Post Politics Hour

Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 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 Michael Abramowitz was online Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

The transcript follows.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts


Earmarks: I was intrigued by Paul Kane's story on earmarks from presidential candidates on Thursday. Obviously, I understand the outrage for things such as the "Bridge to Nowhere" but I have a tougher time getting upset about some of things Clinton pushed, such as "$1.6 million earmark to fund technology development by a defense contractor" or "$3 million to the Rochester Institute of Technology for a fuel-cell-technology program." Those sound like basic research programs, and therefore not necessarily bad in my book. For all this talk about waste, how many of the earmarks are for research and development? Candidates' Earmarks Worth Millions (Post, Feb. 14)

Michael Abramowitz: Good morning everybody.

I liked Paul's story too, and the point you are raising is an important one: What some people see as wasteful government spending, others see as a vital federal initiative. The problem is, how do you make these decisions? The White House takes the position that Congress should not be adding any of this to the budget, and that the executive branch is best equipped to sort through the competing priorities and decide how to spend the money. That obviously won't fly on Capitol Hill, so we will be having these arguments for years to come.


Boston: I take it DNI McConnell sees himself as a one-shot-wonder (and gone quickly in a Democratic administration) given the high political profile he has accepted in lobbying Congress and the press on behalf of Bush/Cheney/Addington FISA law changes and waterboarding. How much is the independence of the intelligence community called into question when the head of the community very publicly is parroting/defending the White House line rather than keeping a lower profile in discussions with Congress and the intel committees?

Michael Abramowitz: It is also possible that DNI McConnell actually believes sincerely in the position he is taking on FISA (as did the Senate). My sense -- and it's a bit of distant sense -- is that he is considered a straight-shooter.

I agree that it's an interesting question you raise about the independence of the intelligence community and whether that is undercut when people like McConnell (and Hayden and Tenet) are out there publicly defending the White House positions. (Although they have differed in recent months on Iran.)


St. Paul, Minn.: Thanks for taking my question. Did Bush the elder help McCain with his admonishment, gently delivered, to the conservative base to get over themselves and unite behind McCain? Given that conservatives always have been leery of George H.W. Bush, doesn't that risk just antagonizing them more? The Trail: Poppa Bush Endorses McCain, McCain Honors the Son (, Feb. 18)

Michael Abramowitz: Perhaps, but he's also a pretty respected person in the party. I am not sure there's much anyone can do to further antagonize those conservatives who are unable to accommodate themselves to a McCain nomination.


Herndon, Va.: Yesterday Michelle Obama said "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." That's a shocking statement! A rich woman married to a U.S. senator isn't proud of America? I'm nowhere near as rich and powerful as she is, but I'm proud of America. Her husband isn't running for mayor of Berkeley -- shouldn't she apologize for this outrage? Maybe take a trip to Iraq to learn how much she has to be proud of? Michelle Obama: 'For the First Time in My Adult Lifetime, I Am Really Proud of My Country' (, Feb. 18)

Michael Abramowitz: I missed this. I am sure this could become gruel for conservative talk radio.


Dunn Loring, Va.: On Saturday, your editorial page said that Barack Obama should join with John McCain in accepting public financing. First, I believe Obama pledged last fall only to negotiate with his Republican opponent on the rules of accepting such monies. But more importantly, wouldn't this put Obama at a disadvantage, given that Republican 527 groups have amassed several hundred million dollars and stand ready to spend it on smear ads? Mr. Obama's Waffle (Post, Feb. 16)

Michael Abramowitz: I don't think this would put him at a disadvantage. He already has proved he can outraise everybody else in the race, and there are labor unions and liberal 527s that also will be spending tens of millions of dollars. So if he decides to forgo public financing, I don't anticipate him being at a disadvantage.


Yonkers, N.Y.: It would seem to me that there is a superb issue to be used against McCain in the general election, but neither Democrats nor anyone in big corporate media wants to go anywhere near it: financial deregulation has resulted in the pillaging of both our economy and of our middle-class way of life. McCain, with his illicit participation in the savings and loan frauds and conservative ideology, is practically a poster boy for the Enron-ization of our economy and the Wall Street and corporate abuses of the last thirty years. Of course, Hillary's got her tidy futures markets windfall, and Obama his slumlord benefactor -- both unsavory but far less significant. Still, I'm not holding my breath that I'll be reading anything about this one.

Michael Abramowitz: Interesting point. You already see in the recent rhetoric of Clinton and Obama a move towards more economic populism and criticism of big business -- so I think its just one more logical step to the kind of critique you make. I would not be surprised to see it in the campaign.


Washington: Isn't the real issue with earmarks that it is not the spending of funds to do X but the targeting of company Y to do something somewhat related to X? We are not talking about $20 billion to do basic research with all proposals considered -- we are talking about $40 million targeted to company Y to do a specific thing that was chosen either by company Y or hill staffer Z

Michael Abramowitz: Yes, I shorthanded the issue with earmarks. That's also an issue, as is the fact that lobbyists who help secure these earmarks often have given lots of campaign contributions to the lawmakers who provide earmarks. My only point is that how bad a particular expenditure might or might not be is in the eye of the beholder.


Dunn Loring, Va., Again: I mean would it put Obama at a disadvantage to accept public financing, and thus not be able to amass more money than McCain.

Michael Abramowitz: It could.


