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Obama Set to Have Beer Summit; Health Care Reform Hits Brick Wall in Senate; Possible Obama Challenger in 2012?

Aired July 30, 2009 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, cold beer and maybe cold feet. We're counting down to the president's get-together with an African-American scholar and the police officer who arrested him. When it comes to this event, team Obama suddenly seems a little bit camera shy.

We're watching the story for you.

Another story we're chasing down right now is health care reform hitting a brick wall in the Senate. New warnings from some powerful Republicans that a final deal could be a long way off.

And growing fears about a new wave of swine flu. It could be bigger and deadlier, and a new report says the federal government is not ready.

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


In about two hours, it will look like happy hour over at the White House, pictures many of us have been waiting for. There will be three men, a backyard, and some beer.

President Obama, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police officer James Crowley, they'll all get together and they'll try to drown out that controversy over Gates' arrest with some red, light, and blue. A reference to their beer preferences.

We have fresh video of one of the men, Professor Gates, traveling to the meeting from Martha's Vineyard.

Meanwhile, there's buzz because big changes are brewing.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian. He's watching the story for us.

All right. What's the latest, Dan?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, there's been a lot of buildup to this meeting, but access really is being limited. In fact, this has really turned into a photo-op. All discussions will be taking place in private.

Now, initially, this beer summit, if you will, was supposed to take place at a picnic table just outside the Oval Office next to the jungle gym, that play structure for the Obama kids. But I guess that visual of adults drinking beer next to a playground was not appealing, so, instead, it has been moved to the Rose Garden. And now the media is being kept back 40 feet so they won't be able to shout any questions at all the parties at this event.

So, I guess you could call it a real beer summit from a distance.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): Cold beer diplomacy at the White House. President Obama, Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley trying to get rid of a nasty hangover from a controversial and racially-charged arrest.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They're decent, honorable, good men. To get together and talk about what's going on in this country is a positive thing.

LOTHIAN: While the president has called this controversy a teachable moment, aides say no formal agenda, no after-action report, is on tap for this so-called beer summit. Just a dialogue around a Rose Garden table on issues like racial profiling.

GIBBS: This is an issue, as you mentioned, of concern to a lot of Americans, not just African-Americans, but a lot of Americans. And I think as such it will be a topic that's continued to talk about.

LOTHIAN: President Obama plans to toss back a Bud Light. Crowley wants a Blue Moon. And Gates is said to prefer a Red Stripe. But there's controversy brewing in the choice of beverages.

Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal had such a bad taste in his mouth, that he sent this letter to the president, suggesting an American-owned product like Sam Adams instead of Bud Light, which is now owned by a Belgian company.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. Can we get you all to call the White House tonight?

LOTHIAN: And this man protesting alone outside the White House doesn't think drinking beer at the meeting is appropriate because it sends the wrong message to the nation's youth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want him to hold up some orange juice, something that's healthful.


LOTHIAN: Now, the president is just wrapping up a meeting with the president of the Philippines here at the White House, and the pool, the media, was allowed to go in. Someone asked a question of the president about this upcoming beer summit. The president says that this is opportunity for everyone to listen to each other.

We hope to get more from those comments, Wolf, once we get the tape of that event.

BLITZER: All right for that tape. As soon as we get it, we'll play it for our viewers.

But let me just get this straight, Dan, because it's sensitive stuff, especially for the news media and a lot of American who want to see this. The three guys, they're going to sit down in the Rose Garden, you're saying, but they're not going to let the cameras get anywhere within earshot or hear what they're saying? It's just going to be a little picture we're going to get of this meeting?

LOTHIAN: That's exactly what it is, Wolf. They will be at the back end of the Rose Garden. There is a patio area with a table and some chairs around it. That is where they will be having this meeting.

They're not going to be talking when the media is allowed to go in. They're just going to stand there. And the cameras will be kept 40 feet away, so really no opportunity to really shout any questions, to hear any reaction at all from the parties who will be attending.

So, really being sort of kept at a distance from this event. And this is something that the White House really had been pushing now for quite some time. The president coming out into the briefing room talking about this, saying how this would be a teachable moment. But right now all we're going to get is video opportunity.

BLITZER: A video-op moment indeed.

All right. Thanks. We'll stay on top of this story and bring it to you once we get it.

