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Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, December 12, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker was online Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. President Bush today is meeting via videoconference with his commanders and ambassador in Iraq. Democrats are pressing him to make a radical change in course. And we have new poll numbers out today suggesting that Americans are increasingly negative about the war and the president's leadership of it. So lots to chew. Let's get started.

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Raleigh, N.C.: How would you characterize the relationship between the White House and congressional Republicans at this exact moment (recent elections, ISG report and everyone's reaction to it?) What are the "trendlines?" Down, I know, but how steep?

Who are his closest friends and his, well, not enemies, but most wary GOP compatriots? I'm not asking for names, I'm asking about groups ... is he closer to the House or the Senate? Which region of the country is represented by Republicans who are doing the most to separate themselves from Bush? How would you characterize the White House relationships with the Libertarian wing or the hawks or the religious right?

Peter Baker: These are good questions. No doubt, the relationship between the president and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill is pretty strained. Take a look at the Senate Republican election for minority whip -- the caucus chose Senator Trent Lott (Miss.) in what some of them intended as a rebuke to the White House, which had helped push Lott out of leadership four years ago. Other than the Texas delegation, I'm not sure who I would put into the Bush loyalist camp at this point. Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon made an impassioned speech on the floor last week breaking with the president over the war, reflecting what a lot of other Republicans think but haven't necessarily said publicly. Many are still angry that he didn't fire Secretary Rumsfeld before the election. So the president starts the next Congress at a very low point. The real question is whether he will work with his fellow Republicans, perhaps trying to lure "Blue Dog Democrats" on selected issues to forge a majority, or will he bypass his own party leadership to try to forge compromises with the Democratic majority leadership.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Good morning Mr. Baker.

The president's "approval rating" (sort of an irony) is plumbing historic depths, as the guys on cable say. It is not impossible, perhaps even likely, that it will reach Watergate levels soon, perhaps in the low 20's and teens.

At what point does a president lose the power to govern? Do you think there is any possibility at all that his own party might compel him to force Cheney to step down and designate as his replacement a center-conservative from the Senate -- presumably from a safe red state?

Peter Baker: There's a real risk, I think, that at some point you lose your ability to influence events in Washington and the White House is certainly acutely aware of that. Keep in mind, though, that a president, even an unpopular lame duck, has enormous power by virtue of his office that make him relevant. And he is, in the end, the commander-in-chief in a time of war and unless Congress is willing to directly intervene by cutting off funds -- which the Democratic leadership says it won't do -- he has great latitude to lead as he chooses.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Peter,

Can you explain the apparent double standard being applied to Rep. Jefferson? Any Republican involved in a scandal is front page news every day until they are forced to resign (see Delay, Cunningham and Foley). This guy is clearly involved in something not above board and he receives little press and no pressure to resign.

Aren't these the Democrats who are going to restore integrity?

Peter Baker: Well, actually we wrote a number of front-page stories when the revelations about Congressman Jefferson first became public -- a quick database search turns up nine front-page stories on the congressman and various aspects of his case in the last year. The real questions in my mind are: 1) why hasn't he been indicted, given the facts that authorities have outlined in public, and 2) what will Democrats do about him. As you note, Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi promised on Election Night to run the most ethical Congress ever. Not only did she not speak out against Congressman Jefferson in the runoff election, she now appears likely to give him a committee assignment, albeit one lower profile than the Ways and Means slot she stripped him of last summer.

It is interesting that Democrats have

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washingtonpost.com: Pelosi May Give Jefferson a Lesser Committee Assignment, ( Post, Dec. 12)

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Loudoun, Va.: A question came up in yesterday's politics chat about funding for the Iraq war.

Since Pres. Bush seems determined to go forward with his war, the only sway the Democrats and others against the war have is the power of the purse in Congress. I appreciate that it would be very bad politically for the Democrats to simply cut off funding for the war. "Political suicide" was a term used yesterday, if I remember right.

Wouldn't it be possible, though, for the Congress to insist that the administration include the money for the war effort in the regular budget process, instead of through the "emergency" appropriation bills as they have been doing? After 3 years, the war is hardly an unforeseen emergency anymore, and those off-the-budget appropriations go straight to the deficit.

