Week In News: Tax Deal, 'Don't Ask'

With two big legislative victories in hand — the tax deal and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" — President Obama is on a roll just a little more than a month after the midterm "shellacking," says James Fallows of The Atlantic. He and host Guy Raz discuss that and the week's other big stories.

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GUY RAZ, host:

And joining us now is James Fallows of The Atlantic. He's with us most Saturdays.

Jim, hi.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Hello, Guy. Nice to talk to you again.

RAZ: First, to that vote on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. There was a lot of talk about President Obama, you know, fading into irrelevancy after the Republican victory in November. But since then, he's had two major legislative successes; this one, and of course, the tax deal.

Mr. FALLOWS: He certainly has. And I think, you know, there've been almost a fazzle(ph) degree of comparisons with Bill Clinton's comeback after the 1994 Republican sweep led by Newt Gingrich. This seems to me different in both a sort of temporal way and a strategic way.

The temporal way is this is happening much faster for Barack Obama. It took several months after the election for the Clinton administration to sort of regain its footing. And the other is I think a difference in the way the Obama administration is approaching this, that Bill Clinton was famous for his triangulation, which you could think of as sort of taking some points from the other side's playbook and getting them and making them your own.

And what strikes me is that what we've seen both with the tax cut bill and now with the Don't Ask, Don't Tell, is Obama's longtime identity as a conciliator or a mediator or somebody who believes above all to bring people together is the point of what he's doing in office.

Now, we don't know whether that will apply in the next Congress when the Republicans control the House and the showdown over the government funding bill, which actually was blocked from Senate considerations, suggests some difficulties. But it has been impressive both in the timing and in the style of mind and governing that the president's reveal that it's happened this quickly.

RAZ: I know the thing that came out of the administration this week, Jim, was the Afghanistan review. It seemed to suggest a whole lot of paradoxes that success there depends on cooperation from forces and things that the U.S. can't really control.

Mr. FALLOWS: I think if you read only the administration's own documents, no outside criticism, no press report, you would see a very, very difficult situation, both intellectually and also practically.

On the one hand, the administration says that success depends on cooperation of Pakistan. Without the intelligence support for groups who are operating in Pakistan, et cetera, then the effort in Afghanistan can't succeed, and also depends on what used to be called hearts and minds efforts of having Afghanistan people feel loyal to their government and to welcome rather than resist the presence of foreign troops. And so it says those two things are necessary, but also there is either very little progress or backward progress on both of them.

RAZ: In other words, success isn't happening - it depends on Pakistan, and actually, success can't happen. That's the message.

Mr. FALLOWS: I think there is an irresistible force and immovable object-type message that comes from the administration's reports. On the one hand, it says that "success" in Afghanistan is necessary and imperative. On the other hand, it's saying that it's probably impossible.

RAZ: So I guess the big test will come next spring when the administration has to decide, as its pledged, how many troops to withdraw.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. I think that how the administration can plausibly convince both its own party, the Democrats, and Republicans who are sort of prone to criticize the Democratic administration for weakness militarily, that it has a sustainable path ahead. It's, I think, the next big public presentation, both a decision the president will have to make in the way he explains it to us.

RAZ: Jim, in the context of Afghanistan, I think we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy and legendary diplomat who of course died this week.

Mr. FALLOWS: I think the tone that has come through a lot of the appreciations and assessments of him is that while we normally think of international affairs being affected by longtime historical trends and economic rises, falls and all the rest, the things that he accomplished showed how much could depend on a single person and his diplomatic skill and his vision and his ability to cajole and bully and persuade and charm. And in immediate term, it's going to be a big difference in Afghanistan policy the United States can no longer rely on Richard Holbrooke. And it's a reminder to all of us the difference a person can make.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thank you.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy. My pleasure.

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