Obama Scores Victory Amid Slipping Poll Numbers

Congress approved a financial reform package today, handing President Obama a clear victory. But despite the good news for the White House, a new poll says only half of Americans approve of how the president is handling of the Gulf oil spill. Melinda Henneberger, Editor in Chief of PoliticsDaily.com, says Mr. Obama may have redeemed some of his approval with the swift dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, after his disparaging remarks were published in Rolling Stone magazine. And Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya News, discusses perceptions of the president overseas, particularly in the Middle East.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE. Michel Martin is away.

President Barack Obama heard good news from Capitol Hill at 5:30 this morning: approval of a financial reform package. We're talking about his week in our political chat, and the guys in the barbershop weigh in on his handling of the McChrystal affair later on. We also focus a bit on the anniversary of Michael Jackson's death.

First, though, here's what the president had to say on his way to the G8 and G20 summits in Toronto.

President BARACK OBAMA: We are poised to pass the toughest financial reform since the ones we created in the aftermath of The Great Depression. Early this morning, the House and Senate reached an agreement on a set of Wall Street reforms that represents 90 percent of what I proposed when I took up this fight.

TONY COX: That apparent victory in Hanston, up and down week for the president, who accepted the resignation of his top general in Afghanistan, nominated a replacement. And as oil continued to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, he saw a judge impose an injunction on the administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling. A Democratic pollster summed up polling numbers for Mr. Obama saying, quote, "They aren't good, but they are far from awful."

Joining us for the TELL ME MORE political chat are Melinda Henneberger, editor in chief of PoliticsDaily.com and the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel, Hisham Melhem. Both are with me here in studio. Nice to have you.

Mr. HISHAM MELHEM (Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Arabiya News Channel): Thank you.

Ms. MELINDA HENNEBERGER (Editor in Chief, PoliticsDaily.com): Thanks for having me.

COX: We have a little bit to talk about today, don't we?

Ms. HENNEBERGER: A few things.

COX: Let's begin with this, Melinda. What does the news today from Capitol Hill mean to you for the president in the midst of handling the oil spill, the Afghanistan leadership questions at all?

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Well, this was an alloyed(ph) good news for the president and for Democrats, especially since Republicans so unanimously opposed financial reform, and especially the new consumer protections for big banks. Big banks are not the most popular with the public and I think that you really can't overestimate how good this will be and what welcome news it was for the president.

COX: Hisham, to follow that point up, you keep track of both domestic and international issues in Washington. How much does the president need a victory like this in the terms of the big picture?

Mr. MELHEM: It's a badly needed victory. The timing couldn't be even better for the president coming after the McChrystal fiasco, McChrystal scandal, name it whatever you want.

So I think he may not have gotten 100 percent, as he said, but this is much, much better than many people expected. And I think he's he will try to build on it. And I think when we're talking about regulations, although now we're talking about financial regulations, I think also that that would a reminder for people who are interested in the oil spill and the ramification of that, you know, a tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico that you need certain regulations.

I mean, you cannot have, you know, laissez-faire run amok. And I think that should be also a reminder to people that government has a role. Government is not the enemy, is not the problem. Sometimes the government can contribute to a solution.

COX: Well, it certainly comes as good news for the president, as both of you have indicated. But it's not news that is in any way going to overshadow the news of earlier in the week. And I'm talking, of course, about the McChrystal dilemma, which the president faced down by getting his resignation, then nominating David Petraeus to replace him in Afghanistan.

Coming back to you, Hisham, if I may, what do you know about the reaction to all of this in the Arab world and particularly in Afghanistan, the reaction to the McChrystal debacle?

Mr. MELHEM: Many people are saying that this deflects not only you change personnel, but it deflects the dilemma of the American strategy in Afghanistan. And we've seen, of course, echoes of that in the American commentary on the resignation or the removal of Stanley McChrystal.

Obviously people felt in the commentary, and this is what we said on our network, that appointing Petraeus, who is extremely well known to people in the Arab world particularly, but also in the Afghan/Pakistan theater, that this was the best move by the president to nip this crisis in the butt. And he did that.

And I think he contained now the spillover from the McChrystal resignation, but he's not going to be able to ignore all of these tough questions that are being asked by Afghans, by Pakistanis, by Americans that there are some problems inherent built in that strategy that he announced. And he may deny that there were policy differences between him and McChrystal, when in fact there were, especially related to the timetable that he announced last year. And there are people who would say that counterinsurgency requires a great deal of time.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin who is away. This is our weekly political chat. And we are joined by Melinda Henneberger, who is editor in chief of PoliticsDaily.com, and Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel.

Let's follow up on the point that Hisham was just making about what is occurring in Afghanistan and the reaction to it and whether or not the president came out smelling like a rose, so to speak, at the end of this. Because Nancy Pelosi said and suggested this week that the issue of the withdrawal and the timetable and the change of McChrystal to Petraeus it kind of opens the door for that discussion all over again, doesn't it?