If the President feels so strongly he's doing the right thing, let him build it into his budget for the country. The Republicans punted and didn't pass the budget, leaving it behind for the new, Democratic-majority, Congress to do - so let's make him write an honest budget.

Refusing to pass an emergency appropriation and making the war fall into the real budget wouldn't be anti-war or anti-troops, just anti-deficit - shouldn't conservative Republicans approve of that?

Peter Baker: The Iraq Study Group, in fact, recommended the same thing. Recommendation 72 says: "Costs for the war in Iraq should be included in the President's annual budget request, starting in FY 2008: the war is in its fourth year, and the normal budget process should not be circumvented. Funding requests for the war in Iraq should be presented clearly to Congress and the American people. Congress must carry out its constitutional responsibility to review budget requests for the war in Iraq carefully and to conduct oversight."

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Kettering, Ohio: It seems that Kucinich's entry into the Presidential race as the anti-war candidate has garnered much press ...not. I don't get the ego that makes him think he has the proverbial snowball's chance. He comes from a safely Democrat district, perhaps the twin of the one that re-elected Jefferson, but he mismanaged Cleveland so badly it took years to recover. Do you think he will do anything other than make the other Demo-candidates look less dangerous?

Peter Baker: There's little indication that he will play a major role in the nominating process, at least to judge by his performance in the 2004 race. At this point, there are other antiwar voices in the contest, or at least potentially so, including, I believe, Senator Barrack Obama.

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St. Louis, Mo.: A few weeks ago, I thought it was too soon for Barack Obama. Now, I'm a bonafide believer. I've read some criticism that he doesn't have a Iraq exit strategy. I think that's OK because our current administration doesn't have one either. I believe that Obama's candidacy could usher in a new kind of understanding between cultures and a new kind of openness that this country hasn't experienced before. Plus, the only negative thing the"machine" seems to be able to dredge up on him is that is middle name is Hussein. So what? We've learned to say Kucinich, Blageovich, and plenty of other kinds of names. If his name is a problem, it says more about us than it says about Mr. Obama.

Peter Baker: Interesting. What's happened in the last few weeks that changed your mind? Was it something he did or just a frustration with the status quo? I've met a number of people who shifted their views after seeing him in action either in person or on television. He's a powerful speaker, very compelling, very charismatic. The name thing is intriguing -- will it make a difference to Americans that his middle name is like Saddam's last name and his last name sounds like Osama? -- but I'm not sure that's really the most significant challenge he has to overcome. The more meaningful questions that opponents will no doubt ask are: What has he done to earn the presidency in just two years in the Senate? What accomplishments does he bring to the table to demonstrate readiness to lead the country?

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Peter--

Thanks for taking questions this morning. You talked earlier about whether Bush will forge relationships in the next Congress to get things done. Wasn't the last (only?) time he did this was for No Child Left Behind? Is this White House really capable of making political deals/compromises? Seems to me a shakeup in his Hill-liaison staff is needed. What do you think?

Peter Baker: It's not the only example, but it is probably the most prominent. (Others might be the Medicare prescription drug benefit and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which the president initially opposed.) The real question probably involves not the White House staff but the president himself. Is he ready (or capable) of making compromise as a regular feature of his governing style? He likes to point to his time in Texas when the legislature was controlled by Democrats, but obviously as we've noted before, a Bob Bullock Democrat is a very different beast from a Nancy Pelosi Democrat.

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Re: Jefferson: No one wishes he would disappear from the political scene as much as I do, but what exactly are they supposed to do? He was overwhelmingly re-elected by his district. I don't think that says much about his district, but they certainly knew about all of his legal issues and voted him in anyway. Democratic leadership is supposed to somehow subvert the wishes of his district? All of this breastbeating by these Republicans about the nobility of THEIR transgressors is such a laugh!

Peter Baker: Well, clearly Democrats had the option of speaking out vigorously, campaigning for his opponent in the runoff (who was also a Democrat), pouring campaign funds into the opponent's race, and so forth. They chose not to do that. Maybe they thought that would be inappropriate interference against an incumbent, maybe they thought it would backfire, or maybe Speaker-to-be Pelosi was afraid of the backlash from the Congressional Black Caucus, which has resented her past action against Congressman Jefferson.

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New York, N.Y.: I agree Obama has the charisma to run for president and win. But what does he stand for? I'm still waiting to hear. He has, however, set the bar a little higher -- his opponents will have to learn how to excite voters in a positive way, and that's always good.

