Post Politics: Obama's Press Conference, Sanford's Argentina Vacation, More

Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Scott Wilson was online June 24 at 11:00 a.m. to discuss latest news about the Obama administration, Congress and more.


Scott Wilson: Good morning, everyone. Let's see Mark Sanford just got back from his hiking trip - on a cruise ship off the coast of Argentina - and the Obama administration has decided to send an ambassador back to Syria after a more than four-year absence. Iran, health care, clean energy - a busy day. I look forward to your questions.


Arlington, Va.: I had no idea that the Appalachian Trail extended all the way to Buenos Aires! Must add the trail to my must-do list before I die (and eat some steak as well). How damaging is this to Sanford's presidential aspirations? Or can we all agree that they are pretty much dead after Sanford's reappearance. (and making your wife look like an idiot should be a disqualification as well).

Scott Wilson: As my political adviser Chris Cillizza notes, the fact that the networks are carrying Sanford's press conference to explain where he was and why he didn't tell anyone where he was going today is a sign that this is bad. There are headlines out there now I could very easily see flashing across the screen in a 30-second spot in 2012. While it's a long way off, this hurts him.


South Carolina: I wonder how long it will take to blame Obama for Sanford's absence. Um, I was distraught for having to take the stimulus money from Obama, and I was so frustrated with Obama and his policies - I had to get away to plot a new way forward for SC under the hasrsh conditions imposed by Obama

Scott Wilson: Let's watch what he says today!


Boston: Scott, I watched yesterday's presser on my lunch hour and something about the way the health care questions were posited just struck me as odd. All the questions seemed to come from the health insurance industry's point-of-view. Do reporters ever use their health insurance or go to doctors?

This is a a serious question, because almost everyone in this country who does not live in Hartford hates the health insurance industry. So why are reporters so concerned about their fate?

Scott Wilson: You make an interesting point. I would say, though, that you are assuming reporters hold the position that their questions reflect. Some of biggest arguments against the president's health care plans are coming from insurance companies (and doctors, etc.) Reporters use elements of these arguments to challenge the president on the issue in order to get him to better explain his reasoning, not necessarily because they agree with insurance companies or medical groups. And, yes, we do (or at least I do) use my health insurance.


Des Peres, MO: Hey, Scott. I was off work yesterday and able to watch the Obama press conference live. The questions seemed to range from properly respectful to a little testy. I'm personally fine with testy, but I wonder how you'd compare the attitude of the questioners to those at a typical Bush II news conference? Thanks

Scott Wilson: I wasn't covering the White House during the Bush years - in fact, I spent nearly all of them on overseas assignments - but I've asked your question to colleagues. The asnwer I get is that the tone is roughly the same. I'd say, though, from my own perspective, it does seem to me that the WH press corps is growing more contentious (and at times overtly irritated)with Obama during thse sessions than it was at the time he took office. Healthy evolution, I'd say.


Washington, D.C.: Come on, Scott - is asking continually whether Obama is still smoking and whether he struggles with it really important? I don't expect you to say no, you media people seem to band together whenever anybody criticizes you...

Scott Wilson: Well, now you've challenged me and I'm feeling lots of pressure not to "band together" with the rest of the "media people." However, I will not cave. I thought the president received a lot of questions on the most pressing issues of the day - from Iran to health care - and that the smoking question was off-beat and of general interest. And people are still talking about his answer - even those not part of the media people.


Princeton, NJ: Was Sanford alone?

Scott Wilson: Don't know yet...


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Scott, thanks for the chat. I know its too early to think about 2012, but two GOP front-runners for the Republican nomination were just eliminated within the last week. What do you think the will be the ramifications of the Ensign and Sanford episodes on the GOP for 2010 and 2012? Thank you.

Scott Wilson: Well, neiher were exactly front-runners in 2012. But Sanford, more than Ensign, has (had?) a few things going for him. His state holds a very early primary, giving him the opportunity for an early win and some momentum. And fiscal conservatives are crazy about him. We'll see how he digs out of this. Suffice it to say Mitt must be smiling - a little.


Atlanta: Is it unusual for a President to "stage" a press conference? Or was yesterday's show unusual only because the staging was so obvious?

Scott Wilson: Unusual and hypocritical to a degree.(I direct you to my colleague Dana Milbank's terrific "Washington Sketch" today on the subject.)Democrats blasted Bush for allegedly planting reporters to ask questions his aides wnated him to answer. To be fair, while Huffington Post was invited to ask a question, the reporter did not reveal the question ahead of time (and it was an interesting question that provoked an interesting answer.)


Manhattan, Kan.: Hi Scott, I have a geography question. Can Sarah Palin see Argentina from her house?

Scott Wilson: An even better question - what would she have seen there in recent days if she could...


SW Nebraska: So, do we have a touchy, testy President that is upset and pouting because the press is no longer his best friend or a President willing to take questions from the press but rightly impatient with nonsense or gotcha games?

Scott Wilson: A bit of both, most likely...


Chicago: Not to get too nitpicky, but most doctors actually support some kind of public or universal health care option. It's just the high-rolling elective specialists like the plastic surgery guys who are apoplectic.

Your average physician sees patients every day who cannot afford the treatment that might otherwise be available to them.

Scott Wilson: Very true...Thanks much for pointing this out.


