Post Politics: Obama and Iran, Mark Sanford's Walk in the Woods, More

Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online June 23 at 11 a.m. ET.


Ben Pershing: Good morning, everyone. President Obama's press conference is 90 minutes away, and he's expected to touch on Iran, health care reform and the economy and he seeks to rebound from a few days of rough headlines and sinking poll numbers. Also, John Ensign is back in DC and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford will supposedly return home from his hike tomorrow. Weird. Let's get chatting.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Submitting early but hope you'll take the question (and that the moderator will let a question critical of the Post through). Can we expect a Post reporter to finally ask Obama a tough, relevant question at his press conference today, or should we expect another pointless question about umpolitical item? If the latter, may I suggest that Fletcher ask Obama his thoughts on Jon and Kate's separation.

Ben Pershing: Your question has indeed made it through the dastardly filter. After all, this isn't Iran. I can't say for sure what my WashPost colleagues might ask at today's press conference but will pass along your request for a Jon & Kate question. I notice that the story about their split is one of the most-viewed on the entire WaPo site, so obviously our readers are interested.


Playing defense...: This morning, I heard Chuck Todd state the Obama administration is playing defense on Iran. Out here in flyover country the vast majority of people that I come in contact with at work and elsewhere think Obama is doing the right thing and is certainly not playing defense. Most of these folks correlate those criticizing him as the same folks who advocated for the Iraq debacle. Is this is another example of the people being way ahead of the inside the beltway media?

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure what the public at large thinks of Obama's Iran strategy. There certainly have been a lot of critics here in Washington, mostly Republicans, who want the president to take a tougher, clearer stance in support of the protesters and against the Iranian regime. John McCain has taken a leading role in this group, setting up an interesting Obama vs. McCain dynamic we haven't seen since November. Scott Wilson had a good story in this morning's WaPo about how the Iran split reflects larger divisions in the foreign policy world.

_______________________ Iran Unrest Reveals Split In U.S. on Its Role Abroad


Washington, D.C.: Why all the hubub about Gov. Mark Sanford dropping off the grid for a few days? At the end of the day the guy went hiking and wanted to be by himself to clear his head. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure if we know enough yet about this story to figure out an answer to that question. My initial thought is that it's perfectly fine for the governor to go hiking for a few days to clear his head, but he should have told his staff (and his wife!) where he was going and how to reach him in an emergency. I certainly couldn't just go AWOL from my job for several days without giving my boss some hint of why, and how long I'd be gone. And I'd definitely never do that to my wife either. But everyone is different, I guess.


Seattle: I've been in a coma for the last 3 months, how's the Coleman/Franken Senate race coming along?

Ben Pershing: Welcome back to the world, Seattle. You didn't miss much. We're waiting for the Minnesota state Supreme Court to issue its ruling on Coleman's latest appeal. Observers during the oral arguments thought the justices did not favor Coleman's side, but who knows. The ruling could come as soon as this week, and if it goes against Coleman, he'll have to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The betting here is that he won't, and Franken will be seated in the Senate sooner rather than later.


Cleveland Park, Washington, DC: "Sinking poll numbers" sounds pretty dire. How bad are they?

Ben Pershing: It's not so much that the numbers have dropped that far, it's that they're all dropping. Obama's approval rating has dropped roughly five points in several polls, and his handling of the economy, health care and other issues has dropped more than that in multiple polls. Today's Washington Post-ABC News poll showed support for the stimulus package dropping seven points. Again, these numbers aren't exactly in the toilet -- overall they're still more positive than negative. But the trend is clear.


