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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Iraq Security Situation; New Dog in the White House; Hopeful Signs for the Economy?
Aired April 12, 2009 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KING, CNN HOST: I'm John King. And this is our STATE OF THE UNION report for this Sunday, April 12th.
President Obama visits U.S. troops in Baghdad and tells them it's time for Iraqis to take control of their country. But will attacks in big cities like Mosul force a delay in the troop withdrawal timeline? The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, joins us for an exclusive interview.
Mr. Obama says he sees glimmer of hopes in the troubled economy. We'll have some serious talk about jobs, and on a lighter note, some breaking news on the first family's new dog, with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.
And we'll head to North Carolina for a firsthand look at what happens when trouble on Wall Street translates into wiping out what no long ago seemed like a secure retirement nest egg. That is all ahead in this hour of STATE OF THE UNION.
An aerial view there of the Pentagon, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the home of the United States military. During his visit to Iraq last Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged there is still much to be done to stabilize the country, but he emphasized he intends to keep his commitment to withdraw all U.S. troops by 2011.
A big test looms soon, American forces are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq's cities by June 30th this year. That's just eleven weeks from now. And just as American troops are preparing to leave, violence is on the rise in the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Baqubah.
Here to talk about the president's visit and the challenges in keeping with the withdrawal schedule is the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. He joins us from Camp Victory in Baghdad.
Sir. happy Easter to you, and thank you for joining us. Let me start with the big challenge you face. In just 11 weeks you're supposed to have your troops out of Mosul, out of Baqubah, out of other major cities. And you have an uptick in violence in recent days. Will you meet the deadline or will you have to keep the troops there?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO, COMMANDER, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Well, first, John, if I could, I would like to wish happy Easter to everyone back in the United States, especially to all of the family and friends of our service members who continue to serve over here. It's a real dedication to their great work that has helped our soldiers over here.
John, what I would tell you is overall violence remains at 2003 lows. However, as you have seen over the last week or so, there are still some elements here that are able still to conduct some very serious attacks.
So we will continue to conduct assessments along with the government of Iraq as we move forwards the June 30th deadline. If we believe that we'll need troops to maintain a presence in some of the cities, we'll recommend that, but, ultimately, it will the decision of Prime Minister Maliki.
KING: And when the president was there, sir, just the other day, did you discuss this with him and did you, in fact, maybe ask him to pressure the Iraqi government? You know the political pressures, not only on our president here in the United States, but on Prime Minister Maliki.
Did you ask the president to say, look, if we need more time you need to nudge them to give it to us?
ODIERNO: Well, again, we did have good discussions. We went through all of the major issues facing Iraq now with the president. What we discussed is there is some diplomatic actions that have to be taken.
Listen, Prime Minister Maliki understands the tensions in Mosul. He understands there's an assessment that has to be made. I'm confident that we will make a joint assessment and then he will make a decision. We will tell him what we believe is the right thing to do but ultimately it will up to him to make that decision.
KING: I want to remind our viewers, as we have this conversation, about the timelines and the deadlines you face. June 30th of this year, all U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Baghdad and the other major Iraqi cities. It is August 31st, 2010, all U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Iraq, leaving about 50,000 behind. And then by December 31st, 2011, all U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Sir, in your conversations with President Obama, how comfortable do you feel that if you go to him at any point, whether it's one of these interim deadlines or the bigger deadline in 2011, you say, sir, I need more time or, sir, I need more troops, that you will get what you need?
ODIERNO: Well, again, he understands, as he has stated, that there is still much work to be done here in Iraq. I believe he has given me the flexibility over the next 18 months in order to adjust the size of the force that I need in order to accomplish the mission. What we're trying to do is set the conditions for Iraq to take over and be able to secure themselves.
And so we'll continue to do that. And I have the flexibility to do that. The president has given that to me. John, if I could make one correction. On August 31st, it is that we will have a change in mission here in Iraq and we will no longer conduct combat operations. It's not necessarily that all combat troops will be out of Iraq by that date.
KING: Thank you for the correction, sir. And it's well noted, because let me follow on that point. Are you concerned at all? The mission went off-track at the beginning, way back, six years ago when there weren't enough troops to do everything that needed to be done. Are you concerned, sir, when you get to that point, when you're looking at 50,000 troops or so that you will have too few troops to do what you need to do or are you confident that if you need more, you'll get them?
