Obama and the Bubble

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 8, 2009; 12:58 PM

George W. Bush was not well-served by his famous presidential bubble.

In retrospect, it seems clear that had he been exposed to opposing views, gotten a reality check now and again, or learned a little humility, he might well have avoided some of the biggest disasters of his presidency. But instead, he surrounded himself with flatterers and yes-men, shielded himself from dissent and appeared almost exclusively before pre-screened audiences.

President-elect Barack Obama seems to have learned this lesson -- or he was just never wired that way in the first place. In an interview yesterday with CNBC's John Harwood, he described how he is struggling to keep existing lines of communication open, bake dissent into his presidency, and not lose touch with the experience of regular Americans.

Here is the transcript and the video.

"I think it's important not to live in the bubble," Obama told Harwood. "So you've got to be open to outside information, particularly criticism. I'll tell you, I very rarely read good press and I often read bad press, not because I agree with it but because I want to get a sense of are there areas where I'm falling short and I can do better."

The most immediate tension appears to be over Obama's use of e-mail, which his security and legal teams have urged him to curtail.

"I think I'm going to be able to get access to a computer somewhere. It may not be right in the Oval Office," Obama said. "The second thing I'm hoping to do is to see if there's some way that we can arrange for me to continue to have access to a BlackBerry. I know that -- "

Harwood: "As of this moment, you still have your BlackBerry."

Obama: "As of this moment, I still do. This is a concern, I should add, not just of Secret Service, but also lawyers. You know, this town's full of lawyers. . . . And they have a lot of opinions. And so I'm still in a scuffle around that, but it -- look, it's the hardest thing about being president."

Harwood: "Yeah."

Obama: "How do you stay in touch with the flow of everyday life? . . .

"[I]t's not just the flow of information. I mean, I can get somebody to print out clips for me, and I can read newspapers. What it has to do with is having mechanisms where you are interacting with people who are outside of the White House in a meaningful way. And I've got to look for every opportunity to do that -- ways that aren't scripted, ways that aren't controlled; ways where, you know, people aren't just complimenting you or standing up when you enter into a room, ways of staying grounded. And if I can manage that over the next four years, I think that will help me serve the American people better because I'm going to be hearing their voices. They're not going to be muffled as a consequence of me being in the White House."

Harwood asked Obama how he plans to avoid the dangers of being too cocky.

Obama: "Well, I think that the approach that we've taken is not just to talk to the usual suspects, but talk to people that traditionally don't agree with me. . . . "

Harwood: "Any concern about overconfidence?"

Obama: "No, I am enormously humbled by the challenges ahead of us. What I do have confidence about is that I'm a good listener, I'm good at synthesizing advice from a range of different perspectives, and that we will make the best possible decisions from the perspective of what's good for ordinary Americans."

Lunch of the Presidents

Dan Eggen reports in The Washington Post about yesterday's White House lunch, where "President Bush and three former U.S. commanders in chief put aside their political differences to offer recollections and advice to President-elect Barack Obama."

Obama spoke a bit about the lunch in his interview with Harwood: "[A]ll of the former presidents as well as current President Bush, I think have a unique understanding of what the pressures and possibilities of that office," he said. "And so they gave me good counsel, not just on specific issues, but more importantly, some of the typical problems that you may end up confronting in the office. How do you make sure that you get good information? How do you make sure that people aren't just telling you what you want to hear? How do you make sure that people are thinking as a team instead of promoting their own individual agendas? And so I found it very helpful. All of them have insights that I hope to apply when I'm president. . . .

"This is a bit of advice that I received from one of the former presidents. He said, 'Part of the reason, Barack, that you're doing well right now is because you don't talk down to the American people, you play it straight and just explain what it is that's taking place.' And I think that -- I have such confidence in the American people. If you just play it straight with them, if you explain to them, here's our challenge, here's how we've gotten here and here's where I think we need to go, then I have enormous confidence that the American people will rise up to the challenge. So my job, both in the inauguration speech and in the months to come, is simply to explain as honestly and truthfully as possible what the circumstances are, what the best ideas are that are out there in terms of meeting those challenges, and if I do that, I feel confident that we'll come together to solve these problems."

Obama's White House

Michael D. Shear and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post: "President-elect Barack Obama is assembling a new and influential cadre of counselors just steps from the Oval Office whose power to direct domestic policy will rival, if not exceed, the authority of his Cabinet. . . .

"Obama's emerging 'super-Cabinet' is intended to ensure that his domestic priorities -- health reform, the environment and urban affairs -- don't get mired in agency red tape or brushed aside by the ongoing economic meltdown and international crises. Half a dozen new White House positions have been filled by well-known leaders with experience navigating Washington turf wars. . . .

