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President Obama Speaks to America's Schoolkids; Can President Obama Save Health Care Reform?; More U.S. Troops to Afghanistan?

Aired September 8, 2009 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Batteries recharged. Happening now: political surgery. President Obama preps for a delicate operation for health care reform. Can he heal the toxic debate, or is it irreparably poisoned?

Your children hear from the president. Critics claimed he wanted to brainwash them with political ideology. But wait until you hear what the president really said. The education secretary, he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And will more U.S. troops be going to Afghanistan to try to get success there? Our Anderson Cooper, he's in a zone that gave troops hell. But is -- is it now a scene of peace? What's going on?

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

It's among the most important speeches of his presidency so far. Tomorrow, President Obama will step to this spot in the House of Representatives and deliver a speech before all of Congress.

You are an important part of the audience, of course, as well. The president hopes to reset the debate over health care reform. Leaving behind this summer of discontent, though, will not be easy. Truths, half-truths, and what the White House calls flat-out lies voiced at town hall meetings have stuck with so many people out there.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

Ed, the president has just met with the top Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate. The upshot?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, another sign this debate has finally reached a critical stage -- the president wrapping up an urgent meeting in the Oval Office with the vice president, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, trying to give them a little bit of a preview of what he's going to say to a joint session of Congress tomorrow night, but also a chance to plot on strategy.

What everyone wants to know at this point is whether the public option, an option for government-run health care, is out or in. And one thing that's interesting is that Speaker Pelosi just emerged from this Oval Office meeting -- meeting suggesting that the public option is essential and is also very much alive. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I believe that a public option will be essential to our passing a bill in the House of Representatives, because, as the president heard said -- and -- and I listened to him very carefully -- he believes that the public option is the best way to keep the insurance companies honest and to increase competition in order to lower costs, improve quality, retain choice -- if you like what you have, you can keep it -- and expand coverage in a fiscally sound...


HENRY: Now, top aides to the president continue to say that he believes that a public option is a critical tool, an important tool.

But they are not calling it essential. And, if you listen closely to what Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said today at his briefing, he said the hallmark of this president's career has been, in the word of Robert Gibbs, is that he's not known for rigidity, that he's not a very rigid politician. He wants to get things done.

You can certainly read that as somebody who, Wednesday night, will make another push for a public option, but will not make it a deal-breaker, will not make that the most essential part -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed, you've been -- you have been saying that the speech could go, what, about 40 minutes or so, and that's without interruption for applause. It could go quite a while, but the tone could be so much more assertive than some of his other recent speeches; is that right?

HENRY: Absolutely -- top saying in the -- in the range of about 35 minutes. You give or take a couple of minutes because of applause, depending how -- in that chamber, how well it's received -- top aides saying they expect the president to be very forceful, much more assertive than he's been at previous parts of -- of this debate, not just because he's going to be more specific, but that, in the tone, it will more resemble what he did yesterday.

You saw that Labor Day speech. Certainly, that was sort of more of a rousing partisan audience. He is going to have to dial it back a little bit for a joint session of Congress, members of both parties, but that he will be much more fired up than he has been in previous parts of this debate, that the president himself, in fact, we're told, spent much of the weekend at Camp David writing this speech himself, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry, you're going to be a busy guy. Stand by.

What the president says will certainly concern all Americans, and many of you will be watching. Our coverage of the president's address before a joint session of Congress begins tomorrow night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN. Meanwhile, intense negotiations continue right now for some sort of bipartisan group of senators to try to find some sort of health care reform compromise.

Let's go straight to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's up on Capitol Hill.

Dana, the group is meeting right now. And there's a lot of drama under way. What is going on?


And the reason is because these senators, the six senators meeting in these bipartisan negotiations, they, of course, have been talking for months, but it is now or never on whether they can cut a deal.

Why is that? It's because the White House has essentially given up on the idea that these six senators can come up with a bipartisan health care plan, because they believe that two of the three Republicans, Senators Charles Grassley and Mike Enzi, will never sign on to anything that is bipartisan.

So, what has happened, over the holiday weekend, the chairman, Max Baucus, he put this out. It's an 18-page summary, a proposal. He put pen to paper, some of the things that they have agreed upon, and he is basically telling the senators in that room, Democrats and Republicans, either we come to an agreement really within the next 24 hours, or I'm going to have to move on without you.