ODIERNO: Well, what has changed, John, is that the Iraqi security forces have matured significantly. They now have 250,000, army. They have over 400,000 police. They are continuing to improve in their competency. So that is helping significantly.
So it is not the same as it was in 2004 or 2005 or 2006. So part of the judgment will be how much can they do. They are proving every day that they are becoming more competent, so the decision will be made as how much of U.S. forces are needed in order to continue to support them to keep the stability that we're starting to see here in Iraq.
KING: And, sir, I've walked over to our map so can I show our viewers what has happened over the timeline of the past six years. Back in May 2003, a little over 142,000 troops. And if you follow the timeline over, you see here in October 2007 because of your surge strategy, 170,000 troops on the ground. And we're down now somewhere in the area of 140,000 troops on the ground.
In terms of the pace of operations, the last time I was there and out with troops in the field was a little more than a year ago. And I did a convoy run up from Camp Anaconda up to Baqubah. That was a pretty dicey time, about every other convoy was experiencing an IED attack.
In terms of the reports you get back from the daily operations of the troops, is it as bad as it was then or have things improved significantly?
ODIERNO: Yes, they've improved significantly. And I think you would be surprised if you were here again. Obviously, we still have some very serious incidents, based on one this week.
But, again, it's much safer. In March, our combat fatalities were the lowest they've been since the beginning of the war. The number of incidents in March was the lowest month of incidents we've had since really right back to June of 2003 before the insurgency started.
So there has been a clear improvement of security here. The issue is, can we maintain that -- can the Iraqis maintain it? And that is what we're working through now is we want them to be able to maintain this stability as we pull out.
And that is what we're assessing and constantly doing. I believe we're on track to do that. We have a schedule to reduce our forces. I have flexibility to change that within the next 18 months, and we'll continue to look at that very closely as we move forward.
KING: And you mentioned that March was a relatively good month. I want to, again, play a little timeline here so that our viewers can see it here. This is U.S. troops killed in Iraq and you see the numbers from 2003 moving forward. 2007 at the height of the surge was the highest year and 51 so far, I hesitate to say, only 51 so far in 2009. You mentioned that March was a good month, sir. That was nine Americans killed in March. But already we've hit the number nine 12 days into the month of April because of a few tragic events in recent days.
Why? Are you seeing that this -- is this just random events or are you seeing some coordination of increase in violence?
ODIERNO: Yes. What I see is there are some cells out there who are still capable of conducting suicide attacks. And, unfortunately, had a tragic attack in Mosul this past week of a suicide bomber who killed five of our soldiers. Tragic, tragic event.
They have that capacity still. It's much less than it has ever been. They are very small cells throughout Iraq. We continue to be aggressive at going after them with the Iraqi security forces.
But this is not a significant increase in overall lack of security. There just are still some suicide bombers and those who profess suicide attacks that are still very dangerous.
KING: And help those military families and other Americans watching on this Easter Sunday morning assess where you are now. We talked at the beginning about the potential that you might have to ask for a little bit more time in Mosul, in Baqubah, in other cities.
Is this in part because you're saving the worst, the hardest challenges for last, if you will? That al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups that oppose your being there have concentrated in certain areas and these are the last fronts?
ODIERNO: Well, what we've done is we've driven them there, John, through our operations over the last two years. And we've continued to eliminate areas where they are no longer welcome by the Iraqi people. They are rejected. They are no longer able to conduct operations so they've moved to certain areas.
One is in the desert near Syria between Syria and the city of Mosul, and then inside of Mosul. So we now are working very hard with the Iraqi security forces to finish off this last group of individuals who are still able to conduct some serious attacks.
The same in Baqubah. Although Baquba actually has been extremely safe, areas east of there towards the Iranian border still have some remnants of al Qaeda and other extremists that are still able to do some operations.
So we're in the process of routing them out with the Iraqi security forces.
KING: You just mentioned there, sir, areas near the Syrian border, and areas near the Iranian border which begs the question for the past six years we've had these conversations about Syria letting people back and forth across the border, in fact, maybe even supporting some of them. Iran letting people back and forth, letting weapons across the border, and in fact training some of the people who are trying to kill the men and women who serve under you, sir.
What is the status of Iran and Syria? Are they still as problematic as they were before or have we seen any improvement?
ODIERNO: Well, first, we've been able to significantly limit the ability of them to traffic foreign fighters in through Syria. We have done that through major operations. We made it extremely difficult. The Iraqis have helped significantly in closing their borders and making it more difficult for foreign fighters and suicide attackers to come across.
