Battening down the hatches. In a series of moves, President Obama turns to the political center. He goes to Afghanistan to signal his commitment against resurgent terrorism, he OKs offshore drilling to focus on oil security and he orders a high-level commission to attack deficits.
Guarding the center. Do all of Obama's moves share the advantage of cutting off Republicans? Is all this so that in 2012 his critics can't call Obama some big spending, tree hugging, soft on terror type?
And finally, no time for prime time? It's been nine months since the president took questions from the press in a prime-time news conference, not since he walked into the Professor Gates mess. Is Barack Obama trying to avoid the danger zone?
Hi. I'm Chris Matthews. Welcome to the show.
Norah O'Donnell is Chief Washington Correspondent for MSNBC, Chuck Todd covers the White House for NBC News and is co-host of "The Daily Rundown" on MSNBC, Helene Cooper is White House correspondent for The New York Times, and David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist.
First up, health care was number one on the Democrats' to do list, but with that checked off President Obama this week moved to the center. Those moves towards the center may not be politically motivated in themselves, but they have a big political upside, they preempt Republican attacks when he runs for re-election.
First, offshore drilling that protects Obama from GOP charges he favors the environment at the cost of development in the way that George Bush Sr. ridiculed Al Gore.
President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: (From October 29, 1992) You know why I call him "Ozone Man"? This guy is so far off in the environmental extreme we'll be up to our neck in owls and out of work for every American. This guy's crazy.
MATTHEWS: Wow. Second, there's the troop surge to Afghanistan that may help insulate Obama from the usual attacks on Democrats' national security cred. Even Vietnam vet John Kerry was taken down on that.
(Clip from "Swift Board Veterans for Truth" TV advertisement)
MATTHEWS: And third, there's Obama's deficit commission. That may help protect him from charges like this one from Bob Dole against Bill Clinton.
Mr. BOB DOLE: (From September 24, 1996) These are the actions of an old style, dyed in the wool, big spending liberal committing to a government that spends and spends and taxes and taxes.
MATTHEWS: Well, Chuck, the president seems to know this week that the push for health care wasn't that popular, the numbers don't show it. So he has to move to the center, right? And these pushes are that way.
Mr. CHUCK TODD (NBC Chief White House Correspondent): Well, it's one way to say it, but I think the president would say he's a pragmatist. And that's how he ran. People forget this. He ran his campaign on being this sort of pragmatic—he'd call himself a pragmatic progressive, right? You know, he would like to do things more liberal and more progressive, but he's got a pragmatic steak and that—at the end of the day he'll figure out somewhere that's center-left and that's the answer. He even pitched his health care that way.
He's not going to be able to sell himself as a centrist because you have an entire Republican Party that's going to call him a liberal. Instead, the way he can sell the middle is saying, `Look, I'm a pragmatist.'
MATTHEWS: OK. He's also got to deal pragmatically with the—with the time schedule. Here we are in April 2010, he's got the big congressional elections coming up. Was this pivot planned? Did it at some point they knew they had to get to the center?
Ms. HELENE COOPER (White House Correspondent The New York Times): Yeah, but this pivot was planned many, many months ago.
MATTHEWS: It happened...
Ms. COOPER: Health care—health care took so long. They've been talking about switching to a jobs, jobs, jobs agenda for months now, and it's been, you know, they also had thought that health care would've been passed a long time ago. So I think they're really behind now and sort of rush—and really running at this point to do this pivot and to start to reach out to more independents and more—because they've got, with health care right now, he's got the Democratic base in the bag. And so at this point, when you're looking both at the midterm elections and even further ahead at 2012, it's all about independents.
MATTHEWS: Well, he's got about 50 percent right now in terms of popularity, but he's got these Congressional races coming up. Congress is immensely unpopular. Is there a fight between what he's doing for himself come 2012 and what he's got to do to hold the Congress in the next November elections coming up?
