A panel of top political commentators joins Diane to talk about some of the head spinning events of this last year and to get their perspectives on the challenges ahead.
Guest Host: Susan Page
The White House shuffles its national security team. The U.S. economic growth rate slows. And the president releases his long form birth certificate. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- Jerry Seib Washington bureau chief, The Wall Street Journal.
- Karen Tumulty National political reporter, The Washington Post.
- Ronald Brownstein Political director and columnist for National Journal.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. The U.S. economy slows in the first three months of the year. Most economists blame bad weather and higher prices for gas and food. President Obama announces an overhaul of his national security team, and he tries to quash any doubts about where he was born by releasing his long-form birth certificate from Hawaii. Joining me in the studio for the national hour of the Friday News Roundup, Jerry Seib of The Wall Street Journal, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and Ronald Brownstein from National Journal. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JERRY SEIBThank you.
MS. KAREN TUMULTYGood morning, Susan.
MR. RONALD BROWNSTEINGood morning.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation a little later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com. Or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Karen, I thought an extraordinary scene on Wednesday when the president of the United States came into the White House briefing room to release his long-form birth certificate, which showed exactly what his short-form birth certificate showed, that he was born in Hawaii. Why this moment?
TUMULTYIt also showed what contemporary news newspaper accounts showed and what, basically, you know, there's never been any evidence to doubt. Why did he do it after two years of not? Well, our understanding from talking to people at the White House was the president had sort of just finally had it, that -- particularly in recent weeks, as Donald Trump, who may or may not be running for president, has been kind of fanning this idea in near-constant television appearances that there's evidence somewhere that his supposed investigators are finding in Hawaii that the president wasn't born there.
TUMULTYThe president was just getting frustrated that it was kind of coming up at every interview that he was trying to do and, finally, last week, called in his White House counsel, Bob Bauer, and said, okay, how do I get a hold of this longer version of the exact same piece of paper? And so it took, actually, a surprising amount of doing. And at one point, it required sending the president's personal counsel to Honolulu to pick up this piece of paper.
PAGESo, Ron Brownstein, politically speaking, was this a smart thing for the president to do, do you think?
BROWNSTEINWell, you know, the great thing about conspiracy theories is they're pretty impervious to contrary information, so I'm sure there's a portion of the public for which this is -- there is no information that could dent their world view. I suppose they would say it took this long for him to release it 'cause it took this long for the CIA to forge it. But the -- in fact, you know, in some ways, the Birther argument has been a useful foil for him. I mean, when he went into the pressroom to say was, we have serious problems. We need to be talking about serious things.
BROWNSTEINSo I kind of view this as a marginal event. Either way, I mean, it is a reflection, on the one hand, of how deep the opposition to him is in a portion of the conservative coalition, the Republican coalition. On the other, it is a reminder of how difficult it is for any White House in this modern media world to maintain control of the message in the agenda.
PAGEYou know, as Karen said, never had -- there's been no evidence whatsoever that the president was not born exactly where he said he was. And yet, Jerry, we did a poll, the USA Today/Gallup Poll, a week ago, that showed only 38 percent of Americans said President Obama was definitely born in the United States. Why this skepticism? Or why is this become an issue that's had some legs?
SEIBWell, I think, several reasons. One is, you know, this is a time of anxiety. There's a lot of national anxiety. And I think people, in a time of anxiety, sort of latch on to issues that they might slough off otherwise. I think that's one problem. There's a broader problem for President Obama, which is that he's hard for people to identify with. There's kind of an otherness about his life story, which was a big advantage in the campaign in 2008. It made him look fresh. It made him look different. But then, over time, people think about it, and they're kind of bothered that it was not exactly like us.
SEIBBut I actually think the third reason, and the bigger one -- and the reason, I think, the White House actually moved was that the notion of the Birther argument had moved from being an absolute fringe argument, seeping into the mainstream. You know, the more it was talked about, the more people who'd never really spent five seconds thinking about it previously thought about it, and that planted seeds of doubt in their mind. And so it went from being, as Ron said, a useful foil for the White House, making the people who the White House's and the president's opponents look like they're nuts to being something that was starting to gnaw away at people in the mainstream. And that's why, I think, they had to cut it off.
BROWNSTEINAnd the, you know -- really, in some ways, the driving factor in this is the fragmentation of the modern media, that you have a -- you know, you have large portions of the public that are getting their information from one side or the other. And, presumably, I think if we cross-tabbed the polling about who believes this -- and we have regular watchers of Fox -- you would have a pretty strong correlation. But what Jerry is pointing out is important.
BROWNSTEINSo, in this modern world, you can have theories that are inculcated in kind of the hothouse of one party media on one side or the other, but they don't always stay there anymore. They do migrate beyond those borders into kind of a broader audience. And so it's a very -- kind of difficult dynamic to deal with, and I think it was an extraordinary step for the president to come out and say, hey, you know, I was -- I am who I say I was.
