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President to Seek Spending Freeze; GOP Calls for Budget Cuts; Interview With Congressman Ron Paul

Aired January 25, 2011 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much. Happening now. We're standing by for the first excerpts from the president's State of the Union address. This hour, I'll ask the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about the tone and the substance of this speech and how the president is positioning himself for 2012.

Also, Republican congressman Ron Paul on his party's divided response to the State of the Union. Is the Tea Party movement taking on the president tonight, or is it challenging the GOP establishment?

And thousands of anti-government protesters pouring into the streets of Egypt today. It's new fuel for fears of spreading unrest that could threaten key U.S. allies in the Middle East.

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

Four hours from now, President Obama will try to prove to Congress and to the nation that he's walking the walk when it comes to cutting the federal deficit. We're told he'll call for a five-year freeze on certain spending tonight -- in tonight's State of the Union address. We're standing by for excerpts from the speech.

But right now, let's go straight to someone with inside knowledge about this very important night for the president and indeed for the nation. That would be the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Robert, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: Listen to what Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said today about this new proposal that the president will have for a five-year freeze on certain non-defense-related spending. Listen to this.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: I would remind you that in the speech last year, there was a recommendation for a three- year freeze. And the problem with that is it freezes in place an extraordinary increase in spending that's occurred over the last two years.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: All right. So he -- he doesn't expect much. Tell us why he's wrong.

GIBBS: Well, look, Wolf, the president is going to make a strong opening bid on how we have to get our fiscal house in order and how we have to restrain spending in this country. You'll see what the president will put in his budget in a couple of weeks is government spending at the lowest share of our economy since Eisenhower was president of this country. So this is a serious proposal to get our spending in order, even as we target innovation, education and reform to get our country moving again and create the jobs of tomorrow right here in America.

BLITZER: What's wrong with simply going back to the huge spending levels of 2008, which the Republicans say would be more than adequate for the nation under these tough economic times right now?

GIBBS: Well, look, Wolf, I think the president is eager to see the proposals that Republicans will put forward and eager to have a discussion with them about how we get our fiscal house in order. I think as we do that, we're not going to have a debate about whether we should take steps to cut our budget deficit. We know that's going to happen, and we need that to happen. It's about how we're going to do that -- again, while we maintain important investments in things like innovation, in research and in education, so that the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow aren't created in China or India, they are created right here in the United States.

BLITZER: So you're going to go forward with more money to be spent for education and infrastructure, for example, even as the Republicans say we can't afford it right now.

GIBBS: Well, again, we're going -- you'll see a significant decrease in government spending. As we decrease that spending, some programs will be cut even further as we increase investments in what is important to the American people -- education reform, good teachers in our classrooms, an export initiative, clean energy manufacturing that creates jobs here in this country. The overall tenor, obviously, is a reduction in spending, and as we reduce that, let's prioritize the important investments that the American people know we have to have.

BLITZER: We know there will be a chunk of the speech devoted to national security and international affairs. What are the one or two biggest issues that keep the president up at night?

GIBBS: Well, look, obviously, our commitments in Afghanistan, which the president will talk about, his plan to put more troops there that is taking the fight directly to al Qaeda, and the notion that we will begin bringing those troops home as the president stated this summer.

But we still have important commitments and a fight on our hands with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in that region of Asia, as well as in the Arabian peninsula. You'll hear the president mention Iran and North Korea. We have instituted some very tough sanctions on both of those governments, and we're seeing progress on the nuclear issue.

BLITZER: I know the president brought in some outside advisers since the so-called shellacking in the mid-term elections to give him some advice. What was the single best piece of advice he got?

GIBBS: Well, look, I think as he has been thinking about this speech, the best advice he's gotten is from people all over the country that he's met throughout the past year, and you'll see some of them highlighted tonight, people that have started companies that are bringing clean energy jobs, creating clean energy jobs here in this country, people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, an innovative spirit that the president will highlight tonight. He wants to give voice to the American people's hopes and dreams, the optimism that he sees for the direction of the country.

BLITZER: Because a lot of people say the best advice he got was to move back to the center and start compromising with Republicans.

GIBBS: Well, look, the voters sent both parties, not just us in the White House or Democrats in Washington -- they sent both parties a fairly clear message in November, put aside the partisan games, sit down at the table, decide what is important for the American people, find common ground and make progress. That's what happened in December. That's why we had a tax agreement that didn't see taxes go up on middle class families. That's why we saw an important treaty that reduces nuclear stockpiles between us and the former Soviet Union.

