Sunday, January 27, 2013

Republicans Bristle at Obama's New Roster

President Barack Obama's most recent nominations and appointments show that he is assembling a muscular senior team of trusted allies to carry out his second-term plans, without concern for Republican sensitivities, some GOP officials say.

With his second-term appointments largely complete, the president has built a cadre of officials and aides that some say is more for combat than consensus—to execute policies rooted in the Democratic ideals laid out in his inaugural speech last week.

By contrast, midway through his first term the president named William Daley as his chief of staff, choosing someone with ties to the corporate world in an overture to Republicans and business leaders.

On Friday, Mr. Obama announced he was naming someone of a different mold as his top aide: Denis McDonough, a longtime deputy with no independent political base, whose primary purpose will be to put in place the president's policies.

Mr. Obama wants to elevate his current chief of staff, Jack Lew, to Treasury secretary, though Republicans soured on Mr. Lew during the 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations. Some Republicans who worked with Mr. Lew said he spent hours in fruitless attempts to persuade Republicans that their position was the wrong one.

Earlier this month, Mr. Obama nominated as his defense secretary former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, whom critics describe as an ersatz Republican who broke party ranks and endorsed Mr. Obama in the 2008 presidential race. Mr. Hagel will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday for his confirmation hearing.

Senate Republicans are expected to zero in on Mr. Hagel's vote in opposition to naming the Iranian Revolution Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and to question a comment he once made about the "Jewish lobby."

Appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) was asked if, in a private meeting last week, Mr. Hagel had addressed his concerns.

"Not really," Mr. McCain said.

Another battle with Republicans may lie ahead: Mr. Obama will soon name a new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and he is likely to choose someone in sync with the aggressive approach he hinted at in his inaugural speech. In that address, Mr. Obama gave an unusually prominent warning about the threat of climate change. His best option for rolling back greenhouse-gas emissions rests with the EPA, which won a string of recent court cases upholding its authority to regulate the pollutants.

"You've gone through a lot of legislative achievement in the first term, and execution is everything in a second term," said John Podesta, who has close ties to the White House and who served as chief of staff under Bill Clinton. "So he has a clear strategy. … And what he needs are people who can execute that strategy."

Ken Duberstein, who served as chief of staff in Ronald Reagan's second term, said Mr. Obama might rethink his approach and find ways to compromise. "He has to do it if he is to accomplish his broad agenda," he said. "You can't just do it by sticking your finger in people's eyes."

Mr. Obama has four more years in office. But in practical terms, he needs to move quickly to advance his domestic agenda. A re-elected president has finite political capital and a compressed period to act before Congress is diverted by the midterm elections and then the next presidential election.

Were Mr. Obama inclined to reach out to Republicans, he might not have renominated former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In making the Cordray announcement last week, the president renewed a fight with Senate Republicans who have said they want changes in the bureau's structure as the price of confirming a nominee.

Mr. Obama seems unmoved by that argument, which has angered Republicans.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.), a member of the Senate committee that will conduct Mr. Cordray's confirmation hearing, called the renomination "a troublesome situation."

"We just wanted the opportunity to try to bring some common sense remedies to what we saw as a very flawed system," Mr. Johanns added. "I have misgivings about that nomination. It's very possible I won't be able to support him."

More insight into the president's second-term approach may come when he nominates an EPA administrator. Both environmentalists and oil-and-coal industry lobbyists have said they would approve of an internal choice, such as Bob Perciasepe, currently the No. 2 EPA official. Mr. Perciasepe helped negotiate vehicle fuel-economy rules during Mr. Obama's first term and is viewed by both sides as a person who seeks common ground.

But the president could make a more assertive statement by choosing an official who has waged climate battles, such as former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who signed an emissions-cutting law.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Obama Defense Pick Faces Rough Going in Senate

 President Barack Obama's pick of Chuck Hagel to helm the Pentagon faces rough going in the Senate as a handful of Republicans quickly announced their opposition to a former GOP colleague, and several skeptical Democrats reserved judgment until the nominee explains his views on Israel and Iran.

The concerns about Hagel complicate his path to Senate confirmation but are not necessarily calamitous as the White House pushes for the first Vietnam War veteran to oversee a military emerging from two wars and staring at deep budget cuts.

Obama also tapped White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA. Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, faces no major obstacles, but he is expected to be hit with questions about torture and administration leaks of secret information.

Moments after Obama announced his selection of Hagel and called him "the leader that our troops deserve," some Senate Republicans voiced opposition to the former Nebraska lawmaker who spent 12 years in the Senate.

"Given Chuck Hagel's statements and actions on a nuclear Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, I think his confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies alike," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a statement. "Israel, our strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a lot of threat and uncertainty right now; Hagel would make that even worse."

 Other Senate Republicans, including the No. 2 GOP lawmaker, John Cornyn of Texas, new member Ted Cruz of Texas and Mississippi's Roger Wicker, signaled they would vote against the nomination.

Hagel has upset some Israel backers with his comment about the "Jewish lobby," his votes against unilateral sanctions against Iran while backing international penalties on the regime in Tehran and his criticism of talk of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran.

He also upset gay rights groups over past comments, including his opposition in 1998 to President Bill Clinton's choice of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. He referred to Hormel as "openly, aggressively gay." Hagel recently apologized, saying his comments were "insensitive."

Those remarks and actions have created fierce opposition from some pro-Israel groups, criticism from some Republicans and unease among some congressional Democrats.

