John Dickerson was online on Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about how Obama can be a different kind of president by trying to bridge the partisan divide in politics. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
John Dickerson: Hello everyone. Sorry I’m a little late. I’m happy to be here.
St. Simons Island, Ga.: Mr. Dickerson, I very much have enjoyed your column in Slate during the campaign, and hope you cover the Obama administration. I don’t object to any of your six suggestions (embrace McCain, appoint Republicans, work without pay, increase transparency, have an inaugural event outside Washington, and meet with diverse religious leaders), but after reading David Brooks’s column this morning, I can’t help but wonder why—after winning in a landslide—the Democrat is supposed to adopt a Republican-friendly administration, in personnel as well as policy and tone.
I know Obama is supposed to be a new type of politician, but won’t this potentially undermine the progressive policies he wants to implement? And while I agree that he could use McCain’s help in the Congress and that there are certainly smart Republicans who could provide valuable advice and expertise in his Cabinet, do you really believe the religious right ever would embrace Barack Hussein Obama?
washingtonpost.com: Change I Can Believe in(New York Times, Nov. 7)
John Dickerson: I think Obama can fulfill his promises to be a new kind of politician and pursue his progressive policies. Arguably if he brings in Republicans, even just to listen to them, it gives him cover to do something considered more to the left. But primarily the reason he should do these things is that he campaigned relentlessly for 21 months on the idea that he would bring change in these areas.
San Luis Obispo, Calif.: Is it too hard to follow JFK’s political wisdom? Why not make energy independence and universal health care 10-year projects? This would enable industry and financial markets time to adjust to a new world, and delay the inevitable political repercussions for the next five congressional terms.
John Dickerson: I think that makes good sense. Perhaps that’s what Obama will do. He’s already done it on oil independence. I’m not sure what the 10 year horizon would be for healthcare. Surely his promise of near universality will take longer than his first term, despite his promise during the campaign to knock it out in four years.
Newton, Mass.: Will he back off from pushing divisive stuff like signing Freedom of Choice Act to focus on the economic issues that were a big part of his mandate? Can he get diverted to social issues like “don’t ask, don’t tell” as Clinton did when it’s still “the economy, stupid!?”
John Dickerson: Everything we’ve seen so far suggests Obama is focused on the big issues first. My guess is that he’ll move slowly on other fronts.
Rosleand, N.J.: John: I have enormous respect for you, which makes it awkward to point out your idea that Obama “work without pay” is perhaps the single worst idea I have ever heard with regard to the presidency. The presidency is a job already filled with far too many corrupting temptations. If you take away their salary—and make no mistake, if Obama were to lose his mind and take your advice, it would become politically impossible for any future president to take a salary—inevitably there will come a day when a White House occupant will say “screw this—this is the most important and stressful job in the world, I do it well, and I deserve some frickin’ compensation.” And they’ll self-justify finding some sub-ethical, sub-legal way to supplement their personal income, they’ll get found out, and it will do irreparable harm to the office.
John Dickerson: I’m not convinced. Your doomsday scenario requires too many ifs to make the case that this is self-evidently a bad idea. 1)The no salary policy has to stay 2) the future president would have to be corrupt 3) the future president would have to find ways to feed his corruption. Maybe all that can happen but it doesn’t seem destined to.
Anonymous: Do you think anything will be done about robo calls? Sen. Feinstein has a Robcall Privacy Act and there is talk of adding political calls to the Do Not Call registry.
John Dickerson: Not sure. They were a spectacular failure this election so that’s probably the thing that will kill them fastest.
Alexandria, Va.: Now that we have elected an African American president, how long do you think it will be until we elect a woman president?
John Dickerson: Sarah Palin would like the answer to this question. Maybe 8 years if Hillary runs again.
Baltimore: How can Obama improve participatory democracy? His campaign rhetoric was all about empowering ordinary citizens, and he used the Internet well as an organizing tool. Can he now provide channels for ordinary citizens to influence government action by contributing their energy, talent, feedback and policy proposals?
John Dickerson: I’m not sure how he could but he’s working along these lines. I’m not sure what they’ve got going but you can bet it’ll take advantage of the community organizing principles he put to use in his campaign.