They are still able to come across in very small numbers. There's still some of a facilitation network that still is in Syria.
In terms of Iran, Iran, although I would -- the support is a bit less than it was, there's still reports that training, funding, and the providing of weapons still goes on. Although it's at a smaller level, it's still very sophisticated and is still trying to impact the stability situation here in Iraq.
KING: More of our conversation with General Ray Odierno in just a moment. And later, also, is President Obama the most polarizing president of recent times? We'll debate that question and more with two of our top political strategists. Our "State of the Union" report will be right back.
KING: We're back with the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.
And, General, I want to ask you a bit about what I find fascinating is; that is, your relationship with the new commander in chief, someone who was so vigorously opposed to the war effort you now lead.
And I want to show our viewers a bit of a timeline, here.
It was back in October 2002 when then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama, not even in the United States Senate yet, declared he was against the war in Iraq.
And then, in January of 2007, Senator Barack Obama, a United States senator, at this point, and candidate for the presidency of the United States, spoke out strongly against the surge policy that General Odierno pushed for.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The responsible course of action for the United States, for Iraq, and for our troops is to oppose this reckless escalation and to pursue a new policy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: But since winning the election and becoming commander in chief, a decidedly different tone from President Obama, when it comes to the war in Iraq, including his visit to Baghdad just this past Tuesday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Every mission that's been assigned, from getting rid of Saddam to reducing violence to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections, you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement, and, for that, you have the thanks of the American people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
General Odierno, you are the father of the surge strategy. You pushed for it when even many of your commanders wanted to get troops out of Iraq.
How hard is it to develop a rapport with a president of the United States who thought your strategy was a reckless escalation?
ODIERNO: Well, first off, he's our commander in chief. And as the commander in chief, we take direction from him. He has -- in all of the meetings I've had with him, he is very attentive; he's very -- he listens. He is incredibly intelligent. He talks through the issues, and -- and we discuss it. He makes a decision and then we execute those decisions.
And that's all you can expect out of your commander in chief. And he's -- I've been very pleased with the interaction that I've been able to have with him.
KING: Has he ever said, General, you know, Ray, you were right; I was wrong about the surge?
ODIERNO: I don't think we talked about that ever.
KING: Let me -- let me ask you -- let me move back to a more serious question, and the idea that, in the previous administration and in your service prior to this administration, you were very clear that you thought these decisions should not be based on political timelines; they should be based on conditions on the ground. I understand you're executing the orders of the commander in chief. I just want to get a sense of, are you concerned at all that the bad guys, the enemy, knows the timeline, too, and they are simply going into hiding, hoarding their resources, gathering their weapons and waiting for you to leave?
ODIERNO: There is always that potential. But, again, let me remind everyone what change was in December when the United States and the government of Iraq signed an agreement, a bilateral agreement that put the timeline in place, that said we would withdraw all our forces by 31 December, 2011.
In my mind, that was historic. It allowed Iraq to prove that it has its own sovereignty. It allows them, now, to move forward and take control, which was always -- it's always been our goal, is that they can control the stability in their country.
So I think I feel comfortable with that timeline. I did back in December. I do now. We continue to work with the government of Iraq so they can meet that timeline, so that they are able to maintain stability once we leave. I still believe we're on track with that, as we talk about this today.
KING: You say you're comfortable with that timeline, sir. I want you to expound on that, a little bit. Because, back in -- I'm holding up a copy of Tom Ricks' book, "The Gamble." It's a fascinating book from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist about the war effort in Iraq.
And you told him, in that book -- this is -- he's quoting you in that book. "When asked what sort of U.S. military presence he expected in Iraq around 2014 or 2015, well after Obama's first term, Odierno said, 'I would like to see a force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000, with many troops training Iraqi forces and others conducting combat operations against Al Qaida in Iraq and its allies.'"
Now, certainly, this was before the agreement with the Iraqi government was negotiated -- and I want to make that clear -- when you made those remarks.
But you have to implement this strategy because it is a signed agreement between the government of Iraq and the United States of America. But do you personally think it would be best that, for the foreseeable future, to leave 30,000 or so behind?
ODIERNO: Well, again, what I would tell you is it really has always been about Iraqi -- Iraqis securing their own country. So the issue becomes, do we think they will be able to do that?
As they continue to improve in the operations they've been able to conduct, I believe that they will be able to do that by the end of 2011.
And so the most important thing for us is to help them now to reduce the risk that will be left with them once we depart at the end of 2011. We will continue to train and advise. We'll continue to assist; we'll continue to conduct combat operations, where we believe it's necessary.
And I do believe, now, that it is probably the right time frame.
KING: And on a scale of 1 to 10, sir, how confident are you, 10 being fully confident, that you will meet that deadline, that all U.S. troops will be gone at the end of 2011?
ODIERNO: As you ask me today, I believe it's a 10 that we will be gone by 2011.
KING: That's a -- that's a bold statement. I want to ask you, a little bit, about your current work. Because a lot of what you're doing requires the Iraqi security forces to get up to speed, and that, of course, is part of your mission.
But the other part of the equation is the Iraqi political environment. And in that environment, you are finding yourself, I'm told, in some meetings that you would prefer that the lead person be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and you don't have a U.S. ambassador at the moment. The nomination of Chris Hill is held up at the moment in the United States Senate.
Does that hurt the U.S. effort in Iraq, not having an ambassador on the ground?
ODIERNO: Well, I mean I believe it's important to have an ambassador here. It's important to have an ambassador in all of our key countries. And Iraq is a very important country in our national strategy. So, of course, it would be much better to have our ambassador here. We have a process that we have to go through to get our ambassadors confirmed. We're going through that process. Hopefully we'll have an ambassador out here very soon. It would certainly help to have an ambassador here as quickly as possible.
KING: You work now in an administration that doesn't like the term war on terror. The Bush administration used that term quite frequently. Does that matter to you? The men and women who are risking their lives every day, are they fighting the war on terror in General Odierno's view or something else?
ODIERNO: Well, what they are doing is fighting for the security of United States. So it doesn't matter what you call it. We're here to ensure that we better secure the -- all of the people of our country and that by doing that, by defeating terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else, we're here to accomplish what we believe is important to maintain security for our country.
KING: I want to ask you, sir, as a general and as a parent of someone who was hurt in Iraq, your son suffered a devastating injury, but, thank God, was not hurt any further than that in Iraq. We have a new policy where they have opened Dover and allowed media coverage of the returning bodies, the caskets of those who suffer the ultimate sacrifice overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you support that policy? Do you think it helps the American people better understand the price those young men and women are paying, or do you think it's too much?
ODIERNO: I think the most important piece of that was that you give the families the choice. What we care about is the families have their choice. We want to respect the families. So it always comes down to that. So I'm very pleased the families gets to choose whether that coverage happens or not and I think that's the right thing.
KING: I want to ask you lastly, sir, a lot people now watch more troops going into Afghanistan and say well, the surge worked in Iraq, a surge will work in Afghanistan. I want to give you an opportunity to say what you think is similar and importantly what you think is different in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
ODIERNO: Well, I don't really -- I don't want to comment too much on Afghanistan. I've spent an awful lot of time here in Iraq and I consider myself to understand Iraq. I don't consider myself to fully understand Afghanistan. But what I do know, some of the concepts are the same. You have to secure the population. Once you secure the population, it is much easier than to fight the terrorists, because the population then helps you. When they're not secure, when they feel like they are being terrorized, it's much more difficult for them to support any effort to defeat these terrorists. So I think that concept is clearly the same. The only other thing I would say is that it is a civil/military problem. It is not just a military solution. And I know that in Afghanistan, they're working towards a civil/military solution. So I think those are the keys as we move forward.
KING: General Ray Odierno joining us from Baghdad this morning. Sir, we thank you for your time and we thank you and the thousands of men and women under you there in Iraq for their military service and you should know you are in our thoughts and prayers every day as we go forward.
ODIERNO: Thank you very much, John. Once again, Happy Easter to all Americans.
KING: General, one other thing I wanted to mention. I'm sorry, before I do let you go. I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy and thought I had a friend in Ray Odierno on the show but I understand you have launched Facebook site so that you can better communicate with folks back here in the United States and we're showing it on our monitors before we let you go.
I just want you to know my resistance to Facebook has now crumbled thanks to Ray Odierno. Explain why you think this is important.
ODIERNO: Well, I want to -- I think it's important that people can reach out and ask questions and maybe educate them a little bit more on what is going on here in Iraq. And get to know us a little bit better. This is new for me. This is new ground so we'll see how it goes but I'm actually pretty excited about it.
KING: Well, we'll see how many people are watching today by how many friends you get in the next few hours. Again, general, Happy Easter to you and the men and women serving in Iraq and take care, sir.
