Questions For Obama On His 100th Day

President Barack Obama will be sorely tempted to turn Wednesday’s prime-time press conference into a victory lap – wrapping up 100 of the busiest first days in presidential history, with a none-too-shabby 60-plus percent approval rating.

The reporters have a different job – asking, so what’s next?

Here are some of the questions Obama is likely to face tonight at the White House, where his team says he’s prepped for queries on Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, health care, banks, automakers, swine flu, interrogations and surely a few curveballs as well.

Mr. President, Sen. Arlen Specter bolted the Republican party on Tuesday and became a Democrat. Please name three pieces of legislation that you believe will have a greater chance of passage with Specter on your side of the aisle? And what do you say to Pennsylvania Republicans who are feeling like the victim of a bait-and-switch by their longtime senator?

Specter’s surprise defection has elated Obama and other Democrats – and worried Republicans who say it would make it almost impossible for them to stop the most dramatic parts of Obama’s agenda. Specter tried to play it cool on Tuesday – saying he wouldn’t be the “automatic 60th vote” for the Democrats, but his move has scrambled the legislative chessboard, all to the Democrats favor.

Democrats clearly hope that Specter could be persuaded to support Obama’s health reform plan, any further stimulus spending that might be needed (since Specter was one of three Republicans who voted for Obama’s first stimulus package) and a proposal backed by the labor movement to make it easier to form unions – one Specter opposed as Republican but might be persuaded to support as a Democrat. As for Pennsylvania Republicans, Obama may well say – let the best candidate win when Specter runs in 2010, I’ll be there campaigning for Specter.

Mr. President, during the campaign you talked about bringing people together and trying to build a consensus around health care reform. Yet, the White House now seems prepared to pass a bill without a single Republican vote. How does that square with your pledge to reach across the aisle?

Just last month, Obama hosted a White House health reform summit where he declared, “While everybody has a right to take part in this discussion, nobody has the right to take it over and dominate.”

But Democrats might do just that. House and Senate negotiators agreed last week, with Obama’s blessing, to use a legislative tactic that would allow passage of health care legislation with a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes required when members object. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) called it a “a declaration of war.”

The question might become moot, with Specter’s defection to the Republicans and the expected seating of Al Franken from Minnesota, which would give Democrats a 60-vote majority. But still, Obama will face a tough decision in coming months – how much of a government-run health plan should he include in the final bill, knowing that it’s poison to some Republicans. 

Mr. President, on the interrogation issue, you have said repeatedly that you want to look forward and not back. But some of your strongest supporters on the left – including your transition chief John Podesta – say a former Bush lawyer, federal Judge Jay Bybee, should be impeached over his role in the “torture memos.” Would you support impeachment proceedings, or any investigation to learn more about Bush-era war-on-terror policies?

This is tricky one for Obama, who must balance his desire not to let the White House get dragged into a lengthy investigation with the need to keep his most liberal supporters happy.

Bybee, who was confirmed to the bench in March 2003, signed Justice Department legal memoranda concluding that the Bush administratio’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including water-boarding, did not constitute torture under federal law.

On the other hand, few critics of the interrogation tactics would label Bybee as an architect or key mover on the issue, so having him take the only serious fall might seem unfair. Republicans also insist that no judge should be impeached just because lawmakers disagree with his or her opinion on a legal matter. Some Democrats are calling for a special prosecutor to look at all Bush terror policies – which is another question Obama might face Wednesday night.

Mr. President, you already are becoming the nation’s CEO – with the U.S. government holding total control of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The U.S. could own half of General Motors, and upcoming stress tests would give the government ownership in some of the nation’s biggest banks. Your harshest critics say this verges on “socialism.” How can you assure the American people the government can run these companies better than private owners – and how much government control is too much?

As Obama aides try to rescue various banks and auto companies, they’re facing a recurring dilemma. If they hand over money without demanding any control, some will denounce it as a fleecing of the government. But when they demand equity stakes and some say in the firm’s activities, critics warn of a federal intrusion into the private sector.

But as Obama confronts a possible bankruptcy reorganization at GM, the conflicts may become even more jarring. Instead of lobbying GM management to head off closing of a plant, workers and local leaders may end up lobbying the White House or Congress. Unions and environmentalists might also shift their efforts to Washington, pressing Obama and his aides to do things which might hurt the company—and its new owners, the taxpayers.

In recent days, about 200 Iraqis have been killed in suicide bombings. Has the violence reached a level where you would consider slowing the process of withdrawing U.S. troops, or would you be reluctant to do so because it would be portrayed by some as a victory for the insurgents?

It’s fair to say that Obama is in the White House in large part because of his anti-war stance on Iraq, and his pledge to get troops out as soon as possible. He’s put a plan on the table to withdraw combat troops by August 2010, with all troops out by the end of 2011. His generals are saying they can stick by that plan – so far. But that plan was put in place at a time when violence in Iraq was decreasing steadily – and if the headlines keep showing suicide bombings and other attacks killing Iraqi civilians, Obama could face pressure not to leave before the Iraqi government and its military is ready to take over.

What if the swine flu outbreak gets worse, and the government has to take more dramatic steps to contain it – even including quarantine and other options? After 9/11, the Bush administration claimed it had broad police and confinement powers, some of which courts ruled Bush didn’t really have. Are you confident you have all the authorities you need?

Obama has asked Congress for $1.5 billion in emergency funding to combat the swine flu, but it’s less clear whether the administration thinks the U.S. legal system is up to the task of coping with a widespread outbreak. Many state laws relating to quarantine date back to the era of large tuberculosis outbreaks in the 19th Century.

Federal authorities deployed their legal authorities to detain a tuberculosis carrier, Andrew Speaker, in 2007. But experts said the federal government’s powers focus on people crossing the border by air, sea or land—and are less clear once a substantial number of people inside the country have an illness that could spread.

So far, there’s no reason to think such dramatic measures will be needed. But state and locl health departments have traditionally taken the lead role on public health measures, and there are ambiguities in what could happen if those officials find themselves in disagreement with official at the Centers for Disease Control or Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. President, you went to London and didn’t get the global stimulus you wanted. In France, you didn’t get troops for Afghanistan. In Latin America, you shook hands with Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega – then listened to them to criticize longstanding American policies. Some of your Republican critics say you’ve been too “nice” when it comes to foreign policy – trying to be too friendly to the world to make up for President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Can you point to three concrete achievements you brought home from those trips?

That photo of Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, shaking hands and smiling, captured for many of Obama’s criticis that central problem with his approach to foreign policy, that he was cozying up to people who would do America harm. Chavez, for instance, called Bush “the devil.” But Obama surely would push back hard against this criticism – saying that he is planting the seeds to make gains in the future. He’s already eased up the U.S. hard-line policy toward Cuba, and Cuba has said it’s open to further changes. In Europe, he certainly turned down the temperature on a virulent anti-American – really anti-Bush – sentiment. And with a speech to the Muslim world, he tried to show a friendlier face in hopes to winning over moderate Muslims, people who don’t like al-Qaida, but never saw a friend in the United States after 9/11.

What’s been the biggest surprise since becoming president?

Reporters love to throw in a touchy-feely question like this, to find out what the president is “really feeling.” If Obama were honest, he’d probably say the sense of isolation from the outside world – something he tries to combat by reading 10 letters a day from citizens, sent to the White House.
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