Kettering, Ohio: Your colleague Paul Kane wrote about Speaker Pelosi's poor ratings today. Do these really mean anything since her district would probably elect the devil him/herself as a big "D" followed their name? She is in a safe district and will keep coming back as long as she runs and doesn't kill anybody. Approval Ratings for Pelosi Hit a New Low

Ben Pershing: Yes and no. There is no chance -- none -- that Republicans will ever beat Nancy Pelosi in her district. But the poll numbers can affect how Republicans attempt to use Pelosi politically on a national level. The more unpopular she is, the more the GOP will try to tie vulnerable Democrats -- particularly those from conservative districts -- to the speaker. Now, Republicans tried that last cycle too and there's not much evidence it worked, but they will keep at it if Pelosi's numbers keep dropping.


Boston: Has Obama raised expectations too high about something, job levels, that he ultimately has little control over?

Ben Pershing: Yes, he probably has. The economy is always difficult for a president to manage from a public relations perspective. When things are looking up, he wants to take credit, and when things are down he'd prefer to say it's beyond his control (I'm referring to presidents generally, not just Obama). Unfortunately for Obama, his administration made some overly-rosy employment projections a few months ago and now he's being called to task for it. Now the White House says it doesn't expect employment to rebound until after overall economic growth has stabilized, which is a reasonable point to make. Obama's problem is his team didn't make that point sooner.


Bethesda, Md.: How do Obama's poll numbers compare to other presidents at this point in their term? Is it possible that Obama's numbers started so unsustainably high, that they couldn't possibly be maintained? A polling "bubble," if you will?

Ben Pershing: No, Obama's numbers were not unsustainably high. He's right in the middle of the presidential pack. This is from the most recent column by Charlie Cook (

"The Gallup Organization's national nightly tracking poll recently put the president's job approval rating at 61 percent, with 32 percent disapproving. By comparison, this is not as strong as Presidents Kennedy (72 percent), Nixon (63 percent), Carter (63 percent) and George H.W. Bush (70 percent) were at this point, but better than Presidents Reagan (59 percent), Clinton (39 percent) and George W. Bush (55 percent) were in mid-June."


Malvern, Pa.: In a recent article on what senior Bush people are up to, there was no mention of David Addington.

I find him to be one of the most fascinating, hard core Machiavellian types of that era.

Any idea what he's doing these days ? Is he employed ?

If he ever writes a tell-all memoir, I think it will fill in a lot of blanks.

Ben Pershing: That's a good question. Back in March, the New York Times reported Addington "is said to still be looking for work." I have not seen an update on his status since then, though that makes sense, since Addington very much preferred to operate quietly and would not send out a press release if he had gotten a job. If any readers know what he's up to, please pass the info along.


Boston: Now that polls have only 8 percent of Latinos viewing the Republican party favorably and 86 percent viewing it unfavorably, what are the chances that significant numbers of Republican senators vote for Sotomayor's confirmation? They can't go on like this...

Ben Pershing: I don't know that Republicans will vote for Sotomayor in large numbers but I do expect they will try avoid using any overly-harsh rhetoric towards her during her confirmation hearings. Republicans know that she is very likely to be confirmed and there's not a lot of upside for them in being too aggressive in opposition.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Why doesn't someone ask John McCain why he thought last year that the best thing for the Iranian people would have been to rain down thousands of bombs on them?

Ben Pershing: I don't know that McCain ever advocated for "thousands of bombs" to be dropped on Iran, just enough to cripple the country's nuclear program. Of course, no one really knows how many bombs that would take or if it would even work, which helps explain why it hasn't happened.


Getting away from it all...: What does the Sanford episode mean for a potential presidential campaign? Even setting aside the general weirdness, doesn't this supposed tendency to drop completely off the radar for a few days work against someone applying for the most 24/7 job in the world?

Ben Pershing: I don't think this disappearance story helps Sanford at all. It makes him seem strange and unpredictable, and I'm not sure if those are qualities many folks want in a president. On the other hand, he may have just won the votes of hiking enthusiasts.


