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Obama Dines on Sushi at Tokyo "Jiro Dreams" Shop

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(TOKYO) -- President Obama stepped off Air Force One in Japan apparently with an appetite for sushi.

After a quick refresh at the Hotel Okura near the U.S. Embassy, Obama joined Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for dinner at a tiny sushi shop in the city’s Ginza neighborhood. They were joined by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the White House said.

The restaurant -- Sukiyabashi Jiro -- has earned a rare three-star Michelin rating. Its owner and master chef, 89-year-old Jiro Ono, was featured in the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Many regard him as the world’s best sushi chef.

Details of the president’s dinner were scarce, as it was closed to the press. A special meal of selections by the chef costs close to $300 per person, according to the restaurant’s website.  Reservations are booked through June at its main location.

White House officials say building personal ties between Obama and Abe is a priority on his third trip to Japan as president.

They “have good discussions all the time, whenever they see each other,” a senior Japanese government official said. “But the more frequently they see each other, the better.”

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Democrats Greatly Outnumber Republicans as Commencement Day Speakers

Joe Raedle/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A conservative watchdog of the nation's higher education system says that Democratic politicians easily outnumber Republicans when it comes to being invited to give college commencement addresses in May.

Campus Reform says Democrats have to a two-to-one advantage with President Obama actually scheduled for two speeches at the University of California, Irvine and West Point while first lady Michelle Obama will address students at Dillard University in New Orleans.

Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore all have invites to college campuses as well. Meanwhile, Campus Reform says Democratic congressmen and governors have also doubled up on their GOP counterparts.

Some potential candidates for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination are scheduled commencement day speakers, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at New Jersey’s public Rowan University, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at Concordia University Wisconsin.

Naturally, wherever commencement speakers go, controversy usually follows. In the latest case, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is facing controversy from not one but two colleges.

Members of the faculties at both the University of Minnesota and Rutgers University have called upon their administrations to rescind their invitations to Rice because of their opposition to the policies of the last Republican president.

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White House Mulls Leaving Less than 10,000 Troops in Afghanistan

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Although the Obama administration is still considering how many U.S. troops to leave in Afghanistan after 2014, there are reports that the residual force could fall well under 10,000.

Some of the factors going into the decision include the failure of the Afghan government to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement and the relatively peaceful election process earlier this month in which the Taliban didn't exercise much muscle.

However, everything is a moot point if the new Afghan president fails to sign a post-war pact.

White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said in a statement, "The longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any US mission. Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 US mission will be smaller in scale and ambition."

Keeping a residual force in Afghanistan in a training and advisory role would help national forces repel attempts by the Taliban to destabilize the government.

Furthermore, American soldiers are needed to protect CIA bases in Afghanistan where drone strikes are launched against militant targets in neighboring Pakistan.

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Veterans Group Slams Gubernatorial Candidate for Slamming Vet

Hemera/Thinkstock(BALTIMORE) -- Suddenly, the race for the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland has become a more interesting contest to watch.

It has to do with state Attorney General Douglas Gansler apparently disparaging the military record of Lt. Governor Anthony Brown.  Both are vying for the Democratic nod.

On Monday, Gansler said the following about his rival at a campaign event, "You know, his (campaign) ads are about how he was a lawyer in Iraq, and that’s all fine and good, but this is a real job, and we need to have somebody who actually has leadership experience."

Brown, who is also a reservist, spent five years on active duty in the Army during the 1980s.

The veterans advocacy group VoteVets.org immediately went on the offensive, saying, "Doug Gansler needs to stop smearing those of us who served in Iraq as not having had a 'real job.' It’s a horrible insult to all those men and women who put their lives on the line, and especially those who died, in service to this country."

The group added that being lieutenant governor is a "real job."

Gansler later issued a statement saying that he has “the utmost respect for [Brown’s] military service and for veterans."

The attorney general is no stranger to controversy. Shortly after announcing his candidacy last fall, he wound up apologizing for his appearance at a high school beach party where underage drinking was going on.

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IRS Awards Bonuses to Employees Who Didn't Pay Taxes

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Internal Revenue Service gave out $2.8 million in bonuses to workers with conduct issues, including those who didn't pay their federal taxes, a new report finds.

