TONY COX, host:

Let's move on now to our Reporters' Roundtable. There's more bad news coming out of the economic sector. New numbers show that the economy continues to shrink to record levels as consumer spending and business investment ground almost to a halt. The stimulus package passes the House but with no GOP votes. Will the bill get bipartisan support when it goes to the Senate next week? And Illinois has a new governor, as the state senate ousts Rod Blagojevich on a unanimous vote. So, joining us for today's Reporters' Roundtable are Marc Caputo, a state policy and politics reporter for the Miami Herald; Callie Crossley, a commentator and a regular panelist for WGBH TV's media criticism program, "Beat the Press;" and we are adding our own News & Notes Newcomer, Jenee Darden, to the discussion as well. Hey, everybody.

Mr. MARC CAPUTO (State Policy and Politics Reporter, Miami Herald): Hello.

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Commentator, "Beat the Press"): Hello.

JENEE DARDEN: Hey.

COX: :Let's begin with this: The latest numbers show that the gross domestic product shrunk 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, the lowest it's been in nearly 30 years; unemployment rate still going up. Callie, you just heard Jenee's piece on workers learning a new language to sharpen their skill set. Are you seeing anything along those retraining trends in the Boston area?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Absolutely, but we're not seeing enough of it, Tony, and that's the point. We've lost manufacturing jobs. We've heard that with the bad statistics, and a lot of jobs have gone overseas, and some of those jobs have gone overseas because those folks are really trained in high-tech. We need retraining of American workers for the 21st century, and it's all about learning new skills. Whether they be tech skills, whether they be language skills, it's about upgrading your skills.

COX: I would think, Marc, that in Florida, particularly in south Florida, the language issue would be a big one.

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, yes, big - just as everyone started to learn Spanish, then came a huge influx of Haitian refugees and settlers, so to speak, and so, now we not only have Spanish as a majorly spoken language, but also Creole as well. And most studies show, and the statistics show, that as the economy declines, enrollment in schools of all sorts increases, and that is what we're seeing. But Florida's been kind of a canary in the coal mine, as far as the badness of the national economy. We're in particularly rough shape. California beat us out for total job loss over the entire year, but I still think we're about 255,000 jobs lost in a year's worth of time.

COX: Well, you know, just today, the president is dealing with some executive orders, issuing them, to help in the workplace, specifically dealing with organizing labor unions. Callie, I'm going to come back to you. These new orders, what do they mean, exactly, for union and non-union workers?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I think it means that, you know, there are some recognition that they have a role to play, and that each one of us in this economy has a role to play. I mean, what we have seen, if we didn't understand it before, is this domino effect and how we're all connected. So, if we look at labor as a central piece of that, then we understand that we've got to pay attention to what's important for those folks who are in those unions. And we're looking at the losses, at all these jobs, and frankly, it's scary just - even if you're a person with a job. You're looking at the - even if you're a person not in a union, you understand what that means.

COX: Well, you know, Jenee, you're a young person just coming into the job market. Two things, one is, do you concern yourself with whether there is unionization on a job that you might pursue? And secondly, in terms of the people that you saw at this class, I know it was about language, but was there any sense that these people are part of a union? Maybe the union was paying for them to take the class, something like that?

DARDEN: I definitely didn't get a sense of that. I'm not sure if anybody was part of a union, and definitely when you're looking at work and especially broadcast journalism, you do want to look at unions because they do provide those services and protection.

COX: Do you have a sense, Marc, at all, whether or not these orders signed by the new president will have a positive or negative effect in terms of trade unionism in the workplace?

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, I doubt there's going to be much help for unions in Florida because we're a Southern state, and as part of Roosevelt's compromise of the New Deal, we're a right-to-work state. So, we have very few unions here. The unions we do have don't have much in the way of teeth except for police and fire. So, as far as any sort of, you know, big labor movement helping, not much of it. We're kind of a service-based state. What little manufacturing we have here is almost completely gone.

COX: Well, particularly in manufacturing - auto manufacturing comes to mind, Callie - the issue of whether to have trade unionism has been one that's sort of split the workplace, to be quite honest about it. The sense, though, that one might get from listening to the new president is that he is in favor of supporting unions in the workplace.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I think what - I think if you ask your average person, what people don't like is what they perceive to be certain, kind of, unnecessary benefits that are crude to unions. I mean, they don't - a lot of folks don't go back to the history of how the unions came to be in terms of protecting workers' rights and making sure that they were not abused in the workplace. And so what they see sometimes is, you know, somebody can't work for five hours, and somebody gets paid, you know, double time for lifting up a switch. And people are like, hello, you know, I need a job, and this is what you are arguing about? But that's not really what the unions came to be. They were there to protect workers around health care, around hours of work, all of those kinds of things. And I think if there are going to be some coming together of both union leaders and organization - and organizers with folks in some way that understands the reality that we are in right now, then I think you'll find a lot more support for unions, even though there have been those situations where they have been split down the middle in workplaces.

