RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As President Barack Obama takes the oath of office today - privately - and tomorrow in public, he inherits plenty of issues on all fronts, domestic and foreign. Joining us now to look at the agenda for the next term, NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
MARTIN: Ari Shapiro also covers the White House. He's here in the studio. Hi, Ari.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: And we're also joined by State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen, who's also here. Hey, Michele.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hello.
MARTIN: Ari, let's start with you. President Obama no longer has to worry about re-election. He's free to pursue whatever agenda he pleases. Are we seeing that already?
SHAPIRO: Well, he has said that he is going to put all the weight of his office behind guns. Part of that may be freedom to pursue the agenda he pleases. Part of it may be that the political moment is very different post-Newtown than pre-Newtown. We've seen in all kinds of polls that the American people support gun control measures now in far greater numbers than they did before. One of the most interesting develops on how he will pursue this is that OFA, which used to be Organizing for America, his campaign infrastructure, has reemerged as Organization for Action, this outside group that can raise money and pursue activistic goals presumably to advance President Obama's agenda. It's going to be led by Jim Messina, who ran his campaign. And so, already, just right out of the gate on the issue of gun control, we're seeing a lot of activity to try to energize those grassroots supporters to get them to help advance the gun control agenda as they advanced his campaign goals.
MARTIN: What about immigration reform? I mean, in his first term, this is something that President Obama tried and failed. Is this still something that he is committed to?
SHAPIRO: Yes. And the big change on immigration reform seems to be that Republicans are coming around to it. We saw Marco Rubio recently endorse what looks very similar to President Obama's plan. And Paul Ryan, a prominent House Republican, who was a vice presidential nominee, endorsed the Rubio plan. I think many people believe this is something that actually could get done in the second term in a bipartisan way, even though it was so, so difficult to accomplish in the first term.
MARTIN: I want to turn now to Scott Horsley. Scott, obviously, the economy is front and center in the president's agenda this next term. Congressional Republicans are saying before he does anything else, before he tackles any of the problems and challenges Ari just outlined, he has to deal with the budget deficit. Is that a problem for the president?
HORSLEY: We don't - dealing with the deficit isn't necessarily a problem for the president, but his goal is to do so in a way that doesn't fundamentally change the social safety net and doesn't drain too much money out of the economy in the short run. We've already seen a bit of a hit with the end of the payroll tax cut. But ideally, he'd like to maybe see some additional money in the short run spent on things like public works projects. And the good news - if you can call it that - is that we've begun to hear from congressional Republicans that they're not going to insist on a knockdown drag-out fight over the debt ceiling - at least a temporary extension of the debt ceiling. The problem for the president is if he has to keep going back to the debt ceiling every three months or so, it's going to make it that much harder to turn to gun control or immigration or anything else.
MARTIN: But the president has said that dealing with the deficit, Scott, is not as big a problem as some have made it out to be. Has there been progress?
HORSLEY: Yeah, there has been progress. You know, between the spending cuts that were enacted in 2011, the tax increases that took effect at the beginning of this year. The president says we're now within one and a half trillion dollars of bringing the deficit into a manageable range. Now, that's still a lot of money. But back in December, when the president was negotiating over a big deal with House Speaker John Boehner, he was putting $800 billion in spending cuts on the table. If you could marry that up with tax revenue, at least you can actually see how you could get to that one and a half trillion dollar figure. That still doesn't resolve the long-term problem with the deficit, which is really driven by rising health care costs. Ultimately, we're going to have to find a way to get control over those.
MARTIN: Let's turn to foreign policy. Michele Kelemen, we often see second-term presidents focusing on foreign policy to secure parts of their legacy. Obviously, Syria is something that is in the headlines right now. Any signs that this administration is going to take a stronger position?
KELEMEN: I mean, you see 60,000 people dead, humanitarian crisis, very little hope of a diplomatic breakthrough. And the real concern in Washington is that if or when Bashar al-Assad's government falls, you have a failed state in the Middle East. There's clearly a lot of discussion about what else the U.S. can do. So far, the U.S. has helped with humanitarian aid. It's helped with non-lethal aid to the opposition, but there's a lot of pressure building for this administration to do more to support opposition, perhaps with arms. Because, as one former State Department official put it, Syria's future is going to be determined by guys with guns.
MARTIN: There's clearly a lot of pressure on President Obama to also do something about Iran. Is this the year that something actually changes in the relationship between the U.S. and Iran?
KELEMEN: Well, the administration's worked hard with countries around the world to tighten sanctions, to pressure Iran to get back to negotiations on its suspect nuclear program. President Obama has cautioned against the loose talk of war and says there's time for diplomacy. But, you know, there's a lot of pressure building as Iran continues to build up its stockpile of enriched uranium. So, a lot of people say this is the year that the U.S. has to take some action. The talks have focused on these really incremental steps, confidence-building steps that have really gone nowhere. So, a lot of people are saying this is a time for a much bolder diplomatic initiative with Iran.
MARTIN: We'll see if that happens. NPR's Michele Kelemen, Scott Horsley and Ari Shapiro. Thanks to all of you.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
HORSLEY: Thanks, Rachel.
KELEMEN: Thank you.
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