Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 10, 2009; 1:00 PM

Live from the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the historic day, as well as his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. It's High Financial Anxiety Day -- wait, I guess that's every day, in this winter of our economic discontent. The Senate has approved its version of the stimulus program. The president is in Florida, explaining how bad things are. The treasury secretary has unveiled the new financial bailout plan, which appears to be... huge. My column this morning, just for reference, posits that old-style, hands-across-the-aisle bipartisanship is failing us in responding to the economic crisis, and argues that the president and the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, in the end, have to do what needs to be done -- whether or not Republicans are willing to come along. Brothers and sisters, can you spare a dime? Better yet, what's on your minds?


San Antonio, Tex.: Quick question, I understand and agree with your column from today, however my question is why are so many on the left (which I am one) are screaming at Obama for including the Repubs in negotiations? For the last eight years we were screaming at Bush to do the same thing, and he ignored us, now we want Obama to do it in his first two weeks in office?

washingtonpost.com: Roll Over the Republicans (Post, Feb. 10)

Eugene Robinson: No, I think President Obama was absolutely right to include Republicans in the negotiations. My point is that I believe there are some things that aren't negotiable, at least not in the traditional sense. The danger in negotiating a "compromise" that's somewhere in the "middle" is that we could end up spending too little -- yes, too little -- and we could eliminate some of the spending that would pack the biggest stimulative punch.


Columbus, Ohio: Sorry, but your opinions come across as being very partisan. There are more than a few Democrats who were elected on the basis of being fiscal conservatives, so they too have a stake in a responsible stimulus package. Yes, there were three Republicans that crossed party lines. But let's look at the Democratic Party leadership and the iron fist that they use to enforce party discipline. Bipartisanship doesn't just mean "Do it my way....period, and I will call you being bi-partisan" either.

Eugene Robinson: My column was partisan (in my view) only in the sense that I believe the economists who say that (1) we need a huge stimulus; (2) outright spending has a bigger immediate impact than tax cuts; and (3) we need the stimulus asap because the economy could reach a tipping point and get much, much worse. If Republicans don't believe these propositions, or if they figure the stimulus is going to pass anyway and want to be able to disown it if it fails, then fine. I just think somebody has to do something, and it's the Democrats who hold the White House and both sides of Capitol Hill. Their responsibility.


McLean, Va.: Last week, Steven Pearlstein wrote: "Spending is stimulus, no matter what it's for and who does it. The best spending is that which creates jobs and economic activity now, has big payoffs later and disappears from future budgets." Right on! I applaud your point too, that this is not "a matter of left, right and center..." I would like to add that everyone can contribute to stimulating our economy by buying products made in America.

Eugene Robinson: I'm always happy to be on the same side of the fence as Steve Pearlstein, since he happens to be, you know, pretty much always right. Columnists should be required to whiff every once in a while.


Portland, Maine: I think President Obama understands that he needs to appear bi-partisan. I don't necessarily think be believes he has to govern that way.

Everything he has done has put the GOP in a corner of being against the stimulus. And as the economic numbers get worse and more people lose their jobs, their stance looks more and more ridiculous. Now they have to either vote against the final bill and look like obstructionists or they vote for it and look like they caved. Either way, Obama wins. And he does so by using bi-partisanship as a weapon to marginalize his opponents.

Eugene Robinson: Um, if that was his aim, then why did he include $300 billion in tax cuts in his original plan?


Stone Ridge, Va.: Eugene, How are House Republicans even relevant at this point? The Senate's bill has the 60 votes needed for passage; if the House Democrats were to pass it as is (no need for Republican support) then Obama could have it signed and into action ASAP. Isn't the real hold-up here due to House Democrats wanting more money in the bill than what the Senate passed?

Eugene Robinson: Many House Democrats feel strongly about some of the items that got stripped out by the Senate, including $40 billion for state governments, much of it targeted at education. President Obama seems to feel strongly about some of these items, too, meaning the House-Senate conference will be interesting. Stay tuned.


Richmond, Va.: So what do you think is behind McCain's very harsh criticism of Obama's stimulus package? While no one expected McCain to roll over because of Obama's outreach, his criticisms are less a respectful opposition and more like a Molotov cocktail. Do you think that he might have gotten a lot of flak from his fellow Republicans (behind closed doors) because of Obama's very open hope that he might be an allay?

Eugene Robinson: Maybe he's just being mavericky,


Washington, D.C.: I understand the effort to create jobs. I am an Obama fan, but when is somebody going to literally speak to the amount of debt Americans face. Yes, folks are losing jobs but part of all this situation is tied to outstanding debt.

What would be extremely stimulative, and save U.S. households money is revising interest rates. Why can't we have a monetary (FED) program (not fiscal/approrpiated program), to address interest rate revisions?

Eugene Robinson: I'm not quite sure what you mean. The Fed has done just about everything it can, in terms of the interest rates it sets; they're as close to zero as they could be.


Silver Spring, Md.: Senate procedural question: I realize that 60 votes are needed to stop a filibuster in the Senate. But did Republicans have to filibuster? Could they have let the bill be voted on a couple of days ago (in which case it likely would have passed 58-41, or so). Or does ALL legislation in the Senate need at least 60 votes to be passed?

Eugene Robinson: To actually pass a piece of legislation in the Senate, only 51 votes are needed. But to take some necessary procedural steps -- like closing off debate -- 60 votes are required. So, as a practical matter, legislation can be blocked unless there are 60 votes to push it through.


