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State of the Union: Best Political Team on Television

Aired February 15, 2009 - 11:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: And as we continue, I'm John King in Phoenix, Arizona, and in this hour, the best political team on television joins me for the first shot at the news you'll read in tomorrow's newspapers. What's been said on the talk shows this Sunday, February 15.

It came in at almost $800 million a page, $800 million a page. The massive stimulus bill that passed late Friday has been under attack this morning. We'll talk to analysts from all sides and ask if we should expect this week's partisan wrangling to continue.

Four more banks failed just this weekend. Does anyone in Washington have a real plan to prevent a financial meltdown? A preview of what's ahead from CNN reporters covering this story.

And does the new president got game? Magic Johnson and Bill Russell join me and a panel of other NBA legends for analysis we guarantee you won't find anywhere else. That's all ahead on this hour of STATE OF THE UNION.

Fresh off the victory of the nearly $800 billion stimulus plan the president says he is confident the package will create about three to four million jobs. But even as he and Congressional Democrats are celebrating their victory, the Obama team out today to tamp down expectations. This morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said those jobs won't come overnight.


GIBBS: The number of jobs that we've lost over just the last three months shows you that the economy is actually getting worse right now, not getting better. So I think it's safe to say that things have not yet bottomed out, they're probably going to get worse before they improve.


KING: The president's team also taking issue with its Republicans' critics, saying they're complaining about big spending now but were quiet when their party controlled the White House.

David Axelrod there. Not surprisingly, Republicans have a very different view. Even those who promised to do all they could to help the new president, like South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham -- he says when it comes to changing the tone in Washington, the president is off to a horrible start. No sound there from Senator Graham. We'll bring that to you later.

In this next hour, we'll break down, as we do every week, all of the talk on the Sunday talk shows. We watch them so you don't have to. Joining me now from New York, our New York bureau, Nicolle Wallace, she's the former communications director for President George W. Bush, also advised Senator John McCain on the past campaign.

And in Washington, Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Paul Begala and the CNN senior analyst David Gergen. Thank you all for joining me this morning. And ladies first, Nicolle, you did work for George W. Bush and John McCain. You see Republicans out complaining that it was President Obama who failed the early tests of bipartisanship. David Axelrod out saying where was all this criticism about big spending in the George W. Bush presidency? Assess the week past and as you do so in terms of the bipartisan lack of cooperation and what lessons are there as we look forward?

NICOLLE WALLACE, FORMER BUSH W.H. COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, look, I think it's a little silly to say that two wrongs make a right. I think that Republicans are speaking to the citizens' angst about the spending. And I think what people hear just as often from Barack Obama in the same words that he uses to demand that we urgently pass the stimulus, he assures us that it isn't perfect and he's not sure it's going to work.

But I think this whole debate centered on his trip outside of Washington. He met Henrietta Hughes, the woman who rose and spoke of being homeless and unemployed and I really think it was in that moment, when you elevate the despair, I think in that moment doing something no matter how flawed it was became more important than doing nothing.

What I can't understand is why Barack Obama didn't stand up to his own party. He's very popular, he's the president at over 60 percent and he had an opportunity to stand up to Democrats and say, listen guys, we won, we can do whatever we want, we can pass whatever we want. Let's let this stimulus bill stand alone as encompassing only that which even Republicans would agree will stimulate the economy. And I think that's the missed opportunity this week.

KING: Well, Paul Begala, you are one of those Democrats who occasionally speaks to those people who work in the Obama White House. Was it a missed opportunity? Is Nicolle right?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It was a missed opportunity in that I think he incorporated too much of what the Republicans wanted and got too little in terms of Republican support.

Look, according to CNN poll, 32 percent of Republicans in America, one out of three, supports President Obama's economic package. That's not gang busters, but that's not nothing. If you're in Washington, 1.4 percent of Republicans voted for it, 98.6 percent voted against it.

So there's a disconnect between the real world Republicans, many of whom, the large number of whom support the president's economic agenda, and the Washington Republicans. And I think this is what the Obama team got wrong. They actually thought, having a candidate from the real world of America, that Washington Republicans would behave like American Republicans and they were wrong.

Here in Washington, you know, Republicans they clearly did put partisanship first. It just can't be when you have 98.6 percent of Republicans opposing a package that has huge support across the country that they're doing anything except playing politics. I think when they campaigned, the Obama people, they were a little naive.

I remember them hearing saying things like we'll transcend partisanship and win over the forces of reaction with the forces of our logic. Well, how did that work out? The truth is, you have right now until the Republicans clean up their House, an elite here in Washington, the Republican Party that just seems hell bent on obstructing everything that this new president wants to do. The good news is he's getting it done anyway.

