Eugene Robinson Live

Jan 14, 2014

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to our weekly chat. Congress still hasn't acted to extend long-term unemployment benefits, which is an outrage -- and the subject of today's column. As usual, there's lots going on. There's agreement on a budget; Chris Christie seems to be having another bad week; Robert Gates is still trying to figure out what he said in his book... plus whatever else is on your minds. Let's get started.

I appreciate your column on the UI situation, I'm one of those people who's 26th week ended on Sunday. I'm frustrated because I feel like this is a political football for most in Washington. Republicans obviously get most of the blame, (they would support an extension under Pres. Romney). But I also feel like Democrats are fine with it being voted down so they can use this as a campaign issue. Either way my landlord won't care if I can't pay my rent if I can't secure a job in the next few months. Thanks.

I hope you're wrong about Democrats being content to have this as a campaign issue. I wish they were showing more passion and outrage. Positioning for 2014 is one thing, but we're talking about people's lives -- rent, mortgage, groceries. Imagine what the late Ted Kennedy would be saying. I guarantee he'd be saying it loud.

As financially prudent Americans, we see nothing wrong with insisting another $25 billion for "temporary" (what a joke!) unemployment benefits find an offset in a $1 trillion plus budget. It's obvious to those financially prudent Americans that this country cannot go on spending and spending as you and this president obviously wish it. We care more about the future of our children than you do.

Anyone who truly is financially prudent would recognize that the deficit has been brought down sharply and that health care costs, the main driver of deficit and debt, are rising at the slowest rate in decades. It's time for budget hawks to be honest about the fact that we're simply not facing imminent disaster and that, in fact, things are looking up. If we can manage to enact policies that encourage the economy to grow -- and extending UI will create 200,000 jobs -- the future will look ever brighter.

Gene, With all due respect, the two main issues Dems are talking about today do nothing to address long term poverty or low job skills. Extending unemployment benefits is not a bad thing, but eventually it just becomes another word for welfare if it never expires. The minimum wage increase has its advantages and disadvantages, but it doesn't address how to get the poor to improve their skills in the job market and stop making minimum wage. The traditional idea of just putting those in the working class in unions isn't going to solve this problem. Those jobs have moved overseas and are likely not coming back. This economy is broke, and at some point if the left wants to be continue to be trusted to lead the government it needs to fix instead of just blaming others. Just extending the status quo isn't acceptable anymore.

I agree with one thing you said, which is that progressives need to be more creative and forward-looking (though not in the way you would like, probably). I disagree with the rest. Did you read my column? The people I wrote about are not looking for welfare, they're looking for jobs. Is it better to give them a little help now, or wait until their lives totally collapse -- and they find themselves in need of a lot more government support? As for the minimum wage, either you believe we should have one, or you don't. If you believe in a minimum wage, you recognize that it has fallen dramatically, in real terms, and needs to be raised. Simple as that.

I have a bachelor's degree in two majors. While I have friends that I graduated with who are prospering, I have more (including myself) who struggle with continued unemployment and low wages. Perhaps I'm crying over my own circumstances, but I wonder if decades from now we will be seen as a lost generation.

I hope not, but I don't know. This is a time of great economic dislocation, and the forces causing it -- the digital revolution, robotics, globalization, etc. -- are huge and inexorable. I'm an optimist by nature, however, so I have to believe that sooner or later we'll get our act together. I hope it's sooner.

Your column today really resonated with me especially as there was a bit of focus last week on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. How are we going to be able to lift people out of poverty unless there are good, decent paying jobs that provide real benefit to those in need. I'm disappointed that more progress hasn't been made on this front.

The ladder that previous generations used to climb into the middle class is missing many of its rungs. Where are the blue-collar jobs that pay a living wage? Not in this country, at present.

Gene, If I may request that you step outside your comfort zone (domestic policy), I am very concerned about what Obama is doing on Iran. He is clearly attempting to put pressure on democrat senators to not support Israel and lift sanctions on Iran. Israel, after seeing how his promises and red lines are meaningless (via Syria) they will not take him at his word to protect them. It also appears, via numerous sources (including the LA times) that he will not publicly disclose the foundations of the deal because they are extremely favorable to Iran and out of line with what senators want. This is going to back Israel into a situation where they feel the only option left is a military one, since the US is removing restrictions. While the dems as a whole are supporters of Israel's security, its hard to believe Obama has the same feelings. I don't wan't to believe this, as I am an ardrant Dem and voted for the man. But the facts are getting hard to ignore.

Wow, where to begin? Let's start with my "comfort zone": I spent six years as a foreign correspondent and five years as the Post's foreign editor, so I feel quite at home with your question. I'm inclined to see these talks with Iran as extremely promising, but of course we'll have to see what the details of a final deal look like -- if one is reached. President Obama's policy is the same as that of previous administrations: Iran must not have nuclear weapons. If this outcome can be achieved through negotiation, that's a better option than war (which, by the way, would only delay the Iranian nuclear program by a few years and create popular support there for the regime).

