America’s Collision Course With The Debt Ceiling
As the nation counts down to default, Diane talks to longtime Congress watcher Norm Ornstein about the debt limit negotiations, what's at stake and whether he sees a way forward.
Guest Host: Susan Page
President Barack Obama lays out proposals to combat gun violence. The Federal Aviation Administration grounds Boeing’s Dreamliner. And new home construction rises to its highest level in four years. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a cold. President Obama outlined proposals to combat gun violence. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliner. And new home construction rose to its highest level in four years. Joining me in the studio for the national hour of our Friday News Roundup are James Fallows of The Atlantic, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and Ari Shapiro of NPR. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JAMES FALLOWSGood morning.
MR. ARI SHAPIROThanks for having us.
MS. KAREN TUMULTYGood morning.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850, send us as an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Ari, we -- President Obama made a big announcement Wednesday on his proposals on guns, including some legislation that would have to get through Congress. What is he proposing?
SHAPIROA lot of different steps, some of them hugely popular like universal background checks, background checks on every gun sale, not only the gun sales that are through license dealers. Some of them a little less popular like a ban on assault weapons and then somewhere in the middle, a ban on magazines that carry more than 10 bullets. It's not clear right now whether this will be one huge legislative package, whether it'll be a bunch of small bills that might be easier to get through Congress.
SHAPIROIt is clear that the president is going to, as he says, put all the weight of his office behind it and do everything he can to get these bills through a Congress that is perhaps less enthusiastic about some of these measures, certainly Republicans in the House less enthusiastic than the American people at large who generally, in polls, seem to support many of these steps.
PAGESo, Karen, we know a majority of Americans support most of these steps. And on some steps like universal background checks, it's 85 percent of America to back them. So why won't Congress just pass them? Shouldn't this be an easy one?
TUMULTYWell, I remember, the first gun control vote I ever covered in the 1980s. I was talking to a congressman, who said, you know, the people who support gun control will forgive me if I crossed them, the NRA never will. And they will never forget. The National Rifle Association is an extraordinary power, and there is also support in polling for some other things, for instance, again, you know, putting armed people in schools. So this is one of those issues where passion tends to burn brightly but really quickly burn out.
FALLOWSAs political phenomenon, I think we've seen, over the decades, sadly, whenever there's one of these mass shootings, there's a week or two of flags at half-staff and statements of commemoration by various public officials, mourning by the president, and usually, it then pitters away. And simply, the attrition of grief had been one of the NRA's main allies.
FALLOWSIn this case, President Obama said last month that he was going to do something about this. And the fact that Vice President Biden had his big summits and the president is now making this formal push suggests that this moment may be different from all the ones we've seen before.
SHAPIROBut, Susan, one of the things that strikes me so much about this is how far the president traveled and how quickly. I was looking back at a story I did a year and a half ago on the six-month anniversary of the Tucson shooting that was basically all of these gun control groups so frustrated that the White House had done absolutely nothing during President Obama's first four years.
SHAPIROAnd in that story, I had a quote from Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, who said, there's a task force at the Justice Department working on this that will have recommendations soon. We'll that was a year and a half ago. There were, you know, a handful of shootings since then, and it was really only after Newtown that the president changed in such a big way, putting this at the top of his agenda on a really short timeline, just one month after the shootings.
PAGEBut, Karen, is it clear it's at the top of his agenda? I know he did a big event on Wednesday. But, you know, there are some other things that also want to be at the top of his agenda, like a comprehensive immigration reform which he promised in 2008, promised again in 2012 Do we know this is at the top of his agenda?
TUMULTYWell, that event was just truly extraordinary. And to have, you know, to have an event as emotionally wrought as that one was, I think, it is -- you're right. This is a top-heavy agenda. There is, you know, there are a lot of things up there. This is one issue that if they don't move quickly, they have absolutely no chance of succeeding.
PAGELet's listen for a moment to part of an ad that the National Rifle Association aired this week.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEAre the President's kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he is just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.
PAGESo, Jim, explain to me the NRA strategy behind that ad.
FALLOWSI think this might have been designed by the same PR geniuses who are scripting Wayne LaPierre's immediate response to the Newtown shootings, where he's saying the only answer was having more people, more good guys with guns. And I think that that the -- any reasonable observer would find this a repugnant ad.
FALLOWSI believe Susan Eisenhower talked about it even this morning and saying that when she was the grandchild of the sitting president, she had to protected by armed guards as matters of national security, which is the case with Obama's children too. I think that the larger point here is that President Obama, over his career, has often relied on maneuvering his opponents to the extreme fringe. It look likes the NRA may be positioning itself there now.
PAGEWell, Ari, why do you think is there -- I mean, the ad has been widely denounced. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey has objected it. Susan Eisenhower, as you say, the granddaughter of a Republican president, said -- in an op-ed piece that ran this morning said it hurts our democracy by twisting the nature of the public debate. So does it do anything positive for the NRA? Is this -- or is this is a case where they have misfired?
