Post Politics: Obama's Iraq Visit, Presidential Popularity, More

Scott Wilson
Washington Post White House Reporter
Wednesday, April 8, 2009; 11:00 AM

Post White House reporter Scott Wilson discussed President Obama's surprise visit to Iraq and took your questions about the administration.

The transcript follows.


Scott Wilson: Good morning everyone. Thanks for joining today. Eager to hear what you all thought about the president's overseas trip and anything else you want to discuss. On to your questions...


surprise: Scott,

Can't the media start eliminating the word "surprise" when a president visits Iraq? It will always be a surprise visit so it should just be a given when the visit occurs, the visit is naturally a surprise.


Scott Wilson: Totally agree...Unannounced is the better description.


Houston: What security procedures are in place for a President to visit a war zone like Iraq? I assume the rank and file troops are kept in the dark until the Prez shows up but obviously some people have to know to make security arrangements. Also, do you get the impression that the military really likes Obama as opposed to Bush or is it simply because they know they are going home with Obama's plan?

Scott Wilson: The Secret Service keeps the security details very private obviously, but I imagine that the morning of his arrival the word gets out among the soldiers (I've been to Camp Victory a few times, and it's huge. But I'll bet word travels fast in the enormous cafeterias.) There's probably clues ahead of time as the Secret Service makes preparations. And I wouldn't make a guess on your last point. I'd only say that many soldiers I met when I worked in Iraq were less interested in going home than in getting the job done correctly as they saw it.


New York: There's a lot of discussion about the huge spread between approval of Obama by people who call themselves Dems versus those who admit to being Republicans. There's also a lot of hand wringing over the absence of support in the House and Senate by the GOP on any of these votes on Obama's programs.

But the GOP, as currently constituted, is so far right conservative that this analysis doesn't have as much significance anymore. Only the deep-red true believers remain. Is there any doubt that Eisenhower, Dirkson or even Nixon, would have to be Blue Dog Democrats today? Could you imagine either of them sharing a stage with Sarah Palen or this amazing Bachmann woman? How about Gerald Ford, or Romney's father? The true barometer for all this stuff, in my opinion, is to measure what independent voters support, or what Blue Dogs support. These are the people who started to feel out of place when the Terry Schiavo lunacy happened, and had definitely cashed out when Palen arrived. If Obama gets their majority support, he's a winner. If not, he's got problems.

Scott Wilson: I'd say to this that the New York Times poll published yesterday showed more than majority support for his budget, his handling of foreign policy, and other key issues. That would suggest some Republicans are still on board. Michael Gerson has written a provocative op-ed in our paper today on your theme. Check it out and tell me what you think.


Washington, DC: Scott,

One thing that is bothering me about the Ted Stevens coverage is that Stevens and others around him have suggested that the Justice Department screw up means he is innocent of everything he was charged with, and the coverage doesn't seem to contradict him. I realize that new charges against him won't be filed, but as far as I can see, he still did a lot of shady things, even if he isn't criminally convicted of anything.

Scott Wilson: Well, in our system, he's not guilty. And this is what he's complaining about now - the government makes public a lot of evidence against him, then can't make a case. He's admitted to some of what you characterize as "shady" - receiving gifts from lobbyists, etc. So he's guilty in the public's eyes, but not legally. The judge in the case has ordered an investigation into the prosecution's conduct as a result. We'll see what happens.


in getting the job done correctly as they saw it. : What exactly is the "job" in Iraq? How do we tell when it is done? Does it involve getting the 5,000,000 refugees home? Taking the walls in Baghdad down? Stopping Kurdish exapnsionism? Gett the country drinking water, electricity? jobs?

Scott Wilson: Seems to me - yes.


Arlington, Va.: Many progressives are angry with Obama for carrying on the same faulty legal reasoning of Bush with respect to their "security" programs as well as his refusal to have real accountability for the torture practiced by the Bush administration. Is there any sense that this is gaining traction within the White House or are they just ignoring it all hoping it will just go away?

Scott Wilson: Great question. Certainly this is an area where campaign pledges and the reality of governmenmt have collided. Obama has made the big moves - ordering Guantanamo closed, declaring an end to torture - but his administration has argued to preserve some Bus-era detention policies (arguing against habeas corpus rights for detainees at bagram, most recently.) There's some push and pull between the White House and the CIA on this. And we're stil awaiting the release of all Bush-era legal justifications for what the ICRC has said clearly amounted to torture.


Northern Virginia: I'm really impressed by Secretary Gates's actual decisions to cut unnecessary defense projects. The natural reaction is howls from the Senators and representatives from the affected areas. My question is, will any Senator (like a John McCain, say) be statesman enough to stand up in support of Gates, or will the yes-in-my-backyard (yimby) voices be the only ones heard from?

Also, if the only issue is lost jobs, could some more stimulus money just go to those areas that are immediately losing airplane- and tank-building jobs, rather than expensively creating those jobs through unneeded defense work?

Scott Wilson: I'm sure the administration is looking at that. Good idea.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Is Barack Obama going to imitate JFK and act, for the most part, as his own Secretary of State. JFK essentially side-tracked Dean Rusk; LBJ only used him as a prop.

Is Barack Obama going to use HRC as more of an aide? Like these former presidents?

Scott Wilson: Interesting question. It sure looks like this so far. So much of what we saw on this first overseas trip was about Obama himself - his background, his view of America, his sense of international partnership and change - and very little about what one foreign policy expert characterized to me as "the hard edges of policy" or diplomacy. This approach may be the way he handles his introduction to the world stage as president. If he keeps it up, we may be witnessing the kind of president-secretary of state relationship you describe. A bit early to tell.


Washington, D.C.: Is it true that Republicans are threatening to filibuster Dawn Johnson's nomination to the DOJ if the DOJ releases the torture memos?