The announcement from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration explained that though the award program for IRS employees was in line with federal regulations, more than 1,100 people with "tax compliance problems" received more than $1 million in cash bonuses and more than 10,000 hours in time-off awards.

J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general, said the awards are desiged to reward the employees for a "job well done, and that is appropriate, because the IRS should encourage good performance." However, George acknowledged the conflict in giving bonuses to those who failed to pay their dues.

The audit was conducted under new federal guidance issued requiring agencies to reduce spending on their awards programs. It was also found that more than 2,800 employees with conduct issues resulting in disciplinary action received more than $2.8 million in awards and extra time off.

The report recommends that the IRS Human Capital Officer looks toward implementing a policy that requires management to consider such issues before presenting bonuses. As a result, the agency plans to conduct a study by the end of June to put a plan in motion.

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Obama Surveys Mudslide Damage, Praises Community of Oso

White House(OSO, Wash.) -- After surveying mudslide damage from Marine One and meeting for an hour and fifteen minutes with victims’ families behind closed doors, President Obama praised the community of Oso, Wash., as it recovers from the March 22 mudslide that so far has claimed 41 lives.

“This is family, and these are folks who love this land, and it’s easy to see why, because it’s gorgeous, and there’s a way of life that’s represented,” Obama said, speaking to first responders at a firehouse on Tuesday. A handmade sign hung above him reading “OSO STRONG.”

“This is also what America’s all about,” Obama said. “When times get tough, we look out for each other, we get each other’s backs, we recover and rebuild and come back stronger.”

Recovery workers are still searching for bodies. On Monday, the death toll rose by two. Obama praised coordination between government and relief workers and local volunteers.

“Some terrific lessons were learned in the midst of very hard times,” Obama said of the efforts.

After speaking at the firehouse, the president was scheduled to depart for a four-country, multi-day trip to Asia, flying from Washington state to Japan.

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Chris Christie Bridge Scandal Panel Issues Subpoenas to Four Witnesses

iStock/Thinkstock(TRENTON, N.J.) -- The New Jersey panel investigating the George Washington Bridge scandal issued subpoenas to four witnesses for testimony in May.

Four current and former officials were subpoenaed, including longtime spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, Michael Drewniak, and Christina Genovese Renna, top aide to Bridget Kelly.

In a statement released Tuesday, co-chairs of the New Jersey Legislative Select Commitee on Investigation said they are moving "to a key stage....into how this abuse of government power and threat to public safety occurred."

"The people of New Jersey continue to deserve clear answers as to how this abuse was allowed to happen, and the four people we've called to testify can begin providing insight into the troubling environment that allowed something as concerning as these lane closings to happen," said Democratic New Jersey Senate Majority leader Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

Drewniak, Renna, former Bergen County Executive William "Pat" Schuber, and Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye are set to testify on May 6 and 13 about the 2013 lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. The scandal is said to be organized by Christie's appointees as political retribution.

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Rick Perry Wants NY Jobs -- And Debate with Andrew Cuomo

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Gov. Rick Perry has made it clear that he’s not afraid to mess with states outside of Texas to attract businesses, but now the former presidential candidate and potential 2016 contender is looking to brush up on his debate skills with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“A debate between the governors of two of the largest states in the country on policy issues such as taxes, government spending, education, regulations and legal reform would be beneficial to our states and our country as a whole,” the Texas Republican said in an interview Tuesday.

According to a statement from the Americans for Economic Freedom, Perry is in New York City until Thursday on the heels of a new 30-second TV ad now airing from the non-profit organization, which supports low state taxes.

In it, Perry tells New York business leaders: “If you’re tired of New York, there is an option: Texas.”

It’s not the first state Perry has traveled to in an attempt to scoop up businesses.

The Republican governor has made a campaign-style push in states like California, Illinois and Missouri by hosting business meetings and appearing on TV and radio shows to promise low taxes and incentives for any businesses with an itch to relocate.

In January, Perry took a jab at Cuomo, saying that if the New York governor “were truthful” he would admit that he wants to be a Texan.

Just what this debate might look like isn’t clear, but the last time Perry squared off against a fellow governor in a debate was with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley last September on CNN’s Crossfire.

