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Opinion focus with Eugene Robinson: Obama's Afghanistan conundrum, Lieberman's choice, just another election day?

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, November 3, 2009; 2:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Nov. 3 to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly session. It's Election Day, so if you've got contests where you live, get out and vote. Today's column, for reference, looked at the record of the Obama presidency thus far -- one year after the election -- and found that those who say the White House hasn't done anything haven't been paying very close attention. From the comment string, I gather that some folks disagree. Also, health care is still simmering and may be almost cooked, but we'll see. Let's get started.

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Canon City, Colo: Great Column. But you overlooked some of the most important changes. The regulatory agencies are actually regulating. The National Product Safety Council is actually concerned about product safety. BLM and other federal agencies are taking a much more reasonable attitude toward oil leases and timber sales in the West. The Bush fire sale seems to be over. The Obama Administration will not be drilling at the gates of the national parks. Those are big changes that don't make the headlines.

Eugene Robinson: I agree. I should have mentioned that there's a huge difference between having a president who believes government can do good things and having a president who believes government is basically a burden. The federal government is back in business, and that's an enormous change from the previous eight years.

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Huntsville, Ala.: You think "the nation and the world are fortunate that he (Obama) doesn't have the reckless, ready-aim-fire mentality of George W. Bush." So, you don't like that we haven't had another attack in eight years? I'll bet you prefer that Obama's "ready-aim-fire" target is our economy and distributing the wealth. Obama's behavior is worse than "dithering," he's POLITICKING!

Eugene Robinson: I believe I described Bush's mentality as "ready-fire-aim," and that's the point. I prefer aiming before firing. Unless you object to the idea of taxation in any form, you're really not philosophically opposed to redistribution of wealth. And I am shocked -- shocked! -- that there should be politicking in Washington.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Very balanced perspective this morning. I'm a former Republican, moderate-thinking Independent who strongly supported Obama. First time I ever felt strongly about something. And he has been exactly what I was hoping for: A temperamental, philosophical conservative gradually working toward progressive ends. I read some blowhard on Huffington Post going on about his leadership style. I think he's reinventing leadership for a new era, and it's in our best interest if his consensus-building, mutual-respect-based approach takes hold. It would not be the right approach to confront Nazi Germany, but no such entity exists today.

Eugene Robinson: True. Obama's style is what it is, and I think people are foolish to expect him to become a different person. He really does seem to believe in consensus and mutual respect, and the proof will be in his success in getting things done. So far, if you've been keeping track, he's done quite a lot.

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Manhattan, Kan.: Hi Gene--I am as much a political junkie as about anyone I know, but I am at a loss to explain how two off-year governor's races and a special Congressional election in a district that has voted Republican for 100 years have become an Obamameter of the country's mood toward the President. I was wondering whether you will be appearing on MSNBC tonight, and if so, will you call them out for branding today Super Tuesday?

Eugene Robinson: Yes, I'll be on MSNBC tonight, and yes, I'll call my brethren and sistren out. Thinking of the Virginia and New Jersey governor's races as any sort of barometer makes no sense, since for the past four or five elections they've both gone against the party of the president elected the previous year. So if both states go Republican tonight, that would be expected given the pattern. I guess if Corzine would happen to squeak through, that would be a huge victory for Obama and the Democrats, right? As for New York's 23rd Congressional District, that race is all about the battle for the Republican Party's soul. If that district were to go to the Democrat, that would be a huge surprise. But can we draw sweeping conclusions from any of this? I think not.

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Los Angeles: Comment:

My wife and I were talking over Sunday morning coffee, and we got to going through all of the positive changes that have happened over the past year. We voted for President Obama because we wanted change, and I for one had thought it would be dramatic, loud, in-your-face change (hey, we live in the entertainment capital of the world!). He's gone about it quietly, almost gently, but there are still real changes that you can point to across a broad spectrum of issues. And all of this has happened while he has pretty much single-handedly kept us from going into the economic abyss. I shudder when I think about what the last year would have been like with McCain/Palin in the White House.