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Well, there certainly were mixed signals and a lot of different interpretations of Obama saying that we might not be moving out as quickly as people thought out of Afghanistan.

But, to go back, I don't agree with the words you've called it a fiasco and you had debacled this McChrystal business this week. I think the president turned what, I sure expected to become a fiasco, into a plus, at least from the perspective of domestic reaction. Because if there was anybody conservatives loved more than McChrystal, it was surely Petraeus.

You know, he is just a hero and the reaction has been uniformly positive even from some of the president's harshest critics domestically. I've heard, you know, he handled this the only way he could have.

COX: But you're not suggesting that this was a good thing to have happen, are you?

Ms. HENNEBERGER: No, definitely not. But I think his handling of it couldn't have been better. I think that and - he really finessed in choosing the one guy who would inoculate him from what I thought would be the sure criticism, that he had undermined the strategy in Afghanistan.

You can't say he's undermining the strategy when the person who's going to be implementing it is the same man who created the strategy. He literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency for the military.

COX: Well, certainly he did. And maybe we should have called it, Hisham, a salvage a good salvage operation.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: A good save.

Mr. MELHEM: It was a brilliant salvage operation, obviously. But, again, the real questions are still related to the core of the strategy, whether the strategies will succeed or not.

COX: Absolutely.

Mr. MELHEM: And even Petraeus himself, when he talked about counterinsurgency, he was talking over a long period of time. We're talking about years of real hard military work that should be accompanied by state building. Nation building requires a great deal of economic support, financial support, educational support and all that. This will require more than the short window that the president has defined last year. That's the problem. That's still the problem of the administration.

And the infighting will continue because you still have personnel who are involved at the highest levels, civilian and military, who do not really get together. They are not reading from the same music note. That's the problem.

COX: Now...

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Even last year, though, I'm sorry to interrupt. He did leave the window open to saying, well, we might we're going to be starting to pull out in July, but we don't know how long it's going to take.

Mr. MELHEM: Because the military didn't like him.

COX: Right. And it's that very fudging that got him into so much trouble.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Yeah.

COX: But the one thing that this do for him, and I'd like to talk about this as we bring our political chat to our last topic, is it got people to stop talking for a moment just a moment about the oil spill. And we had a judge then who has gone against the administration in terms of wanting to end wanting to continue the moratorium.

My question, this also comes, Melinda, as poll numbers, recent ones, show that only 50 percent of people approve of the way the administration is handling the Gulf spill. So now that this Afghanistan thing is going to move off the front pages very quickly and the oil spill is going to return, what does the president do next?

Ms. HENNEBERGER: You know, I would put the words fiasco and debacle on his handling of the perception of his handling of the spill. I mean, to me he has just looked like BP's B word the whole way through in being so credulous of their assurances that it was under control, it was under control. Oops, it wasn't under control.

And, yes, 6 out of 10 Americans think he has no clear plan for handling this bill, and yet 6 out of 10 Americans also think he's pretty good in a crisis. So it's difficult to always know what to take out of these poll numbers. But I think he has a lot of damage control to do on that front, obviously.

COX: Hisham, you were one of the you were the first to interview the president on television. And looking back over his authoritativeness, or lack of it, do you think that the president suffers and to what degree from not always appearing to be definitive or authoritative?

Mr. MELHEM: I think he got a bum rap on the issue of handling the oil spill. This president is a very cool, calculating, rational maybe he's too rational, maybe he's too professorial for many people. And sometimes people confuse leadership with being tough and hitting the, you know, the podium and shouting and showing anger and passion. He is a passionless president. Maybe he's too cool for that. And sometimes, myself, I felt that he should show more passion.

But in the end, if he pounded the podium and shouted and raised hell about how BP mishandled the oil spill, that is not going to solve the problem. I don't care who was at the White House today, whether a Democrat or Republican or short of a miracle worker who would solve this problem. There's a fundamental problem here. The state has to rely on the data provided by big business, big oil. And that's why we need some regulations.

And for people to sit down and say, well, he has no plan. Nobody has a plan. That's the problem and this is systemic. It's not the White House. It's not the Interior Department. It is beyond that. And I think this is a huge challenge that people, you know, whether regardless of, you know, their loyalty, a Democrat or Republican or Independent, this is a huge problem that requires getting all the best minds in the country, scientific and otherwise to deal with this issue, but just blame it on the White House.

Yeah, he should have gone there, you know, earlier or all that, but I think on the whole, he got a he's getting, you know, this is a bum rap.

COX: Unfortunately, our time is up. And I suspect if I can throw this one last thought in that people were suspecting that he would be like candidate Obama, very passionate. And President Obama doesn't always resemble candidate Obama.

That's the end of our political chat. Our guests have been Melinda Henneberger, editor in chief of PoliticsDaily.com and Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel. Thank you both very much. Good conversation.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Thanks.

Mr. MELHEM: Thank you.

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