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Interview With Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; Secret Service Scandal; Should the Rich Pay More?

Aired April 17, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm John King.

Tonight: Investigators from the Secret Service scandal insists there's no evidence of a security breach, but get this. They also say they have proof some 20 prostitutes were brought back to a hotel that was supposed to be as secure as a bank vault.

On this tax deadline day, a debate that will echo until you vote in November. Should the rich pay more and can President Obama be trusted with your money?

And the final journey of the space shuttle Discovery is a jaw dropper. A monument to the space program swoops in low past the monuments of our democracy.

We begin with embarrassing new revelations in the Secret Service sex scandal even as the White House officials come to the defense of the agencies embattled director. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan tells Republican Senator Susan Collins as many as 21 women were involved and the implicated agents range from relative newcomers to some with nearly 20 years experience.

Moments ago, I spoke with the House Intelligence Committee member and former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: This is an organization that we have trusted over the years and that is why this so utterly shocking and why it deserves the investigation that it needs. Clearly this didn't just happen overnight. Clearly this seems to have been a culture that was fostered over time. Members of Congress are taking this very seriously and we want answers.


KING: Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is with us now.

You have new details about the involvement of members of the military in this highly embarrassing series of events.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. That's right. According to a senior U.S. official this person says that this investigation they believe will ultimately find that all of the following U.S. military personnel were involved in this scandal. I'm going to look down at my notes. But there were five Army special forces services involved, two Marines and two Navy personnel belonged of whom to an explosive detection unit and one member of the Air Force.

Additionally, another senior U.S. officials says a colonel has been dispatched to Colombia to conduct the investigation. This is separate and apart from the investigation that the Secret Service is conducting into the allegations that their personnel were involved in the prostitution scandal themselves -- John.

KING: With those new details, that leaves us just shy of a dozen members of the military. We know 11 Secret Service personnel involved. It sounds like at least for now the White House is standing by Director Mark Sullivan. Is that fair?

YELLIN: Absolutely, yes. It's more than fair.

Jay Carney, the press secretary, here says that the president has confidence in the director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, that he acted swiftly and appropriately in starting an investigation and keeping the president informed of what's going on, that the White House would like the Secret Service to handle the investigation and that it is their responsibility to do it sort of separately and on their own and that the White House respects the Secret Service for what it does every day.

Basically, it's their job and let them do it. And the way -- what I hear and sense here, John, is that the White House really doesn't want to have to get involved in this one, more than they already are, and that they don't sense political fallout from this, at least not yet -- John.

KING: At least not yet.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, with some new details tonight, that Mark Sullivan reaching out to key members on Capitol Hill as well and as of now, no indications of any major lawmakers also suggesting that he is imperiled.

Now shifting to one of your biggest concerns which also is one of President Obama's biggest reelection worries, that is the price you're paying at the pump. Today the president sent Congress a five-point plan. He says it will rein in market speculators who he blames for bidding up the price of crude oil.

The president defended the need for new regulations by talking football.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Imagine if the NFL quadrupled the number of teams but didn't increase the number of refs. You would end up having havoc on the field. And it would diminish the game. It wouldn't be fair. That's part of what's going on in a lot of these markets.


KING: My favorite referee, our chief business correspondent Ali Velshi is here.

Ali, how would this work and would it actually work do what the president says he hopes it would do, bring down the price at the pump?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: That part is a touchdown, the fact he said you have got have the regulators keeping up with the changes that the people who they are regulating are undergoing.

So people who trade oil or trade any kind of or commodity or stock these days are so sophisticated. They have great technology and they can get execute trades faster than anybody else. The government has to be able to keep up with that. In answer to you real question and the question of all of our viewers, absolutely not.

I would be surprised if this has any impact on the price of gas at all. Here's what the president basically called for today. Number one, he wants to boost the oversight that the security -- the Commodity Future Trading Commission has over the trading of oil. He wants to increase funding six-fold to the CFTC.

He wants to increase the fines 10-fold on people found to be guilty of manipulating the price of oil and he wants to raise the margin requirements. If you buy stock of General Electric, you want to buy 100 shares, you have got to put all of the money down for those shares. When you trade oil, you only have to put down 5, 6, 7 percent.

He's thinking if you have more skin in the game, you will be less likely to manipulate. but the example I give you is back to the housing crisis. We know so many things went wrong with the people who valued your home, the bankers who sold you the mortgage, the forms that were filled out. Fixing all of those things that went wrong doesn't actually affect the price of houses. It just fixes things that were wrong.

The president is right on to want to fix them, completely wrong to suggest that somehow this will reduce the price of gasoline.

KING: You heard the president today, he's blaming speculators. You have heard him in the past blaming greedy oil companies, saying they don't deserve their tax subsidies. When it comes to the markets and the price, who's the real villain?

