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Did The President Set The Right Tone?

Nov 15, 2012



I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. In a few minutes, we will speak with the winner of the prestigious National Book Award for Nonfiction, author Katherine Boo. She was honored for her book about the people in a neighborhood in Mumbai, and she'll tell us more about it in a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a look at some of the political news dominating the headlines. President Obama held a news conference on Wednesday, the first since winning reelection. He addressed a wide range of issues from the economy to immigration to the scandal surrounding former CIA Chief David Petraeus. But he emphasized that he had one mandate to help middle class families and those working hard to get into the middle class. Here's a little bit from that press conference.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's what the American people said. They said: work really hard to help us. Don't worry about the politics of it. Don't worry about the party interests. Don't worry about the special interests. Just work really hard to see if you can help us get ahead, because we're working really hard out here, and we're still struggling, a lot of us. That's my mandate.

MARTIN: We wanted to dig into what the president said and how it's being received, so we've called upon Andrea Seabrook. She is a former NPRcongressional correspondent. She now hosts a podcast and radio show called "DecodeDC." She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.


ANDREA SEABROOK: Thanks. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us from our bureau in New York, Keli Goff. She is political correspondent for TheRoot.com, and that is an online news and commentary website with a particular focus on African-American perspectives.

Welcome back to you, Keli Goff.

KELI GOFF: Always a pleasure to come back.

MARTIN: Andrea, just briefly, tell us about "DecodeDC." What's it all about?

SEABROOK: It's a public radio show and podcast that tries to tell stories of Washington in a different way.

MARTIN: Well, you covered Congress for 10 years, so you know the drill. So I'll start with you. President Obama's opening position bargaining over the fiscal cliff - that's something we've talked a lot about - was a call on Congress to go ahead before tackling spending and other issues and pass a middle class tax cut right away. He said: We could get that done next week. Is that realistic?

SEABROOK: No. It's not realistic.


SEABROOK: I mean, you know, it's the kind of thing that sounds really strong. In fact, he sounded strong and confident. He knows he's in a really good bargaining position here. He just won reelection to a second term. In a lot of ways, a lot of the things that he would have to worry about in terms of how he messages and optics are off the table.

That said, the Republican Party is probably worse - even though there's been a lot of talk in the last couple days about Republicans, who still control the House of Representatives, talking about we've got to get a deal. We've got to get real. In fact, they are in complete disarray in the House of Representatives. They have just lost a major election. Even though they kept the House of Representatives, they lost seats in the Senate when they, by all accounts, should have picked up seats.

And they recognize that their demographics are bad. They're not in the position where they can come together and say: Here's what our stance is going to be on the fiscal cliff. Here's what our stance is going to be on middle-class taxes. And I think it's very unlikely that we'll have any movement in the coming week, certainly.

MARTIN: Well, how did they respond to the press conference? On the one hand, he firmly did assert a mandate. That was something that people were interested to see whether he would do...


MARTIN: ...given the fact that he had an electoral landslide, but the popular was still kind of close. And you could see that congressional leaders were saying: You know, so what? You know, you don't have a - you don't really have a mandate. He was asserting that he did. He was also saying, though, that he could do some self-reflection about how to work with leaders across the aisle better, saying I could always do better. What is your sense in these early days of how that - how was that received?

SEABROOK: I think it was well-received. I think he struck a really careful and smart balance there. He didn't come out and say: The American public supports everything I do. He came out and said: It's obvious that the American public believes that I should be fighting for the middle class, and that we should extend tax cuts for at least those people making $250,000. In fact, he said in the press conference: More people agree with me on that than voted for me.

MARTIN: Right.

SEABROOK: And even to acknowledge that a lot of Americans didn't vote for him, yet he was going to try and fight for them anyway is, I think, it's pretty forward-looking for this president.

MARTIN: Keli Goff, what's your perspective on this? I'm particularly interested in the fact that on The Root, for example, a lot of progressives and people reporting on the progressive movement have talked about the fact that they want the president to be more aggressive in asserting, you know, progressive principles and values and interests. What's your perspective on this?

GOFF: And actually, my column today is specifically about how progressives have kind of been craving for him to get angry the last four years. I mean, how many columns - I was going through counting while I was working on my column for today. How many times have we heard progressives say, get angry? Where is the passionate guy that we thought we were voting for?

And we saw some passion and a little bit of anger yesterday. And I actually think that that probably was really exciting to a lot of his supporters who, you know, we know that we've talked about this on your show, Michel, about him trying to find this balance between being the likeable guy who has high favorability ratings and not being the scary, angry black guy.

And yesterday, I think even though he sort of deflected when Ed Henry asked him, do you feel like you have a mandate - if you remember, the president actually kind of dodged that and said, well, my mandate's just a fight for the American people. No. What we saw in his tone is that he knows he has a mandate. I mean, one of the things that I've read is that conservatives had kind of prepared for a lot of Election Day scenarios. They kind of didn't prepare for the one where he not only won, but he won convincingly. And that was really the tone he struck.

