Post politics: Terrorism trials, Obama abroad, more

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Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Michael Fletcher discusses the latest news about the Obama administration, Congress and more.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Sorry for the late start. So let's get going.

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McLean: This may seem a little contrarian, but I'm surprised by how well Obama'a approval ratings have held up this fall. He did decline from a honeymoon-ish 65 percent to about 50 this summer. But since then he's held steady -- pretty good for a president in a time of 10 percent unemployment.

Michael A. Fletcher: That's an argument being made by the White House. They say this president has inherited a raft of huge problems and he is methodically working through them. The fact that his approval rating is holding up, they say, is recognition that people recognize the challenges he faces.

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CNN and Obama's Afghan options: Is the lack of popularity for Obama's likely "middle option" in Afghanistan (not McChrystal's 40,000 or Democrat's (and George Will's) counterterrorism/troop drawdown) a little like CNN's current ratings conundrum trying to play it straight news down the middle? You are left pleasing only a very small audience. Is either CNN's or Obama's strategy sustainable?

Michael A. Fletcher: Let's wait and see what Obama chooses. His aides said he is really focused on getting the right answer to the war at a time when he is severely constrained. It costs $1 billion a year to maintain 1,000 troops in Afghanistan. The White House, I know, is worried about that cost. Is the Afghan government a reliable partner? How long would it take to achieve the current mission, even with the upper limit on troops? If Obama decides on 40,000 troops, the generals say they won't all be in place until 2011. And what if the generals later want even more troops? Balance all of that against the threat posed by an unsecure Afghanistan and you see the problem the president is facing. So it is hard to think he is thinking of simply splitting the difference, even if it appears that way.

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Helena, Montana: I'm going to be a bit snarky here and ask you - which of the Blue Dog Dems or the Republicans will ask Obama how he's going to pay for whatever he plans to do in Afghanistan? Is there going to be a media blitz with our "fiscal hawks" talking about how the war in Afghanistan has to be paid?

Michael A. Fletcher: Good questions. I think I know the answer, but I don't want to prejudge.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hey Michael - I'm still a little tone-deaf on the "Sexist" pic of Sarah Palin on the Newsweek cover. I think it can be said that it's inappropriate, but sexist? She's striking a pose in a running suit... not a string bikini. If they ran a cover of Obama in shorts flexing the muscles I would say that it isn't appropriate but I wouldn't say it's sexist.

Michael A. Fletcher: Interesting point. I'm surprised that Palin called it sexist, even if that pose was for a fitness or cycling magazine (can't remember which. But that charge fits her narrative that she is dumped on by the MSM.

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San Diego: It seems to me that in the media's--including you folks at the WaPo, given the number of column inches you routinely devote to her--love affair with Sarah Palin, lost in the hagiography is the lack of any political substance to her positions and policies.

The media have allowed her to skate by on platitudes. That appeals to her followers, of course, who care more about her image and about her ability to echo their beliefs than they do about the brass tacks of governance.

But to people who'd sure like to hear her plan for economic revitalization, or a forward-looking energy policy, or how she'd handle the situation in Afghanistan, well, your coverage leaves us cold.

I realize that Palin provides good copy and a lot of hits to your website, but sooner or later, the media will have to start reporting on what she proposes to do with regard to, say, Israel and Palestine, and stop reporting on what she said to Oprah or on her Facebook page. Why not get started now?

Michael A. Fletcher: Right now, I fear, she falls more into the category of a celebrity than a political leader, even if she is the latter for maybe 40 percent of Americans. You're right, she's good copy, particularly on the Web. Just having her name in a story guarantees hits. But I believe if she moves closer to becoming a political candidate again you will see more serious scrutiny of her positions.

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Boston: How scary is it for the White House to realize they are reliant for reelection predominantly upon an issue, unemployment, over which they have very little leverage?

