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THE SITUATION ROOM

Obama Seeks Facebook Friends/Voters; U.S. Plan to Help Libyan Rebels; Fierce New Clashes Erupt In Syria; Terror Alerts Get More Specific; President Obama vs. GOP on Budget and Deficit; 'Strategy Session'

Aired April 20, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


CANDY CROWLEY, GUEST HOST: Brooke.

Happening now, President Obama is recruiting Facebook friends, hoping to promote his deficit-cutting plan and his reelection. We are live at his town hall event in California.

Plus, the Obama administration now seems poised oh to spend millions of dollars to support the Libyan rebels. Is the U.S. on the slippery sloop for the costly, dangerous ground war?

And a new way to alert Americans about terror. I'll ask Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano if this is more about public relations than about keeping the nation safe.

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Candy Crowley. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's the future of the presidential campaign getting under way in California right now. President Obama is appearing before a small audience at Facebook headquarters. He's also live on the social network site which has more than 500 million viewers.

Candidates in the 2012 race are seeking every chance to harness the enormous power of online communication that's brought down governments overseas.

CNN's Dan Simon is with the president. But, first, we wanted to listen a little bit to the president.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obviously, we're having a very serious debate right now about the future direction of our country. We are living through as tumultuous of a time as certainly I've seen in my lifetime. Admittedly, my lifetime is a lot longer than most of yours, so far. This is a pretty young crowd.

But we're seeing domestically a whole series of challenges, starting with the worst recession that we've had since the Great Depression. We're just now coming out of it. We've got all sorts of disruptions, technological disruptions that are taking place, most of which hold the promise of making our lives a lot better but also mean that there are a lot of adjustments that people are having to make throughout the economy. We still have a very high unemployment rate that is starting to come down, but there are an awful lot of people who are being challenged out there day in and day out, worrying about whether they can pay their bills, whether they can keep their home.

Internationally, we're seeing the sorts of changes that we haven't seen in a generation. We've got certain challenges like energy and climate change that no nation can solve but we're going to have to solve together and we don't have all of the institutions that are in place in order to do that.

But what makes me incredibly optimistic -- and that's why being here at Facebook is so exciting for me -- is that at every juncture in our history, whenever we've faced challenges being like this, whether it's been a shift from an agricultural age to an industrial age or whether it was facing the challenges of the Cold War or trying to figure out how we make this country more fair and more inclusive, at every juncture we've always been able to adapt, we've been able to change and get ahead of the curve. And that's true today as well. And you guys were at the cutting edge of what's happening.

And so I'm going to be interested in talking to all of you about why this debate that we're having around debt and our deficits is so important because it's going to help determine whether we can invest in our future and basic research and innovation and infrastructure that allow us to compete in the 21st century and still preserve a safety net for the most vulnerable among us.

But I'm also going to want to share ideas with you about how we can make our democracy work better and our politics work better -- because I don't think there's a problem out there that we can't solve if we decide that we're going to solve it together.

And for that, I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak to you and instead of just giving a lot of long speeches, I want to make sure that we got as much time for as many questions as possible.

So, Mark, I understand you got the first one.

CROWLEY: So, the president of the United States is beginning to take questions. Again, he's at Facebook headquarters in California -- a very young audience and an audience that was quite important to his election bid and hopefully will be as important for his reelection bid.

Now on to Libya -- as the Libyan civil war keeps getting bloodier, the United States is moving today to green light new funding to help the rebels. But the Obama administration isn't going as far as some key European allies who now are sending in military advisers.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is here -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Candy, the question right now is how far will the Obama administration go? Will they go as far as the NATO allies?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): As Libyan rebel groups beg for more help amid the rising violence, France, Italy, and Britain are now putting military advisers on the ground to aid the rebels. The British foreign secretary made clear his troops will have a limited role.

WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: These are not fighting forces. So, they are not going to engage in battlefield activity. These are advisers. These are people who know about organizational aspects. They are not people who are there to fight a war themselves.

STARR: For the U.S. military, the Vietnam conflict remains a long shadow. U.S. troops first went there as advisers. It would become a full-fledged war. Advising can become a slippery slope. Advisers need supplies, security, their own weapons.

