Jonathan Chait: Obama's Critics On Left Misguided

Guests

Ron Elving, senior Washington editor, NPR
Jonathan Chait, senior editor, The New Republic

President Obama is under fire from many in the Democratic base, from environmentalists to big labor. Jonathan Chait, senior editor of The New Republic, argues that many of the president's concessions to Republicans were paired with programs actually supported by the left.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The speaker pushes the president back a night. Mitt, 59 points. And Palin throws gas on the fire in Iowa. It's Wednesday and time for a...

SARAH PALIN: Corporate crony capitalism.

CONAN: ...edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, where's the beef?

Senator BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

PALIN: Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, the Political Junkie joins us to recap the week in politics. The GOP field gathers at the Reagan Library tonight. Most met earlier this week in South Carolina, but new frontrunner Rick Perry returned home to fight wildfires.

Wild card Sarah Palin promises to decide by the end of this month. Special elections next Tuesday, one in Queens, the other in Nevada. Tammy Baldwin will run for Herb Kohl's Senate seat in Wisconsin. Scott Brown polls well ahead of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. And as former Obama supporters wonder why the president backed down to Boehner, retreated on ozone and won't push for a big new stimulus, we'll talk with Jonathan Chait about what he says the left does not understand about Obama. That's coming up in a few minutes. Later in the program, the Syrian ambassador to the United States will join us.

But first, Ken Rudin is stuck on an airplane, thanks to the nasty weather here in the Washington, D.C. area.

With Ken there in the middle seat, guest junkie Ron Elving joins us here in studio 3A. Of course he moonlights as NPR's senior Washington editor. Ron, always great to have you with us.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And a friendly territory for Republican candidates tonight.

ELVING: Yes. If you can't feel at home standing in front of Ronald Reagan's Air Force One with Nancy Reagan, we hope, in the front row, you cannot feel at home in the Republican party.

And that, I suspect, is the reason that Rick Perry, despite the terrible wildfires that are burning in his home state and that kept him away from a very important Tea Party event in South Carolina just this week, on Monday, on Labor Day, will be there tonight, because this is his moment in a symbolic way, in a dramatic onstage way, to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan.

CONAN: And he arrives there as - well, I guess the accepted frontrunner, at least according to all the opinion polls now. A Washington Post poll today put him, what, six points ahead of Mitt Romney; Ron Paul a pretty distant third, and everybody else way behind that. Of course, we'll get to the wild card again. That's Sarah Palin.

But in the meantime, Governor Perry will arrive at the Reagan Library tonight with the mantle of the frontrunner, and that means a big target on his back. For the first time, Republican candidates are beginning to criticize other Republican candidates.

Here's a new ad from Michele Bachmann that takes aim at the leader of the pack.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Rick Perry doubled spending in a decade, and this year Rick Perry's spending more money than the state takes in, covering his deficit with record borrowing. And he's supposed to be the Tea Party guy? There is an honest conservative, and she's not Rick Perry.

CONAN: And she is not alone. The person who finished second to her in the Iowa Straw Poll, Ron Paul, also has an ad that attacks Rick Perry.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Rick Perry helped lead Al Gore's campaign to undo the Reagan revolution, fighting to elect Al Gore president of the United States.

CONAN: Well, it's good to be at the top, don't you think, Ron?

ELVING: I believe so. I think it's good to be number one. It's good to be the king.

CONAN: It's good to be the king. How is Rick Perry going to respond to this?

ELVING: Rick Perry will come on tonight, I think, already with an air of wanting to bring all the elements of the Republican party together. And while I think he will obviously take some shots from some of the other candidates, I think his attitude will be a little bit like we saw from Mitt Romney in the several debates we've already had this year.

We've had debates in New Hampshire, in Iowa and South Carolina, and Mitt Romney has been the guy who had to essentially assume everyone was firing at him. He's kind of put his hands in his pockets and shrugged his shoulders and has tried to seem as affable about it as possible.

And I think Rick Perry will do much the same. There'll be a lot of smiling. There'll be a lot of, well, I understand that, I'd probably do the same thing if I were in your position, an attempt to have a kind of Ronald Reagan-esque way of dealing with Republican internal tension.

