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Assess the Obama Administration

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Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Scott Wilson discusses the accomplishments of the Obama administration so far, how his agenda for change is at a crossroads and looks at the challenges facing the president.

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Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

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Scott Wilson: Good morning everyone. Thanks for joining in. A lot to get to on the eve of the president's speech before Congress on health care. What's at stake and what should he say? I'll get right to your questions.

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Herndon, Va.: President Obama will be bringing his partisan education message of hard work and accomplishment to Wakefield HS today. Can we expect Michael Steele to reply that the Republican Party believes in teaching both sides of the hard work controversy? Doesn't every American child deserve to know the advantages of laziness?

Scott Wilson: Hah. But the controversy over this back-to-school speech - an address several Republican presidents also took on to very little concern - certainly highlights how partisan, how fevered and hair trigger the attacks are as Obama enters a critical stretch. Jim Greer, the Republican Party leader in Flordia, backtracked on assertion tha tteh speech amounted to "indoctrination." He'll let his kids watch the president now.

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New York, N.Y.: What is the thinking of the Obama Administration on reducing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Surely our military presence is not winning over the population. When it is time to provide economic assistance but not military assistance to these nations that might be better off with our economic but not military help?

Scott Wilson: As you know, the administration has already withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraqi cities and plans to have all troops gone from Iraq by the end of next year. But it'll soon be considering a request for more troops for Afghanistan. Obama's in the tricky situation of relying on Republican support for his policy to expand the Afghan war - although one influential one, George Will, just called for a withdrawal - and so is caught betwene his base and his generals on whether to send in more soldiers. he'll be making the decision in the coming months, as he grapples with health care.

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Boston: Is there a sense that training camp is over for Obama and the real games are beginning just like the NFL? And is politics a "just win baby" game like the NFL? Does he have to pass something/anything on healthcare reform or will he be "NFL" (not for long) in the White House? Maybe HBO should produce a political "Hard Knocks" series...

Scott Wilson: Well, that's one analogy. I wrote in a Sunday story that his agenda of necessity, saving the economy, is giving way to his agenda of choice, his campaign pledges to reform health care, energy, education, etc. (I was playing on the distinction he makes between the Iraq and Afghan wars.)What's interesting is that, in the view of administration officials, the stimulus, bailouts, auto-industry intervention are feeding public perception of governmet expansion, and they are all things they would rather not have done. The sentiment is now making it much harder to push through more government-initiated reform. Obama may talk a bit about this Wednesday...

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Vienna, Va. : Scott, best line of the Labor Day speech given by the president : "What are you doing to do? What's your answer? What's your solution?" (Someone needs to create a bumper sticker with that phrase). Why haven't the democrats pushed this message? that the opposition is just providing criticism and not a real solution to a pressing problem. Your thoughts?

Scott Wilson: Good point. Obama has made this argument in a few town halls I've seen him in, but it hasn't really taken off. He usually only says it outside the Beltway, as he continues to try to find some GOP support in Congress for his plans. As his own party asks for a more assertive leadership style from him heading into the fall, you may get what you wish for, this kind of message shouted much more clearly and often.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Why does your country get so easily distracted by the lunatic fringe? You have a President suggesting some long-needed reforms after winning a solid election victory, and you'd think he'd arrived with the space ship from "Mars Attacks." I can't believe there's another country in the world where the death panel controversy would be taken seriously, let alone the birthers and the 9/11 conspirators.

Scott Wilson: A reading recommendation: "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Written by Richard Hofstadter and published in 1964, it's a still-timely examination of what you describe. The ease with which information/rumor is spread by the Internet has broadened the phenomenon.

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Assessing the Citizenship: Scott, maybe we should also assess the citizenship of the U.S. Yesterday, I pulled up behind a van with the virulent and noxious anti-Obama stickers. I have seen anti-President stickers for just about every President, but this stuff was a lot more than "Impeach X' or the "W" with the "No" symbol super-inscribed. the sick stuff that is being screamed and sadly reported about this President is shocking. A patriot has to respect the office, even if he dislikes the occupant.

Scott Wilson: Comments on this?

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Germantown, Md.: Do you think we are seeing the "inexperience" issues with Mr. Obama that many warned about before the election? He seems like a nice guy with flowing speeches but not really ready for prime time. Is it too late to vote for McCain?

Scott Wilson: I think we're seeing, in part, the challenges that face an activist administration. I also think we're seeing the fallout from a strategy that is seeking to take on a number of very large, complciated issues at once - from closing the brig at Guantanamo Bay to reforming health care and energy to intensifying the war in Afghanistan. Is the tactic a sign of inexperience? It was designed by senior staff with lots of Washington experience. But seems like the jury is still out...

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Avon Park, FL: Is it too late for the White House to be making such a public push for healthcare reform? I think that Obama should have used the bully pulpit of the White House to promote it back in June when his poll numbers were higher. But with his numbers having gone down in large part due to healthcare, I think he allowed the opposition to gain traction.

Scott Wilson: Interesting opinion. The administration identifies its health-care kickoff as the June speech Obama gave to the American Medical Association. But I think you're right in noting that the push has not been as intense as it is about to get, even though the administration wanted a bill before the August recess. Too late? No, probably not. But harder to do with lower poll numbers.

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Hampton, Va.: "A patriot has to respect the office, even if he dislikes the occupant. "

My comment: wow, what a difference 9 months makes! Have you forgotten the Bush-as-Hitler nonsense? The Truthers (like Van Jones, conveniently thrown under a Labor Day bus)? I think it's hilarious that lefties are suddenly calling for civility.

Scott Wilson: Here's one response to earlier...

