He’s Baaaack

Debate-o-matic: Was the Obama administration too mean to Dick Cheney?

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama

The White House schedule did not list Friday as Special Olympics Appreciation Day, but a gaffe by the president the night before guaranteed that it would be. It was a perfect ending to a week where the White House was blown off course. President Obama was supposed to talk this week about his budget and a small-business tax cut. Instead he spent his time tending to public outrage over the bonuses paid to AIG executives and defending Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

To help you keep up with the debates in and about Washington, Slate offers this guide to the issues of the week. Here are a few arguments on some key topics.

The AIG Bonuses

It’s the administration’s fault: The president said so himself. The Treasury Department should have known about these bonuses before the recent $30 billion payout to AIG. It should have done more to stop these payments. Plus, it was the administration that insisted on the loophole that made these bonuses possible. The president has said he will be a steward of taxpayer dollars, but in this case his administration was either sloppy or powerless. What confidence should that give people about his ability to control spending and exercise oversight over all this other money that’s going out the door?

No, it’s not: Obama took the blame, but he doesn’t really deserve it. (That’s why he could take it!) These were contracts arranged before Obama ever became president. As Ruth Marcus pointed out, there’s a penalty to pay for simply ripping up contracts. The administration’s economic team insisted that the original legislation apply to previous bonuses because it was worried about lawsuits and thought the arrangements were necessary to retain the people in these troubled firms.

Timothy Geithner

He should go: When it comes to the AIG bonuses, Geithner’s defenses are all bad: a) he was clueless; b) He opposed them, but he lacked the will or the clout to stop them; c) he supported them because he’s too cozy with the Wall Street. We need someone at Treasury who has a Roto-Rooter mentality, not someone who is a part of the club. Geithner is so damaged that his plan to reform the banking industry, scheduled to be announced in the coming days, may be DOA. That delay in opening up the credit markets is deadly. Plus, it’s never a good sign when the president is forced to say that he “stands behind” you. That pretty much means you’re a dead man walking in Washington.

He should stay: It’s not Geithner’s fault. This was a PR disaster, not a substantive policy mistake. It’s not the treasury secretary’s job to worry about public opinion. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As the White House has been saying, it doesn’t pay attention to the daily tracking polls and daily market gyrations. Geithner wasn’t alone in thinking these bonuses were a distasteful but necessary part of the bailout. When it became a public relations problem, though, the White House had to show outrage—and he was thrown under the bus. He is the victim who allows the president to show his outrage.

The Special Olympics

It was a big gaffe by Obama:  It’s never good when the president casually insults a whole class of people on national television. It’s a little window into his soul, and it turns out that he’s not that nice a guy. He makes jokes at other people’s expense, as he did about Nancy Reagan after he was elected. Plus, when he’s already being criticized for being too distracted with an overloaded schedule and his NCAA bracket picks, does he really need another video clip of himself being jokey and distracted?

Oh, please, it was not: It was a mildly dumb thing to say, and he cleaned it up immediately, calling Tim Shriver to apologize. The world is in turmoil, let’s move on.

Dick Cheney

The former vice president should keep quiet: Saying that Obama has made the country less safe is essentially accusing him of negligent homicide, which is a reckless outrage. Cheney also doesn’t have much standing to talk about negligence, since on the very day he was leveling his charges about Obama, it was reported that the Red Cross had accused the United States of torture—and it was Cheney-backed programs it was talking about. President Bush, by contrast, made the classy move of resisting the opportunity to attack Obama, saying that it was a former president’s duty to stay off-stage.

Whatever happened to the new kind of politics? Press secretary Robert Gibbs reacted to Cheney’s remarks by saying, “Well, I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal.” Yes, it makes political sense to keep talking about Limbaugh, and because Cheney is also deeply unpopular, he makes a useful foil. But weren’t Obama and his team supposed to be above all this? As the Economist points out, it just makes Obama look like a campaign hack.