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Interview With Rahm Emanuel; Analysis of President's Press Conference

Aired March 24, 2009 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Thank you.

You bet, Wolf.

A lot of talk about it, this press conference tonight -- a great conversation just going on.

And we're going to continue it with the obvious question -- did the American public buy what the president was selling tonight? First up is Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

He joins us from the Briefing Room.

He's an old friend from even New York days.


L. KING: It's good to see you, Rahm.

EMANUEL: It's good to see you, Larry.

How are you?

L. KING: All right.

Do we know or will you know tomorrow what the public thought of this?

We know what the pundits are saying.


L. KING: What about the public?


EMANUEL: Well, look, I think even before today's press conference, we know that the public supports where the president is on the sense of his goal for the economy, that he's focused on the economy and his agenda for it, which is to have increase -- increased investments in the alternative energy field, to bring health care costs down and to make sure that we have the best trained workers to compete in the 21st century.

That is his long-term economic agenda. And whether it's dealing with the financial sector, dealing with investments in education, health care or energy, or as well as other aspects of the economy, making sure that this economy is growing, moving, getting jobs again -- that they will walk away -- and I think they have a sense that every day he walks into that office, he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on behalf of the American people to make sure that they have the jobs, the health care and the ability to make sure that they can provide for their family.

L. KING: Was there anything he wasn't asked tonight that you expected him -- I know when you do briefings before...

EMANUEL: Well, it is a...

L. KING: come up that didn't come up?

EMANUEL: Well, you noted it a little earlier as I was listening in. There was, you know, there wasn't any questions about Iraq. We still have about 140,000 -- 150,000 American troops there. There wasn't a question about Afghanistan.

He brought up Iran. There was a question about Mexico. There were other questions on other topics that could have been asked that obviously we do preparation.

But the reason the questions were so focused on the economy is because that's the number one focus for the American people and that's the number one focus for the president.

I mean it's totally legit. There are other things related to overseas matters as the -- as a total topic. But the primary issue, -- also, obviously, the Mideast was asked, in addition to Mexico.

But the primary focus for the country is getting the economy moving. And it's appropriate that it be the dominant question, as well as the focus of the president's answers.

L. KING: Is this media blitz, Rahm, are there any negatives to this?

Can you be overexposed?

EMANUEL: You know, the negative is that I have to do this show rather than go home and have dinner. That's one negative, Larry.

L. KING: Thanks a lot, Rahm.


EMANUEL: No. The...


EMANUEL: No, I had -- look, I think in this troubled time, first of all, the Ameri -- the American people expect the president to talk to -- talk to them, walk them through his thinking, why he makes the decisions he makes, what are the tradeoffs to those decisions and carries them through this process of this troubled time.

And you can say there may be overexposed, but I think, in fact, if you watch and see, there have been greater audiences for the shows that he's been on to answer the questions, because these are the questions the American people are asking around their kitchen table. They are talking about whether they can afford health care. They are talking about whether when their child makes a different decision for education, that is, decides not to go to X school but will stay home and go to another school, they're facing those challenges and those challenges are reflected in the choices that he's making.

And I think they're very engaged in this conversation. They'll make a decision if they think it's too much. They have, obviously, other choices. But I think if you look at to date and look at the data, they are involved in this conversation and interested in this dialogue and appreciate an adult conversation with them about the choices they're making and the choices that their government and their elected leaders are making on their behalf.

L. KING: Rahm, the president was pressed by our own Ed Henry tonight about the AIG mess.

Let's take a look.


HENRY: Why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage?

OBAMA: All right...

HENRY: It seems like the action is coming out of New York and the attorney general's office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, look, we're outraged.

Why did it take so long?

OBAMA: It took us a couple days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak.


L. KING: Frankly, Rahm, has the president misjudged the public's anger over AIG?

EMANUEL: No. In fact, I think he appropriately said on Monday of last week, exactly how he understood their frustration and anger with the sense that if the economy and the financial stability is fragile and it requires taxpayer support, it's also got to be fragile enough for the very employees and their own sense of contribution and sacrifice to help AIG get better. And I think he expressed himself last Monday directly with that frustration, as well as with the sense of what we've got to do to get the financial stability to the entire financial system so the economy can grow again, small businesses can get loans, students can get loans to go to college and families can buy homes and get the mortgages they can afford so they can buy their homes.

That is the process here. That is the priority. The president did acknowledge...

L. KING: All right...

EMANUEL: ...and was -- not only acknowledged, aligned himself with that sense of frustration by the taxpayers, that if we're going to make the sacrifices to help stabilize the situation, everybody has got to make sacrifices to achieve that goal.

