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Robert G. Kaiser


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    State of the Union

    Wednesday, January 20, 1999

    Washington Post senior correspondent Robert G. Kaiser answered your questions about President Clinton's State of the Union address in a live discussion this afternoon. A former managing editor, Kaiser has covered both the White House and Senate. He joined us live from The Post newsroom. What was your impression of the president's speech?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I've been watching States of the Union for four decades; I don't remember one quite like this. Ronald Reagan was a great actor? How about this president?! I think that was a performance for the ages. Bill Clinton may be the Olivier of politicians.
    Of course, that's just theatrical criticism. Substantively I want to know a lot more about his proposals, particularly on Social Security. The Post will be working, starting today, on stories to explain in some detail what the administration has in mind.

    Meanwhile, I can only endorse a remark I saw Leon Panetta make on CBS last night, after the speech. I don't have his exact words, but his thought was, this is THE president of states of the union. I think that's right. Bill CLinton has mastered this art form.

    Eau Claire, Wis.: Did President Clinton make any proposals last night not aimed at pleasing specific constituencies or that risked challenging the interests and beliefs of any of the groups supporting him against impeachment?

    Robert G. Kaiser: My sense is that Clinton was aiming not at subgroups of society, but at American opinion in general. Based on past experience, I'm confident that a lot of the specific proposals in the speech were tested in polling done by the president's pollsters in the days before the speech. I could be wrong, but I'd bet that the White House hoped to impress a great many people with the agenda Clinton presented, and wasn't aiming at any particular constituency. But of course you could see moments when he was targeting important segments of his base, particularly what may have been his best moment, talking about a president 100 years hence, and what "he....or she" might say.

    Swarthmore, Pa.: What is your assessment of President Clinton's legislative agenda for 1999: a wide-ranging one of broad scope and impact, or a collection of lesser initiatives tailored to an American public mostly satisfied with the status quo?

    Robert G. Kaiser: This is a good question. I don't feel ready to try to answer it today. It struck me during the 1996 campaign that just possibly, Bill Clinton had found the only way to sell "progressive" government in the late 1990s -- by breaking it down into small and easily digestible packages. That fits your second alternative, which may well be the right one. But some of the proposals, at least as described in the speech, might qualify for grander labels. For example, is there a serious possibility that federal policy could actually push America's public schools in the directions Clinton described? If so, the change would be broad and important. But I'm not sure that's realistic.

    Nashville, Tenn.: When presidential defenders say "overturn two elections" does that mean that Bob Dole gets to be President and George Bush gets four more years following Dole (effectively reversing the result of the last two elections)? Or is this just a bunch of spin meant to scare people?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Sure it's spin. But buried in it is a serious point, I think. The founders created the impeachment procedures as the sole means of forcing an elected president from office. They clearly made it about as hard as they could to impeach and convict a federal official. The fact that our chief executive would be selected by the exercise of popular sovereignty (albeit limited to white men) was, in the late 18th Century, the single most radical element of the constitution, and for the founders, the single most important, I think. Allowing 67 Senators to nullify the votes of 40 million Americans (I think that's about the number, I'm sorry not to have the right one at my fingertips) is obviously a huge step.

    Washington, D.C.: What's your explanation for the Big Disconnect? When people like Sally Quinn can say in Slate that they *DON'T KNOW ANYONE* who actually supports Clinton, when by contrast 70-odd percent of normal Americans think he's doing a good job, and think his State of the Unions are pretty moving stuff?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I missed Sally on Slate, so I have to take your word for it that she said this. I think it might be a wee bit of an exaggeration. Sally and I have mutual friends who, I think, genuinely support Clinton. Be that as it may, there IS a big disconnect between Washington and the country, and has been for some time. You might be able to argue that it is worse today than ever before, but I am always nervous about such sweeping generalizations. In any case, it is serious. I attribute it first of all to the fact that those (few) of us who spend our entire lives wrapped up in what's going on in Washington are, by definition, out of step with our countrymen whose interest in what happens here is much weaker. I think we know, for example, that a lot of Americans have a simple way of evaluating the sitting president: if times are good, the pres is OK, and if times are bad, the pres is a bum. Is this fair? I don't think so myself, but I certainly understand where it comes from.

    Silver Spring, Md.: Today or tomorrow, Al Gore will become eligible for 10 years in office. Will this slow some of the Republicans down? Or do you think President Clinton would be more willing to consider resignation, now that Gore can serve until 2009, if the voters want him to?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I can't imagine anyone who watched Clinton last night thinking he might consider resigning the presidency. Nor have I seen any evidence that the most rabid anti-Clinton Republicans can be deterred by visions of Al Gore in the White House, for whatever number of years.