TUMULTYI really do think this is all about the media culture because rumors have been around as long as politics has been around. And, for centuries, the standard wisdom was that the way you dealt with rumors was to ignore them. I found an old quote by Will Rogers about how the rumor travels faster, but the truth stays put. That's just not the case anymore. And I think that, you know, as John Kerry so vividly demonstrated with the swiftboating in 2004, it's really hard for politicians to sort of stay above this anymore.
PAGEI remember, maybe two years ago, when this was clearly a fringe issue, and there was a debate in the mainstream media, which we all represent, about whether you should dignify it by covering it or whether you should ignore it on the theory that there's no evidence of it. And do you think, Jerry, that the mainstream press did a pretty good job on this? Or would you (unintelligible) ?
SEIBWell, you know, I kind of think the old argument, that if it's a fringe rumor, you ought to ignore it because why dignify it. And, also, in the process of debunking it, you actually spread it. We all know that, that that's a plausible theory. So, I guess, I don't have particular problems with the way the press handled this. I think it got enough coverage, that people who really wondered is it true or not were allowed to conclude it probably wasn't true, that he was born in Kenya. But, again, talking about what changed in the last couple of weeks, I mean, CNN, I think, devoted an hour to this question by way of debunking the notion that the president was born some place other than Hawaii.
SEIBBut in doing that, I suspect they planted the seed of doubt in a lot of people's minds along the way, even while they were in the business of trying to debunk the theory.
PAGEIt was amazing to see Donald Trump, the real estate mogul and reality TV star, landing in New Hampshire right before the president spoke on Wednesday and taking credit for having raised this issue and accomplishment in forcing the president to release this long-form birth certificate. Does this -- is this a big boost to Donald Trump and his possible presidential bid, do you think, Karen?
TUMULTYAmong whom, is the question. No, I don't think it is. And, of course, Donald Trump moved immediately on to his next fringe theory, which is that somehow the president, who by the way, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, did not deserve admission into the Ivy Leagues. So this is a guy who needs attention. I mean, his whole brand, his whole career has been built on getting attention. And this is how he does it.
PAGEMeanwhile, the president also announced a reshuffling of his national security team. Ron, just take through for us these familiar faces that are moving into new roles.
BROWNSTEINRight. Well, the biggest ones are Leon Panetta, who, of course, was the OMB director and chief-of-staff under President Clinton, had been running the CIA for President Obama, moving over to the Defense Department -- excuse me -- a significant move because, I think, it does signal the reality that the Defense Department's era of uninterrupted spending growth, which they've really seen over the last decade, is coming to an end, and they are facing -- they will be facing tougher choices.
BROWNSTEINThe other big decision, I think, was moving, obviously, Gen. Petraeus from command of the effort in Afghanistan into the CIA as -- to replace Panetta there. And there, I think, what we're seeing is an understanding that the -- of the centrality of Pakistan as a front in the overall struggle in the AfPak Theater as they call it. Those two moves both carry clear policy implications.
PAGEWe're going to talk more about the foreign policy implications in the second hour of the news roundup. But focusing on some of the ones that are more domestic and Washington-centric, Leon Panetta, will he be tougher on the Pentagon budget, Jerry, than Gates has been...
PAGE...tougher in terms of demanding cuts?
SEIBI mean, that's the assumption. I don't know that that's the certainty. You know, the truth is that Bob Gates had spent the last year telling everybody, starting with his own building and building out to the public from there, that the era of kind of unrestrained defense spending was over. He acknowledged that. He tried to construct a glide path down for the defense budget that was smooth and gentle. And, to some extent, he succeeded. But I think the deficit debate of the last couple of months in Washington -- as suggested, it might not be so smooth and gradual.
SEIBAnd Leon Panetta -- the guy who used to be the director of the budget -- knows where all the skeletons are and probably is there, at least in part, to construct a steeper but still smooth decline downward. Having said that, you know, I don't know that Leon Panetta might not, at least conceivably, turn into a pretty good defender of the Pentagon budget in certain ways because he knows how this system works.
TUMULTYI think the striking thing is how familiar all of these faces were. They were, essentially, the, you know, comfort food of foreign policy. And, in part, that reflects the fact that we're about to move into a very dicey, difficult time. And, I think, the president wanted people that people on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill would be comfortable with.
PAGEYou know, Gen. Petraeus has been quite a prominent political figure, gained the respect of a lot of Americans, talked as even as a potential presidential candidate. If he has political ambitions, Ron, is it smart for him to go to the CIA?
BROWNSTEINWell, the short answer is, in the near term, no. I mean, I think that, you know, in the Republican Party, as we were talking about before, the intensity of opposition to President Obama, as we now see routinely in the opposite party for any president, I think there's going to be (unintelligible) in politics is very intense. So by working for him, he is creating a hurdle there, as Jon Huntsman will face if he...
PAGEThe ambassador to China, yes.
BROWNSTEIN...in China who will be coming back to run for president. But, you know, I don't know if Petraeus sees himself in those terms -- certainly not in the near term. And this really has become his life's work. You know, the -- unraveling these incredibly knotty problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and moving into this position, as I say, does underscore the centrality of the role of Pakistan, where he has butted heads over the years and now will be in position to kind of be the point of the spear on that front.
