RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And fair or not, the 100-day milestone has become a marker American presidents expect to be measured by. Joining us now as she does most Mondays is NPR's news analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.
COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning Renee.
MONTAGNE: And Cokie, it appears the White House decided to embrace, rather than ignore, this milestone.
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ROBERTS: Yeah, they couldn't get around it. I mean, the drum beat in the press, and especially on cable TV, is just too loud, so the president's going with it - having a press conference Wednesday night, marking the day. And he does have lots to tout: that stimulus package you just heard about in John's piece, children's health insurance expansion, signing the pay discrimination bill -Lilly Leadbetter Bill, banning pay discrimination, openings to Cuba and Iran as part of successful trips to Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. And with high approval ratings from the American people - almost 70 percent in the ABC poll out this week - its highest in 20 years.
More significant, Renee, though, is a huge turnaround on the question of whether people think the country is headed in the right direction or on the wrong track. Only single digits thought it was going the right direction last October, now it's half, and that's up 30 points since January. So, at least half of the country is breathing a big sigh of relief.
MONTAGNE: So, what does that good will, that running room, buy the president in the coming months?
ROBERTS: Well, he's hoping it buys him Congressional action on those measures you just heard him talking about - health care, education, energy. They're all very tough. But, you know, it's important, committees are working hard right now on health care legislation. And that means that members of Congress become invested in the success of that, when they put that much time and effort into it.
There's a fight going on about whether the Democrats are going to try to do it themselves or in a bipartisan fashion. They're likely to cram it down Republican throats, but there's not very much encouraging for Republicans in these 100 day polls. Only about 20 percent of the people are identifying with the Republican Party, down from parity with the Democrats five years ago. And the public is saying they don't trust the Republicans in Congress to handle the nation's problems.
They're not thrilled with the Democrats in Congress either, but they still get better marks than the Republicans do.
MONTAGNE: And, of course, this past week, Washington, D.C. has been focused on those torture memos, documents just released detailing the Bush administration's legal framework for harsh interrogation of detainees. Cokie, what effect do you think the debate over these memos and also whether people should be prosecuted will have on the president's agenda in the coming months, and does that depend on whether it gets traction in the rest of the country?
ROBERTS: Well, the president is clearly concerned that it's going to have a big effect, because it started a firestorm and there's lots of pressure from the political left to prosecute or in some way punish the people who were responsible for these interrogation techniques.
The administration knows this can take over the city and distract from anything else. That's what happens in these big investigations. And it also poisons the atmosphere on Capitol Hill. And so the administration is clearly hoping the Justice Department deals with this quietly and it just gets off the agenda pretty quickly.
MONTAGNE: Analysis from NPR's Cokie Roberts. Cokie is also the author of "We Are Our Mother's Daughters." That newly-expanded book now includes Billie Jean King's campaign for respect on the tennis court.
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