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Post Politics Hour: Obama's Popularity, Speaking 'Austrian' and More

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Ben Pershing
washingtonpost.com Political Blogger
Tuesday, April 7, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news out of Washington with Ben Pershing of The Post's Political Browser blog. Pershing takes your questions to President Obama's speech in Turkey, the president's poll numbers, if there's such a language as Austrian, and more.

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The transcript follows.

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Ben Pershing: Good morning. President Obama is in Iraq, on a trip that had been a secret until he landed. I am in Washington -- actually Arlington, Va. -- and that is not a secret. Let's talk about politics. Fire away.

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Albany, NY: When will the pressure start to build on Norm Coleman to concede? Next week?

Ben Pershing: Democrats, obviously, have already been calling on Coleman to concede, while Republicans believe he should keep fighting and will not allow Al Franken to be seated in the Senate until Coleman has exhausted his legal appeals. My guess is that most of the media -- editorial boards, etc. -- will hold off on calling for Coleman to concede at least until after the Minnesota Supreme Court looks at the case. If Franken is still ahead at that point, then I think you will see more pressure on Coleman to give up, since the federal appeals process could take months.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: So Obama is STILL doing well according to the latest CBS/NY Times poll and optimism is increasing. Seems like he had a very successful trip in Europe. Obviously, the economy hasn't followed yet, but still - are you going to keep posting dire daily predictions on how Obama is finally going to tank on the Browser page? Sometimes I feel that the media, in their effort not to seem pro-Obama, just comes off as rooting for him to fail.

Ben Pershing: Hello there, Buffalo. Speaking personally, I don't believe I have been "posting dire daily predictions on how Obama is finally going to tank on the Browser page." As for the poll numbers, they certainly do still contain good news for Obama, especially when it comes to the economy. But it is worth noting -- as several smart articles have of late -- that Obama's high approval ratings are almost entirely based on his stratospheric ratings from Democrats. His ratings among Republicans have plummeted, though it's up to you to decide how important you think it is for a Democratic president to appeal to Republican voters.

But I understand that you're upset. Perhaps you're grumpy that the Bills made the dumb decision to sign Terrell Owens.

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Washington, D.C.: Why did Obama lift the media ban on soldiers remains? I don't really get why he would do that, it certainly doesn't seem calculated to help the grieving families in any way that I can think of.

Ben Pershing: It was a decision by both Obama and Robert Gates. I think there are a few reasons. One is that the media argued that the public had the right to see the ceremonies -- casualties are the cost of war and the public deserves to see those costs. The other argument is that the country can do a better job honoring the sacrifice of these troops by publicizing these ceremonies. But as a compromise, the families of the fallen have to consent in order for these events to be opened up. If the family wants the ceremony to stay private, it will stay private. Seems like a fair compromise for everyone.

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Seattle: If you read FactCheck.org (or have ears and a brain) it is apparent that Mr. Obama makes just as many mistakes/tell lies as the dearly departed Mr. Bush. Is there a point at which you expect the naive, bright-eyed young things that voted for Mr. Obama to transition into becoming mean, angry cynics like me? If so, when will this occur? Or am I mistakenly assuming these kids are even paying attention anymore?

PS: Would the Nuge have chosen Cutler, Orton or Campbell?

Ben Pershing: It's true that Obama has made his fair share of mistakes -- his reference to people speaking "Austrian" this week comes to mind -- and they don't always get much coverage in the press. But I think those bright-eyed young things will judge Obama on more than just the first 11 weeks of his presidency rather than rushing to a conclusion the way a mean, angry cynic like you did. Perhaps the Seattle weather is making you upset and you wish you'd moved somewhere warmer.

As for the QB question, Cutler is the best of the three but it would not have been worth trading two No. 1 picks to get him.

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re: Buffalo, NY: Why are you and the establishment so surprised that Republicans don't approve of Obama? This is a party that is dominated by social conservatives. Nate Silver has a good analysis of this. There are few if any moderates in the Republican fold. What matters is independents. You should be more concerned by the fact that they're threatening to filibuster his legal office nominees if the justice dept releases the torture memos. Can we conclude that Republicans (sans maverick McCain) support torture?

