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The Situation Room

Future of Oprah's Empire?; Clash Over Health Care Reform Looms

Aired November 20, 2009 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, to our viewers, happening now: the best political team on television on these stories.

The alleged Fort Hood gunman is just hours away from his first hearing, and not in court, but in his own hospital room. We are learning about his condition and whether he fully understands what's going on. Brian Todd has details.

Are too many different agencies now trying to protect consumers and failing, failing completely? There's a new push for a single watchdog with bite, but big business is pushing back big-time.

And she's a one-woman economic stimulus machine. Will the end of Oprah Winfrey's talk show weaken her financial empire?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tomorrow night will be fight night in the U.S. Senate. Literally hours from now, senators will start proceeding on a sweeping health care reform bill. Democrats say Republicans want to scare you. Republicans say the real fear is the Democrats' plans. Then, around 8:00 p.m. tomorrow night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, the face-off, a vote on whether to advance the debate to allow it to go forward.

Among these Democrats, who will block it, who might back it?

Let's go to CNN's senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's working the story for us.

Dana, still a little bit of mystery out there.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A little bit of mystery, but at least one senator who was a little bit mysterious has taken that away. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, he announced today that he will give his party leaders his vote, at least to start debate, that vote tomorrow night.

He said, if you don't like a bill, why block your own opportunity to amend it? So, the president can cross Ben Nelson off the list, but there still are a couple of Democratic senators who could put the brakes on his top priority. And they're being publicly coy.


BASH (voice-over): Behind the scenes, it's a Democratic scramble to secure 60 votes needed to start the Senate health care debate. SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: We're not assuming a thing. We're working hard to bring all Democrats together for the 60 votes necessary to proceed to this historic debate.

BASH: And all eyes are on one of the last Democratic holdouts, the senator inside this office, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Blanche Lincoln's office.

BASH: Phones are ringing off the hook. Constituents trying to get through to influence her vote.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry about that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Can I let her know that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we're getting a lot of people calling.

BASH: Lincoln holds the power to stop President Obama's top priority in its tracks or let it proceed. She's got a tough re- election battle next year in a state Obama lost in 2008 by 20 points, and conservative voters now worry the health care bill spends too much and gives too much power to the government.

Democratic leaders are well aware of her political pickle, but try to pressure her with this argument:

DURBIN: I would say to Senator Lincoln that I believe most of the people in Arkansas will be relieved and happy to see health care reform. I think the failure to pass a bill is not good for America. It isn't good for any of us in Congress or those standing for re- election.

BASH: Another Democratic senator who hasn't formally announced her vote is Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Aides released these photos to CNN showing her working with staff, going through the 2,000-plus page health care bill. One thing she will find is this -- a sweetener Democrat leaders added to help persuade Landrieu, $100 million in Medicaid assistance she's been trying to get for her home state of Louisiana, still struggling from Katrina.


BASH: Now, Landrieu says that she still has a lot of concerns about the substance of the bill, like its cost and the fact that she doesn't like a government-run health care plan, which is in the Senate Democrats' bill.

But she has been much more positive about the fact that she's looking towards potentially voting to start debate. And that kind of statement and others are really giving Democratic leadership sources I have talked to more confidence that they actually will get these votes tomorrow night to start debate -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you know this, Dana. The U.S. Conference of Bishops has just released a letter they have written to the Senate, saying the abortion language in this Senate bill is, what, enormously disappointing, completely unacceptable.

Here's the question. How is this going to affect the vote tomorrow night?

BASH: The vote tomorrow night probably not so much, but this probably will have an impact on what ultimately passes the Senate and certainly what ultimately passes Congress.

You remember this bishops -- the Catholic bishops, they had enormous power in the House. It was basically because of them that they passed very strict restrictions in the House. They are not happy, as you said, in this letter we just got that the Senate doesn't follow suit.

It doesn't seem right now as though there are the same kind of Democrats in terms of those who are really looking towards guidance from the Catholic bishops that there were in the House, but in terms of ultimately what will pass Congress and get to the president, the fact that they're once again laying down the marker, that is a sign of major division and problems on this issue once again for the president and Democratic leaders.

BLITZER: So complicated, every little part of this piece of legislation.

Dana, thanks very much.

If you think the health care reform effort in Congress already has been a marathon, just wait. There's plenty more to come after tomorrow's test vote.

If keeping track of it all gives you a headache, don't worry. Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is here to make it very, very understandable.


Jessica, explain how this procedure works.