"Top Obama advisers spent months studying the internal workings of previous administrations and came away convinced that high-priority issues require a White House coordinator akin to the national security adviser. White House veterans say the new posts are the clearest signal yet that the incoming president has no patience for the resistance to change that permeates the capital."

But Shear and Connolly write that critics say the restructuring will create an added layer of bureaucracy and will lead to insular decisionmaking, micromanagement and chaos.

Meanwhile, Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to scrap the way President Bush oversaw domestic security in the White House and name a former Central Intelligence Agency official to coordinate counterterrorism, people close to the transition said Wednesday.

"The plan being discussed would eliminate the independent homeland security adviser's office and assign those duties to the National Security Council to streamline sometimes overlapping functions. A deputy national security adviser would be charged with overseeing the effort to guard against terrorism and to respond to natural disasters.

"Democrats close to the transition said Mr. Obama's choice for that job was John O. Brennan, a longtime C.I.A. veteran who was the front-runner to head the spy agency until withdrawing in November amid criticism of his views on interrogation and detention policies."

Budget Watch

Obama warned this morning that the nation's recession could "linger for years" unless Congress acts to pump unprecedented sums from Washington into the U.S. economy. "I don't believe it's too late to change course, but it will be if we don't take dramatic action as soon as possible," he said at George Mason University.

Here is the prepared text of his speech.

Lori Montgomery wrote in this morning's Washington Post: "The nation's budget deficit will soar to an unprecedented $1.2 trillion this year, congressional budget analysts said yesterday, a startling tide of red ink that could dampen enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for some of President-elect Barack Obama's most ambitious priorities."

But so far, the enthusiasm remains strong.

As Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "To a degree that would have been unimaginable two years ago, economists and politicians from across the political spectrum have put aside calls for fiscal restraint and decided that Congress should spend whatever it takes to rescue the economy.

"A startling range of name-brand economists -- Martin Feldstein of Harvard and a top adviser to Republican presidents; Mark Zandi of Moody's Economy.com and a former adviser to Senator John McCain's presidential campaign; and Robert B. Reich, secretary of labor under President Clinton -- urged Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday to think more boldly than ever before."

John M. Berry writes in his Bloomberg opinion column: "The U.S. economy is in the throes of a deepening recession and needs a really big dose of fiscal stimulus to help stabilize it.

"What it doesn't need is efforts by congressional Republicans to limit the size of the package because of feigned concerns about how much additional spending might add to the national debt."

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "At least two tax cuts that are part of Barack Obama's stimulus package have been criticized by lawmakers, tax experts and economists for being potentially too expensive and ineffective, signaling that they are likely to face resistance on Capitol Hill as congressional leaders begin direct negotiations with the president-elect's team."

And reading an awful lot into an ambiguous statement, Jeff Zeleny and John Harwood write in the New York Times: "President-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that overhauling Social Security and Medicare would be 'a central part' of his administration's efforts to contain federal spending, signaling for the first time that he would wade into the thorny politics of entitlement programs."

Bush Legacy Watch

Joe Klein writes in his Time opinion column: "'This is not the America I know,' President George W. Bush said after the first, horrifying pictures of U.S. troops torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq surfaced in April 2004. The President was not telling the truth. 'This' was the America he had authorized on Feb. 7, 2002, when he signed a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention -- the one regarding the treatment of enemy prisoners taken in wartime -- did not apply to members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. That signature led directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. It was his single most callous and despicable act. It stands at the heart of the national embarrassment that was his presidency."

Klein concludes that "there should be some official acknowledgment by the U.S. government that the Bush Administration's policies were reprehensible, and quite possibly illegal, and that the U.S. is no longer in the torture business. If Obama doesn't want to make that statement, perhaps we could do it in the form of a Bush Memorial in Washington: a statue of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner in cruciform stress position -- the real Bush legacy."

Richard Clarke writes in a New York Daily News op-ed: "George Bush, still President, is engaging in a legacy tour of media outlets. This comes despite his earlier having said he did not know how history would judge the Iraq war 'because we'll all be dead.'

"Actually, many people are already dead because of Bush, and that is the point to keep in mind when he talks about his legacy. . . .

"There wasn't a second 9/11? That's obviously true, but it misses the point. First, we must remember that Al Qaeda terrorists are patient, deliberate planners who often wait years between strikes. Second, there was the first 9/11 - and it happened on Bush's watch. . . .

"Bush saved American lives? Tell that to the families of the 4,200 U.S. military personnel who have perished in the needless war in Iraq. While they served heroically and deserve the great thanks of the American people, the tragic truth is that they were engaged in a war we should not have been fighting and which was sold to the Congress, the media and American people with exaggerated and even false claims.

"Beyond the needless American deaths that are Bush's legacy, there are the Iraqis we almost never think about. . . .

"Let George Bush keep pushing the buttons on the spin machine. That cannot change the facts. His administration's actions on terrorism, including Iraq, killed many more Americans than U.S. intelligence agencies saved in the past eight years."