Both Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Perry’s offices didn’t respond to ABC News’ request for comment, but Communications Director for the Democratic Governor’s Association Danny Kanner told ABC News in an email: “A little free advice for Rick Perry: the fewer debates with anyone, the better.”

Kanner then linked to the famous clip from the Republican presidential debate in 2011: Gov. Perry was unable to finish naming three agencies in government he said he would cut upon being elected before saying “Oops.”

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Cowboys and Indians Ride Through DC to Protest Keystone Pipeline

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)(WASHINGTON) -- Cowboys and Indians riding on horseback marched through the nation’s capital Tuesday in protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Dressed in native headdresses and cowboy hats, the activists started on horseback at the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol and marched through downtown D.C. They ended their march at an encampment, which featured tipis on the National Mall.

The Indigo Girls performed while the group built an additional ceremonial tipi on the grounds of the National Mall.

“We’re here to show Obama, to show Washington, D.C., the very faces of the people that the decision of the KXL pipeline represents,” Dallas Goldtooth, one of the activists from the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, a coalition of farmers, ranchers and Native American leaders, told a crowd on the mall. “These people represent families, they represent communities, they represent entire nations, so they’re here to bring their stories here to say no to the Keystone XL pipeline and to all pipelines.”

The Cowboy and Indian Alliance and other groups will be in Washington, D.C. through the weekend as a part of “Reject and Protect,” holding a variety of events, including ritual water ceremonies on the National Mall and outside the home of Secretary of State John Kerry, to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. Actress Daryl Hannah is expected to join the group later this week.

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Justice Sotomayor: Affirmative Action ‘Opened Doors in My Life’

Supreme Court of the United States(WASHINGTON) -- In a dissent to Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Michigan’s voter-approved ban on affirmative action programs in its public colleges, Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks from experience about the complex impact of such programs on her own life.

Sotomayor’s 58-page dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has one theme: Race matters.

Sotomayor notes that voters in Michigan could have used other means to eliminate the use of race-sensitive admissions policies.

“They could have persuaded existing board members to change their minds through individual or grassroots lobbying efforts, or through general public awareness campaigns,” she says. “Or they could have mobilized efforts to vote uncooperative board members out of office, replacing them with members who would share their desire to abolish race-sensitive admissions policies.”

But instead she invokes the “political process doctrine” and says: “A majority of the Michigan electorate changed the basic rules of the political process” and “uniquely disadvantaged racial minorities.”

Here’s Sotomayor's reasoning, which tracks with the lower court that struck down the ban: “A citizen who is a University of Michigan alumnus, for instance, can advocate for an admissions policy that considers an applicant’s legacy status by meeting individually with members of the Board of Regents to convince them of her views, by joining with other legacy parents to lobby the board, or by voting for and supporting Board candidates who share her position.”

Sotomayor says those options are available to citizens who want the board to adopt policies that might consider athleticism, geography and area of study. But she goes on: “The one and only policy a Michigan citizen may not seek through this long-established process is a race-sensitive admissions policy that considered race in an individualized manner when it is clear that race-neutral alternatives are not adequate to achieve diversity.”

She says the voter initiative “restructures the political process” in Michigan to place unique burdens on racial minorities.

Sotomayor writes, “While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process.”

“It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals–here, educational diversity,” she continues.

And then she gets into the issue of race. “My colleagues,” Sotomayor says, “are of the view that we should leave race out of the picture entirely and let the voters sort it out.”

She takes a dig at Chief Justice John Roberts who wrote once, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.” Sotomayor says: “It is a sentiment out of touch with reality.”

Sotomayor says, “Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process.”

“Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter what neighborhood he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’” she says.

Sotomayor says, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

After citing what she perceives as the negative impact of Michigan’s ban on diversity, Sotomayor says she “cannot ignore the unfortunate outcome of today’s decision.”

“The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat. But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities,” she notes.

At oral arguments, Sotomayor was the most vocal opponent of the ban. In fact, at one point, she asked a lawyer for Michigan a line of questions regarding its impact.

When she was finished, Roberts pointedly said to the lawyer, “You have been asked several questions that refer to the ending or termination of affirmative action. That’s not what is at issue here, is it?”

