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Robert Barnes
Robert Barnes (Washington Post)

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Robert Barnes
Washington Post Politics and Supreme Court Reporter
Monday, March 30, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post politics and Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes was online Monday, March 30, at 11 a.m. ET and discussed the latest news from the White House to Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court.

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Robert Barnes: Good morning, all. I guess the thing we can all agree on about the Obama administration is that it is never dull. Hard to imagine a busier or more controversial first 100 days for a president. At the Supreme Court, bad reviews for Hillary: The Movie but perhaps even worse for McCain-Feingold campaign finance act. And what to make of Justice Ginsburg's offhand remark there could be an opening on the court soon? She certainly doesn't seem to be talking about herself. Let's get to your comments and questions.

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Houston, Tex.: Obama has ordered the outing of one car company to resign and is ordering a second car company to join with a foreign car company. These actions are shocking and scary - he is the president of the US - not the president of these companies. Obama only answers to the voters once every 4 years; while company presidents must answer to shareholders every year and Wall Street every business day. More importantly, Obama is NOT a business man. Granted, these companies have not been operated well, but Obama has even less experience then them. There were screams of power grabs over the actions of President Bush - were are the screams of outrage and out and out power grab by the Obama administration??

Robert Barnes: Wait, wait--I believe you will hear them. But I think you would hear just as many--or more--if the administration agreed to billions more for the companies with just a rubber-stamp of the business plans they advance. But this certainly feels like uncharted territory.

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Arlington, Va.: Isn't "President fires CEO" as troubling as "Pope fires missile"?

Free market capitalism, despite it's obvious flaws, has lifted more people from poverty than anything in history. When the president can hire and fire CEOs from corporations, we're no longer a free market capitalist society. GM is clearly a disaster, but it's up to their board and shareholders to make those decisions. Obama is clearly just helping his union buddies, but he's destroying the foundation of our economy as he does it.

Is there anything the Supreme Court can do about it? Isn't this clearly beyond his constitutional duties? Or, because they're saying he "resigned", is Obama safe (and the rest of us doomed)?

Robert Barnes: Well, the difference of course is that GM's board and shareholders are not saying they can handle this on their own. They are asking for billions of dollars from the government. "Free market capitalism" right now seems like something from the past or perhaps something in the future. But there is no doubt these are unsettling times, and an administration demanding the ouster of a CEO is a little hard to get a hold of.

As for the court, it seems from what I read that Wagoner is officially stepping aside, not being fired by the President. I certainly believe that the court will have a role at some point in these remarkable changes in the way government and business are interacting.

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Germantown, Md.: While neither of us is an auto industry brainchild. GM's car quality numbers are good. They do actually build cars all over the world that people will ACTUALLY BUY. It sounds like the answers for GM are all bad when it comes to employment in the U.S. and taxpayers. GM bondholders taking a haircut. Push off GM's retirement employee's health plans on the U.S. government. Build fewer models of cars which will mean even fewer jobs and pay their employees less to match the wages of Toyota and Honda employees in the south. Do Obama and his crew have the political will to tell the American people the truth and step up or will he let GM do the dirty work by filing for bankruptcy and then making the bad decisions?

Robert Barnes: Not sure how much more involved you think Obama should be in this. Seems like pretty involved to me.

By the way, this is a good time to say that an auto industry expert will be answering questions online today at 1. I can see there is great interest in this issue.

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washingtonpost.com: LIVE: Obama Speaks On Auto Industry

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washingtonpost.com: Live Discussion at 1 p.m. ET: GM Chief to Resign at White House's Behest

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Hampton, N.J.: I voted for Obama and I realize we have massive problems that demand bold solutions, but I'm becoming increasingly concerned with the Government Knows Best on Everything direction he is taking. Are there a significant number of others who are feeling a strong whiff of arrogance coming from the White House or is it just me and a bunch of Republicans who feel that way?

Robert Barnes: Yes, well, "bold solutions" are by their very nature controversial. We certainly see an administration that is very willing to have the government involved in practically every step of this problem, but I don't know if I would characterize if as arrogance so much as an almost frenetic attempt at firefighting.

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it seems from what I read that Wagoner is officially stepping aside, not being fired by the president.: That is also the official line Russia and Venezuela, etc., use when removing CEOs from businesses they dislike. This is a very scary precedent Mr. Obama is setting. Very scary.

Robert Barnes: I certainly wasn't suggesting that the White House didn't insist on his leaving. Just the technicality of what happened.

