Who is Obama's competition?: Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

May 10, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news. In his latest column, "Now casting: A few good GOP candidates," Robinson writes, "Back on Earth, it?s hard to escape the conclusion that the elimination of bin Laden was good not only for national security, the interest of justice and the public mood, but for President Obama?s political prospects as well. He?s not unbeatable in 2012, but at the moment you?ve got to like his chances."

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly roundtable. Once again, we're overloaded with news. Today's column, for reference, was about the political landscape for 2012 following the bin Laden raid -- and the GOP "debate," and I use the word loosely. The Republican Party will be ready for prime time eventually, I'm sure, but at the moment it's not close; President Obama, meanwhile, is getting a decent bounce in the polls. But there's hardly time to digest that milestone, because we're hurtling into the debt ceiling debate and John Boehner has issued a demand for trillions of dollars in cuts. And Obama is about to dive into the immigration issue again. Let's get started.

GITMO, abu Ghraib, enhanced interrogation, etc., have been cited by many (maybe even you, Eugene) as playing into the hands of the terrorists and boosting recruitment. Seems to me that killing the leader is far worse and far more likely to boost terrorist turnout. Why haven't we heard this voiced by the usual suspects? Could it simply be that the other non-lethal examples were conducted by Bush, Cheney, et al., and this recent killing was by Obama? Sure looks that way to an objective person.

If the Bush administration had gotten bin Laden, I would have cheered -- and I was critical of that administration for turning away from the hunt to invade Iraq. If the Obama administration had continued the practice of torture, I would have howled. I've been critical of the administration for keeping Gitmo open and continuing too many (in my opinion) of the Bush anti-terror policies. I may be right or wrong, but I don't think you can call that inconsistent.

I have written to you previously, but you have ignored the inconvenient question. Now, 9/11 family member Debra Burlingame put it to Obama directly last week, and he turned and walked away she says, after saying he would not opine on the propriety of Holder's continuing witch hunt against CIA personnel who had been cleared of criminal wrongdoing by career prosecutors in the Justice Department. Why are these people, who may have been key players in the bin Laden hunt, being hounded by Holder after career attorneys cleared them? These people, and Debra Burlingame, deserve better treatment. Don't you agree?

I argued for some kind of "truth commission" to reveal what manner of torture was committed in the name of this great nation. I've always been wary of any investigative process that focuses solely on the interrogators and not on the higher-ups who gave the orders. I do believe, however, that any medical professionals who might have countenanced torture should have to answer not just to the consciences, but to the relevant licensing boards.

Reading your piece yesterday I'm not sure I agree with you about Mr. Cain. I would cast myself as a Republican - certainly conservative - and I have to say I was unimpressed with all of the candidates except him. Perhaps as you say his polished demeanor comes from his talk radio background but he did seem to have strong well prepared answers and there were cases where I thought he showed restraint such as when he didn't necessarily give a full answer on national security issues such as incursions into Libya/etc. saying their are just certain information that none of us are privy to until we are in the oval office (e.g., President Obama and closing of Guantanomo). I guess my question for you is whether you still think he really is not a "REAL" candidate and as a Republican should I just resign myself to Mitt Romney running away with the nomination like all of the spinsters say he will? Perhaps part of me was hoping that there might be a relatively unknown and outsider come in and win whose last name is not Trump.

I just don't see Cain going anywhere, especially when we get to the phase when money and logistics begin to play their role. But who knows what will happen this year? My advice to you, though, is to be wary of outsiders who ride in to save the day. That rarely works out well. 

In reading you column today, I can't help but ask - at the end of the process, who's going to be in, and who's going to be out of the Republican race? There's so many candidates kicking around that I think Obama would crush in a general election. Bachmann. Gingritch. Palin. Cain. Santorum. Trump (Pu-lease). But I always assumed that the Republican party wasn't going to nominate any of those people. As time goes on, and the more competitive candidates don't commit, the posibility occurs to me that the candidates who might have a shot at Obama could decide it's better to wait until 2016. What are the odds that Republicans end up nominating someone who has zero chance of winning simply because no better candidate wanted to run?

I have to believe that the GOP will come up with a viable candidate. I do believe that some potential contenders have looked at the prospects and decided that 2016 looks like a better shot. But it's not as if Obama is soaring in the polls, or anything. He's a clear favorite to be reelected, but watch that unemployment number -- people have been getting grumpier about the economy, although that may be bottoming out. This isn't a slam-dunk.

