Will The White House Now Service Your Car?

The guys in this week's Barbershop discuss the future of automotive titan General Motors, President Obama's overseas trip to Europe and the NCAA Final Four. Ruben Navarrette, Arsalan Iftikhar, Lester Spence and Nick Charles comb through the latest headlines.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are civil-rights attorney and editor, Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist, Ruben Navarrette, freelance editor and writer, Nick Charles, and political science professor Lester Spence. Our regular, Jimi Izrael, is evidently getting his shape-up elsewhere this week, but we'll try to muddle through. Welcome everybody.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil-rights Attorney, Editor): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): Hi, Michel.

Mr. NICK CHARLES (Freelance Editor, Writer): Hey.

Dr. LESTER SPENCE (Political Science Professor): Good morning.

MARTIN: So President Obama is in Europe this week for the G-20 summit, and he has other stops. He's in France today, going to the Czech Republic, then to Turkey. Ruben, how's he doing?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: So far, I think he's doing great. I think it's a bit of a mixed bag. I mean, on the one hand, Obama as an individual is doing what we would expect him to do. I think he is performing well, he is representing us well, he is hitting on the right themes, talking about an economic crisis that knows no borders, as he says, and the responsibility to lead. So bravo for all that.

On the other hand, you see from the enormous protests in London leading up to the G-20 that there's a lot of folks out there who have no love for the United States at the moment.

It's not personal. It's not about Obama. It's about the United States as a country and as a nation, as people. They find us responsible, they hold us responsible, for the economic crisis, along with our British counterparts on the other end of the pond. So it's sort of a mixed bag.

I mean, Obama should not look at the protests and take it personally. I don't think he does, but clearly, you know, some of the protestors weren't beyond sort of poking at him a little bit, holding up signs saying, fix this, yes we can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: So you know, when you're the president of the United States, you inherit a lot of other stuff that comes with it. It would be a mistake for Americans to think that we are universally loved at this moment.

MARTIN: So we should take it personally, if he doesn't. Lester Spence…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. It wasn't about him. It was about us.

MARTIN: It's about us. Dr. Spence, how is he doing?

Dr. SPENCE: I think he's got a really big challenge ahead of him and it's clear that a number of people across the world want him to make a much stronger shift to the left than he's making.

And I think Ruben is absolutely right, but it's important to understand. It's not just that they blame him, blame the United States for the economic crisis. I mean, they blame the United States for the war in Iraq and a number of other things that Bush engaged in.

So in one way, you could see, like, Obama trying to clean up for Bush's mistakes, but people want him to do a lot more than what he's doing.

MARTIN: Arsalan, Turkey is the last stop on this trip. How important is that, and overall, what's your assessment of how the president's performing on this trip and also what the other guys had to say, which is that he still has to address the disaffection with the United States that seems to have been a carryover from everything we talk about all the time around here?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well to your first point, I think that the speech in Turkey could potentially play a pretty significant role in the beginning parts of his administration. He's always spoken about wanting to speak, make a major world address from a Muslim capital, and some people are speculating this his trip to Turkey might be in that vein.

I think that, you know, going back to the G-20 summit in London and the protestors, you know, any time you have any sort of G summit, whether it's a G-8, a G-20, there's always going to be protestors.

I mean, they're protesting against, you know, the quote-unquote, "the man." And so you know, whoever happens to fill the shoes of being in, you know, positions of power, you know, are going to be at the receiving end of, you know, the protestors', you know, disenfranchisement.

And I think that, you know, I think domestically, President Obama, you know, is dealing with the economy as best he can, and I think he's doing a much better job in the foreign policy realm.

MARTIN: Nick, what do you - you know, it's funny. Isn't it a little bit dissonant on the one hand that you've got a president who's personally very popular in the United States and overseas? I mean, remember he had those huge crowds in Europe when he visited as a candidate. And then you have these protestors, who are still very angry at the United States, and you have a lot of resistance from European leaders to the proposals that the United States is making.

So Nick, I'm curious if you think these - are these meetings really worth the time and the expense?