Ms. NORAH O'DONNELL (Chief Washington Correspondent MSNBC): No. I think the White House made a calculated decision after the Scott Brown victory, would they retreat and compromise with Republicans or would they decide to push this through no matter what? And they did. And that has energized the Democratic base, which they need to do for the 2010 elections. And now you see the president pivoting in some ways, but it is aimed at independent voters.
MATTHEWS: Right. Let's go to the specifics here. Afghanistan, it—I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He believes it's good policy, the surge over there. What about it? Is it working on the ground?
Mr. DAVID IGNATIUS (Columnist, The Washington Post): I just have come back from Afghanistan, Chris. I was traveling with Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. What you see is a series of relatively small military victories. Marjah, which is—which is an agricultural town in Helmand province, a big area for the Taliban, the Marines came in and they have cleared it, as they say in the military parlance. I sat in the middle of town in a shura with townspeople and Admiral Mullen. The place is different. It's different for the impact of an US military power.
The tough stuff is ahead, and in particularly in Kandahar, which is kind of the capital of the Pashtun people, it's the place where Osama bin Laden came. It's really the toughest nut to crack, really because the problem in Kandahar is not the Taliban, they're not very strong in this city; the problem is corruption. And that's the hardest thing for this strategy to deal with. And I heard so many of the—of the top generals, the commanders of this war, really trying to think, where will we be in December when the president has to look at this and decide, are we on target for our July 2011 timetable?
MATTHEWS: Big question to you at the White House, will the president benefit from this strong stand on Afghanistan or not? Or will he just as soon, you know, take—would he have been just as well off just getting out of Afghanistan politically?
Mr. TODD: Well, I think you can make the argument that politically he could've just as much gotten out of it. I don't—there—I don't think right now there's a political plus or minus with Afghanistan. I really think it's sort of one of these net-neutral things. You know, with the Democratic Party, it's kind of split.
MATTHEWS: OK, so that's...
Mr. TODD: With Republicans, you know, they're saying, yeah, we should be there. But it's not going to be a debate issue.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, let me go to Norah. This drilling thing, which grabbed me this week. I think everybody knows that somewhere down the line we're going to be out of gas.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Yeah, I think it was a bold move by the president to do that and I think he couches it, of course, in this larger national security, we got off—we get off this dependence of foreign oil. The same time you saw, too, the president announcing these new standards, our cars have got to be more efficient, right? We've got to be able to get 35 miles to the gallon. So it's all part of that pragmatism by the president.
Mr. IGNATIUS: What I was struck by with this announcement was the president trying to have it both ways. We're going to drill in some areas...
Ms. COOPER: Yeah.
Mr. IGNATIUS: ...but in some areas, you know, beautiful Cape Cod, the Pacific Ocean, we're not going to drill there. We're going to drill in some areas of Alaska, but not others. I mean, you know, he does have a way of straddling these issues...
Mr. IGNATIUS: ...and I think looking at his performance over the last year, we've seen it's often not effective. It ends up leaving both sides angry, unhappy, feeling he hasn't really gotten the point. But we'll see...
MATTHEWS: Well, but most Americans have an attitude about aesthetics, too. They do want the drilling in some states, not others.
Mr. IGNATIUS: Of course. Of course they do. Just as politics to say we're going to drill, but we're not going to drill. You know, it's just—it's very hard one, to straddle a nuance.
MATTHEWS: OK. The president has created by executive order a deficit commission. He did it even though Congress wouldn't do it because the Republicans said, Club for Growth types said no, it's going to mean taxes. Is he going to really do something on the deficit before he leaves—gets out of this first term?
Mr. TODD: I think he'll do something.
MATTHEWS: Really do something?
Mr. TODD: But I don't buy it. Look, commissions is a typical Washington kick the can down the road. The fact is I think the next commission he takes on is going to be something on Social Security.
Mr. TODD: That that's the thing he talks about.
MATTHEWS: Well, that's the same question, really.