So we've made some progress. And quite frankly, I think that's a road map for how we increase exports, have corporate tax reform, a whole host of issues, education reform, that Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to sit down and work on together.

BLITZER: I know that the Tucson shooting is hovering over this speech tonight, as it should. Why won't the president tonight address the issue of guns in America?

GIBBS: Well, look, Wolf, everything that the president is going to work on in the next year or year-and-a-half is not going to be mentioned tonight. But certainly, the president is going to open this speech by talking about the new make-up of the room, the Republicans in Congress, but also the congresswoman that we all love and miss in Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. We expect, and I think the country deserves, a better political tone in our debates, and I think it's important and the president supports that Democrats and Republicans are sitting together for tonight's address, not divided in the middle by an aisle.

I think the truest test though, Wolf, is not can we just sit together today, but how do we work together tomorrow? I think that's the challenge that all of us, including the president, have in order to move this country forward.

BLITZER: There will be an official Republican response, Congressman Paul Ryan, and then a Tea Party response from Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. How do you feel about that? GIBBS: Well, I -- we look forward to hearing them both. We look forward to hearing what we know are going to be some very competing visions in the Republican Party. They have a new responsibility that the voters ushered in in November, and that is to come up with proposals and help govern this country. So we'll see what those two competing visions are tonight.

BLITZER: We're going to carry both of those responses, by the way, live, here in our coverage on CNN. When is your last day as the White House press secretary?

GIBBS: Wolf, probably sometime in mid-February. The president, I assume, will make -- will make an announcement fairly soon on who the next press secretary will be. We'll take a few weeks to transition and get a little training for -- for that individual. And then -- then I'll have the tough job of driving my son to school every morning, which I am looking forward to more than you can possibly imagine.

BLITZER: I can only imagine. But are you auditioning folks now? Are they practicing? How do you go find someone to replace you?

GIBBS: Well, look, the president has interviewed some people. Senior White House officials have interviewed some people. And I expect the president will make a decision soon. And no doubt, we'll try to do a little practice so that person can get ready to answer some of the tough questions that -- that will come their way.

BLITZER: Very briefly -- it's our last question. What's the single most important piece of advice you will give your successor?

GIBBS: Well, look, I think, to be candid, and to -- and as I think everybody that stands in this room -- their obligation is -- is to tell the truth and to let the American people know exactly what their government is up to and the decisions that their government is making each day. It's important. It's a foundation of our democracy, and it's certainly a very important today.

BLITZER: Good luck, Robert. Enjoy taking your kid to school. They grow up very, very quickly.

GIBBS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.

GIBBS: Don't I know. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're just getting in some excerpts from the official Republican response from Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, even before the dueling speeches coming out later tonight. Republican lawmakers are trying to send a tough message to the president about spending. Let's bring in our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, who's got the latest -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, you know, Paul Ryan, of course, is the Budget Committee chairman, and he's symbolically going to deliver this speech tonight in the committee room that he chairs. And that is to not just talk about what Republicans will do, but to say what Democrats, when they were in control of the House, didn't do last year. And that's this excerpt that I'll read to speaks to.

He'll say, quote, "Last year, in an unprecedented failure, Congress chose not to pass or even propose a budget. The spending spree continued unchecked. We owe you a better choice and a different vision."

Now, he will go on to say that the Republican budget, Wolf, will be a, quote, "obligation to you and show how we intend to do things differently." And he, of course, will then talk in detail, we assume, about cutting spending and what Republicans plan to do going forward, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know there was an important vote on the Hill today. Tell our viewers what happened.

BASH: It was anything but subtle, what House Republicans did today. Just right behind me in the House chamber behind me, hours before President Obama is going to speak before them. It was a symbolic move, saying that they're going to keep their campaign promise, Republicans, to cut spending back to 2008 levels, which is, of course, before the president was in office.

And Republicans earlier in the campaign pledged to cut $100 billion in spending. We're not entirely clear that that's going to happen. It will probably be less right now. But still, it is certainly going to be more than what the president will propose tonight. You talked to Robert Gibbs a little bit about the fact that Republicans across the board are saying, Wait a minute. You want a five-year spending freeze? That's not enough. We need to cut spending.

But the question still, Wolf, even with this resolution, is what are Republicans going to cut? This resolution today did not answer that. There were no numbers involved. We're going to wait for Paul Ryan, who's going to deliver that speech tonight to come up later with some numbers about how they're going to do that. It has been the question that we've been asking, and we did not know and we still don't know.

But we did learn today, Wolf, when the first real fight, the real fight over spending will occur, and that will be in just about three weeks. The Republicans will put a bill on the floor, a resolution to keep the government funding. And that will be a very, very interesting and early indication of how much they want to cut and how big a fight it's going to be with the president and the Democrats.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much. Dana's going to be sticking around all night with us.

Some members of Congress are having flashbacks to high school right now, maybe even to grade school. The great State of the Union date night, as lawmakers plan to sit with members of the other party. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The mood of the country is certainly on Jack Cafferty's mind, and Jack is here now with "The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: As President Obama gets ready to deliver that State of the Union address in a few hours, we have a new poll out that shows Americans are feeling better about the state of that union than they have in almost four years. A CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 43 percent of those surveyed say things in the United States are going well. That is a rather stunning 14-point increase in just the last month. A majority, 56 percent, say things are still going badly, but that number is down sharply from 71 percent a month ago.

The poll shows that college graduates and people in the Midwest are the most optimistic. Also, urban and suburban Americans seem more optimistic than those in rural areas. There's a partisan divide, too, as you might expect. Democrats and independents more likely to say things are going well than Republicans.

So why the sharp increase, and why now? Well, the experts say part of the reason is the public's growing optimism about the economy. But there are some non-economic reasons at play here, as well. People tend to be more optimistic at the start of a new year. Other factors could include the more civil tone in political debate that has followed the Tucson shootings, the fact that there wasn't a terror attack over the holidays and the perception that the lame duck Congress actually accomplished some things in December.

Whatever the reasons are, we'll take it. And the rise in optimism means that the president ought to be playing to a friendlier crowd tonight. Let's hope, at least, for that.

Here's the question then. What's behind America's surge in optimism? Go to to post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thank you.

And as we count down to the president's State of the Union address, we have an update on what's been dubbed "date night" in Congress. The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, had to pick a new bipartisan buddy after the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, turned him down. We're told he'll sit with Democratic congressman Bobby Scott. Even supporters of this idea to mix it up, mix up that usual party- line seating, admit it's a little bit like high school, but they argue it does send a very good message.


SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: Maybe we do need to get out of our conventional skins every now and again and come out and do something that indicates to the rest of the country that we're not afraid to sit next to one another. There are no cooties (ph) to be had, Republican between Democrat, but together we can join together in this very important speech that the president will deliver to us tonight.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King, the host of "JOHN KING USA." He's up on Capitol Hill. John, all the friendliness and the bipartisanship -- no one should be under any illusions. There's going to be some -- huge clashes in the coming weeks and months.

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, exactly right, Wolf. Maybe the date night metaphor is appropriate in the sense that the new Republican majority in the House is trying to make a first impression with the American people. That's important on date night. The president's trying to make a new impression with the American people just 11 weeks after that shellacking. A civil tone tonight, a little kumbaya in the chamber, Republicans sitting with Democrats -- that's all good. And perhaps down the road, when we get to those big partisan fights, it will help build a little respect and a little bit trust, which would be important, because you're absolutely right, huge disagreements on spending, huge disagreements about the role and the reach of government.

The president will emphatically defend his health care plan tonight in a House chamber where the new majority voted just days ago to repeal it. So whether it's taxes and spending, whether it's efforts to stimulate the economy, what the president will call investments tonight and the Republicans will call new spending, there are huge partisan differences still. But we're just learning, Wolf, how this new arrangement in Washington is going to work out. This is the beginning of a debate, and then the beginning, the early stages of trying to get positioning for the negotiations that will come down the road. So a civil tone in the chamber will be nice. We'll see how long it lasts.

BLITZER: Well, there's going to be a couple of tests coming up rather quickly in February and March, especially maybe by the end of March, when they have to raise the debt ceiling. And Republicans are saying, Unless you show that you're ready to cut this deficit, they are not going to go along with it.

KING: And even within the Republican Party there's a tug-of-war over that, so there are many layers to these challenges. The new Republicans say they want $100 billion in spending cuts. Their leadership has said, We don't know if we can get you that far, to give the debt ceiling increase. So the Republicans will have a bit of tug- of-war with themselves. Then they'll have a tug-of-war with the president of the United States. And we haven't mentioned the other chamber, which is the Senate, still controlled but narrowly by the Democrats.

