Saturday, January 31, 2009

Obama touts middle-class task force led by Biden

By PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama signed a series of executive orders Friday that he said should "level the playing field" for labor unions in their struggles with management. Obama also used the occasion at the White House to announce formally a new White House task force on the problems of middle-class Americans. He named Vice President Joe Biden as its chairman.

Union officials say the new orders by Obama will undo Bush administration policies that favored employers over workers. The orders will:

_Require federal contractors to offer jobs to current workers when contracts change.

_Reverse a Bush administration order requiring federal contractors to post notice that workers can limit financial support of unions serving as their exclusive bargaining representatives.

_Prevent federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses meant to influence workers deciding whether to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.

"We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests," Obama said during a signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it's part of the solution," he said. "You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement."

Signing the executive orders was Obama's second overture to organized labor in as many days. On Thursday, he signed the first bill of his presidency, giving workers more time to sue for wage discrimination.

"It's a new day for workers," said James Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who attended the ceremony with other union leaders. "We finally have a White House that is dedicated to working with us to rebuild our middle class. Hope for the American Dream is being restored."

Of the White House Task Force on Middle Class Working Families, Obama said, "We're not forgetting the poor. They are going to be front and center, because they, too, share our American Dream."

He said his administration wants to make sure low-income people "get a piece" of the American pie "if they're willing to work for it."

"With this task force, we have a single, highly visible group with one single goal: to raise the living standards of the people who are the backbone of this country," Biden said.

Obama set several goals for the task force, including expanding opportunities for education and training; improving the work-family balance; restoring labor standards, including workplace safety; and protecting retirement security.

The president and vice president said the task force will include the secretaries of commerce, education, labor, and health and human services because those Cabinet departments have the most influence on the well-being of the middle class. It also will include White House advisers on the economy, the budget and domestic policy.

Biden pledged that the task force will conduct its business in the open, and announced a Web site,, for the public to get information. He also announced that the panel's first meeting will be Feb. 27 in Philadelphia and will focus on environmental or "green jobs."

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Steele Becomes First Black RNC Chair

Incoming RNC Chairman Michael Steele (AP)

(CBS) This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

Former Maryland Lt. Gov Michael Steele will be the new chairman of the Republican National Committee.

He emerged from a crowded field this afternoon to become the first-ever African-American head of the Republican Party.

"It's time for something completely different," Steele said following his victory. "And we're going to bring it to them."

Later, he called his election "a remarkable moment."

"We've been misdefined as a party that doesn't care" about minorities and average Americans, Steele said. "Nothing can be further from the truth."

The most moderate candidate in the field, Steele defeated the more conservative Katon Dawson, the head of the South Carolina GOP, in the sixth round of balloting. He took 91 votes, six more than he needed to win.

Several RNC members called Steele's win a "historic moment" for the party, reports CBS News Political Director Steve Chaggaris.

Steele vowed to "cede no ground to anyone on matters of principle" in his victory speech. He said that Republicans "stand proud as the conservative party of the United States."

Among those Steele defeated in previous rounds were current RNC chair Mike Duncan, Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis, and former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, who threw his support behind Steele after dropping out of the race after the fourth round of balloting today.

"I believe that the next chairman must inspire hope," Blackwell said upon endorsing Steele, a fellow African-American.

Republicans have repeatedly expressed concern over the future of their party in the wake of Barack Obama's victory in the presidential race, with some suggesting the party has to find ways to reach out to voters who do not traditionally gravitate toward the GOP.

"My concern is that unless we do something to adapt, our status as a minority party may become too pronounced for an easy recovery," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday.

McConnell congratulated Steele "on his historic election" today.

The question of the size of the GOP's tent were brought into focus back in December, when former Tennessee GOP leader Chip Saltsman, who had hoped to become RNC chair, distributed a CD to Republican National Committee members featuring a song called "Barack the Magic Negro." Saltsman dropped out of the race last night.

"Steele's election won't help the party attract black voters immediately, but if Steele sets the right tone, he could help the party compete for them in the (way) future," said CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder. "As GOP strategists have always known, and noted, somewhat dyspeptically, it's white suburban voters, particularly women, who are responsive to a diversity message. The RNC isn't diverse yet; only five black delegates were chosen to attend the national convention. Steele was disgusted by that. It prompted him to run."

Before Steele won today, one of his aides today joked to CBS News Producer Mary Hager that if he did take home the prize, Steele planned to parade with his famous puppy. Back in 2006, during a losing bid for a Senate seat, Steele ran an ad in which he looked at the camera and solemnly said, "for the record, I love puppies." (Watch it here.)

Duncan, whose reelection bid failed today, gave a brief speech thanking his supporters and exited to a standing ovation, reports Chaggaris.

"The results weren't there," Duncan told the crowd at the Capital Hilton. He added: "Obviously the winds of change are blowing."

In 2003, Steele became the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland, when he won the Lt. Governor's race. He is the current Chairman of GOPAC, a national PAC dedicated to electing Republican candidates in state and local elections.

Born in 1958 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Steele was raised in Washington, DC. He spent three years as a seminarian in the Order of St. Augustine preparing for the priesthood before deciding to pursue a law career. He received a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

Steele ran for Senate in Maryland in 2006 but lost to Democrat Ben Cardin.

Steele's victory "marks a step away from the balkanized Southern white ethos of the party," Ambinder said. The pro-life incoming RNC chair has long worked with moderate Republicans -- a fact he did not play up during his bid for the RNC job.

"If he reverts to form, it means that the RNC has just selected a chairman who will not prioritize social issues above economic issues," Ambinder noted. "When people speak of broadening the party's geographic diversity, they are speaking in code. They mean that the party needs to welcome more moderates; needs to be more forgiving of departures from orthodoxy; needs to be less antagonistic to pro-choicers and gays."

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McConnell: GOP becoming 'regional party'


Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a blunt warning to Republicans Thursday: Their party must regain lost supporters plus blacks, Hispanics and voters on both coasts – or risk becoming a permanent minority party with a limited power base.
Photo: AP

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a blunt warning to Republicans Thursday: Their party must regain lost supporters plus blacks, Hispanics and voters on both coasts — or risk becoming a permanent minority party with a limited power base.

“We’re all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us,” McConnell said in a speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting. “And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one.”

In stark terms, the Kentucky Republican added: “In politics, there’s a name for a regional party: It’s called a minority party. ... As Republicans, we know that common-sense conservative principles aren’t regional. But I think we have to admit that our sales job has been.

“And in my view, that needs to change,” he said.

McConnell said that, when he was first elected in 1984, there were GOP governors on both coasts, nearly every state had a Republican senator and Ronald Reagan won 49 of 50 states.

“A lot has changed since then,” he said, pointing to “worrisome signs,” including that every member of the House from New England is a Democrat, and that “you can walk from Canada to Mexico and from Maine to Arizona without ever leaving a state with a Democratic governor.”
As he did in a speech at the National Press Club last week, McConnell placed part of the blame on President Bush. In that speech, he outlined his path to a “post-partisan” era and said both sides should reject their party’s extremes and govern from the middle. That talk was designed to some extent to recast his party as eager to solve the country’s problems rather to obstruct the Democrats’ agenda.

