McCain Seeks New Role In Senate

It's never easy to return to a job after missing out on a big promotion. Sen. John McCain of Arizona is trying to carve out a new role as the loyal opposition.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As we just heard, President Obama is in California today where he held a campaign-style town meeting. This weekend, many of his campaign volunteers from last year will be knocking on doors to promote the Obama agenda. It feels a bit like campaign 2008, except one difference: Mr. Obama's election rival, Senator John McCain, has moved on.

But as NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, moving on is complicated.

MARA LIASSON: First, there was the stunning turnaround on a proposal candidate Obama had pummeled his rival for during the campaign. Mr. Obama's ads called John McCain's plan to tax employer-provided health benefits the biggest middle class tax hike in history.

(Soundbite of Obama campaign ad)

Unidentified Man: John McCain talks about a $5,000 tax credit for healthcare. But here's what he's not telling you. McCain would make you pay income tax on your health insurance benefits, taxing health benefits for the first time ever.

LIASSON: But that was then. Now, the president's budget director Peter Orzag has testified to Congress that taxing employee health benefits is, quote, "on the table."

Then there was this statement from Christina Romer, the president's top economist, on "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Mr. DAVID GREGORY (Host, Meet the Press): Are the fundamentals of this economy sound?

Ms. CHRISTINA ROMER (Chief Economist, White House): Well, of course, the fundamentals are sound in the sense that the American workers are sound, we have a good capital stock, we have good technology. We know that temporarily we're in a mess, right?

LIASSON: When John McCain said the fundamentals of the economy were sound last fall, the Obama campaign never let him forget it.

President BARACK OBAMA: Senator McCain and I have some fundamental disagreements on the economy, starting with Senator McCain's statement earlier that he thought the fundamentals of the economy were sound.

LIASSON: We called Senator McCain this week to find out what he thought of these reversals.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Not only did Christine Romer say it but so did the president and the vice president, and they're all saying the same thing, basically. And so I'm glad they agree.

LIASSON: Does McCain feel vindicated? He didn't want to go there.

Sen. MCCAIN: Well, it's interesting and obviously I want to look forward rather than look back.

LIASSON: Every losing presidential candidate has a different way of dealing with defeat. Sometimes they gear up to run again. But at 72, McCain's presidential aspirations are over and he's concentrating on life in the Senate and being part of the debate in Washington. He says he has a good relationship with the president and the vice president and speaks to both of them regularly.

Sen. MCCAIN: I believe my role is the loyal opposition. That means working with the administration in every possible way. But when it comes down to something like the spending bill, which we all know had all these earmarks on it, then I have to do what I think is best for the country.

LIASSON: McCain did blister the president for signing the omnibus spending bill, accusing him of reneging on a campaign promise to reform earmarks. But he's also backed administration plans to drawdown troops in Iraq and to revamp military contracting. And McCain says he stands ready to work with the president on Social Security, healthcare, and climate change, reclaiming his reputation for being unpredictable in his approach to issues.

He says it's all part of readjusting to life after running for president.

Sen. MCCAIN: I think what the lesson is this: get busy, get back in the arena, move forward, don't look back. Self-pity is one of the most fun things I've ever engaged in but you shouldn't do it for more than about 24 hours.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. MCCAIN: And get back into the issues. I'm still representing the people of the state of Arizona, I hope with dedication and not wasting their time and mine by lamenting a loss or circumstances that you can't do anything about. But the important thing intellectually is to get busy and get into these issues and move forward.

LIASSON: One issue looming large for McCain is Afghanistan.

Sen. MCCAIN: I'm worried about Afghanistan right now. There is a great debate going on within the administration that I've been told, made very well aware of, and that is the minimalist approach: do what you can, and kind of get out as quick as you can. It was kind of the same strategy that we pursued in Iraq until, I think, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker came along.

So there's that debate going on right now, you know. We can't really succeed there so let's do what we can and get out. So I'm very concerned about what the strategy towards Afghanistan - and it's going to be very tough sledding in Afghanistan in the next year or so.

LIASSON: McCain says he hasn't had a chance yet to speak directly with the president about Afghanistan. But he stands ready to offer his advice and support, if possible, and, as he said himself, his loyal opposition if necessary.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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