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Politicos Grade Obama's First 100 Days


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today marks the 100th day of President Obama's second term. At his inauguration he set up an ambitious agenda and revived his campaign theme of hope.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America's possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive, diversity and openness, an endless capacity for risk, and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment and we will seize it so long as we seize it together.

MARTIN: Now, the president has a lot on that agenda for this moment, as he put it; lowering the deficit, dealing with those automatic budget cuts called sequestration, immigration reform, gun control. Now typically we pay a lot of attention to the first 100 days in office of the first term, but we thought this was as good a time as any to ask whether the president has set the right priorities and made enough progress in this, his second and final term.

In a few minutes we are going to get perspective on this from two observers who are a little outside the corridors of power, but we are going to start with two of our trusted political analysts. Joining us now is Ron Christie. He is a Republican strategist with Christie's Strategies. He's a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Also with us from Denver is David Sirota. He is a columnist. He's a blogger for Salon. He's a regular political commentator. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

RON CHRISTIE: Nice to see you.

DAVID SIROTA: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Now, we called you both because you are what we might call the loyal opposition. Ron, of course, you are a Republican. David, you are a progressive. And you've had your issues with the president, as many progressives have. So I'm going to just start by asking you to give the president a score, Ron, on whatever scale you would like - one to 10, a grade. How would you rate the president's second term so far?

CHRISTIE: I'd give him a C. I think he outlined a very ambitious agenda. I think he suffered a defeat when he really could have had one on a background check piece of legislation. Immigration seems stalled, mainly because people don't want the president to negotiate, they want to do it on the Hill. But I give him a C, Michel, for this reason and this reason alone. The one thing that I think most Americans are worried about right now is their economic prosperity and their hopes for the future.

And I think the economy is stalled, unemployment is still way too high, in particular for communities of color, the number of unemployed folks counts out in the millions. And I think that's really a failing grade.

MARTIN: David, what about you?

SIROTA: I'd give him a C+. I'd give him a C+ in the sense that I think he's done a pretty decent job on dealing with events that are out of his control, like the gun issue. I mean, that was an issue that he didn't campaign on but it came to the forefront because of mass shootings. I think he's done a decent job of allowing the immigration debate to flourish and move in what I would think is the right direction.

But I give a C+ because I think he's made a huge mistake in proposing Social Security cuts at a time when he's talking about the deficit and essentially conflating the national debt with Social Security when, in fact, those two things have nothing to do with each other. And so in a really problematic way he has become the first Democratic president to formally propose cutting one of the most popular programs, and successful programs, in American history. And that's very bad.

MARTIN: David, I'm going to ask you to comment on Ron's point and Ron's point was that unemployment is just too high, has been too high for too long, and particularly vulnerable groups are just not making any progress. Now, that's interesting to hear that from Ron because the rap is that Republicans are primarily concerned with the deficit. But let's take him at his word and say that this is his priority. What do you say about the president's efforts on that?

SIROTA: I think that's a fair criticism but I do think we have to remember the context with which he is governing. He is governing with a Republican Congress - a Republican House that doesn't allow for much of anything to move forward. And he's also got a Republican Senate that has used the filibuster at record levels.

And so I think that what needs to be done for the economy, which in part requires, I think, an infusion of resources, the government spending in a counter-cyclical kind of way. We can't even have a debate about that because the Congress - there's no chance of that passing in the Congress, unfortunately.

MARTIN: Ron, I'm going to ask you to comment on David's point. I mean, this has been sort of a sticky issue with Republicans. They feel that the president has made no progress and has shown no good faith on the issue of entitlement reform. The progressives are upset about the president's moves on Social Security. From the Republican standpoint, do you give him credit for that? For taking on something that's very difficult for him politically?

CHRISTIE: No. Because of the whole notion of chained CPI is an effort to recalculate the manner in which entitlements are set to grow. And I think the real issue is not trimming around the issues - the edges of the issue, but I think that we need to confront it head on. And confronting it head on means either looking at raising the retirement age, looking at raising taxes, or looking at different ways that we could curb the enormous amount of revenue that's going to fund Social Security.

If you look at the fact of the demographics, we have less people now working to fuel more people who are going to take this entitlement. So playing around the edges with chained CPI I don't think is enough leadership. Simpson-Bowles was a good start but Republicans and Democrats need to confront this because it is a very, very serious issue that no one in Washington seems to want to have the guts to confront.

MARTIN: As I said, we are talking with the loyal opposition about the first 100 days of President Obama's second term. Our guests are Republican strategist Ron Christie, political commentator David Sirota. David is very much on the progressive side. Let's talk, David, about immigration reform, if I can use that word. Some people don't like that word because they feel that it suggests that whatever people propose is automatically better. Some people don't think that that's true. David Sirota, what about the president's moves on immigration?

SIROTA: I think that what happened on immigration is that the election itself changed the debate over immigration. There's a story in the New York Times today about how there is now a divide in the Republican Party between folks who follow former senator Jim DeMint who's now at the Heritage Foundation, and then Marco Rubio, a Republican who's come to a different conclusion about how to reform immigration.