PETER BROOKES, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: We have mission creep going on here. I think that's the concern here. This is a bit of an escalation, even if it's a small group of people. And I'm not sure what effect it's going to have on the ground. That's something that we're just going to have to see.

STARR: The Obama administration still says no U.S. ground troops but it is now sending the rebels aides and nonlethal military equipment.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are moving to authorize up to $25 million in nonlethal commodities and services to support Transitional National Council and our effort to protect the civilians and the civilian populated areas that are under threat of attack from their own government in Libya.

STARR: Most of the supplies will come from the Pentagon.

MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We're talking about things like radios, non-secure radios, body armor.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, in the way, the U.S. equipment and the European advisers do go hand in-hand-because a main priority right now is to get the rebels better organized and better able to communicate between themselves and with NATO.

CROWLEY: You know, Barbara, I talked to somebody about the U.S. and NATO and what's happening there. There have been so many complaints from the rebels that NATO just hasn't been there when they needed them. And this person who's, you know, pretty up high in the government before said there's going to be a lot of pressure for the U.S. to step back in and take over a little bit.

STARR: Well, a lot of people are saying that, Candy, because at the moment, one of the key problems is: how do you generate enough air power to really make a difference. It was just yesterday that top NATO commanders said that air power alone will not stop this conflict.

CROWLEY: And yet we have heard over and over again from Secretary Gates and the president, no boots on the ground?

STARR: No boots on the ground.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

STARR: Sure.

CROWLEY: And a respected journalist killed in the line of duty in Libya. Tim Hetherington was nominated for an Academy Award for co- directing a documentary on the Afghan war called "Restrepo." Other photographers reportedly were hurt in the incident that killed Hetherington.

We want to bring CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in Tripoli.

Fred, what do you know about the circumstances surrounding Hetherington's death?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Candy.

And those circumstances are still very sketchy. We're still working to try and get information. It's also very difficult, obviously, because Misrata, where all of this happened, is, of course, a place that's under siege and one where access to medical facilities is very difficult and it's very difficult to make any phone calls there.

The information that we do have is that it appears as though that Hetherington was traveling with three other photojournalists near the frontline area in downtown Misrata. We're not sure whether he was actually right on the front line or maybe one or two blocks away from that.

Then the accounts sort of differ. There are some accounts that say that that group was then hit by a mortar round. There's other that say that it might have been a rocket-propelled grenade that hit that group, obviously, killing Hetherington, wounding two of others severely, and one more likely.

They were then brought to one of the few hospitals that's still working in Misrata and there's not many out there that are still working where the two of them who are severely wounded are receiving medical attention.

But, of course, Candy, obviously, at this point in time, Misrata is pretty much the worst place that you can get wounded because it's absolutely impossible to get evacuated out of that area. And, of course, that frontline area where these journalists seemed to have been is very, very dangerous -- Candy.

CROWLEY: And probably the most likely -- the worst place and the most likely place, it seems to me, to get wounded, one can only imagine what's happening to the civilians in Misrata right now.

Fred, you were there recently. Give us a description of what that was like both as a journalist and just, you know, a human in there trying to stay alive and do their job.

PLEITGEN: Well, you know, it really is, in some ways, I would describe it as a game of roulette almost. You're walking around the front line area and the area where also these four photojournalists seemed to have been. And you're in constant danger of having bullets wiz around your head. You're in constant danger of having rocket- propelled grenades. It's really unclear at many times where the front line actually is because this is all out urban guerrilla warfare that's going on there.

It's a turf battle in some sense but there's a lot of highly contested area where it's really unclear who was in charge of that area. And, now, you add to that the threat of long distance weapon that the Gadhafi forces are using, things like mortars that could rain down on you at any point in time. Things like artillery that are being fired into the city center and you could get hit at any point in time in Misrata.

And then, of course, you have the big issue of medical attention. And if you look at the clinics in Misrata that are still functioning, the one that I was at, which is the biggest one that's still there, the emergency room there is in a tent because they have so many people to deal with because the hospital itself was never constipated (ph) to deal with trauma like that, to deal with people with gunshot wounds, to deal with people with shrapnel wounds. And you can see how difficult it is for people to get that attention.

