White House Watch: Obama's Trip, Iraq Visit, More

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, April 8, 2009; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch for washingtonpost.com.

He was online Wednesday, April 8 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about President Obama's trip abroad, his surprise visit to Iraq and the latest White House news.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome.

So. Has Obama's Excellent Adventure changed your view of this young presidency? Is it better? Worse? The same? Read

today's posts

, and let's talk about it -- or whatever else is on your mind.


Hamilton, Ontario: What is your take on Gerson's column today saying that Obama is the most polarizing president? Isn't this a sign of a preferred tactic by Bush loyalists: tar the other guy with their own defects?

washingtonpost.com: Gerson: The Most Polarizing President

Dan Froomkin: On the one hand, there's little disputing the numbers. According to Pew Research Center: "Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades. The 61-point partisan gap in opinions about Obama's job performance is the result of a combination of high Democratic ratings for the president -- 88% job approval among Democrats -- and relatively low approval ratings among Republicans (27%)."

But that doesn't mean Obama is polarizing.

Indeed, as

Greg Sargent

has blogged on whorunsgov.com, Pew's own polling director says that would be a misreading.

Michael Dimock, Pew's associate director, told Sargent that the divide is driven by long term trends and by the uncommonly enthusiastic reaction to Obama by members of his own party.

"Dimock also said this phenomenon is partly caused by the recent tendency of Republicans to be less charitable towards new Presidents than Dems have been."


Sullivan, Ill.: Dan,

One thing I notice about the Obama administration in comparison to the Bush administration is that Obama's seems to rely less on talking points, or at least they appear to rely less.

Do you find this to be true? Or is it a matter of perception? By a matter of perception I mean that when the former president had something to say he would say it over and over, his people would say the same thing continuously and the media, particularly Fox and talk radio would also repeat these points and they always stayed on message.

Obama in contrast seems to vary his speeches in both actual words and topics so if the talking points are there, they do not appear to be repeated ad naseum.

Dan Froomkin: Certainly the talking points are less obvious. But I think the idea of not being knocked off message is still alive and well.

Given how introspective we know Obama can be (given, for instance, his novelistic first autobiography) I've been surprised at how rarely he goes off onto unplanned riffs.

Or at least it seems that way.


Winnipeg, Canada: Good opening question. I've always been an admirer, but until this trip I worried that he would either turn out to be all style and no substance, or that the problems that he inherited would prevent him from carrying out his agenda, and force him istead to focus on the crisis at hand-- indeed, that's what many of his opponents have been urging him to do. Instead, he has shown himself to be willing to keep his eyes on the horizon. He talked about laying a foundation, and that's exactly what he needs to do if he is to make any progress on his ambitious (and necessary) agenda. The tyranny of the urgent may yet overtake him, but I'm feeling a lot more optimistic about his presidency than I have since inauguration.

Dan Froomkin: He does seem to keep adding things to his plate, doesn't he?

On one level, I was surprised that he brought up the whole nuclear disarmament thing, with so much else to deal with right now. But if you look at things holistically, I guess it makes sense.

For instance, working with the Russians to accomplish something that virtually no right-minded person can be against (reducing the number of nukes on hair-trigger alert pointed at each other) isn't just a good thing in itself, it may lead to other areas of agreement, etc. etc.

So yeah, you can either look at each individual part of his agenda as a potential distraction, or you can focus on how they all work together.


Re: Poll Numbers: Couldn't the apparent "polarization" also be due to a large number of people who used to call themselves Republicans now identifying as independents and Democrats? Haven't a lot of the people who might have approved of, say, Clinton in April of 1993 left the party?

Dan Froomkin: And that is a very good point indeed. The "polarization" could in fact be a function of the Republican party dwindling into a ferociously right-wing regional party, defined mostly by its opposition to a popular Democratic president.

Of course the Republicans will complain that fewer people identifying Republican simply means they're being underrepresented in the polls.