COX: You know, the irony of this is that President Obama has likened himself to some policies of Ronald Reagan that - he did this during the campaign. And Ronald Reagan, though, in terms of unionism, although he was the former head of the Screen Actors Guild at one time in his career, was known for breaking the union, particularly the air-traffic controllers. So, there is sort of an irony in those two different positions, wouldn't you say, Marc, really briefly?

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, I would in that respect. But what Obama was talking about is that he - maybe he didn't intend it, or who knows, but he is kind of one of those transformational figures the way Reagan was. And remember, Reagan's big thing: Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem. Now, we're hearing that government is the solution to the problem. So, we're coming around...

COX: Coming full circle.

Mr. CAPUTO: Maybe 360 or 180, or who knows what the degrees are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Absolutely. Let me ask you all to just hold on for a second. We're going to take a quick break, and then we're going to continue this conversation in just a few moments.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. We're back now with our Reporters' Roundtable. With us today, Marc Caputo, a state policy and politics reporter for the Miami Harold; Callie Crossley, a commentator and a regular panelist for WGBH TV's media criticism program, "Beat the Press;" and Jenee Darden, a freelance reporter based here in Los Angeles, and she's our News & Notes Newcomer. So, let's get back to the topic of the stimulus for a moment, if we can, because the House passed a $900 billion rescue bill. But the Republicans, Callie, they were like, no, no, no, no, no.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yeah, and I know a lot of people are characterizing this as a defeat for President Obama since he, you know, to many people's eyes, went out of his way to extend the olive branch, to bring in the Republicans, to talk to them, to explain his position, blah, blah, blah. But I don't see it that way. I actually see it as just a setback. He's laying the groundwork for a longer relationship. He is understanding that some of those people have ideological differences, and he is understanding that some of them just want to make political posturing, right now, important for them. They want to be on stage with that. But I'm reminded of Willie Jolley's statement that a setback is a setup for a comeback. So, I think he's coming back.

COX: That's an interesting point.

Ms. CROSSLEY: And when he comes back, that I think he will be bringing all that he has done in working with those relationships, and I think eventually there will be some movement on their side.

COX: Well, you know, Jenee, the president has made a great deal of his bipartisan attempts. Do you feel that there is a chance that he'll be able to cross the aisle and get both parties to work together?

DARDEN: I do think so, especially with just the nature of the economy, and I know people on the right and on the left are expecting their politicians to come through for them and help them out. And I'm not surprised by what happened - tomorrow - I mean, what Callie said is definitely looking at ideology. And for the Republicans, they thought the package involved too much spending, and that's part of the Republican platform, you know, not as much spending and more tax cuts. And so, I guess they felt that Obama's stimulus package didn't bring that.

COX: Well, let's talk about Florida, Marc, where you are. Normally, that's a red state, although it's a red state that went for Obama this time. But the Republicans there, does this play well with them, when the party sort of stands on ideological ground blocking a stimulus package that is intended to help everybody, both Democrats and Republicans alike?

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, there's a split. If you're a Washington Republican, you're against this. If you are a state legislative Republican, including Republican Governor Charlie Crist, who might have been - was on McCain's short list to be vice president - you want the stimulus package. There is an ideological problem, though, in that states such as Florida, which are not allowed to deficit spend, are being told in the stimulus package, look, if you want money, you have to roll back the clock and spend as much health and education money as you spent in 2006 as you are now. We don't care if you've cut spending or spent your money wisely or, you know, been careful.

And so, there's a little bit of conflict there, and the state is trying to cure that as an issue because Florida is saying, look, we're basically just out of money. Now, if you want us to raise taxes, well, we might have to do that, albeit probably be cigarette taxes. But you are seeing a split. If you're in Washington and you're a Republican, yeah, you're going to be against this. And it's kind of a free vote, anyway. It's early in Obama's term. The, you know, midterm elections are quite a bit away. And you know, voting against this - there's no real harm, at least not right now. Politically, there might be a bit, but there's ample time for a do-over.

COX: For them to do over. Let's talk about the mortgage giant Freddie Mac announcing today that it's going to let homeowners and tenants stay in homes that are in foreclosure, at least for awhile. Fannie Mae did something similar earlier this month. The program is designed to let qualified tenants lease the foreclosed property from Freddie Mac to keep as many as 8,600 families with a roof over their heads. Does this sound like a good idea to you, Callie?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yes, absolutely. And I don't care if it's a drop in the bucket. Somebody has got to start doing this. This is the root of the problem we're in right now, and so much of this discussion even about the stimulus package, everything, is still not going to those people who are struggling to keep their homes. So, anything right now that is - looks like it'll give people a reprieve, I think is a good thing.

