Morning Bulletin – Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009

A roundup of news, schedules, and key stories from CBS News Political Director Steve Chaggaris:

STIMULUS UPDATE: President Obama, hitting potholes with his economic stimulus and with some personnel issues, is looking to right the ship, so to speak, and to regain some control of his message that's he's lost in recent days.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
As Politico's Jeanne Cummings points out, "President Obama finds himself in the most unlikely of places: He is losing the message war. Despite Obama's sky high personal approval ratings, polls show support has declined for his stimulus bill since Republicans and their conservative talk-radio allies began railing against what they labeled as pork barrel spending within it. ... this is unfamiliar turf for a team that achieved near epic status for its communication skills during the presidential campaign.

They've rarely ever had to play catch-up. ... To be sure, some of Obama's headaches stem from the normal dysfunction that occurs when a White House is in transition. Phones don't work, chains of command are fuzzy, and there are formalities that need tending to. But the Obama team also made its own mistakes.

"The president's troubled cabinet nominees added to the cacophony that at times drowned out the White House economic messages in the past two weeks. And it seems more apparent each day that the nascent Obama Administration isn't fully prepared for the task at hand."

Mr. Obama's effort to shift the message includes his 5 network interviews on Tuesday, one-on-one meetings with moderate Republican and Democratic senators, First Lady Michelle Obama's government agency tour to tout his plan and Vice President Joe Biden's 10 a.m. ET event today with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Md., to talk about transportation spending in the stimulus bill.

Also, his tougher talk towards Republicans yesterday is followed today by an op-ed in today's Washington Post, penned by Mr. Obama, in which he dips into what worked for him during his 22-month campaign: criticizing the ways of Washington.

"In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis -- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can meet our enormous tests with half-steps and piecemeal measures; that we can ignore fundamental challenges such as energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive," writes President Obama.

"I reject these theories, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. They know that we have tried it those ways for too long. ... Every day, our economy gets sicker -- and the time for a remedy that puts Americans back to work, jump-starts our economy and invests in lasting growth is now."

"These are the actions Americans expect us to take without delay. They're patient enough to know that our economic recovery will be measured in years, not months. But they have no patience for the same old partisan gridlock that stands in the way of action while our economy continues to slide.

"So we have a choice to make. We can once again let Washington's bad habits stand in the way of progress. Or we can pull together and say that in America, our destiny isn't written for us but by us. We can place good ideas ahead of old ideological battles, and a sense of purpose above the same narrow partisanship."

ON TODAY'S SCHEDULE: Mr. Obama spoke to the National Prayer Breakfast this morning; later he'll kick-off "his version of the faith-based initiative ... he will expand the mission to include abortion reduction and outreach to the Muslim world. He will also try to avoid the thorniest constitutional issues that beset the program for years under his predecessor," reports the Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler.

"Mr. Obama's goal, much like President George W. Bush's, is to harness the power of churches and other religious groups to solve some of the nation's toughest social problems. But almost from the start, the Bush plan was ensnared by constitutional questions about the separation between church and state, most notably whether an organization that received tax dollars can make hiring decisions on the basis of religion.

"As a candidate, Mr. Obama came down firmly against such hiring. But on Thursday, he will take a more nuanced position, saying that these issues should be decided on a case-by-case basis, said Joshua DuBois, the 26-year-old former campaign adviser who will be named to head the White House Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships."

At this morning's National Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Obama said, "The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another – or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state. ...

"We will also reach out to leaders and scholars around the world to foster a more productive and peaceful dialogue on faith. I don't expect divisions to disappear overnight, nor do I believe that long-held views and conflicts will suddenly vanish. But I do believe that if we can talk to one another openly and honestly, then perhaps old rifts will start to mend and new partnerships will begin to emerge. In a world that grows smaller by the day, perhaps we can begin to crowd out the destructive forces of zealotry and make room for the healing power of understanding."

Also today, "President Barack Obama is ordering his government to put in place higher efficiency standards for everyday products such as dishwashers, lamps and microwave ovens. Obama was to sign a presidential memorandum Thursday directing the Energy Department to get moving on energy standards for appliances, including a first batch he will order to be finalized by August," reports the Associated Press' Ben Feller.

