Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 10 p.m. ET

Analysis: President Obama Addresses Congress

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, February 24, 2009; 10:00 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Wednesday, April 29 at 9 p.m. ET to take your questions and offer his analysis of President Obama's address to the nation at the conclusion of his first 100 days in office.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Hello from The Washington Post newsroom, where a cast of dozens has been watching the president's news conference for the last hour. I hope many of you have had a chance to read the package of wonderful pieces on Obama's First Hundred Days from today's Post. I particularly recommend Scott Wilson's piece, to which I hope we can link here.


Please share you comments or ask your questions. I'll be here for an hour or so responding as well as I can.

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Fairfax, Va.: I realize this question looks forward rather than back, but I noticed in yesterday's paper that Obama's tax plans (extend some Bush cuts, another AMT patch, keep estate tax at current rate) would increase annual budget deficits by more than $2T over the next decade. If I'm reading that correctly, those would cost the government $2T each year?

If the deficit is projected to approach $1.9T this year, does that mean that without those continuations/patches, there wouldn't be a deficit? Or am I comparing apples and oranges?

Robert G. Kaiser: No you've been confused by the weird terminology that prevails in this area. The reference you cite is to $2 trillion cumulatively, over ten years.

But rather then enter the world of statistics, let me say that I think we'll be hearing a great deal about taxes in the next couple of years in ways that may surprise some people. Obama has asked Paul Volcker to head a committee to make suggestions for reforming the tax code. I'm betting that Volcker comes up with some sweeping ideas. We have a terrible tax code, complicated and often stupid and far from efficient. And we have to raise more money for the government or leave our descendants godawful debts that would just be totally dishonorable. So you heard it first here (unless of course it proves completely wrong!): Tax changes are coming, and they will raise more revenue than the current system can raise.

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washingtonpost.com:
Bruised by Stimulus Battle, Obama Changed His Approach to Washington (The Washington Post, April 29, 2009)

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's the Scott Wilson piece on the first 100 days. Read it!

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Washington, D.C.: Did you think it was fair for Minnesota Republican Michelle Bachmann to point out the last time we had swine flu, it was also under a Democratic president? Where does she get this stuff?

Robert G. Kaiser: I had missed this, so just took a second to look it up. It's true; Rep. Bachman (correct spelling) said in an interview that it was curious to note that "swine flu" shows up when there's a Democrat in the White House. Last time, she claimed, it was under Jimmy CArter.

Apparently, however, last time it was under Carter's predecessor, Gerry Ford. Oh well.

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Endicott, N.Y.: Since waterboarding has been on the books for questioning procedures since the Korean conflict, how come the last administration is now being singled out as the sole perpetrator of its origin??

Robert G. Kaiser: I apologize for picking on you, but what are you talking about? "On the books for questioning procedures..."? What does that mean?

The United States trained pilots to prepare them to face waterboarding by the North Koreans during the Korean War--seen then as a form of torture our pilots should be prepared for. Is that the history you have in mind?

There is no history of the U.S. using waterboarding before the last administration that I know of.

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Helena, Mont.: What impresses me is that Obama just exudes confidence and competence. When he can explain issues to us and give us confidence that our problems are not insurmountable, then I think that gives us confidence so the problems will not become insurmountable. I have a great faith that Americans can overcome obstacles as long as we have confidence that our leaders are there with us.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you are on to something important. Obama's crisp delivery and his obvious mastery of the subject matter do leave people feeling good about him. Andrew Kohut, the distinguished pollster who runs the Pew Research Center, has noted that no president since Reagan has been liked the way voters like Obama. This gives him a huge advantage over his all-but-invisible Republican opponents. It is literally no contest at the moment.

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Washington. D.C.: The best part of this being Day 100?

We won't have to hear about The First 100 Days again.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a fair comment. The overkill has been pretty gruesome. I liked David Axelrod's comment that 100 days was "a Hallmark holiday." Younger people may not realize that Mother's and Father's Days, for example, were barely noted, or totally ignored, half a century ago, but they were pumped up by the greeting card industry, then by retailers of all kinds, who have also turned Halloween, Easter and so on into gift-giving opportunities. It was not ever thus!

That said, it strikes me that I have never lived through a more momentous first hundred days, and I've been living through them with some degree of consciousness since Eisenhower's in 1953, when I was 10 and a Post paperboy on Wilson Lane in Bethesda. Not, as many commentators have observed, because historical achievements occurred, but because history itself was turned in a fundamentally new direction.

It's really hard to appreciate the historical events we live through as they happen. But this really has been big. If you go back to the election and make it 180 days or so, it has really been something to behold. We have seen, I think, the decimation of the Republican Party, the burial of centuries of racial history in America, the abrupt swing of the political pendulum from right to left, the inauguration of a whole new era of government involvement in the national economy--I could go on and on. This is stuff our grandchildren will read about--if they read any history, far from a sure thing.

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St. Paul: Robert, I felt that Pres. Obama was a little evasive when asked about whether the past administration was guilty of torture. It was sort of a "connect the dots" answer, but I'm curious why he was so careful about it. What did you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: I agree with you. I think he is trying very hard not to have a direct break with George W. Bush. I suspect we'll learn at some point that the two men have been talking occasionally on the telephone. I think Obama may see it as part of his "bipartisanship" that he can maintain good relations with his predecessor. Did you notice how he went out of his way to compliment the preparations for a pandemic made under the last adminisration? He even mentioned President Bush.

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Washington, D.C.: Your terrific new book on lobbying and money in politics argues that a money culture in Washington is now deeply entrenched in Washington. I read it as as kind of warning to Obama that his desire to do things in new ways won't be easily fulfilled. After these first 100 days, what do you think -- can Obama change that culture, and change American politics?

