Post Politics: Obama at UN, Health-Care Bill, More

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Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Scott Wilson discussed the latest news about the Obama administration, Congress and more.

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Scott Wilson: Good morning everyone. Glad you all are here. Busy day, so let me get right to your questions and comments.

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Northfield, Minn.: We are strong supporters of Barack Obama, but we are deeply concerned about what seems to be his less-than-tough stance regarding Wall Street these days. We agree with Paul Krugman's recent article in the New York Times. Is this not the time for Wall Street to be reined in? If not now, when? And how?

Scott Wilson: Obama has had this anger-embrace relationship with Wall Street since taking office. This ambivalence was captured over the course of the AIG bonus weekend. After making his first public comments on the bonuses, he flew to Costa Mesa, Ca., and gave an angry, populist town hall railing against the greed on Wall Street (I was along for the ride.) Then, upon returning to Washington, he told everyone to cool down and not scapegoat wall Street. I think your frustration (and Dr. Krugman's) is fairly widespread. But Obama has a lot of friends and supporters on Wall Street, believes it's health is essential to the nation's economic health, so still doesn't know quite how to talk about it - or act toward it - in a way that addresses your frustartions.

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Helena, Montana: Seems that Massachusetts may have an interim senator to replace Kennedy sometime soon. Will this make the 60 votes for cloture on health reform and other issues easier? I really can't think that members of the Democratic caucus would filibuster what leadership wants, although they may vote against the actual legislation. I know Byrd is ailing, but figure Reid will schedule cloture votes specifically for him.

Scott Wilson: That would be my guess, and if you saw Olympia Snowe's statement yesterday during the Senate Finance Committee mark-up of the Baucus bill, it sounds like she is likely on board, too, making cloture easier still.

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Fond du Lac, Wisc.: Why won't President Obama and/or Congress consider promoting insurance companies crossing state lines for competitive purposes? It would seem, if Washington truly wants competitiveness in the health care field, this would be a viable option.

Scott Wilson: This is a really good question, and one I have wondered and asked about myself. Tom Daschle, speaking essentially on behalf of the administration, said the other day he believed allowing this would set off a "race to the bottom," meaning I think that people would be encouraged to buy health insurance policies from companies based in states with the loosest insurance regulations. Seems like something the market could sort out (and this administration has said competition is the key to this reform), though would like to hear from people who have studied this more deeply than I have.

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Charlotte, N.C.: On David Letterman, President Obama again stressed the benefits of training folks/creating jobs in clean energy and the environmental refitting of our cities -- just the thing to rejuvenate (the) U.S. technologically and economically! On a mind-numbingly full administrative plate, where does this initiative fit?

Scott Wilson: Yes, something else. Hard to keep track. This one, however, is largely addressed in the already-passed $787 billion stimulus bill, which contained a lot of money for refitting/smart grid research/green jobs, etc. At least a "down payment." But, of course, the cap-and-trade legislation has yet to emerge from Congress and some in the administration say it won't this year (and may not next year, given that it's a mid-term election year.)

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Meanwhile, back at the U.N. ...: Today at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama actually used the word "torture" for the first time when addressing an international body. So when will the Washington Post start being factual about it, Scott? These continued Orwellian "Newspeak" machinations about "harsh interrogations" in the pages of the Post are making all of you look like you're still in the tank for the Bush torture, editorially speaking.

Here's Obama at the U.N. today (emphasis mine): "On my first day in office, I prohibited - without exception or equivocation - the use of torture by the United States of America. I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law. Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example."

Scott Wilson: I've written two stories just this month - on Obama and 9/11 and a broader piece on the status of Obama's agenda heading - that both used the word torture to describe Bush-era interrogation methods. No "newspeak" there. Hope you get a chance to read them.

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Winnipeg, Canada: This may not be your field, but I'll try it out on you anyway. Much of the recent debate on Afghanistan mentions its history as the graveyard of empires. The thinking is that as foreign invaders, the allies are doomed to failure there. But here's the thing I've been thinking. Many of the Taliban actually pour across the border from Pakistan, right? So why not just pull back and let the Afghans take care of these foreign invaders? It seems to me that some well-crafted, well-placed propaganda could do more damage to the Taliban than all the money and human lives we've squandered there so far.

