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Senate Confirms Sonia Sotomayor; Overall Unemployment Remains High; President Obama's 10 Point Slide

Aired August 6, 2009 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. An historic vote by the United States Senate confirming Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic justice of the Untied States Supreme Court.

We have reaction from President Obama that's just in.

Also, former President Bill Clinton peppered with questions about his successful mission to bring back two American journalists from North Korea. What he's saying and what he isn't saying.

Plus, CNN marks 200 days in office for President Obama with a new "National Report Card" and a new poll on the president's approval rating. Is the public still backing the president?

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


We're following breaking news this hour. Federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor just confirmed by the Senate to be the country's 111th Supreme Court justice. Only the third woman and, most significantly, the first Hispanic to sit on the nation's highest court.

The vote, 68 in favor, 31 opposed. Nine Republicans breaking party ranks to support her.

The Senate's newest member, Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota, announced the results. President Obama reacted shortly thereafter.


SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: On this vote, the yays are 68 and the nays are 31. The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor of New York to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is confirmed.



BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Justice, equality, and opportunity are the very ideals that have made Judge Sotomayor's own uniquely American journey possible. They're ideals she's fought for throughout her career and the ideals the Senate has upheld today in breaking yet another barrier and moving us yet another step closer to a more perfect union.


BLITZER: Let's get some more from our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian. He's standing by on the north lawn.

A big win for this administration, Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf, a big win, a big day for this White House. In fact, an event was added to the president's schedule late in the day so he could make some remarks reacting to the confirmation. The president saying that he was filled with pride, saying it was a wonderful thing not only for Judge Sotomayor, but also a wonderful thing for America.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think obviously you commend Democrats and Republicans for getting her hopefully confirmed.

OBAMA: And with this historic moment, the Senate has affirmed that Judge Sotomayor has the intellect, the temperament, the history, the integrity, and the independence of mind to ably serve on our nation's highest court. This is a role that the Senate has played for more than two centuries, helping to ensure that equal justice under the law is not merely a phrase inscribed above our courthouse door, but a description of what happens every single day inside the courtroom.


LOTHIAN: After the president made his short remarks, a reporter shouted at him if he was happy with the 68 votes, and he said, "I'm very happy." A handful of Republicans did come on board, but this was strictly along party lines. Certainly, the White House would have loved to have seen a bigger bipartisan effort here, Wolf.

You know, what's interesting is I talked a few days ago to a senior administration official to kind of get their take on this second hundred days, wanted to know what it was that stood out in this individual's mind. Immediately, this senior administration official said, "Sotomayor." So, that shows how important this confirmation is today.

Now, one other note. The actual swearing-in ceremony expected to take, at least according to the Supreme Court -- will happen on Saturday at 11:00 at the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath. Family members and friends of Justice Sotomayor are expected to be there.

I did ask if the president would be there. I have not gotten that answer yet. I can assume that he will be -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Congratulations to Sonia Sotomayor, the newest Supreme Court justice about to be sworn in, as Dan said, on Saturday. The Sotomayor vote, by the way, 68-31, falls in the middle when compared to two other most recent Supreme Court nominations. Justice Samuel Alito joined the court on a 58-42 vote, with four Democrats joining 54 Republicans to support him. One Republican crossed over to vote against him, along with 40 Democrats and one Independent.

Chief Justice John Roberts had much stronger backing with 55 Republicans and 22 Democrats, one Independent, also, voting to confirm him. Twenty-two Democrats voted against him.

Meanwhile, new data coming in showing that first-time jobless claims fell last week but overall unemployment remains rather high.

Our Chief Business Correspondent Ali Velshi is joining us now. He's got some more details on what's going on.

Ali, tell our viewers what all this means when the dust settles.

ALI VELSHI, CNN SR. BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: ... the unemployment report for July. And what everybody is looking for is to see whether the trend has been broken and unemployment is actually going to start improving.

Now, the unemployment rate in the United States right now is 9.5 percent. It is going to get worse. We know it is probably going to get to 9.6 percent tomorrow, maybe even 9.7 percent, and we're going to lose jobs. The question is, how many will we lose?

The estimates now are in the 350,000 job range. If it's anything less than that, then we're off to the races. It means things are starting to improve.