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Obama and GM: Robert, care to start a tally as to how many critics of the president who said he should have paid careful attention to the AIG deal so those bonuses wouldn't have been paid will now say he's getting too detailed into the operations of GM?

Robert Barnes: That's the other side of the argument, isn't it? What is the proper level of oversight when billions of dollars of taxpayers' money are flying out the door? I'm interested in your thoughts on this.

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Silver Spring, Md.: It will be interesting when we find out how much Wagoner's compensation package will be. Certainly, 32 years at a multi-national corporation with 9 as CEO seems to require some sort of generous package, but in today's climate, I'm wondering what constitutes "generous" especially due to the fact he steered GM in this direction to where they are facing bankruptcy.

Robert Barnes: I believe I read that he would staying on a while in a different role because the payout would be so large if he left right now.

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San Diego, Calif.: Given the recent rumblings of Mt. Redoubt in Alaska, we in the scientific research community would like to know if Bobby Jindal will be rescinding the slap he gave to "volcano monitoring" in his response to Obama's address to Congress last month. What thinks ye?

Robert Barnes: We'll break from GM for just a moment to do a little partisan politics.

I read a recent AP story from Louisiana that couldn't get the governor to comment on just the question you posed. Seems it was one of those lines that read ok in a speech written by somebody else without thinking through the logical extensions of it.

It certainly seemed like odd criticism from a man whose state has been ravaged by natural disasters. But I think it is well-established by now that was not Jindal's shining moment.

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Gingrich and Catholicism: Now that Gingrich has officially converted to Catholicism (See the Fix 3/24), any thoughts on what this conversion, along with other former government leaders (like Tony Blair) say about the direction of conservative politics?

washingtonpost.com: Gingrich To Become a Catholic Saturday: Scroll Down (The Fix, March 24)

Robert Barnes: I would think the direction of conservative politics has less to do with religious affiliation than with finding a message and messager(s). So soon, though. Who can imagine what things will look like in even six months?

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Anonymous: According to the hosts of Fox & Friends, the role of Sen. Dodd in the "bonuses" for AIG execs and others amounts to "pay for play," equal to that of Gov. Bogdanovich. Is this just politics (not that the show's hosts aren't politically neutral on the air), or is there a real chance Dodd could face discipline in the Senate or even criminal proceedings?

Robert Barnes: I'm sorry that I don't feel qualified to answer that question, but certainly there appears to be a political price to be paid.

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pay their employees less to match the wages of Toyota and Honda employees: This is a myth. T and H workers take home slightly more and when you consider better GM benefits, it's a wash. The difference is that GM has zillions of retirees it has to support while T and H have none.

BTW, labor costs are 10 percent of the price of a car. If you cut the compensations of GM's workers and retirees in half, you cut the price by 5 percent. Chump change.

Robert Barnes: You sound as if you could get a good dialogue going with the auto expert. Thanks for writing

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Bethesda, Md.: Speaking of partisan politics...what are your thoughts on that number-less GOP "Budget?" I was almost upset that your colleague, Mr. Milbank, didn't have a chat last Friday -- it seemed like political theater at it's finest.

Boehner: "...Well here it is Mr. President!"

Everyone: "Where?"

Boehner: "We'll have it next week!"

Robert Barnes: Um, yes, another less than shining moment. I wonder who thought that would be a good idea.

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Indianapolis Ind,: What scares me more then what Obama did or didn't do and at what level he should be doing stuff, is the sense that because of the toxic waste left from the Clinton and Bush years the agreement or outrage expressed about Obama is less about the right thing to do and more about the reader/poster's political POV. Do you agree?

Robert Barnes: You may be right, Indianapolis, but I think there is more than that. Most Americans are somewhere in the middle and, I believe, are having a hard time working their way through the almost daily rollout of stimulus plans and budget proposals and bailout ideas that don't bear too much resemblance to anything they've seen in years.

But certainly the President has lots of supporters who think he is on the right track, and they've been writing in so we'll get to some of them now.

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Reston, Va.: Robert, as usual, those who want to criticize Obama are oversimplifying things. He didn't fire the GM CEO. If I'm not mistaken, he put together an outside committee of experts to review these plans and they came back to him with recommendations.

Also, if the government wasn't coming forth to tell GM to change bosses, GM would have had to go to outside investors in the business world (if they could find them), who would have probably told them the same thing: If you want our money, you need new management.

