Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Ben Pershing (The Washington Post)
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Ben Pershing Congressional Blogger
Monday, December 1, 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.

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Ben Pershing, congressional blogger, was online Monday, Dec. 1, at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about the latest D.C. buzz and The Post's coverage of political news.

A transcript follows.

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Ben Pershing: Happy post-Thanksgiving Monday, everyone. Lots of news going on as we speak, so let's get started.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning. Obama has chosen not to appear personally on Jim Martin's behalf in the Georgia Senate runoff. Will this have any impact on his relationship with the Senate? They could really use the vote. Or is it like the Godfather..."It's just business. It's not personal."

Ben Pershing: It was an interesting decision by Obama not to go down to Georgia to campaign for Martin in the runoff. John McCain and Sarah Palin have gone in for Chambliss, so we thought Obama might go too. But he may be too busy, or his people may have calculated that a visit might not have helped that much. Remember, Obama didn't win Georgia.


_______________________ Obama Press Conference (Live Stream From Chicago)


Avon Park, Fla.: I certainly don't question Hillary Clinton's qualifications for secretary of state, but why would Obama want such a larger-than-life personality in that position? We have effectively two vice presidents now. What does this do to Joe Biden?

Ben Pershing: There's always the risk that Clinton will steal a lot of attention from Obama, but it will be up to him to manage her and the rest of the Cabinet effectively. There certainly is precedent for a high-profile Secretary of State -- remember, Colin Powell was much more popular than Bush when he was picked for the job (though you can debate whether that actually worked well).

As for Biden, he's been remarkably quiet these last few weeks. But it's hard to imagine that Obama would have picked Clinton if Biden really were strenuously opposed.


Alexandria, Va.: Hello Ben, What's the story on the agriculture secretary pick? Collin Peterson has said "no," and Tom Vilsack said he hasn't been contacted by the new administration vetted. While there was an opinion piece about USDA leadership in the WSJ last Thursday, it's a topic that doesn't get as much press as it should, with globally high food prices, rampant farm subsidies and the sinking Doha Round. What are your thoughts?

Ben Pershing: It's true that the Ag Secretary pick has been largely overshadowed, first by the economic team and now, today, by the national security team. I don't know for sure who the frontrunners are. I have seen speculation about Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is seen as a rising star in the Democratic party, and Charlie Stenholm, the former Texas congressman who is a conservative Democrat and very popular in the agriculture community. What's also not clear is whether Obama will try to reform the current system of farm subsidies, which has a lot of critics in both parties. His pick for Ag Secretary could send a strong message on that front.


Chicago, Ill.: With congressional districts getting larger and larger, has there been any talk of expanding the House of Representatives?

Ben Pershing: There is periodic talk of expanding the House but I doubt it will happen, aside from the seemingly likely addition of a voting Representative for the District of Columbia. That plan would add two members to the House -- one for D.C. and a new seat for Utah -- for a total of 437. Beyond that I don't know that growing the House any more would go over well with the public, given how unpopular Congress is right now.


Dormont, Pa.: Does Nita Lowey get Hillary's job now? Or Mario Cuomo? Andrew Cuomo? Eliot Spitzer?

Or do the votes of New York actually get to decide that issue?

Good session this morning.

Ben Pershing: That decision hasn't been made yet but Nita Lowey is widely thought to be Hillary Clinton's preference to replace her. Remember that Lowey was going to run for Senate back in 2000 and then stepped aside for Hillary, so you could say Clinton owes her one. Whoever gets picked, New Yorkers will get their say in 2010, when there will be an election to fill the seat for a full term.


Fairfax, Va.: Has a lame duck president ever so completely left the stage during a transition as much as President Bush has?

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure what Bush could be doing any differently to get more attention, beyond making some sort of colossal blunder. Remember that during the beginning of the economic crisis Bush was on TV seemingly every day, and that didn't seem to help the economy or the stock market much. And he's certainly not going to unveil any sweeping new policies in the last two months of his administration.


Bethel Park, Pa.: What will this team do differently -- I mean difference not distinction -- than the Bush and Clinton I teams?

If it's just a matter of dressing in suits and dresses, having meetings, and giving speeches, it's all for naught. Real progress requires real work. And that means more than phoning it in with policy sessions, think tanks, group hugs, and international airplane exhaust.

So.. what's going to be different?

Thanks. Citizen from the Real World

Ben Pershing: I guess I'm not sure exactly what you're looking for. Obama's team will in fact where suits and dresses (and pantsuits), and they will have lots of meetings and fly around the world. What does "real work" mean? I do think they will be different on a whole host of issues than the Bush administration has been for the last eight years.


Reston, Va.: Picking Napolitano as secretary of Homeland Security pretty much removes her from challenging McCain in 2010, where polls showed her running ahead in a hypothetical match-up. What, if any, concessions do you think the Obama team got by removing the one person who could challenge McCain?

Ben Pershing: I don't think they got any concessions for the pick. It's possible Napolitano told Obama's people that she'd rather have this job than run for senate. If she really wanted to run against McCain she would have turned this job down. Maybe if McCain were definitely planning to retire (he still might), then she might have made a different decision. But McCain remains popular in Arizona and will be tough to beat for any Democrat.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Wow! What a National Security Team. Is there precedent for a 1st term president being this confident that he will not be overshadowed by his individual team members?

Ben Pershing: As you've probably heard a thousand times by now, Obama is impressed by the example of Abraham Lincoln, who stocked his Cabinet with lots of strong-willed folks who disagreed with him on key policy issues.