Now, the unemployment rate, Wolf, is a national average. And it's not useful to a lot of people to think about it that way. So, we've taken the country based on the current numbers -- these are the numbers from June -- and we've spread it out.

Those states that are in green have a lower unemployment rate than the national average by one percentage point or more. Those states that are in red have a higher unemployment rate by one percentage point or more. And those in yellow are within one percentage point.

So, you can see, starting from Michigan, which has the highest, through some of the Atlantic states, although not on the coast, you've got the worst unemployment there. And then on the West Coast, Nevada, California, you've got high unemployment there.

The rest of the country is a little bit lower but it varies. You get to South Dakota and Iowa and states like that, you're at the lower end of the unemployment spectrum, five percent, six percent, but some of the country is in double digits, particularly Rhode Island you see over there, and Michigan at 15 percent. That's the highest.

So, it's a different story across the nation. Tomorrow will make a big difference. If the unemployment rate is about 9.6 percent, and if we've lost fewer than 350,000 jobs, there will be a lot of people saying we're going in the right direction. If it's more than that, well, then we'll have to have another discussion tomorrow afternoon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ali, thanks very much.

We're going to continue this conversation. We'll see what those numbers are tomorrow.

As part of our coverage of President Obama's 200 days in office, we have some new poll numbers that are just coming out, and they show his approval slipping. Take a look at this, down 10 points from April; 56 percent after a steady slide in May and June.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, and CNN's Tom Foreman. We're going to assess what's going on.

How does the health care reform battle, Gloria, first of all, slide into this president's slipping approval number?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think you'd all have to agree that the president set the bar pretty high for health care reform, saying he wanted the Congress to act by early August. Of course that hasn't happened. And so the public starts to wonder, gee, ,what's going on here?

Obviously, a very, very complex issue, which he handed over to the Congress. Some might argue that's always a mistake.

Now, over the August recess, he's got an open target out there, which is why he wanted them to act early, but it's an open target out there. People can accuse him of having all kinds of things in this health care bill which he doesn't have because, by the way, there is no health care bill.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And you're right, Gloria. We talk about how he raised expectations.

This is a special display we have worked through this time where we can scroll through every single day and look at specifically what he said. And look at this. If we get up to day 175 here, this is the day the Dow was going up, there were some good things happening. He met with labor leaders. But one of the things he said today was this comment, which got a lot of attention.


OBAMA: Because there was a lot of chatter during the week that I was gone.

We are going to get this done. Inaction is not an option. And for those naysayers and cynics who think that this is not going to happen, don't bet against us. We are going to make this thing happen, because the...


FOREMAN: One of the things that they really -- you know, the kind of thing that really raised a lot of concern for people, obviously.

BORGER: Well, right. And, you know, in the end, let me raise a caution flag here. The president may very well get a health reform bill, but it may not have everything he wants in it, but you can bet he's going to call it health care reform.

BLITZER: How much political capital did the president use on his economic stimulus package and on the auto bailout?

BORGER: A lot. And, you know, and of course he was handed a very, very difficult plate here when he became the president of the United States. But these things are controversial.

Lots of folks aren't sure that the stimulus package is working. They don't see the jobs being created that they'd like to see. Also, as you both know, what was really controversial was that bailout of General Motors. People really weren't sure he ought to be getting into that.

FOREMAN: Let's look again at what he was saying at that time. Look up here.

If you look at these particular indicators up here, that's what the market was doing those days -- down, down, down, down, had a weak end. Then it kind of got up a little bit, down a little bit, back and forth. But ultimately, he was looking pretty good when he came in here.

But then he made these comments about GM, and that was one of those bailouts. And whether people liked it or not, it raised this question of, is the economy working, can it work?

Listen to what he says.


OBAMA: I recognize that today's news carries a particular importance because it's not just any company we're talking about. It's GM. It's a company that's not only been a source of income, but a source of pride for generations of autoworkers and generations of Americans.


FOREMAN: That was back on June 1st, when he was saying that on day 133 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A quick question on the president, more recently the arrest, later rescinded, of the Harvard University professor, Henry Louis Gates.

Did it have an impact on his approval number?

BORGER: Yes. I think you'd have to say that was kind of an unforced error, and lots of people are saying, gee, maybe he wandered into something he shouldn't have wandered into when he stepped into it.

