White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He will be online Wednesday, Jan. 28 at 1 p.m. ET to answer your questions about the White House and his latest columns.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat -- the first of the Obama administration! Lots to talk about, starting with the economic stimulus and Obama's attempts to win over some Republican support. I also responded today to former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen's charge that I am "speaking from a pinnacle of near-perfect ignorance."

And not to bury the lead or anything, but I radically changed the format of White House Watch today. It's very much a work in progress.

There are some obvious advantages -- and disadvantages -- but I thought it was time to shake things up a bit. You know: Change.

So change your bookmarks, update your RSS feed -- and fire away with your questions and comments.


Oakland, Calif.: Do you think that the Obama administration's commitment to openness will extend to allowing photographs of flag-draped coffins arriving in the U.S.?

Dan Froomkin: That's an interesting question. As you know, I was quite taken with Obama's decision -- on his first full day of office, no less -- to sign a series of executive orders and memos that, as he said, "mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country."

But how exactly that shakes out is still unclear. It's early yet, but that background briefing the other day was a bad sign. And I've been disappointed at how responsive Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has been to questions.

To me, a key test will be how many White House aides are eventually allowed to speak to reporters on the record. And the coffins.


Farmington Hills, Mich.: Dan,

I'm reading your column again. I've read your column faithfully but the last few months I couldn't take the Bush nonsense anymore without getting angry. My question is regarding the obstructionist stance of the Republicans. It seems like congressional Republicans are getting a pass on their past behavior, posing as fiscally prudent. I was told by a WaPo reporter in another chat that their past behavior is so obvious that it isn't news to point it out. Do you agree with that? Or should the public be reminded that a poltician is being hypocritical even if it is obvious to the informed that he is.

Dan Froomkin: I think you raise a very good point. We're all so focused on whether Obama can live up to his promise of a "new politics" that we're not really holding the Republican leadership very accountable. They did, after all, lose. And their failed policies were soundly rejected at the voting booth. So shouldn't they be giving a little? Or at least standing down?

If you haven't read it already, you should probably take a look at Bob Herbert's column in the Times yesterday. ""What's up with the Republicans? Have they no sense that their policies have sent the country hurtling down the road to ruin? Are they so divorced from reality that in their delusionary state they honestly believe we need more of their tax cuts for the rich and their other forms of plutocratic irresponsibility, the very things that got us to this deplorable state? . . .

"Why is anyone still listening?"


Zeros: Hi, Dan. Quick question: If Republicans plan to deliver exactly zero votes for Obama's stimulus bill, then why does the bill still have compromises in it?

Dan Froomkin: Hmm. I'm sensing a theme here.


Dorchester, Mass.: I'm part of President Obama's liberal base. I am very frustrated that he is wasting time trying to get the Republicans to capitulate to doing the right thing and passing the stimulus bill. The bill has been watered down with tax cuts reducing the amount of "shovel ready" infrastructure jobs. What we need are jobs where workers pay taxes. What we are getting courtesy of this awkward dance between the President and the Republicans is the flim flam. I think the stimulus bill needs to be rammed through the Congress or wait until a Boehner-Obamaville show up on the doorsteps of Congress and the White House.

Does it sound as if I am angry?

Dan Froomkin: OK. But look, there is something to be said for an adversarial system. There are certainly some things that congressional Democrats (and the lobbyists working them) are going to try to stick into this thing that aren't necessarily in the national interest, and we should hope the loyal opposition will point those out.


Charleston, S.C.: I am shocked that Bush did not issue a blanket pardon when he left office. Is there any chance he could have left a secret, sealed pardon to be opened only in the event of an actual indictment?

Dan Froomkin: No.

Look, I'm kinda shocked, too. But give him some credit where credit is due. Also see Carrie Johnson's Post story about all the well-heeled felons and expensive Washington lawyers he frustrated by not granting any of their requests.


Baltimore: I know you really hated the Bush administration and his stance on torture. When will you bash Obama for picking an attorney general that was all-for these methods of interrogation. You probably won't. Actually, maybe if you found a way to blame the appointment on Bush you would!

Dan Froomkin: I assure you that if any member of the Obama administration starts defending torture, you will be reading a lot about them in White House Watch. But you're wrong about Holder. The man is not without his issues, but he's been an outspoken opponent of torture, as well as illegal surveillance and the overt politicization of the Justice Department. See my Nov. 19 column, The Attorney General of Rollback.


Peaks Island, Maine: Do you believe Obama will push the Israelis to make the compromises necessary to win support of a plan supported by a substantial majority of Palestinians?