There are some formidable candidates and at the end of the day, George Bush found out that a major foreign policy success means very little without jobs at home. The main reason people don't want to declare a candidacy is that it gives the left a focal point to attack. No one takes the current list serious, and candidates are reluctant to go after an incumbent. Look at 2004, Kerry was an pretty weak candidate against someone who had such pitiful popularity.

You're right, but you would expect a more substantial field by now. I don't see how it's a great idea for Republicans to give the president so much political running room.

There are several reasonable Republicans with sound ideas that would appeal to many independent voters, especially if the economy is no better in sixteen months time. Examples include Huntsman, Daniels and Romney. My question is what chance do any of these moderates have to win in the Republican primaries which will be dominated by fundementalists and birthers?

Well, that's the big question, isn't it? A candidate who can make it through the GOP primaries might not be a candidate who can tack far enough to the center to win the general election.

I honestly believe it doesn't matter who the Republicans nominate, except to the pundit class, no offense. Is it me or does it seem that everyone who is running for the Republican nomination, or thinking about it knows what they must believe in and support whether their record shows it or not? There won't be a pro choice candidate or a candidate in favor of gay rights and marriage. The only differences between them is how conservative they will be, because the policies have already been predetermined by Republican think tanks. Ultimately the Republicans are just looking for a personality insane or sane that that they feel will get traction with the American people. That's how they think Obama won and that's how they think they'll win.

It does matter whom they nominate, though. There was an interesting figure in an NBC poll yesterday. They asked if respondents would vote for Obama or "a Republican." Obama's lead over a generic Republican increased, post-bin Laden, but the more important thing is that the percentage who said it depends on who the nominee is went up from 11 percent to 16 percent. In other words, the anybody-but-Obama crowd has shrunk, which means the GOP has to put up a superior candidate to get those votes.

Shouldn't jobs be a big concern of a president or a presidential candidate. The politicians bloviate about the recession recessing, but millions are without jobs.

Thank you. I've written that the key to winning in 2012 is developing a message about jobs that connects with voters. So far, nobody has done so -- the president included.

By the 2012 election, all attention will be on the economy. And it is specifically jobs, jobs, jobs. I think most Americans have no bought into the GOP's views that the rich has already sacrified too much and can't be asked to sacrifice any more via taxes. But President Obama and the Democrats need to make the connection that higher tax rates will not harm job creation. Instead, it will help it if it is used effectively to create more jobs. I know President Obama has been stating this message but it's not being heard and/or understood. The Dems really need to do a better job of this. Jobs is Obama's main competition.

Exactly. Jobs, jobs, jobs. 

I was on holiday when Bin Laden was killed. I was in a country where the U.S. is generally held in high regard. I have to say, however, that watching the news with some of the locals, where thousands of people were cheering and chanting "USA, #1" was really off-putting, not only to me, but to everyone around me. We understand catharsis, but I think it did nothing to improve the U.S. image abroad. Have you heard anything like this from somewhere else?

I've seen that sort of thing in the European press, but I went down to the White House the night that bin Laden was killed and I have to say that I didn't find the scene off-putting in the least. It was, indeed, cathartic. Nothing to apologize for.

The question about whether or not the CIA people who have been cleared by career DOJ prosecutors and are nonetheless being hounded by Holder was not answered. Go back and read it. What's your view as to whether that should continue? Debra Burlingame has a view and apparently Obama doesn't. Shame.

I thought I did answer the question. Nobody should be "hounded" but if no one else will investigate to find out what happened, I'm glad Holder is doing so. But once the facts are known, I wouldn't want to see interrogators prosecuted if the higher-ups who ordered torture are given a pass. Clear enough?

It's not a question of what you cheered or would have cheered. The question was why wouldn't the killing of bin Laden be a bigger recruitment tool for terrorists than non-lethal GITMO, abu Ghraib, etc.? Until you answer the question, yes you can be called inconsistent.

Geez, I guess I'm not being clear today. I'll try to speak slowly. We had every right to kill or capture the mass murderer who perpetrated 9/11. Justice demanded that we do so, regardless of what anyone might think. We did not have every right to humiliate prisoners at Abu Ghraib, or to detain many of the Guantanamo prisoners (I didn't say all, I said many), or to commit torture. It's not inconsistent to say I am unconcerned about the recruitment impact of an action that we had every right to take, and that I'm concerned about the recruitment impact of actions we had no right to take.