The question is, do words like cloture and filibuster make you want to change the channel? Well, don't change it just yet. We want to give you an easy guide to what the Senate is up to on health care.

So, you have heard the Senate will be voting on health care this weekend. Now, if you're like most people, you probably think that means we will hear a final decision. But, no, in Congress, nothing's that easy.

Before anything ends, there will be many votes, amendments, and weeks of debate. But there are three huge votes to watch for. First, tomorrow night, it's what's called a vote on the motion to invoke culture on the motion to proceed to the bill, really.

What that means is, do we agree to start debating this thing? They need 60 votes to move ahead. And some senators who don't like the bill could likely vote yes just to keep the ball rolling. So, if they vote yes tomorrow night, what comes next?

Weeks of debate. This is when they add amendments, debate amendments, discuss amendments, amend amendments. And then there will be plenty of other votes along the way.

So, Thanksgiving will be long gone. Hanukkah will come and go, probably Christmas, too. Senate leaders are actually hoping that before New Year's, they will hold big vote number two, the vote to end debate. And then the third big vote is the final up-or-down vote on the Senate version of the bill. So what we're seeing this weekend, Wolf, really is just the start.

BLITZER: There will be, though, some other major votes along the way.

YELLIN: Yes, yes, of course. And you and Dana were talking about one of them. On all those flash point issues like abortion, immigration, a public option, expect major votes on those along the way. The three we point out are the ones that decide whether this thing gets inched forward or not.

BLITZER: You will be watching it together with all of us.

YELLIN: And trying to explain it.

BLITZER: Don't go away, Jessica, good explanation for our viewers.

Let's go to Jack, who's got "The Cafferty File."

Jack, 8:00 tomorrow night, I know you're going to be glued to your TV set.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Actually, I'm going to put the brown socks on the left side of my drawer and move the black ones over to the right. And that will probably consume most of the night for me.

The national debt has hit a record high of $12 trillion. That translates to about $40,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. What is particularly troubling is the rate at which it continues to grow, increasing by almost $5 trillion dollars during the eight years of the Bush administration, followed by another $1.6 trillion so far under President Obama in less than a year.

No surprise when you consider all of the spending, wars, bailouts, stimulus package, et cetera, under the current administration. Also, the recession, record unemployment mean that there are fewer tax dollars coming in to offset government spending.

But the debt is also costing us huge dollars to maintain. The interest alone on the national debt in this country in the next decade is expected to be nearly $5 trillion. If interest rates go up, and they will at some point, the price will be even higher. In 2015, the estimated interest on the national debt will equal one-third of all the federal income taxes collected that year. President Obama has pledged to take serious steps to reduce America's debt. Really? When? Maybe after we spend close to another trillion dollars we don't have for health care reform.

And with a midterm election coming up next year, good luck getting the politicians to make any decisions on tax hikes or spending cuts. The only thing they're willing to cut is the taxpayer's throat.

Here's the question. How much faith do you have the government will do anything meaningful about the soaring national debt? Go to and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Will do, Jack. Thanks very much.

Oprah -- Oprah tells her audience that she's giving up her talk show.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oprah's been on the air forever, and she is kind of a part of everyone's life.


BLITZER: But the TV icon's reach extends far beyond her daytime chat sessions. The best political team on television is standing by.


BLITZER: Ten-point-two percent, that's the national average for unemployment, but a disturbing report says things are growing worse in individual states. Could this suffering cause the Obama administration to suffer politically?

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux.

Suzanne, what are you finding out?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these are very important numbers to look at. The Labor Department released a survey today that showed in 29 states the unemployment has actually gone up, that rate, and including here in Washington, D.C. It has gone down in 13 states. And this is really more than just numbers, Wolf. We are talking about more people now suffering because they are unemployed.

And now what we see happening is more people are tending to blame President Obama and his economic team.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): Despite some economic indicators suggesting the economy has turned a corner, a new CNN/Opinion Research poll shows, a whopping 82 percent of the public believe economic conditions are poor. And the question of who to blame is taking front and center.

Just take a look at the grilling Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner got from some Republican lawmakers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The gentleman's time has expired.

Mr. Hinchey is recognized for five minutes.

REP. KEVIN BRADY (R), TEXAS: At some point, you have to take responsibility for your decisions.


TIMOTHY GEITHNER, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: I take responsibility for anything I am part of doing. I would be happy...


GEITHNER: What I can't take responsibility is, is for the legacy of crisis you have bequeathed the country.

BRADY: This is your...