Mr. CHARLES: Definitely worth the time and expense. You can't divorce yourself from what's going on in the world. You can't not be the leader of the free world if you are the president of the United States.

He's wildly popular here. He's wildly popular overseas. Some of the policies may not be popular. Some of the carryover from other policies that he now has to do the clean-up with is not going to be popular, but you know, Ruben - not Ruben, Arsalan is right. He had the G-7, the G-8, the G-whatever it is, somebody is going to protest. These protests have been going on for years, even before President Bush, there were protests any time these guys got together.

So it's gotten deeper and more profound as the world economic future has become more foggy and people have been going - launching into depression and wide-scale job loss, etc. I think Europeans are the most skeptical of the policies that he is using to get out, because they have a little more of a social safety net for their constituents, their workers, and so the idea of pumping money into everything at one time to lift everything doesn't sit well with them.

But he himself is doing all he can, and I think he's hitting the right notes, you know, this is really good to see a president who people respect, who people will listen to. They may not always agree, but I think he is getting a fair hearing and that's something that we need to see.

MARTIN: And Ruben…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Michel, can I get in on this?

MARTIN: Yeah, Ruben, I was going to ask you, because also you've been kind of critical. You've given him mixed grades on his economic policy and I also want the talk about the whole auto bailout issue, which is how we started. But go ahead, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, I know I gave him mixed grades on a lot of fronts, and I'm not alone. I think on, you know, the economic issue, the immigration issue, trade issue, I mean, there's lots of mixed signals for Obama and mixed grades there if you're being honest, I think. But beyond that, listen, I think the answer to your question, I think the G-20 summit was a waste of time.

Dr. SPENCE: Oh, wow.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Not that we shouldn't - here's why. Because it was - this is so simple. The point I'm about to make is so elementary. It was one day. It was one day, okay? And the point is, yes, we should be engaged. Yes, the idea of having the nations together like that is wonderful, but the idea they would come together for a photo op in one day, and if you read the stories leading up to it, there were some really heavy issues to be dealt with, not the least of it was whether or not we should revisit this notion of the dominance of Anglo-American capitalism, how is that for a big concept, right?

Started between Roosevelt and Churchill and sort of Churchill's idea of the English speaking people, capitalism and all this, and whether the folks, you know, in other parts of the world were going to have a say. And they come together and they take their pictures and everybody poses and stuff for the class picture, and at the end of the day I'd like to see a G-20 meeting that lasts a week, okay? A week, because there's so much going on that I really felt, well, let down, and I think that Nicolas Sarkozy and others - that whole dynamic about him saying likewise. He threatened to walk out if we didn't have a discussion about revisiting Anglo-American capitalism.

MARTIN: Well, but they…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I felt like it was built up and I was waiting for something big and I never got it.

MARTIN: But something big happened. They pumped a huge amount of money into the IMF, number one. Go ahead, Nick.

Mr. CHARLES: No, you know, I kind of said how Ruben would say that. The photo-op is the photo-op. Everything that behind the scenes is the real hard work, and the thing is, you have to show up for the photo-op to get the other stuff done. You can't say, oh I'm not going to show up because this is a waste of time on this one day. You show up for the one day, you smile, you shake hands, you slap backs, you know, you kiss Angela Merkel on the cheek…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Right.

Mr. CHARLES: …and you move on to the back of the room where you do the hard labor. All the people that Obama brings, all the people Sarkozy brings and all the people that Merkel brings and all the people that Brown brings, people who do the hard labor behind the scenes, get to work.

MARTIN: Well, actually it's - can I just revisit that, Nick, it's actually the work that's done - what, what I have been told is that it's the deadline that makes that staff work happen before they get there, because what it does is focus them on - it's like the - it's like the final exam. And it makes everybody study in a way that they might not otherwise. That's the argument.

Mr. CHARLES: So what Ruben is saying is okay, so they are doing all these exams. They have a A-minus grade on the final exam. Let's skip it because I have an A-minus, so you don't show up.

MARTIN: Well it's also a (unintelligible) piece for…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: One day doesn't cut it. I mean, my point was simple, that one day doesn't cut it. That there's this notion that somehow - there's an incredible build up, lots of heavy issues to be talked about. We're in the middle of an economic crisis and the fact you have all the leaders together in one place, this is an incredible opportunity to do something, so…

MARTIN: They can't - go ahead, Lester.

