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Eugene Robinson: Where is Obama's punch?

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Jan. 26 to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

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Archive of past discussions.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly discussion, pre-SOTU edition. What will the president say tomorrow night? Besides the already-leaked discretionary spending freeze, I mean. Will he be advancing or backpedaling? Playing offense or defense? The White House isn't really saying, so we'll have to wait and see -- but in the meantime, we can speculate to our hearts' content. Let's get started.

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Washington, DC: Great articulate (as usual) article. Mr. Robinson do you think that if the current political trend (economy stalled, reforms blocked, and virtually unlimited corporate campaign money for the Fall and beyond) continues, Obama will be a one term President?

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. I think it's too early to even ask that question -- at this stage of his presidency, you might have thought that Ronald Reagan would be a one-term guy. The question isn't really meaningful yet.

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Herndon, VA: I have to ask the question: Are you seriously trying to say that the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey and the Senate special election in Massachusetts mean nothing? That's what I got out of your column this morning. You say the problem is that President Obama isn't getting his message out. Please - he's on television more often than reruns of Seinfeld. The problem IS the message. And we don't like it. If the Congress and the White House are similarly tone deaf the elections this fall will be a bloodbath for Democrats.

Eugene Robinson: Elections always mean something. But I think it would be a serious error for Democrats to interpret these election results as saying they should just stop trying to enact the agenda that the whole nation voted for. Democrats are already taking a huge political hit -- some of it justified, some not. I think it gets worse for them if, at the end of the day, they have nothing to show for all this effort (as unpretty as the effort sometimes has been). If I were a Democratic candidate, I'd rather go into November able to tell voters how I made it possible for them to get health insurance despite being diabetic or having a cancer diagnosis -- rather than apologizing for trying and failing.

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Ocala, Florida: Gene, Do you remember the game of "telephone, where the first person whispers something to the next person, who whispers to the next, etc.? The end is nothing similar to what you started with. It seems to me that president Obama's message is different from the way it starts out, because he's not staying in front of the issues. Do you agree?

Eugene Robinson: I do agree that he hasn't stayed out in front to the extent that his supporters would have liked. He has let his opponents define the issues, and that's never a good idea.

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Buffalo, NY: Thank you so much for saying these things, Mr. Robinson. As a voter for Obama, I had hoped he would decide to do many things he has not done, or not done well - most particularly, come out at the beginning with his healthcare plan; to say why it was important and how the specified changes would make things better. I did not hope he would make deals with all the insurance and pharmaceuticals before talks even began. As Howard Zinn said recently, if you start with a compromise, you end with a compromise to a compromise - pretty much what our health insurance plan now looks like. Thank you again for your constant good sense and clear writing.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. I do think that it was logical to look for a new way to approach health care reform, since all the other ways had failed. I think the bigger problem has not been keeping everyone uncertain of exactly what the president's bottom line is -- a little uncertainty can be a good thing in a negotiation -- but leaving the apparent question of whether he has a bottom line at all.

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La Mesa, CA: In this day and age of instant gratification, is it possible for President Obama to be seen as effective since he works with long-term vision and long-term solutions as the goal? I think he has done very well overall, but my background includes community organizing, so I understand why he approaches issues in the manner he does.

Eugene Robinson: An excellent question. I think President Obama indeed focuses on the long term, and that's hard in our ADHD age. I guess I would say that even long-term planning has to take into account the fact of the 24-hour news cycle and the brief national attention span. It is an inconvenient fact that how you formulate and disseminate your message is important.

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Philadelphia, PA: I'm finding the hyper-analysis going on these days to be beyond absurd. Every president faces circumstances LIKE this -- even if few presidents have been faced with a set of challenges anywhere near this complex. I've seen few analyses that really bring historical perspective to the discussion -- true perspective. For instance someone will compare Obama to Reagan, which makes sense given their near-identical popularity tracking and the circumstances they inherited. Then they'll say that Obama's problem is that he doesn't have Reagan's conviction or warm-fuzziness that was necessary to rebound. Well, the real Reagan "flip-flopped" on nearly every issue that he faced except gutting social programs, including negotiating with the Evil Empire. Also, the real Reagan was in fact a stoic, solitary man, anchored to his spouse, and calm to the swirling events outside him...any warmth projected was truly acting.

