White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, March 11, 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 was online Wednesday, March 11 at 1 p.m. ET to answer your questions about the White House and his latest columns.

The transcript follows.

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! Before you read on, go check out my post from earlier today: Is Obama Overloaded? Let's Chat. I'm particularly interested in what you think of the intentions of the people who are worrying so much about Obama doing too many things at once.

But of course there's lots more to talk about. Here's a

whole list

of other things we could discuss.


Fort Smith, Ark.: Do those who think the President has too many balls in the air expect the health care innovators, the education reformers and the energy experts to all sit idle, twiddling their thumbs, and wait until the economy crisis is resolved before getting a Presidential red light to begin solving national problems in their own fields of expertise?

Seems to me that would be a waste of the enormous talent surrounding him.

I believe President Obama is displaying something we haven't seen much in the past 8 years -- leadership.

Dan Froomkin: I think some of them may think the reformers should keep plugging along, but just not distract the president from more important things.

Incidentally, here are a few more cautions -- just from today's Post.

Former Intel executive

Andrew S. Grove

writes in an op-ed that Obama needs to take decisive action to stabiize financial system first. "Until the administration does this, we should not embark on attempting to fix another major part of the economy. Our health-care system may well be ripe for a major overhaul, as are our energy and environmental policies. Widespread recognition that all of these reforms are overdue contributed to Barack Obama's victory in November. But if the chaos that resulted from initiating such an overhaul were piled on top of the unresolved status of the financial system, society and government would become exhausted. Instead, the administration must adopt a discipline; not initiating a second wave of chaos before we have a chance to rein in the first."

Business columnist

Steven Pearlstein

is outraged that the White House has a liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities: "Let's get this straight: We're up to our necks in the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s, the government is putting trillions of dollars of borrowed money on the line to rescue the financial system and stimulate the economy, tens of trillions of dollars in paper wealth has vaporized, millions of Americans are losing their homes and their jobs, nearly all the top jobs at the Treasury Department are vacant, yet somehow the White House has found the time and the money to hire a liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities!"

Oh, and for good measure, And Karl Rove (via


) says on Fox News: "They have got too much on their plate. They are not focused on the important things. They have got a decision-making structure that doesn't appear to stay focused on the big things. And they have failed to put people in place in critical agencies, particularly the Treasury Department. ... You know, it's 50 days, so you can't expect them to get everything right and get everything done. But, on the other hand, when it comes to the economy, they are off to, I think, a bad start."


Washington, D.C.: Dan,

I'm sick of the "He's doing too much too soon" crowd! They make it sound as though the president is the only one working in the executive branch... didn't they learn from the last administration that there's also a vice president?

Seriously, part of this problem is the media's fault: you can't turn on the television or open a paper or magazine without being hit with "The First 100 Days" nonsense. If that's the standard Obama and all presidents have to play to, then I can't see how he could do nothing but try to cram in everything he can during this "honeymoon".

At the end of the day, every one of these "he's doing too much"ers would be the same crowd out in the streets at the end of the first 100 days saying he wasn't doing anything if they had their way today and he only concentrated on the economy!

Dan Froomkin: Well.... I'm not sure you're going to get a lot of takers on your theory that Biden can take much of a load off Obama's shoulders. I just don't get the feeling it's working out that way.

On the 100 days obsession -- did you experience the 50-days hysteria yesterday? I simply could not take it seriously. See my "

50 Days in 50 Seconds

item today.


Dan Froomkin: Oh, and please check out my post on Different Approaches to Judging Obama. It's based on some excellent comments in my White House Watchers discussion group -- and I'd like to keep that discussion going.


Washington, D.C.: I have to give Rove credit where it's due: he's right about the situation at Treasury, where the lack of deputies is a real handicap at at a time when Geithner needs to be at the top of his game. Getting all the slots filled should be a top priority, and it's a little scary that it's not.

Dan Froomkin: Rove certainly has a good eye for weakness. And the Treasury situation is indeed a problem.