So, always, you're in constant danger of getting hit there and, of course, when you do get hit, the big issue is getting medical attention. Evacuation is almost impossible because it happens by boat, and the shortest boat trip out of that area is about 20 hours, Candy.

CROWLEY: Fred Pleitgen -- thank you -- out of Tripoli for us. We appreciate it.

This is the last tweet that Tim Hetherington sent before his death. "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Gadhafi forces. No sign of NATO."

It's a chilling message. We'll have much more on this story later in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Anti-government protesters in Syria are refusing to back down despite more attack by security forces and the arrest of a top dissident.

And just in to CNN, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano tells me a new program is in the works that will make it easier for some people to get through security.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: One of my favorite guys is here, Jack Cafferty, with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the feeling is very much mutual. Thanks, Candy

The next time you're on a plane making a landing into a crowded metropolitan area at night, the thought might cross your mind whether the air traffic controller handling your flight is awake or asleep or watching a movie or doing something besides helping to get your flight safely on the ground. Just a thought.

Nine, nine separate incidents currently under investigation by the FAA in cities around the country -- Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tennessee; Reno, Nevada; Seattle, Washington -- where air traffic controllers reportedly fell asleep on the job, and in one case were watching a movie while they were supposed to be working.

On Monday afternoon, an airplane carrying First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden had to abort it's landing at Andrews Air Force Base after coming too close to a military cargo jet. The cause? Error by a civilian air traffic controller.

The FAA said neither plane was even in any danger, but it's launching a full investigation into that incident, too. The National Transportation Safety Board is also looking into what happened, as they should.

The last time the air traffic controllers acted up, when they threatened to go on strike, Ronald Reagan fired all 11,000 of them. The union had decided to strike, the president said no chance, and instead they hired 9,000 new air traffic controllers to take the place of the ones who threatened to strike.

Well, over the next three decades, a lot of those one-time replacement controllers are starting now to retire or approach retirement age, they're getting old and sometimes, I guess, they get sleepy. Employee turnover may be part of the problem with air traffic controllers right now. The funny thing is, I don't recall a rash of controllers going to sleep back in the '80s.

Over the weekend, the FAA announced changes to the controller schedules, now requiring nine hours between shifts instead of just eight. Controllers also will not be allowed to switch shifts with another air traffic controller unless they've had at least nine hours off.

Another thought, perhaps if they are caught sleeping on the job they ought to be fired instead of merely suspended where they can continue to get paid any way.

Anyway, here's the question: What should be done about the rash of air traffic controller screw-ups?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, post a comment on my blog.

I would think that people who do a lot of flying, like journalists and TV reporters, would -- this would give you pause. CROWLEY: It does. It's concerning. But they are trying to, as you know, fix it. So, we'll see. I can't wait to hear the answers to your question, Jack. We'll be back with you later.

CAFFERTY: All right, Candy.

Fierce new clashes erupting in Syria amid the wave of escalating political unrest consuming the Middle East. Witnesses say at least two people were injured when security forces attacked a crowd of anti- government protesters with sticks and batons. Though CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of this video.

CNN's Hala Gorani is in Cairo keeping an eye on the situation in Syria.

Hala, the government warned against public gatherings, but we're still hearing a lot about them. Is this just an unstoppable force at this point?

HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR/CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's the question everyone is asking, and the government is sending mixed messages. On the one hand, offering concessions like lifting this emergency law so widely loathed, Candy, in the country, in place since 1963; and on the other hand, cracking down, according to witnesses, very hard on demonstrations in cities like Homs, north of Damascus.

We're also hearing, interestingly, demonstrations in Aleppo, that is Syria's second largest city. It has really kept itself out of this demonstration movement and the fact that Aleppo students, in small numbers are demonstrating means that this protest movement against the regime is truly a nationwide movement. And they are calling, these protesters, for more demonstrations in massive numbers on Friday.

So this truly is going to be a test for the Assad regime. It can't really go back, it's offered these concessions, and if it goes forward and tries to crush the dissent in the country more forcefully, it's going to face a very difficult situation and the world, despite the fact that journalists are not allowed in the country, international journalists, is still watching.