KING: David Gergen, I just want weigh in here as someone who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans in the White House. Before you do, I want you to listen to a part of my conversation earlier today with John McCain. He, of course, was the Republican on the ticket against Barack Obama. He promised, after the election to try to work with the new president as much as possible. In John McCain's view, it's Barack Obama's fault for the beginning. Let's listen.


MCCAIN: It was a bad beginning. It was a bad beginning because it wasn't what we promised the American people. What President Obama promised the American people that we would sit down together. But I appreciate the fact that the president came over, talked to Republicans. That's not how you negotiate a result. You sit down together in a room with competing proposals.


KING: Now David, the American people might not care whether they had the right meeting, whether they reached out to each other, but it does matter to them in terms of what is actually in the legislation, in the stimulus bill, in the coming debates over the budget, over health care, over climate change. What is your sense of this moment and what's the lesson to be learned?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think most important thing is exactly what you said, John, and that is it's significant victory for President Obama and for the country to get a stimulus package started within the first three weeks of his presidency. This is the biggest spending or biggest bill we've ever seen on domestic side since World War II. And to get it so quickly done, I think, was at a time of crisis in the economy, was really, really important.

In terms of negotiations, I disagree to some extent with Nicolle. I think there was some junk in there inserted by Democrats on the Hill. But if you look at it from President Obama's point of view, he got about 90 percent of what he was looking for out of the bill. Most of what he wanted is fundamentally in this bill. And there are some very good things, not only in the jobs front but were -- it's coming to light just how much money is in there for education reform, for example. Arne Duncan, the new secretary of education, is now armed with more than $5 billion to go out and force some reforms that no other education secretary, Margaret Spellings in the Bush administration would have died for that kind of money to force reform. So I think there are some good things. Now in terms of negotiations, sorry, there are a couple of lessons to be learned. I think John McCain is right, that in the future on big items, it would be better for the White House and the Democrats to sit down with the Republicans on the substance of something before it goes out and have some real bargaining. On the other hand, the lesson for the White House is, I think Paul Begala would second this, don't make preemptive concessions to the Republicans until you get their vote. There ought to be some hard bargaining, there ought not to be done in the spirit of transcendence. It ought to be done, these are some hard realities. Make the concessions, but get the votes.

KING: You've all worked in the White House. I want to show you this, all worked for presidents, I want to hoe you this. This is a thousand pages. This is the -- this is the stimulus legislation. This is designed to create three to four million new jobs and in parts of this bill as they were voting, people literally scribbled, wrote on the side to change the legislation.

Nicolle, ladies first. Is this the way Washington should be doing business? Serious money and a serious issue and you have people as congress is getting ready to vote changing the bill and writing things on the side.

WALLACE: Look, there are reporters up on Capitol Hill who I bet my last dollar didn't vote for John McCain or George Bush who were e- mailing me in all caps, "travesty." What happened up there is the worst of Washington. Nobody, nobody, read the whole bill before they voted on it. They weren't given time. Now I don't think there's any debate in this country about whether our economic crisis is urgent or dire.

But there is nothing worse that was going to happen if we gave people 24 or 48 hours to read it. Now I'm not saying it would have changed their vote, but I think that some of this blah, blah, blah, partisanship, back biting, I think some of that is what Obama was trying to change. And so I don't think there's a very good argument that can be made for not giving people time to read it. As you said, it's the size of about three phone books, nobody read it, and I think that represents the very worst traditions of what Barack Obama was trying to change.

KING: All right, everybody stay put. Much more of our conversation back in just a moment. But first, a quick preview of what's still to come on STATE OF THE UNION this morning. As always, we're going outside Washington for our CNN diner segment. But today, my guests aren't exactly regular citizens. We'll ask five of the NBA's best, past and present, to give us their opinion of President Obama on and off the court. Then from a new housing initiative to health care reform, we'll look at what's next in the Obama administration with the best political team on television.

And at noon, we'll ask White House press secretary Robert Gibbs when those billions of dollars in stimulus spending will start creating jobs.

And then my exclusive Sunday interview with Republican Senator John McCain. I'll ask him if there's any hope for political partnership after this week's bitter political battle over stimulus. All that and our tour of the controversial new fence being built along the U.S.-Mexico border when STATE OF THE UNION continues from Phoenix, Arizona.


KING: A beautiful morning here in Phoenix, Arizona, STATE OF THE UNION on the road for the first time. We're back with Nicolle Wallace, Paul Begala, and David Gergen.

Paul, let me start with you on what many in your party are privately whispering may be the rookie mistakes of the Obama administration. Bill Richardson was picked for commerce secretary, he had to pull out. Tom Daschle was picked for health and human services secretary, he withdrew. The woman picked to be chief financial officer, withdrew.

In Daschle's case, in her case, because he hadn't paid back taxes. And then they make big headlines by inviting a Republican senator, Judd Gregg, into the administration and he withdraws saying that as he started to look more and more at the details, he realized he couldn't work with the Democratic president.

