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White House Update: Afghanistan, Unemployment, Health Care

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Aired 11/30/09

President Barack Obama is expected to outline his plan for the war in Afghanistan in a speech on Tuesday night. We speak to NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley about the president's options for Afghanistan, the health care debate, and a job creation forum the president will host later in the week.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Washington gets back to work this week, just like the rest of us. And, for Congress to get healthcare and a spending bill accomplished before the end of the year, they had better get a move on. President Obama has also got a powerful agenda this week. He plans a policy speech on the war in Afghanistan tomorrow night, and with unemployment hovering in the double digits he hosts a jobs summit at the White House. Here to tell us more about the busy week in the nation’s capitol is my guest, NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, welcome to These Days.

SCOTT HORSLEY (NPR White House Correspondent): Good to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us – let’s begin where all the focus is this morning, the debate on the Senate healthcare reform bill begins today. What is the president hoping will come out of that debate?

HORSLEY: Well, he’s hoping, as he has been for months now, that there will be a bill, some kind of package of healthcare reform that’ll be on his desk. And over in the Senate, Harry Reid is trying to hold together a very shaky Democratic coalition and get 60 votes that can deliver something to the president.

CAVANAUGH: Now is there a deadline that they’re working towards? Has the president set a deadline for a healthcare reform bill?

HORSLEY: Yes, you remember the deadline was the end of August.

CAVANAUGH: I remember that one, yes.

HORSLEY: Well, actually before, but the middle of August before the August recess…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HORSLEY: …and the president had famously said that if you don’t set deadlines in this town nothing gets done. And it turns out sometimes even when you do set deadlines nothing gets done. So I think he’s been wary of setting any real firm deadlines for fear it’ll just get missed again but he is keeping the pressure on. What he’s said is that he’d like to get it done, you know, by year’s end or by Christmas and I think what that means is getting some kind of bill through the Senate which would then still have to be reconciled with the House version so it might not be on his desk, on the president’s desk, until some point in January. But if he gets a bill on his desk, you know, let’s say sometime in the first quarter of 2010, I think he’ll be satisfied. The sooner the better, though, for sure.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any peril for this bill? I know that it faces many perils but in prolonging the process? I mean, is there, if they wait until the new year, does it lose momentum? Or is there any procedural reason that it would be wiser to finish it up for the advocates of healthcare this year?

HORSLEY: Well, I think that whatever momentum it has, yeah, I think they want to get it done sooner than later. We saw what happened in August when there was a recess and lawmakers went back to their home districts and there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of critics of the bill jumping on that, and I think we’ll see that again, you know, during Christmas recess or any time Congress goes home. So I think they want to get it done for that reason. The other thing is they want to move on. There’s a lot of other big challenges and there’s enormous concern right now about the economy, the unemployment rate being over 10%, and so there’s great interest both at the White House and in the legislature to get healthcare done and move on to other big challenges.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. And let’s move on to the subject of Afghanistan. The president is supposed to give an address to the nation tomorrow night about his plan for the war in Afghanistan. What is the president expected to say in that speech?

HORSLEY: Well, of course a lot of the focus has been on what is going to be the number of additional U.S. troops he orders to Afghanistan. But he’s also going to talk about what the mission of those troops will be, lay out some benchmarks for what constitutes success in Afghanistan, perhaps spell out what it would take to end the big U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Robert Gibbs, the press spokesman, said last week, pointed out that we’re now in our eighth year of that war and said that we won’t be there another eight years. Now whether that means we’ll be there seven years or six years or five years…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HORSLEY: …I don’t think anyone thinks it – the conflict will be ended super quickly but there is certainly a push especially from the Democrats for the president to say that we’re not going to be there forever and to spell out the circumstances in which U.S. forces would be withdrawn. That said, on the Republican side, there’s a lot of concern that if the president is too explicit in that direction, it would just invite the folks that the troops are fighting against to dig in their heels, saying, well, as long as the Americans are leaving in, you know, x – at x-point in the future, that’s as far as we have to get to.