And the reason is because of the president's speech tomorrow night. That is the unofficial deadline for this group of six bipartisan senators who have been meeting.

BLITZER: Dana, what are some of the ideas that are still out there?

BASH: Well, the ideas that are on -- in this proposal, the most interesting ideas that are kind of bipartisan nature, if you will, is, first of all, no public option. There is no public option in there.

Instead, as we have been talking about for some time, they are going towards the approach of non-cooperative -- nonprofit cooperatives, rather. In addition, unlike the House Democrats' bill, there is no mandate for employers to cover people who work for them. There will be a penalty for some, but there's no mandate for employers.

And, also, what they are doing to help pay for it is taxing insurance companies for their most high-cost plans. Those are some of the things that are in this 18-page proposal that they are talking about behind me.

SANCHEZ: And what are the Republican concerns about all of this that you're hearing? BASH: There is one that is really the most interesting. It's something that's rather new in this proposal that we got. And that is a $6 billion per-year fee on insurance companies.

That is something that Charles Grassley in particular is not happy with. He said, as soon as the insurance companies are taxed like that, they are going to pass it right along to the consumers. He thinks that's a very bad idea.

The other thing that Senator Grassley in particular, I know, I'm told by an aide, is not happy with is the overall cost. It is about $900 billion, a little bit under that. He wants the overall cost to be even less than that. Those are just a couple of issues that the Republicans have.

And it will be very interesting to see whether or not they can work that out. We could have a -- a moment in the next 24 hours of whether or not they are going -- they're going to go ahead with this, or whether Max Baucus is going to go ahead and try to pass this with mostly -- mostly Democrats or maybe one or two Republicans, but not the big bipartisan bill that they have been hoping for and working on for months and months in that office behind me -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana staking out the -- the office there.

And, Dana, thanks very much.

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


There are more czars in the White House these days than Russia used to have -- or so it seems. The latest estimates put the number at about 30, although that's subject to some debate. These special advisers aren't anything new. A lot of presidents have had them, including Republicans.

The czars work on issues ranging from health care to Middle East peace. The problem is how many President Obama has -- he has a lot -- combined with the fact they are not subject to congressional oversight or Senate confirmation.

Now, Republicans were already steamed about this, but now it's boiling over with the resignation over this past weekend of the president's green jobs czar, a guy named Van Jones. He quit, under pressure from many of his past statements and affiliations.

It turns out he was on the record referring to Republicans using a vulgar collective noun, and he signed a petition calling in -- for an investigation into a 9/11 cover-up by the federal government. The petition alleged that the federal government was complicit in the events of 9/11.

It's all just more ammunition for Republicans to go after President Obama, and it's yet another political miscalculation by the president. Who nominates a guy like this Van Jones to a job like this, knowing the background that he has?

One Republican calls the number of czars in the Obama White House a -- quote -- "affront to the Constitution." I don't know if it's all that. And another GOP lawmaker has called on the president to suspend any future czar positions until Congress can check out those already in place. Well, that's not going to happen.

Over the weekend -- in fact, just yesterday -- President Obama named an auto czar. Democrats say the number of czars isn't the issue, because all administrations have czars. Remember, President Bush wanted a war czar.

The problem is, nobody apparently vets these people very well, until it's too late, and a Van Jones manages to then embarrass the entire administration, you know, sort of like nominating people to Cabinet posts who didn't bother to pay their taxes.

Here's the question. Are White House czars a good idea?

Go to Post a comment on my blog.

I don't know if czars are a good idea. Van Jones, whatever his name was, wasn't.

BLITZER: Yes. Maybe the czars are a good idea, but they should vet them a little bit better.

CAFFERTY: That was kind of what I was alluding.


BLITZER: Yes. That's...



BLITZER: Good point, Jack. Thank you.

For American troops, it was a zone of hell, enemies trying to kill U.S. troops in a Taliban stronghold, but now those troops have control. Our Anderson Cooper is on the scene for us in Afghanistan.

A sinkhole swallows a fire truck weighing thousands and thousands of pounds. You're going to find out what happened. That's coming up.

And President Obama wants to insert some thoughts into your children's brains. It's not brainwashing, as some claimed. You're going to hear what he actually did say. The education secretary is here as well.


