Political Double Standards And Confirmations

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It's been a honeymoon week for President Barack Obama. But there's a lot more going on in Washington than inauguration parties. We examine double standards, bipartisan cooperation and the confirmation process for Mr. Obama's cabinet nominees.


President Obama is getting a lot of praise for fast action in the first days of his presidency. He's issued a handful of executive orders reversing Bush administration policies on detainees. On ethics, he's named special envoys for the Middle East and Afghanistan. And just this morning, he reversed a funding ban on international groups that provide abortion counseling. Joining me now is NPR's senior analyst, Juan Williams. And Juan, the day itself, the Inauguration Day, it saw a lot of positive feeling about President Obama, even those in Washington who opposed him appear to be caught up in it. How long do you think this honeymoon will last?

JUAN WILLIAMS: Well, it's hard to tell, Madeleine, but there's a deep well of good feeling for the newly elected president. And this morning, he was in the Roosevelt Room at the White House with nine of the congressional leaders to talk about his stimulus package - $825 billion plan that he wants approved and on his desk by February 16th or so.

And what he said to them was, you know, I understand Republicans have objections. I understand some Democrats want more, but we have an unprecedented economic crisis. And then he went on to say, we need to deal with it rapidly. So, he's making an appeal for bipartisan support because he wants to maintain that going forward so that everyone can understand he doesn't want to get locked into the kind of partisanship that was so debilitating to President Bush and even to President Clinton over the last 16 years.

BRAND: Well, Juan, I have to ask you - is this just a photo-op? Because really, Democrats are in control of both Houses and now in control of the White House, so does it really matter that he meet with the Republican leaders on the stimulus bill? Won't he get what he wants anyway?

WILLIAMS: Well, he'll get what he wants, but he wants to present himself as a pragmatic, centrist politician who's looking for what works. So, that's why he wants to make sure that he can get that bipartisan support, and in the Senate - this is really important - he doesn't have 60 votes. It's not filibuster-proof, so he would like to, especially in the Senate, maintain a strong bipartisan look to whatever stimulus package he produces.

BRAND: Well, speaking of vocal Republican opponents, Texas Senator John Cornyn has held up two of the president's Cabinet appointments. At first, Hillary Clinton, who is now secretary of state, but also Eric Holder for attorney general. What's going on there?

WILLIAMS: Well, the stories that's kind of untold in Washington these days is the Republican attempt to find out how they will voice opposition to President Obama without appearing to be petty or simply obstructionist. And in the case of John Cornyn, he raised a very important point about president - former President Bill Clinton's contributions to his charity, and whether or not that could be a conflict in interest given that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be running American foreign affairs.

But the more serious challenge here is to Eric Holder. The question here is after the first round of hearings, in which Holder said waterboarding is torture, whether Holder then would proceed with possible prosecutions against U.S. intelligence agents for taking part in torture. And Cornyn is saying that Republicans will not tolerate it, and he has widespread support among the Republicans on Capitol Hill, and in the country, on this. This could be real dividing point.

BRAND: Now, you wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week about your concern that the Obama presidency runs a risk of being hobbled by a double standard because of the historic nature of it. What did you mean by that?

WILLIAMS: Well, he's black. He's black, and everybody's so excited about the idea of breaking that barrier, the first non-white male president. I think we need full-blooded conversation about what he's doing, and not allow it to be said that oh, he's just being boosted by the press or he's really not up to the job. This guy is intelligent, capable, patriotic - treat him as the president.

BRAND: So you're saying, the sooner the honeymoon is over, the better?

WILLIAMS: No. (Laughing) Every politician can use a honeymoon to get what they want done. But I'm just saying, in terms of the opportunity for racial progress as well as political honesty, treat him fairly but don't boost him.

BRAND: NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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