CAVANAUGH: Now there was news this morning that President Obama held a surprise meeting with members of his war council last night. What do we know happened at that meeting? And why did he do that?

HORSLEY: Well, I don’t know that it was a surprise to anyone except to those of us in the press.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

HORSLEY: But what we’re told is that, you know, after a great deal of discussion with his war council and, I think, nine meetings on the situation, that the president has now made up his mind. He has decided what the strategy is going to be, what he will communicate to the American people tomorrow night from West Point, and so he brought together his Defense Secretary and some of his commanders and some of his White House team—he spoke by telephone with the Secretary of State—and basically communicated to them here is what I’ve decided, this is the direction we’re going to go in, and asked them to go about the process immediately of starting to put those orders to work. He’s also started to communicate that to world leaders. He’s begun communicating to, you know, presidents and prime ministers of other countries and that process will continue in the next couple of days. And then tomorrow, before he speaks to the public, he’s going to bring in a few dozen top lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, from both the House and Senate to brief them on what he’ll be saying.

CAVANAUGH: Now the president’s period of time deciding about the war in Afghanistan has been characterized by his critics as dithering. And I was – I’m wondering whether or not this has seemed to White House observers to have taken the president quite some time to come up with this idea for Afghanistan? Or is this just par for the course in making a major decision like this?

HORSLEY: Well, I think this is a president who tends to take his time about making big decisions. We saw that – We’ve seen that on a number of areas. He’s not someone who acts rashly and he is certainly someone who wants to consider all the options. I don’t know that he has too many problems he’s had to consider that are thornier and where all of the options are about as unappetizing as those in Afghanistan. So I think part of the reason that’s taken him so long is that he’s been weighing a lot of choices, none of which are particularly good. But you’re right. It has certainly fueled criticism from the right and I think even a certain amount of impatience from his own party as he’s gone through this process. The White House has wanted to make it clear that it’s been a very deliberative process. They’ve provided not a whole lot of information about the discussions but at the same time, I mean, every time he has one of these situation room meetings, the White House releases a photograph and at least a very cryptic synopsis of what was discussed, so they’ve try to make it very clear that what ever it is the United States is digging in for here, that the president’s not doing it lightly.

CAVANAUGH: And just one last question about Afghanistan and this is a political one. You said that the president is in the process of notifying people, world leaders and so forth, what his decision is about pursuing the war in Afghanistan, I’m wondering if he’s lining up any political support because as you say he’s had a number of critics on the left and right talk about what perilous waters we enter into if we continue the war in Afghanistan.

HORSLEY: Yeah, and I mean that’s the needle that he’s going to try to thread both tomorrow night in his speech in terms of communicating to the American people and also, I’m sure, in private conversations he’s been having, trying to give those on the left enough reassurance that this is not simply a blank check and that he’s not throwing lives and treasure away willy nilly and at the same time trying to convince those on the right that he does have, you know, the backbone and the fortitude to achieve the end that he’s set for himself and for the country in Afghanistan. But it’s a pretty tall political order. I mean, there’s a – the irony here is that he’s going to have more support coming from the Republicans than he is from the Democrats and, of course, on most of his other big pushes, he has had almost no support from Republicans, so it’s – he’s going to be in a dicey position of, on the one hand, trying to hold together a Democratic coalition to achieve some of the things he wants to do domestically and relying heavily on the Republicans to back him up when it comes to overseas military ventures.

CAVANAUGH: And, as I said, that address to the nation on the subject of the war in Afghanistan is scheduled for tomorrow night. Let’s move on, Scott, and – because that’s not the only major issue the president is going to be handling this week. He turns his focus to jobs, job creation. He holds a White House forum on job creation this Thursday. What’s the purpose of this forum?

