Obama Takes on Health Care Critics
The Washington Postand the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with President Obama's personal involvement in a town hall meeting on health care, the first of three this week in which he intends to directly confront misinformation about the overhaul efforts. Obama said that just like every other time "we come close to passing health insurance reform," special interest groups "use their political allies to scare and mislead the American people." USA Todayleads with word that shortly after Obama's inauguration, federal authorities stepped up efforts to find lone attackers who could be considering carrying out ideologically based assaults, such as the recent murder of the abortion doctor in Kansas. Known as the "Lone Wolf Initiative," FBI agents are working to gather more information about possible suspects to disrupt attacks before they materialize.
The Los Angeles Timesleads, and the New York Timesoff-leads, new internal documents released yesterday that show how Karl Rove and other senior officials in the Bush administration played a greater role in the firing of several U.S. attorneys than was previously known. The e-mails and congressional testimony made public by the House judiciary committee show how the dismissals were the result of a two-year effort that appears to have targeted certain prosecutors for political reasons, and was part of a larger pattern of trying to influence Justice Department officials on several issues. The NYT leads with a look at how Iraqi Shiites have so far resisted retaliating against the recent wave of violence in which they are frequently the victims. This is a marked contrast to a few years ago, when Shiites and Sunnis seemed locked in an endless stream of retaliatory attacks. Now, even as hundreds are killed and some of the Shiites' holiest sites are attacked, they are listening to political and religious leaders who are urging followers to remain peaceful in the face of violence.
In the town hall meeting, Obama talked about the claim that lawmakers "voted for 'death panels' that will basically pull the plug on Grandma" and highlighted that he's "not in favor of them," urging critics to "disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations." It was one statement, but, as USAT notes, the very idea that Obama felt the need to deny he has a grand plan to kill grandmothers illustrates just how much the loudest critics of health care reform have been able to dominate the debate.
Outside the meeting, those critics were out in full force, and "the gathering verged on a street brawl," reports the WSJ. Demonstrators began arriving early in the morning and gathered on either side of the street for a good old-fashioned shouting match. Opponents carried signs, including ones that called Obama a socialist; "Obamahidinejad," in reference to the Iranian president; and even one that superimposed his face on a Nazi storm trooper. "Adolf Hitler was for exterminating the weak, not just the Jews and stuff, and socialism—that's what's going to happen," explained the woman who was carrying that particular sign, which was apparently made by her chronically ill mother who gets expensive treatments courtesy of Medicare.
According to senior aides, the president has been looking forward to the opportunity to defend his efforts at health care reform. But the mood inside the town hall meeting was all quite respectful, even after Obama encouraged skeptics to speak up. People may be more reluctant to harshly criticize the president to his face, but it was a whole different story for some members of Congress. In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill was frequently shouted down during a town hall meeting and security officials had to remove two people. Another scheduled meeting had to be canceled due to security concerns. In Pennsylvania, a mere 15 minutes after Sen. Arlen Specter's town hall meeting got underway someone was already accusing him of "trampling" on the Constitution. "One day God is going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you!" the man continued to loud applause.
The NYT devotes a front-page piece to Specter's town hall and says that it looked like the vast majority of those who attended the meeting were against the efforts to overhaul health care. But to them, it's more than that. They see the health care efforts as another example of a federal government obsessed with interfering in the private sector. Indeed, the WP's Dan Balz notes the issue, and particularly the public insurance option, has become "an easy target for opponents who say his administration is behind the most significant enlargement of the federal government since the Great Society programs." The White House insists everything Obama did to prop up the economy was necessary and not the result of some big-government ideology, but it's easy for Republicans to argue otherwise. Balz goes on to say that Obama might have no choice but to give up on the public option early in the process in order to reshape the debate.
"I think it is very hard because [Democrats] don't have the message machine the Republicans do," a linguistics professor tells the LAT. "The Democrats still believe in Enlightenment reason: If you just tell people the truth, they will come to the right conclusion."
Some senior White House aides are cautioning against overreacting to the more outlandish and loud protesters at the town hall meetings, noting they could end up working in Obama's favor. "I think the public looks at screaming, swastikas, attacks. ... It's not a persuasive argument," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said. "If anything, it is the opposite."
In a front-page piece, the WSJ notes that, particularly when it comes to economics, Obama is a big fan of details. Every weekday morning, Obama gets an update on the economy from his advisers, and unlike many presidents who choose to focus on the big picture, he often "dives into the minutiae." This attention to detail "has helped give a paradoxical cast to his first months," declares the paper. He has talked about overhauling certain sectors of the economy to such an extent that even Democrats have raised objections. But after expressing grand ambitions, he "has shown last-minute caution on many fronts," which result in much more modest initiatives.
The NYT takes a front-page look at how two retired military psychologists took the lead in devising the CIA's post-Sept. 11 interrogation program even though they never carried out a real interrogation, had no particular expertise on the issue, and weren't even scholars of al-Qaida. The story of the two contractors has been told before, but the paper does a good job of recounting how Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen quickly built up a lucrative contracting business that has come crashing down ever since the CIA terminated its contracts last spring. Shortly after Sept. 11, the two men used a seized al-Qaida manual on resisting interrogations to create the American interrogation program. When Abu Zubaydah was captured, the CIA was ready to implement the brutal techniques, despite the objections of many officials present. And despite the fact that the torture techniques weren't really effective in eliciting more information, the CIA kept using them.
Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.