Poll Watch

Pollster Gary Langer writes for ABC News: "The difference between Bush's two terms is striking. His 64 percent first-term [job-approval] average ranks him behind only John F. Kennedy (cut short by assassination) and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan, for comparison, averaged 55 percent approval in his first term. (Pre-Reagan data in this analysis are from Gallup.)

"Bush's second-term average approval, in stark contrast, slips him a point beneath Truman's 38 percent. (Richard Nixon managed worse in his truncated, 20-month second term, averaging 35 percent before his August 1974 resignation in the Watergate scandal.)

"Bush's second-term average is particularly dismal compared with his most recent two-term predecessors: Bill Clinton averaged 61 percent approval in his second term, despite the inconvenience of having been impeached. Reagan averaged 58 percent.

"Combining the two terms gives Bush an overall career average of 51 percent approval, slightly ahead of the career averages of Nixon, Gerald Ford, Truman and Jimmy Carter . far from the best company in presidential popularity. . . .

"Bush holds the record for the highest disapproval, 73 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll this October. He came within a point of the record low for approval, Truman's 22 percent in February 1952. And he's approaching 48 months without majority approval, shattering Truman's 38 months in the doghouse. No other modern president has come close."

Panetta Watch

Siobhan Gorman writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President-elect Barack Obama's unexpected pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency cleared a key hurdle on Wednesday when he won the backing of the previously skeptical incoming chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.

"Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) said Wednesday that after speaking late Tuesday with Leon Panetta, she now supports his nomination. She said Mr. Panetta allayed her concerns about his lack of direct intelligence experience by assuring her that he would surround himself with intelligence professionals at the CIA. . . .

"Mr. Obama provided further hints at his goals for the intelligence agencies in an interview Wednesday with CNBC, saying that he sought to 'rebrand, reset our intelligence operations.' Mr. Obama echoed a concern many intelligence officials have voiced privately: that they have been blamed for policy decisions of the Bush administration. Intelligence officers 'have done great work,' he said, but he wants to ensure that 'they're not operating under a cloud in which policies are made, they are put in the cross-fire, and they end up bearing the blame as a consequence of us maybe not living up to our highest values and ideals.'

"Mr. Obama reiterated his commitment to shut down the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, though he said closing the prison involves difficult decisions about what to do with the detainees and how to handle evidence obtained form interrogations there. 'My broad commitment: No torture, that we abide by rule of law, that we abide by our constitution, that we live up to the Geneva Conventions,' he said."

Newly Released Memos

Marisa Taylor reports for McClatchy Newspapers: "Former Justice Department attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee are known for their memos on torture, but little was known about their role in the lead-up to war with Iraq. Until now.

"A string of previously secret memos recently released to the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Justice Department reveals Yoo's and Bybee's part in crafting the controversial legal justification for going to war.

"In a memo dated Oct. 23, 2002, Bybee argues that President Bush 'possesses constitutional authority for ordering the use of force against Iraq to protect our national interests.' In fact, he says, the president never lost the power to declare war on Iraq because Congress gave it to the president's father in 1991.

"Yoo supplements those arguments in two other memos dated November 8, 2002, and December 7, 2002. He concluded that the could argue that Iraq committed a 'material breach' of a United Nations Security Council Resolution, an assertion that would become one of the administration's main justifications for going to war. In one lengthy section, Yoo expounds on the meaning of the word 'and' and concludes that it should not be construed as a conjunction. . . .

"Yet another memo, written by former Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith, it asserts that prisoners in Iraq can be transferred outside the country for interrogations. The memo was used by the CIA to justify the practice known as rendition, in which the CIA moved prisoners to secret prisons. Many international law experts have since criticized the practice as violating the Geneva Conventions."

Subpoena Watch

The Associated Press reports: "The new Congress has asked a federal judge to force the Bush administration to keep some of its disputed records at the White House instead of turning them over immediately to the National Archives.

"Congressional Democrats have subpoenaed documents sought by investigators of the controversial firings of nine federal prosecutors. They want to ensure those documents don't get sent by the outgoing Bush administration to the National Archives as President George W. Bush leaves town, which they say could cause a delay in getting them back."

No Apologies

Vice President Cheney sat down with CBS News's Mark Knoller yesterday morning.

Q. "As you leave office, are there any people that you feel you owe an apology to, or are there people you feel owe you an apology?"

Cheney: "No, not really. There are moments of tension, shall we say, that occur over time. I occasionally expressed myself rather forcefully toward some of my compatriots, like Pat Leahy from Vermont. I'm sure others did the same where I was concerned. I wouldn't worry about those. I don't think they define your time in office. Everybody occasionally feels a need to verbalize their sentiments, and I did, and I thought I was pretty effective at it."