Remember, we're also standing by to hear what the president has just said -- told the reporters in another meeting on the Philippines about this upcoming three-way summit in the Rose Garden.

Stand by for that.

Meanwhile, the president might need a beer or two after he gets an update on health care negotiations in the Senate. Just yesterday, he was applauding a new reform deal in the House as a step forward, but it's a different situation in the Senate.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, with more on this part of the story.

All right. What's the latest in the Senate, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, I'm standing again outside of the office of the Senate finance chairman, Max Baucus, where negotiations over a health care deal have been taking place daily. But now the Republicans who have been working towards a compromise are dealing another blow to the president's timeline for health care.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BASH (voice-over): Coming from a Republican, this may sound like good news for the president.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: ... that we'll get a bill to the president this fall.

BASH: But what the president and Democratic leaders really want is a bipartisan deal now, before the August recess, to help build much-needed moment th on health care. Yet, two of the three Republican Senate negotiators with the power to make or break that deadline are saying no.

Listen to Mike Enzi and Chuck Grassley in the halls of the Capitol.

SEN. MIKE ENZI (R), WYOMING: The bill is not ready for prime time, so I don't know any way that it can be completed today or next week. And then we're at the August break, and it is important to get it right for America.

GRASSLEY: There's a lot of tough decisions to make, you know. There's a lot of tough decisions to make, and they aren't going to be made real quickly.

BASH: The Senate Democratic leader blamed top Republicans for the delay.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: The only problem we have with having a bipartisan bill is Republican leadership in the Senate. Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi have been under great pressure.

BASH: Multiple GOP sources admit to CNN the three Senate negotiators are feeling GOP heat for negotiating with Democrats and pressure both in private and public to slow down. This was the Republican leader's 30th Senate floor speech saying a version of this...

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: Some in Congress seem to be in such a rush. Such a rush to pass any reform rather than the right reform.


BLITZER: All right. We're going to get back to Dana in a moment. But we're told that the videotape of the president speaking about this upcoming summit with the police officer and the professor, we have the tape now.



JEFF MASON, REUTERS: (INAUDIBLE). First of all, what do you expect to be the main message of the GDP (INAUDIBLE)? And second of all, what do you think will be the main message of your meeting tonight in the Rose Garden?

OBAMA: On GDP, I don't have a crystal ball and I haven't received the figures yet. But I think if you look at the consensus, consensus of economists right now, it confirms that we have seen a significant slowing down of the contraction over the last several months.

There are a lot of indicators out there that tell us that, you know, job losses, although still way too high, are not at the pace that we were seeing in January or February. Housing prices went up for the first time in three years. The credit system, the banking system, the financial markets generally have settled down. You're not seeing the huge volatility or panic that you were seeing.

And so, all of that is a sign that we have stepped away from the precipice. You know, as Ben Bernanke and others across the ideological spectrum have indicated, we were in a position where we could have gone into a Great Depression. I think those fears have abated.

But I suspect that the GDP numbers will still show that the economy contracted in the second quarter, that job loss is still a huge problem. And you don't have to read GDP numbers to see that. All you've got to do is talk to the American people, who are still losing jobs, losing homes, and worried about their ability to keep their health care and finance their child's college education.

So, we're not going to rest until we have seen not just a technical improvement in GDP, but until the American people's job prospects, their incomes have rebounded, and that's going to take some time.

With respect to tonight, you know, I am, I have to say, fascinated with the fascination about this evening. As you know, this idea was prompted when I was talking with Sergeant Crowley, and he said, "Well, maybe I'll have a beer in the White House someday." And I said, "Well, you know, I'm sure that can be arranged."

You know, I noticed this has been called the "Beer Summit." It's a clever term, but this is not a summit, guys. This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other.

And that's really all it is. This is not a university seminar. It is not a summit. It's an attempt to have some personal interaction when an issue has become so hyped and so symbolic, that you lose sight of just the fact that these are people involved, including myself, all of whom are imperfect.

And, you know, hopefully instead of ginning up anger and hyperbole, you know, everybody can just spend a little bit of time with some self-reflection and recognizing that other people have different points of view. And that's all it is.

And so, I will be surprised if you guys all make this the lead, as opposed to a very important meeting that we had with one of our most important partners in the live, but the press has surprised me before.

Thank you.

All right, guys. Thank you very much.


