Bush will unveil new intelligence powers; McCain is trying to shape Obama's image.

Bush will unveil new intelligence powers; McCain is trying to shape Obama's image.

Bush will unveil new intelligence powers; McCain is trying to shape Obama's image.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 31 2008 6:22 AM

Rove Is in the Air

The Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox leads with word that the White House will announce  "the largest overhaul of intelligence powers in a generation" today. President Bush signed an executive order updating spy powers yesterday that boosts the power of the director of national intelligence. The Los Angeles Timesleads with a look at how John McCain's campaign is focusing its energies on trying to shape the public's view of Barack Obama. Funnily enough, that's exactly what Obama's campaign is trying to do as well. While McCain has turned increasingly negative—"even derisive," says the LAT—in trying to portray Obama as inexperienced and out of touch, the presumptive Democratic nominee is attempting to convince voters that he can be trusted as commander in chief.

The New York Timesleads with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement that he would resign after his party chooses a new leader in the September elections. The Washington Postleads with a new National Defense Strategy that Secretary Robert Gates approved last month and hasn't been officially released. In the document, Gates describes the fight against extremists and terrorists as a "Long War" that will not end with the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, the Pentagon must master "irregular" warfare, and the country needs to embrace the use of "soft power" if it hopes to be successful. USA Todayleads with a look at how air travelers have been experiencing lots of flight delays despite government efforts to alleviate the problem after last year's disastrous summer. The problem has improved in some airports and worsened in others. But in roughly the first half of the year, the number of on-time arrivals across the country improved by less than one percentage point from last year.

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Under the executive order signed by Bush yesterday, the director of national intelligence will have more power over staffing and coordinating work between agencies. The director will also be responsible for nurturing relationships with foreign intelligence services and developing policy, which the CIA would have to implement. The order "largely steered clear of prickly civil-liberties issues" regarding domestic surveillance but did assign the attorney general a greater oversight role, "which intelligence officials cast as an enhancement of privacy," reports the WSJ. Some in Congress expressed frustration that the White House didn't consult with them about the changes.

The news of Olmert's resignation was hardly unexpected because the prime minister has been severely weakened by a series of corruption scandals, although he has never been charged. But the move has raised doubts about the recently stepped-up efforts at peace talks with the Palestinian Authority and Syria. The LAT notes that if the party's new leader fails to form a new government without general elections, Israel could be "without effective leadership" until early next year. And, as might be expected, uncertainty about Israel's political future makes it unlikely that Olmert would be able to reach a deal with either the Palestinians or Syria.

In the new National Defense Strategy, Gates also points to China and Russia as potential threats and says the United States needs to work toward preventing conflict with them by building "collaborative and cooperative relationships." The Post says it is "unusual for a defense secretary to offer a comprehensive military strategy so late in an administration's tenure." But the paper for some reason fails to mention that, as has been widely reported, both McCain and Obama appear open to the idea of asking Gates to stay put at least temporarily. In the document, Gates wrote that it could be used by a future administration as a "blueprint to success."

The WP hears word that the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq may have recently moved to Afghanistan with several of his closest aides. This development comes as U.S. intelligence officials say they are seeing hints that the Sunni insurgent group is encouraging new recruits to avoid Iraq and go to Afghanistan and Pakistan instead. The Post reports that even some al-Qaida in Iraq leaders acknowledge their organization has suffered serious setbacks, but many blame the failures on a lack of leadership, and some say they have split off and created their own insurgent group.

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Obama's efforts to "portray himself as presidential … run the risk of appearing arrogant or presumptuous," says the LAT. That's exactly what the McCain campaign is hoping for as it released an advertisement yesterday that compares—"and not in a good way," the NYT helpfully specifies—Obama to celebrities like Britney Spears by showing pictures of his speech in Berlin last week. "Right now, both campaigns have to do the same thing, which is establish who Barack Obama is," a Republican pollster tells the LAT. "That's the real battle going on."

Something the LAT fails to mention but the NYT points out in its off-lead is that McCain's tactic comes straight out of the President George Bush playbook that seeks "to make campaigns referendums on its opponents." The WP goes one step further and directly states that McCain is "adopting the aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of Karl Rove." Everyone says that even some Republicans have been taken aback by the recent aggressiveness of McCain's attacks. Espousing such a persistent negative message about his opponent could easily evaporate one of the main aspects working in McCain's favor—his image as a politician who doesn't play by the normal rules of Washington. Still, it's clear that since much of the public is trying to make up its mind about Obama, McCain has a great opportunity to plant doubts about the Democrat that could persist until Election Day.

That is assuming he can stick to the message. In a front-page piece that almost (but not quite) implies that McCain's aides are thrusting this aggressive style on the candidate against his will, the Post notes that the senator from Arizona is unpredictable and dislikes parroting talking points over and over again. As a result, McCain's "advisers cringe" when he "keeps talking" and subsequently dilutes what could have been a good sound bite. McCain's campaign has been criticized for lacking a consistent message, but to some Republicans that failure has more to do with the candidate's shortcomings rather than the campaign's failures. And the NYT points out that there are those who believe that trying to "apply the Bush model" to McCain simply won't work. "It could be the Coca-Cola strategy of marketing that they're trying to apply to Dr Pepper," a former McCain strategist said.

In the Post's op-ed page, David Ignatius flat-out suggests that what we're seeing now isn't the real McCain. In a fawning piece that goes through McCain's biography, Ignatius says the presumptive Republican nominee needs to stop listening to advisers and start being himself. "What's damaging the McCain campaign now, I suspect, is that this fiercely independent man is trying to please other people," writes Ignatius. "He should give that up and be the person whose voice shines through the pages of his life story."

Not everyone agrees. In a piece that is bluntly (disrespectfully?) titled "Is John McCain Stupid?" the WSJ's Daniel Henninger writes that McCain is constantly making things harder for himself on the campaign trail by talking too much and failing to make things simple. "Someone in the McCain circle had better do some straight talking to the candidate," writes Henninger, who suggests that, essentially, the presumptive Republican nominee needs to be saved from himself. Instead of playing to win, McCain is "competing as if he expects the other side to lose it for him."

In the LAT, Jonathan Chait also essentially says that Obama needs to let go of his instincts, but in the other direction. Instead of just presenting himself as the better candidate, Obama must tell voters why they shouldn't vote for McCain. Just like McCain seems to be following Bush's playbook, Chait says Obama appears to have picked up John Kerry's strategy that worked so well in 2004. Now, instead of relying on his usual "weak-tea replies" that "express 'disappointment' with McCain," Obama needs to go on the offensive and start attacking. "Obama doesn't need to engage in character assassination and baseless charges, as his opponent has done," writes Chait. "All he needs to do is stop letting McCain paint a wildly distorted self-portrait."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.