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White House Update: Jobs, Iraq Troop Reduction, Oil Spill

White House Update: Jobs, Iraq Troop Reduction, Oil Spill
How are the dismal unemployment numbers affecting President Obama's approval ratings? Are the plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of August still on track? We speak to Scott Horsley, White House correspondent for NPR, about the top stories in Washington, D.C.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A jobs report that indicates a stall in the recovery, a 45% approval rating and a press secretary who's blurting out what he really thinks. It's turning into a bumpy August at the White House. Of course, there's good news, too. The BP oil leak is finally plugged, the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq seems to be on schedule, and Congress passed an Obama-backed aid package to the states. Joining us to talk about the highs and lows of summertime at the White House is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.

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

CAVANAUGH: Now we heard this morning that first time unemployment benefits have gone up for the first time in months, and last Friday a disturbing jobs report. So tell us about that report, Scott, and the White House reaction to this economic news.

HORSLEY: Yeah, it’s been really pretty grim. You know, for the first several months of this year, we saw private sector job growth moving in the direction you wanted to see. It was not as strong as you’d like but month by month we saw more private sector hiring and it looked as if we were going to have the kind of recovery that the White House would like. And then along about May and June, we saw a big drop in that private sector hiring, and it was compounded last week when we got the new July numbers. Only 71,000 private sector jobs created. Now the White House will point out that’s a whole lot better than losing 700,000 jobs, which is where we were in January of ’09. But it’s not nearly enough job growth to really put a dent in that painfully high unemployment rate. And so we’re – people are sort of scratching their heads and saying what has happened to sidetrack or at least put the brakes on the nascent economic recovery that we were in in the beginning of this year. Some folks are pointing to the debt crisis in Europe this spring that rattled markets around the world, maybe that gave everyone the jitters, made employers a little bit more cautious about hiring. And so the question now is are we again on a very slow growth trajectory or are we going to stumble back into another – a second dip of the recession.

CAVANAUGH: Looking at the politics of this, what kind of toll have these negative unemployment numbers had on the president’s approval ratings?

HORSLEY: Well, I think it’s hard to say that they’ve done anything other than be devastating.


HORSLEY: You know, and the White House has voiced the opinion that as long as the unemployment rate is nine and a half percent, it’s very difficult to get traction on anything else that the president wants to do. And it just amplifies all the other challenge that he faces. I mean, the oil spill this summer, of course, would’ve been a terrible story for any administration but it’s just amplified by the fact that the unemployment rate is nine and a half percent and people are in a sour mood to start with. And unfortunately for the White House, there’s not a lot of expectation that that number’s going to come down in a meaningful way anytime soon.

CAVANAUGH: Well, a part of what the president seems to want Congress to do is to pass legislation aimed at helping small businesses but kind of strangely the Senate Republicans have prevented those measures from progressing through the legislature, Republicans being the champions of small businesses. Now what are – what’s the disagreement about that between the president and Republican lawmakers?

HORSLEY: Well, I mean, I think on one hand the Republican minority in Congress, which has its eyes set on perhaps becoming a Republican majority at least in the House, doesn’t really want to do anything that would be seen as helpful to this president so they’re not anxious to vote yes on anything that President Obama wants. But the other thing to keep in mind is that, really, the measures that the president’s talking about now, whether it’s the extension of unemployment benefits or this jobs program for teachers or that small business measure which he continues to advocate for, these are all really kind of small bore answers to what is a very big job problem. Even if that small business measure that the president’s been championing were to pass, we’re talking about creating a $30 billion fund to encourage community banks to lend money to small business. That may very well be a good idea and it might make some difference around the margins but that is not going to solve the nine and a half percent unemployment problem. And, you know, there’s just no appetite here in Washington for a, say, a second major stimulus along the lines of what the Congress did early on in the Obama administration, and as that stimulus, that $787 billion stimulus, that was passed last year has pretty much run its course now. I mean, there’s still money going out the door but its impact on economic growth has pretty much run its course and there’s just no interest on Capitol Hill in taking the kind of big government measure that could make a dent in the unemployment rate.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly not before November anyway.


CAVANAUGH: The president – you were pointing…

HORSLEY: Now, you know, I mean, the Republicans, on the other hand, would argue the government’s tried to do too much and what the government ought to be doing…

CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

HORSLEY: …is getting out of the way.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know that, Scott, that you reported on the president’s visit to the University of Texas in Austin earlier this week. He talked about education and maybe you could tell us what was the purpose of that visit? And what message did the president send?

HORSLEY: Yeah, in particular he talked about higher education, trying to get more Americans to graduate from college. This has been something he’s talked about really since coming into office. Education is kind of the cornerstone of his economic agenda, although it gets less attention than some of the other pieces of that agenda. So this was an opportunity for him to underscore his goal of once again making the U.S. number one in college graduation rates. And he sees this as an economic imperative. You know, I had a chance to talk to the Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, this week, and Secretary Duncan says, look, there are no good jobs out there now for high school dropouts, there are not a lot of good jobs out there for people who only have a high school diploma. Really, if you want to have a good job now, you have to have a post-secondary education. And the U.S., which was once number one in that category, is now only twelfth in the world behind Canada, behind Korea, behind even Russia. And so the president would really like to boost college graduation rates. That means doing things all the way from back before a kid’s going to kindergarten so that they’re prepared for college when they reach that age, and also taking steps to make college more affordable.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Let’s move…

HORSLEY: I might just say, Maureen…


HORSLEY: …too, that speech at the University of Texas in Austin was sandwiched in between a couple of fundraisers that the president was doing in Texas. And we’re going to be seeing a lot more of that in the weeks and months to come between now and the midterm elections. Next week, the president has a busy schedule of fundraising, including an appearance in California. I think he’s going to be in LA doing some money raising there. And, cynically, they will try to pair up these blatantly political fundraising trips with some sort of official business and that way the taxpayers can pick up part of the cost of the travel.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for that, Scott. I want to – I mentioned that, in my introduction, that there is a date, there’s a deadline to be met at the end of this month concerning the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq. Does that appear to be on track?

