Egyptian Unrest Poses Challenge To The White House

The Obama administration isn't taking sides but says it's unhappy with Mubarak's handling of the protesters. NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts says the Obama administration seems to be one step behind the developments in Egypt, as each step happens.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's remember that Cairo is the city where President Obama gave a major speech on the Muslim world in June of 2009.

President BARACK OBAMA: I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: The ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose.

INSKEEP: Plenty of American presidents have said things like that. It is President Obama's fate to actually confront demands for more democracy on the largest of all Arab nations. We're going to get some analysis, as we do most Monday mornings, from NPR's Cokie Roberts.

Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What challenges does this pose for the president?

ROBERTS: Oh, this is huge. This is one where the administration seems to be one step behind the developments in Egypt, as each step happens. Yesterday, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went on five television programs and called for an orderly transition to representative government, meaning an orderly interim government until the elections, which are called for September. And she called for, quote, "concrete steps toward democracy - democratic and economic reform."

Now, the administration says it's not taking sides, but that no one is satisfied with Mubarak's handling of the demonstrators. Look, they are very clear. They don't want chaos. They again, that's a quotation from the Secretary of State. There's a fear that chaos could erupt, not only in Egypt, but spread throughout the Arab world, which would not only have political implications, but huge economic implications, of course, because of oil.

And the administration's having a hard time finding a winning position here, because Egypt has been an ally in terms of relations with Israel. It's one of the biggest recipients of U.S. aid. And if the United States just throws Mubarak under the bus, what does that say to other leaders in the Arab world who have been friendly with the United States?

But if you're not supportive of democratic movements, as you've just heard the president talking about, you know, who are we, then? What is the United States, if it's not supportive of democratic movements? What does it say to young people who are, of course, the vast majority in Arab countries, and does it incite terrorism to back away from democracy? So none of this is easy at all for this administration. But what you see is some shifting away from Mubarak in each subsequent statement.

INSKEEP: What are Republicans saying?

ROBERTS: The Republicans are backing the administration. They know this is tough, and Republican leaders basically went on the air yesterday saying whatever he says, that's fine.

INSKEEP: Is this, in some way, a distraction for President Obama? He wanted to be focusing on the economy about now.

ROBERTS: It's a tremendous distraction. This was the week when he was supposed last week and this week, when he was supposed to be out taking advantage of his State of the Union messaging, pivoting towards the kinds of programs that he was touting, education and job growth, going to places where you see jobs being creating, calling more for what he calls investments in those things, in education and infrastructure, what Republicans call spending. But instead of being able to make that kind of focus, the entire focus is on Egypt and questions about the U.S. leadership role. So, you know, the president can't control events. No matter whether you're president or not, the events can make or break you.

INSKEEP: I wonder if it's also a distraction for Republicans who also have their own domestic issues that they want to push at this moment. But the stage for better or worse does belong to the White House in a situation like this.

ROBERTS: Well, that's true. And it's interesting listening to Republican leaders. They yesterday, they were saying nice things about the president and saying Speaker Boehner said he thought the president was ready to have an adult conversation with the American people about big spending cuts that are needed. But Boehner then blamed the Senate majority leader for being intransigent. Look, there's some very big spending fights ahead, and the Republicans will be able to have those fights whether they're in the public eye or not.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. Analysis, we get most Monday mornings, from NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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