Robert Barnes: Thanks for writing Reston. It is worth noting that the companies don't seem to be finding private investors who want in.

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RE: GM: With the taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars, I would hope that SOMEONE would get fired. This man has been CEO for 8 years, and presided over the bankrupting of his company. I think perhaps there haven't been enough firings. A fresh look at running these companies seems to be in order. There's a small company in either Arizona or California making electric cars. It might be a good idea for the government to help (subsidize)them buy Chrysler (after reorganization) so they can mass market their technology a lot quicker, and keep jobs in the U.S. at the same time.

Robert Barnes: Another point of view. It is stunning to see the decline of some of these companies.

On the other hand, someone might point out the fall in the Post's circulation since I started typing more than 20 years ago, and try to connect those dots. Let's not go there.

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Free Market?: Please, the cries of outrage over the Obama administration demanding that GM's CEO be fired are ridiculous. GM stopped being a free market entity able to staff its executive offices any way they like the day they took billions in taxpayer money. They had conditions to meet in order to keep getting more of our money and they failed to meet those conditions.

If only similar conditions had been imposed on AIG from the outset -- how hundreds of billions have we give them at this point?

Robert Barnes: Okay, Free Market, you are the last of the Obama defenders for now. We'll break to another topic for a moment, and then return with whether this was just a sop to the unions.

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Annapolis, Md.: Supreme Court re-shuffle?

Opening soon, but not Ginsberg? What's the thinking?

Robert Barnes: All who watch the court closely will be nervous toward the end of this term, I think, but it is very possible there will be no vacancy. Ginsburg's remarks did seem offhand, and several folks have said that she is far too careful to have referred to an opening if she actually KNEW one was coming. At this point, I think most people are watching Justice Souter, who is famous for his dislike of Washington--but not, so far as I can tell, of being a justice.

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Marijuana: I don't smoke it (or haven't in over 30 years), but we do need to have a serious dialogue on the topic. The U.S. is holding 25% of the world's prisoners...mostly for weed. We have an incredible war taking place on our borders, again for weed. There is something sick with us as a society if all we can do when it comes to the topic is snicker at pothead jokes.

Robert Barnes: You must have been disappointed in the president last week.

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Norm Coleman: He lost the recount and probably at this point the trial. He has already taken another job. How long does he get to hold the folks in Minnesota hostage?

Robert Barnes: That's not over yet? I don't think we can judge until the court actually speaks, but if it comes out for Franken, I think the GOP will need to evaluate the long-term damage that could come from pursuing this further in the courts.

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Arlington, Va.: Volcano research money is NOT stimulus money! You don't put people to work authorizing more money for volcano research, which requires specialized skills.

This is important money, but it should have been addressed in the actual appropriations, not a stimulus package.

Robert Barnes: Seems a tad technical, does it not, Arlington? And I don't think you can get around the fact that Jindal seemed to be ridiculing the idea of volcano research, not which pot of money the spending should come from.

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Detroit, Mich.,: Obama supporters seem to know less about economics than Obama does. The choices for GM weren't just take government money or not. They could declare bankruptcy. That would allow them to reorganize. That's the normal mechanism for a company in this much trouble. Bankruptcy doesn't mean GM and all those jobs disappear. But it does mean that a judge, not Obama, would rewrite those bloated union contracts. And the judge might not be beholden to the union bosses.

Follow the money...

Robert Barnes: Ok, we're back to GM and the question of whether the Obama administration is really just bailing out the unions. I guess I'm not ready to go quite as far as Detroit on this.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Could Justice Souter -- or any other Supreme Court Justice -- resign from the high court and be appointed to a lower court? In Souter's case, outside of D.C ?

Robert Barnes: Certainly former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has helped out on courts all around the country since she left the Supreme Court.

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Miami: Colin Powell famously said, "You break it, you bought it" with regard to Iraq.

Now Obama just broke GM. Isn't Obama now responsible for GM? He can't let GM go bankrupt -- and bankruptcy is the only mechanism that really allows them to reform their unmanageable union contracts. So isn't this really a bailout of the big auto unions?

Robert Barnes: I was looking for a neutral comment or question on which we could close--and couldn't find one. So we'll let Miami have the last word. Maybe at least we agree Obama has taken ownership of the GM problem?

Thanks for all the good questions. I hope the auto expert later in the day and my colleagues at the Post later in the week are as lucky.

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