CONAN: You mentioned Mitt Romney and that event in South Carolina sponsored by Jim DeMint on behalf of the Tea Party, and Senator DeMint held a forum where he put a tough question, one that Mitt Romney's going to be hearing throughout this campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL FORUM)

Senator JAMES DEMINT: You know, if you're our nominee, the president's going to say that you implemented ObamaCare in Massachusetts. How would you describe what Massachusetts did?

CONAN: And candidate Romney said this was, after all, a state plan, not a federal plan. A federal plan, he believes, is unconstitutional.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL FORUM)

MITT ROMNEY REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Bad law, it's bad medicine, and on day one of my administration, I'll direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to grant a waiver from ObamaCare to all 50 states. It has got to be stopped and I know it better than most. Thank you.

CONAN: And former Governor Romney seems to have come up with a better answer to that question over the past few months.

ELVING: Yeah. Stop me before I legislate for more than just my state. He has one good argument with regard to what some have called ObamaneyCare(ph) and that is that he only imposed it on one state, his state, Massachusetts, the only one where he had any jurisdiction.

But it is extraordinarily difficult to explain to people why it was fine for Massachusetts, but it is absolute poison and deadly and going to kill the economy and deprive everyone of their health care if applied in any other jurisdiction other than Massachusetts.

CONAN: Well, he finds himself in the new position of number two and so perhaps liberated from that, well, I'm not going to really say anything, stance. He may be going after Rick Perry tonight.

But the person whose campaign Perry seems to have affected the most is Michele Bachmann.

ELVING: Oh, there's no question. Right after the Ames Straw Poll in early August, she looked like the largest obstacle that there would be for a Romney nomination. He seemed to be on cruise control, but when Rick Perry got in, and he actually got in that same weekend - when Rick Perry got in, suddenly all the numbers changed. Interestingly, among the numbers that changed was the satisfaction level among Republicans with their field. It had been historically low and it went up over 50 percent. Some polls have it even over 60 percent. They're much happier with the field with Rick Perry in it.

Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann has fallen all the way into fourth in many of these polls, running behind Ron Paul, running behind Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, and even running behind, in some polls where she's included, Sarah Palin, so much so, in fact, that at this juncture the biggest difference from one poll to another - some polls show, as you mentioned, Rick Perry ahead by six points. That was the Washington Post poll. And also a NBC News Wall Street Journal poll came out that had the lead for Rick Perry at 15 percent.

Now, the difference between those two polls - why six in one, why 15 in another - there was yet another with 19 points advantage for Perry - the difference is: Do they include Sarah Palin or not? If she's not among the options, then the difference goes to Rick Perry and not to Michele Bachmann. That is the biggest problem that she's faced since Rick Perry got in.

CONAN: Another problem for Bachmann, the departure of her campaign manager. Ed Rollins left, saying, well, it's partly for reasons of health. It's a young man's game. He also mentioned on CNN the field has come down to two candidates who can actually get the nomination and Michele Bachmann is not one of them.

ELVING: And that's right. He's still supposedly an advisor to the Bachmann campaign. It's a little bit hard to imagine what advice they'd be taking from him after a remark like that.

But you know, Ed Rollins is, as he points out, 68 years old and he was a lot hotter property 30 years ago when he was in his late 30s and he was running Ronald Reagan's operation, political operation in the White House and was - his title was campaign director in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won 49 states.

But since then, it's been a much spottier record for Ed Rollins. He worked on the Jack Kemp campaign in 1988. Kemp won no primaries. He worked on the Ross Perot campaign for a while in 1992, and of course Ross Perot won no states in that year.

He did help Christi Todd Whitman get elected governor of New Jersey in 1993, but then, of course, immediately kicked off a huge controversy for her by talking about what he had done to suppress the black vote.

And then he stepped in as a Mike Huckabee campaign manager, 2007, 2008. Huckabee, of course, won the Iowa caucuses, but thereafter he was not a threat to the nomination of John McCain.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have some elections next week on Tuesday, special congressional elections. One in New York that seems to be, at least if you look at the polls, surprisingly close.

ELVING: Oh, even too close to call. David Weprin, who is a state assemblyman there, a Democrat, was the choice of the Democratic establishment. Chuck Schumer, the senator, supported him, and perhaps most crucially important for Weprin, he also has the support of Andrew Cuomo, who is right now quite popular. Many governors are not.