BLITZER: All right. The president of the United States trying to play down this meeting he's about to have in less than two hours over in the Rose Garden of the White House with the police officer who arrested the African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates.

"This is not a university seminar," he says. "This is not a summit." "It's all been hyped." Just three guys going to have some cold beer.

Let's go back to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

I guess that explains the White House rationale, why they're going to keep cameras and microphones at a distance.

LOTHIAN: That's right. They really are, as you mentioned, Wolf, trying to downplay this. And we've noticed that all day, where initially we had thought that this would be something which would be a little broader than just sort of this photo-op, that we'd get a chance to perhaps be on the inside of some of these discussions, but, in essence, what the White House wants to do is just have a casual, private conversation where they can discuss some of the issues that have transpired over the past few days, put sort of the past behind.

And also, you know, draw a little bit of attention to a bigger issue, and that is issues of racial profiling, something that the White House hopes will go beyond discussion here, will be carried out in police departments and communities across the country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan, we're going to be in close touch with you as we get closer to the meeting in the Rose Garden. Thanks very much.

I want to go back to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, to just wrap up where this stands in the U.S. Senate.

Dana, your report was obviously very solid, but we're getting sort of conflicting signals from some of these Republicans in the Senate Finance Committee. Senator Grassley was on CNN earlier today, basically suggesting, you know, they've worked out a compromise, no government option, if you will, no employer mandates. He's got a whole bunch of things. He sounded upbeat that eventually this would have bipartisan support.

BASH: Exactly. And I think "eventually" is the key word here, because there's no question he is upbeat.

He is saying they have gotten a lot of progress done, but the problem from the perspective of Senator Grassley and the perspective of another Republican, one of the three, Mike Enzi, is that they don't want to be rushed. And they are very concerned that the White House, the president himself, Democratic leaders, have made it very clear that they want this deal done in the next couple of days, really, in a way so that they can actually have a committee vote next week.

And, in fact, as we were talking, as we were listening to the president, I just got a statement from Senator Grassley making it very clear that he does not think it is helpful to have this kind of pressure, from his point of view, pressure from the White House to do it fast. He said, "It will be a lost opportunity if Democratic leaders in Congress and the administration force action on health care legislation that's not ready because of the complexity of the issue."

So, that just gives you a sense of where things are. I think pretty remarkably sane, if you will, behind those doors, but recently, in the past 24 hours or so, they've become much more tense and intense because of the fact that there is pressure from the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership, both sides, to get it done or not get it done, depending on the perspective.

BLITZER: Yes, opposite pressure coming from the two sides.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, Dana. Thanks very much. We'll get back to you as well.

Want to check in with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The news media are fighting to survive, and Dan Rather thinks the government should help rescue them -- us. The former CBS anchorman is calling on President Obama to create a White House commission to help save the press.

Rather says such a commission could make recommendations on saving journalism jobs and creating new business models to help the industry survive. Rather says there are precedents for this kind of national commission which have helped other failing industries.

Dan Rather says the stakes couldn't be any higher. He told "The Aspen Daily News" in an interview, "A truly free and independent press is the red beating heart of democracy and freedom." And he says it's not just journalists who should worry about the fate of the press in this country, but, rather, every citizen.

He also talked about the dumbing down and sleazing up of what we see on the news, and he blames that on the blurry line between news and entertainment, along with corporate and political influence in newsrooms. He claims that about 80 percent of the media is controlled by just a handful of large corporations. Dan Rather also talks about the decline in investigative and international reporting, says the loss of reporters covering the two wars that we're involved in hurts our nation.

The bottom line, as Dan Rather sees it, if somebody doesn't step in and take action, this country will eventually lose its independent news media. So, here's the question: Should the federal government be involved in saving the news media?

Go to and post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: I know the way you think on this one. I'm sure it's the same way I think. Right, Jack?

CAFFERTY: I would guess that we're on the same page.

BLITZER: Good. Thank you, Jack.

The Republican governor of Minnesota is coming out swinging at President Obama today. Is this Tim Pawlenty's way of saying he'll be a White House candidate in 2012?

Guess what? I'm going to speak with him and I'll ask him.

Also ahead, President Obama's former doctor is speaking to CNN. He's explaining why he thinks the White House plan to overhaul health care is bad medicine. He's got some specific details.