Scott Wilson: Interesting question, but slightly wrong in your premise. The vast majority of the Taliban is Afghan. The movement is not monotlithic, but the leadership of the strongest faction uses parts of Pakistan's tribal agencies as sanctuary (and benefit from logistical help from elements within the Pakistani intelligence agency.) That's the confusion, maybe. Our own Bob Woodward broke the big story this week on Gen. McChrystal's assessment of the war effort and he outlined this in more detail. You can find a copy of it on our website, if interested. (FYI, I was the foreign editor before taking on the White House job but have never personally worked in Afghanistan.)

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Wokingham UK: What will be sufficient to make Obama's Middle East mediations look successful? Will a mere continuation of talks Annapolis-style, ie talks which aren't really expected to get anywhere, be enough for success to be claimed?

Scott Wilson: No, certainly not. In my view, success is just that, success, ie - a permanent status agreement establishing final borders of a Palestinian state and of Israel, an agreement over Jerusalem, and a resolution to the claims of Palestinian refugees. It will likely take a long time, as the president and George Mitchell have said, but that's success. No one said Bill Clinton "succeeded" and he has gotten as close as anybody with Oslo and then at the end of his term in Taba.

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Carlsbad, Calif.: Why is the administration waiting to introduce tort reform and working on efficiencies in Medicare and Medicaid until they have a complete package? These two things can be worked on right now with no other health care reform.

Scott Wilson: Good point. Obama announced in his joint-session speech that he would begin the Bush-era pilot programs to study the effect of various aspects of tort reform, so I guess that could count as a start on that (albeit a relatively slow one.)

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Good for you!: I just read your 9/12 story with the word "torture" (at long last) used corectly in the pages of the Post. You done good! Glad to hear the editorial "Newspeak" is no more. Now tell us: Was it an editorial edict that came down (and then was rescinded), or what? Why did it take years for this to happen (aside from Froomkin, that is!... and we all know what happened to him...).

washingtonpost.com: Attacks Were Defining Moment for Obama

Scott Wilson: No edicts, and I've been using the word torture for some time. I covered the Abu Ghraib story when I was working in Iraq, and used torture then as well. Not sure where the idea that we don't use the word came from, but that has never been true.

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St. Paul: Hi Scott -- Thanks for taking questions today. Now that a few days have passed, what's the general sense of how successful the president's recent media blitz was? I find it ironic that some pundits were talking about how he risked overexposure at the same time that he was pretty much dominating the news cycle. What do you think?

Scott Wilson: Hmmm, good question...A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was published today, and it showed some improvement in support for Obama's health care proposals and his approval rating stayed the same (51 percent.) But that didn't measure post Sunday-show/Letterman blitz, obviously. So I can't say for sure if he helped himself.

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Los Angeles, CA.: For the cable TV critics suggesting that Obama is being overexposed: No, he is not. Most Americans saw him on one show. Now, if you are someone who watches every show Obama is on, then maybe it is not Obama who is overexposed but that you are watching way too much TV.

Scott Wilson: What do you all think?

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Reston, VA: During the waning years of the Bush administration, top Democrats said that the "real" war, the war of necessity, was the war in Afghanistan. Then-candidate Barack Obama echoed their sentiment. Winning in Afghanistan was imperative, and would be a key part of his foreign policy decisions.

Fast forward six months into his presidency, and when the times get tough, it sounds like the Democrats and the President want to get going, so to speak.

What has changed in those six months that would make Afghanistan another so-called War of Choice?

Scott Wilson: Very good question, although I think saying the "Democrats and the President want to get going" is misleading. The Democrats - ie, Congressional Democrats - increasingly look like they want to get out of Afghanistan but that is not new (recall the strife/delays over the war supplemental.) But Obama has yet to weigh in on McChrystal's stark assessment and may come down on the general's side - that is, more troops/aid resources/allied help, along with a new strategy, are needed. So I think that's too early to tell. But your larger point is right on - has anything changed to make the war of necessity less necessary? If Obama recalibrates, choosing a more modest, counter-terrorism approach (special forces ops, drone strikes, etc) then he'll need to make a persuasive argument that this is the way to win a war of necessity. Could be a tough one...