    Washington, D.C.: What were the Republicans thinking when they made the decision to collectively look so negative? Didn't they realize how frumpy and unyielding they would seem to the viewing audience? Do you think their demeanor last night as a group will affect public opinion?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I noticed the same thing, and wondered if the Republicans as a group spent any time discussing among themselves how they wanted to look on television during the speech. My surmise, watching them, was that they did not. They looked awfully uncomfortable to me. Will that effect public opinion? I just don't know. Specifically, I have no idea how many viewers would actually realize that the grumpy-looking group consisted of House Republicans.

    Burkington, Ky.: I am confused on the proposal to sue tobacco companies. The federal government controls prices, determines who can legally grow tobacco and how much each grower can sell. How can the federal government sue an industry that it controls and subsidizes?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I think you've hit on a pretty good argument for the defense in whatever legal action will follow from the president's speech.

    Washington, D.C.: There was that very funny piece in the paper today about just how wacky Washington is in the Clinton era. My only beef: I don't think it's Clinton who's defined the era, it's the hatred -- and haters -- of Clinton. What do you think? I think the reader is referring to David Von Drehle's story in this morning's paper.

    Robert G. Kaiser: How many does it take to tango? Clinton is an American original. His energy, his appetites, his life story (brilliantly told in my colleague David Maraniss's book, FIRST IN HIS CLASS) are all unique. You certainly couldn't remove him from a list of the shapers of this era. But he couldn't have done it alone, either.

    Washington, D.C.: Ugh! Ugh! Ugh! If you live in a country where most people exhibit common sense what is WRONG with making popular proposals, that will poll well? What is WRONG with saving Social Security and attacking Big Tobacco and wanting men and women to earn a living wage? GOD your supercilious attitude KILLS me.

    Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think I said anything was wrong. I was trying to answer a question about the targets of Clinton's speech, and argued that it seemed to target the entire body politic. I expect it to succeed, at least in the short run, by pushing up his approval figures still higher. What will be the impact of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's criticism of the White House Social Security plan?

    Robert G. Kaiser: There is going to be a lot of criticism, from many different quarters, of a proposal to fundamentally alter the nature of social security. Greenspan will be joined by others. I wouldn't dare predict the final outcome today.

    Arlington, Va.: You mentioned the Republicans looking last night as if they hadn't coordinated their TV image. What's wrong with that? Sure it doesn't look pretty but at least they were acting as individuals. Who then can accuse them of acting as organized partisans, as so many people have done?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Did I say it was wrong not to coordinate? I certainly didn't mean to. I did agree with the questioner who thought the Republicans didn't look great on tv last night. As I've written here and in the paper before, I think we live in a deeply partisan age, the most partisan I can remember. This applies to Democrats and Republicans alike.

    Kill Devil Hills, N.C.: When it comes to actually voting, just exactly how much are the senators going to be swayed by public opinion vs. party pressure vs. weighing the evidence? At this juncture are they jurors or representatives or both?

    Robert G. Kaiser: An important question, to which I have no good answer. In my experience, people often don't understand their own motivations, and if that is the case, those of us watching from the sidelines certainly aren't going to be able to divine them either. In fact the senators have to weigh both the evidence, and the gravity of the alleged crimes. I can imagine some senators honestly coming to the conclusion that Clinton did everything the House charged him with doing, but still shouldn't be convicted and removed from office. The fact is each of these senators is and will remain an odd sort of juror, a politician, a representative, and of course, most trickily, a human being. Which of Clinton's proposals is most likely to be enacted by this Congress?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Trying to answer this question sharpens one's thinking. Who can foresee what the legislative atmosphere may be like when the impeachment trial is over? I certainly cannot. Is it conceivable that after the rancor of the impeachment proceedings, Congress and the administration might actually work through a compromise measure to shore up social security? That feels unlikely to me today, but tomorrow is truly another day... The Post has written about the way the White House orchestrates budget and State of the Union leaks each year. (See John Harris's Jan. 6 story.) How do these organized "leaks" affect the way reporters and editors play stories in the newspaper?

    Robert G. Kaiser: If you read all of our stories on the many pre-State of the Union leaks, I think you might detect a certain wariness about what has become a pretty routine occurrence. These stories did not get dramatic play in The Post; most of them ran inside the paper, not on the front page. I think we know we are being used in situations like this. At the same time, the proposals are real, they do show up in the state of the union address, and they could become the basis for legislation, so we report them. That concludes today's discussion. Thank you for all of your questions. And thank you, Bob, for your time.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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