So we will have interesting theater, interesting debates, interesting fights in the House, in the Senate. In the end, what's most likely to happen on all the big issues, Wolf, is the president of the United States is going to have to sit down with the Republican Speaker of the House, the Democratic and the Republican leadership of the Senate, and figure this out. But first -- first -- everybody wants to establish positioning, try to get leverage with the American people. That's why this speech is so important to the president. He has the biggest platform of all tonight, and he's looking to take advantage of it.

BLITZER: All right, John. Don't go too far away. John's going to be with us all night, and "JOHN KING USA" will come up at 7:00 PM Eastern.

Here's a little State of the Union trivia for you. Over the past decade, presidents have either worn a red or a blue tie during their annual address to the nation. President Obama actually wore red-and- white striped ties for the past two years. Does that mean he'll go with blue tonight, maybe even purple? Stay tuned. We'll find out which tie he will wear.

We're watching other important stories, including Rahm Emanuel's on again/off again campaign to become Chicago's next mayor. Just hours ago, it looked like his dream was dead, but a court is now offering the former White House insider a lifeline. That's ahead right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Kate Bolduan's monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Kate, what's going on?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Wolf. Well, we have some new video that captures the terrifying moment a bomb exploded at Moscow's biggest airport. The tape shows the flash -- you'll see it there -- the flash of the explosion, the smoke and the panic as people fled to safety yesterday. Russia's president blamed airport officials for failing to stop the bombing, which killed 35 people. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered a warning to the terrorists behind the attack, saying retribution is inevitable.

And Rahm Emanuel's campaign for Chicago mayor -- quite a roller- coaster ride. It is now in the hands of the Illinois supreme court. The court says it will fast track a decision on whether the former White House chief of staff is eligible to appear on the ballot. Yesterday, an appeals court ruled Emanuel ineligible to run for mayor because he didn't reside in Chicago in the past year. We'll see how all of that turns out.

Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura is taking aim at the TSA. Ventura is suing the agency, saying enhanced airport security procedures are unconstitutional. The lawsuit argues they violate the Constitution's 4th Amendment, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches. According to court documents, Ventura's titanium hip replacement routinely sets off metal detectors, forcing him to undergo those enhanced pat-down searches. Wolf, that's quite some hip.

BLITZER: Yes. Don't want to get into a fight with him.


BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Kate.

We're standing by for the first excerpts of the president's State of the Union address tonight. And I'll talk with a hero of the Tucson shooting, congressional intern Daniel Hernandez. He'll be sitting with the first lady tonight.


BLITZER: All right, this just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. We're learning what Congresswoman Michele Bachmann will say tonight in the Tea Party response to the president's State of the Union address. We now have excerpts from her speech.

Let's bring in our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's got the details. Jessica, what do you know?

JESSICA YELLIN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. I ran into Michele Bachmann, Congresswoman Bachmann, in the halls of Congress today, and she told us that she is not giving the official response, that we should all be clear on that, and that she will even begin her Tea Party response by making clear that it's not the official Republican response. She says she in no way in competition with Representative Paul Ryan, who is giving the official response, and that to the extent it appears that way, that's a media creation.

Now, those -- those are her words. Here's an excerpt from the speech, just one bit that they've released. These are Michele Bachmann's words. Quote, "Last November, many of you went to the polls and voted out big-spending politicians. and you put in their place men and women who have come to Washington with a commitment to follow the Constitution and cut the size of government. I believe that we are in the early days of a history-making turn here in the House of Representatives."

She also told us she will talk about the importance of adhering to the Constitution and standing by keeping taxes where they are. But Wolf, it is worth noting the Tea Party Express is officially calling this a response to the State of the Union, and they have allowed in television cameras so it could be carried live on network and national television -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We've decided to carry it live, in addition to Paul Ryan's response to the president. And of course, we'll take the president's State of the Union address, as well. Tell us what you know about the president's meeting last night with freshmen lawmakers, most of whom are Republicans.

YELLIN: I caught up with two of the Republicans who were invited to the White House last night, and each of them said that they found it to be an incredibly helpful experience because they got to shake hands and meet President Obama and Mrs. Obama, which they said humanized him for them and made it much easier for them to think about dealing with him, working with him in the future.

Two of them, I will give you -- let you listen to now. The second one is the president of the freshmen class. Listen. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The fact that he took time away from that to meet with us and to greet us with the first lady was -- was very important to me. And I think it did show, you know, good faith. And it's symbolic, but it's very important.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are going to be issues that we're going to agree on, and there are going to be issues that we disagree on. But you know, again, policy issues -- we want to keep them on policy and not personal. And I think that's what the event helps us do, is make sure that policy is policy, and we don't get into personal attacks.