HORSLEY: Well, I think to be cynical, the purpose is to show the flag and let everybody know that the president understands that jobs are an important issue, and that’s probably the most that will come out of it is a – you know, some pictures, moving pictures and photographs, of the president looking concerned. The government’s in a tight spot here. On the one hand he’s got folks urging the government to do more to generate jobs, to deal with that 10.2% unemployment rate and it may be even higher when the new numbers come out on Friday. And on the other hand, there’s concern from some quarters about the federal deficit. Now some economists say that this is no time to be worried about the deficit, you should worry about that down the road. You know, we’ve got a patient that’s hemorrhaging blood here, you’ve got to stop the bleeding before you just worry about the deficit, but the president himself has expressed some concerns about the mounting deficit and what that might do to the confidence of our bankers around the world. So, you know, I don’t think we’re going to see a push coming out of this summit for another $787 billion federal stimulus program but you will expressions of concern and you may see some smaller efforts by the federal government to try to generate jobs.

CAVANAUGH: Now, who is he gathering at the White House for this forum? Who’s going to participate?

HORSLEY: Well, he’s got a lot of business people, both CEOs and some labor people, a number of economists, some of whom have been fairly critical of the administration to date, a couple of State people, the mayor of Allentown is going to be there, and then on Friday, the day after the job summit, the president himself will travel to Allentown, so it’s a big group and I guess you might say it’s a group that’s maybe designed a little bit more for window dressing and photo ops than for serious discussion. But I’m sure there will be some serious discussion, and the White House is certainly soliciting ideas about what the government might do to encourage job growth.

CAVANAUGH: So it’s your feeling that part of the reason for this summit perhaps is to get out in front on the jobs issue before the unemployment numbers come out on Friday?

HORSLEY: Well, I think it’s too late for the president to get out in front of the jobs issue. The jobs issue…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.

HORSLEY: …is crushing him like a rock. I mean, ever since the start of this administration, he has been fighting a rear guard action against mounting unemployment. And so I don’t think he can get out in front but he can at least look like he’s doing all he can to try to deal with the problem, which most voters have been telling pollsters is uppermost in their mind.

CAVANAUGH: Right, let me – Yeah, let me pursue that just a minute more because there are so many people who have been saying, you know, the 2010 election is going to be decided on the unemployment numbers. If we still have double digit unemployment or anywhere near that, that the Democrats can expect to take a drubbing in this midyear – midterm election. And I’m wondering what kind of job creation proposals is the president, you know, talking about with Congress? Is there anything really underway to get some sort of handle on this?

HORSLEY: Yeah, there are lots of ideas out there, some more meritorious than others. You know, there are – there is some talk about maybe putting some more money into infrastructure projects which do generate a certain amount of work and a certain ripple effect in the economy. There’s also talk of some sort of tax credit to encourage employers to hire, some sort of reward for employers if they go out and hire people. From the Republican side, it won’t surprise you to hear, Maureen, that there are calls for just tax cuts.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HORSLEY: That’s their approach to stimulating the economy. So there are certainly ideas out there being talked about. I haven’t heard any that I think are – have an enormous chance of, A, succeeding politically and, B, succeeding in actually creating jobs.

CAVANAUGH: And let me move the conversation away from jobs for a moment and talk about really the enormous number of things that need to be accomplished by the end of the year. I did mention the fact that they do – that Congress has to actually have a spending bill accomplished before the end of the year. And then there’s this Copenhagen Climate Summit. Are – Tell us a little bit about that because that comes at a very inconvenient time for the president, doesn’t it?