SHAPIROThey had a choice to either try to win over people, who might have been partially but not entirely sympathetic to them, or to try to solidify their base members and their base supporters who believe so fervently that the government is a threat that must be countered with individuals arming themselves. They decided rather than maybe win over the wafflers, they are going to energize the base.
PAGEYou know, one of the questions is whether this is a different time, a different case than after some previous shooting rampages. And one of the things we saw this week also were the Sandy Hook parents coming out and promising to be a force on this. It reminded me a little of the 9/11 families, who became really an influential part of the debate in the aftermath of that tragedy. What do you think, Jim?
FALLOWSYes. I think these are the counterpoint to the NRA, which, as we've been saying, has reminded politicians it will never forget if they betray them, if there's somebody on the other side who everybody knows is going to be there. It's interesting, as Ari was saying, the NRA was choosing between sort of solidifying its base or looking for the middle how much that is the tone of a lot of politics now. It was the case certainly on deficit issues and tax issues and I think also in the confirmation of Chuck Hagel, which we may get to later on. There's a sort of solidify-the-base versus a look-at-the-middle strategy.
TUMULTYYou know, though, and I hate to keep bringing up my first gun control vote that I covered, but at that point in the '80s when they were rolling back the laws, the gun control laws that have been passed in 1968 after the assassinations, they were being fought, the NRA, by the law enforcement officials from all over the country.
TUMULTYAnd I will never forget the sight of dozens and dozens and dozens of law enforcement officials coming to the capital having to check their firearms at the door and then lining the halls, each of them wearing an empty holster and letting all these members of Congress walk past them. And in the end, the NRA won on that one.
PAGEYou know, we have another force being announced today in this debate, and that is a new organization based on -- the Obama campaign organization is going to be called Organizing for Action, OFA. Could this be a factor, do you think, Ari?
SHAPIROI think this is going to be so interesting to see broadly, not just on guns, but on every issue how the Obama team uses this incredible structure that it built during the campaign in its second term. I think one lesson they learned during the first term is that if you don't use it, it shrivels up and sort of withers. I think of almost like, you know, a Jack Russell terrier that you have to teach it a new trick every week otherwise it gets bored and goes crazy.
SHAPIROYou have to give the grassroots something to do week after week, month after month, otherwise they'll disengaged and go do something else. So now we've got this new iteration of OFA that, you know, we'll see whether it's effective. Certainly President Obama wants people to speak up, not only in the blue states, but all over the country. And we'll see what impact that has.
PAGEBut, you know, I think the effort after the first inauguration to kind of utilize this network of people who supported Obama to affect policy, I don't think it worked as well as the Obama people had hoped, Karen.
TUMULTYI think that there are a couple of issues here, one that it is hard to sort of mobilize people around an issue the way you can around a candidate in which people really have a personal and a different kind of connection. The other, I think, challenge here is that this kind of organization, I think, could help in the Senate because senators represent entire states, and states usually have big and diverse populations.
TUMULTYBut the way the district lines are now drawn for the House of Representatives, there are so many districts that have been drawn specifically to be very, very conservative, very, very Republican. And as a result, you're really not going to have that kind of critical mass of Obama supporters to be leaning on that individual House member.
PAGEYou know, speaking of states, Jim, we have seen some governors really run on this issue in -- Martin O'Malley in Maryland, Andrew Cuomo in New York. Tell us what's happening in the states. And is that an effective substitute if the federal government won't act?
FALLOWSI think many of the governors have pointed out that the states cannot, by themselves, entirely supplant federal activity but is a compliment to federal activity. And we've seen the same kind of a red-blue, north-south polarization on these issues that we've seen on many others.
FALLOWSI think The New York Times had a fascinating graphic a day or two ago where they pie charted all the states, essentially the ones in the old Confederacy or the ones with, as you would expect, the weakest gun control laws. So I think this will be one more effort that can supplement the push for federal legislation but not entirely replace it.
PAGEAri, one last thing. The president also announced some actions he could take by executive order, things that wouldn't depend on Congress. What sorts of things?
SHAPIROWell, the Centers for Disease Control is going to do more research into the link between gun violence and violent entertainment. They're going to expand the mental health safety net and other steps like this that he says, you know, as important as they are, are no substitute for what Congress can do. But there's a really wide range: enforcing existing laws, instructing federal prosecutors to go after people who lie on background check paperwork. These are all things that, you know, he could have done from the very beginning, that any president could do, 23 steps that he just signed.
FALLOWSAnd it's worth remembering, you know, as Ari was saying, a year and a half ago, the president wasn't doing much. Only about three months ago, there was a presidential debate where both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama ran as far as they could away from any gun control questions. So this is a reminder of how events do really drive the actions of administrations whatever their plans might be.
PAGEAnd notable also that in that long campaign, the only time that gun control was raised in a prominent way was by a citizen at the town hall forum that they had in that debate.