Following the losers: Over the past couple of weeks every poll out there shows the GOP to be in deep trouble with support for their ideas and positions hovering in the 20s. The party is disliked, irrelevant and worse: mistrusted. Yet as I listened to the legacy media's questions at yesterday's briefing, I was surprised by how many of them were founded on assumptions developed by the GOP and right-wing pundits. Are those of you stuck in DC aware of where the rest of the country is headed?

Scott Wilson: Um, aren't questions suppose to challenge the president to better explain his thinking? Or should the media just celebrate his achievement, declare an end to ideological differences? Do you really want the media to simply parrot what the majority believes at the moment? I'd advise you to run, don't walk, to a library for a copy of the Federalist Papers and anything else you can get your hands on that explains the role of the press in a democracy. I've worked in many places without an independent media, and believe me, they don't work as well.


D.C.: I was interested in Major Garrett's question yesterday: "What took you so long?" regarding Iran. Besides the fact that it is more giving voice to Fox talking points on Iran than to a serious discusion of U.S. policy, it doesn't go to the serious questions about what the U.S. role should merely is a set up for the President says X his critics say Y, who wins, loses or conceeds.

My point is that the Iran situation is serious. Our position -- whether you agree with the President or not -- is tricky and full of nuance. Why can't the press try to expose the nuance instead of playing to the talk all seems so childish.

Scott Wilson: Good point, but I really do think there's been some good reporting from Washington on the line that the Obama administration is trying to walk on Iran. These fuller explanations - in newspapers and blogs - don't usually emerge in the spotlight of a news conference. And in defense of Major I thought he asked an expected question in a provocative way, and got an interesting response that allowed Obama explain for himself the nuance you have pointed out.


Boston, MA: Hi Scott,

Do you think there is any truth to the rumor that Gov. Sanford's trip was arranged by President Berlusconi?

Scott Wilson: No comment, but funny.


Connecticut: Just wanted to say that I'm from Connecticut (just outside of Hartford) and I hate the health care insurance industry too - and like your earlier questioner, I would like to see some questions tossed at these CEOS, starting with: What are you so afraid of if the govt enters the free market? That your plan is actually so terrible it will crash and burn and people might actually get access to procedures and doctors?

Scott Wilson: Me, too....Maybe before a Congressional committee?


Wokingham UK: Can we expect further urgent action on the Middle East problem or have the horrors of the Iranian election put a major spanner in the works?

Scott Wilson: I think the administration's decision - leaked to us last night - that Obama is sending an ambassador back to Damascus after a more than four-year absence is a sign the president wants to keep pushing ahead on resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict. That said, over the near term, Iran will dominate. Too many issues in the broader Middle East hinge on the outcome for real movement on any front until this is settled, which may not be soon. But the administration is, in many ways, in the preparatory stage with the Israeli government, for example, so there may be a little time to give anyway.


Hamilton, Va.: Re: The Federalist papers. Always an interesting read but remember they were written by the losers in the constitution battle.

Scott Wilson: Not sure you can say Madison was the "loser" in the debate over the Constitution...


I'm (sort of ) with following the losers: I don't want the media to give up its watchdog role and just ask the president softball questions. There's an art, though, to asking questions, and I do think reporters sometimes revert to a shorthand that accepts the opposition position as fact and asks the president to refute it. I get that it's shorthand, but to a lot of folks it looks like parroting the other side's talking points.

Scott Wilson: Fair enough...


Kingston, NY: Are there any polls out there of Canadians or British about their health care? Both sides repeat anecdotes to support their own point of view, but I would be interested in seeing some hard data. I suspect it would be a little bit of both sides, but it might be helpful to abolish some of the myths, especially in advertising. Thanks.

Scott Wilson: Good question, and I'm sure there are. We'll get on the case.


Claverack, NY: Is there any fear that a "public option" would incentivize private insurers to drop their least profitable (i.e., sickest) customers and let the government pay for their care?

Scott Wilson: Indeed, but there's a fear (and facts to support it) that that is happening now anyway. But your larger point is a good one: How would a public option affect the market? Seems likely that unintended consequences - good or bad- will abound. This uncertainty is part what Obama is confronting now.


re: questions: Scott, there are tough questions and stupid questions. Tough = asking the President about DADT and the disregard with which he and his administration have treated gay people, why he's upholding state secrecy policies enacted by Bush, etc. Stupid = asking him about his smoking habit when, if I recall correctly, none of you demonstrated a similar interest in Bush's alcoholism (had he really given up drinking? or was he drinking secretly somewhere in the White House)

Scott Wilson: Another opinion on press corps questions....


Washington, DC: Scott, I've realized I don't understand who a lot of the people are that ask questions to this chat.

Take this one from earlier: "I don't expect you to say no, you media people seem to band together whenever anybody criticizes you..."

I don't understand this at all. I see absolutely no shortage of media critics and commentators constantly ripping each other to shreds. You also see in these chats where one person will say "I can't believe how liberal the media is because xxxx" and another person will say "The media is obviously conservative shills because xxxx".

Do these people not notice the existence of the other side, and see that the paper is presenting a big range of views and hardly endorsing every view it presents (because how could it)? How am I inhabiting the same universe as these people?

Scott Wilson: And another....


Scott Wilson: Lively session, everyone, and thanks very much for participating. Hope to be with you again very soon. Have a good day.


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