Tax Deal May Hurt Obama's Reelectability

NPR's political editor Ken Rudin recaps the week, including President Obama's press conference Tuesday, in which he defended his compromise with Republicans on tax cuts. American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner discusses the tax deal, which he views as Obama's abandonment of liberals.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The president compromises, or capitulates. The last precincts are counted and recounted. and the House and Senate approve something unanimously. It's Wednesday and time for an impeachment edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. The new House starts to take shape with all races now decided and new chairs installed by the new majority. A former ally emerges to challenge RNC chair Michael Steele, and the president wants to add hundreds of billions to the deficit, but this time Republicans cheer while Democrats fume. Some progressives are so angry they want to mount a primary challenge in 2012, more on that in a bit.

Later in the program, what's the WikiLeaks issue that matters most to you? Email us, talk@npr.org.

But first, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. As usual, we begin with a trivia question.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal. Well, of course, speaking of a possible challenge to President Obama's re-nomination in 2012 - who was the last president who sought but was denied the nomination of his party?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to the trivia question, the last president to be denied the nomination of his party, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Ken, the election's finally over.

RUDIN: What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You can go home and get some sleep.

RUDIN: Exactly. Five weeks and one day, but the last remaining House race has been decided, New York's First Congressional District, which is the eastern tip of Long Island, Suffolk County. Tim Bishop, a four-term incumbent, his Republican challenger Randy Altschuler conceded defeat today. It was a margin of 263 votes. Two years ago, Bishop was re-elected with 45,000 votes. It just shows what a difference two years can make.

And also, the last gubernatorial race has now been decided. Mark Dayton will be the next gubernor(ph) of Minnesota.

CONAN: Gubernor?

RUDIN: Yes, he'll be gubernor. It's a gubernatorial race. Tom Emmer, the Republican businessman, conceded defeat today. He's down about 8,700 votes, not as close as Coleman versus Franken, the Senate race in Minnesota. But anyway, so he's conceded.

Dayton, a former senator, will be the first Democrat since Rudy Perpich in 1986 to win the governorship of Minnesota.

CONAN: And while we're on it, we should probably mention, clarify that impeachment remark I made earlier. There was a vote today in the Senate.

RUDIN: There was. It was unanimous on the first count of four counts, but basically what happened is Theodore - I'm sorry, Thomas Porteous, who is a judge from Louisiana, a federal judge from Louisiana nominated by President Clinton, speaking of impeachment, he becomes the eight judge, federal district judge, federal judge in history, and the first since 1989, to be impeached and removed from office.

The House unanimously voted to impeach him last spring, and then today the Senate on four counts voted to expel him. The first count was unanimous, basically corruption, taking money from people who came before him to do business.

CONAN: The vote in the House of Representatives to impeach was also unanimous. Interesting - one of those votes cast by a former federal judge who was himself impeached.

RUDIN: Exactly, that's Alcee Hastings of Florida in 1989. He was the last federal judge impeached, along with Walter Nixon back in '89, and in 1982 he was elected to Congress. He still serves, and he voted to impeach Thomas Porteous.

CONAN: We mentioned the election being over, though not if Joe Miller has anything to say about it.

RUDIN: Right. He's the Republican nominee for the Senate in Alaska. He currently - he still trails the write-in candidate and the current Republican incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, by about 10,000 votes. Now, he says there's a lot of - there's been some, like 8,000 misspellings and everything like that, and he wants the letter of the law to be followed in Alaska.

CONAN: I was going to write that he was alleging a lot of chicanery, but I couldn't spell it.

RUDIN: Right, and speaking of letters of law, there are a lot of letters in Murkowski. But even if all the disputed votes are thrown out, it looks like Murkowski still wins by 2,200 votes. But anyway, a judge will decide today, at least will hear the arguments today, for Miller's case. He could dismiss it outright, and we may have a senator, an announcement of a senator, a certification in Alaska pretty soon.

CONAN: Well, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is, of course, the last president to be denied a nomination by his own party, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Kanda(ph), Kanda with us from Concord, California.

KANDA (Caller): Yes, hi. It was Chester Arthur in 1884.

RUDIN: Well, Chester Allen Arthur indeed was denied his party's re-nomination in 1884. He was, of course, vice president. He was a vice president under James Garfield, who was assassinated. And he fought the patronage system. But that is not the correct answer.