I want you to listen, before I get your view, to David Axelrod speaking this morning how the Gregg nomination collapsed.


DAVID AXELROD, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER: Senator Gregg approached us, he said he was interested in serving the cabinet at Commerce. We thought he'd be a good representative of American business around the world. And then he decided, as he said, that being as a -- the maverick that he is, that he -- that he didn't belong in anybody's cabinet. So he had a change of heart.


KING: He had a change of heart, Paul Begala, but if you're bringing somebody, especially somebody from the other party into your administration, after a number of other rocky nominations and you're the new administration that promised to change the way Washington works, weren't they supposed to push all of these buttons and ask all of these questions before they nominated him?

BEGALA: Well, sure. But you know, I guess at least as a Democrat, they're hitting potholes in the road but at least they're moving into the right direction. I think most Democrats -- or most Americans, are giving this president the benefit of the doubt on these things. I think those kinds of bumps in the road don't matter as much. One that bothered me more, frankly, that was not as well- covered was a front page story this week in The New York Times which detailed an alleged dispute between Mr. Axelrod, who you just showed, and the treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, fighting over I think limits on executive compensation and limits on conduct of banks getting money out of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

That's the kind -- it's typical. It happened -- you covered the Clinton White House. You wrote enough of those stories yourself, King, it happens in every White House. But it never happened in the Obama campaign. It never happened in the Obama transition.

That is a very un-Barack Obama moment when these folks working for him start leaking in their own interest against each other, I think that's enormously problematic. My guess is that that was something that went very deeply against the culture that President Obama has tried to put in place here.

But I think that's a lot more troubling than whether -- you know, I think the Judd Gregg thing is just their belief in this mythical creature, it's like the unicorn, the reasonable Washington Republican. If they find one, I'd like to see, we'll put in the Smithsonian.

But there are just not any right here, right now. There are millions of them across America and a lot of them voted for Barack Obama, but there are just precious few of them here in Washington.

KING: Well, David Gergen, again, as someone who has worked in White Houses for Democrats and Republicans, what two polls point about, as they grow maybe, they're not as tightly disciplined as they should have been, and does it matter? Again, is this Washington process talk, or does it matter to the people watching at home, saying, when is that bailout money going to make it to my community bank? When is the stimulus money going to create a job up the street?

GERGEN: It does matter, John, because what we're facing in the economy now is a lack of public confidence in our institutions and our leadership, whether it's in politics or in business. And Barack Obama's chance here is to convince people he's such a good, effective president, not only gets his bills done, but he -- you know, gets the bills through, but he runs an effective team.

That will lift public confidence and get people -- change the psychology of the country. That's what FDR did when he came in in his first 100 days, he changed the public psychology and it made a major difference in reducing unemployment in that period of time.

So I think it does matter. From my perspective, Paul and I were talking about this before we went on the air, in one area they've gotten off to a very smooth start, and that is in national security foreign policy. It seems to me that as you look at that, they've had very few miscues, it has been smooth, it has been quiet, below the radar screen, but they're getting things done. I think Robert Gibbs is off to a very good start as press secretary. But I also think this, John, you've watched these, as we all have, this administration is trying to do so much so fast, they're in the midst of a crisis.

They've got so many balls in the air. They're juggling so many things, I think that inevitably they are going to drop a few. And what they need in there right now is a stronger managerial side. They need to strengthen the managerial side of the house. And I think one place to do that is at the Commerce Department.

They have no CEOs on this team. I'm very surprised by that. I think it's a terrible hole. I don't know why they're neuralgic towards the business community or what, but they need some business- type people in there, people who have run large institutions to help manage because this is going to get a lot more complicated in the months ahead.

KING: Well, Nicolle, as we talk about the challenges, a lot more complicated, as David says, in the months ahead for the Democratic administration. What about your party, the Republican Party? And as I ask you, I want to show you the front page of The New York Times here today -- the Sunday New York Times.

"In Gingrich mold, a new voice for solid resistance in the GOP." It is a profile of Eric Cantor, the number two House Republican. But it's not only a profile of him, it's a discussion about what will the Republican Party do now.

In the stimulus debate, especially in the House, they all decided to say no to this president. Nicolle Wallace, is that the right strategy? And was that a skirmish, a philosophical dispute over one issue, or is that the beginning of a partisan war like we saw in the Clinton administration where Republicans decided politically the best thing to do is just vote no?

WALLACE: Well, nothing is a better example of that, would be during the Bush years, the Democrats stood in lockstep against him.

Let me just say this, I think that Republicans said no to the stimulus bill, I think Republicans recognized that this is a very popular president. Our problems are so dire right now, as a country, we should all hope that he remains popular.

