K Street

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008; 1:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum will be online to discuss the intersection of business, politics and government on Tuesday, August 5, at 1 p.m. ET.

A list of Birnbaum's columns can be found here.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone. I wrote a slightly underspoken lead item in my column today. Here are the main facts: The fellow soon the lead the Mortgage Bankers Association went out of business in early 2007--as a mortgage banker. I guess I don't have to hammer at that one too much. In any case, if you have any comments, underspoken or otherwise, please send them along. I'm happy to chat. Let's get started.


Boston: What's the state of the presidential election? Obama is falling behind, but why?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't think that Sen. Obama is behind. Polls show that he's ahead, at least slightly, and has lately lost some ground. Why that is? Certainly there are complex reasons. But one is that Obama, in my view, could have handled the "faces on the dollar bills" comments better. He has been warning for months that his opponents will try to use his race as an issue in the campaign. That seems reasonable to me. But last week he started to say that McCain would do so. That was a step too far, I think. McCain has not raised race as an issue. He has attacked Obama for lots and lots of other things, but that one he's not used. To put the offensive charge in McCain's mouth, I believe, was a mistake for Obama, especially since it had not come out of McCain's mouth first. The other reason is that Obama is very late to the party on the public's desire to drill for more oil. McCain stole a march on Obama on that issue as well.


Washington, D.C.: Obama isn't the only flip-flopper. McCain flipped on drilling too, didn't he? Why isn't that being reported?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Fair enough. I just gave the oil answer above and did not mention that McCain, like Obama, has modified his view about drilling. McCain was no enthusiast for oil drilling offshore, but switched earlier this year. Luckily for him, politically speaking, he did so long before Obama's half move in that direction last week. But you are correct, both men have altered their views, keeping in step with what is now overwhelming pro-drilling sentiment in the public. This was reported, but you are correct that it is not reported enough, certainly lately.


Washington, D.C.: What's going to happen with the housing market and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: The two mortgage lending giants are likely to report losses tomorrow. And they will probably have losses for at least a few more quarters, analysts say. When the housing markets dip, as they are now doing, so do these two companies. By most accounts, Freddie Mac is worse off than Fannie Mae, but neither is doing so well lately.


District of Columbia: Why would lobbyists give money to Obama? He's going to throw them all out. Isn't he?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: First of all, Obama, by policy, does not accept money from federally registered lobbyists. He returns the money everytime he sees that a lobbyist contributed to him. Second, he does not say he will "throw them out" if he becomes president. He can't. They can be here by dint of the Constitution. Lobbying is a right we all have. In fact, I think he will need to work with hundreds and hundreds of lobbyists if he becomes president. He would not be able to get his agenda through without them.


Baltimore: How can McCain be the better reformer when Obama takes no money from lobbyists? Those watchdogs are wrong.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to the item in my column today that said that McCain discloses more about his fundraisers, called bundlers, than does Obama, according to eight campaign-finance watchdog groups. You make a very good point. Obama should get point, at least from a "reformers" viewpoint, by not taking donations from lobbyists, something McCain does. I guess that will come out in another list. Or maybe not. Maybe it will just come out here. At least it did that.


Arlington, Va.: Last week you wrote about the SCLC and an op-ed gone wrong. What really went wrong there?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: If I knew for sure I would have said so. The only facts that appear to be true are that 1) An op-ed appeared in a handful of southern newspapers under the SCLC's president's byline that he did not write. 2) The op-ed was composed, in whole or in part, by an outsider to the SCLC. 3) A lawyer for the SCLC's president said that a PR firm in the employ of the credit card companies had a hand in putting the op-ed together. 4) The op-ed took the side of the credit card companies on the issue of credit card fees. SCLC does not want to talk about the issue anymore, but it does point out that a cottage industry in Washington is alive and well that solicits and even drafts op-eds for prominent individuals, on behalf of well-paying clients. There it is as far as I can tell.


Silver Spring, Md.: When will the economy turn around then? I thought the end of worries had begun.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know. Of course. Some economists say we are about halfway through the slowdown, for what that's worth. My colleague Neil Irwin says consumers' worries about the economy are nowhere near over, although the macroeconomic data has held up better than most people would have expected. He adds that American consumers are facing a lot of econmic headwinds for the rest of the year. In other words, it ought to be a rough few months before things get better. Hang in there.


Washington, D.C.: Did you read today that Richard Syron, CEO of Freddie Mac said "If I had better foresight, maybe I could have improved things a little bit, but frankly, if I had perfect foresight, I would never have taken this job in the first place."

As a former Freddie Mac employee who was downsized due to his less than perfect foresight, this is infuriating.

washingtonpost.com: At Freddie Mac, Chief Discarded Warning Signs(NYTimes, August 5)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I did notice that story. Yes. I think Freddie is about to have a tough time in the markets. And I can understand your anger and frustration. I do not think that Freddie's worries are over, nor Fannie's. And I bet there are a lot of upset former employees out there like you. Anyone else have a tale to tell or a frustration to vent? Please send them along. Supporters of the companies are welcome, too, of course. This is a fair and balanced Web chat.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for writing in. Let's do this again. Cheers!


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