Monday, November 30, 2009

7 stories Barack Obama doesn't want told

Barack Obama speaks.
There are seven storylines Barack Obama needs to worry about. Photo: AP

Presidential politics is about storytelling. Presented with a vivid storyline, voters naturally tend to fit every new event or piece of information into a picture that is already neatly framed in their minds.

No one understands this better than Barack Obama and his team, who won the 2008 election in part because they were better storytellers than the opposition. The pro-Obama narrative featured an almost mystically talented young idealist who stood for change in a disciplined and thoughtful way. This easily outpowered the anti-Obama narrative, featuring an opportunistic Chicago pol with dubious relationships who was more liberal than he was letting on.

A year into his presidency, however, Obama’s gift for controlling his image shows signs of faltering. As Washington returns to work from the Thanksgiving holiday, there are several anti-Obama storylines gaining momentum.

The Obama White House argues that all of these storylines are inaccurate or unfair. In some cases these anti-Obama narratives are fanned by Republicans, in some cases by reporters and commentators.

But they all are serious threats to Obama, if they gain enough currency to become the dominant frame through which people interpret the president’s actions and motives.

Here are seven storylines Obama needs to worry about:

He thinks he’s playing with Monopoly money

Economists and business leaders from across the ideological spectrum were urging the new president on last winter when he signed onto more than a trillion in stimulus spending and bank and auto bailouts during his first weeks in office. Many, though far from all, of these same people now agree that these actions helped avert an even worse financial catastrophe.

Along the way, however, it is clear Obama underestimated the political consequences that flow from the perception that he is a profligate spender. He also misjudged the anger in middle America about bailouts with weak and sporadic public explanations of why he believed they were necessary.

The flight of independents away from Democrats last summer — the trend that recently hammered Democrats in off-year elections in Virginia — coincided with what polls show was alarm among these voters about undisciplined big government and runaway spending. The likely passage of a health care reform package criticized as weak on cost-control will compound the problem.

Obama understands the political peril, and his team is signaling that he will use the 2010 State of the Union address to emphasize fiscal discipline. The political challenge, however, is an even bigger substantive challenge—since the most convincing way to project fiscal discipline would be actually to impose spending reductions that would cramp his own agenda and that of congressional Democrats.
Too much Leonard Nimoy

People used to make fun of Bill Clinton’s misty-eyed, raspy-voiced claims that, “I feel your pain.”

The reality, however, is that Clinton’s dozen years as governor before becoming president really did leave him with a vivid sense of the concrete human dimensions of policy. He did not view programs as abstractions — he viewed them in terms of actual people he knew by name.

Obama, a legislator and law professor, is fluent in describing the nuances of problems. But his intellectuality has contributed to a growing critique that decisions are detached from rock-bottom principles.

Both Maureen Dowd in The New York Times and Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post have likened him to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

The Spock imagery has been especially strong during the extended review Obama has undertaken of Afghanistan policy. He’ll announce the results on Tuesday. The speech’s success will be judged not only on the logic of the presentation but on whether Obama communicates in a more visceral way what progress looks like and why it is worth achieving. No soldier wants to take a bullet in the name of nuance.

That’s the Chicago Way

This is a storyline that’s likely taken root more firmly in Washington than around the country. The rap is that his West Wing is dominated by brass-knuckled pols.

It does not help that many West Wing aides seem to relish an image of themselves as shrewd, brass-knuckled political types. In a Washington Post story this month, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, referring to most of Obama’s team, said, “We are all campaign hacks.”

The problem is that many voters took Obama seriously in 2008 when he talked about wanting to create a more reasoned, non-partisan style of governance in Washington. When Republicans showed scant interest in cooperating with Obama at the start, the Obama West Wing gladly reverted to campaign hack mode.

The examples of Chicago-style politics include their delight in public battles with Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (There was also a semi-public campaign of leaks aimed at Greg Craig, the White House counsel who fell out of favor.) In private, the Obama team cut an early deal — to the distaste of many congressional Democrats — that gave favorable terms to the pharmaceutical lobby in exchange for their backing his health care plans.

The lesson that many Washington insiders have drawn is that Obama wants to buy off the people he can and bowl over those he can’t. If that perception spreads beyond Washington this will scuff Obama’s brand as a new style of political leader.
He’s a pushover

If you are going to be known as a fighter, you might as well reap the benefits. But some of the same insider circles that are starting to view Obama as a bully are also starting to whisper that he’s a patsy.

It seems a bit contradictory, to be sure. But it’s a perception that began when Obama several times laid down lines — then let people cross them with seeming impunity. Last summer he told Democrats they better not go home for recess until a critical health care vote but they blew him off. He told the Israeli government he wanted a freeze in settlements but no one took him seriously. Even Fox News — which his aides prominently said should not be treated like a real news organization — then got interview time for its White House correspondent.

In truth, most of these episodes do not amount to much. But this unflattering storyline would take a more serious turn if Obama is seen as unable to deliver on his stern warnings in the escalating conflict with Iran over its nuclear program.

He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe

That line belonged to George H.W. Bush, excoriating Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. But it highlights a continuing reality: In presidential politics the safe ground has always been to be an American exceptionalist.

Politicians of both parties have embraced the idea that this country — because of its power and/or the hand of Providence — should be a singular force in the world. It would be hugely unwelcome for Obama if the perception took root that he is comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence or position in the world.

On this score, the reviews of Obama’s recent Asia trip were harsh.

His peculiar bow to the emperor of Japan was symbolic. But his lots-of-velvet, not-much-iron approach to China had substantive implications.

On the left, the budding storyline is that Obama has retreated from human rights in the name of cynical realism. On the right, it is that he is more interested in being President of the World than President of the United States, a critique that will be heard more in December as he stops in Oslo to pick up his Nobel Prize and then in Copenhagen for an international summit on curbing greenhouse gases.
No figure in Barack Obama’s Washington, including Obama, has had more success in advancing his will than the speaker of the House, despite public approval ratings that hover in the range of Dick Cheney’s. With a mix of tough party discipline and shrewd vote-counting, she passed a version of the stimulus bill largely written by congressional Democrats, passed climate legislation, and passed her chamber’s version of health care reform. She and anti-war liberals in her caucus are clearly affecting the White House’s Afghanistan calculations.

The great hazard for Obama is if Republicans or journalists conclude — as some already have — that Pelosi’s achievements are more impressive than Obama’s or come at his expense.

This conclusion seems premature, especially with the final chapter of the health care drama yet to be written.

