Obama, the Mortal

Charles Krauthammer
Charles Krauthammer (The Washington Post)
Charles Krauthammer
Washington Post Op-Ed Columnist
Friday, September 4, 2009; 1:30 PM

"What happened to President Obama? His wax wings having melted, he is the man who fell to earth. What happened to bring his popularity down further than that of any new president in polling history save Gerald Ford (post-Nixon pardon)?"

Obama, the Mortal (Post, Sept. 4)

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post op-ed columnist, was online Friday, Sept. 4, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss his column.


Boston, Mass.: Politically, would it have been smarter for Obama to save his capital and popularity this summer instead of trying to address health-care reform? Conversely, do we want presidents who expediently pass on difficult but important national issues to [be] the next leader?

Charles Krauthammer: Choosing health care as the number one priority for the country was entirely Obams's choice. His logic was that because the country was in crisis it would be amenable and pliable regarding sweeping New Deal-like reform. The health-care crisis, such as it is had nothing to do with the financial meltdown we experienced. Obama seems to have greatly misjudged public receptiveness to a huge new entitlement in the middle of an economic crisis and recession.


Double Sandard?: George Bush visited school children (that's where he was when 9/11 occurred) -- why was it OK for him to visit in person and Obama can't even send a video link? That is scary double standard these parents are teaching their children. They should be teaching them respect for the President, not keeping them out of school because he's black.

Charles Krauthammer: There's nothing wrong with visiting school children. What Obama will say will undoubtedly be perfectly fine and modest. He will not be urging 8-year-olds to campaign for higher taxes for the rich. The problem was the study guide sent by the Education Dept. in which children were to write themselves a letter answering the question: What can I do for the president? That was the creepy part. Eight-year-olds are neither required to do anything for their president nor even to think about what they can do for their president. The questions having now been withdrawn from the study guide, the issue is moot.


Falls Church, Va.: I don't know if you're aware of it, but your WaPo colleague Gene Weingarten has said that while he disagrees with you about almost everything, he thinks you're a fantastic writer. Please put me in the same camp.

Charles Krauthammer: Thank you for your kind words and open mind.


Central Massachusetts: Hi Mr. Krauthammer,

Thank you for participating in the Q and A session. I hope you become a regular participant.

I read this morning's column with interest. I, for one, am relieved that Obama has come down to earth. The fainting women, screaming fans, adoring media coverage, etc., was unsettling. (And I'm from liberal Massachusetts!)

Obama's popularity was seen as his greatest strength. If that has diminished, do you perceive other talents, skills, strengths, etc., that may help him with his agenda? The speech giving has become excessive and doesn't seem to be moving his agenda.

Is he naive and over his head, or can he surprise us with some as-yet-unseen skill at pushing through his legislation? I have a very difficult time "reading" him.

Thank you,

Charles Krauthammer: I think you're experiencing what everybody does, namely "reading" President Obama. Never in our history have we elected a president so relatively unknown.

I think he's a superb orator but oratory is a wasting asset. I saw yesterday an estimate that he has delivered half a million words in public since his swearing-in. De Gaulle and Machiavelli both thought that a ruler's presence should be husbanded. Obama has been spending his aura promiscuously.


Alexandria, Va.: Isn't this just a case of the press building someone up and then tearing him down? It happened to Clinton and Carter too.

Charles Krauthammer: The press had very little inclination to tear Obama down. No candidate has evern gotten such favorable -- in fact, swooning -- coverage of Obama. What has brought Obama down is his poll numbers which in turn are the results of his policies.


St. Louis, Mo.: As a staunch anti-Obama, you always will see a decline, a problem, a misstep and impending failure on this administration. It's too early to tell so I suggest you keep your opinions to yourself. You have been wrong in the past.

Charles Krauthammer: And I shall be wrong in the future. That I can predict infallibly.


Washington, D.C.: I was amazed to hear you say on Inside Washington recently that where patients have gone through the time and trouble to prepare living wills, they are disregarded. Were you speaking in general or do you know that as fact? Troubling for you to put that out there as a physician.

Charles Krauthammer: My knowledge about living wills and their relative lack of importance comes from my tenure on the President's Council on Bioethics on which I served for five years. We had testimony from experts on end-of-life issues and "advanced directives" who pointed out to members of the council how people generally overestimate the value of living wills. Except in relatively extreme cases, it's the actual desires of the family in conjunction with medical advice that generally prevails.


What can I do for the president? : We all admired Kennedy's wisdom when he reminded us to "ask not what my nation can do for me, but want I can do for my nation?" What can I do for the President includes any future republican presidents, too--it doesn't bother me at all. All children should learn to be considered stewards of their environment, their community, their consittution, their nation, their leaders. That's Citizenship, not partisanship.

Charles Krauthammer: Our children are asked to swear allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands -- not to the man or woman who happens to inhabit the White House at the time. In a constitutional democracy your relationship and loyalty as a citizen is to the nation and its democratic institutions. In a dictatorship -- the kind of popular or direct "democracy" exemplified by, say, Venezuela or North Korea or the old Soviet Union -- your allegiance is the the "Supreme Leader." That's why the question about how a child can help the president is so totally out of place. It's not a fault to the republic, we're not gonna have our children singing songs to Obama. But it's a symptom of some Obama followers' adulation and enthrallment with their man.


Richmond, VA: Do you believe that something like the Wyden-Bennett bill that David Brooks is promoting could pass the Congress and get signed into law?