Dan Froomkin: Being an "honest broker" in the Middle East inevitably means leaning on all sides. And I think that's the role Obama aspires to. The big question for me, however, is not whether he'll lean on Israel a bit -- it's whether he'll lean on Israel a lot. I think that's distinctly possible, but as I've written over the last several days, right now that is purely a matter of speculation.


San Francisco: I like the blog format. Do you now or will you soon have a Twitter?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks! I do indeed have a Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/whitehousewatch. It hasn't been switched over to the blog quite yet, but should be momentarily. Please follow me!


Chicago: Dan -

Like you, I've thus far been disappointed with pres Secretary Robert Gibbs's (non) answers in press conferences. While politically risky, wouldn't it really put an exclamation point on how Obama is the "anti-Bush" by having Obama, himself, hold a weekly press conference, and mix it up with reporters? (Sort of like how the British PM is required to field questions in the House of Commons on a weekly basis.) Bush certainly didn't have the chops (or the intellect) to do so, but Obama certainly appears to . . . .

Dan Froomkin: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

I hope to have more to say about that in the coming days.

See press blogger Jay Rosen. He writes: "When you are obviously able to handle press questions - and dodge the ones you have to - this establishes a new president as already on top of it, comfortable in command. There's power in that, and a kind of legitimacy too. Being challenged in your own house shows the world what kind of house it is. Not a black box, a lit headquarters with lines in."

In the meantime, I would like to see Gibbs engage more and deflect less.


Alexandria, Va.: Why should we believe that this stimulus bill is going to solve our economic woes. I have yet to see some explanation of how the specific spending items will create and save meaningful jobs. Right now I surely doubt the bill, in its current form, will save the jobs that were recently lost at Home Depot, Starbucks, Microsoft, major banks and many other companies. All I am seeing is temporary work opportunities, and once completed, what happens to those workers??

Second point, is this bill seems like it is being fast-tracked, but we are not told specifically what the urgency is. Is the economy really that bad, because if it was, then why are people still buying high-end consumer goods and services?

Dan Froomkin: The most frustrating thing about this story is how opaque it is. The economy, despite how important it is to our lives, is sort of a black box. It works in mysterious ways. And then, to figure it out, we're dependent on economists!

That said, among people who know about these things, doubting that government stimulus creates jobs is the same as doubting that when you let go of something, it will fall to the ground.

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers today: "Economists think the stimulus plan that the House of Representatives will vote on Wednesday, while far from perfect, will help stimulate the moribund U.S. economy."

He explains: "The House legislation would erect four pillars of economic stimulus. It would provide income support to the poor and recently unemployed, distribute aid to state governments, seek relatively quick employment gains through public works spending and aim to spark consumer and business spending through targeted tax cuts."

And David Leonhardt writes in his New York Times business column that "for all the criticism the stimulus package has been getting, it does pretty well by several important yardsticks."

I do think that Obama needs to do a better job of explaining this stuff to the American public, though.


Dan, is Paul Kane correct here?: In the earlier politics chat, here's what Paul Kane had to say about the tax cuts in the bill:

Paul Kane: obama's the one who pushed for all these tax cuts. There are $275 billion worth of tax cuts, and 60% of those come in the Make Work Pay provision, which was a central plank of the Obama campaign. I ain't spoutting anyone's line here, folks.

washingtonpost.com: washingtonpost.com's Daily Politics Discussion

Dan Froomkin: Paul Kane is pretty much always right. Obama has indeed pushed for a lot of tax cuts, initially even saying they should make up 40 percent of the stimulus package.

That said, a big chunk of it is a tax cut the Republicans actually oppose! (Yes there is such a thing.) Obama is pushing for a $500-per-individual tax credit that can be claimed by people who make too little to pay income taxes -- but still pay payroll taxes (like Social Security.) Republicans think of this as welfare.

In fact, Obama stood firm on this yesterday when meeting with congressional Republicans.

Shailagh Murray and the aforementioned Paul Kane described Obama's defense in The Post: "Feel free to whack me over the head, because I probably will not compromise on that part... I will watch you on Fox News and feel bad about myself."


everhopefull, co: So Karl Rove is subpoenaed to appear before Conyers's committee on Feb. 2? What's really going to happen? I can't imagine that he'll swear to tell the whole truth and then proceed to do so. If he doesn't show, what are Conyers's options?

Dan Froomkin: Sadly, law blogger Jack Balkin writes that even if Obama chooses to deny Rove executive privilege, "Rove will still go to court... As a result, we can expect that Rove will not have to testify for some time, perhaps not for years."


