Potential Explanation for the Gregg Pick...

Judd Gregg - Commerce Secretary Nominee

Wonk Room notes that while Commerce Secretary nominee Sen. Judd Gregg is a conservative Republican, he respects science and has long been a congressional champion of the oceans. That's important, because as Secretary of Commerce he will oversee a budget that devotes a full 60 percent of its resources to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is one of the many miscellaneous agencies that, for one reason or another, have ended up in Commerce.

So Obama gets to say he is the first president since Teddy Roosevelt to appoint three members of the opposing party to his cabinet, and Gregg is actually good on his department's most important concern.

I'm slightly less befuddled than I was yesterday.


How hard is it to change the ways of Washington?

It turns out it can be quite difficult if you rely on the same old Washington players.

On Tuesday, two high-profile Obama appointees withdrew as nominees, citing tax problems. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle bowed out as President Obama's pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services. And Nancy Killefer gave up her appointment as the administration's chief performance officer (a new position).

Killefer, an executive at McKinsey & Company, a strategic management consulting firm, had committed a routine transgression: she had failed to pay unemployment taxes for household help. Daschle, though, had a more unusual problem: he had failed to pay taxes for a car and driver that had been provided to him by Leo Hindery, a financier who had retained Daschle as an adviser. But perhaps more worrisome was Daschle's post-Senate career, in which he has made millions of dollars not by lobbying but by providing strategic advice to lobbyists and by giving speeches to health care firms.

Daschle was just one of several high-profile Obama appointees who have turned public service into private wealth. George Mitchell, Obama's Mideast envoy, is a senior leader of DLA Piper, a powerful lobbying shop and law firm in Washington. Mark Patterson, chief of staff at the Treasury Department, was a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs. William Lynn, Obama's No. 2 at the Pentagon, was a lobbyist for Raytheon, a major military contractor. Both Lynn and Patterson have had to receive waivers from the Obama administration's tough ethics rules.

Why has Obama had to turn to former lobbyists and major Washington string-pullers? At Tuesday's press briefing, I asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs if Obama was finding it tough to change Washington. Here's the exchange:

If you were to look at two pictures, one representing the most important moment for women's rights legislation under the Bush Administration and another representing the most important moment for women's rights legislation under the still young Obama Administration, what do you think you'd see?

Feministe has the answer. It's pretty stunning.

Considering their magnitude, the protests that have taken place across Europe in the last week have received remarkably little coverage in the U.S. press.

One exception is the latest issue of Newsweek, which warns policymakers to "Beware the European Street":

Everyone knows about the "Arab Street," to which most policymakers listen with care. But now may be the time of the European street. More and more disenchanted citizens are deciding that the politics of the street make more sense than their ruling politicians. Europe's elite may have just made its annual pilgrimage to Davos, but no one is listening to the incantations from the Swiss Alps. Instead, the European public has staged angry demonstrations in more and more countries.

More complete coverage comes out of London. In a piece called "Sarkozy vs. The Street," The Independent reported on protests in France last Thursday:

In the biggest demonstrations seen in France for more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets yesterday to protest against everything from the global economic crisis to President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to shrink the French state.
About 300,000 people – mostly representing the many tribes of a rejuvenated left-wing movement – marched raucously through the centre of Paris to demand higher wages, more job protection and greater government efforts to stop the country from tipping into a deep recession.

The Guardian offered a roundup of protests that took place around Europe the same day--particularly in Eastern Europe, where they are experiencing a new side of capitalism:

France paralysed by a wave of strike action, the boulevards of Paris resembling a debris-strewn battlefield. The Hungarian currency sinks to its lowest level ever against the euro, as the unemployment figure rises. Greek farmers block the road into Bulgaria in protest at low prices for their produce. New figures from the biggest bank in the Baltic show that the three post-Soviet states there face the biggest recessions in Europe.
It's a snapshot of a single day – yesterday – in a Europe sinking into the bleakest of times. But while the outlook may be dark in the big wealthy democracies of western Europe, it is in the young, poor, vulnerable states of central and eastern Europe that the trauma of crash, slump and meltdown looks graver.
Exactly 20 years ago, in serial revolutionary rejoicing, they ditched communism to put their faith in a capitalism now in crisis and by which they feel betrayed. The result has been the biggest protests across the former communist bloc since the days of people power.

The Guardian also has a photo series--take a look. Makes you wonder why we're not seeing pictures like this from Sacramento, or Las Vegas, or Detroit--or Wall Street, for that matter.


White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insists that President Obama is still reviewing his options when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, but has so far refused to indicate where US policy is heading. This has not stopped others from speculating about how the new administration will choose to meet the challenges ahead.

A report (.pdf) released today by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that following the conventional (and prevailing) wisdom on how to prosecute the Afghan War will only make things worse. Washington and its NATO partners recognize that Afghanistan is slowly slipping away, back towards the chaos that gave birth to the Taliban and played host to Al Qaeda. The solution, most say, is to withdraw US troops from Iraq and redeploy combat units to Afghanistan, where they will establish the level of security required for political and social development to occur. (It must be said that European governments are loathe to shoulder much of the burden.) Just this morning, Politico reports that Obama will soon request that at least another 10,000 troops deploy to Afghanistan, the first of several new deployments that are in the planning stages.

This is precisely the wrong way to go, says Gilles Dorronsoro, author of the Carnegie report. Applying foreign policy realism to the problem of Afghanistan, he writes that "the international coalition now has limited resources and a narrow political time frame to create lasting Afghan institutions. Yet, building such institutions is our only real exit strategy." The troops we have at our disposal, even after an Iraqi-type "surge," are unlikely to make much difference on the ground, and as Dorronsoro points out, small-scale surges in the past have only led to increased violence and an emboldened insurgency.