BLITZER: The U.S. military is reporting four American service members killed in what it calls an ongoing event in eastern Afghanistan. Those deaths make 13 so far this month alone, 196 so far this year.

And now the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, says Democrats will need to see a better plan for the war in Afghanistan before they sign off on any additional U.S. troops heading to the region.

One such plan is being carried out right now in a former Taliban stronghold, with some considerable success.

CNN's Anderson Cooper is there.


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360" (voice-over): Patrol Base Jaker is a remote, dusty outpost in the Helmand River Valley. This was Taliban territory up until just two months ago, when the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade arrived in force.

(on camera): How bad was the fight when you first got here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was every day, pretty much all day. That was Captain Heisman's (ph) company and my headquarters element. When we landed here, I mean, we got shot at as we flew in. And, for the next 10 days, every patrol that went out was -- was destroying the enemy.

COOPER: Lieutenant Bill McCullough (ph) and his Marines can now openly walk the streets in this district. And they're moving quickly to help rebuild.

There's a new road being organized with U.S. funds. Dozens of businesses have already reopened. And, soon, the local school, closed by the Taliban, will reopen as well.

(on camera): Some people will see this and say, well, this seems an awful lot like nation-building. And is that something -- is that part of the mission? Is nation-building part of the mission? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, if you call enabling governance nation- building, then yes.

COOPER: So, to really win in Afghanistan, to win long term, and to win for real, you have got to build governments here that work. It's not just a government in Kabul, but a government here in small areas like this, in local districts that really provide services to people?


COOPER (voice-over): To do that, Colonel McCullough (ph) works closely with the governor of the district and with the local police. They're trying to restore residents' confidence and spread stability.

(on camera) So the idea is pockets of stability that then spread out and connect? Like an oil stain that spreads outward?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right. And those -- how do they connect -- are through these roads that connect these communities together. Roads that have to be safe.

COOPER (voice-over): Afghan police man checkpoints on the roads, but they need more police here and better trained ones. Without U.S. troops, Colonel McCullough (ph) says the Taliban would return in a matter of days.

(on camera) A lot of Marines I talk to make a distinction between big "T" Taliban and little "T." What's a big "T" Taliban.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Enablers, the people that are in contact with people from Pakistan, Arabs, Chechens. They're the hard-core fighters.

COOPER: The little "T" Taliban are, what, more opportunists?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, they're somebody that lives here, that doesn't have a very good life, never had an education. Is he really a long-term threat to stability? I don't believe he is. Neither does the government. Neither does the district ministry.

COOPER: You can co-op little "T" Taliban, just as was done in Iraq with former insurgents?


COOPER: You think that can work here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It has to work. How do you end the war if you don't -- if there's no place for the former fighters to go, how do you end it?

COOPER (voice-over): How do you end the war in Afghanistan? If what's happening here is any indication, the answer may lie in winning the peace.


BLITZER: Anderson Cooper reporting.

By the way, you can catch more of Anderson's reporting later tonight on CNN, an "AC 360" special report inside Afghanistan live from the battle zone, all this week at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN, the worldwide leader in news.

In the next hour, we're going live to Afghanistan. We will be speaking with Michael Ware. He's on the scene for us. Stand by for that.

Sixteen years ago, he tried, but failed, to enact health care reform. Now former President Bill Clinton says there's one thing worrying him deeply about the current effort.

Plus, the story behind this picture -- how firefighters wound up needing to be rescued themselves.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: T.J. Holmes is monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

T.J., what's going on?

T.J. HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Rescuers needing to be rescued.

Take a look at this video out of Los Angeles. Firefighters there responding to a broken water main ran into some unexpected trouble. And you can see what that trouble was. The floodwaters opened a sinkhole that swallowed their 22-ton engine. Four firefighters were in that rig when this happened. They did manage to get out. They scrambled away. And they were unharmed.

Also, take a close look out there, folks, at your receipt the next time you go grocery shopping, because you may see some lower numbers, lower than you may be expecting, because the government says food prices fell again in July. They're down almost a full percent over the last year. So, with the soaring prices for wheat, corn and gas, a lot of that drove up prices across the board. So, we may be getting some relief from that finally.

Also, another story here -- the punishment didn't necessarily seem to fit the crime. This was of a female journalist in Sudan arrested for wearing pants. Lubna Hussein is her name originally faced a possible lashing, but, amid an international uproar, was merely fined $200.

