Analysis: Donald Trump Enters Race And GOP Wonders, Presidency Or Reality TV?

Analysis: Donald Trump Enters Race And GOP Wonders, Presidency Or Reality TV?

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential field has a CEO, a doctor, three senators and one senator-doctor. On Tuesday, when Donald Trump announced that he planned to join the bunch, it got its first reality TV star.

In remarks from Trump Tower in New York, the wealthy real estate developer said, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”

“Politicians are all talk, no action — nothing is going to get done. They will not lead us to the promised land,” Trump said. “Our country is in serious trouble — we don’t have victories anymore.”

Even before he jumped into the race, however, the logic of reality TV has had an effect on all the GOP campaigns.

The cast of candidates vying to be president includes some who have joined the race for the same reasons aging sitcom stars put on their dancing shoes and learn to tango. They know they have little chance of winning, but even losing could be good for their careers.

The rise of long-shot, nontraditional candidates is a growing trend, particularly in the recent open Republican contests. None will publicly admit it, but as was true four years ago, several candidates appear to be using the presidential race more as a springboard to television or radio punditry or the speaking circuit than as a contest to actually win office.

Some need to expand their donor base. Others may walk away with a book deal. All that’s required is a healthy ego and a few donors.

“You have a category of people who exist in that fuzzy space where celebrity and politics meet in our culture. You’ve seen, increasingly, a number of those candidates running,” said Steve Schmidt, a GOP strategist.

The trend gives some traditionalists pause and some party operatives heartburn as they try to manage a freewheeling and growing field.

And it gives Democrats some extra fodder. In a statement after Trump’s announcement, the Democratic National Committee tweaked the GOP candidates, saying his entry “adds some much-needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field, and we look forward hearing more about his ideas for the nation.”

In truth, of course, the party’s front-runners — former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for example — don’t fall into this new group. Some of the second tier — Carly Fiorina or Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — are viewed as angling for positions in the next GOP administration. And compared to the 2012 field — which included the pizza tycoon Herman Cain and the firebrand conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann — 2016 looks almost staid.

But it’s the sheer number of candidates this year that has created problems for Republican officials. Four years ago, the largest candidate debates had eight participants. This year, the party has struggled to find a way to limit the cast to 10 — with the knowledge that some, like Trump, who come with high name recognition, could push aside lesser-known but more substantive hopefuls like Graham.

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As Mitt Romney did four years ago, this year’s straight-laced candidates will have to learn to run alongside less predictable counterparts.

The Republican National Committee emphasizes the upside to the candidate surge. The field is full of quality candidates, spokeswoman Allison Moore said.

“We have a neurosurgeon, major CEOs, accomplished governors and senators — all are highly talented people and capable of defeating Hillary Clinton,” Moore said.

What’s more, several of the candidates have agreed to share the data they collect from voters for use during the general election. The more candidates out there making contact, the better for the eventual nominee, party strategists say.

The reason Republicans seem to have attracted more nontraditional candidates than Democrats may be a function of timing. The rise of social media and digital fundraising has coincided with three consecutive open races for the GOP nomination.

“More people are running now, frankly, because social media allows you to launch a campaign without the funds in the bank or the organization on the ground,” said Lee Edwards, an expert on the conservative movement at the Heritage Foundation, who bemoaned the rise of candidates who seem more concerned about their bank accounts than ideology or party politics.

“Some of these candidates are banking on exposure through things like the debate. But also, just because they are candidates, this will, frankly, advance their own careers. We know that if so-and-so is a presidential candidate he can charge a higher fee for speaking, for an article or for a book contract.”

The power of conservative media may also play a role. Conservative radio and Fox News have welcomed some media-savvy also-rans with open arms and big paychecks. The model here is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose failed bid in 2008 made him a household name, at least in Republican parts of the country, and landed him a show on Fox News. (Huckabee’s show ended in January, when he announced he was exploring another run for president.)

Trump fits into a different category, noted Schmidt, one perhaps only he occupies.

“Politics has always had its showmen, and Donald Trump is a showman,” he said, but he’s one who taps into a very real sentiment even if he is accused of making a mockery of the process.

“There are substantial parts of the American population who think it’s already a joke — that it’s fundamentally not on the level,” said Schmidt, who in the 2012 campaign referred to that season’s GOP candidate debates as “the best reality show on TV.”

“A candidate like that has a potential to tap into that in a pretty powerful way. No doubt about it.”

(Los Angeles Times staff writer Kurtis Lee contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot: Donald Trump/YouTube. Graphic: Tribune News Service

Iowa Republicans Kill Presidential Straw Poll When Too Few Candidates Sign Up

Iowa Republicans Kill Presidential Straw Poll When Too Few Candidates Sign Up

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Iowa Republicans have canceled their once-vaunted presidential straw poll, bowing to the reality that the decades-old political tradition now only threatened to spotlight the state’s diminished role in the presidential race.

Despite a packed field of candidates vying for the GOP nomination, too few planned to take part in this year’s popularity contest, which was to be hosted by the Iowa Republican Party on Aug. 8.

The meager turnout would render the poll a meaningless contest of also-rans — and an embarrassment for Iowa politicos trying desperately to hold on to their relevance as the gatekeepers of presidential politics.

“I’ve said since December that we would only hold a straw poll if the candidates wanted one, and this year that is just not the case,” state party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement released after what he said was an unanimous vote.

“This step, while extremely distasteful for those of us who love the straw poll, is necessary to strengthen our First in the Nation status and ensure our future nominee has the best chance possible to take back the White House in 2016,” he said.