But his speech on Thursday injected fresh views into the ongoing debate within the GOP over how to move forward after two disastrous elections. McConnell sought to instill a sense of urgency into his party, but said the situation is “far from irreversible.”

McConnell said Republicans need to sell their core principles to voters who’ve left the party by better explaining their ideas and the “practical benefits they promise for people of every class or race in every corner of the country.” He said the party needs to attract black voters after Democrats pulled in 96 percent of that voting bloc in November, and he called on the GOP to aggressively court Hispanics, who will constitute one-fifth of all voters by 2020.

“The future of campaigns and elections depends, for both parties, on the ability to attract voters from the Hispanic community,” McConnell said. “This is particularly true for us, since Hispanic growth is even more dramatic in regions where we do best.” He said that nearly 80 percent of Hispanic voters oppose abortion, in line with a bedrock GOP position.

McConnell called on the GOP to push back against labels that have hurt the party in the past — anti-immigrant, anti-union and anti-environment — and to regain taxpayers’ trust that they support limited government spending.

“Too often we’ve let others define us,” McConnell said. “And the image they’ve painted isn’t very pretty.”

He also said that “blaming the media isn’t a strategy for success,” likening it to blaming a referee for losing a game. But he said that the party should push back aggressively when “Democrat ideas fall short.”

“We’ll point it out when Democrats attempt to undermine or reverse successful terror-fighting policies that have kept us safe since 9/11,” he said. “We’ll point it out when they try to tax and spend our way to prosperity. We’ll point it out every time they do the bidding of the trial lawyers and Big Labor bosses. And we’ll point it out every time they claim to solve a problem they’ve really only put off — as they did just last week on Guantanamo Bay.”

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More Losses in 2010 Could Push GOP to Brink of Collapse

By jwilkes

It couldn’t happen again, right? Republicans have gotten slaughtered in two straight elections. 2006 saw a fifteen-seat majority in the House evaporate, leaving nothing behind but a minority of the same size. In the same year, a five-seat majority in the Senate turned into a 51-49 minority. Just two years later, Democrats delivered another crushing blow, taking an additional 21 seats in the House, and eight more in the Senate. In just two years, the GOP population on Capitol Hill decreased by 52 Representatives, and 14 Senators. In both houses, Republicans are dangerously close to being rendered politically irrelevant by supermajorities that could override any attempts to block Democratic legislation.

2010, by all accounts, should be a Republican year. It’s rare to see a single party be decimated three times in a row, and the first midterm election into a new presidential term tends not to be kind to the president’s party.

But looking at the list of match-ups slated for 2010, it doesn’t necessarily look like Republicans are anywhere near a comeback. Five Republican-held seats in the Senate will be in play no matter what, and depending on how events play out, that number could balloon to as high as ten. It’s still too early to see how things will turn out in the House, but if predictions from major analysts turn out to be accurate, Republicans could have a tough time there, too.

Republicans are divided into two camps: half simply can not fathom a third walloping in a row, and insist on staying the course, riding out what they believe is a cyclical spike for Democrats. The other half isn’t as confident, and believe the GOP needs to make immediate strategy changes or face serious consequences.

But this all begs the question, what will Republicans do if they suffer another watershed year, and lose more than 4 seats in the Senate or 10 in the House?

Another loss would push national Republicans to the brink of collapse. Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt have Democrats held such commanding majorities in both houses of Congress in addition to the White House. Plus, in a term that will likely see the retirement of at least two (and maybe more) Supreme Court justices, President Obama won’t have to negotiate with GOP legislators over his appointments to replace them- in other words, there won’t be any compromise pick.

It’s not that Republicans will disappear from politics as we know it, but certainly, it would take the GOP a decade or more to claw their way back to the top of the electoral heap. When the GOP lost the House in the 1954 elections, it took forty years to return to the majority. They lost the Senate that same year, and it took more than a quarter century to even be competitive again.

But at this point, Republicans aren’t cohesively mounting any kind of new strategy. Instead, they’re the opposition party, attacking a stimulus plan that has overwhelming support among voters. The only difference between now and last year is that today, Republicans don’t have enough votes in Congress to block or even really stymie legislation in either House. That could get worse over the next two years.

What’s interesting is that the favorite to win the upcoming election for national GOP Chairman is Mike Duncan- the same captain who has gone down with the GOP ship in each of the last two titanic disasters. Republicans show no sign of changing their course. And the bad news for them is that, accordingly, voters aren’t going to change theirs.

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Saddam's hometown unveils statue dedicated to man who threw shoe at President Bush

Daily News Staff Writer


A statue dedicated to the man who threw his shoes at President Bush has been erected in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Many Iraqis considered it poetic justice when a journalist tossed his shoes at President George W. Bush last month.

Now the bizarre attack has spawned a real life work of art.

A sofa-sized statue of the shoe was unveiled Thursday in Tikrit, the hometown of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Baghdad-based artist Laith al-Amari described the fiberglass-and-copper work as a tribute to the pride of the Iraqi people.

The statue is inscribed with a poem honoring Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the Iraqi journalist who stunned the world when he whipped off his loafers and hurled them at Bush during a press conference on Dec. 14.

In the Arab world, even showing someone the sole of a shoe is considered a sign of disrespect.

Al-Zeidi was charged with assaulting a foreign leader, but his lawyer is asking prosecutors to reduce the charges. The trial has been delayed.

The shoe attack spawned a flood of Web quips, satire and even street rallies across the Arab world, where Bush is widely reviled for starting the war in Iraq and backing Israel against the Palestinians.

A Turkish shoemaking company also claimed its sales skyrocketed after some reports said it made the shoes that al-Zeidi tossed at Bush.

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Illinois governor guilty of abuse

Blagojevich: 'I love the people of Illinois'

Rod Blagojevich has been ousted as Illinois governor after being convicted of abusing his powers.

Mr Blagojevich said he was "saddened and disappointed" by the verdict but "not at all surprised" and would fight to clear his name.

He was charged with trying to sell the seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president.

In a second vote, Mr Blagojevich was banned from holding public office in Illinois for life.

He had been arrested in December and faces a criminal trial over bribes allegedly taken during his two terms.

No other Illinois governor has been impeached, let alone convicted in a Senate trial.

Mr Blagojevich has now been replaced as governor by Patrick Quinn, a fellow Democrat and the state's lieutenant governor.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich at his home in Chicago (29/01/2009)

Senators voted 59-0 against him after an impeachment hearing, despite his claim that he had "done nothing wrong" and there was no evidence of a crime.

After being sworn in, Mr Quinn told the senate "the ordeal is over".

He said the elected representatives had "reflected the will of the people".

"Now it's our job to call upon the people of Illinois to make the sacrifices necessary to address the serious challenges we have before us," Mr Quinn said.

'No evidence'

Speaking outside his home after the senate hearing, Mr Blagojevich said he "obviously saddened and disappointed, but not at all surprised by what the state senate did today".

He told reporters he was grateful for having had the opportunity to "get up every day to fight for average, ordinary people".

"I love the people of Illinois today more than I ever have before," he said, to which a person in the crowd shouted back: "We love you too!"

