Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online Dec. 1 at 11 a.m. ET.


Ben Pershing: Happy post-Thanksgiving Tuesday, everyone. President Obama's big speech on Afghanistan is nine hours away, the health-care debate slogs forward in the Senate, a jobs bill is percolating in the House, the Salahis and gatecrashing are all the rage and Tiger Woods still isn't talking to police. (Wrong chat for that one, I know, but still interesting.) Let's get started.


Florissant Valley, Mo.: I'm a strong supporter of the president and hope he succeeds in his various historic efforts. But I have to ask, what does he know about Afghanistan on 12/1/09 that he couldn't have found out on or before 11/1 or 10/1? Was it a chance to let opinion coalesce or, better yet, opposition concerns to grow? To keep Karzai on tenterhooks? Your take? Thanks

Ben Pershing: Maybe Obama doesn't know much more today than he did a month or two months ago, but you can certainly argue that it takes time to talk to all the stakeholders (our allies, the Afghan government, the Pakistani government) and all the different administration factions (Pentagon, State, VP's office) and gather a complete picture before making the decision. Because so much of this process occurred in public and via leaks, I think it made Obama's process appear much slower than it actually was. How long did it take Bush to come up with the "surge" strategy in Iraq? It was several months, right?


Boston: Ben, I know you are not "the media", but why does the media like to devote so much ink and airtime to grifters looking for ink and airtime? You know, sports programming doesn't show streakers and others looking for publicity and it has kept the silliness down dramatically.

Ben Pershing: I am not "the media" but I will defend, to a point, the coverage of the Salahis' gatecrashing at the White House (I assume that's what you're referring to). There is a real security issue here about how and why this couple was able to get into what should be one of the most secure buildings on the planet. That fact alone makes this story worth covering. Beyond that, there is an obvious human-interest angle here that is irresistible for the press -- attractive people, glamorous parties, social climbing, etc.


Dunn Loring, Va.: With Obama receiving criticism both home and abroad about his weak and ineffectual foreign policy efforts, how much of his decision to increase troops in Afghanistan is due to his need to prove he's not a wimp?

Ben Pershing: I have certainly seen that criticism of Obama here in the U.S., most recently and vocally from Dick Cheney. But who is making that argument abroad? I have not seen or heard many international critics saying Obama is "weak" or "ineffectual." As for whether that fear is driving his Afghanistan policy, I guess it depends on how cynical you are. Politics plays a role in every presidential decision, but do you think Adm. Mike Mullen and Robert Gates and Jim Jones would all be going along with this decision if it was just being driven by the desire not to look like a wimp?


The Man is Right!: Of course the Bush/Cheney administration bear no responsibility for the Afghan situation. This is Obama's War. Always has been, always will be. Bush/Cheney era was eight years of peace and prosperity and everyone knows that!

Ben Pershing: That was one of the most interesting parts of Politico's interview with Cheney. Amid all his criticism of Obama, Cheney was asked whether his administration bore any responsibility for the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, and he basically said "no" without explaining. Perhaps it's a sensitive subject.

_______________________ Dick Cheney slams President Obama for projecting 'weakness'


Boston: Are these threshold numbers for Obama to get re-elected in 2012: unemployment below 7 percent and/or US troops in Afghanistan below 50,000? If these are the right metrics, are those levels about right? If these are the right metrics, which are (the deficit)? The question implicitly assumes no major domestic attack by Al Qaeda.

Ben Pershing: That's a good question but I don't know the exact answers. I think the numbers really do matter on the economic side, both in terms of unemployment and GDP growth. On Afghanistan I think the number of troops there in 2012 will be less important than whether the U.S. public perception is that things are getting better or getting worse.


Northern Virginia: As a strong Obama supporter who still remembers the 2008 campaign (from Iowa to Election Night) as the single best volunteer experience of my life, I am kind of fed up that no people on TV seem to have his back.

Typically, there is someone from the actual W.H. like Robert Gibbs. Then, for 'balance,' we hear from a lefty and a righty, both of whom claim to be really mad at Obama for various trumped-up reasons having to do with keeping their progressive or conservative cred, remaining a bookable guest because they offer provocative comments, keeping up ratings, selling books and movies, and playing political hardball. To me, balance would be a guest who agrees with what Obama is doing and a guest who does not. Two guests who don't are on the same page even if they are Karl Rove and Michael Moore.

My question to you: what is the White House doing wrong? Why aren't there surrogates, supporters, or whatever you want to call them making the case for Obama from the outside? Is it a communications office problem? I'm tired of it.