In her recent memoir, My Beloved World, Sotomayor writes about the impact of affirmative action in her life. She details her time at Princeton: “The Daily Princetonian routinely published letters to the editor lamenting the presence on campus of 'affirmative action students,' each one of whom had presumably displaced a far more deserving affluent white male and could rightly be expected to crash into the gutter built of her own unrealistic aspirations. There were vultures circling, ready to dive when we stumbled. The pressure to succeed was relentless, even if self-imposed out of fear and insecurity.”

Later, she tells a story about an experience at a recruiting dinner hosted by a well-respected Washington firm. One partner told her the “problem” with affirmative action is that “you have to wait to see if people are qualified or not. Do you think you would have been admitted to Yale Law School if you were not Puerto Rican?”

“It probably didn’t hurt,” a stunned Sotomayor said, “but I imagine that graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton had something to do with it too.”

Sotomayor, 59, writes that “much has changed” in the thinking about affirmative action “since those early days when it opened doors in my life. But one thing has not changed: to doubt the worth of minority students’ achievement when they succeed is really only to present another face of the prejudice that would deny them a chance even to try.”

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SCOTUS Upholds Michigan Ban on Race Conscious College Admissions

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A divided Supreme court upheld Michigan’s ban on race conscious admissions policies at public universities Tuesday, reversing a lower court decision that had struck down the ban on equal protection grounds.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the main opinion and said, “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in the Court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan’s laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”
The vote was 6-2. Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the decision presumably because she dealt with it in her previous job as Solicitor General. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The case concerns a ballot initiative called “Proposal 2” that passed in 2006 with 58 percent of the vote. Michigan’s Solicitor General John J. Bursch defended the ballot initiative in Court and told the Justices, “the issue in this case is whether a Michigan constitutional provision requiring equal treatment violates equal protection.”

“The answer is no,” he said.
Kennedy wrote, “Deliberative debate on sensitive issues such as racial preferences all too often may shade in rancor. But that does not justify removing certain court-determined issues form the voters’ reach. Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate."
Kennedy reiterated that the Court left undisturbed the principle that the consideration of race in admissions is permissible, provided certain circumstances are met. He said the case is “not about the constitutionality, or the merits, or race conscious admissions policies in higher education.”
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a scathing dissent and took the unusual step of reading it from the bench.
Sotomayor agreed in part with the reasoning of the lower court that struck down the ban. In essence that Court said that individuals who want a school to consider non-racial factors such as legacy status, geographic origin and athletic skills in its admission plan have the ability to lobby the popularly elected governing boards of the schools. But those black, Latino and other minority citizens who seek to restore the consideration of race as one factor in admissions were blocked from doing so by Proposal 2.
In her dissent Sotomayor wrote, “The plurality’s decision fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the injustice” worked by Proposal 2. “While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals -- here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures. Today, by permitting a majority of the voters in Michigan to do what our Constitution forbids, the Court ends the debate over race-sensitive admission policies in Michigan in a manner that contravenes constitutional protections long recognized in our precedents.”
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Why Obama Told Elizabeth Warren She Wouldn't Lead CFPB

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- It felt like a green version of hell.

That’s how Elizabeth Warren described a meeting with President Obama in 2011 when she learned that she would not be tapped to lead the newly created consumer watchdog agency that she had pioneered. It was a hot day and the president wanted to have the meeting outside.

“It was these tall, tall hedges, so there was no air,” Sen. Warren told ABC News’ David Muir in a sit-down interview. “The president said, ‘Isn't this great?’ And I thought, ‘God, you gotta be kidding me.’”

In her new memoir, A Fighting Chance, Warren writes about her life’s journey -- from the time she first confronted economic hardship as a child growing up in Oklahoma, to becoming a Harvard law professor and renowned consumer advocate in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, to her current role representing Massachusetts as a U.S. senator.

"You make them nervous,” Warren recalled Obama telling her during their meeting.

Facing strong Republican opposition on Capitol Hill, Warren’s confirmation process as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would have almost certainly failed. Obama instead nominated Richard Cordray to lead the new oversight agency, and he was successfully confirmed.

“The big banks had said from the very beginning they would kill this agency and…they didn't want me to lead it,” Warren said. “And their Republican friends in the United States Senate had made it clear that they were not gonna confirm me.”

