the money is to disallow the current practice of allowing small businesses to be taxed through the individual income tax system. Remember all the talk during the great lame-duck tax debate about how allowing an increase on upper-income brackets would be a huge tax increase for small businesses? These are the companies they’re talking about.

The law currently allows small business owners to simply pay taxes on profits made by their companies the same way workers pay taxes on income. Shifting those companies into the corporate tax structure could mean a big boost in corporate income tax rates.

But there are lots of questions. What would the net increase to the tax burden of small business owners be? If there was no increase, wouldn’t that defeat the call for revenue neutrality? Would changing their tax status make them subject to new kinds of regulation?

Big businesses no doubt think that spreading the pain to small businesses is a great idea for achieving the desired rate reductions and simplifications. And in the negations with Obama corporate partners like General Electric and Google, small business hasn’t had much of a seat at the table.

As was the case during the health care debate, the administration sought support from key corporations, but ended up at odds with small-business owners. One of the lead plaintiffs in the legal action against the president’s national health-care law is the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the leading small-business group.

If the new head of Obama’s council for job growth, G.E. CEO Jeff Immelt, is seen as pushing a plan that would benefit his company but hurt small businesses, expect more howls about conflicts of interest.

Obama Taps Former Journo as Spokesman

“The best press secretaries were very deft at serving both their boss, the president, the White House, the administration, and the press.”

-- Incoming White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in a 2006 C-SPAN interview.

Former Time magazine Washington Bureau Chief Jay Carney, husband to ABC News national correspondent Claire Shipman, will replace Robert Gibbs as chief spokesman for President Obama.

For those not involved in the teeming fish kettle that is Washington politics and press, this is a matter of limited importance. It doesn’t matter too much which head does the talking if the message remains the same.

But, Carney does pose something of a challenge for the media elite of Washington. In his previous position as top flack for Vice President Biden, Carney was in the role of favor seeker from his former peers in the press world.

The goal of a vice presidential spokesman is generally to get attention for his boss. While Biden’s gaffes have won lots of unwelcome attention over the past two years, Carney’s goal has generally been to get attention for Biden’s initiatives, foreign trips and meetings.

Biden’s predecessor, Dick Cheney, generally avoided attention in an effort to focus on his broad array of executive duties. But Biden and Carney have worked hard to keep the second in command in the public eye.

Now, instead of asking for attention from his former Time colleagues or his wife’s associates at ABC and her previous employer, CNN, Carney will have all the attention he can handle, and then some.

The administration clearly hopes to keep up its good rapport with the Washington press establishment by putting one of their own behind the podium. The last press secretary not to come from the world of flackdom was the late Tony Snow, hardly a darling of the Washington media establishment. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Gerald Ford’s spokesman, Ron Nessen, to find someone who didn’t come to the job from the world of campaigns or PR.

How successful Carney will be will depend on how good he is at transitioning from asking reporters to do stories on Joe Biden to getting them not to do certain stories about Barack Obama. If Carney can’t control the press, he will lose the trust of the president quickly. If he is too hard with his friends, they will turn on him in fast fashion.

One advantage Carney will have over Gibbs is that not being part of Obama’s inner circle and presumably without the same ambitions for greater power that seemed to bedevil Gibbs, Carney can return to the more traditional role of information conduit rather than Gibbs’ more confusing dual role as would-be policy adviser/spokesman.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“We just had the most ideological election in 30 years in the mid-term. We will have a highly ideological election in 2012. It's going to be opposition to the liberal agenda of Obama. And I think the candidate whose personality is least in the way of their making a case in an ideological election is who will do best.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”