The party’s poll has grown into a major fundraising event for the GOP and a major media moment for the candidate who managed to organize enough supporters to win the poll.

It was often cast as an early test of a candidate’s organizing skill and viability, despite its spotty record of predicting the eventual victor.

Former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won the straw poll in 2011, for example, but dropped out of the race in January 2012 after placing sixth in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

This year several top-tier candidates had declared early that they would not participate, concluding that the dated political ritual was not worth the time and money required to win.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham had RSVP’d no. Wisconsin Governnor Scott Walker would not commit.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Obama To Talk ‘Middle-Class Economics’ In State Of The Union Address

Obama To Talk ‘Middle-Class Economics’ In State Of The Union Address

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will focus on “middle-class economics” in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, one of his senior advisers said, unveiling a message designed to challenge newly empowered Republicans on economic policy in the final two years of his presidency.

“It’s the simple proposition that now that the economy is in a stronger place than it’s been in a very long time, we need to double down on our efforts to deal with wage stagnation and declining economic mobility,” White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an interview on the CBS program Face the Nation on Sunday.

The White House has already released the policies it hopes to use to frame the debate. On Saturday, officials said the president would call on Congress to raise taxes on top earners and impose a new fee on large financial firms to pay for tax credits aimed at low- and middle-class families. The $320 billion in new revenue would be used to pay for expanded higher education benefits, child care tax credits and retirement programs.

Pfeiffer acknowledged the plans aren’t tailored to appeal to Republicans, who took complete control of Congress this month.

“Are they going to agree on everything? Absolutely not, but I think we should have the debate in this country between middle-class economics and trickle-down economics and see if we can come to an agreement on the things we do agree on,” he said.

Republicans quickly rejected the White House’s proposals. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), also speaking on Face the Nation, called the president’s tax plan “an outdated model that no longer works in the 21st century.”

“The notion, first of all, that in order for some people to do better someone has to do worse is just not true,” Rubio said. “Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful. The good news about free enterprise is that everyone can succeed without punishing anyone.”

A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) tried to use the president’s tenure against him.

“According to the administration’s own data, middle-class families now earn less and have a lower net worth than when President Obama came into office,” said spokesman Cory Fritz. “Instead of pushing more of the same top-down, Washington-knows-best policies that have failed, it’s time for President Obama to work with Republicans on common-sense solutions to help create jobs and boost wages.”

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Obama Takes Questions Only From Women, Apparently A White House First

Obama Takes Questions Only From Women, Apparently A White House First

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama not only made a little news at his annual year-end news conference Friday, he appears to have made history.

For the first time in recent memory, the president called only on female journalists — eight in a row — during an extended question-and-answer session at the White House. The lineup appeared to be a landmark moment for a press corps with a history of being a boys’ club, where high-profile female correspondents were the exception, not the rule.

Friday was a reminder of how much has changed. The president began with a question from Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico and continued with reporters from Bloomberg BNA, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and American Urban Radio Networks. All were women. The group represented a mix of major news outlets and smaller organizations. Notably, television correspondents, who sometimes dominate the news conferences and daily media briefings, were shut out.

Though at least one brief news conference overseas saw one or two questions from only women, for a formal session at the White House, this appeared to be the first.

“In my 40 years, I’m sure there was never a full news conference where only women were called on,” said ABC News’ Ann Compton, who retired this year. Compton said the choices were also notable because they represented “core White House regulars” — beat reporters who cover the president full time.

That group has gradually grown to include plenty of female faces. Women regularly fill close to half the seats in the briefing room and have made a majority of the small band of reporters that follow the president when he travels. The Tribune Washington Bureau’s Christi Parsons serves as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

The list of reporters the president calls on at formal news conferences is often predetermined by the White House and given to the president as a list. (On Friday, Obama described it as the “Who’s been naughty, and who’s been nice” list.)

One White House official said the choices were made by White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

“The fact is, there are many women from a variety of news organizations who day in and day out do the hard work of covering the president of the United States,” Earnest said in a statement after the news conference. “As the questioner list started to come together, we realized that we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact at the president’s closely watched, end-of-the-year news conference.”

Earnest notified television networks before the news conference that they would be left out. In an email, he wrote that each of the networks had been able to ask the president two questions since last month’s midterm elections and all but one, Fox News, has gotten a one-on-one interview in that time.

“We’re going to give an opportunity to reporters from outlets that have NOT gotten to ask (Obama) a question since the election — without putting you at a competitive disadvantage,” he told the television reporters.

Photo: President Obama speaks at a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room on Friday, Dec. 19, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Cuba Releases American Alan Gross; Obama To Seek Shift In Relations

Cuba Releases American Alan Gross; Obama To Seek Shift In Relations

By Kathleen Hennessey and Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Cuba on Wednesday freed American contractor Alan Gross and sent him home to the United States, in what could be the first step to a warming of Washington’s relations with the island, according to U.S. officials.

Gross, 65, who has been held by the island nation for five years and is in poor physical condition, was freed as part of a deal that has been under negotiation for one year, the officials said.

The deal calls for the United States to release three Cubans convicted of spying on anti-Castro groups in Florida, they said.

Gross was convicted in 2011 of illegally bringing communications devices to the Jewish community in Cuba as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He had been sentenced to a 15-year term.

His family in Maryland has described him as weak and barely able to walk, but he had refused medical care, food and visits from officials of U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba as a protest of his detention.

U.S. officials said the Obama administration now plans to open talks on a full range of issues that divide the governments, including the economic embargo that has been in place since the Kennedy administration.

The administration has latitude to alter the diplomatic and economic relationship through use of its executive powers. But anti-Castro activists, including the Florida delegation in Congress, are likely to resist such steps.