Michael A. Fletcher: It has to be very scary. Not only does the White House have limited sway over the economy, but the administration is also tapped out with the huge deficit becoming a larger and larger political issue. Now you see President Obama making himself more visible on the jobs issue, with his upcoming summit and Main Street tour. But the truth is that while they will probably take some limited steps--maybe an infrastructure bank, maybe a limited jobs program--they really have to wait for the economic cycle to play out. The raw fact is that Americans were carrying too much debt and they are now deleveraging. We also have seen many jobs disapper--in the auto industry, construction, financial services--that are unlikely to reappear any time soon. It is hard for the White House to change that, even if many economists credit their policies with heading off something that would have been even worse.

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Leesburg, Va.: Michael,

Can you explain the hysteria over the KSM trial in NY to me? It's not like we've never tried a terrorist here before. Shoot, it's not like we've never tried a 9/11 terrorist here before, Zacharias Moussaoui was tried right down the street in Alexandria with no problems whatsoever.

So, what exactly is different now?

Michael A. Fletcher: One word: politics.

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Abingdon, Md.: Does Dick Cheney ever shut up? For the life of me, I cannot understand all the hoopla about the bowing in Japan. From a guy who wants to always pick a fight with everybody in the sandbox (sometimes for no reason at all), I have no problem with Americans showing courtesy to other cultures and societies. After all, weren't we looking for a change in tone--or just another bully?

Michael A. Fletcher: I'll say this, the former vice president is doing more talking now than he did during 8 years in the administration.

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Silver Spring, Md.: From Anne Kornblut's article this morning "In an interview in the Chinese capital with Major Garrett of Fox News..."

So has the president reconsidered his earlier decision not to talk to Fox News?

washingtonpost.com: Obama admits Guantanamo won't close by Jan. deadline

Michael A. Fletcher: I never recalled him saying he would not do interviews with Fox. I think he said he would, but he certainly has avoided them in recent months. At any rate, there seems to be a thaw.

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Boston: Hi Michael,

You wrote "It costs $1 billion a year to maintain 1,000 troops in Afghanistan." Somewhere else I read how little the Taliban pays its fighters who are mostly doing it for the money. Why don't we just bring our troops home and buy off the uncommitted Taliban troops?

Michael A. Fletcher: Actually, that may be something they are weighing, at least on some scale. But that can be tough, mainly because while we use the term "Taliban" it refers to a broad group of fighters whose loyalities are tough to peg.

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DC: Is the Jobs Summit too-little, too-late? Shouldn't this have come before health-care reform? Krugman (and I) have been arguing all along about the threat of the double-dip recession. Early investment in infrastructure development would have created jobs, which would have eliminated that threat and sustained long term growth. Can we expect Geithner and Summers to step down so we can get some real leadership or am I just overly "Hope"ful for "Change" I can believe in?

Michael A. Fletcher: To quote one White House wag,it is not easy getting an "ideal" jobs bill through Congress. The stimulus plan, which had more tax breaks than the White House wanted and even included an unrelated AMT fix, barely passed as it was. I think in a perfect world White House economists would have wanted it to be as much as 50 percent bigger. I'm not sure the jobs summit is more than a way for the president to demonstrate his concern about the jobs problem. After all, his folks are working on this issue every day. In the end, the president may be right in saying that we just have to be patient for things to improve.

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Baltimore: Has any prior president tried to tackle so many different issues in the first year of his presidency as President Obama? In making an effort to touch on the majority of domestic and international matters in a short time, it seems that he is trying to let the American people know the complexity and often interconnectedness of these issues. Is this good or bad? Has this lead to his declining popularity numbers because most people don't really acknowledge or understand what he is trying to do?

Michael A. Fletcher: Certainly, not many, if any presidents have been forced to tackle so many things so fast. And indeed the White House argues that much of this is forced on them either by circumstances (bailouts, stimulus) or political reality (would health care reform or climate change legislation really have had a better chance in a congressional election year?. Many of these things are interconnected in ways that most Americans probably haven't considered, or don't care to. Can renewable energy thrive as an industry if the administration does not get climate change legislation, which in the end will make fossil fuels more expensive? The president bet billions on renewable energy in the stimulus package. He is investing billions in education, in an effort to boost Amerian comptetiveness in the future. So, yes, it is all big, complicated, and probably not helping his popularity as much as a more simple agenda might.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Gotta run. Thanks for the questions

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