Cheney insisted that he intends to send "virtually all" his records to the National Archives. Asked how people's impressions of him were mistaken, he insisted with a laugh that he is "actually a warm, lovable sort." And he dismissed "the notion that somehow I was pulling strings or making presidential-level decisions" as "an urban legend."

As for his next steps: "I think it's time for somebody like me to step aside and make room for others. And I've got things I want to do and ways I can spend my time. I'm giving serious thought to writing a book, and spend time with the family. I've got a lot of rivers to fish. So I don't think anybody will feel sorry for me. They shouldn't."

Cheney's Lunch

While the presidents were lunching at the White House, Cheney was hosting nine conservative journalists at his residence.

Quin Hillyer writes in his D.C. Examiner opinion column: "In a luncheon round table interview today with a small group of conservative journalists, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that 'we don't torture' but that 'enhanced interrogation techniques' have 'produced a wealth of information' that has protected the United States against terrorists. . . .

"Cheney refused to comment on whether he has advised President George W. Bush to pardon his former top aide, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby or to comment on Libby's perjury conviction -- 'the question of a pardon really falls in the President's purview and his alone' -- but emphatically pronounced himself a 'huge fan of Scooter's. He's an extraordinarily able individual.' . . .

"Also at the interview with Cheney were Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, Bill McGurn, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, Jay Nordlinger and Kate O'Beirne of National Review, and Tom McArdle of Investors Business Daily."

Erickson writes for Human Events: "We've ended up in a situation where critics label everything the administration does as 'torture.' 'That word,' he sighed, 'is used with reckless abandon.' . . .

"Charles Krauthammer asked the Vice President if he thought the hand of providence played a role in American history. The Vice President replied that he thought the United States had a very special place and was unique in history. 'Clearly genius was involved in establishing the Republic . . . We've either been extraordinarily fortunate from time to time or one can see the hand of providence.' . . .

"He laughed that he might be most remembered for his exchanged with Pat Leahy on the floor of the Senate -- helpfully pointing out that 'the Senate was not in session.' 'There's no question [my reputation] had diminished,' he said after pointing out he left the Ford and first Bush administrations in good public standing."

Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard: "Vice President Dick Cheney believes he hasn't 'fundamentally changed' since he came to Washington 40 years ago. Only his job has changed. . . .

"The conventional wisdom in the media, of course, is that he became more conservative and secretive and considerably less genial as George W. Bush's vice president.

"Not really, Cheney insisted. He's always been conservative. And when reporters asked what advice he'd given the president, he wouldn't answer. If he did, 'I'd shortly find I wasn't asked for my advice,' Cheney says."

Kate O'Beirne headlines her blog post for the National Review: "He'll Be Missed When He's Gone."

She writes: "Over the past eight years, the vice president has periodically hosted these sessions and was always unfailingly candid and insightful. And charming and quick-witted. . . .

"Fortunately, the vice president is giving 'serious thought to writing a book.' Let's hope we will continue to benefit from his unparalled experience and sound judgment.

"Finally, for the umpteenth time the caricature of this talented, temperate, dedicated patriot struck me as insane."

Back to Texas

Dan Eggen blogs for The Washington Post: "President Bush will end his presidency the same way he started it, by flying into his boyhood hometown of Midland, Tex., for a rally, the White House said today.

"After President-elect Barack Obama is sworn into office at noon on Jan. 20, Bush will depart the White House for Andrews Air Force Base and thence a 'welcome home event' in Midland's Centennial Plaza, according to White House press secretary Dana Perino. Bush then will travel on to spend his first night as a former president at the family ranch in Crawford, Tex., near Waco, Perino said."

Gonzales Watch

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service: "Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned last year amid congressional investigations, is working on a book to tell his side of the story. . . .

"'This is not about writing a best-seller,' the Texan said in an interview. He said the book would be a success even if read only by his sons, now 13 and 16, 'to set the record straight so they know what happened.' . . .

"Since leaving office in August 2008 amid an investigation into the firing of U.S. attorneys, Gonzales said he has concentrated on cooperating with ongoing investigations. He also has given speeches, done some consulting and mediating and talked with law firms about jobs.

"So far, nothing has panned out on the job front."

Gonzales gave a jaw-dropping interview to Evan Perez of the Wall Street Journal last week: "'What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind of response to my service?' he said. . . .

"Mr. Gonzales said that 'for some reason, I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with. I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror.'"

Andrew Cohen responded in a blog for CBS News: "Can it really be true that Gonzales still does not understand how poorly he performed and how much damage he caused to the rule of law? . . . The man is a walking, talking herald for his own colossal failures."

Late Night Humor

David Letterman, via U.S. News: "I understand the lunch went well. Only three shoes thrown."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on a drop in the ocean, Clay Bennett on passing the baton, Nate Beeler on the White House pig, and Kevin Siers on Bush's lessons.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive