A Whirlwind Week For The White House

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro traveled with President Obama on his surprise trip to Afghanistan Friday. He joins host Liane Hansen to look back on the week at the White House and to what's coming up next week for the Obama administration.

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President Obama had an unusually busy weekend. Arriving back on town from a 33-hour round-trip to Afghanistan to meet with U.S. troops, the president was greeted with news domestic and foreign. Here to talk about the last few days -and the next - is NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. And, Ari, it's a long way to Afghanistan and back for, what, a three-hour visit?

ARI SHAPIRO: It was a long trip. It was supposed to be a six-hour visit, but as we were one hour from landing, we found out the weather was no permitting a helicopter flight into Kabul. So, it became a three-hour visit really just to address the troops, wish them happy holidays, which the White House says was the main purpose of this trip all along. A short visit, but, you know, that's how it works when a president flies into a warzone.

HANSEN: The president wasn't gone long but a lot happened, nonetheless. The big story was the unemployment rate went up again. Bad sign.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, absolutely. It went from 9.6 percent to 9.8 percent, which is not good news for anyone, particularly the unemployed, but from a political viewpoint, the White House has often said that the president's political capital will go up as the unemployment rate goes down. Conversely, with the unemployment rate staying up near 10 percent, it's going to be tough for the president, not to mention for the people who are out of a job this holiday season.

HANSEN: The president has banked a lot on creating new jobs through trade deals with other countries. And it looks like they've concluded a big one, biggest in many years, with South Korea.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, this was just announced yesterday as the president was flying back from Afghanistan. And he made a statement about it at the White House after he arrived. Here's what he said:

President BARACK OBAMA: We did not finalize this agreement on my recent visit to South Korea, and I didn't agree to it then for a very simple reason: the deal wasn't good enough. It wasn't good enough for the American economy and it wasn't good enough for American workers.

SHAPIRO: And as the president mentioned just then, he was in South Korea and had hoped to announce this trade deal then. And when he didn't, a lot of people said, oh well, it's a failure on his part, the trip was not a success. He said I would rather have a good agreement than an agreement right now. People sort of shrugged at that and called it an excuse but the fact that this agreement passed shows that, you know, he actually did have something to show for all of that work.

It also shows something that people consider a truism: when Congress is controlled by the opposing party from the White House, the president tends to have an easier time with foreign affairs than with domestic affairs. The trip to Afghanistan and this South Korea trade agreement seem to reflect that.

HANSEN: Well, talk about creating jobs: in the week ahead, the president will be highlighting the role of education in job creation.

SHAPIRO: Yes. He goes to North Carolina on Monday. He's going to visit Forsythe Technical Community College in the town of Winston-Salem. He's going to tour biotech classrooms and talk about new industries and the way that biotech can give greater opportunities for people who get the right training. A lot of his job creation message all along has been new technologies, technologies of the future, not just bringing back the old jobs but creating a new economy for jobs that can be sustained through the 21st century.

HANSEN: And back in Washington, his team is negotiating with Republicans about those tax cut extensions.

SHAPIRO: That's right. And over the weekend, we saw a repeat of something that has happened again and again in Washington over the last two years where something that President Obama wants - in this case, a tax cut extension for the middle class - gets voted on and passed by the House on a mostly party-line vote, then it goes to the Senate where it dies.

We saw that happen over and over again in the last two years with everything from immigration-related bills to environmental bills. This may be the last hurrah for that model because, as we know, in January the Republicans are going to take over the House. And meanwhile, since this failed in the Senate, the tax cut negotiations are going to continue.

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