And beyond Clinton, I'm not sure that there's anyone else who has the star power in this Cabinet to overshadow Obama. James Jones and Eric Holder aren't exactly household names.


Wilmington, Del.: Has there been any decision on the White House dog? The non-girly one? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: A very important question. Obama said during his 60 Minutes interview a couple of weeks ago that they would not be getting their puppy until after the family moves into the White House and gets settled in. It usually takes me months to unpack when I move into a new house, so if the Obamas are similar it could be awhile before the First Dog is in residence.


New York, N.Y.: I'm happy to see the media focus attention on the management experience and bureaucratic skills of various Obama appointees. Ben, do you think the media (and electorate) is finally waking up to the fact that governing actually requires skills and expertise? Do you think the Obama administration can cement the idea that running a good government is the sort of thing that requires people who have actually help run a good government?

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure that it was "the media" that really questioned the wisdom of having experienced people in key government jobs. The most I have seen is some criticism, mostly from the liberal and conservative blogospheres, that Obama hasn't quite lived up to his promises to "change Washington" with his picks. But the mainstream media mostly hasn't pursued that charge. After all, if Obama picked total novices for these jobs he would open himself up to a whole different line of criticism.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Do you see any roadblocks ahead in the confirmation process for any of this morning's nominees?

Ben Pershing: It's unlikely that any of these nominees will have trouble getting confirmed by the Senate, barring some scandal that didn't turn up in the vetting by the Obama transition team (i.e. a "nanny problem" or illegal immigrant scandal of the type that derailed Zoe Baird or Linda Chavez). Republicans will certainly bring up the Marc Rich pardon during the confirmation of Eric Holder, and some Democrats will certainly grill Bob Gates about Iraq. But I think all of them will be confirmed pretty easily.


Alexandria, Va.: Do you think any of those folks not getting high-level cabinet positions (see Kerry, John) are upset and how much trouble could they cause Obama's administration?

Ben Pershing: Kerry probably is disappointed but it's hard to see how he could really exact any revenge on Obama for it. Kerry will get to succeed Biden as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which is a pretty nice job and a good platform for him to speak out and get attention. I do wonder if Bill Richardson is disappointed that he got Commerce instead of State, but if he were really angry he probably wouldn't have accepted the job.


Pushing Health Care: In a parliamentary democracy, where there's no filibuster, you can do things like universal health care. But here in the U.S. system, which is choked by the filibuster and the committee structure and a thousand other traps designed to protect the minority from having to submit to reforms desired by the majority, that's going to be a rather heavy lift. Do you think it can really be done here, Ben? If so, how do you think it might play out?

Ben Pershing: I don't think universal health care will happen anytime soon. Partly that's because of the Senate system, as you said, but also because Obama hasn't actually proposed to move to a true universal model. His plan aims to expand coverage and reform the system, not actually create a really universal, government-run program.

_______________________ It Hurts To Be John Kerry Today (The Sleuth, Dec. 1)


Milwaukee, Wisc.: It seems that, at least for now, Obama has taken all the wind out of his critics sails. Is the transition really running as smoothly and progressing as rapidly as it seems?

Ben Pershing: Well, Obama hasn't made any big, visible errors yet. He hasn't had a high-profile pick refuse his job offer or be derailed by a scandal. And he seems to be moving quickly enough on the big names not to be accused of indecision, the way Bill Clinton was. But there are still 50 days left until the inauguration, so there's time for him to make a mistake or two.


Chicago, Ill.: Any word on Obama's replacement in the Senate? It's been real quiet.

Ben Pershing: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Friday he hadn't made a decision yet on who he will appoint to the Senate seat, and we don't know yet when he will announce the choice. The most likely names still seem to be Danny Davis, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Tammy Duckworth.


Cabin John: Does Gates need to be confirmed? He's already sec of defense; does he need a new confirmation?

Ben Pershing: Yes, every time a new presidential term starts, all of the Cabinet officials have to be confirmed or re-confirmed.


FairFax Va: In response to Phoenix, George Bush had an impressive 1st term cabinet, but decided not to listen to them, instead he listened to Cheney and his gut.

Ben Pershing: Exactly. There has been lots of attention on the merits of picking high-profile Cabinet members, or a "Team of Rivals," and so on. But in the end, the effectiveness of the Cabinet will depend entirely on how Obama manages it and weighs all these competing opinions. It could work out great, or it could be a huge mess of infighting.


Re: Chicago, Ill.: Isn't the real reason : that the House of Representative is not expanded is because it would dilute the influence of lower population areas (rural areas) which vote disproportionately Republican while high density populations areas vote Democratic.

In essence this makes the House look more like the Senate giving smaller districts way more power than larger districts.

Isn't the reason for the Senate was to protect the minority (smaller states) being overwhelmed by the majority (larger states). Yet by keeping refusing to increase the size of the House isn't the opposite occurring?

Ben Pershing: I'm not really sure how expanding the House would affect the influence of rural areas one way or the other. Every House district is roughly the same size (with the exception of the few states that only have one seat), and if the House were expanded the districts would continue to be of about equal size, population-wise, regardless of whether they're urban or rural.


Atlanta, Ga.: Palin is on the campaign trail for Chambliss today. Each of her post election outings have resulted in fresh fodder for late night comedians. So why...

Ben Pershing: Palin is in Georgia today to help boost enthusiasm and turnout of Chambliss' conservative base. For all the mocking Palin gets, and her mixed poll ratings, most conservative Republicans still love her.


Ben Pershing: Thanks for the great questions, everyone. Bye for now.


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