BBC BLOGS - Justin Webb's America

Archives for March 2009

Back in the UK

Justin Webb | 16:42 UK time, Tuesday, 31 March 2009


Home again.

The White House's official description of the UK - for those journalists on a deadline and too old to remember school geography - is "smaller than Oregon". That's it. Very crowded as well - dense, as they put it.

The drive in from Stansted Airport reveals density and titchiness in equal measure, though Passport Control turned out to be rather jolly and almost apologetic - no need to queue with the common man (the White House travelling press do not appreciate queueing).

The White House staffers who have stayed on after George W Bush - they are junior folk, but they have nevertheless seen it all come and go - are hugely (and it seems genuinely) impressed with the pace of the Obama revolution.

But the American governmental machine is still almost ludicrously slow - Mr Obama arrives in Europe with key people gone and not replaced: no London ambassador (the genial and moderate Republican Mr Tuttle could surely have been persuaded to stay?), no Nato ambassador and no Under-secretary of State for Europe.

By the way, there was exemplary sobriety on the press plane - I suspect because everyone appears to be carrying those little video recorders you can plug straight into a computer and nobody wants to be fired.

The Boys on the Bus have become Lambs in the Air...

Diplomatic incident

Justin Webb | 01:56 UK time, Tuesday, 31 March 2009


A minor diplomatic incident here at Andrews Air Force Base.

It seems that the British authorities have insisted that the press in the White House "bubble" have to show passports when arriving in Britain.

This is unusual - most countries treat the travelling White House press with a gracious acknowledgement of what they believe to be their status.

Perhaps the Brits are seeking revenge after that strange incident at the White House when press traveling with Gordon Brown had trouble getting in.

Plainly, in a partnership of purpose, passports are required.

Looking ahead to the G20

Justin Webb | 20:25 UK time, Monday, 30 March 2009


As we head for London and the first stage of this impossibly over-full agenda of meetings, one searches for someone who is saying something just a little bit off-piste about the whole thing.

Best candidate so far is this counterblast against Nato (the Nato summit at the end of the week is celebrating 60 years of the organisation) from the American right.

First, though, we have the economic business and the Obamas' meeting with the Queen - sleeves or not?

A great roadshow

Justin Webb | 10:42 UK time, Thursday, 26 March 2009


Now hold on to your hats. Next week Barack Obama sets off on his first real foray into the outside world and those of us going with him have already had our schedules for the trip, replete with 4am starts and short hops from country to country designed to induce confusion and disfunction.

I will be blogging as often as I remember - bringing you (I hope) not just analysis of the cut of the Obama jib but also behind-the-scenes access to one of the world's great roadshows: the White House travelling press bubble.

Nobody will ever rival the Rolling Stone journalist Timothy Crouse's classic The Boys on the Bus but all that he chronicled in his trip with McGovern in the 1972 presidential campaign is true still of the travelling press corps.

He wrote - inter alia - of the "tiny community of the press plane, a totally abnormal world that combined the incestuousness of a New England hamlet with the giddiness of a mid-ocean gala and the physical rigours of the Long March."

From the Obama press plane, I will deliver you an insight into our fetid, squalid, time-challenged world. I remember on a previous trip having to rescue the secret service man from a Belgian breakfast (cold meat and fish) and take him to McDonalds. The same man later rescued me from the Slovakian riot police who wanted to kill me, thus forming a bond that exists to this day.

There will also be time for quick messages on whatever the bubble-minders are saying about their hosts in England, France, the Czech Republic, and Turkey. You will not have to rely on Fox TV's Czech service. Though you may prefer to.

Seriously this tour matters: it will demonstrate to the world the new reality of America, at the G20 in London, and at the subsequent multilateral and bilateral get-togethers. All will be revealed...

Journalists need prompting too

Justin Webb | 18:11 UK time, Wednesday, 25 March 2009


My question for the President was going to be about Iran - was he disappointed by the response from Tehran to his New Year message, and what happens next?

Which reminds me - finally on this subject, and in keeping with my new mood of admiration for his style - what an outrage it is that the press here criticise Obama for using a prompter for his structured appearences, but then stand up to ask their questions with written questions held in quivering fingers!

The man next to me (I peeped - hey I am a reporter) had actually written out his question under the heading MR PRESIDENT! As if without prompting he was unsure of his ability to remember the name of the 44th leader of the free world. Hillarious.

Thoughts on Obama's press conference

Justin Webb | 13:49 UK time, Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Whoops - I was so disappointed not to be called for a question that I wandered off into the night and forgot to post a post-press confererence thought.

