Week In News: Troop Drawdown, Midterms

President Obama will speak to the nation Tuesday about the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq. Host Audie Cornish speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about how the president is trying to tout his record for midterm elections in the fall — and how the Republicans are responding.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

President BARACK OBAMA: In the months ahead, our troops will continue to support and train Iraqi forces, partner with Iraqis in counterterrorism missions, and protect our civilians in military efforts. But the bottom line is this: the war is ending.

CORNISH: President Barack Obama from his weekly address, foreshadowing the message of his primetime speech Tuesday on ending the war in Iraq. With me to discuss this and the week's other biggest news stories is James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic.

Jim, welcome.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Hello, Audie. Nice to talk to you.

CORNISH: So, let's start with President Obama, because he is essentially kicking off the midterm election push by listing the drawdown from Iraq as an accomplishment.

Mr. FALLOWS: He is. And as I heard the speech today and look forward to the one next week from the Oval Office, I thought about an interview I had four or five years ago with Bill Clinton after he was out of office, and he was saying that when it came to any national election, a midterm like the one we're having now or a presidential election, there really were three factors you have to combine.

You have to have the candidate. You need to have the issues, which at this stage in the midterms are pretty much set, the unemployment levels at certain state, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a certain state. But then he said you need to have a story. And what we're beginning now at this stage of the election cycle is the administration and the Democrats and the Republicans setting out their stories.

And so the story for the war in Iraq, which was of white-hot importance two and a half years ago in the primary elections and still very important two years ago in the presidential elections was the president will say, I told you two years ago I would wind up our commitment in Iraq and I am doing that. The problems aren't all over. There still are challenges ahead, but America's formal combat engagement there has come to an end. That's what I said. That's what I've done, so that's my story.

CORNISH: But two years ago, the economy ended up overshadowing things and it seems like the same thing is happening now. What spin can the White House really put on this?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, this obviously is a more challenging one for them, because their argument essentially is it would have been worse if we hadn't done X, Y and Z. The unemployment rate now, nearly 10 percent, might have been 11 percent or higher if we hadn't done these things. It's always...

CORNISH: Right, proving a negative thing.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes.

CORNISH: It would have been worse is never easy.

Mr. FALLOWS: Right. And so I think that we see in the micro level, they are doing things like this past week Joe Biden went to an auto plant, I think a General Motors plant. He said, look, the auto industry, which looked extinct a year ago, is coming back in the U.S. And probably we'll have, as the election draws near more, the comparative or negative tone saying we may be having troubles, but the Republicans would do X, Y and Z. And so you want that again.

CORNISH: So, Jim, we don't want to leave out the Republican Party because, obviously, it's also trying to position itself for fall. But what does this past week of primary elections, with the sort of dueling endorsements and troubles for some of their incumbents, tell us about where the party stands right now.

Mr. FALLOWS: I think when it comes to the national narrative, the story for the Republicans, of course, is we don't like the direction things are going. It looks like taxes will have to go up, unemployment has not improved, the deficit progressions look troublesome. So that's the negative case they can make.

CORNISH: But is everyone on board with what the story is? I mean, you look at the rally this morning, sponsored by Glenn Beck; speaker is Sarah Palin, not with any particular party, the party distancing itself from it. These are -they're voters, though, in a way. And I guess I'm not seeing the unified way forward there.

Mr. FALLOWS: There is a way in which it's easier for the Republicans in this midterm election with their large, sort of shaggy coalition, including Tea Party members, to do what the Democrats did in 2006, which is essentially to register discontent. And for reasons ranging from unemployment to cultural dislocation to what have you, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the direction of national politics it seems.

And so the opportunity for the Republicans is to channel that in the way the Democrats did four years ago in their midterm elections against the Bush-Cheney administration. And the offsetting challenge for the Democrats is to say, look, we are going someplace; the Republicans don't actually have an answer. But those are the two dynamics.

CORNISH: So, Jim, also this week, we saw former President Jimmy Carter help negotiate the freedom of an American prisoner from North Korea and help him get to the States this week.

Mr. FALLOWS: I should disclose here that I once worked for Jimmy Carter. I was a speechwriter when he was in the White House. And this is actually the second time that he's been there on a sort of intervening mission like this. Bill Clinton also has been within the last couple of years and Al Gore was there recently to get out two Americans who were prisoners there.

And part of the cycle that goes on here is the North Korean leadership sort of creating emergencies, which need to be solved. Of course, the Americans create the emergency by violating North Korean law. But then it's sort of North Korea - the main leverage it has in the world is to sort of draw attention to itself and get the U.S. and China and Japan to pay attention to it.

And there was the extra back flip here of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, not being present when President Carter was there. And so people are trying to suss out was this a calculated insult. One doesn't really know. The main thing about North Korea is that each time something like this happens, there's endless attempts to figure out what it means since no one can be sure.

CORNISH: James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic and our regular news analyst. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thanks so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you, Audie. My pleasure.

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Correction Sept. 4, 2010

This story incorrectly stated that Al Gore went to North Korea recently to get two American prisoners freed. Gore offered to go, but it was Bill Clinton who actually made the trip.

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