BLITZER: When he said that the police acted stupidly.

BORGER: Absolutely.

FOREMAN: And if we look at that period of time, you can see he had a busy enough schedule, but not a crushingly busy schedule compared to some others. But nonetheless, he ended up then having to make statements like this...


OBAMA: In my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley. In my conversation with Sergeant Crowley, there was discussion about he and I and Professor Gates having a beer here at the White House. We don't know if that's scheduled yet.


FOREMAN: That was July 24th, Wolf. And not the kind of statement that any kind of president wants to make. That was day 186.

BLITZER: And we're at day 200.

FOREMAN: Day 200.

BORGER: I heard that. I heard that.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very much. Don't go away.

There's still time for you to grade the president before we give you the results tonight on our CNN "National Report Card." Go to More than two million people have already given their grades to the president. See the results later tonight. Our special coverage begins 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, depending on who you ask, the protests against health care reform across the country may or may not be the real thing. Democrats in the White House claim that the sometimes rowdy gatherings have disrupted meetings, health care events around the country, and that they're mostly orchestrated by insurers, lobbyists, and Republican activists. The Democrats are accusing the GOP of organizing "angry mobs" and trying to destroy President Obama. Nancy Pelosi, ever the author of clever little sayings as she moves through life, claims the protesters are "carrying swastikas and symbols like that" to these meetings.

Republicans insist the protests are just a sign of real opposition and frustration about the president's health care plan. They say the protests are part of a ground-level movement.

Republican Party chairman Michael Steele says, "We're not inciting anyone to go out and disrupt anything." Steele calls the Democrats' claims a bunch of baloney and says there's no upside for the Republican Party in these protests.

Meanwhile, a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows the nation pretty evenly divided over the president's health care plan. Fifty percent support it, 45 percent opposed.

The poll also shows that more than half of Americans have strong feelings about the debate. A third say they are strongly opposed to Mr. Obama's plans. Twenty-three percent say they are strongly in favor of them. The poll also suggest those against the president's health care plan may be more motivated to attend these town hall meetings than the people who support the idea.

So, here's the question. Do you think those protests against health care reform across the country are grassroots democracy or orchestrated opposition?

Go to and post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: It's going to be a hot August with a lot of those town hall meetings.

CAFFERTY: Welcome back. You going to be here the rest of this month?

BLITZER: I'll be here the rest of this week.

CAFFERTY: OK. That's only two days.

BLITZER: That's right.

Jack, thanks.

Following up on Jack's question, I'll be joined later by Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas. He's experienced those protests first hand.

Here's what he faced when he went back home to his district in Texas.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Just say no! Just say no! Just say no! Just say no!


BLITZER: We'll speak to him. That's coming up.

Congressional Democrats engage in a health care huddle with top presidential adviser David Axelrod. Does he have advice for them as they head home for the summer recess?

Also, struggling contractors venting red tape outrage. They say stimulus dollars aren't flowing fast enough to help them.

Plus, the government's new assessment of al Qaeda. And a warning effort to attack America could last for decades.


BLITZER: Senior adviser David Axelrod to the president huddling with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. They're talking health care.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar. She's getting word on what was said.

Did Axelrod have any specific advice, Brianna, for these members as they head home?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, David Axelrod was here talking with Senate Democrats about what they need to do over this next month, a really critical month, as Democrats try to convince Americans that health care reform is vital. And part of that, Wolf, was talking about how to deal with these protesters who have been disrupting these town hall meetings and other health care events that members of Congress have been holding.

Democratic leaders had some very critical words for these protesters Tuesday. In fact, at one point, Harry Reid even held up a piece of AstroTurf today to point out that, in his opinion, these are not grassroots organizers and that they are in his words, "phony." He said, "We're not going to be sidetracked by people trying to sabotage a civil process."

And Senator Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, said that for the first time in his career, there have been all these phone calls to his Chicago office, in his words, begging for there to be town hall meetings. He said, "They're interested in YouTube. They want to get the image across America that somehow congressmen and senators can't defend health care reform," and he went on to say, "I'm not going to allow myself to get sucker punched here."