Mr. TODD: Well, it's part of the same question, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the ways he kicks the deficit commission can down the road is that somehow he says, well, we've got to now also have the Social Security conversation, the Medicare and the Medicaid conversation.
Mr. TODD: So I don't know if this is going to have a...(unintelligible).
MATTHEWS: You know, cutting deficits comes down to two decisions: you've got to raise taxes somewhere with a value-added tax or something, or you're going to cut benefits. Neither one are pleasant for politicians.
Ms. COOPER: No, they're not. They're not. He's got, I mean, this is going to be a huge, huge issue going down the road, and I don't—I don't see how he gets out of it.
Ms. O'DONNELL: And I was just out in the road—on the road in Arizona with John McCain, who brought in Sarah Palin to campaign for him. You can see how angry people are in this country about the size of the deficit, the size of the government. And it will—it colors everything. And there is a very, very angry element out in this country. And I don't just think it's the tea party crowd. I mean, that was largely a Republican-leaning tea party crowd that I saw, but there—it's beyond that that people are fed up with the size of government, and that's why there's so much distrust.
Ms. COOPER: Yeah.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Even voters on...
MATTHEWS: But it's easier to be a critic.
Ms. O'DONNELL: No. But white, working class...
MATTHEWS: It's easier to say you don't like deficits, but you ask those same angry voters...
Mr. TODD: The problem is you start shutting down...
Ms. COOPER: Yeah.
MATTHEWS: ...`Do you want to raise taxes? Do you want to cut benefits?' what are they going to say?
Ms. COOPER: No.
Mr. TODD: Or, `Do you want to shut down schools?'
MATTHEWS: You guys solve the problems.
Ms. COOPER: Right.
Mr. TODD: Do you want to do that?
Mr. IGNATIUS: That's why—that's why this commission...
Mr. TODD: And that's what the...(unintelligible)...are going to have to do.
MATTHEWS: The president knows the politics, Chuck, of this thing.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Go to four days a week.
Mr. TODD: That's right. Are they going to shut down schools? I mean, watch when states have to do this. Look, the next great crisis in this country financially is going to be the state budget crisis because it's going to start laying off teachers.
Ms. COOPER: Yeah.
Mr. TODD: All of these problems, it's going to create a huge problem in Congress...
Mr. TODD: ...and with the president because they've got to figure out how to make sure that doesn't happen.
MATTHEWS: Do you—when you talk to the people at the White House, can you get them to be overt about the politics of all these decisions—Afghanistan, the drilling, the deficit commission—do they ever admit to you, on or off, that this is about repositioning the president by next time when he has to run to the people in the middle?
Mr. TODD: They would just not use the word repositioning. They would say, `You know what? He's more of a centrist than you give him credit for.' Right? He's already been in the middle...(unintelligible).
Ms. COOPER: And he's—no, no, no. Don't forget the part about he's been saying this all along.
Mr. TODD: Yes.
Ms. COOPER: It's just like...
Mr. TODD: So they would just—here's what they would say. `We're not repositioning. We've always been this person. You guys just discover it when you want to.'
MATTHEWS: OK. Well, let's try the meter on that one. We went to the Matthews Meter, 12 of our regulars. When he runs for re-election in 2012, as we assume he will, will President Obama be less vulnerable to GOP attacks than most Democratic presidential candidates have been? Well, it's close, given all that he's trying to do here, seven say yes, he'll be less vulnerable than most people who run as Democrats; five say no. It's very close. Norah, you say he'll be a little better off because of all these things he's doing in the center.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Yeah. I think he got health care out of the way, which was very divisive, and now he's going to move to the center on some of these issues, whether he was like that all along, or whether it's 2010 or 2012, yeah.
MATTHEWS: OK. OK. Hard question, same question to you, start again, can the president reposition himself from where he's been all these months as the leader of the progressive party, the Democratic Party, can he reposition himself as just America's president, right down the middle?
Ms. O'DONNELL: I think he's going to try and do that, sure.
