Tuesday, June 09, 2009

MAUREEN DOWD Can The One Have Fun?

The fun police are patrolling Pennsylvania Avenue.

Given the serious times, the chatter goes, should Barack Obama be allowed to enjoy date night with Michelle in New York, sightseeing in Paris, golf outings in D.C., not to mention doing a promotion for Conan O’Brien and a video cameo for Stephen Colbert’s first comedy show from Iraq?

With two wars and G.M. in bankruptcy proceedings, shouldn’t the president be glued to the grindstone, emulating W.’s gravity when he sacrificed golf in 2003 as the Iraq insurgency spread?

“I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” the former president explained later. “I think, you know, playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”

Actually, what sends the wrong signal is going to war with a phony justification, inadequate troop levels, insufficient armor, an inept Defense secretary and an inability to admit for years, deadly ones, that you needed counterinsurgency experts.

The right signal is Michelle and her daughters being charming ambassadors, “gobsmacking” the town, as a British tabloid put it, by scarfing down fish and chips at a London pub for £7.95 (about $13), like regular tourists.

As a taxpayer, I am most happy to contribute to domestic and international date nights. As Arthur Schlesinger noted in his diaries, the White House tends to drive its occupants nuts. So some respite from the pressure is clearly a healthy thing. Not as much respite as W. took, bicycling and vacationing through all the disasters that President Obama is now stuck fixing — spending a total of 490 days in the tumbleweed isolation of Crawford and rarely deigning to sightsee as he traveled the world.

Some White House officials fretted that the Obamas’ Marine One and Gulfstream magic-carpet ride to dinner in Greenwich Village and a play on Broadway was too showy. Others thought it helped show a softer side of the often dispassionate Obama.

Interestingly, Dr. No, Dick Cheney, declined to tut-tut with other Republicans, saying “I don’t know why not,” when he was asked about the propriety of the president’s getaway to Broadway. A far more mature response than Senator Chuck Grassley’s nit-twit tweets grumbling about the president urging progress on health care “while u sightseeing in Paris.”

I loved the “Pretty Woman” romance of the New York tableau, the president, who had not lived an entitled life where he could afford such lavish gestures, throwing off his tie and whisking his wife, in a flirty black cocktail dress, to sip martinis in Manhattan, as Sasha hung over a White House balcony and called out goodbye.

When the president and first lady walked to their seats in the Belasco for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” the theater-goers went nuts. And why not?

What a relief to have an urbane, cultivated, curious president who’s out and about, engaged in the world. Not dangerously detached, as W. was, or darkly stewing like Cheney. Not hanging with the Rat Pack like J.F.K. or getting bored and up to mischief like Bill Clinton.

It was lame of critics on Capitol Hill to carp that the Obamas could have taken in a play in D.C. I’m a native, but it’s not the same. And it’s nice to see them tending to their marriage. According to Richard Wolffe in “Renegade,” his new book about the Obama campaign, it has taken effort to get the relationship this strong.

“She hated the failed race for Congress in 2000, and their marriage was strained by the time their youngest daughter, Sasha, was born a year later,” Wolffe writes. “There was little conversation and even less romance. She was angry at his selfishness and careerism; he thought she was cold and ungrateful. Even as he ran for the United States Senate in 2004, she still harbored very mixed feelings about her husband’s love of politics. ... So she had played no part in Barack’s previous contests and preferred to keep her distance.”

Wolffe limns what those of us who traveled with Obama could see: He was often grumpy on the campaign. He missed his family. He disdained what he saw as superficial, point-scoring conventions of politics, like debates and macho put-downs and public noshing. The Chicago smarty-pants was a Michael Jordan clutch player who grew bored if he was not challenged.

Being president, by contrast, suits him much better. He has not lapsed into his old ambivalence. He is intellectually engaged by sculpting history. The trellis of hideous problems is a challenge that lures him to be powerfully concentrated. And, as his aides say, he loves living above the family store.