SHAPIROIt's funny, I remember being at a Mitt Romney rally where Wayne LaPierre of the NRA was giving a speech, and he was talking about how antagonistic President Obama is towards gun. I was thinking to myself, in the first term, he really hasn't been. Well, Wayne LaPierre, I guess, had some anticipation of what was going to happen now because -- of course, not literally, but things have changed.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about changes in the White House staff and the cabinet. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio: Ari Shapiro, he's the White House correspondent for NPR, Karen Tumulty, she's national political reporter at The Washington Post, and James Fallows, he's the national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. Well, Karen, we expect an announcement any day now on the president's new White House chief of staff. Who is it?
TUMULTYHe is a long-time very close aid to the president named Denis McDonough. And it's interesting. I think that going back to November, he was -- his was not the name that you heard most often when people would speculate who is likely to be the next chief of staff. But -- and he is also a foreign policy expert. He's been the, I believe, deputy director of the National Security Council.
TUMULTYSo it's going to be an interesting, new and broad role for him. But what it really indicates, I think, is the degree to which for a second term, the president is really turning, you know, looking inside his closest circle and really surrounding himself by loyalists as opposed to, you know, people who bring dazzling, you know, resumes to these jobs.
PAGEYou know, I've seen two newspapers last week use the same phrase saying he'd gone from a team of rivals, like Abraham Lincoln, to a band of brothers. And they were siding not the White House chief of staff job, which hadn't filled to that point, but changes in the cabinet, bringing in John Kerry as secretary of state and former Sen. Hagel at the Defense Department. What does that tell us, if anything, Jim, about the president's second term?
FALLOWSAnd I think also Jack Lew as secretary of the Treasury as opposed to Timothy Geithner who had experience in international and financial markets. And Lew, of course, is much more a budget and Washington person. I think there's an interesting diversion from the normal path of second term presidents, which is often the case that in a second term, a president, knowing the days are counting down, thinks of himself as an international statesman and is looking these ways to solve the Middle East crisis, whatever.
FALLOWSPresident Obama did more of that in his first term or aspired to more, you know, he failed in the Middle East but aspired to more international dealings than, I think, many presidents did. And it looks to me as if second term ambitions are more domestic, for example, immigration bills, which we'll talk about, having investment in infrastructure, keeping the economy going. So I think maybe this team of his close rivals -- his close allies will suggest at a domestic focus.
PAGEAri, do we think that Sen. Hagel, Sen. Kerry, Jack Lew, do we think they're going to have any trouble getting -- winning confirmation in the Senate?
SHAPIROUltimately, no. It looks like there will be pushback on Chuck Hagel above the others, some pushback on Lew. But ultimately, we expect all three of them to be confirmed. I think the pair of nominations of Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department and John Brennan to run the CIA says something really important about President Obama's approach to war which is that Hagel is this Vietnam veteran who knows the cost of a long, drawn-out war and doesn't like it.
SHAPIROJohn Brennan is this guy who helped build the infrastructure of the drone strikes and a kill list that characterized so much of the way President Obama has been fighting wars for the last four years. And so by elevating this guy so closely associated with drones and a kill list to run the CIA, who is also so close to President Obama, and elevating this guy who understands the intense cost of a ground war to run the Defense Department, you can sort of see a portrait of what wars are going to look like going forward.
PAGEYou know, Ari, that's such an interesting point. And, of course, if you look at differences of the second term compared to the first, one of the big things that President Obama did in his first term was get U.S. troops out of Iraq. U.S. troops -- most combat troops are coming out of Afghanistan by the end of next year. So he's going to face a different landscape when he looks around the globe. Karen.
TUMULTYI -- that is absolutely the case. And so, again, I mean, this is -- it's interesting that the inauguration, the beginning of a second term, should come almost exactly at the moment of that pivot.
PAGEYou know, we heard a lot of talk about representation of women in the president's top ranks. But I was interested this week that Ken Salazar announced he was leaving as interior secretary. Hilda Solis announced she was leaving as secretary of labor. And as Jill Lawrence of National Journal notes in a column this morning, that means the two Hispanic members of the president's cabinet are leaving. Is that problem for him, do you think, Jim?
FALLOWSIt is a problem of perception and I'm sure the administration will be attending to. It's -- when there was the criticism of the Boys Club and the National Security positions, it was worth remembering that if Susan Rice had not faced the pushback she did from a lot of Republicans then it would've been at least as diverse the National Security team had been in the first term. And President Obama, I think, can rightly claim that on policy issues, on court appointments and most other ways, he's been as much an avatar of diversity as you could want it.
FALLOWSI want to say one other thing about the Hagel nomination. I think it's significant that two or three weeks ago, there was a very, very concerted effort to essentially delegitimize Sen. Hagel as anti-Semitic. And that has gone away, and I can't remember a similar case where that charge has been waged as seriously and has been rebutted. And the nominee has gone forward.
PAGEAnd, of course, Chuck Schumer, the New York senator, I think, was important both in raising it as a concern and then saying his questions about it have been answered in a meeting he had with Sen. Hagel. What do you make of the fact of this?