Now, she had refused to pay that $200 in protest, and was sent to jail. But a journalist organization paid the fine without her knowledge. And, Wolf, she has now been released. But, again, it didn't seem like the punishment fit the crime for a lot of folks. Pants, lashing, doesn't seem to go. But it all seemed to have worked out now.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a little strange, obviously, but let's hope she's OK.

Thanks very much for that, T.J.


BLITZER: President Obama delivers his back-to-school speech. Amid all the controversy over what he would say, what was the mood actually like where he delivered it? We will speak about that and more with the education secretary, Arne Duncan. He's standing by live.

And Hillary Clinton right now at the center of an important case before the U.S. Supreme Court -- at issue, something called "Hillary: The Movie."


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now: Critics made it political, but a 15-year-old student turns President Obama's education speech very personal. We talk to the young man about his pointed exchange with the president. Stand by for that.

A high school coach on trial right now in the death of one of his football players who collapsed during practice in extreme heat -- in extreme heat -- prosecutors call it barbaric. The defense alleges a witch-hunt.

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

(AUDIO GAP) Obama wants to insert some thoughts into your children's brains. Here are some of those thoughts: Stay in school, work hard, and respect parents and teachers. That was the message he delivered today to students going back to school, not a political speech to brainwash children, as critics alleged.

Some parents even protested the president's speech, but listen to the message he gave the students.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The truth is, being successful is hard. You won't love every subject that you study. You won't click with every teacher that you have. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right at this minute. And you won't necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That's OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who've had the most failures.


BLITZER: The education secretary, Arne Duncan, he was with the president when he delivered that speech today.

Arne Duncan is joining us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.

ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. EDUCATION SECRETARY: Good afternoon, Wolf. How are you doing?


In this heated political environment right now -- and, as you know, it's very heated out there right now -- how much control should parents, teachers, local school boards have when it comes to the president addressing students?

DUNCAN: They -- they have total control. And, again, some -- some schools chose to listen to the speech today. Some children might watch it after school. Some might watch it at home tonight or two weeks from now or two months from now, or they might choose never to watch it.

And, all of that, we're absolutely fine with.


DUNCAN: These decisions should always be made at the local level.

BLITZER: Not a problem.

Do you understand why, all of a sudden, the president's speech before American kids going back to school became such a controversy?

DUNCAN: Well, I would say, big picture, what we're trying to keep everyone focused on, Wolf, is not the political issues, but that we have to get dramatically better educationally. We have to educate our way to a better economy.

As you know, we have a devastating dropout rate. Thirty percent of our young people around the country drop out. This is a national challenge, urban, rural, suburban, 1.3 million students every single year going out into the streets.

And what you saw at the end of the day, Wolf, was people coming together from very different walks of life, whether it was President Obama, or former first lady Laura Bush, Senator Lamar Alexander, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker, Senator Bill Frist, people from many different walks of life, many different ideologies said, let's unite our students and let's challenge them.

This whole speech was about personal responsibility, challenging students to step up and make something of their lives and take their education very, very seriously.

BLITZER: We know that the curriculum recommendation that the -- that the administration gave to the schoolkids to write a letter how they would advise the president, we know that was changed. Was there anything else changed as a result of the uproar?

DUNCAN: Nothing.

And it's -- it's interesting, that one question, these were guides put out by some of the best teachers in the country for teachers. These were the national teacher ambassadors who worked on that. There was one question that talked about the president's goal. What it meant is the president's goal for bringing America back to leading the world again in the percentage of college graduates by 2020.

It didn't articulate it perfectly. And, so, they just flipped it to talk about your own individual goals as students, but that was always the intent.

BLITZER: What about the actual speech? Did he rewrite it? Did he change anything? Would it have been the same speech?

DUNCAN: Absolutely.

The president spoke from the heart. And what's amazing to me about him, Wolf, is, as you know, he's, you know, working hard on health care. He's fighting two wars around the country. It's the toughest economy since the Depression. And despite all of those challenges, he comes back day after day, week after week, to education.

It's pretty amazing. And he just fundamentally gets it. This is the long-term answer. The only way we're going to, you know, have a strong economy long term is to have students who are educated, who are not just graduating from high school, but going on to some form of higher education.

And I thought the speech went over very, very well with the young people, with the students there today. It was a lot of fun to be a part of.