Warren writes in the book that Larry Summers, a top economic adviser to Obama at the time, told her she would have to decide: did she want to be an outsider or an insider?

"Outsiders can make a lot of noise, but insiders are not going to listen,” Warren recalled Summers as having said. “Insiders have a chance to influence what's happening, but there is a cardinal rule: Insiders never criticize other insiders.”

And though Warren has since gone on to become a senator, she resists the notion that she has become an insider because of it. “I came to this too late to be an insider,” Warren said.

When she took her seat in the Senate Banking Committee for the first time in February of 2013, Warren showed no sign of putting down her outsider ways, and instead took to task a group of regulators set to testify.

“Tell me a little bit about the last few times you’ve taken the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to trial?" Warren asked the regulators during the hearing -- a question Warren said was answered with silence.

“They go after, you know, the little folks,” Warren said. “Somebody who gets caught with a couple of ounces of marijuana, boy, you better believe there's someone there to go after them. But these huge financial institutions that launder drug money, financial institutions that have broken our sanctions with Iran…there's no enthusiasm, no appetite to take those guys to trial, to say, ‘You're responsible, you're the one who did this, and you have to be accountable to the American people.’”

“Boy, you want to talk about a tilted playing field? There it is,” she added.

Warren also reflected on her own life and the financial struggles her family faced after her father had a heart attack that took him out of work for an extended period of time as he recovered.

“I learned when I was 12 and my daddy had that heart attack that good people can get smacked in the head economically, and their whole lives can be turned upside down,” she said. “After my daddy had a heart attack, that's when I grew up.”

While Warren’s family was eventually able to get back on their feet economically, Warren said she is worried that the same opportunity is not available to most Americans today.

“Today, families are tangled, they are tangled in debt,” she said. “The kids have to pay incredible prices to go to college and take on student loan debts that crush them. We're not building those same opportunities, those same second chances for families, for our kids that we built a generation ago. And if we don't make some changes, it's gonna fundamentally change this country.”

Despite suggestions that she could present a formidable challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has yet to announce whether she will run for president in 2016, Warren said she is not considering a bid for the White House.

“I’m not running for president,” she said.

Warren was one of 16 Democratic female senators who signed a secret letter to Clinton last year urging her to run. When asked if the former secretary of state would be a good president, Warren said Clinton is "terrific."

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7 Days, 4 Countries, 5 Things to Watch as Obama Returns to Asia

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(TOKYO) -- For President Obama, it’s the “pivot” that never quite made the full turn. His “deliberate and strategic decision” in 2011 to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asia has been repeatedly distracted by crises elsewhere.

This week, Obama tried again to return to message with a seven-day, four-country swing through Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Philippines. He plans to reassert the U.S. as a Pacific nation, while charting what he’s called a “larger and long-term role” in the region’s future, officials say.

Here are five things to watch as he makes his fifth trip to Asia as president:

1. The China Factor

Obama won’t visit China on this trip, but the rising economic and military power casts a long shadow. Its increasingly assertive role in the region has unsettled some longstanding U.S. allies, who question whether the U.S. remains an effective counterbalance.

The federal government shutdown last October scuttled Obama’s participation in key Asian regional summits. Since then, the standoff in the Ukraine, war in Syria, and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have dominated the U.S. diplomatic agenda.

“The American government being preoccupied with Ukraine or whatever, doesn’t mean we aren’t getting sufficient attention,” said one senior Japanese government official. “But it is now good for him to come and show and tell” about his strategy.

White House officials reject the notion that the trip is aimed at containing Chinese influence, calling it a “positive trip with a positive agenda.” Still, Obama’s visit appears designed at least in part to demonstrate the type of regional player America wants to be.

It comes at a critical moment, with some U.S. allies privately concerned that Russia’s recent incursion into Ukraine -- unchallenged militarily by the West -- could embolden China in territorial disputes, including one over Japan’s Senkaku Islands.

“I don’t think [China] would be bold enough to go after the Russian example,” said the Japanese official. But, “we haven’t come to a definitive conclusion. We have to be careful to judge the impact on China” of what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

Economically, Obama will be pushing a Pacific free-trade pact that excludes China and specifically calls on parties to source some goods among themselves -- a potential shot across China’s bow.