Mixing play with intense work is not only a good mental health strategy; it’s a good way to show the world that American confidence and cool — and Cary Grant romantic flair — still thrive.

Date on and tee it up, Mr. President. It’s O.K. if they’re teed off.

Auto plan hits potholes

Pork! Micro managers?
VOTE against any Reps who vote FOR restricting auto dealers from closings!

There are just too many with sales down and brands eliminated. Hk

Auto plan hits potholes

President Obama’s plan to save GM and Chrysler through forced bankruptcy got blindsided on Monday by the other two branches of the federal government.

On Monday afternoon the Supreme Court agreed to delay the sale of Chrysler’s assets to Italian carmaker Fiat in order to further consider the argument of three Indiana bondholders who claim they were shortchanged by the prepackaged bankruptcy organized by the Obama administration.

But the court decision was only the half of it. On Capitol Hill, hundreds of lawmakers threw another wrench into the works when they formally asked the Obama administration to get Chrysler and General Motors to put the brakes on plans to close hundreds of local dealerships across the country.

The Supreme Court will now consider, in closed session, whether or not to grant a hearing to the Indiana bondholders. Four justices would have to vote to hear the bondholders’ appeal of a federal court ruling approving the sale.

A spokesman for the Supreme Court said late Monday that the justices could meet anytime to determine whether or not to grant a writ of certiorari, or order oral arguments on the issue.

The court’s action creates a test for Obama, whose Auto Task Force worked to structure a deal between Fiat, Chrysler, organized labor and Chrysler’s debt holders before the company filed for bankruptcy.

A senior administration official downplayed the court’s action.

“We understand this to be an administrative extension designed to allow sufficient time for the Court to make a determination on the merits of the request for a stay,” the official said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers took the matter into their own hands with a strongly worded letter to the president, arguing against the closing of dealerships.

At the same time that the letter, from over 100 House members — the lion’s share of whom were Democrats — was traveling from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, two Democratic freshmen introduced legislation that would force the bankrupt car companies to abandon their plans for mass dealership closings.

That bill, introduced by Reps. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) and Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), had a list of original co-sponsors that was “growing by the minute” as members were racing back to Washington on Monday afternoon, according to a spokeswoman for Maffei.

In a sign of just how serious members have gotten about preventing the closings, the letter to Obama was spearheaded by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), while the legislation was shepherded by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of House Democrats’ reelection efforts.

“Closing these dealerships will put over 100,000 jobs at risk at a time when our country is shedding jobs at an alarming rate,” Hoyer and a significant portion of the Democratic Caucus wrote to the president. “We also question the criteria being used to determine which dealerships should be closed and the fundamental fairness involved in this effort.

“It is our view that the market should make these decisions rather than leaving it up to the manufacturers whose poor leadership contributed to their demise,” they wrote.

The White House did not have an immediate reaction to the letter.

Maffei and Kratovil’s legislation would seem to take the ball out of Obama’s court altogether, though, by forcing the government-backed auto companies to halt the closing of dealerships, a process that the bill sponsors criticized as “arbitrary.”

“Forced, arbitrary closure of dealers by manufacturers will not necessarily be financially beneficial to automakers, and it certainly will not help the local economies where dealers are integral to the business community,” Maffei said in a statement.

The efforts from lawmakers on Monday point to the perilous line the administration must walk in trying to save companies responsible for millions of American jobs. The government’s intervention is having the effect of forcing those companies to enact necessary cost-saving measures that threaten jobs in hundreds of backyards across the country.

Just last week, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the powerful chairman of the Financial Services Committee, was able to get GM to undo a planned parts distribution center closure in his district.

Frank’s staff said the lawmaker spoke with GM CEO Fritz Henderson and convinced him to keep the Norton, Mass., plant open for at least 14 months.

When GM announced its post-bankruptcy plan last week, it noted that plants in at least 12 congressional districts would be on the chopping block.

So far, though, only Frank has been successful in getting a local plant saved. But other fights are already brewing.

Yet the dealer network presents a much more significant political problem for the former auto giants and for Obama’s Auto Task Force.