MALVEAUX: Two years into the recession, the blame seems to be shifting. Americans are now less likely to point to the Republicans for the economic mess, and, instead, are angry at the Democrats.

The same CNN/Opinion Research poll shows 38 percent blame the GOP for the country's current economic problems. That's down 15 points from May, when 53 percent blamed them.

CNN deputy political director Paul Steinhauser says, that's bad for the Democrats and President Obama.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN DEPUTY POLITICAL DIRECTOR: These numbers are troubling for the president. It's going to be harder and harder for this White House to blame the previous administration for the economic woes. This economy is turning into Barack Obama's economy. This recession is turning into Barack Obama's recession.

MALVEAUX: Americans are still very much divided over whether the president's economic policies are actually working. Thirty-six percent say they have improved economic conditions. Twenty-eight percent say they have made things worse. Thirty-five percent say what the White House has done has had no effect.

One of the reasons Americans are dissatisfied is their concern in the ballooning federal budget deficit. Two-thirds believe the government should be working harder to balance it.

STEINHAUSER: Even though we're in a time of war, Americans think that the federal budget deficit needs to be brought down. The war is not an excuse.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MALVEAUX: And another point, Wolf -- who gets the credit or the blame for the state of the economy, particularly when it comes to jobs, could cost the Democratic Party as a whole.

When you take a look at the latest statistics, there are three times the number of Democratic lawmakers in the House that are facing tough or close midterm election races, as opposed to the Republicans. So whether or not voters see them part of the solution or the problem could make a very big difference -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I think those numbers you have over there, Suzanne, were Senate races? No, those were House races. You're right.

MALVEAUX: House races.

BLITZER: The 36 Democrats, 12 Republican districts, at least according to "The Cook Report," at stake right now, but probably, presumably, more on the way.

Suzanne Malveaux, working the story for us, thanks very much.

Oprah Winfrey making it official today, announcing it's over. She's getting ready to end her 25 years as a syndicated talk show host, queen of daytime TV, officially announcing she's moving on. She's still going to be spending another almost two years in the seat in Chicago, but then she has some other plans.

Let's talk about what this means, because she certainly has been an icon for all of us.

Joining us now, our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, "Fortune" magazine columnist Ben Stein, our CNN contributor the Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and our CNN correspondent Joe Johns. Also joining us from Chicago, our chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi.

Ali, she's become a billionaire, $2.5 billion, her estimated worth. How did she do it?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Oprah is a phenomenon. It's not like somebody who grew into it, like many people who have become famous.

Oprah started in 1984 as an anchor of a Chicago morning show. Within months, she had overtaken "Donahue," which "Donahue" was the gold standard at the time. Within two years, she was nationally syndicated. So, that was 1986. And she has for 23 seasons outrated every one of her competitors.

So, this is somebody who appealed to people right from the beginning. She had a particular appeal to women across America. And those women have stayed with her and grown with her into the phenomenon that she is today. And, by the way, her influence has grown obviously far beyond women, across all demographics.

BLITZER: Yes, she's really had a huge influence. Ben Stein, the Oprah phenomenon is amazing.


I have no question that she was instrumental in getting Mr. Obama elected. She turned out the black vote. She turned out a number of white women voters. She turned out people in a way that I don't think any television personality has ever turned people out. She is astonishing.

And what a great American story, born in extreme poverty in rural Mississippi, victim of sexual abuse, lived in terrible conditions. Then, when her talent got a chance to explode without racism holding her down, she was unstoppable, a great story.

BLITZER: As my dad used to say, only in America can this happen, Paul.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And it took an enormous courage for her to come out and endorse Barack Obama. First off, her audience still mostly women. There was a woman running against Barack Obama at the time.

And she took kind of a hit, both in ratings and popularity. And really whether it's left or right, I admire anybody who sticks their neck out. She risked her popularity, she lost a little of it, to do something she believed in. That's to be admired.


BEGALA: And then she's also trying to get us to read. She's out there every day telling people to read things like "Night" by Elie Wiesel, not exactly like light reading, or "Love in the Time of Cholera," serious books.

She's getting Americans to read them. She's made a huge contribution.


BORGER: When she makes mistakes, she admits it. When she interviewed that author Frey on the air and he was a total fraud and a phony, she brought him back to talk about it. She apologized to her viewers.

So she did stick her neck out, because she's kind of the anti- politician in a way. And when she turned to politics, it was a great risk for her.

BLITZER: And when Sarah Palin decided to launch her book tour, what show did she go on, Joe?