VELSHI: First of all, oil companies and their subsidies, that's a very valid question. There are a lot of people who think why would these companies that are so wildly profitable today get subsidies?

Let's talk about speculators. Everybody is a speculator. Everybody who has ever bought a house in this country is a speculator. There's nothing wrong with speculation. What the president is really and what he should have been talking about is price manipulation. People who manipulate the prices.

Who is involved in the market for buying and trading oil? Number one there's the producers, the people who buy oil futures because they have to sell oil and they want to guarantee that they get a good price regardless of where it goes. They buy oil futures.

Then there are consumers. I have used as an example airlines. Airlines buy a lot of oil. They want to know how much it's going to cost them. They buy oil futures and contracts. Then there are investors, people that have nothing to do with needing the oil. They don't produce it. They don't take delivery of it. They just see it as an alternative to investing in the stock market or the real estate market. They're investing to make money, nothing wrong with that, John, no matter what anybody says. There's nothing wrong with that.

That's like me buying a house because I think it's going to go up. There is nothing illegal. And then there are something called market makers. These are people who take advantage of the differences in the markets. We use the term arbitrage. These are banks. These folks may have some impact. It's hard to tell how much in the price of a barrel of oil or a gallon gas they have got impact on.

When we have found price manipulation in the oil market, that's where we have generally found it. That's where the president's reforms will come into play. Ultimately it's not a big part and I'm going to get a lot of tweets about this. It's not a big part of the price of oil.

The real reason oil is where it is, is because we use a lot of it in the world and the countries and people who produce it manage that to make sure they make a lot of money.

KING: The president unlikely to get what he called for anyway. The leading Republicans in Congress calling it a big gimmick. We will see how this plays out. Appreciate the help breaking all that down, our chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi.

Here in Washington today, treated to just a magnificent sight in the skis. The space shuttle Discovery perched, you see it there, on its jumbo jet carrier. That's quite a piggyback, flew in low over our city's famous monuments this morning to the delight of tourists and many longtime residents.

The shuttle destined for a museum just outside of our nation's capital.

Our own Lizzie O'Leary is there.

Lizzie, this pilot initially goes where he's supposed to go, to Dulles International Airport, but then he takes a detour. What was that all about? .

LIZZIE O'LEARY, CNN AVIATION AND REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, this was probably the biggest victory lap you could have for the shuttle program, which has come to an end.

Basically what happened is Discovery got this piggyback ride on the back of this specifically modified 747. They flew over us our here at Dulles and then flew over all of you in downtown Washington. I know our staff snuck out by the windows to take a peek.

What is essentially going on here is a chance to people to see this Discovery in this lap. Remember the shuttle program has come to an end. Discovery flew basically 39 missions, 148 million miles, and it actually spent about a year in space if you log all of its time together.

It was also a very important part of rebuilding the U.S. shuttle program after the Challenger disaster. I talked to one astronaut today who flew in Discovery in 1992, joined the program in '86 which was obviously a fateful year for NASA. What you will have now for folks is a chance to get up close with Discovery.

It will replace the Enterprise, which is the shuttle behind me. That one will go to New York. Discovery will come in here. People will be able to take a look at it.

KING: You talked about the logistics that has to be done. Part of that is getting a shuttle that weighs over 200,000 pounds off the top of that 747. Besides your help and I know you work out, how are they going to make that happen?

O'LEARY: This process is called believe it or not de-mating. Think about it that way.

It takes about two days. What will happen is it's kind of like reverse taking something with a crane. They will lift the Discovery off of the top of that 747 and it will come here. It will actually go nose to nose with the Enterprise. They will sort of point at each other for a little while.

They will be able to do it in about two days so by Friday people can come in and look at Discovery. The Enterprise will actually go up to New York. Eventually all of the different shuttles still around that were part of the shuttle program will reside in places where Americans can come and get a chance to look at them, get a chance to look at part of what was a very storied U.S. shuttle program that had a 30-year run -- John.

KING: Lizzie O'Leary getting a sneak peek. Millions more will follow you to see the Discovery at the Smithsonian soon. Lizzie, thank you so much. A spectacular sight here in D.C. today.

As we move on, more than two-thirds of the people that we asked in our polling they say the tax system is unfair. They think it's titled in favor of the rich. Stand by for a feisty debate on why Washington can't or won't do anything about it.

Later, the one-time presidential candidate Michele Bachmann tells me why she's not yet ready to jump on the Mitt Romney bandwagon.


KING: I hope all of you already know this. It's tax day. The time is ticking for those procrastinating taxpayers to beat the midnight deadline.

Whether you file early or at the last minute, a lot of Americans do seem to agree on one thing when it comes to the tax code. A new CNN/ORC poll out just today shows that 68 percent of Americans think the current system is tilted to favor the rich, not fair for the rest.