Mr Blagojevich had addressed his trial on Thursday in a last-minute bid to save his position, having earlier said he would not take any part.

He told senators: "There is no evidence that shows there was any wrongdoing by me as governor."

He expressed annoyance that he was not able to bring his own witnesses.

Patrick Quinn
The new Governor, Patrick Quinn, foresees "serious challenges"
He said President Barack Obama's chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel was one witness he would have liked to question, but rules prevented him from doing so.

He appealed to senators, at the end of the four-day trial, to consider his position, saying: "Think if you were innocent and rushed out of office.

"A crime has not been proven. How can you throw a governor out of office with incomplete evidence?"

But his speech appeared to have little effect on the senators.

"I sort of looked at him as a magician and we've all been wowed. But all the magic is gone," one senator told the Chicago Tribune.

"I am immune to his speech giving, because we've seen those tricks before. He can look sincere, he gives a good speech and he's a good performer. Perhaps he can get a job in the arts," she said.

FBI evidence

Since Mr Blagojevich was arrested last month, he has persistently denied the charges against him and has refused to resign.

Federal agents say Mr Blagojevich
Tried to obtain campaign contributions in exchange for official actions
Tried to use state funds for the private purpose of inducing the Tribune Company to fire Chicago Tribune editorial board members critical of him
Tried to obtain personal financial benefits for himself in return for his appointment of a US senator

There is no trial date set in the criminal case.

"If I thought I had done something wrong I would have resigned in December," he told senators.

"I didn't resign then and I'm not resigning now because I have done nothing wrong."

He says he is the victim of a political vendetta.

Impeachment prosecutor David Ellis, in his rebuttal, emphasised that Mr Blagojevich had refused to appear under oath to answer questions, opting instead to make a closing speech.

In his closing remarks, Mr Ellis said: "The evidence showed that throughout his tenure as governor, the governor has abused the power of his office and put his own interest above the interest of the people."

The impeachment followed an investigation by a 21-member committee of Illinois legislators, which looked at testimony from FBI agents who wiretapped phone calls to and from the governor's office about who should fill President Obama's seat.

It is alleged the conversations show that Mr Blagojevich was trying to use the seat to get himself or his wife a job.

Mr Blagojevich is the first US governor to be impeached in more than 20 years, after Arizona's Governor Evan Mecham was removed from office in 1988.

Four of Illinois' past eight governors have faced criminal charges and Mr Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, is currently serving a jail sentence for corruption.

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Legal System Struggles With How to React When Police Officers Lie

It's one of the most common accusations by defendants and defense attorneys -- that police officers don't tell the truth on the witness stand.

Of course, defendants themselves can be the ones lying, but the problem of police perjury -- and what can be done about it -- is being debated anew. Fueling the discussion are recent court cases in New York City and Boston that indicated officers may have lied and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this month that could have broader implications for cases in which improperly obtained evidence is in dispute.

Questionable testimony by police comes up most often in firearm- or drug-possession cases in which officers often testify that a defendant had a bulge in his pocket -- which they thought might be a gun -- or dropped drugs in plain sight as they approached him, giving the officers the right to seize the contraband. Defense lawyers say in many of these cases, officers are "testilying" and that the guns or drugs were actually discovered when their clients were unjustly frisked by officers. They also say testilying frequently occurs in more serious cases.


In Boston, a federal judge last week ruled that a police officer there falsely testified at a pretrial hearing in a gun-possession case about the circumstances of the defendant's arrest. The judge, Mark Wolf, is considering sanctions against the prosecutor for not immediately disclosing that the officer's testimony contradicted what he told prosecutors beforehand.

A federal judge in Brooklyn, N.Y., last fall ruled that a U.S. marshal and a New York City police officer lied when they testified that a defendant dropped two bags of drugs in front of them and then invited the officers to his apartment, where he revealed a large cache of cocaine.

Though few officers will confess to lying -- after all, it's a crime -- work by researchers and a 1990s commission appointed to examine police corruption shows there's a tacit agreement among many officers that lying about how evidence is seized keeps criminals off the street.

To stem the problem, some criminal-justice researchers and academic experts have called for doing polygraphs on officers who take the stand or requiring officers to tape their searches.

A Supreme Court ruling this month, however, suggests that a simpler, though controversial, solution may be to weaken a longstanding part of U.S. law, known as the exclusionary rule. The 5-4 ruling in Herring v. U.S. that evidence obtained from certain unlawful arrests may nevertheless be used against a criminal defendant could indicate the U.S. is inching closer to a system in which officers might not be tempted to lie to prevent evidence from being thrown out.

Criminal-justice researchers say it's difficult to quantify how often perjury is being committed. According to a 1992 survey, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges in Chicago said they thought that, on average, perjury by police occurs 20% of the time in which defendants claim evidence was illegally seized.

"It is an open secret long shared by prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges that perjury is widespread among law enforcement officers," though it's difficult to detect in specific cases, said Alex Kozinski, a federal appeals-court judge, in the 1990s. That's because the exclusionary rule "sets up a great incentive for...police to lie."

Police officers don't necessarily agree, says Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches law and police studies in New York. "Perjury is endemic in the court system, but officers lie less than defendants do because generally they aren't heavily invested in the outcome of the cases," he says.

Testilying may have taken off after a 1961 Supreme Court decision boosted the exclusionary rule by requiring state courts to exclude -- or throw out -- some evidence seized in illegal searches, such as when police frisk people without probable cause or search a residence without a warrant.

Immediately after the decision, Mapp v. Ohio, studies showed that the number of annual drug arrests in the U.S. -- most cases are prosecuted in state court -- didn't change much but there was a sharp increase in officers claiming that suspects dropped drugs on the ground. "Either drug users were suddenly dropping bags all over the place or the cops were still frisking but saying the guy dropped the drugs," says John Kleinig, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

This month's Supreme Court decision added an exception to the exclusionary rule by holding that the prosecution of an Alabama man for drug- and firearm-possession charges was valid, even though the contraband was found after the man was wrongly arrested and searched. Police officers had mistakenly thought he was subject to an arrest warrant.

Throwing out evidence because of wrongful searches and arrests "is not an individual right and applies only where its deterrent effect outweighs the substantial cost of letting guilty and possibly dangerous defendants go free," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.

Civil liberties advocates and defense lawyers say losing the exclusionary rule would harm the public. "We'd risk far greater invasions of privacy because officers would have carte blanche to do outrageous activity and act on hunches all the time," says JaneAnne Murray, a criminal defense lawyer in New York.

Write to Amir Efrati at

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Three political candidates slain in Iraq

By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD – Gunmen apparently targeting political candidates staged attacks around Iraq on Thursday, leaving at least three people dead as Iraqi forces began imposing a full-scale security clampdown in advance of voting for provincial council seats.

The level of violence around Iraq is significantly lower than in past years, but Saturday's election is seen as an important test of Iraqi self-reliance and competence as the U.S. military turns over more authorities to local forces.

Blanket security measures were scheduled to take effect beginning Friday, including closing Iraq's international borders, ordering traffic bans across Baghdad and major cities and halting air traffic. Hundreds of women, including teachers and civic workers, have been recruited to help search women voters after a rise in female suicide bombers last year.