So, what senators are going to try to hammer home here over the next month when they're in their home states, Wolf, is that health care reform is important for all Americans, not just for those who are uninsured, but they also want to convince Americans who have insurance that this is good for them, that it's going to lower their premiums. And the big deal here, Wolf, that they've been really trying to cast insurance companies as villains, saying they profit from the status quo, and even suggesting today that they may be behind these protests at these events -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna. Thanks very much. They're going to get some help, the White House, from the AFL-CIO, as well.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, laughs off critics of her husband's mission to North Korea.


FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": But John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador...


ZAKARIA: Should I even go on?

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm sorry. No, you really shouldn't.


BLITZER: She sits down with CNN's Fareed Zakaria to defend the mission that brought home the American journalists.

Plus, a newlywed nightmare -- the wife accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill her husband and police using an elaborate ruse to nab her.



BLITZER: Former President Bill Clinton speaking out right now about his mission to North Korea.


WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wanted those young women to be able to come home, and I wanted our two countries to have the ability to decide where to go from here.


BLITZER: What the former president is saying and what he's not saying. We're going to have complete details. That's coming up.

Plus, the future of al Qaeda and the threat it poses to America. How long will it go on? There are some disturbing predictions in a brand- new U.S. government assessment.


BLITZER: For the first time, former President Bill Clinton is now speaking publicly about his mission to North Korea to bring home those two American journalists. He's not saying a lot, but he is giving some indication of what he went through, and those women, as well.

Let's bring in CNN's Mary Snow.

He was at an event here in Harlem in New York.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And there were so many questions for him, Wolf. This is the first time we've heard from the former president since he arrived back from North Korea. He says he was profoundly honored both as an American and a father to be given the job he was given, and he was also very clear about his role.


SNOW (voice-over): Former President Bill Clinton was eager to talk about the Clinton Foundation's latest initiative at a press conference in Harlem. But on questions about his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the release of two American journalists, the former president said it would be wrong for him to talk about it.

B. CLINTON: I am not a policymaker, I shouldn't be. So, I have an obligation to report to my government and otherwise to say nothing that would in any way tip the balance of any kind of decisions that might or might not be made.

SNOW: The only time the former president came close to details of the meeting is when he talked about how the release came about.

B. CLINTON: The young women had acknowledged that they did go into North Korea briefly, a few steps, and that they shouldn't have done it. And the secretary of state had previously said that the United States regretted that.

And that was enough. I was not asked for anymore, nor did I offer anymore.

I am totally committed to letting the White House say whatever they want to say about this. There can only be one president at one time.

SNOW: And it's a message that's in sync with the current occupant of the White House, who said this before he was sworn into office...

OBAMA: Well, there is only one president at a time.

SNOW: And while much attention is being paid to the former president's return to the spotlight, he fielded a question about last year's contentious primary battle and what may now lie ahead for him.

B. CLINTON: As soon as the election was over, except for the 40 appearances I did for President Obama and the general election, I went back to work here. And I'd just as soon let my work speak for itself.


SNOW: Now, former President Clinton said he did debrief the deputy national security adviser yesterday, but only had brief conversations with President Obama and his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who's now traveling in Africa. He says he still needs to fully debrief them.

BLITZER: Yes, that's what she told our Fareed Zakaria, too, in an interview. We're going to have more of that interview. That's coming up, the interview that Fareed Zakaria had with Hillary Clinton. That's coming up in a moment. We'll have some of that just here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But the event that he had at the -- at Harlem today, he announced a major new initiative by his foundation to go help folks around the world who desperately need drugs to deal with HIV/AIDS and he's working with pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, one of the companies at today's briefing, and he said, you know, these agreements, he calls them significant, could actually save thousands of lives in developing countries. With -- the initiative is to lower the price for medicine for people with HIV. This, of course, is all part of the work of the Clinton Foundation.

BLITZER: The Clinton Foundation doing very important work.

All right, thanks very much for that. He got right back into it as soon as he got back from North Korea.

The former president may not be saying a whole lot, but his wife, the secretary of state, is now speaking out, answering critics of her husband's mission. CNN's Fareed Zakaria sat down with Hillary Clinton in Nairobi, Kenya, at the start of her tour of Africa.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: But the Bill Clinton mission was unorthodox. I mean, here you have a former president going on what appeared to be a state visit from the way in which he was greeted, being received by North Korea's top nuclear negotiator.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: This, as you know, came from the families. I mean, this was a message that Laura and Euna were given by the North Koreans, which they passed on to their families, and former Vice President Gore.