To add my bit to the heap, I think Obama just needs to concede to do some more acting, concede to some more soundbytes and do more to get his spokesman to push the message beyond the filters of the increasingly incompetent press. They need a better PR operation. I know that part of the "change" we wanted was a departure from the 24 hour war room mentality, but I think he needs to have an operation working much more aggressively and in a coordinated fashion for him.

The policies are just about what he should be doing (and can realistically do). The optics need work.

Eugene Robinson: As I said, how you shape and deliver the message counts. It really does.

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Sterling, VA: Why do you insist that the Republicans are just trying to prevent any health care legislation from passing? The issue is far more complex in that the multi-volume fictional novel passed by the House and Senate do absolutely nothing to address the core issues of expensive health care... those of the high cost of the care itself, the high cost of prescription drugs, and the sources of our overall health problems. When are the Democrats going to address issues like tort reform, direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs by drug companies, and the ever-increasing number of people who are eating out, especially the deep-fried foods, because of their needing to work longer hours in order to not be the guy or gal who gets laid off in a couple of months?

Eugene Robinson: As far as I'm concerned, the core issue in health care reform is making it so that people don't have to choose between bankruptcy and death. We should make it possible for everyone to have adequate health care, period. The House and Senate bills don't quite get us there, but they cover 30 million or so people who aren't now covered. The way we ration health care in this country is an outrage.

The House and Senate bills would also have some impact on cost, but not enough. Nobody's going to outlaw Burger King, but both bills emphasize prevention and regular care. Republicans talk a big game about tort reform, but they weren't able to pass it when they were in power and I'd almost like to call their bluff.

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Washington, DC: Mr. Robinson,

I am conflicted about the SCOTUS ruling on campaign finance. On one hand, I don't think corporations, unions, 527s, etc should be able to run the horrible attack adds already on the air. But, as currently constituted, Unions and 527s are running wild...Moveon.org, PFAW, etc.........

So if these groups can raise and spend millions influencing election cycles, why not corporations?

Eugene Robinson: Good question. I think that before the Supreme Court ruling, we had a corrupt campaign finance system that was drenched in cash. Now we have a corrupt campaign finance system that will be drenched in more cash. I think some corporations will shy away from open direct advocacy, but some won't -- and they will be able to make their presence felt.

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San Francisco, Calif.: There is such a thing in surfing called "duck diving" under a wave when it's coming at you. You might get pulled back towards shore a bit, but you avoid the full force of the wave. Is Obama "duck diving" under a wave of discontent by not pushing health reform and forcing Republican's to actually be "for" something, or is he just really off balance here?

Eugene Robinson: I'm not a surfer. I know there's a school of thought in Democratic circles that the thing to do now is force Republicans to take a series of difficult votes -- on the more popular parts of the health bills, on money for jobs, whatever. I can see the logic, but I still think that the worst possible outcome from the Democrats' point of view is to get to November having gone through this whole damaging health care fight and having nothing to show for it.

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Roseville, CA: Will the spending freeze and other deficit reduction proposals President Obama is proposing deepen the recession as did those of Hoover and FDR?

Eugene Robinson: As I've noted before, nobody has ever accused me of being an economist. I share your concern, however -- I think it's fundamentally a bad idea to depress demand, which is what the freeze will do, at a time when you're trying to climb out of a deep, deep recession. That said, it seems to me that the freeze involves too small an amount of money to have a big macroeconomic impact. But in terms of ending the recession, it certainly won't help.

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Running Springs, CA: I hope that Obama reads your column today. Yet you leave out advising him how to specifically handle healthcare; e.g. reconciliation. What is your recommendation? Compromise to the "Blue Dogs" and Nebraska is the same as "bi-partisanship. Obama, David Plouffe and the Obama team maybe have heard, but have not listened to our majority of independent-minded supporters outside of Washington and Chicago. The problem is as much process as it is product -- or lack thereof.