ODIERNO: Thanks, John. I appreciate it very much.
KING: All right, general. Take care.
And huge factors in getting the U.S. troops out of Iraq on schedule are the abilities of a Iraq military and police forces to step up major security challenges and the willingness of Iraq's political leaders to set aside sectarian and other rivalries. Up next, we discuss those challenges with Iraq's national security adviser.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: President Obama there addressing U.S. troops in Iraq during a quick visit to the country this past Tuesday. We just heard from General Odierno. Now let's get the Iraqi view of where things stand. In Baghdad bureau, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al Rubaie. Sir, let me start with the basic premise. President Obama said it's time for Iraq to take over. Are you ready?
MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE, IRAQI NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, before I answer your question, let me, through your program, say Happy Easter to all Christians all over the world.
And, number two, I would like to express my gratitude and the big thank you from the Iraqi people and the government of Iraq to the United States of America for things they have done in this country, bringing down the dictatorship and sustaining the security of this country and building, helping us in building our Iraqi security forces and to reach to this least now to a considerable reduction in violence and this security, we believe it's sustainable and we are -- we, the government of Iraq and the security forces in Iraq are much more suited now for this fight. And we believe that now we are leading and we are planning and cutting out most of the combat operations in the country and the United States forces are moving or transitioning to a more support role, more training, more providing more logistical support, rather than engaging in a huge military or kinetic combat operations.
KING: And so, sir, with that progress or despite that progress maybe, you just heard General Odierno. If he comes to you in three or four weeks or six or eight weeks and says, Mr. National Security Adviser, Mr. Prime Minister, I know I have this June 30th deadline to get out of the cities but in Mosul, in Baqubah there are still some problems, I need a little bit more time, I may actually have to send more U.S. troops in in the short term.
KING: Would he get the permission of the Iraqi government to do that if he believes it's necessary?
AL-RUBAIE: See, we're continuing monitoring the situation jointly with the multi-national forces and we're consulting the multi- national forces on a military and we are on daily coordination and cooperation and assessing the situation on daily basis. So I don't think we should answer this hypothetical question now.
KING: OK. I understand that point. And I bring it up in the past, sir, you say you're ready or you will be ready by the deadlines. In the past you have been optimistic and that optimism has turned out not to be so well-founded. I want to bring up something you told "The Washington Post" in June 2006, almost three years ago.
You said, "We envision the U.S. troop presence by year end to be under 100,000 with most of the remaining troops to return home by the end of 2007."
It is now, of course, 2009 and there are 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Why should we believe your optimism now, to put it bluntly, when you were on the record some time ago saying you thought this day would come a lot sooner?
AL-RUBAIE: Well, we are all much more intelligent with hindsight and I believe we have now very, very competent and very well trained and equipped, the Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi security forces are leading and doing most of the combat operation now. What we are requiring. Only the high-end very specialized counterterrorism operation and some logistical support, some air fire support, some navy support, that is what we are requiring. And we are building these as we go along and in the next year or so, we will be in a position to take all -- to take over all of our country. All the security, all over the country.
KING: Mr. al-Rubaie, Let me ask you this question. The White House says when President Obama was there and he had the meetings with your political leaders, he delivered a stern message that the differences between the Kurds and the Shia need to be resolved. Other sectarian issues.
Essentially a push and nudge for the politics of Iraq to become more peaceful and more stable to build confidence going forward. What was the strongest or the most different message you found from President Obama in these meetings?
AL-RUBAIE: See, what we have, we have agreed, the three communities. The three major communities have agreed on a one-term reference and that is the Constitution. And millions of Iraqis have ratified this Constitution. We formed national unity government according to that Constitution. The Sunni, Kurds, the Shia are all in that government. And we are -- if we have any differences, if we have any dispute, we should go back to the Constitution and defer to the one document we have agreed on and that is the Constitution. There's nothing else, other than the Constitution.
KING: Let me ask you, lastly, sir. We're still getting to know our new president here in the United States. You have been in the room with President Bush, his predecessor, and now in the room with President Obama. How is President Obama different than President Bush when it comes to these big diplomatic challenges and conducting the affairs of the United States?
AL-RUBAIE: I don't want to elaborate on differences, but I believe that the President Obama understands the situation in Iraq and I believe he wanted to stick by the Status of Forces Agreement, the withdrawal agreement and what -- his visit to Iraq, it's a very significant visit. Because this is the first Arab country President Obama paid this visit to and it means a lot to us, because it means the United States government is adhering to the Strategic Framework Agreement and shows the commitment of the United States government towards Iraq and towards helping Iraq.