ZAKARIA: Naming him specifically.

CLINTON: Naming him specifically. And then they passed it on, obviously, as they should, to the rest of us. And, you know, it was not anything -- you know, Bill was interested in, seeking, or even contemplating. But, of course, when, you know, Vice President Gore called and when our administration evaluated it and began to brief him, you know, he said, look, if you think it's the right thing to do and if you think I should do it, of course I will do it. But it is a private, humanitarian mission. It was not in any way an official government mission.

ZAKARIA: But John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador, says -- should I even go on?

CLINTON: I'm sorry. No, you really shouldn't.

ZAKARIA: But he says this is rewarding hostage taking.

CLINTON: Oh, well, you know . . .

ZAKARIA: Why is he wrong? Because you -- they effectively took hostages . . .

CLINTON: We've done this so many times before. I mean, we've had former presidents do it. We've had sitting members of Congress do it. It is something that -- you know, it is absolutely not rewarding them. It is not in any way responding to specific demands. It is a recognition that certain countries that I think are kind of beyond the pale of the rule of law hold people and subject them to long prison terms that are absolutely unfair and unwarranted. And maybe it's, you know, the fact I have a daughter, but I believed that if we could bring these young women home, we should bring them home.


BLITZER: We're going to have more of Fareed's exclusive interview with the secretary of state in our 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour of THE SITUATION ROOM. Plus, you can see the entire interview that Fareed had with Secretary Clinton. That will air on "Fareed Zakaria GPS" this Sunday. They also talk about Iran, the war in Afghanistan, the health care debate raging on Capitol Hill, and a lot more, all coming up Sunday on "Fareed Zakaria GPS." It airs at 1:00 p.m. Eastern only on CNN.

Contractors vent their stimulus frustrations.


KATE BOULDEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Generally, too much red tape?

MARC HERBST, EXEC. DIR., LONG ISLAND CONTRACTORS ASSOCIATION: Too much red tape. And by the time we get to work and the money flows and gets here, we're going to be in the dead of winter. Shovel ready now? We won't be able to put the shovels in the icy ground.


BLITZER: Why billions of dollars aren't trickling down fast enough to help those struggling employers.

Also, 200 days in office. How does President Obama compare to former President George W. Bush at this point? That and more coming up in our "Strategy Session."

Plus, lawmakers confronted with health care outrage. Are these protests really grassroots, or is someone else behind it? I'll ask one congressman who faced a very angry mob.


BLITZER: The Transportation Department received $48 billion from the economic stimulus plan. It's going to everything from fixing airport runways to highway construction. Some say that government red tape is turning what could be a torrent of money into a trickle. CNN's Kate Bolduan is joining us with details.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, your stimulus dollars at work. Highway projects like this one in New York are under way, but some say not nearly fast enough.


BOLDUAN (voice-over): Sealing cracks and replacing concrete slabs on New York's Southern State Parkway, the first stimulus-funded highway project to break ground on Long Island. Cost, $1.7 million. That should be music to the ears of Marc Herbst, head of the Long Island Contractors Association. So it may surprise you to hear this.

MARC HERBST, EXEC. DIR., LONG ISLAND CONTRACTORS ASSOCIATION: And here we are, in the heart of the construction season, and 40 percent of the workforce here on Long Island is still not working. We haven't seen construction that low in the workforce in decades. And the stimulus program hasn't put the people back to work at this point.

BOLDUAN: Nearly six months after President Obama signed the stimulus bill, Herbst complains transportation dollars are only trickling down.

BOLDUAN (on camera): Generally too much red tape?

HERBST: Too much red tape. And by the time we get to work and the money flows and gets here, we're going to be in the dead of winter. Shovel ready now? We won't be able to put the shovel the icy ground.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): He's not alone. Sherry Morian runs a construction company that recently won a stimulus bid to replace this aging bridge in Pennsylvania.

SHERRY MORIAN, PRESIDENT, QUALITY ENGINEERING SOLUTIONS: It has to be designed. You have to get permits. You have to get environmental clearances. You have to get coordination with the utilities. It still has to go through the agency and get all of their approvals.