But it is clear that Obama has allowed the speaker to become more nearly an equal — and far from a subordinate — than many of his predecessors of both parties would have thought wise.

He’s in love with the man in the mirror

No one becomes president without a fair share of what the French call amour propre. Does Obama have more than his share of self-regard?

It’s a common theme of Washington buzz that Obama is over-exposed. He gives interviews on his sports obsessions to ESPN, cracks wise with Leno and Letterman, discusses his fitness with Men’s Health, discusses his marriage in a joint interview with first lady Michelle Obama for The New York Times. A photo the other day caught him leaving the White House clutching a copy of GQ featuring himself.

White House aides say making Obama widely available is the right strategy for communicating with Americans in an era of highly fragmented media.

But, as the novelty of a new president wears off, the Obama cult of personality risks coming off as mere vanity unless it is harnessed to tangible achievements.

That is why the next couple of months — with health care and Afghanistan jostling at center stage — will likely carry a long echo. Obama’s best hope of nipping bad storylines is to replace them with good ones rooted in public perceptions of his effectiveness.

Friday, November 27, 2009

He Can't Take Another Bow

An icon of a White House that is coming to seem amateurish.

This week, two points in an emerging pointillist picture of a White House leaking support—not the support of voters, though polls there show steady decline, but in two core constituencies, Washington's Democratic-journalistic establishment, and what might still be called the foreign-policy establishment.
From journalist Elizabeth Drew, a veteran and often sympathetic chronicler of Democratic figures, a fiery denunciation of—and warning for—the White House. In a piece in Politico on the firing of White House counsel Greg Craig, Ms. Drew reports that while the president was in Asia last week, "a critical mass of influential people who once held big hopes for his presidency began to wonder whether they had misjudged the man." They once held "an unromantically high opinion of Obama," and were key to his rise, but now they are concluding that the president isn't "the person of integrity and even classiness they had thought."
Associated Press
President Obama bows as he shakes hands with Japanese Emperor Akihito.

She scored "the Chicago crowd," which she characterized as "a distressingly insular and small-minded West Wing team." The White House, Ms. Drew says, needs adult supervision—"an older, wiser head, someone with a bit more detachment."
As I read Ms. Drew's piece, I was reminded of something I began noticing a few months ago in bipartisan crowds. I would ask Democrats how they thought the president was doing. In the past they would extol, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, his virtues. Increasingly, they would preface their answer with, "Well, I was for Hillary." This in turn reminded me of a surprising thing I observe among loyal Democrats in informal settings and conversations: No one loves Barack Obama. Half the American people say they support him, and Democrats are still with him. But there were Bill Clinton supporters who really loved him. George W. Bush had people who loved him. A lot of people loved Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. But no one seems to love Mr. Obama now; they're not dazzled and head over heels. That's gone away. He himself seems a fairly chilly customer; perhaps in turn he inspires chilly support. But presidents need that rock—bottom 20 percent who, no matter what's happening—war, unemployment—adore their guy, have complete faith him, and insist that you love him, too.
They're the hard 20 a president always keeps. Nixon kept them! Obama probably has a hard 20 too, but whatever is keeping them close, it doesn't seem to be love.

Just as stinging as Elizabeth Drew on domestic matters was Leslie Gelb on Mr. Obama and foreign policy in the Daily Beast. Mr. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and fully plugged into the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, wrote this week that the president's Asia trip suggested "a disturbing amateurishness in managing America's power." The president's Afghanistan review has been "inexcusably clumsy," Mideast negotiations have been "fumbling." So unsuccessful was the trip that Mr. Gelb suggested Mr. Obama take responsibility for it "as President Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs."
He added that rather than bowing to emperors—Mr. Obama "seems to do this stuff spontaneously and inexplicably"—he should begin to bow to "the voices of experience" in Washington.
When longtime political observers start calling for wise men, a president is in trouble.
It also raises a distressing question: Who are the wise men and women now? Who are the Robert Lovetts, Chip Bohlens and Robert Strausses who can came in to help a president in trouble right his ship? America seems short of wise men, or short on those who are universally agreed to be wise. I suppose Vietnam was the end of that, but establishments exist for a reason, and it is hard for a great nation to function without the presence of a group of "the oldest and wisest" who can not only give sound advice but help engineer how that advice will be reported and received.

Mr Obama is in a hard place. Health care hangs over him, and if he is lucky he will lose a close vote in the Senate. The common wisdom that he can't afford to lose is exactly wrong—he can't afford to win with such a poor piece of legislation. He needs to get the issue behind him, vow to fight another day, and move on. Afghanistan hangs over him, threatening the unity of his own Democratic congressional base. There is the growing perception of incompetence, of the inability to run the machine of government. This, with Americans, is worse than Obama's rebranding as a leader who governs from the left. Americans demands baseline competence. If he comes to be seen as Jimmy Carter was, that the job was bigger than the man, that will be the end.
Which gets us back to the bow.
In a presidency, a picture or photograph becomes iconic only when it seems to express something people already think. When Gerald Ford was spoofed for being physically clumsy, it took off. The picture of Ford losing his footing and tumbling as he came down the steps of Air Force One became a symbol. There was a reason, and it wasn't that he was physically clumsy. He was not only coordinated but graceful. He'd been a football star at the University of Michigan and was offered contracts by the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.
But the picture took off because it expressed the growing public view that Ford's policies were bumbling and stumbling. The picture was iconic of a growing political perception.
The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic, and they would not be if they weren't playing off a growing perception. If the pictures had been accompanied by headlines from Asia saying "Tough Talks Yield Big Progress" or "Obama Shows Muscle in China," the bowing pictures might be understood this way: "He Stoops to Conquer: Canny Obama shows elaborate deference while he subtly, toughly, quietly advances his nation's interests."
But that's not how the pictures were received or will be remembered.
It is true that Mr. Obama often seems not to have a firm grasp of—or respect for—protocol, of what has been done before and why, and of what divergence from the traditional might imply. And it is true that his political timing was unfortunate. When a great nation is feeling confident and strong, a surprising presidential bow might seem gracious. When it is feeling anxious, a bow will seem obsequious.
The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic not for those reasons, however, but because they express a growing political perception, and that is that there is something amateurish about this presidency, something too ad hoc and highly personalized about it, something . . . incompetent, at least in its first year.
It is hard to be president, and White Houses under pressure take refuge in thoughts that become mantras. When the previous White House came under mounting criticism from 2005 through '08, they comforted themselves by thinking, They criticized Lincoln, too. You could see their minds whirring: Lincoln was criticized, Lincoln was great, ergo we are great. But of course just because they say you're stupid doesn't mean you're Lincoln.
One senses the Obama people are doing the Lincoln too, and adding to it the consoling thought that this is only the first year, we've got three years to go, we can change perceptions, don't worry.
But they should worry. You can get tagged, typed and pegged your first year. Gerald Ford did, and Ronald Reagan too, more happily. The first year is when indelible impressions are made and iconic photos emerge.