Ben Pershing: Perhaps the White House could do a better job getting surrogates out there to talk about specific issues, like Afghanistan or health care. But as a general rule TV bookers usually like critics rather than supporters, because conflict makes for good television. From their perspective, "liberals mad at Obama" is a better story than "liberals back Obama." It may not be fair, but it's reality.


Rockville: I see the Move - On and Pinks are "surprised" but President Obama has always said he considered Afghanistan to be important. Why the surprise?

Or is it a change in Washington to have someone do what they said they would do - even when it will be difficult?

Ben Pershing: I think some of Obama's supporters on the Left either didn't pay attention to him when he talked about Afghanistan during the campaign, or believed that he wasn't being serious and was just trying to sound tough on national security. There is a tendency among some voters and activists, on both the left and the right, to ignore or downplay when their preferred candidates/politicians say things they don't agree with. They just say, "Oh, he doesn't really mean that." I think that's part of what's going on with Afghanistan.


Fort Worth, Tex.: Quick question on health care reform. Why are most people talking about ten year costs of $900 billion when the first four years of that estimate including next to zero spending as this plan fazes in? If you look at total cost over the first ten years of actual implementation, costs are something like $1.8 trillion, a significantly larger number. That still assumes Congress can make cuts to Medicare, something neither party has ever tried to do as it's political suicide. This thing is way more expensive than most people realize.

Ben Pershing: It's true that the delayed implementation of the bill makes it appear less costly than it really is, but it is pretty standard practice to use a 10-year window to discuss the cost of a bill. And the CBO has analyzed both the House and Senate bills beyond the 10-year window and did find that they reduce the deficit. As for whether Congress will keep the Medicare cuts and tax hikes, that's a legitimate question.


Fairfax, Va.: It appears the presidential aspirations of former Republican Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee may have been irreparably damaged due to recent events in Washington State. When Mr. Huckabee was Governor of Arkansas, he commuted the prison sentence of a Washington State fugitive who is now wanted in connection with an incident involving the multiple slaying of police officers. Just as President George Bush, Sr. so successfully tied the Willie Horton case to his challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, in the 1988 presidential campaign, Mr. Huckabee appears to be highly vulnerable to similar soft on crime charges by Republican primary opponents and in a possible general election match up against President Obama. He tried to be proactive by addressing the media on the subject yesterday, but may have only succeeded in raising public awareness that he commuted the sentence of an infamous criminal.

Ben Pershing: Yes to all of that. There was a story on this subject in the Washington Post today. My only question is this: As bad as this story is for Huckabee, is it really that debilitating given how far off November 2012 is? Are conservatives really abandoning him in droves today, or is the press just seizing on this because there is a long history of controversial pardons tripping up governors?


New York: Ben, I'm curious about this "jobs summit" the White House is planning. It sounds kind of silly, as though this very intelligent president is becoming the emcee of a political horse-and-pony show. Is this really expected to produce anything meaningful? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: It's common for presidents to host "summits" of various kinds on everything from jobs and the economy to health care, climate change and other policy issues. I wouldn't expect Obama to wander around with a microphone like some sort of auctioneer. As for whether the summit will produce any "meaningful" policy ideas, probably not. But it will produce lots of press coverage.


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Ben, thanks for the chat. Do you expect any criticism from the doves in the Democratic Party? Will the new Afghan policy might bring about a primary challenger to the President in 2012?

Ben Pershing: Yes, there has already been criticism from parts of the Democratic party on Afghanistan. Michael Moore got a lot of play yesterday for his complaints about the strategy, and we are already hearing rumblings from some Democrats on the Hill. But no, I don't expect a primary challenge to Obama from the Left. Not a serious one, anyway.


Tuckerton, NJ: Has Sarah Palin chimed in yet (via her website or Facebook) as to her thoughts on Obama sending tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan?

Ben Pershing: I have not yet seen or heard anything from Palin on Obama's Afghanistan strategy -- and believe me, I'm waiting for it with bated breath. But Palin has accused Obama recently of "dithering around" on his decision.


have not seen or heard many international critics saying Obama is "weak" or "ineffectual." : Since you obviously don't read anything that isn't favorable to Obama, here are links to the Telegraph, the Guardian,Der Speigel and the Jerusalem Post that are critical of His foreign policy performance.

Bob Ainsworth criticises Barack Obama over Afghanistan (The Telegraph)

Obama the impotent (The Guardian)

Obama Has Failed the World on Climate Change (Spiegel Online))

Analysis: Why everyone is saying no to Obama (Jerusalem Post)

Ben Pershing: Thanks for the links. I said I had not seen "many" such international critics and I stand by that. They certainly do exist, obviously, but there's no evidence that the majority or even a significant minority of international opinion reflects this view. The balance of criticism is much stronger at home than abroad.