My impression: he was on top form. All the chat-show nonsense, that sits so uneasily with this bookish man, was stripped away. So was the tele-prompter (except for the opening remarks) and the result was fluency and some passion.

The closing riff on the subject of persistence was not exactly revolutionary, but it felt like a genuine insight into how he sees himself and his presidency. Persistence and seriousness are in, chat shows are out. This is the central fact of the first 60 days.

Talking of serious points: I had taken in a copy of my book to give to a friend who works in the White House, but was still clutching it during the press conference - I toyed briefly with the idea of leaping forward to hand it to the president - would subsequent Amazon sales have made up for my sudden lack of gainful employment? I decided they would not.

At the Obama press conference

Justin Webb | 23:46 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009


1936 EDT

Such a crowd of reporters that they have pushed the chairs right against the podium - literally withing touching distance if you reached up, though for obvious reasons, that would be unwise.
In spite of his apparent over exposure, friendlier folks still want to come.

Hopes for Obama's news conference

Justin Webb | 17:35 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009


My hope for tonight's news conference - a hope seemingly shared by Tina Brown - is that Mr Obama leaves out the stuff about how Air Force One IS the best way to travel and the Secret Service are very bossy and the Presidential Waffles are wicked fattening. Let's hope he keeps it sober and grown-up, which, after all, he does rather well.

My question, if I get the chance: will the new White House dog get rewards for finding the president's missing shoe, even if he was the one who hid it?

UPDATE: In case I get several questions: what would you like me to ask the President? Let me know in the comments...

Making sense of the market

Justin Webb | 02:36 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009


Fat cats to the rescue, aided by America's growing legions of socialists. A friend who works the industry tells me that he is expecting to buy toxic assets at a price which has actually been improved by the AIG furore. The federal government were forced to make the deal even sweeter at the last minute to compensate buyers from the potential risk of having punitive taxes foisted on them if they make a proft and their homes picketed etc etc. So the populist congressmen have cost the taxpayers they purport to back even more money. Strange world, the market: though in America you'd have thought they'd have understood it better. Perhaps they do: the anger is manufactured largely in 24-hour news studios and on Capitol Hill - out there in the nation there is still a hunger for progress, an end to the slump, rather than guillotines and Mao Suits.

As ever (except on evolution) they make sense of it all in Kansas,

Obama's humour problem

Justin Webb | 20:04 UK time, Friday, 20 March 2009


Special Olympics?

Maybe he has spent too much time in the basketball locker room, where tough guys laughing at less-tough guys is part of the whole deal.

It is not a sign of moral turpitude, for goodness' sake, but (remember the Nancy Reagan joke in his first news conference?) it is something he has to address. I wonder if Michelle might be telling him that right now.

This is a wise piece on an unexpected problem...

Stealing money - legally

Justin Webb | 14:13 UK time, Thursday, 19 March 2009


You do not have to be a teacher of constitutional law at Chicago University and former top student of Harvard Law to wonder whether the use of the tax system to steal money legally paid to individuals might be a dangerous and unpredictable path to tread.

It reminds me of the attempt to block Dubai Ports International taking over the running of US ports.

As for the political effect of all this outrage: Sell Dodd and buy the stock of any former CEO of a real company with real products and real profits and real employment of real people in real America, who might be willing to take over when Tim Geithner steps aside...

Would Palin have done better?

Justin Webb | 18:53 UK time, Wednesday, 18 March 2009


As a sceptic on Sarah Palin - I still believe she, more than the economy, cooked John McCain's goose - I am nonetheless impressed by this, at least for its humour and elegant prose.

The smarties had better get it right or the reckoning will be as horrible as a helicopter moose shoot - at the moment they are not.

And the natives are getting antsy, even calling for (rather premature) resignations

Mr Obama's decision to appear on the Leno show is beginning to look like a mistake...

Trucks - the coming trade war?

Justin Webb | 21:42 UK time, Tuesday, 17 March 2009


The truck dispute between Mexico and the US is a big deal in the making - perhaps the first battle of a global trade war? Or the shock to the system that convinces everyone there has to be a better way?

It does look as if the US is in the wrong - if you go by the rules - and President Obama is faced with a choice: persuade Congress to comply with the rules or give up on a key aspect of NAFTA, following through on a campaign threat that most people thought was hollow but which has some continuing political advantages.

There is some political cost in the White House forcing Congress to reinstate the truck scheme - at a time when the Obama team want to reduce the spending of capital in order to keep some for future rainy days. Result: the trucks won't roll.

