Obama tries to split the difference in detention policy.

Obama tries to split the difference in detention policy.

Obama tries to split the difference in detention policy.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
May 22 2009 6:44 AM

Obama: A Jump to the Left, a Step to the Right

The Washington Post, New York Times, and the  Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with President Obama's speech at the National Archives yesterday in which he defended his anti-terrorism policies. The setting was particularly symbolic. By giving his address where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are kept, Obama meant to underscore the idea that Americans don't have to compromise their values in order to protect the nation's security. As soon as he was done speaking, former Vice President Dick Cheney gave his own speech at a conservative think tank, where he defended the previous administration's policies toward terrorism and harshly criticized Obama. The "contentious tit for tat," as the WSJ puts it, that captivated Washington yesterday was made up of "an extraordinary set of speeches" that "gave the country the national security debate it never had during last year's campaign,"  notes the Post. The NYT says the competing views amounted to "the debate Americans might have witnessed had Mr. Cheney run for president."

The Los Angeles Timescontinues to lead with California's budget woes, noting that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering a series of cuts that would hit the state's poor particularly hard. To make ends meet, Schwarzenegger is considering getting rid of California's main welfare program as well as the medical coverage for low-income families. The program that provides cash grants to college students each year might also be eliminated. These proposals would transform "California from one of the country's most generous states to one of the most tightfisted in aiding the poor," notes the paper. USA Todaydevotes its top spot to Memorial Day, noting how the Internet "is changing how Americans remember the war dead." On Monday, tens of thousands of people will turn to memorial Web sites to mourn, honor, and share memories of men and women who died while serving in uniform. Of course, no one is suggesting that memorial services are going to stop taking place. But the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery says that "how you remember someone, how you tell the story of a life, that's changing fast."

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The WP states that Obama's speech yesterday "had the feel of a campaign event" since he seemed very intent in trying to convince the American people that his approach toward national security, which has come under fire from members of his own party recently, is the right one. Obama emphasized he still intends to transfer some of the detainees from Guantanamo to the United States, noting that his predecessor had carried out a "misguided experiment" that has left the country in "a mess." He once again vowed to hold civilian or military trials for many of the detainees and emphasized that the nation's supermax prisons are perfectly capable of housing dangerous terrorists.

Obama also noted that "a legitimate legal framework" needs to be created to indefinitely detain dangerous terrorists who can't be tried or released. He called it the "toughest single issue we will face." Naturally, human rights groups were none too pleased with what they heard. Obama—and this is really quite the shocker—tried to claim the middle ground, criticizing conservatives for taking an "anything goes" attitude in fighting terrorism, and liberals for not facing the hard truths about terrorism. "Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right," Obama said in what may soon become the catchphrase of his administration.

It's easy to dismiss the Obama vs. Cheney duel as nothing more than media hype (frankly, TP was bored with the narrative before the speeches even started), but the truth is that this kind of mano-a-mano has likely never happened before. "I think it is unprecedented in the modern era," one historian tells the Post. "We've seen outgoing administrations that did not get along with the new administration, but we have never seen the vice president of an outgoing administration lambasting the new administration like this." And lambast he did, particularly in making fun of Obama's attempt to stake a middle ground. "Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy," Cheney said. The WP's Dana Milbank notes that Cheney is "building a case for Obama to be blamed if there is a terrorist attack on his watch."

In a front-page analysis, the NYT notes that Obama is taking "a nuanced set of positions that fall somewhere between George W. Bush and the American Civil Liberties Union." Yesterday he described it as a "surgical approach." This is hardly the first time the president has put on his professorial hat and tried to explain complex issues to the American people. But the truth is that the combination of harshly criticizing Bush-era policies, while also taking some on as his own, has "has generated confusion and disappointment across the political spectrum," notes the NYT. And as shrewd a political operator as he may be, Democrats are nervously looking toward next year's midterm elections, wondering how this will all play out.