BLITZER: And you were there.

Here's what the Florida Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer, said yesterday here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Listen to this.


JIM GREER, CHAIRMAN, FLORIDA REPUBLICAN PARTY: We have Barack Obama the auto king. We have Barack Obama the banker, soon to be Barack Obama the doctor. We don't need Barack Obama the schoolteacher. And the White House should have stayed out of the classrooms.


BLITZER: All right, what -- what do you say to Mr. Greer?

DUNCAN: I think what we need as a country, if we're serious about ending this education crisis, we need every adult coming together, teachers, parents, faculty members, school board members, state school chiefs, governors and, yes, the president. We all need to be working together to challenge our students to get dramatically better educationally.

What we need as a country, we need more high-performing schools. We need to close the achievement gap. We need more young people who have the ability to go on to college. We need more learning opportunities before school, after school, summer school.

All of us have to unite behind that. This is the one issue, Wolf, that the country can come behind regardless of ideology. And you actually saw so much of that, which I was so thankful for through this. The right thing happened for children, and many people from many different walks of life made sure that the right thing happened for children.

BLITZER: I want to switch gears briefly while I have you.

Swine flu, a lot of parents sending their kids back to school this week. They are nervous. There's no vaccine, at least not yet, might not be one until the end of October, early November.

Are we -- and I say "we," meaning all of us -- are we over-hyping this swine flu pandemic? Are we making people too nervous about it?

DUNCAN: Well, I think we have to prepare for the worst and, you know, hopefully it doesn't happen. But my wife and I took our two young children to school this morning, their first day back, a kindergartner and a second-grader. And we want to make sure that our students are safe and they continue to learn.

So, we're really asking parents to practice common sense, to make sure students with washing their hands frequently, that they're coughing not into their hands, but into their sleeves. If they're sick, keep them home. We really want to keep schools open as much as we can. And then don't bring them back to school until after 24 hours after the fever breaks, when you're less contagious.

So, I think there's been a real thoughtful approach around the country. Elementary schools, high schools, universities I thought have exercised great common sense so far, and we're going to continue to monitor it very, very closely.

BLITZER: Well, let's hope for the best.

Good luck, Mr. Secretary. Thanks for coming in.

DUNCAN: Thanks so much for the opportunity. Have a good afternoon now.

BLITZER: You, too. Thank you.

One side says -- warns that democracy would be undermined. The other side says free speech is at risk. Details of a Supreme Court case that could turn campaign finance upside down.

Stand by.

Also, health care reform advice for lawmakers as Congress goes back to work. Hilary Rosen and Ed Rollins, they're both standing by for our "Strategy Session."

Plus, chilling accounts of a high school football player's collapse as his coach goes on trial in his death.


BLITZER: A Democratic president battles Republican critics. The goal? Health care coverage for millions and millions of Americans.

While that certainly applies right now, it also applied back in 1993 and 1994, when President Bill Clinton fought for health care reform. Almost exactly 16 years ago, President Clinton did what President Obama will do tomorrow night, give a speech before a joint session of the Congress on health reform.


WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: At long last, after decades of false starts, we must make this our most urgent priority, giving every American health security, health care that can never be taken away, health care that is always there. That is what we must do tonight.



BLITZER: Let's spring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Gloria, we see that the former president, in an interview with "Esquire" magazine, he's speaking out about all of this and he's saying this: "What I'm more worried about is our people getting careless, forgetting the experience of '94, and that it is imperative that they produce a health care bill for the president and make it the best one they can; if it's not perfect, we'll go back and fix it."

Here 's the question. Isn't the main problem that the president has right now with members of his own party, the Democrats?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. It is. He does have a problem with members of his own party.

And when you talk to Democrats, they say, you know what? Politically, for Barack Obama right now, it wouldn't be so bad for him to take on liberals in his party because, after all, he is perceived as a liberal by many Independents, and he would like to move back to the center.

And when you think about it also, Wolf, it wouldn't be a bad idea for Nancy Pelosi to have this president move to the center. Even though she's to the left of center, she's got 160 liberals in her caucus who are in safe districts. The folks they are worried about getting re-elected are those 30 to 40 moderate and conservative Democrats that Rahm Emanuel actually got to run for the Congress when he was running the campaign committee, and if they are to lose their seats, then control of the House could be in jeopardy.

