washingtonpost.com
President Obama: Evaluating The First 100 Days

Fred Hiatt
Editorial Page Editor
Wednesday, April 29, 2009; 2:30 PM

Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt was online Wednesday, April 29 at 2:30 ET to take your questions and thoughts about President Obama's first 100 days in office.

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Grading Investigative Reporters: I'd give investigative reporters an "improving" grade for showing up during President Obama's first 100 days. Many were cheerleaders rather than objective analysts leading up to the Iraq war (i.e., many reporters were more interested to in-bed with our troops than challenge Bush's rationale for the invasion -- i.e., Iraq's WMDs).

With Bush/Cheney gone, the "Press" is challenging Bush Administration assertions that "enhanced interrogation tools" including torture saved American lives. What embolden these reporters? Or do "herd mentality" and fear rule?

What else explains the U.S. dispatching it's military and spending billions to invade Iraq, destroy its property and kill, injure and displace thousands of Iraqis on a WMD whim after 9-11, or that the U.S. forcibly interned and confiscated property of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry after Pearl Harbor was bombed 7 December 1941?

Fred Hiatt: Well, you've wrapped a lot of things into one question. I'd say first that I don't accept your premise--a lot of reporters at the Post, the New York Times, the New Yorker magazine and elsewhere did good reporting during the Bush administration on interrogation techniques, renditions and other policies. But it's always easier in hindsight than at the time. I think we should wish for aggressive reporting of the Bush record--and of the Obama administration as it proceeds.

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Pompano Beach, Fla.: I see a lot of starts, but what has been finished? How about a progress report on the "in processes"?

Fred Hiatt: First, let me say thanks to everyone for joining.

As a first question, this one seems pretty tough on Obama--I think we can't expect too much to be completed in 100 days. But some things have been, of which the $787 billion stimulus bill is probably the most significant.

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Gallup, N.M.: A recent Gallup Poll had Obama at 58 percent approval, the lowest 100-Dy presidential rating in forty years except for Bill Clinton's 56 percent in 1993. Why is Obama's honeymoon fading so rapidly?

Fred Hiatt: I like a Gallup question from Gallup.

Most of the polls I've seen show Obama very popular among Democrats and quite popular among independents--and not terribly popular among Republicans. I think this says more about the historical trend toward polarization in the country than about Obama. Overall I think he's maintained his popularity pretty well.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Before his election, many Republicans pointed out that Obama's definition of bipartisanship consisted of listening to many ideas and then picking the most liberal alternative. Can you think of any "bipartisan" policy decision Obama has made that didn't follow this M.O.?

Fred Hiatt: Sure, especially in the national security area. He's defending the state-secrets privilege in court,

Fred Hiatt: defending the administration's right to hold prisoners in Bagram, Afghanistan without executive review; I think his policy on Afghanistan in general probably pleased as many Republicans as Democrats. His language on charter schools and their importance likewise.

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Bethesda, Md.: I'm sure this isn't the first time you've been asked this question, but come on, isn't the 100 days all a bunch of hype? I heard The Washington Post ad on the radio this morning, calling it "traditional," as if it's something passed down from our grandparents' day. And the ad said The Post special section will "take you back to the early days" of the administration.

Early days? Uh, like 3 months ago? In this tough economy for everyone, including The Post, doesn't the paper have better things to spend time and newsprint on? And let me be clear: I am a fellow journalist.

Fred Hiatt: It's interesting that the Obama White House itself initially said it wasn't going to play along with the 100-day hype, but then ended up joining in the action. Of course it's an artificial deadline, but I don't think it's useless to take stock. Given how caught up we get in daily and even hourly deadlines, looking back even three months can be instructive.

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Rochester, N.Y.: In his first 100 days, Obama hasn't showed much strength when it comes to dealing with enemies like North Korea and Iran (his great heroism with the pirates notwithstanding). Do you think this is why we're seeing increased attacks from things like the swine flu?

Fred Hiatt: You mean the swine flu virus could tell that our defenses were weakened? I don't think so.

I think on a lot of international issues, you could see this administration's stance as "weakened," as you say, or as prudently laying the predicate for more aggressive diplomacy down the road. It's too soon to say what the foreign policy will end up looking like.