Incidentally, here is New York Times opinion columnist

Thomas L. Friedman

today: "Our country has congestive heart failure. Our heart, our banking system that pumps blood to our industrial muscles, is clogged and functioning far below capacity. Nothing else remotely compares in importance to the urgent need to heal our banks.

"Yet I read that we're actually holding up dozens of key appointments at the Treasury Department because we are worried whether someone paid Social Security taxes on a nanny hired 20 years ago at $5 an hour. That's insane. It's as if our financial house is burning down but we won't let the Fire Department open the hydrant until it assures us that there isn't too much chlorine in the water. Hello?"

Now keep in mind that if Obama hires someone with a nanny problem, what will Rove be talking about tomorrow night on Fox?


Vienna, VA: I understand the Republicans going after Barack Obama for overreaching, because he is trying to bring major changes to a number of sectors of the country, and he is trying to change things in ways that Republicans will not like. They have a different philosophy, I get that.

Why are journalists so quick to pick up this talking point? This is what I don't get. Health care is so intertwined in our economy, I feel it is pretty understandable that you would fix both.

What are your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Here's one possibility: I think nearly the entire Washington political and media establishment finds itself on the defensive, to one degree or another. See, for instance, Obama vs. the Washington Establishment.


Jacksonville, Fla. : Heck, even the guy at the McDonald's drive-up window can handle putting together a couple of orders at once, why can't the GOP?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think "you want health care with that financial rescue plan" is quite the same as "you want fries with your burger" -- but I get your point.


Toronto, Canada: It is hard to remember your purpose was to drain the swamp when you are up to your neck in alligators." I think this is the better analogy than the house on fire. President Obama is fighting the alligators, but he is not ignoring the longer term purpose of draining the swamp. It is only amazing that he has not been distracted by the immediate crises and is tackling what is really the larger, long-term project of draining the swamp (health care; education; energy).

Dan Froomkin: Hey, let's start an analogy war!

Reporters asked about the house-on-fire analogy at Monday's

press briefing

, and this is how Press Secretary Robert Gibbs replied: "I think that unless we take all of these steps -- your analogy about the house is on fire. Which room are you going to put out first? Or are you going to call the fire department and ask them to put all of it out? Or are you going to say, you know what, we love the living room; start over there. (Laughter.) And if you can, get quickly to the kitchen, and next to the den."

By contrast, here's

Jonah Goldberg

in an LA Times op-ed yesterday: "Imagine a child falls down a well. Now imagine I offer to lend the parents my ladder to save her, but only if they promise to paint my house. Would you applaud me for not letting a crisis go to waste? Or would you think I'm a jerk?"


Morristown, N.J.: Dan, what is your opinion on the many comments you get in your daily column from apparent GOPers accusing you of being an Obama schill? I've always thought you do a very balanced job of reporting, and always have backed up what you write with sources and links. Do these people ever get under your skin?

On the Obama question, it seems to me that doing things one at a time is more a recipe for disaster than doing more than one. We need to change many things in this country if we're going to get out of this hole, and Obama is being what a president should be: a leader.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I think journalists and particuarly columnists need to have very thick skins, and that stuff doesn't bother me too much. I only wish more of it was, well, a little more constructive, rather than ad homineim.


Washington, D.C.: It's not like these things on Obama's plate are unrelated. One of the largest causes of a mortgage default was a serious health condition which the victim was unable to afford due to our ridiculous health care system.

Dan Froomkin: And Liz Szabo and Julie Appleby had a particularly timely and poignant story in USA Today this morning: "As the economy fell, the percentage who reported having trouble paying for needed health care or medicines during the previous 12 months rose from 18% in January 2008 to 21% in December, according to the poll of 355,334 Americans. Each percentage point change in the full survey represents about 2.2 million people, says Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist for well-being and workplace management."


Minnesota: Here's my concern...Obama is not overreaching so much as taking advantage of the financial crisis in order to implement social programs with an overwhelming liberal bent. He and his administration are eager to not let this crisis go to waste. So why kill the golden goose?