In Baghdad, a Sunni candidate, Omer Farooq al-Ani, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he stepped from his home in the western Amiriya neighborhood, said a police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Al-Ani, a member of his neighborhood council, was running for the provincial seat under the biggest Sunni political group, the Islamic Iraq Party.

Northeast of Baghdad, another Sunni candidate was killed in a shooting ambush as he walked from a rally in Mandli in Diyala Province. The candidate, Abbas Farhan, was killed along with two others.

In the northern city of Mosul, gunmen fired from a passing car and killed a candidate and former army officer, Hazim Salim, a member of the Unity List, a group of independent Sunni politicians.

The two attacks were reported by police in Diyala and Mosul, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give the information.

The U.S. military is taking a sideline role in direct security for the elections, but plan to send heavy troop deployments into the streets during the voting.

A military spokesman, Maj. Gen. David Perkins, said there is always the risk of attacks by groups "who see the progress of democracy as a threat to them" — a reference to insurgent groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq that have been weakened but are still active.

"They want an Iraq that is divided according to sectarian lines, an Iraq that is ruled by fear, they want an Iraq that does not know the rule of law, so these are the groups that do not want democracy to move forward," he told a news conference.

In another possible flashpoint before the vote, Iraqi security forces detained three candidates loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr following a political rally in Baghdad.

Al-Sadr controls the powerful Mahdi Army militia and is desperate to maintain a strong political hand despite pressures from Iraq's government.

"Detaining the candidates is a serious precedent," said a parliament member in the Sadrist bloc, Baha al-Araji.

More than 14,400 candidates are competing for 440 seats in 14 of the country's 18 provinces.

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White House Unbuttons Formal Dress Code

Pete Souza/White House, via Bloomberg News

President Obama in a meeting last week in the Oval Office, where his predecessor required a coat and tie at all times.


WASHINGTON — The capital flew into a bit of a tizzy when, on his first full day in the White House, President Obama was photographed in the Oval Office without his suit jacket. There was, however, a logical explanation: Mr. Obama, who hates the cold, had cranked up the thermostat.

“He’s from Hawaii, O.K.?” said Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, who occupies the small but strategically located office next door to his boss. “He likes it warm. You could grow orchids in there.”

Thus did an ironclad rule of the George W. Bush administration — coat and tie in the Oval Office at all times — fall by the wayside, only the first of many signs that a more informal culture is growing up in the White House under new management. Mr. Obama promised to bring change to Washington and he has — not just in substance, but in presidential style.

Although his presidency is barely a week old, some of Mr. Obama’s work habits are already becoming clear. He shows up at the Oval Office shortly before 9 in the morning, roughly two hours later than his early-to-bed, early-to-rise predecessor. Mr. Obama likes to have his workout — weights and cardio — first thing in the morning, at 6:45. (Mr. Bush slipped away to exercise midday.)

He reads several papers, eats breakfast with his family and helps pack his daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, off to school before making the 30-second commute downstairs — a definite perk for a man trying to balance work and family life. He eats dinner with his family, then often returns to work; aides have seen him in the Oval Office as late as 10 p.m., reading briefing papers for the next day.

“Even as he is sober about these challenges, I have never seen him happier,” Mr. Axelrod said. “The chance to be under the same roof with his kids, essentially to live over the store, to be able to see them whenever he wants, to wake up with them, have breakfast and dinner with them — that has made him a very happy man.”

In the West Wing, Mr. Obama is a bit of a wanderer. When Mr. Bush wanted to see a member of his staff, the aide was summoned to the Oval Office. But Mr. Obama tends to roam the halls; one day last week, he turned up in the office of his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, who was in the unfortunate position of having his feet up on the desk when the boss walked in.

“Wow, Gibbs,” the press secretary recalls the president saying. “Just got here and you already have your feet up.” Mr. Gibbs scrambled to stand up, surprising Mr. Obama, who is not yet accustomed to having people rise when he enters a room.

Under Mr. Bush, punctuality was a virtue. Meetings started early — the former president once locked Secretary of State Colin L. Powell out of the Cabinet Room when Mr. Powell showed up a few minutes late — and ended on time. In the Obama White House, meetings start on time and often finish late.

When the president invited Congressional leaders to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last week to talk about his economic stimulus package, the session ran so long that Mr. Obama wound up apologizing to the lawmakers — even as he kept them talking, engaging them in the details of the legislation far more than was customary for Mr. Bush.

“He was concerned that he was keeping us,” said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican whip. “He said, ‘I know we need to get you all out of here at a certain time.’ But we continued the discussion. What are you going to say? It’s the president.”

If Mr. Obama’s clock is looser than Mr. Bush’s, so too are his sartorial standards. Over the weekend, Mr. Obama’s first in office, his aides did not quite know how to dress. Some showed up in the West Wing in jeans (another no-no under Mr. Bush), some in coats and ties.

So the president issued an informal edict for “business casual” on weekends — and set his own example. He showed up Saturday for a briefing with his chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, dressed in slacks and a gray sweater over a white buttoned-down shirt. Workers from the Bush White House are shocked.

“I’ll never forget going to work on a Saturday morning, getting called down to the Oval Office because there was something he was mad about,” said Dan Bartlett, who was counselor to Mr. Bush. “I had on khakis and a buttoned-down shirt, and I had to stand by the door and get chewed out for about 15 minutes. He wouldn’t even let me cross the threshold.”

Mr. Obama has also brought a more relaxed sensibility to his public appearances. David Gergen, an adviser to both Republican and Democratic presidents, said Mr. Obama seemed to exude an “Aloha Zen,” a kind of comfortable calm that, Mr. Gergen said, reflects a man who “seems easy going, not so full of himself.”

At the Capitol on Tuesday, Mr. Obama startled lawmakers by walking up to the microphones in a Senate corridor to talk to reporters, as if he were still a senator. Twice, during formal White House ceremonies, Mr. Obama called out to aides as television cameras rolled, as he did on Monday when the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa P. Jackson, asked for a presidential pen.

“Hey, Lisa,” Mr. Obama called out to his staff secretary, Lisa Brown, “does she get this pen?”

Like Mr. Bush and other presidents before him, Mr. Obama typically begins his work day with a top-secret intelligence briefing on security threats against the United States. Mr. Bush received the “president’s daily brief” Monday through Saturday; Mr. Obama gets the briefing on Sunday as well.

But sometimes Mr. Obama’s economic briefing, a new addition to the presidential schedule, comes first. Its attendees vary depending on the day, aides said. On Tuesday, the newly sworn-in Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, joined Mr. Summers to talk about financial and credit markets. On Wednesday, Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve and informal Obama adviser, was on hand to discuss regulatory reform.

Mr. Obama has also maintained the longstanding presidential tradition of weekly lunches with his vice president. For Mr. Obama, lunch generally means a cheeseburger, chicken or fish in his small dining room off the Oval Office. There is also a new addition to White House cuisine: the refrigerators are stocked with the president’s favorite organic brew: Honest Tea, in Mr. Obama’s preferred flavors of Black Forest Berry and Green Dragon.

If there is one thing Mr. Obama has not gotten around to changing, it is the Oval Office décor.

