The Washington Postleads with Barack Obama defending his plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq, despite Gen. David Petraeus' opposition to setting any sort of timetable. Now that the Afghanistan and Iraq leg of his trip is behind him, Obama will shift focus and meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders today. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with Obama saying he would work to bring Israelis and Palestinians together from "the minute I step into office." USA Today leads with a look at how more money is being spent on veterans "than at any time in modern history." The federal government spent $82 billion on veterans last year, partly due to the increased costs of caring for aging Vietnam veterans but also as a result of the costs associated with treating injured troops coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And the number will keep on increasing, as expenditures are likely to hit $91 billion this fiscal year. In 1947, when the government spent $80 billion (adjusted for inflation) on veterans, health care amounted to 12 percent of the budget, now it's 44 percent.
The New York Timesleads with a look at how mortgage rates are on the rise as worries continue to mount about the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That means homeowners, particularly those with mortgages that require borrowers to only pay the interest for the first few years, could see a sharp increase in their monthly bills. But the paper also notes that "mortgage rates remain relatively low by historical standards" and, in fact, mortgage rates had already approached current levels earlier this year. But the latest increase "adds urgency to the government's efforts to restore confidence" in the mortgage giants. The Los Angeles Timesleads with new data showing that a record number of Californians have lost their homes to foreclosure in the past three months. Across the state, foreclosures increased 33.5 percent compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, the number of defaults in the state increased a mere 6.6 percent, but no one knows whether that means a peak has been reached or whether it simply marks a temporary lull.
While Obama vowed to listen to military leaders when making decisions, he also said he won't always follow their advice because the president needs to think of the "broader strategic framework." Obama also acknowledged the "surge" in troops helped reduce violence in Iraq but said it was only one of several factors that led to the current situation. And when questioned by a television reporter, Obama said that even knowing what he knows now he would have still opposed the "surge." John McCain's camp was quick to respond, and said Obama "has made clear that his goal remains unconditional withdrawal rather than securing the victory our troops have earned and the surge has made possible."
In an analysis inside, the Post makes the interesting observation that Obama has successfully "remade the campaign's foreign policy playing field" by essentially declaring that "the war in Iraq [is] all but over." With the improved security situation, Obama says that Iraq now needs "a political solution" and the United States must shift focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It seems the papers—perhaps due to Obama's prodding—are finally spelling out that despite the White House's insistence otherwise, the "surge" it hasn't been the only factor that contributed to the decline of violence in Iraq. That should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the situation in Iraq closely, but there's recently been a trend to oversimplify the drop in violence: before the increase in troops vs. after. Today, the Post notes that many in the military and intelligence communities believe "the drop was the combined result of a Shiite militia cease-fire and the rejection of al-Qaeda-allied insurgents by Sunni tribal leaders" as well as the troop buildup.
Now Obama will turn his attention to Israel and use the opportunity to try to bolster his popularity among American Jews. The WSJ notes that his "schedule tentatively includes meetings with virtually every senior Israeli leader." But he's also expected to meet with the Palestinian president in the West Bank, a trip McCain was criticized for not taking when he traveled to Israel in March. The NYT says that Obama's planned meetings with leaders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide "could well present the most politically trying day of his weeklong overseas trip."
As lawmakers appeared to reach a final agreement on the housing package that would allow the government to step in and rescue Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Congressional Budget Office said there's a chance the mortgage giants could require as much as $25 billion from the federal government. The budget office said there's a better than 50 percent chance that Fannie and Freddie won't need a bailout. The White House has vowed to veto the legislation over plans to include money to help local governments buy and rehabilitate properties. But the administration is likely to back down from the threat, particularly since it has been lobbying Congress to approve certain major provisions in the bill.
The LAT and NYT front the revelation that war-crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic was hiding in plain sight. Although there was speculation that he had been hiding in monasteries or caves, the truth is that Karadzic was walking the streets of Belgrade and even giving public lectures on alternative medicine as "Dragan David Dabic." The LAT and NYT both say he looked a bit like Santa Claus, and his disguise was so good that even those who talked to him regularly had no idea who he really was. The Post says that even the Serbian secret police weren't sure when they came upon him while tracking some of his suspected associates. The WSJ is most skeptical and says many are speculating his capture "was a matter of political will" rather than the product of new information.
The WP fronts a look at how political appointees at the Department of Labor are working quickly to push a rule that would make it more difficult to regulate "workers' on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins." Seemingly out of nowhere, changing the way the risks of exposure are measured has become a top priority for a department that has been reluctant to revise workplace safety rules. Naturally this has led many to say the Bush administration wants to provide a "parting gift" to the business community.
The NYT publishes a front-page piece that asks whether Obama would be able to fulfill his promise to reduce health care costs enough to "bring down premiums by $2,500 for the typical family." Answer? No one really knows, but probably not. Even if Obama manages to push his health care changes through Congress, many think it's unlikely those types of savings will actually materialize, especially in the first four years of an Obama administration. Part of the problem is that "it is not completely clear what he is promising," notes the NYT.
The WP's Howard Kurtz points out that lots of attention is being paid to a series of McCain "verbal slips" in recent days. His reference to the "Iraq-Pakistan border," the recent mentions of "Czechoslovakia," and his now-infamous confusion between Sunnis and Shiites are leading some to wonder whether his age has something to do with it. At one point Kurtz makes what seems to be a clearly unfair comparison between McCain's gaffes and Obama's misspeaking episode yesterday—"Israel is a strong friend of Israel's." Regardless, Kurtz does notes that some Obama supporters claim that if the Democrat made as many mistakes on foreign policy issues, the press would immediately claim them as examples of his inexperience.
The WSJ notes that the Beijing Olympics' "five cuddly mascots," known as the Fuwa, "risk joining a long tradition of Olympics mascots gone wrong." Officials got so involved in the process of creating the mascots and changed the original designs so frequently that the artist who designed the Fuwa seems to want nothing to do with them. "When you confront the powers that be, there is no respect for the artist," said the man behind the much-mocked mascot for the 1996 games in Atlanta. "They all kind of jump on it to have their way."