Tales from the Trail

Obama’s security tweaks unlikely to quiet political opponents

President Barack Obama will tighten airline security today in a bid to thwart any future attack like last month’s plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner. But will that silence his political opponents? Not likely. With congressional elections looming in November, the stakes may be too high.

Take Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra, for example. He’s running for governor of Michigan and criticizing Obama’s handling of the bomb plot in hopes of making Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, look soft on security.

“If you agree that we need a governor who will stand up the Obama/Pelosi efforts to weaken our security, please make a most generous contribution of $25, $50, $100 or even $250 to my campaign,” he said in a widely quoted letter to prospective supporters.
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The letter caused an uproar among critics who accused Hoekstra of playing politics with national security. But the security issue seems destined to become a leading theme for Republicans in this year’s election battle for control of Congress, which they hope to turn into a referendum on Obama’s policies.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele says national security is among the top issues on which his party needs to engage voters.

“There are a lot of questions out there,” he told NBC’s Today show. “The inconsistency in the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy, particularly with respect to terrorism, is a concern.”

Bomb plot thrusts Obama into political storm

President Barack Obama is weathering a political storm over last month’s suspected al Qaeda plot to bomb a Detroit-bound plane, particularly from Republicans who say he dropped the ball on security while pursuing healthcare and climate reforms. But how much substance there is behind the allegations may depend on who’s talking.

Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina told NBC’s Today show that he believes Obama just woke up to the gravity of the al Qaeda threat. SECURITY-AIRLINE/OBAMA

“A lot of us have been concerned over the last year that the president did seem to downplay the threat of terror. He doesn’t use the word anymore. He hesitates to say that there is a war on terror,” DeMint said.

First Lady proposes coup as Obama family finishes Hawaii vacation

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All good things must come to an end, including presidential vacations.

After several golf games, beach days and dinners out, President Barack Obama and his family are leaving Hawaii to head back to Washington and the waiting White House.

Unless First Lady Michelle Obama has anything to say about it,  that is.

“I’m trying to mount a coup,” Mrs. Obama joked to reporters about staying in the sunny island state. “Are we all in?”

The president may wish that coup had succeeded when he gets back to Washington on Monday. A debate about U.S. national security in the wake of the attempted  bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day awaits him upon his return.

Traffic complaint? You travel by motorcade!

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Virginia Governor Tim Kaine was surprised on his “Ask the Governor” monthly radio show on Tuesday when caller “Barry from DC” turned out to be a particularly well-known “Barry” from Washington, D.C. — U.S. President Barack Obama, not a listener he was told was telephoning to complain about traffic, a laughable suggestion given the president cuts through Washington’s notorious gridlock with the assistance of a multi-vehicle motorcade and heavily armed security detail.

The president’s call to Kaine had been arranged in advance as a surprise to the governor, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to mark his last time on the show, which airs on Washington radio station WTOP.  Virginia’s constitution limits its governors to one four-year term in office and Kaine will be succeeded next month by Republican Bob McDonnell.

“Governor Kaine, this is actually the president of the United States calling,” Obama said and congratulated Kaine on his service as governor. With Kaine’s help, Obama won the state of Virginia in the 2008 presidential election, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to take the state since 1964.

from Maggie Fox:

Stimulus package does provide some jobs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 25 years into the AIDS pandemic, scientists finally have a vaccine that protects some people -- but instead of celebrating, they are going back to the drawing board.

The vaccine, a combination of two older vaccines, only lowered the infection rate by about a third after three years among 16,000 ordinary Thai volunteers. Vaccines need to be at least 50 percent effective, and usually 70 to 80 percent effective, to be useful.

Worse, no one knows why it worked.

"Additional studies are clearly needed to understand how this vaccine regimen reduced the risk of HIV infection," Dr. Eric Schoomaker, surgeon general of the U.S. Army, which helped pay for the study, told reporters.

Live blog of Obama’s Afghanistan speech

Reuters’ Toby Zakaria will be live blogging the Obama speech on Tuesday night.

The Gate of Continuing Harmony – if only it were that easy

OBAMA-CHINA/President Barack Obama took a break from business during his four-countries-in-eight-days Asian trip on Tuesday to turn tourist with a quick visit to Beijing’s Forbidden City. He seemed to relish the sightseeing trip, which took about 45 minutes, squeezed in after negotiating sessions with Chinese President Hu Jintao and before a meeting with U.S. embassy staff and a state dinner.