D.C.: Why is the bipartisan Wyden-Bennett bill, which according to David Brooks's column today the CBO has stated is revenue-neutral, not getting more attention from the press or the Obama administration? It seemingly has everything the President's looking for -- universal coverage, controls costs, and bipartisan support. Brooks -- Something for Nothing

Ben Pershing: I imagine it hasn't gotten much attention yet because the main players in the health care debate so far -- Kennedy, Dodd, Baucus, Grassley -- haven't gotten behind it. It seems like a real compromise, and neither Democrats nor Republicans are really ready to compromise yet. But it does seem intriguing and is actually getting more attention now on health care blogs and other media sources than it was before.


Wokingham UK: How likely is that health care reform in the United States will come to nothing at all?

Ben Pershing: Betting is illegal so I won't give odds. It's fair to say that reformers have a steep hill to climb. It seems likely SOMETHING will pass, but I'm not sure if it will meet all the goals President Obama has laid out.


Hoboken: Hypothetical scenario: It's 2009 (not hypothetical there) and President John F. Kerry is beginning his second term. Any guesses on what the U.S. would look like? Would the White House be sponsored by Heinz? Would wind-surfing finally be an Olympic sport? Would we have added, "And I'm reporting for duty!" to the end of the Pledge of Allegiance?

Ben Pershing: I was for that question before I was against it.


Naval Gazing Polls: I know most politicians live and die with polling - but some it seems like overkill when each and every topic is dissected to the nth degree. Overall ratings still high, but the polls show no support for (fill in the blank).

Also, high poll numbers for a topic, single payer - gets no political support although it polls really high with teh so called electorate - why is that?

Ben Pershing: One, I think poll results are actually mixed on the "single-payer" issue. It all depends on how you frame the question. And two, several of the most powerful interest groups in American politics -- insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, doctors -- are dead-set against such a system. It's rare that anything opposed by that many powerful groups ever gets passed.


Arlington, Va.: Obama's latest nominee for a state department position failed to file her taxes two years in row - and she was owed a refund! She does not sound like the sharpest knife in the drawer. Hopefully she will not be doing accounting for State. Any chance all of these tax problems will eventually lead to a simplification - or flattening - of our tax structure?

Ben Pershing: I think there is huge support in DC -- among both Democrats and Republicans -- for "simplifying" the tax code. But the details get problematic. Nearly every line in the tax code is there for some reason, and every tax credit or loophole is there because some member or members of congress wanted it there. So simplification is much easier said than done.


"Dropping off the radar?": Before the 25/7 news cycle, cell phones, blackberries, and Twitter, we all managed to live our lives and do our jobs, including getting away for a few days out of phone contact, without being regarded as weird or non-presidential material.

Frankly, I think that Sanford sounds quite sane, and others could equally benefit from a few days in the wilderness. (Doubt he had cell phone coverage where he was in any event.)

Ben Pershing: Even if all that is true, couldn't he have said, "I'm going to hike the Appalachian Trail. I'll be back in five days." Assuming you have a job and/or a family -- could you have done what he did?


Historical irony: I enjoyed Millbank's piece on the crown prince of the former Shah of Iran calling for democratic reform in Iran during a press conference in the U.S. Is the historical irony not lost on Republican leaders calling on Obama for more aggressive and direct U.S. Government support for Iranian protestors that the Iranian people and current leaders remember well the U.S. Government's direct and aggressive support of the Shah in a coup that displaced a democratically elected leader of Iran in 1952? Couldn't the current Iranian powers use that direct U.S. presidential support to undercut the very movement that has organically risen in Iran not just in the short term but for many years to come? Milbank -- A Royal 'We Shall Overcome' for Iran

Ben Pershing: In short, yes. That is exactly the argument that the White House and its defenders have been using to explain Obama's Iran strategy -- the more the opposition is identified with the U.S., the less legitimacy it will have in internal Iranian politics. Don't give the Iranian regime even more opportunities to dismiss the protesters as "U.S. puppets." That's the theory, anyway.


Ben Pershing: Thanks for the great questions, everyone. See you next time, and if I don't show up for my next chat, just assume I've gone hiking and will be back whenever.


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