Monday, February 21, 2011

Obama ex-enforcer closes in on Chicago mayor crown

US President Barack Obama's ex-enforcer Rahm Emanuel hopes to be crowned mayor of Chicago on Tuesday after capturing such a decisive lead that the only question is whether he will avoid a runoff.

The famously foul-mouthed Emanuel, 51, has been the clear front-runner in the race to run America's third-largest city ever since he resigned as White House chief of staff and moved back to Chicago in October.

His lead in the polls grew even as opponents dropped out of the once-crowded race to replace retiring Mayor Richard Daley, who has governed the Windy City for more than 22 years.

And so, in a move characteristic of rough and tumble Chicago politics, opponents tried to cut him off in the courts, saying he had abandoned his Chicago residency when he moved his family to Washington to work for Obama.

The challenge added ample drama to the otherwise pre-ordained race.

First, there was Emanuel's tenant, who refused to be bought out of his lease so Emanuel could move back into his northside home and then briefly entered the mayoral race himself.

Then there were the circus-like hearings in a cramped county hearing room with faulty microphones, where "citizen objectors" ridiculed the multi-millionaire for renting his home out in the first place.

It was a world away from the formality of the White House, but Emanuel proved to have a deep well of patience as he calmly answered the often bizarre questions and took every opportunity to prove his deep roots in the Windy City.

Emanuel, who was born in Chicago and served a slice of the city for years in the US House of Representatives, triumphed over objectors at the city's elections board and again at the county court.

Then, in a move that stunned Chicago, an appeals court ordered him off the ballot in a widely-criticized 2-1 ruling just days before early voting was set to begin last month.

Nearly 300,000 ballots had been printed without Emanuel's name when the state's top court issued an emergency stay, forcing city officials to tell printers to "stop the presses" and go back to the original proofs.

The Illinois Supreme Court handed him a decisive victory in a unanimous ruling two days later, and Emanuel had Chicago firmly in his grasp.

The shrewd politico, whose uncompromising style earned him the nickname "Rahmbo," is expected to replicate Daley's iron-fisted tactics and focus on maintaining Chicago's reputation as "the city that works."

"Chicagoans feel Chicago is a difficult city to rule," said Ken Janda, professor emeritus of political science at Northwestern University.

"You've got to be a guy who says no. And Emanuel is seen to be a guy who is tough and can say no."

A poll released last week showed Emanuel with 58 percent of the vote -- more than enough to get the majority needed to avoid an April 5 runoff between the top two candidates.

Emanuel is also favored because he has such high-profile support. Obama -- who remains wildly popular in his adoptive hometown of Chicago -- gave Rahm a glowing endorsement.

And former president Bill Clinton flew to the heavily Democratic city last month to campaign for Emanuel, who once served as his senior adviser.

Emanuel, who would be Chicago's first Jewish mayor, was also able to gain a lead in all demographic and geographical categories in the ethnically and economically divided city.

Rival Gery Chico won 24 percent, Miguel Del Valle had 10 percent and Carol Moseley Braun was the pick of six percent of respondents in the Illinois Retail Merchants Association survey.

A runoff is still possible given how many candidates are on the ballot, said John Brehm, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

While it might be somewhat embarrassing to be forced into a runoff, "he'll brush it off," Brehm told AFP.

"I can't imagine a circumstance in which he would lose in a runoff."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Star’s editorial | Obama’s export goal needs a bigger push

President Barack Obama talked up the South Korean free-trade pact in his recent appearance before business leaders, continuing his positive rhetoric on trade.

But what’s still lacking is the kind of attention and urgency that would succeed in pushing the deal through Congress, which must approve it.

More worrisome, in his remarks, Obama made many wonder about the status of pending trade pacts with Panama and Colombia.

The odd language in his speech: “As we pursue trade agreements with Panama and Colombia …”

Pursue? Those agreements were negotiated years ago. The Colombian deal was then renegotiated.

Last week, the administration said it would “intensify” negotiations with Colombia and Panama, and one would be forgiven for wondering whether the White House plans to negotiate ad infinitum.

Those two countries lie in a strategically important region, one where U.S. influence is challenged by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Washington must do more to promote the spread of democracy and market economics. Free trade would provide U.S. allies with an important boost.

Economically, the South Korean deal is far more important. South Korea is our seventh-largest trading partner.

Trade is an area where Obama could work with the Republican majority in the House. Speaker John Boehner wants to combine all three pacts and move them on a single vote. It’s a good idea.

Obama has said he wants to double the nation’s exports by 2015. If he’s serious, he had better push harder for congressional approval of these deals.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gingrich says Obama administration 'amateurish' on Egypt

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he's "concerned" about the Obama administration's handling of the situation in Egypt and what he sees as a divide between the White House and diplomat Franks Wisner.

"I think the fact that they appointed a very able diplomat Frank Wisner and within two days were publically contradicting him is you know so amateurish," Gingrich told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King. "I was with John Bolton (former ambassador to the United Nations) last night. He said it's inconceivable that they would be this clumsy and this out of sync. I mean just with themselves, forget the Arab world. They can't even get the White House and their special envoy to be on the same page."

