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America's Economic Anxiety May Affect President's Reelection Chances; NATO Escalates Air Strikes in Libya

Aired June 8, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Good evening. Tonight, stunning new proof of America's economic anxiety and how it affects President Obama's odds for winning a second term.

NATO escalates its air strikes and talks openly of bombing its way to regime change.


ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: Gadhafi is history. It is no longer a question of if he goes, but when he goes.


KING: Up first tonight, a new graphic image and mounting pressure from fellow Democrats for Congressman Anthony Weiner to resign. Those calling for the New York Democrat to give up his House seat include the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee Tim Kaine who is now a candidate for Senate in Virginia.

And they include Pennsylvania Democratic Congresswoman Allison Schwartz who is tasked with recruiting House candidates nationwide for key contests in the 2012 election cycle. Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is tracking the growing political fallout. Dana --

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, more and more calls for Anthony Weiner to resign re coming in literally by the minute. You know, since late this afternoon, six of Weiner's fellow Democratic congressmen said that they think it is time for him to leave Congress.

I'll just read you one from Congressman Joe Donnelley of Indiana. He said, enough is enough, it's time for Congressman Weiner to resign. His actions have disgraced the Congress. That's just an example of what we're seeing. You know, I'm told now not just the private calls are coming but -- public calls I should say are coming, but also private calls that this is mounting this afternoon.

A Democratic congressman familiar with these conversations tells me that they are now telling Weiner it is time to leave, to resign Congress, to preserve his dignity. Democratic congressman told me, John, that the issue is there's just increased resentment among Anthony Weiner's fellow Democrats particularly in the House of Representatives.

That they thought this press conference he gave, which you're seeing pictures of there on Monday, would do away with this, but that the flames are getting worse and he's dragging us through it, John.

KING: And, Dana, do we have any sense of how the congressman is reacting? He's obviously hearing from his colleagues whether it's directly from them or from his political associates and staff. How is he responding to this pressure?

BASH: You know, we don't -- I can tell you from this Democratic congressman I spoke to, the answer to that question was that they believe that he's truly conflicted and he said the people around him are conflicted as well.

This congressman said nobody knows if this effort -- effort to get him to resign -- is going to work. We've heard his statements, Weiner's statements very clearly up until yesterday that he has no intention of resigning.

So it is unclear whether or not that is actually going to happen despite this pressure. We should note that this is very new. The sound of silence, deafening silence from his colleagues up until today about the whole idea of resigning that changed in a big way today.

KING: In any sense, any ability to connect the dots? In the sense that you say it's new. The House is not in session this week. All these members are back home, is it your sense or your information from sources that they're hearing about this in far-away places like Virginia, like Arkansas, and the like to the degree that they think we need to do something about this?

BASH: Yes, I mean, some of these statements coming from congressmen as you said and senators from Arkansas, from Indiana, from Massachusetts, are coming from responses to questions that they are getting from local reporters.

And because the buzz is going on about this among their constituencies that are not close to where Anthony Weiner is at all, which is why we're hearing there is this growing resentment according to this one Democratic congressman and frankly lots of other democratic sources I've been talking to.

KING: Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash tracking the fallout. Remember, it was Monday evening that Congressman Weiner admitted sending a lewd photograph to a college student over his Twitter account.

He also acknowledged inappropriate internet exchanges with roughly a half dozen other women. One of those women provided photos she received from the congressman to the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Tonight, there's an x-rated image purportedly of Congressman Weiner making the rounds on the internet.

Now Breitbart says he showed that photograph to two radio hosts today to prove it existed and says that while he was in the studio someone without his knowledge snapped a photograph of that image and then put it up on the internet.

Breitbart says he regrets that. We are not going to show you that image, but it could factor into the debate about whether the congressman can survive politically.

Let's check in with Jay Jacobs. He's the state Democratic Party chairman in the state of New York. Mr. Chairman, simple question, should Congressman Weiner resign?

JAY JACOBS, NEW YORK STATE DEMOCRATIC CHAIRMAN: I think he's going to have to make that determination. I don't think it's going to be productive for people calling for it. I think it's the people in his own district that hired him. They're the ones that are going to decide whether they fire him.

He's got to talk to the people in his district. He needs to talk to his colleagues as well and his family. I think we've got to give him a little breathing space. This is something that is indefensible. I'm not going to defend his actions.

But I think he needs a little bit of time. You know, we always rush to get an outcome. I think sometimes it's smarter to sit back for a few moments and let him make that determination.

KING: And as you asked for that time, though, if you look around the country, the former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, now a candidate for senator of Virginia, says he should resign.

