Obama Reaches Out To Rivals Ahead Of Budget Speech

President Obama has been making good on his promise to reach out to his political rivals lately. Yesterday, he had House Republican leaders over for lunch at the White House. Earlier in the week, the president spoke with the U.S Chamber of Commerce in an effort to mend his rocky relationship with big business. Host Michel Martin discusses Obama's latest reconciliation efforts with columnists and bloggers Cynthia Tucker and Mary Kate Cary.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Later in the program, her arrest and conviction and 10-day jail sentence made headlines around the country. Her crime: school officials say she sent her girls to the top-performing school district next door, although she didn't live there. We've heard from school officials in this controversial case, but now we will hear from her. That is coming up.

But, first, to Washington. President Obama is making good on his promise to reach out to his political rivals, and those rivals are reaching back. The latest Kumbaya moment, a lunch yesterday hosted by Mr. Obama at the White House for the House Republican leadership. Here's the speaker of the House, John Boehner, just after dessert.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): I thought it was pretty clear today that the president wants to try to find some common ground with us. And whether it's education, whether it's tax policy, whether it's trade or even cutting spending, I think we can find common ground and show the American people that we're able to work together.

MARTIN: That, by the way, was the first meeting between the president and House leadership since Republicans assumed control of the House of Representatives last month. The Democrats - which is, of course, the president's party -retained control of the Senate. We wanted to talk about what these meetings mean and how they might affect the work being done before the White House and GOP release their respective budgets. So we've called on two of our political regulars.

Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. They're both here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thanks so much for joining us once again.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Great to be here.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist, U.S. News and World Report): Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So, the - John Boehner said - Speaker Boehner said we want to show the American people that we can work together. Is it about the show, Cynthia?

Ms. TUCKER: I think that there is certainly some political showmanship and stagecraft going here, Michel. There always is. President Obama is launching his presidential campaign, ironically, in a stronger position because of the divided Congress. He - it allows him to do what he does best, positioned himself as post-partisan, above the fray, the adult in the room who reaches across the aisle to find solutions.

Republicans get something out of it, as well. John Boehner wants to show that they're more than just the party of no, party of no. Most Americans say they want to see the two sides work together to get things done, and Boehner wants to show that he's heard that message, as well.

MARTIN: What do you think, Mary Kate?

Ms. CARY: Yeah. I think there's a new tone in Washington, just in the last two weeks or so. It started with the Tucson speech, went to everybody having to sit together at the State of the Union. Nobody yelled: You lie. Then Mitch McConnell came out and called a truce on rhetoric on Egypt, sort of told the Republicans, as Archie Bunker would say, to stifle, Edith.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: And, you know, the president would speak for the entire country, just like he used to in the old days. And then it went to this chamber speech earlier this week, and then lunch. There was one glitch, I thought, which was...

MARTIN: Just to clarify, the chamber speech was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The president went - it was really just across the street, actually, to (unintelligible) the U.S. Chamber of Commerce...

Ms. CARY: Yeah, literally.

MARTIN: ...which is this big, you know, the big sort of business group.

Ms. CARY: But, yeah, a very Republican-friendly speech.

MARTIN: But you were saying there was one glitch?

Ms. CARY: The one glitch I thought was the Super Bowl party at the White House was, you know, obviously, to watch the Super Bowl. They had all this food, and they invited the entire Cabinet, 10 different Democrats from the Hill, but only one Republican. And I thought that was a great opportunity. They could've had, you know, all kinds of Republicans from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin go.

And in the old days, you know, my boss, 41, President Reagan did the same thing. President Clinton did it - big, all-hands-on-deck barbecues for the Congress on the South Lawn. Everybody would bring their wife and their kids. They'd have state dinner on top of state dinner. They had bipartisan movie nights all the time.

MARTIN: You know, they did that two years ago when the president first, you know, came in. They did have people over for the Super Bowl, or some big event - it was very bipartisan - right after that. And it is (unintelligible).

Ms. CARY: It's kind of gone by the wayside a little, you know.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I think it was by the wayside because...

MARTIN: And we weren't invited is the worst part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: The president decided that it hadn't gotten him anywhere. Republicans were very intransigent throughout the first two years the Democrats controlled Congress. But I do think you're going to see him coming back around on that.

Ms. CARY: But don't you thing, Cynthia, in our lives, you know, whether it's the PTA or a business conference or something, if you get to know somebody and you find out they've got a sick grandma or they've got 10 kids at home or something, you give them the benefit of the doubt.

Ms. TUCKER: Getting to know somebody on a personal level makes all the difference.

Ms. CARY: I think they need to get back to that. That's what keeps Washington going, you know.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're speaking with Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report. We're talking about recent efforts by President Obama to reach out, and whether the other party is reaching back.

Well, you know, here's something that traditionally the parties have had to work together on, which is the budget. And the whole process of arriving at a budget has changed in recent years, where instead of actually passing a comprehensive budget, you know, the parties have - both parties have done this - found different ways to, you know, maneuver around the sort of actual negotiations.

So the question, you know, this group of Republicans has come in with a very clear message, seeking budget cuts. And - but Mary Kate, to this point, as I understand it, the spending cuts were revealed to a closed-door meeting of House Republicans. Going forward, you know, what do you see?