HORSLEY: It does. The president and his advisors say that the U.S. is on track to end its combat mission in Iraq at the end of this month. And at that point, there’ll be something like 50,000 troops left in the country. They’ll be there until the end of next year or at least some of them will. But, yes, the administration has said we’re, you know, we’re on schedule to end the combat mission in Iraq and to meet that goal of reducing forces there to 50,000 by month’s end. They had said that this is, you know, this process of handing over security to the Iraqi security forces is one that’s been ongoing so as one advisor put it yesterday, it’s not like going to be throwing a light switch at the end of August. Now, certainly there are others who say that the situation in Iraq is not nearly as rosy as the administration’s painting it. You may have heard Tom Ricks on Morning Edition this morning…


HORSLEY: …talking about his belief that the U.S. is going to be deeply involved in that country for a long time to come. The – part of the challenge now is that there’s still not a functioning successor government in Iraq. They’re trying to form a government and I think the U.S. is sort of hoping that this August troop drawdown will provide some momentum for that process. It’s been months, obviously, since the elections and there’s yet to be a government formed. But, of course, we’re – we have trouble getting cooperation within our own government here, so maybe we shouldn’t point to many fingers at the factions in Iraq.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on to the oil spill because, as you mentioned, that dominated news coverage for months and it’s finally been capped. There was a – Speaking of Morning Edition, there was a report about the presidential deep water drilling moratorium that sort of has been – nobody likes it. Nobody’s pleased with what’s been going on there. So tell – Give us an update on that. Has there been a change in the president’s thinking about this or a clarification?

HORSLEY: I don’t think there’s been really a change since the spill began. Obviously, President Obama had the bad luck to just a month before the spill have called for an expansion of offshore oil drilling. That was – Maybe that’s some of the worst timing one could imagine.


HORSLEY: But since the spill, I think he has been pretty consistent, which is that we need to get a better handle on what went wrong there a mile below the Gulf of Mexico, how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again. And once that has – once we have those answers then perhaps allowing exploration in deep sea waters to resume. As you say, no one’s – Well, people on either side of the political spectrum are unhappy with this. The people that want to ‘drill, baby, drill’ are unhappy that there’s any restriction on drilling in deep water, and the people who want no more drilling in deep sea waters are not happy with the prospect that, you know, come six months after we may resume exploration in those areas. I think there’s probably some section of the people in the middle of the spectrum who feel like this was a fairly reasonable precaution to take and once we get the answers then we’ll go back to drilling. But it is characteristic of a lot of positions that the Obama administration has taken in that they’ve managed to take fire from all sides.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, there have been some rumblings, not just around from all sides but actually inside the White House. The Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, could be moving out of that role soon because there has been evidence that perhaps he’s burning out in the job. He’s made a few comments recently that have gotten him into trouble. Tell us about that, Scott.

HORSLEY: Well, he may move out of the job at some point but I don’t think it will be over the comments that he made this week. He’s gotten a lot of attention this week for complaints he made about left wing pundits who go on cable television and criticize the president for not being more liberal or more progressive or more left wing, and minimizing the differences between President Obama and former President Bush. Robert Gibbs said some fairly uncharitable things about those pundits. He has not backed away from what he said, although he said the comments were perhaps inartful. And he joked yesterday that he has no plans to install a escape slide on his office and grab a couple of beers from the cocktail cart on his way out the door.


HORSLEY: There is some thought that at some point Robert Gibbs may migrate into a different position within the administration, one not so much in front of the cameras but if that happens, I think that’ll just be a natural progression and not a result of these comments that have offended a lot on the left. The administration does not seem overly concerned about poking a stick at some of its most liberal supporters.

CAVANAUGH: No Jet Blue departure in his future then. Now I want to close, Scott, this is a sort of like inside baseball, inside Washington thing but I think a lot of people have been aware of this. You know, it was reported that Fox News and NPR were kind of duking it out over who would get that much coveted front row seat in the White House press briefing room that used to be occupied by Helen Thomas. So did NPR get the front row seat?

HORSLEY: Well, let me just say, there was no actual duking it out.


HORSLEY: This was a very genteel affair that was decided by the White House Correspondents Association that puts together the seating chart for the briefing room. And actually neither of us got that center seat in the front row. That – the seat that was formerly occupied by Helen Thomas and, as we like to say, it’s the people’s seat, is now occupied by the senior AP reporter in the press room. So they moved the senior AP reporter into the middle, they moved Fox into the old front row AP seat, and they moved NPR into the old Fox seat, which is – it’s a perfectly nice seat. I kind of miss my old third row seat in the press room because it was a little bit easier to duck out unnoticed if you were sitting there. But – So we’re now front and center and one row back from the lectern.

CAVANAUGH: Scott Horsley, moving up whether he likes it or not. Scott, thank you so much.

HORSLEY: Always good to talk to you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley. If you’d like to comment, you can go online, Coming up, the quest for just a bit of privacy on the internet, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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