This story has been updated.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Obama Takes Immigration Reform Campaign To Nashville

Obama Takes Immigration Reform Campaign To Nashville

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — President Barack Obama flew to a red state with a growing immigrant population Tuesday to sell his controversial actions delaying deportation for millions of people living illegally in the U.S. as a “net plus” for local economies and communities.

In a small, packed room at a community center here, the president acknowledged the heated debate over his move and argued that cities like Nashville would benefit from the youth, vitality and diversity that immigrants bring.

“Generation after generation, immigrants have been a net plus to our economy and a net plus to our society,” Obama said. “We can’t deport 11 million people, and it would be foolish to try — as well as, I think, wrong for us to try.”

The visit was Obama’s third stop in recent weeks on a campaign to promote his plan to temporarily ease the threat of deportation for nearly 5 million people, about half of the 11 million or so people in the U.S. illegally. The president’s tour has a dual purpose: shoring up his program against critics who’ve dubbed it an abuse of power and ensuring the program gets off the ground without the sort of self-created troubles that dogged last year’s launch of his landmark health care law.

In the series of speeches, the White House is returning to its preferred political strategy of going outside the Washington Beltway to try to rally backing from community leaders.

In Nashville, Obama highlighted Mayor Karl Dean’s efforts to incorporate new arrivals through a new city Office of New Americans, noting he’d created a White House task force with a similar aim.

Obama argued he was pushed to take executive action after months of delay on immigration legislation in Congress. He pitched his plan as a boon to the economy, even in communities far from the immigrant hubs of Los Angeles, New York and border towns. Nashville has seen thousands of immigrants from Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa settle here in recent years, drawn by the region’s relatively strong economy and affordable housing. Foreign-born residents now make up about 12 percent of the population in the Nashville area.

Obama’s trip Tuesday offered a flavor of the impassioned debate he is diving into. As Obama spoke at Casa Azafran, an outreach center that assists immigrants with social services, supporters outside held a large banner reading, “Gracias Obama.” Steps away, protesters waved signs reading, “Defund amnesty” and “Obama is killing America.”

“More than 200,000 Tennesseans remain out of work, but rather than prioritize their plight, the president is putting the interests of those who have broken our laws ahead of them,” U.S. Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) said in a statement before Obama’s arrival. “This is wrong, and the president does not have the authority to change our immigration laws without Congress.”

Obama acknowledged his critics, at times casting them as misguided and fearful of change or brushing off their concerns with a few lighthearted jokes.

“They’re pretty sure I’m an illegal immigrant,” Obama said of some critics, adding quickly, “That was a joke.”

While Obama continues his speaking tour, White House officials have fanned out around the country for briefings with mayors, immigrant advocates, community officials and church leaders. Cabinet secretaries, too, will join the road show in the coming weeks, and celebrities are being recruited promote the programs, according to a White House official, who outlined details of the effort on condition of anonymity.

The official said Homeland Security Department officials planned more than 100 public education meetings in December, even before applications become available in the new year. The goal is to spread, in a community often targeted by scams, accurate information about costs, timing and eligibility.

“We are gonna make sure that families, people who are, you know, working and responsible in their communities, are not prioritized for deportation,” Obama said in an interview with Telemundo, according to a transcript. “So the likelihood of their deportation’s gonna be much lower.”

At Casa Azafran, Obama took several questions from the group of mostly advocates and others affiliated with the community center, at times trying to relieve worries that a future president might undo his temporary reprieve and leave those who’ve registered for the program suddenly subject to deportation.

Obama said he was confident that such a move would be so unpopular, no future administration would try it.

If effective, the campaign may also help mobilize much-needed defenders of the most controversial executive action of Obama’s presidency.

More than a dozen states have filed a lawsuit challenging Obama’s actions, and Republicans in Congress are looking for ways to block it before it gets off the ground. Congress was moving toward a deal Tuesday to fund the government through September, but pull the plug in mid-February on funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the nation’s immigration and border patrol agencies.

The White House has criticized the maneuver but has not issued a veto threat.

AFP Photo/Ethan Miller

Obama’s Measured Approach To Race Is A Letdown For Some Backers

Obama’s Measured Approach To Race Is A Letdown For Some Backers

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Faced with the most racially charged period of his presidency, President Barack Obama is grappling with the persistent tensions of his relationship with African-American leaders and activists — some of his most loyal supporters, but also the most ardent force pushing him to lead on civil rights.

In the months since protests over the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., captured national attention, Obama has walked a careful line between empathizing with those outraged by what they see as police bias and avoiding any escalation of a debate that cuts along race lines.

The measured approach from the first African-American president has disappointed some, particularly the young people who see the widespread outrage over the killing in Ferguson and the death of another black man in an apparent police chokehold in Staten Island, N.Y., as a potential turning point.

But it has not surprised others.

“We didn’t elect a national civil rights leader; we elected a president,” said the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, who leads the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and met with Obama last week. “I think there was an expectation. But there is the rub of the frustration.”

For many African-Americans, the six years of Obama’s presidency have been an exercise in adjusting expectations for what he will say and do about matters involving race. Many who once thought Obama would lead the charge have learned to accept him as a more distant guide. Hoping he would do more — visit protesters or use his bully pulpit for passionate oratory — misunderstands his role and leads to disappointment, some noted.

That disappointment appears to be palpable.

Although African-American support for Obama remains high overall, blacks’ approval of his handling of race relations dropped sharply in the last few months, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday.

In August, shortly after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, 73 percent of black Americans approved of Obama’s handling of race relations. But in the most recent poll, taken Wednesday through Sunday, approval dropped to 57 percent.

