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Politicians Consider Gains, Losses Post-Bin Laden

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, talking to children about death is never easy. But what if the person who died is on the FBI's most wanted list? In our weekly parenting conversation we'll talk about how to talk to kids about Osama bin Laden. Why the U.S. wanted him dead and other questions they may have. That's just ahead.

But first, as the details of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound have begun to emerge, so too have some of the potential political implications of this historic moment. Last night, President Obama hosted a number of Democratic and Republican leaders at the White House for dinner. He used the occasion to call on members of Congress - members of both parties to think again about how they might work together going forward.

(Soundbite of applause)

BARACK OBAMA: You know, I think we experience the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. We were reminded again that there's a pride in what this nation stands for and what we can achieve that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics.

MARTIN: Well, what about that? And just how far might that collaborative spirit go? To talk about that, we've called upon two of our regulars. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary. She's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. They're both back with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ladies, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Good to see you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, I can't help but ask you, because you're a former speechwriter, what did you think about the president's speech?

CARY: I thought it was a great speech. Perfect tone, not too long. I mean, Tucson was 33 minutes, this one was nine. I thought, much better. Shorter is always better. That particular night, I should just tell you what was going through my mind. I had just come from a reading of a play by Marlin Fitzwater, the old Reagan/Bush press secretary and it was about the moment when the Berlin Wall fell. And a lot of the play had to do with the fact that President Bush did not gloat when this happened and was very restrained in his response and how that played out over the course of history very well.

MARTIN: And I can't help but point out that I was there.

CARY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And, in fact, asked him that question. Not about why he was not gloating, but I asked him, gee, you seem so somber. What about that, Mr. President?

CARY: Exactly. It was a moment in time there. Right.

MARTIN: I just thought, I couldn't help but point that out. Yeah, that was a moment in history. Yes.

CARY: And so, I came home from this play. And by the way, I'm rooting that George Clooney will play Marlin Fitzwater in the movie someday. But anyway.

MARTIN: And do you think I can get Halle Berry to play me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARY: There you go. Perfect. So it was on my mind and I come home with my husband and as we get in the house, the kids come running into the room, the teenage daughters. There's not a TV on in the house and they say, Osama bin Laden's dead. And we said, how do you know? And they said it's on Facebook, which is another whole story - that the kids all knew before any of adults and the networks knew.

And, anyway, so we turn on the TV, we watch the speech and it - because it was top of mind from Marlin's play, I was very struck by the fact that the president was not gloating. There was a lot of at-my-direction I did this, I did that. But that's different than gloating as a country.

MARTIN: Well, he is the commander-in-chief. And he did make the order.

CARY: And he is. And he made a rookie decision and he should get credit for it.

MARTIN: Cynthia, can I just ask you, what about the speech? And particularly wanted you to take it to the question that we brought you here to discuss, which is, is this a game changer for the president?

TUCKER: I think that it is - certainly allows him to control the narrative for several days, if not, several weeks. He has been buffeted by external events over which he has no control, like soaring gas prices. This gave him the opportunity to give the American people some very good news. And it certainly slows down his Republican critics who have viciously criticized him as a weak leader on foreign policy.

I think that part of the narrative will definitely have to change. Now, the election is still a year-and-a-half away. That's an eternity in politics and I think domestic issues will still matter most. Before his - particularly the Republican contenders for the presidency have tried to paint him as a weak commander-in-chief, I think that changes that narrative.

MARTIN: Well, there's the narrative on the right which is that you're not out front enough on the particularly, the democracy strivings in some parts of the world. I mean people want - some people want to hear more axis of evil language coming from him and more sort of strident rhetoric particularly in support of democracy movements in other parts of the world.

But there are also people on the left who say, the rationale now for being in Afghanistan is over. And I'm already starting to get, you know, emails to that effect saying, OK, now it's time for everybody to get out. I'd like to just assess your - what is your sense of how strong a point of view is that in American politics today and what residents of that point of view likely to have?

TUCKER: I think that will be a very, very strong response from the left. Many of whom were already critical of the president for escalating in Afghanistan, and some on the right as well. I heard Carl Levin yesterday speaking very forcefully about why this means the drawdown in Afghanistan has to begin just as the president said it would. And I think that there will be those on the left who will say forget the timetable for the drawdown, let's get out immediately.

