Post Politics: Swine Flu Reaction and More

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Alec MacGillis
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news out of Washington with Post national political reporter Alec MacGillis.

MacGillis was online Tuesday, April 28 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about the federal management of the swine flu outbreak, a presidential plane making a low-flying trip over New York City yesterday, President Obama's first 100 days in office and more.

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Alec MacGillis: Good morning everyone, and thanks for joining us here at PostPolitics. A lot going on: Swine flu, 100 days, enhanced interrogations, foolish flyovers in lower Manhattan -- fire away!

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Arlington, Va.: Wouldn't the safe political move for Obama be to close the border with Mexico as called for by Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.)? While some few in the US have been exposed, why keep the border open and allow tens of thousands of passengers and drivers, who have either been infected or exposed to the disease in Mexico, enter the US every day? Isn't the administration gambling with the nation's health in order to prevent the airlines and transportation industries from taking a short-term financial hit?

Alec MacGillis: I'm sure all options have been considered. But it's interesting that you plug this as a 'safe political move', and not necessarily something that's necessary from public health standpoint. The president might score some points at home, but one has to bear in mind that such a move would be deeply unpopular with Mexico, which is already upset at us over our role in the drug war that is wreaking such havoc there. Also bear in mind that such a closure would hurt not only airlines and transportation but the enormous amount of back and forth that occurs on a daily basis along the border -- there are tens of thousands who live in Mexico and work in the US, and vice versa.

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Redmond, Wash.: Good morning. Have we heard who else has been in the running for Surgeon General? I never heard any other name but Sanjay Gupta's mentioned. We could use one right about now, couldn't we?

Alec MacGillis: Actually, Surgeon General probably isn't as crucial a slot right now as some of the others that are open -- HHS secretary and CDC chief. Sebelius is up for a vote today for HHS secretary, and may finally be confirmed, but the White House still hasn't got a CDC chief in there. That said, the White House says it's managing fine with the interim and career people it's got running things. For all the failings of the Bush administration, it apparently was actually fairly well prepared when it came to flu scares.

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Boston: Doesn't anyone in the Air Force have photoshop on their computer to update a photograph instead of spending tens of thousands and scaring lower Manhattan on the flyover yesterday? What is the over/under on the number of "fleeting expletives" that Rahm Emanuel got in while voicing the "displeasure of the president" to the poor lackey who "accepted blame" for the incident? My guess: 30...

Alec MacGillis: There's really not much to say about this one beyond the obvious, unbelievable bone-headedness of it, or the bad things that can happen when one combines Top Gun-style military pomp with the needless secrecy that kept people from getting word this was happening.

And yes, I'd say 30 is a good estimate on Rahm.

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Safe political move?: Closing the border and blocking billions of dollars in trade in the midst of an economic crisis is safe politically?

Alec MacGillis: Exactly. There may be some political points to be gained among the more anxious or isolationist elements here at home, but there's a much bigger cost on the other side.

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Richmond, Va.: Re: Janet Napolitano.

On the Today Show this morning Secretary Napolitano was interviewed about the Swine Flu and the "publicity" photo-op over NYC. It was striking to see how uneasy, unsure and unclear she was. A lot of "umm...ummm..ummm...we're working that..ummm." I sure don't feel very home-land secure right now. With the Department's comments about vets and the seeming weakness in the current news, do you think Sec. Napolitano will become a political problem for Obama?

washingtonpost.com:

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Alec MacGillis: It has been a rough and busy stretch for Napolitano, but then again this is a thankless job all around -- one is pretty much only in the news when bad things happen. The truth is, she was picked for the job above all because of her experience on the immigration part of it. She is less versed in military matters or public health ones. But she's a veteran government official with many years as attorney general and governor under her belt. We should probably give her a few more months before judging...

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Waterville, Maine: Although his overall approval ratings are high, President Obama has been referred to as "the most polarizing president" ever. This makes no sense to me. How can he possibly be more polarizing than former President Bush and former Vice-President Cheney? At least Obama has tried to reach out to Republicans and Independents and actually listens to opposing viewpoints before making decisions. From what I have read, Bush already had his mind made up and did not want to hear alternative viewpoints.

Alec MacGillis: Republicans including Karl Rove have tried to make much of the Pew poll a few weeks ago showing that feelings about Obama were very polarized in the electorate, more so than in the early goings of Bush and Clinton. What's lost in this analysis, though, is that the poll also showed many fewer voters identifying as Republicans than in years past -- that means that the Republican sample in these polls is a much more ideologically pure one, and it's therefore not so surprising that it would be less likely to back Obama.