As the Senate Finance Committee reviewed Tom Daschle's financial records on Monday, Daschle himself apologized for "the errors that required me to amend my tax returns." But that apology didn't turn out to be enough. On Tuesday, Daschle withdrew his name from consideration as the Obama administration's Health and Human Services nominee.

Throughout all this, however, he offered no apologies for the riches he reaped quite legally by serving the interests of private health care companies.

There are plenty of things in Daschle's financial history that should have alarmed the White House and his former Senate colleagues a lot more than a car and driver he forgot to report to the IRS. (Some of them are well documented by others here at Mother Jones.) But no one seemed much concerned about such matters--a fact that in itself reveals the inherent weaknesses in President Obama's restrictions on former lobbyists serving in government.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was one of several leading Democrats who defended Daschle on the Sunday morning news shows. Kerry declared that Daschle's tax issues were an "innocent mistake" that would not affect his ability to perform his job "one iota."

Yes, it's probably true that being driven around in a Cadillac and not paying taxes on it won't compromise Daschle's capabilities or independence as HHS secretary or "health czar." The same cannot be said about all the income that Daschle did report to the IRS. As described by the New York Times:

As a politician, Mr. Daschle often struck a populist note, but his financial disclosure report shows that in the last two years, he received $2.1 million from a law firm, Alston & Bird; $2 million in consulting fees from a private equity firm run by a major Democratic fundraiser, Leo Hindery Jr. (which provided him with the car and driver); and at least $220,000 for speeches to health care, pharmaceutical and insurance companies. He also received nearly $100,000 from health-related companies affected by federal regulation.
Mr. Obama has instituted rules requiring former lobbyists in his administration to pledge not to deal with former clients...As a strategic adviser to companies, Mr. Daschle did not have to register as a lobbyist, and is not technically covered by those rules.
"He's never lobbied, therefore he's not in violation of the pledge," [Press Secretary Robert] Gibbs said. "The president is comfortable with Senator Daschle's variety of experiences and backgrounds. It's why he believes he's best suited to the efforts to reform our health care system."

The Washington Post offered further details on how "exactly how, without becoming a registered lobbyist, he made millions of dollars giving public speeches and private counsel to insurers, hospitals, realtors, farmers, energy firms and telecommunications companies with complex regulatory and legislative interests in Washington":

Is this what we've come to? Republicans lawmakers listen to conservative experts and Democratic lawmakers listen to liberal experts, and because everyone listens to people who will tell them what they want to hear the idea of expertise is rendered meaningless, thus opening the door for Joe the freaking Plumber to advise the Conservative Working Group in Congress on how to proceed on the stimulus bill.

This isn't a single, random, insanely silly moment. This is a sign that something is deeply wrong with the way we make policy in this country. It shouldn't make you laugh. It should make you cry. (Okay, maybe laugh and cry.)

I can't say I understand Obama's appointment of Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) to his cabinet. The Democratic governor of New Hampshire has said he will appoint a placeholder Republican to finish Gregg's term, meaning that the balance of the Senate does not change. So in exchange for the Democrats NOT getting 60 senators, a conservative now runs the Department of Commerce. Befuddling.

And this makes it even more confusing:

President Obama's new candidate to run the Commerce Department voted in favor of abolishing the agency as a member of the Budget Committee and on the Senate floor in 1995.
Sen. Judd Gregg , R-N.H., whose nomination was expected to be announced Tuesday, also worked in the Senate to trim the department's budget as head of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee.... The Senate version of the controversial measure envisioned spending cuts of more than $960 billion, almost half of it from Medicare and Medicaid.

Can someone explain this to me? The Republican replacing Gregg is supposedly more moderate, and Obama gets to tout his bipartisan bona fides. Is that it? Is that worth putting a budget hawk in charge of a federal department?

You wouldn't have thought that the Obama team is taking a courageous stand by insisting on the same DOD funding as the Bush Administration, but it looks like that is exactly what is going on. Keep the following in mind when conservatives starting talking about Obama being weak on defense. CQ Politics:

The Obama administration has given the Pentagon a $527 billion limit, excluding war costs, for its fiscal 2010 defense budget, an official with the White House's Office of Management and Budget said Monday.
If enacted, that would be an 8 percent increase from the $487.7 billion allocated for fiscal 2009, and it would match what the Bush administration estimated last year for the Pentagon in fiscal 2010. But it sets up a potential conflict between the new administration and the Defense Department's entrenched bureaucracy, which has remained largely intact through the presidential transition.
Some Pentagon officials and congressional conservatives are already trying to portray the OMB number as a cut by comparing it to a $584 billion draft fiscal 2010 budget request compiled last fall by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The $527 billion figure is "what the Bush people thought was the right number last February and that's the number we're going with," said the OMB official, who declined to be identified. "The Joint Chiefs did that to lay down a marker for the incoming administration that was unrealistic. It's more of a wish list than anything else."

I love this little note: "The Pentagon refused to comment publicly on why it would need the higher amount."

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was scheduled to brief President Barack Obama on Afghanistan on Monday afternoon. The pair, according to some media reports, were expected to review Pentagon plans for sending more than 15,000 US troops to Afghanistan. But at Monday's daily press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said nothing so definitive was on the agenda and that the Obama administration's review of its Afghanistan policy was still under way.

Still, one question is whether Obama's basic approach to Afghanistan—which appears to involve beefing up the troops in the NATO-led force there--has a fatal flaw. Bloomberg reports: