One More Week Until White House Transition

Next week the United States will have a new president. President-elect Barack Obama has been giving hints to what he'd like to accomplish. At the same time, President Bush has been reflecting on his legacy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

This presidential transition may be a reminder that not everything changes just because the White House is changing occupants, even changing parties. President-elect Obama takes office in just over a week. President Bush is on his way out. Yet there are times when the two men sound quite similar. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts joins us, as she does every Monday. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start this discussion with some sound from President-elect Obama. He spoke yesterday to ABC's "This Week" about homeland security.

(Soundbite of "This Week" interview.)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: When I've set up the hierarchy of things that I've got to do, my number one priority every single day that I wake up is, how do I make sure that the American people are safe?

INSKEEP: OK. So that's Barack Obama speaking. Although you could imagine President Bush saying that.

ROBERTS: And has been saying that pretty much every day since September 11, 2001. I was really struck listening to these interviews back-to-back. Bush on Fox and Obama on ABC, of how similar they did sound. And that question of safety, of course, is the number-one priority for an American president.

But I don't think that President-elect Obama really had as strong a sense of that until he started getting these briefings every day that he's now getting from the intelligence community. And he and President Bush also sounded very similar talking about the intelligence professionals, and how high quality they are.

And that came up again with Obama when he was asked about prosecuting anyone for past actions that might be considered torture. And he said firmly that while he wanted to be clear that he considered waterboarding to be torture, and there would be no torture in his administration, that he was very careful on the question of prosecution. He said he wanted to look forward rather than backward, and he didn't want to do anything that would have intelligence professionals, whom he described as extraordinarily talented people, he didn't want to have those intelligence professionals looking over their shoulders. That also sounded very similar to President Bush.

INSKEEP: Although wait a minute, let me ask about something where the two men have sounded very different. At least they sounded different when Barack Obama was seeking votes. President Bush opened a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. President-elect Obama, when he was campaigning, said he would close it.

ROBERTS: Well, and he's - continues to say he will close it. But he said, don't expect that to happen in his first hundred days, because quote, "It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize." He said, look, the problem here is is that you've got a lot of bad guys whose prosecutions might be tainted. The evidence against them might have been gotten in ways that are not right quite legal. But you still don't want to let them loose, because they are - there are dangerous people. So he's clearly having some difficulty figuring it out.

INSKEEP: Is he figuring out his economic stimulus plan?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Well, of course that has been, first and foremost, on his mind in terms of what he has to get done in these first hundred days. And right now, you've got Congress jockeying about it, because this is the moment of maximum leverage, when the package is getting put together.

And Republicans, of course, are pushing for tax cuts, but they - many of them are tax cuts that Obama promised during his campaign, which he has reiterated. Democrats are pushing for more government spending.

And then there's that question, Steve, of earmarks, you know. What is an earmark? There's going to be no earmarks in this bill, but there are going to be programs in this bill. So that gets to be a question of definition, particularly as you're putting a bill together.

And meanwhile, the Obama team is helping the Bush team lobby for the release of the second $350 billion of the bailout package passed last fall. The package called TARP, which is highly unpopular with the American people, but they both say it's got to get done.

INSKEEP: Any chance that Congress won't come up with the money?

ROBERTS: No. I think that in the end, the economy is in such dire straits, and President-elect Obama reiterated that again yesterday, that the Congress will have to act, and they will. But they are going to do their best to get whatever they can before that.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts, who joins us every Monday morning. Always a pleasure to hear from you, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

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