Post Politics Hour

Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, August 19, 2008; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post White House reporter Michael Abramowitz was online Tuesday, August 19 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

The transcript follows.

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Richmond, Va.: Michael, thanks for taking my question. Who are some of your favorite people who work at the White House but who are not in the spotlight? I always have wondered about the background people who are in security, service and custodial positions. Sorry, I know this is not political, but sometimes a man just needs a break! Have a great day.

Michael Abramowitz: Good morning everybody. I have been on vacation and then with Bush to Asia, so this is my first chat in a while.

I like your question. One of the things you find in covering the White House is that many of the staff are extremely friendly and dedicated, and it's fun to get to know some of them. The truth is reporters tend to hang out with the people in the press office, so the names I might give you tend to be lower-level press aides, like Carlton Carroll, Stuart Siciliano and Pete Seat -- and spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. They are extremely helpful to me (and I don't mean this list to be all-inclusive).

I also enjoy talking with deputy chief of staff Joel Kaplan and deputy national security adviser Jim Jeffrey -- I wouldn't be surprised if Joel is one day a cabinet officer or a CEO somewhere. He has an interesting life story -- he joined the Marines after graduating from Harvard, then became a lawyer and is basically the top aide to Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

Of course, Joel and others I mention are extremely discreet, so it's not like anyone is really dishing on the president! You need to look elsewhere for that.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning. A couple of side questions about Russia-Georgia: First, has the White House explained its rather passive response? Is it a recognition of the limits of U.S. power on the Russian border, or a reluctance to tie the hands of the next president? Second, has the White House commented on the freelancing of first Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, and then Sen. Joe Biden?

Michael Abramowitz: I think the White House response has been a function of what it sees as a relatively limited set of options: Nobody is willing to go to war with Russia over this, so that leaves threats and persuasion as the basic tools.

I have not seen any White House commenting on the freelancing you refer to.


Los Angeles: Musharraf's resignation shows failures of Bush's post-Sept. 11 Middle East approach. For example, Bush recruited Musharraf as an ally in the so-called war on terror with money, but without understanding Pakistan politics or making sure Musharraf would/could deliver enough to really fight al-Qaeda. Musharraf's opponents used his U.S. connection as a major issue against him. After more than five years and $10 billion (spent defending against India rather than securing the border with Afghanistan), was the money badly spent, and the U.S. depend on Pakistan in the long term? Doesn't this demonstrates that Bush borrows and spends taxpayer money unwisely?

Michael Abramowitz: I think the administration believes it got some serious help from Musharraf in the initial battles against the Taliban in Afghanistan and that it saw him as a force for moderation in Pakistan. As time went on, however, he either could not or would not deliver the kind of assistance that was considered necessary, so I am sure there is a sense of disappointment with him in some quarters of the administration. I am not sure you could sum up U.S. Pakistan policy as a complete success or complete failure -- it's somewhere in between.


Seattle: So about when did the president decide that the invasion of Georgia was a "Katrina-Level" moment? And does he feel he has any pull with Prime Minister Putin at this stage?

Michael Abramowitz: Probably some time while he was at the Olympics last weekend he came to realize it was a pretty big crisis. He did have a couple of talks with Putin while he was in Beijing, and I am sure he was pretty angry about what was happening. I have no idea whether he thinks he had any pull with Putin at this stage: He can't have been pleased with what he was up to.


New York: When reading The Post's coverage of the Bruce Ivins anthrax investigation, it occurs to me that The Post's role has been and continues to be what the establishment media's role generally is -- to serve government sources and amplify their claims, not to investigate their veracity. That's how it was when Saddam Hussein who was the original anthrax culprit, followed by Steven Hatfill, and now Bruce Ivins. It's how Jessica Lynch heroically fought off Iraqi goons in a firefight, how Pat Tillman stood down al-Qaeda monsters until they murdered him, how Iraq possessed mountains of WMD, and now, how Russia has assaulted the consensus values of the Western World by invading a sovereign country and occupying parts of it for a whole week, etc., etc. All of those narratives came from the government directly into the pages of The Washington Post, which then uncritically conveyed them, often (as in the case of the Jessica Lynch lies and WMD claims) playing a leading role in doing so. Thoughts?

Michael Abramowitz: I don't agree with your basic premise. The media clearly fell down in some of the areas you mention, but sometimes it takes time to get a complete, accurate picture of what happened in murky situations. To take just two of the cases you mention -- Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman: The media continued digging into these cases until the truth came out. It's not always possible to do that in the first day or two of a big story.


Washington: Who does the White House want to see succeed Musharraf in Pakistan?

Michael Abramowitz: I don't honestly know. My sense is that they are not big fans of Sharif, but they also know that if they were to try to get involved in helping pick leaders there, it almost certainly would backfire. So they probably will hang back and try to work with whomever the system brings forth.


