Post Politics Hour

Robert Barnes
Washington Post Supreme Court and Politics Reporter
Monday, November 24, 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.

Robert Barnes, Washington Post politics and Supreme Court reporter, was online Monday, Nov. 24 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest transition and executive branch news.

A transcript follows.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts


Robert Barnes: Good morning, everyone. President-elect Obama will have a news conference to announce members of his economic team in about an hour, but we don't have to wait for that, do we? The president-elect is moving fast, but of course we have questions. Where are the Republicans, conservatives want to know. Where are the outsiders, liberals want to know. And, although it won't come for a while, conservatives in the legal community last week were asking what kind of judges Obama will look for, especially with his emphasis on "empathy" and "heart." I look forward to your questions.


St. Paul, Minn.: Mr. Barnes -- Thanks for taking questions today. I haven't seen much written or discussed concerning potential openings on the Supreme Court that Obama may have the opportunity fill. Any thoughts on who might be stepping off the Court, or can we expect not to see any changes for the foreseeable future? I recently read, for instance, that Justice Stevens, perhaps the most likely to retire, said he has no plans to leave anytime soon.

Robert Barnes: Supreme Court openings are the toughest events to predict in politics. But Justice Stevens is 88 and he can't serve forever. The conventional wisdom is that he might be the first to leave, but he has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down. Justice Ginsburg has made it clear she doesn't want to thought of as having one foot out the door. And Justice Souter, the other most commonly mentioned, is not one to make his plans known in advance. I don't think anyone would be totally surprised to see the term end in June without a retirement announcement.


Richmond, Va.: I was wondering why there seems to be a dual standard for bailouts. As far as I can tell, the banks have gotten huge financial bailouts, and no one is saying they must submit a PLAN before they can get the money; whereas, both Reid and Pelosi have said "show us a plan before we show you the money." While I actually agree with that, I wish the the banks (their executives and boards) would have had to do the same. How come the unequal treatment?

Robert Barnes: Perhaps it is partly because the bailout process is becoming increasingly unpopular politically. Voters plain don't like it and while they might have accepted one as unavoidable, neither they nor their elected officials see it as unending. I think there is also considerable skepticism about whether Detroit can really recover, but I'm hardly an expert there. I don't have an answer for the question I'm about to post, but it gives an indication of the sentiment out there, I believe:


Bremerton, Wash.: My Citibank card shot up from 5 percent to 29 percent last June and we were forced to cash in our 401(k) to pay it off.

Where's my bailout?

Robert Barnes: Perhaps others can answer this question.


Wilmington, N.C.: Good Morning. My question pertains to the appointments to the cabinet positions, now that president-elect Obama is gathering together all the great political minds of our times. What is the usual process for replacing positions of a governor as Richards, senator as Clinton, etc.? Is it customary that the person replacing them is of the same party or of say the governors' choice as in Clinton's case? Thank you.

Robert Barnes: It all depends upon the state. For instance, in New York, the Democratic governor would appoint Sen. Clinton's replacement so you can be assured it will be a Democrat. But each place is different. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell doesn't want a role in the Obama administration because it would mean his replacement in Harrisburg would be a Republican. One exception is with members of the House of Representatives, where special elections must be held to fill openings.


Winnipeg, Canada: I keep reading that Hillary Clinton would not be happy in her role as the junior senator from New York after the election. I understand that the junior senator is the one with less service, but is there a practical difference as well? In other words, if she were the senior senator from New York, would staying in the Senate be any more attractive to her?

Robert Barnes: Probably not that much. The real power in the Senate comes from seniority, and that is the area where she lags far behind others.


Baltimore, Md.: (asking my question early since I have a meeting)

Do you think that any of the "confirmed" Obama appointments leaked thus far to the media might be a head fake? The news shows seem to be treating Clinton, Summers, Geithner, Napolitano, Grijalava, etc., as done deals. Do you think that there might be any surprises in this week's announcements?

Robert Barnes: If you're asking whether those in the Obama camp have leaked the names of folks they don't intend to appoint, I'd say no. Whether they decide not to make an appointment if there is a serious backlash or discover something they would make the confirmation difficult is certainly possible. But I don't think the names you've heard so far are head fakes.


Arlington, Va.: Is there any risk to the Democrats if Obama appoints a number of governors and senior elected officials to his cabinet? We are seeing Richardson leaked at Commerce, I believe Napolitano was the name leaked for Homeland Security. Of course there's Hillary for State. Didn't I see [Jennifer] Granholm's name floated for something or other too? Are all of these governors and others going to be replaced by other democrats with strong credentials?

Robert Barnes: I think we might have covered this in an earlier question, but the political risks of naming prominent members of the party are always taken into consideration. In some cases, that might mean that the appointment comes later in the administration than the initial cabinet.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Any chance that 72-year-old justices Scalia and Kennedy might be leaving the Supreme Court during the next four (or eight) years? Replacement of them by President Obama nominees could potentially be really significant.

Robert Barnes: I would find it surprising to see either of those two decide to leave the court in the next four years. Eight years is a long time. But also remember that Supreme Court justices don't observe normal retirement ages like the rest of us. They seem to really like their jobs. My favorite recent description of the role is that it's the closest thing we have these days to a Renaissance princeling.


Fairfax, Va.: How worried should Democrats be about the governors' races in 2010, which will play a big role in the next round of redistricting. The Democratic governors in Michigan and Illinois are very unpopular and could negatively impact the next candidate for the party, while in places like Pennsylvania, the incumbent is term-limited.