So, in the end, she's probably going to be for him moving to the center as well.

BLITZER: Here's another bit of advice from the former president in the new issue of "Esquire" magazine.

"I wouldn't even worry about the Republicans," he says. "I'd worry about executing. We're not going to be facing adversity politically here unless we fail to perform for the American people."

Here's the question. What is the cost of failure for the current president? BORGER: Well, Democrats are running around like Chicken Littles right now. They are saying that if the president doesn't get some kind of health care reform, it would be fatal -- that's the word one Democrat used to me -- to his administration.

I think that's a little hyperbolic, but it's very clear that success breeds success. And he doesn't have to worry about the Republicans just as Bill Clinton said. His real worry right now, first and foremost, is the American public, because if whatever he proposes is not popular with the American public, and that is with the center of the electorate, then it's going to be a real political problem for him and for his Democrats down the road.

So, that's why you see the president right now going into full campaign mode on this, because they understand at the White House that it's really not so much Capitol Hill right now. It's the people out there who voted for him and those who didn't that he has to convince.

BLITZER: Gloria, stand by. You're going to be coming back.


BLITZER: Your children question the president of the United States. What things are they concerned about, and how does the president answer them differently than he answers you?

Stand by.

And are so many White House czars really a good idea? That's Jack's question, "The Cafferty File." He's back with your thoughts and more coming up.


BLITZER: Let's get to our "Strategy Session."

Joining us now, our CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist, Hilary Rosen, and the Republican strategist, Ed Rollins.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

I want to play this little exchange that the president had with some kids today before he delivered his big speech on education. But listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

OBAMA: Dinner with anyone dead or alive? Well, dead or alive, that's a pretty big list.

You know, I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine. Now, it would probably be a really small meal.


He didn't eat a lot. But he's somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King. So, if it hadn't been for the nonviolent movement in India, you might not have seen the same nonviolent movement for civil rights here in the United States.


BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about that.

Ed, he's really effective when he gets personal like that. And we're going to be playing more of that exchange he had with the kids earlier in the next hour, because he really opens up, especially when young children ask him some sensitive questions.

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Listen, he's a great personality. That was a great answer and a great person to have dinner with. I mean, obviously, he added a little humor to it.

That's one of his great strengths. That's how he got here. You know, I think the critical thing here is not, is he a great personality, can he relate to kids? He can relates to a lot of people, but can he be an effective leader? And that's what we're going to find out in the next couple of years.

BLITZER: And he got really personal when he was speaking about his father in that exchange. You're going to hear that in the next hour.

Hilary, should he be doing more of that kind of stuff, as opposed to the standard speech?

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Look, I thought Secretary Duncan had it exactly right, which is kids are looking for role models, and we have a shared responsibility as adults across the country, across the political spectrum to give them those good role models. And when you have somebody with the kind of history that Barack Obama has, it can inspire millions of kids who are today, unfortunately, dropping out of school at record rates.

You know, the fact that the president wants to do this and cares enough about inspiring young people to do this is something we ought to celebrate. It boggles my mind that it's become so ridiculously political.

BLITZER: I want both of you to stand by for a moment, because there's a huge issue coming before the United States Supreme Court that I want to discuss with you. Stand by for that.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor will hear her first Supreme Court case tomorrow, an appeal that could -- and we're not exaggerating -- could reshape campaign financing in the United States, and all stemming from Hillary Clinton's presidential bid.

CNN's Elaine Quijano is joining us now with details.

Elaine, tell us what's at stake here.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is a complicated issue, but it boils down to the Supreme Court considering a possible dramatic change that could do away with the ban on direct campaign corporate spending.


NARRATOR: Who is Hillary Clinton?

QUIJANO (voice-over): It started small. During last year's presidential primaries, a federal court said campaign finance laws barred this ad for an anti-Hillary Clinton movie by an advocacy group, a nonprofit corporation.

NARRATOR: If you thought into everything about Hillary Clinton, wait until you see the movie.

QUIJANO: But now the Supreme Court could make a monumental change in how money influences politics, deciding in the name of free speech whether there should be any limits at all on corporate campaign spending.

FRED WERTHEIMER, DEMOCRACY 21: Allowing corporations to flood our elections and use campaign expenditures to buy influence would fundamentally undermine our democracy.

QUIJANO: Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 warns overturning a century of precedence would shut average citizens out of the political process.