Baltimore: So, when do you think the Obama-Biden ticket be unveiled? Tomorrow? Thursday? Over the weekend?

Michael Abramowitz: Ha! I sort of think it might be Biden too, but that's just wild and uninformed speculation from somebody covering the White House and not the campaign. I'm sure it will happen in the next few days -- how's that for specificity?!


Boston: First, let me say I hate all vice presidential speculation. Thankfully I live a richer life than to spend one minute thinking about that nonsense. But, if there is to be such endless speculation, shouldn't it focus on who John McCain would choose? After all, the actuarial tables say there is a one in six chance that he dies before his term expires.

Michael Abramowitz: Well once Obama makes his pick this week, then we will have endless speculation about McCain's running mate -- so your wish will be granted.


Baltimore: Does the rest of the world consider Bush a hypocrite for condemning Putin for invading Georgia, in light of our invasion and occupation of Iraq?

Michael Abramowitz: Whether or not the comparison is apt, I am sure there's a lot of that out there.


Wheaton, Md.: The whole kerfuffle over whether or not Sen. McCain was in a "cone of silence" during Sen. Obama's half of Rev. Warren's Saturday night extravaganza is probably a tempest in a teapot, but did you find Rev. Warren's defense of Sen. McCain last night on Larry King to be at least mildly amusing? To wit, Warren said that the Secret Service was with McCain the whole time as he was approaching the event and would have prevented him from listening to the proceedings. I thought the duty of the Secret Service was to keep the president (or candidates) safe, not keep them honest. If the latter were their function, it might have spared us various historical presidential indignities and scandals. Your thoughts? Candidates Got Advance Look at Questions (Post, Aug. 19)

Michael Abramowitz: I have no idea whether McCain got an advance peek at the questions, but your basic point is correct: I severely doubt that the Secret Service would have done anything to block McCain from watching Obama if he wanted to. That's not the agents' function.


Anonymous: The buzz is McCain will announce his vice president in front of 10,000 supporters in Dayton, Ohio. Does this mean McCain sees Ohio as the most important battleground state, or that Portman is his pick, or both, or neither?

Michael Abramowitz: Both and neither.

Seriously, I have not heard this rumor. There's no question he sees Ohio as an important battleground state. But while Portman is no doubt a skilled politician and capable administrator, I am not sure how much he will do for McCain politically.


Anonymous: Wasn't the hoopla around the New York Times "breaking story" that Obama would name vice president soon kind of stupid? Of course he will name veep soon -- the convention starts in six days!

Michael Abramowitz: Yes. But we are in a manic media time, aren't we?


Boulder, Colo.: Why is McCain still holding fundraisers? Isn't the time period he can spend his own funds about to expire?

Michael Abramowitz: He still has a couple of weeks to spend money, and I assume part of his efforts are directed at raising money for the Republican National Committee, which can spend money on his behalf this fall.


Washington: Please take a couple leaps of faith into the hypothetical. Do you think Sen. Biden would be more effective as a vice president for a President Obama, or as a secretary of State? In what role would he best be able to serve the country and the executive branch?

Michael Abramowitz: Hmmm. That's another roam in the area of speculation. I would guess vice president, because that would demand more political skills -- and in the end, that's what Biden is, a politician. He certainly has the knowledge to be secretary of state; whether he could shift from a legislative orientation to a more executive mindset is uncertain to me.


Princeton, N.J.: "I am not sure you could sum up U.S. Pakistan policy as a complete success or complete failure -- it's somewhere in between." Right, but it's a lot closer to to failure than success.

Michael Abramowitz: I don't necessarily disagree with this, but I also think we shouldn't overestimate the ability of the United States to influence matters there.


Falls Church, Va.: I understand the reasoning as to why Obama would want someone like Biden or Bayh on the ticket, but the fact is that either such choice is unredeemably boring. How does the campaign generate excitement about the deliberate selection of a boring man?

Michael Abramowitz: Maybe generating excitement is not the main purpose here. Perhaps the campaign, in selecting either of those men, would be hoping to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose, that Obama would be selecting someone who could plausibly step in if the unthinkable happens.


Washington: Rob Portman? Yawn. Even if he could bring Ohio, there'd be an awful lot of Americans saying: Who? "Oh, he headed the Office of Management and Budget ... the guys that helped fudge the $8 trillion debt that Bush has run up..."

Michael Abramowitz: I think if McCain picked Portman, it would be a sign that he thinks he is going to win and does not want to do anything too risky. I agree with you that the selection would not at first glance bring a huge amount politically to the ticket. Though he Portman did help take Ohio, that's not insignificant.

I am out of time, friends: See you in a couple of weeks.


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