“Many in our community expect a lot more of him” compared with previous presidents, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a black civil rights leader. “It’s a Catch-22 that doesn’t result in us moving the issue forward.”

The White House has been working to contain and channel frustration among African-Americans, who have been a bedrock of support.

Obama has created a task force to look for ways to improve community policing practices and lessen tensions between law enforcement and communities of color. He has promised to change federal policies on providing military-grade equipment to local police.

He announced the initiatives last week at meetings with civil rights leaders, police and young organizers, where he emphasized repeatedly that he was listening to their concerns, participants said.

Obama gave his first extended interview on the subject to BET Networks and was ready to counter some of the critics of his calibrated response.

In a handful of public statements over the last few weeks, Obama repeatedly worried that some communities “feel” that police deal with them unfairly. But in the BET interview airing Monday, he emphasized his belief that those feelings are grounded in reality.

“I’m being pretty explicit about my concern, and being pretty explicit about the fact that this is a systemic problem, that black folks and Latinos and others are not just making this up. I describe it in very personal terms,” Obama said.

At the same time, he acknowledged he was constrained by his office. With open federal investigations, he does not want to taint the process or put “my thumb on the scale of justice,” he said.

“What sometimes people are frustrated by is me not simply saying, ‘This is what the outcome should have been.’ And that I cannot do, institutionally,” Obama said. “So I’m sure that there’s some folks who just want me to say, in such and such a case, this is what I think should have happened, and if I had been on a grand jury this is what I would have said, and so forth and so on.”

If the president has discussed his personal experience with racial bias recently, it has been in the private meetings. Last week, he told young organizers of being mistaken for a waiter at a fundraiser, of struggling to catch a cab in Chicago, and of someone tossing him keys as he stood on a sidewalk, assuming that he was a valet, participants in the meeting said.

Still, one organizer left the meeting aware that he and the president did not see eye to eye on the pace of change.

“The president was talking about how change is slow and how we have to be patient; we have to be willing to take incremental gain,” said James Hayes, a 24-year-old organizer with the Ohio Student Association, a group seeking to raise awareness about criminal justice and policing reforms.

But sometimes “moments of an earthquake erupting” can accelerate change, and this could be one of those moments, Hayes said, pointing to the racial turmoil of the mid-20th century.

“Fifty years ago was a time of social upheaval in this country,” he said. “And now I think we’re seeing it again.”

Although the feeling that Obama could do more may be prevalent, there is little consensus on what the “more” would be. The White House has resisted calls for the president to go to Ferguson or New York, where separate grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the deaths of Brown and Eric Garner. Obama has also resisted suggestions that now is the time to make his first major address on race as president — a sort of sequel to his much-praised speech on the topic in Philadelphia in 2008, when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Advisers and some supporters express skepticism that a speech would move the needle, and wonder whether it would just spark more unrest. The president has seen such unintended consequences before, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Obama’s election was a historic high point, but it also stirred up latent racism that is currently on display, Cleaver contended.

“He always has spoken about these issues in ways that no other president could. He has placed himself as an illustration, he has not denied his blackness — even though each time he does it, he has been roundly criticized,” Cleaver said. “If you remember from English lit class — ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ I think that Charles Dickens could be used on any newscast in the United States right now.”

(Staff writer David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Obama To Announce Executive Action On Immigration Friday In Las Vegas

Obama To Announce Executive Action On Immigration Friday In Las Vegas

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Obama is expected to announce a series of major changes to immigration policy during a trip to a Las Vegas high school on Friday.

The president is expected to speak at Del Sol High School on Friday afternoon, a source familiar with the plans said Wednesday. Obama first launched his campaign to overhaul the immigration system during a speech at the school in January 2013.

Since then, the president’s legislative push has been thwarted by Republican opposition in the House. Obama has said that he won’t wait any longer for Republicans to pass legislation and plans to use his executive authority to ease deportations.

The White House said Tuesday that Obama had not yet decided on the details of his plans. Administration officials have indicated that the proposals could affect as many as 5 million people and could be aimed at the parents and relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

In his 2013 speech at the school, Obama urged Congress to move forward a comprehensive bill to overhaul the immigration system.

“The time is now” to get it done, he said then, laying out “key markers” he would require to be part of immigration reform — among them a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented residents living in the U.S.

If Congress didn’t act quickly, he said, he would send his own bill to them and “insist that they vote on it right away.”

The Senate approved a proposal last year, but the House has refused to act, in large part because of Republican division on the issue.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama meets with his national security and public health teams to receive an update on the Ebola response in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Obama Administration Reviewing Hostage Policies, But Not Ransom Ban

Obama Administration Reviewing Hostage Policies, But Not Ransom Ban

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has ordered a review of his administration’s handling of kidnappings by terrorist organizations, the White House confirmed Tuesday, but that review does not include a reconsideration of U.S. policy against paying ransom for hostages.

The president ordered the review “over the summer” and applied it to the State Department, Defense Department, FBI, and intelligence agencies, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. The review is specifically focused on hostage negotiations, recovery and communication with family members, he said.

The president was prompted by the “the extraordinary nature of some of the hostage-takings that we’d seen this year,” Earnest said.

In August, after being held captive for nearly two years, American journalist James Foley was beheaded on video by Islamic State militants. Foley’s killing was followed by the release of similar videos showing executions of hostages Steven Sotloff, an American; and two British aid workers.

A fifth video was uploaded Sunday, confirming the death of a third American, former soldier and aid worker Peter Kassig.