Peter Baker: Interesting points. Thanks for posting. He certainly will force other candidates to try to match the excitement he's created.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Obama looks to be getting stronger and stronger and just might get nominated and could even win. But a Gore-Obama ticket would be even stronger. What are the chances Gore would enter the race?

Peter Baker: I haven't seen any serious indications that Vice President Gore is getting ready to run, nor have I seen much appetite for another Gore campaign except among some liberal activists. But I wouldn't totally rule it out either.

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Maplewood, N.J.: Thank you for taking my question.

When do you think the President will come forward with his "way forward"?

Peter Baker: Look for a speech to the nation next week. The White House is trying to dampen expectations now by saying it could happen after Christmas, but the smart money is on middle of next week before the holiday.

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Rochester, N.Y.: I'm sure you won't take this one, but it's worth a shot: is anyone in the newsroom concerned about the fact that the Post is hiring John Solomon (formerly of the AP), whose pieces on Harry Reid were widely criticized, not only in the blogosphere but also by media critics (such as your own Howard Kurtz)? Does his hiring mean we can look forward to more RNC-inspired hit pieces on Democratic leaders?

I'll bet your getting a lot of questions like this today. And I'll bet you won't take any of them.

Peter Baker: Old trick: "I bet you won't take this question cuz you're scared, nyah, nyah." (And by the way, glad to welcome back our friend in Rochester to these chats.) But the serious answer to your question is everyone I've talked with in the newsroom is absolutely thrilled that John Solomon is joining us from the Associated Press. John is one of the marquee names in political journalism and he's going to help us build the best accountability team in the business going into the 2008 election cycle. Has he been criticized by partisans in the blogosphere? Personally, I don't know, but who hasn't been? He wouldn't be doing his job as an investigative journalist if he didn't make some people squirm. John and the team he's led at the Associated Press have broken a lot of important stories without regard to political party; in addition to the ethical missteps of Senator Reid, he and his team exposed the Dubai ports deal that caused a huge civil war within the Republican party and uncovered the videotape showing what President Bush was told about Hurricane Katrina before it hit.

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Thief River Falls, Minn.:

When will the MSM stop being reverential to the President and start asking him tough questions with follow ups like that BBC guy did in the last charade of a press conference of this President?

Peter Baker: And welcome back to Thief River Falls, another Post chat favorite. You're not going to agree, obviously, but White House reporters do in fact ask tough questions and we do our best to follow up as well. You can be tough and still be polite. Don't mistake respectful with reverential.

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Austin, Tex.: Peter,

Given your previous answer to Crestwood, N.Y., how do you think this Iraq episode and Bush's plummeting influence and popularity will affect voter's minds in 2008? Will we see a replay of the Nixon backlash?

Peter Baker: It's too early to say what effect Iraq will have in 2008. It will depend, obviously, on events on the ground. If things are going the way they are today, obviously, it would be the driving issue in the race.

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What Obama did:: It isn't only that he is compelling as a speaker, with charisma that I believe supercedes Bill Clinton, but he talked about things most people in the late-boomer/gen-xer generation can relate to, such as using his first big check to pay off some student loans. The other thing is that Obama doesn't seem to come with the baggage other politicians seems to have: McCain has torture, Clinton has Bill, Vilsack has boredom.

Peter Baker: A lot of interesting comments on Senator Obama, so I'll post a few in the interest of the discussion. Thanks for writing.

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Helena, Mont.:"The more meaningful questions that opponents will no doubt ask are: What has he done to earn the presidency in just two years in the Senate? What accomplishments does he bring to the table to demonstrate readiness to lead the country?" Well, given the past 6 years, the answer really could be that Barack Obama cannot possibly be worse than the current occupant of the White House. Lack of experience, accomplishments, and readiness to lead the country weren't issues in 2000. Or is this just another "it's okay if you are Republican" thing?

Peter Baker: The counter argument I've heard from some Democrats is: Look what happened last time a president was elected without much experience. But presumably Democrats believe any of their candidates would be better than the Republican candidate, so how does that distinguish Senator Obama from his primary competition?

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Anonymous: Can I get a "welcome back" even though I never left?

