President Obama's Ambitious Agenda Takes Off On this week's Reporters' Roundtable, President Obama laid out the country's challenges to Congress, and unveiled his budget and healthcare plans. Also, several top Senate Democrats expressed concerns over Obama's plan to keep as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq. Joining Tony Cox to discuss these topics are Charisse Jones and Erin Aubry Kaplan.
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President Obama's Ambitious Agenda Takes Off

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President Obama's Ambitious Agenda Takes Off

President Obama's Ambitious Agenda Takes Off

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. A busy week for President Barack Obama: He addresses a joint session of Congress, unveils his health-reform package, sets a date for combat-troop withdrawal from Iraq, and issues a three-and-a-half-trillion-dollar budget. How successful will he be with such an ambitious agenda? Meanwhile, across the aisle, Republicans gather this weekend to select an early party favorite as a possible challenger for the White House in 2012. Who will that be? It's Friday and time for Reporters' Roundtable. Joining us today are Charisse Jones, a national correspondent for USA Today, and Erin Aubry Kaplan, a freelance writer and a contributing editor to the opinion page of the LA Times. Charisse, Erin, nice to have you back.

Ms. ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN (Freelance Writer; Contributing Editor, Los Angeles Times): Oh, thanks for having me, Tony.

Ms. CHARISSE JONES (National Correspondent, USA Today): Thank you.

COX: Well, we've got a lot to talk about, so let's jump right in to it. This week, President Obama laid out the country's challenges to Congress, put banks under a stress test, and unveiled his budget and health-care plans. So, Charisse, his spending plan proposes higher taxes for the wealthy and universal health care; it also carries a $1.75 trillion deficit. Now, Republicans are attacking the plan for its spending and tax hikes; even some blue-dog Democrats aren't happy with it. So, is this ideological and political divide the same as it was for Obama's stimulus package?

Ms. JONES: I think it's a little bit different, because the numbers we're seeing are really kind of mounting and adding up. But I think that what Obama is betting on is that he has such good will; I mean, his poll ratings are in the high 50s to high 60s, depending on which poll you look at; he came in with a big margin of victory. And there's so much going on in the country right now that people are in the mood for innovation. So, I think he figures that if he's going to go for some of these big items that he cares about - like education, reforming health care, energy - he's got to do it now or never. So, he's just putting it all out there upfront.

COX: Erin, you know, health-care reform is an especially thorny issue because it calls for, basically, an overhaul of an entrenched health-care system. Is it your view that Mr. Obama will ultimately be successful here because so many Americans are suffering with health-care problems?

Ms. KAPLAN: You know, I think he will, I hope he will, although, you know, all the predictions out there are not very certain one way or the other, but what's clear is our system is not working. He's not touting the single-payer plan, which, you know, I guess, politically, is just not possible even now. But I think that it will prevail, because particularly, as people continue to lose jobs, lose their health care - as Obama said, this is costing us a lot. It's a financial problem, and we just can't afford to have any more of that. So, we've got to staunch the bleeding, and excuse the metaphor, but I think that it will carry.

COX: Here's another plan, the president announcing his intension to withdraw combat troops in Iraq by the summer of 2010. The plan has so far drawn mixed reviews partly because of the disagreements over the best exit strategy for an unpopular war. But even with his plans, the U.S. would maintain a military presence there far longer, just not in a combat role. I heard today, Charisse, one Washington insider declared that effectively the president was announcing the end of the war. Is that what he's doing?

Ms. JONES: Well, he did. You know, he came out today with a few a more details. I mean, I think people were a little bit concerned that the timeline went from 16 months to 18 months. But he basically said today at Camp Lejeune that by the end of 2011, American soldiers will be out of Iraq. I think what's concerning a lot of people is that they have to stay through December, through the parliamentary elections, and then even when he begins to withdraw them, the target date of August 2010, you're still going to have almost a third of the troops that are there now - 35,000 to 50,000 that are there - and is this semantics when you talk about, well, they'll just be there for security and for counterterrorism efforts? You know, what does that mean? I mean, they're still going to be in harm's way. But a lot of antiwar activists are trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.

COX: Talking about perceptions, the Pentagon ban on media coverage of returning military coffins is ending, and today, we saw some old photographs of coffins in papers like the New York Times. But it's a reminder of the power such photos have, Erin, and under the newly lifted ban, we'll start seeing these pictures again pretty soon. What do you think the impact of this changed policy will be in terms of public reaction to the war, even as it winds down?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, I think that it will show us the human costs of the war, which we have not seen the last, what, six, seven, years. And I'm actually kind of angry. I know that this ban has been in place since the early '90s, and in fact, I think it was instituted during the Vietnam War, unless - or tried to - it was attempted, but it didn't carry. But I really feel it's too little too late. I mean, you know, the - we haven't seen any images, and in fact, the images of bodies coming back in coffins is a pretty sanitized one. We have not seen combat images and all those - the really gruesome things that actually helped stop the Vietnam War. So, I'm glad that this is happening, but I'm annoyed that the press itself did not challenge this more in the last seven years.

COX: Let's move on to another topic. As I said, we have many to cover; we going to try to get to as many of them as we can. As we said in the introduction today, the GOP is looking to the party's new talent as it rebuilds from last November's election losses. Republican governors including Huckabee, Crist, Jindal, Pawlenty and, of course, Palin are names that we hear, along with several other party hopefuls. Charisse, Saturday, tomorrow, the Conservative Political Action Conference will announce the results of its annual straw poll to see who should be the next GOP White House candidate. Who do you think is going to emerge?