Eugene Robinson: In the first draft of my column I mused about what the nation and the world would look like today if McCain/Palin had won, but I didn't have enough space to develop the theme and so we cut the line. I do shudder to imagine that alternative universe.

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Boston: Is it possible that Clinton was just dead tired from her long trip and hectic schedule in Pakistan when she grew frustrated with repeated challenges from questioners and said it was hard for her to imagine no one in the Pakistan government knew where Bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan? Same question for her "great job Brownie" comments about Israeli settlements? She seemed to have been remarkably undisciplined in representing official US policy and had to "walk back" her comments in both cases.

Eugene Robinson: I must admit, I found Hillary Clinton's candor refreshing. It was about time that someone pointed out the obvious about Pakistan -- that it's hard to believe nobody in the government has the slightest idea where bin Laden might be. Even though she had to walk it back later, I think it was good to throw it out there. On her remarks about the Israeli settlements, I disagree with the view she expressed -- I think a freeze has to be a real freeze, not a semi-freeze -- but if it's Obama administration policy to let Netanyahu fudge on the settlements, why shouldn't she say it out loud?

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Houston, Tex.: You say that the Dems are undisciplined, but it is Obama who is the party leader. Nobody fears Obama; not the press, not the GOP, not the Dems. These groups feared Bush and he was able to ram through anything he wanted with the "majority of the majority". Even w/o 911, he would have rammed things through. Obama is scared of stepping on toes. What would have happened to Lieberman if he was a Repub, campaigning for John Kerry? Bush and Rove would have cracked his head open in full view, not argue with his caucus for him to keep his chairmanship. Obama needs to start stepping on toes, in order to turn this thing around. He needs to be feared. If he can't get his signature issue through, with 60, what is the point of having the majority. What would have Bush done with 60 votes? What would you think about this?

Eugene Robinson: The Democratic Party doesn't function the way the Republican Party does (or did, before the current GOP civil war began). Maybe the Dems should be more disciplined, but you go to war with the congressional majorities you have, not the congressional majorities you would like to have. Obama doesn't seem to like to use fear as a motivational tool. If he has other tools that can get the job done, eschewing fear shouldn't matter.

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Arlington, Va: Glenn Beck has said that the President hates white people while Limbaugh says that Obama is a child. I don't detect these characteristics. Where do these people get these impressions from?

Eugene Robinson: I don't think these are genuine impressions. I think they are examples of practiced outrageousness. If you make your living by throwing rhetorical bombs, you've got to come up with new ones all the time.

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Akron, Ohio: Mr. Robinson,

What should the leaders of the Democratic Party do about Sen. Lieberman and the "Blue Dog" Demcorats who seem willing to implode health-care reform because of some ideological reasons?

Should Sen. Lieberman be stripped of his chairmanship of Homeland Security? And should the White House lean hard on those "Blue Dogs" to get them in line with the rest of the party to make them realize that actually accomplishing policy goals equates to maintaining power?

Eugene Robinson: Lieberman, I think, is going to have to decide whether he wants to caucus with the Democrats or not. If he won't vote with the caucus on a procedural vote to cut off a health care filibuster, what's the point of having him ostensibly on board? As for the Blue Dogs, if I were in the congressional leadership or the White House, I'd point out to them that if health care doesn't pass and the Democrats get punished next year for failing to get anything done, it's not those in safe seats who are going to lose -- Nancy Pelosi has nothing to worry about. It's the Democrats in swing districts who will go down -- in other words, the Blue Dogs. There's a big element of self-preservation in this vote, as I see it.

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Miami, Fla.: Mr Robinson:

Obama's strategy of mostly staying out of the health care debate may yet prove to be a good one, and one can only pray that he has the courage to withdraw from Afghanistan(unfortunately doubtful). Overall, though, Mr. Obama seems much more constrained and less proactive than we on the left hoped he would be. Are there specific conditions under which he might become an even more activist President?