I think the bigger story is going to be less about how the president handles negotiations in this new mandate and watching sort of conservatives in the House, for lack of a better term, start eating their own.

Because there are those conservatives who can go back to Southern states and say, yeah, you know, in so many words, I put him in his place and told him I'm not negotiating, no matter what. There are a lot of other Republicans who are going to be in tight races in more moderate states where they actually like things like bipartisanship and working across the aisle, which is something we haven't seen a lot of the last four years. We've seen a lot of obstructionism.

So I anticipate that his tone is going to mean a sort of divide-and-conquer mentality in Congress when some of these members of Congress realize that their seats are going to be in jeopardy if they are not at least perceived to be trying to work with this president - who did win, quite frankly, with a mandate.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I am Michel Martin, and I am speaking with TheRoot.com political correspondent Keli Goff. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, former NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook. She now runs the podcast and radio show called "DecodeDC."

Does he have a mandate on immigration? He did seem to come out swinging on immigration. Andrea.

SEABROOK: You know, the thing that makes it seem as if he has a mandate on immigration is not so much that he talked a lot about it in this campaign, because he didn't. He talked a lot about it in his first campaign, and didn't manage to pull it together in the first four years. But what makes it seem as if he might have a mandate is the fact that there's the possibility of movement at all among Republicans. And that's simply because of looking at the demographics of this last election.

Republicans are doing a lot of reflection. A lot of the talk just in society right now is about how the minority has become the majority vote in this election. And a really interesting question is: Can the president move forward? Will the Republicans move themselves into a place where they could see any kind of comprehensive immigration reform?

And if they can, there's, like, this long-standing mandate. It's been so messed up for so long, our laws, that it's almost like if you have a chance at any time, then you've got a run.

MARTIN: We've got to talk about the scandal surrounding former CIA chief General David Petraeus. He, of course, resigned last week after acknowledging that he had had an extramarital affair with a woman who's also a West Point grad named Paula Broadwell who wrote a biography of him, a very favorable biography of him that set off a whole series of reports about other people connected to this relationship.

In addressing the matter, the president highlighted the general's extraordinary career, and he placed a lot less emphasis on what he called a personal matter. Let's listen to a clip of that.


OBAMA: We are safer because of the work that Dave Petraeus has done. And my main hope right now is that he and his family are able to move on, and that this ends up being a single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career.

MARTIN: Now, he called that his hope, that this would be a side note, but is it being perceived that way now? I know we're in the thick of the story, Keli, but you know, what do you think?

GOFF: What I actually thought was more fascinating about this is how there has been so much attempt by conservatives to sort of turn the Benghazi story into some huge White House West Wing cover-up. We saw the president very angrily and forcefully defend his ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, and what's been fascinating is that what started as people saying, oh, this is just a deflection from Benghazi - I don't know if you've been following that. Some of the right wing blogosphere conspiracy theories - even Elisabeth Hasselbeck sort of threw a grenade about that on "The View" - has turned into something that, if "West Wing" wrote this, no one would believe it.

It's been a fascinating yet tragic thing to watch, in part because it does affect our national security, Michel, you know, that we have two high ranking men now, the CIA director and potentially General Allen, who are - clearly were not so much focused on protecting us as much as they should have been. Right?

MARTIN: Just briefly, the president did caution people against rushing to judgment on some of the facts because he says that the facts are not yet completely known. I'll just play a short clip of that. He was talking about the FBI investigation relating to the Petraeus scandal, and he said that he has confidence in the agency, but he wants to see how the investigation proceeds. Here is a clip of that here.

OBAMA: It is also possible that had we been told, then you'd be sitting here asking a question about why were you interfering in a criminal investigation. So I think it's best right now for us to just see how this whole process unfolded.

MARTIN: Andrea, just give us your perspective on this.

SEABROOK: There are certainly really important questions to ask about the David Petraeus question and, just to bring it back, the Benghazi question, but I think there's a lot of angry searching, especially on Fox News, frankly, and a lot of the right wing blogs, for some kind of way in which they can find something wrong with how the president acted with this election. I think the main question that they've brought up with the Petraeus issue is how could it be possible that the president would find - get reelected on Tuesday and find out about this on Thursday - how is that possible?

And I think the president did a good job in the press conference of showing what I think most Americans feel about this, which is just a sense of sadness, that there are personal faults, we all have them, and that they go right up the ladder to some of our most trusted people protecting our national security. That does not necessarily a conspiracy make.

MARTIN: Andrea Seabrook is the host of the podcast and radio show Decode D.C. Keli Goff is political correspondent for TheRoot.com.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GOFF: Thanks for having me.

SEABROOK: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.