Later, the President holds separate White House meetings with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before making a quick trip to Williamsburg, Va., to speak to a Democratic House members' retreat.

4700882CIA Director nominee Leon Panetta goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee today and entering today's hearing, the former Democratic congressman from California knows he will have to give up lucrative seats on boards of directors, end his consulting work and do without well-paid speeches while running the spy agency," per the Associated Press' Pamela Hess.

"Panetta earned more than $800,000 in director's and consultant's fees, including a $50,000 salary as a professor at Santa Clara University in California. He also netted an additional $250,000 for 12 speeches last year, several of which earned him $28,000 apiece. Among those hiring Panetta through a Washington-based speaker's bureau were two troubled financial companies, Merrill Lynch and Wachovia, that took federal aid during the upheavals on Wall Street. Both were bought out by other banks. Panetta also spoke to the Carlyle Group, an investment firm with interests in defense, financial services, energy and infrastructure companies. ...

"Panetta was not expected to face major opposition. Obama failed to consult with the committee's new head, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., before going public with the selection. But a hastily arranged phone talk involving Obama, Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden smoothed the ruffled feathers."

(AP Photo/Evan Agostini)
Mr. Obama's choice for Labor Secretary Hilda Solis's nomination is scheduled to be voted on in a Senate committee "after a face-off with Republican lawmakers that highlights their disagreements with President Obama's labor policies," writes the Washington Post's Michael A. Fletcher.

"Solis's refusal during her confirmation hearing last month to be pinned down on issues including the Employee Free Choice Act, which she previously co-sponsored in the House, and her view of ergonomic rules lifted during the Bush administration, led to threats from some GOP lawmakers to place a hold on her nomination that could lead to further delays once it was on the Senate floor. Lawmakers also raised pointed questions about her work with American Rights at Work, a pro-labor group for which Solis serves as an unpaid treasurer. Some lawmakers questioned whether her position on a board that organization officials said meets only annually amounts to a lobbying role, something Solis has disputed. The lingering questions prompted weeks of correspondence between Solis and GOP members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the weeks following her Jan. 9 hearing, as she provided written answers to the committee members' questions."


Washington Post's Shalaigh Murray, "Stimulus Bill Gets Housing Tax Perk": "Seeking to jump-start the housing market, the Senate added new tax relief for homebuyers to its $900 billion economic stimulus bill yesterday as the legislation moved toward a final vote.

"The amendment, offered by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), represents a significant victory for Republicans. GOP lawmakers have complained that the package includes few of their priorities for easing the economic crisis, including more help for the housing sector, which has been devastated by foreclosures and the frozen credit market. The Isakson provision would offer a tax credit of up to $15,000 for any home bought as a primary residence, for one year after the stimulus bill is signed into law.

"It would add $19 billion to the plan. The housing amendment, accepted unanimously by a voice vote, also represents an effort by Democratic leaders to make the stimulus bill more appealing to Republicans -- a necessity in the Senate, where Democrats lack the 60 votes needed for final passage.

"A bipartisan group of moderate senators is expected to announce an amendment today that would remove tens of billions of dollars in spending provisions that have been criticized as not being able to immediately stimulate the economy. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said a final vote on the Senate package could come as early as tonight.

"But compromise negotiations with the House are likely to extend through next week and could prove contentious, as the Senate bill grows in some areas and contracts in others, compared with the $819 billion House package."

NY Times' David E. Sanger, "Senate Agrees to Dilute 'Buy America' Provisions": "The Senate, at the urging of White House officials, agreed Wednesday night to water down some of the "Buy America" provisions in its version of the $900 billion economic stimulus bill.

The vote gave President Obama a victory in the first test of how he will balance his campaign promises to toughen protections for American workers against a storm of protests by American trading partners who have threatened retaliation. The White House had been seeking assurances that any requirements barring purchases from abroad did not significantly expand existing law or violate existing trade treaties.

The language approved by the Senate said such provisions should be 'applied in a manner consistent with United States obligations under international agreements.' More than 50 nations are covered by treaties with the United States, and thus may be entitled to exceptions to the restrictions.

