Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Ben Pershing (The Washington Post)
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Ben Pershing Political Blogger
Tuesday, March 10, 2009; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and the Post's coverage of political news.

Ben Pershing, political blogger (The Rundown on Political Browser), was online Tuesday, March 10, at 11 a.m. ET to take questions about President Obama's shift from the Bush administration's policy on stem cell research, the omnibus spending bill, the adminisration's stimulus package and lingering debate about Rush Limbaugh.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour Discussion Transcripts


Ben Pershing: Good morning, fellow political people. It's Day 50 of the Obama administration. What do you want to talk about today? The omnibus bill? Education? Chris Dodd's plummeting poll numbers? Fire away.


Houston, Tex.: What's Obama's hurry? He's been in office two months. I think every single American is in agreement that he should have a single-minded focus on the economy. But he's off chasing stem cells and botching chats with the Brits and Russians. And the economy gets worse every time he or Geithner open their mouths. Why?

Ben Pershing: That has been a common complaint so far about Obama's ambitious agenda. And it might make sense to say that he shouldn't bother yet with a Social Security summit, or unveiling a new policy plan every day (like his education speech today), when he should be focused on the economy. On the other hand, you can't just expect him to sit around and do nothing but watch CNBC and worry. It's not as though the president can do something new every day to fix the economy. And stem cells is an example of something he promised to do during the campaign, so there was no reason he shouldn't do it quickly.


Skins fan: Obama kinda reminds me of Dan Snyder. He throws around boatloads of cash but doesn't accomplish anything. They both skyrocketed to power largely due to circumstances beyond their control. Both have huge egos. Both surround themselves with sycophants who they'll happily throw under a bus to save their own skin.

Dan was loved by the Washington Post when he took over -- just like Obama. But even the Post hates Snyder now. Are we seeing Obama's future? Rich, powerful, and nearly universally despised for his failures and broken promises?

Ben Pershing: That's an interesting analogy, Skins fan. First, I would point out that Obama is much taller than Snyder. Second, I'm not completely sure about the "sycophants" charge. Who is Obama's Vinny Cerrato? Rahm Emanuel? I'm not sure if that makes sense.

I suppose you could say that Obama is attracted to star power and big names (Clinton, Daschle, etc.) the same way Snyder is, so let's hope for the country's sake that his administration is more successful than the Skins have been in the Snyder era. Let's also hope that Obama doesn't do the equivalent of paying the max salary to DeAngelo Hall. That made no sense.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning. Pat Toomey is in the primary against Arlen Specter. In your opinion, how will this affect Specter's votes.

Ben Pershing: It should make for a very tough and interesting primary next year, just as it was in 2004, when Specter beat Toomey 51-49. Specter's problem has always been with the conservative base of his party, and he didn't help himself in that regard by being one of just three Republicans to back the stimulus. Also worth noting: In 2004, Specter had Rick Santorum to campaign for him and watch his back with conservatives. Now Santorum is gone.


Port Ewen, N.Y.: This morning, I heard a congressman argue against funding embryonic stem cell research on the basis of spending dollars wisely, claiming that scientists agree that adult stem cells offer far more promise. My question is, doesn't the NIH take these "facts" into account when they award money to various causes? And if this is so, (and this congressman claimed he was taking politics out of this argument)wouldn't the nonpolitical response be to let the scientists do their job? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: It seems to me that it's disingenuous to say that anyone in this debate is really being "nonpolitical" on the issue, nor should they be. People on both sides are doing what they think is morally right, and what they think is politically smart (what they think their voters want them to do). It may be accurate to say that you're "taking the politics" out of the issue by leaving the major decisions to people at NIH, but that is in itself a political decision.


Sterling, Va.: It appears that voting rights for the residents of D.C. is not a "slam-dunk". I got 20 bills that say it's not going to happen. You taking?

Ben Pershing: Betting is illegal. But I agree this bill is in trouble. Basically, if the language stripping DC gun laws stays on the bill, many House Democrats won't vote for it. If the gun language comes off, some other Democrats (and Republicans) won't vote for it. I'm not sure that there's a pleasant solution for Democratic leaders on this one.


Re: Houston, Tex.: Haven't you heard of multitasking? I seem to recall that Obama was elected by many of us precisely because he can handle many issues at the same time. If I wanted somebody who only thought about the stock market, I would have voted for John McCain. Some people seem to think that the economy is not linked to health care or education. The economy encompasses these issues.

