Post Politics: Clunkers, Cabinet Ambitions, Clinton in N. Korea, More

Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009; 11:00 AM

Federal Eye blogger Ed O'Keefe took your questions about who is up and who is down in the world of politics and the latest news out of Washington.


Princeton, N.J.: Who on earth authorized Bill Clinton to go to North Korea?

Ed O'Keefe: The White House says they will have "more on this later."

Stay tuned.


Ed O'Keefe: Happy Tuesday! Welcome to the daily Post Politics Hour, I'm your host, Ed O'Keefe, author of The Federal Eye blog, and a federal government reporter also keeping close tabs on political developments.

It's Obama's birthday and he'll meet with all of the Senate's Democrats today, Bill Clinton is in North Korea, Hillary Clinton is far away at the start of a big Africa tour, the Postal Service is considering the closure of close to 700 post offices, the U.S. Census plans to release data on same sex marriages following the 2010 Census, the Senate begins its Sotomayor deliberations today and the Specter-Sestak primary is.... so.... on!

Now to your queries...


Greenville, SC: I realize it's only 6 months into the Obama administration, but how long will it be before the wars, the economy, climate change, etc will become the responsibility of those now in office? Or, will the media continue to let Obama get by with "all this started long before we came into office."

Ed O'Keefe: I'd argue the "it's Bush's fault" argument is no longer valid in this town. The Obama administration is more than 6 months old, it's crafted some serious game-changing legislation, it's attempting a big health care overhaul and has definitely started to reshape American foreign policy (witness the Clintons overseas today).

The "Bush did it" argument won't last much longer.


Clunkers: I was thinking about the "Clunkers" program on the drive to the beach this weekend, and I thought "perfect stimulus." Cities and states reap sales taxes. Local jobs at dealerships are preserved. Upstream jobs at factories and parts makers. Inventories are reduced. Auto corporations make sales numbers. And, you get an average 10 MPG increase for a quarter million cars...good for the new owner's pocketbooks and great for carbon emissions. So, I was quite surprised that GOP Senators were so opposed. Is this just more "Party of NO" or is there any rationale?

Ed O'Keefe: It appears GOP resistance goes to their core concerns with government spending and bailouts. Still, the extension passed the House with Republican support and it will likely earn some GOP votes in the Senate. Why? Because, as you said, this is arguably the best example of economic stimulus and has had an immediate impact: Ford's monthly sales climbed, auto dealers cleared out inventory, gas guzzlers are off the road and Americans spent money.


Floris, Va.: By voting in large numbers against the stimulus bill, Judge Sotomayor, Cash for Clunkers, etc. while quietly aiding the birthers, isn't the GOP unknowingly creating an elective deathwish in 2010?

Ed O'Keefe: They might not be winning your support, but they're definitely ginning up the base and getting them motivated for next year's midterm elections.

Make no mistake: The Republican base at least has found its sea legs and talking points. They may not be the most civil arguments, but it's getting members motivated and ready for battle next year.

All of this will make moderate or at-risk Democrats nervous... keep an eye on the types of Democrats who come back from recess skeptical of the health care plans and perhaps a little less eager to embrace the president's policies: Are they freshmen? Do they face tough reelections? Are they from the Midwest, Southwest or South? August will be a fun month, but September will be even more interesting.


Arizona: Ed,

What is your best estimate on how much of the opposition to health care reform in the Senate is principled difference with alternatives to offer and how much is simply political gamesmanship that is against the source of the reform effort no matter what is in the final bill?

I ask because one of my own senators is John McCain, and after his apparently self-serving statements on principled voting when it came to the Supreme Court nominations of Scalia and Roberts, McCain has decided to vote against Judge Sotomayor because he is facing right wing opposition in the GOP primary (the leader of the Minuteman 'movement' on our border with Mexico), and he would be cutting it close in 2010 with a vote for confirmation on his record.

In your experience, how much is intransigent personal politics a part of daily business in Congress?

Ed O'Keefe: Um, it's the Senate. Intransigent personal politics, 100 different agendas, big egos... it's a requirement.

Some would argue it's like steroids in baseball at this point: It's an accepted fact of life that nobody really likes.


Saint Paul, Minn.: Hi Ed -- Thanks for taking questions today. For a candidate who was known for being extremely "on message" it seems like the president is anything but these days. What's going on? Is this just part of the difficulty new presidents have transitioning from campaigning to governing, or is this is a different situation? I hesitate to put it this way, but is it possible that Obama is in over his head? What does he do now to get back on track?