Look for Obama to delicately reaffirm U.S. security alliances while not appearing to do so in a way threatening to China. He will stress what officials call a “rule-based order” for the region -- diplo-speak, directed at China, for obedience to international economic and military norms.

How will China respond? Its defense minister offered one clue, defiantly asserting last week along his American counterpart Chuck Hagel that the Chinese military “can never be contained.”

2. American Autos, Asian Markets and a Trade Deal Many Dems Oppose

For years, the Obama administration has been pushing for a sweeping free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It could mean more American-made cars and other exports flooding into Asian markets and translate to more jobs at home, they say.

U.S. negotiators have not finalized the deal ahead of Obama’s trip, but the administration says one is on the horizon. By some estimates, the so-called “TPP” could boost U.S. exports by more than $120 billion a year.

“We expect that…we will be able to conclude an agreement,” said National Security Adviser Susan Rice last week. “This remains a very important aspect of our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, one that holds great promise for the countries in the region as well as for the United States.”

A major breakthrough on this trip is not expected, sources say. But Obama will push for new progress, despite deep election-year skepticism from members of his own party and political allies at home.

“The data is in. It’s irrefutable. We know the impact this trade deal would have on jobs. We have seen this movie several times before,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Some American automakers and labor unions say previous free-trade deals in Asia have done less than expected to boost American exports. Industry lobbyists point to the 2012 Korea free-trade pact as sowing doubt about the latest effort.

Will there be any substantive progress on a TPP deal, and will Obama speak out more forcefully against domestic opposition? It’s worth watching.

“Are we coming to a final point and a mile to go, or are there five miles to go? Not sure,” said one Asian official familiar with the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity.

3. Tribute to U.S. Troops in Asia, Past and Present

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans may have lost sight of the fact that there are more than 80,000 U.S. troops deployed across the Asia-Pacific region, including 28,500 in South Korea and 38,000 in Japan.

President Obama this week will make a point of honoring U.S. service members and their families in Asia, while implicitly underscoring America’s military commitment to regional security.

In Seoul, Obama will visit the Combined Forces Command -- the joint U.S.-South Korean military headquarters -- for a briefing on North Korean provocations and a speech to troops, said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

Later in Malaysia, which is not a treaty ally, Obama is expected to highlight recent military collaboration in the search for flight MH370 as an example of improved bilateral relations.

In the Philippines, Obama will address U.S. and Filipino service members and veterans at Fort Bonifacio “to underscore our deep security cooperation over the years, but also our security cooperation in the current environment in the Asia-Pacific,” Rhodes said.

Before returning to Washington, Obama will also make a poignant visit to the American cemetery in Manila, the final resting place for more than 17,000 U.S. service members after World War II.

4. History-Making Visit to Malaysia

It’s been almost 50 years since a U.S. president set foot in Malaysia. The last was President Johnson in 1966, though President Clinton almost made it there in 1998 until a U.N. showdown with Iraq over weapons inspectors forced a last minute substitution (Vice President Gore went in his place.)

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has made improving ties with the U.S. a goal, will roll out the red carpet for Obama. Najib will host a state dinner and cultural visits to sites in Kuala Lumpur, including a stop at the National Mosque and the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Center.

At Malaya University, Obama will host a town hall meeting with young leaders across Southeast Asia, according to the White House. He will unveil a new initiative aimed at building relationships among those leaders and coordinating ties with the U.S.

5. Trail of Tragedies: Consoler-in-Chief Goes Global

One eerie nexus of all the countries Obama will visit is hard to ignore: each has recently experienced a horrific national tragedy. In 2011, a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a powerful tsunami and nuclear meltdown. A powerful super typhoon last November -- Typhoon Haiyan -- swept across the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people. And two ongoing disasters -- the disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370 and the capsized ferry in South Korea -- have tugged on heartstrings of observers worldwide.

At this point, the president has no scheduled events related to the tragedies, administration officials say, but he will no doubt highlight U.S. humanitarian assistance in each instance.

“The United States has been able to lend prompt and very effective support to our friends and partners in support of their response,” Rice said last week. “We have demonstrated throughout…that we are there for our friends and partners when they need us most.”