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Boston: Given that Susan Collins stripped flu pandemic preparedness funding (to offset some useless tax cut in the bill no doubt) from the stimulus bill and the Republicans want 60 votes on Sebelius, I think there should be more attention paid to whether the GOP is damaging the quality of our health care responses. Interestingly, ABC asked Collins about the flu pandemic funding and she defended herself by saying the administration should move faster on HHS nominees. Is she aware that her own party is obstructing Sebelius's nomination?

Alec MacGillis: It's true, Sen. Collins pushed to strip millions in flu pandemic funding. It wasn't so much to make room for tax cuts but simply to lower the overall size of the stimulus package -- it was very important to her, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter and some conservative Democrats that they get the package down under $800 billion, even though many economists were saying the package needed to be at least that large to help the economy. But for the package to be palatable, these senators thought it needed to get under $800 billion. They had to cut somewhere, and flu funding was one of their choices.

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Plus, closing the border is really impossible: I mean... what are they gonna do? Post our enormous "Sorry, We're Closed" sign and then pull down the 2-thousand-mile-long Safe-T-Lock security fence and bar America's door against the infectious hordes? Hire more Minutemen, but give them live ammo? I'm not sure I really understand the seriousness of that question.

Alec MacGillis: I'm just going to post this one without comment, to add to this timely debate.

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Groton, Conn.: Alec, just a comment. The media keeps expressing concern about the dearth of people in the HHS department, which concerns me too. And certainly, some of the blame can be assigned to Obama for not having nominated people to fill all those positions. However, many of the articles I've read are glossing over WHY there is no HHS secretary - the Republicans pushed the vote back on Sebelius until today because they don't believe in a woman's right to choose. That's not subjective, that's a fact. I think it's important to be honest on this...the headlines are pretty irresponsible.

Alec MacGillis: Correct, Groton -- the holdup over Sebelius is all about abortion.

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Washington Grove, Md.: As to filling those slots, I'm not so sure that I don't feel better with career civil servants managing things as opposed to some appoitnee who used to run Arabian horse farms heading up FEMA or some other division/agency.

Alec MacGillis: Sure, but it's also true that Obama seems to be making more of an effort to fill his political slots with experienced technocrats. And also bear in mind that civil servants can screw things up, too! I'm not sure about this, but I suspect the people in the White House military affairs office who approved the NYC flyover were not Obama appointees...

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Prescott, Ariz.: According to a new poll (CBS-NYT), 71% of Americans think waterboarding is torture. This comes despite a virtual blackout by D.C. journalists on even using the word, and a full press by the pro torture elements of the Washington Post Editorial Board and staff.

Since your Orwellian re-phrasing isn't working, what is the next step you in order to make sure the powerful in this country escape accountability?

Alec MacGillis: There was also a new gallup poll out today showing that a slight majority of Americans approve an investigation, although the exact parameters of the investigation are not laid out -- there's a big difference between a congressional investigion or special prosecutor or blue ribbon commission.
As to the Post -- you're probably aware that there is a wall between our editorial board and our reporters. And I would add that our reporters on this story have broken some important revelations on the interrogations.

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Albany, N.Y.: Does it seem strange to you that the same pundits who were screaming that Clinton had to be punished for lying about an affair are now screaming that there must be no investigation of Bush for lying about, and conducting, torture?

It's a little strange, right?

Alec MacGillis: Yes, the comparison is telling. There is one difference to bear in mind, though -- the Republicans in the late 1990s were going after a sitting president, believing that it was wrong for him to be able to hold power despite his lies under oath over the affair. Whereas the Bush crowd is now out of power. The Republicans objecting to an investigation argue that to go backward in time to investigate and prosecute a past administration smacks of a Banana Republic. I'm certainly not endorsing that view -- just saying that in their minds, that is why going after Clinton was justified and going after the Bush crew now is not.

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South Riding, Va.: As we reach Obama's 100th day in office, I have to say that in many ways, little has changed. Politics in Washington is still a tough game to play and Obama took a few good hits. I knew that the world wouldn't change overnight and the economy suddenly get better, but I had expected Obama to have had an easier time. In a way, I think it is good that Congress is willing to push back and ask the tough questions.

Alec MacGillis: You're right, South Riding, there has been a lot more of the usual conflict and back and forth than one might have expected from all the 'new politics' talk on the campaign. What I've been struck by is how much of the push-back Obama is getting is not just from the Republicans, who really are somewhat relegated and devoid of influence now, but from moderate and conservative Democrats who are resisting a lot of Obama's plans, whether it's his cap and trade plan or his plan to cut subsidies for big farms or student loan companies or to raise taxes on the wealthy. He is up against a lot of entrenched interests, and the big test of the next 100 days will be whether he's able to take them on. Speaking of which, look for our big special package on the 100 days tomorrow, both online and in print.