Dan Froomkin: Wait, so you're saying he's intentionally extending the crisis to take advantage of it? That strikes me as unlikely.


Kansas City: I think O is rocking, I'm glad he's doing so much at once, his ability to multitask is part of why I voted for him over McCain.

My question for you-what has most SURPRISED you about the last 50 days?

Keep up the GREAT work!

Dan Froomkin: Oh, a lot has surprised me. The depth of the economic troubles, for instance. But as for Obama himself, I guess two of things that surprise me the most are:

1) His unflappability. He doesn't seem the least bit overwhelmed by all this.

2) His affability. He seems sincerely able not to take offense at people who disagree with him and even stymie him.

As an eminently flappable grump, I just don't get this kind of behavior.


Yelm, Wash.: Perhaps what we are seeing is a dying GOP, chaotically expending the last of it's influence. Not surprisingly this follows along purely reflexive lines. Unable to articulate any sort of coherent Rx for the troubles besetting the nation, they have simply loosed the dogs of obfuscation and disinformation.

Dan Froomkin: That's not entirely out of the question.

Some of the positions taken by the Republican leadership right now -- and I distinguish them from Republican (or formerly Republican) voters -- seem staggeringly misinformed. See, for instance,

John M. Berry

who wrote in his Bloomberg opinion column last week: "Republicans are headed for a political disaster of their own making. As bad news about the economy gets ever worse, the party of growth, markets and business is opposing every effort by President Barack Obama to shorten the recession and put people back to work...

"[A]ll that's needed for a spectacular Republican failure is for a solid recovery to start before the mid-term elections in November 2010 -- a highly likely prospect.

"By then, after two years of opposition to Obama's efforts to make the lives of most Americans better, it shouldn't be hard to convince voters that Republicans are an uncaring lot."

And here's

Paul Krugman

on House Minority Leader John Boehner's "completely insane" idea of economics.


Anonymous: Is there really an effort, organized or not, to try and boost Bush's image? If so, aren't there even more people who resent the attempt to sugarcoat what is arguably one of the worst presidential administrations in our nation's history?

Dan Froomkin: Do you doubt it? Mike Allen's story in Politico today certainly had the ring of truth to it.

And keep in mind: Cable TV was made for these people. The two sides of an argument don't have to be comparable, they just need to be represented by one person on each side. Heck, Bush dead-enders are probably hugely in demand.


Minneapolis: I surely hope and pray they are not. But when you hear the same phrase "never let a good crisis go to waste" and Treasury is slow to announce details of bailout plans, it makes a person wonder. But no, I don't truly believe they are intentionally prolonging this, but I do think they are "using" this crisis to further their agenda.

Dan Froomkin: And that is certainly a supportable argument -- they'll admit that themselves. And it's a legitimately trouble view, if you think what they're doing is going to make things worse rather than better.


Fremont, Calif.: I think Minnesota is doing what many people do; ascribe to others their own motives. There's no doubt the previous administration saw the turmoil engendered by the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity to push through all kinds of changes, changes that would not have been acceptable under normal circumstances. Now they see another emergency situation and fully expect others to do as they would.

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's an interesting point. I guess the question in both cases is: Did the president inappropriately spread and exploit fear?

To decide that, you need to decide how scary each situation really is.

I for one still wish Bush had said: Don't let the terrorists scare you. But then, like you say, he might not have been able to achieve his goals.


Lovingston, Va.: This is similar to the debate between holistic approach to health and wellness or do we just treat the symptoms. Many doctors see only a part of the patient. Your stomach hurts? Take this. But maybe that stomach ache is because you haven't be eating or exercising or maybe you are worried and it affects your stomach. It takes time to look at the entirety of it all. Fifty days is a very short time. I am still amazed at how much damage GW did in only 8 short years. Maybe all these 50 day people are very young with very short memories.

Dan Froomkin: I've often said (see Obama as the Anti-Bush and Exorcising Bush's Ghost) that I think Obama sees his presidency as, at heart, all about fixing the mistakes of the Bush years and addressing the issues he overlooked.