New York: The electorate is 'polarized' because the GOP has shrunk into a tiny regional group of far right true believers. There's no way to get supporters of a Michelle Bachmann or Sean Hannity to support Obama's programs. Even McCain isn't at home in the party he just represented. The polls merely reflect how off the rails the party has gone. The independent vote, or the Blue Dog vote, is a better barometer of Obama's popularity.

Dan Froomkin: Well, the "old" McCain isn't at home in his party, but I'm not so sure about the "new" one.

Yes, that's certainly a possibility.


Williamsburg, Va.: Dan, what are your thoughts on the torture memos? It's infuriating to me that Obama may be keeping them under wraps for political reasons, but part of me wonders if this is what has to be done in order to keep the CIA in his corner. May sound like a paltry excuse, but we do really NEED the CIA right now. Interested in your break down.

Dan Froomkin: I'm an absolutist when it comes to disclosure, unless you can absolutely positively prove some sort of imminent national security issue. So I'm outraged that the memos haven't been released yet. In general, I'm constantly amazed at how much we still don't know about the past eight years and what was done in our name in the "war on terror."

There may be lots of partisan reasons against disclosure and investigation. Republicans may be worried about a witchhunt, or Democrats may be concerned that it will distract from Obama'a agenda or, like you say, tick off the CIA. But I DON'T CARE, one way or the other. I'm a journalist, and I want to know what happened.


New York: Dan, Do you think Biden and Cheney should be cast as contenders on Celebrity Deathmatch? Who would win?

I think Cheney, Bush & Co. were the worst people to have in power at one of the worst times in American history and they visited enormous destruction on us and laid waste to this country. However, I think Biden and Axelrod should just let Cheney twist in the wind. I think by responding to him, you make him bigger than he is now. Everyone thinks the guy is insane. Let him babble until he's blue in the face and let him rot in his undisclosed location until his pacemaker battery wears out. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Cage-match style? Or American Idol style? Cheney would win the former easily. Biden the latter.

I have no opinion about whether it's politically savvy to leave Cheney's critiques unanswered. As a journalist, I think it's imperative that Cheney's positive assessments of the Bush-Cheney "war on terror" -- to the extent that they are

not remotely based in fact

-- not be allowed to remain on the public stage unchallenged.


Hanover, Va.: I'm curious . . . what were Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's approval ratings at this stage of their presidencies? If they were somewhat close (say 5-10 percent), it seems a bit much to be saying that President Obama's approval ratings are much higher than the norm. We always hear the comparisons to the low points of other presidents (esp. Bush), but how do they match up when compared to the comparable stage of previous presidencies?

washingtonpost.com: Obama's Approval Equal To or Better Than Bush's, Clinton's (Gallup.com)

Dan Froomkin: You raise an interesting point. I've been a little worried about exagerrating his support given where Clinton and Bush were at the same points in their presidency. But there are nevertheless two big factors that make his popularity particularly striking: One is how vastly more popular he is than Bush was toward the end (and that can't all just be because he's someone new). And the other is the contras with how badly things are going.

Here's how

Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee-Brenan

put it in the New York Times yesterday: "It is not unusual for new presidents to enjoy a period of public support. Still, the durability of Mr. Obama's support contrasts with that of some of his predecessors at the same point in their terms. It is also striking at a time when anxiety has gripped households across the country and Mr. Obama has alternately sought to rally Americans' spirits and warn against economic collapse as he seeks Congressional support for his programs."


Washington, D.C.: Regarding Gerson, a more relevant comparison than Bush '01 vs. Obama '09 is in order.

We can't know how Democrats and Republicans would have viewed Obama eight years ago, but thanks to a Gallup poll released last week, we know how they view Bush now. In that poll, Bush had the approval of 72% of Republicans and 10% of Democrats, a gap of . . . 62 points, statistically identical to Obama's gap in the current Pew poll.