When Mr. Bush moved in, he exercised his presidential decorating prerogatives and asked his wife, Laura, to supervise the design of a new rug. Mr. Bush loved to regale visitors with the story of the rug, whose sunburst design, he liked to say, was intended to evoke a feeling of optimism.

The rug is still there, as are the presidential portraits Mr. Bush selected — one of Washington, one of Lincoln — and a collection of decorative green and white plates. During a meeting last week with retired military officials, before he signed an executive order shutting down the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Mr. Obama surveyed his new environs with a critical eye.

“He looked around,” said one of his guests, retired Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, “and said, ‘I’ve got to do something about these plates. I’m not really a plates kind of guy.’ ”

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Can Jihadis Be Rehabilitated?

By Bobby Ghosh

Young Saudi men released from Guantánamo Bay as well as prisons in Iraq and Saudi Arabia listen to a Muslim cleric during a course at a rehabilitation center near Riyadh
Young Saudi men released from Guantánamo Bay as well as prisons in Iraq and Saudi Arabia listen to a Muslim cleric during a course at a rehabilitation center near Riyadh

It's been described as the Betty Ford Center for terrorists: Saudi Arabian officials boast that the Care Rehabilitation Center, outside Riyadh, has successfully deprogrammed scores of former jihadis, including more than 100 ex-inmates of the U.S.'s Guantánamo Bay military prison. As recently as last fall, Saudi officials claimed the program had a 100% success rate.

That claim was dashed last week, when two alumni of the rehab program proudly announced to the world that they had returned to the jihad. In a video posted online, Saudi nationals Said al-Shihri and Abu al-Hareth al-Oufi — former detainees at Guantánamo Bay — boasted that they had become leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen. (See pictures of the Care Rehabilitation Center.)

The video could hardly have come at a worse time for the Obama Administration, which has just announced that it will close Gitmo within a year and is already being accused by some Republicans of jeopardizing U.S. security. But it is doubly discomfiting for the Saudi government. Officials in Riyadh now say they have rearrested at least nine other men who had previously been rehabilitated; it's not clear how many of those are ex-Gitmo detainees.

Many observers claim that this means the rehab program is a bust, but both U.S. and Saudi officials argue that its successes far outnumber the handful of recidivists like al-Shihri and al-Oufi. "These things are never going to be perfect, but when you look at the big picture of rehabilitation, it's a remarkable story," says Christopher Boucek, a Carnegie Endowment scholar who has closely studied the Saudi program.

The Pentagon says it will not change its policy on repatriating Gitmo detainees to Saudi Arabia. "There are never any absolute guarantees," said Navy spokesman Commander Jeffrey Gordon. "There's an inherent risk in all detainee transfers and releases from Guantánamo."

Brigadier General Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, which runs the rehab program, claims the program's success stemmed from its guiding principle that jihadis are victims, rather than villains. "We think these people can be turned into normal human beings and be reintegrated into society," al-Turki told me when I visited Saudi Arabia during the Ramadan fast last summer. (Ironically, it was at the end of Ramadan that al-Shihri "disappeared," his father Jaber told the Saudi Gazzette newspaper.)

That's not to say the jihadis aren't punished. Indeed, before they can be rehabilitated, many must first undergo jail terms of varying lengths. The "hardest of the hard-core" militants are not allowed in the program, al-Turki told me. "With some people, there is just no cure."

Once admitted to the center, the jihadis are put through a rigorous program of religious discussion — designed to wean them from misconceptions about what the Koran does and doesn't permit — and sessions with psychologists and sociologists. Some receive vocational training to prepare them for a "normal" life. The center is guarded by Saudi police, but it doesn't look or feel anything like a prison. TIME's Scott Macleod, who visited the center in fall 2007, says it's akin to a college campus or country club, where the detainees play Ping-Pong and sip Pepsi. It could hardly be more different from Gitmo.

At the end of the program, the men are returned to their families and given a monthly stipend of $700 to help make ends meet. Some are given cars, and single men are encouraged to get married — the Saudi government pays $20,000 toward wedding expenses. "The important thing is that these men should not be idle and frustrated, because that could send them back to their old haunts, their old friends," said al-Turki.

The recidivism of al-Shihri, al-Ousi and the nine rearrested men suggests that the program needs some tinkering — especially in the monitoring of those who are released into society. Although the police monitor the men, the main burden of keeping them on the straight and narrow falls to their families. "The best way to make sure they don't go back to their bad habits is to recruit their families," al-Turki said. "We can't watch them every second of the day, but their parents or siblings or wives ... they can alert us if they suspect anything." (According to reports in the Saudi media, Jaber al-Shihri did inform the authorities after his son went missing for two months. He has denounced his son as a "deviant member of society, who must be removed.")

Another area that needs re-examination, says scholar Boucek, is the assessment of the risk of recidivism. "There's a lot of research on, for instance, when you should release a child molester from jail," he says. "But there's been no study on terrorists. When do you let a head chopper out of rehab?"

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama's Network Of Campaign Supporters Lives On

by Peter Overby

Just as no other presidential candidate ever had so many volunteers and so much money from so many donors, now Barack Obama will have a grassroots network of unprecedented size and enthusiasm backing him up as president.

The Obama presidential campaign's list of supporters and donors — some 13 million e-mail addresses — is being transformed into a permanent grassroots organization, tied to the Democratic National Committee. It could give the president a powerful tool for dealing with Congress.

The group will be called Organizing for America, just a few letters' change from the campaign committee, Obama for America — which made the announcement last weekend. As usual, it came in an e-mail, with a short video of Obama.

"You built the largest grassroots movement in history and shaped the future of this country. And the movement that you built is too important to stop growing now," Obama says in the video.

In a second video distributed on Friday, former campaign manager David Plouffe said members of the new organization will work on such issues as the economy, energy and health care.

He said this new movement will be different from a political campaign because the president wants "to connect Americans to the debate here in Washington. And I think that's not only good for our democracy and our country, but will also help President Obama succeed in bringing about the change we all fought for in the campaign."

Tom Matzzie, a consultant and former Washington director of the liberal online group, says, "We've never had a political leader who has continued their organizing while in office like this, at this scale. This will be a lot larger than anything that's been done before."

Potential To Backfire

Matzzie sees great things ahead for Organizing for America — and not just as a lobbying machine.

"For the next 40 years, those people will be involved in their communities in a way that was inspired out of the Obama campaign, and they will go on to run for school boards and city council and maybe president some day," Matzzie says.

But there are potential problems.

"This can backfire fairly easily," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

He says members of Congress might not want to hear from the president's support base.

"If they overuse the list, if they flood the Hill with huge mobilization campaigns and it irritates people. … They have to be very careful the way they use this resource," Thurber says.

He also points out that the people who signed up for Obama's campaign might not all feel the same way about specific pieces of legislation.

And what's more, the new caretaker of the list, the Democratic National Committee, is as partisan as you can get.

"Many of these people in this 13 million list may not be that partisan. They liked his theme of bipartisanship," Thurber says.

A DNC spokeswoman said the arrangement is just starting to get worked out.