Another conservative Democrat Mark Pryor, he's a senator from Arkansas. He says he should resign. More importantly in my view, Allison Schwartz, a congresswoman from Pennsylvania, yes, just one congresswoman, but she's charged with helping the party go around the country and recruit candidates for 2012. She says he should resign.

A growing number of Democrats clearly think this is more than a unique issue for the congressman. That it's a national distraction, if not problem.

JACOBS: Well, I agree with them. I think it is a national distraction. Unfortunately, you know, we were -- he just won a great victory in New York 26 with Cathy Hockle in a surprise upset of a Republican district because of the way the Republicans have dealt with the Medicare issue, the budget.

We were on a roll as Democrats and now we're districted by this. So I very much understand that they would like to move off this, get the spotlight off Anthony Weiner, back on to national issues where we are doing very well, as we should be. And I can agree with that.

By the same token, I think it's one thing to call for somebody to resign, it's quite another to get them to do it. What I'm just suggesting is I think Nancy Pelosi did the right thing in calling for an ethics inquiry. I think that the congressman should cooperate with that inquiry 100 percent.

He's indicated he's going to do that. I think most importantly, he has to talk to people in his district. He has to see whether his chances of remaining a congressman are at all viable. They're only viable if the people in his district who hired him are prepared to forgive him. That's what this comes to.

KING: Well, there's a poll out today, a slim majority, 51 percent of the people in his district say he should not resign from Congress. That poll taken before -- sometime these stories have a drip, drip, drip effect to them.

Another photograph released today, this one extremely graphic. We can't say for sure it's from the congressman, but making its way around. Does that make a difference to you?

JACOBS: Well, I think it's just awful. I think, again, you know, the longer this goes on, the worst it gets, the worst it is for him. There's no question about it. He -- only he knows what's out there. Only he knows the facts that will be determined in an ethics inquiry if it comes to that.

If it turns out it is worse, than obviously letting this thing drag on is not productive for him, for the country, for the party. So I would say that's a different set of circumstances. But you know, this is a human tragedy as well.

You know, in the political world, we're very quick to look at it from the political perspective and to try to do what's best for us politically. It's human, too. I know Huma. I've met the congressman numerous times.

I can't say I know him well but I do know him and we've talked. I think it's just a tremendously unfortunate thing.

KING: Jake Jacobs is the chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee. Sir, thanks for your time tonight.

JACOBS: Thank you.

KING: Still ahead, the president's top political adviser David Axelrod joins us. We'll get his take on the Weiner scandal and more importantly his sense of how the sluggish economy complicates his re- election campaign planning.

But next, refugees flee Syria by the hundreds and NATO talks openly of bombing Libya's Gadhafi until he leaves power.


KING: Tonight, hundreds of Syrian civilians are fleeing what they expect to be a bloody government offensive. Cnn's Ivan Watson watching developments from Turkey just across the Syrian border.

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, the effects of the ongoing violence in Syria is starting to spill across the borders here in Turkey. Within the last 24 hours, Turkish official news agency reports more than 220 Syrian refugees have crossed over the border at places like this over my shoulder. A border that is not being policed by Syrian security forces right now. We've seen scenes of up to 100 Syrian refugees camping out along the frontier apparently demonstrating in front of Turkish soldiers here. All of these people appear to have fled the Syrian border town of Jisr Al-Shugur.

That's a scene of some deadly clashes in the past of couple of days. The Syrian government claiming that at least 120 of their security forces were killed there by armed groups a couple of days ago. The refugees that are fleeing that city, they say, in fact, it is the Syrian security forces that opened fire on unarmed anti-regime demonstrators.

That town now described as a ghost town. Shops closed up and many people frightens civilians camping out under the stars along this frontier. They say they will come into Turkey if they see any signs of the Syrian security forces in this makeshift safe haven along the Turkish/Syrian border. Back to you, John.

KING: Let's gives you a sense of just where Ivan Watson is. You see the town here he was talking about where the violence and the border is up here. As you zoom in and see, talking about refugees leaving from here and getting up in here so they can escape the border into Turkey if necessary, a mounting humanitarian crisis.

We've been talking about the crackdown for days. We'll keep our eye on that. There's word tonight from the United Nations that the Security Council is preparing a resolution demanding an end to the violence in Syria. A vote may come in a few days despite the threat at the moment of a Russian veto.

Arwa Damon is with us now from Beirut. Arwa, over the past several weeks, there's been a lot of international condemnation of Syria. Now the United Nations Security Council to act on a resolution that says, stop the violence against your people, free political prisoners, stop the restrictions on the media and the internet. Is there any reason to believe that the Syrian regime will listen to the United Nations Security Council?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, John, there isn't, especially not if the regime's past behavior has been anything to go by. Already, they have come under new renewed sanctions by the U.S., by the European Union. There's already been an incredible amount of international condemnation.