YELLIN: Wolf, they also got a chance to meet with Vice President Biden, who was there, and they said they also had very nice roast beef and scallop sandwiches -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sounds delicious. All right. Thanks very much.

Jessica is going to be up on the Hill for us, too.

As we've told you, both the president and the Republicans plan to talk tonight about cutting spending. We have some brand new poll numbers on this very important issue.

Let's turn to CNN's Joe Johns.

Tell our viewers what these polls show.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is one of the most important questions you can possibly ask in politics. It's a question politicians have been asking, a question we here at CNN have been asking a lot of our viewers. So we posed that question to the people in a poll, and we got some very interesting answers.

And here's the way we posed it: "What would you cut? What's more important, preventing cuts in Social Security or reducing the deficit?" And the answer is clear, right there. Seventy-eight percent said it's more important to prevent cuts in Social Security.

We asked the same question of Medicare, and look at the results. Not even close. Eighty-one percent said preventing cuts in Medicare is more important than reducing the deficit.

But there are some things we're told Americans would like to cut, and let's take a look at that.

Among those things, foreign aid. Preventing cuts to foreign aid is OK. Eighteen percent said that would be more important than reducing the deficit.

And the last question we posed to Americans there, what's more important, preventing cuts in government pensions? Thirty-nine percent said that's more important than 61 percent, who said reducing the deficit.

So it's very clear Americans are conflicted. They are not sure where to cut. And when you look at things like foreign aid and pensions, that only makes up about four percent of spending.

We did ask the question, Wolf, about the defense budget, and it was a split. Fifty percent said you ought to cut it, 49 percent said no. Americans are tied when you look at the margin of error. It's a very difficult thing to do.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much.

And Joe is going to be sharing other poll numbers with us throughout the night as well.

Some Republicans are deeply concerned that their party won't be speaking in one voice tonight in response to the president's State of the Union Address.

Let's talk about that and more with an outspoken Republican congressman, former presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas.

He's joining from us Capitol Hill.

Congressman, thanks very much.

REP. RON PAUL (R), TEXAS: It's good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Should there be two Republican, in effect, responses, two Republicans responding on television tonight to the president, as Michele Bachmann is joining Paul Ryan in separate responses? Is that a good idea?

PAUL: Well, there's going to be a lot of people doing a lot of talking. I'll be talking about it afterwards, too, for a fairly long time, but it won't be in competition. So I don't think too much of that.

I mean, it's certainly, you know, something that people can do if they want to do it. I haven't heard that many people worrying about it, but I do think it does symbolizes, you know, that doing what we're trying to do -- and that is get this budget under control -- is no easy task. And you're not going to have unanimous agreement, you know, immediate on exactly what to do and when.

I mean, it took us about 40 years to get into this mess. It's not going to take one election to get us out of it.

BLITZER: How pleased or not pleased are you by the president's apparent move to the center since the midterm election, bringing in big business leaders like Bill Daley and others, and willing to compromise on taxes? How pleased are you by that?

PAUL: Well, I mean, it's better than being more, you know, argumentative. It sounds like there's a little bit of help, but I don't think it's going to do any good. Sometimes when I see them bringing in, you know, CEOs of certain companies that are very much involved in the military industrial complex and big government, then that suggests to me that corporatism is alive and well for both the Republicans and Democrats. But just bringing business people in doesn't satisfy me. I want less government, I want more freedom.

And, you know, they talk so much about the budget and balancing the budget. That's very, very important, and I've never voted for an appropriation. I don't vote for these budgets. But more importantly is the size of the government.

If we care about our freedoms and our policies, we have to have a smaller government. We shouldn't over-concentrate on a balanced budget.

You know, if we could cut our budget in half, and it wasn't balanced, it would be better than having today's budget balanced, because that would mean you'd have to raise a lot of taxes. So I try my best to make sure that we understand what we're talking about and get the semantics correct.

BLITZER: Are you going to be sitting tonight with a Democrat or a Republican? In other words, do you have a date?

PAUL: No, I do not. I haven't made a decision on that.

BLITZER: Why not? Everybody else seems to be making decisions on that.

Do you think it's a good idea that they divide it up into -- they used to divide it up, the Democrats on one side, the Republicans on the other side. This year, a lot of people, after Tucson, they want to sit together.

