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President Obama's Supreme Choice; Flu Fears Close Hundreds of Schools

Aired May 1, 2009 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. President Obama begins choosing his first Supreme Court nominee. He just confirmed Justice David Souter's plan to retire and he promised to find a worthy replacement.

This hour, the president's options and conservatives' plans to fight him every step of the way.

Hundreds of schools now are closed because of the swine flu outbreak, and tens of thousands of students are missing out on classes. Some even have to skip a prom or a first date. Is the disruption worth it?

And Cuban-Americans enjoy new freedom to return their homeland. The easing of U.S. travel restrictions is making this May Day something to celebrate.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics, and extraordinary reports from around the world.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama says he hopes to have his first Supreme Court nominee confirmed and seated for the start of the court's next term in October. Mr. Obama broke into the daily White House briefing just a short while ago to confirm David Souter's plan to retire. Some Republicans in Congress already are bristling about who may wind up on the president's short list of contenders.

Our Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is standing by up on the Hill. But let's go to Jill Dougherty. She's over at the White House with more.

The president surprised a lot of folks, especially those reporters in the briefing room, Jill, when he suddenly walked with the announcement.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, it really was a magic moment over here as the president broke in his -- you know, Robert Gibbs, his press secretary was briefing, didn't want to go very far on Justice Souter because they hadn't received the letter notifying formally that Justice Souter wanted to retire. So he, in essence, was killing some time, tap dancing a bit, and then, all of a sudden, President Obama came in and explained, really giving an idea of what he is looking for in a candidate for his nominee.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book, it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives, whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcomed in their own nation. I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.

I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors or constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role. I will seek somebody who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded and who brings a thoughtful understanding of how to apply them in our time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DOUGHERTY: OK. So that's the theory, and now the practicality. Whom will he nominate?

And also, Wolf, you were alluding to this. It's a very emotional issue on a lot of different sides, people with very strong opinions. And you're going to be sure that you're going to see a lot of that coming up -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's going to be enormous amount of speculation about short lists, long lists, men, women, whatever. We're going to watch it every step of the way.

Jill, thanks very much for that. We're going to have more from the president coming up later here in THE SITUATION ROOM, in his own words what he has to say about a potential Supreme Court nominee.

Meanwhile, many conservatives are bracing for the first Supreme Court justice nominated by a Democratic president in nearly 15 years, and some of them right now spoiling for a fight.

Let's go to Capitol Hill. Our Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is standing by.

You were on a conference call earlier in the day with Republicans when word started to spread about David Souter.

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. In fact, last night, as soon as people found out that this was going to happen, conservatives started to arrange a conference call that actually happened this morning, Wolf. And it was about 60 groups, the coalition of conservative activists, who have already worked on Supreme Court picks for the Bush administration, a very different kind of fight with a Democrat in the White House. And what I thought was most interesting in listening was the fact that one of the first things they said is that they have to convince their activists that there is a fight to be had, first of all, because you have somebody who has been considered a liberal on the court being replaced with somebody who will be appointed by a Democrat. So that's the first thing that they said, is that they do believe that there is a fight here because, as you know, for conservatives, the battlefield for issues like abortion and same-sex marriage has been in the Supreme Court.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED WHELAN, PRESIDENT, ETHICS AND POLICY CENTER: Conservatives recognize how important the court is and how damaging liberal traditional activism over the past several decades has been. It's a hugely important issue both substantively and politically, and it's one that mobilizes conservatives and that ought to have real political resonance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, that conservative activist I spoke to, Ed Whelan, and many others though, Wolf, they understand what an uphill fight they have because of the raw numbers, the numbers here in the Senate. And the fact of the matter is they have a very small minority right now in the Republican Party. Democrats almost have a filibuster-proof majority.

BLITZER: That's right. They have 59 Democrats now with Arlen Specter, and they could have a 60th, depending on what happens in Minnesota.

So, given some of the more moderate Republicans, it looks like it's going to be really hard for opposition to develop and derail someone that the president nominates. Is that the sense on the Hill?

BASH: It's the sense among conservative activists, and that was one of the things I found most fascinating about their conference call this morning, is that many of them said point blank, we are going to have to work on Republican senators to make sure that they're not going to, in the words of one activist, roll over. That they're really going to fight for some of the values and some of the issues that they believe are appropriate for the bench and for any one of the justices on the bench.

Now, I put that to Orrin Hatch, who, as you know, was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee when President Clinton put through two of his nominees. And Orrin Hatch basically took that advice from conservatives and said, you know what? Thanks, but no thanks.

Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We're not going to get any conservatives on the Supreme Court. We're not going to get people who are pro-life on the Supreme Court from Barack Obama. We know that. The question is, are they qualified?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, there you heard Senator Hatch saying, look, the reality is what it is, we're not going to get a conservative on the Supreme Court, and we're not going to get an ideological political Republican, basically, on the Supreme Court. We just need to make sure we do what is right, and that his point of view. That is not making conservative activists very happy, though.

BLITZER: And it underscores that elections really do matter on a critically important issue like this.

BASH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right, Dana. Thanks very much.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now. He has "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, on this Friday, the stock market closed up an additional 44 points about seven minutes ago, and in case you haven't been paying attention, the markets have been rallying for almost two months now, ever since the Dow hit a nearly 12-year low back in early March. The S&P 500 has surged about 30 percent during that time. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has posted its best two months since the start of the last bull market in 2002. International indexes up sharply as well, marking the strongest global stock rally since 1991.

One expert tells "The Financial Times," "All things are in place now for the bear market to have ended." And it's not just stock markets that are rebounding. Credit markets, emerging markses, commodities like oil all on the rise as well.

Although company earnings continue to disappoint on a year-over- year basis, they're not as bad as they were. Surprise results to the upside have come from companies like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Ford, and Apple Computer.

And then there's the massive economic stimulus program that may have begun to work its way through different parts of the economy now. It's hard to believe, but remember two months ago we were all talking about the next Great Depression, the first one since the 1930s? Deflation, bank nationalizations? But the markets often improve ahead of the rest of the economy. They're a forward indicator, and some think that the markets could keep rallying for another six months or so.

The glass half-empty crowd is not buying, though. They suggest the current rally is not for real. They worry that the banks will continue to hold back on lending and that housing prices will continue to fall.

In light of the fact that many Americans have been standing on the sidelines when it comes to the stock market for some time, we decided to pose this question: Is now the time to invest in the stock market?

Go to cnn.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

Are you buying stocks, Wolf?

BLITZER: Everybody asks that question on a daily basis, and, you know, it's your own gut instinct is really what -- how much of a risk, how much of a gamble do you want to go through, or leave the money on the sidelines right now in T bills? It's a good question.

CAFFERTY: And collect virtually no interest.

BLITZER: But not lose.

(CROSSTALK)

CAFFERTY: But it's safe. So what are you doing?

BLITZER: Right now I'm being very cautious.

CAFFERTY: OK.

BLITZER: But next week, who knows?

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: We'll see.

Jack, thanks very much.

In the midst of the swine flu outbreak, thousands of students were forced to stay home today. Their schools closed as a precaution. There's fresh concern this hour about whether school officials acted responsibly or too quickly.

In Havana, right now, Cuban-Americans are celebrating the freedom to return to their homeland on May Day, or any day, for that matter.

And later, he's on "TIME" magazine's list as one of the 100 most influential people in America. The PBS host and author Tavis Smiley talks about his own clout and President Obama's performance.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Human-to-human spreading of swine flu is rising, but there are some positive signs. Right now officials confirm 363 cases of the H1N1 virus and counting. That includes 32 cases here in the United States confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists are racing to develop a vaccine, and one Mexican politician claims there's evidence suggesting the virus is "letting up."

Meanwhile, President Obama says be careful, don't be overly afraid though. He talked about the flu outbreak in a cabinet meeting earlier in the day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We don't know for certain that this will end up being more severe than other seasonal flus that we have. And it's been noted, I think, before that you have over 36,000 people die on average every year from seasonal flu, so you have 200,000 hospitalizations. It may turn out that H1N1 is -- runs its course like ordinary flus, in which case we will have prepared and we won't need all these preparations.

The reason that people are concerned is -- the scientists are concerned is this is a new strain. And so what happens is Americans and people around the world have not built up immunity in the same way that they have built up immunity to the seasonal flus that we're accustomed to. Those seasonal flus may change, mutate slightly from year to year, but they're all roughly in the same band.

When you have a new strain, then, potentially, our immune systems can't deal with it as effectively. And there are indications that in Mexico, at least, what you saw were relatively young, healthy people die from these -- from the H1N1 rather than people whose immune systems are already compromised, older individuals, very small infants and so forth. So that's why we're taking it seriously.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Meanwhile, the spreading of the flu and the fear are impacting major teenage rites of passage amid all the school closures around the country. Sporting events are being postponed. We're hearing that high school proms are being canceled. And one mother says swine flu fears are spoiling her 14-year-old son's first date.