Mr. TODD: I think the message is going to be, `I'm willing to make tough decisions, even if they're not popular.'
Ms. COOPER: He's going to try. I think it could even work with the Democrats and the independents. I'm not so sure about the Republicans.
Mr. IGNATIUS: I think—I think he's going to say, `I'm making government work again.' And I think what we're just talking about, the deficit commission, could be a key part of that strategy, and it's going to deliver a report December 1, and I think it's politically very helpful, especially on what you talked about. Build—beginning to build a case for a value-added tax, which gets us out of the—out of this mess.
MATTHEWS: I think young—by the way, I think young voters care about this.
Before we break, we've got two big White House correspondents here on this panel, so we want to talk about why Barack Obama's not doing those big presidential press conferences, the kind presidents do in the East Room inprime time. Many presidents have actually liked those tests of strength for their own reasons. Surprisingly, Richard Nixon reportedly liked the chance to joust with the press. He didn't like the press, but he liked jousting with it. Here he is with Dan Rather.
(Beginning of clip from August 22, 1973)
Mr. DAN RATHER: Now, you're a lawyer, and given the state of the situation in what you knew, could you give us some reason why the American people shouldn't believe that that was at least a subtle attempt to bribe the judge in that case, and it gave at least the appearance of a lack of moral leadership?
President RICHARD NIXON: Well, I would say the only part of your statement that is perhaps accurate is that I'm a lawyer.
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: Anyway, Ronald Reagan loved romancing those live TV cameras.
(Beginning of clip from May 22, 1984)
Mr. SAM DONALDSON (ABC News): Sir, interest rates are going up, the stock market is going down and some economists say we're to be into a recession, perhaps this fall. Do you think we're heading for a recession?
President RONALD REAGAN: Oh, I didn't think anyone would get around to some pleasant subjects. No, I don't think we are.
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: Wow. Well, Bill Clinton welcomed the chance to show his wide grasp of issues.
President BILL CLINTON: (From January 28, 1997) The funds that are collected on Social Security are going to be invested in some way, but those securities will come back with interest to the government later on, and by then what will have to happen is, when we start running short of money, 20 years or so from now, the government will have to have been on a balanced budget for some years by then so that when the bonds are repaid, they can be used to pay Social Security.
MATTHEWS: But nobody's been as charming as John F. Kennedy. Here he was back in '62 answering a reporter known for pressing him with tough questions every time.
(Beginning of clip from January 31, 1962)
President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Miss Craig.
Unidentified Man #1: Excuse me.
Ms. MAY CRAIG: Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, visitors who go out to visit Lincoln Park on East Capital Street are dismayed to find it a slum. Congress has authorized, and the National Council of Negro Women will erect there a memorial stadium and a statue of the great woman educator Mary Bethune. Now the transit company proposes to put an eight-lane freeway between the park and the Capitol, cutting it off. Is the—could you inquire into that and see if the freeway could be put further out beyond the park?
Pres. KENNEDY: Yes, I will...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #2: Mr. President...
Pres. KENNEDY: You were very gentle today, Miss Craig.
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: "Very gentle today." Well, May Craig was tough to charm, but you could see the Kennedy magic there. So if most presidents have used those big press conferences to their advantage, why hasn't Obama done one in the last nine months? When we come back, we're going to ask these reporters is this White House simply reluctant to put the president in the East Room in prime time? Plus scoops and predictions right out of the notebooks of these top reporters. We'll be right back.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back. It was way back on July 22nd of last year when President Obama held his last prime-time press conference. That's the one where he went off message talking about that arrest of the Harvard professor by a Cambridge policeman.
President BARACK OBAMA: (From July 22, 2009) The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when they—there was already proof that they were in their own home.
MATTHEWS: It's getting on a year, Helene, since we've seen the president in prime time. Why doesn't he use that part of the bully pulpit? Only he can do that, roadblock all the networks. Why doesn't he do it?