CROWLEY: Hala, there's been some criticism that the U.S. criticism of the Syrian government has been kind of soft. But Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State, had some harsh words for Syria today.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILARY RODHAM CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are particularly concerned about the situation in Homs where multiple reports suggest violence and casualties among both civilians and government personnel.

It is difficult to independently confirm these accounts because journalists are not being allowed free access to many of these areas. The Syrian government must allow free movement and free access. It must stop the arbitrary arrest, detentions and torture of prisoners.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: So, Hala, we have not had the greatest relationship with the Syrian government. You have to wonder how much impact those words may have on the Syrian government.

GORANI: Well, I think if you can compare sort of the relationship of the United States has and had with Egypt to the relationship it does not have with Syria. Syria, of course, as you know, closely allied with Iran. Just barely the United States reappointed an ambassador, it suspended diplomatic relations after the former assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafic Hariri. So relations are tense and they are shallow.

So the fact that the United States is coming out with the statement through Hillary Clinton is significant, but what impact it will have can only be limited because, unlike Egypt, the United States does not finance the Syrian military, does not support the country economically, and strategically, geo-strategically, it's not a relationship that matters to Syria right now.

So we will see over the next few days internally whether the regime is put under more pressure. Externally, it seems right now it can weather it, Candy.

CROWLEY: Hala Gorani watching Syria for us tonight, thank you.

Officials are calling it a state under siege. Ahead, the latest on massive wildfires now burning from border to border in Texas.

Plus, President Obama right now attempting to sell his deficit plan to an audience at Facebook headquarters. But is he skimping on details?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: The state of Texas, in the words of one official, under siege. Our Brian Todd is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Candy, the U.S. Forest Service says wildfires burning from, quote, "border to border" have scorched more than a million acres, and Texas residents are being urged to heed evacuation warnings. Firefighters from more than 34 states are now battling the blazes which have already destroyed more than 170 homes.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner has just wrapped up a two- day visit to Afghanistan. His office says he met with U.S. commanders, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai while he was there. He also attended a memorial ceremony for five fallen soldiers at Bagram Airfield. The trip comes just a few months before the U.S. begins a troop drawdown in the region.

The FAA now says it will require that a supervisor monitor the movement of flights carrying the vice president and First Lady Michelle Obama in the D.C. area and other jurisdictions when they travel. This follows Monday's aborted landing by a plane carrying Mrs. Obama. The requirement already applies to planes carrying the president -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Brian.

The Department of Homeland Security is working on a way to make it easier for some passengers to get through airline security, and it may happen sooner than you might think. Stand by for my interview with Secretary Janet Napolitano.

And, the WikiLeaks suspect is being moved to a new prison. Is the U.S. military trying to protect him or itself?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, Wolf Blitzer is off and I'm Candy Crowley.

There is a new way to warn Americans about the threat from terrorists. The color-coded alerts put in place after 9/11 are being replaced with a new system unveiled today by Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

I sat down with her just a little while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY,: Secretary Napolitano, thank you so much for joining us.

As I understand the new system, two levels, color codes all gone, no more five - five levels. One is for a credible threat, and one is for a specific credible threat. Is that --

JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: No, not - not exactly.

There will be a new advisory alert that will go out any time there's a specific and credible threat. The difference is with respect to imminence. In other words, is it a threat that is something that is happening right now that people need to act immediately, or is it something that isn't quite so imminent.

So if it's not quite so imminent, it will just be known as elevated, and then if it's imminent of course, it's imminent.

CROWLEY: So, see I was just was always under the -- under the impression that we were always under a credible threat. Is that not so?

NAPOLITANO: Well, we've been, you know, what's happened in the United States is, slowly but surely, our base level of risk has gone up. And it's gone up because these sources and methods of terrorism have multiplied around the world, and indeed within the United States. And then what happened is, because we were kind of in this old color-code system, we were kind of trapped in those definitions and - and no information was actually flowing to the end user. The -- the consumer of the information.

The new system is designed to get facts to people about how to prepare, what to know, where to get more information.

