Obama's goals, shift toward the middle, more -- Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes for The Post's 44 blog. Pershing was online Jan. 26 at 11 a.m. ET.


Ben Pershing: Good morning everyone! T-minus 30-something hours until President Obama's State of the Union address. We've got his proposed spending freeze to discuss, along with health care, Democrats' electoral problems and whatever else is on your mind. Let's talk.


Anonymous: Okay, if the Massachusetts race doomed Obama's health-care reform plan, just what are the Republicans proposing in its place, or is defeating Obama on a major plan enough of a benefit for America? Imagine if the Democrats acted as though having 41 seats was a majority.

Ben Pershing: Good question. The GOP as a whole doesn't seem to have any plan to propose a health-care bill to replace the Democrats' version. House Republicans did propose an alternative before the House voted on the Dems' bill there, but there wasn't much sense that it represented a true party-wide alternative. CBO found that the bill could lower premiums but wouldn't actually reduce the number of uninsured, so Republicans are unlikely to bring that bill up again.


dkosworld: He's losing the left and fast. Having worked on the Hill I understand the limitations, but he had a supermajority for a year. This was simply irresponsibility by House, Senate and WH leadership. Repeating the mistakes of the Clinton first term, hubris.

We're rightfully angry. A full year squandered and now we're looking at a full four year presidency wasted.

Shame on Axelrod, Rahm, Reid, Nancy, but most of all Obama.

Quit acting like a law professor and start acting like a President!

Ben Pershing: You are reflecting the frustration a lot of liberals feel right now. The idea that Democrats can't get what they want through Congress despite 256 seats in the House and 59 seats in the Senate is baffling to many on the left, even with the 60-vote "requirement" (which liberals don't like either) in the Senate.

As for your mention of Axelrod, Rahm, et al, be sure to read the Wall Street Journal's fine story today on Emanuel and how many on the left blame him for Obama's problems. Interesting stuff.


Helping Ben Pershing (Mr. Middle Class): President Obama says he is helping the middle class and exercising spending restraint at the same time. How much do you feel you are being helped? I don't understand his message; his message was boring and didn't seem to affect my life. Do you feel that you will have more money because he is exercising spending restraints? I feel that I will be paying more taxes in the future. Again his message was boring and a little bit depressing.

Ben Pershing: I was unaware that I had been crowned "Mr. Middle Class." Do I get a ribbon? A trophy? And has Obama proposed a stimulus that will encourage newspapers to hire more reporters? That's what's depressing to me -- how few media outlets are hiring.


washingtonpost.com: Chief of Staff Draws Fire From Left as Obama Falters (WSJ, Jan. 26)

Ben Pershing: Here's that WSJ story on Rahm I referenced.


Wokingham UK: There is a perception that Obama has lost public confidence at home: does that mean that he becomes ineffectual abroad, for instance in the Middle East?

Ben Pershing: Hello Wokingham! So far we haven't seen Obama's declining popularity on domestic issues affect his ability to get things done abroad. In fact, his poll numbers have remained rather steady on national security issues, at least. But it is broadly true that if Obama tries to do something related to foreign policy that requires a lot of political capital (like a Middle East peace deal) it will be more difficult for him to rally support if he is unpopular on so many other issues.


DC: Can you explain why democrat health care proposals didn't include tort reform or selling insurance across state lines? Would those have been dividing issues for democrats and in the same vein, could they have gotten republican votes?

Ben Pershing: On tort reform, a cynic might say that Democrats didn't include it in their reform bill because the trial lawyers' lobby didn't want it there. The less-cynical version is that Democrats and some experts argue that lawsuits actually add very little to the cost of health care. Other experts -- and Republicans -- strongly disagree.

As for selling insurance across state lines, Democrats believe allowing that practice would simply result in insurance companies moving to whichever states have the most lax regulations. A race to the bottom -- like credit card companies flocking to South Dakota because state laws there don't cap interest rates.

Regardless, Republicans dislike so many other parts of these bills that tort reform and the crossing state lines ideas wouldn't have been enough to attract GOP votes.


Loudon Cove, N.H.: Obama seems to be in a box of his own construction.

No Drama Obama gets fighting mad isn't just faux populism, its oxymoronic political theater.

The new age of transparency vs. the House of Sausage (and Deal) making was a fine mess.

Will historians look back and say that cognitive dissonance between campaign Obama and President Obama killed his admin?