Ms. COOPER: Well, first of all, it's not that surprising because I think with all—with past administrations and past presidents, we've seen huge blocks of time go by without them having press conferences.
MATTHEWS: A year, almost? Since last July?
Ms. COOPER: Yeah, I think—I think it's—and another thing, though, is that last press conference was terrible. It's—we all remember it for the Skip Gates incident, but if you—if you look at it, and he was getting a lot of criticism that—at the time of that press conference that he had had too many. He was overexposed.
Ms. COOPER: He was out there too much, and you look at that press conference, and when you go back and you re—you replay it, you see it was a lot of economy—it was a lot of just in the weeds stuff.
Ms. COOPER: It got really boring, I thought.
Mr. TODD: She get...
MATTHEWS: I thought he was tired. I'm not sure he's at his best at 9 to 10 at night in prime time. My thoughts. Your thoughts.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Right. But no president has gone this long in the past decade. Clinton did it during Lewinsky, but nine months is a long time, and what we see is this president favors the one-on-one interview, I think because he doesn't like the press conference because he doesn't want to be a piñata for the press. And in some way, the journalists in prime time have a lot more control in that setting.
MATTHEWS: Do you think they're tough on him?
Ms. O'DONNELL: I think the president has more...
MATTHEWS: Do you think guys like Chuck over there are tough on him in the White House?
Mr. TODD: (Unintelligible)
MATTHEWS: At those press conferences?
Ms. O'DONNELL: Sure, but they can ask lots—of course they're tough.
Mr. TODD: (Unintelligible)
Ms. O'DONNELL: They're the best journalists in the business.
MATTHEWS: But not any more than any other—than any other president.
Ms. O'DONNELL: The White House...
MATTHEWS: He's not getting any worse than anybody else.
Ms. O'DONNELL: No, but this is—I think this is in some ways about control. The president feels more comfortable.
MATTHEWS: But you said pinata.
Ms. O'DONNELL: But he can—that's a word that White House officials have used before, that—more of a pinata for the press out there.
Ms. O'DONNELL: That he gets bantered with, and these questions. A one on one, he has more control.
Mr. TODD: Well, look, I can tell you what I think they think at the White House, why they don't do these. Number one, they feel oddly constricted. The president is a—likes to give long answers. He hates the short formats in general. So a prime-time press conference, you really make the networks mad if you go outside of an hour. So already you—he has in his own mind restrictions that he doesn't like.
Mr. TODD: Second, they like to—they want to save a prime-time ask because the networks...
MATTHEWS: Save a what?
Mr. TODD: A prime-time ask. The networks have made this much harder...
MATTHEWS: I know.
Mr. TODD: ...much harder on presidents. You only ask when you really feel like you need this roadblock in time. It's not like we don't see him.
Mr. TODD: It's not like we don't get a chance to ask him questions. So I think this is the networks and the White House...
Mr. TODD: ...in a—in a weird way that will prevent this.
MATTHEWS: Here's a question with an answer buried in it. Could it be he doesn't want to arouse his enemies? Half the country doesn't like him in almost every poll. If you go into prime time, you're going in the face of your enemy. You're taking away their favorite TV show at 9:00 and they've got to watch you for an hour and hate you.
Mr. IGNATIUS: That...
MATTHEWS: I'm wondering if that isn't smart just to avoid that.
Ms. COOPER: What do you really think, Chris?
Mr. IGNATIUS: That may be part of it, but I think—I think that what Chuck was saying is right. I don't think he's very good at this. I don't think he's very comfortable at it. In truth, I sometimes wonder if the hurly burly of politics in general—and, you know, the Washington scene in these press conferences compress that—that really makes him—makes him comfortable. I think other forms of communication work better for him, they know it, you know, so why go with something that you're not very good at.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Obama has done...
Mr. TODD: He doesn't hide. We see him all the time.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Obama has done 150 or more one-on-one interviews.
MATTHEWS: Right, right.
Ms. O'DONNELL: That's three times more than Bush or Clinton did in their first year.