Ed O'Keefe: Saint Paul, my father (a true genius) put it best:

"Obama looks like he needs a vacation."

When in doubt, remember this: "Father knows best."


Guilford, Conn.: Do you think that part of the reason why Obama is struggling is because he lacks the long, close relationships with influential senators and congressmen/women? I know that LBJ isn't viewed in the best light because of Vietnam, but the dude got stuff done, in my opinion because (as a former Senate majority leader) he had enormous sway with former colleagues. It seems to me that Obama needs Biden to stop shooting off his mouth (tough, I know) and start cajoling his old colleagues. Thoughts?

Ed O'Keefe: Obama has devoted considerable time to wooing or at least spending time with his former Congressional colleagues. Witness today's lunch with the entire Senate Democratic caucus as one example. Couple the frequent chats -- many of them one-on-one -- with a staff with unrivaled Hill experience and you have a president devoted to cultivating Congressional relationships.

And Biden is still doing the same, behind the scenes. This news organization and others have reported about how he has been known to work the phones to drum up support for various causes.


Erie, Pa.: How do you see the Joe Sestak v. Arlen Specter primary playing out? Will Barack Obama and Joe Biden follow through on their pledge to stump and fund raise for Specter?

Ed O'Keefe: A VERY interesting question... at this point we have to believe that the White House will continue to support Specter, but one wonders if they'll start to back off if polling suggests a Sestak victory.

The irony is that Sestak's candidacy and resume is much more in line with Obama's style: A renegade, relatively new to politics, etc.

Still -- mark this one up as one of the most interesting 2010 races, at least right now.


Providence, R.I.: Outside Federal government question.

As a pure political junkie, which 2010 gubernatorial elections are you following most closely?

Ed O'Keefe: Texas. Rick Perry vs. Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the GOP primary. Will. Be. Awesome.

New York. Will David Paterson run for his own term? Or will he step aside (or get shoved aside?) for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo?

Massachusetts. Can Deval Patrick recover from bad poll numbers and get reelected? Obama campaign manager David Plouffe calls this race his biggest 2010 priority.

California. Will former eBay CEO Meg Whitman emerge as the GOP candidate? And will Democrats nominate San Fran Mayor Gavin Newsom?


Manhattan: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the economy is contracting by LESS with Obama in office. Of course he owns the economy - and the economy seems to be doing better in his hands. Even John McCain acknowledged on Sunday that the stimulus had some effect. I'm unemployed, so I feel for my fellow unemployed people and I am aware that our group will have grown by the time the next jobs report is released, but let's get real - the economy seems to be getting better. How about some acknowledgment of this?

Ed O'Keefe: Yes, certain elements of the economy are getting better. Consumer spending rose last month for the second month in a row, according to economic data released this morning, but incomes dropped.

To me that continues to suggest we're still at the "Two steps forward, one step back" stage. But slowly, yes, folks acknowledge things are getting better.


New York, N.Y.: So about those loud folks who are disrupting health-care town hall meetings across the U.S. I've heard that it's all orchestrated by Freedom Works (a right-wing lobbying firm) -- including a script and list of tactics. Is this true? Is it all orchestrated outrage? So what do they intend to do... just shout down any debate on health care and insurance reform at all? Is this organized use of intimidation as a political tool in the United States actually legal?

Ed O'Keefe: Yes it's legal. It's called the First Amendment.


Cleveland, Ohio: Health care reform needs Ted Kennedy - Obama is getting overwhelmed by having to be the only decent spokesperson for the need for reform. Sorry, but Sec Sebelius & co. are hardly captivating, passionate speakers. What are the odds that Kennedy makes a comeback in the fall to the Senate and delivers a significant floor address that gets wavering colleagues on board?

Ed O'Keefe: Kennedy's colleagues on both sides of the aisle hope that such an event will occur, but it's difficult to say. Various "friends" or "aides" or "associates close to the senator" have been quoted as saying he's in bad health, but continues to work the phones.


New York, NY: I'm sorry: Obama is struggling? I didn't see that in the polls. Face facts: All President's approval ratings fall after the initial honeymoon, and I'd add that the numbers for Congressional Republicans are falling even faster than Obama's, so what does THAT tell you about struggle? Nor are his legislative priorities getting stopped, due to his unseen "struggles." What gives here? Isn't this just another right-wing meaningless frame that has entered the establishment media discourse?