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Arlington, Va.: How would you rate The Washington Post's web coverage, in particular, of Obama thus far? What's your favorite post.com politics feature?

Fred Hiatt: My favorite feature is all the great opinion commentary we have, like today's Topic A reaction to Sen. Specter's party-flip. That happens to be my department. But I think there's great political stuff across the site.

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Silver Spring, Md/: ...and your EXAMPLES of good reporting (as opposed to jingoistic cheerleading) during the illegitimate Cheney/Bush administration's illegal imperialistic attack on Iraq and during its other anti-constitutional crimes would be....?

Fred Hiatt: Well, Dana Priest's reporting on extraordinary renditions, just to offer one Post example.

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Boston: This doesn't relate to Obama but would you care to address the whole George Will global warming column controversy? Is there any concern that lax standards for accuracy hurts the prestige of The Post opinion page more generally?

Fred Hiatt: Happy to, because we don't have lax standards for accuracy. He addressed the factual challenges to his column in detail in a later column. In general we do careful fact checking. What people have mostly objected to is not that his data are wrong but that he draws wrong inferences. I would think folks would be eager to engage in the debate, given how sure they are of their case, rather than trying to shut him down.

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Hackensack, NJ: Shouldn't we be looking forward? Isn't looking back for intellectuals, communists and other nogudniks?

Fred Hiatt: Well, I guess I fit into all three categories. I think if you look forward without knowing your history you're going to bump into a lot of things.

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Altered State of Consciousness: Is reality to Republican as kryptonite is to Superman? Are they trying to fool some of the people all of the time with the, "We'll just walk of yesterday's gut shot" party line?

Fred Hiatt: No question Republicans are having a hard time figuring out how to adjust to the Obama era. In our Topic A today, you can see some Republicans saying Specter's departure could be good for the party--and others saying basically what you say: Let's get real. Parties that lose elections generally go through a period of soul-searching, which can be healthy in the long run--but as we saw with the Conservatives in Britain, the long run can be very long.

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washingtonpost.com: Priest: CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons

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Proctorsville, Vt.: I watched, with great interest, the President's response to the fourth-grade girl who asked, what, specifically would his administration be doing that is more environmentally friendly. It struck me that one of the first really visible things he could see that is done to that end would be to ensure that the aging, 99-year-old, Capitol Power Plant -- that currently heats and cools the U.S. Capitol complex -- is retrofitted so that it no longer uses coal, which accounts for some 49-percent of the plant's output. As we all know, coal is one of the major, leading sources of greenhouse gases. If it is impossible to make this plant "carbon neutral," then why not have a new, more efficient plant constructed? This seems like a great project for stimulus money. Time to walk the talk.

Fred Hiatt: That might be a good symbolic move, I suppose. But until you raise the price of carbon, you're going to have a hard time discouraging the use of coal in the economy more widely and accelerating the development of clean-coal and alternative-energy technologies.

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Richmond, Va.: Do you think it is unrealistic to expect "bipartisianship" when one party controls both houses of Congress and the presidency? There is no practical incentive for Obama to fight for and include any Republican ideas in his plans if he is going to get Democratic Congressional push back.

True bipartisianship seems to be a function of divided government. When the voters put one party in charge of both branches, they are looking for an accountability moment.

Fred Hiatt: I think by putting 'reconciliation' in the budget for health care--meaning they can pass something with no Republican votes--the administration and the Dems in Congress are signaling they would rather get something done than insist on bipartisanship.

They would say that Republicans' refusal to support the stimulus bill showed that bipartisanship wouldn't get them anywhere.

For sure, we have not seen a new era of bipartisan cooperation breaking out.

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Stafford, VA: My observation of Obama's first one hundred days is that he often comes up with a policy or action on a given issue that helps some but either doesn't help others or even hurts others. Two examples: Obama gives tax cuts to some, but raises taxes on others; 2) Obama helps homeowners approaching foreclosure which they've often self-caused, while doing nothing for other homeowners who pay their mortgage on time, but are upside down on their mortgage. The best he can offer the latter group is a hopeful trickle down benefit of higher property values by directly helping the former group.

