Change Coming To White House, Senate

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Barack Obama's transition to the presidency is under way. He has named a chief of staff and a press secretary. And Friday, he meets with his team of economic advisers and gives his first post-election media briefing.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

OK, we could not end this week without checking in with our political team, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and political editor Ken Reedin - Rudin.

KEN RUDIN: Who?

MONTAGNE: Good morning. Ken, that's you.

RUDIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Good morning. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Mara, President-elect Obama is putting his new administration together and as we've just heard, he has a new chief of staff. Tell us more about Rahm Emanuel.

LIASSON: Well, Rahm Emanuel is obviously a congressman from Illinois, also served in the Clinton White House. He is a famously sharp-elbowed operator, very intense. His personality is kind of the opposite of Obama's cool, calm and collected demeanor. He is known sometimes as a hothead. He can use the F-word as a comma, but also he is a fierce partisan but not an idealogue. When he served in the Clinton White House, he was a centrist. He pushed policies like welfare reform and free trade. I think this pick is revealing about Obama. It starts to answer a lot of questions about the president-elect.

MONTAGNE: And Obama meets with his economic team today. Given the state of the economy, we'd expect the Treasury secretary to be among his very first appointments. What's the short list this morning?

LIASSON: Well, you hear about Paul Volcker, about Federal Reserve member Tim Geitner. You hear about Larry Summers, who was the secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration. I think Obama will move quickly to fill this appointment. He wants to reassure the markets which are still very, very volatile and he wants to also show that he is working on the economy right away. I do think Treasury secretary is going to be one of the first appointments we get.

MONTAGNE: And Ken, we're three days past the election. We still don't know the winners of some Denate races. Where do we stand?

RUDIN: Well, Democrats got good news yesterday in Oregon. Jeff Merkley, the state House speaker, defeated Gordon Smith. That gives the Democrats a pickup of six seats in the Senate. There are still three states still to be determined. In Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman has about a fewer-than-500-vote lead with over three million votes cast against Democrat Al Franken; there'll probably be a recount and that may go into December. There's also Georgia; they're still counting absentee ballots in Georgia. Senator Saxby Chambliss is leading, but in Georgia law you need 50 percent plus one. Right now Chambliss has 49.8 percent so it's likely to go to a December second runoff. And then there's Alaska with Ted Stevens with seven felony convictions, felony count convictions - still leads his Democratic opponent. Many Republicans have urged Ted Stevens if he wins to step down. If he does win, if he does step down, resign, then there's a possibility that what's-her-name, that woman from Alaska - her name escapes me - Sarah Palin, right.

MONTAGNE: Palin, right.

RUDIN: Would think about possibly running, a special election. Would that be interesting - you bet ya.

MONTAGNE: You know, there's one thing people haven't talked much about, though, that Barack Obama and Joe Biden are also giving up Senate seats.

RUDIN: Right. And both states are run by Democratic governors, they are likely to be Democratic replacements. It's interesting, in Illinois with Governor Rod Blagojevich making the choice, Obama being the only African-American member of the Senate, there's pressure on Blagojevich to name a black successor perhaps Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.; perhaps Emil Jones, who is a longtime Obama mentor who is 73 years old, might be a caretaker appointment.

MONTAGNE: And Mara, we just heard from Brian Naylor a little about Joe Lieberman's future. What are you seeing there?

LIASSON: Well, first of all the Democrats have to decide if they're going to strip him of his committee chairmanships, which I think is likely, but also Joe Lieberman has a lot of decisions to make. You know, the Democrats don't need him to form a majority, of course. He could continue to be an Independent caucusing with the Democrats. He could be an Independent caucusing with the Republicans. Or he could change parties entirely, which is something that is always been speculated about if he wants to kind of spare himself a primary challenge in his home state of Connecticut. He might want to switch parties, but I think the most interesting thing is, where is he going to be on these crucial votes, especially votes to cut off filibusters?

I think Joe Lieberman is likely to continue doing exactly what he is doing, which is vote on a case-by-case basis he's going to make his decision. He certainly wasn't always with the Democrats and I can't imagine him being always with Republicans, but these are some very important decisions both for the Democratic caucus, but also for Lieberman himself.

MONTAGNE: You know, before we move on into the future let's look back momentarily on this Friday to an extraordinary election, and for both of you, what surprised you the most?

RUDIN: Well, I think the fact that many historic Republican areas went for Barack Obama. Of course, given the unpopularity of President Bush, the uncertainty about the economy, that was to be expected, but states like North Carolina, Indiana, even in Nebraska there - there's an electoral vote there that is still undecided; the fact that it could go to Barack Obama, it just shows the tremendous inroads Democrats made in historic Republican areas.

MONTAGNE: And Mara, there is of course the Bradley effect.

LIASSON: Well, yes, the Bradley effect which I think was extinct before this election, but there was a tremendous amount of discussion about it; of course that's the idea that white voters would tell pollsters that they're going to vote for a black candidate, but then when they got into the polling booth they wouldn't do it. I think we saw no Bradley effect. I do think that everybody was watching to see what role race would play in the outcome. How many white voters just simply wouldn't vote for Barack Obama, it turns out in the exit polls only eight percent of white voters said race was an important factor. Yes, they went overwhelmingly for John McCain, but that's a very, very small number of people and of course Obama was able to make up for them by expanding the electorate with huge African-American turnout.

MONTAGNE: And Ken I am going to turn to you for a last question. Because of course we can't let you go without asking about one of Obama's campaign promises - a puppy for his daughters.

RUDIN: Well that's true. Look, remember back in 1952 when Richard Nixon was running for vice president, he promised his daughters Trisha and Julie that they would have this little cocker spaniel, Checkers. And you know, Richard Nixon was always a man of his word, he would never go back on his word. So for Malia and Sasha, if Barack Obama is promising you a puppy, you will get a puppy.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you both for joining us.

LIASSON: Thank you, Renee.

RUDIN: And thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent. Ken Rudin is our political editor. Earlier this week he put himself on the line - you did, Ken. You made predictions in all of the races. And you listeners can see how he did at npr.org.

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