Previewing the State of the Union -- Post Politics Hour

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Michael Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Michael Shear discussed the expectations for this evening's State of the Union address.

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Michael D. Shear: Hello everyone. It's quite a day and lots to talk about -- State of the Union tonight, ongoing recovery in Haiti, the politics of 2010 elections (starting already, and whatever else you want to talk about.

The Post also has a great new feature today in which we're beginning to track the president's promises. So head on over there after the chat.

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Washington DC: Should we expect heckling from the Republicans again?

Michael D. Shear: We're already getting questions about Joe Wilson -- you know, the guy who yelled "you lie" at the president during his health care speech last year.

I tend to be a gambling kind of guy (poker's my game) and I'd be willing to move all my chips into the middle on the bet that no one will heckle the president this time around.

But maybe I'll be proved wrong. We'll see tonight.

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Confused, USA: I'm confused. Yesterday the White House came out and said it would request a discretionary spending freeze for the government for the next three years. Today I read that the President will propose a 6.2% increase in funding for the Department of Education. I'm not familiar with the details of the "freeze" - but to those of us who don't dabble in details, this looks like a complete contradiction within 24 hours. Kinda like: I wanted to freeze government spending before I proposed increasing government spending... Am I wrong?

Michael D. Shear: Ah, understandable reaction Confused.

What the president's advisers announced the other day was described as a freeze -- but they said in practice that it would mean an overall freeze in the amount of money spent on discretionary spending (excluding military and homeland security spending).

That allows, they said the possibility that some programs will go up, others will go down, but that taken together, the spending on all such programs will stay the same.

Of course, either way, it ignores the biggest and most out of control parts of government spending -- medicare, medicaid and social security

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Reception: While I don't anticipate someone being a complete idiot like Joe Wilson, I am wondering how warm a reception Obama will get tonight, from both sides. He's never been popular with the Republicans and he's not exactly flavor of the month among the Dems. What do you expect to see?

Michael D. Shear: My guess is that it will go like it always does -- there will be lots of applause by both sides on the easy, non-partisan things that everyone can agree on. Democrats will applaud at some of the more partisan things that they like -- and you'll probably see the Republicans sit on their hands during those moments.

I'll be very interested to see what the reaction is to the health care portion of his speech. Its a very politically complex issue at the moment.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Shear:

Are you willing to take fate by the throat and predict (roughly) what the President will say about the health care legislation?

Will he go with Axelrod/Plouffe or with Rahm?

I'm counting on you! :)

Michael D. Shear: Maybe this is a dodge, but my guess is that we will not know much more about the specifics of how they intend to move forward on health care after the speech than we do now.

I'll be willing to bet that he talks about still working toward the principles that he believes in -- health care for all, lower costs, insurance company reforms.

But I'd be surprised if he maps out a legislative strategy tonight.

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heckling: Why would a politician not yell at the President? They get points for "standing up to fascism" and lots of money for their campaign coffers.

Michael D. Shear: Maybe I'm naive, but I think that the majority of folks condemned his outburst, even among Republicans. Yes, there were some in his home state who applauded his comment, but I'm not sure anyone wants the negative attention he received.

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Indiana: Will we see the President make any statement about Don't Ask, Don't Tell or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? I know some House Democrats have talked about attaching a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell to the Defense authorization bill, but when is the White House going to stake a position publicly on some gay rights issues?

Michael D. Shear: I have not been able to find out whether he will say anything about this in the speech. The White House has certainly not flagged it in advance, so if it's in there, it will be a surprise.

I'm inclined to think that a speech like this is not the way Obama is likely to announce a policy change in this area. He's more likely to hold an event with his military advisers standing behind him, endorsing the change.

That said, I suspect he will say something about his commitment to gay rights and to note his signing of the Matthew Shepherd hate crimes bill.

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San Mateo, CA: As usual, Pearlstein writes an excellent opinion in the Post today essentially calling for an honest leveling with the American people from its President. I, being a moderate (and still an Obama supporter I suppose) agree completely, and would love to see some straight talk from the president, essentially to say that "Times are bad, the system is broken, now the games are over....watch me lead". Instead, it seems all we ever get is rhetoric (soaring or otherwise) and then nothing actually ever gets accomplished. In political history, are there actual examples where a president came clean with the people in a speech, and the people actually appreciated the candor, or have they all been ruthlessly savaged for such honesty?

washingtonpost.com: The State of the Union speech Obama would give in a more honest world

Michael D. Shear: The American people say they like honesty. But I can think of several times they didn't appreciate it. When Jimmy Carter was president, he essentially gave people a finger-wagging lecture about why they needed to save energy. It came to define his presidency -- and not in a good way.

And when Walter Mondale said he would raise taxes if elected president, folks basically said "bleech" to his candidacy.

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a pacifist in Virginia: many have suggested that the President's speech in Ohio last Friday (in which he used the word "fight" 20 times) was a preview of the SOTU.

My hunch is that he will NOT repeat this pugilistic posture tonight. He will stick by his agenda but will be less in our faces about it.

Thoughts?

Michael D. Shear: I think you're wrong, pacifist.

Everything we've been told by the White House suggests that he will in fact express a desire to fight in the speech tonight. The White House has clearly decided that the American people need to be convinced that he's on their side, and the new, populist, "ready to fight" rhetoric is part of that.

Having said that, there is a difference when the president is in the more formal setting of the Congress, so maybe he tones it down a bit.

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Wichita, Kans.: How many millions in campaign donations did Joe Wilson get off that heckle?

I agree with Rep. Todd Tiarht that it is actually pretty attractive to heckle President Obama for an unknown Republican member of Congress.

Will Obama face more heckling?

Michael D. Shear: Well, we certainly have a lot of pessimists here. Maybe I'l be wrong, but I just have to assume that members of Congress are going to want to maintain that decorum.