BOLDUAN: But wait. Transportation officials insist recovery money is moving faster than ever. New York expects a total $1.1 billion for highway and bridge projects.

TIM GILCHRIST, TRANSPORTATION ADVISOR, N.Y. GOVERNOR: The recovery act funding is going out. People will see their dollars at work. From my perspective, what will happen next is the motorists on Long Island will be complaining about all of the construction.

BOLDUAN: And in Washington, the secretary of transportation says the focus is not only on speed.

RAY LAHOOD, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: We want to get it out quickly, but we want to make sure it's done by the book. No earmarks, no boondoggles, no sweetheart deals.

BOLDUAN: But that's a balancing act some say may be causing a stimulus slowdown.


BOLDUAN: DOT estimates every $1 billion in transportation spending willing create 11,000 jobs. But contractors warn, if more money doesn't hit the ground here soon, this ground could very well be frozen until next construction season.


BLITZER: Kate Bolduan out on Long Island, thank you. New information, meanwhile, is coming in on U.S. intelligence assessments of the threat still posed by al Qaeda to the United States and how it's being countered. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. He's got some details.

Chris, what are you picking up?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, President Obama's counterterrorism adviser calls al Qaeda resilient and intent on carrying out attacks here. But he says they're going to continue to put, "unrelenting pressure" on the group.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials now say al Qaeda remains dangerous, but it's not the force it was.

JOHN BRENNAN, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION COUNTER-TERRORISM AVISOR: Al Qaeda has been seriously damaged and forced to replace many of its top-tier leadership with less experienced and less capable individuals.

LAWRENCE: The president's counterterrorism adviser says key leaders have been killed in the past year, like al Qaeda's expert on explosives and chemical weapons. An intelligence memo, obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, says al Qaeda will continue efforts to attack the U.S. for 20 years, but will rely more on conventional capabilities.

To reduce the ranks of al Qaeda's potential recruits, the administration plans to provide the kind of aid that strengthens people's faith in their legitimate local governments.

BRENNAN: And we are harnessing our economic power to make substantial increases in foreign assistance generally, including poverty reduction, global health and food security.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: There was a comprehensive effort in the war on terror during the Bush administration, and I'm not sure this sounds very different to me.

LAWRENCE: Former Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend says the key is how President Obama's team actually implements these plans.

TOWNSEND: The current administration, frankly, talks about all instruments of national power, but we don't have a head of U.S.A.I.D., the chief agency responsible for distributing foreign aid.


LAWRENCE: Yes, That agency, U.S.A.I.D., has been -- is now entering its seventh month with no permanent director, something Hillary Clinton has been loudly complaining about over at the State Department.

Wolf. BLITZER: We've heard those complaints. All right. Thanks very much, Chris, for that.

The White House expressing thanks to former President Bill Clinton for helping free those two American journalists from North Korea.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I know the president is enormously thankful and grateful for the work that President Clinton did on this and his willingness to undertake such an important mission.


BLITZER: Could this be the start of the new relationship between the president and the former president? That and more coming up in our "Strategy Session."

And, did Bill Clinton pick up useful information in North Korea? What government intelligence experts are hoping to learn about the world's most secretive country.


BLITZER: It's been an occasionally rocky relationship, up and down sometimes. The White House now saying that President Obama will meet soon with former President Bill Clinton. That meeting likely now that the former president is back from North Korea, having brought those two American journalists back home.

Let's talk about this relationship in our "Strategy Session." Joining us now, the Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist, Leslie Sanchez.

You know this relationship probably better than almost anyone, Donna. You were the campaign manager for Al Gore election -- presidential election campaign in 2000. What do you think about this relationship right now?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: First of all, I believe that some of this is overplayed by the media because these two gentlemen have enormous respect for each other. They spent eight years together creating one of the best economies ever in our country's history. Of course there were some bumps along the way, but by and large, they worked very well together. In February, I know the former vice president was with the former president on climate change. They'll be together next week with Harry Reid out in Nevada. So I think that the bond that the two of them have is much stronger than people even understand.

BLITZER: Because there's still some lingering -- at least apparently, some Gore supporters lingering bitterness at the former president, some Clinton supporter lingering bitterness at Al Gore for supposedly not using him enough during the 2000 campaign. BRAZILE: Let me tell you, I was involved in many of those discussions involving the former president's schedule and we used Bill Clinton as often as we possibly could to not only help us raise money, but to motivate our base. That's one of the reasons why Al Gore won the popular vote.