L. KING: A few more things.


L. KING: On Monday, Rahm, the president finally announced nominees for three key jobs at Treasury.

What's taking so long?

The word we get -- and Gloria Borger, our senior political analyst, reported this -- that there's a maddening -- a maddening vetting process at the White House.

Is that true?

EMANUEL: Well, no. Every White House has a -- goes through a vetting process. We nominated some people at Treasury. The top three out of four positions at Treasury are filled. And we'll have more submissions in the days to come for that.

But you're doing the appropriate thing in the sense of vetting. And that is going through making sure these are the right people, the right choices. We would like to move faster and I'm sure the Senate would like to move faster. And just today, they confirmed our secretary of Commerce, which we're appreciative of.

L. KING: Do you like this job?


EMANUEL: Yes. I find it -- well, you know, Larry. I love public service. I was fortunate enough to work for President Clinton in the White House. I was fortunate enough when the folks on the North Side of Chicago decided to elect me as their representative and fortunate enough to come back and work for President Obama.

And these are all people, whether they're my constituents or the president, that I'm very lucky to work for. And I do like it.

As you know, my family is back in Chicago. And I have three young kids. And I cannot wait until they move to Washington. It has been very tough on the family, but I find the work unbelievably rewarding.

L. KING: What -- but in a major piece on you in "The New Yorker," a mostly favorable piece, it did kind of say -- not reading between the lines -- that you wanted to stay in Congress, that they had to really stress the importance of your coming to the White House.

You preferred Congress, true?

EMANUEL: Well, look, in this sense, yes. I prefer -- I very much enjoyed Congress. It's not today that I say prefer having been in Congress. I think -- you know, my father came to this country in 1959. I think it's very fortunate that I have gotten the chance to work both in the White House and in senior positions twice and got elected from the north -- the west side of the City of Chicago.

And, as you know, Larry, when somebody -- when the folks elect you, you have some kind of obligation to follow through on that choice that they made. I put my name up and they elected me. And so there was that sense of breaking of a contract that I had with the people on the north side of Chicago who not elected me -- not once, not twice, not three times, but a fourth time.

But in the choices you make in your life, I don't regret any of the choices that I've made in the public life, either going to work in the White House, going to work in Congress or coming back. They are all rewarding.

As you know, you and I have had this conversation many, many times. When I think of all the things in which you can make some change in people's lives, some effect, where you can do something to give something back to your country, which is a value my parents raised me with, and my brothers, I think I'm very fortunate to have all those opportunities of public service.

And I not only don't regret them, I think I'm fortunate to have them. And I'm fortunate that my parents are alive to see it.

L. KING: OK. One other quick thing.

What's the toughest part about being chief of staff?

EMANUEL: What's the toughest part about being chief of staff?

Well, it's -- you know, I get up at 5:30 and I will not get home until 10:30. And you do that seven days a week. As I always like to joke around the White House, on Friday, I say good. It's just two more workdays until Monday.


L. KING: We'll see you soon.

EMANUEL: All right, Larry.

L. KING: Rahm, thanks so much.

EMANUEL: Thank you very much.

See you, buddy.

L. KING: Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. And we thank him very much for joining us following this press conference.

What did you think of the press conference?

That's what we're asking on our blog. Go to and tell us. We'll share some of your comments later in the show.

Back with an outstanding panel, right after this.


L. KING: Welcome back.

We're talking about the president's news conference.

We're joined by John King, anchor of "STATE OF THE UNION." He's also CNN's chief national correspondent.

In Miami, David Gergen, CNN's senior political analyst. He's right here.

As is Nancy Pfotenhauer. She's with us. She was senior adviser to the McCain presidential campaign.

And Paul Begala, Democratic strategist, CNN political controb -- contributor, rather. They round out the group.

All right, John King, overall, how do you rate this conference?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you saw the sea change in the policy discussions and the priorities of Washington, D.C. This was dominated by the economy, Larry. Iraq and Afghanistan were not even mentioned. Osama bin Laden, war on terrorism not even mentioned.

On the economy, look, the president has some short-term goals to try to shape the budget debate, in which his biggest immediate problem is some centrist Democrats who think that his math doesn't add up when it comes to the deficit. They're the ones on the ballot in two years. They're trying to take some things away from the president. Give his most of his priorities, but shave some of the spending priorities. The president was trying to win them over tonight.

The longer term challenge is to keep the trust of the American people, Larry, at a time where they like him, but they don't trust all these bail outs and all this money being spent.