Andrew Cuomo is quite popular. Apparently 70 percent approval in this one particular congressional district in Brooklyn and Queens, in the city of New York, and so he's gotten out there, made a series of six TV ads for the Democrat here, and that may be his best hope at this point.

At the same time, he just lost the endorsement of another Democratic assembly member, another colleague of his from the state legislature who is endorsing his Republican opponent, Bob Turner. Now, Bob Turner ran against the previous Democrat in this district, and we should mention the name, Anthony Weiner, because that's why the district is vacant, because of Weiner's resignation in the light of that scandal we had earlier this spring.

And so for Bob Turner to pick up one of the assemblymen in the district endorsing him is kind of a big deal. The issue there is gay marriage, because the Democratic nominee in this district, David Weprin, voted for the gay marriage bill in the state legislature and many of the more conservative Democrats, in this case an orthodox Jewish member of the assembly, were so opposed to that bill that they are willing to go over to the Republican candidate and that's one of the reasons that this race is close. Probably the larger one, though, is just the general economic dissatisfaction, unhappiness...

CONAN: Send a message to Washington, is what...

ELVING: Specifically President Obama.

CONAN: We also have a special election in Nevada, because a congressman was elevated to the Senate because John Ensign is no longer there. That does not look so close.

ELVING: That's right. Sex scandals do seem to create vacancies in both parties in all parts of the country, and in this particular race it would appear that Mark Amodei, who has been the state party chairman there and who was previously a very popular state senator until his term limits ran out, will probably win that race next Tuesday and take the seat of Dean Heller who, as you say, is now an appointed member of the United States Senate. The Democratic nominee is their state treasurer, Kate Marshall.

CONAN: And also news from Wisconsin, where it looks like it is - here. Tammy Baldwin will officially enter the race for the Senate seat now held by Herb Kohl, who's retiring.

ELVING: That's right. And Tammy Baldwin is going to be a historic candidate. She's already been endorsed by EMILY's List and she's going to get a lot of attention because she is an openly gay woman, was openly gay when she was first elected to Congress in 1998. And she's, of course, representing the most liberal district of Wisconsin there, in the state capital of Madison, where the university is, where the state government is.

And she is probably going to be running against a significantly more conservative Republican, whichever Republican gets the nomination. One of the names that comes up, of course, is Tommy Thompson, who was elected governor there four times, but who is about to have his 70th birthday this fall and may not be up for another campaign next year.

More likely, we're going to see either the state assembly speaker, Jeff Fitzgerald, or former Congressman Mark Neumann.

CONAN: We're talking with guest Political Junkie Ron Elving. When we come back, Jonathan Chait on what he says the left does not understand about President Obama.

We want to hear from disillusioned Democrats. What has the president done to lose your support? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking today with guest Political Junkie Ron Elving. NPR's senior Washington editor, Ken Rudin - well, a hurricane or a tembler could not keep him away in recent weeks, but a delayed flight did the trick today. Ken may not be here, but his Political Junkie column is back online. Go to npr.org/junkie to find that. Later today, he promises to put up a new ScuttleButton puzzle as well.

Lately, President Obama has faced more and often louder criticism from the left on jobs, on the environment, on the wars, tax cuts, even on the health care law.

Jonathan Chait wrote that this was the summer that liberal discontent with the president crystallized. That was in an article in the New York Times Magazine.

So disillusioned Obamamaniacs, what did the president do to lose your support? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jon Chait joins us from a studio here in Washington. His piece, "What the Left Doesn't Understand About Obama," as we mentioned, ran in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Nice to have you with us today.

JONATHAN CHAIT: Thanks.

CONAN: And you wrote that the hallmark of the left's magical thinking is a failure to recognize that Congress is a separate and co-equal branch of government. People think the president can just do stuff.

CHAIT: Yeah. You know, the title of the piece is "Mistakes Were Made," and I acknowledged that you can reasonably second-guess a lot of the decisions that Obama made, although I don't think there's any single decision he's made that's completely indefensible, but many which can be questioned.

What I argue, though, is that the scale and the scope of the criticism he's getting from the left is just completely out of proportion to the mistakes that you can reasonably say he made, and a lot of it really is a kind of magical thinking, wishing away of real world constraints.