The 10-year window: Actually, that creation is only used when the policy is designed to help the average American. You never hear/see that our 10-Year Defense Appropriations will cost $70 Trillion.

Ben Pershing: I see your point, but appropriations bills are never discussed in 10-year terms, period, whether they're for defense or health care or the Interior Department or anything. Only new policy initiatives are discussed that way, and that's because they are scored in those terms by the CBO.


Concord, NH: A further answer to Fort Worth - the non-partisan CBO found that the Senate bill would save the federal government $130 billion over ten years (2010-19) and would save another 1/4 % of GDP (or $650 billion) over the following ten years (2020-29). You can choose to be cynical over whether the cost savings and taxes used to pay for the new spending in the bill would stick, but a better approach would be to keep political pressure on Congress in the coming years to stick to the cuts and taxes contained in the bills.

Ben Pershing: You can certainly use that argument -- Congress will never let this happen five years from now! -- to make the case against any long-term legislative proposal. For example, Republicans used the 10-year cost estimates when they were touting President Bush's first round of tax cuts in 2001, even though those estimates included assumptions that some of the cuts would be allowed to expire. Everyone knew at the time that Congress wouldn't allow that to happen, but that didn't stop the press and the GOP from citing those price tags anyway.


As for whether the summit will produce any "meaningful" policy ideas, probably not. But it will produce lots of press coverage. : So you're saying the jobs summit won't help the unemployment problem? Does anybody think it will? If not, why have it?

Ben Pershing: Because it sends the message that the White House is at least thinking about/focusing on the unemployment problem. To quote the first President Bush, "Message: I care."


Salinas, Calif.: Ben, just a little perspective on Boston's question: After peaking at 10.8% one year into Reagan's presidency, the unemployment rate didn't dip to 7 percent for another four years (3/85). And Reagan wasn't handed an economic meltdown, two hot wars and a quarter trillion dollar budget deficit.

Ben Pershing: True. But the unemployment rate was certainly on its way down and the recession was clearly over by 1984, which helped Reagan win reelection in a landslide.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Given the administration's willingness to attack any of its critics, as evidenced by its war on Fox News and now its response to POLITICO, do you know if any Post reporter has been subject to undue pressure or threats from the Administration? Or has the Post written anything critical of Obama that would warrant such a response from the White House?

Ben Pershing: I don't know of anyone at the Post getting "undue pressure or threats" from the Obama administration. I do know that this White House complains to reporters when it doesn't like their coverage, and that it might hand out choice scoops to the reporters it likes best and withhold them from the ones it dislikes. I also know that the Bush administration did the same thing, and so did the Clinton administration. That's what every White House does. The public criticism of Fox was unusual but beyond that, this stuff is mostly par for the course.


Cheney and the process of journalism: If you were interviewing Cheney, and he clammed up about his role in messing up Afghanistan as you describe, would you take the opportunity to follow up with another question? His recent interviewers politely shifted at that point to asking him if Obama loved America enough, and I am curious if this would be standard practice?

Ben Pershing: It's hard to tell from the Politico story how hard they pushed on the subject. The story said he did not elaborate, but it's not clear whether they actually asked a follow-up question. Usually a reporter will at least try to press for more answers, and if it becomes clear the subject won't keep talking, then you move on to other issues.


Tempe, Ariz.: I was curious if you agree that Barack Obama and his team made a mistake pulling top-tier 2010 Senate candidate into his cabinet? I mean how would John McCain be acting right now if he all the polls were showing only percentage points ahead of Janet Napolitano or the same thing with Chuck Grassley and Tom Vilsack? They would have more pressure. Why didn't leave those two and Kathlee Sebelius to run in 2010 for senate so that the incumbent senators felt more pressure from the left and instead just make Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe Secretary of Homeland Security or something since John Baldacci would have appointed a Democrat.

Do you think that point is valid?

Ben Pershing: That is a good point, but when Obama was picking his Cabinet 2010 probably seemed a long way off. And there was no strong evidence that Napolitano or Sebelius actually planned to run for Senate, anyway. They might have, but we don't know.


Bethesda, MD: Ben - Do you think there is anything in this world that Obama cares less about than whether or not the aptly named Dick Cheney consideres him to be a "wimp?"

Ben Pershing: Maybe whether Sarah Palin likes him? Whether Tiger Woods will ever tell the press what really happened that night? (Scratch that, Obama probably cares about the Tiger story more than the Cheney story. I know I do.)


Ben Pershing: Thanks for the fine questions, everyone. See you next time.


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

© 2009 The Washington Post Company