And a new shot of fear about the second wave of swine flu. This time, it could be much, much worse, and experts say the U.S. is not ready.


BLITZER: On Wall Street today, investors push the restart button on a stock market rally. The Dow Jones industrials closed about 80 points higher today, inching closer and closer toward that 10,000 level.

Let's go to our chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi.

Ali, explain what's going on.

ALI VELSHI, CNN SENIOR BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, if you had your money well invested in the last two weeks, you would have done better than you do in an average year in the stock market. The Dow topped 9,200 in today's trading, and that's a level that we haven't seen in almost nine months.

The S&P 500 hit its own nine-month high, the NASDAQ at a 10-month high. The NASDAQ has had five straight months of gains.

Let's take a look at some of the political milestones on Wall Street's wild ride. Let's take a look at the Dow.

Starting on the left side of the screen is mid-September of last year. The Dow was just shy of 11,000 points. That's when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.

Now, that event and AIG collapsing after that turned the economic downturn into this global financial crisis, Wolf. The Dow dropped to about 10,325 three weeks after that when Congress passed the TARP legislation. That's the massive government bailout of the nation's big banks.

Now, jump ahead from then to Election Day, November 4th. More losses for the major markets.

We saw the Dow sliding to 9,625. And by the time the president was sworn in late January, the Dow was down further, 7,949.

Now, let's move forward to when the president signed the stimulus package. That was mid-February. The Dow was at about 7,500. It continued to slide until you see right on the bottom, around the middle of your screen, March 9th, which we now think was the bottom of the market in the 6,500 range.

But it's been on a steady march -- a somewhat steady march since then. Now we're back to the levels we saw around Election Day. And for those of you who shied away from the markets, now might be a good time to think about re-engaging based on your own risk tolerance, Wolf. Don't jump in blindly, but this market seems to be on its way up.

BLITZER: Yes. And that's the key word, your own risk tolerance, because what goes up can easily go down. It was down at 6,500. It's up now to 9,000, but you know what? It can still go down.

So, everybody has their own little tolerance on how they can deal with this.

VELSHI: You don't back up the truck. You do it based on how old you are, how much time you've got to retirement. There are calculators to use. That's the way to do it. Be smart about it, but enjoy it.

BLITZER: Good point. All right, Ali. Thank you.

Credit cards and designer clothes. First lady Michelle Obama's sorority now embroiled in somewhat of a scandal.

We're going to have the details.

And one state has a novel idea on how to take a bite out of its financial woes, but it may be giving new meaning to the government for sale.



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

Happening now, some call it pork. Others call it national defense. Will the president make good on his veto threat?

Stand by.

You can call it the rules Taliban-style. A little blue book laying out the militants' code of conduct, it's being passed around Afghanistan. We have a look inside.

And her death became the rallying cry for the opposition in Iran. But a day of mourning for Neda takes a violent turn.

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

President Obama may need so look over his shoulder and keep an eye on this man, a governor at the center of a lot of buzz right now that he may -- repeat, may -- challenge the president in the next election. Right now he's keeping a rather high political profile, talking about ways for Republicans to win and issues you care about.


BLITZER: And joining us now, the Republican governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. He's over at the RNC meeting in San Diego.

We'll talk politics a little bit later, but let's talk about health care reform first, Governor. It's a key subject here in Washington.

I listened to Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. He's the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. He was on CNN earlier today, and he sounded upbeat about a bipartisan solution.

Listen to this.


GRASSLEY: We've got some of the big things that were contentious compromised. There's not going to be any government-run insurance company set up. And we're going to increase the competition for the present insurance companies through cooperatives as we've known them for 150 years. And then another very important one is whether or not to mandate that every employer has to have health insurance for his employees. We're not going to have an employer mandate.


BLITZER: All right. Governor, Senator Grassley, you know him. He sounds pretty upbeat about a bipartisan piece of legislation.

Are you ready to get on board?

GOV. TIM PAWLENTY (R), MINNESOTA: No. We've got to be very careful about keeping the main thing, the main thing, Wolf, and that is, if you're making the case that we have to do something to control costs in the health care system, and your answer to do that is the federal government just to spend more money, that does not solve the problem. That's like you're saying you're going to balance the checkbook by writing more checks.