FALLOWSI think that it is, you know, of a piece. As I was saying earlier with the NRA becoming more extreme in its arguments, I think the people who are threatening default on the debt and people claiming anti-Semitism for any disagreement on Middle East policy, maybe each of those three groups is showing that it is a strong minority appeal, but perhaps a harder to win centrist opinion.
TUMULTYCould I just, before we leave Chuck Hagel here, add just one more thing? And not that I'm suggesting here that symbolism should trump other aspects. But Chuck Hagel, if he is confirmed, will mark the first time that anyone has risen from the ranks of the enlisted to become secretary of Defense. And I think that sends a very, very strong statement both to active duty military around the world when we are asking so much of them and also to past people who have served.
PAGEAnd the fact that he continues to carry shrapnel in his body from the Vietnam War, that's a pretty powerful image as well. Republicans, meanwhile, Ari, are on retreat in Williamsburg, Va. this weekend.
SHAPIROOn retreat literally, not metaphorically.
PAGEWhat are they trying to figure out?
SHAPIROWhat they're going to do for the next two and perhaps four years, what their agenda is whether, you know, they can really fight hard to prevent the debt ceiling from going up without comparable spending cuts and just, you know, after what they feel was a loss in the fiscal cliff battle, how they're going to fight these subsequent battles over everything from the sequester to, you know, the immigration. You know, there are these -- there's a really interesting bit in The New York Times about the Vote No/Hope Yes caucus among the House Republicans. People who cannot...
PAGENow, say that again.
SHAPIROThe Vote No/Hope Yes. So these were people who voted against the fiscal cliff package because they could not be seen to be compromising because they live in such staunchly Republican districts that they are more likely to be threatened in the primary by somebody to their right than they are in a general election by a Democrat. So they cannot vote yes on these things. But they really believe these things have to get done, and they don't want to torpedo the ship. But they just can't be seen to be going along with the Democrats either.
PAGEYou know, Karen, one of the interesting stories coming out of Williamsburg is this strategy that Paul Ryan, the budget chairman, talked about to the troops yesterday, which would be to basically not use the debt ceiling, which we've been waiting for perhaps next month to be a problem but instead delay that fight by a month and tie it to these sweeping spending cuts that were part of the fiscal cliff. What's happening, and what's the reasoning behind that?
TUMULTYWell, the reasoning is that these are the spending cuts that were agreed to on sort of a bipartisan basis. And we do have another thing happening a month later which is that people forget that the government is operating on one of these -- the continuing resolutions, you know, basically of a stopgap measure. And that is going to come, you know, to fruition or whatever you come to when resolution runs out. And so it's kind of a different platform when you're not necessarily putting the faith and credit of the United States on the line there.
PAGEWell, let's go to the phones and let out listeners join this conversation. You can reach us on our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can also send us an email, email@example.com. Let's first go to Hamish. He's calling us from Sycamore, Ill. Hi. You're on the air.
HAMISHGood morning. I'm calling particularly about the firearms regulations. Here in Illinois, we have to have a firearms registration card to buy a weapon. We also need that card to buy ammunition. We cannot buy ammunition without it. If your card expires, you have the weapon, you cannot buy ammunition. Now, well, a background check is five years. This needs to be changed to 10 years. And...
PAGEYou mean, checking into 10 years of your background, do you mean?
PAGEYes. Mm hmm.
HAMISHYes. And so people who are taking medication prescribed by a doctor to stabilize their personality, there should be a red flag somehow somewhere -- I'm sure it can be done -- that does not interfere with the privacy of the individual to the general public to -- so that there is a stop.
HAMISHAnd, I mean, most of these situations are problems caused by people who are disturbed.
PAGEHamish, let me ask you a question. You know a lot about how it works in Illinois. Are you a gun owner yourself?
HAMISHYes, I am. Yes, I am. And I am a firm believer that we do not need canisters or 30-round clips. A 20-round, you know, weapon is sufficient. The -- my -- I have -- one of the weapons that I own is -- holds 14 rounds.
PAGEAnd what do you use that for?
HAMISHBasically target practice, and I don't use it for hunting. It's -- it is a semi-automatic, but I do target practice with it. I have a second weapon that I also use. It's a semi-automatic. And I am not bad. I'm pretty good with it.
PAGEAll right. Hamish, thank you so much for your call.
SHAPIROYou know, he mentioned backgrounds checks and mental health, and that's one of the 23 or maybe three of the 23 items that President Obama addressed in his executive orders. There is such a patchwork from one state to another where some don't submit any records to the federal database called NICS, the background check database. Some don't submit any mental health records. There are concerns about privacy that the president plans to address, and he's even set aside some money for states to do a better job of getting records in the database.
TUMULTYAnd also the line that he was describing, where you would -- the owner of a gun would have to carry a card before he or she could buy a gun or ammunition, reminds me of a line that former Vice President Al Gore tried to walk in the 2000 campaign where he proposed the licensing of gun owners, but stopped short of the registration of their actual guns.