As earlier commenters suggested (and Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com proposed several days ago), a lot of the increase in polarization is sort of a polling illusion brought about by the shrinking of the GOP. As many as one in five 2001 Repubs no longer identify with the party, and the dead enders are of course more partisan than those who left.

Dan Froomkin: Isn't that interesting. Thanks. Here's that Gallup poll for those who want to take a look.


I'm outraged that the memos : So if Obama continues to govern as President Goody Two Shoes, instead of "leading" as he said on the campaign with full transparency..does this all presage big problems for him with getting anything actually important accomplished?

And by extension, turning his rainbow coalition into a one term mediocrity?

I share your outrage. He's not the guy I thought I was voting for.

Thanks much. Liberal/Citizen/Veteran

Dan Froomkin: I don't entirely follow your argument, but to the extent that you are saying a transparency failure will lead to greater political failure, I'm afraid I can't necessarily agree. I suspect that his pre-presidency devotion to transparency is now being tested by pragmatic concerns, i.e. he now sees that transparency can make things harder for the executive branch. (i.e. the CIA will become recalcitrant, see above.)

To which I say: Tough, do it anyway. And I think in the long run, it would serve him well. But I don't think it's fatal, one way or the other.


Richmond, Va.: "I have no opinion about whether it's politically savvy to leave Cheney's critiques unanswered. As a journalist, I think it's imperative that Cheney's positive assessments of the Bush-Cheney "war on terror" -- to the extent that they are not remotely based in fact -- not be allowed to remain on the public stage unchallenged. "

If there is another attack in the mainland United States, especially one that involved a chemical, biological, or nuclear event, there would be an immediate reassessment of Cheney's critique, for better or for worse and he would not be dismissed as a nut job. Expect to see former Bush people all over the news with the "I told you so and here's what you need to do now - take the gloves off."

Obama leaves these arguments unanswered at his peril.

Dan Froomkin: That's a good point.


Wilmington, N.C.: I voted for the GOP candidate but I really have been impressed, proud, comforted by the adult, worldly, cultured way our prez presented himself on his first adventure aboard. At least that's my impression by what I've seen on the liberal TV media. Thanks

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Of course, it used to be assumed that the vast majority of American supported (and were proud of) their president when he went abroad. When did that end exactly?


Richmond, VA: Re: Bush vs Obama

One other factor is that Obama started off with more significant legislation out of the gate. I believe at this point in Bush's presidency he was passing a tax cut bill which always gets bipartisian support, and actively trying to work with Democrats (Edward Kennedy) on No Child Left Behind. The Bush polarization started after 9/11 when electing a permanent Republican majority trumped building a bipartisian consensus for a long term prosecution of the war on Terror.

At this point in Bush's presidency, I remember most of the new commentary was on the solid nature of his appointments (i.e. Rumsfield, Powell, etc) and the no drama approach compared to Clinton, and also how he was good at starting meetings on time.

Dan Froomkin: Well, 9/11 actually erased a lot of the polarization, and for quite a while, as the whole country seemed to rally behind the man. But other than that, yes, your points are well taken.


Washington, D.C.: What have been the reactions in Israel and the American Jewish community to Obama's visit to Turkey and his conciliatory remarks about Islam and the U.S.?

I realize these aren't monolithic constituencies, but was interested in general opinion.

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. But his comments about Israel in particular during his Turkish visit might well be seen as alarming to those who don't believe American interests should be "balanced."

Obama: "In the Muslim world, this notion that somehow everything is the fault of the Israelis lacks balance -- because there's two sides to every question. That doesn't mean that sometimes one side has done something wrong and should not be condemned. But it does mean there's always two sides to an issue.

"I say the same thing to my Jewish friends, which is you have to see the perspective of the Palestinians. Learning to stand in somebody else's shoes to see through their eyes, that's how peace begins. And it's up to you to make that happen."


Dan Froomkin: OK I have to run. Thanks everyone for your questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks and every day at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.


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