She ends up on "Oprah" before she ends up on the three major networks. And that's a real testament to just how powerful she is. But the thing that's very interesting about her is politics may miss her a little bit, but business is going to miss her so bad.

I used to work years and years ago in local television. And those local television executives right now who had Oprah as a lead-in to their 6:00 news are -- they are swallowing the Maalox as we speak.


VELSHI: Let me just tell you one thing.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Ali.

VELSHI: Wolf, one of the things that is really important if you look at just the last two years alone, where we have been in the midst of a financial crisis, Oprah took the lead on that, too.

She went out of her way on her shows to express how people can make do, how they can live with less, how they manage through the recession. So she's really become a thought leader. And I think that's what you're going to see when she moves on to her next enterprise. She's still going to have the influence politically and socially and economically that we have just seen her develop over the last 25 years.

BLITZER: Because the Oprah channel, if you will, it's not just going to be a one-hour syndicated show. This is 24/7 Oprah all the time.


VELSHI: The whole channel.

BORGER: The whole channel.

But what I really admire about her is not only her entrepreneurship, obviously, but also leaving this show at the very top, knowing when the right time is to say, OK, I have succeeded like nobody else has succeeded in this business, so guess what, I'm going to repot, I'm going to do something else, not that it's a huge risk, but just that she wants another challenge clearly.

And she's setting one up for herself. And it will be interesting for us to watch he to see what she can do next.

STEIN: Well, I don't think there's anything she can't do.

BORGER: Right.

STEIN: And as soon as I heard about this, I thought, is she going to run for president? Because I don't see a reason why she would not be a viable presidential candidate. I wouldn't vote for her, because I'm a Republican, but she is, I think, a viable candidate.

BLITZER: Really?


BLITZER: Paul, is she a viable presidential candidate?

BEGALA: I hadn't thought about her in that context.

But what she has that people crave is authenticity, right? I have never met the woman, so I can't really say, but she strikes people through that camera as real.


BEGALA: And I think Ronald Reagan said this. Once you can fake that, you've got everything else. She has that ability to connect.


BLITZER: All right. Guys, don't go away. We have more to discuss, a lot more. So stand by.

We're also getting new information on Major Hasan in Fort Hood, Texas -- Brian Todd working his stories.

We will be right back.


BLITZER: Brian Todd is working his sources, getting some new information on Major Hasan at Fort Hood. Stand by. We will go there shortly.


BLITZER: He's accused in the massacre of 13 people at Fort Hood, but Major Nidal Hasan has been in intensive care since the shootings. Now we are just getting word he's awake and talking. How much does he really understand about the charges against him? There's going to be a hearing in his room tomorrow morning. Stand by.

And looking after consumers who fall prey to financial abuses and sloppy oversight -- what Congress is doing to keep you from becoming a victim.


BLITZER: It will certainly be a dramatic scene expected tomorrow. The man accused of killing 13 people in cold blood at Fort Hood in Texas will be in his hospital room, as prosecutors accuse him of murder.

We're getting new information about a first formal hearing in the case and just what Major Nidal Malik Hasan understands about the charges against him.

Let's bring in our Brian Todd. He's been doing some good reporting. What are you hearing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just what you said.

We learned a short time ago Hasan is about to have his first pretrial hearing in this case at his hospital bed. Hasan's attorney, John Galligan, tells us prosecutors requested this hearing for tomorrow at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Galligan said Hasan's commanders have already been placed him in what is considered pretrial confinement. Saturday's hearing will determine whether that is appropriate.

Meanwhile, the attorney is giving us more details on the physical condition of the alleged Fort Hood shooter.


TODD (voice-over): Nidal Hasan's attorney tells CNN Hasan has been conversing with him from his bed in the intensive care unit at the Brooke Army Medical Center near San Antonio.

The attorney, John Galligan, who did not want to be interviewed on tape, says his conversations with Hasan have been coherent, that Hasan comprehends who Galligan is and what the next steps are in the legal process.

Galligan says he last met with Hasan Thursday, says, after about one hour, it was clear Hasan was fatigued and couldn't continue. Galligan says Hasan is paralyzed from the waist down, said he'd tapped Hasan on the thigh and, quote, "there's no feeling there." Galligan says Hasan has several guards around him.

CNN is also getting new details of Hasan's alleged shooting rampage. Texas Congressman John Carter whose district includes Fort Hood has met with victims and commanders at the base. Carter says victims are telling him when the shooting first started, many of them thought it was some kind of paint ball drill. They told Carter Hasan had a laser sight on a gun and was shooting everyone he could get a laser on. And Carter says victims are telling him this about who they think Hasan wanted to hit.