CONAN: He was not the last one.

KANDA: Oh, there was somebody before - after him.

RUDIN: Not the last one.

CONAN: Somebody after him. So Kanda, thanks very much for the call.

KANDA: Okay, thanks.

CONAN: Bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tim(ph), Tim with us from Albemarle in North Carolina.

TIM (Caller): Yes, was it Herbert Hoover in 1932?

RUDIN: Well, Herbert Hoover was not denied re-nomination. He was denied re-election in his bid for a second term. Excuse me, he lost to Franklin Roosevelt. But he was nominated by the Republican Party for a second term.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tim. And let's see if we go next to -this is Sergio(ph), Sergio with us from Watertown in Massachusetts.

SERGIO (Caller): Hi. I think it's Teddy Roosevelt, I think in 1908 or 1910. I forget which year.

RUDIN: Well no. Of course that is the correct answer. It is Teddy Roosevelt.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: Now, of course he was not the incumbent president, but in two - in two thousand, yeah - in 1912, four years after he left the presidency, he tried to get the Republican nomination for another term, and he was defeated because it was by a stacked deck, basically, by President William Howard Taft, who ironically was named after the high school I went to in the Bronx.

CONAN: That's very interesting, yeah. Could have been.

RUDIN: So anyway, Teddy Roosevelt is the correct answer, 1912.

CONAN: And congratulations, Sergio, and what we're going to do is put you on hold. We will collect your particulars and send you off a fabulous Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt in exchange for your promise to send us a digital picture of yourself so we can post it on our wall of shame.

SERGIO: Okay.

CONAN: I'll put you on hold.

RUDIN: He didn't sounds that excited.

CONAN: No, he didn't. No. Well, wait till he gets the package.

RUDIN: I would give anything for that.

CONAN: Well, you have to get the question right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to - speaking of questions, we've had committee chairs filled by the new Republican majority that will take office come January.

RUDIN: Right, and there were some interesting choices here because the Republicans basically had to come up with a new Appropriations Committee chairman, now that the Republicans will be controlling the House in the 112th Congress. John Boehner will be speaker.

Now, the three choices, basically, were between Jerry Lewis - they love him in France.

CONAN: They do.

RUDIN: Yeah, they do. Jerry Lewis, the congressman from California, and Hal, Harold Rogers of Kentucky. Both of them are big-spending earmark kind of guys, and Rogers became the choice. He beat out Jerry Lewis. Also, he beat out Jack ba ba ba ba ba - he beat Jack Kingston of Georgia, who was actually the choice of the Tea Party.

But the interesting thing is, you have an old-time spender like Hal Rogers of Kentucky becoming new Appropriations Committee chairman. You have Fred Upton, who will be the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. He's also kind of a moderate liberal. And you think, well, you know, maybe the Tea Party people have got the going over, you know, they got ignored by the new Republican leadership.

But Jeff Flake of Arizona, who's an anti-earmark guy - very, very conservative, hates appropriators - but probably the appropriators hate him too - but he was named to the Appropriations Committee after several tries of getting on the committee. So there is a little sop thrown to the Tea Party folks.

CONAN: Also interesting choice for the Energy and Commerce Committee.

RUDIN: Right, and that's Fred Upton, and who he beat was Joe Barton, who is a Republican ranking member, and everybody remembers him last June when, after the oil spill, the BP oil spill, he basically apologized to BP and talked about the shakedown that the Obama administration awarded(ph) BP. And so that was kind of embarrassing.

I think all the Democrats were saying, you know, if the Republicans take back the House, Joe Barton will be the new chairman of Energy and Commerce. That obviously is not going to happen.

CONAN: And the big political news of the week, of course, the president's decision to forge a compromise on the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts with basically, as we hear it, Vice President Biden and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, the Republican leader in the Senate, worked this out.

RUDIN: And what's remarkable, and as you pointed out, Neal, in your introduction, it's the Republicans for a change who are saying, you know, let's go, President Obama, we're behind you all the way. And the Democrats are talking about a filibuster.

Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, says this is just nuts. You're giving away the farm. You, President Obama, promised not to renew tax cuts for the rich, as they called it, and he said that he was going to fight for a filibuster.