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Boston: Hi Michael,

Pres. Bush used to like to bring "guests" to the state of the union as examples of some point he was making. Do you think Obama will do the same and, if yes, whom?

Michael D. Shear: Yes. President Obama does this, too.

Here's a link to the guest list for the First Lady's box at the speech tonight. The White House released this about an hour ago.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/guest-list-first-ladys-box-2010-state-union

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Anonymous: The last time I remember so much anticipation for a State of the Union address was when Clinton was knee deep in the Monica Lewinsky mess and so I wonder how much of this hype is reality and how much is simply the 24 hour news cycle manufacturing "news" ?

Michael D. Shear: Hype? Manufacturing news? Us?

I am shocked -- SHOCKED -- at that charge!

Seriously, though. While I agree that the round-the-clock coverage on TV can be a bit much, there is a lot riding on this speech. It comes at a critical time for the president's agenda, which is struggling. And it will help set the tone for a year that will end with a crucial midterm election.

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heckling: Maybe someone can form an office pool on who might heckle the President. I'd love to hear Bachman screaming. It'd be great political theater and would sure give Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert material.

Michael D. Shear: There would certainly be a few folks who could be nominated as possibilities...

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Non-SOTU: Okay skipping empty words for a moment. Can you understand why the Senate would re-confirm Bernanke with the appropriate 50 + 1 majority rather than the 60 vote canard that has been foisted upon us by the media. (Yeah, I'm calling your industry out---you guys have allowed nihilists to make the argument of super-minority the accepted norm!)

Michael D. Shear: I'm not sure how we in the media can be blamed for a procedural reality in the Senate. Blame us for a lot, but it's the senators -- not reporters -- who create the rules they live by

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Abingdon, Md.: Any reaction from the White House or Congress on the vote by the citizens of Oregon to raise some taxes to ward off increasing deficets and the cutting of some programs? Especially in light of the vote in the Senate yesterday to NOt approve a bipartisan commission to look at ways in addressing thie issue on a national level.

Michael D. Shear: I haven't heard any reaction from the White House yet to the Oregon vote. I would expect the president to talk about letting the Bush tax cuts expire for folks who make over $200,000, but say that the middle class should keep their tax cuts.

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Boston: One question, one comment.

Dana's article on Yemen is magnificent (as we always expect from Ms. Priest). However, the detail that the President has the power to assasinate U.S. citizens without due process is really disgusting for those of us idiots who believe in the United States of America and other tooth fairies. Why is this not a huge scandal?

On Carter and his leveling with the people: let the record show that the people actually were quite supportive and his favorables rose significantly immediately following his speech. The press and establishment on the other hand hated him for telling the truth and worked feverishly to create a completely different dynamic and history.

washingtonpost.com: U.S. in joint operations with Yemeni troops

Michael D. Shear: Dana is a wonderful reporter. She deserves all the credit in the world.

Good point on Carter.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you know if any of the last 15 or so presidents has given a State of the Union address without using some variation of "the state of the union is strong."? Regardless of what the "state" of the union was at that time?

Michael D. Shear: This is a good question. I don't know.

Im quite sure, however, that even when presidents utter that line, they are quick to point out that there are "challenges" ahead. Look for Obama to do something like that, because the last thing he wants is for people to believe that he;s out of touch with what they feel.

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mannerly in arlington: Just a vote in support of your expectation that there will NOT be heckling tonight.

At least not from Wilson or the rest of South Carolina delegation. What is WITH South Carolina anyway? The governor is hiking the Appalachian trail, and the lieutenant governor is running on a eugenics platform.

If the state were to secede again, maybe the rest of the country would just shrug and wish them well.

Michael D. Shear: Well, perhaps. But I'd be opposed - my favorite airport is the one in Columbia!

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Dallas: Wouldn't it be great if he started out "please hold off on your applause until the end of my speech"?

Michael D. Shear: Absolutely!

If nothing else, the speech would end more quickly, which would give me more time to write the story before deadline!

Let's start a petition, Dallas.

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Pittsburgh: A question not about the State of the Union address:

Re the alleged attempted telephone-bugging of Senator Landrieu's office in New Orleans: Why do you think O'Keefe was recording video of the event with his cell phone? Was he so stupid that he didn't appreciate the illegality of wiretapping?

Or does he figure it's worth it to be a martyr and go to jail in order to get "dirt" on Senator Landrieu, which could still be used in the court of public opinion (although not in a court of law) to potentially destroy her political career?

Michael D. Shear: You know, I am totally befuddled by this whole incident. I have no idea what they thought they were accomplishing, and no idea why they might record what appears to have been a very illegal act while they were doing it.

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alexandria va: this is not a question but a heartfelt compliment. I think you have handled this Q&A superbly. You seem like a really nice guy with a most equable temperament. Maybe you missed your calling and belong in the foreign service? just kidding. you seem a born political reporter. keep up the great work.

oh, and btw. I would NEVER want to play poker with you! LOL

Michael D. Shear: Am I above publishing a compliment? No way!

Thanks, Alexandria. Always nice to hear some praise. The truth is, these chats are a great way to get a little back and forth going. I love doing them.

(As for poker, I'll definitely add you to my little home game...)

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NYC: Who's sitting out the speech tonight? I mean, who'll be our next president if something goes horribly wrong?

Michael D. Shear: I don't think we know yet who will be in the "undisclosed location." I do know that Secretary of State Clinton will be at some kind of conference in London, so she will not be there.

But apparently, that does not eliminate the need for someone else to sit out. I'll try to see if I can quickly find out who that is.

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Michael D. Shear: Ok everyone. Time to end this party. Tune in to our website tonight for some live fact-checking and for our stories about the State of the Union.

Cheers

Mike

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