“There’s not a congressional district that doesn’t have a car dealership in it somewhere,” said a Democratic aide.

That fact was reflected in the signatures placed on the letter to Obama, which came from representatives from Hawaii to Maine, from urban and rural areas, and from safe and vulnerable districts alike.

Critics of the dealership-closing plan argue that the goal of the auto bailout should be the creation of jobs, not the elimination of them. They further argued that the absence of enough dealers to sell GM and Chrysler vehicles will hamper their efforts to return to profitability.

“Our efforts to revitalize the auto industry in America must include a vibrant dealer network to sell and service first-rate GM and Chrysler products,” said Van Hollen, who signed the letter to Obama and backed Maffei and Kratovil’s bill. “These small businesses employ hundreds of thousands of people and are an integral part of local communities all across this nation.”

Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.

CANTOR complains PELOSI refuses to meet with him!

Molly K. Hooper and Bob Cusack THE HILL

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) says he has requested to meet privately with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this year, but has been repeatedly rebuffed.

In an interview with The Hill, the minority whip said, “I have been told that Speaker Pelosi doesn’t like to meet with Republicans … I would say that is the case in my instance. I have put in requests to meet with her and have yet to be responded to.”

Hours later, Cantor would be on the House floor, questioning whether the Speaker should continue to receive intelligence briefings.

In his floor comments, Cantor grilled Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), claiming that Pelosi should no longer receive briefings in the wake of her accusation that the CIA lied to her about the use of torture in 2003.

The Hoyer-Cantor exchange became testy, with Hoyer asserting that he is confounded by Cantor’s logic, calling it “incomprehensible.”

Pelosi’s office did not comment for this article.

The five-term lawmaker doesn’t mind making creating uncomfortable moments for Democrats. And when he throws partisan bombs at his political adversaries, he rarely raises his voice.

He gets under the skin of congressional Democrats effectively, whether it be on tax policies, climate change or the International Monetary Fund. Love him or hate him, Cantor keeps the pressure on the majority party.

As a result, five months into his leadership job, Cantor has become a prime target for the left. With Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the back nine of his political career, liberals have gone after the 46-year-old Cantor, labeling him “Mr. No.”

Cantor says he knows it comes with the territory: “Who said this thing was easy? ... There is give and take, there is room for public discourse and sometimes it gets a little more vehement than other times, and that’s what’s to be expected.”

Few, if any, political analysts believe that Republicans will retake the House next year. But Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, is undeterred: “We’ve got a shot of taking back this House. … I think that prospect is largely based on the American people’s desire for a check and balance of power here in Washington. When you’ve got a situation where there’s an unfettered ability to run the table and the direction in which they’re heading is far outside the mainstream, I think that that creates an environment for Republican takeover in the House.”

There has been friction between Cantor and Boehner in the 111th Congress, but Cantor laughs off the “palace intrigue.”

“John Boehner and I have a great relationship,” Cantor said, adding, “We’re together; we’re a team.”

Cantor scored a huge win earlier this year when he rallied the entire GOP conference against the $787 billion economic stimulus package. Cantor acknowledges it was not easy, but he won over skeptical GOP lawmakers by mastering the details of the legislation.

Unlike former GOP Whip Tom DeLay (Texas), Cantor favors reason over strong-arm tactics.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who has bucked Republican leaders on many high-profile issues, said, “Eric will try to get you to rethink your position, but he respects your opinion when you tell him your mind is made up.”

“I have always found him to be very reasonable,” Jones said. “That’s the kind of image this party needs.”

Cantor has experienced bumps in the road in 2009. After his colleagues in leadership called the AIG bonus bill “a sham,” Cantor unexpectedly voted to back the legislation. At the time, lawmakers questioned his ability to stand up to what they called popular but seriously flawed legislation.

With the spotlight on him brighter than ever, some say he will learn from his missteps.

Still, Cantor is widely respected by his Republican peers in Congress. He is an avid fundraiser and comfortable talking about policy, a key skill that has helped him climb the leadership ladder.