Family members of some U.S. hostages have complained about a lack of coordination and clear information about U.S. efforts to recover their relatives. Some have questioned the administration’s prohibition on paying ransom when other governments — including France, Germany, and Spain — have directly or indirectly paid for the release of their citizens.

Administration officials argue that paying for hostages only creates incentive for more kidnapping and bankrolls terrorist and pirate groups.

Earnest stood by that rationale Tuesday.

“The president continues to believe, as previous presidents have concluded, that it’s not the best interests of American citizens to pay ransom to any organization, let alone a terrorist organization, that’s holding an American hostage,” he said. “We don’t want to put other American citizens at even greater risk when they’re around the globe, and that knowing that terrorist organizations can extract a ransom from the United States if they take a hostage only puts American citizens at greater risk.”

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

Kansas Republican Voices An Incumbent’s Lament

Kansas Republican Voices An Incumbent’s Lament

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — On the eve of an election that could end his 33-year career in Congress, GOP Sen. Pat Roberts stood Monday in a tight Republican Party office, the head shots of GOP heroes staring at him, and offered up what could only be called an incumbent’s lament.

On the campaign trail, senators are punching bags. Voters have lost faith in their government. His opponent doesn’t even understand the institution he wants to join. In short: It’s rough out here.

“It’s been a tough year for any incumbent,” Roberts said, looking up at walls filled with portraits of George H.W. Bush, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bob Dole.

That the Kansas conservative was the one delivering the monologue was a bit of a twist. This year, it’s largely Democratic incumbents bracing for a bruising election day on Tuesday — thanks to a tough lineup of red state races, President Barack Obama’s deflated approval rating and months of unsettling news from home and abroad.

But perhaps because of his anomaly status Roberts feels the pressure all the more. Deep in a ruby red state, with conservative credentials and decades of service, even Roberts is on the ropes. Even he was having to explain his role in a divided government. Even he has had to distance himself from Obama’s agenda, he said.

“I think the president, quite frankly, has moved so far left and has made people so frustrated and upset that if you’ve even been within the city limits of Washington — the federal limits of Washington — you’ve got a real challenge on your hands to explain to people that you’ve been opposed to the Obama agenda all along,” Roberts said. “People are so frustrated and angry that they’ve lost faith in their government.”

Roberts’ trouble comes from more than just proximity to the city limits of Washington. It has also been a result of how infrequently he’s been in the city limits of his hometown of Dodge City. The senator has taken heat for allegedly taking up residence in northern Virginia and spending too little time in his home state. He didn’t help his cause when, to defend himself, he explained: “Every time I get an opponent — I mean, a chance — I come home to Kansas.”

Roberts has had other trouble — including a tea party-aligned primary challenge and a Democrat who withdrew at last minute, leaving him in a one-on-one faceoff with wealthy businessman and independent Greg Orman.

Orman has played coy about his partisan sympathies and has not said whom he would support for Senate majority leader. He suggested his allegiances may change from issue to issue, a notion that really riled Roberts, a dedicated party loyalist, on Monday.

It’s “Jim Jeffords on steroids,” he said, referencing the Vermont Republican-turned-independent whose party switching gave Democrats control of the Senate.

“This whole thing that he would be an independent and he would just go look for good ideas, or people who had good ideas. And maybe he’d get with them and they could fix things,” Roberts said. “That just is not how the Senate works. It may well be how a lot of people think it should work but that’s not the case.”

Roberts took umbrage at other notions coming from his opponent’s campaign. Orman had dismissed a group of touring Republicans stumping for Roberts this weekend as “a Washington establishment clown car.” Former Sen. Bob Dole was among them. “You don’t call Bob Dole a clown,” Roberts declared. The Orman campaign says the candidate wrote an email to Dole explaining he did not intend to call Dole a clown.

Orman once invested in a shrimp farm in the Nevada desert, Orman noted, adding that such an enterprise was not a “mainstream” Kansas business.

In the end, the senator says he believes Kansas voters were coming around to his view of the race. They were becoming more skeptical of Orman, he suggested, and coming home to the familiar.

As he looked out at volunteers crowded into the small office, he whittled his pitch down to just a few words.

“You know me,” he said. “You know Pat Roberts.”

Photo via Wikimedia

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In Wisconsin Campaign, Obama Is Asked To Preach Only To The Choir

In Wisconsin Campaign, Obama Is Asked To Preach Only To The Choir

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

MILWAUKEE — If there is a place in America where President Barack Obama can guarantee a warm welcome, it should be this city’s North Division High School, a polling place for a largely black precinct. In the last two presidential elections, Obama’s two GOP opponents scraped together just eight votes here — between them.

Yet Obama campaigned in the packed school gymnasium Tuesday not to celebrate the power of his electoral legacy but to fight a weakness. The groups the Democratic Party counts on for votes — blacks, young people, women and Latinos — regularly stay home in greater numbers in midterm elections.

When Obama’s name is not on the ballot, turnout here nosedives, as it does in many predominantly black neighborhoods in the U.S., and Democrats suffer.

Obama was dispatched to try to ease that pain and to campaign for Mary Burke, the Democrat trying to oust GOP Gov. Scott Walker. He painted a stark picture of the stakes, playing off black voters’ loyalty.

“Grab your friends, grab your co-workers, grab, you know, the lazy cousin sitting at home who never votes in midterm elections; he’s watching reruns of old Packer games,” Obama said. “Take all of them to cast a ballot and cast a ballot for Mary Burke.”

It’s a message he’s been quietly pushing for weeks on black radio and in community newspapers and digital ads. The White House and Democratic National Committee plan to keep up the focus in the final week with robocalls, mailers and Web ads targeting base voters.

