Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 17, 2009 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Feb. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Today's column: President of Everything


Eugene Robinson: Greetings, all. The topic du jour, depressingly, seems to be the economy. President Obama is in Denver to sign the stimulus bill. Wall Street is having a very bad day. The automakers are still scrambling to get their act together. We're waiting to hear what the White House intends to do about the mortgage crisis. The state of California is flat broke. And, almost incidentally, the Texas-based Stanford financial group is being accused by the SEC of an $8 billion fraud. Let's keep digging; there must be a pony in here somewhere...


Venice, Calif.: Barak Obama knew he had to be President of Everything before he became president. That was why he gave such a sober speech when he won in Chicago and again at his Inauguration. Let's not pretend he took on more than he bargained for. We all knew our country was in a mess and this presidency would be a trial by fire, but nevertheless Obama took it on. This is why we voted for him. We needed him to change this mess. He accepted all this with his eyes open and I admire him all the more for it.

washingtonpost.com: President of Everything

Eugene Robinson: By the time Inauguration Day rolled around, I think President Obama had a pretty good idea of the challenge he was taking on. I do think the crisis becomes more complicated day by day. But he knew the job was dangerous when he took it.


East Lansing, Mich.: Do you really believe we may have been better off with John McCain and his Republican colleagues in charge? I seriously doubt that things would have been improved.

Eugene Robinson: What on earth makes you think that? Given what we've seen from the Republican Party over the last month, I think you have to conclude that things would be much worse.


Port Republic, Md.: Mr. Robinson - I normally do not agree with you on most things, but I thought your piece this morning was good one and raised a thought in my mind. Given all that the Obama administration has already taken on and will be forced to take on the coming weeks and months, why not let GM and Chrysler go into bankruptcy?

I know the argument goes that bankruptcy would not work for the automakers because people will be reluctant to buy cars from a manufacturing in bankruptcy. To date, I have seen no empirical evidence to back this assertion up, just self-serving fear mongering from the Detroit CEOs. I don't see this as a liberal/conservative issues, but one where we have our federal govt. becoming more and more involved with the private sector and laying out more and more money by the day. Why don't we use the system we have set up, that being the bankruptcy courts, for exactly this situation? It seems that having bankruptcy judge who specializes in exactly this type thing oversee the process makes a heck of a lot more sense than tying up more government resources, both monetary and time and personnel wise. Your thoughts please.

Eugene Robinson: I don't anyone can or should rule out bankruptcy, and indeed the Obama administration has not ruled it out. The administration has to be concerned about the psychological impact that the bankruptcy of an iconic company like GM would have on an already reeling economy. They also have to be worried about the loss of jobs and the ripple effect throughout the supply chain. That said, we may be splitting hairs over sematics. A true restructuring of GM and Chrysler may be pretty similar to a carefully managed bankruptcy.


Alpine, Tex.: Well, someone has to lead, the Senate surely can't. On "Morning Joe," the relevancy of the Senate was discussed and no panelist thought it was functional at this time. Your opinion?

Eugene Robinson: The president has to lead, and that's what Obama is doing. That's what we pay him to do.


Bow, N.H.: Okay, I get that most Republicans are against the stimulus bill, and I even get at least part of why -- fear of a primary challenge from the right. But what are they FOR? If nothing else, didn't Gingrich teach them that you have to be for something, even if is vapid, meaningless words in a "contract" that never gets enacted into law?

Eugene Robinson: That whole "What are we for?" thing is going to be a problem for the Republicans until they work it out. I don't think that just saying "no" is going to be seen as a constructive contribution.


Gaithersburg, Md.: How do you rate the idea of a significant direct payment to each taxpayer ($100,000) to stimulate the economy?

Eugene Robinson: That would cost, what, something north of $10 trillion? I don't think it's possible to run the presses at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that fast.