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Northern Virginia: Everyone in the media has decided to present some people's gut-level, fearful rejection of the president talking to their kids, via an address to schoolchildren, as "just how partisan things have become."

As a middle-aged white Southern woman (and Democrat), it never occurred to me this was a partisan reaction at all. I think it's because for some Americans, the notion of a black president is still horribly uncomfortable. Like integrating a swimming pool or a restaurant. Is the media just putting a more palatable face on the reaction by calling it hyperpartisan, or do you think I'm wrong?

Scott Wilson: You raise an interesting issue. I'd be interested to hear what others think about this. I will say that what critics of the president's back-to-school speech pointed to as the main problem was the Education Department's suggest follow-up lessons, namely a suggestion for students to write a letter to themselves about "how they could help the president." And at least one of the most vocal critics has backed off now that he has read the speech...But let me know what else you think might be driving it...

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Simple answers to simple questions: Question from Canada (above): "Why does your country get so easily distracted by the lunatic fringe?"

Answer: Because our lunatic media treats all sides as equal, even when one side is certifiably and demonstrably barking mad, that's why.

If you don't believe me, see how our own Chat-meister, Scott Wilson, framed the lunatic-fringe ravings of the right-wing in his article on Obama's speech to schoolchildren today: President Seeks to Avoid Politics in Speech to Schools

Scott Wilson: Although I get taken to task here, I do think you have a point. Too often - but, I'd argue, not always - a criticism, no matter how far fetched, is treated seriously when in fact it is being deployed only as a political tactic. I'd argue the "death panels" assertion is a better example than the schools speech criticism, which I think was given some (early) credence by the "helping the president" study tip, later voided. I think we in the media do have to do a better job of evaluating what criticism is based in fact and/or genuine public engagement and what is being raised soley as gratuitous political attack - on both sides.

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Reston, Va.: Scott, the Democrats who are fully behind President Obama's speech to school kids are quick to forget that when George Bush (Number 41) gave a speech to a D.C. Junior High School in 1991, the Democrats called for and held congressional hearings over the "waste of $26,000." The GAO decided the money was spent appropriately but that did not deter the uproar. Why has this not been reported in the Post or made note of by the media?

washingtonpost.com: When Bush spoke to students, Democrats investigated, held hearings (Washington Examiner)

Scott Wilson: Interesting, I didn't know this.

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Dale City, VA: It doesn't seem to me that Pres. Obama is suffering much from "inexperience". He has responded pretty well to amazingly difficult situations in the economy while putting energy into all the other areas you mentioned. How many other presidents have entered office with so many critical issues in play?

Scott Wilson: Good point...The scope of the work - and range of issues - he's taken on has been noteworthy.

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Las Cruces, NM: "As a middle-aged white Southern woman (and Democrat), it never occurred to me this was a partisan reaction at all. I think it's because for some Americans, the notion of a black president is still horribly uncomfortable."

I'm sure there are many racists out there that don't like Obama because he is black. However, is it at all possible that it is wrong to tar everyone in opposition to Obama as a racist? Think about the assumptions you have to make to get to that point.

Scott Wilson: Another perspetive on the motives of the opposition...

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The "Education" Speech: Having read the text of the speech, I can say that I don't see anything objectionable...but the furor is earned, based on that "I pledge to be a servant to Barack Obama" video from last week.

Doesn't he understand that the campaign is over, and he has to learn how to be a president now?

And by the way: does he really think that kids are going to pay attention for 20 minutes? Not even his cult of personality is that strong.

Scott Wilson: Does seem long...

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The citizenship: The strangest thing about this is that the people who called anyone who even mildly disagreed with Bush Jr. a "Traitor" are the the loudest voices in screaming "Nazi", Communist", "Senior Killer', "Child Indoctrinator" about the current occupant of the office.

Scott Wilson: This is representative of a few comments on the "respect for office" idea...

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Washington, D.C.: The White House seems to be really out of any comfort zone recently. First, there was an apparent failure to vet Van Jones thoroughly and an inability to foresee how his fiery statements and even marginal involvement in a "truther" group would be received (by the conservatives, if not the MSM, which (as Byron York in the Examiner has pointed out) mostly ignored this). Then, some doofus in Education managed to take what is apparently an innocuous speech by Obama and create a ruckus with that suggested assignment to "write a letter about how you can help the President achieve his goal," which, yes, does sound like he was going to speak about policy, not hand-washing.

As far as I can see, the conservatives are ahead on points against an opponent who seems oblivious that he's close to being knocked out well before the final round. The Republican base is truly energized (probably because liberals mostly respond by calling them stupid) in a way I can't recall seeing since before Bush. Your thoughts?

Scott Wilson: There have certainly been some recent missteps, and after some traveling I did this summer, it certainly seems like the Republican base has come alive. Question: Do the Republicans need a national leader to be effective?

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Washington, DC: The Obama team should have developed a better marketing strategy for selling their version of healthcare reform to the public.

If the team had made available to the press, details of their reform proposal - would the press have been able to counter the "death panel" notion as without merit, and therefore, been confident to conclude that Palin is politicizing the reform effort?

Scott Wilson: There has certainly been a problem identifying what, specifcially, the administration wants in a health care bill so I do think you have a point, to a degree...

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Miami: Wasn't the outcry over Obama's speech effective? After all, the Dept. of Education was forced to back down from the elements that could have been indoctrination -- like forcing schoolkids to answer how they can best serve Obama. Isn't this a victory for America?

Scott Wilson: Another view on the Obama schools speech. I have to sign off now, but thanks to all of you for participating. See you back here again soon.

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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.


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