Ben Pershing: I think there are two different questions here. Can Obama multitask? Of course he can. He is perfectly capable of talking about stem cells one day, education the next day, and so on. The bigger issue will be when Obama wants to start moving some of these proposals through the legislative hopper. Health care reform, for example, will take a huge amount of time and political capital to get done. If Obama is able to do it, will he then be able to do, say, a carbon tax plan? Social Security reform? If he's not going to have the time or juice to move these proposals yet, does it make sense for him to talk so much about them now?


Phillies, PA!: Pennsylvania has been trending towards the Dems steadily each year since 2004. If the Reps want to challenge Specter and replace him they will then have a difficult time in the general. Pennsylvanians like Specter because he is moderate. Toomey and his ilk may win a primary but never a general election.

Ben Pershing: That may well be Specter's best argument in the primary -- that he actually has a chance to win in the general election, while Toomey doesn't. But primaries are usually governed by the base of the party, and those voters don't necessarily place electability above ideological purity.


re: DeAngelo Hall: Lay off DeAngelo Hall. He's a BARGAIN compared to the trillions Obama is throwing around. Do you really think Hall is a worse investment than GM? CitiBank? Bad mortgages? Pig farm research? Gang tattoo removal? At least DeAngelo Hall earned his money -- albeit for only a couple months.

I think Obama IS Dan Snyder.

Ben Pershing: Have you ever seen Obama and Dan Snyder in the same place? I haven't. And the problem isn't so much with Hall as a player, it's that the Skins would be better off spending that money on rebuilding both the offensive and defensive lines.


Bucks, Pa.: What did Arlen Specter mean when he said that the public is not being told how bad the economic crisis is?

Ben Pershing: I don't know what Specter meant, but then if what he said is true, we wouldn't know. Right?


He throws around boatloads of cash but doesn't accomplish anything.: OK, Obama has had 50 days. Snyder has had like 10 years. Terrible analogy!

Ben Pershing: Yeah, you're right that the timeframe is all wrong. I think the questioner just wanted to inject some Skins discussion into this chat, and he/she succeeded. Now if someone would just ask me how I think the Dodgers will do this season, we can really take this chat off the rails ...


Springfield, Va.: So will the Senate finally get around to passing the 2009 budget bill today? Have they dealt with all of the amendments? Will all of the earmarks stay?

Ben Pershing: Technically it's actually the omnibus appropriations bill, not the budget bill. And it does look to be on track to pass today, with earmarks intact. Democrats are holding together to vote against all of the amendments, even the ones that they probably wish they could vote for.


Silver Spring, Md.: Please tell me which of these statements correctly describes how earmarks are included on a bill: Earmarks are added after a bill is approved. Thereby increasing the cost of the bill as each earmark is added. Or, the cost of a bill, including a total amount for "earmarks," is determined when the bill is approved. Then the representatives work out amongst themselves who gets how much (in earmarks) for their district.

Ben Pershing: Neither statement is true. In most cases earmarks are written into the bill when it is drafted, and their cost is included in the total cost of the bill from the start. Occasionally earmarks do get added late in the process -- say, during conference negotiations -- but they don't typically add to the overall cost of the bill. Earmarks are not usually tucked into bills at the last minute, even though that's how they're often perceived.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Economic stimulus plan, with respect to whether jobs will be created. I'd like to know who will create these jobs, what kind of jobs will be established, and how long the jobs will be in place. For example, on the so-called shovel-ready projects, won't those projects go to firms who already have construction workers on their payroll? If so, where's the job creation?

Ben Pershing: Construction firms might have some people on their payroll, but getting infusions of public money for giant new programs presumably mean they can hire a lot more people. And they can hire architects, and spend money on building supplies, and so on.


Will all of the earmarks stay?: They aren't earmarks. They are vetted items included by the White House. Earmarks are un-vetted items added by Congress. I believe OMB does the vetting.

Ben Pershing: Most of what is in the omnibus are actually earmarks added by Congress. Then there is the separate pool of projects for which the White House specifically requested money. All presidents do this, which is why many members of Congress get irritated when they hear a president -- whether it's Bush or Obama -- criticize earmarks. The administration has earmarks too, they just don't call them earmarks.


On the other hand, you can't just expect him to sit around and do nothing but watch CNBC and worry: Noted. But it's not unreasonable that his administration get around at some point to do the wonky things such as release the details of their plan to oversee the rollout of TARP money to banks. etc.

Ben Pershing: Yes, and there are a lot of experts who believe that the markets would react a lot more favorably if the administration was more transparent and specific in explaining how it plans to deal with the banking crisis. So if talking about health care or stem cells is preventing Obama from doing that, then I can see that as a legitimate criticism. But it's also likely that the administration is working as fast as it can on the banking stuff -- remember, this is hugely complicated material and Obama has only been president for 50 days -- and it may not be realistic to think that the White House should already have a specific, realistic plan that won't totally alienate one party or the other.