CNN's Kate Bolduan is taking a closer look at the school closures around the country and what the government is saying about all of this.

What are you finding out, Kate?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Wolf.

Well, from top down, education officials are saying while they continue to battle this flu, they're not only concerned about the impact on students' health, but the impact on learning as well.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN (voice-over): The Obama administration is trying to stay on top of this ever-changing flu outbreak.

OBAMA: We, for example, are working with the Department of Education to provide clear guidelines for school closures.

BOLDUAN: With another 100 schools closed, Washington is now doubling the recommended time affected schools and daycare centers should close their doors.

ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: The CDC recommends you strongly consider closing school for up to 14 days.

BOLDUAN: Education Secretary Arne Duncan stressed Friday student safety is priority one. However, teachers and parents alike need to start planning now to minimize the disruption of the school year as more schools are likely to close.

DUNCAN: Have assignments ready to keep them busy and engaged for up to a week or the two, including handouts or books that students can take home so that learning continues.

BOLDUAN: The Education Department says more than 430 schools are temporarily shut down. Seventeen states now affected, an additional six states since Thursday, including Rockville High School in Maryland.

FRAN PHILLIPS, MARYLAND DEP. HEALTH SECRETARY: The goal here is to stop or at least slow down transmission in the community.

BOLDUAN: School nurses on the front lines are on high alert, even holding hand-washing demonstrations to drive the point home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can see how the germs have traveled from one person to the next person.

BOLDUAN: One small victory, that message is at least starting to trickle down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm washing my hands 24/7.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN: We're also told of five colleges, Wolf, with reported or confirmed cases of H1N1 Schools like Northeastern University in Massachusetts ask students and faculty to actually avoid shake hands during this week's graduation ceremony because of it.

BLITZER: Wow. That's going to be tough.

BOLDUAN: I know.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Kate, for that. We're all washing our hands a lot.

My next guest is an infectious disease expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Cynthia Whitney is joining us once again.

Dr. Whitney, thanks very much for coming in.

DR. CYNTHIA WHITNEY, CDC: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Are you ready to tell Americans, stop shaking hands yet?

WHITNEY: Well, I don't think it's time for us to stop doing everything we like doing, but it is a time for us to all be careful. We do need to wash our hands a lot, we need to stay home if we're sick, we need to keep our kids home if they're sick. If you're going to that concert and you're sick, don't go. I think it is a time for us to practice some prudence, but it's not the time yet for us to stop all those things that we like doing.

BLITZER: I know you have started working on a vaccine in collaboration with other institutions. Realistically, how long before there's a swine flu vaccine?

WHITNEY: Well, obviously the sooner the better. But it is a time that we need to be careful.

We need to select the right strains, we need to make sure those strains can grow quickly so we can produce mass quanties of vaccine. And then the manufacturers have to work closely with the FDA to make sure that those vaccines will work and will be safe. So we can't rush that process, so we need people to be a little patient with that.

BLITZER: Because I've heard six months is a good estimate. Is that a fair estimate.?

WHITNEY: That would probably be on average, yes.

BLITZER: These antiviral medications like a Tamiflu, for example, that's not a vaccine, you only give that to people who have come down with the flu.

Do we know for sure that these antiviral medicines work with swine flu?

WHITNEY: Well, we have tested the swine flu strain for resistance to Tamiflu, and it doesn't have those resistance factors. So it should work. I mean, no treatment is 100 percent effective. It's more effective if you get it early in the course of your symptoms.

BLITZER: Some authorities in Mexico now say it seems to be letting up a little bit. Is that the assessment we have here in the United States as well?

Well, no. In fact, I think here, as we learn more about this and we get the diagnostic tests out in the field, we'll probably see our case numbers go up. You know, with the summer, often the flu will die down, so we'll hope it will be the case with this as well.

BLITZER: Is the secondary infection aspect of this more serious than the actual swine flu? In other words, people are more vulnerable to pneumonia and get it as a result of contracting this swine flu? How big of a problem is that?

WHITNEY: Well, in previous pandemics and in seasonal flu, we know that people that get a secondary bacterial infection get much more serious disease than people that just get regular flu. So we're watching for that. We don't have a lot of signs of that yet, so we're hopeful that with this virus, it will be a small part of the cases that we see. BLITZER: Dr. Whitney, good luck to all your colleagues over there. Thanks very much.

WHITNEY: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're counting on you guys.