BLITZER: Here's what our friend Adam Nagoumey writes in "The New York Times" today, the political writer, Leslie. "They have had relatively little contact after their unhappy parting nearly nine years ago, according to associates of the two men. Still, over eight years, they have both built post-White House identities and reputations that seem to have left them with peace with their shared past and, it would seem, with each other."

LESLIE SANCHEZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, no, definitely. You know, the advantage they have is they're both outside. It's exactly that, outside looking in. And, if anything, you could argue that Al Gore did a lot more to help Bill Clinton in '92 and '96. Definitely helped him carry the south. Than Bill Clinton probably did for Al Gore. And, you know, the RNC, being at the RNC when Al Gore was there.

BLITZER: Yes, you were there.

SANCHEZ: I was there. There was a lot -- the RNC was making of the relationship, you know, the best president ever and the hugs. And they distanced themselves. So that was a very real thing in the campaign. I don't know with respect to fundraisers.

BLITZER: How should the current president, Leslie, use the former president down the road now that we've seen this mission accomplished in North Korea.

SANCHEZ: Well, very true. You know, what's interesting about it is if you look at the lessons, that's a very bright team in the Obama administration. They're looking at the lessons of Bill Clinton, especially with respect to health care. But one thing you have to look at is 24 months after his election, they were creamed by the Republicans. We came in, did a very good job . . .

BLITZER: In '94.

SANCHEZ: In '94. And then Bill Clinton moved to center with welfare reform he had in '96, telecom reform. Much more centrist policies. I think you have a president right now who's overreaching and this is an effort maybe to learn some lessons about coming to the middle.

BRAZILE: I've got to tell you, Bill Clinton was a centrist from the day he took office to the day he left. He's never been someone who I believe is part of left.

BLITZER: He was a so-called new Democrat, part of the DLC, the Democratic Leadership . . .

BRAZILE: Absolutely. I know a liberal when I see one.

BLITZER: I know you do. Here's some numbers, interesting numbers, on this, the 200th day of the president's term in office. Right now his poll numbers in our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll have his job approval numbers at 51 percent. Former President Bush, at the exact same time in 2001, his job approval number was 56 percent. He had just only a month earlier or so signed into law a $1.35 trillion tax cut plan. What does that say to you, Donna?

BRAZILE: Well, you know, I had my little graph from the House Budget Committee show me the numbers. I mean, George Bush inherited a $5.6 trillion surplus. President Obama comes in to a $1.3 trillion deficit. This is the reason why President Obama is suffering in the polls. The American people want change. They know we want change in terms of the incremental changes that we're providing with the stimulus. They want wholesale change in their lives and that's one of the reasons why I think the president has taken such a large beating. Also, he inherited two wars. Everything in his inbox . . .

SANCHEZ: That sounds like the Bush talking points, two wars, white- collar crime. I mean I think we use the same . . .

BRAZILE: Everything he inherited in his inbox was marked urgent.

BLITZER: But after six months, at some point he has to step up and deliver, right?

BRAZILE: He's stepping up. Trust me.

SANCHEZ: OK, look at the bottom line. You have a stimulus plan that has not proven to be effective. Republicans' put a plan that was half the cost, that offered twice as many jobs. It didn't go anywhere. We said we would not see unemployment increase. Tomorrow, the new number is going to come out. It could be closer to 10 percent.

There's a lot of hesitation and anxiety from the American electorate, as should be expected. They're looking to this president for actual results.

I will give him credit. The first 100 days were about saying, America's economy is going to be OK. The second hundred days has been difficult because of implementation of policies that work. We've seen a pull to the left and nothing affected the Congress (ph).

BRAZILE: I think you should ask the nation's governors whether or not they would like this stimulus money or should we just keep it in Washington, D.C. They would say, send us more. Send us more tomorrow. They want it because they need money for teachers, they need money for firefighters and other, you know, important personnel. So this has been a very strong program that has helped our economy in the short term.

BLITZER: You're saying the president turns around these -- the negative slide in his numbers -- jobs and houses.

SANCHEZ: And we've yet to see . ..

BLITZER: He's got to see an improvement in the jobs . . .

