In 'Year Of Action,' What Can President Obama Do?

President Obama has been pressing forward with his economic agenda, and trying to move beyond the controversy over surveillance by the National Security Agency. Host Michel Martin talks about these and other political headlines with NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, and Callie Crossley, host of Under the Radar on member station WGBH in Boston.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we are going to head to South Eastern Kentucky. The area is one of those designated as a promise zone by the Obama administration. So we want to hear about what that will actually mean. That's in just a few minutes. But now we look at some of the other items on the president's agenda. He's gearing up for a big speech tomorrow about controversial surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency.

The president is also promising to press ahead with his economic plans even if he has to work around Congress. So to talk about these and other political stories, once again, we've called upon Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. Welcome back.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Always good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also joining us once again is Callie Crossley. She's host of "Under the Radar" on member station WGBH in Boston. Callie Crossley, welcome back and Happy New Year to you as well.

CALLIE CROSSLEY: Happy New Year to you. And I'm glad to be back.

MARTIN: So, Ron, let me start with you. The president is speaking tomorrow at the Justice Department. Can you help us get ready for this? I mean, how did we - I mean, this is a complicated story so help us understand how we got here and what we can expect to hear tomorrow.

ELVING: It's likely to be a complicated speech. He's going to talk about a new day for the surveillance programs. He's going to use a lot of new broom language. Really make it sound like a major overhaul, but what we're expecting him to actually be proposing is far from radical. And it's going to be tempered by a lot of the pushback that he's been getting from the National Security Agency. As soon as his - a panel of experts reported that big, 300-page report he took to Hawaii to read - as soon as they reported, he embraced the report. He said he really liked the recommendations.

He was going to take a long look at them. And of course, immediately, all the people who have been involved in this surveillance program and metadata gathering and all of the different kinds of surveillance that we've learned about from Edward Snowden's revelations and other revelations. All those people started saying, well, now hold on a second. It sounds good to tell people that you're going to restore privacy and you're going to salve all of our damage relationships with those foreign leaders we've been spying on. But let's stop and think about why we were doing this in the first place. Look back at the law, all the way back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the 1970's and the Patriot Act in the last decade.

MARTIN: So you're not expecting very much change. Is that what you're telling us?

ELVING: He's going to talk about change. He's not necessarily going to effectuate much change tomorrow. He's going to have 180 days to look at this. And he's going to have a panel of people looking at that. And he's going to ask various actors in this entire thing to reconsider what they've been doing. And there will surely be some proposals that are more concrete than that, but overall, I don't think the tone of the speech will match the substance.

MARTIN: Callie, you know, the NSA controversy has really damaged relationships with a lot of progressives, who are a key part of the president's space. I mean, there is - to be sure, there are a lot of conservatives who don't love it either, but the loudest voices you tend to hear - people in the academy, people like that and I just wonder if there's anything he can say tomorrow that will address their concerns?

CROSSLEY: I wonder myself because already we've heard from a lot of folks who have been in the forefront of saying the privacy of we the citizens should be paramount, and what Snowden showed us is that it was not. They've sort of given up already in advance of the speech saying we don't believe he's going to do anything to change that for the reasons that Ron just said because the security community is saying now wait a minute, you know, there's some real concerns and you know that now that you're sitting in the chair.

This is not the President Obama who - or the Senator Obama who was talking about the Patriot Act being an overreach in terms of that privacy. So a lot of folks - the people that you just mentioned who had high hopes, who've been pushing and saying loudly this cannot be, we should be angry and upset about this, this is not American - I don't think are looking for much on Friday.

MARTIN: Do they have any recourse, Ron, I mean, is there congressional approval required for any of these issues - is there - I guess what I'm asking is do the people who still believe that these programs are overreaching, inappropriate, un-American and such - do they have any recourse right now?

ELVING: Yes, and they will take their case to Congress and Congress will probably address this in legislation. But that's the Congress we know. That's the Congress we have, the 113th Congress, and they don't pass a lot of legislation. They talk about a lot of legislation but the House passes one version and the Senate passes a quite different version. And they don't compromise very well. There are exceptions, but those are notable exceptions. And so the idea that they are going to look at these recommendations from the president's panel and do more than the president wanted and then they're going to override the president's veto - I don't think that's likely. So the best way to get something done would be to have the president embrace it. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week, but over the course of his presidency slowly change these policies.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a political chat with NPR's Ron Elving and Callie Crossley, host of "Under the Radar" heard on member station WBGH. Well, Callie, you know, to that end, this whole question of who does what and who has the authority to do what - you know, the president was in North Carolina yesterday and he said it was going to be a, quote, year of action for boosting the economy. And he said that if necessarily, he will bypass Congress. But to - you know, to what end? Do you see any there, there?

CROSSLEY: Well, he's got to do something. So any kind of action, at this point, is moving the needle, I think, from his perspective because right now, people are saying what does it mean that people have just given up and that we are adding so few jobs? Every report seems to be more and more depressing. So I think going to North Carolina to say OK, here is something we can do. We can initiate this public-private manufacturing hub and we can use the assets of the academic world and the business world and we can all get on board together is some action he can take. And then, of course, there's the whole question about the empowerment zones that he very much would like to - or the promises zones, rather.

MARTIN: Promise zones. They were empowerment zones before.