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Obamas Emphasize Nutrition and Fitness Among Staffers

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have transformed nutrition in the White House, making big changes to health and fitness in the administration.

Among the changes are the cancellation of Tex-Mex Thursdays and the removal of unhealthy vending machine options, according to the Washington Post.

The White House senior policy adviser for nutrition policy tells the newspaper the culture has shifted "pretty dramatically" under the Obamas.

Staff members are given the option to work out under the guidance of the first family's personal trainer, and the president has personally encouraged his aides to get in shape with trainer Cornell McClellan.

Competitive health challenges have also been put in place, with staffers on teams earning points for every half-hour of physical activity.

Michelle Obama re-established the White House kitchen garden in 2009, leading some experts to credit the recent rise in American gardening to the first lady's message.

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Obamas Host Annual White House Easter Egg Roll

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, held the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday.

Thirty thousand kids gathered for a tradition that started in 1878 under President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Mrs. Obama added her special touch this year with yoga, an obstacle course and kale smoothies.

Here’s a roundup of some of the cutest moments from the bash:


Flanked by the president, first lady and the Easter Bunny, 12-year-old Cam Anthony -- already a YouTube singing sensation -- gave a soulful rendition of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

His performance was greeted by thunderous applause from the audience and oohs and aahs from the first family.


The president delighted his youngest constituents with a spirited reading of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

In a rare display of (feigned) aggression, the president gnashed his teeth and invited the audience to do the same.

“Let’s see you guys do a ‘wild rumpus.’ How do you do a wild rumpus? There! That’s a wild rumpus right there,” the president exclaimed, pointing to a little boy gyrating in the front row. “Who else has got a wild rumpus? Go! Let the wild rumpus start!”

A few audience members were brave enough to go mano-a-mono with their commander-in-chief.

“Now, who wants to have a staring contest with me for a second? Alright. Let’s see your stare,” Obama said as he crouched, peering into the audience.

“Oh, these are -- these are some wild things. No doubt about it. You guys stare as well as Max does,” the president said.


After he finished reading, the president insisted on greeting his audience.

“C’mon, I’ll go get some high fives from folks. C’mon, high five, high five!” said Obama, who was soon surrounded by a throng of children.

“Careful, don’t push, don’t push -- no more wild rumpus!” he said. “Oh, you didn’t get a high five? Okay, all right. Here you go.”

The president even gave a few kids a fist bump.

“What’s going on man? Gimme a bump,” he said to a bashful young boy perched in a woman’s arms.

“Oh, that’s a beautiful flower, is that for me?” the president asked, accepting a pink carnation from a little girl.

Later, he gave the posy away to another child.

“Hey sweetie, that’s for you!” he said.

4. “MONEY!”

The first lady read also from a children’s book, My Garden, which -- ironically, given the day’s theme of “Hop into Healthy, Swing into Shape!” -- is about a girl who grows chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and lollipops in her garden.

When Michelle Obama asked the children what they’d like to grow, if they had gardens, one shouted, “Money!”

“Nothing like puppies, they went straight for the money,” an amused first lady commented.


After the first lady finished reading to about 50 children, she offered them hugs -- so they all lined up, guided by volunteers wearing green hats.

Mrs. Obama received them mall-Santa style, hugging and talking to each one briefly.


During the first lady’s children’s book reading, a tiny girl became upset, so the first lady stopped to reassure her.

“It’s going to be okay,” Mrs. Obama told her. “We’re almost at the end of the story.”

The first lady asked the little girl if she wanted to go see her mom. The answer was yes, apparently, as another small girl, perhaps a couple years older, led her by the hand out of the seating section.


When he wasn’t busy “hopping into health,” the egg roll’s most important ambassador, the Easter Bunny, waved and nodded as the president and first lady welcomed visitors to the South Lawn.

But when he realized he’d earned a presidential shout-out, the Bunny got bashful.

“My main and only job, other than officiating over the roll at some point, is to introduce -- alongside the Easter Bunny -- the person who makes this all possible … my wife, the first lady, Michelle Obama,” the president said.

When he heard his name, the Easter Bunny put his paws to his cheeks, as if to say, “Aw, shucks!”



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