Robert G. Kaiser: How can I resist this question? Thank you. I'm glad you liked "So Damn Much Money."

Obama referred to this problem tonight, when he said he had been taken aback by how entrenched political/partisan gamesmanship is in Washington. He talked about how hard it was to make Washington change. We'll hear that again from him, I'd bet.

If Obama can change this culture, which incidentally he understands very well, he'll do it slowly and gradually, over eight years. If he only lasts four, that's a pretty certain sign that the culture got him, not the other way around.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Given the multiple items on Obama's plate, (economy, war, education, etc., etc.), how do you think he will ultimately prioritize them? The economy and the wars are first, but then what?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think the White House is actually trying to avoid prioritizing. It seems determined to press ahead, as Obama said again tonight, "on all fronts." I also think he believes health care reform is a key to political success in the first two years, and, if passed, would create an environment in which actually gaining more Senate seats in 2010 might be realistic. Education is a big part of the stimulus package, and he'll get credit for that for sure. The wars are not his to control; they are where things can go seriously wrong. It seems to me that Obama supporters should be most nervous about setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other unknowable, of course, is whether we are really going to get an economic recovery, and avoid more financial trouble.

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Avon, Conn.: Robert, it seems the President wants it both ways on torture. He goes down to the CIA and says, 'the best days are ahead' and then leaves the door open for Bush admin. prosecutions.

Didn't he consider the fact that new recruits might steer away from difficult assignments because of the fear that they might be prosecuted next time if something goes wrong?

Robert G. Kaiser: Don't understand the question, I'm sorry. Do you have the impression that CIA recruits get to choose their assignments? Not likely.

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Cannon Falls, Minn.: Great answer by Obama on the torture question.

Can I just tell you how proud I am of America as I watched this guy speak...

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.

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Richmond: It appears that the main Republican angle of attack is the same as it was during the election: "Obama is Osama."

Robert G. Kaiser: Huh? Who said this during the campaign? Who said it today?

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Jim in STL: I was really impressed by Obama writing down the various points of the question about being humbled, etc. But the way he answered them was just overwhelming; he really took the time to reflect and I think we got a great insight into him as a human being and grappling with all the problems as being president.

What was your take?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, I take your point, but I also noted that on two of the four, he actually wouldn't respond. Now, can I remember them? Surprised, troubled, enchanted, humbled--right? He changed "troubled" to "sobered," and "enchanted" to "impressed." This is hedging, no?

I thought it was good television, but it didn't impress me as much as it did you.

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Princeton, N.J.: I'm a 70 year old retired mathematician. I find as I get older I move further and further to the left and get crankier and crankier. I see fewer and fewer redeeming features about Republicans and have less and less patience with the triangulating Democrats.

To me the difference between Bush and Obama is like the difference Black Bart and Batman, but it drives me nuts that Obama will not admit that, for example, Medicare for all can get better health care to everyone and because of the vast waste of private insurance (high overhead, high drug prices, etc.) can do it for no more than we are now paying, that he will not look back to 1946 - 1973 and see that high marginal tax rates brought down the debt, raised median wages, and held the greedy rich in check, that he will not look at Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires, and rushes in after fools, and so on.

Oh well, most of this stuff will be my kids' problems. I think I'll take a nap before I go to bed.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. At your age I think you're entitled to be cranky, as long as you're also entertaining. And you are.

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Adams Morgan, D.C.: Everybody's grading Obama's first one hundred days. What about the news media's? What grade would you give your colleagues for their coverage of this new presidency?

Robert G. Kaiser: First, an old hobby horse of mine: "the news media" is an inchoate mass of disparate elements, and an institution to which I never applied for membership, and to which I have minimal loyalty. Its quality has been declining for a long time. Len Downie and I published a book about this seven years ago, "The News About the News." The news wasn't good then, and it has gotten a lot worse, sadly.

We still have, mercifully, a handful of great news organizations sponsoring and fostering first-rate journalism, but the number of them is shrinking every year. In my insufficiently-humble opinion, the cable news networks do a poor job, and they seem to get weaker as the years pass.

But even serious journals have had trouble coping with Obama, who seems to be operating on a different plane than they are. Remember all the commentary about the first 40 or so days, how Obama was over his head and doing poorly? I particularly noted a cover story in the Economist with the headline "Learning the Hard Way," a condescending analysis that suggested Obama was ill prepared for the presidency, and off to a weak start. I haven't yet read the Economist of last week, perhaps its tune changed, but that piece already looks silly in my view.

Very few reporters offer historical context, or see a big picture. Even fewer of the talking heads on the cable networks can do so. Ideological commentary has become commonplace--it's amazing to write those words for a journalist of my generation, but there they are. And true too, I'm afraid.

My grade, were I believer in grades, would be pretty low.

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Are press conferences supposed to be like this?: I only started paying close attention to politics since 2000, e.g. staying home to watch prime time press conferences and the like. Is Obama unusually smart for a President, or are most Presidents in the same intellectual ball park? My only reference point is Bush, and the former President does not look good in comparison, at least intellectually.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. I'm guessing you're on the young side. Whatever your age, welcome to the political world. It is interesting. I wish I knew why so many Americans avoid it.

I think it is fair to say that Obama is already in a very small class of the very best presidential communicators in the 60 years that presidents have been appearing on television. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were the other strong ones; Nixon was OK until he got into Watergate trouble; Ford, Carter, Eisenhower and both Bushes were weak. But George W. Bush was the weakest by far, in my opinion. On the other hand, he had some of the very best speechwriters, and at key moments like the days after 9/11, Bush was very good.

So we are in the presence of something historic. The country and the world may be in desperate straits, but Obama is going to give us quite a show, I think. On that note I will say thanks and good night.

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