'A Multiplier Effect'

A private-sector counterpart to Organizing for America might be AARP, the organization for Americans older than 50. It claims 40 million members overall. About 10 percent of them get involved in express advocacy, according to AARP's Jim Dau.

He says people choose to get on the e-mail list, just like the Obama campaign, and those names are golden to the organization.

"There's a multiplier effect because you're not just talking to, you know, me sitting at home. You're talking to someone ... who has demonstrated their ability to talk to their neighbors, their friends, their family and enroll them in the task at hand," Dau says.

But he says activists like these need more than constant calls to action. The organization has to engage them in other ways, too — encouraging get-togethers, asking for opinions, making them feel like part of something bigger.

"When you're asking for feedback, people are going to know that you're listening. Otherwise, you're going to be relegated to either the spam filter or just, you know, mass deletions," Dau says.

That's a lesson that the Obama campaign took to heart. What remains to be seen is whether the wisdom transfers with the list.

Original here

Boehner: Please refrain from making any more boneheaded remarks about biking

by Adam Voiland

In the United States, improving the dismal state of our bicycle infrastructure is hardly a hot button political issue that receives sustained attention from the national press. You’ll get a story here and there from publications such as the New York Times or Washington Post, but, as I learned when I was a reporter at U.S. News & World Report, the odds of successfully pitching editors on what’s seen as a fringe—even laughable issue by the bulk of journalists—are rather slim unless you bring in a service journalism angle as I did in this piece about commuter bikes.

In fact, if it were not for politicians—typically conservative Republican politicians—making boneheaded remarks about bicycling infrastructure, the issue would rarely make prime time. August of 2007, for example, brought this unfortunate display of ignorance on the floor of the House of Representatives courtesy of North Carolina Congressperson Patrick McHenry.

More recently, it was House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, who made a fool of himself with boneheaded remarks about biking on Face the Nation. In a conversation about the massive stimulus package currently under debate, here’s what Boehner had to say:

“I think there’s a place for infrastructure, but what kind of infrastructure? Infrastructure to widen highways, to ease congestion for American families? Is it to build some buildings that are necessary?” He stated. “But if we’re talking about beautification projects, or we’re talking about bike paths, Americans are not going to look very kindly on this.”

Ummm....sure, Boehner, you're right. Plenty of Americans aren’t accustomed to using their bicycles to commute. Most of us, in fact, are used to living in cities and towns where bicycling infrastructure is so woefully inadequate that the idea a bicycle could be used for anything other than recreational rides in the park is almost unimaginable. So, yeah, naturally some of your constituents are going to be skeptical of what might, at first, sound like pork.

But, honestly, Boehner, what really pisses Americans off is when our politicians make boneheaded remarks that don’t make sense. Let me get this straight: widening highways to ease congestion is a good idea, yet reducing congestion by making it feasible for more people to commute by bicycle is not? Boehner, did it not occur to you that building more bike paths in addition to more highways may, in fact, be one part of the solution for the traffic congestion that threatens the hard-working American families that you’re supposedly concerned about?

The next time you’re stuck in DC traffic, Boehner, here are some tidbits you may want to ponder while you wait:

• More than half of cars trips made by Americans would take less than 20 minutes on a bike, but ninety percent of all trips of between one and three miles or less are taken by car. Likewise, fifty-nine percent of trips less than one mile are made by car. (Source: Federal Highway Administration, National Household Travel Survey, 2001).

• Increasing the bicycle and pedestrian share of trips between one and three miles from the current level of 4 percent to about 10 percent would avoid approximately 21 billions miles of driving. (Source:
Active Transportation for America, 2008.)

I know, I know, the boneheaded part of your brain can’t shake the feeling that investing in bike infrastructure is too expensive and must be some sort of cushy luxury for rich, coastal elites—not something “real” people from Ohio struggling to make ends meet might appreciate. Well, consider:

• For the consumer, the costs of driving per mile traveled far outweighs the cost of biking per mile. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.) Note: There's no point using hard numbers as obviously they shift considerably as gas prices and other factors vary, but there’s no way around the reality that bikes are far more affordable as this website details.

• Building a single mile of a four lane urban highway costs $20 to $80 million per mile, while building a mile of bicycle path costs between a few thousand dollars per mile to $1 million dollars per mile. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.)

• Over the width of one traffic lane, bicycling and walking can move five to 10 times more people than driving can. (
Cycling: The Way Ahead for Towns and Cities, 1999)

Oh, Boehner, if you happen to be feeling a little fat while you’re hanging out in traffic breathing in all the fumes, you might also consider:

• In 2007, less than half of all Americans met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation of at least 30 minutes of modest physical activity on most days. (Source:
Active Transportation for America, 2008.)

• Americans spend some $33 billion a year on weight-loss products and services. (
NIDDK, 1999)

• Modest increases in bicycling and walking for short trips could provide enough exercise for 50 million inactive Americans to meet recommended activity levels, erasing a sizable chunk of America’s activity deficit. (Source:
Active Transportation for America, 2008.)

The bottom line: please refrain from making such boneheaded remarks about biking in the future. It makes you look ignorant.

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Why Are Top Political Leaders From Both Parties So Out-Of-Touch With The Public’s Demand For Marijuana Law Reform?

It is hard to imagine liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and conservative Minority Leader John Boehner as soul mates on any discernible level, however, on the issue of marijuana law reform, for entirely different reasons, they’re two peas in a pod.

Shortly after the conclusion of this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano posted a blog highlighting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) comments exhorting the public to take the lead on communicating with their elected policymakers regarding any desired major marijuana law reforms in the upcoming 111th Congress.

With that call to action in the minds of many, American voters elected Democrats into workable majorities in both chambers and elected Barack ‘Change’ Obama—while voters in both Massachusetts and Michigan voted in strong favor for ‘change’ regarding their states’ antiquated marijuana laws—when given the chance and medium to express their viewpoint regarding what other ‘changes’ are on the American peoples’ minds, since the mid 1990s and despite strong, bias media opposition, marijuana law reform has emerged as a major policy change sought by the American public.

House Speaker Pelosi supports medical access to marijuana. That is not in question. However, it is not known whether she publicly endorses decriminalizing marijuana, but, as a longtime representative in the House from San Francisco, she likely supports California laws regarding marijuana, notably the state’s long time decriminalization laws for personal, adult use.

Does she have the power to move medical marijuana through the Congress? Yes, likely she does. Is she going to expend the kind of political capital needed so early in the 111th Congress and this ‘New Dealish’ presidency to accomplish this? I don’t believe so.

Well now, to make matters worse, we have the Republican Minority Leader, John Boehner (R-OH), appearing last Friday afternoon on CNN’s Newsticker, in a Digg-sponsored ‘Question and Answer’, not surprisingly, the #1 question put forward by CNN/Diggers was of course about…marijuana!

Mr. Boehner’s reply on the marijuana prohibition question (which appears at the 3:15 mark of the 22 minute video) is tortured on two levels:

-Boehner’s deference to law enforcement and medical trade associations rather than to his constituents’ views, the Constitution, science, free market values and personal responsibility is, in a word, unfortunate:

-While rattling off DEA-like talking points against marijuana, Rep. Boehner seems to remember mid-rant against marijuana that he 1) often claims to be a libertarian who favors limited taxation, controlling government spending, and maximizing entrepreneurialism and personal freedoms, 2) supports the 9th and 10th Amendments, which largely articulate states’ rights to make their own constitutional laws.

