TONY COX, host:
I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, Christianity has long been a powerful force in African-American culture. But African-American writer, Jamila Bey, found another path one that led her down a lonely road: atheism. Not long ago, she heard the joyful noise of other black atheists.
But, first, President Obama is on the Gulf Coast today, surveying the effects of the oil spill. His visit follows a press conference yesterday, during which he admitted some aspects of the response could've been handled better.
President BARACK OBAMA: Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst case scenarios.
COX: While the American public gave the president high marks in the days after the spill and put the blame squarely on BP, a USA Today gallop poll shows that six out of ten now say the federal government is doing a poor, or very poor, job handling the spill. And 53 percent say the same about Obama. So we're going to talk about the president's week: oil spills, tiffs with Republicans and a heckler who got an earful from the president.
I'm joined now by NPR senior news analyst Juan Williams. He is with us from member station WAMU in Washington. With me here in our Washington studio at NPR is Mary Kate Cary, columnist for U.S. News & World Report. And Reihan Salam, political commentator and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." He is with us from our New York bureau.
Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist, U.S. News & World Report): Good morning.
Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Co-author, "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream"): Good morning.
COX: Let's begin with this, Juan Williams, President Obama said in his press conference yesterday that the oil spill has been a number one priority in the White House, but the polls as we've already indicated say that people aren't necessarily happy with him. So the question is, for you, is this a matter of the people not knowing what the president is doing and they're judging him based on that? Or are they pretty clear about what he is doing and they don't like it?
JUAN WILLIAMS: Well, the president said yesterday, Tony, that anyone who thinks that he hasn't been engaged, that his team at the White House hasn't been fully engaged from day one, simply doesn't know the facts. It's just about a quote from the president. But I think that where the president is finding trouble is with people on his left, people like James Carville, the Clinton political strategist who came out this week. He's a resident of New Orleans, of Louisiana, and said, you know, we're dying down here. Why isn't the president down here? Why is he not sending troops down here? Tankers? Why isn't he getting people from Woods Hole Oceanic Research Center and others who have some expertise or ideas to offer down here?
Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, Republican, initially as you described it, much like the American people, felt that the president was doing what he could and the fault and the blame really lay with BP. But, suddenly, people like Jindal and Carville are now saying, well, we have ideas, we don't see that we're getting everything we can, not just in terms of stopping the oil, but in terms of staunching the flow of oil as it comes towards the shore, as it fouls the fish and the wildlife in the area. Jindal has, I think, proposed 25 different ideas for how to protect the ecological system. I think only six have been approved.
COX: Well, let me jump in to bring Mary Kate into it, because what you brought up is a point that I think that she might be able to expound on, and that is this, because Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana says pretty much what James Carville said: Where's the president? So we know the president is in the Gulf this weekend. The question is, is there likely to be political damage to him because of the handling of the spill, so far, that could reach all the way into the midterm elections this fall?
Ms. CARY: Yes. I think Mary Landrieu, who's a Democrat from Louisiana, in that same interview said that the president is going to pay a political price for this. And as Juan is saying, these are people on the president's left warning him of the political price. Even if they plug this thing this weekend, we still have a long way to go. This is not the end. This is the beginning. It's Memorial Day weekend.
I mean, think about all those people down on the Gulf Coast and a month's worth of oil still to hit the shores. And then you've got the wetlands, you've got the pelicans, it's spreading possibly towards Florida. This thing is only at the beginning of this.
I read a blog this morning, my suggestion for the president in terms of communications and PR and looking more engaged, I think part of the problem here is his cool, detached side of him isn't giving people what they want in this. There's a good side and a bad side. I think bringing Joe Biden and make him the point man on this. He's got the energy, the enthusiasm, he's got a staff ready to go.
COX: Well, one of the things...
Ms. CARY: Something like that might work.
COX: One of the things - let me bring you in, Reihan one of the things that's been said about this is that this is Barack Obama's Katrina. Fair or unfair, accurate or inaccurate?
Mr. SALAM: I think that it is, in a sense that the president, regardless of party affiliation, always has an incredibly difficult job. There are certain things that are outside of your control. And as the president said during his press conference, there is a strong temptation to view this through a political lens, through a political prism, as he said. And he said, you know, that's going to happen and, you know, I don't care about that, I want to take action here.
And I think that when you look at the Bush White House, you know, as a statement of regret, what if President Bush had said, well, I regret thinking that Kathleen Blanco and local officials in New Orleans had their act together. That's not a statement of regret, that's evasion, that's an inflection of blame.
And in this case, you know, basically, when you're dealing with a disaster like this that happens in the Gulf, in international waters, the federal government has exclusive responsibility. And what state and local officials do is ultimately secondary.