PAGERob Brownstein, he's political director and a columnist for National Journal. And we're also joined this hour by Karen Tumulty, national political reporter for The Washington Post, and Jerry Seib, he's Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. We'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about the U.S. economy, which may be faltering. Stay with us.
PAGEJerry Seib, there's been bad news about the economy in the last few days. Tell us what's happening.
SEIBWell, it's discouraging news -- not devastating news, but discouraging news. The -- in the first quarter, we learned this week the economy grew at only 1.8 percent, an annual rate of only 1.8 percent. It's down from 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. And so, clearly, growth is falling off. It's discouraging because we keep thinking that growth is about to take off and reach a sustainable plateau, and it doesn't really quite happen. The reasons are kind of obvious. People are paying more for gas.
SEIBBut the biggest problem is that the housing market continues to be flat. And then, really, that's the underlying problem in the economy. The housing market is not taking off. That affects the construction sector, affects the way people -- how much wealth people think they have in their homes. It was the cause of the crisis, and it's not fixed yet. And that's the underlying problem. People are spending a little more money, but mostly they're spending that additional money to buy gasoline, which is going up and up, as everybody knows.
PAGEAnd, Ron, of course, the biggest economic issue for a lot of Americans is jobs. At this rate of growth, if it were to continue, the job rate -- jobless rate is likely to go up. This isn't a high enough rate to even keep us on a flat level in terms of jobs.
BROWNSTEINAnd, in fact, an ominous number, politically, for the White House is that initial claims for unemployment have been ticking back up and are now at the highest level they've been since, I believe, January, and you kind of look at this as a -- in the broad construct, looking toward 2012. The White House and Congress has taken the biggest step they are going to take towards stimulating the economy with their deal on taxes last year. They have shifted now toward austerity, toward reducing spending, both in the near term and trying to agree on a longer term spending reduction, which means that both sides, I think, were banking on a steadier growth pattern.
BROWNSTEINThey believe the economy was getting ready to achieve -- escape velocity, as Larry Summers like to say -- and that unemployment -- a kind of a self-sustaining quality that would bring down unemployment. Now, they are both out on the hook, I think, of a deficit reduction strategy that precludes the ability to have much more targeted stimulus at a time when it looks like that job growth may not be materializing to the extent they hope. And that should make them nervous at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
PAGEWell, in fact, we are waiting. We'll have a debate engagement in Congress when they return on Monday about the deficit, raising the debt ceiling. Karen, your newspaper, The Washington Post, this morning leads the paper with a story that says Democratic senators are starting to say that they'll demand more deficit reduction steps in order to agree to raise the debt ceiling.
TUMULTYAnd, you know, that is exactly where the debate is. And, you know, these quarterly numbers, it's important to remember that they -- you know, they are pretty volatile. The weather can change them and gas prices, and this, you know -- but in the longer term averages, which is what economists really look at, are not looking good. And, more importantly, what people are feeling in their lives is not feeling very good. And there was also a poll out yesterday, a Marist Poll, that suggested, at this point, close to six out of 10 Americans disapprove of President Obama's handling the -- of the economy, which, as much as anything, I think, reflects the despair they're feeling in their own lives.
PAGEAnd gas prices, Jerry, it's startling to me how big a political impact gas prices have on Americans.
SEIBYeah, it was something, I think, that the politicians recognized faster than some of the rest of us did. About a month ago, gas prices started to become a cutting issue for people, you know, out in America. And the problem with that issue for politicians -- and this is particularly true for the White House -- there's not much they can do about it. We're going to have Congress come back and engage in a lot of silly debates about, you know, now, it's time to lease more lands in the Gulf of Mexico to increase drilling, as if that will do something about gas prices this week at the pump. It won't.
SEIBPresident Obama did an equally silly thing, saying, let's have a task force investigate price gouging in -- it's a -- in gas prices. And this is an evergreen idea. It's sort of rolled out every time there's an increase in gas prices. It doesn't really do anything to affect the real live world. And so the political system is stuck here with a problem that nobody can solve.
PAGERon, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, had a press conference this week -- the first ever. Why?
BROWNSTEINYou know, they have felt in the -- they have felt the heat -- like many institutions, but I think even more -- of the post-2008 financial meltdown growth of skepticism about basically every institution with an oar in the financial waters. And this has been part of his effort that has included going out and speaking more around the country to kind of demystify the Fed. I mean, they are facing pressure from conservatives on Capitol Hill, the audit of the Fed idea and so forth.
BROWNSTEINAnd I think that they -- this is part of their effort to kind of tear down the walls and be less of a kind of a, you know, mystical priesthood. But, you know, that -- you can only -- as I say, you can only go so far. You know, we are -- I think it's notable, what Jerry was saying, is the effect of what we're seeing now is a continued collapse, a continued erosion of faith in all institutions. I mean, American politics is usually pretty hydraulic. One side goes up when the other goes down.