Lexington KY: The Omnibus Appropriations Bill is an unmitigated disaster. It's packed with 9,000 earmarks. If Obama was true to his word, he'd veto this abomination. But he can't take on the Democrats in Congress. If he did, I think he'd send a strong message to the nation, but Pelosi and Reid would punish him for it. What would you do?

It's sad that doing the right thing is never part of the equation in Washington.

Ben Pershing: I think Obama is simply deciding to pick his battles. It's true that the omnibus doesn't really fit with the priorities he has outlined for going forward. But it's also true that he knows he will need Pelosi and Reid and all the other Democrats to move his budget and health care and everything else, so it's not worth it at this point for him to pick a big public fight with them by vetoing the bill. Perhaps he should have intervened on the omnibus earlier, and done it quietly. Now it's too late.


Watching CNBC: As The Daily Show recently highlighted, CNBC has had horrible prognostications about the economy the past year, so I would hope there would be something that would keep the Obama administration amused other than watching CNBC.

Ben Pershing: I did read in Obama's interview with the New York Times a few days ago that he says he doesn't read blogs at all, which I found disappointing because I write a couple of blogs. I just hope he doesn't come out and say he doesn't read live chats either. That would be devastating. If you're out there, Mr. President, please submit a question.


Earmarks, Smearmarks!: The "earmarks" account for less than 2 percent of the bill. Chump Change. Come on guys! Keep your eye on the ball!

Ben Pershing: Earmarks definitely do get a disproportionately large amount of press coverage, given the relatively small sliver of federal spending they represent. I bet if you asked the average voter how much of federal spending is earmarked, they would guess a number a lot higher than it actually is. Which I suppose is the fault of us in the political press for doing a poor job explaining.

Maybe I should switch jobs with Howard Kurtz.


Vienna, Va.: Ben, since Obama's critics keep blaming him for the recent stock market decline, I assume we can now declare that he has fixed all of our problems since the Dow is up 250 points right now.

Mission Accomplished!

Ben Pershing: From what I just read, the stock market is up because Citigroup reported profits for the first two months of the year. I totally don't understand how that is possible, but that's why I'm just a dumb reporter and not an investment banker.


New York: Ben, the Republicans on the Hill seem to be playing primarily to the base. But this is the strategy that (I think) sunk John McCain in the general election. I know that most of the congressional GOP-ers represent conservative districts, but the party just seems to have decided that attracting moderates and independents isn't worth the flak they'd get from the ditto-heads. My question: In order to win a general election, will Republicans have to jettison the base? Can they formulate a new winning strategy without the ultra-conservatives? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: It's not possible for Republicans to "jettison the base." If they did they would cease to be Republicans. Or they would be but conservatives would create a new party. The trick for the GOP is to present themselves as palatable to the middle without alienating the right. It's a tricky proposition but it's not impossible.


New York: Ben, I read a blog post on saying it's all over for GOP Chairman Michael Steele if the Republican doesn't win the 20th District seat in New York. (This is Kirsten Gillibrand's old seat; she replaced Hillary in the Senate.) It seems there's concern that he hasn't been stepping up to the fundraising plate, spending too much time on TV. Is this race that crucial to him? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: I think the New York race is important but it might be premature to say he'll be booted if the party doesn't win there. For what it's worth, I know that House Republicans are pleased specifically with the work Steele has been doing on NY-20, and the RNC did give the NRCC a million dollars that it can spend on this race.


re: focus on the economy: Funny, I heard this exact argument made by Morning Joe this a.m. Methinks it's made by people who don't understand how the economy works. We can't just keep throwing money at the banks because it will take too long to flow to other sectors of the economy. Some of these other programs Obama is talking about (like health care, energy, and education reform) will do more to get money into the hands of these other sectors than giving it to the bank will. Jobs will be created, people who get those jobs will spend more, hence more jobs will be created. At the same time, the money we give to the banks will start to have an impact. There is no silver bullet, people! Getting our economy going will take a multi-pronged approach.

Ben Pershing: Obama definitely makes that case with both health care and energy reform -- that they're not separate from the economic issue. Rising health care costs and dwindling energy resources are long-term contributors to economic problems.


Alexandria, Va.: Ben, the Dodgers' spring training attendance is up 53 percent this spring, even though overall attendance for MLB is declining. Is this due to the Dodgers moving to Arizona after years in Florida, or are there other factors that only you and Manny are in on?

Ben Pershing: I would attribute it to the move to Arizona and the signing of Manny, in equal parts. And thanks for a GREAT question.

That's all for now, everyone. I look forward to next time.


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