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"... but that has never been true.": Unfortunately, it has been true. See Andrew Sullivan here: The Washington Post's Support For Torture

And the article he references here:

How a Detainee Became An Asset

There are countless other examples -- including on these WaPo chats with reporters as varied as Paul Kane (from the right) and Ruth Marcus (from the center-right).

Scott Wilson: It's never been true in my case. I've used it when I thought it was accurate, attributing it in some cases and using it in my own words in others. There was no policy I was aware of, and I was a senior editor before taking this job.

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Richmond, VA: Regarding Obama's overexposure. I have to agree with the earlier poster since I only watched one show. There a way more media outlets and options for people these days. It's not the old 3 station only world anymore. He almost has to hit everywhere to get the message out since people have more options for their news.

Scott Wilson: Here's another opinion on whether Obama is "over-exposed..."

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Orono, Maine: I know Matt Latimer's new all-tell is getting attention for this or that quote by George W. Bush, but the thing that I find very interesting is him mentioning Susan Collins's jealously over Olympia Snowe.

But before this book came out, what was the Beltway chatter about the relationship that Susan Collins has with Olympia Snowe?

Scott Wilson: I went to our true expert on this subject, our Congressional correspondent Paul Kane. Here's his analysis:

Snowe and Collins are both moderate Republicans in the mold of Margaret Chase Smith. That puts them in the same ideological place but it also means they often fight for the same sort of coverage and positioning. More importantly, they come from different geographic camps of an internal rivalry among Maine Republicans. Even though they are both from the northern part of the state -- Snowe represented the northern 2nd district in the House; Collins grew up in Loring, the northern most town in the continental US, I think -- Snowe fell in love with and then married her delegation mate, then-Rep. Jock McKernan, a Republican representing the Portland-based 1st District, in the 1980s. McKernan was from the southern wing of the Maine GOP, and he never quite got along with then-Sen. Bill Cohen, a Republican who grew up in Bangor up north. (Cohen held the 2nd District seat until 1978, when he won the Senate seat, and Snowe won Cohen's House seat.)

So Snowe fell in with the McKernan wing of the Maine GOP, and Collins came up literally inside the Cohen camp -- she was a top staffer for Cohen in the '70s and '80s, on the government reform/oversight committee, which she now serves on as the ranking Republican. This has always had them in different wings of the party, in terms of personality and geography, not ideology. McKernan left the House in 1987 after winning the governor's race, and served two terms there, finishing up amid a brutal recession that hit Maine hard in the early 1990s and as the Air Force base in Loring was ordered close.

Collins was the GOP nominee for governor in 1994, and she basically distanced herself from McKernan, further exacerbating the tensions between the McKernan-Cohen camps.Collins finished 3rd as independent Angus King won, and two years later Collins won the Senate seat of her former boss, as Cohen retired and went on to become Defense secretary. Snowe and Collins immediately started jousting for media coverage/attention.

That tension has lasted throughout the Snowe-Collins service together in the Senate.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: The Congressional Research Service issued a report this week that the removal of the Honduran president was a proper exercise of that country's constitutional power. Given that, why does the Obama administration support the return of a Marxist dictator-to-be in that country, and refuses to recognize the new government, but then is willing to recognize the fraudulent Iranian elections?

Scott Wilson: Zelaya was elected, and restoring an elected president in a region with a history of problematic military intervention in civilian government (to put it mildly)is the administration's policy. I've seen several of them first hand - Chavez (the coup and return), Aristide (re-election and ouster), etc - and tossing out presidents early is, obviously, very messy. You favor the Congressional Research Service position over the OAS?

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South Dakota credit card bills: To the person asking about allowing cross-border health insurance plans, they may want to consider why many of our credit card bills come from South Dakota. It's not just that it is some "cheap labor" state (not sure if it is). Credit card companies base themselves there because South Dakota has the most lenient state regulations on credit card issuers which they can leverage to do business in other states. Unless you can put in a host of federal restrictions and limits on what health insurance companies can do, I'm not sure that's the right way to go.

Scott Wilson: Here's a thought on the selling insurance across state lines question....

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Scott Wilson: That's all I've got time for today, so thanks very much to everybody who joined in. Until next time....

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