TUMULTYAnd this was considered at the time to be sort of a middle ground on the issue. And yet there are many people who, including former President Bill Clinton, who think that the gun issue was one of the main reasons that Al Gore lost that race.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. I mean, that's one reason gun control has become so difficult, is that Democrats concluded, Democrats who were the more willing to support gun control concluded that it was really costing them in red states. And now we have some Democratic senators up for re-election next year from reddish or purple states that I think must be worried about the politics of it.
FALLOWSSure. So we have the politics of it, and the question is whether that has changed in the wake of Newtown, and that we'll see. Then there's the substance of how you regulate things. The ammunition factor, which Hamish mentioned, is something that's -- the late Sen. Moynihan used to talk about. If you regulated ammunition, you could control these mass events. There are precedents for that in other ways we control problem.
FALLOWSFor example, as we all know from "Breaking Bad," if you try to buy certain cold remedies, you can only buy so many before you trip off, you know, warnings. I am a pilot, and while flying around is not regulated that much, all sorts of things about your background of where you're -- are sort of checked to see -- they don't regulate the flight, but they look for unusual patterns, which could be the case with ammunition purchases, too.
PAGEOh, that's interesting. Let's go back to the phones, talk to Tyree, (sp?) calling us from Port Washington, Md. Hi.
PAGEYes. Please, go ahead.
TYREEOK. Thanks so much. My question is with so much focus on the changes that are occurring with the president's cabinet, I want to get the panel's perspective on the cabinet members that have chosen or been asked to remain for a second term and the implications of those members that will remain.
PAGEAll right. Tyree, thanks so much for your question. Let me ask Ari a question myself first, which is did all the cabinet members have the option of staying if they wanted to?
SHAPIROI don't know of anyone who was forced out. It's possible that we'll see books come out in the next couple of years that reveal that, but I'm not aware of any. I think one of the most interesting people staying on is Eric Holder partly because he was such a target of Republicans for the last four years, not only the NRA, but Republicans in Congress, you know, everything from Guantanamo to guns he has been sort of the poster boy for.
SHAPIROAnd he's staying on partly to pursue this gun agenda. Another one who's staying on is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He tried really hard to get a new five-year farm bill. It passed the Senate, did not come up for a vote in the House. They passed a nine-month extension. He's been sort of the liaison of the Obama administration to rural America. He helps with the blue-collar, white working-class folks. He's staying on, former governor of Iowa, in hopes of getting a five-year farm bill down the road.
TUMULTYOne of my favorite little stories about one of the people leaving, Ken Salazar, is the fact that thanks to this kind of constitutional glitch -- because he'd been in the Senate when he voted for a pay raise for cabinet members -- he was actually forced to -- he was earning significantly less than anyone else in the cabinet. So, for him, it may be that the financial pinch got a little bit too much too.
PAGEWe had some good news on the economy this week, Jim. The Commerce Department reported yesterday that construction on new homes rose 12.1 percent in the month of December, the highest in almost four years. Good news.
FALLOWSYes. I think there has been modestly good news in a number of fronts for six to eight months now and for purely cyclical reasons. You would expect now, more than four years after a huge financial crash, there would be -- begin to be recovery in the housing market and banking sectors. There's some manufacturing rebound in the U.S., although that is troubled.
FALLOWSAs part of the reason the stakes were so high in this last election, the expectation is a better economic time ahead. So whoever is in charge of that politically can take it to the credit of his narrative. President Obama can say, it's our concerted investment plan, or Gov. Romney would have been able to say, it's our tax cutting plan...
PAGEIs it clear, do you think, that the recovery is on track, not going to get turned around, that the risk of a double-dip recession, which we talked about some last year, is over?
FALLOWSI think no one would be so rash as to claim that. There's still considerable shocks in the U.S. political system, from Europe, from other places, but there has been -- things have been getting modestly better rather than worse for a while now.
PAGEYou know, Ari, the stock market is doing well even though we have this debt ceiling debate. We could have another fiscal cliff-like showdown in the next month or two. Why -- do the markets just assume we'll work it out here in Washington?
SHAPIROI guess so, or they're just so used to one crisis after another getting resolved at the 11th hour that they have confidence it'll happen again. You know, you've seen some expressions of concern from the credit rating agencies and others about the long-term ability of the political system to solve problems. When we were facing the fiscal cliff, a lot of people were saying, gosh, if the stock market would only plummet, then it would spur these lawmakers to action.
SHAPIROUltimately, they were able to get something done without some sort of, you know, disastrous impetus from the stock market. But it seems to be relatively positive and stable through all of this.
PAGEWe're talking with Ari Shapiro, the White House correspondent for NPR. And also with me in the studio for this hour of "The Diane Rehm Show," Karen Tumulty, national political reporter at The Washington Post, and Jim Fallows. He's national correspondent for Atlantic magazine. We're going to take another short break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about what's happening with those Boeing Dreamliner planes, and we'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850, and your emails, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEJim Fallows, you mentioned earlier in this hour that you are, yourself, a pilot. So let's ask you about what's going on with this Dreamliner plane with Boeing. The Federal Aviation Administration has grounded it. Why?