Robert Barnes: There are two governors races next year--in New Jersey and Virginia, where the governor may serve only one term--that will be hard-fought contests. And then 36 states will elect governors in 2010. Governors are really interesting, because you often find Democrats heading states that vote Republican in federal elections and vice versa. I was recently at the Republican Governors Association, where I believe there were nine governors from states that Obama carried. Certainly governors in both parties feel that they are closer to voters and are more pragmatic than their brethren and sisteren in Washington and should be consulted more on where the parties should go. And you are certainly right about the importance of the contests re reapportionment.


Menomonie, Wisc.: If Hillary accepts the sec. of state position, there is some speculation that Bill might want to take her Senate seat. If this comes to pass, would that be unusual? Has a former president ever become senator? I have checked the Constitution online and there seems to be nothing unconstitutional about it; although I am sure it would infuriate the Republicans...

Robert Barnes: I certainly can't think of a precedent. Historians?

But I also must say this is the first I've heard of the possibility, though I like your stir-the-pot thinking. I believe it would infuriate more than Republicans.


Junior vs. senior Senator: Aaaaack! Please, the difference between a state's junior and senior senator is NOT the one who has served longer. The junior senator is the one who was elected (or re-elected) more recently, regardless of total senatorial tenure.

Robert Barnes: I don't believe we are in disagreement.


The Great NW: Is there another Second Amendment case going to the Supreme Court this year? What cases do you see that might produce some change-making precedents?

Robert Barnes: The court is still reviewing cases for argument this term, but there are no Second Amendment cases that appear likely, to my knowledge. Usually, it takes several years for cases to move up the chain after such a momentous decision. One intriguing case that is out there is a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act, upon which the justices have not yet acted. It could be fascinating in a year in which the country has just elected its first African-American president.


Chicago, Ill.: Why so much speculation about how Lieberman retained his chairmanship? McCain meets Obama in Chicago; Obama makes a phone call; presto! Lieberman keeps the chair. Are the dots connected?

Robert Barnes: I'm not sure that Obama was looking for guidance from McCain for what to do about Lieberman. Seems more likely he thought there was more to gain from keeping the senator with the Democrats than risking losing him to the Republicans, don't you think? Obama seems to be looking for ways to say, let bygones be bygones. That's easy to do when you win.


Republicans: I don't know if this question fits your area of expertise, but I'll give it a try. I am listening with great interest to Republican voices regarding the direction the party should take, and I'd love to hear your sense of what politically viable niche the GOP might fill. I'm a former Republican who deserted the party when it went way too right for me, so my bias is for a more moderate slotting. What do you think?

Robert Barnes: After every losing election, the party out of power seems to confront two contradictory options: it lost because it was too far to the right (or left) or it lost because it didn't offer enough of a difference from the other party. But quite often it also boils down to the candidates offered and the place the country is at at the time of the election. You'll certainly see a strong debate within the Republican Party. I can tell you that among Republicans I've talked to there are two things that really concern them about the past election. One is the Hispanic vote, which sent overwhelmingly Democratic. The other is younger voters, who voted the same way.


Alexandria, Va.: Andrew Johnson was elected to the Senate in 1874, but he only served for four months before he died.

John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives two years after losing his presidential reelection bid to Andrew Jackson. He served in the House for 17 years until his death in 1848.

Robert Barnes: Let's start our own wiki!


Boston, Mass.: Democrats historically have not handled Supreme Court or other Federal Court nominations in the same manner as the GOP. However, the Republicans' penchant for young ideologues has strikingly remade the Courts. How does Obama deal with following his apparent practice of hiring competent pragmatists with the understanding the facts have a well-known liberal bias? Or by finding his own young liberal ideologues?

Robert Barnes: Most in the legal community are really curious about this question, too. You're no doubt aware that Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago law school, so it is likely he will be personally involved in this process to a great extent, especially when it comes to the Supreme Court. We really won't know until he makes some nominations, but certainly liberals are hoping for some bold choices. And if Congress expands the judiciary, as is expected because of the courts' increasing workload, Obama has a chance to make an immediate impact at the important appeals court level.


Anonymous: What sort of relationship are Chief Justice Roberts and President Obama likely to have?

Robert Barnes: After the swearing-in, I think they won't have a relationship at all. Remember that Obama was one of the no votes against Roberts, and Alito as well.

_______________________ Conservative Federalist Society Can Expect Its Status to Shrink (Post, Nov. 21)


Bethesda, Md.: Do you think there's any validity to the argument that by naming former Clinton appointees to his cabinet and advisory panel, this constitutes "more of the same" rather than "change"? In some ways I can see this as a valid point but in others I think the work of the cabinet and advisors reflect the vision of the leader which may be different from predecessors.

Robert Barnes: Well, much of the Democratic talent that Obama has to draw from have connections to Clinton, who, after all, was the only Democrat in generations to serve two full terms. He also seems to be placing great importance on experience, because of the need for a fast start because of the problems the country is facing. But no, not a lot of "change" there so far.


Portland, Ore.: President-elect Obama may well get two Supreme Court nominees. Who are the leading candidates that are being mentioned?


Robert Barnes: The three names I hear most often for the first opening on the court are Judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood and Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan. I apologize in advance to all my other lawyer/judge friends who think their names should be on the list.


Fairfax, Va.: Looking beyond the immediate financial crisis, do you think Tim Geithner's knowledge and expertise in Southeast Asia signals that an Obama administration will seek to create stronger economic ties in that region?

Robert Barnes: I'm afraid our time is up. Go watch the President-elect. Thanks so much for reading The Post and taking part in these discussions. I'm sorry I didn't get to every question, and look forward to chatting again.


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