REP. JOHN CARTER (R), TEXAS: Everybody is convinced he was targeting soldiers and not targeting civilians. Because some of the civilians said he looked them in the eye, shook his head and passed over them. And so they really think he was targeting soldiers and not targeting civilians.

TODD: We have to stress these are secondhand accounts and eyewitness statements can often be inconsistent. Carter says one victim he spoke with, a soldier, said he was less than four feet away when Hasan started shooting. Then he told Carter.

CARTER: He shouted Allahu Akbar then he shot me three times. He said I went down and then shot me three more times because I wouldn't get down.


TODD: When I asked Hasan's attorney, John Galligan, about Carter's accounts from victims, Galligan said he's, quote, "saddened by the congressman's remarks," calls them inflammatory, premature and prejudicial. And he says he takes issue with the content and character of those accounts -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we'll watch the story over the weekend with you, Brian, thanks very much. More than 150 Christian leaders are laying down their line. They're against abortion and gay marriage and they're pledging to protect religious freedoms.

Most of them are conservative evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics and they put out a document regarding what they call a call of conscience.


ARCHBISHOP DONALD WILLIAM WUERL, WASHINGTON: I hope you will find in this declaration echoes of everything that we have heard in our hearts growing up in our faith traditions and growing up in this country that is always recognized life. Marriage and freedom of religion, freedom of conscience as something foundational to who we are.


BLITZER: Other signers to this document include New York's archbishop and Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson.

Let's focus right now on consumers and whether the U.S. government is watching their backs, some members of Congress say there are way too many different agencies involved in protecting you and your money.

Let's bring back in our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin. What are you finding out, Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there is a huge political fight under way here in Washington. And I'm not talking about health care reform. It's over a proposal to create a powerful new agency whose only mission is to protect consumers.


YELLIN (voice-over): Etta Hunte is a victim of the kind of consumer abuses that helped take this nation to the brink of economic crisis.

ETTA HUNTE, HOME WAS FORECLOSED: I went on my own, I thought I was doing the right thing and this is where it ended.

YELLIN: She lost the house she lived in for 17 years after she signed a new mortgage she didn't understand and couldn't afford. Her broker did not make it clear her payments would skyrocket. HUNTE: Yes, I'm reading it, and I'm signing this thing, signing my home away and had no idea and no one was informing me that it's an adjustable rate.

YELLIN: The problem? No single federal agency oversees all mortgages. Instead, five agencies have a hand in it. And during the subprime mortgage crisis, some companies worked the loopholes.

Elizabeth Warren is a watchdog for Congress.

ELIZABETH WARREN, CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT PANEL CHAIRWOMAN: There are gaps in between and overlaps in the regulatory structure.

YELLIN: Mortgages are just one piece of a much bigger problem for consumers. Across the federal government seven different agencies set rules for everything from loans to mortgages, credit cards and insurance products. So some companies play one regulator against another.

Now Democrats in Congress are pushing a major overall that would organize these powers into one new consumer protection agency.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), BANKING CHAIRMAN: Our plan will stop abusive practices by creating an independent consumer financial protection agency with one mission and that is standing up for consumers.

YELLIN: Congressional Republicans oppose the Democrats plan but do support new streamlined consumer protections.

REP. JEB HENSARLING (R), FINANCIAL SERVICES COMMITTEE: I believe in regulations that make markets more competitive. I believe in regulations and respects the rights of consumers. I don't see this happening with this particular agency.

YELLIN: But business interests, they're ready for battle and have spent more than $334 million lobbying this year. They're led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

TOM QUAADMAN, CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: You can see a multiplication of agencies. Big government isn't the answer.

YELLIN: He says the power new agency will hurt business innovation.

QUAADMAN: It creates a scheme where you have regulators who are really starting to decide who winners and losers are.

YELLIN: Because Etta Hunte just wants someone to speak for her.

HUNTE: I would like for them to have somebody to keep tabs on these -- all of these mortgage companies.


YELLIN: So how would this agency work in theory? Well, it could mandate simpler contracts, it could have the power to sue companies for unfair practices, and also try to close gaps in regulations. But the critics, they say, it would limit our choices as consumers. For example, they insist, if this kind of agency existed a decade ago, we would not have ATMs or debit cards.

So, Wolf, you can see there are very powerful interests on both sides of this issue fighting.

