President Obama At The Halfway Mark

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This week marks the halfway point in President Obama's first term. It was also a week in which Republicans returned to Congress to resume their efforts to undo Obama's healthcare overhaul. Polls show both the President and House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, enjoying favorable approval ratings. Host Michel Martin discusses the road ahead for both leaders and their parties, with politicos Cornell Belcher and Ron Christie.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We'll hear from the Barbershop guys today, part of our regular Friday features. They'll talk politics, the Golden Globes and predictions on what else, their picks on who will be heading to the Super Bowl after this weekend's conference championships. I might let you know who I'm picking.

But first, our weekly chat with our political professionals. This week marks the halfway point of President Obama's four-year term. And if you like using numbers to keep track of such things, you might want to know that the non-partisan PolitiFact.com has been keeping track of the more than 500 promises President Obama made during his campaign.

PolitiFact says he has broken 34 of them and he has had to compromise on 41 others. But they say he has kept 134 promises so far, including on health care reform and repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. But what Obama supporters see as accomplishments, many in the new Republican-led Congress see as serious errors of policy that they must try to reverse, starting with that health care overhaul that was passed and signed into last year.

So, halfway through his term of office, who is winning the argument over the direction the country will take and should take in the years to come? We've called on two political professionals who help shape discussions at the highest levels, Cornell Belcher served as a pollster for President Obama and the Democratic National Committee. He is president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, a polling firm here in Washington, D.C.

Also joining us, Ron Christie. He has served as deputy assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Cheney. He is now president of Christie Strategies, a government relations, communications and diversity consulting firm, and welcome back to you both. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. CORNELL BELCHER (Pollster, Democratic National Committee): Thanks for having me.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (President, Christie Strategies): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Now, Ron, I'd like to start with you because your former boss made news this week, telling NBC News that President Obama will be a one-term president, and here's a short clip.

Mr. DICK CHENEY (Former Vice President): Well, because I think he embarked upon a course of action when he became president that did not have as much support as he thought he did. That once he got into the business, for example, the health care reform, expanding the size of government, expanding the deficit, those are all weaknesses, as I look at Barack Obama.

MARTIN: Now, Ron, I know it's tricky to disagree with your boss, if indeed you do, but I do want to ask, do you agree with him?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I think it's too soon to say. I think that the president did overreach. I think at a time when all Americans wanted the economy to be moving in a stronger and a more positive direction, the president and the Democratic-led Congress focused on health care. I think we lost a year, a year-and-a-half where the government could have taken significant steps to improve the economy and they were on a sole focused mission on health care.

It's always too soon to say. I do agree with the vice president in the sense that I would like him to be a one-term president. But two years is a political eternity in politics and it remains to be seen what the economy does, whether it starts to strengthen, and also what the president is able to do in a bipartisan manner with the Republicans. So, I'd still give it a too soon to say grade at this point.

MARTIN: OK. Cornell, what about you?

Mr. BELCHER: Well, I'm going to say that I think he's on the right path. And if you look at the trend lines here...

MARTIN: Who's he? You mean President Obama is on the right path.

Mr. BELCHER: President Obama is on the right path.

MARTIN: I thought you meant as well as Ron Christie is on the right path, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Distancing himself from Mr. Cheney's remarks.

Mr. BELCHER: I'm sure Ron is on the right path. But when you look at the trend lines, I mean, look, the president's approval ratings are coming into line, 53 percent approval. And the thing is, we're not going to see presidents with 60 percent approvals. If you look at the sort of the, I think, Gallup's average over the last couple of decades, it's roughly around 54. So we're awfully split.

So, 53 is a good trim line for a president right now. And I think when you see him reaching out in sort of a bipartisan way, and when you see him, you know, the compromised (unintelligible) thing that you said, you know, he compromised on, what, 30-somethihng bills here.

But guess what middle America wants? They want to see Republicans and Democrats sitting in a room, compromising, working it out. I don't think it's any fluke that the president's numbers took a bounce after the lame duck, where it was seeing him reaching across the aisle wanting to work with Republicans. I think Republicans are going to get in trouble when they're not doing the same thing.

And on health care repeal, it's interesting, Ron, you say that we spent all that time on health care because we've gotten power. But arguably, the Republicans, you know, now draw with power, too - and we see this on both sides - are engaging in the same sort of debate on health care as opposed to going right to the deficit and right to the job. And it'd be interesting to see if there's going to be a political price to be paid for that as well.

MARTIN: Ron, do you want to answer that briefly? Because what about that? If the economy is jobs, one, why is it that the first, you know, order of business to try to repeal health care, particularly when it's clear that the votes aren't there on the Senate side. Leadership says they're not even going to bring it up. So, what's your take on that?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Oh, I don't know about that. I think this is a very interesting debate that needs to be had in the next couple of years. For one, HR2, the health care repeal bill was called the job-killing bill. And it is a job-killing bill. If you look and have an intellectual, honest discussion with yourself and say, how can we try to extend coverage to 32 million people and yet, at the same time, put a burden on doctors, put a burden on our services and our delivery, and say that this is going to cut the deficit? It doesn't make sense.

Republicans have looked at this and said that this is adding to our debt. And this is a very serious issue that a lot of people aren't confronting. You know, when Nancy Pelosi first came in as speaker of the House four years ago, the national debt was at 10 trillion. Excuse me, it was just under 8 trillion. It was a little bit just shy of 8 trillion. When President Obama came in, the national debt was at 8 trillion, whereas it was at 10 trillion, now it's at 14.

So you're talking about having added $4 trillion in the last year and I might also add that in one year alone, last year, from January through December of last year, we added an additional trillion dollars to the deficit.