CROWLEY: But under certain circumstances. In other words, when there's a credible threat, here's what you need to know, here's where you need to go, if anywhere, or just watch you are.

NAPOLITANO: Well, and it will be a threat over and above our normal levels. So, right now, for example, if you go to DHS.gov/alert, which is where we will post this, you won't see anything. Why? We don't have anything that meets the criteria for an end task alert. But if we have something that arises that's specific, credible, as vetted by the intel community, recommended to me, that I would then have to personally approve, then you would see the new alert come out.

CROWLEY: So, there is no -- as far as you're concerned, there is no credible threat against the U.S. right now?

NAPOLITANO: There is nothing above the normal, you know, level of threat. I mean, we always have threats.

CROWLEY: Right.

NAPOLITANO: But there's nothing specific, credible, imminent right now.

CROWLEY: I also read your handbook, and it says there will be times when you just notify a business or a type of business that's under threat, or you just notify law enforcement. In the past, that sort of thing actually hasn't worked. I can remember times where they've just told law enforcement it gets leaked to the media somehow and then it becomes sort of a bigger threat.

What is the idea behind -- let's say there's a threat against banks. Would you then just notify banks and not bank customers or people who park near the banks? Or how would that work?

NAPOLITANO: Well, it could happen a number of different of ways depending on the type of threat. It could be a classified briefing that we only give to the cleared security officers for the banks, for financial institutions, or it could be something that we put out for the public at large that says, this is a threat directed at those who may be going to a bank in the near time. So it will depend on the facts and circumstances of the kind of intelligence that we are getting.

CROWLEY: So, since no threat is like another, no one circumstance sort of fits this?

NAPOLITANO: That's right. And so we have to be able, on our side of things -- you know, we're analyzing reams of information every hour of every day. As much intel comes into the intel community now as there are books in the Library of Congress each day. And so we have to analyze all of that, look for patterns, trends, tactics, techniques, threats that may be corroborated, different kinds of ways, and then we will make determinations as to whether a new type of alert needs to be given to the public. That's the new alert system we're announcing.

CROWLEY: I wanted to ask you, the head of British Airways has been out and about again talking about the American system for screening passengers. He's calling for something called security light, which basically would stop the sort of thing where we see a 6- year-old being patted down, where Henry Kissinger is pulled over for extra screening, and that kind of thing.

When certain things in the past several months have come up, we've heard from the TSA, well, we're looking for ways that could be less intrusive but still is safe. What is that way? Will there be something new that isn't as intrusive as some of these sort of excesses we've seen?

NAPOLITANO: I think there are two points that we are working on. One is to expand what we call trusted traveler programs where we have pre-checked passengers against known biometric identification and cards. So we know that those passengers can probably be set aside. The second is to continue to work to improve the technology so the technology itself helps us solve this problem.

CROWLEY: So -- I'm sorry. You foresee a program that would say, OK, 6-year-old little girls, probably not so much, we can -- this is a safe passenger? Or is it a system that you foresee that people would sign up for and say, OK, check me out so that I can get through a Security Light?

NAPOLITANO: More the latter than the former. But in respect to all of these screening issues that have arise, we have also had issues with those who have, for example, colostomy bags who have problems with the pat-down, or the little girl the other day.

Proper protocol was followed. And recognize that every time we say we will not screen children, well, terrorists then recruit children or use children as their methodology, or their method for getting explosives on planes. So we have to be very careful here.

But we think there are some options that we can use that are more risk-based, that take better advantage of pre-identifying travelers. And, again, we're investing a lot in research right now to see if we can develop what I call the checkpoint of the future.

CROWLEY: Two quick questions since we're running out of time.

First, when would you expect sort of a new kind of system or a new way to screen safe passengers?

NAPOLITANO: We would hope that on some of these things, that we can announce at least some positive steps moving forward within the coming months. So, everybody at TSA shares the concern of the traveling public. We want people to be safe, but we also recognize that some of these things to the public at large may seem overboard. Well, let's move to what is a more risk-based strategy that helps us keep the traveling public safe?

CROWLEY: And I just need a yes or no. Are you in for a second term if you're asked?