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure why the rest of the establishment is surprised by Republicans' attitudes toward Obama -- I'll find out later today on the daily establishment conference call. It's not necessarily surprising that Republicans dislike Obama, but it's worth remembering that GOP voters gave him pretty good marks when he came into office, and their views of him have dropped as a result of his policies. As for Independents, they give Obama a 57 percent approval rating in the latest Pew poll. That's a strong number, but it's worth watching to see if it drops.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: This is a response to Washington, D.C.'s comment. I am the parent of a child who was killed (not in war). Many parents in my situation appreciate having their child's death recognized and honored. I would think many of those whose children were killed in war might want the sacrifice publicly acknowledged rather than being hidden away out of sight.

Ben Pershing: Right, and there are definitely other families in your position who feel the same way.

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his reference to people speaking "Austrian" this week comes to mind : A lot of older Austrians don't like to use the term "German" to apply to their language and culture. Yes, it's not necessarily likely that Obama knew that, but it's not as big a gaffe as some people are bound to make it.

Ben Pershing: Maybe I'm confused, but there is simply no such language as "Austrian." Do people in Austria really call it that, even though there is no such thing?

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Washington, DC: FYI re: media ban. My nephew is currently deployed in Iraq. He sent my sister an e-mail, which she forwarded to me, saying that if he is killed, she is to prohibit media coverage of his remains' return, so that his coffin "doesn't end up on Olbermann's show to make a cheap point." Thought I'd pass that on.

re: Obama's reference to the "Austrian" language. Let's face it, if Bush had said that, the tittering would be heard loudly. Not so with Obama, and yes, it bugs me that the press uses two standards for them.

Ben Pershing: And that's the opposing argument -- that the images of soldiers' remains might be exploited in some way. Again, that's why it seems to make sense that the families get to make that decision.

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Alaskan in D.C.: As a born- and bred- Alaskan, I keep wondering when I'll finally see a response to whether Gov. Bobby Jindal still thinks volcano monitoring is "porky"? Does the fact that his office hasn't responded indicate that he realizes how idiotic (not least because he represents a state that underwent one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history) his statement originally was?

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure if there is anything Jindal could do now on this subject, other than apologize for using a bad example of "pork." There were plenty of good examples he could have used instead of volcano monitoring, as the eruption in Alaska has made clear. Jindal seems to have decided to just be silent about it and hope this storyline is forgotten.

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Providence, R.I.: So after having introduced himself as "Barack Hussein Obama" and mentioning that he has Muslims in his own family, how long before we hear a prominent Republican asserting that Obama is REALLY a Muslim extremist? Or are Rush Limbaugh and Fox already saying it? Five...four...three...two...

Ben Pershing: First, just to be clear, Obama was introduced as "Barack Hussein Obama" at the Turkish parliament, but he did not introduce himself that way. (Would have been odd if he had begun his speech by saying, "Hello, my name is ...") That said, it was a bold and interesting move for Obama to refer so prominently to his Muslim heritage (on his father's side) and his time living in a Muslim country (Indonesia). I assume there are corners of the blogosphere making a big deal about this right now, but Obama doesn't seem to care much about that.

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Washington, D.C. (Coleman vs. Franken): I think the stumbling block for the GOP in conceding the Minnesota race is that they simply cannot believe the Democrats elected Al Franken. CLEARLY there must be some mistake.

Ben Pershing: A fair point. I think it will take some time for most people to get adjusted to the idea of Al Franken being in the Senate (assuming he is seated). But remember, Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of the nation's biggest state, and it has survived. Barely.

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Bronx, NY : If the families of the fallen soldiers have consented to having the cameras there, what exactly was the argument against letting the public see the consequences of these wars? I don't see the other side of this one. The policy was obviously geared to make it easier to start wars, and to make pro-war propaganda easier, no? What else could it have been for?

Ben Pershing: The ban was enacted in 1991, during the first Gulf War, by the first President Bush. And yes, it was widely assumed that the ban was enacted because the administration was worried that pictures of coffins would erode public support for that war and future wars.

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re: Austrian: Depending on the situation, it may have been the correct thing to say. Put simply, Austrian German is not the same as, uh, German German (and, in fact, not all Austrian Germans speak the same German). It's not uncommon in Austria to shorthand their variation of standard German as "Austrian."

Ben Pershing: But Austrian German is more like a dialect than a separate language, right? The Spanish spoken in Mexico is different from that spoken in Spain, but it's still called "Spanish." You don't refer to people speaking "Mexican." Well, you might, but you would be wrong.