And the only response that we have really seen when we look at what's happening on the ground is that the regime appears to have intensified its military onslaught. The issue also with this resolution is that even though it does call for these actions by the Syrian regime, it is not necessarily threatening any sort of severe action if the regime does not comply.

It is not threatening additional sanctions. It is not going as far as the resolution on Libya went, to threaten any sort of military intervention. So other than being something of a slap on the wrist, there really isn't that much pressure that this resolution is putting on the Syrian regime, especially when it comes to bringing about some sort of resolution to the bloodshed, John.

KING: And Arwa, what do your sources telling you about the situation on the ground? We have seen refugees fleeing. We have talked about the violence in recent days.

What's your sense of what's happening on the ground, especially in the northern part of the country where we've talked about the fears of retaliation and more military crackdown?

DAMON: Well, John, those fears still exist and have only been amplified. We were speaking with a resident of where it appears this military crackdown is centering on and he was describing columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, being stationed at two entrances to the city, to the east and to the south.

So pretty much he was explaining that the only escape route at this stage is through the north. That at least the Syrian military has not blocked off. He was describing an area that sounded exactly like a ghost town. Video that emerged on Youtube showed row after row of shops being shut down.

Residents who have remained, who have chosen not to flee, are really bracing themselves for the worst, fearing the Syrian regime is only gearing up for an even harsher crackdown than what they have witnessed to date, which has already been a military crackdown that just in this one area of Syria, John, over the last few days, has already claimed dozens of lives.

KING: Dozens of lives. We'll continue to watch it with our Arwa Damon in Beirut. Arwa, thank you.

KING: In Libya today, thousands of troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi attacked the rebel-held city of Misrata. Rebel fighters rushed from the city to the front lines.

Tonight, they say they're holding up against this latest onslaught. This attack comes just a day after intense NATO airstrikes on Tripoli. This morning, the NATO secretary-general said it is time to make plans for the post-Gadhafi era.


RASMUSSEN: The time to start planning is now because Gadhafi's reign of terror is coming to an end. And we must be prepared for when it is over.


KING: Let's discuss this with our CNN senior political analyst David Gergen. He's advised four U.S. presidents. David, I want to start with something you wrote this morning on You have been on this program.

You've been critical of the administration essentially taking a back seat, letting others in the NATO alliance be on the front lines of the fighting. You wrote this, this morning, I was among those who would have preferred stronger, more assertive American leadership, but if Gadhafi falls, Obama will have bragging rights that his way worked better than critics like me thought.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, John, I think there have been a lot of signs here in recent days that Gadhafi is coming toward his end. I think we've entered -- remember when Nixon's final days in that famous book by Woodward and Bernstein?

I think we've entered Gadhafi's final days. Don't know how long they're going to last. I think it could end quickly despite his sort of raging. But the intensification of the airstrike on Tripoli, they've basically destroyed much of his compound. He's essentially a fugitive in his own capital now. Trying to get away from any place they can bomb him.

The Russians have turned against him. The Turks have turned against him. Russia has now sent an envoy there to begin negotiations, to mediate, to get him out of there and very importantly, the inner circle is starting to crumble. There are more people who are now -- generals and others who are defecting, as well as ministers.

So I think he's getting down to his, as I say, I think he's going down to his final days. In terms of interpreting how this was done, if -- Obama took a risk. If Gadhafi had been there for six months, I think he would have lost that gamble and he would have been seen as ineffectual. If he brings him down soon, I think it's going the other way. John, you know, they got Bin Laden. If they get Gadhafi too, that's a pretty good summer for President Obama.

KING: About three months right now. What's interesting, David, I don't think any tears will be shed if Gadhafi goes. No tears will be shed. The question would be, how is the transition plan, but do you find it at all striking -- you just heard the NATO secretary- general there, Mr. Rasmussen, saying that essentially it's time to plan for the post-Gadhafi era.

This comes after they dropped 50 bombs in one day on Tripoli, 40 of them aimed at the compound of Gadhafi. The United Nations resolution says nothing about regime change and yet NATO now openly, even though at the beginning it said the mission was not about regime change, openly talking about we're going to bomb you until you go.

GERGEN: John, it's a really good point. This mission has clearly morphed. It's been done without, you know, without anybody really questioning it. That's one of the reasons why it's important that the Russians have turned against Gadhafi.