(LAUGHTER)

NAPOLITANO: I don't answer those types of questions. I'm enjoying the work I'm doing.

CROWLEY: So a second term doesn't seem awful to you?

NAPOLITANO: I'm enjoying the work I'm doing.

CROWLEY: Thank you so much, Madam Secretary. Appreciate your time.

NAPOLITANO: You bet.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: President Obama still working the crowd at the Facebook town hall. Those are live pictures. The president is trying to sell Americans on his spending and deficit-cutting plan. The question is, is he skimping on important details?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

OBAMA: Understand that the days where it was really easy to buy a house without any money down is probably over. And what we -- what I'm really concerned about is making sure that the housing market overall recovers enough that it's not such a huge drag on the economy, because if it isn't, then people will have more confidence, they'll spend more, more people will get hired, and overall the economy will improve.

CROWLEY: President Reagan, of course, on the -- President Obama of course on the housing market.

We have been watching him answering questions at the Facebook headquarters and online. He's on the road this week trying to sell his plan for deficit cutting and fiscal reform. But anybody hoping to hear a lot of details from him may be disappointed.

We want to bring in our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry.

Ed, a lot has been made of, let's put the Democratic plan right up against the Republican plan. So what would the specifics be for the president in terms of deficit reduction? ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Candy, you're right. I mean, yesterday, in northern Virginia, and now he's at Facebook headquarters in California. He's not getting into too much specifics.

He's trying to be a big picture in terms of his deficit reduction plan. But one of the big drivers, of course, of the budget deficit and the long-term debt is Medicare and the explosive growth in health care, something the president has been talking about since day one.

When you look at the White House's own talking points on their approach to Medicare and the Republican approach, it's pretty light on specifics for the White House. Look at how they lay out the president's plan.

They say, number one, he would cut excessive payments for prescription drugs. That does not get into too much depth, obviously.

Secondly, he would reduce abuse in the system. Obviously, both sides would be against abuse, fraud, waste, et cetera. And he would improve program integrity.

It shows you how big picture they're trying to be. They're not getting into the nitty-gritty. But then when the White House lays out how they view the Republican plan, they get quite specific.

They say the Republican plan, a new beneficiary would pay an extra $6,400 in health costs, there would be no guarantee that you'd keep your current level of benefits or your doctor. And that it would basically eliminate prescription drug coverage in that so-called doughnut hole, where, at a certain point, seniors lose the government subsidy, and that the Democrats would make that up, the Republicans would take that away.

The bottom line is the president is spending a lot of time attacking the Republican plan, but not really laying out the details of his own plan -- Candy.

CROWLEY: And to the president goes the bully pulpit. How have the Republicans been trying to push back against -- this is sort of a three-day selling of his larger plan, and also condemning their plan. How are they pushing back?

HENRY: Yes. Well, when you look at Medicare specifically, Republican officials defending the plan that Republican Paul Ryan has put out there -- say, look, the president is right in general by saying that under the Republican Medicare proposal, seniors would pay more out of pocket in the short term, so that $6,400 number may be accurate. In fact, Republicans acknowledge that, but they say over time, what the president is leaving out is that they believe they are going to have a whole group of plans, the Republicans would, that would bring more competition to the system and ultimately bring the costs to the government for Medicare down.

And so that the president is leaving that out, number one. And also, Republicans will say that they believe that if the president continues to try to resist these reforms to Medicare, long term the system is just going to go broke. And so you may defend it in the short term, but if you don't put these long-term painful proposals on the table, long term, Medicare won't be there and then seniors will be left without any security at all.

So there's a much different approach here, and this is going to be one of the most robust debates they have in the weeks ahead -- Candy.

CROWLEY: It is. Many, many days of debate to come. Thanks so much.

Ed Henry.

HENRY: Good seeing you, Candy.

CROWLEY: New questions are being raised about just how serious Republicans are when it comes to cutting the deficit. We will talk about it in our "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: President Obama seizing on a social networking opportunity at Facebook headquarters.