Obama’s text message strategy?: I think there are millions of us who signed up to get text alerts from the Obama campaign during the election. Do you think he’ll keep that line of communication open through the transition and at the White House? What a great way to signal the direct connections he wants to keep with citizens—but I haven’t heard anything at all about what the campaign’s next steps are for all those numbers they already have gathered.
John Dickerson: I bet they’ll keep the text messaging lines open though they’ll have to use it wisely. too many text messages and he’ll just become president spam.
Fairfax, Va.: Having closely followed the past two presidential races, we’ve seen the more secretive, more closed-off from the press campaigns end up the winner. That’s a pretty big incentive to keep the press at a distance. The sound bite culture we inhabit gives no incentive to actually think about the issues we face, and the label “flip-flopper” for changing one’s mind—even for good reason, like when the facts change—discourages politicians from compromise. To me, it seems like all the incentives are on less transparency, and more glibness and stubbornness. And the media reinforces that system. What say you?
John Dickerson: I like Obama’s call for everyone to get off cable. He talked about this at the end of the campaign arguing that cable bicker-fests only distort the political conversation. I wonder if he’ll follow through. I think president Obama could meet the press halfway—frequent press conferences or at least sit-downs with the press—in a way that would offer some transparency without giving in to the sound-bite frenzy.
Yonkers, N.Y.: Hurray, hurrah, how wonderful we Americans are! Buy the whole country another beer. … Except that the guy who ran perhaps the most perfect campaign we’ve ever seen, against a guy who ran a hate-fest, who also was weighed down by the most despised president in our history in the midst of a recession, won by a thumping 52-46. Not 60-40 or 62-38—52-46. In parts of the South, Obama got only a small percentage of the white vote. I’m not even throwing in the Palin disaster or the war. Lots of people in this country were looking for a reason—any reason at all—for why they should support McCain, and very little was required. McCain didn’t even have to give one positive reason why he wanted the job. You can have my champagne—I don’t see what’s so jolly about all this.
John Dickerson: I think people (including conservatives) find some reason for encouragement because 221 years after the founding document of our country allowed slavery to continue in a country founded on the concept of liberty, an African American was elected.
Washington: How long before financial conditions compel Obama to abandon the middle-class tax cut?
John Dickerson: I’m not sure. there are enough economists who argue that financial conditions call for some injection of cash to give him plenty of cover to go forward. Will the blue dog fiscal conservative Democrats in the House vote for it without offsetting spending cuts? That’s the question we don’t know the answer to yet.
Hot Springs, Va.: Recognizing the myriad issues on the agenda, I would like to hear the president-elect say to the nation that “this is what we are focusing on first,” whether it be the economy, health care, energy, iraq, etc. But pick one, out loud, in press conference. Most importantly, say to all aloud the ideas being thought about, what might work and why, what won’t work and why—keep voters in the loop of thought, words and decision of what’s next move. Be open, and if having difficulty and not getting much movement, say so and why. That is accountability to the people who elected Sen. Obama to be our president. We’ve missed it for so long.
John Dickerson: Good point. I think Obama will do that with the economy. In fact, he’ll start that in his press conference today.
Seattle: I think St. Simons Island’s point was, why should Obama take the advice of Republicans/conservatives who supported Bush running roughshod over Democrats? I mean, Obama won running as a liberal Democrat, so why shouldn’t he govern like one?
John Dickerson: It’s not either/or. Also he should probably govern where the people are, and as Nancy Pelosi said just yesterday they’re going to have to govern from the middle.
Santa Barbara, Calif.: Half the things you state in “six things Obama should do” have nothing to do with doing the best job as president. This wouldn’t even begin to surface with a Republican president—for example look at Bush. Don’t get ridiculous!
John Dickerson: There are many things Obama must do as president that weren’t mentioned. The piece was about those things that he could do that would meet his pledge to govern differently and do so in the time period before he starts making actual legislation. Obama faces a different standard than Bush because he campaigned for 21 months on the idea of changing the tone and style of politics.