Ms. CARY: Well, I think the discussion right now is amongst the Republicans. It seems like there's a press release every few days. Well, this group's in favor of 30 billion. Well, this group's got 50 billion. This group's got 100 billion. And all that will start to come together, and the Republicans will unite around what they are standing for. And hopefully, that will include the big four, as Al Simpson says, the big four: Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, defense, as well as this 12 percent of the budget that's discretionary spending.

But once the Republicans - then it'll turn into what do the Democrats stand for within the House. Then it'll become between the House and the Senate. Then it'll become between Congress and the president. So this is just the very beginning of the process. There's a long way to go.

MARTIN: But isn't there already some tension within the Republican Caucus right now, though? Because some of the people who were elected with Tea Party support are seeking far larger spending cuts than the House leadership seems to be willing to embrace right now. And those are too large by Democratic standards. So the question is - one of the questions I have: Can the Republicans bridge their own differences?

Ms. CARY: Oh, I think they can. I think there's widespread agreement that the debate has shifted on the Republican side from what can we spend to how can we cut. And yet you see the Democrats not even there yet. The president's going today out to Michigan to talk about more investments, as he calls them, quote, unquote, "investments." And he hasn't gotten the memo yet. The Republicans, it's just a question of degree. They're all in agreement about the problem and what needs to be done. The question is how fast they can really do it.

MARTIN: And so the president hasn't gotten the memo yet. What about the Democrats? What about the other Democrats running around?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, in many ways, Michel, these Republican proposals are deja vu all over again. Let me read you a news story about some of the proposed budget cuts. Republicans are proposing cuts in youth training and education programs, foreign aid, assistance to homeless youth, federal subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Head Start, energy assistance for the needy to pay their fuel bills. That's a list from 1995.

So Republicans now are proposing a very similar list of cuts that go after the programs that they have always targeted, things that conservative voters don't like very much, that liberal voters do. So in that sense there is Republican unity. The only question is, one group wants even deeper cuts. What I haven't heard from them is anything about the big kahunas, entitlements, Medicare, Social Security. That's where a lot of the spending is - and the Pentagon.

MARTIN: So the question is, Mary Kate says that the conversation has shifted, not to what can we spend to how can we cut or how much can we cut. Do you think that the debate has similarly shifted on the Democratic side?

Ms. TUCKER: I think that certainly for the president the debate has shifted. I think it will take a little longer, perhaps, for Democrats in the House to concede that they're in a political environment where spending will have to be cut. I think the president is already there. That's the reason he is already talking about some cuts. Will he want to cut as much as Republicans? Absolutely not.

MARTIN: We have a couple minutes left. There are a couple of things I wanted to ask you about before we let you go. In Washington, CPAC gets underway. This is the largest - I think it's the largest gathering of political conservatives in the country. I'm told that some 11,000 people are in town.

Ms. CARY: I think that's right.

MARTIN: And it features the - what would you call it? Kind of like a dress -not even a dress rehearsal, maybe even kind of a read-through for the early presidential contenders. So I know that, Cynthia, you've been going. What do you think - what are you looking forward to hearing particularly?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I am looking forward to exactly what you said. It is a kind of dress rehearsal, if you will, for people who are thinking about being -running for the presidency. So I'm looking to hear from all of those folks whose names have already been mentioned, from Newt Gingrich to Mitch Daniels.

MARTIN: And, of course, Allen West, who's one of two African American Republicans serving in the House. He's giving the wrap-up speech on Saturday night, which was given by...

Ms. CARY: Glenn Beck, and previously Rush Limbaugh.

MARTIN: So that's a prime position. We'll be interested to hear (unintelligible).

Just one more minute left. I have to ask you, there are two big personnel moves, kind of surprises that emerged in the news yesterday. One is on the House and one is on the Senate side. On the Senate side, Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has announced he will not be running again in 2012. But on the House side, a Republican named Chris Lee, he's only in his second term, resigned abruptly. A Republican, he represents the Buffalo suburbs after his - a picture of him underdressed picture of him emerged on the Web site Gawker.

And you know, those are two very different stories, but on the Jim Webb side, I wanted to hear Mary Kate, first, if you'll just - a big surprise - what an impact this will make. And what is up with these people who can't figure out not to send underdressed pictures of themselves?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: They're people - married men sending pictures of themselves on dating websites. What is up with that?

Ms. CARY: I'm speechless on the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: ...the congressman sending his picture in. I do think the fact that he was immediately kind of disconnected from the Republican Congress is a good sign as to John Boehner's leadership, and the fact that this didn't drip-drip-drip for the next two weeks, I think, is a good thing, that times have changed in Washington a little and he's already gone, is a great thing for the Republic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: But Jim Webb - Jim Webb is a unique guy and has done all kinds of things with his life. He's written novels. He's been involved with criminal justice issues, things like that. I don't think anybody really thought he was going to be in for the long haul. He's just on to the next, you know? A great guy, very generous to Type I diabetes, and just a good American (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Interesting week. Mary Kate Cary is a former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush. She's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They were here with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much.

Ms. CARY: Sure.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you, Michel.

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