CONAN: And if you want to gauge the extent of Democratic anger, this is Senator Claire McCaskill - this is actually talking before the president spoke yesterday afternoon at a news conference, but I think you'll catch her drift.

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): If they think it's okay to raise taxes for the embattled middle class because they're going to pout if we don't give more money to millionaires, it really is time for the people of America to take up pitchforks.

CONAN: And what the president's argument was, was those middle-class tax cuts were being held hostage, as he put it, by the Republicans. They were going to refuse to act on that. He said ordinarily you'd like to avoid negotiating with hostage-takers but not if it's going to end up hurting the hostage, in this case the American middle-class, if those tax cuts do not get extended for them.

RUDIN: Right. But there are a lot of progressives who said, look, let's call the Republicans' bluff. Let's see if they're going to hold up tax cuts for millions of middle-class and lower-class Americans, if just because of the -those who - because they wanted to lower the rates on those people making over $250,000.

And so basically it was a game of bluff, and the Republicans called President Obama's bluff. But this is something, again, Obama and Democrats campaigned against. They said they would absolutely not vote to renew, to renew these Bush-era tax cuts. And of course President Obama says this will be an issue again in 2012.

CONAN: And in the meantime, it may still be an issue in Washington. Chris Van Hollen, a leading member of the Democratic leadership in the House, says he's not sure President Obama has the votes to prevail on this.

RUDIN: He may not.

CONAN: And we're going to have more on this in just a minute with Bob Kuttner. But anyway, before we go to the break, we have to remember Elizabeth Edwards, of course, who died yesterday.

RUDIN: You know, it's such a tragic story, and given the fact - I mean, if you think of everything that was - that Elizabeth Edwards was up against, of course the terrible and undescribable loss of a child in a car accident, 1996; the fact that her husband was so unfaithful and so publicly unfaithful; and the fact that she was suffering from cancer - any one of those three would have been tragic. The fact that all three happened to Elizabeth Edwards and all of them on a public stage, it was just a very, just a very just a very sad and very unhappy conclusion of a life.

CONAN: When we come back, the tax deal with the Republicans that got everyone talking. What do you think? Did the president compromise or did he cave? I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Ken Rudin is here, as he is every Wednesday, NPR political editor and our political junkie. You can check out his blog and Podcast and take a shot at his ScuttleButton puzzle if you go to npr.org/junkie.

Yesterday, the president gave a rare news conference at the White House Briefing Room. He addressed his Democratic friends and compared the compromises he made on the tax cuts to the elimination of the public option from the health care bill.

President BARACK OBAMA: People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are. And in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions, or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.

CONAN: Joining us now here in Studio 3A, Robert Kuttner co-founder of the magazine American Prospect. Bob, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. ROBERT KUTTNER (Co-editor, American Prospect): Neal, always a pleasure.

CONAN: And you did some reporting this morning for the Huff Post, in which you said progressives are so angry, they're considering running a primary challenger to President Obama.

Mr. KUTTNER: You are starting to hear that. You're hearing it from donors who were very enthusiastic about Obama. You're hearing it from labor people. You're hearing it from other activists. And it's not just liberals.

I think the president makes a big mistake to think that this is simply liberals being angry because the compromise is not purist enough. This is across the party spectrum, people feeling that he's just not a good leader, not a good negotiator, that he gives away his negotiating position before the negotiations start, that the Republicans take him to the cleaners, that he's not using the bully pulpit to speak to the voters, to the people, to move public opinion. Everything is kind of small-bore, legislative compromise. So this is not just because some people in the party think he's too centrist.

CONAN: What about the deal that he got? He got the extension of jobless benefits. Republicans were not eager to vote on that, either, and had the votes to block it. As he pointed out, the Republicans had the votes to block the extension of middle-class tax cuts.

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, this costs $900 billion. Twenty-five percent of the total benefits of these tax cuts goes to the top one percent. And what he's doing is he's setting himself up for the next round, which begins as soon as the Republicans take over the House, and the next round goes like this: oh my God, we just increased the deficit by $900 billion. We're going to have to cut spending by $900 billion. So he's really setting himself up to be rolled again.

And the unemployment insurance extension, which costs about $50 billion, should not have been controversial. It should not have had to be bargained away for...

CONAN: You said it shouldn't be, but it was.