Too bad Boehner has consistently voted against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, a spending amendment in Congress that sought to check federal law enforcement’s ability to spend tax dollars harassing state compliant medical marijuana cooperative and dispensaries, and, in effect, recognizing states’ ability to craft greater legal protections for medical cannabis patients and their providers.

After watching Boehner’s verbal gymnastics and political CYA, I could have used a naturally occurring anti-emetic, if you know what I mean!

A Congressional Cannabis Conundrum
The most powerful legislator in the United States, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports medical access to marijuana, but will not soon likely do anything to solve this long festering public health-law enforcement quandary, and the most powerful Republican legislator in the country is a chain-smoking, libertarian-talking prohibitionist.


The general public who support marijuana law reform (which is about 75% for both decriminalization and medical access) and many members from the working media inquire with NORML daily, ‘Why does marijuana prohibition continue despite its obvious failings?

Regrettably, one need only point to this single, but poignant example, demonstrated by this Pelosi-Boehner cannabis conundrum: Leaders who will not lead.*

*Even when they very likely know better and the American people (common sense, economics and decency) demand it!

Original here

Chinese Dissident Bao Tong Speaks Out

By Austin Ramzy / Beijing

Former senior Chinese official Bao Tong, who spent seven years in prison for sympathizing with democracy advocates, in his apartment in Beijing in January 2009

On Fuxing Road in western Beijing is a vast Soviet-style building that proudly houses old jets, tanks and ships — all memorials to the various military conflicts faced by the People's Republic of China. But just around the corner, in a typical middle-class housing complex, is an unwelcome reminder of how the country manages its political conflicts.

On the sixth floor of an apartment building there lives a veteran of the opaque, unforgiving world of Chinese statecraft. Bao Tong, 76, was a top aide and speechwriter for the secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1980s. Now he lives under virtual house arrest, his every move observed, every visitor screened by a handful of guards, every conversation presumably monitored. The Communist Party would clearly like him to fade into oblivion, to live out the rest of his days caring for his goldfish and taking walks in the park. But Bao Tong has no intention of going out quietly. (See pictures of China on the wild side.)

Over the past month Bao has repeatedly questioned the authoritarian nature of China's central government — in very public ways. He helped draft Charter 08, a lengthy pro-democracy online manifesto initially published in early December by 303 mainland writers, scholars and artists, a number that has since grown to several thousand. Soon after, he released a series of essays through Radio Free Asia that questioned the very motivations and accomplishments of the Party.

Bao Tong says his decision to sign the landmark Charter comes from a long-held regret over joining the Communist Party as a young man. "Sixty years ago I wanted violence. In order to promote Leninism and communism, I joined this Party...I signed Charter 08 to correct my mistake of 60 years ago," Bao said one recent afternoon in the Beijing apartment he shares with his wife. Bao's face is visibly weary, but he sits with an erect posture, and his eyes flash as he discusses history and politics. "This is not about using violent means to change society," he says. "It's about using peaceful, rational means. Everything I do can be boiled down to one word: patriotism."

Charter 08, which is based on Charter 77, a human rights manifesto signed by dissidents in Czechoslovakia in 1977, calls for several political reforms in China including direct elections, a separation of political powers, free speech, legalization of political parties and the creation of an independent judiciary. Critically, it doesn't call for the Communist Party to step down, but envisions a system that advances beyond one-party rule, says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It does not say 'We should set up a party to topple the Party.' They say, 'We must work to outgrow the Party and create conditions for a political system that's not based on one-party rule,'" notes Bequelin. "I think this is very new."

Very new, and very unwelcome. In recent weeks, police have interrogated more than 100 of the document's original signatories. Liu Xiaobo, a dissident scholar who was one of the drafters, was arrested by Beijing police on Dec. 8 and remains in custody. In an article published in an official journal on Jan. 18, Jia Qinglin, China's fourth-highest official, warned the country should avoid multiparty systems, separation of political powers and other "erroneous ideological interferences." And in December, President Hu Jintao warned the country to "not waver" in implementing economic reform, a remark that was interpreted as meaning avoid political debate.

Police have questioned Bao about Charter 08, but his experience as a one-time high-level cadre offers him a degree of protection. A top aide and speechwriter to former Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, Bao keeps a picture of Zhao, who died in 2005, on a bookshelf in his home. Zhao was deposed in May 1989, just before the Tiananmen Massacre, for sympathizing with student demonstrators. Bao was also arrested at that time, and spent seven years in prison for "revealing state secrets" and "counter-revolutionary propagandizing." Rather than silencing him, Bao's prison term convinced him of the need to speak out. "If I hadn't had that experience, there is no way I'd be so clear," he says. "It freed my thinking. It freed my eyes. It freed my mouth."

For the Communist Party, that freedom came to tarnish what was supposed to be a triumphal moment for China. Charter 08 was published thirty years after Deng Xiaoping pushed his reforms onto a weary and scarred nation, an anniversary China was proudly marking as it had grown to the world's third largest economy, tens of millions had been lifted out of poverty and the nation was basking in the afterglow of hosting its first Olympic Games.

But the charter's signatories have not been the only crashers of the Party's party. The global economic crisis has caused thousands of trade-dependent Chinese businesses to close in the cities, and sent millions of workers home to the vast countryside, jobless. Now state leaders are crisscrossing the country giving pep talks about the prospects of future growth in China and urging citizens to not worry about the recent turmoil. Discussion of Charter 08 has been blocked from domestic media and curtailed on mainland blogs and websites; few Chinese know about it. But as the economy slows, a murmur of calls for political reform has emerged.

Chinese officials have said that now, when the country is straining under the growing pressures of the global downturn and spending billions to help create jobs, is the worst time to call for democratization. Bao argues that economic challenges need to be met with political adaptations as well. "Because we have an economic crisis, we need to bring the people together," he says. "We can't take every difference and dissatisfaction and let it intensify. Human rights, democracy, republicanism — these help eliminate conflicts, not intensify conflicts." For now the country's leadership is content to let Bao and China's other democracy advocates stew in anonymity, and hope that once again the Party can grow its way out of trouble.

Original here

Obama White House Looking Into Rove's Claim Of Executive Privilege

Subpoenaed by Rep. John Conyers to testify before Congress, Karl Rove has left the debate over whether or not he is protected from testifying to Barack Obama.

The former Bush strategist had previously refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee by claiming that executive privileges allowed him to keep his conversations with the president private. With Bush out of office, Rove instructed his lawyer, Robert Luskin, to ask the Obama White House whether the same privileges currently exist.

Asked for an answer at the White House briefing session, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama's legal counsel was still looking into it.

"The office of White House counsel is studying those issues and will advise us when we have a recommendation," Gibbs said.

It is a fairly clever maneuver on Rove's behalf -- forcing Obama to make a judgment on executive privileges that could have ramifications later in his presidency. But it is also, probably, the only move he could have made, beyond acquiescing to Conyers' demand and traveling up to Capitol Hill.