Charles Krauthammer: The Bennett bill has at its heart taking away the tax benefit of employer-provided health insurance. It's an extremely destructive loophole in the tax code, a purely accidental relic of WW II wage and price controls, and a great impediment to as rational health-care system. The reason it will never pass Congress is that the Democrats spent all of last year attacking this idea because it was proposed by John McCain. It was cynical politics then, and it has vastly undermined their health-care reform drive now because that loophole was the single largest one in the entire budget and would have yielded the federal government about $250,000 billion a year.


Bennett Point, Md.: Ronald Reagan also experienced a large drop in popularity in the teeth of a severe recession over 25 years ago but was reelected in a great landslide. Isn't the big difference between Presidents Obama and Reagan is that Reagan's economic plan centered on tax cuts was viable and even necessary in the early '80s while Obama's hyper-spending plans today are counterproductive and saddling the country with huge indebtedness?

Charles Krauthammer: A very acute diagnosis, I believe. Although Reagan's plan did saddle us with debt as well but his tax cuts posed tremendous economic growth, Obama's problem is that he is infinitely more interested in social equality than growth and his policies, trying to promote the former, will undoubtedly reduce the latter.


Detainee Policies Under Obama: Thanks for the Q and A, Mr. Krauthammer.

How fair is it of me, a Bush/McCain supporter, to feel that Barack Obama's policies toward detainees are very close to George Bush's? It seems to me that the Obama administration makes noises about differences, just before signing off on essentially the same policies.

Is Gitmo still open? Do we still have "black sites" in other countries? Related, does President Obama support the idea of signing statements, while saying he'd never use those statements the same way George W. Bush did?

I'm grateful that the president is adhering to so many of the policies of his predecessor, but find it appalling how he used those issues to garner votes, only to backtrack from his campaign rhetoric. Worst of all, most of his supporters don't seem to care. It's as though they wanted to use detainee policies as a wedge issue to get Obama elected, and now that he's in power, they couldn't care less about these issues.

Or am I being cynical?

Charles Krauthammer: You are not being cynical. It's the Democrats who are being supremely cynical. As you say, policy after policy that the Democrats savagely attacked the Bush administration for regarding measures in the war on terror have been adopted by Obama -- on rendition, on eavesdropping, on detention without trial, on invoking state secrets in terror trials, etc.

Even Guantanamo is a shell game. The issue was never where Guantanamo was located. The objection was indefinite detention without trial for terror suspects. Even if Obama moves everyone in Guantanmo to a supermax in the U.S., the alleged human abuse of detainee's legal rights will remain exactly as they were. We're not going to try Khalid Sheik Muhammad. We're not going to release KSM. If detention without trial is so objectionable as the Democrats charged last year, what's the difference if it occurs at Guantanamo or somewhere in a Michigan prison?


Washington, DC: Republicans have run this country for the last 8 years, and their policies took us to the verge of economic collapse. The Obama team pulled us back from that catastrophe in less than 6 months. Who should I trust for making the right decisions on health care? The Obama team or Republicans like you?

Charles Krauthammer: Most of the policies that have pulled us back from the brink of financial collapse were put in place under the Bush administration by the team of Bernanke, Paulson and Geithner. To Obama's credit he continued those policies. And they have saved the economy. But it was Paulson who came up with the $800 billion TARP plan. And it was the Bush team that broke all precedent by bailing out one gigantic brokerage house after another, Fannie and Freddie, the big banks, etc. For Obama acolytes to claim that he came up with cure on inauguration day is rather silly. I give him credit for very steady management of the crisis through his eight months but he didn't invent the wheel, he just kept rolling it in the right direction.


Rockville, Md.: Why do you support wasting $2 trillion in Iraq and Afganistan, yet oppose a small fraction of that amount being spent to cover uninsured Americans?

Charles Krauthammer: I don't oppose covering uninsured Americans. That's the liberal caricature of conservatives. If you actually study the breakdown of who the uninsured are, a relatively small fraction are poor, sick people who need help and would without hesitation subsidize their health insurance by taxing employer-provided health-care benefit which, as I sad in a previous comment, are a destructive distortion of the health-care market.

I don't want to get into a discussion about the merits of Iraq and Afghanistan -- there is neither time or space and I've written extensively about both -- but the question of whether one should prosecute either or both wars has nothing to do with the question of whether poor and sick Americans deserve health insurance. Principled citizens of goodwill will give as highly varied series of answers to those questions without there being any connection between them. You fight a war if you have to and if you think you can win, you cover the uninsured if you think society has a moral obligation to sustain the most unfortunate. These are separate questions.


Laurel, Md.: Are you going to be a regular chatter, or is this a one-time thing about this particular column?

On the actual substance of the article, is there any aspect of health care that really should be reformed, and that only philosophical libertarians believe it is none of the government's business? (One gets the impression from townhall.com that no conservative thinks so.)

Charles Krauthammer: The most glaring distortion in our health-care system is the medical malpractice system which is really a casino. A few lucky victims get tens of millions, the vast majority of others get nothing. And the trial lawyers grow very rich. This is really insane. As a physician I remember myself how I and my colleagues had to practice defensive medicine simply to preempt possible lawsuits. A study in Massachusetts showed that 85% of doctors do the same. It costs us between 60 and 200 billion a year. Imagine if we spent that money instead on the poor and uninsured. How much more just a society we would be.

As for chatter, I greatly enjoyed this. I hope to be back. Thanks for your questions and provocations.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company