Atlanta: Hi, Dan,

A comment, really. I don't see the culture of Washington changing until states stop gerimandering Congressional districts to make safe seats. Unfortunately, I live in Newt Gingrich's old district, now held by Tom Price. Mr. Price has absolutely no incentive to compromise when the district is 90 percent fairly well-off Republicans who are against the stimulus package. He's got nothing to lose by voting against because even if it passes and works, this District is still going to re-elect him. A Democrat or 3rd party candidate doesn't have a chance.

Dan Froomkin: A very important point. Members of Congress are not elected by the nation, but by the voter of their districts.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: Not that I want to be seen as someone opposed to change (how gauche), but I liked the old format because I could print the whole thing off at once and read it when I got home at night if I couldn't make time to read it during the day at work.

Please promise you'll still compile the best political cartoons for our perusal.

Thanks as always for your great, essential work.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, the ability to print my entire day's work was one of the things I least wanted to give up. But hopefully the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages. My apologies.


McLean, Va: Did I see the photo correctly? Obama at the White House with a table full of CEOs? And then Obama says that these guys are on the front line of the problems?

Why seek solutions from those who caused the problem? Why not instead, sit with union leaders to work solutions that would empower the working class?


President Barack Obama meets with business leaders to discuss the economy, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. From left are, the president; Google Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt; JetBlue Chief Executive Officer David Barger; and Micron Technology Chief Executive Officer Steve Appleton. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Dan Froomkin: Because right now, he's trying to lean on the Republicans. But good point.


Washington, D.C.: I love how the democrats and their allies in the media are attempting to turn the attention on a radio talk show host, and away from the giveaways to their friends in the stimulus bill. Corrupt unions (see Boston's Big Dig), "community" organizations like ACORN which are criminal allies of the DNC, and so on. Banks that are friends with Barney Frank. States, when times were good, spent overboard to entrench their power. Now times are tough and they cant cut back....it's sick.

Straight out of the fascist playbook. Find someone to polarize to take the attention away from the issue.

Dan Froomkin: Obama mentioned Rush Limbaugh once, in passing, in a private meeting.

But whatever turns you on.


Richmond, Va.: How can you have the position, as stated in your latest response to Thiessen, that even if torture works it still is morally indefensible? While that may be true in most cases, there clearly can be situations (the ticking bomb situation) where if torture works it would not only be morally defensible, but morally necessary (i.e., torture one man to save 200,000 lives). Maybe such a situation is so unlikely that all torture should be allowed, but I don't see how you could believe that torture would not be morally defensible in this situation. And then the question just becomes exactly where the line should be drawn.

Dan Froomkin: I would refer you to two previous columns, The White House's Perverse Argument and Who's the Moral Relativist?

In short, you are saying the ends justify the means. Are you really comfortable with that?


Juneau, Alaska: Sorry Froom, don't really like the new site - although I do like the logo of you looking over the White House!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I guess.


Roseville, CA: Dan, Out with the old, in with the new! Thanks for all the coverage during the Bush years, I'm excited to read all about President Obama and team for the next 4 years.

I would like to ask what you think about the Bush exit - no Libby or torture pardons, the meek final press conference (he defended his presidency but seemed to know the country was eager to show him the door) seem to speak to a diminished appetite to poke his adversaries in the eye and call it good sport. Do you sense that Bush's confidence has been undermined by events and Obama's ascendency, even if Cheney hasn't? Do you think he'll just let surrogates make the case against Obama's policies or will he himself mount a more rigorous defense of his legacy?

About the first week of Obama, I have to say I've been heartened by his assuredness as he issues orders to undo Bush policies - they are measured but they are substantial and clear. How much resistance to Obama can Congressional Republicans really muster given the state of the country and Obama's popularity? Don't they run the risk of irrelevance if they don't show they can respond to him with more than complaining? Is anyone on the Republican side worried about this?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I thought Bush was certainly subdued. See Bush Ends With a Whimper. I thought the lack of pardons was classy -- but also a sign that he really wanted to exit gracefully, as if that would make everything OK.

And yes, I think the Republican leaders are definitely taking a risk. Heck, even among Republican voters, a plurality approve of the job Obama's doing.


New York: Dan, it seems that the Bushies are still alive and well, organized to refute whatever criticisms emerge of their tenure. Witness Marc Thiessen's diatribe, as well as public radio interviews with Frances Townsend and Alberto Gonzales. How long do you think it will go on? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: As long as anyone pays attention -- and publishes them? (In other words, a long time.)


New York: Dan, thanks for the clarifications on whether torture has proved effective in protecting the U.S. I don't think I've seen it pulled together like this, and is such a relief after the back and forth you usually get on the topic.