Why Obama Isn't Changing Washington

There is no way he can grow the government without attracting more lobbyists and more political acrimony.

One insight distinguished Barack Obama from the other presidential candidates last year. While he lacked experience or a special grasp of issues, Mr. Obama said he uniquely understood what ails Washington, and what was causing the endless squabbling and bitter stalemate on important issues. If elected, he said he would change the way business is done in Washington, end the partisan deadlock and the ideological polarization.
"Change must come to Washington," Mr. Obama said in a June 2008 speech. "I have consistently said when it comes to solving problems," he told Jake Tapper of ABC News that same month, "I don't approach this from a partisan or ideological perspective."
Mr. Obama also decried the prominent role played by lobbyists. "Lobbyists aren't just a part of the system in Washington, they're part of the problem," Mr. Obama said in a May 2008 campaign speech.
I was reminded of this last statement by a recent headline on the front page of USA Today. It read: "Health care fight swells lobbying. Number of organizations hiring firms doubles in '09." The article suggested that what Mr. Obama had promised to fix had only gotten worse.
Indeed that's the case. Washington is more partisan than ever, and more polarized. Even on a purely procedural vote to begin Senate debate on health-care reform this past Saturday, every Democrat voted one way (yes), every Republican the other (no).
With rare exception and with no objection from the president, Democrats draft bills with no input from Republicans. In return, Republicans vote in lockstep against Democratic legislation. Every House Republican voted against the stimulus, all but one against liberal health-care reform, and all but eight against cap-and-trade legislation that passed the House earlier this year.
Why has the president's publicly expressed vision of a kinder, gentler Washington failed to materialize? I think Mr. Obama—while hardly the only person at fault—is chiefly responsible.
He might have spawned a different Washington, a less divided town with Democrats firmly in charge but Republicans actively involved. The bonus for Mr. Obama and Democrats would be higher popularity and better prospects in 2010 midterm elections. Instead, the president made three strategic mistakes—or, really, misreadings of the political landscape—and they've come back to haunt him and his party.
First, Mr. Obama misread the meaning of the 2008 election. It wasn't a mandate for a liberal revolution. His victory was a personal one, not an ideological triumph of liberalism. Yet Mr. Obama, his aides and Democratic leaders in Congress have treated it as a mandate to radically change policy directions in this country. They are pushing forward one liberal initiative after another. As a result, Mr. Obama's approval rating has dropped along with the popularity of his agenda.
Mr. Obama should have known better. The evidence that America remains a center-right country was right there in the national exit poll on Election Day. When asked about their political beliefs, 34% identified themselves as conservative, 22% as liberal, and a whopping 44% as moderate.
As Mr. Obama has unveiled his policies, the country has tilted more to the right. A Gallup Poll on Oct. 21 found the country to be 40% conservative, 36% moderate, and 20% liberal.
Nearly every Obama policy has thrilled either the president's base in the Democratic Party or a liberal interest group but practically no one else. Nearly every policy is unpopular with a majority or large plurality of Americans. The $787 billion economic stimulus was enacted in February with strong public support. But it has long since lost favor.
It should have been no surprise the public gave a thumbs down to Mr. Obama policies. The decision to close the prison in Guantanamo, the takeover of General Motors and Chrysler, the bailout of banks and financial institutions (begun under President George W. Bush), the trillion-dollar deficits, cap and trade, the surge in the size and scope of the federal government—these were out of sync with the country's right-of-center majority.
Mr. Obama argued in his Feb. 24 address to Congress that health-care reform, billions in new education spending, and cap and trade to reduce carbon emissions were necessary to revive the economy. This was a clever attempt to exploit the recession to pass unrelated liberal policies. It was too clever. It didn't work.
Second, Mr. Obama misread his own ability to sway the public. He is a glib, cool, likeable speaker whose sentences have subjects and verbs. During the campaign, he gave dazzling speeches about hope and change that excited voters. His late-night speech at a Democratic dinner in Des Moines on Nov. 10, 2007, prior to the Iowa caucuses, convinced me he'd win the presidential nomination.
But campaign speeches don't have to be specific, and candidates aren't accountable. Presidential speeches are different. The object is to persuade voters to back a certain policy, and it turns out Mr. Obama is not good at this. He failed to stop the steady decline in support for any of his policies, most notably health care.
The president spent much of the summer and early fall touting his health-care initiative. He spoke at town halls, appeared on five Sunday talk shows the same day (Sept. 20), turned up on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and on "60 Minutes." All the while, support for ObamaCare fell. His address to Congress on health care on Sept. 9 is now remembered only for Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shouted accusation, "You lie!"
Third, Mr. Obama misread Republicans. They felt weak and vulnerable after losing two straight congressional elections and watching John McCain's presidential bid fall flat. They were afraid to criticize the newly elected president. If he had offered them minimal concessions, many of them would have jumped aboard his policies. If that had happened, the president could have boasted of achieving bipartisan compromise on the stimulus and other policies. He let the chance slip away.
By March, tea parties had begun cropping up across the country to protest spending in Washington. Over the summer, independents moved away from Mr. Obama when they learned of the soaring cost of his policies. By late summer, Republicans emerged as a full-blown opposition with growing public backing.
The point in all this is Mr. Obama could have given a little and gained a lot. To change Washington, he would have had to corral congressional Democrats, who weren't interested in bipartisanship or compromise. He would have had to disappoint his base and, at times, anger liberal interest groups. Mr. Obama wasn't willing to go that route.
In Washington it's business as usual, except for one thing. The bigger the role of government, the more lobbyists flock to town. By pushing for his policies, the president effectively put up a welcome sign to lobbyists. Despite promising to keep them out of his administration, he has even hired a few. So nothing has changed, except maybe that Washington is now more acrimonious than it has been.
Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a commentator on Fox News Channel.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Obama's Approval Slide Finds Whites Down to 39%