BROWNSTEINAnd, right now, President Obama is looking at some of his lowest approval ratings ever, and there's a higher congressional disapproval than there was at virtually any point during the Democratic level of control. So if we -- if the country has gone from Republicans to Democrats in '06 and '08, then we're disappointed the Democrats turn back to the Republicans in 2010. If now they are disappointed in both of them, what do they do in 2012?
PAGEYou know, and I wonder if that kind of disbelief in institutions -- you know, no faith in institutions -- people are less likely now to believe the news media than they used to be. If that played a factor in the first topic we talked about, which is the whole conspiracy theory about President Obama's birth...
SEIBWell, you know, I go back to something I said earlier, which is, I think, this is a period of high anxiety in the country. And people don't have faith that the institutions are going to fix the problems. Otherwise, they wouldn't be as anxious as they are, and so there is a kind of a loss of confidence. And so when people in the mainstream media say something, and even if it's said loudly, by consensus, it's not as believable to people as it once was.
PAGEYou know, you've been watching a lot of Fed chairman during your journalistic career. How do you think Ben Bernanke did in fielding questions?
SEIBI think he did fine. You know, the goal here was, in many ways, to have a news conference without making news, and he succeeded in doing that. And politicians might not consider that a success, but I think Ben Bernanke probably did. One of the things, as Ron suggested, they wanted to do with the press conference was reassure people that we're on the case, that there's a reason for what we're doing. We understand we can't fix the problem. We've done everything we can.
SEIBWe're going to try to keep inflation down. We're going to worry about unemployment. But they also wanted to establish the precedent that the Fed chairman could come out and explain what he's doing, not because he did anything all that startling this week, but because when a time comes when they have to start, for example, raising interest rates, there's a platform that he can come out and talk to both markets and the public about why he's doing what he's doing.
TUMULTYYou know, it's so funny, though, and such a departure from previous Fed chairmen who didn't really want to say anything in public because they were afraid the markets would be, you know, diagramming every sentence. But Ben Bernanke comes from a background. He was a college professor. He's, I think, far more comfortable in this kind of setting than Fed chairmen of the past.
PAGEWe should talk for a moment about the terrible storms and tornadoes that have ripped across the South. Jerry and I are from Kansas. We've seen our share of tornadoes, but nothing like what we've seen there. Nearly 300 people now confirmed dead. We saw a big response by President Obama yesterday. And, this morning, the White House sent out a timeline that detailed all the contacts that federal officials have had with state officials. Why this...
BROWNSTEINThe legacy of Katrina. I mean, look -- I mean, you know, at some level, the president is the chief executive of the federal government in the same way that a governor is. And one of the ways they are measured, that legislators are not, is by their ability to respond to actual events on the ground. And, certainly, there are a lot of factors that undercut President Bush's support in his second term. But the sense of futility around Katrina was a critical one. And, I think, President Obama, from the beginning, whenever there has been -- in deep-water, for example, they have really tried to send the message of executive competence. Now, they haven't always succeeded, but it shows you the sensitivity, I think, post-Katrina.
TUMULTYYeah, I think it's a legacy of both Katrina and the Gulf oil spill, where the White House was doing the same thing, sending out daily reports of, you know, how much material and supplies they had sent down there and stuff like that. But they were, nonetheless, accused of not moving quickly enough and aggressively enough.
PAGEPresident Obama stops today in Alabama to tour storm damage before heading to Florida. Our thoughts and prayers are certainly with all the people who are dealing with the aftermath of those terrible tornadoes. Well, let's go to the phones. We want to hear some of your questions and comments. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email. We're going to go first to John. He's calling us from Grants Pass, Ore. Hi, John.
JOHNYou know, the wisdom of keeping inflation down, I believe, is being done deliberately to rob seniors of their ability to pay for their homes because if you take away any interest payments -- most of us have savings -- we were counting on those interest payments for our economic survival. And until you -- the interest rates come back up and all of these seniors have money to spend, this economy is not going to get better. And I think it's being done deliberately to confiscate our property.
PAGEAll right, John. Thank you so much for your call. Jerry.
SEIBWell, you know, this is -- John points to a problem for the Fed that probably hasn't gotten as much attention, that if you drive interest rates down to essentially zero in the banking sector and to near zero in the consumer sector, you've actually taken away the ability of people who rely on savings to earn money on their savings. And that's -- that has a big effect. It hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but it is real. The Fed is very sensitive to it. And I think they believe that's the inevitable trade-off right now because you drive interest rates down because you want to get money moving into the economy. You want to encourage banks to lend by giving them, essentially, cheap money to lend with, and that's supposed to spur economic activity. But it does have a downside effect. This is the most obvious and direct downside effect.
PAGEAnd does it disproportionately affect seniors?
SEIBYeah, it does because those are the people who are -- who, as John suggests, put money away to live in their retirement off their savings. And by the time they get to retirement, they're not particularly eager, in many cases, to have that money in the stock market, which seems too dangerous, too much of a roulette game, so they leave it in savings. And the savings are supposed to give them at least some income, and, right now, that's not happening.