Iraq is definitely and irreversibly and decisively flying west and in return of the United States government is committing itself to helping Iraq and reconstruct -- in the reconstruction and in ensuring its democratic system.
KING: Mowaffak al-Rubaie is the national security adviser of Iraq. Sir, we thank you for your time and your insights this morning.
AL-RUBAIE: Thank you for having me.
KING: Take care, sir.
And up next we turn to the problems back home in this country, including the economy. With so much country still struggling was it the right time for President Obama to say we're starting to see glimmers of hope?
And on a lighter note some important news this morning on the Obama family's new dog. We will talk about it all with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden. Stay with us.
KING: I'm John King. And this is STATE OF THE NATION. Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.
A U.S. official tells CNN authorities have been in touch with a U.S. ship captain held four days now hostage by Somali pirates. Those authorities report Captain Richard Phillips is doing well. His ship and crew are now safely in Kenya briefing FBI agents about the pirate attack. Negotiations to win the captain's release are ongoing.
Christians around the world are celebrating Easter today. At the Vatican, Pope Benedict delivered an Easter mass to thousands gathered at St. Peter's Basilica. He delivered Easter language -- Easter blessings, excuse me, in 63 languages.
And mystery solved. Sources tell CNN the Obamas have chosen six- month-old Portuguese water dog to be the first pet. Sasha and Malia Obama have nicknamed their puppy "Bo". The dog will make its debut at the White House on Tuesday. That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.
Picture of the White House there on a beautiful Sunday, Easter Sunday here in Washington. After weeks of warnings things could get worse before they got better, President Obama is suddenly speaking in a considerably more hopeful tone. For insight into the president's change in message we turn to two seasoned political veterans, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden. Welcome. Happy Easter to both of you.
I want to get to the economy in a minute but I want to go back to our conversation with General Odierno. And Donna, I want to start with you.
He is very confident and says 10 on a scale of 10 he will get the troops out by 2011 as President Obama and the Iraqi government have promised in an agreement. But he says it's possible he might need time for the interim deadlines. June 30 is 11 weeks away, supposed to get out of all the big cities. What will happen on the antiwar left of the Democratic Party if one of those preliminary deadlines falls and the general says I need more time in Mosul, I need more time in Baqubah? Will antiwar Democrats give the president that time or will there be an outrage?
DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think they will give the president the amount of time he needs to get our troops out in a responsible way. President Obama this week said when he was in Iraq that we're entering a critical phase. Of course, you know, we have elections -- they have elections a little bit later this year. And the president also emphasized that it was important that the two sides, the Sunnis and the Shias, also begin to mend some of the fences.
So this is a critical phase in the operations in Iraq but, clearly, if the general decides and the president will listen, I'm sure, to this general and other advisers, that they need more time to get the situation under control for the elections, I'm sure the left as well as the right, the country, will give the people of Iraq that time.
KING: Is she overly optimistic, already?
You see some -- and it's a small minority -- I want to make that clear -- but some on the left saying they won't even vote for the money to support the troops.
Now, that happened in the Bush administration, too. There were some who simply said war is a bad idea; I'm not going to support the money. A hiccup? Minor bump?
MADDEN: Well, I think that the -- Donna's right. On the left, as long as there's incremental progress toward the draw-down or a complete withdrawal of the troops, that he'll be fine with that -- with that part of the political equation.
And I think, with Republicans, as long as -- and Donna used the key word, "responsible," making sure that we're meeting our security objections there -- objectives there, and that we're doing the withdrawals responsibly so that we still have a safe and secure Iraq, then I think he's going to have Republican support as well.
KING: Let's come home to the debate about the economy. Previous times on the program, we've talked about the president saying it's going to get worse before it gets better. This past week, he's out there urging Americans to refinance, saying, get in the re-fi business; you can save the family a few bucks in the budget; and also sounding more optimistic.
Let's listen to the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What you're starting to see is glimmers of hope across the economy. Now, we have always been very cautious about prognosticating, and that's not going to change just because it's Easter.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Smart to be more upbeat?
BRAZILE: Well, I believe he's responding to some of the good news, consumer confidence up just a little bit; the housing market. People are going back in, refinancing, buying up some of the foreclosed properties. Clearly, the credit markets are thawing.
