Post Politics Hour: Wonky vs. Warm From the Bully Pulpit
Washington Post White House reporter Michael Fletcher answered questions from readers during Thursday's Post Politics Hour. Selected questions from the chat and a link to the full transcript are included below:
Austin, Tex.: When is "wonkish" cool? The more a pres. candidate sounds like they are discoursing with Charlie Rose (i.e. Obama, Biden), the more I'm inclined to vote for them. Yet, I also appreciate the misfortune of Gore and Kerry in this context. Besides Biden, who among the '08 Dem. field is inclined to appear wonkish? From a handler's point of view, how great of a liability is this?
Michael Fletcher: I think Senator Clinton can do wonkish pretty well, among others. In my opinion, a kind of fiction has taken hold among political handlers which says something like Americans are anti-intellectual and want their president to be a guy they can enjoy having a beer with. While there is something to that, I think people also respect really smart people. They just don't want to be talked down to by them. But that has translated into some candidates suppressing their smarts, or the appearance of being smart. President Bush always gets applause and laughter with his line at town hall meetings which goes something like this: "Adviser so-and-so was an A student and has a PhD; I was a C student. But please note who is the aide and who is the president." But even with that, I don't think wonkish is really a political liability, or at least it doesn't have to be.
Houston, Tex.: Mr. Fletcher, what message does Bush's comment "that, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq", on leaving Iraq, send to the current Iraqi government, to Iraqis and other Muslims opposed to the occupation?
Michael Fletcher: I think it just underscores what Bush has said all along: that he is absolutely committed to his Iraq policy. He has, essentially, staked his presidency and his legacy to it. And, right now, things are not looking good. I assume that the current Iraqi government, such as it is, supports that idea, for where would it be without the U.S. military presence? Iraqis and other Muslims, meanwhile, are likely divided. One point should be made, however. Not even the most optimistic pundits thought that the U.S. military would be completely out of Iraq by 2008, even before the president made that comment at his Tuesday news conference.
Helena, Mont.: Howard Kurtz's article today stated that many people he talked to who were at Bush's recent press conference said Bush had done badly yet the take on several news conferences was that he was confident and aggressive. I know that perceptions can vary, but how can they be so widely divergent? Shouldn't one or the other take have been prevalent and been the lead?
Michael Fletcher: It's tough to judge the president's performance at a news conference, particularly when you watch him seeking out an impression, the way we tend to do in the press corps. We see him in public fairly regularly, on average a couple times a week. Sometimes he's effective; sometimes less so. It is almost easier for people who observe him more casually to be left with a strong impression. In my mind, the president seemed a bit prickly, a bit out of rhythm and perhaps a little strained on Tuesday. One friend told me he appeared rattled, which was strong in my mind. But he also showed his sense of humor and expressed ideas that he had shared before. Given that, it is surprising that the assessments were not even more divergent.
Baltimore, Md.: Re the "wonk" question: I think this was at the heart of Bill Clinton's political genius. He could talk off the top of his head about very complex policy issues, yet make it sound like he was chatting with you while eating burgers at McDonald's.
As for Bush's comment about how our involvement in Iraq won't end with his presidency, I agree that's the case. But if I am doing advertising for Democrats in '08 -- and the Republican nominee is at all tied to this mess--I would simply juxtapose clips of what Bush said in '03 about how fast and easy the war would be with that very clip from his press conference.
By the way, the next time the President holds a press conference, I would like a reporter to ask him, "Mr. Bush, looking back, was it a mistake to stage the Mission Accomplished ceremony on the deck of that aircraft carrier, given that we have lost 2,300 American troops killed since that time?"
Michael Fletcher: I think you're right about President Clinton, who many call one of the most talented politicians of his generation. And the question you raise would be a good one for President Bush,who hates to admit mistakes. I imagine the president would use that question as an opportunity to say that the "mission" referred to on that ship meant toppling Saddam Hussein, not installing a stable and functioning democracy in Iraq.
Detroit, Mich.: Mr. Fletcher, Is there a sense in the administration that they are loosing their political capital, and if so they are entering a period of "lame duck" status?
Michael Fletcher: I think you heard the president say as much himself Tuesday, when he said he is spending his political capital on Iraq. Clearly, Republicans are going their own way in Congress now. Social Security private accounts did not happen, and the president now talks about (another) bipartisan commission to study the issue as if that would mark progress. Immigration reform, at least the kind that President Bush has spoken about with great passion early in his presidency, seems to be in trouble. Of course, the White House would never assign themselves lame duck status, but talk of hydrogen cells and more science teachers pales next to system-changing initiatives such as remaking Social Security and the tax code, which the president had advocated just a year ago.
Washington, D.C.: Have you heard any buzz about whether questions asked by participants in Bush's town hall yesterday in West Virginia were screened? They were such softball questions, so in line with what we all now expect from these events - and so different from the press conference of the day before!
Michael Fletcher: I don't know about yesterday's event, but I've been to others were questions were not screened but appeared to be "soft" nonetheless. I think that is to be expected. For one, people respect the president and the presidency, and do not want to be appear rude. Also, while people have strong feelings about many policies, they often do not know enough of the fine points to frame a really challenging question. In addition, I think people tend to focus on things they encounter in their daily lives, while much of what the president does is almost an abstraction for them.
Washington, D.C.: What is your analysis of how the press conference worked to stop the slide in the polls? That is the only reason for having a press conference this week. Or is Bush playing an end-game with his current array of advisers, who are increasingly in the news as potential scapegoats for the low approval ratings?
Michael Fletcher: No one thing is going to stop the president's slide in the polls, maybe other than hitting bottom. I think the best he can hope for is for the improvement he talks about in Iraq becoming more obvious to the American people. Besides the news conference, the president has been doing a series of speeches re-articulating his Iraq policy. While that may or may not help his political standing, I think it serves to underscore the importance the president places on the war's outcome. Interestingly, while many policy makers, Democrats and Republicans, disagree on whether the war was worth waging, they agree with Bush that there is now no other option but success.
Read the full transcript of Thursday's Politics Hour discussion.
Friday at 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post national political reporter and Washington Sketch columnist Dana Milbank hosts the Post Politics Hour. Submit a question or comment here.
Friday at 12:30 p.m. ET: Washington Post columnist David Broder will be online to answer readers' questions about politics. Submit a question here.
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