As for the argument of affordability in restricting who gets benefits, affordability cannot be a justification given Obama's excessive budgets, bailouts, and stimulus spending. Fair is fair and Obama needs to be president of all, not just some for the remainder of his presidency.

Fred Hiatt: Well, I think your question offers a pretty good definition of governing: you have to make choices, and whatever you do will hurt or help some people more than others. If he doesn't want to tax the middle class, he has to tax the rich; if you help people who are upside down on their mortgage, it's unfair to people who are making their payments every month and find themselves just above water.

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Richmond, Va.: Do you see any evidence that Obama will actually be successful at the limited budget cuts he has proposed, specifically agricultural subsidies?

Fred Hiatt: The subsidies he proposed were indeed limited, the reaction on the Hill even to that limited proposal was pretty negative, and so far there's no sign that Obama will fight for the cuts.

You raise one of the big unknowns--so far, the administration has proposed lots of spending. In a recession, that's what you have to do. Will it get around to the 'hard choices' the president has promised, which will be needed starting a year or two from now if the economy is recovering? We don't know yet. There's little evidence of it so far.

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New York, NY: Do you find it strange that so many opinion-writers (like your own David Broder) who are strongly against investigating Bush et al. for torture were so gung ho about impeaching Bill Clinton for an extramarital affair?

It's a little strange, isn't it, to think that having an affair is worse than engaging in torture?

Is there some angle to this that I'm missing?

Fred Hiatt: You put the question well. I think the answer would be that there's a difference between alleged personal criminal behavior (lying under oath) and public policies that have been vetted with lawyers, briefed to Congress and undertaken in good faith, in the belief they are necessary to protect the country.

We have written editorials saying we think there should be further investigation, ideally by a bipartisan commission. You can't sweep torture under the rug. But we also see the real dangers in prosecuting policy decisions. What if the next administration decides that President Obama is committing war crimes by allowing Predator missiles to be fired into Pakistan, where civilians sometimes get killed as a result, in a country with which the United States is not at war? Once you start criminalizing policy decisions, you can end up in unfortunate places.

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washingtonpost.com: Topic A: Arlen Specter's Switch

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Richmond, Va.: If Obama is serious about wanting to move on over the torture issue, he could issue a blanket pardon like Carter did for the Vietnam draft dodgers, correct?

I assume he doesn't do this because of the political price he would pay to back up his stated position.

Fred Hiatt: Yes, I think he could issue pardons. (Congress already has passed a law that protects people who engaged in these interrogation techniques.) But he hasn't been entirely clear about what he wants. Last week he said it should be up to the attorney general... I think pardons might be appropriate, but if so they should come after a truth-finding process, not in the middle of it.

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Status of health care reform?: As one of the 50+ million (and growing daily) without access to health care, no insurance and living in a southern state dominated by Republicans who love conservative rhetoric while actually despising working class and poor people -- what is your take on the actual likelihood and probability of real health care reform for those struggling with health care costs (businesses and families) as well as real access to REAL care for poor and working people/families?

Who are the biggest obstacles to real change happening?

Fred Hiatt: Health care seems to be the number one priority for Congress and the administration--ahead of climate change, for example. And you have some pretty broad coalitions, including unions and big employers, who want action. So I think something could happen. The greatest obstacle is that different constituencies have different ideas of what reform would look like, and they'd each rather have no reform than one they oppose. One worry (for me) is they'll do something but not pay for it--and we'll end up with another huge unfunded entitlement program. The pay-for is another hard choice we haven't yet seen from the administration--or seen only partially, I should say.

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Everything is Good for Republicans: That's the old political joke..regardless of what's in the news it's good for Republicans and bad for the Dems (or so it was for a couple of decades). But the Specter defection actually is good for the GOP. We would have lost the seat anyways in 2010 and now the Dems are stuck with his diva-esque megalomania.

Fred Hiatt: Specter is an independent guy, it's true. But if it's as you say, there are a lot of people in Washington who have been fooled, because yesterday the Ds seemed awfully happy and the Rs were mostly disconsolate.