L. KING: David Gergen, was he -- does he continue to be an effective salesman?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think he is, Larry. He seemed to be a man tonight who was growing into his job, but also finding the longer you stay there, the tougher it can get. Even the press corps was getting tough on him tonight. The Ed Henry-type questions are tough. But what I thought we saw tonight was a man with growing mastery of the economic issues. You can disagree with him on the substance. I do on some of the issues. But I think that you have to say that those daily briefings are paying off.

I also he was good on the persistence point. Where I thought he was less than compelling was dealing with the budget deficits, a point John King was making.

L. KING: Nancy, let's take a look at an excerpt from the news conference. This was in a response to a question about Republican criticism of the budget and its huge projected deficits. Watch.


OBAMA: None of us know exactly what is going to happen six or eight or ten years from now. Here's what I do know: if we don't tackle energy, if we don't improve our education system, if we don't drive down the costs of health care, if we are not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won't grow 2.6 percent; we won't grow 2.2 percent. We won't grow.


L. KING: Nancy, we'll have you comment on that right after this.


L. KING: All right. Nancy, were you dissatisfied with the budget answer?

NANCY PFOTENHAUER, FORMER MCCAIN ECONOMIC ADVISER: Well, I think he seemed nervous and tentative in this arena. That's because he should be. Frankly, what he has out there doesn't bear scrutiny. Wolf Blitzer called him on it. He claims he is going to reduce the deficit by half, when the deficit, out as far as the eye can see -- in budget terms, that is about ten years -- it soars in the first year and continues to grow further and further.

He -- he increases our debt by about 50 percent in the first year and it grows to about 86 percent of GDP by the tenth year. He increases taxes by two trillion dollars. It's a budget that increases spending, increases borrowing, and increases taxes, which is a recipe for disaster in an economic downturn.

L. KING: Paul, is it possible that the pundits or the critics or the reporters might be out of sync with the public?


L. KING: Hate to bring that up. Is that a possibility?

BEGALA: As a pundit, I, in fact, believe in the doctrine of pundit infallibility. My colleagues and competitors are sometimes wrong. Yes, look, I thought -- you will be surprised I disagreed with Nancy. But I thought this president is trying to do a couple of very different things. Right?

He is trying to tell the Congress, particularly the Democrats, as John King pointed out -- as he said, this budget is inseparable from the recovery. That is, we can't recover if we don't fix health care, do energy, do education. He came back to that again and again.

Then he had a message for the Republicans, which is what is your plan? You don't like mine, what is yours? They have not produced one yet. It's sort of a point of contention among Republicans, many of whom say they don't even want to put forward a plan. Others say they do.

Then this message to the American people. This where he shows that he still gets it, by traveling around the country, which has been very good for him. Basically, he said, you hang in there with me and I will hang in there for you. He showed a lot of heart talking about homelessness, about veterans. I think he really showed that he still gets it with the American people.

L. KING: John, during the news conference, Obama likened the country and its current economy problems to a huge ocean liner, not a speedboat, in terms of getting things turned around. He repeatedly said recovery will take time and needs patience. Let's watch and have you comment.

J. KING: Sure.


OBAMA: If this were easy, then we would have already had it done, and the budget would have been voted on, and everybody could go home. This is hard. And the reason it is hard is because we have accumulated a structural deficit that is going to take a long time. And we are not going to be able to do it next year or the year after or three years from now.


L. KING: John? Was that well stated?

J. KING: It is well stated. Whether you agree or disagree with this president politically -- health care reform was tried back in Paul's days in the Clinton White House. That's 1993, 1994, a long time ago. Social Security reform, Medicare reform, big ticket items that affect the federal budget deficit, President Bush tried that. Took his administration off the tracks.

Were these big structural problems waiting for the president? You bet they were, and for a very long time. So it's very smart to appeal for patience. Also smart tactically, Larry. Reporters are trying to press him to say, Mr. President, you know already the economy is not coming back as fast as you thought, even just a month or so ago. Why don't you admit that tonight and scale back your budget plans?

This president privately may well know that, but he is not going to negotiate in public right now. He's like Ronald Reagan. If he can get 80 percent of what he wants down the road, two, three month from now, he will consider that a huge success. By political standards, it will be a huge success. He is not going to negotiate and give up just yet.

L. KING: David, have the Republicans offered a good counter- proposal to all of this?

GERGEN: No. I think Nancy would agree with that. Paul just made that point. No, they have not. And they don't have -- John McCain has spoken up on several issues and really has become, in many ways, the lead Republican in the Congress. But they have not offered a serious alternative. I think they're called upon if they want to be taken seriously, in the way Newt Gingrich did back in the early Clinton years -- he started putting forward alternative ideas.

