Obama Visits Storm-Devastated Joplin, Mo.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama visits the tornado-ravaged city of Joplin, Mo. The death toll from last Sunday's tornado stands at 142, the deadliest tornado to hit the U.S. in more than 60 years. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Today, President Barack Obama visits the tornado-ravaged city of Joplin, Missouri. The death toll from last Sunday's tornado stands at over 140. It's the deadliest tornado to hit the U.S. in more than 60 years. Mr. Obama had been on a weeklong trip across Europe this past week. While in London, the president said he had been monitoring the situation in Missouri. He had this message for the people of Joplin:

President BARACK OBAMA: The American people are by your side. We're going to stay there until every home is repaired, until every neighborhood is rebuilt, until every business is back on its feet. That's my commitment and that's the American people's commitment.

HANSEN: Coming up, we'll hear more about the recovery effort in Joplin. But first, we turn to Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent. Hi, Mara.


HANSEN: President Obama certainly isn't the first president to be overseas on official business when disaster strikes at home, but what's the significance of a presidential visit to a disaster area? Is it symbolic or does it mean more relief aid will follow?

LIASSON: I think it means both. It's really important for the president and presidents are judged by how they handle these disasters and whether they do follow through with the correct aid in a timely manner. I think President Obama understands that. He visited Tuscaloosa, Alabama a month ago when they were hit by tornadoes.

And the president has just been in Europe for a week. There have been a lot of photos of him speaking to parliament, hoisting a pint in Ireland. But he knows that the photos of him with the people of Joplin today are much more important to his political future than anything that he did in Europe this week.

HANSEN: There are two other domestic issues for the White House this week, a Democratic victory in a special election for New York's 26th Congressional district, and Democrats drew a hard line on Medicare. What's the latest there?

LIASSON: Well, Democrats feel the reason they won that special congressional election in upstate New York was because they pounded the Republican candidate for her support for the Paul Ryan plan to privatize Medicare for future beneficiaries. And back in Washington, they forced in the Senate Republicans to vote on the Paul Ryan plan.

And interestingly enough, Republicans had the courage of their convictions and only five Republicans voted against. Three of those Republicans came from northeastern states where the Ryan plan is extremely unpopular. So, either we're seeing some chinks in the Republican armor or Republicans for the most part are holding firm.

Now, how the Medicare debate will affect the ongoing talks about deficit reduction is another question. Republicans very much want Democrats to agree to some changes in Medicare as part of those talks. But none other than former President Bill Clinton said this week that he hopes Democrats don't use the special election in upstate New York as an excuse to do nothing about Medicare.

HANSEN: Meanwhile, the field of Republican presidential candidates continues to take shape. Tim Pawlenty is in. Mitt Romney appears to be heading in that direction. And Sarah Palin announced a bus tour. Does it seem to you that the crop of candidates is narrowing?

LIASSON: Yes. It does seem like the Republican field is narrowing. Tim Pawlenty is now the establishment alternative to Mitt Romney, who is the frontrunner in this race. But there is a great yearning among Republican voters for the so-called fantasy candidates - people like Sarah Palin. She is testing the waters with this bus tour around the country. If she does get in, she would be a huge factor in a Republican primary and complicate the paths to victory for a lot of the candidates.

But also Texas Governor Rick Perry this week, after saying absolutely no to all the questions about whether he wanted to run, suddenly opened the door. So, it's possible, even at this late date, that we might get other Republican presidential contenders stepping into the race.

HANSEN: Mara Liasson is the national political correspondent for NPR. Mara, thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Liane.

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