Support has declined much more among whites than among nonwhites

by Jeffrey M. Jones
PRINCETON, NJ -- Since the start of his presidency, U.S. President Barack Obama's approval rating has declined more among non-Hispanic whites than among nonwhites, and now, fewer than 4 in 10 whites approve of the job Obama is doing as president.
Barack Obama Job Approval Rating, by Racial Group
Obama last week fell below 50% approval in Gallup Daily tracking for the first time in his presidency, both in daily three-day rolling averages and in Gallup Daily tracking results aggregated weekly.
"The only subgroup showing a greater change than whites is Republicans, down 24 points since Obama's first full week in office."
In his first full week in office (Jan. 26-Feb. 1), an average of 66% of Americans approved of the job Obama was doing, including 61% of non-Hispanic whites and 80% of nonwhites. In the most recent week, spanning Nov. 16-22 interviewing, his approval rating averaged 49% overall, 39% among whites, and 73% among nonwhites. Thus, since the beginning of his presidency, his support has dropped 22 points among whites, compared with a 7-point loss among nonwhites.
Given the 17-point drop in his approval rating among all U.S. adults, it follows that Obama's support has declined among all major demographic and attitudinal subgroups, with one notable exception -- blacks.
Blacks' support for Obama has averaged 93% during his time in office, and has been at or above 90% nearly every week during his presidency. Thus, part of the reason Obama's support among nonwhites has not dropped as much as his support among other groups is because of his consistent support from blacks. (With Hispanics' approval rating down five points, greater declines among Asians, Native Americans, and those of mixed races account for his total seven-point drop among nonwhites.)
The accompanying table shows how Obama's approval rating has changed by subgroup from his first full week in office to the most recent week. The only subgroup showing a greater change than whites is Republicans, down 24 points during this time. Independents' approval of Obama has declined nearly as much (down 18 points), whereas support among Democrats is down only 6 points.
Obama's strongest support comes from blacks, Democrats, and liberals -- all of whom give him approval ratings above 80%. He maintains solid support of more than 60% from nonwhites, Hispanics, and young adults.
Barack Obama Job Approval Rating, by Demographic Group, First Full Week in Office vs. Week of Nov. 16-22
A Closer Look at Race and Party
One reason Obama may have maintained support among blacks is their overwhelming affiliation with the Democratic Party. This is not a sufficient explanation, though, because Obama's approval rating has dropped among Democrats even as it has held steady among blacks.
In fact, it appears as though Obama's relatively small loss in support among Democrats has come exclusively from white Democrats. In late January/early February, Obama averaged 87% approval among white Democrats and 90% approval among nonwhite Democrats. Now, his approval rating among white Democrats is 76%, down 11 points, but is essentially the same (if not a little higher) at 92% among nonwhite Democrats.
Barack Obama Job Approval Rating, Among Democrats, by Race
Bottom Line
Obama won the Democratic nomination and the presidency with strong support from blacks and other racial minorities. In fact, according to exit polls and Gallup's final pre-election estimates, he won the election despite losing by double digits to John McCain among white voters.
Those patterns of support seem to have persisted into his presidency, with his support among whites starting out lower and dropping faster than his support among nonwhites. And though he maintains widespread loyalty among Democrats, the small loss in support he has seen from his fellow partisans seems to be exclusively from white Democrats.
It is important to note that this pattern is not unique to Obama. For example, Bill Clinton averaged 55% job approval during his presidency, including 52% among whites but a much higher 76% among nonwhites and 82% among blacks.
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Survey Methods
Results are based on telephone interviews with 3,611 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 16-22, 2009, as part of Gallup Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of error is ±2 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 2,879 non-Hispanic whites, the maximum margin of error is ±2 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 732 nonwhites, the maximum margin of error is ±5 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones and cellular phones.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Daily Presidential Tracking Poll

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The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Tuesday shows that 27% of the nation's voters Strongly Approve of the way that Barack Obama is performing his role as President. Forty-two percent (42%) Strongly Disapprove giving Obama a Presidential Approval Index rating of -15. This is the lowest Approval Index rating yet measured for President Obama (see trends).
Fifty-two percent (52%) of Democrats Strongly Approve while 68% of Republicans Strongly Disapprove. Among those not affiliated with either major political party, just 16% Strongly Approve and 51% Strongly Disapprove (see other recent demographic highlights from the tracking poll).
Forty-five percent (45%) want U.S. troops home from Afghanistan either right away or within a year.Forty-three percent (43%) are opposed to such a firm timetable.
Fifty-three percent (53%) of voters worry that the federal government will do too much when it comes to reacting to the nation’s financial problems. That’s up seven points since President Obama took office.
The Presidential Approval Index is calculated by subtracting the number who Strongly Disapprove from the number who Strongly Approve. It is updated daily at 9:30 a.m. Eastern (sign up for free daily e-mail update). Updates are also available on Twitter and Facebook.
Overall, 45% of voters say they at least somewhat approve of the President's performance. That matches the lowest level of total approval yet measured for this president. Eighty-one percent (81%) of Democrats approve as do 33% of unaffiliated voters. Eighty-three percent (83%) of Republicans disapprove.
Among all voters, 54% now disapprove.
Support for the health care plan proposed by the President and Congressional Democrats has fallen to a new low of 38%. Sixty percent (60%) of voters believe passage of the bill will lead to higher health care costs.
(More Below)

In Arizona, Democrat Terry Goddard leads incumbent Governor Jan Brewer by nine percentage points in an early look at that possible 2010 match-up. However, if Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the Republican nominee, he leads Goddard by twelve. Arpaio also leads the Republican Primary competition. The state of Arizona may also feature an interesting Senate primary as John McCain is in a toss-up with former Congressman J.D. Hayworth.
Scott Rasmussen has recently had several columns published in the Wall Street Journal addressing how President Obama is losing independent voters , health care reform, the President's approval ratings, and how Obama won the White House by campaigning like Ronald Reagan. If you'd like Scott Rasmussen to speak at your meeting, retreat, or conference, contact Premiere Speakers Bureau. You can also learn about Scott's favorite place on earth or his time working with hockey legend Gordie Howe.
It is important to remember that the Rasmussen Reports job approval ratings are based upon a sample of likely voters. Some other firms base their approval ratings on samples of all adults. President Obama's numbers are always several points higher in a poll of adults rather than likely voters. That's because some of the President's most enthusiastic supporters, such as young adults, are less likely to turn out to vote.
(More Below)