CROSSLEY: Yes. Exactly. And before that they were enterprise zones. So the question is...

MARTIN: That was before that, right.

CROSSLEY: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: We're all showing our age that we remember all these terms.

CROSSLEY: Exactly. But, you know, it sounds, in the way he's framed the new promise zones, a little bit different. One doesn't know what's going to happen in the end. The bottom line is this - he has to do something specific 'cause people keep coming back to him - OK, that's great. You're recognizing income inequality. What are you doing about it specifically? So I say that even if it's a small step and these may be perceived as small steps, it looks better than just sort of complaining about Congress and not moving the needle.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of Congress, Ron, you said that there were some notable exceptions to the inability of Congress to reconcile their various philosophies very well to get a lot of things done. We did hear news yesterday that the Republican-controlled House passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill with Democratic support. And this is expected to get to through the Senate and then be signed. So how should we interpret this?

ELVING: Hallelujah. The Congress has actually done its most basic function, which is to appropriate and spend money to carry out the functions of the federal government. They have not been doing this, at least not according to Hoyle. They haven't been doing it where they actually passed legislation to change budgets. What they've been doing is a series of continuing resolutions just saying, well, I like what we did last year, we'll just do it again. That's been the way Congress has stumbled forward now for years.

MARTIN: So what were the ingredients that allowed them to finally get back to doing this - the budget, passing it in the way that it was intended and the way that the Constitution envisioned? What helped them get there?

ELVING: Two things - context and leadership. The context was the government shutdown last fall was enormously unpopular as predicted. But there had been a number of people - Republicans in the House in particular - who believed the country was ready for a government shutdown in order to repeal Obamacare. That everyone hated Obamacare so much they would be willing to do that. Turns out they were wrong. So now the government's back up and running again. The Republicans are bruised by the political fallout from that shutdown. And as a result, they are eager to move on and get the focus back on the shortcomings of Obamacare again.

And that's working for them so that's why the context was better for a compromise from the Republican standpoint. And then two people stepped forward. They were in the leadership roles who needed to step forward - Paul Ryan from the House, the budget chairman, and Patty Murray the appropriations chairman from the Senate - Democrat and a Republican. And the two of them worked out, over a period of weeks and months, an agreement that they could both live with and sell to their respective parties. And that's why we're going to have a spending bill. The Senate will probably pass it tonight or tomorrow.

MARTIN: Do you think the public is going to notice this? I want to save some time to talk about Benghazi, Callie. So just briefly, Ron, if I can from you - is this something that the public will notice? I mean, as we know, we've talked about many times - I mean, the public's perception of Congress is dismal. Their approval ratings are dismal. Is this something that might improve people's understanding or believe in how their government is functioning?

ELVING: One would hope, but mostly people notice Congress when it doesn't do its jobs like a traffic light. If it's working fine, you don't notice it. If it breaks down, you notice it a great deal.

MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking of a breakdown, Callie Crossley, as our final topic - I know you wanted to talk about the latest on the attack in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. This has been a very emotional, very painful, you know, episode for many people, not least, you know, the administration. Yesterday, a bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee called the attack, which killed four people, quote, likely preventable.

It faulted the State Department for inadequate security and the CIA's early accounts of what happened. But it also says that the White House was not involved in trying to downplay the possible role of terrorists by removing references to Al Qaeda. That was a number of the findings of the report. What did you draw from it?

CROSSLEY: What I drew from it was the fog of war is really - it's so real and so intense and so deadly in this way because I'm focused on Ambassador Chris Stevens early on saying, well, yes maybe we should have some extra security. We note that he was killed in this attack. And then later saying, no, no. I think I can do OK with just local training of some of the Libyans, which turned out to be, you know, obviously not the way he should've gone. So this is still confusing to me, and I think that's still has to be, you know, vetted or played out or something or explained to folks how it seemed - he seemed to be at odds with himself in this.

But in any case, that's confusing. It, again, seems to me to bring another - shine another light on the intelligence gathering, even though intelligence was saying one thing and apparently they were apparently trying to get it to the folks in charge. Again, it wasn't distributed well. Didn't we learn those lessons after September 11? So I'm concerned that those two things seemed to stand out from the report. And maybe, if we could step away from the politicizing of it and get to those things, then for sure, some other places can work towards having a security that can prevent this kind of tragedy in the future.

MARTIN: Ron, what do you draw from it? We only have about 40 seconds left. What do you draw from the report? I don't know that it still clarifies the whole question of whether these were international terrorists or people really were upset about this video that was very insulting to the prophet Muhammad. What do you draw from that?

ELVING: It did not settle that last question, and possibly nothing ever will. There will be arguments about that for as long as anyone cares about this incident. And people will go on caring about this incident. This was the Senate Intelligence Committee. They wanted to focus on the CIA and it's communications and lack thereof with the State Department. That will come back later on to haunt Hillary Clinton who was secretary of state at the time. That's the political angle. But there was no attempt by this committee, at least, to revive those accusations against the Obama administration from the fall of 2012.

MARTIN: As we said, a bipartisan report, which is sometimes unusual - hard thing to come by. Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Callie Crossley is host of "Under the Radar with Callie Crossley" at member station WGBH in Boston, with us from those studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel.

CROSSLEY: Thanks, Michel.

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