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State of the Union

Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2005; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker took your questions and comments on President Bush's State of the Union address and the start of his second term.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Arlington, Va.: I'm beginning to understand why the Democrats loathe the Bush administration as much as Republicans hated Clinton. He's been able to outmaneuver them at ever turn. With a weakened Democratic Party and ineffective leadership he should have an even easier time in his second term. He's done it again. His State of the Union speech laid out his plan for Social Security in plain language. The Democrats, almost certainly will counter with complicated jargon that no one will understand, ceding the terms of debate to Bush. Does anyone inside Washington really think that privatization of Social Security accounts won't happen?

Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us. I see we already have a long queue of great questions, so let's get started.

Bush did lay out his Social Security plan in plain language, very accessible to those of us who aren't experts and just want to know how it would affect us. The details, though, become much more complicated. He did not mention in his speech, for instance, the transitional start-up costs. By diverting some payroll taxes from the Social Security trust fund into personal accounts, the government will have that much less revenue to pay out benefits to current recipients. At a briefing yesterday, the White House said that cost in the initial period will come to $700 billion and that's a big nut to crack. So the debate will invariably move beyond the straightforward description the president gave to a more nuanced, and sometimes difficult-to-follow, dialogue about the best way to finance American retirement.


Washington, D.C.: There has been a lot of talk about moderate Republicans and how they might shape legislation on Social Security and the budget. But what about Blue Dog Democrats? How will they fit into the mix? Will they have any impact and if so in what way?

Peter Baker: The Democrats who really matter are in the Senate. Because of the way the House works, Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay can move any legislation through they want as long as they can keep their own Republican caucus together. In the Senate, the Republicans have 55 seats, obviously a majority, but need 60 votes to cut off a filibuster, meaning they need at least five Democrats. That's why President Bush is flying off this morning to five states that are home to Senate Democrats the White House believes may be influenced to support his plan.


Valley Forge, Pa.: Why no real mention of North Korea? What is the U.S. policy? Isn't it as much or more of a threat than Iran or Syria?

Peter Baker: That's a very interesting question. In previous major speeches, President Bush has been very tough in his language on North Korea. Last night he was not and simply referenced the diplomatic efforts underway as part of six-party talks including China, Japan and other neighbors. The White House didn't explain the rhetorical shift, but it is interesting to note that a Republican-led congressional delegation recently came back from Pyongyang and urged the president not to use provocative language in his State of the Union regarding North Korea because it could influence negatively efforts to get the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Once again, I'm reminded: We need to adopt Question Day. The Constitution outlines an obligation for the President to report back to Congress from time-to-time. It's time for the Leadership Accountability Amendment, which would require the President to appear before a joint session of Congress one afternoon a month and take questions in equal measure from both sides of the house. One "accountability moment" every four years -- and one that's driven by hundreds of millions of dollars in propaganda -- is nowhere near sufficient for the greatest nation on Earth. Contact your representatives today!

Peter Baker: That's an interesting idea. In the run-up to the Iraq war, I was in Kuwait spending time with U.S. troops and we ended up seeing on the BBC a lot of the House of Commons sessions where Tony Blair appeared to answer questions. It produced some terrific dialogue, a really interesting and illuminating look into the debate over the war in which Blair was forced by the process to explain and defend his position and make his case in a compelling way. That's the opposite, of course, of the direction the American system has been going, with the advent of what some have called the Imperial Presidency, long before the arrival of George W. Bush on the scene.


Charleston, W.Va.: Peter;

Thanks for taking our questions today.

Given the deep political divisions apparent in our country today and the intense partisanship in Congress, what are the odds on a filibuster of the proposed changes in Social Security?

Peter Baker: Pretty high. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has said he does not believe a single Democrat in the Senate would support the plan, as currently described, and if he holds his caucus together he almost surely would use the power of the filibuster either to block Bush's initiative or at least to force negotiations over its substance.


Washington, D.C.: I used to like the Democrats because of their ideas, ideals. Maybe the Death of Social Security is not that close, but it is a real problem. I see them just saying that Bush is using scare tactics. But do they have an alternative plan? What's their plan?

Peter Baker: There is no consensus comprehensive Social Security plan among the Democrats that I'm aware of but in general they urge a less drastic series of adjustments that they say would increase the financial health of the system.


Somerville, Mass.: The cries of "no, no" during President Bush's SOTU remarks about the state of the Social Security system raise a very important question for the nation as a whole -- and the media in particular:

Is there such a thing as a "fact" in political debate, and can media fact-checking ever get beyond "one-side-says-x-the-other-says-y?"

If the President (or one of his opponents) is using numbers that are demonstrably, objectively wrong, will the media, in effect, take a side?

If Harry Reid says"the President's numbers don't add up," it's a partisan attack.

If the Associated Press says it, it's a whole new ball game.

Peter Baker: It's a great question and one we wrestle with all the time in journalism. We try to "truth-squad" our political leaders and you can see that lately in the terrific coverage of my colleague Jonathan Weisman, who has written some revelatory pieces about the real facts involving Social Security. You might want to check out his story this morning about how the personal accounts would work, which goes beyond what the president said last night.