So, I appreciate the two pieces of progress Senator Grassley flagged, but there's a more fundamental problem with this, which is it's going to break the bank. BLITZER: Well, he actually mentioned three, including the cooperatives. Is that something, a cooperative, that you think would save the American public money? Because a lot of folks aren't happy with their insurance companies right now.

PAWLENTY: Well, we have a couple things going on.

Number one is, for those who don't have insurance, expanding access is a worthy goal. But for the vast, vast majority of Americans, they do have insurance, and their main concern is they want cost containment.

There's a variety of ways to do that. One of the ways we do it in Minnesota is, start the process of paying for better health and outcomes and results, rather than just paying for volumes of procedures, because if you pay for volumes of procedures, you're going to get more procedures, and that's a big part of what's wrong with the current system.

BLITZER: And you've got a good hospital there, the Mayo Clinic, that a lot of people are looking to for some guidance on what to do nationally.

Let's talk about the economy right now. Do you see this recession based on what you see every day in Minnesota, this recession coming to an end?

PAWLENTY: Well, what we see in Minnesota and I think across the country is that it's getting worse less rapidly, but it's still not yet bottomed out. We're hopeful that we'll see that bottoming out in the beginning of a recovery this fall or winter, but it's too early to tell. And that's speculative. But the stock market is bullish right now, so that may be a leading indicator.

BLITZER: Because in terms of the recovery funds, the economic stimulus money, the Congress provided almost $4 billion for Minnesota, $3.8 billion -- $2.7 has already been allocated, and $735 million has already been spent.

I assume that money is helping the people of Minnesota dramatically?

PAWLENTY: Well, as you probably know, Wolf, the GAO did a report on the stimulus bill that said of the nearly $800 billion that's being spent; only about $160 billion is actually simulative.

And if it turns out in retrospect that the recession is not over or will soon be over, you're going to have -- the Obama administration's going to have the uncomfortable phenomena of having the recession ended before most of the stimulus money was even spent. And so that's another validation of the fact that it was probably misguided or at least untimely efforts.

BLITZER: Are you ready to give the president any credit if -- if this recession ends relatively soon? PAWLENTY: Well I think President Obama inherited a very challenging situation. But if you're going to do a stimulus package, it should have been targeted at things that got money into the taxpayers' pockets right away, like reducing the payroll tax for employees and employers and focusing on non-porking infrastructure projects.

But that's not what this bill was. And as that GAO report highlighted, that was a very small portion of the bill. The rest of it was largely sustaining government bureaucracies and that's not simulative.

BLITZER: All right. You're at the Republican National Committee meeting out in San Diego. A lot of speculation about you right now, a lot of buzz that this is your "coming out." You're getting ready to think, at least, seriously, about running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Are you?

PAWLENTY: Well, I got a year and a half left to be a governor in the state of Minnesota and that's going to be the focus of my attention. But I am in Minnesota and elsewhere going to try to speak to how my party can do a better job.

Obviously we got our tails kicked in the last two elections, Wolf. We need to do a better job. I think I have got some ideas to share. But that's really going to be focused on how we can do better in 2010. I'm not thinking beyond that.

BLITZER: Well, it sounds like you're at least thinking about it. At least you're open to the idea, you're not ruling it out. A lot of people remember, I do especially, that you were what, the first runner up for that Republican vice presidential nomination back in St. Paul. But we don't have to go through the ancient history.

I do want to throw this sound bite to you. What your fellow now, former governor Sarah Palin said in announcing one of the reasons why she was quitting.


SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: It is because I love Alaska this much, sir, that I feel that it is my duty to avoid the unproductive typical politics-as-usual, lame-duck session in one's last year in office.



BLITZER: All right. Well, you're in that situation. You've announced you're not seeking reelection a third time. So, you're a lame duck right now.

How does that make you feel when you hear her speak about you like that?

PAWLENTY: Well, I don't know that she was speaking about me necessarily. I consider Sarah Palin a friend, and a colleague, and somebody that I thinks been a remarkable leader for Alaska. And I think for her that she just felt in her situation in Alaska, she was an impediment to getting things done. Or her situation was an impediment to getting things done. And so she stepped aside and that's her call.

But I think it's probably limited to the unique circumstance in Alaska. You can't have people who just say anytime that you have any time left on your term. You're not going to serve out your term. Otherwise you'd have office holders, you know, for example, the governor of Virginia, who has only one term as a matter of Constitution is always a lame duck.