And I think Republicans will be best served if Obama remains strong enough to, when appropriate, stand up to some of the more extreme elements of his own party. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, I think, will ultimately be, you know, just as big of a headache for Barack Obama as they are for the Republicans.

But Republicans would be very well served to get out of Washington and really swim in people's economic despair. People are frightened. People are going through things that they have never gone -- people who never have been out of work or even worried about it are really, you know, facing unemployment, dealing with foreclosures, swimming in credit card debt. And I think Republicans need to take a page from Barack Obama's playbook. Get out of Washington and go, you know, sit with people who are going through these crises.

WALLACE: Be with people and take their solutions.

They need to innovate their way out of the political netherland, here, and really present their ideas.

I think that the way to come at the Democrats, or work with this president, is to have a battle of ideas, not -- I think people are tired of the old partisan wrangling and some of the nastiness that has -- has polluted our discussions. But I think that there's a real place for Republican ideas.

KING: Good advice from all three of our panelists this morning. We'll see if it is followed in the days and weeks ahead. Nicolle Wallace in New York; David Gergen and Paul Begala in Washington, thank you for joining us this morning.

Later at this hour, we'll look at what's next on President Obama's agenda with members of the best political team on television, our CNN reporters.

But next, perhaps the best team in basketball, Magic Johnson and Bill Russell, only two of the pro-basketball legends who will join me to critique President Obama's game, from pulling off a jump shot to planning an economic jump-start. Stay with us.


KING: A beautiful shot of Phoenix, here. We're in Phoenix, Arizona for "State of the Union" this morning.

Now, every week on "State of the Union," we have what we call our "diner segment." We sit down with everyday Americans to ask them what's on their mind, what they think of the new administration or the debate in Washington.

A little bit different this week -- the NBA All-Star game is here this weekend. I had the opportunity to sit down with five NBA greats to ask them their thoughts on the election of the first African- American president and how they will rate the new administration.


RUSSELL: The present president -- to be president -- and there are some things that are really not that important. And the fact that -- he's an African-American is not that important. The important is he was the best man for the job. KING: You're at the other end of the age spectrum at the table, I think. Twenty-three years old?

(UNKNOWN): Yes. Something like that.


KING: So around 23 years old?

What does it mean to you?

(UNKNOWN): Oh, man. It means a lot. It means a lot. Me and a lot of the guys from the team went and heard him speak, and afterwards, you know, we had goose bumps, just because, you know, when you -- when you hear him speak, he just gives you a lot of hope, you know, and things that you need at this time, especially with everything that the country's enduring.

KING: To have a president as a role model, as opposed to a basketball player as a role model, what difference does it make in the inner city?

JOHNSON: Well, it's the best thing that could happen. We're hoping that young people will change their mindset.

We're having major problems in urban America, right now. Drop- out rate is at an alarming rate. Young people are not getting a quality education; now, with the job losses in our community; we have high rate of HIV.

So we have a lot of major problems going on in our community, but the great thing is, here President Obama is. We can now say, "Oh, OK. I'm going to make sure I do everything I can to be like President Obama. That's my new role model. That's the guy who I'm -- I want to be like."

KING: Grant Hill, are the expectations too high?

Can any one person, whether he's the president or anywhere else as a role model, deliver on those expectations?

HILL: He's done a lot in a short period of time. And the change that's already occurred in our country has really been amazing.

You know, one of the things Mr. Russell touched on -- I'll call you Bill Russell, Bill.


RUSSELL: Don't do that.


HILL: OK. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

(LAUGHTER) He -- you know, his era and the civil rights, and a lot of the issues that went around during his playing time and how athletes such as himself and Jim Brown got up and were outspoken and really, kind of, came together, united, to fight for change -- and that kind of had been missing and, certainly, as a history major, I enjoyed studying that and learning about that.

But it was really encouraging and refreshing, during this political process, to see athletes in all sports come out and support -- you know, have fund-raisers, speak at rallies, really get -- become a part of the whole political process.

And it wasn't quite like during your time, but it was great to see. And you can see that change in the world of professional sports. You can see the change in attitude in the inner city. And you can see it throughout the whole country.

KING: And Steve, from your perspective -- you're a white player in a majority African-American league. You also have something none of us at the table have: international experience.

NASH: I don't even have a vote, and I couldn't be happier. And I think -- it's strange for me. I've lived almost half my life in the United States, but in my heart, I'm Canadian. And so I think I have a unique perspective. Because I think I've noticed, over the last eight years, you know, the image of Americans and the country, you know, really go down from where it should be.

You know, this is a wonderful place to live. This is a wonderful country, you know, I think, in the context of the world. And for people to lose that self-esteem as a nation; for people to lose that connection with their country, not only here at home but around the world, you know, was sad.

