Morning Must Reads — That's some system, madam secretary

Washington Post — Obama addresses airline security in low-key fashion

Writer Anne Kornblut seems to agree with the old country song when it comes to Obama and terrorism: he says it best when he says nothing at all.

The president got in hot water for urging Americans against “jumping to conclusions” about the motive of Ft. Hood killer Nidal Hasan when those conclusions turned out to be quite correct.

In the case of the would-be Nigerian airborne martyr Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Obama has stayed out of sight on his Hawaiian vacation and let his staff make the pronouncements and take the flak for the fact that the State Department got a tip from Abdulmutallab’s father this fall but didn’t pull his visa or tell the Department of Homeland Security to put him on the “no fly” list.

The administration says “the system worked,” which is true if by “the system” you mean passengers on a Detroit-bound flight tackling a guy who is trying to set of a bomb in his underwear.

The promise is that there will be full body scans and brutal security standards at all airports soon. Or you could just keep known radicalized Islamists from Nigeria off our planes. Either way.

Kornblut sees the problem that Obama is trying to avoid as one in which his promises about civil liberties are tested by the need for security.

More likely, Obama would not like to be seen at a not-so-little grass shack in Kailua, Hawaii for the sake of expressing non-specific indignation and promising future improvements in airline security while running the risk of getting himself in another rhetorical bind.

The jihadis are turning up at a very rapid clip these days and the White House is obviously working up a new strategy for how much the president should say about different levels of attacks.

“Obama is used to explaining policy himself. But so far in Hawaii, the Christmas Day incident has not required a presidential appearance or Obama's rhetorical skills.

Instead, after going to the gym and playing basketball with a small group — including friends and staff — Obama took his family and friends to a Marine Corps base beach that had been closed for the presidential entourage.”


New York Times — U.S. Widens Terror War to Yemen, a Qaeda Bastion

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a child of privilege from Nigeria’s NGO-funded elite who studied in London, but intelligence officials say he studied jihad in Yemen, the quasi-failed state at the end of the Arabian Peninsula that has been the pet project of late for the Obama administration.

Writers Eric Schmitt and Robert Worth explain that propping up the faltering government in Yemen is becoming a big task with U.S. special forces training the country’s military and double the direct military aid.

The administration needs Yemen to not just stop producing new terrorists but to be able to accept old ones: almost half of the Guantanamo detainees are Yemenis.

“Al Qaeda’s profile in Yemen rose sharply a year ago, when a former Guantánamo Bay detainee from Saudi Arabia, Said Ali al-Shihri, fled to Yemen to join Al Qaeda and appeared in a video posted online. Several other former Guantánamo detainees have also joined the group.</p>

Yemen’s remote areas are notoriously lawless, but the country’s chaos has worsened in the past two years, as the government struggles with an armed rebellion in the northwest and a rising secessionist movement in the south. Yemen is running out of oil, and the government’s dwindling finances have affected its ability to strike at Al Qaeda.”


Wall Street Journal — After the Bailouts, Washington's the Boss

A great year-end wrap-up from writers Bob Davis, Deborah Solomon and Jon Hilsenrath on how the relationship between business and government has changed.

With great graphics and a practical look at the new “hybrid economy,” the “USA Inc.” series has been a valuable one.

“The intervention comes with long-lasting costs, among them huge budget deficits that could eventually push up inflation and interest rates.

The International Monetary Fund estimates U.S. government debt will swell to the equivalent of 108% of annual economic output in 2014, from 62% in 2007, absent politically difficult steps such as raising taxes or cutting benefit programs. As federal debt climbs, an ever-greater fraction of the budget goes just to pay interest, much of it to overseas creditors. The bill will worsen if interest rates rise from their current low levels.

Interest on the debt cost $182 billion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. Robert Pozen, chairman of MBS Investment Management, worries that within a decade, the interest bill could rival the defense budget, which was $637 billion last year.”


Associated Press — Two 'public option' backers hint at yielding

Democratic leaders in the House are looking to downplay fears of a clash when the two versions of the president’s health plan go into conference next month.

Reps. James Clyburn and Chris Van Hollen promised Sunday that they can live with something less than the government health plan in the House bill. It’s part of an effort to get House liberals sto accept substance over style and not worry about the symbolism of a public option.

“Clyburn added: ‘We want a public option to do basically three things: create more choice for insurers, create more competition for insurance companies, and to contain costs. So if we can come up with a process by which these three things can be done, then I'm all for it. Whether or not we label it a public option or not is of no consequence.’”


New York Times — Wrapped in Their Identities

Fashion writer Kathy Horn is going to get plenty of heat for her style year-in-review piece, but she says something worth saying when she points out that Michelle Obama has morphed from a J. Crew everywoman to fashionista whose choices are not just inaccessible to regular moms, but likely not desired.

Horn sees Sarah Palin emerging as a woman who dresses in a way that fashion-forward working mothers want to present themselves and doing so in an affordable way.

As she’s bailing out her inbox today, let me add one note of thanks for a smart, fair piece.

“A year ago, Ms. Palin was whacked for being a pretender in plushy clothes, and for not having the presence of mind to tell the McCain campaign handlers to buzz off. She may have needed some new clothes, and an update to her beehive, but Ms. Palin already looked great — a babe in jeans, a pro in a suit. As with many women her age, a well-tailored jacket did more for her than a closet full of designer clothes. How can you tell? Play a mental game of paper dolls and put one of Mrs. Obama’s printed or belted dresses on Ms. Palin. She looks frumpy.

Fashion is message. Do I look rich? Do I look available? Do I look like I get it?

Fashion is also context. And in the year since the industry placed its absurdly bright hopes on Mrs. Obama and her wardrobe, much has changed and dimmed. Is this how a modern, educated, working woman wants to be viewed in her first historic year — as a maven, an icon? Who’s Barbie now?”


— My column on the trend on the demographic hopes of the GOP is here. My look back at “The Year of Obama” is here.

— To get Morning Must Reads in your inbox every weekday click here.

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