Surprise. Some of Chrysler's little-known plans are revealed. Guess which of its plants Chrysler will close amid its bankruptcy?

And there's a new twist in the case of a professor accused of killing his wife and two others. He's on the run, but police found something important.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, the race to wipe out swine flu. Health experts say this virus could get a second wind and emerge even stronger. See why getting a vaccine by the fall may not be possible.

The economy is struggling, Americans are still losing jobs, so you would think those corporate perks would be gone. Right? We're going to reveal the surprising benefits some CEOs are still getting.

And rivals hitting close to home, why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Iran, China and Russia are gaining influence in America's own back yard.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama makes a surprise appearance in front of reporters to confirm what the world was hearing.

Let's get some more now on our top story.

The president says that Supreme Court Justice David Souter will retire at the court's summer recess at the end of June. The president broke into the daily White House news briefing and said he looks forward to nominating a replacement who understands what he calls the rule of law.

What kind of justice might the president pick? Almost exactly one year ago, I spoke with him when he was a presidential candidate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: You used to teach constitutional law. You know a lot about the Supreme Court, and the next president of the United States will have an opportunity to nominate justices for the Supreme Court. He gave a speech, McCain, this week saying he wants justices like Samuel Alito and John Roberts, and he defined the kind of criteria he wants.

What would be your criteria?

OBAMA: Well, I think that my first criteria is to make sure that these are people who are capable and competent, and that they are interpreting the law. And 95 percent of the time, the law is so clear that it's just a matter of applying the law. I'm not somebody who believes in a bunch of judicial lawmaking.

BLITZER: Are there members, justices right now, upon whom you would model, you would look at? Who do you like?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think, actually, Justice Breyer, Justice Ginsburg are very sensible judges. I think that Justice Souter, who was a Republican appointee, is a sensible judge.

What you're looking for is somebody who's going to apply the law where it's clear. Now, there's going to be those five percent of cases or one percent of cases where the law isn't clear, and the judge then has to bring in his or her own perspectives, his ethics or her moral bearings.

And, in those circumstances, what I do want is a judge who's sympathetic enough to those who are on the outside, those who are vulnerable, those who are powerless, those who can't have access to political power, and, as a consequence, can't protect themselves from being -- from being dealt with sometimes unfairly, that the courts become a refuge for judges.

That's been its historic role. That was its role in Brown vs. Board of Education. I think a judge who is unsympathetic to the fact that, in some cases, we have got to make sure that civil rights are protected, that we have got to make sure that civil liberties are protected, because, oftentimes, there's pressures that are placed on politicians to want to set civil liberties aside, especially at a time when we have had terrorist attacks, making sure that we maintain our separation of powers, so that we don't have a president who is taking over more and more power.

I think those are all criteria by which I would judge whether or not this is a good appointee.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president of the United States sitting here in THE SITUATION ROOM with me a year ago.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

I was struck how young -- he looks even younger a year ago than he does right now.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

BLITZER: The weight of the world on his shoulders having an impact. Arlen Specter, he is now a Democrat, was the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee as a Republican. A lot of interest in what he's saying about all this. I'm going to play a little clip of what he said today.

BORGER: OK.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), PENNSYLVANIA: But the court could use some diversity along a number of lines.

QUESTION: Does that include an African-American candidate (OFF- MIKE)

SPECTER: It would include an African-American candidate. It would include Hispanics. It would include women.

QUESTION: What about philosophy, about legal philosophy, in terms of more conservative, more liberal, more moderate? What do you think? Is there anybody that you would be looking for?

SPECTER: Well, I have never placed a litmus test on Supreme Court nominees. I have supported nominees who were very conservative, like Justice Scalia. I have supported nominees like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who are very liberal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Lots of interest in what he's thinking, for mathematical reasons, but other reasons as well.

BORGER: Well, right.

I mean, obviously, the Democrats want to get to 60 votes, so they can have a filibuster-proof majority. He would be an important part of that. But he is -- Arlen Specter is a very independent guy. He joined with the Democrats, Wolf, in 1987 to oppose the ascension of Judge Bork to the Supreme Court, but he also shepherded George Bush's nominees through the Senate, conservatives.

I want you to listen to an exchange that was kind of tough he had with Senator Ted Kennedy over a procedural issue on the Alito nomination in January of 2006.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPECTER: Senator Kennedy, I'm not concerned about your threats to have votes again, again and again. And I'm the chairman of this committee. And I have heard your request. And I will consider it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: Wolf...