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In its own analysis, the LAT points out polls clearly show there is a real risk for both Republicans and Democrat as they try to come up with an approach to national security. Obama may have good approval ratings, but that doesn't mean the traditional support that Republicans have enjoyed in national security issues is gone. A new poll shows the parties are essentially tied when voters are asked which would do a better job in fighting terrorism, and Republicans still have a bit of an advantage on national security. But some suggest that, on Guantanamo and interrogation Obama might be doing the smart thing by not caving in to liberal critics. "The center of the country on these issues is to the right of the Democratic Party," one expert said.

The NYT's David Brooks points out that Obama and Cheney both talked as if "we lived through an eight year period of Bush-Cheney anti-terror policy and now we have entered a very different period." But that "is a completely bogus distortion of history." After Sept. 11 there may have been a period of Bush-Cheney policy, but that lasted "maybe three years." Then a number of Bush officials became more influential and "tried to rein in the excesses" of that policy. "When Cheney lambastes the change in security policy, he's not really attacking the Obama administration," writes Brooks. "He's attacking the Bush administration."

All the talk about whether it's too dangerous to send Guantanamo detainees to federal prisons often ignores the fact that almost three dozen "international terrorists, many with ties to al-Qaeda, reside in a single federal prison in Florence, Colo.," notes the Post. And many are what would be considered Real Bad Guys, including one who was convicted of the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and the leader of the group that carried out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

California leaders are hunkering down, trying to come up with a way to balance the state's budget at a time when analysts say the seemingly never-ending deficit has already increased to $24 billion. The outlook grew even worse yesterday, when federal officials in Washington seemed to make it pretty clear they really have no desire to bail out the state, either through direct assistance or loan guarantees. The White House described it as an issue of fairness, noting that if the White House steps in to help California, other states will soon clamor for the same treatment. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner even expressed doubts that he had the authority to use some of the $700 billion TARP money to aid California. Administration officials recognize they could work around that, but it seems clear that if aid is given to California, it would have to be accompanied by such unattractive terms that no other state would want the same deal.

Helping out the nation's most populous state? That's preposterous! Giving billions more to an automaker? Of course! The WP fronts word that the White House is preparing plans to push General Motors into bankruptcy as early as the end of next week in a plan that could see the company receiving almost $30 billion in additional federal loans. The paper's source warns that the number and timing could still change, but if the dollar amount does end up being that large it would mean the taxpayer investment in GM would total almost $45 billion. Meanwhile, the administration is preparing to get Chrysler out of bankruptcy protection as early as next week. Just as was the case with Chrysler, the administration still hasn't been able to reach an agreement with GM's bondholders. But the "speed with which the Chrysler bankruptcy has proceeded has given the administration more confidence that the best path for GM may be a similar trip," notes the Post. These express bankruptcies are raising concerns that the government may be ignoring the rights of investors and dealers while also failing to recognize that GM's suppliers could face their own problems if the automaker declares bankruptcy.

Nobody fronts the latest from Iraq, where at least 23 Iraqis and three American soldiers were killed yesterday. The Americans were killed by a roadside bomb in the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora. In the northern city of Kirkuk, a suicide bomber killed at least eight members of the Awakening, the U.S.-backed militia.

The NYT fronts, and everyone goes inside with, more details about the four men who were arrested yesterday on suspicion of trying to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes. Lots is still unknown, but there are troubling signs that the federal informant was more than a little instrumental in making the wild dreams of what mostly seem to be petty criminals into a reality. At a small mosque in Newburgh, N.Y., many became suspicious they had a federal informant in their midst since he loudly talked of jihad and even offered people money. Many stayed away. But four men who had previously served time in prison moved in and started hatching the plot, all of which "played out on a veritable soundstage of hidden cameras and secret microphones," notes the NYT. One of the men is on medication for schizophrenia and was living in squalor. Another told the informant he wanted to "do jihad" and told a story of how his parents used to live in Afghanistan, but that all appears to have been part of a fantasy.

The LAT profiles Jack Passion, a 25-year-old musician who won first place in the "full beard: natural" category of the World Beard and Moustache Championships and became an "overnight celebrity in the insular subculture of competitive facial hair." Yes, competitive facial hair is apparently serious business. He recently finished writing a how-to book called The Facial Hair Handbook and is recording his first solo album. But Satruday he'll have to defend his title at the biennial battle. "People are gunning for me," Passion said. " America doesn't love champions, America loves underdogs."

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