On Tuesday, the DNC released a video showing clips of young people knocking on doors interspersed with snippets of a speech Obama gave to a mostly black audience, exhorting them as well to get friends, relatives and neighbors to cast votes.

“Go out and get your friends to vote. Go out and get your co-workers to vote! Remember, the power is in your hands,” Obama says.

Obama’s reliance on these lower-profile tactics is a sign of his sunken popularity among most other voters. Democratic candidates fighting for Senate seats in North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere could use help juicing up their base but have decided they can’t risk the backlash from independents and swing voters if the president were to widely campaign on their behalf.

That has confined Obama to the deepest blue pockets of deep blue cities. His trip to Wisconsin was the first in a final blitz of rallies in Democratic strongholds. He’s due this week to campaign primarily for governors — a group less vulnerable to Republican attempts to tie them to Obama than Senate candidates are — in Portland, Maine; Philadelphia; and Detroit.

Wisconsin offers a clear picture of what is considered safe territory for the battered president. Obama won the state solidly twice. Although his approval rating in the state has fallen from its 2012 re-election high of 53 percent to an average in the low to mid-40s, it has typically floated just above his national rating, said Charles Franklin, a pollster for the Marquette University Law School poll.

“The key thing is, he’s not campaigning throughout the state. He’s coming to Milwaukee, the single largest bastion of Democrats in the state, and he’s going to a ward that votes 99 percent for him,” Franklin said. “Rather than a show of strength, it’s a show of how constrained his ability to help campaigns is right now.”

Obama’s appearances are an opportunity for Republicans too — to implore their own loyal voters to cast ballots, and to raise money. Walker emailed supporters hours ahead of Obama’s arrival asking for donations “so we can turn Mary Burke’s publicity stunt against her.”

The state also neatly demonstrates the party’s midterm woes. Democrats running statewide rely on running up the score in the major cities of Milwaukee and Madison to offset losses in suburbs and rural parts of the state. But in Milwaukee, where Obama won 79 percent of the vote two years ago, Democratic voters disappeared in 2010. In 2008, 275,000 people cast ballots in the city. Two years later, that number fell to just 187,000. In 2010, 62 percent of registered voters showed up. In 2012, it was 87 percent.

Republicans typically see turnout fall about 10 percent to 20 percent statewide, Franklin noted.

Democrats have been working to replicate the Obama turnout machine — without Obama — in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina with a months-long voter registration campaign and an early-voting push aimed at black voters.

Polling has shown blacks remain Obama’s most loyal bloc of supporters. His approval rating among black voters has consistently been about 40 percentage points higher than the national average, according to the Gallup poll.

It’s not surprising, then, that Obama’s message has appealed to this allegiance. A DNC ad running in black newspapers, including the Milwaukee Community Journal, tells voters, “Get his back — Republicans have made it clear that they want our president — Barack Obama — to fail. If you don’t vote this November 4, they win.”

Tuesday’s election, Obama said, is “a choice about two different visions for America and it boils down to … who’s going to fight for you?”

Obama was briefly interrupted by a protester objecting to his policy on deporting immigrants who entered this country illegally. The president told the crowd the woman should aim her frustration at Republicans who have blocked immigration reform in Congress.

Obama and Burke focused their pitch on the economy. Burke promised “a fair shot” for the middle class and more jobs. “Too many folks work harder than ever and actually have less to show for it,” she said.

Wisconsin lags the nation in job growth, Obama said. “You have a chance to change that.”

Demetrious Lewis, a 52-year-old special education assistant at a middle school, said she’s focused on ousting Walker because she thinks he hasn’t done enough to create jobs in her community.

“We need some changes,” she said as she waited to hear Obama speak. “Things aren’t going good for a lot of people in the neighborhood — jobs-wise.

“We need some changes,” she repeated.

Although Lewis said she’s certain to vote, she noted the excitement in the gymnasium was not matched in the neighborhood outside.

“Compared to the crowd in here, I don’t know,” she said, trailing off. “I hope everyone is going to get out there. I hope.”

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

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White House Won’t Name New Attorney General Until After Election

White House Won’t Name New Attorney General Until After Election

By Kathleen Hennessey and Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Hoping to avoid political blowback, President Obama will wait until after the November election to name a nominee for attorney general, a White House official said Tuesday.

President Barack Obama has been deliberating over who should replace Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who announced his plans to step down last month. White House officials said the president has narrowed the field, but not yet made his choice — despite the fact that Holder’s departure had long been anticipated.

The White House official’s confirmation that the president would delay the decision comes after Senate Democrats, who are struggling to hold control of the chamber, had expressed concern that the decision, depending on the nominee, could become a campaign issue.

It was not immediately clear whether the White House still intends to push for a new attorney general to be confirmed in the lame-duck session of the Senate beginning in mid-November. Normally the Senate Judiciary Committee would have at least one to two months to consider such a nomination.

With polls indicating that Republicans have a solid chance at winning a majority in the new Senate that will take office early in January, Obama’s chances of winning confirmation of a controversial nominee would be greatly reduced if he waits until next year.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

Obama Expresses Skepticism On Russia’s Aims In Ukrainian Conflict

Obama Expresses Skepticism On Russia’s Aims In Ukrainian Conflict

By Kathleen Hennessey, Los Angeles Times

ESTONIA — President Obama expressed skepticism Wednesday about Russia’s aims in Ukraine after Kiev announced that the two countries had agreed to a cease-fire, a claim it later reportedly backed off of.