Washington, D.C.: What are your thoughts on the Democratic catcalls during the Social Security portion of President Bush's speech? I don't seem to remember this happening before and shudder at the idea of Congress becoming the House of Commons.

Peter Baker: It's almost surely not the first time but my colleagues here in the political section can't remember another instance quite like it in recent years. It suggests a certain coarsening of the dialogue and underscores the deep partisan divide in Washington these days.


Cajamarca, Peru: What is the President's policy position on Latin America? It was not mentioned during the campaign and not mentioned last night. The Peruvians I have asked about Bush have a very negative opinion of him. More attention needs to paid to this part of the world by this administration or we will be losing (maybe we already have) more friends.

Peter Baker: Another great question. There was a lot you didn't hear in the speech last night -- Latin America, Russia, China, Africa. The only real reference to Latin American policy, I suppose, was the president's call to change U.S. immigration rules, which would provide a guest worker program for undocumented workers, a change that would affect many people from Latin America. But beyond that, of course, he said nothing about Peru or Venezuela or Columbia or any of the important issues in your region. His advisers, of course, might point out that he's already got a lot on his plate in the Middle East.


Alexandria, Va.: Where will the president be visiting over the next few days to stump for his Social Security plan?

Peter Baker: He flies today to North Dakota and Montana, then tomorrow he will appear in Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida. These are generally Bush-friendly states and also the homes, of course, of Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan, Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor and Bill Nelson.


Frederick, Md.: Just a note about the Democratic "catcalls." No worse than Republicans booing Kerry at the Inauguration. And when one side can cheer and cheer, the other has a right to say no and make their opinion known.

Peter Baker: You can find lots of examples on both sides in recent years -- the shouting at Bob Livingston as he was resigning the House during the impeachment proceedings in 1998 happens to come to my mind, for instance. But it's been relatively rare in the solemn forum of a State of the Union until now.


Raleigh, N.C.: With the Republicans stuck in a corner over Social Security reform by not being able to stop a fillibuster by the Democrats, what states is President Bush visiting today and does he really think he can persuade any Democrat onto his side? If so what do you think it will take for that to happen?

Peter Baker: See the previous answer about the states. There's some risk for Bush as well in provoking a backlash among Democratic senators who may not take kindly to his appearances in their backyard. But then again, Bush and the Republicans make the point that they proved in South Dakota last year that they could come into a red state and defeat Democrats for "obstructionism," in that case Tom Daschle.


Nashville, Tenn.: I'm certainly not a fan of this president, so my views are obviously biased, but I found the inked fingers of Republicans to be somewhat offensive. I think it trivializes what the Iraqi vote means, especially when most of those inked lawmakers probably won their seats in elections where fewer than half of those eligible actually voted. Have you noticed a reaction one way or the other to the inked fingers, or does this, as most things, just fall with whether one is red or blue?

Peter Baker: That's an interesting question. One person's powerful symbol may to another seem contrived or inappropriate.

Let me use this opportunity to offer a mea culpa on a similar point. Certainly the most moving moment in last night's speech was when the president introduced the parents of a Marine slain in Iraq. The mother of the Marine teared up and hugged the woman in front of her in the gallery, an Iraqi woman whose father had been killed by Saddam Hussein's regime. In our story this morning, we said the Marine's mother hugged "another woman" without identifying her as Iraqi. Some people this morning have rightly criticized the lapse.

That's my fault. I saw the moment but did not realize who she was hugging and so failed to make that point in the story. It was no conspiracy, as some readers this morning have suggested, but the product of trying to write a big piece right on deadline as our presses are beginning to roll. Anyone who has been in a newsroom on the night of a State of the Union realizes what a juggling act it is to simply get a coherent story written, edited and sent to the printer in such a short amount of time while keeping half an eye on the television screen. That's an explanation, not an excuse. I screwed up. Fortunately, the moment was fully described in another front page piece by Dan Balz and in a Style column by Tom Shales.


Chicago, Ill.: I'm sorry, but far from being inspired when they showed the dead Marine's mother and the Iraqi voter (tragic though their stories may be), I immediately thought of Ahmed Chalabi. Wasn't he sitting up there a few SOTU's ago? Why should I take this contrived hug any more seriously than Chalabi's presence back in 2003? Thanks.

Peter Baker: Another view. Thanks for passing it along. You're correct, of course, that Chalabi was a guest at a previous State of the Union. He certainly won't be again. Once a favorite of the Bush administration, they've now had their falling out amid various allegations of unseemly behavior.


Arlington, Va.: "Solemn forum of the State of the Union"? With all the grandstanding and constant interruptions for applause and ovations I think the SOTU is anything but "solemn".

Peter Baker: The event has certainly evolved since it started nearly a century ago. The fact that we now count the number of interruptions for applause indicates the political nature of the event.