I think that this is incredibly difficult. There's no way for any president to anticipate every disaster and every danger. But I think it is an illustration of the fact that, you know, hey, wait a second, there is another moment when this president, when he was not president, capitalized politically on this horrible, tragic, misfortunate. Something that, you know, was handled badly in some respects and handled reasonably well in others. But it was just the optics of it. It was the narrative that was capitalized on. And that's what's happening now.
COX: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are talking with political commentators Mary Kate Cary, Reihan Salam and NPR News analyst Juan Williams.
Let's go to another topic. The president met with Senate leaders, or Senate members, this week in a very, what has been described as a contentious meeting. One senator suggesting it was testy, another suggesting valium for the president before another such meeting. Here's Tennessee Republican Bob Corker.
Pres. OBAMA: On day one, we took the reins and we said we are going to make sure that we don't...
Senator BOB CORKER (Republican, Tennessee): I just found it pretty audacious that he would be here today as we move into election season using Republican senators as a prop to talk about bipartisanship.
COX: So, Juan Williams, what about that? The president this is not the first time that he has met with Republicans over what was described, initially, as a cordial getting together some bipartisanship. What's really taking place here?
WILLIAMS: Well, there's two things. One is the president wanted to get the Senate Republicans to work with him for the remainder of this legislative session on key issues, ranging from immigration reform to energy policy, given what's taking place in the Gulf. And he also had some ideas about extending unemployment benefits, job stimulus, spending, that kind of thing.
So there are all these legislative efforts and he wanted to say, hey, let's, you know, let's join hands. Let's make peace. Let's get something done. It didn't work out that way, as you've heard descriptions of him being testy or thin-skinned. Corker, who was upset about the financial regulation bill and the lack what he thought was lack of good faith negotiations from the White House, said that the president, you know, should be shamefaced to come into the meeting.
From the White House perspective, Republicans have done everything to try to obstruct the president's agenda, and so how can they now be crying that there isn't sufficient bipartisanship coming from the White House?
COX: You know, Mary Kate, there's been a lot said about the president's demeanor of late. Yesterday with the news conference, the situation with the Republicans is another issue where the president's demeanor was front and center having to do with Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The president was on the West Coast and he was engaged with a heckler.
Here is the supporter of - the president, of course, being a supporter of repealing the law. Let's play two clips. Here's the first one of the heckler and then the president's response.
Pres. OBAMA: On day one, we took the reins and we said we are going to make sure that we don't slip into a Great Depression. And we are...
Unidentified Man: Move faster with Don't Ask, Don't Tell (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of crowd booing)
COX: All right, so, here's the president's response in San Francisco to that heckler.
Pres. OBAMA: If he wants to demonstrate, buy a ticket to a guy who doesn't support his point of view.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pres. OBAMA: And then you can yell as much as you want there.
(Soundbite of cheering)
COX: So, what are we to make, Mary Kate, of the president's demeanor as it changes from circumstance to circumstance?
Ms. CARY: Well, I can tell you in that situation with the heckler, where I saw it from, is back in the day when I was a speechwriter for Bush 41, if the president was going into a situation where you thought there was a chance of having some hecklers - now, this may not have been one because it was a Democratic fundraiser - but if you were at a, you know, a college commencement or something, the speechwriters always had to provide the president with a couple lines to have in his pocket in case there was a heckler.
And they were self-deprecating kind of laugh-at-yourself sort of funny lines. And it sort of diffused the situation and made the president look, you know, like, he was above it a little. Well, I don't think he has that. And in this situation he really turned on this heckler. And in the video you can see the president is not smiling. The crowd is laughing, the president's not. And he just it feeds this narrative of him being sort of cool and detached a little arrogant. He didn't treat this guy very nicely, I didn't think.
COX: I've got about a minute left for you, Reihan, to answer this question, do you think we are seeing signs of the president cracking under the pressure?
Mr. SALAM: Oh, I don't think that's fair to the president. I think the president is a very formidable guy. He demonstrated that during the course of the campaign. But I do think that Mary Kate makes a very important point. Part of the Obama brand is the idea that he's above the fray, that he sees things from this kind of 30,000 foot above perspective, but that also means that he's very sensitive when challenged. And oftentimes he comes across as very resentful when challenged.
And so, you know, part of his intellectual architecture is this idea that, you know, I could be wrong, I could be right, I just want to look at what works. But that doesn't always come across and you wonder if that's really how he thinks or if he thinks that he's, in fact, reached all the right conclusions and that the question then, well, then, you're obviously wrongheaded.
COX: I appreciate the time, but we are out of time: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, U.S. News & World Report columnist Mary Kate Cary and political commentator Reihan Salam. Again, thank you all for being with us today.
Ms. CARY: Thank you.
Mr. SALAM: Thank you, Tony.
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