A bit earlier I spoke to two men who you might say are on the opposite ends of the campaign tax debate. Grover Norquist, he's the president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform. And Austan Goolsbee, who was President Obama's chief economist.


KING: Want our viewers to get a sense of the major tax proposals of these two candidates for president, President Obama, the incumbent Democrat, and Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee.

Here's what the president says. Implement the Buffett rule. Make millionaires pay more, he says. Lower the corporate tax rate to 28 percent and raise taxes for couples making over $250,000 a year. That would be by letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

Governor Romney says, no, reduce tax marginal rates by 20 percent and lower the corporate tax rate to 25 percent and make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

Austan, to you first. In terms of pro-growth, creating jobs, which is a huge problem in the economy right now, anything in the Romney plan that is superior to the Obama plan? Can they learn from each other?

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE, FORMER CHAIRMAN, COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS: Well, look, I think the Romney plan is not fully specified.

We heard the day before yesterday from the fund-raiser that the Romney campaign is proposing to limit some deductions, but the number of deductions they proposed to limit is far lower than the tax cuts they are proposing. So they are actually just proposing a multitrillion-dollar tax cut heavily weighted to high-income people.

I think we tried that approach specifically through the 2000s and it's not pro-growth. Someone needs to come up with the evidence that that actually works.

KING: It's a strong political argument, Grover, if you can make the case. This is just what George W. Bush tried. Where were all the jobs?

How is Governor Romney at any different from President Bush or how is the environment any different?

GROVER NORQUIST, PRESIDENT, AMERICANS FOR TAX REFORM: First of all, we need to reduce spending both from what Bush spent, but certainly we need to undo the massive overspending that really kicked in, trillion dollar deficits that the Obama administration started and the next 15 years are going to be the 15 largest deficits in the history of the country.

So we can see what he's planning to do to us. We already know this because he ran four years ago swearing up and down, again and again and again, he'd never raise taxes on anyone, any way, anyhow who earn less than $200,000 a day. And 16 days into his president, two weeks into his presidency, who did he tax? Buffett? Rich people?

No. Cigarette smokers, about 20 to 25 percent of the population, average income $40,000. The only rich person in the country who smokes cigarettes is named Barack Obama. We already know his promise not to gut the middle class -- and there's seven taxes on the middle class in Obamacare directly.

We know that he's going to raise taxes on the middle class. He's already started to do it now. His promises aren't worth the paper they are written on.

KING: Austan, let me ask you this. The president twice in the past has infuriated liberals by extending the Bush tax cuts, saying in a sluggish economy, can't raise taxes. If the jobs report next month and the month after is anemic, like last month, would the president drop this Buffett rule or is he locked in here?

GOOLSBEE: You know, I'm not sure what the hypotheticals are.

The previous statement that Grover made, it was outrageous and not believed by anybody who's anywhere remotely near the center of the party. As I said, the facts are, the president cut taxes for the middle class by $400 billion.


GOOLSBEE: The fact that a guy going to a suntanning parlor, that there's a health tax associated with suntanning parlors does not change the fact that the share of income that people in the middle class are paying in taxes is the lowest in 65 years. The president cut their taxes dramatically and overwhelmingly.

NORQUIST: The taxes are low because there's a recession and the economy is lousy. That's why the tax burden is low on everybody.


GOOLSBEE: The president passed the Making Work Pay tax credit, cut the payroll tax, increased the earned income tax credit, increased tuition credits for people whose kids go to school. We can go down the list of hundreds of billions of tax cuts...


NORQUIST: The promise was he wouldn't raise taxes. And he did. The promise was he wouldn't raise anybody's taxes. And he did. GOOLSBEE: The president promised through the campaign -- no. The president promised through the campaign that he would pass the Children's Health Initiative.

NORQUIST: And not raise other taxes.


NORQUIST: He said it again and again and again.


NORQUIST: The president's own words. You can't use an Etch A Sketch and make the president's promises go away. That won't work. He lied to get elected.




KING: Austan, go ahead.

GOOLSBEE: All right. The president said that we need a Children's Health Initiative, which the bill was drafted before he was ever elected and it includes the increase in the cigarette tax.

He promised through the campaign that he would sign it because children's health was that important. To say that he was breaking his promise, it wasn't. He specifically said that he would sign a bill that was already in practice. Once he got into office, he cut taxes for middle-class people by $400 billion. So to say that he increased taxes on the middle class is totally not true.

KING: Grover, Austan makes the economic argument there, the math argument for the deficit. If you look at our polling, again, even a plurality of Republicans say it would be OK with them if it's part of a bigger package. What's wrong with it?

NORQUIST: The president has made it very clear, whenever he gets on additional tax revenue, he spends it, plus more.

You can ask people the question, do you think if we raise taxes and reduce the debt, it will be good? The answer is yes. Do you believe that Obama will use any tax increase to reduce the deficit? The answer is no.