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, but the question here is who plays a better game of bluff. I mean, I wrote a piece several months ago called "Give them Hell, Barry," evoking Truman.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. KUTTNER: Truman knew how to play hardball. Truman knew how to bluff. Truman knew how to get Republicans to take the blame for bad policies. As you well know, Ken, Democrats picked up 75 seats in the House in '48, when Truman won the upset victory. That's the only time in modern history that the pickup was even bigger than the Democrats lost this last time.

Bill Clinton, who angered a lot of liberals by triangulating, by governing in coalition with the Republicans, he knew how to bluff. He bluffed Gingrich, when Gingrich shut down the government.

So this president taught constitutional law. He didn't teach negotiation. He's not very good at it.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Bob, yesterday, the news conference, President Obama said basically that, oh, this is a fight we'll see again in 2012, and it's a fight that I'm looking forward to. But he said in 2008 this is a fight he's looking forward to, too. I mean, he said he wouldn't extend the tax cuts.

CONAN: He said he would not make them permanent.

RUDIN: Well, yeah, but he also says in 2008, we're going to stop this. And yet, here he is yesterday, saying that we look forward to this battle again, but he had the opportunity in 2010, and he didn't take it.

Mr. KUTTNER: He turns out not to be a terribly good fighter. He turns out not to be terribly good using the bully pulpit to try and move public opinion in his direction.

I'm reminded of the famous scene in "The Wizard of Oz," where Dorothy unmasks the wizard, and she says: You're a very, very bad man. And he says: I'm not a very, very bad man. I'm just not a very good wizard. And I think that may be Obama's political epitaph.

CONAN: This email from Bob(ph) in northwest Ohio: You guys are a day behind. The question among progressives isn't whether there should be a primary challenge in 2012. The question is why President Obama doesn't resign now that he's admitted he can't get the job done. With great regret, as a once-energetic, fervent even, supporter of President Obama.

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, you know, Neal, you and I have lived through the dump-Johnson movement. We've lived through...

CONAN: Boy, that worked out well.

RUDIN: Wait, Andrew or Lyndon?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Both.

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, that's a - you know, if Humphrey had had one ounce more nerve a couple of weeks earlier, it would have worked out very differently. Kennedy's challenge to Carter, which we also lived through, did not work out so well.

But I can tell you, and maybe you share this, maybe you don't: I have never seen Democrats in the House as angry at an incumbent Democratic president as this week.

CONAN: Let's go to a caller. This is Brian(ph), Brian with us from Findlay in Ohio.

BRIAN (Caller): Yes. Well, I'm a truck driver in Findlay. I actually live in North Carolina. I called my senators today, Senator Hagan and Senator Burr, and Representative David Price, who is in my district, and I let them know look, I'm a - you know, I think he did cave, and I don't agree at all with the idea of the top two percent getting a - continuing to get a break. And I even told them: Look, you know, I consider myself poor, or middle class or whatever you want to call it.

As a matter of principle, I would rather give up the tax cuts to myself and people like me just so that they don't continue to get the - you know, do the tax cuts for themselves. I mean, they have not suffered, and we have.

CONAN: Brian, you feel so strongly about this that you might support a primary challenge to the president?

BRIAN: Well, so far, you know, I hadn't really given that much thought. I think, you know, I think he's got a lot of good intentions. So it's hard for me to say yes to that. I think that he's a good guy, and he's got a lot of good intentions. I agree with the people on the panel that he's just not a good fighter.

CONAN: All right, Brian, thanks very much for the call. Drive carefully, please.

BRIAN: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Ken?

RUDIN: Bob, here's my question about a primary challenge in 2012, which I guess maybe a couple of months we just thought was absolutely not possible. But is the intention of the progressives, if they are going to put up a challenger, is it to send Obama a lesson for 2012, like maybe John Ashburn or Pete McCloskey did with Nixon in '72, or is it more to defeat him like Ted Kennedy did with Jimmy - or tried to do, attempted to do with Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan with Gerald Ford in '76?

Mr. KUTTNER: Yeah, it's exactly the right question, and I'm hearing both things. There are people who are saying let's through a scare into him, and maybe he will be reborn as a fighter. There are other people who are saying: This is just who he is. He's not going to change. He's a conciliator.