Richmond, Va.: "Dodd added a measure that makes it easier for firms that chafe at Washington-imposed restrictions -- on executive compensation, for example -- to pull out of TARP. The details are complicated, but what's important is that banks and other financial institutions that are relatively healthy may well begin to leave the program. The impression would be that the firms remaining in the program are relatively sick -- and people tend to be uncomfortable keeping their money in banks that can be described as relatively sick.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has fought against transparency in the bailout program that would let everyone see which banks have pneumonia and which merely have a cold. My belief is that the pneumonia-vs.-cold distinction was bound to become evident, with or without the Dodd amendment. In any event, if one of our big banks were seen to be in danger of failing -- becoming, in effect, a dead bank walking -- the Obama administration would have few choices other than to nationalize it. "

This goes to the heart of why there still is no confidence in the banking system or the bailouts as executed so far. No private person or company is going to put money into the banks as long as the government policy is to hide the extent of the banks losses to buy time. I remember being highly put off by Paulson invoking "patriotism" as a reason for the good banks to help hide the losses of the bad banks by participating in the program with them.

Eugene Robinson: I agree. It seems to me that as long as there's no transparency, investors have to be wary of all the banks. I can understand why no administration would want to deal with the failure of one of the big banks. But if one or more of them is really shaky, wouldn't it be better to conduct an orderly unwinding process (as orderly as possible) and remove the shadow from other banks that can return to health on their own?


Atlanta: Do Republican governors count for anything in the discussion of the stimulus package? I see where Republican senators are taking a stand. Why don't the senators demand the governors of their own states to take a stand and decline the stimulus money? And, have people started to notice that Republicans don't all move in lock step (except when Rush Limbaugh is involved)?

Eugene Robinson: I hope people noticed that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist stood with Obama the other day and supported the stimulus. And that Gov. Schwarzenegger of California is also a supporter, along with several other GOP governors. They are out there in the real world.


Asbury Park, N.J.: Magic Johnson, the former college and professional basketball star has said that President Obama is performing as a point guard would in basketball: Anticipating events and movements before they take place and demonstrating the capacity to pass the ball to others; not where they are, but to the place on the court where they will be.

Do you like this comparison? And how in "Gene Robinson speak" would you translate this?

Eugene Robinson: I'd say that as a basketball player, President Obama isn't in Magic Johnson's league. And that as a political analyst, Magic isn't in Obama's league.


Detroit/DC: As a Detroiter, I agree it's important to have a domestic auto industry. But the CEO's have been lacking the "vision" necessary for the survival of the industry for some time. As they cut wages to $14-17 an hour, what auto worker can afford a $40K Chevy Volt? Henry Ford's vision made cars affordable ($500 Model T)...the failure to anticipate the oil crisis (even though they went through it once already), the Green revolution, design changes every year, and cars working people can't afford doomed the industry for this generation. With reform...we may have one or two manufacturers survive.

Maybe once capital gets flowing an ingenious entreprenuer will create a car in the vision of Honda Cub...simple, easy to work on, and one model for ten years. It worked for Honda...

Eugene Robinson: Somewhere, there must be a man or woman who can become the Steve Jobs of automobiles. Give us an iCar. It has to be possible.


London: There were some polls out today that show that Congress's approval ratings has gone up, but it was the Democrats that were pulling up the numbers. Approval ratings for the Republicans went down. Also, approval ratings for Pelosi and Reid went up and the approval ratings for Boehner and McConnell went down. Probable reason: Democrats were seen as the party of action and Republicans where seen as the party of inaction.

Eugene Robinson: Agreed. Inaction just can't be a winning strategy -- not at a time when the one thing everybody agrees on is that we need some kind of action.


Boston: Eugene, could you tell John McCain that he lost the election? He doesn't seem to know.

Eugene Robinson: He knows. It just doesn't seem to put him in a very good mood.


Winchester, Va.: The economy, as it has been discussed in the past fifteen years has been largely focused on stocks, bonds, mutual funds and the like. Little attention has been paid to the actual effects of the economy as it applies to average citizen.