BROWNSTEINI love, though, the suggestion that the key to reviving the economy was unlocking the spending of seniors -- shades of Francis Townsend during the Depression, which helped lead to Social Security. But, yeah, look, low interest rates benefit borrowers over savers, and that is a reality. In general, policymakers have thought that is the right balance to strike. But there are people who pay a cost for that.
PAGEJohn, thanks for your call. Let's go to Rhonda. She's calling us from Plano, Texas. Rhonda, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RHONDAYes, good morning. Thank you. I was calling because it's unrealistic to ever think that a media person will say that the media has made a mistake in taking a particular position or covering particular stories. I think that there are several people that share in continuing to give Donald Trump the soap box that he continues to stand on, and none of it is based on truth. So I certainly think that the media -- and I used to write for a newspaper so I can take -- I know how the media actually works.
RHONDAEverybody is chasing the big story. But I don't know why we continue to chase the big lie because, over and over again, it has been proven that the president was born in Hawaii. But I also think that the president has some fault in this, too, because to be forced by whosever hand and whosever insinuation to show papers as the president of the United States, the most powerful country in the world, I think, in a sense, played right into the hands of those people who just -- their only purpose is to discredit him and the president in general.
RHONDAAnd I also think that the press secretary, just the night before, on CNN, said that there was no need to do this, this was not going to be legitimized. And less than 12 hours later, the president was holding a news conference to show the birth certificate. And I just think that we need to just not give someone of Donald Trump's lack of stature. Looking at his reputation in this country, the way he has dealt with his personal life, his business life, and to have him to continuously bring up issue after issue after issue, we all need to take responsibility and not listen to this man anymore.
PAGEOkay, Rhonda. Thanks so much for your call. I'm Susan Page. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You can give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. Well, let's talk about Rhonda's point. I mean, I don't think we began to cover -- first of all, I think reporters do sometimes admit that we make mistakes in coverage. I think that that's one of the things we do after every presidential campaign. We discuss what we did wrong. In this case, I don't think Donald Trump got a lot of coverage until he started to really score in polls. In several polls, he was at the top of the list of potential Republican presidential candidates.
SEIBYeah, I think we, at The Journal and NBC, did one of the first polls that showed that he was actually registering. He was -- we -- I mean, we threw him on a list of 10, I think, Republican contenders after he had said he was seriously going to consider it. And, lo and behold, he was the second place finisher among Republican voters.
TUMULTYBut, wait, why was he registering? He was registering because he was basically living on morning and cable television. Because, you know, I think that people go on television for ratings, and he has a very highly rated TV show.
PAGEYeah, that's true. Kind of a chicken and egg thing there, I guess.
BROWNSTEINNo -- yeah, I think he lets the media off too easily. You know, the structure of so much of modern media coverage, particularly in cable and a lot of the Internet, is around artificially accentuating the point -- the hottest issues and kind of elevating them and -- because that's what it is. I mean, it is talk radio on television -- much of cable -- and that is what people respond to. I remember, in the -- those of you who are fans of the "Predator" (word?) movies, in the second movie, at one point they say, the creature is attracted to heat and conflict.
BROWNSTEINThat's pretty much, I think, the case of a lot of the modern media, especially on cable, and that's just the reality. And Trump was skillful enough to play on its bias toward anything that is outrageous. I mean, you didn't see quite as many conversations in that period, say, between Gail Wilensky and Len Nichols about the virtues of converting Medicare into a voucher on "Morning Joe." I mean, that just isn't the way it goes, and that's just the reality. And as we were talking about before, what that means for people who are actually in power is that it's hard to keep even fringe ideas confined to the fringe because when they get enough heat, the more mainstream outlets are drawn to it, too.
PAGERhonda made another point, which I also felt when the president came out, and it was the day that we had just had news reports attributed to sources about the appointment of the new Defense secretary and the other foreign policies rep. We weren't talking about that, and neither was he. He was forced to address these false and this kind of bogus controversy from the White House in the most high-profile way by having the president himself doing it. That made me -- took me aback, I guess, Jerry.
SEIBWell, it's a very unusual moment, and it made some people think everybody in Washington had taken leave of their senses, which may be entirely true. I will say, though, that's offset by the emails that I've gotten from readers over the month saying, why aren't you people covering this Birther controversy? Don't you understand? And so, you know, there is a sense at which, you know, it's difficult to find the right balance. And, as you suggested at the outset, the mainstream media largely ignored the whole birth certificate controversy. But if you go to the broader media landscape, that Karen and Ron were describing, then that's a different story.
PAGEYes, that's definitely true. You know, we found out this week that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour will not run for president. A lot of us had expected him to do that because he had been spending a whole lot of time in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Karen, why do you think he decided not to make a bid?