And I think to see a man as talented, as qualified, as charismatic, and offering all those qualities not only allows Americans to, kind of, grab hold of their country again and have a connectivity to one another again, but I think it also allows people around the world to look at America in a light that they should.

KING: There's a debate sometimes, in sports, about this, as to whether you are, by your choice of doing what you do, in a very public spotlight, role models, or whether you should be left alone; you're off the court, allowed to live your life, and that's nobody's business.

RUSSELL: Well, your first obligation is to your own family; then to your community, your town, your city, your state, and your country.

KING: Give him tips, Grant Hill, on how to deal with pressure.

HILL: Oh, man, well it seems as though he's doing a pretty good job.

(LAUGHTER) I'll take the pressure of a game and the free throw -- you know, shooting the free throws to win a game over the pressure that he's dealing with right now, inheriting this mess.

And you have to really be impressed at how cool he is, how thoughtful, how organized. You know, he's not running from the challenge. He's taking it head-on. And he real realizes that these are tough times, but he's doing what's necessary.

He has that ability to connect with people. So when you sit down and meet with him -- and, maybe, because we're basketball players and he's a fan, that plays into it.

HILL: But when you walk away, you feel like, man, I've know this guy for a long time.

KING: What does it mean to have a president whose first game is basketball? We haven't had one of those before.

PAUL: Yes, I know. It's pretty nice. It's pretty nice. It's still a surreal feeling.

KING: Did you ever get involved or pay as much attention to politics before this campaign?

PAUL: No, no, not really.

KING: Do you have an obligation after he's gone? Maybe he brought you into this campaign, his candidacy, but what about when he's gone from the scene?

PAUL: I think so. I think so. I think if you see how involved just everyone got, but me personally, I've never been as involved as I am now. And I think even after he's done, I have an obligation, because I've gotten more involved on the different topics and things more so now than ever.

Like everyone else has said, I'm too happy for him. No way could I do his job. You know, I'd put him on the basketball court before I'd try to put myself in the White House.

KING: So you have this good will right now. How will you judge him in terms of three months or six months down the road? All right, he did that, that's what I wanted him to do.

NASH: I mean, I think we -- obviously, we get results-based in our judgments. But I just want to see someone who is honest, someone who is -- you know, puts a great team together with the right motives, and someone who gives an effort.

JOHNSON: And I think you start with that, and then you hold him accountable for what he ran on, the platform that he ran on, which was to get 3 million or 4 million people back to work. And that's what he is, as a matter of fact, working on right now.

KING: So, Grant, to that point, somebody watching this might say, what do these guys know about the struggling economy in the country? They're all well-paid, you know, they're not hurting like I am. HILL: Well, I mean, you certainly -- certainly you see it and you feel it. We all -- not everybody we know plays in the NBA.

JOHNSON: I know that -- I'm sorry, not to cut you off, see, I grew up in Michigan, father, two brothers worked 30 years for General Motors, OK? So I'm in it even right now as we speak, I've got relatives who now, whether they got laid off, I worry that they're going to get laid off.

Friends whose parents are going to get laid off, they're going to get laid off, and have been laid off. So I didn't mean to cut Grant off, but I'm in the middle of it right now as we speak. Michigan is devastated. So we're going to have a major crisis for at least two years. Even with the president's great plan, it's going to still take probably 18 months to two years before it can take effect. So we still are going to have that long for people to suffer.

So we have some major problems, but I'm happy that he is the one, President Obama is the one who is going to direct us back and get this economy moving. But we all have to help him. We cannot say, hey, President Obama, it's all on you, because it's never going to work.


KING: Some fun from our NBA panel in our next hour. But when we come back, three members of the best political team on television will join me to take a look ahead. What's next for team Obama now that the stimulus bill is on his desk?

And later, I'll take you on a remarkable tour of the new and quite controversial fence being built not that far from here on the U.S.-Mexican border. From Phoenix, Arizona, STATE OF THE UNION will be right back.


KING: I'm John King and this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning. Today, Hillary Clinton makes her first overseas trip as secretary of state. She heads to Asia with stops in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China.

Illinois Senator Roland Burris now says the brother of former Governor Rod Blagojevich hit him up for campaign cash. But Burris says he refused. Burris didn't mention any of this to a state impeachment committee that relieved Blagojevich of his job.

A grim search taking place in the Buffalo suburb where a commuter plane crashed. Investigators say the remains of 15 people have been found so far. All 49 people on flight 3407 and one person on the ground were killed. Investigators said the plane did not nosedive as originally thought, but fell flat on its belly to the ground. Much more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

And joining me now from our Washington studios to continue our discussion, three members of the best political team on television, congressional correspondent Brianna Keilar, national political correspondent Jessica Yellin and White House correspondent Dan Lothian.