I've been aware for several years of a backdoor entrance into the world of undocumented unemployment: college. Those of us who came of age at the outset of the first Bush presidency have often worked only seasonally to cover personal expenses, or to try to get ahead of student loans. However, following our graduation, many of us have found that employment of any value seems beyond reach. As an English major, I have worked as an intern for a DC based political consultant group at $7.00/hour, which I left to work as a Landscape Foreman at $32,000/year. This amount kept me from late payments on my rent, but also prevented me from saving any. Lately, I've been working as a waiter. Not unemployed, certainly underemployed. My generation has often been portrayed as Peter Pan-like, and having unrealistic expectations of salary. Should it be unrealistic to expect to be able to budget responsibly AND save money? My parents were able to do so working as waiters when they were younger than me. This represents a fundamental change in the economy. What to do now? Furthermore, other than education for the sake of education, what is the economic value of college (which seems largely to be perpetuating a constant state of indebtedness)?

Eugene Robinson: I don't really have an answer, but you describe your situation eloquently and I think you speak for a lot of people. I would add that the whole system drives young people away from professions like teaching and toward law school or the financial industry, where they have some hope of making enough money to pay back all those loans.


New York: What do you think of W's historical ranking among U.S. presidents. Thirty-six is pretty darn low, considering the only ones rated worse than him were slavery-era presidents, and one of them was only president for a month. Ouch.

Eugene Robinson: Anyone who reads my column knows what I thought of George W. Bush. Still, I think his ranking in that CSPAN survey reflects, shall we say, the freshness of the insult. Harry Truman probably would have been ranked pretty low when he left office, but now he's number 5. I'm quite confident that when all is said and done, Bush will rank in the bottom quartile. He'll climb a few spots from 36, though.


Arlington, Va.: Even though the $50 million earmarked toward the NEA is (was) a drop in the bucket compared to the overall bill, it was a HUGE lighting rod for the conservatives. Shouldn't Obama have come out against that piece of funding, which one can hardly argue provides stimulus, and thus gain the upperhand on this matter?

Eugene Robinson: That wouldn't have helped, in my view. If you look at how Obama handled this tactically, I think the most questionable move was to include $300 billion of tax cuts in his original package. My advice would have been to start with no tax cuts and then, grudgingly, concede them to the Republicans in the interest of bipartisanship.


New York, NY: I agree that the loss of the auto industry is a troubling thing, but continuing to throw good money after bad is not sensible. If Chrysler is the weakest link and it's parent the three headed equity firm "Cereberus" is unwilling to put more money into this pit why should the American tax payer. Either sell it off again or let it go through bankruptcy court. But the current plan just rewards the private equity group that lead them down this path.

Eugene Robinson: I agree that it's hard to see what Chrysler's future might be. Maybe there's a way that "restructuring" doesn't mean "dismemberment," but it's not obvious to me.


Filibuster question: Gene

Thanks for the time today. Simple question, When filibustering an issue, senators used to have to really filibuster, get on the floor and talk, read the paper whatever, really take up time. Why not so now? Lazy senators, if they want to filibuster then take the time to do it, makes filibuster actually mean something.

Thanks and love your work for The Post.

Eugene Robinson: I agree that under current rules, senators make it too easy on themselves. If you care enough to block legislation that a majority wants to pass, you should be willing to stay up late to do so.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. What are the ground rules for the roundtable on "Meet the Press"? For example, if someone argues that Obama is bad because the sky is purple, are you allowed to say, no, the sky is actually blue? In a related question, how are your columns fact-checked? It just seems like commentators/pundits are held to an incredibly low standard for accuracy.

Eugene Robinson: We are allowed to state the true color of the sky. And here at The Washington Post, our columns are read by the best copy editors I've ever known. They save us all from embarrassment regularly.

That's all the time I have for today, folks. Thanks for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week.


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