Ben Pershing: Was that a poem or a question?

Definitely true that President Obama has been different from Candidate Obama. But that happens to all presidents, doesn't it?


Re: tort reform: Why have Dems been so slow to embrace things like tort reform, death tax reform, and preventing young bucks from buying T-bone steaks with their welfare checks?

Ben Pershing: I just covered tort reform. Dems haven't pursued estate tax reform because they don't want to give up the government revenue. As for T-bone steaks, I would personally fight any proposal that discouraged their purchase. I like steak.


Ashburn, Va.: I get and agree with the frustration over Obama's first year. However, is the Left being a bit wimpy and throwing in the towel a bit too quickly? Clinton crashed and burned over health care and got clobbered by historical proportions in 1994. But, he seems to have come through just fine with a pretty good reputation for his accomplishments.

Ben Pershing: That's a good analogy, and one that I made in my "Rundown" column on the 44 blog this morning. (How's that for self-promotion?) The problem for many on the Left is that they didn't particularly like the post-1994 Bill Clinton, whose most notable achievements were balancing the budget and welfare reform. Will Obama also tack to the center if health care fails? That's what everyone is wondering, particularly with the president's expected call for a discretionary spending freeze.


AMT?: With all this discussion of the middle class and tax season around the corner, has there been any discussion of changing the Alternative Minimum Tax? Perhaps indexing it to inflation?

Ben Pershing: There has been lots of talk of changing the Alternative Minimum Tax but no consensus yet on how to fix it or how to pay for it. Congress has simply been "fixing" it one year at a time and it's likely that will happen again this year.


Blue Rock, Mont.: What are your thoughts, if any, on the notion of a bipartisan White House, along the lines David Broder and Jon Mecham described on "Meet the Press" this Sunday? For a centrist like me, the idea of putting a team like Bloomberg & Hamilton or Kean & Mitchell into the White House sounds pretty appealing. Does this have any traction?

Ben Pershing: Umm, no. Bipartisanship like that tends to be more popular in certain quarters of Washington -- particularly among think tanks, editorial boards, etc. -- than it is among most Americans. Certainly the public usually tells pollsters it wants the two parties to work together on important issues, but I don't think many voters would go so far as to say they wanted a truly bipartisan White House.


Washington, DC: What is the administration's current estimate for when a health care reform bill will be delivered for Mr. Obama's signature?

Ben Pershing: There is no estimate, because neither the administration nor Democrats in Congress have decided yet how to proceed. Could be days, could be weeks, could be never.


Boston, MA: How quickly will things change when president Brown is inaugurated? Does he have a plan for his first 100 days?

Ben Pershing: He plans to drive his pickup truck across the country with his wife and his "available" daughters. Sorry, couldn't resist one more jab at that odd comment Scott Brown made. Bt the way, if you haven't read our own Jason Horowitz's fine profile of Brown, do so now.


washingtonpost.com: Scott Brown carries the weight of great GOP expectations to D.C. (Post, Jan. 22)

Ben Pershing: Here it is:


Estate Tax: In 2000, 80% of the money in estates that paid any tax was interest income. If it were not for estate tax, no tax would ever be paid on these funds. In 2000, only 1.8% of the richest people paid a dime of estate tax. These figures have all gotten worse. To eliminate estate tax would allow the super duper rich to avoid even more tax than they do now.

Ben Pershing: It's all about how you frame it. If 90+ percent of estates pay no tax now, and then you also eliminated it for the richest estates, how would you say that the rich were "avoiding" taxes? They'd be avoiding taxes that no one else pays either. I see the arguments for both sides of this, but not sure yours makes sense.


one-term prez?: Did he just issue a mouth-watering invitation to the republicans? I realize he said getting re-elected is not the job description -- and how refreshing that was! -- but the most recent moves indicate that's exactly the primary concern, especially for those in the senate & house.

I am an independent with progressive values and I can't describe the frustration and disappointment at how the party in power has completely frittered away this past year -- I think the critiques by Zakaria, Fineman and others are on the mark.

Anyway, don't you think that statement simply reinforced & reignited/reinvited the goals of the republicans which is to make sure he fails. I have no delusions that the republicans have any answers or want what's best for average folks -- it stuns me that the dems and Obama have been so arrogant and hubristic. But why should it is what I keep asking myself.