And I think it stems from a genuine kind of fantasy that when Obama was elected and came into office that he alone could sort of solve all of the problems and do everything he wanted to do and that any failures must stem from a failure of his own will power or his own decision, his own rhetoric, his own tactics, as opposed to simply the fact that it is very hard to do much of anything. And given that, he's actually done a great deal.

CONAN: Well, he did come into office with a large majority in the House of Representatives and 60 votes filibuster-proof in the United States Senate.

CHAIT: No. Well, that's only true for about four months. He only had four months, and that four months was mostly overtaken with health care. And one of the arguments I make in the piece is that you're getting the second guessing now from the left that says he should have focused on the economy instead.

And one of the things I point out is that the people were saying that at the time, those people were all on the right, or at least, you know, to the right of Obama. It was the center right and the conservative critique saying you should ignore this health care thing and focus on the economy. I don't think that would have been the right decision.

CONAN: But on health care - well, the public option wasn't even considered seriously.

CHAIT: That's right. And they never really had anything close to 60 votes for the public option.

CONAN: So you're saying that we have to remember that Congress is a separate and co-equal branch whose interests are not exactly congruent with the president.

CHAIT: That's right. There's a habit in our political culture that you find among people, among even very sophisticated political reporters, to attribute all outcomes to the president, that this is a test for the president, this reflects on the president, as if the president were a monarch.

But in fact, Congress is a co-equal branch of government, so all decisions represent just as much decisions of Congress as they do of the president. And that's a reality that people have a hard time internalizing, even if they intellectually understand it.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from John(ph) in South Lake Tahoe in California: I was a national Obama delegate in 2008 and am a progressive. President Obama will have my vote, but not my volunteer time or donations so long as the wars are not wound down in Afghanistan and Pakistan, capitulations continue on climate change, environmental protection, budget debates, etc. I'm still waiting for change I can believe in.

CHAIT: Right. I mean, he's bringing in some things that are sort of outside of the scope of the argument that I was making in the piece. My piece was mostly about the second guessing on the stimulus and the economy.

You have a whole other argument about foreign policy that is in part an argument about first principles where, frankly, I would just disagree with a lot of people on the left as to what I want, although I do agree that, you know, objectively, Obama has kind of moved to the right and is taking a more centrist position or even a more conservative hawkish position than they expected. And so, you know, I disagree about ends, but I would agree with some of those critics that they have, you know, legitimate reason to be upset.

It's on the stimulus where I think where I think their argument doesn't even make sense so much on its own terms. Again, at the time, I was pointing out, people were arguing the people who were arguing that he should focus on the economy over the long term budgetary and other kinds of reforms were the people on the right. They were the right wing critics.

And then, subsequently, when Obama came to make the decisions where he had to decide between long term priorities versus short term stimulus, he chose stimulus. He chose exactly the priorities that the liberal critics now want him to have done and in so doing he's had to make compromises that (unintelligible) infuriated them.

So they almost want, I think, at times two contradictory things. They want results and they want standing up to the Republicans, and doing both those things at the same time is not always easy or even possible.

CONAN: Ron Elving, a lot of the criticism is that, indeed, looking back, that stimulus was nowhere near big enough.

ELVING: That's right. And at the time there were some voices raised saying exactly that. Paul Krugman, of course, in the New York Times, and others were saying it ought to be twice as big. Eight hundred billion isn't nearly enough.

But Jonathan is exactly right in this article when he points out that at the time those were minority voices. Those were almost voices in the wilderness and the much greater reaction to the size of the stimulus was, as Jonathan notes, sticker shock. That was the key phrase in the media. People could not believe that it was so big, and of course then the results of it were largely in this sort of palliative category of maybe not as many jobs were lost as would have been, the sort of thing that's very hard to ring up in any dramatic scoreboard fashion to make the policy look that effective.

So in this particular instance, it was an enormous struggle, an enormous struggle to get Arlen Specter, to get one or two votes out of the state of Maine in the United States Senate, and finally, painstakingly creep up to 60 votes.

The Democrats, at that particular junction, did not have 60 votes of their own. They still had to ask Republicans for them, and of course each of those Republicans who came over was severely punished within that party.

So it was it was - for all that I can remember and every detail from that time, everything the administration and the Democrats could possible do to get this size of stimulus.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with Donna, and Donna's with us from Wichita.