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Alexandria, Va.: Okay... here's a question no one will answer (including probably you)... how is it Republicans find a way to make abortion a qualifier for practically every position in the federal government? I understand it for candidates and even for judges, but Cabinet secretaries and political appointees? If Congress wants to stop abortion, than have it do what it does- LEGISLATE IT. Otherwise, leave it alone and let the rest of the government get on with it!

Alec MacGillis: Interesting point. It's something I've wondered about during the Sebelius back and forth -- it seems utterly predictable that Obama's choice for HHS secretary would be pro-abortion rights. That said, I suspect that part of the furor over Sebelius has to do with her being Catholic and pro-choice. There seems to be particular ire about Catholic Democrats who support abortion rights (such as John Kerry).

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Los Angeles: I found the NY Times' report on Tim Geithner this week to be deeply disturbing. Too many signs point to his being more aligned with Wall St. than us regular taxpayer types. I know Obama says Geithner has his full support, but is someone keeping a close eye on him, his friends, and how those connections may influence his policy recs?

washingtonpost.com: Geithner, as Member and Overseer, Forged Ties to Finance Club

Alec MacGillis: It was a good piece, and a good complement to a long profile we ran just recently as well. The interesting thing about Geithner in this regard is that he is on the one hand on such familiar terms with the industry -- but on the other hand, he is himself not a former banker, the way Hank Paulson was. He's never cashed in in a big way the way that, say, Larry Summers did over the past couple years at a hedge fund. Geithner is a career technocrat and regulator. That's not to say that someone in that role can't fall captive to the industry. But it's something to keep in mind when assessing his possible biases.

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Tuckerton, NJ: Most of the DC punditocracy have opined against a comprehensive investigation of the torturing of American prisoners, even though the just-released torture memos appear to specify this was the policy approved by the highest levels of our government. If this isn't going to be investigated - which might eventually lead to some prosecutions - why should we investigate any future alleged wrongdoing conducted by government officials and our elected leaders?

Alec MacGillis: Again, I'm not going to speak for the punditocracy, which I'm sure as heck not part of. But I will say that one of the concerns that has been raised about prosecutions is the question of just who would be prosecuted. Would it be fair to prosecute only the lawyers who wrote the memos and okayed the techniques -- but not the higher officials who may have signaled that they wanted to get everything they could out of the prisoners, and whom the lawyers may have been trying to please with the memos? Once one starts investigating and maybe prosecuting a Jay Bybee, it really may not be a big leap to investigating the vice president, president, head of the CIA, etc. A lot of people may think that that's only appropriate. But one has to be clear-eyed about what one's really talking about here.

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Re. Senate Armed Services Committee Report?: How big of a development is it that torture was being used, according to the Senate's Armed Services Committee report, specifically to try to find that Iraq link? I mean, really: They consciously chose to use torture techniques that were specifically designed to get false confessions by the Communists, do you think the Bush Administration considered that outcome to be a bug ... or a feature?

Alec MacGillis: Just going to put this one out there -- it's a provocative argument that others have made in the past week, that the tendency of waterboarding to produce false information may not necessarily have been a shortcoming in this case.

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Boston: Hi Alec,

You mentioned Obama's next 100 days - are we going to have an Obama status check every 100 days?

Alec MacGillis: I doubt we'll all be going through the motions with successive 100 day markers as much as we did this week -- it's just one journalistic standard that we can't resist. But some of the most useful pieces this week have been ones that looked ahead to the next 100 days, such as Robert Reich's piece in Salon. In any case, though, check out our section tomorrow! It's got a lot of good stuff in it.

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Lake Forest, Calif.: Good morning....The term really is "pro-choice" not "pro-abortion." There is a significant difference in the meaning of these two terms. Thank you.

Alec MacGillis: I thought I used the term pro-abortion rights, which is the term we often use. If I said simply "pro-abortion", that was not intended, and I apologize. Obviously a big difference.

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Bethesda: Aren't Republicans in an awkward position? The general public likes Obama, but the GOP base (especially important in a shrunken party) hates him to the extent of buying into all sorts of conspiracy theories.

Alec MacGillis: True, and in some ways, this points to the downside of having such an effective and cohesive messaging system as the Republican base does. The message of the hard-core base is definitely getting out there to the footsoldiers -- but it's a message that is clearly not resonating with broader public.

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Alec MacGillis: Well, that's all for today, I have to run. Thanks for the good questions, sorry I couldn't get to more of them, and join us again soon -- Alec MacGillis

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washingtonpost.com: Breaking news - Specter To Switch Parties

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