I just wanted to ask about what you see happening to all the "talking heads" that continue to show unyielding support to the Prez, and this war effort. Now they are starting to eat their own (see Fox and Friends on Sunday). I wonder, do they start to become equally as irrelevant as the Prez as his numbers wind down?

Peter Baker: Welcome back! We're glad you never left. Talking heads, of course, are talking heads and it doesn't seem to matter much what they talk about, just so long as they talk. (Might the same thing be said about WaPo chatters? Perish the thought!)

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Washington, D.C.: Bush and Bipartisanship: You cited some examples where President Bush worked with Democrats to enact legislation/get something done, e.g., No Child Left Behind, DHS; however, I have trouble imaging what the next big area for bipartisanship would be...the war and entitlements seem too daunting. What is your best guess as to an issue that could bring both parties to the table? Thanks.

Peter Baker: I agree, it's hard to imagine them coming together on the war or entitlements, as paramount as those issues are. It's conceivable, though, to see deals over the minimum wage, immigration, energy and extension of No Child Left Behind.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't recall having ever seen approval ratings of Bush during the March 2003 invasion. The perception was that there was unity in the country on the invasion, but today The Post is reporting that the 70% disapproval is the highest since March 2003. How come there was no reporting on the country being divided during the invasion?

Peter Baker: Actually, he had a 68 percent approval rating in March 2003, according to the Post-ABC News poll then. I think you may be confusing what our online story was saying. Here's the sentence: "In a new Post-ABC News poll, seven in 10 Americans disapprove of the way the president is handling the situation in Iraq -- the highest percentage since the March 2003 invasion." In other words, it's the worst number for the president on how he's handling the war -- not his overall rating -- since the war began.

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washingtonpost.com: Poll: 7 of 10 Americans Disapprove of Handling of Iraq War, ( Dec. 12)

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Riverhead, N.Y.: Obama's attraction to me is that he is not an insider. He holds no preconceived notions which would muddy the waters, so to speak. I find this refreshing. Do you think he has any chance of winning?

Peter Baker: One more post from a Senator Obama fan. Obviously he does have a chance of winning, he has great momentum at the moment, and there are some Democrats who believe he would be the strongest candidate they could field. But of course there have been a lot of hot candidates early in the process who never made the distance, so it's going to be a real challenge.

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Baltimore, Md.: If you have experience, you're too "insider" and if you don't, you're too green. Whatever. The average person doesn't care about experience. The average person, like me and my friends, wants a person whose stances they agree with and whom they feel they can trust. I like Edwards (experience) and Obama (not so much), and whom I ultimately support will depend on what they stand for, period.

Peter Baker: One more post on this topic. Thanks for the thought.

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Winnipeg, Canada: The latest opinion polls, and the situation in Iraq, put President Bush in roughly the same position in which Neville Chamberlain found himself in 1940 Britain.

At that point, the British parliament and public realized that Chamberlain's policies had been an absolute failure, although he stubbornly insisted on staying the course. His party eventually staged an internal coup and replaced him with his nemesis, Winston Churchill.

Although your form of government is different, do you see any likelihood that the Republicans will try to find a way of breaking the Bush-Cheney axis and replacing them with a caretaker government as a way of both saving the nation and their future political prospects?

Peter Baker: You said it yourself, our form of government is different. Short of impeachment, which doesn't seem to be in the cards, there's no way to remove a president the way there is with a prime minister.

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Baltimore, Md.: Why would the Democrats even think about putting Hillary Clinton up in 2008 when there are so many lifelong Democrats who would never, ever vote for her? "Anyone but Hillary" is what the people I know say. I don't totally understand their vitriol, but it is a fact, and is that really a risk worth taking for the Dems?

Peter Baker: Posting for the sake of the discussion. Thanks for writing.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you know about the way that President Bush gets his news? Does he watch the network news, cable, ESPN?

Peter Baker: It's a myth that he doesn't read newspapers (a myth, I believe, he helped perpetuate, maybe because it's "cool" to be anti-media). He does, or at least selections of the papers. He doesn't, we're told, watch much in the way of television news. And of course, he gets briefed by his aides, for whatever you make of that.

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Peter Baker: Well, I see I've gone over time again. Too many fun questions and posts, never enough time. Thanks for making it lively, as always. Have a great week.

Best,

Peter

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