FALLOWSIt ground it because of problem with some lithium-ion batteries that a couple of recent incidents have overheated, in once case, burst into flames on the plane. I think this is an urgent problem for Boeing with these airplanes. It's not yet clear but it's a serious problem. What I mean is that the grounding of this fleet by the FAA and by a number of airlines around the world obviously is an emergency for Boeing.
FALLOWSThey have to find some way. The company's future is based on this airplane. They have to get them out there and have this issue repaired. The reason I say it's not serious or may not be serious is that it seems to be a known problem with one relatively minor component of the plane, which are these batteries. There are ways that could be corrected.
FALLOWSThere are a number of other very daring steps Boeing took with the construction of this plane. There's carbon fiber body construction. It's a very comfortable plane, a very efficient plane, a sort of radically redesigned plane. Nothing fundamental about it seems to be involved in this problem. So certainly there's a lot of attention to getting this battery issue resolved and soon.
PAGEAnd has anyone been hurt in these incidents?
FALLOWSNo. There was an evacuation in Japan a day or two ago, which is what triggered the grounding, and people had to get off -- out of the plane, but that was on the ground.
SHAPIROBut boy, these lithium-ion batteries have caused problems in cars, in laptops, in a Navy submarine at one point. This is hardly the first time they have popped up as a problem catching fire and, you know, causing recalls and in this case, the grounding of an airplane fleet.
PAGEWell, we have an emailer asking about that, noting that this kind of batteries have been problematic. They're more reactive than newer types of batteries. And this emailer asked, "Why would Boeing add to the known risk of lithium-ion batteries by choosing to use them in their plane?"
FALLOWSEverything about an airplane's design is driven by weight. Some people ask why an airplane isn't made out of black box since the black box always survives the crash. The reason is black box is really heavy and airplane made of them wouldn't fly. So a part of it, the evolution of airplane design in the last half century has been making everything lighter, lighter and lighter so it uses less gas and can fly farther and faster. So these are -- provide more power for less weight, but that balance may have been pushed too far.
SHAPIROThey also recharge really quickly so a plane can land, recharge and turn around without so much lag time in between flights.
PAGEI'm impressed by all you know about this kind of batteries. Jim, you said that the outsourcing of the Boeing work might have also been a factor here.
FALLOWSYes. I think the one fundamental issue in the Dreamliner's design that Boeing actually is rethinking is a much more extensive outsourcing of the plane's design and manufacturer done on the 747, the 777 and all the rest. And the Dreamliner, even apart from this latest incident, had been very much delayed, and that seemed to be due to the fact that different components were being designed in different parts of the world. They didn't fit together right.
FALLOWSBoeing had much less control over the crown jewels of its whole entity of having had this new airplane come together. So I think that that this -- the next plane Boeing undertakes will probably be more traditionally designed within Boeing's control.
SHAPIROThis is actually also a very interesting, much broader trend at American manufacturer where for the last couple of decades, the trend was that you sort of innovate domestically and build overseas. And now, many different companies, not just airplane companies, are seeing advantages to innovating and building in the U.S. President Obama did an event about this a few weeks ago where he visited a car company where they're finding that having the engineers right there in the factories is really useful in some ways.
TUMULTYI don't know. I'm one of these people who's never quite understood how airplanes fly in the first place. So sitting between these two guys is making me very nervous.
PAGEI've never fully understood how radio works. So...
FALLOWSSo the many years in which nobody dies on a U.S. commercial airline flights -- so you spent all your time in an airplane, you wouldn't die -- just would wish you would given a normal airline life.
PAGEI grew up in Wichita where Boeing was one of the big employers in town. And I wonder -- you say, Jim, that this is urgent, not necessarily serious. What if it turns out to be more serious than we now see? What could be the implications for this big American company?
FALLOWSIf there is something fundamentally wrong with the design of the Dreamliner, that is a fundamental threat to Boeing's existence because the company's future, as I said, is bet on this plane. It's been very heavily ordered around the world because it's supposed to be so much more efficient, have a long-range operation, permit different kinds of routes than were possible before. So if there's something wrong with this in the way that was wrong with the old De Havilland Comet back in the 1950s and '60s, that could be a very serious problem for Boeing.
PAGEKaren, let's talk about the case of Aaron Swartz. Tell us, first of all, who was him, why has he been so in the news in the past few weeks.
TUMULTYWell, Aaron Swartz was a 26-year-old Internet activist who, among other things, was responsible for developing something called Reddit, which is sort of like a bulletin board of the Internet. But he devoted his life basically to digging into information and freeing it up and putting it out there for everybody to get.
TUMULTYAnd he was -- got into legal trouble because among other places he went and got a bunch of documents from the vaults of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and put those out there and was being prosecuted for that. And this week, he committed suicide. And so this has, you know, he was a great symbol for Internet activist and what people who are called hacktivists. And now, I think, with his death, whatever else was going on there, he has sort of brought this debate, I think, to the fore.