The maximum unemplyment check in NJ is $624 *before* taxes. Not exactly a princely sum in the Northeastern US. And these folks spend every cent on items that drive their local economy. So we hurt the unemployed and the business that they patronize too.


Team of Rivals, indeed! Looks like Gates has been Obama's rival the whole time. If someone hates their job so much, I just can't imagine what made him stay. I guess he liked the troops, and maybe even, the perks, but why not just leave instead of turning on the president? He was not a good soldier!

I haven't read Robert Gates' book, but of course I've read the stories and listened to the interview -- and either he's displaying Proustian subtlety and nuance, or he's really conflicted about his time at the Pentagon. He explicitly praises President Obama for making all the right decisions, yet bitterly criticizes him for... for what? For the way those decisions were made? For something Joe Biden said years ago? 

I'm more than tired of the old trope that the Great Society programs didn't work. My spouse and I (both from low-income, rural families) went to college on Equal Opportunity Grants, loans, and scholarships (and worked part- and full-time). We now have an income in six figures and pay more in taxes in one year than the cost of putting us through school. The programs may not have worked for everyone, but they made a difference for us! I'm sure we are not the only ones.

You are, of course, far from the only ones. Thanks for sharing your story.

It seems one of the criticisms of the President is that he was unsure about the strategy in Afghanistan but let it happen anyway because, I assume that's what his military leaders were suggesting? A leader who listens to his experts? How is this a bad thing? Someone who is skeptical of military intervention sounds like a president I want.

Again, I haven't read the book. I'll be curious to see whether Gates acknowledges the fact that military leaders were far from unanimous about whether sending the surge troops to Afghanistan was a good idea. According to theory, counterinsurgency works only when certain conditions were present -- and many of those conditions were not present in Afghanistan (such as a relatively honest, relatively legitimate central government). My understanding is that Gates does not include the fact that President Obama wrote out the details of the surge -- how many troops, what they were supposed to do, when they would be withdrawn -- and went around the room asking pointedly if everyone understood that this was the deal. Gates, Petraeus and all the rest agreed to the plan. Now Gates seems to be complaining because Obama followed the plan -- except that he says this was the right decision. As I noted, he seems conflicted.

At first I thought the media was making a mountain out of a mole hill, and would move on to the next shinny object. But with investigations and impeachment talk, I have a feeling this is going to get real ugly.

In his news conference, Gov. Christie said that "politics ain't beanbag." I think he will be damaged only to the extent that reporters (and political opponents) find evidence of a continuing pattern of thuggishness.

On Sunday, while thousands in West Virginia were left without water and thousands more saw their unemployment benefits expire, the Sunday Shows spent most of their time talking about Chris Christie. I don't include you in this criticism, since you write on these issues, but there seems to be a huge disconnect between the beltway elite and problems facing real Americans.

The West Virginia situation is simply horrifying. Imagine five days of not being able to touch the water coming out of the tap, not even to wash your hands. Imagine smelling the chemical day and night. Imagine worrying about the long-term effects of exposure, especially on young children. Yes, there is a tendency here toward navel-gazing.

Good afternoon Mr. Robinson: Thank you for taking the time to listen to our stories last week and for sharing the outrage we feel toward our elected officials. I am Kevin Meyer, one of the folks you included in today's column. Truthfully as a writer I was thrilled by the prospect of meeting you last week -- not everyday a writer crosses paths with a Pulitzer Prize winner. Sorry we ran long and you had to leave. My question is this: Do you believe that Washington is capable of producing real change in this country, especially as it applies to the issues affecting the middle class and finding ways to foster new industries to replace the millions of jobs lost in 2008 which, despite rising job counts, are never to return?

Thank you so much for writing, Mr. Meyer, and thank you -- and the others -- for being so generous in sharing your stories. Your question goes right to the heart of the matter, and I don't know the answer. It's true that millions upon millions of middle-class jobs are gone and will never return. President Obama has spoken many times about the need to restructure the economy -- create new industries (he often mentions clean energy), improve education to match skills with available jobs, etc. But can we forge the political consensus to make this a national mission? So far, the answer is no. But I think we just have to keep trying, because the alternative is resigning ourselves to slow, painful decline. 

How do you define if the War on Poverty worked? It seems that conservatives think it only worked if the programs end and people are no longer in poverty. In contrast liberals seem to think they worked if people become dependent on the government programs to stay out of poverty.

What liberals are happy to have people dependent on government? I don't know anyone who thinks that way. I do know plenty of liberals who want families to have adequate housing, to provide proper meals for their children, to receive medical care when they need it. I hope there are some conservatives who agree.

I think there's universal agreement that if low skill workers became higher skill workers they would be less poor (in theory at least. There are thousands of high skilled people out of work.). So how do they become higher skilled? Isn't this where disagreement lies? Progressives want to create programs that will help poor people to acquire new skills. I don't actually know what conservatives propose except for taking away assistance.

I know some conservatives who should go to the trouble of getting to know some poor people. I think they'd learn something.


That's all for today, folks. My time is up. Thanks, as always, for a lively hour, 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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