SANCHEZ: Absolutely.

BLITZER: A creation of jobs, not job losses.

SANCHEZ: And a lot -- exactly.

BLITZER: And he's got to make sure people feel secure in their homes.

SANCHEZ: Absolutely. And I don't think you're anywhere close to reaching those, especially with respect -- you talk to some of the financial folks. They'll tell you they're still deleveraging a lot of these bad assets in the market. They don't -- there are small peculations and positive upsides, but people are still concerned. Credit is still hard to get. You have minority auto dealers and dealerships across the country concerned. And the difference between Bush and Obama is respect (ph), we were putting money in people's pockets. We weren't putting it in the coffers of governors. We were giving people the opportunity to spend the money themselves.

BRAZILE: But President Obama has given 95 percent of all taxpayers some form of fiscal relief in their wallets. He's also been able -- since January, we've seen the number of jobs going down. The losses from 700,000 down to maybe 400,000 or 500,000. That's not good enough, but at least it's going down.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we'll continue this conversation. You'll both be here later tonight as well.

She's accused of being drunk and high when she caused a crash that killed eight people. Now her grieving family is speaking out and some people are shocked at what they're saying.

Plus, President Obama's grades on his first 200 days in office. Americans are voicing their opinions and we're listening.


BLITZER: On our political ticker, President Obama will lend his star power later tonight in an effort to keep the Virginia governor's office in Democratic hands. He's headlining a fund-raiser for candidate Creigh Deeds, who's locked in a very tight race with the state's former attorney general, Republican Bob McDonnell. This will be only the second campaign event for the president since he took office.

Mitt Romney has a new book coming out. It's called "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness." The publisher describes it as Romney's vision for the economy, health care, energy and a lot more. Polls show Romney an early front-runner in the Republican race for the White House in 2012. Look for the book out next March.

And a courthouse mystery in North Carolina. The former mistress of John Edwards was seen entering federal court this morning, but Rielle Hunter wouldn't say why. Edwards has acknowledged he's under federal investigation over payments to Hunter's production company. He denies wrongdoing. A spokesman for the federal prosecutor was asked if there was a grand jury convening, but he also declined comment.

Remember, for the latest political news anytime, you can always check out Let's go to Jack for "The Cafferty File."

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Never a good sign when your mistress is seen entering the federal courthouse where there could be a grand jury.


CAFFERTY: Not a good sign.

The question this hour, are these protests around the country against health care reform grass roots democracy or simply orchestrated opposition?

Billy in Los Vegas writes, "Michael Steele is full of bologna. These protests are no more 'grass roots' than the so-called 'tea parties' were. This is a well-financed, corporate-run campaign to disrupt any serious discussion of health care reform so the likes of United Health Care, Blue Cross and other health care denial companies can protect their business."

Charles says, "the protesters at the town halls are real. I am sure a few are there to cause trouble, but a majority are furious about this obscene plan to socialize health care. Yesterday it came out that the plan would cover abortion on demand, making groups like Planned Parenthood rich and yet cutting service to seniors. Anybody looking at the plan should be outraged."

Arthur says, "if this health care package is so great, why aren't our elected officials leading the way, joining the public plan and dumping their private ones? This is a grass roots movement because these elitists are giving us a horrible plan. One they're avoiding themselves."

(INAUDIBLE), "that's insulting to the people taking part in their government and adding their opinion. Isn't their health care coverage paid for on our dime.

Charles in New Jersey says, "the protests are political theater. The insurance industry has everything to lose with government run health care and will stop at nothing to prevent it. The GOP pursues politics and policy with the same 'professionalism' because they're business cronies. Profiting from once is the American way. Profiting from needs is predatory dystopia run by corporate overlords."

And Alexander writes from Leee's Summit, Missouri, "it doesn't matter if the protests are orchestrated or not, because either way they are legitimate. America was built on protests that were organized. I have no problem with the protests. The problem I have is with the behavior, or misbehavior, of these protesters at these town hall meetings. Town halls are meant to share ideas, not yell at the people who are presenting them.

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at and look for yours there. If you don't find it there, don't know what to tell you.

BLITZER: They'll find it.

CAFFERTY: They'll find it.

BLITZER: Guarantee it, they'll be there.


BLITZER: Jack, thank you.