Post Politics Hour

In Strasbourg, France, President Obama hailed NATO as the most successful alliance in modern history and a central pillar is strong European defense. Video by AP
Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post White House Reporter
Friday, April 3, 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 buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post White House reporter Michael A. Fletcher was online Friday, April 3, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest from the G-20 summit, including world leaders agreeing to pump $1 trillion into the world economy, Congress' approval of President Obama's $3.5 trillion budget, Sen. Richard Lugar's request of the president to open up talks with Cuba and more.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Good morning, everyone. With the G-20, NATO, and the budget on the agenda, there is much to talk about. Let's get started.


Fairfax, Va.: What's with the deep bow that President Obama gave to the King of Saudi Arabia?

It's bad enough when Americans bow or curtsy to the Queen of England (which the Obamas did not do) -- but the King of Saudi Arabia? Why did Obama feel the need for this act of obeisance or reverence?

Michael A. Fletcher: I'm not sure what the etiquette is for such greetings, but I'm sure the president was only trying to convey respect to the leader of a nation with which the US has a crucial--and complicated--relationship. Remember some years ago when President Bush touched cheeks with and held the hand of a Saudi monarch during a visit to his Texas ranch? Another sign of respect. I would not make too much of it.


I'm convinced: I voted for Obama, but always had a strong doubt that his presidency could match his campaign's efficiency and excellence. Two and a half months later, I'm feeling pretty convinced.

That was the first time I can recall anything coming from a G-7 through 20 meeting. He's pushed his agenda through Congress without much opposition. The track record tells me he will get health care the way he wants it. I am of the persuasion that the economy is still in deep trouble, but I know the $8.5 trillion the U.S. and other governments have pumped in over the past six months will be a powerful tugboat pushing in the right direction. I'm not even worried about 0.0 to 2.5 percent, those are pretty favorable terms to borrow on! Where am I wrong?

Michael A. Fletcher: Can't say you're wrong, but the terms of debt can change quickly if inflation is ignited with a resurgent economy. The president himself talks about the need to get budget deficits under control going forward. Th biggest part of that will be getting spending for the major entitlement programs--Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security--under control. And controlling health care costs is something the administration talks about a lot, but it remains to be seen whether their ideas --including harnessing the data generated by electronic medical records to compare the efficiency of various treatment options--will result in a sharp decline in the increase of health care costs. On the other side of the spectrum, we don't know if the stimulus package--as large as it is--is big enough to jolt the economy out of this deep recesssion. Ditto, we don't knw if there will be the political will to back more bank bailouts, which could prove necessary. All of that to say that the presidnt has many hurdles ahead.


Rockville, Md.: Looks like our president "hit a home run" and even got the French and Chinese to work out a deal. Can this help with his health plans and other legislative initiatives?

Michael A. Fletcher: It won't hurt in the sense that the better he performs the more popular he will be, giving him leverage with Congress. Health care has a lot of momentum--but is also shrouded in many questions, including about the ultimate costs and about the ability of policy to wrestle costs under control.


Belfast, Maine: Michael, what are the chances I'll be allowed to visit Cuba any time soon?

Michael A. Fletcher: Legally, you mean? Perhaps with a church or other humanitarian group. I know President Obama (as a candidate) talked about loosening some of the restrictions put in place under the Bush administration. But given how full his plate is,I don't expect the president to ignite a political firestorm by pushing for an end to the decades old embargo, despite what seems to be a growing recognition that it is ineffective at moving Cuba toward democracy.


SW Nebraska: Did Obama really negotiate a compromise between Sarkozy and Hu Jintao or did ABC make the story up?

Michael A. Fletcher: That is what's reported from the G-20 (and not just by ABC), and I've seen nothing to contradict it. But, I must say, historicially these bits of drama from summits often take on a different cast and often seem less dramaic once more facts are known.


Re: Calls for new election in Alaska: Do you know if, by law, new elections can be called in Alaska. Seems like the GOP and Ms. Sarah, are pushing for one, in light of the Stevens charges dismissal.

Michael A. Fletcher: Off hand, I don't know the law here. But I would be surprised if the dramatic twist in the Stevens saga could lead to a new election, as unfair as that might be.


Richmond, Va.: Re: Michelle Obama in London. While I was not surprised at the instant, harsh criticism from the right over MO's so-called faux pas in London, I was surprised that, once it was cleared up that the Queen asked for the iPod, that it was pretty clear that the Queen really liked Mrs. Obama, that they (MO and the Q) mutually put their arms around each other, that the Queen asked Mrs. Obama to stay in touch (almost unheard of), that the right just cannot let it go. Is this just politics as usual? In other words, wouldn't even the right want to be proud of our country through the good impression of Michelle Obama? I don't get it.