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House GOP member to Rush: Back off


Rush Limbaugh may command a large following, but his caustic comments Monday about the GOP’s congressional leadership have at least one Republican House member defending his colleagues and offering an unusually candid critique of the talk radio powerhouse and his fellow commentators.

Responding to President Obama’s recommendation to Republican congressional leaders last week that they not follow Limbaugh’s lead, the conservative talkmeister said on his show that Obama is “obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He's more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner, which doesn't say much about our party."

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., did not take kindly to this assessment in an interview with Politico Tuesday.

“I think that our leadership, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, are taking the right approach,” Gingrey said. “I mean, it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party. You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing. But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn’t be or wouldn’t be good leaders, they’re not in that position of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell."

Asked to respond to Gingrey, Limbaugh, in an email to Politico, wrote: “I'm sure he is doing his best but it does not appear to be good enough. He may not have noticed that the number of Republican colleagues he has in the House has dwindled. And they will dwindle more if he and his friends don't show more leadership and effectiveness in battling the most left-wing agenda in modern history. And they won't continue to lose because of me, but because of their relationship with the grassroots, which is hurting. Conservatives want leadership from those who claim to represent them. And we'll know it when we see it.”

The back and forth comes as some on the right speak more openly about what they perceive as the lack of leadership in the Republican Party. Unapologetic conservatives, like Limbaugh would prefer to see elected Republicans confront the new president. But many GOP officials, daunted by the new president’s approval rating and what they believe is fatigue on the part of voters over partisan fighting, are loath to openly criticize Obama.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the GOP member as Rep. Tom Price. Politico regrets the error.

Original here

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

AP IMPACT: US bets execs can save banks, this time

By MATT APUZZO and DANIEL WAGNER, Associated Press Writers

In this April 3, 2008, file photo, JP Morgan Chairman and Chief Executive AP – In this April 3, 2008, file photo, JP Morgan Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon testifies …

WASHINGTON – It's one of the ironies of the U.S. financial bailout: The banking executives now managing billions in taxpayer money are the same ones who oversaw the industry's near collapse.

At banks receiving federal bailout money, nearly nine of every 10 of the most senior executives from 2006 are still on the job, according to an Associated Press analysis of regulatory and company documents.

Even top executives whose banks made such risky loans they imperiled the economy have been largely spared any threat to their jobs. Less fortunate are more than 100,000 bank employees laid off during a two-year stretch when industry unemployment nearly tripled, bank stocks plummeted and credit dried up.

"The same people at the top are still there, the same people who made the decisions causing a lot of our financial crisis," said Rebecca Trevino of Louisville, Ky., a mother of three who was laid off from her job as a Bank of America training coordinator in October. "But that's what tends to happen in leadership. The people at the top, there's always some other place to lay blame."

It's hardly a surprise that workers and managers experience a recession differently. What's new is that taxpayers are now shareholders in the nation's bailed-out banks, yet they lack the usual shareholder power to question management decisions or demand house-cleaning in the executive suites.

Wells Fargo & Co., for example, once was among the top lenders for subprime mortgages, loans to buyers with low credit scores. The company received $25 billion in bailout money and plans layoffs in the coming months. But longtime CEO Richard Kovacevich remains the company's chairman, and the board recently waived its mandatory retirement age for him.

"Our senior leadership team of our CEO and his direct reports have an average tenure of almost a quarter-century with our company," Wells Fargo spokeswoman Julia Tunis Bernard said in a statement that also highlighted the company's "unchanging vision."

Under the government's bailout plan, taxpayers must take it on faith that bank executives will make better decisions this time around, said Jamie Court, president of the California-based group Consumer Watchdog.

"When you deal with the same dogs, you're going to end up with the same fleas," said Court.

The bailout list includes banks ranging from Wall Street giants to community banks. Some led the rush into subprime mortgages. Others followed.

Many executives on the list are small-town executives who earn a fraction of Wall Street salaries and who lately have suffered alongside their communities. The trouble with the bailout is that nobody ever stopped to figure out who caused the avalanche and who simply got buried, said University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici.

"If they got involved in questionable loans and contributed to the speculative bubble, they should be out," Morici said. "These people should be removed and banned from banking, unless we wanted to make them all janitors. But the question then is, Can they be trusted wandering around the offices at night?"

The president of the American Bankers Association, Ed Yingling, said he understands people are frustrated. But most banks had nothing to do with the subprime crisis, he said. As for whether taxpayers should demand management changes, he said that was never a condition of the bailout plan the government crafted.

"Are we going to have the American people saying, 'We're invested in you, so now we should look at your margins, look at every loan you make, look at your lending policies?' No. That was never discussed," Yingling said. "You can't micromanage banks."

In some cases, the market held executives accountable for the mortgage crisis. When Washington Mutual, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers were bought up, many executives lost their jobs. When the government took over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, executives were fired.

But the financial bailout has forced no such consequences. AP's review of the more than 200 publicly traded banks that received bailout money found that about 87 percent of the top three executives in 2006 — typically the chief executive, operating and financial officers — are still on the job.

And that number is deceptively low, since those few executives who left their jobs often did so because they retired — or died. Several stayed on as directors or in consulting positions.

Even banks that were involved in risky lending saw little turnover:

_JPMorgan Chase & Co., which invested billions in subprime mortgages, has the same leadership team, led by CEO James Dimon. Dimon made about $28 million in 2007. The company is shedding about 10 percent of its investment bank staff.

_Cleveland-based KeyCorp, which ran subprime lending subsidiary Champion Mortgage until late 2006, received $2.5 billion in bailout money. Its chairman and CEO, Henry Meyer, has been in charge since 2001. Jeffrey Weeden, the company's chief financial officer, and Thomas Stevens, the administrative officer who oversaw the risk review group, have been on the job for years.

KeyCorp has been cutting jobs, including 200 announced this month at a Tacoma, Wash., call center. A company spokesman said the bank was too busy preparing its earnings report to answer questions about whether taxpayers should have confidence in the company's management.

"The on-the-record comment I would make is that we declined to comment even though we'd like to, because we don't have time," spokesman Bill Murschel said.

_Capital One Financial Corp., one of the nation's biggest credit-card providers, dove into the risky mortgage business when it bought GreenPoint Mortgage in 2006. GreenPoint made loans to borrowers without verifying income or credit scores, then sold those loans to investors.

A year later, Capital One shuttered GreenPoint, cutting 1,900 jobs. Capital One CEO Richard Fairbank and his top executives were not among them. The company received about $3.5 billion in bailout money.

In Louisville, Trevino and her family are living mostly off credit cards and savings while she interviews for jobs. Her husband is in commercial real estate, which has slowed significantly. After what she described as a bare-bones Christmas, she said she reviewed her finances and realized they might lose their home.

"That's when I was just, 'Lord, I know you have a plan. Can you just show me? I'd really like to know,'" she said.

Trevino isn't angry that her old boss, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, remains on the job. And she agrees the government needed to rescue banks. But some bank executives did contribute to the crisis, she said, and there should have been some oversight.

"It is surprising that leadership can make decisions that lead to financial ruin for so many," she said, "and then get bailed out for it."

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