Ed O'Keefe: You're absolutely correct, the polling dip is normal. But again -- keep an eye on what happens when lawmakers get back from their summer break. A real test of Obama's strengths and talents will be how well he holds together the Democratic coalition after they get an earful from constituents back home.


Austin, TX: Since you brought it up, how do you see the Perry vs. KBH primary shaping up? Because hey, we could be looking at the first President of the Seceded Nation of Texas. (I say rolling my eyes)

Ed O'Keefe: It will be expensive, personal and awesome to watch. That's all I really know at this point. Both are formidable figures, well-respected, well-regarded. KBH has wanted the job for years, and is even resigning her Senate seat to get it... let's see if all that enthusiasm pays off.


Northern Virginia: A few days ago I felt like the Obama team and Dems in Congress were on defense, but the huge success of Cash for Clunkers and the better-than-expected GDP, which most outsiders attribute to the stimulus, feels like a sudden, big shift in momentum. I also think the beer summit successfully resolved that whole story in an unexpectedly light-hearted way and put it behind him. And I notice Obama's poll numbers are up in the last few days. To me, the questions about Obama "struggling" feel a little dated, reflecting the state of play about a week ago. His anticipated victory with Sotomayor should add to the positives, too. Your thoughts? Or are you still in the "poor guy, he just can't get a break, he's struggling" camp?

Ed O'Keefe: See my previous answer.


Hartford, Conn.: Jon Stewart told Energy Secy. Steven Chu "you're the first Obama Cabinet Secy. that didn't seem in coma"

Just curious, besides Hillary of course, who is the most politicaly ambitious Cabinet Secy.? Who has the best rep. around D.C.?

Ed O'Keefe: A good question! Keep an eye on any cabinet secretary who left a political position, or political career, for the cabinet: Tom Vilsack at Agriculture, Clinton at State, Kathleen Sebelius at Health and Human Services, Ken Salazar at Interior, Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security.

Parlor game players have suggested either Salazar or Napolitano could be up for the next SCOTUS nomination (more likely Napolitano at this point, who was on the confirmed short list.) Clinton, well, she's Clinton. Sebelius and Vilsack have political ambitions... remember Vilsack was the first person to launch a 2008 presidential campaign and the first to drop out. Sebelius originally wanted to run for the Senate.

So far in my interactions with the cabinet agencies, all of the staffs seem most loyal to the administration, not to their secretary. Time will tell if that changes.


Texas: Texas politicians have been acting crazy for awhile now and both senators are voting against Sotomayor...the DNC claims this will hurt the GOP in upcoming elections given the increasing Hispanic population. I tend to agree given that some of the most prominent people to bash Sotomayor (see: the Newt) were grossly unfair and dare I say, racist, in their language. What do you think, might Texas go blue in our lifetimes?

Ed O'Keefe: I'd argue that at least some of the political positions held closely by Republicans in recent cycles will start going blue, yes. You're right -- the demographics are shifting and Democrats have spent the past many years rebuilding the state party operation.

When in our lifetimes? Who knows... but in our lifetimes? Yes.


New York City: Ed,

I've been watching the coverage of the "town hall"-style meetings that members of Congress and Senators have been attending back in their home states and districts (Fox News: "They got an earful from angry constituents!" MSNBC: "An organized mob shouted down the congressman!").

My question is: do you think the protesters' tactics might backfire? That individual House members and Senators might be so irked by being yelled at that they'll come back to DC even more determined to make health care reform a reality?

Ed O'Keefe: It's unclear. I think three video clips on one Web site don't tell the whole story: There will be hundreds of town halls held by hundreds of lawmakers this month. Will each of them be as raucous as the one attended by Sen. Specter? Probably not. Do the constituents raise good questions? Yes. Should lawmakers have answers? Of course. But have all the answers been provided yet? No, because there still isn't clarity on the Senate side about what lawmakers will consider there.


Northwest DC: Would there be more support, politically, if the cash-for-clunkers was only valid for American owned car companies? And perhaps, for American Government owned car companies? It seems to me that could have been a big chance to ensure our money is being looked after by offering a large discount to people to get into these cars...

Ed O'Keefe: That'd be impossible to pass, since so many overseas carmakers have large operations in the U.S. (especially in Southern and Midwest states) and since so many American automakers have such large operations overseas.