PAUL: I think it's a bunch of fluff.

BLITZER: A bunch of what?

PAUL: Fluff.


PAUL: I don't think it has a lot of meaning. But I sit with Dennis Kucinich and other progressive Democrats when we want to talk about civil liberties and foreign policy. And we do it routinely in the middle of the auditorium, middle of the House. So I think that's the only thing that counts.

I think sitting together tonight because the media has gotten hold of this and is making a big deal of it, I -- you know, I'm not against it. I hope it does a lot of good, but I still think it's a lot of fluff.

BLITZER: A lot of fluff. All right. One final question. I know you're living, at least in Washington, with your son, the newly-elected senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul. He's going to be joining us tomorrow.

How is that working out, sharing a House with your son?

PAUL: Well, it's still pretty new, you know. And on your program once I said I wasn't going to be the cook, and now I'm trying to decide on what the chores have to be.

But, no, it's working fine, and it will be fine. And I think he'll have a decision to make in about six months or so, what he'll do with his family, and where he'll have more permanent places to stay. So this is going to work out fine. It works for his schedule, and it fits my schedule OK as well.

BLITZER: He's lucky to have his dad in Washington with him. Lucky in more ways than just that.

PAUL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Congressman, thank you very much.

PAUL: Appreciate it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Gabrielle Giffords was on death's doorstep when an intern stepped in and likely saved her life. Tonight, Daniel Hernandez will be sitting with the first lady as the president gives the State of the Union Address. We'll speak to the man many people consider a hero. That's coming up next.


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

Joining us now, two CNN contributors -- the Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, the Republican strategist, Ed Rollins.

You love this idea, Donna. I read your column today. You love this date night for these Republicans and Democrats getting together.

You heard Ron Paul. He thought it was fluff.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: No, Wolf, I think it's a very important gesture towards civility. There's no question that the president is going to ask lawmakers tonight and the American people to, you know, change their discourse so that we can have honest disagreements without all of the vitriol. So this is a very important step, I believe, in building trust between lawmakers.

I heard from several today who said that they will be sitting with their delegation, not just with a member of the opposing party, but their entire state delegation. So I think this is a great first step.

BLITZER: It might not help, as my dad used to say, but can't hurt, right?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It can't hurt. And at the end of the day, a year from now will be the test, when we really are in a presidential campaign, whether they're still willing to sit next to their Republican colleagues. And my sense is anything that improves the decorum and makes the American public appreciate what these people have to do, their task, is a good thing.

BLITZER: What do you want to hear the president say tonight?

ROLLINS: I want to hear the president basically say, I really am sincere about working with the House Republicans and laying out a budget that is fiscally conservative, that we've got a lot of priorities that we can share, and this is about America, and getting Americans back to work again. And I think if he does, that the cooperation will be there.

BLITZER: What's the most important thing, Donna, you want to hear him say?

BRAZILE: I want the president to talk about jobs. How are we going to create jobs for the future?

What are we going to do to not just get our fiscal House in order, but how are we going to make America the most competitive nation on the planet? I think that is what the American people want to hear from the president, and I believe he'll deliver that answer tonight.

BLITZER: What do they want to hear from Paul Ryan, who is giving the official Republican response?

ROLLINS: Ryan has a very important role. I mean, this is his first step on the big stage, and obviously some people have faltered in the past. But he has to very clearly lay out what Republicans are about in this new Congress that they control. And it's going to be all about the fiscal conservatism. We've not had a budget for several years now, and this will be a very important -- lay it out in simple terms so that people can understand.

BLITZER: Is it good for the Democrats, Donna, or bad for the Democrats that there effectively will be two official responses from Republicans, Paul Ryan giving the official response, and another Republican congresswoman, Michele Bachmann, giving the Tea Party movement's response?

BRAZILE: There's no question that I'm sure this is causing a lot of anxiety within the Republican Caucus. Look, you want to have a United message. You want to have one rebuttal to the president, because, look, the Republicans now have a seat at the table.

They have been saying no for the past two years. They have an opportunity with Mr. Ryan to present their ideas for the future so that they can show the American people that they want to work with the president and with the Democrats to solve our most pressing problems.

BLITZER: Is it good for the Republicans that she's also giving a response?

ROLLINS: The truth of the matter is, nobody stands side by side with the president when he gives a State of the Union speech, so it really doesn't matter. My sense is I hope that she still has some of the clarity and supports what Ryan is laying out there, because we have to show unity.