Dan Froomkin: You are most welcome. But I should also say that I would certainly welcome people in the former administration coming forward with hard, verifiable evidence to support their position -- if there is any. I'm much more interested in finding out what really happened than winning an argument.


Helena, Mont.: It seems to me the GOP is trying as hard as they can to make themselves irrelevant. First, they are in fullthroated defense of torture and indefinite detention. No caveats, just justification that the Bush administration was right to torture and to detain people in Guantanamo. Second, they are in fullthroated opposition to organized labor. They lost Indiana and Ohio in 2008; do they want to keep losing these two states in the foreseeable future? Not to mention that the opposition to auto bailout are senators from states with sizable foreign plants. Sigh - I wish Democrats were better at demonizing the opposition, they have so much material.

Dan Froomkin: But at the same time, as Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post today about the apparent anti-Bush backlash within the Republican National Committee. I think they're still trying to find their way.


Re: Rove's testimony: Dan, Rove will have to pay for the lawyers and appeals, though. He won't be able to get US government help. I know that he won't ever pay a cent himself, but it's still a relief to taxpayers that major obstruction of information is no longer being subsidized by the White House.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, but the man gets unspeakable amounts of money per speaking engagement, not to mention from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. So it's not really going to hurt him.


Hackettstown, N.J.: Did you have flashbacks to "we will not comment on an ongoing investigation" when Robert Gibbs kept saying "abundance of caution"?

Dan Froomkin: A little, yes.


Minneapolis: "Republicans think of this as welfare." Well what is it if not redistribution of wealth? Why should I get am income tax refund of more than than I paid in income tax? I don't buy the "other payroll taxes" argument, we're talking INCOME tax

Dan Froomkin: Why? A tax is a tax, isn't it?


Chattanooga, Tenn.: For quite a while now, it's been the comedians that nail the social and political commentary right on the head. One of the first things I do when I read your column is present it in print form so that I can go straight to the bottom to see the political cartoons. The ones you posted yesterday regarding the Republican position toward the stimulus bill were not only hilarious, they were spot on political commentary.

Also, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been the most insightful political commentary on the tube for a long time. Stewart's response to Rush and Fox after Obama's second day in office was priceless.

Although he's not a comedian, you highlighted another good one in the print media with Herbert in the Times yesterday.

So I'd say to Farmington Hills that the media is illustrating the absurdity of the Republican positions opposite what Obama wants to do; you just need to know where to go to look for the most insightful commentary.

washingtonpost.com: The Daily Show: Fox News Fear Imbalance (Hulu.com)

Dan Froomkin: An excellent point. I think it's always well worth paying attention to the people who see their job as calling, um, baloney.


Bethesda, Md.: I wish people would stop trotting out the "ticking time bomb" scenario to justify torture. Outside of Philosophy 101 and "24," it doesn't exist. The reality-based community awaits you with open arms when you're ready to come back, people.

Dan Froomkin: Agreed.


San Diego: To me it looks like the GOP is more interested in causing the new administration to fail and/or look bad than in getting the country up and working, but few in the traditional media are pointing it out. Do you think President Obama could/would take his stimulus plan directly to the people in a TV address and explain that creating and/or saving the average person's job is the most important action we need right now, and that tax cuts haven't done much to date other than make board rooms richer? How many times should a president "reach out" to a bunch of dead-enders before he grabs the pulpit and hits them over the head with it?

Dan Froomkin: I think he may well be building up to this.


New York, N.Y.: Hi, Dan. I thought the overarching goal of the media is to expose government secrets and hold government officials accountable for wrongdoing, but it appears to be the opposite, these days. In fact, Richard Cohen recently joined his fellow WaPo columnists Marcus, Ignatius, Broder and Hiatt -- as well as virtually every other Beltway pundit -- in demanding that Bush officials not be prosecuted even if they committed felonies. As usual, the most striking aspect is how unapologetically eager "journalists" -- of all people -- are to argue on behalf of the powerful political leaders over whom they actually still claim to serve as "watchdogs." As a journalist (and Post reporter), yourself, what do you think this shows about the state of your profession?

Dan Froomkin: I find it bizarre. Or let me put it this way: If these people had already been held fully accountable in the court of public opinion, you might be able to make a reasonable argument that throwing them in jail was excessive. But defending a state of ignorance is not in our job description. Or at least it shouldn't be. You're obviously a Glenn Greenwald fan.


Houston: And really, how can you separate Social Security and Medicare taxes from the general income tax anymore? Aren't those taxes effectively all thrown into one pool, based on the way that we handle our Social Security payments?

Dan Froomkin: Indeed.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone for all your excellent questions and comments. Stay in touch. See you here again in two weeks, and every day at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.


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