Wisner was sent to Egypt by the United States to negotiate directly with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the transition, and on his return said Mubarak should remain in office, at least for now, in order to hand over authority in an orderly manner.

At the White House press briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Wisner does not speak for the administration.

"His views on who should or shouldn't be the head of Egypt don't represent the views of our administration," Gibbs said. "The views of our administration are that those are the decisions that will be made by the Egyptians."

But the envoy's remarks were not entirely out of line with those of other officials who have noted that there are "certain legitimate legislative hurdles" that must be overcome by Mubarak and could take some time to accomplish.

Gingrich also said he's worried that the United States might reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition Islamist umbrella group in the country.

"I think this is absolute total misreading of history. The Muslim Brotherhood is a mortal enemy of our civilization, they say so openly," Gingrich said.

The Brotherhood, officially banned but still tolerated by the Egyptian government, is already in negotiations with other – but not all – opposition groups and Egypt's new vice president, Omar Suleiman. The Brotherhood was removed from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations in the 1970s and, at least in Egypt, has renounced violence.

The likely 2012 presidential candidate reiterated his "end of February and to March" deadline to make a decision and turned the discussion to former President Ronald Reagan, whose centennial birthday celebration he attended Sunday.

"Reagan did what he believed in when he thought it was right," Gingrich said. "I frankly try to study Reagan and (Margaret) Thatcher and (Abraham) Lincoln because I think they were the great truth tellers of modern politics, sometimes when telling the truth people in the establishment go nuts because it's not the truth they want to hear."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Obama Administration Works Behind the Scenes on Egypt Transition

The U.S. has increasingly worked behind the scenes at the highest levels after days of civil unrest in Egypt, with President Hosni Mubarak's Tuesday announcement he would step aside coming on the heels of prodding by a special U.S. envoy.

And after Mubarak told his country he wouldn't run for re-election later this year, he spoke with President Obama for a half hour by phone. Obama later said Mubarak recognizes that the status quo in Egypt is “not sustainable” and a “change must take place.”

Obama pointed out that historically Egypt is no stranger to governmental change and that the “voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments.”

Obama called on Egypt to form a responsive government where “broad spectrums of Egyptian voices are heard,” and he affirmed U.S. interest in a strong relationship with Egypt going forward.

The Mubarak regime for decades has been allied with the U.S., but since the outset of the demonstrations the Obama administration made clear that it was not taking sides. Yet it sent former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, a close friend with the embattled leader, to persuade Mubarak not to run for re-election.

Late Tuesday, Mubarak said in a national address he would end his career "for the sake of the nation" and use his remaining months in power to work toward a "peaceful transition of power."

Mubarak had harsh words for the political forces he alleged had "manipulated and controlled" the protests, which began a week ago -- but he said he would remain in Egypt and that his legacy would be "judged by history."

Whether Mubarak's decision will placate demonstrators remains to be seen. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the test for Egypt will be whether the Egyptian demonstrators accept Mubarak as their president through the end of the year. Otherwise, he said, the country could be thrown back into crisis.

But the Obama administration has been holding talks to make clear Washington's desire for a peaceful transition, according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey met with opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei in Cairo to convey that message. Crowley described the meeting as "part of our public outreach to convey support for orderly transition in Egypt."

At the Pentagon, officials said Defense Secretary Robert Gates conferred by phone with his Egyptian counterpart, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

Also Tuesday, the State Department ordered nonessential U.S. personnel to leave Egypt. The order replaces an initial decision last week to allow nonessential workers who wanted to leave the country to do so at government expense.

The department said it would continue to evacuate private U.S. citizens from Egypt aboard government-chartered planes.

As the protests against Mubarak's three-decade rule escalated on Tuesday, the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat, was among the first to publicly say that Mubarak should "step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure."

"It is not enough for President Mubarak to pledge `fair' elections," Kerry wrote in The New York Times. "The most important step that he can take is to address his nation and declare that neither he nor the son he has been positioning as his successor will run in the presidential election this year. Egyptians have moved beyond his regime, and the best way to avoid unrest turning into upheaval is for President Mubarak to take himself and his family out of the equation."

Egypt's army leaders are reassuring the United States that the powerful military does not intend to crack down on demonstrators, but is instead allowing the protesters to "wear themselves out," according to a former U.S. official in contact with several top Egyptian army officers.

The Egyptian officers expressed concern with some of the White House statements that side with the protesters, saying that stoking revolt to remove Mubarak could create a vacuum that the banned but powerful Muslim Brotherhood could fill, the official said. While the Brotherhood claims to have closed its paramilitary wing long ago, it has fought politically to gain power, and more threatening to the Mubarak regime, has built a nationwide charity and social network that much of Egypt's poverty stricken population depends on for its survival.

Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. military remains ready to help get Americans out of Egypt if asked but so far has received no requests.

On Monday, the U.S. evacuated more than 1,200 Americans from Cairo on such flights and said it expected to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days. Monday's flights ferried Americans from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus; Athens, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey. On Tuesday, the department expects to add Frankfurt, Germany, as a destination.