Obama shifts emphasis on Iraq and is accused of backtracking on withdrawal plans.

Obama shifts emphasis on Iraq and is accused of backtracking on withdrawal plans.

Obama shifts emphasis on Iraq and is accused of backtracking on withdrawal plans.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 4 2008 6:21 AM

The Long Shift

The Washington Postleads with, and everyone fronts, Sen. Barack Obama suggesting that his plan for withdrawal from Iraq isn't set in stone and he reserves the right to "continue to refine" his policies after meeting with commanders on the ground. The comment led to an outcry that he was backtracking on his plans for withdrawal. A few hours later, he called a second news conference where he was visibly frustrated and emphasized that his "position has not changed" and he intends "to end this war" and remove combat troops within 16 months of becoming president.

The New York Timesleads with, and the Los Angeles Timesfronts, new details about the daring mission that rescued 15 hostages who were being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The NYT emphasizes that the success of the mission highlights how much the Colombian military has been helped by the $5.4 billion in aid it has received from the United States since 2000. It's clear that the the operation was successful partly because the Colombians were able to exploit the weakened state of the FARC. While no one thinks this marks the end for the Marxist group that was founded in 1964, some think history may look at the rescue mission as the catalyst for peace talks. The LAT leads locally with the continuing wildfires in California  that took "an ominous turn" yesterday as a blaze near Santa Barbara threatened populated areas. Tens of thousands of acres have been charred and about 100 fires continue to burn that threaten more than 10,700 homes.

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Everyone notes that Obama had spoken in the past about the need to consult with commanders on the ground in order to come up with a viable withdrawal strategy. So, what happened yesterday? Mainly, it was all about a shift in emphasis. During the primary campaign, Obama emphasized the withdrawal part, whereas yesterday he focused more on the listening-to-commanders-on-the-ground part.

The WP hints that Obama's comments probably wouldn't have been as big of a deal if it weren't for the  fact that the presumptive Democratic nominee has been shifting to the center on several issues lately and it was easy to see yesterday's statements as another example of this trend. Of course, that view was helped along by Sen. John McCain's campaign that quickly pounced and labeled it as another example of how Obama is "a typical politician." The NYT notes Republicans are trying to put Obama in "a double bind" by saying he ignores the reality if he doesn't recognize the improving situation in Iraq, but is a flip-flopper if he shifts his stance on withdrawal.

But the Republicans shouldn't be too quick to slap labels because, as the LAT points out, "McCain has also altered his position." After frequently speaking up against those who proposed withdrawal timetables, McCain switched and said he wanted most troops to be out of Iraq by 2013. The NYT does the best job of explaining how the "evolving situation in Iraq has … tested both candidates." Obama may have shifted his tone, but so has McCain, who touted his support of the war in the Republican primary but now has to face a general electorate that is much more skeptical about continued involvement in Iraq.

Pity the poor headline writers who had to somehow dissect the nuance into a pithy phrase. The WP goes with the more dramatic "Obama May Consider Slowing Iraq Withdrawal," while the LAT plays it safe and says "Republicans Seize on Obama's Comments on Iraq." The NYT probably gets closer to describing the whole story, but has the most boring headline of all: "Obama Fuels Pullout Debate With Remarks."

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Both the LAT and NYT have some juicy details about the rescue operation in the Colombian jungle that many were initially skeptical would actually succeed. "More than one person who looked at this said, 'My God, this looks like a movie plot,'" an American official tells the NYT. When the plan was first presented to Colombia's defense minister, he quickly exclaimed: "Are these people crazy?" The LAT reveals that just in case it failed, the United States was ready to help out with a "Plan B" that would have quickly sent 39 helicopters containing 2,000 Colombian troops and U.S. officials into the jungle.

The rescue mission involved an impressive mix of old-style undercover work (the NYT notes that acting classes were involved) and high-tech monitoring equipment. Not only were the Colombians able to exploit weaknesses in the FARC organizational structure but, interestingly enough, they also benefitted from earlier efforts led by Venezuela to rescue the hostages. In fact, the planners took great care to make the rescue mission look like the Venezuelan operations and even created a Web site and logo for the fake humanitarian organization that was supposed to be transferring the hostages to a special meeting with the new FARC commander.

The WP and LAT front word that the Bush administration has been holding high-level meetings to try to decide what to do about the Guantanamo prison. The WP says the White House is developing "a plan to empty" the prison, while the LAT says there's no consensus on whether it's practical to close the detention facility. Under the plan currently being considered, 80 prisoners would remain in Guantanamo to be tried under the military commissions while 65 detainees would be sent home. The real question is what to do about the 120 remaining prisoners, who are seen as too dangerous to release but for whom there isn't enough evidence to put through a trial. The administration is considering whether it should propose legislation that would establish some form of judicial review for these prisoners inside the United States. But everyone knows that getting such sensitive legislation through Congress in an election year would be difficult.

The LAT and NYT front new data that shows 62,000 jobs were lost in June, adding to a grand total of about 438,000 since the beginning of the year. The LAT notes the unemployment rate remained unchanged, but economists are quick to point out that the figure doesn't tell the full story because many have simply stopped looking for work so are not counted in the official figures. The NYT points out that another disturbing trend is that those lucky enough to have jobs are still struggling because their wages haven't kept up with inflation.

The WP fronts, and everyone mentions, a report issued by the State Department's inspector general that says snooping into the passport files of celebrities  is much more common than previously thought. The investigation started after it was discovered that government contractors had peeked into the passport files of three presidential contenders. In order to figure out the extent of the problem, a list of 150 famous Americans was drawn up, and investigators found that the files of 127 people had been accessed at least once.

In a scathing editorial, the NYT says that Obama "raised our hopes" in the primary campaign with calls of ushering in a new kind of politics, but now "there seems to be a new Barack Obama on the hustings." Besides detailing some "perplexing shifts in position," the editorial board says it disagrees "powerfully" with Obama's recent statements regarding the Supreme Court decisions on the death penalty and gun control. "We are not shocked when a candidate moves to the center for the general election," writes the NYT. "But Mr. Obama's shifts are striking because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions who did not play old political games."

No matter who wins in November, the next occupant of the White House will be left-handed, notes an article in the Post's Style section. Although as a proportion of the general populations, "a left-handed leader should emerge only once every eight presidents," the truth is that after January, five of the last seven presidents "will have been lefties." Even though some say life as a lefty might make a person more ready to face challenges and pressure, experts suggest that voters should really be looking for a leader who can write with both hands. "Mixed-handers are better able to see both sides of the story," a psychology professor said. "If you want change, you might be better with a mixed-handed candidate."

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