BLITZER: A lot of money at stake as well.

YELLIN: A ton.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Don't go far.

President Obama faces challenges from fellow Democrats on a number of key issues. Does he have a growing problem, though, within his own party? We're going to talk about that and more.


BLITZER: From health care to the economy to Afghanistan, President Obama's facing major challenges, guess what? From some of his fellow Democrats. Let's talk about this once again with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, "Fortune" magazine columnist Ben Stein, our contributor and Democratic strategist, Paul Begala, and our CNN correspondent, Joe Johns.

John Conyers, Democrat, right, Paul?


BLITZER: Liberal Democrat. Major supporter of President Obama.

BEGALA: The chairman in the Congress.

BLITZER: Listen to what he told our old friend Bill Press on the radio.


REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), MICHIGAN: Holding the hands out and beer on Fridays in the White House and bowing down to every nutty right- wing proposal about health care and saying on occasion that public options aren't all that important is doing a disservice to the Barack Obama that I first met who was an ardent single-payer enthusiast himself.


BLITZER: He was not only critical of the president. Very critical of your pal, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

BEGALA: That's not the guy. No, I'm just kidding. He's a good friend of mine. This comes with the territory. I love Chairman Conyers, he's a great Democrat. But this is part of leading a complicated country. Sometimes you're going to disappoint your most ardent supporters.

And I went back and look, when Ronald Reagan was president, Howard Phillips, a great conservative leader, at one point, called Reagan, quote, "a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda." The editor of "Conservative Digest" said Mr. Reagan is now seen as untrustworthy by many conservatives because he has betrayed his own principles.

Reagan didn't betray his principles. He was a pragmatic conservative. Barack Obama is a pragmatic progressive, and that's a good thing.

BLITZER: But then none of those guys was chairman of the Senate -- of the House Judiciary Committee.

BEN STEIN, COLUMNIST, FORTUNE MAGAZINE: But the point is valid. He will be subjected to pressures from all different directions. I think the key thing here he is paying attention, he's listening. Obviously, I didn't vote for him. But he's paying attention. He's listening. He's very sharp and I think he's taking (INAUDIBLE) principles.

BLITZER: How much problems does the president have with these Democrats?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He's going to have more coming from the horizon. If he sends more troops into Afghanistan, I think these are things that are going to make them upset and while Barack Obama can get re-elected without those folks, I think, it has an impact for Democrats in the midterm elections right away because those are the intense Democrats who come out and vote in midterm elections and if they're disaffected, they'll stay home.

STEIN: But look at how he's paying attention because, for example, why put these terrorists on trial on a civilian court in lower New York except to appease the extreme left-wing faction of his party. There's no reason to do it otherwise. So he's listening to them, too. He's listening to all different kinds of people.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Expectations were so high for this president for so long especially on the left and now people are just sort of coming to the realization of what he -- he can only do so much given the configuration of the Congress.

But going back to your example about Ronald Reagan, I also went back and look at his job approval ratings. And at the very beginning, he started out like 57, the next year Reagan was all the way down to 43 and then the year after that, it was 45 and why? It was because of the economy, he had a real bad recession and a tough ride there. And that's what Obama's got now.

BLITZER: Call me a cynic, but does the president and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel -- you better be cool, right? I think you know him and you work with him in the Bill Clinton administration when there was an anxious effort on the part of a lot of Bill Clinton's key political strategists to get these left-wingers if you will to criticize the president, to make him seem more moderate and more reasonable, the, quote, "new Democrat."

BEGALA: We didn't have to do much. President Clinton, then Governor Clinton, really wanted to remake his party. And I don't know...


BEGALA: I don't know that that was Barack Obama's goal. I think he more inherited Bill Clinton's party. But Governor Clinton then took on labor, on NAFTA and for free trade. I was with them. We went to Flint, Michigan, you know, and said -- to the primary, and said he was for free trade and NAFTA.

That annoyed some people. He was for welfare reform and tough criminal penalties. He was a Sister Soulja speech. Barack Obama hasn't had to do all of that. He did take on this establishment through the Clintons. He attacked -- he ran a (INAUDIBLE) campaign against Senator Clinton, but he hasn't had to remake his party, but there's always going to be...


STEIN: There's extreme left-wing Democrats...


BLITZER: Let me just make a point. If John Conyers Barack Obama's extreme...


BLITZER: What's John Conyers and doesn't this help Barack Obama project himself as a more moderate?


STEIN: But look, Obama is pushing through a big step for socialized values. An enormous budget deficits, trying a terrorist in a civilian court. I mean, how much more do they want?