Los Angeles: Hi Ed, Do you really think that Napolitano is a serious contender for SCOTUS? I know she was on the short list recently, but her performance at Homeland Security seems to have been lackluster at best.

Ed O'Keefe: All I'm saying with my previous answer is that she was on the short list before. I've heard nothing to suggest she's going to be on the next list. But if Obama is looking to appoint someone who has a political and legal background then Napolitano, a former governor, U.S. attorney and private attorney, is certainly someone to consider.


Health Care Town Hall Meetings: I watched several of the raucous town hall meetings, and thought that the "protesters" asked very good and specific questions. They were questions I want answered, too. As far as I could tell, the politicians did not have specific answers. They didn't seem prepared.

Ed O'Keefe: As Sec. Sebelius said at one of the town hall meetings caught on camera: Sen. Specter doesn't have all the answers yet, because the Senate doesn't have a bill to consider.


Harrisburg, Pa.: The two imprisoned reporters work for Al Gore's organization. Of course Bill Clinton is going to want to do anything he can. I believe North Korean desires recognition, and this is a potential win-win where Clinton can help without involving our government directly. Why would anyone expect otherwise?

Ed O'Keefe: It appears this situation could indeed emerge as a win-win for all involved.

For more on Clinton's trip to N. Korea, join my colleague Glenn Kessler at Noon ET:


Good and specific questions? Mm-hm.: As the question above mentioned, "'protesters' asked very good and specific questions."

Sure, the only trouble is that (following the playbook they received), they did not wait for answers, but only shouted down any answer Specter or Sebelius attempted.

That's not protest, that's a mob trying to shut down discussion, not foster one.

Ed O'Keefe: One person's opinion...


Concord, NH: In response to one of your answers, Obama should not "own" the economy just yet. We are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and it began before Obama took office. Our structural challenges (deficits, grotesquely inefficient health care system) long predated Obama. The initial responses (i.e., the bailouts) were fashioned by the Bush administration. Unemployment (the main indicator that is still getting worse), but economic history tells us that employment numbers are a lagging indicator of economic recovery. If you are correct that "Washington" thinks Obama "owns" the economy, then Washington is myopic. Maybe that's our problem.

Ed O'Keefe: Yeah, maybe.

I think everyone acknowledges that the problems started well before the Obama administration. But the solutions now lie with him, and it'll be his responsibility to fix it. The buck stops with him, remember?


Boston: Hi Ed,

Seeing Bill Clinton in North Korea made me wonder if Bill Richardson is still on the planet. What is he doing these days?

Ed O'Keefe: He's still governor of New Mexico and will serve out his term, which expires in early 2011. Not clear yet what if anything he'll do after that, but many believe he'll have rehabilitated himself to the point where he could take an administration job.


Ginning up the base: Ed wrote: "They might not be winning your support, but they're definitely ginning up the base and getting them motivated for next year's midterm elections."

While that is certainly true, is that enough to win elections? The last I heard, self-identified Republicans are a much smaller part of the electorate than they've been in any recent election. Are they building credibility with moderates, swing voters and voters who formerly identified as Republicans, or are they stoking the base while alienating the other 70 percent of voters who want rational, productive solutions to the problems we're facing?

Ed O'Keefe: Base members of political parties -- the ones that work the streets, the phone banks, knock on doors and donate money -- are more likely than more casual or independent voters to turn out for midterm elections. Presidential years always see higher turnout, midterms less so. So keeping the base motivated is important, because you'll need them next year. That's not to say they won't want to reach out to independents or others, but you've got to at least have your base in line.


New Paltz, N.Y.: I know, I know, I'm behind the times, but to this day, I don't understand Kirsten Gillibrand is the U.S. Senator from New York and Caroline Kennedy is... doing whatever Caroline Kennedy. I really thought it'd be Caroline Kennedy.

With time to reflect, what happened there?

Ed O'Keefe: What happened is that both Caroline Kennedy and David Paterson screwed it up. You can tie some of Paterson's descent in the polls to his mishandling of the Kennedy situation.

Still, Gillibrand is considered a rising star, a hard worker and a formidable fundraiser. And the primary challenge threatened by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) seems less and less likely with each passing day. If she can avoid a primary and if Republicans don't come up with a formidable opponent, then she'll likely serve as New York's junior senator until Chuck Schumer moves on.


Ed O'Keefe: Folks, that's it for today, many thanks for your questions and make sure to check out my blog, The Federal Eye for the latest news from across the federal bureaucracy. Talk to you soon!


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