Let's begin our discussion talking about the president's big ticket item this week. Obama to sign stimulus in Denver, that is the front page in the "Sunday Chieftain," Pueblo, Colorado. The president will go on the road to sign this big legislation.

Dan, you work the White House. Let me start with you. A big victory for the president. The question many people are asking in Washington and around the country is at what price, the tone in Washington is not what this new president had promised. DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. The president came to Washington saying that he wanted to change the way that Washington works and he wanted -- his focus has been bipartisanship. And he's really raised the bar.

And if you saw what happened on the House side, not a single Republican came on board. He had three Republicans coming on board on the Senate side. So, what you saw here were sort of anti everything that Mr. Obama was pushing for. But Robert Gibbs says that the president really hasn't given up on that cause of trying to get bipartisanship. What he wants to do is continue pushing for that and he's not set back at all, he thinks, by what is happening over the last week or so.

KING: And Brianna, you are in the mix of this on Capitol Hill. The Democrats blame the Republicans, the Republicans blame the Democrats on the Hill and a bit of the new president. I want your perspective, but first let's listen to one of the men you cover every day, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, talking about bipartisan. He says not.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If this is going to be bipartisanship, the country's screwed. I know bipartisanship when I see it. I've participated in it. I've gone back home and gotten primary opponents because I wanted to be bipartisan. There's nothing about this process that has been bipartisan. This is not change we can believe in. You rammed it through the House. You started out with the idea we won, we write the bill.


KING: Brianna, that's what Republicans say on television. The country's screwed, Lindsey Graham says, tough language there. What's the chatter in the hallways? Is it the same?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What you hear from Republicans is they feel they weren't brought in from the beginning, for instance on the stimulus and you hear Democrats say that they're playing their same old games, that they're being obstructionists. And they're what we're hearing inside the halls, especially Republicans are hesitant to really pick on President Obama because he's so popular.

But I think what's so interesting, John, is what people outside of the halls of Congress are saying and when you talk with regular Americans, they tell you that they're just sick of the bickering and it seems a lot of times they're spreading the blame between Republicans and Democrats, while Republicans and Democrats are busy pointing fingers are at each other on Capitol Hill.

KING: If they spread the blame, Jessica, and it gets not just to Democrats and Republican, but it reaches President Obama and starts to chip away at his approval ratings, that could be trouble.

I want your perspective on the inside Washington conversation versus the outside Washington stakes.

But first, let's listen to David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, who makes a distinction that what you hear in Washington isn't necessarily what matters out in the country.


AXELROD: It's always important to remember that the chatter in this town is not the chatter around kitchen tables in this country. And as long as we listen to the kitchen table chatter, I think we're going to stay on a truer course.


KING: You heard David Axelrod there, Jessica. But is the kitchen table chatter still "we love this new president," or is it, "we're starting to have some questions for the new president"?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They still love the president, John. I mean, the bottom line is, right now we're all obsessed with what Obama has failed to accomplish in his initial month in office or so. And the approval ratings show that he is enormously popular with Americans.

I also think that Americans want so desperately to believe that someone can fix this, that they're going to stick with him for as long as possible. They want to give him a chance.

And so right now we're impatient inside Beltway, but in America they're just waiting for this stimulus to get out into the public. And Obama has not lost his juice, not yet.

KING: Well, Dan, how do they manage those expectations though if the American people are waiting for all of that money, their money to create jobs and yet the White House says could take months, how do they manage that?

LOTHIAN: Well, what you're hearing is they're saying, be very patient. The president has gone outside of Washington. He is going to the people and that's the reason he is doing it.

An event, I think it was in Fort Myers where the president said, you know, all of the cable networks are obsessed with what's go on inside of Washington, I want to go outside of Washington and talk to the people.

And what he's telling the American people out there at every one of these stops is that this is in the a perfect stimulus package. This will take time. So you really need to be patient. And that's what it is, be patient is what the president is telling the American people during these times.

KING: And, Brianna, from the Republican perspective on Capitol Hill, when they see a president with 70-plus percent approval ratings out traveling in the country, make them nervous? KEILAR: Oh, I think the whole thing makes them maybe a little nervous, as you can see by the fact that they aren't really picking so much on President Obama and instead really focusing on congressional Democrats.

But when it comes to this topic of bipartisanship, that's squarely where, you know, you can see them putting the blame is on congressional Democrats. On the stimulus, though, all of these no votes that we're hearing, just three Republicans in the Senate, coming onboard, Republicans obviously banking on the fact that if this doesn't work, John, they can say that they wanted something different, that they didn't say no, they proposed something different, and people didn't get onboard.

YELLIN: But, you know, John, the people I talked to inside the White House really are not nervous about exactly what Brianna has talked about. They are not worried that this is going to help Republicans.