Rasmussen Reports has been a pioneer in the use of automated telephone polling techniques, but many other firms still utilize their own operator-assisted technology (see methodology). founder Mark Blumenthal noted that “independent analyses from the National Council on Public Polls, the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the Pew Research Center, the Wall Street Journal and have all shown that the horse-race numbers produced by automated telephone surveys did at least as well as those from conventional live-interviewer surveys in predicting election outcomes.”
In the 2009 New Jersey Governor’s race, automated polls tended to be more accurate than operator-assisted polling techniques. On reviewing the state polling results from 2009, Mickey Kaus offered this assessment, “If you have a choice between Rasmussen and, say, the prestigious N.Y. Times, go with Rasmussen!”
Additionally, an analysis by partner Charles Franklin “found that despite identically sized three-day samples, the Rasmussen daily tracking poll is less variable than Gallup.” During Election 2008, the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll was the least volatile of all those tracking the race. That stability is one reason that Nate Silver of said that the Rasmussen tracking poll “would probably be the one I'd want with me on a desert island."
A Fordham University professor rated the national pollsters on their record in Election 2008. We also have provided a summary of our results for your review. In 2008, Obama won 53%-46% and our final poll showed Obama winning 52% to 46%. While we were pleased with the final result, Rasmussen Reports was especially pleased with the stability of our results. On every single day for the last six weeks of the campaign, our daily tracking showed Obama with a stable and solid lead attracting more than 50% of the vote.
In 2004 George W. Bush received 50.7% of the vote while John Kerry earned 48.3%. Rasmussen Reports was the only firm to project both candidates’ totals within half a percentage point by projecting that Bush would win 50.2% to 48.5%. (see our 2004 results).
Daily tracking results are collected via telephone surveys of 500 likely voters per night and reported on a three-day rolling average basis. The margin of sampling error—for the full sample of 1,500 Likely Voters--is +/- 3 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence. Results are also compiled on a full-week basis and crosstabs for full-week results are available for Premium Members.
Like all polling firms, Rasmussen Reports weights its data to reflect the population at large (see methodology). Among other targets, Rasmussen Reports weights data by political party affiliation using a dynamic weighting process. While partisan affiliation is generally quite stable over time, there are a fair number of people who waver between allegiance to a particular party or independent status. Over the past five years, the number of Democrats in the country has increased while the number of Republicans has decreased.
Our baseline targets are established based upon separate survey interviews with a sample of adults nationwide completed during the preceding three months (a total of 45,000 interviews) and targets are updated monthly. Currently, the baseline targets for the adult population are 37.5% Democrats, 32.2% Republicans, and 30.3% unaffiliated. Likely voter samples typically show a slightly smaller advantage for the Democrats.
A review of last week’s key polls is posted each Saturday morning. Other stats on Obama are updated daily on the Rasmussen Reports Obama By the Numbers page. We also invite you to review other recent demographic highlights from the tracking polls.

Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama: The approval gap silently shrinks to a few points

November 23, 2009 |  1:32 am
Republican Sarah Palin signs Going Rogue copies in Michigan

Not that it matters politically because obviously she's a female Republican dunce and he's obviously a male Democratic genius.
But Sarah Palin's poll numbers are strengthening.
And President Obama's are sliding.
Guess what? They're about to meet in the 40s.
Depending, of course, on which recent set of numbers you peruse and how the questions are phrased, 307 days into his allotted 1,461 the 44th president's approval rating among Americans has slid to 49% or 48%, showing no popularity bounce from his many happy trips, foreign and domestic.
Virginia line for Sarah Palin Going Rogue Book buyers Riding the wave of immense publicity and symbiotic media interest over her new book, "Going Rogue," and the accompanying promotional tour, Palin's favorable ratings are now at 43%, according to ABC. That's up from 40% in July.
One poll even gives her a 47% favorable.
Most recent media attention has focused on the 60% who say she's unqualified to become president. Her unfavorable rating is 52%, down from 53%, which still doesn't ignite a lot of optimism for Palin-lovers.
On the other hand, 35 months before the 2008 election, that Illinois senator was such a nobody that no one even thought to ask such a question about him. Things seem to change much more quickly these days.
Saturday night Palin's book bus swung by a mall in Roanoke, Va., a state Obama won a year ago but just recently elected a Republican governor to replace departing Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The former Alaska governor wanted to greet the hundreds of fans already lining up in 39-degree weather for her Sunday morning signing.
"She brings out a different crowd, " Salem Republican Party Chairman Greg Habeeb told the Roanoke Times. Habeeb was struck by the numerous non-Republicans he spotted in the line snaking all over the mall. "She taps into something that the Republican Party really needs to tap into."
Sunday, Palin flew ahead of her bus to visit the Rev. Billy Graham and his son Franklin at the father's North Carolina home before her appearance today at Fort Bragg.
Overall, Palin's, well, campaign will visit 25 states, most of them politically crucial. Florida gets the most stops, three.
Everybody thinks 2012 when they think of Palin, who last week pushed Oprah's show to....
... its highest ratings in nearly three years. Remember, though, in 2012 the first hurdles a rehabbed candidate Palin would face are her own party's primaries, where diligent conservatives conscientiously come out to play. Sarah Palin Going Rogue Book Cover If she somehow mobilized Iowa's white evangelicals as Mike Huckabee did to win the 2008 season-opening caucus, many bets would be off about her unelectability. Right now, Palin holds 65% approval among white evangelical Protestants, not a bad place to start, if she decides to.
Anyway, Palin says 2012's not on her radar. Which is a good idea. The year 2010 is much more important for both of these political personalities.
No longer holding any office and personally set financially by the book's runaway success, Palin can devote her SarahPac and the entire year to collecting chits from local Republicans.
As Mitt Romney has already been quietly doing. Other Republicans will no doubt nominate themselves to join along the way, especially if Obama looks vulnerable after November 2010.
Although presidential incumbency has hardly kept Obama chained to the Oval Office, he and Joe Biden now own the U.S. economy, where their much-vaunted $787 billion economic stimulus package has so far stimulated unemployment to grow from 8% to more than 10%.
Democrat president Barack Obama walks alone on China's Great Wall on 11-18-09 And then there's the growing deficit dread and the mounting costs -- human and financial -- in the increasingly unpopular Afghan conflict, where Obama is about to commit more U.S. troops at the end of the eighth and worst casualty year of the war.
We'll all hear much next year about how jobs are the last thing to improve in a sour economy, even in congressional districts that don't actually exist. Which is too bad for Democrats because jobs are the obvious first measure the public uses to measure the economy.
Historically, the White House party loses about 17 House seats in a normal midterm election cycle. That wouldn't change control of the House.
George W. Bush's GOP actually gained seats in 2002. Democrat Bill Clinton's first midterm election was a political Katrina, producing the Contract with America and so-called Republican revolution that saw the GOP take control of both houses of Congress after years of minority status.
Much of that turnaround was attributed to Clinton having run in 1992 as a centrist and then immediately pushed a more liberal agenda involving something called healthcare reform.
But that couldn't possibly happen again because of the popularity of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi whose current favorable poll ratings are -- let's see here -- OMG, only about half of Palin's.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Obama Thanks Hollywood With Coveted Invites To First White House State Dinner