Let me come back to the ocean liner idea, Larry. It's a nice metaphor. I think it is right. Other presidents have used it. But the truth of the matter is, the, first thing we have to do is make sure the ocean liner doesn't sink.


GERGEN: Right now, that is the critical issue. We can get the thing turned around a little later. Right now, the real issue is the economy and make sure we don't sink.

L. KING: John, David, thank you. John, don't forget to watch John every Sunday morning, "STATE OF THE UNION" with John King, a terrific show. Nancy and Paul remain with us. We're getting a lot of traffic tonight on our blog, Read your comments next. Stay with us.


L. KING: Time for your blog comments. Got ours right in front of us. We ask you to tell us what you thought of the president's news conference tonight. I'm looking through some of the responses here. David, these are interesting. Which ones have caught your eye?

DAVID THEALL, CNN BLOG CORRESPONDENT: Larry, we have pulled out three of them. Most everybody thought that the president did a good job and that he did what he was supposed to do tonight, helping to sell his economic plan. Most everybody, not everybody.

Annie was one of those who did not. She says, "if the president was suppose to sell me on something, he didn't." She said, "I still haven't heard why we have to spend so much to save irresponsible businesses and people."

James says, "let's hope President Obama continues to talk to the American people and not hide like most presidents do," he says.

Karen sums up what we think most are saying here on the blog. She says, "he did fine. He answered the questions put to him pointedly, honestly. Let the American public judge." This conversation is going on on the blog, Look for the blog link, click it, jump into the conversation. We always love hearing from you.

L. KING: You got it. Back in 90 seconds with our panel. Don't go away.


L. KING: We're back with Nancy Pfotenhauer, who advised Senator John McCain during his campaign for president, CNN political contributor Paul Begala, still here, now joined by Jeff Johnson, host of "The Truth With Jeff Johnson" on BET TV. Jeff, what did you think of the way Obama handled things tonight?

JEFF JOHNSON, BET ANCHOR: I think it's been said directly and indirectly. I think he was -- this was kind of the next phase in his continued engagement of the American public. Kind of creating -- almost like a musician going all over the country, getting ready to drop a new CD.

And he has been hitting the American public over and over and over again. I think just this was just the next phase in that process. I think he did exactly what he wanted to do. He drove home the four points over and over and over again.

And I think what was interesting was, there was a very strategic methodology of even who were asking questions. It wasn't just those that were going to drink the Kool-Aid. He knew where he was going to be challenged. I think that was also important, in telling the American people, look I am not running and hiding. I am standing right here, trying to ask the questions you want answered.

L. KING: Nancy, how do you like the way he generally handles the press?

PFOTENHAUER: You know, I think he is very, very deft, and I think that he's an articulate man. I happen to disagree with his policy prescriptives, but I don't think anybody can argue with the fact that he is good in this venue. I also think it is a very good thing that he goes out and engages the public and that he's this accessible. I think that's what we should expect in a president. He is to be applauded for that.

I guess I have, obviously, a different view on how he did. I think he was noticeably nervous, as I said earlier, on some of the financial questions. I think he definitely wanted to avoid the AIG topic and well he should. Basically, they're either complicit because they knew those bonuses were in there and they were ramming that stimulus package down the American people's throat when they had no time to review it; or he was asleep at the switch, because he didn't know they were in there.

Either way, it was a problem. I think their proposed solution is a big mistake.

L. KING: Paul, he was asked tonight about Mexico. Watch this.


OBAMA: We need to do more to make sure that illegal guns and cash aren't flowing back to these cartels. That's part of what's financing their operations. That's part of what is arming them. That's what makes them so dangerous. And this is something that we take very seriously and we're going to continue to work on diligently in the months to come.


BEGALA: Pretty impressive, Larry.

L. KING: We'll have Paul continue about that answer on Mexico right after these words.



L. KING: Paul, how well did he deal with the Mexico question?

BEGALA: I was struck watching that. This is a guy who began his presidential campaign mostly centered around Iraq. By the end of the presidential campaign, he was mostly talking about the economy. He's a very fluent guy.

This is a really important thing in a president. Presidents have to learn to handle lots of different things on the fly. He's already met with the Mexican president. He's now sending his secretary of state down there, then his secretary of homeland security, then his attorney general. Then he's going himself next month.

He's doubling the task force down there, tripling the intelligence assets, 700 million dollars to help the Mexican. You would think, if you only looked at Mexican policy -- U.S./Mexico policy, you would think that is the only thing he was focused on.

I have to say, I'm very impressed with his ability to shift gears and shift topics. It's a completely different thing than trying to fix the global financial crisis. Yet, he seemed right on top of Mexico as much as anything else.