PAGENow, he was facing up to 35 years in prison, a fine up to $1 million. And we have an emailer who wants to understand exactly what it is he did that was illegal. This is from Jennifer in Connecticut, who wrote about a piece she heard on NPR which said that he had unlawfully downloaded this content. She says, "He had lawful access to the content. What he did was violate the terms of service by distributing it to those outside the service."
FALLOWSYeah. So this is -- there was a clause that he went to at MIT and download some many millions worth of articles from this JSTOR archive, which is an academic paper archive. And you're supposed, as a licensee, you're allowed to use some of them. With the scale of it is what was supposed to have violated the terms of service. I think the larger point here would be, as many people in tech world have noted, that the copyright law about -- has not caught up with the Internet age.
FALLOWSAnd there seems to have been a sort of vindictive tone to the prosecutor's determination that he must plead guilty to every count of this. He must face some kind of actual time behind bars. And so the only thing good that might come from this tragedy is some rethinking of the copyright law for digital material.
SHAPIROSo there are two big themes playing out here. One is Aaron Swartz's philosophy that information, particularly information that is produced at least in part with tax dollars, should be free to the public. He obviously was not personally using these millions of papers that he downloaded and distributed. He believed that they should be available to the public. So that's sort of a one big ideological debate.
SHAPIROAnd then the other one is this debate, as Jim mentioned, over prosecutorial discretion that they say this was an overzealous prosecutor threatening to send somebody to jail for 30 years for what amounts to a victimless crime. The prosecutor has come out and said, we were in talks with him and his attorneys about only a six-month sentence at most. She is saying this has been overstated, but those are sort of the two big themes of this story.
PAGEHe committed suicide on Jan. 11. The memorial service was held from Tuesday in his Illinois hometown. California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren says she'll introduce reforms to change the federal law at the heart of the case so this doesn't happen again. She's going to call it Aaron's law. Any idea, Karen, on what the prospects are for changing the law that was being used against him?
TUMULTYI suspect there is going to be a very big fight over this because, you know, it does begin to raise questions of copyright, and that is going to be something that a lot of, you know, a lot of people in this country, a lot of corporations are going to feel that they want to protect.
SHAPIROBut, you know, there was a preview of this fight last year with two laws known as SOPA and PIPA about stopping online piracy. And the Hollywood, the film industry and other very, very big power players were very much in favor of this law, and it was on its way to sale through Congress. And it was really the grassroots of the Internet that came up and really stopped it in its tracks and change the course of this.
FALLOWSAnd it was grassroots organization plus another huge commercial interest, which was Google, Apple...
FALLOWS...you know, all the sort of tech companies versus -- it was Northern California versus Southern California.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. Calling us from St. Louis, Mo., is Greg. Greg, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
GREGGood morning. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a pilot also, and I also work for Boeing and was listening to your discussion on the 787 systems. And in general, the report is accurate. But one of the reasons why Boeing outsourced so much to other countries is that helps them land orders with those countries. Italy makes (unintelligible) parts of the airplane as does Japan. And we have orders from Italy and Japan.
GREGAirbus does the same thing because they're trying to break into the U.S. market at a greater level. So essentially, it's part of the business plan. Now, as far as the battery fires, Boeing, I'm sure, is actively working on that problem. And also, if they can't solve that particular problem, they'll come up with an alternative.
PAGEWell, interesting point, Greg. Thanks very much.
FALLOWSYes, I certainly agree about the batteries. And this, as I said, is (unintelligible) evidence, certainly seems to be a solvable problem, although it's a big problem for Boeing at the moment. The outsourcing, yes, indeed, it's been a large -- a long-time pattern of the aircraft industry to try to distribute its work. I remember back in the 1980s, I was in Shanghai and saw an assembly plant for then MD-80s were being put together there.
FALLOWSWhat was different in 787's case, based on everything I understand, is that more of the actual design work for crucial parts was sourced around the world as opposed to the manufacturing which meant that Boeing had different sorts of challenges in the final integration that it had before.
PAGEYou know, we have some listeners who are weighing in in favor or to ask about the prospects for their favorite members of the cabinet. Who knew?
PAGEHere's one emailer, who says, "I've not heard anything regarding the Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. This is a critical cabinet position that affects all of us daily as evidenced by the recent FAA grounding of the Boeing Dreamliner. Is Secretary LaHood staying on?"
FALLOWSYou know, the default is that we assumed people are staying on unless we hear otherwise. So I have not heard otherwise.
PAGEI actually have heard that he plans to leave, perhaps not the very beginning of the year but possibly in the middle of the year. But I guess we'll wait and see. And we have another emailer, Fred, who writes us from Arkansas. He says, "On cabinet members who are staying, you folks completely overlooked Kathleen Sebelius at HHS, who has a very big, very tough job that will only get bigger and tougher as Obamacare comes into force."
TUMULTYOh, I totally agree. The next couple of years, next three or four years on this law, the implementation of it is really -- I think now that it's been, you know, saved -- the Supreme Court saved it -- is going to be really what determines whether it succeeds or fails.