Ms. JONES: You know, I think that Sarah Palin still has a lot of supporters; you know, Bobby Jindal has gotten a lot of attention, and clearly the fact that he was the one trotted out to give the rebuttal to Obama's speech shows that he's considered a real frontrunner. But you know, it's anybody's guess, and in the end, it doesn't always matter. I mean, this is kind of a bellwether for who the conservatives support. But you know, they didn't like John McCain; he came in fifth in the straw poll back in 2007; they wanted Mitt Romney, and McCain became the nominee. It's more a bellwether for how the conservatives feel, and that, certainly, can have an impact on whether or not you win the election in 2012.

COX: Well, Erin, if Obama is successful with his economic recovery package, does it matter who the GOP sends against him? And conversely, if he's not, won't that open the door for a more hard line, meaning conservative, Republican?

Ms. KAPLAN: Maybe not. I mean, if he's successful, then I think Republicans are dead in the water. But even if he isn't, I think people are starting to understand it's going to take a long time, this recovery, and it's starting to dawn on them that it was a long time in the making. And they're going to blame Republicans for that, even though I think it was a bipartisan - I think there's fault on both sides. But frankly, I don't think at this point - I think trying to name a frontrunner is premature. The Republicans have to regroup and figure out what they're about. They're not about either - issue wise, they're in real disarray. And you know, I think they're hoping a personality might bring them together, but clearly that's just - that is premature.

COX: All right. General Motors has cut thousands of jobs, closed factories, received billions of dollars worth of government loans. Still, the troubled automaker just posted a $9.6 billion loss for its last quarter. Now, General Motor executives met with President Obama's auto industry taskforce yesterday, Charisse, but on Tuesday, the president made it clear he does not intend to let the U.S. auto industry die. But it just doesn't appear that that there's an end in sight to the decline for Detroit, does it?

Ms. JONES: You know, I think the auto industry is really on life support, and one of the big problems is that they're just not making products that people, A, want or, B, can afford. I mean, you can cut all the jobs and cut the plants and stop selling Hummers, but if people can't get credit to buy a car, you're out of luck. So, I think that there's going to be a lot of creative thinking in the next several weeks. GM says that they're going to be out of money by March if they don't get an infusion of cash. They're trying to make people that have bonds in the company, which is you and me with our 401ks and IRAs, decide to take less money back for what we own, what our shares are, and people are saying, hey, let them go into bankruptcy; I want my money back. So, there's a lot of competing interests, but Barack Obama has said we've got to keep the auto industry alive because too many people are dependent upon it.

COX: You know, speaking of declining business, a major daily newspaper has printed its last edition, and another could be shutting down in a matter of weeks. Erin, Denver's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News ran its final edition today; San Francisco Chronicle could be next. Is this like the auto and banking industries, you know, where poor management practices have left these papers in the lurch?

Ms. KAPLAN: I don't think it's quite the same. We're going to have some newspapers left. But it looks like we're - every town will have one paper. I mean, the LA - Los Angeles or - you know, has been that way a long time, and it's a huge market. You know what? I have to say, what annoys me - I guess I'm very annoyed these days - is that the newspaper industry actually - they are, unlike the auto industry, is actually still running a profit, I mean, just that the margins aren't as high as the old model wants them to be in the - so, you know, it's still the struggle with expectations. And I don't think print will die. I mean, I just don't think so. But I think it's - it does have to rethink its profit model, because that is just not going to work.

COX: You know, you've worked at three different newspapers that I'm aware of, Charisse. What do you say briefly about this? Time's running out.

Ms. JONES: You know, I think that the industry is going through a major contraction. We're going to still be here, but there won't be as many; there won't be as many jobs. We talk about the auto industry; we're dependent on the auto industry for advertising. That's the reason why the money has dried up. And like Erin said, you know, we are still making a profit, just it's not - just not as great a profit, and we have to kind of get used to the new landscape. Our bubble has burst, just like real estate, but I think we'll survive because we have to; the country needs us.

COX: We made it through almost every topic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: There was one last one - I'm going to hit it really, really quickly because we only have - we have less than 30 seconds. The White House finally, apparently, deciding on a dog, a Portuguese water dog. Here's my question: Who's going to feed it, walk it and clean up after it?

Ms. JONES: I think that's Malia and Sasha's job.

COX: You think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: Michelle Obama has not been playing on that one. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KAPLAN: You know what? It's the - it's the kids' job, OK? That's what a dog is for.

COX: Yeah, right.

Ms. KAPLAN: But you know, I have to applaud him. I have two rescue dogs myself. So, that's my good news for the week.

COX: Well, it is the kids' job. I mean, there are kids all over the country who are not doing their jobs.

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, that's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: We all know that for sure. Thank you both. Charisse Jones is the national correspondent for USA Today, joining us from the studios of NPR in New York, and Erin Aubry Kaplan, a freelance writer and a contributing editor to the opinion page of the LA Times.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Just ahead, as presidential candidate, Barack Obama used online social networking to fundamentally change the way politicians mobilize their base. We'll wrap up our Obama Effect series with a look at technology and political engagement.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is NPR News.

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