DONNA: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

DONNA: I'm totally disillusioned with President Obama, as are - my entire family worked on his campaign as volunteers in the last election, and obviously failure to get anything really accomplished on health care, in my opinion. But the icing on the cake has just been the extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which he promised us in his campaign that he would be against.

CONAN: This was as part of the last minute deal last December with the Republican leadership to extend both the both of the Bush tax cuts - all of the Bush tax cuts. In exchange - well, he got some concessions from them in exchange.

CHAIT: Right. That's one of the points I focus on in my piece. What you had was the looming expiration of the entire Bush tax cuts. You also had the looming expiration of some fairly progressive tax cuts that were part of the stimulus, and of increased unemployment benefits.

So Obama could have made the decision to say I will not extend a dime of these tax cuts for the rich because it's long term irresponsible for the budget. If he had done that, what he would have been prioritizing was deficit reduction over short term stimulus.

Instead, he made the opposite decision. He sacrificed some of the leverage he will have over shaping the long term budget solution in return for getting quite a bit of stimulus in the short run. So basically the choice he made was exactly the ones that liberals wanted him to make.

Well, of course, what they want is to get all of the stimulus without any of the tax cuts for the rich, but that choice was not available. Republicans were never going to agree to that.

CONAN: I wonder if you want to come back on that, Donna.

DONNA: Well, I want to say what we're seeing is that the majority of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, do not - did not support that extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. It wouldn't be something that - I just don't think they lobbied - or he lobbied the public to support him on that issue, and everybody I know was very, very disappointed in that.

CONAN: Donna, thanks very much for the call.

But Jonathan Chait, that's another point you made in your piece.

CHAIT: That's right. I mean, I think there's a little bit of magical thinking involved on the role of public opinion, because the Republicans have shown themselves willing to stand up to public opinion.

You had this fight over - not over that moment on the tax cuts, but over the deficit, where Obama said we need a balanced deficit solution and it can't all be spending. It has to be revenue in addition to spending cuts and we need to do something to make the richest Americans pay some share of this fiscal adjustment.

The public was overwhelmingly on their side. The Republicans simply didn't care. They were sticking to their priorities and they were willing to suffer in public opinion to do it. So this mechanism where the president rallies the people and the people force the Republicans to act - well, sometimes the first part works, though less often than people think. But the second part of that just - that just didn't happen at all, so there's no reason to think it would have happened in December of 2010 either.

CONAN: And Ron Elving, willing to take a hit - the president's numbers or at historic lows, but so are the numbers for Republicans in Congress.

ELVING: That's right. But it matters more to President Obama. He's down to 44 percent average in the RealClearPolitics. That's all the polls taken together. Some polls, including a Gallup, have actually shown him slipping under 40 percent, at least temporarily. And to him, that is the difference between having a pretty good shot at being re-elected to a second term and not being re-elected. At the same time, the Republicans' numbers are something like 20 points lower.

ELVING: That is whether you talk about the Republican leadership or whether you talk about the direction of Congress, the more specific you get about fixing it to the Republicans, the further down they go. But to them, that doesn't matter in the same way because they still see their electoral path clear to being renominated, a big fear among Republicans who fear Tea Party challenges. And number two, they see their way clear to winning their districts and winning behind a Republican candidate for president.

If they can get a Republican president in 2012, they're absolutely confident they will hold the House and hold the Senate. And we don't see very many threatened Senate seats, for example. It looks like most all of the action in 2012 will be on Senate - on Democratic Senate seats. And so the Republicans feel quite confident despite their numbers in the polls that they're going to be fine next year if they can just figure out some way to get a presidential candidate to defeat Barack Obama.

CONAN: And, Jonathan Chait, I suspect you saw a little piece by Richard Cohen in The Washington Post op-ed page today where he concluded after his visit that Obama has lost the Hamptons. Of course, he points out that is before those people, former activists and supporters of Barack Obama, have a choice between him and somebody else, they may - he may get their votes, he concludes but won't have that level of enthusiasm.

CHAIT: I think that's right. It's also - I think that's absolutely right. It's a real phenomenon, but it's also a recurrent phenomenon. You know, Clinton lost the left through a huge part of his entire presidency. And the Nader candidacy in 2000 represented a leftwing backlash against the Clinton administration, which compromised with the right much more than Obama has. And I think that's sort of been forgotten a little bit in light of history. And, of course, the Democratic president that you can go back to before Clinton, Carter, completely lost the left. And there was a very nearly successful challenge to that president by Ted Kennedy in 1980.

