Today's Papers

No Tears for Detroit

The Los Angeles Timesand New York Timeslead, while the Washington Postoff-leads, with the cool reception that the chief executives of the Big Three automakers received from senators yesterday. The executives were much more humble than in their disastrous hearings last month, but they still faced lots of skepticism from lawmakers, who weren’t shy about expressing their doubts that the automakers could survive even if they received a massive injection of government money. The WP leads with news that U.S. retailers reported their worst sales figures for November in at least 30 years. Overall, same-store sales for November fell by 2.7 percent from last year as Americans increasingly shun credit cards.

USA Todayleads with a look at how the Mumbai attacks have led law-enforcement officials in many cities to try to figure out how they would respond to a similar terrorist attack on U.S. soil. “I think … what happened in India is going to put a new focus on emergency preparations all over,” the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association said. Hotels are also being urged to increase security and prepare for a worst-case scenario. The Wall Street Journalleads its world-wide newsbox with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that the Pakistani government has pledged to pursue anyone connected to the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Despite the optimism that Rice displayed as she ended her trip to Pakistan, U.S. officials privately acknowledge it might be unrealistic to expect much cooperation from the Pakistani government considering the potential political backlash against President Asif Ali Zardari.

Once the hearing with the Detroit executives got started, it didn’t take long for senators to focus on the real important issues of the day. “Did you drive or did you have a driver?” asked Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the banking committee. “Did you drive a little and ride a little? And secondly, I guess are you going to drive back?” The committee’s chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd, tried to interject a little humor into the question, but Shelby made it clear he was deathly serious. (In case you care, yes, all of them drove and said they split driving duties with colleagues who went along for the ride.) “Congress, as a whole, is suffering from acute bailout fatigue,” concludes the NYT. The executives are in for another rough time today, when they will face the House, where lawmakers were even more unrelenting in their criticism last month.

Everyone had something to say, and even some of the auto industry’s biggest backers piled on. Democratic leaders acknowledged that it’s not clear whether Congress will be able to agree on a rescue package. To avoid this very real possibility, Democrats want the Bush administration to use the $700 billion bailout package  to rescue the automakers. But Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other Bush administration officials have made it clear they want that money to be used only to help out financial institutions. There’s a big fear that the $34 billion the companies requested won’t be enough. Indeed, one economist said yesterday that the Big Three might need as much as $125 billion.

The WSJ highlights that “a post-election power vacuum” has made matters much more complicated since both the White House and President-elect Barack Obama’s team are trying to keep their distance. “Absent strong presidential leadership, the debate over a rescue plan has steered into a legislative thicket,” notes the WSJ. Knowing full well that their fate might lie in the hands of lawmakers, the three executives “were so eager to please that they agreed to almost every request from members of the Senate panel,” declares the LAT.

Some Democratic senators said they supported a bailout but only with strict oversight that would take time to implement. The LAT highlights that the idea of handing out the cash in installments rather than all at once seemed to be gaining favor among lawmakers. As currently envisioned, the companies would get about half of what they requested immediately in order to keep operating through the end of March, when a government board of trustees would evaluate whether the companies had made the appropriate restructuring moves. Another idea that was discussed was to force the banks that received bailout money from the government to lend money to the automakers, and a few lawmakers suggested that Chrysler and GM should reconsider a merger before asking for help from the government.

The retail figures released yesterday showed that despite better-than-expected sales in the weekend after Thanksgiving, November was a bleak month for retailers as a whole. Department stores were particularly hard-hit, as their sales decreased 13.3 percent compared with the same time last year. The only retailers that managed to do relatively well were those willing to mark down heavily their merchandise and traditional discounters like Wal-Mart. The stores that have been unwilling to drop prices are seeing the consequences. Abercrombie & Fitch, for example, has resisted the urge to slash prices and saw sales at stores open for at least a year fall 28 percent. On the other hand, Saks, which has been discounting heavily, saw a decline of “only” 5.2 percent. Despite the grim data, retail stocks rose yesterday, “suggesting some investors believe retail sales have bottomed,” notes the WSJ.

The NYT off-leads word that Indian and American intelligence officials have found new evidence indicating that two leaders of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba masterminded the attacks and continued to guide the attacks as they unfolded through telephone conversations with the terrorists. Officials had already identified Yusuf Muzammil as one of the leaders behind the attacks and yesterday said another top Lashkar leader, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, helped plan and execute the operation. The attackers were in repeated contact with Muzammil, who was in Lahore, Pakistan and Lakhvi, who worked out of Karachi. It’s possible that the two Lashkar leaders were giving attackers information about the Indian response to the attacks as they unfolded. They appeared to be micromanaging the operation so much that they might have even decided who should be killed among the hostages. The WSJ reports there’s new evidence suggesting the hostages at the Jewish center might have been tortured before they were killed by strangulation.

The LAT takes a front-page look at Lashkar and points out that it’s difficult to investigate the militant group since it has moved much of its operational capabilities from Kashmir to lawless tribal regions along the Afghan border. Many who have been following the group for years think it’s unlikely it acted alone in the Mumbai attacks and they point to evidence that has been emerging of its increasing cooperation with other extremist groups, including al-Qaida. “In my opinion, this is an Al Qaeda-planned attack using local surrogates in order to relieve pressure on them in [the tribal areas],” said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who is one of the top experts on the militant groups in the area. “What better way to do that than create a conflict between India and Pakistan?”

Remember how we used to talk about how all the money raised for this year’s presidential race might add up to $1 billion? How quaint. Now it turns out that President-elect Barack Obama raised almost $1 billion just for his campaign and other related efforts, including money for the convention, transition, and inauguration. Obama’s campaign total was $770 million, which easily beats the combined total of the 2004 contenders. In addition, Obama helped raise more than $100 million for a joint fund he had with the Democratic National Committee. While noting that it’s difficult to calculate exact numbers because of the way the fund-raising is reported, the NYT points out that it looks like Obama raised more than $300 million for the general election alone.

The LAT fronts, and everyone covers, news that happiness is contagious. A new study found that happiness spreads like a virus through social networks. If you know someone who is happy, that makes you 15.3 percent more likely to be happy. But in order for it to spread effectively the happy people have to be physically close. If your next-door neighbor is happy, that makes you 34 percent more likely to be happy, but other neighbors on the same block have no similar effect. Even better is to have a happy friend living less than half a mile away, which gives you a 42 percent bounce. Surprisingly, having a happy spouse only provides an 8 percent boost, and happy co-workers provide no boost at all. One of the co-authors of the study tells the NYT that the study made him think twice about his mood knowing that it would affect others. But there are limits. “We are not giving you the advice to start smiling at everyone you meet in New York,” he said. “That would be dangerous.”