Dr. SPENCE: This is Lester. I understand your point, but that doesn't mean it was a waste of time. It just means it should have been longer.

MARTIN: Well, let me just jump in, let me just jump in just to say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Ruben Navarrette, Arsalan Iftikhar, Nick Charles, and Lester Spence. But talking about all the economic news, because it's hard even to keep up. Of course the unemployment figures - new unemployment figures were released today. Unemployment jumped to 8.5 percent, the highest since 1983.

That's not unexpected, and then, of course, remember the week started with the president giving some, you know, hard news to the auto industry and essentially saying that their plans were not sufficient. I just want to play a short clip of a speech that the president gave at the White House about the future of General Motors. Here's what he said.

President BARACK OBAMA: The pain being felt in places that rely on our auto industry is not the fault of our workers. They labor tirelessly and desperately want to see their companies succeed. It's not the fault of all the families and communities that supported manufacturing plants throughout the generations - rather, it's a failure of leadership from Washington to Detroit, that led our auto companies to this point.

MARTIN: Lester, you've got the Detroit roots and I wanted to ask how you're reacting to this, because on the one hand there are some progressives who say, well, wait a minute, how come Rick Wagoner is getting forced out of his job, but none of these bank industry executives have been. Although you could argue that there were, if you consider that Lehman Brothers disappeared, so all those people lost their jobs. On the other hand people say, look it's like if you were a head coach and you lost every game, you'd be out of a job too. So Lester, what do you think?

Dr. SPENCE: I'm really torn for a number of different reasons. I'm a Ford kid, you know, everything I have comes basically from the auto industry, you know, me going to school, me and my family etc., etc. But - so I'm torn. On the one hand it's really - I really appreciate him giving the same type of approach to corporate leaders that people have been giving for years to like poor people on welfare, using the exact same type of language, you know, the exact same type of really punitive approach, that's - that's - it's really refreshing on one hand.

But then on the other, there is this contradiction between the way he treats GM and Ford and the like, and the way he treats the bankers, so although the language he uses basically excuses - says it's not the workers - when people understand this issue, the first thing they point to is labor issues, right? So it's really - so even though he doesn't blame them explicitly, it seems as if he's treating GM and Ford on one way…

MARTIN: I'm sorry, GM and Chrysler. GM and Chrysler - Ford is not taking the -taking the bailout money.

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah, no. They're not taking the money. Yes, I apologize, thank you.

MARTIN: Sure.

Dr. SPENCE: On the one - he's blaming - people think of him as blaming labor, because that's the way they think of it. They're like well, you know, the GM and Chrysler - their stuff is because they pay workers too much and they don't work hard, right? And - it's like he's leaving the bankers out in part because they use higher order math to kind of mask what they do.

MARTIN: Arsalan, what do you want to say about that?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I think this whole thing is an interesting parable, you know, to compare between Wall Street and Main Street. You know, I think that we find that Washington has been a lot friendlier to Wall Street than they have been to Main Street in the sense that, you know, we gave 700 billion in bailouts to financial institutions and we're talking $16 billion in bailouts for car companies, which is, you know, 43 times as much.

But it seems like the administration is coming down a lot harder on Main Street and, you know, it serves the question that, you know, is it because the banking industry, the financial institutions have, you know, too much of a, you know, vested interest or, you know, undue influence in Washington beltway politics.

MARTIN: Ruben, what do you think?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well first of all, listen, let me just address the question of sort of what happened with Wagoner and GM and then get into the notion of why I think Obama said something incredibly dishonest in the clip you just played. But before I get to that, with Wagoner, I heard all week long from folks in the boardrooms and the corporations and the folks with the ties and the suits saying this is a terrible precedent. The government can come in, take over a company and start firing the - all the top level, God forbid.