So is that person supposed to resign in the first couple months of office?

BLITZER: Well, I just want to be clear. You have no plans to quit?

PAWLENTY: I don't. No.

BLITZER: OK. Governor, thanks very much for coming in.

Good luck.

PAWLENTY: All right, Wolf. Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Experts say a second wave of the swine flu is coming to the United States, and they fear the federal government is not up to the crisis.

Also, a guidebook for Taliban warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- their rules for living and fighting. We have the book.

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


BLITZER: It's a race against time and a dangerous flu, and, right now, the U.S. government is apparently not winning.

We have been hearing warning after warning about a second wave of the H1N1 virus when the flu season hits North America this fall, a startling report confirming that -- many people's worst fears just coming out, that we're not ready for this.

Mary Snow has been taking a closer look.

What are we learning, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the bottom line of this report is that the United States is not ready for a more severe round of swine flu. The Government Accountability Office concludes that many gaps in pandemic planning and preparedness still remain. Among them, the GAO says federal, state, and local agencies needs to coordinate better, especially when it comes to private sector. It also cites a lack of clarity when it comes to who's responsible for things like state border closures, should they happen, and distributing vaccine.

And another issue it flags is being prepared for health services and supplies, especially, it says, if there are more patients going to hospitals than there are beds. Now, we asked for a response from the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, since these two departments were targeted in the report.

They challenge the findings, saying, "Our aggressive, coordinated efforts to plan for and respond to H1N1 flu have not wavered since the first signs of the outbreak emerged. Working with our federal partners, as well as state, local, tribal, and territory officials, we're taking the critical steps necessary to ensure the nation is prepared for the fall flu season" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Mary, this report comes from the Government Accountability Office, this nonpartisan government office, so it's got good credentials, good people working there.

What do we know? What about the latest on a vaccine, or two vaccines, that may be necessary?

SNOW: Well, at this point, the clinical trials are just getting under way. And they will determine how effective these vaccines will be, how safe they be.

So, health officials at this point don't expect to star a mass vaccination program until early November. Now, an advisory panel just put out guidelines yesterday. And, at the top of the list of people who will be a priority for getting vaccines are pregnant women, health care workers, first-responders, people with children under six months old.

And, when it comes to children, those under six -- those six months and up to about 4 years will be on the top of list, as well, along with people with chronic medical conditions. When you add up those groups alone, we're talking about 42 million people.

BLITZER: So, obviously, the vaccine is not going to be ready when a lot of these kids go back to school at the end of August, early September. So, we got some work to do.

All right, Mary, thanks very much for that report.

Political clashes at a young woman's grave -- an icon of the opposition in Iran keeps the movement going, even in death.

And, in our "Strategy Session," a top Republican complains, the president is simply giving too much power to too many czars. Does he have a point?

And, in New York right now, a roller coaster of emotions over plans to make over Coney Island.


BLITZER: We're about an hour and 15 minutes away from when the president will be receiving the professor and the police sergeant over at the White House for that so-called beer summit, although the president says; it's not a summit; it's just a meeting between three guys who will have a cold beer and talk about what happened in Cambridge.

We will have coverage. That's coming up, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, later tonight.

For a president who's been very popular, it appears some of his appeal is sort of fading. In a fresh CNN poll of polls, the president's approval rating has steadily gone down, though not necessarily by huge drops.

In late April, our poll average showed President Obama with a 63 percent approval rating. That was in April. But now 54 percent say they approve of the job he is doing.

What might be causing this decline?

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

Gloria, you had a chance last night -- you were at a focus group outside of Baltimore with independent voters, not Democrats, not Republicans...


BLITZER: ... people who describe themselves as independents. They were critical to this president's election.

BORGER: Yes, they were.

And, you know, according to a recent "Wall Street Journal" poll, they're less approving of the president right now than the overall number. Forty-nine percent approve of him. Thirty-eight percent disapprove of him, which is about where they were during the campaign.

But, at this focus group, which was done by the Democratic pollster Peter Hart, it was very clear that these 12 voters, four of whom voted for John McCain, one was supporting Ralph Nader, that these 12 voters are still giving the president, Wolf, the benefit of the doubt.