They really feel like America -- Americans understand this is going to take time and they do not feel the way we do up here, the way we've been talking, that Obama has made a lot of mistakes. There is confidence inside the White House that they're going to -- people are going to stick with him on this.

KING: All right. Everybody stand by. More from our team in just a moment.

And also coming up at the top of the hour, two very different views on how to fix the economy from the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and our exclusive interview with Republican Senator John McCain. STATE OF THE UNION will be right back.


KING: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. Three members of the best political team on television. Continuing our conversation with Brianna Keilar, Jessica Yellin, and Dan Lothian, they are with us from Washington where about a month into the administration, and yet there are two vacancies in the Obama cabinet.

They still need a health and human services secretary because their pick, former Senator Tom Daschle, had to withdraw. They still need a commerce secretary because two picks, first New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, then Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire withdrew from consideration.

I want to ask your perspective on these. But first, let's listen to some very interesting choice of words from David Axelrod, the senior Obama adviser this morning, asked when these vacancies would be filled. He says...


AXELROD: Choosing cabinet members isn't like "American Idol." You don't throw contestants out there and let the American people vote. We're going through a thoughtful procedure to fill these posts. We want to get it right. And we'll make an announcement soon.


KING: Dan Lothian, not like "American Idol," but some would say it's not supposed to be the way it has been, putting people out there only to have them have to withdraw or stepping away. Is the White House -- are they embarrassed by what has happened in these big picks?

LOTHIAN: Well, certainly embarrassed and disappointed, as you saw, when Senator Gregg pulled out last week, there was a lot of disappointment and surprise from the Obama administration.

But I can tell you that they really want to take time, they want to vet these next names that are on this list. We do know that there are names, there's a list of at least three we're told on HHS on that list. We don't know about on the commerce secretary.

But we do know that they are taking their time, they're being very patient. And what's interesting is that when you talk to Robert Gibbs about, are you going to change anything about the way that you've been vetting because you've had what appears to be these mistakes, they'll say, no, we're very happy with our vetting process, we don't think that we have to change it in any way at all.

But as you were talking to David Gergen earlier today, Gergen was telling me this week that he really feels this is an administration that's going through growing pains and they're trying to move things very quickly. And when you do that, you're juggling a lot of balls, and you're obviously going to drop some of them. And he believes that's what has happened here.

KING: And, Jessica, when you explore this politically, do people see these as one or two isolated, maybe rookie mistakes, or do they see a vulnerability or a weakness in this president?

YELLIN: It's a weakness in how they're beginning their administration. Even in inside the White House they acknowledge that this has looked messy and it has been messy. They really -- if you're going to use the "American Idol" comparison, they need a Simon Cowell to be a really harsh critic from the inside and they do know that.

They just feel like there should be a lot more patience, there's patience for him out there. They're enormously sort of confident that they'll get it right in the end, if you will. They have no idea who their commerce secretary pick will be, for example. That's what folks are telling me.

Kathleen Sebelius -- Governor Kathleen Sebelius seems to be the likely candidate for HHS. So you know, they'll move forward. There is a sense that this is not -- they recognize it has not been a smooth start.

KEILAR: And looking back from the very beginning when you talked with Republicans on the Hill, John, and Judd Gregg's name was being thrown about and then he accepted, there was this huge sense of shock, this question mark about why he accepted, why he was chosen. This is someone who is not -- this is a true Republican and it left a lot of people scratching their heads from the beginning.

YELLIN: That was a messy episode, yes.

LOTHIAN: It felt like it was a gamble, actually, that the president really was gambling on this and he lost.

KING: Gambling and he lost. Dan Lothian, Jessica Yellin, Brianna Keilar, we thank you all for joining us on this one. We'll watch the president's next gamble, I guess, to use your term as we go forward.

And, Jessica, nice "American Idol" reference, pretty good there.


KING: Up next...


KING: Up next, does President Obama owe the mayor of Las Vegas an apology? Well, the mayor sure thinks so.

KING: CNN's Campbell Brown will join our team of reporters to weigh in on just that. And later, five legendary NBA stars take a hard look at the basketball skills of President Barack Obama. Much more of STATE OF THE UNION just ahead.


KING: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm joined once again by three members of the best political team on television, CNN's Brianna Keilar, Jessica Yellin and Dan Lothian.

But right now, let's go to New York and bring in my colleague Campbell Brown. Campbell, on your show earlier this week, a fascinating interview with Mayor Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas, who among other things, asked for an apology after the president said that CEOs shouldn't be heading out to his city on the taxpayer's dime. Let's listen to part of the exchange with Mayor Goodman.


CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of people say that these companies should just stay home, not go to Vegas, not go anywhere, frankly. Stay home. Save the money altogether because, let me finish, because this is a national crisis where every city, every state is suffering in some different way. It's not necessarily about Las Vegas.