L. KING: Jeff, near the end of the presidential press conference, he was asked about race and how it might factor. Watch what he said and then comment.


OBAMA: The last 64 days has been dominated by me trying to figure out how we're going to fix the economy. And that affects black, brown, and white. Obviously, at the inauguration, I think that there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country. But that lasted about a day. Right now, the American people are judging me exact the way I should be judged. That is, are we taking the steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep America safe. That's what I've been spending my time thinking about.


L. KING: Jeff, has the race issue been severely diminished?

JOHNSON: I don't know if the race issue was ever really an issue. I think there were points in the campaign where it was talked about as a result of Reverend Wright and Obama's, quote unquote, race speech, that really wasn't as much about race as people said it was about race. But America never really talked about it.

I think what I like about this comment is that, you know, there's this energy around the African-American community. There's a joke sometimes when you can be in a church, and if you just say Jesus, the people will shout. Now, if you just say Obama, people will shout. I think what Obama was attempting to do here is say, wait a minute, this celebration was very real, and it was very meaningful about what we did as a nation. But with the issues that we're faced with right now, there's a whole lot more that we need to do than celebrate. People need to hold me accountable.

That was very important message, not just for the African American community, but for all those kind of Obama-ites that are more cognizant of his personality than the role that he has as president.

L. KING: Back with more of Jeff, Paul and Nancy right after this.


L. KING: Nancy, write me a headline coming out of this press conference.

PFOTENHAUER: Good job talking, but bad job on the economy. That would be mine. That's no surprise.

L. KING: An objective.

PFOTENHAUER: I think that he -- for someone who has been hit a bunch for being a teleprompter president, I think that he did have the opportunity to show a certain level of command over the subject matter, as Paul said. And I think that the media came out a little bit better than they've generally been perceived. He wasn't asked the typical softball questions that -- you know, he got a wrap for being treated with kid gloves. I think the kid gloves are no longer on. That helps the media's reputation, and it helps Obama's. It gave President Obama a chance to show that he could handle more difficult questions.

L. KING: Paul, what's your headline? BEGALA: I would say, Obama says health care, energy, education are central to economic recovery, but is dogged by questions about deficit. I actually think -- this is probably a dissenting view. It's out of my league, because I'm sort of reading minds here. I think he was snippy with Ed Henry not because Ed was asking about AIG, but because before that, both Ed Henry and the reporter before him, Chip Reid of CBS News, had asked him really tough, hard-edged questions about the deficit and the debt over time.

I think he's annoyed by that because -- he, I think, reasonably believes that having inherited a 1.2 trillion dollar deficit, the best he can reasonably hope for is to pay down half of it over five years. That's as good as we can do, given the fact that the economy is in a mess. It's like arguing about water conservation when you're trying to put out a fire.

L. KING: Jeff, what's yours?

JOHNSON: The people's champ.

PFOTENHAUER: Jeff and I balance each other out.

JOHNSON: By people's champ it just means that he continue to go to the people with the message that he wants to get across, even those that don't agree. I would like to see him talk more about the middle class. It was lacking there when he talked about middle class tax cuts. I would really like to see him expound a little bit more not just on renewable energy, but on what green jobs look like and how we begin to do the training with some of stimulus dollars, folks to shift toward the green economy and green manufacturing.

I think, at the end of the day, he's the people's champ. Even those that don't like him are appreciating his continuing engagement.

L. KING: He talks to Democrats tomorrow, Nancy. He's got to sell them, doesn't he?

PFOTENHAUER: Yes, I think he does. And he's got a real problem, because they can do math. And of course, the Congressional Budget Office came out with their analysis showing his numbers are way off. He's got a 1.6 trillion dollar fudge factor just in the defense spending alone in the budget. And he underestimated -- he's got a magic asterisk on health care, where, for the first time in my life, we're talking 630 some odd billion dollars being a down payment.

He underestimated by half the cost of his health care plan, which, by the way, is a massive government intervention that in every other country where it's been tried has resulted in the government constraining health care choices. So it's -- whenever they say save cost, think limit your options. That's what he' stalking about. That's the way the health care dollars are saved.

So I think he has some real problems on his hands, and it's not just Republicans.

L. KING: Thank you all very much. We appreciate you being with us. Nancy Pfotenhauer, Paul Begala, Jeff Johnson. Thank you guys.

See you tomorrow with actors Edward Norton, James Edward Olmos and Alanis Morissette. It's time now for more on President Obama's press conference. Anderson Cooper is going to pick up with "AC 360." We'll see you tomorrow night. We certainly thank Rahm Emanuel for being with us tonight. Anderson?