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EXCLUSIVE: If tradition stands, the details of the guest list will be revealed only a few hours before the Obama administration's first state dinner tomorrow. The welcome for India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be the biggest social event of the Obama White House. Already the Washington DC press corp is buzzing about the "got-to-be-there" fever. But this first dinner is primarily a thank you to the Obamas' most important political supporters. So I've learned that, among the Hollywood contingent asked to attend, are onetime DreamWorks partners David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg; Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton; and WME Entertainment Agency co-CEO Ari Emanuel. 
spielberg turbanSpielberg's inclusion is interesting since he was a much ballyhooed Hillary Clinton supporter during the first months of her primary campaign when she looked like a sure thing, then quietly threw his clout behind Obama after he became the clear winner. But, given that the guest of honor is India's highest ranking statesman, Spielberg's new financial relationship with India's giant corporation Reliance more than explains his presence. Geffen was an early Obama backer who publicly took on the Clintons with pointed criticism at the start of the primary season. Katzenberg was not an early bird, but he became a faithful fundraiser. Both he and Geffen were considered Obama's biggest Hollywood bundlers during the campaign. lynton jamieLynton was a longtime supporter primarily because of the influence of his wife Jamie whose Chicago family has longtime political connections to the Obamas. Her mother Joanne Alter, the first female Democrat elected in Cook County, talent-spotted Obama in 2003 and convinced her daughter to support him. As a result, Lynton co-hosted an early fundraiser for Obama’s Senate bid in 2004 in addition to hosting one of the earliest Hollywood campaign events for him when most showbiz types were still supporting Hillary. (, who composed the viral video for the Obama campaign anthem “Yes, We Can,” met the candidate ari tuxedoduring a fundraiser at the Lyntons' home.) And Chicago native Emanuel not only was one of Obama's first Hollywood political and financial backers, but, like duh, his brother Rahm is the White House chief of staff. They'll join the President and First Lady and 400 guests in an elaborate tent erected on the South Lawn. As for who has been chosen to provide the evening's entertainment, this White House has shown eclectic taste: Stevie Wonder already has played a concert in the East Room, Marc Anthony already took to the South Lawn for an evening of Latin music, and the Foo Fighters played the Fourth of July party.

Barack Obama: the politics of hypocrisy and cynicism

It was supposed to be all about the end of politics as usual. But while President Barack Obama has been happy to bring about change while abroad by doing all he can to diminish the superpower status of the United States, at home it's been the same old, writes Toby Harnden. 

Barack Obama says Iran will face fresh sanctions soon
Talk of fresh sanctions also showed that Barack Obama was preparing for the next phase should Iran fail to meet his year-end deadline for progress in negotiations Photo: GETTY
Take the case of Greg Craig, the first big figure to depart the Obama White House and the victim of the Washington equivalent of a back-alley stabbing. A respected lawyer who defended President Bill Clinton during impeachment, the former State Department official was one of the first big guns to break with the Clintons and go all in for Obama.
Bowing to the wishes of Hillary Clinton, who blocked him from his preferred field of foreign policy, Craig was made White House Counsel.
He was charged with closing Guantanamo Bay, overhauling interrogation rules and translating Obama's high-minded campaign ideals into workable policy.
Having issued a directive on his second full day in office that Guantanamo Bay would close "no later than one year from the date of this order", Obama soon came up against reality. Last week, he lamely conceded that he would miss his own deadline but "would anticipate" the jail shutting in 2010.
Faithfully implementing Obama's wishes, Craig drew up plans for the release of photos of American troops engaging in the abuse of prisoners.
Faced with fierce opposition from generals and former CIA chiefs the President then changed his mind.
Before you could whisper "change we can believe in", Craig became the designated scapegoat for Obama's photos U-turn and the Guantanamo debacle. The campaign had been free of leaks but Craig was knifed by Team Obama in time-honoured Washington. He was toast, confided anonymous officials who portrayed him as an incompetent in the thrall of bed-wetting human rights types.
On the record, officials flatly denied Craig might be fired and airily dismissed reports of the authorised leaks as "typical Washington parlour games". A bemused Craig wondered who his enemy might be, realising too late that it was Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, operating with Obama's blessing.
White House officials were demonstrably lying to reporters when they said Craig was not under threat. With breathtaking chutzpah, they briefed last week that his departure had been on the cards "for months".
In the Clinton era it was OK to lie about sex. Under Obama, it seems, it's just fine to lie about running the country.
Bill Clinton's administration was bedevilled by self-serving leaks from ambitious staffers trying to promote themselves or their cause. For Obama, leaking is a way of doing business.
Thus, General Stanley McChrystal's request for up to 44,000 more troops in Afghanistan was leaked to Bob Woodward, allowing White House officials to float a trial balloon.
Then, classified cables sent from Kabul by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and opposing McChrystal's analysis appeared in the Washington Post. Few believe that the leaks were anything other than a deliberate White House attempt to shift the Afghanistan debate by saying: "Look, there's a former general who differs from McChrystal."
When Robert Gates, the straight-shooting Defence Secretary, fulminated that he was "appalled" by the leaks, Obama clamoured to insist that he was "angrier than Bob Gates about it" and pronounced leaking a "firing offence". Call me a sceptic but I doubt that the likes of Emanuel or David Axelrod will be dismissed any time soon.
During the campaign, Mr Obama said loftily that his opposition researchers would concentrate on policy. But we now know from his campaign manager David Plouffe that it was Obama staff who leaked the devastating nugget that Democratic rival John Edwards had spent $400 on a haircut.
One of this White House's flaws is that it is packed with campaign operatives like Axelrod at senior levels or other refugees from the Windy City like Emanuel, who delight in the dark arts of Washington and Chicago-style hardball.
What Mr Obama lacks is wise, detached counsel from outside his inner circle. Mr Craig might have fulfilled such a role. His replacement? Mr Obama's personal lawyer Bob Bauer, another campaign loyalist. It was an eerie echo of President George W Bush's installation of his crony Alberto Gonzales in the same position.
The supposedly post-partisan Obama is operating a one-party system in Washington in which Republicans are frozen out. His big campaign donors are now housed in sumptuous ambassadorial residences across the world.
Where he promised transparency, everything is opaque.
Far from changing Washington, Obama has slipped effortlessly into its ways. Could it be that the hallowed figure who preached hope and "yes we can" is really a hypocrite whose legacy will be greater cynicism?