Because they were the ones who were, you know, along with the Chinese who were really protesting the NATO mission to start with. And said, you know, this is going to morph and now it's morphed and they're coming with us. A lot of things have changed.

You have to say that if we get him, if he is toppled -- and I do think he's going to be toppled, either dead or alive, I think he's going down and going down fairly soon. That with U.S. playing a secondary role, one which I have gone the other way, I would prefer the U.S. in a more muscular role, but if the Obama approach works, you have to give him credit for it.

There is, John, this continuing question about who's going to run the place after it's over. I do not think our intelligence knows as much as they would like about who the rebels are and what kind of government they'll have.

We've been, you know, there's been disappointment in the administration about the directions that Egypt is tending toward. And there could easily be disappointment on Libya.

KING: Post-Gadhafi Libya would present a whole new set of challenges. I think, David, you're right, the administration would prefer to deal with those than continued Gadhafi holding on.

Our senior analyst, David Gergen. Appreciate your insights tonight. Up next, hear the day's big headlines and just an exclusive interview with David Axelrod. He's president's top political adviser. He's moved back to Chicago to run the campaign here in Washington for a day. His stops include right here.


KING: Welcome back. If you're just joining us, here's the latest news you need to know right now. A lightning strike this afternoon in Mississippi sends 77 Air Force cadets to the hospital. The commander of Camp Shelby that's in Hattiesburg tells CNN everyone is responsive and in stable condition.

The Senate this afternoon refused to delay new regulations cutting the processing fees banks charge every time you use your debit card. Today's vote is seen as a victory for merchants and a defeat for the big banks.

Inspector general's report says 4,200 people including prisoners, children and even some dead people pulled a fast one on the IRS by getting a deduction for buying a new car when they didn't qualify. It cost taxpayers $151 million. The IRS tells Reuters only a tiny portion of the claims were fraudulent, but still unacceptable.

Upcoming, a new video message from al Qaeda today. Next, Zawahiri's poem about the death of Osama Bin Laden.


KING: A new video message today from the man the world knows as Osama Bin Laden's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri calls for Jihad and condemns both the United States and in his words, the treacherous Pakistani government.

He also calls the Arab spring a disaster for America and the video includes a poem eulogizing Bin Laden.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The man didn't surrender to the last minute of his life. He was killed among his family and his children.


KING: With us now, our Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve. Jeanne, it is significant to the terrorism analyst I assume that this is a videotaped message not an audiotape.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is interesting, a little bit more complicated to produce and distribute a video message. It's particularly interesting because of the security risk this must have posed.

The assumption has been a lot of al Qaeda leaders are worried after Osama Bin Laden's death and the gathering of that treasure trove of information in Pakistan. The feeling was that Zawahiri and others were lying low in order to protect themselves.

And the fact that he went through the effort to distribute this now may indicate he was very anxious to be heard and to be seen. One of the analysts pointed specifically to the use of a courier, saying it was a courier that led the U.S. to Bin Laden.

He had to have used couriers in this instance. It must have meant he wanted his name and face out there for followers to see, John.

KING: And his name and face out there for the followers to see, is it, forgive the word, it's an American word I guess, but is he staking his claim, to be the new number one?

MESERVE: Well, I've seen different interpretations. He does not end this video, say, "I am the next leader of al Qaeda."

One analyst I talked to said maybe it's just too crass to do that, that soon after bin Laden's death. Another said maybe it's just a matter of sequencing that al Qaeda has not yet given him the nod and said he will officially be the third -- excuse me, the next leader.

But there's also another theory. This guy is not particularly popular within al Qaeda. He could be a difficult personality.

And some people have said he wanted to get his name and face out there, front and center, to proclaim, "I'm the guy, I'm delivering the eulogy for bin Laden, I'm your man, I should be the next leader of al Qaeda."

KING: Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve -- Jeanne, thanks for your help tonight.

And for more on the significance of Zawahiri's message today, our CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen is with us -- along with national security contributor Fran Townsend, who served in the Bush administration, now a member of the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security external advisory boards.

Peter, you know al Qaeda as well as anyone. When you saw this message and then listened to the content, what is the most significant to you?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think it's quite significant that this is an official recognition by al Qaeda that the leader is dead, from their effective leader, number two -- even if he hasn't assumed the position of number one. So -- I mean, for the people around the world who say, hey, bin Laden's alive or it was an American setup or some of the things we've heard, I think this is going to be pretty powerful kind of recognition that here you have Zawahiri in a videotape saying, yes, my colleague is dead, and describing the circumstances of his death.