The Log Cabin Republicans took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post highlighting their opposition to Hagel, and Gregory T. Angelo, interim executive director of the gay rights group, said the gay and lesbian grassroots organization is considering other steps in a campaign against Hagel's nomination.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who does not have a vote on the nomination, called Hagel the "wrong man" for the job and complained that "his inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream."

In an interview with the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star, Hagel said his statements have been distorted and there is "not one shred of evidence that I'm anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel."

In a critical sign of support for Hagel's prospects, the 66-year-old moderate Republican attracted words of praise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who heads the Intelligence panel.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

On the Left, Seeing Obama Giving Away Too Much, Again

For President Obama, the fiscal deal passed by Congress on Tuesday finally ends four years of debate with Republicans about raising tax rates on the wealthy. But it seemed to reopen a debate within his party about the nature of his leadership and his skills as a negotiator. 

While Mr. Obama got most of what he sought in the agreement, he found himself under withering criticism from some in his liberal base who accused him of caving in to Republicans by not taxing the rich more. Just as Speaker John A. Boehner has been under pressure from his right, Mr. Obama faces a virtual Tea Party of the left that sees his compromise as capitulation. 

The main difference is that in the Obama era, the Democratic establishment has been less influenced, or intimidated, by the left than the Republican establishment has been by the right. Liberals have not mounted sustained primary challenges to take out wayward incumbents the way conservatives have. All but three Democrats voting in the Senate and 16 in the House supported the compromise on Tuesday, even as most House Republicans balked, giving Mr. Obama more room to operate than Mr. Boehner. 

But the wave of grievance from liberal activists, labor leaders and economists suggested that the uneasy truce between Mr. Obama and his base that held through the campaign season had expired now that there was no longer a threat of a Mitt Romney victory. It also offered a harbinger of the president’s next four years. 

The criticism has irritated the White House, which argued that Mr. Obama held true to principle by forcing Republicans to raise income tax rates on the wealthy and extend unemployment benefits and targeted tax credits. Mr. Obama also quashed Republican demands to trim the growth of entitlement benefits. Aides dismissed armchair criticism from those who have never had to negotiate with intractable opposition. 

“There’s some frustration that over time you would think everybody would have a better understanding of the parameters of this,” said Robert Gibbs, a longtime adviser to Mr. Obama who once called such critics “the professional left.” “But he understands now probably better than at any other point in his presidency what it means to be a leader, what it means to have to do things that are good not just for one party but good for the country.” 

The criticism from the left mirrors past complaints when Mr. Obama included tax cuts in his stimulus package, gave up on a government-run option in health care negotiations and temporarily extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy two years ago. Liberals said Mr. Obama should have capitalized on his re-election victory and the expiration on New Year’s Day of all of the Bush tax cuts to force Republicans to accept his terms. 

“The president remains clueless about how to use leverage in a negotiation,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy organization. “Republicans publicly admitted they lost the tax debate and would be forced to cave, yet the president just kept giving stuff away.”
Robert B. Reich, the former labor secretary, said that Mr. Obama “has stiffened his tactical resolve” but that “he’s still the same President Obama who wants a deal above all else and seems willing to compromise on even the most basic principle.” 

Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in a Twitter message on Monday that the agreement was “not a good fiscal cliff deal if it gives more tax cuts to 2 percent.” Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said on the floor on Monday that “this looks like a very bad deal.” 

Still, most Democratic lawmakers accepted it, however reluctantly, concluding that voting against it could cause greater economic disruption. Many liberals grew more comfortable once they learned more about the deal, and the revolt on Tuesday by House Republicans seemed to rally them behind the plan and against a common adversary. Mr. Trumka released a new statement hailing elements of the deal, while blaming “Republican hostage taking” for its flaws. 

Mr. Obama succeeded in forcing Senate Republicans to raise the top income tax rate to 39.6 percent from 35 percent despite their adamant opposition, although he agreed to apply that to household income above $450,000, instead of $250,000. He also won an increase in taxes on wealthy estates to 40 percent from 35 percent, though it was not as high as liberals wanted. 

The bill will extend unemployment benefits for two million Americans; renew tax credits for child care, college tuition and renewable energy production; raise capital gains taxes; and phase out deductions for the wealthy. Mr. Obama also insisted that a two-month postponement of automatic spending cuts be financed by $1 in tax revenue for every $1 in spending reductions. 

“When the dust settles, there will be a lot of important elements in this for progressives,” Mr. Gibbs said. The deal can be evaluated only in combination with the result of the next fiscal talks, to be concluded by the end of February, he said, adding, “We won’t know the final score on that until you look at both of those negotiations together.” 

Defenders of the White House said it was ludicrous to expect that the president would not have to compromise, given that Republicans control the House and have enough votes in the Senate to filibuster a bill. Without an agreement, economists warned that the country would have been pushed back into recession. 

Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, said Mr. Obama had secured important victories like the one on unemployment benefits and stood firm against paring entitlement benefits. “The president was strong there,” he told CNN. “And I think he’ll continue to be strong. I think, you know, I notice a different president since he won this election.” 

Jared Bernstein, a former economics adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said Mr. Obama had done what he thought he had to, but he expressed concern that the president might have squandered leverage unless he holds firm in the debate over the debt ceiling. Republicans want to use a vote to raise the ceiling to force Mr. Obama to accept deeper spending cuts, but the president has vowed not to negotiate over the borrowing limit. 

“While some appear to think his team folded in the cliff debate, I don’t see it that way,” Mr. Bernstein said. “They saw a plausible path forward, and they took it. My point is it’s only plausible if they really don’t get derailed on the debt ceiling debate.”