If we're talking about budget cuts, let's start by getting all of our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, because there is no reason for us to be there anymore. The president will resist that. But you will hear more and more of that rhetoric from the left and from some of the right, I think.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I wanted to ask your perspective on the call that the president made for the parties to rekindle the spirit of national unity that we've seen in the wake of - that we saw in the wake of 9/11, but that we have also seen in the wake of this event. Do you think that that's true? I mean I just want to sort of looking at the list of reactions from political leaders across the spectrum and most congratulated, of course, the armed forces, the people who carried out the mission and most congratulated the president as well.

CARY: Right, right.

MARTIN: But there were some notable exceptions.

CARY: Yeah, Mike Huckabee welcoming Osama bin Laden to hell was quite good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And so...

CARY: But I think, yeah, the end of his remarks last night to this bipartisan congressional dinner, he had a great line. It's my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges we still face. He talks about Tucson. He talks about the storms in the South, how the country comes together lately a lot for these sort of things, and let's keep it going.

I think it'd be very smart for him to try to get as much play as he can out of this and turn that same demeanor that he had Sunday night to the deficit and the economy and see what he can get. This line that jumped out at me Sunday night was the line about when Americans put their minds to it, they can achieve anything. And that seemed to me to be perfectly the teeing up the deficit reduction fight that's coming up next. I think that's exactly why that was in there.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with U.S. News and World Report columnist and blogger, Mary Kate Cary. She's also a former presidential speechwriter, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker. We're talking about what the news of Osama bin Laden's death means for President Obama and the Congress and our national political dialogue. So, Cynthia, what about that? I mean, you know, do you think that he could translate this moment into a, what can I say, domestic issues or other issues? Does it translate beyond this particular realm?

TUCKER: I don't hold out very much hope that this atmosphere of bipartisan unity is going to hold very long. There are significant differences between the parties on the debt ceiling, on deficit reduction. And the stakes are high because there's a presidential election next year and Republicans are determined to keep Obama to one term as president. However, I think the president has much to gain with the American people. I think we're going to see a boost in his approval ratings for a short time. This allows him, once again, to cast himself as the adult in the room above the partisan fray. And so, I think that that can work well for him as he takes his message beyond Capitol Hill.

MARTIN: Well, what about President George H.W. Bush, Mary Kate? After Desert Storm, when he had sky-high approval ratings...

CARY: Right, right. It's kind of a similar situation in some ways, and it's very different in other ways. He comes out of the Persian Gulf War, 100 hours of combat, 400,000 troops in and out of the Middle East in six months. It was just a well-oiled machine like this was. His approval ratings, as you recall, went to 89, 90 percent. I got involved at that point to write what they were calling the domestic Desert Storm and it was going to be a whole agenda of domestic policies, civil rights, capital gains tax cut, education, environment, all kinds of stuff.

And because his approval rating was sky high and it was going into the election year, I guess George Mitchell, who was the Senate majority leader at the time, just said, you know, this is not going to happen. I'm going to stop everything. As they say, DOA, it got dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. And a couple of other things happened along in there. The budget deal, the grocery scanner did not help when he didn't recognize the grocery scanner.

And so this conventional wisdom began that Bush was very good on foreign policy, not good on domestic policy, he ends up losing the election. And what's different in this case is I don't think Obama's approval ratings are going to shoot to 90. I think they may go to 50, 60, 70 percent. I really don't see them going sky, sky high over this. And that would have provoked the Republicans to say, OK, everything's dead on arrival.

I think there's too much of an incentive, especially amongst the Republican freshmen to get stuff done. And they've got to work together. They've got to pass stuff. I think they've got to come home with some results because I think the electorate is very different than it was then. I don't think it can afford to just shut everything down.

MARTIN: Just briefly curious about your reaction to people who couldn't bring themselves to congratulate the president, who said, you know, said, well, we congratulate the American people and we congratulate the armed forces.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: But the president didn't - could not bring themselves to acknowledge his role in this. I'm just wondering if that - does that matter? Or is that just...

CARY: I just thought that was sort of a - what do you say - it speaks volumes about somebody's character, I think. The fact that Dick Cheney was actually pretty gracious, I thought, was great. And because he, of anybody, I thought would be still angry and, you know, so I just sort of thought that said something about people who weren't being gracious.

MARTIN: Cynthia, final thought from you?

TUCKER: I think Mary Kate is right that it was petty of those, like Sarah Palin, who couldn't bring herself to mention the president's name. One more contrast, however, to George H.W. Bush. I don't think Obama believes that this moment will carry him through the election season. So he's very conscious of focusing on domestic issues.

MARTIN: And Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio once again, along with Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush. I thank you both so much for joining us.

CARY: Thanks for having us.

TUCKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.