KING: And, Fran, if you're analyzing this in the United States government, as an intelligence operative, an intelligence analyst, try to write a memo to the president of the United States, what's your takeaway here?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, a couple of things, John. You know, he was very careful in the videotape. You look at the background. You can't tell very much in terms of location information that you might use for targeting, can't really tell very much from that.

But Jeanne's report is quite right -- he must have used a courier. And so, that's a good sign, targeters, you can be sure, will be trying to identify who that is for the next videotape.

The other point I'd make here, John, is it's interesting, he's trying to embrace the "Arab Spring." Look, the -- this whole democratic movement throughout the Arab world is completely inconsistent with the theology and ideology of al Qaeda, but it's very popular and it's got a lot of momentum behind it, and it's unseated many ladders, many -- some of whom al Qaeda wanted to see unseated.

And so, what you see now is Zawahiri and al Qaeda trying to wrap their arms around it and act as though this is something good for them.

It's not good for them and it's inconsistent with what they're trying to achieve.

KING: And, Fran, this tape will be analyzed by the president's national security team. And we've talked in recent weeks about a lot of turnover in that team. You have information tonight that another top counterterrorism official will soon be saying farewell.

TOWNSEND: That's right, John. Two sources have confirmed to me that Mike Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center has notified the president and White House that he plans to leave his post. The National Counterterrorism Center is the one that coordinates sort of all the analysis and information related to terrorism. He was notified -- in fact, he got married the weekend of the raid against the bin Laden compound. And so, he said he's leaving probably sometime in the next six weeks or so.

The search is on to find his replacement. They've spoken I understand to Stuart Levey, a very senior Treasury official in the Bush administration. There was some mention of Juan Zarate, who was deputy national security adviser at the White House for counterterrorism when I was there. But no successor has been named or identified by the White House.

And so, I think there's a real urgency to make sure that position isn't left empty.

KING: We'll keep our eye on that.

Another key player in what they call AfPak, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is where this debate is most vibrant right now, where all the questions, where they believe al Zawahiri is, somewhere in that area, is Ryan Crocker. He was the ambassador to Iraq. He will be the ambassador, once confirmed by the Senate, to Afghanistan.

And I want Fran and Peter, you both listen to this -- I guess I'll call it a sober assessment from Ryan Crocker of the chances for success and what will be left behind when the United States says "mission accomplished" in Afghanistan.


RYAN CROCKER, U.S. AMB. TO AFGHANISTAN NOMINEE: I certainly don't come with such an intention to produce the perfect society. We can't. But I think by judicious use of resources and conditions-based redeployments and transfers of responsibility as we'll begin this July, we can get to that sustainable stability.


KING: Sustainable stability, Peter and Fran, sustainable stability. This is the troop levels in Afghanistan. The president took up his 34,000. He's ramped up to 100,000. They believe they're making progress because of that.

Over the course of the past decade, nearly 1,600 Americans have lost their livings in Afghanistan fighting the war.

Sustainable stability -- that's the best the United States can hope for, Peter?

BERGEN: Yes. I mean, you know, in the 1970s, Afghanistan was a country at peace with itself and its neighbor. So, it's not dream revision for a stable Afghanistan. It's a country where GDP has grown 22 percent in the last year or so. A lot of good things have been going on. Clearly there are some bad things.

But, you know, the president faces a big choice in the next month about what size the drawdown should be. I've heard figures of around 10,000 out of 100,000 that you showed on the board. And then, of course, you know, the surge itself is going to be drawn down within -- by the end of 2012. That's another 30,000.

So, there were some sort of incremental steps along the way here in terms of the troop numbers.

KING: We'll watch as this plays out. Peter Bergen here with me. Fran Townsend, thanks for your insights tonight. We'll watch.

The president does have a key decision, as Peter makes, how fast to start drawing down those troops.

When we come back, a man who is helping the president with that decision and other decisions. David Axelrod is the top political adviser to the president, left the White House to run the re-election campaign. He'll be right here to talk about challenge number one for the president, trying to be re-elected in a tough economy.


KING: Our new CNN poll out tonight includes stunning proof of the economic anxiety driving your family conversations and our national politics.

Eighty-one percent of Americans say economic conditions in the country are poor. Perhaps no surprise, given the national unemployment rate, 9.1 percent, and other recent reports showing a soft housing market and other economic troubles.

Track President Obama's schedule these days and you will find more and more events like today's stop at Northern Virginia Community College.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are too many people out there who are still out of work, without a job that allows them to save a little money or to create the life they want for their families. That's unacceptable to me. It's unacceptable to all of you.


KING: So, let's discuss the president's challenge in the economy and other issues with his top political adviser David Axelrod, here in Washington, away from the campaign headquarters for the day.