MAYOR OSCAR GOODMAN (D), LAS VEGAS: No, I understand what you're saying. But at the same time, tourism and commerce depend on having people get together to express ideas, to have meetings. All I'm saying is Vegas is the best place in the world to have those meetings. We shouldn't stop that. That stimulates the economy. People get on airplanes, they come out here, they have their meeting, they do serious work, they put money into our economy. And that's the way the American economy works, with people being able to have discourse in a business environment. And Las Vegas provides that.


KING: Campbell, the mayor makes the point quite passionately, but did he really expect an apology from the president?

BROWN: Well, you know, an apology probably not. But you do see that he does have a valid point here. I mean what started all that was President Obama sort of making a loose reference to junkets in Vegas and that kind of thing. But the problem for the mayor, frankly, is that so much of this is about perception, John, as you know. I mean, some of these trips, in fact, many of these trips may not be junkets. It may well be legitimate business trips.

You had one corporation that canceled its plans to do its "junket" in Vegas and just rebooked it in San Francisco simply because Vegas sounds more decadent. I mean, so much is about the way it looks to taxpayers and to the public in general, to members of Congress.

People are so angry right now about how the TARP money has been spent, about how it's been handled. And you have politicians using these companies, using these banks as punching bags. And they are under intense scrutiny, rightly so. But it's why you have a lot of the smart ones saying, you know, our trip if we're taking it, ain't going to be in Vegas.

KING: Ain't going to be in Vegas. Let's bring in our political team to jump ball on this one as well. Brianna, let me start with you. Both of the political parties also have these retreats. The president himself went out to see the Democrats at a resort down in Virginia this past week. What is wrong with meeting to talk?

KEILAR: I think -- I think Campbell has a point there with maybe being the decadence of Las Vegas. But it's not juts this particular thing. This is part of a broader picture. And we saw eight of the CEOs of the big banks getting these bailout funds on Capitol Hill, facing a very angry House Financial Services Committee this week.

And those members expressing angers that they're hearing from the constituents. For instance, at Citigroup, who is going to receive a $50 million foreign made corporation jet after getting what was it, $45 billion in these bailout funds? People are aggravated.

I should mention they canceled delivery of that. But people are aggravated. And these members of Congress are passing on that aggravation as we saw this week. And it's part of the big picture thing. It's not just part of Las Vegas which may have just been a loose reference as Campbell mentioned.

YELLIN: It's also a part of the learning curve this president is going through, John. You know, he's realizing everything little thing he says, even if it's flipped, has humungous repercussions. Like he made a joke once about Nancy Reagan. He learned he couldn't do that. This one, who would have thought it would have this kind of political effect? He has to watch what he says and he's learning it.

LOTHIAN: Ultimately, the president is just tapping into that anxiety out there among the American people. They're seeing that all of these corporations are getting a lot of money. And they want to know when am I going to get my money, John? So it's easy for politicians like the president to step into these waters, go after the big banks, go after the executives who are spending a lot of money. To make a point, to say we have to change the way that Wall Street does business. And that's what the president was doing. KING: And so, Campbell, what happens this week as we go on? You mentioned it's sometimes perception. It's also a lot of money. You have the financial industry bailout. You have the stimulus bill. And now General Motors and Chrysler coming back to Washington. I'm showing you the front page of the Sunday "Detroit Free Press" here. General Motors and Chrysler will be coming into this bailout fatigue environment this week saying we need billions more. When does it stop, Campbell?

BROWN: Well, there's certainly going to be more pressure for accountability measures. I mean that's why the new treasury secretary got such poor reviews when he introduced his plans is that people want to see details. They want to see the fine print. Whether it's a stimulus bill, whether it's TARP money we're talking about, everybody, I think generally in the public and certainly members of Congress are feeling a little burned by how it was handled. The first half of the TARP money, how that was handled generally. And there's going to be more pressure to do more than, frankly, the Obama administration has done so far, to do more than pay lip service to it and actually show us in concrete ways how they're going to hold the people accountable.

KING: And to our Washington crew, accountability and transparency was a promise for the new president. We have about 20 seconds left or so, Dan. I'll start with you. A final thought on how they can get better at it.

LOTHIAN: Well you know, the way they'll tell you is we're putting everything out on -- we're putting everything out there on the Internet. Whether it's how our money is going to be spent on the stimulus or whatever the Treasury is doing at the time. You can go on to the Internet and you can check and find out how every dollar is spent. And that's what the administration will say time and time again. You want to know about transparency? Go to the Internet.

YELLIN: And Obama has to keep going.

KING: I need to jump in here. I'm sorry. But I need to jump and cut us off there. We're out of time. Jessica, Brianna and Dan in Washington, Campbell Brown from New York, thank you all for joining us. And this reminder, you can watch Campbell Brown every weeknight at 8 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.