BLITZER: Yes. BORGER: ... they don't call him "Snarlin' Arlen" for nothing.

BLITZER: Yes.

BORGER: And it's -- so, it's clear he's not going to be the chairman of that committee anymore, but he is going to have an impact on that committee. And no matter how close he is to Joe Biden, he's going to go his own way.

BLITZER: And Joe Biden, a former member and chairman of that Judiciary Committee, he's going to have an impact as well.

All right, Gloria, stand by. We are going to get back to you, because we have got more to talk about on this top story.

Meanwhile, President Obama is working toward a 200-day milestone, yet another opportunity to grade his performance. Some of the nation's most influential people are weighing in on how the first African-American president has been doing so far.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, Tavis Smiley. He's the host of "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and "The Tavis Smiley Show" on Public Radio International. His newest book is -- is entitled "Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise."

Tavis, thanks very much for coming in.

TAVIS SMILEY, HOST, "THE TAVIS SMILEY SHOW": Thanks for the opportunity, Wolf. Nice to be on with you.

BLITZER: Congratulations, first of all, on the new book, which is excellent, but also congratulations on being named by "TIME" magazine as one of the world's most -- 100 most influential people.

Charlie Rose wrote an essay about you.

Among other things, he says this: "Tavis, he has one of those names that stand alone. Think Oprah, Tiger, Elvis, and, yes, Barack. You know if you hear Tavis, you are talking about Mr. Smiley."

How does that feel?

SMILEY: Well, first of all, I want to thank the editors of "TIME" magazine for even considering me to be on the list. It was quite a surprise when I got the call that my name was on the list.

But I was just beyond humbled, Wolf, to have Charlie Rose write the piece. Every one of the persons, the 100 persons on the list, have another person of stature who writes the piece about you. And they don't tell you who the person is going to be. So, I didn't know who it was until I saw the piece myself.

When I started in this business, Wolf, having watched you and people like Charlie for years, I remember saying in an interview once or twice that I wanted to be the chocolate-covered Charlie Rose. I wanted to be a good interviewer, taken seriously like Charlie Rose.

And to have the opportunity to be on the same network as Charlie every night and to have Charlie write the piece was just humbling for me. So, it's been quite a week.

BLITZER: And you're only 44 years old, so you got a lot of years ahead of you, Tavis, to do this kind of work.

Let's talk a little bit about the book and talk about President Obama. The book is entitled "Accountable."

Has he delivered so far, in these initial 100 days, based on what you have seen?

SMILEY: I think he's off to a good start, Wolf. The book lays out 242 promises that candidate Senator Obama made on his way to the White House that he would do if elected, 242 promises, primarily around the top 10 issues that matter most to Americans.

At the -- at the pace that he's on right now, Wolf, at the end of his first term, he will have completed about 66 percent of those promises, if he keeps up the busy pace that he is at right about now in these first 100 days.

Ultimately, the book is about understanding that his accountability is our responsibility. And the book is not just about Barack Obama, but about how we hold all of our leaders responsible to keep the promises that they made when they campaigned.

And, so, 66 percent, you know, is a decent number. It's not the dean's list, but I think he's off to a good start. But, ultimately, what are the things that he promised to do that the American people need to know how to hold him accountable to?

You don't have to rely on CNN or any other network necessarily to tell you how your president is doing. You can follow along as a citizen and grade the president every day, every month, on whether or not he's doing what he said he would do.

BLITZER: What's the most surprising thing you have learned, if anything, about President Obama since taking office?

SMILEY: I think that the fact that he is juggling -- and I think that's a good word, Wolf -- juggling eight or nine major issues all at one time really does underscore the way he presented himself during the campaign, cool, steady, measured.

I think that he is the kind of -- the kind of leader, quite frankly, that you need in a crisis. You know, he said in that -- in that press conference earlier this week that, if he just had two wars and a couple of other issues to juggle, he would take that deal.

But to be juggling and to be wrestling with eight or nine issues every day, all major, one of them now a crisis in health, potentially, to the country, he is doing and leading in the very way that he campaigned, quite frankly, very calm, steady, very measured, and very practical. And I think the American people are calmed by that presence in the White House, given these crises.

BLITZER: Charlie Rose, in the essay in "TIME" magazine about you, he writes this: "Tavis rejects arguments that we are in a post- racial era, because he looks at race and sees an unfinished agenda. And, in fact, he has taken on the responsibility of holding President Obama accountable on race."

What is -- I assume you agree with Charlie Rose on that, but what -- what is he making -- what point is he trying to make?