Polling Obama

Justin Webb | 19:10 UK time, Monday, 16 March 2009


Barack Obama is falling to earth, but he's still way up in the sky according to the latest polls. And yes he is higher than normal even for a president in his first term as this makes clear.

And yet...

So someone at a meeting a few days ago came up with a solution or a strategy or a cunning wheeze that said: "first, kill all the bankers (to misquote Shakespeare) and secondly, this.

Might work.

Is Obama drifting?

Justin Webb | 21:01 UK time, Wednesday, 11 March 2009


I knew Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was a friend of mine (well I watched him on the telly); and Sir, Barack: you are no Jimmy Carter.

But are you Leo X?

Here's why.

A good example of the problems aflicting the new administration (actually better than Ms Paglia's I think): this fellow looked from his photo to be an unexciting choice as President Obama's head of the National Intelligence Council.

Far from it: the reaction when he pulled out on Tuesday makes that clear. Whether he was the right man or not is way above my pay grade, but the failure to notice that he was a tad controversial and/or the failure to back the guy once the going got tough really does seem to be a sign of incoherence and drift at the heart of the administration. This is, after all, a key post.

Now they are looking for someone else and the clock is ticking and the Iranians spinning and al Qaeda plotting.

And there are those who are suggesting that the administration could have won the argument, if it had only tried.

The stem cell debate

Justin Webb | 22:12 UK time, Monday, 9 March 2009


Right around the nation, the stem cell move is creating excitement.

This in particular caught my eye, as it refers to the overturning of a public funding ban at the local level - part of that strange death of social conservatism.

But the decision is also creating grave disquiet and not only among those who view embryos as human beings with full human rights.

Opponents of the destruction of embryos point out that there is a legitimate view - based sometimes on morality and sometimes on science (they suggest the benefits will never come or could come from other means) - which should not be dismissed as "ideology".

The interesting question for me is whether the next president - say President Palin in 2017 - will overturn the Obama overturn. I think not.

If it works, America will embrace it.

Faith vs Science

Justin Webb | 03:14 UK time, Monday, 9 March 2009


The stem cell decision is indeed a repudiation of a Bush policy but it is more: the strange death of socially conservative America, which began in the mid-terms in 2006, continues apace. The repudiation is of a policy but also of a way of life, that puts faith above science.

The initial Republican take from their most vocal congressional spokesman struck me as vapid. You can attack the decision on grounds of morality if you believe that embyos are people as John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House later did with his statement: "Taxpayer dollars should not aid the destruction of innocent human life."

You can also attack it on grounds of practicality if you believe that it will lead to very little real progress. But to suggest it kinda doesn't matter? Mr Cantor didn't even recognise the obvious fact that the move will bring economic benefits .

As for the poltics of it - as I have said previously one cure that genuinely affects thousands of Americans, one piece of real progress, and the Republicans will be sunk. Meanwhile the jury is out.

I should add a personal note: my son, of whom I have written recently, has type one diabetes and could one day be cured by stem cell treatment. I do not resent Mr Boehner's views but I note with real anticipation that America, with all its energy and zest for improvement and technical knowhow and openness to ideas and talent, is now able to devote much more of those qualities to this field. I have faith!

UPDATE: Anyone who wants to hear first hand the excitement the Obama stem cell announcement causes in the scientific community - this is your site. The twitterer is Larry Solar of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Stem cell decision imminent

Justin Webb | 21:14 UK time, Friday, 6 March 2009


I am told by a contact in the world of stem cell technology that the announcement relaxing the rules governing the use of embryonic stem cell lines in the US will come next week - perhaps as early as Monday. Big day. The Bush years are being rolled back.

Some suggest it does not matter any more, but most in the medical profession think it does.

Brown's free trade message

Justin Webb | 18:09 UK time, Wednesday, 4 March 2009


Forgive me for not getting that excited about the Brown visit - the truth is that the special relationship or special partnership or whatever we call it now is not that important to the modern Americans who will shape the future of this nation and whose families hail from Mexico or China or Sudan or wherever else.

Having said that, the Prime Minister's message on protectionism is important. And it is significant that there was no applause at all for any part of that passage of his speech. None. Anyone who reports on this speech and misses that fact, misses something vital.

This is the worry for many free trade supporting Americans, and for many outsiders.

Iraq and Ozymandias

Justin Webb | 08:18 UK time, Monday, 2 March 2009


The progress from this to this must surely remind us of this.

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