So the president is just expressing what, I'm sure, his advisers have told him, look, is there a bright sign out there. But, look, John, until we can, you know, get jobs back into the communities, until we can provide people with health care, I still believe that we're still in the thick of this recession.
KING: Is it risky, if maybe a lagging indicator, but if unemployment is still on the way up, to have this president saying I see "glimmers of hope," and then next month, the unemployment rate edges up toward 9 percent, maybe even goes higher than that?
Does he risk as seeing, as President Bush was, as out of touch?
MADDEN: No, that is the great peril, here, that he does risk seeming to be talking in very flowery terms when people are still struggling.
There's still a great deal of anxiety out there amongst the American public. And we are going to see a lot more job losses before things gets better.
You know, I grew up in the city, and it was always very easy to see the the green sprouting from bricks and bricks of concrete. And I think that is what is happening here, is that President Obama is trying to point to these signs of life in a very -- you know, in a very barren economy, right now, in an effort to encourage the markets.
The markets, right now, don't need somebody who is a chief executive who is out there talking down the economy. So this is much more geared towards encouraging many of those in the private sector to keep moving in the right direction as the economy starts to...
BRAZILE: ... to rebuild trust in the system. I mean, most Americans are not trust -- we don't trust the banks. We don't trust the system.
KING: I want to bring you both to your thoughts on an essay written by Michael Gerson. He worked for the former President Bush, a thoughtful guy, outside of working in the Bush White House. And he says this about Barack Obama, quite interesting. He says, "Who has been the most polarizing new president of recent times, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush? No, that honor belongs to Barack Obama. Obama has been a unifier, of sorts. He's unified Democrats and united Republicans against each other."
BRAZILE: You know, Mr. Gerson made two mistakes. One, he didn't point out that this is part of a long-term trend, and that's something that the Pew poll talked about. This trend goes back for 30 years.
And the second thing is that the Republican Party itself really has shrunken over the last four years. And in 2004, 33 percent of the American people identified with the Republican Party; today it's 27 percent.
So there has been a 6 percent drop. And so this is part of a long-term trend and has nothing to do with President Obama.
KING: Nothing to do with President Obama? But the numbers don't lie. Among Democrats, Obama has 88 percent approval rating; among Republicans, a 27 percent approval rating.
MADDEN: You know, a lot of Republicans seized on this poll, this week, as evidence that -- you know, of reasons to criticize President Obama.
And I think it has less to do with polarization and more to do with failed expectations. President Obama ran, during this last campaign, as somebody who was going to change the tone and tenor of Washington, who was going to challenge the status quo.
And I think, with both his policies and his rhetoric, he has done neither, and that's why we've seen -- the biggest problem for President Obama, here, is the fact that independents have dropped about 13 points since the inauguration. And he had sizable levels of Republican support, close to 40 percent at the inauguration, and that has now eroded to a record low.
And I think that is a troubling sign, I think, for President Obama, if he is going to try to forge an agenda around unity and bipartisanship for his...
KING: I want to put you both on the spot.
KING: Time-out, time-out. We've got about 20 seconds left. I want to put you both on the spot on the day's biggest breaking news, "The First Puppy Makes a Big Splash."
Bo will be coming to the White House. Sasha and Malia have named their new dog "Bo." He will be there on Tuesday.
That should clearly improve his ratings among independents and Republicans.
I mean, what's not to like about this dog? He's cute. He's adorable, but I hope he's potty-trained.
KING: You hope he's potty-trained.
Is this silly season or does it matter how a president and his new young family go about their business?
MADDEN: You know, I think one of the things that's happened with this president is that Washington, D.C. has become not only the financial and political capital of the world but the cultural capital of the world. What they eat, what they wear, the kind of pets that they have -- that has really, I think, influenced a lot of Americans. Americans are watching Washington in a new way they haven't about before.
I mean, I know that this is going to create problems in the Madden household because when, the debate comes up about getting a dog, now it's...
... well, if, you know, if Sasha and Malia can have one, how come Riley (ph) and Colin (ph) can't?
KING: I had a little conversation with Hannah (ph) King yesterday, and let me just say, I share your pain.
Kevin Madden, Donna Brazile, thanks so much for coming in today.
He played by the rules and made what he thought were safe investments. Up next, you'll find out what forced one man out of retirement and into the classroom. Our "State of the Union" report will be right back.