TUMULTYWell, officially, what he said was that he didn't feel that he had the fire in his belly. But I think he made the calculation that somebody of his profile, a, you know, former lobbyist, a, you know -- a southerner with a history of making some uncomfortable remarks about race, just was not electable, despite the fact, by the way, that he is a revered figure within the Republican Party and, as much as anyone, deserves credit for marshalling a lot of the resources that brought about these -- the victories in the midterm elections.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk about the space shuttle launch this afternoon and some of the figures that will be there to see the space shuttle Endeavour take off. And we'll take more of your calls and questions for our panel of journalists on this first hour of "The Diane Rehm News Roundup." Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio for our domestic news roundup, Ronald Brownstein from National Journal, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and Jerry Seib from The Wall Street Journal. We're taking your calls and questions. You know, we've gotten a lot of emails and callers who make points similar to the one that Ted has posted on Twitter. He sent us a tweet. He writes, "The president's mother was a U.S. citizen who had recently spent a long time in the U.S. Where he was born doesn't matter anyway, which sends me to the Constitution, to Article II Section 1 which says, 'No person, except a natural born citizen shall be eligible to the office of president.'"
PAGESo, Karen, is it clear whether the birther issue is moot, that it doesn't matter in terms of the president's eligibility for the presidency, whether he's born in Hawaii or not?
TUMULTYWell, precisely what the framers of the Constitution meant by a natural born citizen is a question that has come up before, but has never made it all the way to the Supreme Court, but most legal scholars believe that the fact that he was born to an American -- undisputedly United States citizen mother means he was undisputedly a United States citizen, no matter where that birth would have taken place. For people who make the argument that the reason this argument is being even raised about Barack Obama is rooted in -- more in his race than anything else, you have to look at some earlier instances in American history.
TUMULTYFor instance, John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone. And Mitt Romney's own father, George Romney, who ran for president and was not questioned on his citizenship in 1968, was actually born in a Mormon colony in Mexico. So, again, this is -- you know, this is a question that some legal scholars might say has never been really put to the test. But it really wasn't ever raised before either about people who were, in some ways, in more questionable circumstances than Barack Obama.
PAGEWe have some listeners who have posted just that point, Karen, about whether there's a racial overtone to this whole dispute. One of them writes us, "You cannot discuss the entire birther thing and other attacks without talking about the racism behind it. To pretend, as your panel does, that it is rooted in other things, is to ignore American history." Jerry, do you think...
SEIBWell, I there is...
PAGEIs that fair to say there's clearly a racial overtone here?
SEIBI think it's a fair point. And, you know, I think there -- it is hard to look at the man who's the first African-American president in the nation's history and say that race isn't a factor in lots of conversations. And I suspect in this one it is to some extent. Hard to quantify, but, you know, I think there is an issue there that's legitimate.
BROWNSTEINCan I -- I think both sides, though, are kind of legitimate here. There's, unquestionably, an element of race, racial consciousness and racial sensitivity in the questioning of Obama's citizenship in the way that many white voters are reacting to him. But that is not the whole story. I mean, you know, Republicans in the 2010 midterm won the highest share of white votes that they've won in any congressional election in the history of modern polling -- 60 percent, a level reached only twice by Democrats ever in the history of modern polling. And that is rooted in more than racial resistance to Obama. It's rooted in a fundamental collapse in big parts of the white electorate of the belief that government can do anything positive in their lives.
BROWNSTEINAnd he is facing that deep, entrenched resistance. It is a -- it's a challenge with the society because you have a racial chasm about the role of government with minorities much more positive and believing that it can be a positive force in society, and much of the white electorate, really, really dubious now. You could see an extraordinary racial gap in the voting in 2012 that will be driven by factors. Sure, there is some racial consciousness, but it will be largely driven by factors apart from that.
PAGEInteresting. Let's go back to the phones, talk to Juliet. She's calling us from Raleigh, N.C. Juliet, thanks for holding on.
JULIETYes. Good morning. A couple of things. The first thing I wanted to talk about, one of the panelists I heard -- he said that, you know, the nation was disappointed in both administration, both Republican and Democrat. I tend to disagree with that. I think people are now waking up to the fact that it's the Republicans that's standing in the way of any progress whatsoever. And, also, the people who voted in the midterm, they voted mostly out of the frustration 'cause things wasn't getting done fast enough by the current administration. And look what you're doing now. A lot of states are paying for that now. So I'd be careful of what you wish for. That's why, I think, some people shouldn't be allowed to vote because they vote the wrong people in all the time and...
PAGEIt's kind of the nature of democracy there, Juliet, that people, you know, maybe sometimes make mistakes in voting but that they get the chance to do so. Is there a lot of second-thinking about the results of the 22 midterms, which were a huge victory for Republicans and a setback for Democrats?
SEIBWell, no, I don't think so. I suspect most people who voted in 2010, given the chance to do it over again a few months later, would probably do, more or less, the same thing. I think the broader question here, though, is -- that we were really discussing was, I think, a demonstrable lack of confidence in all kinds of American institutions, not just the two parties but, you know, the federal government, the press, certainly the banking establishments, the business community. Every poll shows a kind of declining level of faith in all kinds of institutions, the military being the most notable exception to that. And that's the environment. And I think that's a political environment, but it's also a cultural environment.