Maybe this is like a Rorschach test. People who like Obama want to believe that he is so sophisticated he knew that (some) people in Austria refer to their language as "Austrian." People who dislike Obama think he just made a mistake.

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Arlington Gay: Breaking news: Vermont overrides veto, legalizes gay marriage!

Ben Pershing: That's right, this story just broke in the last few minutes. The Vermont Legislature has overridden the governor's veto of a bill allowing gays and lesbians to marry. That makes Vermont the fourth state to legalize gay marriage, after Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa. I wonder what, if anything, the White House will say about this, given that Obama took a somewhat complicated position on the issue during his campaign.

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washingtonpost.com: Vermont Legalizes Gay Marriage With Veto Override

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Boston: Warrick and Tate's report in this morning's paper basically puts the U.S. in a position where we will have to investigate and prosecute senior American officials for their roles in torturing people. In the past we have been okay with going after the powerless like Lyndie England, but is the Establishment, including the media ready to see its own sit in court to be judged on the actions that they approved?

washingtonpost.com: Report Calls CIA Detainee Treatment 'Inhuman'

Ben Pershing: So far, Obama has not shown much interest in or willingness to prosecute people for their actions during the Bush administration. There is definitely a very vocal faction out there calling for him to do that, though I think the White House is worried about what kind of pushback it would get from the Pentagon and the CIA if it went down that road. I'm also interested to see what, if anything, will happen with the Spanish court that wants to prosecute a half-dozen Bush officials for allegedly permitting torture.

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Rorschach test: People who like Obama aren't thinking that he has some amazing and subtle understanding of linguistics; we are simply disappointed that some hardcore right wingers and (at least) one national reporter are inflating one single speaking mistake to compare it to Bush's history of walking into doors and giving the leaders of Germany creepy backrubs.

Ben Pershing: When did Bush walk into a door? I do remember the time he choked on a pretzel, and of course remember his odd rubbing of Angela Merkel's back.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Re: "what, if anything, the White House will say about (gay marriage)"

I hope they something like: "Federalism appears to remain intact."

Ben Pershing: That's probably right. Obama has said he is personally opposed to gay marriage but favors letting each state decide how to handle the issue, so that's what is happening. I also wonder when Republicans in Congress are going to begin working actively on this issue again -- perhaps by offering some sort of gay marriage ban as an amendment to unrelated legislation.

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re: Austrian: Ben, I like Obama and he certainly makes mistakes while speaking. This probably was one of them. So what? When his communication skills descend to the level of incomprehensibility that Bush regularly hit then I'll take it seriously. This chatter is purely about Republicans looking for payback.

Ben Pershing: There are definitely Republicans who are still angry about the way Bush was treated by the media for eight years and so are contantly on the lookout for evidence of a double-standard. I don't think Obama's Austria comment was worthy of major coverage, but I was surprised that it didn't get a bit more coverage than it did.

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Baltimore: Cheney vs. The White House: It seems like the former Veep just can't control himself. His last comments about how the current administration is making the country vulnerable to another attack brought a sharp rejoinder from David Axelrod, who basically said, "Look, Cheney and his team had seven years to get al Qaeda and win in Afghanistan and they failed. So why should we believe he knows what he's talking about now?"

It's as if Cheney is some sort of super secret mole, determined to remind people why they were so glad to see the last Executive Branch occupants pack up.

Ben Pershing: If Republicans want a spokesman for the party to articulate its criticisms of Obama and his policies, Cheney probably isn't the best choice. He is one of the least popular public figures in all the land.

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St. Louis: Ben, saw some of the recap of Obama's town hall in Turkey where he said essentially that there are two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Do you think that will hurt him with AIPAC? Seems like not sufficiently pro-Israeli for them...

Ben Pershing: It's possible there will be some criticism of Obama's comments from some quarters, but I think AIPAC and others in the pro-Israel lobby understand that Obama was speaking to a Muslim audience, and they will probably like that he said the Muslim world shouldn't keep blaming Israel for all the world's troubles.

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Ben Pershing: That's all for today, everyone. Thanks for all the great questions. I'm going to go study up on thies "Austrian" vs. German question and will report back during my next chat in a couple of weeks. Good afternoon to you all.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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