Michael A. Fletcher: Interesting how people look to infuse politics into everything.


Chaska, Minn. : Obama had to fend off an attempt by the French to have our financial sector regulated by a foreign entity. Isn't this an unintended consequence to our adoption of so many free trade policies? We have so intertwined the U.S. economy with other economies that our problems were quickly their problems. Isn't it logical that this endangers our national sovereignty? Should we consider going back to an economic policy that makes the U.S. economy our priority rather than multinational companies whose entire goal is profit? Obama may have stopped the foreign attempts to control our financial sector this time but I don't think this is the last time and these folks have a lot of money it is not inconceivable that they can eventually buy enough influence to succeed. Pretty Chilling

Michael A. Fletcher: I would say that free trade has to be viewed through a broader lens. Do not lose sight of the (relative) prosperity it has fostered in many corners of the world. Think of just China and India and the economic strides they have made in a generation. Think of the relative low prices Americans pay for many things, enhancing our quality of life. That's not to say excess has not crept in, particularly in the financial sector. But even there, the securitization of debt has made credit more widely available, which can be a good thing. But again, excess is the problem. Moreover, the US economy has been intertwined with the global economy for a long, long time. And we want that to help fuel growth.


Anonymous: "But, I must say, historicially these bits of drama from summits often take on a different cast and often seem less dramaic once more facts are known."

Do you know something unreported? For all you know, this particular event may have been substantially MORE dramatic than reported. If you don't know otherwise, why would you speculate?

Michael A. Fletcher: No, I don't know. A good example escapes me now, but I'm just saying that sometimes when histories of these kinds of events are written the inclusion of a broader context and more information can change how these moments are perceived. But, as you suggest, maybe that change could make the moment seem even more dramatic.


Debt: 'terms of debt can change quickly if inflation is ignited with a resurgent economy'

As a Wall Streeter, I can tell you that one of the insidey things that we should be pilloried for, and one I hated every time I heard it (which is constantly) is "Incomes are the primary drier of inflation and we are keeping incomes in check." I think a lot of American families will be happy to see a little economic growth that brings on income growth.

By the way, the rates on the huge amounts of borrowing now are pretty much locked at less than 3 percent. Where rates go to will affect borrowing then, but not the trillions we are now borrowing. Those who speak of the potential for future higher rates do not take into account the disappearance of trillions in new debt that will not be coming from the corporate sector. I say well done.

Michael A. Fletcher: Good point. The problem we face as a nation is that we face a future of big budget deficits and significant borrowing for a long, long time.


That's Entertainment: Today's new Pew poll showing Americans now know an awful lot about current affairs (versus all the misinformation they used to pass along to pollsters) is very encouraging.

I know a few of your colleagues on the White House beat are upset that Obama is not more "entertaining" and so professorial, but in a democracy isn't it a good thing for citizens to have an idea of what is happening?

P.S. 58 percent awareness of Geithner!?

Michael A. Fletcher: I haven't seen that poll, but as a reporter my sense has always been that the American people know more about what's going on than what was reflected in many surveys. We tend not to remember specific facts, but we have a good intuitive sense of the political dynamics in the country. But, that said, I have to wonder whether knowledge of who the treaasury secretary is is good or bad (meaning we are aware of him only because of the severity of the economic crisis).


Car company woes-- need tax breaks?: Even if the Big Three got big tax breaks, there wouldn't be enough customers to buy their cars, so would it make any difference in terms of employment?

Michael A. Fletcher: At some point, people are going to buy more cars. The market was perhaps overheated in recent years, now the companies are selling fewer units than they should, largely because of the nation's economic problems and uncertainty. But that is likely to change once the economy gets going and the car companies want to be in position to take part in that recovery.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I get my news through reading and whether on-line or in print I prefer material that is fact-checked and edited. So of course I really enjoy your paper. I worry that a significant portion of the nation prefers twenty minutes of cable news and lots of talk radio which seems to foment a lot of hatred and makes it easy to manipulate people. Am I too cynical? How do you see the audience for real news and information evolving?

Michael A. Fletcher: I agree that people enjoy cable news shows and talk radio, largely because of the entertainment factor. But those shows would have nothing to discuss without the underlying news reporting. That process is kind of in search of a new business model now. As the Internet gobbles up ads and fragments audiences, newspapers, in particular, find their business models being rapidly eroded. And our future depends on whether we can find a new, sustainable model. But the good news here is that our paper, like many major papers, has more readers than ever because of the Web, meaning that the audience remains strong, even if the revenues don't.


Michael A. Fletcher: Gotta run. Thanks for the excellent questions.


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