Noting that it was “too early to tell” whether Moscow would hold to such an agreement anyway, Obama said that if Russia is agreeing to stop backing separatist militias in eastern Ukraine, “that is something we all hope for.”

But he stopped short of endorsing any sort of deal, and within hours, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that a cease-fire had been reached, according to media reports in Russia. Eventually, a spokesman for Ukraine’s president told The New York Times that his office went too far in describing a phone call between the country’s leaders.

The stop-and-start reports came as Obama began a three-day European trip certain to be dominated by the escalating conflict between Ukraine and its eastern neighbor. Obama was due to meet with European allies struggling to agree on fresh financial penalties against Russia that could shift Moscow’s engagement in the civil war across its border with Ukraine. At a NATO meeting in Wales later in the week, the alliance’s leaders planned to counter what they’ve labeled Russian aggression with a new show of force in Eastern and Central European states.

To underscore that goal, the president began the trip in this Baltic capital, where he offered reassurance that the U.S. would defend Estonia, a NATO ally that also shares a border with Russia, should it be subject to similar aggression. He highlighted U.S. efforts to increase its military presence in the region in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year. Obama said he hoped to win congressional support to further bolster the U.S. military presence, including additional Air Force units and air training exercises based at Estonia’s Amari air force base.

The U.S. commitment to defend its ally, Obama said, “is unbreakable. It is unwavering. Estonia will never stand alone.”

Obama delivered his message of reassurance to a nation keenly familiar with fears of about Russian aggression. The small, strategic outpost jutting into the Baltic Sea has spent much of the past century under the imposing shadow of its eastern neighbor. After more than four decades of Soviet control in Estonia, the last of the Russian Army soldiers left just 20 years ago.

Since declaring its independence, Estonia has sought security in Western alliances and prosperity in high-tech development and culture.

“I should have called the Estonians when we were setting up our healthcare website,” Obama joked.

Estonia joined NATO in 2004, along with its Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Latvia, whose leaders Obama was slated to meet later with to discuss regional security before he delivers a speech later in the afternoon.

Obama held Estonia up as a model for contributing its share to NATO, which has struggled to get members to meet their targets for defense spending.

Estonia, a nation of just 1.3 million people, “truly punches above its weight,” Obama said.

“We’ve not stayed back and waited for others to take care of our security,” added Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Still, Ilves has sought a permanent NATO presence in Estonia, a move that has so far been rejected by other allies amid concerns that it would further heighten tensions between Moscow and the West. Under a series of agreements, NATO leaders have kept permanent bases out of front-line nations.

NATO leaders are due to announce a ramped-up rotation of NATO forces through Baltic nations, a new Readiness Action Plan some have described as de facto permanent bases.

Obama said the goal was to rid NATO of the “sense of complacency” that has arisen in recent years.

Ilves argued Wednesday that Moscow’s moves in Ukraine, although it is not a NATO ally, have changed the security situation and should call for a rethinking of those previous agreements.

“This is an unforeseen and new security environment,” Ilves said in English. The Estonian leader is the child of refugees, was raised in New Jersey and went to college and graduate school in the U.S.

Obama agreed that the “circumstances have changed” and added that previous assumptions should be looked at “with fresh eyes,” but committed only to discussing the topic in Wales.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Obama: Video Of Slain Journalist Is Authentic, U.S. Won’t Be Intimidated

Obama: Video Of Slain Journalist Is Authentic, U.S. Won’t Be Intimidated

By Kathleen Hennessey, Los Angeles Times

TALLINN, Estonia — U.S. intelligence officials have verified the authenticity of a video showing the beheading American journalist Steven Sotloff, President Obama said Wednesday as he declared the U.S. would “not be intimidated” by the Islamic State militants’ acts of “barbarism.”

“Whatever these murderers think they’ll achieve by killing innocent Americans like Steven, they have already failed,” Obama said. “We will not forget, and our reach is long and justice will be served.”

The Sunni militant group released the video Tuesday purportedly showing Sotloff shortly before and after his death. In the video, a black-clad militant declares that Sotloff’s killing was retaliation for the U.S. airstrike Obama has ordered on Islamic State targets in northern Iraq.

“Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people,” the man says.

The video was released hours before President Obama left Washington for Estonia, where he is meeting with Baltic leaders before heading to Wales for a NATO summit. At a press conference Wednesday morning, Obama expressed his condolences for Sotloff’s family and praised Sotloff as a journalist who “deeply loved the Islamic world.”

Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelance journalist who wrote for such outlets as Time magazine and Foreign Policy, was kidnapped shortly after crossing into Syria in August 2013. Two weeks ago, he appeared in video showing the beheading of fellow American journalist James Foley. In that video, a militant in a similar black mask and speaking English with British accent threatened that Sotloff would be next.

Obama has continued the air campaign against the group despite the threats. The Islamic State has seized large pieces of northern and western Iraq in its campaign to establish a caliphate across the region.

Unlike some nations, the U.S. does not negotiate or pay ransom for hostages, officials say. Earlier this summer, Obama authorized a raid on an Islamic State camp in Syria in an attempt to rescue Sotloff, Foley and others believed to be to held by the group, but no hostages were found at the site.

Obama has said he is considering striking Islamic State forces in Syria, although he acknowledged he hopes to more fully develop a strategy for such action as he consults with allies in coming days.

Asked Wednesday whether his goal was to destroy the group, also known as ISIL, or merely contain it, Obama tried to set realistic aims. He compared the group to al-Qaida, saying “there’s always going to be remnants that can cause havoc.”

“Our object is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region and we can accomplish that,” he said. “It’s going to take some time; it’s going to take some effort.”