SMILEY: Well, on the accountability question, my role, Wolf, is no different than yours.

Our job is to make sure that that president is held accountable. I believe that Barack Obama can be a great president. I think he may in fact be a great president, but only if we, the American people, and the media help make him a great president by holding him accountable to doing what he said he was going to do.

And, so, I reject the notion that so many talking heads have promulgated that, because we have a black president, we now live in a post-racial America. America may be less racist, but it's not post- racial. We have not achieved a post-racial status in this country.

And I think what Charlie was trying to say is that, one, I reject that argument. And, because I reject that argument, I want America made better for everybody.

And the president, in his news conference earlier this week, said that rising tide will lift all boats, answering a question specifically about black unemployment. He is right about the fact that a rising tide will lift all boats.

But, ultimately, if, when the tide comes up, you're sitting in your yacht, and I'm sitting in my dinghy, we still have a problem. The question is, how do we make everybody in America come up? It would be one thing, Wolf, if everybody in America were getting richer.

But the problem is that the rich keep getting richer at a faster pace than the rest of us. And there's something wrong when everyday people are having a difficult time trying to navigate these -- these troubled, troubled waters.

And, so, it's about holding him accountable, not just on race, but on everything he promised to do as president.

BLITZER: Tavis Smiley's book is called "Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise."

Tavis, thanks for coming in.

SMILEY: Thanks for the opportunity, Wolf, as always.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Who else will make the list of "TIME" magazine's 100 most influential people? CNN's Anderson Cooper will tell you tonight at 11:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

A new warning today from the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, that some of the United States' powerful rivals are gaining influence in America's backyard.

Also, Cuban-Americans are taking advantage of their new freedom to return to their homeland. So, why is Fidel Castro slamming the U.S.?

And an online coloring book showed planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11. A kids Web site from the Bush era gets a makeover by the Obama administration.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Former Cuban President Fidel Castro is sending a provocative May Day message to the United States. Castro wrote that the U.S. wants to see Cubans returned to the fold of slaves.

It's vintage Castro, despite the fact that U.S.-Cuban relations are thawing somewhat, and Cuban-Americans are now to free to travel -- free to travel to their homeland.

CNN's Jim Acosta is covering May Day celebrations in Havana -- Jim.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as we're discovering in our journey to Cuba, attitudes are shifting, not just among Cuban- Americans, but also here on the island. Fifty years after the revolution, Cubans are listening to President Obama and wondering if change is in the air.

(voice-over): Meet the only Americans who can now legally visit Cuba just about whenever they want. They are Cuban-Americans taking advantage of a new Obama administration policy that allows them to visit relatives in the communist country with almost no restriction.

MERCEDES TORRES, CUBAN-AMERICAN TRAVELER: I appreciate it to the president, to the United States, because we can go up to Cuba to visit our family whatever time that we want.

ACOSTA: Mercedes Torres and other passengers are waiting to hop a U.S.-authorized one-hour charter flight from Miami to Cuba. She's taking bundles of food, clothing, and even toys back to her brother and sister on the island.

(on camera): You bring toys.

TORRES: Yes. They don't know Christmas. They don't know Santa Claus. And we're bringing something to them.

Here we go.

Charter flights are so popular among Cuban-Americans, the planes are often full. And we're flying on a 767. As one of the charter officials told us, this is a light day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the city of Havana.

ACOSTA (voice-over): For most Cuban-Americans, this newfound freedom to see their homeland is part of a White House strategy to get a diplomatic conversation going, first Cuban to Cuban-American, then maybe nation to nation.

At Cuba's May Day Parade, 50 years after Fidel Castro's rise to power, hundreds of thousands cheered the revolution, but they were not shaking their fists at the man in the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Well, he's doing a good job now, but we will have to wait and see.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Well, we're going to move forward now.

ACOSTA: Even Castro may be softening just a touch. Take a look at this recent photo of Castro standing with California Congresswoman Laura Richardson. He's wearing two lapel pins, featuring the Cuban and U.S. flags.

(on camera): Cuban leader Raul Castro still says he would like to discuss everything with the U.S., but he would like to see more gestures from Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is almost saying the same thing, adding, it's Havana's turn to make a move.

That's a disagreement, but it's also a dialogue -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: All right, Jim, thank you. Jim Acosta is in Havana.

If you think most CEOs have stopped their high-flying ways, you might want to think again. Corporate perks on the rise right now, despite recession, bailouts, and bankruptcies.

And, later, the defense secretary, Robert Gates, acknowledging mistakes made by America -- you're going to want to hear whether or not there was an apology.