BROWNSTEINI say -- I mean, I disagree a little bit. I think the Republican popularity has clearly declined since they've taken office and kind of moved forward with their agenda. We had, in 2010, a -- as we did in 2006 and 2008, a very traditional kind of backlash against the party in power. First, it benefited the Democrats. Now, it benefited the Republicans. Here we are in 2011 with divided government, and you are seeing the unusual circumstance of both sides declining simultaneously, with President Obama facing the lowest approval ratings again of his presidency and the Republican numbers sliding as well.
BROWNSTEINI'm not sure exactly what that translates into. I mean, you know, some of the people are most unhappy at the Republicans -- like older white seniors are also the groups that are most resistant to the president. So exactly how that plays out in 2012 is unclear. But I think both sides are on a hill that is kind of muddy, and they are sliding down at this moment.
TUMULTYAnd I might take issue with one point that Juliet made, which is that people voted the way they did in 2010 because not enough was happening. In fact, a whole lot had been happening over the previous two years, a gigantic health care bill, huge bailouts, but it wasn't working, at least in what people felt were ways that affected their own lives.
PAGEYou might naturally think if both parties were held in ill repute that this would be a rich environment for a third party. Do you see that happening, Ron?
BROWNSTEINWell, you know, the practical hurdles are enormous in terms of becoming a viable third party, and it really has to be a viable third individual. I mean, that's the way modern American politics work. It would have to be a charismatic or wealthy individual. But, sure, when you are looking at the level of discontent with both parties, there's no question that a kind of non-ideological, pragmatic, I'm-going-to-get-under-the-hood-and-fix-this-thing, would find an audience. You know, lots of difficulties in winning states because they're so polarized. You might finish second to a Democrat in all the blue states and second to a Republican in all the red states, but is there 20, 25 percent of the popular vote that would listen to some third party if you found the right candidate? I think so.
PAGESome supporters of Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who ran for the Republican nomination the last time around, think he could be a third party figure. He'll be the guest on "The Diane Rehm Show" on Tuesday, so you might want to tune in for that. Let's go to Cincinnati, Ohio, and talk to Alice. Alice, you're on the air.
ALICEHey, hello. Thank you. I just wanted to give a perspective from Cincinnati, which is very traditionally conservative. I was (word?) at church, at school, at home, in my neighborhood. I am surrounded always by Republicans. And I can tell you that the perspective from here is that Trump is just full of hot air, and we don't understand why he's getting the coverage that he is. The same with Sarah Palin, she does not represent the votes here. I'm not in favor of those candidates at all. But the person of interest here generally being talked about is Mitch Daniels. So I'm thinking that the coverage that some of these individuals are getting is maybe because of some fringe elements of the Republican Party. But I can tell you, this is a very conservative area, and nobody here is interested in those folks.
ALICEWe're also not interested in -- we're not at all interested in the birth certificate of President Obama. That has nothing to do with our daily financial family issues. And we just think it's silly, and we need to move on for it. So the coverage for us is a little confusing.
PAGEAlice, thank you so much for giving us a call. Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, said he would decide whether to run for president when the state legislature finishes its session. I think it finishes today, so we expect a decision pretty soon. Karen, do you think that Gov. Daniels is going to run for president?
TUMULTYYou know, he and Haley Barbour are very close friends. And so there was a lot of speculation when Mississippi Gov. Barbour decided not to run, that this might tilt the needle a little bit toward Mitch Daniels. But he's been very torn about that -- this decision he has made, been very public about the fact that how ambivalent he feels. One thing that's going to be really interesting to watch is that one of the last pieces of legislation that the Indiana legislature passed was a bill that would essentially cut off millions of dollars of federal funding to Planned Parenthood -- not for abortion, but for family planning.
TUMULTYNow, one of the hurdles Mitch Daniels might have in a Republican primary is the fact that he has said there should be a truce on the social issues. How he handles that bill, whether he vetoes it, signs it or lets it become law just by not signing it, could be an indicator as to how he's standing in this.
PAGEAnd what action would indicate he was running, do you think?
TUMULTYAgain, people who are watching this believe that if he were to sign the bill or let it become law, that might smooth his entry into a Republican primary.
PAGEYou now, it is true that none -- no one in the field is in a really -- in the Republican field is in a really commanding position. Some people think Mitt Romney is the next guy in line. That's been a long tradition in Republican politics. But no one is getting more than a fourth of the votes.
SEIBYou know, I think that's a factor we ought to mention here. You know, one of the realities here is there's a bit of a vacuum on the Republican side that Donald Trump could walk into. A lot of that vacuum is created by the fact that Mitt Romney, who's perceived as the front-runner, has not been exactly invisible, but close to there, too. He's totally running under the radar screen, has made a strategic decision not to engage for a while yet. The other potential front-runner -- at least if you believe the polls -- is Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who's also not even decided yet if he's going to run. There's a vacuum there. And I think Donald Trump, to some extent, walked into that.