Obama faces bruising battle with his own party as radical healthcare bill passes major hurdle

By David Gardner
Last updated at 1:37 AM on 23rd November 2009

President Obama faced stiff opposition from two female senators
President Obama faced stiff opposition from two female senators
President Obama is facing a bruising battle with moderates in his own party after the Democrats narrowly avoided a humiliating setback in their bid to overhaul America’s healthcare system.
Two women senators took party leaders right down to the wire before finally agreeing to back the bill.
The strictly partisan 60-39 vote allowed the Democrats to squeak through a key procedural hurdle to clear the way for a full debate on the £513 billion health reforms in the US Senate.
The Democrats needed at least 60 votes to overcome a Republican-led 'filibuster' – a delaying tactic designed to block consideration of the landmark bill indefinitely.
The White House said last night that President Obama was ‘gratified’ by the vote.
The healthcare plan has been the centrepiece of his domestic agenda since coming to power in January and its success or failure in Congress is likely to define his first term as President.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said:  ‘It brings us one step closer to ending the insurance company abuses, reining in spiralling health care costs, providing stability and security to those with health insurance, and extending quality health coverage to those who lack it.'
The bill will extend health insurance to 31 million Americans who are uninsured. But it still faces a rocky road through Congress.
Fears over claims that the new law would effectively nationalise the US health system and subsidise abortions have raised the hackles of centrist Democrats as well as Republicans eager to inflict a body blow on the president.
Democrat congressional leaders, who got a healthcare bill through the House of Representatives a fortnight ago, are struggling to move legislation through the Senate by Christmas.
Both houses must agree on a bill before it can be delivered to Mr Obama to sign into law.
The Senate Democrats only prevailed on Saturday night after tense day of brinkmanship by senators Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu.
The Senate on Capitol Hill where senators voted whether to move to debate on the health care reform legislation
The Senate on Capitol Hill where senators voted whether to move to debate on the health care reform legislation
Both finally agreed to vote with their Democrat colleagues and two independents only after winning key concessions in the bill.
Senator Landrieu won millions more government money for her home state of Louisiana and Senator Lincoln demanded the removal of the ‘nationalisation’ clause.
Both represent traditionally right-wing Republican states where Mr Obama’s health reforms are unpopular.
They maintained yesterday that their vote at the weekend did not necessarily mean they would be backing the bill after the full Senate debate, which is likely to take up much of next month.
Senator Lincoln said Saturday’s vote would ‘mark the beginning of consideration of this bill by the US Senate, not the end.’
One of the most controversial issues will be a provision for a government-run insurance plan that would compete with traditional private insurance companies.
The House plan included the so-called public option, but it was cut from the Senate bill at Senator Lincoln’s insistence.
Democrats are also nervous over Republican claims that government funding for health insurance will mean state subsidisation for abortions, a hot button issue in the US.
The White House is increasingly wary of any further delays to the passage of the reforms, worrying that they would push it into an election year with Democrats afraid of a voter backlash for a plan that draws decidedly mixed reviews in the polls.
The Senate drama came as it was revealed that Mr Obama is considering setting a provisional target for cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions.
US officials are said to be seeking agreement from Congress on a figure before next month’s UN global warming summit in Copenhagen.
With China, the US is responsible for 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gasses and is the only major developed nation yet to table an emission target.
By agreeing to a provisional target of reducing greenhouse gases by 14-20 per cent over the next decade, Mr Obama would resurrect hopes for a global climate change agreement in Copenhagen.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Obama Union Rules

A federal agency rips up 75 years of labor policy.

The National Mediation Board, which oversees labor relations in the air and rail industry, this month moved to overturn 75 years of labor policy.
The board plans to stack the deck for organized labor in union elections. Under a proposed rule, unions would no longer have to get the approval of a majority of airline workers to achieve certification. Not even close. Instead, a union could win just by getting a majority of the employees who vote. Thus, if only 1,000 of 10,000 flight attendants vote in a union election, and 501 vote for certification, the other 9,499 become unionized.
This radical break with precedent is the handiwork of President Obama's appointees to the three-member board: Harry Hoglander, once president of a pilots union, and Linda Puchala, former president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
The board got a request to adopt the jerry-rigged voting standard from the AFL-CIO in September. Without a hearing or invitation for preliminary views, the Obama duo drafted the AFL-CIO demand and published it in the Federal Register. It's now subject to a 60-day comment period, after which Ms. Puchala and Mr. Hoglander will no doubt vote to inflict it on all the nation's airline and rail carriers.
Since 1934, every National Mediation Board—even those with Democratic majorities—has upheld the current rule on grounds that companies governed by the Railway Labor Act are vital to the U.S. economy. The existing rules were designed to reduce strikes by ensuring that a majority of airline and rail employees support union representation. In their rule change, Mr. Hoglander and Ms. Puchala brush aside the many historical and legal barriers to their change, arguing that under "broad statutory authority" they can do what they want.
And that's kind compared to their treatment of the board's Bush-appointed Chairman Liz Dougherty. According to a letter Ms. Dougherty sent Congress, the two Democrats never sought her input or participation in crafting the proposal. Instead, they gave her a "final" version of the rule, said they were sending it in two hours and forbade her from publishing a dissent. They relented later, but only if she removed some of her criticism.
Ms. Dougherty noted such "arbitrary" and "exclusionary" behavior (we'd call it thuggish) has never been the norm at the agency. Her Democratic colleagues' frantic rush to change a 75-year-old rule "gives the impression that the Board has prejudged this issue," and is trying to "influence the outcome of several very large and important representation cases currently pending."
Indeed. The AFL-CIO letter was inspired by Delta's acquisition of Northwest. Northwest was largely unionized but Delta wasn't. The unions are now struggling to win the required new elections, and they want the Mediation Board to manipulate the rules in their favor. It is growing clear that Ms. Puchala and Mr. Hoglander are in on the game. So too, presumably, are the folks who appointed them.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Barack Obama’s Chump Diplomacy

It’s our enemies and the authoritarian big powers that Obama wants to woo.

By Rich Lowry

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact:, or phone 800-708-7311, ext. 246.

Oh, how the international community loves Barack Obama — loves to stiff him, play him along, and manipulate him. He’s the world’s celebrity ingenue, the slender naïf perpetually undone by the recalcitrance of foreign leaders.