WERTHEIMER: The little guy would have no role here, because the dominant force in our politics, the dominant force in Washington decision-making would become corporations.

QUIJANO: But David Bossie of Citizens United, the group behind the anti-Hillary Clinton movie, argues that anyone pooling resources, including unions, the health industry, advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association, has free speech rights.

DAVID BOSSIE, CITIZENS UNITED: I actually went out and looked for this fight because I don't believe that the government's position -- I don't believe the government should have the right to impede people's entry into the process. And that's what the Federal Election Commission is trying to do here, squelch our First Amendment rights.


QUIJANO: Now, interestingly, the American Civil Liberties Union agrees with that. A ruling is expected in a couple of months, Wolf, and legal observers say that conservatives could hold the key with enough votes to possibly declare much of current campaign finance law unconstitutional -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Wow. The stakes are enormous.

Let's go back to Ed and Hilary.

Ed, what do you think? What's going to happen here?

ROLLINS: Well, it changes politics as I have known it. Obviously, I'm an old man, but 1916, I think, was the last time corporate expenditures could be made.

I do believe in the First Amendment. I believe every time we've basically tried to basically restrict expenditures we have made the system work. But at the same time, I'm not for everybody being for sale. And I think to a certain extent, you've got to leave something open to where the Congress can come in and make some limits. Otherwise, you're going to have -- as they say, everybody is going to wear a jersey with a name on the back, IBM or car companies, or what have you, and I think to a certain extent that's not -- more money does not make for a better political system.

BLITZER: What do you think, Hilary?

ROSEN: Well, I think Ed is exactly right, and let's take it one step further, which is that if we had public financing of elections in this country the way Democrats have been proposing for years, we wouldn't be going through this problem. The First Amendment is critically important, but congressional limits on campaign financing over the years have proved to be responsible.

People have lived with the so-called McCain/Feingold rules that set up organizations that could come in as third parties as long as the names were all disclosed. So, there have been ways to get a lot more money into the system, but bottom line is I think public financing is the answer for elections.

BLITZER: We're going to hear the oral arguments tomorrow, but the ramifications are enormous, guys.

Thanks very much.

Your street could become part of a giant online Monopoly game. Google is now teaming up with the board game to launch a new online edition using Google Maps as the Monopoly board. You can buy your own street and even put up a castle, if you want.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, what are the prices here that Google is teaming up with?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the prices for a street like Pennsylvania Avenue, home of the president here in Washington, D.C., about $2 million in Monopoly money. And if I show you this, you'll see it's already looking a little bit different on this map.

A player called Carlton Banks (ph) has bought Pennsylvania Avenue and put up about two dozen golden skyscrapers right around the White House. The Queen of England, her view is not looking much better. The green area there -- now we're going to London and Buckingham Palace, and some joker has put up two power plants and a prison right in the front lawn of Buckingham Palace.

This is Monopoly in the digital age here. It's called Monopoly City Streets. It's launching tomorrow.

And instead of the Monopoly board that you are used to, it's using Google Maps. So, you can buy any street you want with your $3 million in Monopoly money.

It's not the first time that a board game has gone digital. You'll remember last year, when millions of people were playing Scabulous online, that was an unauthorized version of Scrabble that was played on Facebook. That was pulled after owners Hasbro put up a lawsuit against that.

Well, this one also done by Hasbro, but this one is authorized. It's launching tomorrow, so let the land grab begin -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I'm sure it will. All right, Abbi. Thank you.

A secret role revealed. John McCain urging a well-known figure to run for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, but he's not even a Republican.

And we take you live to Afghanistan. CNN's Michael Ware, just back from a dangerous trip into Taliban territory, he's standing by in our Kabul bureau.

And one surprise follows another for one of the country's most heavily traveled bridges.


BLITZER: Here's a look at some "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at The Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspapers tomorrow.

Let's go to Japan first.

A rhythmic gymnast from Russia performs at the world championships.

In California, a third grader watches President Obama's education speech.

In Turkey, a man wades through mud and floodwaters following heavy rains.

And in Bulgaria, a man fishes from an inflatable boat at sunset.

"Hot Shots," pictures worth a thousand words.

Let's get to our "Political Ticker" right now.