Scott Wilson: That's my understanding. Please read Ruth Marcus's interesting op-ed this morning in our paper on the Johnson's nomination. Well worth it.


New York, NY: Now that the Red Cross torture report is out, it's clear that the U.S. tortured multiple prisoners with multiple banned techniques. And it's been going on for years. By refusing to investigate the parties involved in instituting this program, and even actively invoking claims like the "state secrets privilege" to shield any possibility of a reckoning, isn't the Obama Administration also implicating themselves? Why else would they use the same extreme claims of executive power, in some cases more so, to facilitate this ongoing cover-up? Also: Are any intrepid WaPo reporters digging into this topic, or is it editorially verboten?

Scott Wilson: We've been writing about it extensively for years - we're the paper that brought you the CIA black sites - and are doing so now. It's a major focus for us.


New York, N.Y.: There's been a concerted effort by the GOP to erase the Bush administration from the picture, but I've been surprised to see journalists have also taken to criticizing Obama for attempting to remind them of who governed the country in the two previous presidential terms. In fact, Scott, in a March 14 article, you characterized President Obama's assertions that he had inherited the current economic situation from his predecessor as "recriminations." Rather than attempting to assess the accuracy of Obama's claims or determine what policies and factors led to the current crisis, you went on to describe Obama's "frequent and acid reminders" as a part of his strategy of "partisan defense."

My question to you is, what is "partisan" about telling the truth and reminding people that the recession (and other dire problems) didn't start on Obama's watch? Is it just too rude to acknowledge Bush's many and varied failures, these days? Obama's New Tack: Blaming Bush (Post, March 14)

Scott Wilson: Nothing wrong with it at all, and the point of my story was to underscore that the administration had begn to do it with more frequency and sharpness. This came as Obama and his advisers really "got under the hood," so to speak, anmd saw the gravity and complexity of what they faced. It also came as polls showed his approval rating slipping, particularly among moderate Republcians. Nothing wrong with mentioning the past; it was just something this president indicated he wasn't going to do much of.


New London, Conn.: The bipartisan backlash to Gates' admirable stance to cut defense spending is predictable. My question is, how can Blue Dog Dems and Republicans (both of who claim they are fiscally conservative) be against cutting unnecessary defense spending but in the same breath want to cut education and health care spending? This reeks of hypocrisy to me and is one reason I won't be voting for the GOP in the near future.

Scott Wilson: How can they? District interests. All politics are local, especially when it comes to defense procurement issues.


SW Nebraska: What's going to be Congress's reactions to Obama's expansion of the justification for wiretapping begun under Bush? I'm really appalled at the idea that illegal wiring is OK if the guys doing it are the "good guys."

Scott Wilson: Not sure, but it will be a great debate. One we'll be watching.


Boston: On the local news last night the lead story was how the F-22 cuts would impact the local economy...from both the software technology and the engines we produce. I assume that was the case in any town across the country that has big defense sector employment. The thing is that I love jets, and I love the F-22 coolness, but it is a stupid plane with no real utility in the real world and it should be cut. But will these locals stories beat Gates, like they beat Rumsfeld and every other defense secretary?

Scott Wilson: I'd point you to my colleague Dana Milbank's Tuesday "Washington Sketch" column. He takes on this question, and isn't sure Gates will win. He applauds him for trying, though.


Richmond, Va.: Can't we just get GM and Chrysler to build the vehicles that are needed in Iraq and Afghanistan until the economy comes back? They can't seem to repair or build these vehicles fast enough now. They were able to ramp up pretty quickly for war production during WWII and it did provide jobs and it would be useful to have until the economy turns around.

Scott Wilson: A good short-term idea, but this wouldn't save them for long.


Burlington, VT: If all politics were local, Scott, then the national GOP wouldn't be butting it's head into states' decisions to legalize gay marriage...

Scott Wilson: I point you to my colleague Chris Cillizza's "Washington Cheat Sheet" this morning where he discusses how the GOP (or parts of it) is reconsidering its position on gay marriage. You're onto something.


Helena MT: Took your advice and read Gerson's op-ed. Just a typical Gerson-GOP talking point: Obama campaigned to end partisanship but now he is more polarizing than any other president. Gerson does not factor in that the congressional Republicans have decided to vote no on everything the Democrats have to offer. So I don't think I learned anything from Gerson except that he can regurgitate GOP talking points in 1000 words or less. Which I already knew.

Scott Wilson: A couple of you read the Gerson column and have commented, roughly along these lines. I was struck by the fact he didn't mention Obama's still-high approval ratings, which show that some Republicans must still be supporting him.

_______________________ The Fix: White House Cheat Sheet: Is Gay Marriage Still An Issue?

_______________________ Milbank: Pentagon Chief Calls for Cuts; Congress Opens Fire


Pittsburgh: Is anybody in DC troubled by the fact that the guy who shot and killed 3 police officers with an AK-47 was worried that "Dems like Obama would take away his guns"? When will the NRA realize that preventing guns from getting into hands of the mentally unbalanced protects ALL of us? The police officers were obviously armed but clearly just because you have a gun doesn't mean you can't get shot.

Scott Wilson: Many have been waiting for that day...


Blaming Bush: Sitting on the sidelines, it has appeared to me that the GOP is trying to paint the current economic woes as being creations of Obama. Example, they cite is trillion dollar deficit, but fail to mention that it was over the trillion dollar mark when he took office. I see his repeated reference to the inheritance of the fiscal mess as a reminder that he didn't create it, he's trying to fix a really bad situation.

Scott Wilson: That's certainly what he's doing....That's all the time I've got for today, but thanks very much for joining. Hope you'll be back next week.

_______________________ Coming up at 12 ET: Defining the Obama Doctrine


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