And yeah, you wouldn't try to do that one at a time.


Prescott, Ariz.: So did Obama promise to get rid of earmarks or not, 'cuz that is what a lot of reporters and pundits keep claiming? I could have sworn that was McCain's fetish, and we said "thanks, but no thanks".

Dan Froomkin: He did not. But the media has certainly left that impression, hasn't it?

My favorite example came last week, when ABC's

Charlie Gibson

, talking about all the earmarks in the $410 billion spending bill currently, said: "You may ask, didn't the presidential candidates last fall agree to get rid of earmarks?" Then he turned it over to correspondent Jonathan Karl, who didn't actually answer the question, perhaps because the answer would have been no.

Obama promised to reduce them and make their sponsors more accountable.

Media Matters

has been keeping tabs on this.


Toronto: Isn't the problem that they really don't know what to do to solve the financial crisis? And is it a bad thing, that not being sure, they pause. Cable TV insists on instant answers today (which they may tear apart tomorrow). Given the sobering example of Lehmann Brothers, isn't it really better to wait, think through the problem and really think you have the best answer before you do something?

Dan Froomkin: They certainly haven't made the case that they know what to do to solve the crisis. (See, for instance, Basic questions Treasury still hasn't answered.)

But does waiting get them any closer to a solution? In this case, I don't think the cable TV timeline is such a bad thing.


Karl Rove: So we're to get advice from Karl Rove? Didn't he help the last guy? How did that work out? Seems to me Obama has a hell of a mess on his hands and it's not time to take a Bush type vacation though. Maybe by August he can ignore stuff like Bush did his first August.

Dan Froomkin: Amazing, huh? Here's Obama senior adviser David Axelrod on the value of Rove's advice.


Surpris,ED: What has struck me the most about President Obama? The way he seems to be absolutely and completely comfortable in his own skin. I can't remember ever seeing a politician like this before. While I may not agree with every decision he makes, at least (and for a change) I get the sense that he has thought through every one of them.

Dan Froomkin: This is a very smart guy who has a very solid sense of who he is. (Just read his autobiographies if you doubt it.) What's not clear is whether that will be enough.


Arlington, Tex.: I don't get this whole meme about overloading the system. Seems to me the president is doing what presidents should do... lead. I think we're just coming off a vacuum of leadership and the Washington is upset it actually has to do some governing.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And another tectonic shift is from an imperial presidency to a more collaborative one. It's hard!


Arlington, Tex.: Wall Street's an others expectations are too high and the Administration needs to do a better job of managing them.

The stock market is down so much because it was all a big bubble... we're heading back to reality and it will take a while. The American people understand it but they need to do a better job of setting the expectation that you can't look to the President to tie Wall Street's shoes. They are going to have to take their lumps.

Dan Froomkin: I think it's interesting how Obama has obliquely alluded to how different the priorities of the big Wall Street firms and the general public are, i.e. that Wall Street wants big bailouts with no strings -- and that's why the Dow is down -- but that wouldn't be good for the country. I'd like him to address that more directly though.


Houston: Hi Dan! From your unique perspective, so far in the first 50 days what strikes you as the biggest difference since the change from Bush to Obama, in terms of how you do your job each day.

Dan Froomkin: There's too darn much stuff to read!


Wall Street didn't elect Obama: I think Obama is doing a great job. Yes, maybe he could get one or two more assistant secretaries appointed a little quicker if he dropped everything else. But really, the vetters are vetting and the Senate has a limited capacity to do it's part as well.

I think the "doing too much" argument is really disguised grumbling about the content, rather than the pace, of his agenda.

Obama is doing what he said he would do, and that's what we elected him for. If the DJIA is down, it's because it's not what Wall Street wanted. But that's OK; they didn't vote for him. We did.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

And on that cheerful note, I have to run.

Thanks for all the great questions and comments. Keep them coming, either as comments on the blog or in my White House Watchers discussion group.


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