President Obama called out Cantor during a meeting with lawmakers in February, saying he can’t wait for the day when Cantor praises one of his ideas.

Cantor says he admires the president and has little interest in rebuking him personally. He is more than willing to take on Democratic policies, and anxious to talk about other Democratic personalities, most notably Pelosi.

Pressed on why voters should embrace the GOP and where its new ideas are, Cantor gets a bit animated, saying, “It’s not about new ideas/old ideas. It’s about delivering. It’s about what works here, OK?”

He also rejects the notion that the public wants more government intervention in the wake of the financial meltdown, saying that the regulations in place “didn’t make sense…the emphasis on the means, rather than the ends I think it’s sometimes misplaced.”

Cantor faces the challenging task of getting the Republican Party better positioned on the economy, stressing that Americans are worried about the bottom line, their jobs and the nation’s fiscal future.

Like the president and congressional Democrats, Cantor faces huge tests in keeping his party in line on healthcare reform and climate change.

He rattles off talking points on each issue, but appears most eager to tackle energy, the Speaker’s flagship issue.

“The Speaker intends there to be a broad discussion [on energy] by July 4,” a smiling Cantor said. “Let’s have it. Let’s have it.”

Katelyn Ferral contributed to this article.

Excerpts of The Hill’s interview with Minority Whip Eric Cantor

Q: After the 2008 elections, a lot of people thought that you could have had the votes to become minority leader. Did you consider jumping into that race, as opposed to the whip?

A: I’ve always been a supporter of John Boehner to be minority leader and continue to support him in that role, and I’m working very hard so that he can become Speaker.

Q: Another 2008 issue that we’d love to put to bed — were you vetted by the McCain campaign to be vice president? Your name came up a bit in that context.

A: You know, I consistently say to that: Ask Sen. McCain — he’s the one that would be able to best communicate to you a response to that.

Q: Is the Earth warming or cooling? Is the problem man-made?

A: Well, I think that everybody — well, I don’t know if everybody, but most people have sort of come to the point at which the fact of carbon emissions is not something that is a good thing, necessarily, in excess. So I think we can all agree on that principle, and so … we all agree that we need to basically clean up our mess.

Q: The Capitol, as you know, is a place of relationships, and there has been a lot of chatter about your relationship with Leader Boehner. How often do you talk to Mr. Boehner, and what about all this chatter that there is friction?

A: You know, what’s amazing to me is this fascination with what goes on between John Boehner and I. We have a great relationship. We speak every day, and our staffs speak every day … I mean, we’re together; we’re a team. Look at what’s going on the other side — they have divisions galore. Where is the focus on … the differences that exist between Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer?

Q: On the national stage, some Republicans have been getting a lot of attention, including Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. Is that taking away from your microphone, from the microphone of Republicans in Congress?

A: These are individuals who are formally elected officials, some who’ve not been in office. They have a right to a voice and a part of the debate.

Q: Do you think it’s beneficial that Republicans are using terms like “racist” or “reverse racist” for the Supreme Court nominee? Doesn’t that hurt your party?

A: Listen, I don’t use those terms and I don’t think that they should be used. I think the proper focus on [Sonia] Sotomayor is her opinions rendered from the bench.

Q: You said earlier this year that Republicans can win back the House in 2010. Do you still believe there’s a chance?

A: I think that we’ve got a shot of taking back this House this time and I think that prospect is largely based on the American people’s desire for a check and balance of power here in Washington. When you’ve got a situation where there’s an unfettered ability to run the table, and the direction in which they’re heading is far outside the mainstream, I think that that creates an environment for Republican takeover in the House.

Q: But if you look at the president’s poll numbers, the Republican loss in the 20th district in New York earlier this year, Sen. [Arlen] Specter (D-Pa.) leaving the party, how can you make that argument?

A: In 1994 we picked up 50 seats; we need 40 seats [in 2010]. It is my sense that the popularity of the president won’t necessarily translate into success … in congressional seats. It is much more what this Congress has done, what it can show it has done.