A brand-new interview with CNN, Robert Gates -- coming up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The other purpose of the trip...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, these are live pictures of the East Room over at the White House, the president of the United States getting ready to announce to the world that the entire Cabinet has now been sworn in.

He's playing with a full -- at full strength right now. He's going to administer the formal oath of office to the commerce secretary, Gary Locke, the secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius.

We will have some live coverage of that coming up from the East Room. Stand by for that.

Let's talk about that and more with our CNN political contributor the Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, and Republican strategist Ron Christie. He worked in the Bush White House.

It -- I guess he's walking in right now, the president of the United States. He's going to be saying a few remarks. And then the vice president will administer the oath of the office. We will hear a little bit of this.

Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

OBAMA: This is a big family here.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Feel like a wedding, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: We're here this afternoon to formally fill out my Cabinet with my new secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, and my secretary of commerce, Gary Locke.

Secretary Sebelius and Secretary Locke were actually sworn in before today, but around here we like to make sure we get it right.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: I had to do it twice and so now we make everybody do it twice.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: When I announced Kathleen as my choice for HHS secretary, I said that one of her responsibilities would be to make certain our nation is prepared for a pandemic. Now, what I didn't expect was that a serious H1N1 flu outbreak would be her first assignment.

But it is. And that's why on Tuesday, only hours after being confirmed by the Senate, she was sworn in by my side in the Oval Office and then went straight to the Situation Room to get to work dealing with this emergency. But managing crises is nothing new for Kathleen. She has plenty of experience doing just that as governor of Kansas. And that expertise has enabled her to hit the ground running. She's been closely monitoring and carefully managing the situation along with her acting director at the CDC, Dr. Richard Besser, and Secretary Janet Napolitano.

They're making sure all federal agencies are coordinating their efforts and they'll keep the American people updated over the days ahead.

Experts tell us this is a unique virus with the potential to have a great impact, and as long as it remains a potentially grave threat, we're going to take it very seriously. And, obviously, we hope the precautions we're taking prove unnecessary, but better safe than sorry. We will take every appropriate action to make sure that the American people are safe.

And, if the flu outbreak isn't enough, Secretary Sebelius has a lot of other challenges on her plate, from guaranteeing the safety of our nation's food and drug supply to keeping America at the forefront of medical research to helping to lead our effort to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care.

As a former state insurance commissioner and governor, Kathleen has been on the front lines of our health care crisis, and she shares my belief that if we're going to cut costs for families and businesses, maintain quality and improve the long-term economic health of our nation, we must realize that fixing what's wrong with our health care system is no longer just a moral imperative, it's an economic and fiscal imperative.

If we want to make companies more competitive and reduce our budget deficits in the future, we need to tackle health care reform right now.

The reform we're talking about won't focus on Democratic ideas or Republican ideas, but on ideas that -- that work, and that's precisely the kind of commitment to bipartisan accomplishment that Kathleen embodies.

She is, after all, the daughter of a Democratic governor and the daughter-in-law of a Republican congressman. Her father, who is here, former Ohio Governor John Gilligan, I just want to acknowledge him. Where'd he go? There he is right in front. Give him a big round of applause.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: He and Kathleen make up the first father-daughter pair of governors in the United States. But Kathleen has a -- has forged a reputation for bipartisan problem solving in her own right. Time and again she bridged the partisan divide and worked with a Republican legislature to get things done for the people of Kansas. Kathleen possesses the patience and understanding honed by nearly 35 years of marriage to her husband Gary Sebelius... (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: ... the former first dude of Kansas.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ... the grace and good humor required to raise sons like Ned and John, and the kind of pragmatic wisdom you tend to find in a Kansan.

She's already a tremendous asset to my Cabinet. She has hit the ground running. I look forward to working with her in the years to come.

Now, when I chose Gary Locke for my commerce secretary, I mentioned his own remarkable story. More than 100 years ago, Gary's grandfather left China on a steamship bound for America and found work as a domestic servant in Washington state.

He raised a son, Gary's father, Jimmy, who would go on to fight in World War II, return home and open a grocery store, and later raise a family of his own.

Gary worked his way through Yale with the help of scholarships and student loans, earned his law degree, and returned to Washington state to devote his life to public service.

And when he took the oath of office as governor of Washington, he did so in the state capitol building not one mile from the home where his grandfather worked as a servant all those years ago. And that's how I know Gary shares my deep abiding belief in the American dream, because he's lived it, too.