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. CHRISTIE: And so Republicans are saying, enough already with expanding entitlements. Let's get our fiscal house in order first and that will help spur the economy.

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. BELCHER: But, Ron, here's the problem with that, is you cannot get your sort of, talk about long term economic growth in this country without sort of tackling health care and sort of what the continuing sort of impact of health care across the board here. And I think, you know, and I love it the way Republicans over the last couple of weeks, when the CBO doesn't agree with them, will they throw out the CBO? The CBO doesn't count. But the CBO who's...

MARTIN: The Congressional Budget Office.

Mr. BELCHER: Congressional Budget Office, who's always been sort of the referee in these sort of things, have come down fairly clear on that this is something that actually reduces the deficit, helps us long term. Another thing about this is, you know, I just have to chuckle when Republicans lecture us on deficits. Ron, what was the deficit when your guys took over?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, depends on what you define when you're (unintelligible).

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. BELCHER: When George Bush and Dick Cheney took over, what was the deficit then?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, when the, actually, when the Republicans came in, it was just about six.

Mr. BELCHER: No, when George Bush came into office, you had a surplus. For people who take - constantly take surpluses and make them the deficits, you know, for them to be lecturing on deficits is a little comical to me.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Yes, I'll take that, but, Michel...

MARTIN: Well, let's hold on a second, Ron. Hold on a second. Let me just switch gears for a second because there are a couple other things we want to talk about. And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Ron Christie and Cornell Belcher, both seasoned political professionals. Ron Christie was an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Cornell Belcher was...

Mr. CHRISTIE: And a specialist assistant to President Bush.

MARTIN: And a specialist to President Bush. Yes, sir. And an author and a fine man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And Cornell Belcher, a pollster for both President Obama and the Democratic National Committee.

Let's talk about one of the other things that both parties have said that they're going to do is engage in more civil debate. So, to that end, you know, here's Democratic representative Steve Cohen chastising his Republican colleagues around their - around the tenor that they've taken on a health care debate, but this is what he had to say. Here it is.

Representative STEVE COHEN (Democrat, Tennessee): They say it's a government takeover of health care, a big lie, just like Goebbels. You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie and eventually people believe it, like blood libel. That's the same kind of thing. The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it and you had the Holocaust.

MARTIN: Now, Representative Cohen, who is Jewish, has apologized for this remark. But I have to say, Cornell Belcher, this isn't keeping with the president's call for civility across the, you know, in public discourse?

Mr. BELCHER: No, it really isn't. And I want to sort of commend Ron and I both because we haven't attacked each other personally. No, it isn't. And what's interesting about this is that he - that Representative Cohen is someone who's been out in front talking about sort of the civility. I mean, this is an unfortunate statement and I think it gets in the way of the point he's trying to make, whenever you bring up Nazis and compare them.

I mean, I disagree with Ron, but I think he's fundamentally a good guy. I don't think he's, you know, but that's the sort of conversation that we can have. I think Representative Cohen got in the way of his message with this, and we've got to be real careful when we start talking about sort of comparing Republicans, because though I disagree with them, we all know they're not evil.

MARTIN: And on this whole question, though, Ron, of what message top, you know, key people in each party is sending, Vice President Cheney was also asked about the civility question, as Sarah Palin was asked about. Earlier this weekend, he says I don't think we should anticipate that we can somehow take a system that was designed for political combat, if you will, between the parties, between ideas, between principles and set that aside.

So, what is he saying there, Ron? Is he saying, don't even bother trying to elevate our discourse? How do you interpret that?

Mr. CHRISTIE: No. I interpret it this way. And I absolutely agree with Cornell 100 percent. I don't think that any references to Nazis or the atrocities in World War II has any place in our discourse talking about health care reform. And he and I can disagree on substance, but agree and, you know, be very congenial to talk about, you know, what we believe. And I think that's what's lacking right now.

And when I worked on the Hill, I worked on the Hill from 1991 to 1999. And it was interesting to me because my best friends were Democrats. They were the people in the congressional offices down the hall. You would socialize with them. You would hang out with them, and you got to know people as people. And one of the things that's overlooked that's not talked about in the discourse is that my friends who are members of Congress on the Republican side, don't have that many friends on the other side of the aisle. They're just not friends. They don't relate to each other as people anymore.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, because they're entrenched on either side of the political dividing line. And I think if you really want to talk about reengaging in civil debate in the Congress, it's what Cornell and I are doing here right now. You can talk about the substance, but you don't have to attack each other personally. You don't always have to try to score points.

It's - this is my substantive view, this is yours, let's see which one's right, where we can compromise and move ahead. And I just think that the lack of friendship and the lack of really connecting to individuals as people is what's influencing the lack of civility.

MARTIN: Cornell, I'm going to give you - I gave Ron the first word, I'm going to give you the last word. Same question to you.

Mr. BELCHER: Well, here's the thing. I think, Ron, we have to work this out on both sides because I think so much of our politics is campaign tactic politics. And I'm guilty, because as a political campaign professional, part of my job is to figure out how the best way to take out or take down sort of a Republican, sort of in any political combat. I think far too much of that has seeped over into governing. And I think that's real problematic. We got to pull it back. We also got to think about sort of how we run our campaigns in a way that's less caustic and hostile.

MARTIN: Cornell Belcher was President Barack Obama's pollster during his presidential campaign. He is president of Brilliant Research and Strategies, a polling firm. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Ron Christie served as deputy assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Cheney. He was also a special assistant to President George W. Bush. He's president of Christie Strategies, a political strategy firm specializing in government relations, communications and diversity consulting.

It's actually Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, Cornell.

Mr. BELCHER: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies. So, thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. BELCHER: Thank you.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Pleasure to be with you guys.

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