The statement by Rich Trumka, the president of AFL-CIO, very disparaging of the compromise, stopped short of saying Democrats ought to vote against it, stopped short of being disparaging to Obama, personally.

So there's a lot of discussion within the progressive community about whether the goal is to try and put more backbone in this president and let him know that he needs the progressive community, or whether it really is to topple him. And of course, it's very early days.

CONAN: Katie(ph) in Mansfield, Ohio, writes: I'm a Democrat, if a moderate one. The president that spoke at that news conference yesterday is the one I voted for. I've been wondering where he's been for the last two years.

I've always thought Obama was a pragmatist, and I would go so far as to say, a moderate. I believe he campaigned as one, and that is why he won the independent vote.

I firmly believe that if yesterday's Obama had been guiding the health care bill, the midterm elections would have gone differently. If the progressives in Congress think they could do better negotiating the tax bill, they need only to look at the mess they've created in the last two years and the landslide victory they handed the Republicans. The progressives have lost perspective on the present state of affairs.

And Bob Kuttner, that goes to the question of the independent vote. We saw some analysis yesterday, the president's looking to say: We're in trouble. We lost the independents. Those are the votes we have to pick up.

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, there was a bigger falloff than usual. I was just discussing this with Walter Dean Burnham, the political scientist. There was a huge falloff. And so the demographic that voted this time was very different than the demographic that elected Obama.

And I think there was a loss of enthusiasm on the part of young people, on the part of independents, et cetera. But my sense is it has more to do with the economy, that he may have come into office thinking that what people wanted him to do was change the tone in Washington, but by the time he took office, what people wanted him to do was cure the deep recession.

He didn't succeed in doing that, mainly because the Republicans blocked a lot of his initiatives. He did not succeed in getting the Republicans to take the blame for blocking his initiatives. As a result, he took the blame, the government took the blame, and a lot of Democratic incumbents lost their seats. That's why so many Democrats in Congress are so angry at him.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Liam(ph), Liam with us from Fort Collins in Colorado.

LIAM (Caller): Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LIAM: I am actually - I describe myself as a moderate Democrat. And I was really all behind Obama, even during his speech yesterday, even though chagrined at the deal. And then he started to lecture the Democrats more than he did the Republicans, and his base. And that's one thing that I really am tired of.

He did that during the health care debate, as well, and he does it on the war in Afghanistan. And I really feel that he underestimates our ability to be realistic, and I with great sadness do think we do need to consider - I'm not saying actually do it but at least consider a primary challenge because this is so far a fairly ineffective president.

CONAN: And who would that challenge come from, do you think, Liam?

LIAM: Well, Howard Dean or Joe Biden.

CONAN: I can say no on the second one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think that's pretty clear. Howard Dean, as far as I've heard, Bob Kuttner, is not expressing much interest in (unintelligible).

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, this is very, very early on. I mean, you know, who would have thought that Gene McCarthy of all people, a poet, a kind of a quirky senator, would have been the guy who toppled Lyndon Johnson? So it is very early, but I think what the caller says is very interesting. He's a self-identified moderate. This is not somebody who's mad at the president because the president has been too centrist. He's mad at the president because the president is ineffectual. And one thing you cannot be as president of the United States, least of all during a crisis, is perceived as ineffectual.

LIAM: And that cuts across the board to both Republicans and Democrats. Both sides want a leader.

Mr. KUTTNER: Right.

CONAN: Liam, thanks very much.

LIAM: Thank you.

CONAN: Joe(ph) in Baltimore writes: Obama caves all the time. The New York Times reports Obama has now given up trying to convince Israel to stop building new settlements. Something he said was a point of contention between the U.S. and Israel. Everyone knows he is not a fighter.

Well, does Democratic Party politics stop at the water's edge, Bob Kuttner?

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, Israel is one of the great controversial issues in the Democratic Party. The pro-Israel lobby has an enormous amount of influence, which diverges somewhat from poll-tested views of the average Democrat. It's a kind of a real lightning rod that presidents have to watch out for. But he has not - I mean, just the last 24 hours, he caved again on the settlements issue.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect. Of course, NPR Political Junkie Ken Rudin is here with us in the studio as well. He joins us every Wednesday. You can get more of him, if you could stand it, at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on Political Junkie, and you can get his ScuttleButton puzzle, download his podcast and collect all of his blog posts. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Maria(ph). Maria with us from Iowa City.