I want to get to the economy and the challenge facing the president but I want to ask you -- as the leader of the Democratic Party, does President Obama think Congressman Weiner should step down, give up his congressional seat?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISOR: I've not discussed this with the president. I would think the Congressman Weiner would want to consult his constituents and his conscience and make a decision. And I'm not going to engage in that discussion here. KING: But what does it tell you? As the president's top political adviser, as a veteran Democratic strategist, Tim Kaine, the former Virginia, your choice to be the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he gave up that position to run for Senate. He says Congressman Weiner should resign.

Is that likely to be a pressure -- a question every Democratic candidate has to answer and won't they find that to be a distracting nuisance?

AXELROD: Well, look, I think that this will resolve itself one way or another, you know, fairly quickly. I have great respect for Tim Kaine. He's a wonderful guy. And I respect his opinion.

But, ultimately, the decision rests with Congressman Weiner. And, you know, I'm sure he's -- he's doing a lot of soul searching.

KING: I want to focus on the biggest challenge facing the president. He was out today in Northern Virginia Community College, talking again about jobs, talking about some of his plans, his proposals to invest more money in schools like that, to invest more money in infrastructure, to invest more money in research and development. However, with the certainty of a Republican House that doesn't agree with the president on those proposals and others, will he have to go into the election campaign essentially without any new specific proposals on job creation because he can't get them through the Congress?

AXELROD: Well, look, I'm not going to presuppose that the Republicans in Congress won't see all that and feel the same sense of urgency that so many of Americans do to continue to be working toward recovery. What the president was talking --

KING: They just have different ideas? The president's wrong, they would say?

AXELROD: Well, that's fine. And that's what elections are about. And if that's where it lies, then we'll have that debate during the election. It would be a shame to lose time.

The president was talking today was creating alliances between community colleges and manufacturing businesses, advance manufacturing businesses, to train workers, to take good jobs that can be available. I would think people would be for that. They should be for that.

But if they're not, then that's what elections are about, John. And, you know, that's something I think is important to understand. Elections are not referendums. Elections are choices.

The president will provide his vision for the future -- the things that he's driving toward, to restore middle class economic security, not just to recover from the recession but also to recover what middle class people have lost over a long period of time in this country.

And the Republican Party can offer their ideas. So far, what we've heard is very much like what we saw during the last decade that led to a catastrophe. But, you know, that is what we will be discussing when the campaign is in full gear.

KING: The president touched on that a bit today. He said, I think most Americans don't want to go back. And it's clear to me, as a student of politics, clear to you, what he's talking about. Many Democrats are starting to mumble and complain. Some of them, the president needs to be more clear what he's talking about. He needs to be more specific, more critical, more contrast, if you will.

Too early for that or does the president need to get them on (ph)?

AXELROD: I think that there'll be a natural engagement on these issues. I keep telling everybody, though -- you know, most Americans aren't sitting around their kitchen table saying, boy, I can't wait for this campaign to hit full gear. I want to hear politicians debating each other and so on. They're more focused on their lives and we should be more for cussed on what we can do to help in that regard.

I know in Washington, every day is election day. But the truth is election day is 16 -- 15-16 months from now. And, you know, for the time being, we should be focused as much as possible on those things that can help people and help this economy move forward.

KING: So, then, how then can the president address those concerns? Because you're right, the election is a long way off. And an election, in the end, is about choices. But sometimes, it's also about psychology, how voters feel about their country and about their economy when they go to the polls.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans now disapprove of how the president is handling the economy. This is a stunning number, David, from our new poll just out today.

How are economic conditions in the country today? Nineteen percent of Americans say good. Eighty-one percent, eight in 10 Americans, say poor.

If eight in 10 Americans think we have a lousy economy, do you see any prospect of this president being re-elected?

AXELROD: You know, I've been down this long winding road before with you and others, both in the last election and over the last several years. Just a few months ago, you know, the story was, well, his numbers are up, things are looking better. There will be -- there will be twists and turns in this road. And we've done well by not getting too excited when things look great and not too excited -- not too dismayed when things look bad. You just have to keep focused on where you're going and what you're doing.

KING: Can't have David Axelrod in the house without going over to the map -- if you can come with me.

AXELROD: OK. KING: It's going to be a different election. You changed the map last time, but at this time in 2007, Iraq was the number one issue for the electorate. Right now, of course, we just discussed the economy, by far the number one.

I want to take this down. This is your map from 2008. You're very familiar with it.


KING: The blue states, Obama. The red states, McCain. I'm going to circle some here.

There's two right here. There's another one here. There's one here. There's one here. There's two out here. There's one over here. And there's one over here.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight -- what I just do right there?