Eugene Robinson: I made my specific health care recommendations in a previous column -- either the House passes the Senate bill, or they all do budget reconciliation, or some combination of the two.

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Fairfax, NC: Mr. Robinson, you seem to have bought the President's rationale hook line and sinker. The reason word about the pork-laden stimulus bill working hasn't gotten out is not because of a failure of the administration to sell it but because it has been an abject failure. The American people know it. And how in the world does anyone measure the nebulous new metric of "saved" jobs, any way? It's a complete fabrication. Why is it that if the American voter doesn't like something the left assumes it's because we're too stupid to understand it?

Eugene Robinson: Thanks for participating, but that's really ridiculous. You can talk to any mayor or governor and they can tell you how they used money from the stimulus to keep police officers, firefighters, teachers and others employed. Without that money, they'd have had to lay them off. That may be a fabrication to you, but it's not to the families that would be collecting unemployment and struggling to keep their homes. "Pork-laden" it was, but it was also stimulative.

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La Mesa, CA: Much of today's discussion has addressed democratic strategy, which this week inevitably brings attention to David Plouffe. Do you have any thoughts on whether he would be most effective as an advisor to President Obama, as DNC chair, or elsewhere? I do remember as a volunteer for the campaign, we always knew what the plan was for the day, the week, etc & I always felt supported - I was one of the Phone Bank Directors and was there nearly full time, so feeling consistently supported seemed like quite an accomplishment on the part of the campaign strategists

Eugene Robinson: I'd caution Democrats against regarding Plouffe as The Man Who Can Fix Everything. But he ran an astonishingly good campaign, and at this point I'd send him straight to the White House and lock him in.

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Dave, DC: Has Obama been served well by his economic team? Most of the liberal bloggers are dead against Geithner, Summers, Bernanke. What's your take?

Eugene Robinson: They were heroes for the way they managed the crisis, but once the crisis was over they failed to pivot and work toward reforming Wall Street so that it works to serve the economy -- rather than the current situation in which the economy seems to exist to serve Wall Street. They, and Obama, should have listened more to Paul Volker.

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washingtonpost.com: Obama on health care: Flight or fight? (Post, Jan. 22)

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"...money from the stimulus to keep police officers, firefighters, teachers and others employed.": All public employee union jobs. So, mission accomplished.

Care to comment, or do you only answer questions from the choir?

Eugene Robinson: Those people buy cars, groceries, clothes, etc., thus keeping others employed as well.

You can join the choir, too, but at the moment you're a bit off-key.

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New Castle, Penn.: Gene: I read your articles every chance I get, and I believe you are truly insightful. Today's article is indeed insightful and timely for President Obama. My question has to do with the "Talking Heads" (who are on the air 24/7 and from sea to shining sea). What will it take to give radio listeners an opposing point of view?

Eugene Robinson: I don't know what it is about red-meat conservatism and radio, but they seem to be made for each other. As you know, Air America is dead. At least it gave us Rachel...

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Washington, D.C.: I come from a long line of Republicans - relatives in both Bush administrations and I didn't vote for Obama - really thought the press was way too gaga over him, but I find myself hoping that he will succeed on health care. You are absolutely right about the message issue. During two recent trips in southern fly-over country, I found many "average Americans" who would benefit from HC legislation but were opposed and had no idea what was in the actual bills. Part of this, I suspect is because of the radio programs they listen to, but the President wasn't registering with them. By the way, I am completely disgusted by Republican obstructionism. Would really like to see a "push forward...using every parliamentary maneuver in the book," Then I might even vote for Obama next time.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. I really do think that in the end, you've got to produce results.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: Is Joe "You Lie" Wilson allowed to go to State of the Union?

Seriously, somebody in the press has to ask him if he'll behave himself tomorrow night.

Eugene Robinson: He is allowed to attend. But I think he should have a minder who can leap into action if he starts to twitch.

And my time is up for today, folks. Thanks, as always, for dropping by, and I'll see you again next week.

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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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