Jacksonville, Fla.: Mrs. Obama's quote was, of course, taken out of context. Here is the complete quote via The Moderate Voice web site

"What we've learned through this year is that hope is making a comeback. It is making a comeback, and let me tell you something, for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment. I've seen people who are hungry to be unified around some basic common issues, and it's made me proud. And I feel privileged to be a part of even witnessing this, traveling around states all over this country and being reminded that there is more that unites us than divides us..."

Michael Abramowitz: Thank you for passing that on.


Cambridge, Mass.: Does it even make sense to speak of plagiarism by a politician, given the fact that most of what politicians say is written by speechwriters? Is the Clinton campaign just upset that what Obama said was written by a speechwriter from the Patrick campaign instead of a speechwriter from the Obama campaign?

Michael Abramowitz: Getting a couple of questions about this latest controversy. My personal belief is that it's always proper to give credit to where one gets ideas or thoughts, but this seems like a misdemeanor at worst (as did Joe Biden's borrowing of Neil Kinnock's words years ago). There are so many things said in politics that I am sure it's pretty hard for candidates to keep track of all the incoming, and in this case the person's whose words were pilfered was the one who suggested this line of argument to Obama.


Washington: I just returned from a trip to San Antonio. Former Mayor, HUD Secretary and Countrywide Director Henry Cisneros is out front as one of Sen. Clinton's biggest supporters. Considering that he was pardoned by President Clinton and the mortgage crisis led by Countrywide, it seems to be a potentially double-edged sword. What's the chance that Cisernos's endorsement could come back to haunt Sen. Clinton.

Michael Abramowitz: I suppose that's possible, but my guess is that Cisneros is still a pretty popular figure in west Texas, especially among Hispanics ... so I suspect this is seen as helpful right now for the Clinton campaign.


Floris, Va.: Michelle Obama seems to be out campaigning for her husband each day. She appears to be a big plus for her husband. On the other hand, has anyone heard a single word out of Cindy McCain? In a general election then, could a savvy spouse be the difference in a close race?

Michael Abramowitz: I don't think that spouses or even vice presidents play a determinative role in these elections, with some exceptions (LBJ helping JFK in 1960). It's also likely some voters prefer a quieter spouse, so I am not sure how a first lady contest actually would play out.


Dothan, Ala.: Is no one polling Hawaii? Is it just a given that the Clintons will lose there?

Michael Abramowitz: I haven't seen polls there, but I think the assumption is that Obama will win, to some degree because he's from there.


South Orange, N.J.: Thank you for taking my question. You write matter-of-factly that Obama has proven he can raise more money then any other candidate. Why is the Obama campaign so successful at raising money?

Michael Abramowitz: I am not an expert on this, but what he really has shown is an ability to tap into a much broader donor base than the other candidates, much of this through the Internet and much of this because of the excitement his campaign has generated. I suggest you ask the same question to one of my colleagues who is following the money race more closely.


Centreville, Va.: I actually heard President Bush say this morning on the "Today" show that the war was good for the economy. This was in response to a question about whether the war and the recession were tied together. I guess he just doesn't care anymore. Historically, do we sometimes get a better insight into a president's thought process in their last year, as they have no political stakes left?

Michael Abramowitz: I have not seen that comment yet so I don't know the context. But as to your general point, I do think we get to know presidents better as time goes on and we see how they make decisions. I suppose it's possible that presidents are less guarded in their last year, as they don't have to face the voters anymore, but I generally think presidents are pretty careful about what they say in public whether its their first or last year in office.


Berlin: Will McCain's blunder with his campaign loan play a bigger role when Obama is the nominee, or is this too complicated for TV and print? Everybody talks about pledges, but nobody (except The Washington Post) seem to care about this. Any follow-up stories possible? Is McCain's Straight Talk narrative to good to break (see Kristof, Nicholas D.)? McCain Got Loan by Pledging to Seek Federal Funds (Post, Feb. 16)

Michael Abramowitz: I have no idea how this ultimately will play out, but the reality is that McCain probably made the decision he did because he was desperate for money to keep his campaign alive -- and he decided to worry about any consequences later.


Troy, N.Y.: About the funding for science by earmarks: I'm a graduate student in chemical engineering, and funding is very competitive. Most grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, etc., are denied. Should scientific experts decide what is excellent, or a person probably unaware of the cost and technical difficulties of on-board steam reformation of fossil fuels for use in a fuel cell? The argument for earmarks is an argument for gifts for the connected. It should be criminal.

Michael Abramowitz: I definitely think you raise a very good point about science grants, and it's probably a good idea to have as clear and transparent a competitive process for handing out all federal monies. I think what gets congressmen agitated sometimes is that not all federal projects or grants are competitively bid, so they think to themselves: Why should an OMB official be the only person who gets to decide how to spend federal money? Congress has a role in this process too.


Wokingham, U.K.: I'd suppose that Castro's resignation will bring Obama's declared readiness to negotiate with the Cuban successor back to attention. How will this go down with the electorate?

Michael Abramowitz: Very good question to close on, and one I have been thinking about this morning. I think Obama's problem here may be that while most voters don't think or care about Cuba, but who do are intensely passionate about this and don't want negotiations with Cuba until there's a democracy there. So it will be interesting to see how he handles this.

Thanks for all your good questions today. See you soon.


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