BROWNSTEINYeah, look, I mean, empirically, the Republican race is less formed this close to the first vote than any Republican race arguably since 1940. I mean, Gallup polling goes back to 1952. The national front-runner has always been at least in the 30s at this point. As Jerry said, now, they're kicking around 20 percent. You probably have to go back to Wendell Willkie, you know, in 1940 -- they had a race that was less than formed. And I think it is, to a large extent, because of what Jerry said, which is that you have a putative front-runner in Mitt Romney, who many people doubt can win because of health care, on the one hand, and questions about his religion among the evangelical base.
BROWNSTEINOn the other, there's another problem, though, which is that the Republican coalition has been evolving over the last few decades. It's now -- the downscale, non-college, blue-collar part of the Republican Party is now as big as the upscale managerial part of the Republican Party. And you don't really have any candidate at this point who is appealing to both wings of the party. You have a Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, maybe Jon Huntsman for the managerial side. You have people like Palin and Trump and Huckabee, who are very strong in the blue-collar, Joe-the-Plumber, economically populist, culturally conservative side. No one is transcending the party, and that is one reason why no one is really reaching above 20 percent.
SEIBJust a footnote, the one guy who thinks he can do that is Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, who has a blue-collar background but appeals to the conservatives. He's the one guy who thinks he can bridge that divide, I think.
PAGEIs one reason some of the figures seen as potentially the strongest candidates -- like a Jeb Bush, for instance -- not running because they think President Obama, in fact, despite his problems is going to pretty tough to beat? Karen, what do you think?
TUMULTYWell, I think Jeb Bush is probably also, you know, being pulled back by the fact that it's a little soon for the last name of Bush to return for a third term...
BROWNSTEINDecent interval, those two words.
TUMULTYBut I do think there's a totally different dynamic when you have an incumbent president. In fact, Mike Huckabee told me that a few weeks back in an interview. He said, you know, people in my party are underestimating how hard it's going to be able to beat a guy who's going to be sitting on a billion dollars and have Air Force One at his disposal.
PAGEI'm Susan Page. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Lansing, Mich., and start -- talk to Jan. Jan, hi.
JANHi. How are you?
JANI was going to listen to you today. I was curious -- I have not heard this discussed anywhere. I'm wondering who is looking after Rep. Gifford's district while she is recovering? Are they not represented in Congress? Or is there some temporary person in place?
PAGEUh huh. All right. Jan, thanks for your call. Karen?
TUMULTYWell, as is often the case when members of Congress are disabled temporarily -- sometimes, this has gone on for months and over a year at a time -- I think most of the day-to-day constituent service of her district is being handled by her staff. And, no, the district does not have a vote on the House floor.
PAGEYou know, it's remarkable that just four months after she was shot in that tragedy in Tucson, we expect to see Gabrielle Giffords for the first time at the space shuttle launch. Her husband is commanding that mission this afternoon. It should be a remarkable scene, Jerry.
SEIBIt will be. And, you know, the president will be there. Gabby Giffords will be there. It was going to be a historic shuttle launch anyway because Endeavour is at the end of its life. But this makes it all the more poignant. And, as you say, who -- I mean, I don't -- I doubt any of us would have ever guessed, that day that that shooting happened, that we would be talking about this today.
PAGETalk a bit about the purpose of this Endeavour mission, if you could, this next-to-the-last shuttle mission and the last for the Endeavour.
TUMULTYWell, what -- it has a rather controversial -- and I'm not a nuclear physicist here, but it's a -- I believe it's a $2 billion science project aboard to look at subatomic particles. And what's interesting about Gabby Giffords is that she, when she was active and fit, in Congress, was one of the leading critics of one of President Obama's plans, which was to privatize a lot of what NASA does. And she was complaining that these sorts of things could actually sort of pull the space agency off of its mission.
PAGEI'm also not a nuclear physicist, but I can tell you that the mission will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station, and the astronauts will take four space walks. And the results of the Spectrometer experiments could help us understand the origins of the universe.
TUMULTYSee, just like I said.
BROWNSTEINRight. And it's nice to be -- you know, you feel like -- when you're in a country that feels like it can afford to do that, you wonder if we're moving into a different place...
SEIBWell, we'll see how Americans react -- excuse me -- when they discover that future American astronauts who want to go to this International Space Station have to ride with the Russians to get there. I don't know how that's going to go over.
PAGENow, President Obama and his family, his two daughters and his wife, will be there as well. And he speaks at a commencement there this evening. Some controversy in Florida about the plans that the president has outlined for NASA, some disappointment with that, Karen.
TUMULTYAnd this is, again, this idea that a lot of its mission should be sort of privatized. And it is, I think, in Florida, at least believed that this is a basic, you know, diversion of the whole point of NASA.
PAGEAnd, of course, Florida, one of the key states we expect in the 2012 presidential races. It has been before. Well, I want to thank our panel for being with us this hour. Ronald Brownstein, political director and columnist for the National Journal, Jerry Seib, he's Washington Bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and Karen Tumulty, national political reporter for The Washington Post. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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