iPod Diplomacy

What do you get for the queen who has everything?

President Obama spent most of the week attending the G-20 summit and NATO conference in Europe. But apparently making his debut on the world stage wasn’t enough, so before he left he announced a plan to restructure two American car manufacturers.

In Europe, Obama’s plans for rescuing the world economy were met with less enthusiasm than he was. Capitalizing on his popularity, Obama held a town hall in Strasbourg, France, where he talked about both American arrogance and Europe’s “casual and insidious” anti-Americanism. It was a strong performance of the form he perfected during the campaign. In his final answer, he mused about no longer being able to watch the sun set while sipping wine at a cafe (“Now, I’m in hotel rooms all the time”) but finished with an impressive paean to self-sacrifice.

To help you keep up with the debates in and about Washington, Slate offers this guide to a few arguments going on this week.

Auto Industry Restructuring

It’s a horrible plan. Firing GM Chief Executive Richard Wagoner may have been good symbolism for the mob, but the president is meddling where a president should not. By taking over duties usually reserved for the board of directors and putting the United States in the car-warranty business, he’ll now share the blame if GM continues to decline. As a political matter, his plan puts more harsh demands on car manufacturers and their union employees than it does on the Wall Street bankers. As Eugene Robinson points out, “the juxtaposition is galling.”

It was the only option. Wagoner needed to go—critics have been calling for his head for a decade. What’s the alternative to federal intervention? Either the government can use leverage and spend money now, helping GM restructure its company to save jobs, or it can spend the money when GM collapses and taxpayers are on the hook for billions for higher unemployment costs and pension obligations. You can’t compare the treatment of the car companies to the treatment of the banks. Banks have a sustainable model they can return to after they get rid of their “legacy assets” and are subject to new regulation. GM is in far worse shape. Plus, Obama’s tough-love approach sent a political and policy message. The government won’t bail out everyone, and those who ask for taxpayer money should know it comes with a high price tag.

Passage of the Budget

It’s a middling win for Obama. No Republican in either chamber voted for the final versions of the president’s budget. So much for bipartisanship. Plus, he lost 20 Democrats in the House and two in the Senate. Democrats in the Senate trimmed $200 billion from the president’s requests, and budget plans in both houses offer no clue about how to pay for a health care overhaul or an extension of Obama’s signature $400 tax credit for most workers. You can argue a budget document isn’t supposed to get into that kind of detail—that’s for other committees—but the tentative approach suggests there’s not a lot of momentum for Obama’s massive long-term agenda. The president also lost a vote on lowering the estate tax, and a series of other votes suggest weak support for his plans to curb global warming.

It’s a big win. Fifteen of the 20 Democrats who voted against the House budget were from districts John McCain won; it’s not surprising that some conservative Democrats didn’t support the bill. A lot of the so-called “Blue Dogs” did support the budget, despite the big deficit projections. Thirty-eight Republicans, however, refused to vote for the budget put forward by Republican leadership. As a percentage, that’s a larger share of the GOP caucus who defected from their own party. Republicans can feel good about their unity on the final vote if they want to, but they were unified in their opposition to the stimulus bill, and it hasn’t improved their standing in the polls.

Obama’s iPod for the Queen

It was a mistake. How a man who looks this stylish, who is married to a woman with seemingly perfect pitch for her public role, can do so poorly giving gifts is a mystery. A month ago, the president gave British Prime Minister Gordon Brown DVDs. This earned him weeks of ribbing in the British press. Not only was the gift no match for what Brown gave Obama (a pen holder carved from the sister ship of the one the White House desk is made from and a first edition of a seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill); the DVDs also weren’t compatible with British players. This week, with America’s closest ally focused on what Obama would do to make up for the slight, he bungled again—giving the Queen of England an iPod. Not only did the gift have the feel of something purchased at the airport gift shop, but she already had one.

He’s a busy guy. There’s no real excuse for the DVDs, but a tiny gaffe isn’t going to hurt Obama in Great Britain, where he’s very popular. Besides, the iPod was not that bad a gift: It is a triumph of American ingenuity, shows that Obama is modern, and breaks gently with tradition. And it wasthoughtfully loaded with video of the queen’s 2007 visit to America and carefully selected songs. It also wasn’t the only gift. She also got a rare songbook signed by Richard Rodgers. (One of the queen’s favorite musicals is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!) And Michelle gave her a little massage, which must have felt nice.