BLITZER: I'm suggesting maybe it's good for Barack Obama when you get John Conyers criticizing him.


BORGER: You know, I think it is good for him. It's good for him in 2012 because that will be seen as more of a centrist but you know, he's criticized by the left which thinks he's conservative. And he's criticized by conservatives like you who think he's too far to the left. So maybe, that maybe, that's where they want to be right now.

STEIN: I think it is -- exactly.


STEIN: He's a smart guy. BLITZER: And as Gloria pointed out, when he makes his decision after Thanksgiving about sending more troops to Afghanistan, everybody thinks he's going to say yes, we're going to send 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 more troops, the, quote, "progressives," the liberals, they're going to be deeply upset about that.

JOHNS: Absolutely. But they've tried to the extent possible to insulate themselves by letting the information dribble out, but on the other hand he's going to have a lot of support from Republicans. He's going to have a lot of support on the right which makes him look more moderate regardless of what the troop will be by the time we get to the end of this term.

But at least for that moment, that's snapshot, he's going to look like more of a centrist president perhaps than he really is.

BORGER: And for those independent voters he's going to have to care about in 2012.

STEIN: He has got such a tough gig in front of him about Afghanistan. I just came -- just as we were coming here, I was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Visited with a gravely wounded man, shot five times by an Afghan soldier who he had been training to shoot straight. And then the guy came in to the cafeteria where the American soldiers was shooting and shot them up.

And he said, he said I had a premonition we were training these guys to kill us and his premonition turned out to be right.

BLITZER: Yes, it's pretty bad when you can't trust, you know, the guys you're trying to train.

STEIN: Very scary.

BEGALA: (INAUDIBLE) going there. These men and women deserve that and it's important what you did. I do think that perhaps there's more peril for Barack Obama on the left with Afghanistan than there is on health care. I think liberals understand you're going to have to make some necessary compromise just to pass a bill. But he came in as the anti-war guy on Iraq. And they still want him to be the anti-war guy on Afghanistan.


BEGALA: I know. I'm just saying, as a Democrat, he's got much more risk on the left. And yes, you want the center, but you know, in Virginia, for example, the Democrats collapsed in this last election this November. They didn't turn out to vote. The Democratic base was completely depressed and if I were advising him and I'm not, I would be more worried politically about Afghanistan.


STEIN: But what can do about Afghanistan? We're not a great power if we betray our friends and betray people that whom we made promises. We're not a great power anymore. BORGER: Well, look, I mean, the president's got to do what he's going to do in Afghanistan. We all understand that he's going to send more troops, how he's going to do it, we don't know. But what he's got to have is accountability. There is no center. It's just being an accountable president when it comes to running a war and now Afghanistan is his war.

BLITZER: We got to leave it on that note, unfortunately, guys. Thanks very much, and Ben, thanks for going to visit the troops over at Walter Reed Medical Center here in Washington.

Let's check in with Erica Hill to see what's coming up at the top of the hour. Erica, what are you working on?

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, thanks. Just ahead we're going to continue looking ahead to tomorrow's big showdown in the Senate. I know you've been talking about it today as well. The president's health care overhaul, of course, is on the line. We speak with Senator Judd Gregg this evening.

Also even more confusion and outrage today over cancer screening for women. Now cervical cancer is in the spotlight and also plenty of anger on campus. In California a student revolt over tuition increases up 32 percent. We'll speak to some of those students.

Please join us for all of that and much more coming up at the top of the hour -- Wolf?

BLITZER: We certainly will, Erica. Stand by coming to you in a few moments.

Al Gore is going to great lengths to go green by guest starring in a popular TV show. Look at his funnier side. That's coming up in our political ticker.


BLITZER: We check back with Jack for the "Cafferty File." Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is how much faith do you have that the government will do anything meaningful about our soaring national debt? $12 trillion and counting.

Greg in Minneapolis, "The only way to deal with this problem is to cut spending, which to Congress is like garlic to a vampire. Congress needs spending to survive re-election, and since it's not their money, they go merrily along their drunk-with-power way."

Frank in Florida writes, "Outrage over the increase in the debt may be a good topic for a cable show but it's bad economics. We need to stimulate our economy with more spending to get us out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Let's learn from history by not yielding to the deficit hawks as FDR did in 1938, which caused a back slide to economic recovery. Only after the economy is fully back and growing can we cut the deficit and reduce the debt, but not a moment before." Mario in Florida, "I have an idea, return all our troops that we have in 82 countries around the world and we will not only lower our debt, we'll show a huge surplus. I doubt if you'll show this e-mail, though, Jack."