And a conclusion that's more where President Obama is. And I think that what's happened is that the demography of President Obama's electoral coalition and the changing demographics of America have sufficiently frightened at least a certain segment of the Republican Party into realizing that it's old anti-immigrant xenophobic rhetoric is not a winning political strategy moving forward. And that has fundamentally changed the possibility of passing constructive, or at least more constructive, immigration reform.

MARTIN: So you don't give the president points for leadership. You say it's essentially he's riding a wave.

SIROTA: Well...

MARTIN: That the wave is there and he's got his surfboard on it. Is that, is that...

SIROTA: Well, look, I give him credit for running the election campaign that he ran and building the coalition that he built. What I'm saying is that the change in the immigration debate is a product of the kind of campaign that he put together. So that is in a sense credit for him. It's not credit for him necessarily as the president in the White House, but as a candidate running for that office.

MARTIN: Ron? Thoughts on that?

CHRISTIE: Wait for it, Michel. I actually agree with David here.


CHRISTIE: I think he's absolutely right. I think that the Republicans, right or wrong, were scared after the election. And as David knows, winning elections is about addition rather than subtraction. And I think Republicans have calculated that they need to reach out to more communities of color. And I think that immigration, they feel, is an issue that they can win on.

I just question whether or not, looking at the folks who are here who are undocumented, whether or not having a conversation about a pathway to citizenship is a smart idea. Who would that hurt the most? That would hurt those of color who are presently in the United States. I would go back to the Republican mantra of we need to ensure the border is safe. We need to have an effective way of having folks come to this country legally. But we also are not looking at the long-term and short-term impact if we allow some sort of pathway to citizenship.

MARTIN: Ron, before we leave, in the time we have left, I do want to talk about gun control because you said at the beginning of our conversation that this is a fight that the president could have won.


MARTIN: Tell us more about that.

CHRISTIE: Well, I think in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy in Connecticut, there was a sense in the United States that we needed to have more gun control, or at least background checks. And the longer that this issue played out, the longer that it got more divisive both in the Congress, with the National Rifle Association and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, I think people then went to their respective camps and then sat there.

I think, if the president had come out with a very clear, a very concise plan of - this is my plan. This is why Congress needs to act and I want Congress to act right now - I think he would have gotten it done.

MARTIN: David, what do you think about that?

SIROTA: Well, look, I think that it was inevitable that - and I do think Ron is right, that both sides kind of went back to their respective camps. I think that the president has used the bully pulpit in a way that he rarely uses it and when talking about background checks.

I think the NRA won that debate because they limited the possibility of choices, but I do think - and this is why the second 100 days are so important - we're going to see whether the gun control debate changes in the face of that opposition to a set of proposals that most Americans, according to polls, support.

MARTIN: You know, what's interesting and what I'm noticing about this conversation - we have about sort of three minutes left. I just want to ask you each about this. There is a remarkable - perhaps it's not remarkable - but there's an interesting amount of - degree of agreement between the two of you. I'm struck by that because the president, for example, had a news conference today and one of the themes and one of the things he was asked about was the sense of dysfunction and gridlock in Washington.

And I'm interested, in the time that we have left, in your perspective on - it seems that each of you coming at these issues from very different political perspectives, obviously, you have very different things that you want to see sort of happen in the world, but have very similar analyses. Why is it that we don't see that kind of agreement among our policymakers? Ron, you want to take a crack at that?

CHRISTIE: Yeah, I will. You know, I had the privilege to serve on Capitol Hill for nine years and the White House for four and, when I first started on Capitol Hill, a lot of my friends were Democrats. A lot of Republicans and Democrats learned to understand each other as people and I think that the polarization that you see here in Washington - it's not that I win. It's - I want you to lose, and it's more that I want your cause to lose rather than looking at you as a person.

And I think that we've gotten away from recognizing that we are people and that people have different opinions, but you have to respect those opinions and I think that lack of respect is really transparent right now.

MARTIN: David, interesting. You did your stint in Washington and you moved out west, in part because you wanted to get a fresh perspective on things. What's your take on that?

SIROTA: Well, my take is a little different. It's that politicians are connected to vested political interests and, when they get elected and when they look to get reelected, they have to rely on those vested political interests - tend to be with lots of financial resources to help them get reelected. And so, even if they want to find compromise, even if they want to do, quote, unquote, "the right thing," it's very difficult to do so because of the fear that you will break apart your own coalition and so, essentially, you've got a system that keeps people connected to positions that there is no necessarily middle ground.

MARTIN: David, very briefly, how do you feel about the next 100 days? Do you feel optimistic? From your point of view, of course, optimistic, pessimistic?

SIROTA: I feel pretty nervous. I feel that, especially when it comes to things like Social Security, especially when it comes to things like the budget - look, you got the president proposing in many ways to remove some of the parts of the sequestration that I actually support. I think we need to cut defense spending, but I feel like the momentum is moving the president or the president is choosing to move more towards the Republican side of the equation on those issues rather than using the bully pulpit in a way that could fundamentally change the debate.

MARTIN: All right. We will see. We'll keep in touch. David Sirota is a columnist and blogger for Salon. He joined us from Colorado Public Radio. With us in Washington, D.C., Ron Christie, Republican strategist with Christie Strategies, a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

CHRISTIE: Thank you both.

SIROTA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Just ahead, we're going to hear how the president's second term is viewed by people whose lives and work are touched by his policies. Please stay with us for that conversation on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.