HORSLEY: Well, it’s been on the schedule for a long time…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HORSLEY: …so, you know, you might – no one’s surprised that Copenhagen is coming when it does. The – I guess there’s never a good time to say that we’re going to have to make a big change in the way we run our economy and run our energy business. But the – some of the steam went out of Copenhagen, I think, during the time when the president was overseas a couple of weeks ago. You know, he and a lot of Asian leaders were meeting in Singapore two weeks ago Sunday and basically all agreed that they weren’t going to come out of Copenhagen with a binding treaty that was going to reduce carbon emissions and so once they sort of took that off the table, then there was, in some ways, more room for them to say, okay, well, what could we actually achieve in Copenhagen? And so they’ve been talking about what they might achieve and the president is going to go to Copenhagen and put on the table a proposal where the U.S. would cut its emissions by about 17% from 2005 levels over the next decade. That’s kind of what the – that is what the House has passed in their bill. Of course the Senate hasn’t acted on climate change legislation yet so it’s a little bit of going out on a limb for the president to say we’re going to do this when Congress has not committed to it yet. Then we saw China talk about reducing their carbon intensity and so forth, so there’s – Copenhagen is now kind of more of a stepping stone to a final climate treaty than the place where that treaty is going to be signed. It’s not going to be the Kyoto of 2009. But, yeah, the president did say just last week that he is going to go to Copenhagen—there had been some question about that—and since he’s going to be in Oslo anyway on the 10th to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize, he said, well, I’ll just – hey, want to save some carbon, I’ll just combine them in one trip. I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll swing by Copenhagen on the 9th and say my piece there. Now some climate change folks are not as happy about that because that means the president’s going to be there at sort of the front end of the conference and like any international negotiating session, most of the action’s kind of at the back end when push comes to shove. And so the president will kind of be, you know, sounding the opening bell instead of trying to dot the I’s and cross the T’s at the end.

CAVANAUGH: But at least he’s saving carbon emissions.

HORSLEY: Yeah…

CAVANAUGH: Now…

HORSLEY: …with just one transatlantic flight instead of two.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. Let me end our conversation, Scott, by a story that I think a lot of people might have – might feel they’ve seen far too much of and that is the fact that there were two people who were not invited to the state dinner at the White House who did get in anyway. But there was really a sort of a serious issue involved in this. These two reality TV show wannabes got past the Secret Service and attended the state dinner at the White House on Tuesday night. Now you deal with White House security every day, what…

HORSLEY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …are people who work in the White House saying about this incident?

HORSLEY: Well, the Secret Service, of course, is very red-faced about this and they’re doing a pretty thorough review to see just exactly what went wrong, what procedures they had in place that were apparently not followed that let this couple of gate crashers get in and get quite close to the president. Of course, in the end, no harm was done other than to the pride of the Secret Service but they’re taking this very seriously and there’s going to be a thorough review, and I suspect. I expect there’ll be some consequences for whoever ultimately was found to be responsible, whether that was a Secret Service officer or maybe someone in the White House Social Office who might have sort of waved this couple through inappropriately. But it’s a story – I don’t know how it’s playing in San Diego but it’s been a very prominent story in the Washington area, both because of the serious security concerns but also just as another sign of what a wacky country this is where people will do anything to get on television.

CAVANAUGH: Well, between that and Tiger Woods, that’s all we’ve been seeing for days.

HORSLEY: Sure, sure.

CAVANAUGH: Now, but to follow up on the serious side of this, do you expect any security procedures are going to be changed because of this incident.

HORSLEY: Well, I think – I’m not so sure that procedures have to be changed but procedures obviously have to be followed more closely. I think – I don’t think the problem here was with the procedures but with the execution.

CAVANAUGH: And what about the party crashers themselves, are they going to be charged with anything?

HORSLEY: That’s a good question. They haven’t been charged yet. They were interviewed. You know, for, like Tiger Woods, for a couple of days there was a sort of a cat and mouse game where the Secret Service was looking for these folks and they were sort of staying out of the – out of sight. And, of course, they cancelled their planned appearance on Larry King tonight. We’re all disappointed at that. But they – We’re told that they did get – The Secret Service was able to interview the couple on Friday and Saturday and we don’t – what kind of answers they got, I don’t know but it’s a good question what they might be charged with. And I suppose, you know, technically, they might be trespassing but I don’t know. If you show up at a gate and you’re waved through, even if you’re waved through inappropriately, is that trespassing? I guess that’s a question for lawyers.

CAVANAUGH: I guess the major question for you, is this going to make life tougher for you?

HORSLEY: Well, they’re always quite tough on me. I mean, maybe I’m not dressed as nicely as the couple were but…

CAVANAUGH: That’s it. That’s it. You have to get your party clothes on. Scott, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with NPR’s White House correspondent Scott Horsley. If you’d like to post a comment about anything you’ve heard on the show today, just go online, KPBS.org/TheseDays. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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