It doesn't work that way. In order to fall into the Rick Wagoner category, your company has to have failed, one, two, you didn't make the corrections necessary to prevent the failure or to prevent, you know, just to correct it, to make it better, and then lastly and most importantly, you have to take bailout money, and he took - his company took, it was mentioned, 13.4 billion in bailout money. By that standard, Ken Lewis, the CEO of Bank of America, should likewise be on the street.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Because he did all those same things - failed, didn't correct, took the money.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: So I'm with you on that. I want to see that happen. I want to see some accountability from the bankers. But where I think Obama went to the old Democratic playbook, the mantra of sucking up to the labor unions is where he made this ridiculous statement, quote, "it's not the fault of the workers who want their companies to succeed." No, the workers want, and unions in particular want their workers to be well cared for and taken care of, and I do not, with all respect to our resident Ford kid, I do not think that the criticism is that people are not working hard enough.

I think the criticism is that people are working now in these jobs and have been, expecting to have the same standard of living that their fathers and grandfathers had 50 or 70 years ago with the same level of skills and using the power of the unions to get $50 or $60 an hour jobs with benefits and double pensions, and then wondering why it is that they can't be competitive with Japan or someplace else. And then to top it off, when we tell them, hey, it would be really cool if you made smaller cars and this and this and this, and hybrids and whatever, they blew it off, and they said no, we don't want to do that? So you…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Ruben, you can't blame…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No, no, no, that is…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You can't blame labor unions for the downfall of corporations. The corporations…

Unidentified Man: That's just not right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: This is mismanagement at its best.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Arsalan, you say that, you don't understand how teachers unions, labor unions work in this country. They are not there for the success of the institution. They are there to get as much as they can for their members and give nothing back in negotiation.

MARTIN: This is an important topic. We should talk about it again. We should talk about it again. No… (unintelligible)

MARTIN: No, Ruben, I'm going to stop right there. Because we want to spend just a couple of minutes on the Final Four. Sorry about that. I know it's an important topic, but we have to - it's March Madness.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely, March Madness.

MARTIN: We just would not feel good about ourselves if we did not…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: …we did not get your take on the matches, so. Who's going to start? Arsalan?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, they should rename the month of March NCAA, but we have the Final Four.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: We have Michigan on one side, we have Michigan State and Yukon. Michigan State, I love them, because they beat Louisville, because my wife is from Louisville, but I'm picking Yukon over Villanova in the National Championship game.

MARTIN: Okay, Nick?

Mr. CHARLES: You know, it's prophetic and I think appropriate that the Final Four is in Detroit in a state that's going down the toilet fast and all attention is focused on basketball. But that said…

MARTIN: I don't understand. What do you mean? You're saying it's a good thing just to bring some, some light or fun or what, I don't get it.

Mr. CHARLES: I think it's a good thing in one area because it brings some economic stuff to the state in terms of people coming in, people who are going to come watch the game, spend money etc., but I think it also kind of diminishes, like the fact that there's a lot of issues going back to the last topic with what's going on in Detroit and Michigan.

MARTIN: Point taken, what are your match ups?

Mr. CHARLES: My match ups are, well, you know, my thing is (unintelligible) Tar Heels, so, Carolina beats either Yukon or Michigan State. I think if Villanova gets past Carolina, which I can't see unless Ty Lawson breaks all other nine toes, I think that they can beat the other person in the other bracket, because if meet Yukon, they have played them in conference so many times in the Big East.

MARTIN: All right, super fast, Ruben, real fast.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Michigan State, Michigan State, because I'm going to back up what Nick said, Michigan's got the highest unemployment rate in the country, home town game in Detroit, rooting for the home team.

MARTIN: All right. Lester Spence?

Dr. SPENCE: I'm a University of Michigan Wolverine, but for the first time, I am going for the Spartans. Michigan State… (unintelligible)

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) All right. We'll see. All right, well, we'll see. You know I'm out. I root for Pitt, so I'm done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lester Spence is a political science professor at John Hopkins University. He joined us from Chicago Public Radio. Nick Charles is a freelance editor and writer. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Syndicated columnist Ruben (unintelligible) from San Diego, and Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a civil rights attorney. He joined us in our D.C. studio. Gentlemen, thank you all so much.

Dr. SPENCE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday.

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