Eugene Robinson: I understand your frustration, but I do think it's important to separate style from substance. Obama's style is cool and controlled. It's true, though, that there's a performance aspect to the presidency, and it's valid to wonder whether he is neglecting the theatrical side in a way that hampers his agenda. I really think that in the end, we'll judge by results. I've criticized him, for example, for not moving faster on don't-ask-don't-tell. But he says he's going to get there, and if he does, I'll have to give him credit.

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Herndon, Va.: It looks like any global warming legislation is going to have tough sledding this year. To the extent that the American public believes that something must be done to curb our (USA) per capita CO2 emissions, are conservatives credible when they bring up issues of cost (taxing carbon)? I know we may WANT a cost free solution, but how else can the market steer activity away from the burning of fossil fuels and other CO2 emitting activities?

Eugene Robinson: I really think climate change legislation is too complicated and consequential to get done in such a short time frame. I don't think there is a cost-free solution, period. I tend to agree with those who argue that the most effective instrument would be a transparent carbon tax, but nobody really wants to talk in such plain language. So we'll likely end up with an opaque carbon tax of some sort.

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Turner, Maine: Let's say President Obama decides to stick it out in Afghanistan for another couple of years and everything goes better than expected--everything goes perfectly. What next? Invading Syria to destroy more terrorist training camps? How about the terrorists operating out of the Sulu archipelago and the island of Mindanao? There are a dozen failed states where al- Qaeda can and will operate, so is President Obama's plan to rebuild them one at a time? Or is it possible that the president is being swept up in a war that's being fought for more clandestine reasons?

Eugene Robinson: You raise a good point, in that there are other countries where central control is so weak that al-Qaeda or other groups could set up shop. The plan can't be to nation-build each and every one.

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Riverdale Park, Md.: Mr Robinson,

What has Obama done about unemployment? People need jobs. He just says we should expect unemployment to keep going up.

Eugene Robinson: The White House maintains that the stimulus "created or saved" hundreds of thousands of jobs. That's a pretty vague and probably unprovable claim. The fact is that employment is a lagging indicator, and it doesn't come back until months after a recession has technically ended. At least, that's what the economists say. If the growth that we saw in the third quarter proves to be sustained, unemployment should peak and then start to decline. Theoretically.

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Leesburg, Va.: Gene, May I call you Gene?

GWB did nothing in Afghanistan for 8 years. Why the impetus on the behalf of the Republicans to make a decision on Afghanistan nownownownownownowNOW! If thinking about it for a few weeks is "dithering," what is not thinking about it for a few years?

Eugene Robinson: I do think the urgency is pretty ironic. Particularly silly is the idea that President Obama should make a move without thinking about it. Isn't thinking a good thing?

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Washington, D.C.: "There's a big element of self-preservation in this vote, as I see it."

Are you arguing that it is better to have our elected leaders voting for purposes of self preservation than it is to have them vote based on their ideological beliefs? Or is it that all of these Blue Dogs are intellectually inferior and unable to determine for themselves what is best for their constituents? Is this the "change" and new era of politics we are supposed to place our faith in?

Eugene Robinson: Are you shocked that our elected officials spend a lot of time thinking about how to get re-elected? You're assuming that the Blue Dogs are sincere in their belief against, for example, the health care public option -- and that they're not looking ahead to the attacks they may face from a Republican opponent the next time they have to run.

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Toledo, Ga.: Do you think the President spent all his political capital in the first year of his presidency? I think it will become increasingly clear that the American people don't want anymore big-spending programs, and much like we are doing at home, we want Washington to get back into the black. We expect the government to make the same sacrifices and responsible choices we make - so what does that leave for the President to do the next three years? Is he just going to manage wars? The support won't be there for any big government plans anymore.

Eugene Robinson: What's going to be really hard is finding the money for any big plans. The president is going to have to attack the deficit in some way. If he doesn't, I don't know where the cash will come from.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. My time is up for today. See you next week.

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