I’d love to see: Obama reinforce the “we’re all in this together” theme by having his great ground team organize community service events in all 50 states, either on Inauguration Day or—perhaps even better—the day before, which happens to be the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I don’t know if he would be allowed to use money from his campaign/inauguration fund, but I’m sure he could find a way to sponsor them, even if the money had to come from elsewhere.
John Dickerson: I’d love this too. It’s a great idea.
Rhode Island: I have a suggestion for the first 100 days, which happens to dovetail nicely with Michelle Obama’s advocacy for military families: NPR (and probably other outlets) have reported on the shameful state of absentee balloting for servicemembers on duty overseas. It is an outrage that the ballots are not reaching them in time, or that the wrong ballots arrive with no time to fix the problem and no guarantee that they ever even will be counted. I personally think the nation’s voting infrastructure needs to be overhauled, but we definitely should start with some kind of “Servicemember Voting Bill of Rights” to address these problems. Who would oppose it?
John Dickerson: Sounds reasonable. The idea that Michelle Obama is going to advocate for military families is really really smart.
Washington: Is Lindsey Graham’s statement about Rahm Emanuel a signal from McCain that he’s willing to work with an Obama administration on legislation, or is it just Graham congratulating his friend?
washingtonpost.com: Obama’s choice of Emanuel shows switch in tone(AP, Nov. 7)
John Dickerson: Both, I think. There are going to be Republicans who want to take the party in a new direction and seeming reasonable and open to the new president is the first step.
Pittsburgh: Has Sarah Palin set back the prospects for all female presidential candidates for some time to come with her apparent greed and employment of “feminine wiles” instead of reliance on substance and knowledge of issues? Is her political career toast (I hope)?
John Dickerson: I don’t really know but I don’t think so. She was a disaster but we’ve come far enough to know that women can fail as spectacularly as men can and it has nothing to do with gender.
Anonymous: Is Gov. Arnold an economic girlie man now?
John Dickerson: Arnold will work very hard to become friendly with the new president. He likes popular winners and that’s what Obama is right now.
Blech: “Obama faces a different standard than Bush because he campaigned for 21 months on the idea of changing the tone and style of politics.” You’re joking right? Bush campaigned as a small-government, anti-nation building, compassionate conservative. That lasted about four seconds into his first term, without much comment from anyone.
John Dickerson: The standard I was talking about was the one raised in the question– the “change the tone of politics standard.” I was not suggesting that Bush faced no standard.
Washington: In a chat earlier this week an obviously bitter Tucker Carlson said: “The same people who always are going on about how important heterodoxy and dissent are, are the same people who are always trying to impose the most stifling sort of politically correct conformity on the rest of us. They have no interest in divergent opinions, and never have.”
Is it actually possible that the seemingly large number of conservatives who believe this don’t see the hypocrisy in supporting a party that for years has had absolutely no tolerance for divergent opinions? Or is this just rhetoric? It would seem that this very attitude—you’re either wish us or you’re [insert insult here]—is one of the major contributing factors in the increasing rejection of the modern Republican Party.
John Dickerson: The with us or against us mindset certainly hurt Republicans both as it applied to policy (don’t bring me your differing opinions) and politics (govern from the right not the middle). But the left has plenty of people who demonstrate the identical behavior, interpreting all comments in their most nefarious light, allowing no intellectual cartilage for the normal give and take of conversation. All comments that aren’t deeply critical of George Bush are seen as a sign of cluelessness and any criticism of Barack Obama is seen as racism or mindless conservatism. Fortunately president Obama has a more supple mind.
Boston: Re: Bipartisanship. I’d love to see Sarah Palin invited down to testify at a congressional committee about energy issues. We would benefit one of two ways—either we get lots of useful information from an energy expert and prove that Congress is going to be taking all sides seriously, or Palin is shown to be an absolute moron even on the issues that she says she knows best (useful for the American public during any ‘12 decisions).
John Dickerson: Perhaps we could bring some dancing bears too. Sarah Palin claimed a variety of things 1. that she had deals with Russia 2. That she opposed the bridge to nowhere 3. that she was an energy expert. These weren’t gotcha questions she failed to answer. These were stands she took on her own. All three were either wrong or severely lacking.