Joining us to talk more about that and other things in today's "Strategy Session," the interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Donna Brazile. Also, Republican strategist and former Gingrich press secretary, Tony Blankley. He's now executive vice president of Global Public Affairs for Edelman public relations.

Goodness gracious. Time to go.

(LAUGHTER)

CROWLEY: I want to show you some new poll numbers from a new poll. This is a McClatchy-Marist poll, where it shows that those who say they definitely will not vote for President Obama, 44 percent. That's a pretty high group to start out with that definitely won't vote for you.

What is that about?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, as you know, 45.7 percent of the American people did not vote for him in 2008. So I'm sure that's the same group of people who did not support his candidacy in 2008, maybe some other Independents that's been disappointed in the lackluster economy.

I still think the president will win re-election. But more importantly, he'll be able to not only galvanize the people that brought him to victory in 2008, but I do believe at the end of the day, Independents will choose President Obama, who has helped this economy, versus Republicans, who have just been whining.

CROWLEY: And let me break this down before I get to you, Tony. And that is that when you look at it by party, 12 percent of Democrats say they will definitely vote against him, 82 percent of Republicans say they will definitely vote against him. But 47 percent of Independents say, I will definitely vote against President Obama.

That seems to -- that's probably the most troubling figure, I would think, for them.

TONY BLANKLEY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, that. And the other troubling figure, I would think, for the president is the non-white, which is at 51 percent will vote for him, 25 percent say they won't. Another 20 percent are undecided.

If he gets all of the undecided, plus the ones are committed to him, he's still about 10 points below where he got on the black and Hispanic vote in 2008, and also with the millennials, with the younger voters. So he's got to do some rebuilding on his base as well.

He's very weak in the Midwest, which is why they are doing a lot of campaigning in Ohio and that part. So he's got a lot of rebuilding just to get back to being competitive.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: And that's why he's with the young people?

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

CROWLEY: Go ahead.

Candy, it's the economy. Look, last month we saw unemployment go down a few percentage points. But among African-Americans and Hispanics, it's been at its highest level, still going up.

So, I think at some point when we start seeing job development, job growth, those numbers will go up, and the president's re-elect numbers will continue to soar. But again, it's the economy that's driving some of the dissatisfaction among the base voters.

BLANKLEY: I think the evidence we saw -- the quote you had of the president in his speech this afternoon, he had to start out saying, I understand the economy is bad, et cetera, et cetera. And understandably, he's got to say that.

Last time he was talking about hope and change. Now he's got to defend the status quo. And young people, poor people, disenfranchised people are going to be more open to hope and change than let's keep with the status quo. That's one of his tactical challenges.

CROWLEY: He can't next year this time be saying, I know the economy is bad. You would agree with that, right, Donna?

BLANKLEY: I totally agree.

CROWLEY: OK.

BLANKLEY: And that's why he's working hard to get this economy moving in the right direction.

CROWLEY: Donna Brazile, Tony Blankley, thank you both very much.

BLANKLEY: Thanks.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

CROWLEY: A vocal skeptic about whether the president was born in the U.S. is backing down, but she's not ready to say the words the White House would like to hear.

And oil still is tainting the Gulf Coast a year after the BP spill. I will talk with CNN Special Correspondent Philippe Cousteau.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: It's been one year since that massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico triggered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Today, there's serious concern that much of the oil still remains.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: We continue to call on BP and the Coast Guard to continue to clean up our shoreline. There are still over 300 miles -- again, 300 miles -- that have some amount of oil. Forty percent of the Louisiana coastline that had been oiled during this spill continue to be oiled today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Joining us now to talk more about it is CNN Special Correspondent Philippe Cousteau.

Philippe, I know you were there when this disaster started, or very close to when it started. You have been back several times. I'm going to assume that things are better now than when oil was gushing out of the bottom of the Gulf.

But has it been disappointing progress? Or are you impressed?

PHILIPPE COUSTEAU, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's happening in bits and starts, Candy. You know, the reality is that I think the -- I believe the hard part is yet to come, because when the oil was visible, when it was on the surface, it seemed like a known entity, an entity that we could deal with. But now it's likely very dispersed through the water column, it's having an impact on the environment.