They say the country is going to -- quote -- "hell in a handbasket," but they believe that he shouldn't be blamed for it yet. And what was stunning to us, Wolf, was that, right away, these voters started calling President Obama "Barack." They referred to him as "Barack," and the pollster, Peter Hart, says it shows how powerful his personal presence still is.

BLITZER: What about the president? He's -- he's very visible. He's...

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: ... talking about his respective plans. Is this strategy working for him?

BORGER: Well, I think what we saw with these voters is that they're comfortable with him. Remember, during the campaign, the big question about Barack Obama was, can voters get comfortable with this man?

And the answer to that is yes. But there's a downside here. They're watching him all the time. And they say, look, we think he's trying to do too much. So, they're a little worried about that. They also think he butts in where he shouldn't, as in the Gates issue.

BLITZER: Don't go away. We will be coming back to you, speaking about the Gates issue.

In the "Strategy Session": The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was peppered by questions about the staging of what some are calling the beer chat.


QUESTION: What about the president? I mean, why is the president in a cone silence on this?


QUESTION: You're saying those two can come out and talk, but he can't?


GIBBS: The president feels comfortable with the way this is -- is laid out and looks forward to...


QUESTION: But why doesn't he see this as an opportunity, if he wants to make it a teachable moment, to come out and talk and teach?


BLITZER: So, is President Obama downplaying his teachable moment?

Stick around


BLITZER: We're getting a glimpse of the setting where we think will be the scene for the so-called beer chat. We're just getting word that Professor Henry Louis Gates has now arrived at the White House. The pictures we hope to be getting -- maybe those are pictures that we're getting of the professor who is now apparently over at the White House. They will be getting together at 6:00 p.m. Eastern, a little bit more than an hour from now, with the police sergeant, James Crowley, and the president, and they will all have a beer and discuss what's going on.

Remember, this was the comment that inflamed a lot of anger.


OBAMA: The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.


BLITZER: The president has, of course, dialed back from that comment, and hopes to put this entire controversy to bed later this evening. We will have coverage, of course, during our 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour, a little bit more than an hour from now, when all three of them get together in the Rose Garden.

Let's talk about it, though, in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist Ron Christie, a former assistant to President Bush.

Is this smart for the White House, to have this teachable moment become almost an invisible moment if they don't let cameras hear what these three guys are talking about?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think what the president is trying to do is to turn down the heat to have a real cool and candid conversation about a very difficult topic. It has ignited a firestorm across the country.

So, this is an opportunity for the president to use the bully pulpit in a different way, by sitting, talking, listening. That's how you create change in this country.

BLITZER: But is it -- that going to teach anybody, outside of the three of them, give them a lesson learned from what happened, if...

BRAZILE: Well, I think...

BLITZER: ... if it -- if we don't know what they said?


BRAZILE: Well, the visual is very important, Wolf, but I don't think the optics are that important until we know a little bit more about what happened.

And I'm sure the president or the two gentlemen might tell us something later. But, for right now, let's turn down the volume and let these three gentlemen sit down and share a nice cold beer. BLITZER: That would be good at the end of their meeting, the three of them emerge and go before the cameras and tell us how it went, wouldn't it?


But I think we have seen, they have us 40 feet back, and they are only allowing about 20 seconds worth of media availability. I think they're worried, Wolf. I think they're worried, you know, are the three of them going to get along? Are they going to have a good conversation?

But what a difference a week has made for this White House. The White House has been so focused talking about health care. This whole issue of a stupid -- you know, the police department acting stupidly has really taken this White House off its game. The question for me will be, once this beer moment is over, can the White House get back on track? I think that's what the president is trying to do.

BRAZILE: Well, race is always a distraction, especially when it's used in ways that creates a wedge and creates these opportunities for what I call bigots to use it to inflame tensions. This is an opportunity to really lower the volume, to bring people together.

And, hopefully, we will rebuild trust between the minority communities and the police, because we depend on each other. We need to have good relations between the minority communities and the police departments across the country.

BLITZER: We will see what that -- go ahead. Make your point.

CHRISTIE: I was going to say, the only thing I would say is, if the president really wanted this to be a teachable moment, Donna, I think he should have had a racial forum.

I think we have heard so many forums about health care the last couple of weeks. If he wanted to make this a teachable moment, why couldn't we have a dialogue in a town hall about race, rather than a beer...