A moment of silence in the Senate in honor of the late Ted Kennedy. It followed an opening prayer by the Senate chaplain, noting that it was the first Senate opening in almost 50 years without the Massachusetts Democrat present. A vase of white flowers now sits on his desk inside the chamber. There's also a resolution honoring Ted Kennedy.

He spent 47 years in the United States Senate.

We now know who approached former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling about running for Ted Kennedy's seat. That would be Senator John McCain.

A spokeswoman for the senator confirms it, but Schilling is noncommittal about a possible run right now. He has close ties to the GOP, having campaigned for McCain in last year's presidential race, as well as for George W. Bush back in 2004. But Schilling is registered as an independent.

A special ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court. The newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, officially assuming her role with an investiture ceremony.

President Obama and Vice President Biden were there, but no cameras were allowed inside. Afterward, the chief justice, John Roberts, joined Sotomayor for this photo-op. A nice photo-op indeed.

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

Let's check out Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File."

CAFFERTY: They make a lovely couple, don't you think?

BLITZER: They walked down the stairs there. It was very nice at the Supreme Court. It's a very majestic building.

CAFFERTY: It is. A great building.

The question this hour, are White House czars a good idea? President Obama's got a bunch of them, and the Republicans have their shorts in a knot over some of this.

Julie, "It seems to me that anyone who is going to spend billions of our tax dollars ought to be vetted completely, maybe even approved by Congress since they seem to have so much power. My bigger issue with Van Jones" -- the one who quit over the weekend --- "is some of the racist comments I've seen him make on clips on the Internet."

Steve in Oregon writes, "Here's the problem: using your words, Jack, 'they're not subject to congressional oversight or Senate confirmation.' I voted for Obama, but this is not transparency. Even the term 'czar' only fuels the outrageous claims that Obama's a socialist. It still doesn't help his credibility. To answer the question, no one should be inside the White House but outside the system of checks and balances."

Zennie in Oakland writes, "Jack, leave Van Jones alone. You don't know the man. He's not as conservatives have painted him."

"Yes, the Obama administration should have vetted his past better, but he's done a lot of good here in Oakland, California. He could run for mayor and win."

Catherine, "I don't mind if a president has a few czars. I do mind when they're self-proclaimed communists and reserve racists. I hope no other czars are controversial. You are who you hang out with. I'm beginning to think Obama did know what Reverend Wright was all about after all."

Pat writes, "Conservatives want authority to approve whom Obama takes advice from? I say it's mighty polite of him to notify them."

Michael says, "Czars are a fine idea because it allows the president to have people in place with the skill sets needed to attack immediate problems. The difficulty arises when you don't perform the vetting process properly. Then, instead of Peter the Great, you wind up with a bunch of Ivan the Terribles."

A play on the Russian...

William, "The word 'czar' has an odious historical definition. Caesars of ancient Rome were in general despots. The czars of Russia were 'terrible' degenerates. Can't we come up with a better name for our own despots?"

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at and look for yours there, among others.

It's an unfortunate term. What's wrong with "adviser"?

BLITZER: Or boss? Big shot.

CAFFERTY: Or big shot or foreman. Czar...

BLITZER: Director.

CAFFERTY: ... is a terrible word.

BLITZER: I remember the drug czars in the Reagan administration.


BLITZER: Bill Bennett, one of our CNN contributors, was the drug czar.

CAFFERTY: He was a drug czar?

BLITZER: Yes. He was the drug czar, then he became education secretary.

CAFFERTY: Does that have anything to do with why we're losing the war on drugs, do you suppose?

BLITZER: That war has been lost for a long -- it's been going on and on and on.

CAFFERTY: President Bush wanted a war car. Remember?

BLITZER: It's probably not going to end, Jack.

Jack Cafferty and "The Cafferty File."

Thank you.

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

Happening now, a bomber strikes in Afghanistan's capital and insurgents deal a deadly blow to U.S. troops. A grim situation could get even worse as allegations of massive fraud are now aimed at Afghanistan's government and its president.

We'll go live to Kabul, standing by.

Critics were warned he was out to indoctrinate America's children, but President Obama today made it clear he was out to educate. He told students to work hard, stay in school, and he revealed a deeply personal side of his own upbringing.

We'll play for you what the president said.

And a make-or-break moment for health care reform. Congress is now back in Washington, ready for a special address from the president.

I'll speak about that with Democrat Chris Van Hollen and Republican Mike Pence.