My big concern is that because the Republicans bemoan the deficit and debt (even though their policy choices caused a great portion of it) so much, voters will make the connection that reducing the deficit will solve our economic woes. This will lead to either a Republican president and/or Obama looking for ways to cut spending when in a time of mass unemployment is the absolute wrong thing to do. Let's face it, GDP = private consumption + private investment + government spending + (exports - imports). There's not a lot private consumption with millions unemployed. Interest rates are already near zero, so there's no better time to borrow, but businesses still aren't. That leaves government spending and exports to do the job. A weakening dollar helps in the latter, though, you'll notice that has become the latest bogeyman for Fox News and their ilk.

Wow, you must have passed Econ  101. It seems that many of our elected officials dropped the course.

If the first commenter can't appreciate the difference between killing an enemy on the battlefield, and torturing an enemy in our custody when he's no longer a physical threat, then maybe there is some truth to the old overused saying that "the terrorists have already won."

They've brainwashed us. I hope we're snapping out of it.

OK, so what is "the" jobs message? It's clear that the big corporations feel no pressure to create jobs and Congress is allergic to creating major spending programs on stuff like infrastructure that would put people back to work. On the latter, perhaps it's time to start talking about programs to protect the grid, maintain roads and bridges, and improve both transportation and communication systems as matters of national defense in the same way that the interstate highway system, student loans and school lunches (look it up!) were considered matters of national security.

Infrastructure is where I'd start. Lord knows we need it. 

I was put off by the celebrations until I understood that to many of the young people bin Laden was a real presence in their lives from childhood. As an older person I felt satisfaction and relief but the youth felt it so much more personally.

I was a grown man when 9/11 happened and I felt the catharsis last week, too. I kept flashing back to those awful days. I don't think we yet appreciate what a big deal bin Laden's demise really is.

Do you think Huckabee ultimately makes the plunge? A month ago I was convinced he wasn't going to run, but lately he's sounding more like a candidate.

I'm on that same trajectory. A month ago, I would have said no way. But he's a politician to his soul, and there aren't many politicians who can look at polls showing them at or near the top of the field for a major-party presidential nomination and not salivate.

Says who? If that were true why didn't the Bush giveaways result in a hiring boom? Instead it put another layer of wealth in the pockets of the already wealthy. And on an unrelated topic, why all the adulation for Mitch Daniels? Do we really want to a key player in Bush's economic team another at-bat?

Good questions. The Republican Party should have to answer why policies and players who have failed in the past should be installed once more.

Is it wrong that I can't wait for Gingrich to jump into the race? Watching him flame out is going to be great. Also, can the media stop referring to him as an "ideas guy"? The only interesting ideas he has are when he works with Democrats on things like computerizing medical records, cap and trade, or cash for clunkers. But once he starts to sell a book, he jettisons all those ideas for his fringe right-wing audience and starts talking about socialism and sharia law.

Newt Gingrich is obviously unconcerned that half of his ideas contradict the other half. 

But that's government spending, which we are apparently allergic to...speaking of government spending, is there any chance that the Obama administration will start arguing (correctly) that the jobs numbers would look better if state and local governments weren't shedding so many jobs? And that a second stimulus to the states would help the overall economy?

I'm not holding my breath. Somehow, a lot of people seem to have bought the idea that a government job isn't a "real" job. That's just stupid.

The person who tried to take me to task for not knowing the difference between the battlefield (I guess he meant Pakistan, but I didn't know we were at war there) and, say, GITMO totally misread. What I asked was why people thought terrorists viewed the latter as a recruiting boost and the bin Laden killing differently. Note--it's what pundits said the effect on the terrorists would be, not my view. Frankly, I'd be for killing them all wherever I found them (how's that for consistency, Eugene), but that's not the question.

The problem is that your question is irrelevant, in my view. I'm glad that you've participated in the discussion, but I know you must, by now, understand my point: In the case of bin Laden, the imperatives of justice overwhelm any consideration of the p.r. impact. In the cases of Abu Ghraib, torture and Gitmo, such overriding imperatives were not present.

Yes, infrastructure is the place to start, but how does the president (or anyone) craft an effective jobs message that we have to spend on infrastructure when all Congress will do is bleat about how we need to CUT spending, not come up with "new" things to spend money on.

It would help to just come out and say it, rather than be cowed into silence.

And speaking of silence, I've done all the blathering I can do for today. My time is up. Thanks, all, for participating, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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