Ben Pershing: I don't think Obama's comment -- he told Diane Sawyer, "I‘d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president" -- is really going to change the GOP's strategy either way. They're going to try to beat him regardless. Obama's point was that he's not going to get cautious now, not going to avoid doing what he thinks is right just because he's worried about 2012.


re Tort Reform: The majority of experts agree that tort reform, while a worthwhile goal in itself, is fairly minor in its influence on health care costs. Those who seek reform include the AMA which has done a lousy job of policing it's own membership with regard to malpractice. Fewer than 5% of physicians are responsible for the majority of malpractice claims. This more than anything else is what is driving increased malpractice insurance costs.

Also, the blatant racism of the earlier post needs to be called out.

Ben Pershing: I'm sorry, you are right. I should have read that question more closely. It was offensive and I shouldn't have posted it.


Offensive Rahm quote: There was a very offensive quote in the WSJ article - Rahm said that a proposal was "retarded." Perhaps this "liberal" is so out of touch that he doesn't understand that the R-word is extremely offensive.

Ben Pershing: I was struck by that quote too, and by the fact that the White House seemed to make no effort to tell the WSJ that it wasn't true. I know it happened in a private meeting but it still doesn't reflect well on Rahm.


Alexandria, VA: With heath care stuck in limbo, liberals loath to work with conseratives (and vice versa), and the midterms rapidly approaching, will anything get done by Congress this year? Or will they be lucky to pass the appropiation bills and go home for reelection?

Ben Pershing: Health care could still happen, it's just not clear. Congress will also pass a jobs bill, and they may pass some form of energy bill, though it could be stripped of the "cap and trade" portion. Immigration reform is also a possibility, but the politics of that issue is tough, particularly in an election year.


Reston, Va: Just my thoughts... but if Obama were to craft liberal-leaning solutions (without compromise), his approval ratings among Dems would go up.

Ben Pershing: Yes, they probably would. But would they then go down among centrists and Independents? And would they actually get passed into law? Therein lies the rub.


Washington: I don't get the spending freeze.

First of all, they could save a lot more money buy just cutting the military budget in half, which btw would still give us a military budget 3 times that of the 2nd largest military in the world. And that's in one year. I mean this government was put in place to withdraw the military from Iraqanistan anyway.

Second, won't a spending freeze for three years result in mass layoffs of government employees?

washingtonpost.com: Obama to propose freeze on government spending (Post, Jan. 26)

Ben Pershing: Obama's not going to cut the military budget in half, and hardly any Democrats would support such a move (while Republicans would attack it forcefully). We are still fighting two wars and Obama has given no indication that he thinks the military budget is too large.

As for government layoffs, I think the answer is no. It's possible that government employees' salaries would be frozen, or they'd only get small raised. But there's no reason to think there would be layoffs.


Salinas, CA: "Will historians look back and say that cognitive dissonance between campaign Obama and President Obama killed his admin?"

Perhaps the historians will explore the cognitive dissonance between what the American tax-paying voter wants and what they've been willing to pay for over the last 30 years. We want Medicare, but are not willing to make the reforms necessary to keep it sustainable. If we have our own health care insurance (at least until we lose it or have a pre-existing condition) we're willing to say, "I've got mine, if you don't, tough." We're willing to allow our elected leaders to wage war on a national credit card, but don't dare raise my taxes. We've ignored the national infrastructure for our short term comforts. We're living the American Dream.

Yeah, let's talk about cognitive dissonance.

Ben Pershing: Joe Klein wrote an amusing (and controversial) item along these lines for Time, basically making the argument that Americans are "dumb" about public policy and often say they want two things that are diametrically opposed. He was writing specifically about the stimulus package but it sounds a lot like your point here.


washingtonpost.com: Too Dumb to Thrive (Time, Jan. 25)

Ben Pershing: Here's Klein. Not endorsing this thesis, but it is interesting stuff:


Re: the new budget deficit projections: This report just surfaced on the Post web site, including this section: "The deficit is expected to improve over the long run as well, falling to $480 billion in 2015 from previous projections of $560 billion, the sources said."

That sounds like great news, but what is the real value and accuracy of these types of projections? For example, if we went back and looked at the budget projections for 2010 as issued in 2005, how close to reality were they?

Ben Pershing: True that these long-term budget projections are almost never right, but they're still important because they guide current decisions about spending and taxes. Obama's budget and the GOP's alternative will be written differently depending on what the long-term deficit projections are.


Ben Pershing: Thanks everyone. Enjoy the rest of your Tuesday.


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