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Not So Fast

It happens in every White House: Advisers and cabinet officials don’t see the subtle shift from the campaign to the White House. Or the White House team members, when they hear the campaign rhetoric read back to them, think better of it. This administration is no different.

Susan Rice, the new UN Ambassador, seemed to take seriously all the talk about high-level meetings with Iran in the first year of the presidency — which was the oft-repeated campaign verbiage, until it wasn’t. She declared the administration’s interest and willingness to undertake  “direct diplomacy” with Iran. Well, maybe not so fast. This report explains:

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs downplayed the significance of Rice’s remarks, saying that “there are no specific initiatives” at the moment to talk to Iran. “What Ambassador Rice outlined today was simply to restate the position that I think many of you heard the president outline throughout the campaign for the past two years: that this administration is going to use all elements of our national power to address the concerns that we have with Iran,” Gibbs said.

Translation: don’t take the campaign blather too seriously, we are actually in power now.

Then there was Tim Geithner who took the opportunity in his written answers to confirmation questions to come right out and accuse China of “currency manipulation.” That, not surprisingly, set off a ferocious reaction in China. That’s fine, but the administration obviously isn’t ready to back that blunt language up with any action. So once again the White House backpedaled:

The White House tried to play down criticism of China’s currency policies by Timothy Geithner, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be Treasury secretary.The White House, noting it wants to establish a “comprehensive” economic relationship with China, said it won’t make a determination about that country’s currency until Treasury provides a report to Congress in the spring. White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs avoided repeating the view of Timothy Geithner, who said in written testimony for his confirmation hearings that President Obama, “backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists — believes that China is manipulating its currency.” Though the U.S. has long pushed China to move to a market-based system for managing the yuan, it has resisted officially branding Beijing a manipulator.

It is not easy getting everyone on the same page. That is especially the case when a President has chosen to multiply the number of power centers, add some czars, and create overlapping jurisdictions. Is George Mitchell the “real” messenger on the Middle East or is Hillary Clinton? More voices will make it more difficult to tell.

The problem is also magnified by a tendency to speak in sweeping rhetoric that does not match the day-to-day policy of the administration. When you declare we “are closing Guantanamo” or “ending the War in Iraq” — but not really and not yet — the President’s own advisers get confused as to what is the actual policy and what is aspirational language.

So one of Gibbs’s key jobs will likely be correcting and reining in the legions of envoys, aides, czars, and secretaries who don’t quite divine the President’s policies correctly. That will be, I suspect, a full time job.


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