KING: Earlier in the program, you heard President Obama saying he sees glimmers of hope in the economy. Well, look at this map. If it is an orange color, that means relatively few jobs are being created. This color blue, the teal-ish, is in the middle. The dark blue means that is an area where a significant, or at least a decent number of jobs are being created.
To take a closer look at the strains of this recession, among our stops on the road as we get out of the country was the state of North Carolina. It has an unemployment rate of 10.7 percent. That is the fourth-highest in the country. Nearly 200,000 jobs lost in just the last year.
Many people are losing their jobs and going back to work, but that's not all that's happening out there. Many people who had retired, thought they had a safe nest egg, they find themselves feeling the pain of this recession, too.
DON WITTE, WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.: But it's not easy. And each situation is different.
KING (voice-over): In tough economic times, Don Witte is both the teacher and a painful lesson.
WITTE: You have 150 people applying for 25 jobs.
KING: His job search advice at Forsyth Community College, borne of 35 years of experience helping airlines and other businesses recruit and hire new talent.
WITTE: Now, successful networking, be yourself, always be yourself. Don't try to be somebody you're not.
KING: He loves the work, but he's here because he needs it.
WITTE: I retired about four years ago, had a very enjoyable retirement, until last year. And a lot of the funds we had counted on evaporated.
KING: All the more frustrating because Don Witte did it just like they say: a smaller, more affordable house after his daughter got married, carefully researched investments, a good mix of blue chips, offering consistent dividends.
WITTE: Diversify, diversify, and diversify. I did. But it didn't make any difference. It is the American dream, you work hard for a number of years, and then retire, enjoy yourself, relax, unfortunately, no more.
KING: Career counseling at the college doesn't pay much, but it helps with the bills, and with Witte's understanding of a recession he says is like none other in his lifetime. WITTE: From the senior executive to the middle manager to the nurse to the teacher to the laborer to the unskilled, it's affecting everybody. Each one of them is a little different story, and the common thread is if they haven't looked for a job for 10 years or so, it's the toughest job market that I've seen in my lifetime.
How many of you are on LinkedIn?
KING: Witte sees more evidence here when he volunteers for a nonprofit group called Professionals in Transition, a nice way of saying "out of work."
WITTE: I know a few people in town, and I'll share my contacts with you openly and gladly.
KING: Damien Birkel founded the organization in 1992. Most of that stretch, 10 or 12 people at a meeting. Now, often 40 to 50.
DAMIEN BIRKEL, FOUNDER, PROFESSIONALS IN TRANSITION: Banking, housing, construction. I have never, in the 17 years that I've been doing it, ever seen the economic impact ripple through the America like this. It's your neighbors. It's your friends. It's people that, you know, you would least expect to be impacted.
KING: People like Don Witte, who sees the headlines from Wall Street and believes reckless greed washed out his years of careful investing.
WITTE: Me and many, many other millions of people like me, they were playing with our money, not in a safe, prudent way, and they're not suffering. We are. In contrast to a year ago, we're counting every single penny that goes out, not because we want to, because we have to.
KING: Dinner out is now a splurge, not a weekly ritual. There is less travel, and waiting for sales to buy clothes and other staples. Still, Don Witte is an optimist who believes the economy and the market will bounce back, eventually. It is the uncertainty of just when that leaves him worried and has him back in the workforce.
WITTE: Being 64, is there enough time left in my life to recoup, to get back to where it was? Because I'd like to leave something to my daughter and our grandson and ultimate grandchildren, but at this point, there's very little there.
KING: Our thanks to Don Witte for inviting us into his home. And we want to say good-bye to our international audience for this hour. But coming up for our viewers here in the United States, Howard Kurtz talks about the problem some Democrats have with the media coverage of their party and President Obama.
Our STATE OF THE UNION report will be right back.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: I'm John King. And this is our STATE OF THE UNION report for this Sunday, April 12th, 2009. Only days after President Obama visited troops in Iraq, five soldiers are killed in the deadliest attack in more than a year.
And today, another soldier dies. How will the continued violence affect the American withdrawal? We'll get the story straight from the man in charge. An exclusive interview with General Ray Odierno.
With the deadline to file your income taxes just days away, the president says he sees glimmers of hope in the economy. His opponent, well they just see higher taxes and more government spending. Two top political strategists will join me to break down the battle over fiscal policy.
Many Republicans say the media favors President Obama. The strategist who advised Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards disagrees. Howie Kurtz talks to Joe Trippi about media bias at his former boss's sex scandal. That's all ahead in this hour of STATE OF THE UNION.