Mary in Texas, "Why doesn't somebody stand up and tell us why all these problems exist? Joblessness, huge deficits, et cetera. The corporations sent our jobs out of the country and they got big tax breaks to boot. They moved their headquarters offshore, they saved more on taxes. Why don't I ever hear this fact from the media?'

You just did.

Rich writes, "No faith at all, they will hide it, bury it, ignore it, legislate it and pass it on to the next politician who gets elected to the office. In the meantime they are feathering their own nests and in one case stocking their freezer."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, go to my blog Delightful little place. You can spend the whole weekend there -- Wolf.


BLITZER: A lot of people probably do, Jack.


CAFFERTY: Well, I hope not.

BLITZER: You know what I just tweeted, by the way?


BLITZER: That Ben Stein, what he just said that Oprah could be a viable presidential candidate. Getting a lot of reaction on twitter.

CAFFERTY: I'm sure it's getting a lot of reaction. I don't know how solid Ben's thinking is on that subject, but hey, everybody -- you know, they're like noses, these opinions.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Jack, have a great weekend, thanks.

CAFFERTY: You, too. Bye-bye.

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jessica for the political ticker. What's going on, Jess?

YELLIN: Well, a new tribute to a great newsman and a friend of yours, your fellow Buffalo native -- a New Yorker, Tim Russert. The museum here in Washington is opening a new exhibit today honoring the "Meet the Press" host who died suddenly last year.

It's a replica of his office at NBC's Washington bureau. We're told his family donated memorabilia including the famous white board that Russert used during the 2000 presidential election stand-off which we all remember.

And an interesting bit of trivia, the exhibit sits almost exactly above the studio where Russert's long-time competitor, George Stephanopoulos, tapes his Sunday program this week.

Sarah Palin is out there selling her new book "Going Rogue" but guess who might make money off of it, in addition to her? The Democrats. That's right. The group that is the president's political arm at the DNC is warning supporters that Palin and her book are dangerous, so Organizing for America said it wants to raise half a million dollars over the next week to help push back against Palin and her allies, and they're asking supporters to chip in at least five bucks to reach that goal.

All right, Wolf, here's a surprising one. When you think of Al Gore, his sense of humor might not be the first thing that pops into your mind but here's an inconvenient truth. The former vice president has been known to make fun of himself. The world's most famous town crier about global warming turned up on the NBC show "30 Rock" last night. He played an environmentally aware janitor who wants to, we think, save the whales.

Listen and see if you can figure out what he says.


AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Quiet. A whale is in trouble. I have to go.


YELLIN: I can't tell, did he say a whale like a mammal is in trouble or a Quayle like Dan Quayle. The former vice president -- either way it's funny, Wolf.

BLITZER: I thought he said a whale.

YELLIN: You did. OK. That's the conventional wisdom.

BLITZER: But that was just my ears, not necessarily the best. Jessica, thanks to you as well. Great weekend.

Another week, another round of material for the late-night comics. Front and center, Sarah Palin and her tell-all book. What Conan had to say about what's going inside "Going Rogue" in the "Friday Funnies."


BLITZER: Here's a look at some hot shots in Vatican City. Pope Benedict meets with the president of Suriname in his private library. In Pakistan children herd animals to market in time for a festival marking the end of the pilgrimage. In England security forces keep an eye on things as Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a meeting with his cabinet.

And in the United Arab Emirates, photographers tried to get a good angle at the Dubai World Golf Championship.

"Hot Shots." Pictures worth a thousand words.

Time for the "Friday Funnies." TV comedians' take on the news. Sarah Palin's book tour is giving them plenty of material. Take a listen to late-night comedian, Conan O'Brien.


CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST, THE TONIGHT SHOW": In Sarah Palin's new book, she says when she first laid eyes on her future husband she said out loud, "Thank you, God." Yes, which is the same thing the Democrats said when they first laid eyes on Sarah Palin.


BLITZER: One of the events the media focused on most from President Obama's Asia trip was his controversial bow to Japan's emperor. Jay Leno found some humor in that.


JAY LENO, HOST, "THE JAY LENO SHOW": Some say it was embarrassing. Show the footage of President Obama -- OK, I don't know. OK. Now was that embarrassing for the president, really?


LENO: Let me ask you a question. Was it any less embarrassing than this?


BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Up next, "CNN TONIGHT."