By Daniel Politi
The Washington Post leads with a look at how the Obama administration is seeking to put more restrictions on free trade even as world commerce takes a plunge this year because of the global economic crisis. The administration plans to take a harder line on domestic and social issues not only when signing new trade deals but also in determining whether existing agreements will be honored. The New York Times leads with Democratic congressional leaders opposing some of the priorities that President Obama set forth in his budget. Key Democrats are questioning Obama’s plan to reduce tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans, cut agriculture subsidies, and reduce spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, among other issues.
The Los Angeles Times leads locally and goes high with Obama’s expansion of federal funding for stem-cell research that was accompanied by an order to federal agencies to strengthen the role of science in the policymaking process. The paper says it was the “most forceful break yet from his predecessor’s controversial scientific agenda.” The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with the Supreme Court’s narrowing of the protections of the Voting Rights Act. In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that a measure designed to help minorities elect their preferred candidate should be applied only to districts where minorities make up more than half the population. In other words, officials don’t have to consider race when redrawing voting districts unless minorities make up a majority in an area. The decision could make it more difficult for minorities to challenge redistricting efforts on the basis that they would dilute their votes. USA Today devotes its top slot to Heather McNamara, a 7-year-old who successfully underwent “a daring, high-risk operation” last month. In a 23-hour surgery, doctors removed six vital organs to take out a tumor. It was the first time this kind of operation was performed on a child.
It seems the United States will soon be joining other countries that are embracing trade restrictions amid the economic downturn. Like many other governments around the world, the Obama administration is under increased pressure to protect domestic industries as cheap imports are frequently blamed for job losses. So far, Obama “appears to be toeing a line,” as the WP puts it, and is carefully “avoiding words and deeds that directly smack of protectionism.” Still, the White House has vowed to impose tougher labor and environmental standards on trade deals and emphasized it would seek new concessions from South Korea and Colombia before continuing with the trade agreements that were signed by the Bush administration.
The NYT declares that Obama “is taking a gamble” by allowing so many of his budget details to be fought over by lawmakers, “each with his own political and parochial calculations.” But the White Hosue has made it clear it is ready to fight for its priorities, as those who are against the increased limits on tax deductions quickly found out. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders emphasized that just because issues are coming up doesn’t mean that lawmakers are getting ready to gut Obama’s proposal. “Not every problem is a deal breaker,” Rep. John Spratt, chairman of the House budget committee, said. “We will try and make corrections and accommodations.”
The WP declares that objections from Democratic lawmakers on the omnibus spending bill are “signaling that the solidarity of the stimulus debate is fading.” While Democrats mostly support the ideas behind Obama’s major initiatives, objections are increasing as more details are being put on the table. There are many controversial issues that have been glossed over because of the economic crisis, but they are “waiting in the wings,” as Rep. Chris Van Hollen puts it, and will undoubtedly come out once Obama’s priorities go from abstract goals to specific legislation.
In a front-page piece, the WP says that Obama’s order to lift the limits on stem-cell research was so broad that federal funds could end up going to “much more controversial array of studies” than many had expected. The general feeling was that Obama would limit federally funded scientists to work only on cell lines from embryos that would be discarded by fertility clinics anyway. But Obama didn’t give guidance on that issue, and now the National Institutes of Health must decide what kind of research will be supported with taxpayer funds. “He left it wide open,” said the director of a bioethics think tank. “Now we are going to have to face a host of morally complicated, politically charged questions.” Obama suggested his decision to leave the issue open was part of his pledge to allow scientists, and not politicians, to make these types of determinations.
In a strange piece, the NYT declares that Obama’s order “will not divorce science from politics, or strip ideology from presidential decisions.” That sounds interesting enough, but it turns out that what the NYT means by that explosive statement is that scientists won’t be making policy decisions. This no-duh revelation appears to be fully recognized by scientists, who almost unanimously cheered Obama’s move. “We’re not dumb,” said the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “we know that policy is made on the basis of facts and values.”
In another move to get away from controversial actions by the previous administration, Obama ordered executive branch officials to consult the Justice Department before assuming that the signing statements issued by former President Bush are still valid. Bush had faced criticism throughout his administration for attaching statements to laws that directed federal officials to ignore parts of a law that he thought were invalid or restricted the president’s constitutional powers. Obama vowed to limit his use of signing statements and said he would raise any constitutional objections with Congress before a bill is passed in order to increase transparency. Some criticized Obama for not going far enough and said he should have brought an end to the practice. While signing statements are typically used to guide government officials on how a law should be implemented, critics say there’s still the risk that Obama would make efforts to invalidate the will of elected representatives.
The LAT fronts a look at the security crackdown in Tibet as China appears to be going to extreme lengths to prevent protests to mark the anniversary of the failed uprising that began 50 years ago today and led to the Dalai Lama’s exile. A year ago, the region experienced the worst rioting in decades, and with the significant anniversary this year China hopes to avoid a repeat. Foreigners aren’t allowed to travel to Tibetan areas, but residents say tens of thousands of paramilitary troops have moved in, phones have been tapped, the Internet has been blocked, and cellular communications have been disrupted so people can’t send out text messages. The NYT notes this is just the beginning of what “is shaping up as a very stressful year for the nation’s rulers.” April marks the 10th anniversary of the major protests by the Falun Gong; the 90th anniversary of the May 4 movement is this year; the 20th anniversary of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square is in June; and in October comes the 60th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China.
In the WP‘s op-ed page, David Smick writes that since there are no solutions to the banking crisis that don’t involve huge political and financial risks, Obama’s economic advisers “have adopted a three-pronged approach, delay, delay, delay.” While many have been advocating for nationalization, there’s a simple reason that officials are terrified to go down the road. Yes, it’s the good old credit-default swaps again. “These paper derivatives have become our financial system’s new master,” declares Smick. The truth is no one knows what will happen, and it seems the Obama administration is paralyzed by fear. It’s time for Obama to come clean to the American people, recognize the magnitude of the problem, and appoint a well-known figure who is not from Wall Street to deal with the mess. “The longer we delay fixing the banks, the faster the economy deleverages, the more credit dries up, the further the stock market falls, the higher the ultimate bank bailout price tag for the American taxpayer, and the more we risk falling into a financial black hole from which escape could take decades.”