AXELROD: Well, you circled what figure to be battleground states in 2012.

KING: What I circled are states that Barack Obama turned red.


KING: They were George W. Bush states, blue. When you take nine of these, there are nine total, many already say that you're going to give up on Indiana, that that is a state that looks much less favorable in 2012 than it did in 2008. Fair?

AXELROD: I'm not writing anything off now, John. We have enough time now to work on a very broad battlefield and that's what we're going to do. That was the philosophy we brought into the race in 2008 and it served us well. So, we have the time, the resources and the energized group of volunteers around the country to work on all of these fronts.

KING: What is the biggest single difference, the biggest single difference, when you look at the map now compared to the opportunities you had -- and it was a very pro Democratic climate in 2008 -- what's the biggest difference?

AXELROD: Well, obviously, we're the incumbent and these are -- these are -- have been challenging times from the moment we took office and people feel those challenges in their lives. So, that is the fundamental difference. And everybody understands that.

But, you know, we believe -- first of all, we believe in this country, in its capacity and we believe in its future. And we believe if we -- if we do the proper things, if we're both fiscally responsible and we invest in those things that will give people their best opportunities, then we're going to do well. And we're going to go out and make that case.

KING: We'll bring you back in when you get an opponent. David Axelrod, thanks.

AXELROD: Thank you.

KING: And if you take a close look at this map, you know, Obama was the Democratic candidate, McCain in '08. Who will that Republican be? Who will that Republican be in 2012?

Well, we're five nights away from the CNN only debate New Hampshire. Seven Republican candidates will be at that debate. One of them will be right here when we come back, the Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. He's a long shot. He thinks he has a chance. We'll talk to him about the big issue -- just ahead.


KING: We at CNN are excited to bring you, just five nights from now, the first major Republican debate of the 2012 cycle. It is an only-on-CNN event. For the first time, we've have all the major declared Republican candidates on the same stage.

Let's take a look. Here's our national map. This debate will be in the first primary state of New Hampshire. And our candidates will be there.

Herman Cain is the businessman; the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty; Congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican; Massachusetts governor, the former governor, Mitt Romney; Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives; Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; and senator -- former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. These are our seven candidates for our debate Monday night in New Hampshire.

Now, maybe many of you may think it's too early for politics. I'm going to ask you to think again. The sputtering economic recovery virtually guarantees a competitive general election and there are some fascinating dynamics and policy differences among these candidates right here as the Republican Party looks for a new leader.

On this program, we're going to visit with the candidate from time to time so that we and you get a better sense of who they are and what they would do if elected.

Tonight, one of the GOP long shots, Rick Santorum, he's down here on the end, the former congressman and senator from Pennsylvania. He lost his re-election bid in 2006, but he hopes his support among conservatives gives him a foothold in the 2012 presidential field.


KING: If you were the president of the United States today, and you had a situation like that of Congressman Anthony Weiner unfolding in the country, whether that congressman were a Democrat or a Republican, would a President Santorum speak out or would a President Santorum say, "None of my business"?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: President Santorum would say none of my business. And, you know, this is an issue that's a tragic one. It's one that frankly I would have handled differently if I was in Congressman Weiner's place.

But I don't think this is for the president the United States to speak out on. This is an internal matter of the House and they should deal with it.

KING: You said you would handle it differently. How?

SANTORUM: Well, I -- if I was -- if I'd done what Congressman Weiner done, I'd be worried about my family and getting my life back together and not try to go out and be a congressman and try to profess to be a leader of this country. I think that, you know, I would have taken different steps. I would have stepped down and done what's best for the people that I love.

KING: In a Rick Santorum presidency, would you try -- if it's not done by the time you get there, to make Medicare essentially what the congressman is proposing? It's a voucher program. Not a guaranteed you get endless benefits from the federal government, but instead, elderly Americans get a contribution from the federal government that they then use to go out and find private insurance. Is that the way to go?

SANTORUM: Yes, it is the way to go. And, first off, it's not -- it will not be endless benefit. Obamacare changed that. As you know, John, the Independent Payment Advisory Board actually now has -- responsible for cutting Medicare and for doing things to, I would argue, end up rationing care to seniors.

If we don't change Medicare, this is what Medicare is headed right now. It's one of the reasons that Medicare was cut by over half a trillion dollars through Obamacare. But what Paul Ryan has talked and I have talked about in the past is changing Medicare in a system -- well, let's just say identical to how Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program, now functions. I don't hear Democrats saying we're throwing seniors off a cliff because Medicare Part D is a program that subsidizes seniors' premiums to go out and purchase private health insurance for drugs today.