Still, a lot of oil can be found at depth. And it's becoming more of an insidious enemy as we move on.

And one of the challenges is science doesn't really give us much to go by. This kind of oil spill has never happened anywhere in the world. And we just don't know exactly what to expect. The scientists don't know what to expect. CROWLEY: And we were told at the time by environmentalists and scientists that the effect of this will be seen over decades.

Have you seen anything there in your latest trip that would dissuade you from that?

COUSTEAU: No, we have not seen anything that would dissuade us from that. We spent the last week visiting communities along the coast from Alabama to Louisiana, fishermen, individuals involved in the tourist industry, and they are still very worried.

Some of the oystermen we were out with are concerned because they are not seeing the small little fingernail-sized larvae that should be growing on adult oyster shells. They are not.

They are not seeing a recruitment of the next generation. And they are very, very concerned about that.

Now, that's very preliminary and anecdotal at this point, but it lines up with what we know from, for example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. It took fully three years for the herring fishery there to collapse.

CROWLEY: And when you are talking to folks in these communities, what's been the biggest life change for them in this past year?

COUSTEAU: Well, a lot of the individuals in these communities still haven't been made whole after this disaster. A lot of people are still struggling to pay their bills. They are still watching the potential. They're on the edge of their businesses falling apart. A lot rests on right now, this time of year, the spring.

So, one of the things about the oil spill was that it came in -- it couldn't have come at a worse time in that it was springtime, with lots of larvae and fish eggs. Essentially, the next generation in the water column for which the oil was so toxic.

The same thing now this spring. People aren't sure what's going to happen. They don't know.

The shrimp fishery just opened up two or three days ago, and there's preliminary reports of the catch not being too bad, but oil showing up in the shrimp. So, the number one thing that's still scaring people on the Gulf is the uncertainty.

CROWLEY: Thank you so much, Philippe Cousteau, for your insight on this. I think this is a story we're covering for another couple decades or so. Thank you.

Help is still needed in the Gulf a year after the oil spill. To find out how you can make a difference in the Gulf a year after that spill, visit our "Impact Your World" page. CNN's "Impact Your World" is challenging you to pledge at least 11 volunteer hours in 2011.

Go on CNN.com/impact to make your pledge today. Jack Cafferty is asking, what should be done about the rash of air traffic controller screw-ups? Could those problems be solved by putting the controllers in the cockpit for a while?

And the secrets Facebook may know about you. It's a conflict of profit and privacy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Jack has some of your answers. He's joining us now with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Candy, the question this hour: What ought to be done about this rash of air traffic controller screw-ups going to sleep all over the country sitting in these towers?

Paul writes, "Outside of training and hiring more controllers, not much. Some reprimands would be in order, of course, but there isn't anything new here. It's just hot news. As in any job pertaining to safety, people are still human despite our desire for them not to be. They are fallible and they are prone to errors in judgment."

David, in Petersborough, New Hampshire, "For one thing, they ought to stop mixing day and night shifts. This is the most absurd thing I have ever heard of. I have worked for years in the airline industry in maintenance. This is such a no-brainer. It was never, ever done. I think if there is to be any action taken, it ought to fall on the heads of the people who approved those schedules."

David in Virginia writes, "Smarten up. Build high-speed rail infrastructure and enjoy the jobs it creates."

Karen in Virginia, "Screw-ups? Maybe not. You try staying up all night with nothing to do but stare at a screen waiting for two or three flights to arrive."

"I was a nightshift worker for many years. It took me almost a year to adjust. Some people can never adjust. Sometimes sleep just happens."

Kenneth, "Thousands of Americans work overnight shifts without sleeping on the job. They ought to be fired."

Jack in Ohio, "You know what will be done? The sleepers will get time off with pay in order to get more controller education. Education will be the answer. Let's see if I'm correct."

And Steve writes, "It is a very intense job that has significant downtime at odd hours. I've worked shift work with full nightshifts for years, and unless someone has actually done it, they are not qualified to pass judgment."

"It's simple stuff, folks. There is no way it should ever, ever be a single person job. How would you like getting on a night flight with only one pilot on board? Think about it." If you want to read more on this, go to my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Jack.