Earlier this year, in a touching exercise in diplomatic and civilizational outreach, he sent two letters to Iran’s mullahs and a new year’s message to the Iranian people. How mannerly, how unthreatening. When the Iranian government beat protesters in the streets after it stole the election for Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, Obama kept his criticism muted. How sensitive, how subtle.

In October, the Iranians agreed to send their low-enriched uranium — at least the portion of it we know about — to Russia in what was hailed as a triumph for Obama’s charm offensive. Except it’s all predictably ending in tears. If George W. Bush put too much faith in oppressed people — their ability and willingness to rise up for freedom — Barack Obama puts too much faith in their oppressors.

The Iranians have all but announced that they are reneging on the October deal. U.S. officials, according to the Wall Street Journal, “acknowledge Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be using negotiations to limit U.N. pressure while also working to legitimize his government domestically.” Maybe they should get word to the president?

In response to Iranian intransigence, Obama is supposed to be poised to crack down with harsh sanctions supported by the Russians and Chinese, won over by Obama’s accommodating gestures. Neither is likely to go along, though. True to his word, Obama has worked a remarkable change in America’s reputation in the world — from purported bully to notorious chump in less than a year.

As Obama demonstrated again on his Asian trip, he is the leader of the free world in adoring crowds (“Obama-san!” they shouted in Japan) and personal charisma (“I would like to be his friend,” Xie Lijun, 28, told the Washington Post in Shanghai). But even the press is beginning to realize that all this personal good will generates only personal good will.

Obama’s chief politico, David Axelrod, explained that Obama’s team never expected “change overnight.” Now he tells us. It’s not just that the world hasn’t fallen at Obama’s feet, it’s that the administration’s self-described “smart power” has — to borrow an old gibe about the Moral Majority — proven to be neither.

Afghan ambassador Karl Eikenberry is fundamentally at odds with Gen. Stanley McChrystal over Afghan strategy, making it all but impossible that the two will replicate the superb civil-military cooperation of Amb. Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq during the surge; super Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke is persona non grata in Afghanistan; Amb. Christopher Hill in Iraq is something of a diplomatic nonentity; Middle East envoy George Mitchell has hurried the “peace process” to a point of crisis worse than when he started.

As Casey Stengel famously asked, “Can’t anyone here play this game?” The administration might have waited to accomplish something before adopting a foreign-policy slogan pre-emptively congratulating itself for its diplomatic acumen. But that’s not the Obama way.

Democrats spent years banging on Bush for alienating our allies. What they really meant was that he hadn’t been nice enough to our enemies. Reversing field entirely, Obama has been hell on allies like Hamid Karzai and the Israelis. He’s undercut the Poles and Czechs. He’s given a cold shoulder to friends who have the temerity to want to trade with us, like the Colombians and South Koreans. He’s cooled the special relationship with Britain. And he hammered the government of Honduras when it stopped a creeping Chávezist coup by its sitting president.

The more pro-U.S. a country is, the more it can expect scolding or neglect from the president of the United States. It’s our enemies and the authoritarian big powers that Obama wants to woo. And like every cad who’s ever been presented with achingly defenseless innocence, they are very glad to see him. Yes, the world loves Barack Obama.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. © 2009 by King Features Syndicate

Obama's Dysfunctional Decision-Making

By Michael Gerson
WASHINGTON -- In the beginning, the Obama administration directed a spotlight toward its careful, thoughtful decision-making process on Afghanistan. National security meetings were announced, photographed and highlighted in background briefings to the media. President Obama would apply the methods of the academy to the art of war -- the University of Chicago meets West Point -- thus assuring a skittish public that deliberation had preceded decision.
Now the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are desperately trying to jerk the spotlight away from a dysfunctional Afghan decision-making process in which chaos has preceded choice, complicating every possible outcome.

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Gates is "appalled by the amount of leaking that has been going on," which would be, if the culprits are discovered, "a career-ender." Obama recently added, "I think I am angrier than Bob Gates about it." They should be appalled and angry at the process they created -- as should the rest of the country.
Sometimes government leaks are merely self-serving, reflecting the powerful passion of midlevel functionaries to appear in the know. But leaks in this process have been attempts to rig the outcome of a national security decision.
This summer, nameless White House officials began leaking their skepticism of plans for troop increases. Then Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment, calling for a more troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, was leaked. Then a leak of internal government reviews on the poor state of the Afghan military and police forces. Then a leak from "informed sources" that Obama had settled on a troop increase of 34,000. Then the leak that Obama had rejected all the military options on the table and was insisting on refinements. Then the leak of two classified cables from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which cautioned against troop increases, leaving McChrystal, according to another nameless source, feeling "stabbed in the back."
The Afghan policy process has resulted in more leaks than Oktoberfest. Leaks are a form of disloyalty -- an attempt to box in the president of the United States, a mini-coup in which unelected officials attempt to substitute their judgment for the president's own. Leaks increase tension and anger, then leave the losing side in a debate publicly humiliated and perhaps alienated from the outcome. Depending on that outcome, Obama will be vulnerable to charges of buckling to military pressure or disregarding the advice of his commanders.
Though leaks are bad for the president and the country, they are gifts for journalists and commentators, who often draw their purpose from the failures of others. We have learned that Obama's national security team is both deeply divided and playing for blood. Military-civilian tensions are growing and have become reflected on the ground in Afghanistan. One key to the success of the surge in Iraq was the close cooperation of Gen. David Petraeus, in charge of military operations, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who led the civilian efforts. McChrystal and Eikenberry seem to have a different relationship.
We have also learned that military and civilian timelines are quickly diverging. In his strategy memo sent on Aug. 30, McChrystal warned: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." At that time, I talked to administration officials who were hoping the scale-up of troops would begin in earnest before the end of the year. Soon, three months will have passed since McChrystal made his dire assessment -- three months of leaks and recriminations that must give pause to our troops and encouragement to our enemies. While it is important to get a military decision right, it is also possible for the right decision to come too late.
It is not fair that large presidential choices must be made with insufficient time and information, but it is also not unusual. A dysfunctional process on Afghanistan has begun to narrow the range of good outcomes. The time and the options in Afghanistan are limited. "As an analogy," says David Kilcullen, an expert on counterinsurgency strategy, "you have a building on fire, and it's got a bunch of firemen inside. There are not enough firemen to put it out. You have to send in more or you have to leave. It is not appropriate to stand outside pontificating about not taking lightly the responsibility of sending firemen into harm's way. Either put in enough firemen to put the fire out or get out of the house."