MARIA (Caller): Yes. Hi. I was calling because I listen to a lot of pundits all the time and listen to everybody talk back and forth. And one thing I haven't heard addressed is there was a vote last Saturday where the Democrats could have gotten together. They could have passed the legislation to keep the tax cuts to the middle class, but instead, they couldn't come together. Now, the blame is being laid at Obama's feet when he's just the person that comes out to the public and talks to everybody, but he's not the one that's in there that's actually voting on these pieces of legislature. And so I would like someone to finally address the fact that it's the Democrats themselves that can't get together and pass these pieces of legislation.

CONAN: Bob Kuttner, the Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate very large until January 20th.

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, a lot of this is about presidential leadership. If the president is able to move public opinion, if the president is the kind of leader that Lyndon Johnson was or other great presidents who moved legislatures - legislators, twisted arms. A vote count in the House or the Senate is not a fixed thing. And if you recall, Lyndon Johnson in the civil rights fight, he got legislators to move. He changed the original alignment. Obama is not particularly good at this. One of the few times he finally did it when he got off his duff and made phone calls, twisted arms was, of course, the ninth inning with two outs on the health bill. We haven't seen him do this very much.

MARIA: Well, so you're saying that because Obama didn't make the phone calls, it's his fault with - if someone wants me to vote a certain way that they don't call me to tell me to vote, then it's his fault that he didn't call me.

Mr. KUTTNER: I'm saying he's not a terribly effective leader. He's not a terribly effective crisis president compared to other presidents of the past hundred years.

CONAN: Maria, thanks very much for the call. Ken?

RUDIN: But following up on what Maria was saying, I mean, do you notice that all these things that we're talking about here - the extension of the unemployment insurance, the benefits, the Bush-era tax cuts, "don't ask, don't tell," all these things - the Democrats waited until the lame-duck session to deal with this. I mean, they had huge majorities all yearlong that theoretically they could have dealt - they could have taken cared of these things, and they're waiting to the 11th hour, the 11th hour and 59th minute.

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, I think there's some blame to go around, but I vividly recall that in December of '09, Nancy Pelosi over the objections of the White House got the Democrats in the House to pass a $154 billion stimulus bill, which included unemployment extenders. And Obama said don't do this, wait for the State of the Union. We're going to have to compromise this.

I think instead of speaking to public opinion, you've got a bunch of legislative mechanics who are only interested in what they can get in the short run through Congress instead of trying to move public opinion in their direction. And that's also a failing of leadership. But, yes, I do blame some of the Democrats in Congress who are more inclined to vote with the Republicans half the time.

CONAN: And, Robert Kuttner, we've heard a couple of names floated - and again it's not to say they've expressed any interest, necessarily in mounting a primary challenge - and that would include Russ Feingold, the recently defeated senator, the aforementioned Howard Dean, various other people. But what if this injection they say of $900 billion through the unemployment benefits and the tax cuts, what if that helps and the economy gets better and all of the sudden the unemployment rate starts going down? The picture is going to be very different.

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, most economists I talk to think it will help a little bit. They don't think it will help a lot. I don't know anybody who thinks that unemployment will be much better than 8 percent, if that, in 2012 and then, you know, the Democrats and the Republicans can fight over who shares the credit. But the real unemployment rate, if you count people who were - given up looking for work et cetera, who are out of the labor force, it's closer to 18 or 19 percent, I think the risk is he becomes a Democratic Hoover. That this continues at best as a kind of low-level depression for a long time, and the Democrats take the fall.

CONAN: Robert Kuttner, co-founder of the liberal magazine American Prospect, thanks very much for joining us. Of course, Ken Rudin was with us also here in Studio 3A as he is every Wednesday. Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, the WikiLeaks story continues - oh, one thing I need to read first and that's next week Ken will be here with the political year in review. Send us your favorite moments. Was it the disastrous Aqua Buddha ad or the demon sheep? Email us, talk@npr.org. Put junkie year in review in the subject line, if you would, please. Coming up, the WikiLeaks story continues to burn up opinion pages. Writers, diplomats, scholars, hackers - everybody's got an issue or a point of view. We'll survey some of them when we come back. We also want to hear from you what WikiLeaks issue maters most to you. 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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