Many of those countries, and the European Union, have issued protests about the legislation. The action came a day after Mr. Obama told a television interviewer that 'we can't send a protectionist message' in the stimulus bill, or convey to trading partners 'that somehow we're just looking after ourselves and not concerned with world trade.' His comments suggested that Mr. Obama was beginning a familiar pirouette, adjusting positions on trade first made for domestic political consumption to deal with the more complex matrix of forces that come into play when governing."


Minneapolis Star Tribune's Kevin Duchschere, "State Supreme Court weighs a temporary Sen. Franken": "As both sides hurled taunts and accusations Wednesday, lawyers for DFLer Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman braced for a showdown today in the state's highest court on whether Franken should be seated in the Senate while their courtroom election fight continues.

"Franken attorney Marc Elias called the recount trial -- Coleman's legal challenge of Franken's 225-vote lead in the certified recount results -- 'a shrinking case' and said the law demands that the Democrat be seated in the meantime to give Minnesota the two senators it deserves.

"At 9 this morning, the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear Franken's motion to be granted a provisional certificate of election. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, have declined to sign an election certificate because state law says none can be issued before the legal battle ends. Elias seemed to suggest Wednesday that federal law trumps state law in this regard, although he added that he thinks state law is on their side as well."


(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
NY Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David D. Kirkpatrick, "Daschle's Ambitions Collided, Friends Say": "For four years, ever since voters in South Dakota turned him out of office, Mr. Daschle has seemed to yearn for the power and prestige of his public life.

"He vowed not to become a lobbyist, telling friends that salesmanship was beneath him. He spent as many as two days a week working without pay at a liberal research institution on issues like health care and climate change. He had contemplated a run for president in 2008. 'He loved public service,' said his friend Tony Coelho, a former House Democratic whip, 'and he always looked at, was there an opportunity to get back in.'

"But Mr. Daschle was also eager for Washington's financial rewards. He had benefited from his wife's pay as an aviation lobbyist; they share a $2 million home in a fancy Washington neighborhood. But with three children from a previous marriage, he aspired to some wealth of his own 'to leave his kids and grandkids,' said Mr. Coelho, who made his own move to Wall Street.

"Those competing ambitions collided this week, as Mr. Daschle withdrew from consideration for the health secretary's job amid an uproar over his failure to pay $128,000 in taxes for a private car and driver provided by a prominent Democratic donor, coupled with public shock that a man who left the Senate on a $158,000-a-year salary had gone on to earn $5 million in the four years since leaving office."

Politico's Nia-Malika Henderson, "Michelle expands role as First Lady": "In three short days, Michelle Obama has expanded on her role as mom-in-chief to take on new and somewhat unusual duties for a first lady – actively pitching her husband's economic stimulus package, now facing trouble in the Senate.

"As she makes a 'get-to-know-you' tour of federal agencies, Obama is using her considerable platform to amplify the message coming out of the White House: pass the stimulus plan, and pass it now. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has ramped up his efforts as well, reaching out to Republicans one-on-one, doing back-to-back TV interviews and tapping his grassroots network through the Internet. The White House seems to be betting that Michelle Obama can work some of her old campaign magic—she was nicknamed 'the closer,' because she was so effective at getting undecided voters on board."

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Washington Post's Carrie Johnson and Krissah Thompson, "Holder Seen as a Chance to Right Racial Wrongs": "For decades, the face of the criminal justice system in this country has been black and male: hundreds of thousands locked behind bars, arrested in disproportionate numbers and facing execution at rates far greater than those for the general population.

"This week, Eric H. Holder Jr.'s swearing-in as the nation's first black attorney general and its top law enforcement official came weighted with heavy expectation that the system could change. Known as a prosecutor who was unflinchingly tough on crime, Holder, 58, is also a former civil rights lawyer who has mentored young black men.

"Many advocates view him as the best chance in decades to right what they consider unchecked racial injustice and insensitivity by federal officials. Civil rights advocates are already outlining a long list of priorities, including changing laws that lead to disproportionate prison terms for blacks, ending racial profiling and stepping up the policing of discrimination in employment and housing."

  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.