That's how Medicare Part D works. It works well. Seniors like it.

And guess what else, John? It came in 41 percent under budget since it's been in effect. Why? Because seniors are engaged in choosing the insurance that fits them best.

KING: You mentioned your position on Social Security. You lost your seat in part because you supported President Bush when he said allow Americans to take a portion of what would go into the Social Security trust fund, their payroll taxes. Allow them to take a portion. Maybe it's 10 percent. Maybe it's 20 percent, and invest it in private accounts -- essentially invest it on Wall Street.

Would a candidate Santorum and a President Santorum push for that change? SANTORUM: No, I -- we can't anymore. We're not in a situation where we could do that. When we proposed that, I proposed back in the '90s, back in 1997, I actually went on Air Force One with Bill Clinton and traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, and represented the Senate Republicans in that Social Security forum and made that argument.

But we were running in the surplus in Social Security. In fact, we were scheduled to run a surplus for the next 20-plus years. And I thought that would be a nice on-ramp to allow people to take that surplus that wasn't needed to pay current benefits and use that to start personal accounts.

Well, we don't run a surplus anymore. And to finance private accounts would cost a lot of money and would put us in an even deeper deficit position. I just don't think that's possible right now.

We're back to where I said we would be if we didn't do this and that is -- we're either going to have to raise taxes or cut benefits. Some combination of that is going to be necessary and, unfortunately, that's where we're stuck at.

KING: Rick Santorum is a proud social conservative, anti- abortion, anti-gay rights. You say that you have no problem with homosexuals. But you don't like homosexual acts.

A majority in the country, 51 percent, say gay marriage should be recognized by law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage. In our latest polling, 51 percent to 47 percent on that.

Would a President Santorum push for a constitutional amendment as President Bush once proposed, banning same-sex marriage?

SANTORUM: I support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. I think that marriage should be consistent thing across the country. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman. It's essential for the family. It's essential for the stability of our culture, to make sure that children are given the best hope, which is a mom and a dad.

And if we lower our sights for those children, we're robbing children of -- many children -- of the potential of having a mom and a dad by changing the standard of what society believes in. And I think that's important. I also think it's important from the standpoint of religious liberty and standpoint of what our children are going to be taught in school.

You know, every time this issue has come up on the ballot, California to Maine, people have said, well, this is going to pass in places like this. Polls show people very much in favor of changing the traditional marriage definition and it's lost every time.

Why? Because once people realize the consequence to society of changing this definition -- it's not that we're against anybody. People can live the life they want to live. They can do whatever they want to do in the privacy of their home with respect to that activity. But now you're talking about changing the laws of the country and it's going to have a profound impact on society, on faith, on education. And once people realize that, they say, you know what, we respect people's rights to live the life they want to live, but don't try to fundamentally change how society functions by changing that definition.

KING: Ask you a couple of other quick questions in closing. We are about three months into the NATO operations in Libya. The president said he believes Gadhafi will be gone in time. It's just a question of when, not if.

But a President Santorum had handled Libya differently?

SANTORUM: Very differently. You know, what president -- I can't imagine handling it any worse than the president going out and saying that Gadhafi has to go, doing nothing about it. Then engaged in attacks as a result of the United Nations and the Arab League and the French saying that they want America to participate and saying, well, I don't want -- I don't want Gadhafi to leave, and now coming back and saying, well, he has to leave.

I mean, it's been all over the map. And it's committing American resources for a very unclear objective. And, you know, I think what you have to do in the case of Libya is make a very quick assessment as to whether the rebel forces were such that we could engage and be -- and work with and would be cooperative with, and it would be a group that we could have tremendous influence and take this -- take Libya in the right direction.

I don't think we made that assessment. I'm not too sure what that assessment would have been. But from my perspective, if you couldn't make that assessment, then we had no business being in Libya in the first place.

KING: Let me close with this one. As President Obama, you've been very critical, in your announcement speech, as you've explored your candidacy. Has he done anything right?

SANTORUM: Yes, I think -- I mentioned that -- I think he's done a good job in Iraq. I think he's continued the policies that were successful toward the end of the Bush administration. He's finished those out. I think Iraq now is doing well.

I think he kept Gitmo open which was -- which was something that I think he did the right thing in keeping that open.

And I think he did the wrong thing on interrogation and enhanced interrogation techniques and the like. But at least on those two things, I would say he's probably done the right thing.

KING: Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in Iowa today, we'll see you in New Hampshire Monday night.

SANTORUM: Thanks very much, John. Appreciate the time.

KING: And we'll see you right here tomorrow.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.