No cable talking-heads?: How could Obama make that happen? Sure, it cheapens the political discourse, but there is that whole “free speech” thing. Attempts to control the media wouldn’t go over very well.
John Dickerson: sorry if I was unclear. He meant that politicians should not go on the shows. He could easily not allow his staffers to go on cable.
No salary: I understand that this scenario is unlikely in a country where you need substantial personal wealth to run for office, but I’m thinking back to Truman. He didn’t have a lot of money, and his salary was used to stock the larder and cover the not-inexpensive costs of running the White House. He couldn’t have gone without a salary. Has the financial structure changed, in that the president no longer is expected to cover carrying costs of the White House?
John Dickerson: I wasn’t suggesting that every president go without pay. What I was suggesting is that in this early period of the next several months Obama could do a few symbolic things. One was to go without pay for a few years or perhaps his entire administration because a) he’s calling on everyone to sacrifice and b) he’s plenty wealthy.
Arlington, Va.: I’m wondering if you had a chance to read John Boehner’s opinion piece in the Post this morning. From the looks of it, it doesn’t sound like the Republicans are willing to compromise on anything. It looks like their strategy for the next four years is to obstruct as much as they can. Will this work for them, and will the public support them?
washingtonpost.com: Republicans’ Road Back(Post, Nov. 7)
John Dickerson: I haven’t read it yet. I’ve heard about it though. I think this is a negotiating posture. A) He wants to look like he’s being tough for his own base and B) the only way you get a compromise from the Democrats is if you set your opening position as extreme.
Edinburgh, Scotland: John, I very much like your reporting in Slate and also the Gabfest with David and Emily. Barack Obama’s victory was watched with great interest and much enthusiasm around the world (for example, my brother-in-law and his best man, both from Edinburgh, were over campaigning in Virginia). Polls also showed that almost every other country in the world was strongly in favour of an Obama victory. The historical nature of his candidacy and presidency, as the first African American on a major party ticket and now also to enter the Oval Office, have created more interest, enthusiasm, hope and expectation.
My question is, is this level of excitement and enthusiasm—coupled with the very difficult economic problems he will face—almost inevitably going to lead to a sense of disappointment or frustration if improvements cannot be seen quite quickly in the country’s progress, or if the new president’s agenda gets mired in protracted bartering or the resumption of “normal” partisan service in Congress? Are there any quick, essential and/or popular steps the president-elect could or should push through that will have a recognizable impact and help maintain the sense of momentum and enthusiasm for him and his administration? Thanks.
John Dickerson: I think the Obama team knows about this inevitable sense of disappointment and they’re working on it by not promising too much. In his victory speech Obama was clear to make this point. I think some of what I suggested in the piece goes some way towards doing what you suggest to the extent that it fulfills an obama promise from the campaign in a way that can be done quickly and without spending any new money.
Chantilly, Va.: Actually I’m not sure it’s legally possible to give up pay—Mark Warner tried doing the same as governor here, but it wasn’t legal, so that went out the window.
John Dickerson: That might very well be true that there’s a legal prohibition to giving up your salary. But presumably he could donate it.
Blech again: I’m sorry, my point wasn’t very clear. I just think we should be more worried about holding Obama accountable for achieving the things he has promised the American public than about the way he achieves them. If it takes reaching across the aisle, fine. If, however, it doesn’t, that’s fine too. Focusing on style over substance is in part how we as a country let Bush get away with being so incompetent at pursuing/achieving what he promised.
John Dickerson: In general you’re right, we want sensible policy above all else. But Obama ran his entire campaign on changing the style of negotiations and conduct in Washington. It’s that set of campaign promises that I was trying to think through.
Pittsburgh: What do you anticipate will be among the first bills passed by Congress and signed by President Obama? Those they passed before but that were vetoed by Bush, like S-CHIP?
John Dickerson: S-CHIP is an interesting question. do you do it now to put points on the board or do you save it to be the first part of a healthcare package to help the bigger legislation pass? We don’t know yet. I think Rahm, before he was hired, was in favor of doing SCHIP now. Wonder what he thinks now that he’s on the other side of the fence.