Baltimore, Md.: Peter,

Why would you and your colleague, Mr. Fletcher, refer to the lady who was hugged by Mrs. Norwood in such a nondescript and disrespectful way in your article when the President clearly identified "the woman" as Safia Taleb al-Suhail, who's father was assassinated by Saddam Hussein 11 years ago and the President told her courageous story of voting in the elections even BEFORE introducing the Norwoods.

You Washington Post reporters (including Ceci) are a HUGE disappointment and your bias and disrespect clearly shows in your reporting. Peter, this is especially disappointing since you got your reportorial feet wet at The Washington Times in the mid-1980s, and you should know better.

Peter Baker: Thank you for your note. Please see my previous answer. No disrespect was meant in any way whatsoever. In crashing on deadline, I simply did not realize who she was hugging. I should have. My mistake. You have every right to be disappointed in that lapse in the story, but it's not a question of bias.


West Hollywood, Calif.: The President once again state his support for a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Do you think this was a "bone" he tossed religious conservatives or do you think he will stump for it?

Peter Baker: The president made clear in an interview with my colleagues, Jim VandeHei and Michael Fletcher, that he did not plan to invest a great deal of time stumping for the constitutional amendment since many senators were resistant to the measure as long as the Defense of Marriage Act has not been struck down by a court. The next day the White House put out statements suggesting that he really will fight for it. One line in the State of the Union isn't enough to really judge; stay tuned.


Virginia: What did you think of the Democrats response last night? I was surprised how flat it fell. =

Peter Baker: The Democrats are trying to find the right response to a president who beat them just a few months ago despite many factors working against him. At the moment it looks like the party plans to turn to Howard Dean as its new chairman, which could indicate a more aggressive tack than we saw with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi last night. But it's important to remember that they're legislators, not party officials, and it's hard for any minority party to respond to a president, who automatically commands the stage.


Arlington, Va.: Weinstein's article revealed some troubling information about Bush's social security plan. I can understand why he's hiding that people will only be able to keep returns on their individual accounts that exceed 3 percent, but to me he loses all credibility. Playing games like this reminds me too much of the WMD fiasco.

washingtonpost.com: Participants Would Forfeit Part of Accounts' Profits (Post, Feb. 3)

Peter Baker: Jonathan's article surprised many people this morning, including some congressional Republicans who said it did not sound like what they would want to support. Obviously as these details come out, they will start to flavor the debate and influence the negotiations.


Charleston, W.Va.: Peter;

Thanks for directing my attention to your colleague Jonathan Weisman who has written some very interesting articles on the "nuts and bolts" of the proposed Social Security personal accounts. According to Mr. Weisman, a large portion of the market-based gains earned over the life of the investment revert back to the government when the retiree annuitizes. Who would risk investing over several decades if 70% or 80% of the profits stay with the government program? Doesn't this procedure amount to a huge tax increase?

Peter Baker: Please see the previous answer.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Thank you for taking questions. I'm very curious as to who wrote President Bush's State of the Union speech. Do you know? I'm not a supporter of this President but I thought the speech was very well written.

Peter Baker: The president's chief speechwriter is Michael Gerson, who has written many of his most memorable addresses in the last four years, including the second inaugural address. He also has a team of speechwriters who helps him, and then of course -- particularly for a State of the Union -- everybody in the senior echelon of government weighs in with their own little edits, additions or deletions.


Arlington, Va.: How many people actually watch this speech? All of the partisan theater and all of the interminable ovations and applauses make it pretty unwatchable to me. Of course I don't believe a word that comes out of Bush's mouth for the most part so I'm not inclined to like his speeches. But I could never stand to watch Clinton's either. Besides the inside the beltway folks, does anyone "out there" really pay any attention to this?

Peter Baker: It depends on the year, obviously, and we don't have numbers for this one yet. In 2003, when we were on the edge of war with Iraq, about 62 million people watched. But experience shows that real people see things differently than Beltway-bound hacks and pols. I remember with Clinton's speeches, they were often panned by pundits who found them to be uninspired and length laundry lists. But polls would later show that everyday viewers actually liked them. So there's a pretty severe disconnect sometimes.


Detroit, Mich.: How much do you think Bush will fight for his Immigration Reform issue? Support from Republicans (if they did support it at all) was lukewarm, and Democrats will want to defeat the President on any issue they can.

Peter Baker: Bush faces an uphill fight on his immigration plan, given that many congressional Republicans want to go the opposite way and tighten up rules. He did not get anywhere with the last Congress and so far there are no signs he would be any luckier with this one, unless he really applies some political muscle. Given all the other big things on his plate, it's an interesting question how much he's willing to expend of the political capital he talks about.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Peter -- miss Moscow? Does the current dry-spell in Russian news in the Washington Post reflect the fact that you and Susan are now gone from the Moscow bureau? Thanks so much.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the question. We do miss Moscow, but are glad for many reasons to be back in Washington. If nothing else, it gives us a chance to do fun web chats like this. Thanks for all the questions. Look forward to doing it again soon.


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