He has since proceeded to honor the family's legacy with years of distinguished service as one of the nation's most able and forward- thinking governors. He worked to promote economic development and attract businesses to Washington that would create the jobs of the 21st century -- jobs in science and technology and agriculture and in clean energy.

And I'm proud of what he and his team at the Department of Commerce are doing to help create conditions in which our workers can prosper, our businesses can compete and thrive, and our economy can grow.

I want to thank his lovely wife Mona, their adorable children, Emily, Dylan, and Madeline for being here.

Thank you, guys.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And for the sacrifices they have made to send Gary from one Washington to another -- especially Emily because I know it's harder when you're older.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And I'm grateful to Gary for his service because I know how hard it is to be away from your family.

My cabinet is now full of energetic innovators like Kathleen and Gary, a team of leaders who push the envelope every day because they know that whether the wind is in our face or at our backs, America does not settle. We always march forward. I am thrilled to have them by my side as we continue to work of turning our economy around and laying a new foundation for growth that delivers on the change the American people asked for and the promise of a new and better day ahead.

So with that, I'm going to turn it over to another extraordinary member of my team, my vice president, Joe Biden, to administer the oaths.

Joe?

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you, Mr. President.

Gary, would you raise your right hand?

I...

GARY LOCKE, U.S. SECRETARY OF COMMERCE: I, Gary Locke...

BIDEN: Do solemnly swear...

LOCKE: Do solemnly swear...

BIDEN: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

LOCKE: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

BIDEN: Against all enemies foreign and domestic.

LOCKE: Against all enemies foreign and domestic.

BIDEN: That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same...

LOCKE: That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same...

BIDEN: That I take this obligation freely...

LOCKE: That I take this obligation freely...

BIDEN: Without mental reservation or purpose of evasion...

LOCKE: Without mental reservation of purpose of evasion...

BIDEN: And that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties... LOCKE: That I will well and faithfully discharge the duties...

BIDEN: Of the office which I am about to enter...

LOCKE: Of the office which I am about to enter...

BIDEN: So help me God.

LOCKE: So help me God.

BIDEN: Congratulations, Mr. Secretary.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: I...

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: I, Kathleen Sebelius...

BIDEN: Do solemnly swear...

SEBELIUS: Do solemnly swear...

BIDEN: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

SEBELIUS: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

BIDEN: Against all enemies foreign and domestic...

SEBELIUS: Against all enemies foreign and domestic...

BIDEN: That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same...

SEBELIUS: That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same...

BIDEN: That I will take this obligation freely...

SEBELIUS: That I will take this obligation freely...

BIDEN: Without mental reservation or purpose of evasion...

SEBELIUS: Without mental reservation or purpose of evasion...

BIDEN: And that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties...

SEBELIUS: And that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties...

BIDEN: Of the office on which I am about to enter...

SEBELIUS: Of the office on which I am about to enter...

BIDEN: So help me God.

SEBELIUS: So help me God.

BIDEN: Congratulations.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: Congratulations.

BLITZER: All right, so there it is. The Cabinet is now complete, the Obama Cabinet. It took 102 days, but now they are all officially on board. The president of the United States just made it official, with an assist from the Joe Biden, the vice president.

There's a lot of jobs still are open, that have not yet been confirmed at the -- at the very highest levels, what they call the sub-Cabinet positions, because they wanted to wait to get the Cabinet secretaries in place.

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, you -- you want to give your Cabinet secretaries some room to -- to appoint some people they like.

But they have got a -- a number of senior appointments now in both of ho agencies, at HHS and at Commerce.

Look, this is a very important moment. You know, the -- the -- the president has gone faster than most presidents have gone to -- to complete his Cabinet and to get everybody on board. And they're getting a lot done.

I mean, I think the American people really are just mostly focused on how much is on the president's plate and how aggressive he has been in getting things done.

BLITZER: He does have a huge agenda...

ROSEN: That's what people care about.

BLITZER: ... out there, you have got to admit. It's -- some -- sometimes, it's -- it seems breathtaking, how many issues he's trying to juggle at the same time.

RON CHRISTIE, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT BUSH: He really does.

And I think that underscores what Hilary just said a few moments ago. I think the real heavy lifting right now in the United States Senate is going to be rounding out the sub-Cabinet, the deputy secretaries, the assistant secretaries, those who are in charge of really formulating the policy to carry out the president's agenda.

There's still much more to go, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to continue this conversation down the road. Guys, thanks very much.

ROSEN: OK.

BLITZER: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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