BLITZER: We'll hear from the president. Then we'll hear from Paul Ryan. Then we'll hear from Michele Bachmann. We'll carry all of that live in our coverage here tonight.

And I know you guys will be a part of it, so don't go too far away.

We're expecting to get excerpts from the president's State of the Union Address. Stand by. We expect to get those soon.

And we'll talk about what the president needs to say and do with "Mr. Politically Incorrect" himself, Bill Maher. He's standing by live as well.


BLITZER: Michelle Obama will watch her husband's big speech tonight with a carefully chosen group of American heroes. Several of her guests were personally touched by the Tucson shooting rampage.

The parents of the youngest victim, Christina Taylor Green, will sit with Mrs. Obama, along with Dr. Peter Rhee, who treated Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, and the intern credited with helping Congresswoman Giffords save her life. That would be Daniel Hernandez, and he's joining us now.

Daniel, I know it's, among other things, it's your 21st birthday today. So happy birthday to you.


BLITZER: I wish we were meeting, and I know you do as well, under totally different circumstances. But tell our viewers about the ribbon that you have on your lapel right now, what that symbolizes.

HERNANDEZ: It's a way that we're honoring the victims of the tragedy that happened in Tucson on the 8th of January. And I was told before, when I was on Capitol Hill, that all the members of Congress will be wearing one or one similar to it.

So it's a small symbol of people kind of coming together and praying, and showing their support for the family members of those who lost people, and also for those who are still in critical condition, like Congresswoman Giffords.

BLITZER: Have you heard some more information about how she's doing? HERNANDEZ: I haven't. The only information that I've heard is the same information that everyone else has been hearing in the press releases.

BLITZER: How did you get invited to tonight's State of the Union Address? Who called you?

HERNANDEZ: Actually, it wasn't a call originally. It was an e- mail that was sent from someone in the White House asking if I had a few minutes to talk over the phone. And once we set up a time, the invitation was extended on behalf of the first lady and the president to join the first lady in the box during the State of the Union.

BLITZER: So what went through your mind when you got that e- mail?

HERNANDEZ: A little bit of disbelief. It was less than two weeks ago, and I was still getting ready to go back to the University of Arizona, and going back to -- starting my internship with the congresswoman.

And now, two and a half weeks later, here I am getting ready to head to the White House, and then eventually to the House of Representatives, to watch the State of the Union. It's a great honor, but it's one I wish I didn't have.

BLITZER: You're going to the White House now, and then you're going to go to Capitol Hill. Is that right?


BLITZER: And what are you going to do at the White House?

HERNANDEZ: They are having a small reception beforehand for those who will be with the first lady in the box.

BLITZER: How has your life changed over these past couple -- two, three weeks?

HERNANDEZ: It's changed dramatically, but it's not just mine that's changed. I feel like it's something that's changed the lives of everyone in Tucson, everyone in Arizona, and everyone in the country.

But personally, I think having to see the outpouring of support, not just locally, but around the world, for myself, the people who were injured, and those who, unfortunately, lost family members, has just been amazing. And having all of these events come one right after the other has been truly uplifting.

BLITZER: Have you is had a chance to meet with the congresswoman over these past couple of weeks? I know you were there when she was brought to the hospital. You helped save her life.

HERNANDEZ: I haven't had the opportunity to see the congresswoman, and I thought it would be best to allow her and her family to be together at this time. I didn't want to intrude on their time, because it's definitely something that should be private.

BLITZER: When you see the president in the next hour or so at this reception at the White House, do you have anything special you want to share with him?

HERNANDEZ: Just my gratitude for the message that he started to spread on Wednesday, the day of the memorial, which was we are one strong American family -- 300-plus million strong, I think is the way he phrased it. So thank him for the strong unifying message which he's been putting out, which a lot of others have kind of started to echo in the last couple of days.

BLITZER: Well, Daniel, thanks very much for joining us. And as I said to you the last time we spoke, thanks very much for what you did on that Saturday morning. You did an amazing, amazing thing, and the entire country is grateful to you for that.

Good luck.

HERNANDEZ: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Daniel Hernandez joining from us Washington.

The president steps up to the podium tonight with a chance to build on his growing momentum if he says the right things. Just ahead, more on what the president will say to the nation tonight.

And the state of Lebanon's union is anything but strong right now. The nation appears to be edging perilously close to civil war. We're going to Beirut. That's coming up next.


BLITZER: A cry for freedom across North Africa and the Middle East today.