The sprawling Forbidden City, in the heart of Beijing, was built in the 15th century and home to China’s emperors for 500 years. The 980-building complex was called “Forbidden” because no one could enter without the emperor’s permission. Now a museum and a UNESCO world heritage site, it is normally thronged with visitors, but it lived up to its name when Obama visited, as no one was allowed in except his party, journalists and lots of security.

Guided by the Forbidden City museum director, Zheng Xinmiao, Obama walked through doorways and courtyards with names like “The Gate of Continuing Harmony,” a soothing thought after talks on trade policy, global warming and denuclearization. However, he ended the visit in a spot with a name perhaps less benign, given that China is the largest holder of U.S. debt: “The Courtyard of Loyal Obedience.”

Obama encourages unbridled Internet in China

Internet-savvy President Barack Obama told Chinese students that he is a big fan of the Web, though he doesn’t Twitter.
    
OBAMA-ASIA/At a town hall forum in Shanghai, a student who sent in a question by email pointed out that China has a huge online community with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers.

He asked what Obama thought of the Chinese government’s “firewall” that blocks objectionable Internet sites and if he thought the Chinese should be able to “Twitter freely.”
    
“First of all, let me say that I have never used Twitter,” Obama replied. “I noticed that young people — they’re very busy with all these electronics. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone.”
  
But he added, “I’ve always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I’m a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States.” Obama said a free Internet allows people around the world to think freely and hold their governments accountable.
    
Obama’s election campaign was credited with using the Internet in innovative ways — Facebook and texting — to raise money and rally a huge network of volunteers.
    
Traveling in China as part of a nine-day Asia tour, Obama made a point of highlighting the Internet at the town hall. He took questions from the students in attendance at the event as well as questions submitted over the Internet.
 
The question about the Chinese firewall was one of more than 1,000 submitted by email through the U.S. embassy. At the request of the White House, which did not want to be in the awkward position of pre-selecting a question, Bloomberg reporter Ed Chen, the president of the White House Correspondents Association, chose the question randomly by picking a number and relaying it to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Reuters photo by Jason Reed (a student poses a question to Obama at the town hall-style meeting at Shanghai’s Museum of Science and Technology, Nov. 16, 2009)

The First Draft: should Obama embrace new structural reforms?

Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs are two guys who think President Barack Obama better embrace new structural reforms if he wants a growing economy that isn’t hard-wired to go bust.

Dodd, a Democrat fighting for his political life at home, proposed sweeping regulatory legislation this week that would curb the Federal Reserve’s bank oversight powers, strengthen consumer protection and keep a sharp eye out for systemic problems like housing or stock market bubbles.

The 1,136-page measure reflects Obama’s policies in some ways — for example, it supports the White House call for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency — but it also charts new regulatory waters.

“What we have (now) is a hodgepodge that has grown over the last 80 years, some of it dating to the 19th century and early 20th century regulatory structures,” Dodd told MSNBC.

from Global News Journal:

Afghanistan’s protracted election sours the mood

An atmosphere of stale defensiveness has sunk over Kabul. The mood has been lowered by the protracted saga of the Afghan election count, almost two months on from the first round August 20 vote. It's a drama veering towards farce more often than post-modern play, as we wait endlessly for a result, that like Godot, does not want to come.

Winter has not yet arrived in Kabul, though the evenings are cold, quickly taking the heat of the sun out of the day. Afghan politicians are frustrated and twitchy, second-guessing the reasons for the U.N.-backed election watchdog's plodding. We are being solidly methodological to retain the confidence of all, says the Electoral Complaints Commission, as it examines thousands of dodgy votes. A thankless task, most likely. The ECC officials will be puzzling over whether a box of votes has been mass-endorsed for one candidate, and should not stand, or if the suspiciously similar ticks on the ballot paper are attributable to only one man in the village knowing how to write. Many of the rural voters will never have held a pen in their hand, argued one official. It is natural in such a tribal society for the village to establish a consensus on who to support. Do such ballot papers count? Remember Florida, and how 'hanging chads' and the U.S. Supreme Court gave George W. Bush the presidency over Al Gore? It's that kind of agony.

Behind the scenes the whispers are that hesitation and delay are because the outcome is excruciatingly close, too close to call. President Hamid Karzai, once set clear for victory, may find first round success ripped from his grasp by the disqualification of votes stuffed into ballot boxes by his supporters. He'll likely win a second round, if it happens, against his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah; but there will have been a loss of dignity, of self-confidence and of an opportunity to stabilise Afghanistan and get on with fighting the Taliban.