And, of course, if you go to the Democratic president before Carter, that was Lyndon Johnson, who was forced to not even run for re-election in 1968. And then if you go to the Democratic president before that, that would be Harry Truman. He also had a leftwing challenger in the presidential election. He faced huge massive disillusionment. So, you know, one interpretation could be that the Democrats keep finding presidents who sell out liberals and make peace with their enemies for no good reason. Perhaps a better interpretation is liberals are just a little bit difficult to please or uncomfortable with the compromises involved in power.

CONAN: Jonathan Chait, senior editor at The New Republic, wrote "What the Left Doesn't Understand About Barack Obama" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Also with us, guest political junkie Ron Elving. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Email from John(ph). This guy, meaning Jonathan Chait, is missing the point with Obama. Most of us are not dissatisfied with what he has done or not done but because he is, A, spends excruciatingly long times trying to negotiate with the other side, a waste of time. He just looks weak and ineffectual. They're not going to play ball so forget it. And, B, his unwillingness to stand for a progressive vision. I could give a simple two-minute message one that addresses jobs, deficits and global warming all at the same time. I say let him stand or fall on what we believe in.

CHAIT: Right. You know, I think the way to look at Obama's political tactics and messaging strategy is to say given the state of the economy, is he more or less popular than he should be given normal levels of political competence? I would argue that he's actually pretty popular given the state of the economy. He's not very popular. But, again, he's almost as popular as Bill Clinton was at this point. He's just a couple of points lower in the Gallup Poll when Clinton was presiding at this point over a pretty strong recovery. He's almost as popular as Ronald Reagan was when Reagan was also presiding over a roaring recovery.

So, you know, I actually think he's doing reasonably well, which doesn't mean that he hasn't made mistakes. He's certainly has. All presidents make mistakes. The question is: Are Obama's mistakes out of character with the normal level of mistakes that you see? And I don't see the case that they are. I don't see that reflected in the results of his polling support given the circumstances he's in.

CONAN: Let's go next to Sarah(ph). Sarah with us from Houston.

SARAH: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Sarah.

SARAH: I am an anomaly being a conservative liberal from Houston, Texas. But I am absolutely the backbone of Obama's base. I am a 23-year-old student in The Honors College at the University of Houston. And I voted for the first time in Obama's election, and I voted for him. What I'm seeing with people my age who have similar political sensibilities is that we are disappointed at the lack of support for a few things that my generation really needs. We need support in our academic futures and how to pay for them and the opportunities to go to school.

And we need support in our future job growth. We are the green generation. We were the ones who were taught by the old hippies. They're our parents or our teachers or our aunts and uncles. And that's our perspective. What I don't see from this administration right now is the capacity for the president to stand up to what we view as political and corporate greed.

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, Sarah. We're just running out of time. I wanted to ask Ron Elving. Jonathan Chait did not write about environmental issues in his piece, and it was written before the ozone decision. That is something the president could have done with the stroke of his pen. He did not need Congress for that.

ELVING: That's - well, he backed off on a decision that had already been made with regard to air quality, and he has not accepted the Keystone Project which, of course, has led to the arrest of many people out in front of...

CONAN: He's not rejected (unintelligible).

ELVING: ...the White House. He has - well, he's not accepted the view of the green movement that that project is unacceptable. It has to do with transporting a certain kind of petroleum product across great distances using a pipeline. It has a lot of environmental problems with it, but it also carries the prospect of creating a lot of jobs. And so when given this tradeoff between economic short-term jobs, which has become the national obsession, and longer-term environmental protection, he is making the choice to go with the jobs. And we've seen that now on two issues in just very recent days, pulling back from stronger, more environmental positions that he had taken previously.

CONAN: Ron Elving, thanks for filling in as our guest political junkie. Ken Rudin is on the ground safely, and we will expect him in that chair next week. Jonathan Chait, thank you very much for your time today.

CHAIT: Thank you.

CONAN: Jonathan Chait is senior editor at The New Republic, and we were talking about his piece, "What the Left Doesn't Understand About Obama." Coming up, amid more reports today of killings in Syria. We'll talk with Syria's ambassador to the United States about the government crackdown in that country. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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