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

Obama To Visit Baltic Leaders, Sending A Message To Russia

Obama To Visit Baltic Leaders, Sending A Message To Russia

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — President Obama is slated to travel to Estonia next month, visiting the former Soviet republic in a move to try to reassure leaders in the region who worry that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine may spread.

The trip likely will get a chilly response from Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin takes a dim view of what he sees as U.S. meddling with countries that should belong to a Russian sphere of influence. A decade ago, Russian leaders were angered by a similar Baltic trip taken by then-President George W. Bush.

Obama will hold bilateral meetings with Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Prime Minister Taavi Roivas in Tallinn, the White House announced Friday. The president will also attend a summit of leaders of the Baltic nations with Ilves and the two other Baltic leaders, President Andris Berzins of Latvia, and President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania.

The stop in Estonia was tacked on to a previously scheduled trip to Europe. The president is slated to attend the NATO summit in Wales in the United Kingdom on Sept. 4.

Unlike Ukraine, the three Baltic nations are NATO members. The three countries were occupied by the Soviets after World War II and absorbed into the Soviet Union, but broke free from Moscow’s control when Soviet power crumbled in 1991.

The White House described the trip as an opportunity “to discuss ongoing cooperation on regional security and policies that support economic growth, and to discuss collective defense,” according to National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine, Obama has repeatedly had to reassure European allies that the United States remains prepared to defend its NATO allies. The president carried a similar message in a visit to Poland in June.

“In light of recent developments in Ukraine, the United States has taken steps to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe, and this trip is a chance to reaffirm our ironclad commitment to Article V as the foundation of NATO,” Hayden said.

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

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Obama ‘Appreciated’ Clinton’s Phone Call To Smooth Over Spat

Obama ‘Appreciated’ Clinton’s Phone Call To Smooth Over Spat

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — President Barack Obama “appreciated” the almost-sorry phone call from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the White House said Wednesday, as it tried to tie a bow on an awkward public row between the two before they meet for cocktails in polite company.

The president and his on-again, off-again rival — or more precisely, their aides — have been trying to smooth over Clinton’s criticism of Obama’s foreign policy published in a magazine interview earlier this week.

Clinton told The Atlantic magazine that Obama “failed” to prevent the rise of terrorist militants in Syria and dismissed his foreign policy catch phrase — “Don’t do stupid stuff” — as “not an organizing principle.”

Clinton reached out with an explanatory phone call Tuesday, her spokesman said. She wanted to ensure the president “knows that nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies or his leadership,” spokesman Nick Merrill said. Clinton blamed others for hyping the comments and said she looks forward to hugging it out like friends, Merrill added.

The White House responded Wednesday with similarly sunny, and careful, statement.

“The president indeed appreciated Secretary Clinton’s call, as he does every opportunity to chat with the former secretary of state,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters covering the president’s vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. “They have a close and resilient relationship.”

Schultz reminded reporters that Obama beat Clinton in a “hard-fought nomination contest” and still the president wanted her on his team.

“The president appreciates her counsel and advice, but more importantly, he appreciates her friendship. And that’s why he’s looking forward to seeing her this evening,” Schultz said.

Both Clinton and Obama are slated to attend a cocktail reception hosted by former Clinton White House fixture Vernon Jordan. Obama is vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard. Clinton is on the island to promote her book Hard Choices.

AFP Photo/Nicolas Kamm

Putting Pressure On al-Maliki, Biden Calls Iraq Prime Minister Appointee

Putting Pressure On al-Maliki, Biden Calls Iraq Prime Minister Appointee

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — As the United States tries to pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside, Vice President Joe Biden called al-Maliki’s disputed successor Monday to urge him to form a new government.

In a statement released Monday here, where President Barack Obama is vacationing, the White House said Biden called Prime Minister-designate Haider Abadi to pass along his and Obama’s congratulations and restated the U.S. “commitment to fully support a new and inclusive Iraqi government.”

National security adviser Susan Rice and her deputy, Ben Rhodes, briefed Obama on Monday morning concerning the latest developments in Iraq, the White House said.

Abadi was named to the post Monday by President Fouad Massoum. Al-Maliki and Abadi are both Shiites and belong to the same political party, but al-Maliki has not recognized Abadi’s claim to power. He said Massoum does not have to authority to make the nomination and has appealed the matter to the country’s highest court, putting Iraq’s already troubled political system in a dangerous limbo.

The Obama administration once supported al-Maliki but now views his rule as partially responsible for the rise of the Islamic State, the armed Sunni group that has seized control of much of western and northern Iraq. Al-Maliki has alienated Sunnis by concentrating power and patronage in the hands of his fellow Shiites, imprisoning some Sunni leaders, and driving others into exile.

Over the weekend, U.S. officials had released several statements supportive of Massoum, and diplomats in Washington and Baghdad encouraged Iraqi politicians to cull the field of potential prime ministers to select an alternative to al-Maliki. Abadi, the deputy speaker of parliament, was selected early Monday.

Earlier Monday, Biden called Massoum to offer his support, telling the Iraqi president that he had the United States’ “full support for his role as guaranteer of the Iraqi constitution,” according to a White House statement.

The White House description of the vice president’s call to Abadi said the prime minister-designate told Biden that he would move “expeditiously” to form a more inclusive government “capable of countering the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The two officials agreed to stay in touch, the statement said.

The United States last week began bombing Islamic State fighters in areas near Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. U.S. officials had hoped to put off direct military involvement in Iraq’s fight against the Sunni militias until a new government was formed. The officials say the rapid advance of the Islamic State in the north, which threatened the Kurdish region, left them little choice but to intervene more quickly.

AFP Photo

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