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Marketing 101: You are trying to sell your product to people. If that is your goal, you might want to ask what are your clients and potential clients interested in? If you think that the product your readers want is stuff that is easy to type up and fills lots of column inches...then you should spend as much time as possible on the "100 Days." I'm sure you enjoy it when your favorite TV show does those "Clips" specials.

Fred Hiatt: I'd turn it around--tell me what product you think people are interested in? I think we provide a lot of pretty weighty commentary on serious issues. I don't think it's bad to mix some fun stuff in there. And if something is well written, I don't think we should hold that against the writer.

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Princeton, NJ: Myth - "It will be very expensive to get good health to everyone."

Fact - Actually there's a way we can have better universal health care at no more than we are now paying (see 5. below). Here are the facts (cf. www.pnhp.org):

1. We waste $100 - $200 Billion a year on the high overhead of insurance companies. 2. We waste 200 - $400 Billion a year on doctors filling out forms for insurance companies. 3. I don't know the compliance cost of patients fighting with insurance companies, but it must also be in the 100's of Billions. 4. We pay the highest drug cost in the world to drug companies that spend twice as much on profit and three times as much on "marketing" as they spend on research. This is about another $100 Billion each year. 5. Because of the above, we could give Super Medicare (few limitations, no co-pays, no deductibles and complete drug coverage) to everyone at no more cost per person than we are now paying.

Other countries with single payer systems get better health care as measured by all the basic public health statistics and they do it at less than half the cost per person. If we build on our rotten system, we will get a health care system with rotten foundations.

Fred Hiatt: I agree there's a lot of waste in the system, a lot of money spent on unneeded and even harmful care, etc. But it's not so easy to wring that out of the system without also taking away the care that people want and need.(And a lot of saving will require upfront spending--on IT, on prevention, etc.)

On drug prices, consumers in other countries do pay less. That's partly because they limit marketing and advertising. But it's partly because they're getting a free piggyback on the R & D that American consumers pay for with our higher prices--without which we won't get the new drugs we need.

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Porter, Tex.: During President Obama's first 100 days, the only thing I've seen is a debt we can never pay off, cronyism and political greed run amok. He has bashed our country in foreign lands and kissed the hands of our enemies to what purpose. He has stated he will break the power companies and raise taxes so far that we will be reduced to third-word states if he and the Democrats have their way. What makes him think he has improved anything in this country? He is far far worse than Carter during his reign of terror. This is the new terrorist attack on America.

Fred Hiatt: I take it you're not a supporter.

I have a different view. I think overall he's done a good job in very tough circumstances. I also think the toughest calls are still ahead, as I'm sure he knows.

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Richmond, VA: If the WSJ reporting and Opinion Piece on the BoA and Merrill Lynch deal is accurate, do you think laws were broken? Is TARP a scandal waiting to happen?

I assume all the "rule of law" people after the former Bush DoJ lawyers will demand the same accountability of Bush/Obama treasury officials and the Federal reserve.

Has the Post editorialized on this yet?

P.S. Eugene Robinson (this year's Pulizer) and Steven Pearlstein (2008 Pulitzer Prize) are great. Congrats on two years in a row for commentary.

Fred Hiatt: Thanks on the Pulitzers! It won't surprise you to know that I thought both Steve and Gene were deserving, and we were all really happy they were recognized.

We haven't editorialized yet on the BoA story, and I don't feel qualified to respond. But I would say this: the TARP money was appropriated and allocated at a time of crisis. I think any thinking person at the time knew that some of it would be misspent and that a lot of questions would arise in hindsight--but that smart people believed they didn't have time to cross every t and dot every i. That doesn't mean we shouldn't investigate how it was spent and is being spent--we absolutely should. But we also should remember the context--which we (as a country) tend not to be so good at.

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I think we provide a lot of pretty weighty commentary on serious issues. : Too much process - what will pass with whose vote? Which group wants what?

Not enough content - What is the best health care system, tax system, etc.

We want Facts and Figures, not conjectures and gueses.

Fred Hiatt: I take your point.

If others have perspectives on this, please feel free to e-mail me (fredhiatt@washpost.com).

Thanks for participating. Maybe we can do it again in another 100 days--or, for those who hate these artificial deadlines, maybe 89 or 113 days.

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