COX: I would think that in Florida, Marc, that the home-foreclosure crisis has hit particularly hard...

Mr. CAPUTO: We're number two in home foreclosures. This is certainly welcome news. I guess the only thing is, what took so long? And the other thing is that this is purely pragmatic. I mean, where are people going to go? You know, we don't have a lot of money in the state to enforce a lot of things as it is. Are you going to task sheriffs' offices all the time with evicting people? I mean, it makes more sense to just kind of come back to the renegotiating tables, say, OK, folks, you can't pay - how much can you pay? At least give us something.

COX: I mean, at the same time...

Ms. CROSSLEY: And to Marc's point, you know, I have to say, Tony, to Marc's point, I could never understand, what do banks want to do with all this property?

Mr. CAPUTO: They don't want it.

Ms. CROSSLEY: They can't - exactly.

DARDEN: Exactly.

COX: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: To one more thing in Florida before we move on to our last topic, Marc. It's this: State Farm Insurance announcing this week that it wants to get out of the home-insurance business in Florida, a place that's hit by hurricanes and other sorts of natural disasters. That cannot come as good news.

Mr. CAPUTO: It's not. There's an interesting political situation there. Governor Charlie Crist is - has a very nice-guy style. Even when he was a running mate with McCain, he only said nice things about Obama - better said, potential running mate. But he has gone out of his way for more than two years to demonize State Farm. And there was an insurance-reform package that was passed, which State Farm greatly dislikes in Florida. It essentially puts more government into the game. And they finally said, oh, forget it, we're going to walk away. Now, whether it's a political ploy or whether it's real talk, we'll see, but you're going to see some interesting changes in the way in which a Republican-controlled legislature has to handle a big issue like, say, homeowners insurance by putting more government into the game.

COX: Let's end that conversation with this: The theater of the absurd, which I think is a fair way of describing what's going on in the state of Illinois with the ouster of Rod Blagojevich, Jenee Darden, what do you say?

DARDEN: I'm not surprised. It is crazy. It's insane. You know, especially since everybody voted against him, but I'm not surprised.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: It was unanimous. Did you think it was going to be unanimous, Callie? I was watching as they were casting their votes. And a couple of legislators, they were like, OK, I'm voting no, but I'm going to push - I'm going to go slow in terms of pushing that no button.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I'm not surprised it was unanimous. What I am surprised is that a few of them said there was overwhelming evidence. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't know, what I've heard so far, you know, where's the smoking gun? There's a lot of threats and nasty stuff, and he doesn't look good, but you know, I haven't actually heard him so, OK, I'm taking the hundred thousand dollars now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: So, I don't know, it will be interesting to see.

COX: It would definitely be that they've already take - they couldn't wait to get his pictures off the buildings and off the walls in the State Capitol in Illinois, Marc. But like - to Callie's point, you know, you can't go into a court of law and convict somebody on the evidence that they have presented so far, can you?

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, there's a difference here in that this is kind of a civil and political matter. And the fact is that he was essentially unable to govern. Incidentally, we do have a little Florida story today. Today, the speaker of the Florida House temporarily resigned his job amid a criminal probe into the way he accepted a community-college job after steering millions of dollars to it. There's a few other associated allegations. So, it's not isolated to Illinois, although they really have an interesting history of electing allegedly corrupt politicians, if not corrupt ones. But you know, you see that this house speaker we got here, Ray Sansom, said, essentially, I can't govern because I have to focus on my criminal trial. Well, it's the same thing with Blagojevich there. He essentially couldn't govern, even if he's innocent of everything. He just couldn't govern in these circumstances, especially if he's going to attend "The View" and, you know, Diane Sawyer and who knows...

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Absolutely. Well, we'll find out how his successor, Pat Quinn, whom folks don't know a great deal about, but I'm assuming that in the days and weeks and months ahead, there will be a lot more to find out about him. State of Illinois, what an interesting place for politics, absolutely. Thank you all very much, a really good Roundtable today.

Mr. CAPUTO: Thank you.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

DARDEN: Thanks.

COX: Marc Caputo is a state policy and politics reporter for the Miami Herald. Callie Crossley is a commentator and a regular panelist for WGBH TV's media criticism program "Beat the Press." She joined us from the WGBH studios in Boston. And Jenee Darden is a freelance reporter based here in Los Angeles. She also writes a blog at cocofly.blogspot.com. And she is our very own, brand-new, News & Notes Newcomer. She joined me here in the studios of NPR West.

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