GOP Counters Obama Strategy

The GOP is stressing its traditional issues of deficit reduction, tax reduction and smaller government to counter President Obama's legislative agenda and budget proposal this week. NPR News Analyst Juan Williams talks with host Alex Cohen about the Republican strategy.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, we bring back Alex Chadwick to channel Christopher Walken.

COHEN: But first, at a time when bipartisanship is in short supply in Washington, D.C., President Obama has found an unlikely ally this week. Former rival Arizona Senator John McCain told the Associated Press this morning that he supports the president's plan to withdraw most U.S. forces by the fall of 2010. Joining me now is NPR news analyst Juan Williams, and Juan, Senator McCain says he's seen a significant change in President Obama's plan for troop drawdown. What kind of changes is he talking about, and is this a surprise to see Senator McCain endorsing Mr. Obama's Iraq policy?

JUAN WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Senator McCain has not been supportive on the stimulus, so it's a little of a break, Alex, but John McCain has a history of bipartisanship. But you know what? If you watched the campaign closely, you'll remember that President Obama, then candidate Obama, said that he was going to get American forces out of Iraq in 16 months. And he was tough on Hillary Clinton and fellow Democrats, as well as John McCain, for trying to extend that timeframe. Well, he now is going to extend it to 19 months, so that combat operations would end by August of 2010, but he'll leave about 50,000 American troops there to train, equip, support Iraqis military and civilian operations. And I think that's what caught people off guard here, Alex. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed today said he thought 50,000 was more than he would have expected. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has expressed some opposition to President Obama's timeframe. So, I think it's somewhat disappointing to some of the Democrats and, as you say, a surprise in the sense that now you have John McCain onboard, saying, yeah, that works for me.

COHEN: So, that's John McCain, but what about the rest of the Republican Party? What do you make of what could be read as a GOP strategy of resisting the president on many of his major policy moves?

WILLIAMS: The Republicans seemed to have energized their base. Their numbers are strong and getting stronger at the moment because of their clear opposition to what they have portrayed as big-tax, pork-barrel excess spending in the stimulus plan. At the same time, if you're thinking about the independents, which are now larger as a group than the Republicans or the Democrats, President Obama is doing fine. In fact, in a CNN poll that's out today, 68 percent of the people who watched the speech on Tuesday night, which was all about the stimulus package, Alex, said they had a very positive reaction, and 24 percent said a somewhat positive reaction. So, you know, overwhelming numbers, 85 percent, said the speech made them more optimistic about the country's direction.

COHEN: After that speech on Tuesday night, per tradition, the Republicans gave a response. This time it came from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Let's listen to a bit of that.

(Soundbite of Republican response)

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Well, a few weeks ago, the president warns that our country is facing a crisis that he said, in quotes, "we may not be able to reverse." You know, our troubles are real, to be sure, but don't let anyone tell you that we cannot recover; don't let anyone tell you that America's best days are behind her.

COHEN: Juan, here's how the Boston Globe put it: "insane, childish disaster," and those were some of the kinder comments from political pundits about Jindal's response. And in your opinion, where did he go wrong?

WILLIAMS: Even on the right, you know, people who would be sort of a natural base of support for the Louisiana governor thought he didn't do a very good job, Alex, and I think the problem is, as you say, where'd he go wrong, well, there was no plan expressed there, you know, no real point. He spoke about principles, but they were old Republican principles of small government, low taxes, opposition to deficit spending, but that comes after President Bush drove up the deficit. So, you have to offer something new, new ideas, and Bobby Jindal just didn't do that. And he did it while looking uncomfortable, robotic, and I just don't think it sold with people. And as to the optimism, President Obama had shifted his tone in the speech to the Congress and tried to be more optimistic. He said we will recover; the nation will recover; the nation is ready to lead. And so, I think Bobby Jindal was just out of step.

COHEN: Finally, Juan, your best political conversation this week?

WILLIAMS: Interesting one, Alex, you know, from people at the White House talking about Roland Burris, the new Senator from Illinois. As you know, this week, Dick Durban, the senior senator said, maybe you should go, and the White House has been sending signals, but in conversations with people at the White House, it goes even beyond that. Clearly, they don't want anything to do with Roland Burris. They won't be offering any favors, any indication of support, from the man who was his predecessor, Barack Obama.

COHEN: NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Alex.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: More coming up on Day to Day from NPR News.

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