PAGEAnd, you know, if you think about the biggest -- the agenda that President Obama has for his second term, one big part of it has to be convincing Americans -- implementing the law, the Affordable Care Act and also convincing Americans of something that he has not convinced them of yet which is that this signature achievement of his first term was the right thing to do.
SHAPIROCan -- I actually disagree. I think he believes that'll take care of itself. I don't think he believes he needs to do a salesmanship job because so much of this starts taking effect in 2014. He believes that as people see the results, they will learn to love it. Now, they may or may not but that's, I think, is the White House's overarching philosophy right now.
PAGEYou know, I've heard that since the law was passed, since before it was passed...
PAGEAnd I've got to say, in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans said the law was going to make things worse for their families. Only 30 percent said it was going to make better. I don't think you can just rely on Americans to figure out for themselves the impact of this law.
TUMULTYAnd you look across the country. It's going to be crucial that these states that have to set up these exchanges get it right. And they, you know, there has -- there was some grumbling at the beginning that they weren't -- that HHS was not coordinating as closely with them as it should be.
FALLOWSTwo points: one is, this is another reason the stakes in the election were so high. The Obama team's belief that if the law were allowed to take effect, it will become legitimized in all ways. There's -- the historical precedent is that Medicare was extremely controversial when it was passed. And Lyndon Johnson again made the same bet that if people got used to this, they would come to take it for granted.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll talk about -- here's another emailer on a cabinet position just to finish the loop. And that is Mark writing us from Dallas about the debate over former Sen. Hagel and his appointment as -- to head the Pentagon. He writes, "The most serious charge against Hagel is not anti-Semitism but his position on Iran, i.e., his opposition to sanction to the military option. Claiming that the opposition to Hagel is based on anti-Semitism is a provocative red herring." I know that wasn't really your point, Jim.
FALLOWSWell, I think that there were policy disagreements about Sen. Hagel. But there were explicit charges, including here on NPR by Elliot Abrams, saying that, "Sen. Hagel has a problem with the Jews."
PAGEAnd what about the issue of sanctions against Iran? Is that also an issue for him, do you think, Ari?
SHAPIROWell, I don't think he differs on the policy towards Iran from President Obama at all. And he's not going to set the policy. He's going to execute the policy towards Iran. But President Obama's approach for Iran is something that a lot of Republicans in Congress are very uncomfortable with. They feel that he's not hawkish enough. They feel he's too willing to settle and just discuss, you know, sanctions rather than potential military options. Those are places where Hagel and President Obama see to eye to eye, and they don't see eye to eye with some Republicans.
PAGEAll right. Let's go to Randy. He's calling us from Pittsburgh. Hi, Randy. You're on the air.
RANDYWell, thank you. Yeah, a couple comments and a question. First, the comments relative to what Ari was speaking to pertaining to the NRA, and then playing to their base, so a background checkpoint. I never was an NRA member until actually this most recent incident. I feel very strongly about people's ability to own guns and use guns. And so I'm not their base, Ari, but I feel -- I will consider myself the middle ground.
SHAPIROIf I may ask, did the ad appeal to you? What did you think of the ad? How did you respond to it?
RANDYWell, you know, that's the other curious thing, Ari, in that I didn't find the ad repugnant. I thought it was really focused, and I could see the strong position that they took. But, you know, I mean, it -- from my perception, if you have something that you want to protect, and whether it's schools, whether it's a bank, whether it's a jewelry store, I mean, whatever, I don't think it's an outlandish idea to have armed security.
PAGEAri, you want to respond?
SHAPIROYou didn't hold that position prior to the Newtown shooting, that the Newtown shooting persuaded you of that? Was it Wayne LaPierre's statement after the killing?
RANDYNo, not really. I mean, it's just the whole concept. If the focus is on security then security is what should be focused on. And I think I'm disappointed in the president in that I thought this would have been a great, great opportunity for the president to be able to embrace a lot of the things that the NRA -- my perception with the NRA would go for.
PAGEAll right. Randy, thank you so much for your call. We appreciate hearing your perspective. Karen, you have a very interesting article posted on washingtonpost.com this morning about a man named Earl Smith. Who is he?
TUMULTYActually, Earl Smith was -- has become -- without being named. Back in the 2008 campaign, President Obama was aboard an elevator and a gentleman, who is operating the elevator, turned to him and said, "Sen. Obama, for 40 years, I've carried this military patch in my pocket. I want you to have it, and I want -- because it will help keep you safe."
TUMULTYHe has become a figure without them ever learning his name or his story, almost mythology in the Obama White House. So what I did was tracked him down and discovered that his life story was far more extraordinary than anybody could have guessed. And again, for me, it was such a relief from what we usually do in covering politics, which is, you know, covering people in Washington saying mean things about each other.
PAGEHe has quite an interesting life story. It's on the website now, and it'll be in the newspaper on Monday. Well, I want to thank Karen Tumulty, Ari Shapiro and Jim Fallows for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SHAPIROGreat to be with you.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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