Wokingham, U.K.: I fear protectionist forces on both sides of the Atlantic -- but has the danger of a trade conflict, based on buy-American policies as part of the stimulus, faded for a while?

Eugene Robinson: I don't think governments of any of the industrialized nations are interested in waging a protectionist trade war.


Arlington, Va.: It strikes me as odd that we teach our children the values of saving money and living within our means, yet our government doesn't operate that way. If (when) the stimulus passes I hope it works and we're able to dig out of this mess, but spending is an addiction. Do you really think the federal government will cut funding to programs back to their current levels, or do you think this will just remain a new budget line?

Eugene Robinson: Obama has said that when the economy is finally resuscitated, there's going to have to be a reckoning. Realistically, I think federal deficits are going to be so huge the next couple of years that it's not realistic to talk about a balanced budget in Obama's (first) term. There's also the matter of entitlements, which are going to eat us all. Not going to be easy.


Bowie, Md.: Eugene, I can't find the answer to this using Google keywords:

Is Barak Obama the first black head of state ever of ANY caucasian-majority country?

Eugene Robinson: I can't think of any others.


Burke, Va.: In regards to opening up funds from the stimulus to foreign goods and services; this package would not exist if we didn't have a dire emergency outside of our normal commerce. Why can foreign governments understand that, and let us get our people working first, so we can buy their good later?

Eugene Robinson: Foreign governments are facing the same problems we face. That's what makes it difficult. As tempting as it is to take an absolute Americans-only stance on any stimulus funds, the fact is that it's hard to separate our interconnected economies at a time when everybody's sinking.


Selma, Ala. -- black head of state: I don't usually take part in these posts but Mr. Obama can be considered just as white as he is black. I hoped with his election we wouldn't need to say that a black is leading whites, or as the earlier writer said, the head of a caucasian-majority country.

I thought this country was a mixture of black, white, Hispanic and Latinos, and others.

Eugene Robinson: The president is of course biracial. He self-identifies as African American, and explains why in his books.


Detroit, Mich.: 10,000 jobs at GM. White collar workers (not UAW) taking a 10 percent hit. How about Congress pegs its pay to its approval ratings until this thing is over?

Eugene Robinson: Approval ratings? Soon, members of Congress would be paying US for their service.


Baltimore, Md.: Re 60 votes to close off debate: What irks me, as someone 61 years old, is that the filibuster didn't used to be automatic. If you didn't want to close off debate, you had to stand on the floor of the Senate and read from the phone book for 20 plus hours, as Strom Thurmond did on a few occasions. Now a filibuster is treated like a "gimme" put in golf. Thank god Lyndon Johnson didn't have to worry about that, or the Civil Rights Act would never have passed.

Eugene Robinson: I agree. If senators want to filibuster something, they should roll in the cots and stay up all night. It should take some real effort.


Raised Lutheran: What do you think of the Pope reinstating that ultra-right excommunicated priest who's a Holocaust denier (among other loony conspiracy theories he believes in)?

And what about the plan for the Catholic Church to start selling indulgences again? Non-Catholics from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King must be spinning in their graves.

Eugene Robinson: I don't know what the Pope hoped to accomplish. What he managed to do was create unneeded controversy and make people wonder what he's driving at.


Seattle, Wash.: People waited up to 12 hours for the chance to ask Obama a single question and Michael Fletcher, a reporter, asks him about A-Rod. While I can appreciate feeling the president out on the subject, that's more a question for an interview rather than a press conference about dire economic straits. Do you think Fletcher should have asked the question, especially considering that people at the non-screened townhall waited for so long?

Eugene Robinson: It was a legit question. A news conference with the White House press corps is different from a town-hall. By the time Mike got called on, the president had already spoken exhaustively about the economy and foreign policy. Sometimes it's good to toss in a different subject and see what happens.


Re: Bipartisanship: Listening to the talk about 'biparisanship', I've never got a sense of the operational definition. It's like equality. Equality can be on the front-end or the back-end. Bipartisanship on the front end means that Republicans can talk with the president, get input (and tax cuts) into the stimulus, etc. However, the way that bipartisanship seems to be have been defined is on the back-end: whether or not both parties vote for it. So my question is: Does this definition of 'bipartisanship' still stand now that New Englund Republicans and Southern Democrats no longer exist as they did when dinosaurs roamed the Earth?

Eugene Robinson: Interesting analysis. The fact is that the House is pretty thoroughly polarized between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, and the Senate is pretty much there as well. The traditional idea of bipartisanship might now be likely not to lead to genuine compromise, but to a no-man's-land of stasis.


Bloomington, Ind.: Hello Eugene, According the the Dept. of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis most recent report, the G.D.P for the 2008 increased 1.3 percent over 2007. We're not in a depression clearly, merely a slow down. If everyone would take a deep breath and calm down, in a few months things will smooth out and the general sense will improve. Let's not get too hyper about what still is the nasty end of the last 8 year reign of Bush and company. It will get better.

Eugene Robinson: I'm a congenital optimist, so I wish I could agree. But I'm convinced that this collapse of the credit market is really dangerous; that if you look at the past six months you see the economy falling off a cliff; and that if left to its own devices, the financial system would de-leverage itself to near-death, taking the rest of the economy with it. I think this is bad and won't fix itself.

My time is up for today, folks. Thanks for tuning in, and see you again next week.


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