MATTHEWS: It's not prime time.
When we come back, scoops and predictions right out of the notebooks of these top reporters. TELL ME SOMETHING I DON'T KNOW. Be right back.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back. Norah, tell me something I don't know.
Ms. O'DONNELL: As to the question will the president's approval ratings rebound, I spoke with the Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who does stuff, of course, for the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, and he pointed out this very interesting fact. No president's approval ratings have gone up from the beginning of their sophomore year to the midterm elections. So it's likely the president's approval ratings at around—will be stuck at around 50 percent.
MATTHEWS: From now to November.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Yep.
Mr. TODD: The dog that didn't bite this week, no Democratic member of Congress, frankly, no Republican member of Congress, announced a retirement this week. They're in the middle of this recess, you still got another week, but there was real fear among Democrats that there'd be a couple of more people to retire and it didn't happen post health care. That's a huge potential sign that maybe this isn't going to be '94.
MATTHEWS: So they can hold the House.
Mr. TODD: Yeah.
Ms. COOPER: In the middle of this sort of impasse that we've had going on between the Obama administration and the Israelis over settlement and housing units in East Jerusalem, the administration has privately told the Palestinians to stay out of it and keep quiet. They don't want them inflaming things any further.
Mr. IGNATIUS: Traveling this last week in Afghanistan with Admiral Mullen, he let slip the fact that the Iranians have secretly been shipping weapons to the Taliban, their nominal enemies, in Kandahar, on the eve of the US offensive in Kandahar. That's really scary.
When we come back, the BIG QUESTION this week: Is Mitt Romney going to be the Republican nominee against Barack Obama in 2012? And who would be the favorite in that race? Be right back.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back. On Friday President Obama was on CBS sounding like he knows his 2012 opponent's going to be Mitt Romney.
Pres. OBAMA: (From CBS' "The Early Show") The sort of plan proposed by current Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
MATTHEWS: That brings us to this week's big question. Is Obama right? Is it Romney in 2012? And who would be the favorite in that race if he has to run against Romney? Norah, will it be Romney?
Ms. O'DONNELL: I think it depends whether Sarah Palin actually ends up running.
MATTHEWS: OK. Chuck?
Mr. TODD: Well...
MATTHEWS: Is it going to be Romney? Your bet?
Mr. TODD: ...yeah, the Palin question is going to hang over—history says Romney because this is what Republicans do, they elect the number two guy. But I have to say, do you know that only one political party has lost a presidency after one term, after sort of flipping the presidency...
Mr. TODD: ...in the last, I think, 150 years, and that was Jimmy Carter. Unless you really think Obama's Jimmy Carter, he's the favorite for an election.
Helene, do you think it's Romney?
Ms. COOPER: Yes, it's going to be Romney and Obama's the favorite.
MATTHEWS: Well said.
Mr. IGNATIUS: I think that Romney would be the most effective Republican candidate, but I think there is an insurgency in the Republican Party called the Tea Party movement, which is going to make it very hard for anybody as calm and centrist looking as Mitt Romney winning.
MATTHEWS: So you don't think it's Romney.
Mr. IGNATIUS: You know, I think in the end he'll win.
MATTHEWS: OK. That's three.
Mr. TODD: Split.
Mr. IGNATIUS: Because I think the Tea Party movement has a—has a suicidal component.
MATTHEWS: And who's the favorite against Romney? Who's the—Romney or the president?
Mr. IGNATIUS: I would say at this point, with health care passed, I think Obama would eke out a victory.
MATTHEWS: OK. Three people say it's the—Romney against Obama with Obama winning. Let's make it four.
Thanks to a roundtable, a great one with lots of guts. Norah O'Donnell, Chuck Todd, Helene Cooper—I forgot you—and David Ignatius, author of the great thriller "The Increment," just out in paperback, a great follow-up to his best seller "Body of Lies." Probably a movie, too.
That's the show, thanks for watching. Happy Easter, and see you here next week.