BRAZILE: Honest -- honestly, it should start with you and me and Wolf and everybody else, and -- and let the president get back to fixing the economy, getting -- giving us a good health care plan, because, right now, we need him to focus on that.

BLITZER: He's got his priorities, and his number-one domestic priority right now is getting this health care bill passed, which is in trouble, at least right now.

CHRISTIE: I think the -- the health bill right now is on life support.

I think it's very unlikely that the House and the Senate negotiators are going to have a product by the August recess. The question becomes, what happens when these members go home? We talked about a town hall. Will these members hear from their constituents? Most people like their health care coverage. Most people like the insurance that they have got.

Are they going to say, we need to fundamentally change the system, or are these lawmakers going to hear it and say, stop going so fast, slow down, and make sure you do it right?


BLITZER: Well, but there are millions of others, you have got to admit, who -- who don't have any insurance, or do have insurance, but hate their insurance companies, because they don't let them get the treatment that they think they deserve.


CHRISTIE: Absolutely.

BRAZILE: And, Ron, therein lies the -- the crux of the matter for the Republicans, who are offering these piecemeal plans, is, how do we lower costs, how do we improve quality, how do we make sure that we get what we pay for, when we're giving all these out-of-pocket expenses?

So, I think the lawmakers will have a lot to answer for.

BLITZER: There will be a lot of focus on health care, as there should be, but we're -- we're counting down to the meeting over in the -- in the Rose Garden about an hour or so from now, when the president...


BRAZILE: ... do the little -- you know, the little food...


BRAZILE: You know, what I call the (INAUDIBLE) trays, because I tell you....


CHRISTIE: ... arrangements.


BLITZER: Little good hors d'oeuvres, little hot dogs wrapped in a...


BRAZILE: Little clams, because, you know, the holiday both from the Northeast, a little seafood.

BLITZER: Little chips with salsa. Good with beer. Pizza is good with beer, too.

CHRISTIE: We -- we can have our own beer moment.

BRAZILE: Come on over.


BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much.


BLITZER: How should violent extremists behave? We have learned that there's a book of dos and don'ts for the Taliban. We have it. There it is right there. We're going to share it with you.

We're also learning who will have custody of Michael Jackson's kids. There is an agreement between Jackson's mom and the mother of two of his children.

All that coming up -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker": The White House reveals the 2009 winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling them agents of change.

Here are some of names you might recognize. Senator Ted Kennedy is the most prominent political figure on the list, along with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and the late Jack Kemp, the former housing secretary, the one-time Republican vice presidential nominee.

It's a varied group that includes the tennis legend Billie Jean King, the actor Sidney Poitier, the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, the former Ambassador Nancy Brinker, civil rights leader the Reverend Joseph Lowery, and the late Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official from a major U.S. city and the subject of a recent film.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out

Let's go to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is, should the federal government be involved in saving the news media?

Dan Rather, the former "CBS Evening News" anchorman, thinks the White House should form a commission to take a look at ways to keep the news media afloat.

Jason in Hawaii writes: "Once the government bails out any news source, how could we ever expect that source to be objective? It would just be a version of Pravda-lite." Buddy says: "I have been a working journalist for 30 years. The quickest way to lose an independent media in this country is to have it underwritten by the government. It's the media's job to keep tabs on the government, and a federal bailout would create an unacceptable link that would make our reporting suspect."

C.J. in Arkansas writes: "They may have to. If news organizations with strict journalistic standards go by the wayside, what will we be left with? More jokes like FOX News?"

George writes: "No need for more subsidies. Like, during the dawn of the era of radio, and then network TV, and then cable, all of which threatened the established media of the time, let nature take its course."

Dave in New Hampshire says: "Yeah, something should be done, but I'm not sure the government is the one to fix the problem. It's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. I think the education system should impress on the youth how valuable a free and independent press is and how unimportant stories like what Michael Jackson ate for his last meal are."


Bob from Sterling Heights, Michigan: "Accepting money from the government, now, there's a good way to assure a free and independent press."

And Nancy writes, "As long as we have your voice and the rest of CNN's amazing talented staff, no government saviors needed here."

If you didn't see your e-mail, you can go to my blog at Look for yours there, among hundreds of others -- Wolf.


Thanks very much, Jack, for that.

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