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."

Original here

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."

Original here

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.”

Original here

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.

Original here

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.

Original here

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.

Original here

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

Original here

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.

Original here

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.’ ”

Original here

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?"

Original here