In Egypt, the call was crushed as police used tear gas to subdue crowds. As many as 20,000 people marched in Cairo, demanding an end to the rule of the president, Hosni Mubarak.

Protesters in Tunisia kept up the pressure on the country's government. They're demanding new elections soon, but the interim prime minister has only promised one in the next six months.

And in Lebanon, supporters of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, declared a day of rage over the appointment of a new premier backed by the militant group Hezbollah.

The fury on the streets of Beirut led the former prime minister himself to ask his supporters to dial back their anger, but there's no doubt Lebanon's fragile peace is at risk right now.

Our senior national correspondent Nic Roberts is in Beirut with the latest.

What is the latest there, Nic? Because the stakes there are enormous.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They're huge. And the riots were so bad this morning, one news organization had their satellite truck burned by demonstrators on the streets.

It seems much quieter now tonight. There were demonstrations just as dusk was falling. Rocks thrown at the army, stun grenades also thrown at the army, but it does seem much quieter right now.

I just had an opportunity to go talk with the new prime minister- designate, Najib Mikati, and he's laid out to me how he sees the future is going to be.

But the first question I asked him, I said, "Look, you're seen as Hezbollah's prime minister here." And he said, "Just wait a minute." This is a multibillionaire, a Sunni, not a Shia. He says, "Wait a minute. Don't judge me too soon."

I said, "Do you want a good relationship with the United States?" And he said, "That's very important."

We just got back from that interview. I've got a short clip to play you. Listen to this. He says he really wants to honor Lebanon's current commitments.


NAJIB MIKATI, LEBANON'S PRIME MINISTER-DESIGNATE: Lebanon is a continuing (ph) system. It is not just a -- there is a kind of coup d'etat of changing government. I have to maintain and honor all previous government (INAUDIBLE). I'm not coming here as a coup d'etat at all.


BLITZER: Nic, this is a tenuous moment in Lebanon right now.

ROBERTSON: Well, there he is answering the critics, these demonstrators -- well, it is, because the next thing he has to do is form a government. And one of the people he's got to convince, he says he wants to convince to get into that government, is Saad Hariri. And if he doesn't get him into the government, and he struggles to form the government that he needs to form, there will be a political vacuum.

And it's the violence as we saw today in that political vacuum that's so dangerous, because one spot can escalate so far. That's one of the reasons Saad Hariri came out on TV today, and as you said, told us --

BLITZER: Told them to dial back a little bit.

All right. We lost that signal, but we'll check back with Nic.

The stakes in Lebanon right now, in Egypt, Tunisia, it's dramatic. In the next hour, we'll go to Cairo and see what's happening there.

The chief White House speechwriter sharing some secrets about what it takes to put together a State of the Union Address. Stand by.


BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: What's behind America's surge in optimism? There was a 14-point jump just in the last month, and people who are feeling pretty good about the way things are going in the country. However, not all these people agree.

Ernie in North Carolina, "We're not so much optimistic as realistic. We all know the Congress, the president, et al will accomplish next to nothing. We're exhausted by the talk. We've moved on to other things."

"We've come to accept a new normal of 9 percent unemployment, no health care, higher costs, higher taxes. More people are passionate about the Steelers and Packers coming up in a couple of weeks than about the State of the Union."

Paulette in Dallas writes, "I'm not buying it. Give it time. The other shoe will drop."

Silvia in San Diego, "Nothing. Get real. The people that were polled must work and live in Washington, where all the jobs are."

"The pollsters need to poll people in the big cities where the unemployment rate is over 10 percent. See how much optimism they find there."

S.T. in Virginia, "Contributing to the surge in optimism is the rebound in the auto industry and better-than-expected results reported by companies such as Apple."

Ron writes, "Who is optimistic? Not me."

Jerry in Toronto, "False hope, Jack. Sorry to have to say that, but it's the same old spin from the political leaders that have raised people's optimism. The reality is America still has tough times ahead. Debt is too high and growing, jobs still falling like water overseas."

"Nobody has put a cork in that bottle yet. Until America gets its ducks in a row, the optimism will be short lived."

And Greg in Texas, "Why the optimism? Not a clue. However, since we're all feeling warm and fuzzy, sitting together and such, maybe the Tea Party could join with the Green Party and form the Green Tea Party. They would be fiscally conservative, recycle, and be much healthier."

If you want to read more on this, go to my blog at

It's a treasure chest of little gems like that.

BLITZER: It certainly is, Jack. Thank you.