KING: A feisty disagreement on this tax day.

Gentlemen, this will continue 200 days until the election. We will revisit it some day in the near future.

Austan Goolsbee, Grover Norquist, appreciate your time today.

GOOLSBEE: Great to see you. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Our first glance anyway at our latest polling looks like bad news for Mitt Romney. But dig a little deeper and you find tonight's "Truth." Romney's fortunes are actually on the rebound.

And, next, that beautiful glass trophy that means Alabama is national football champion. Oops.



KING: Today brought some new revelations of wasteful government spending, and, yes, it involves that same government agency already under fire for its extravagant convention in Las Vegas.

And, also, the former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has been talking to Mitt Romney, she says, but not endorsing him yet.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: I had a wonderful conversation with Governor Romney. And we will continue to progress forward, because my goal has been to be a voice of uniting our party.



KING: This half hour, Michele Bachmann says she wants to unite the Republican Party. So why hasn't she endorsed Mitt Romney? I'll ask her.

And you've heard about those federal workers partying in Vegas on your dime. How about a week in Hawaii for one ribbon cutting ceremony. Or a getaway just for interns. New stories, humiliating stories of how the GSA spent your money.

Plus a sleepy pilot sends his plane diving 400 feet when he mistakes a planet for an oncoming plane. The details about just what happened in that cockpit.

The rally around the Mitt Romney movement picked up some big steam today. Key endorsements on Capitol Hill. House Speaker John Boehner and the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, say they're now ready to get behind the overwhelmingly likely Republican nominee.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER: And I will be proud to support Mitt Romney and do everything I can to help him win.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: We're all behind him and looking forward to the fall campaign.


KING: Not everyone, of course, has jumped on the Romney bandwagon, including Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who not long ago was a Romney rival for the nomination. She's my guest now from Capitol Hill.

Congressman [SIC], are you ready? Is it time to back Mitt Romney?

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: Well, I think just like you saw in 2008, when Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped out of the presidential race, there were 18 million women that had gotten behind Senator Clinton. And it took some coalition building time for those women to be comfortable with Barack Obama's candidacy.

And I think what we're seeing right now, it hasn't hardly been a week yet since Senator Santorum dropped out of the race. We're seeing coalitions coming together. As you saw, the speaker of the House and the Republican leader of the Senate have come out today for Governor Romney. And I think we're seeing coalitions, whether it's social conservatives, Tea Partiers, they're assessing the situation. And I think that we will be seeing that coalescing and the uniting around our nominee. I have no doubt.

KING: But why aren't you ready just yet? The governor could use your help.

If you look at our latest polling, registered voters support for president, among women, Obama 55, Romney 35. A huge gender gap, Congresswoman. Governor Romney needs your help, and he could use it now. What's he lacking? Why haven't -- why aren't you ready to come on board?

BACHMANN: Well, there's a huge gender gap that Barack Obama has to deal with, too. It's a male gender gap. Men don't necessarily trust Barack Obama, especially with what he has done to the economy.

And again, we will see uniting within our party. But the gender gap is there. Barack Obama has a big problem when it comes to men.

KING: But what about you and women? Has Governor Romney called you? Has his campaign reached out to you? Are you looking to see something before you say, "Bang, I'm ready to sign on"?

BACHMANN: Well, after being involved in 15 debates with Governor Romney, we are friends and we've been friends for a long time with all of the candidates. And last week I was in contact with Rick Santorum. I had a wonderful conversation with Governor Romney.

And we'll continue to progress forward, because my goal has been to be a voice of uniting our party. And I'm a mother of five children and 23 foster children. And sometimes there's negotiations that go on. But we are seeing a coalition building. I'm very excited with what I'm seeing. Not a lot of bumps in the road, but I'm very exciting -- excited about bringing factions together. That's what I want to do: be a voice for uniting our party. KING: Give him some advice. You're in good standing with social conservatives, in good standing with the Tea Party. Governor Romney announced the beginning of his vice-presidential search process the other day. What kind of person should he pick? Should he pick a woman, for example?

BACHMANN: I thought it was a very good statement coming from Governor Romney, that he will be choosing someone who's pro-life as his vice presidential candidate. That's very important for a party. We're the party that stands behind the protection of defenseless, innocent human life. And I think that he sent a very powerful signal, and I know that some pro-life groups have already gotten on board with them, as well.

And again, this is what we're doing. It doesn't happen overnight. We're in the process of coalescing and uniting, and it's all in due time.

KING: Should Michele Bachmann be on that list?

BACHMANN: For -- for uniting? We will all be coming together, yes.

KING: As he looks at potential running mates, should you be on that list?

BACHMANN: Well, he'll make that decision. That's up to the governor. We trust him to make the wisest decision for his team and for our party. And we know that he'll do that.

KING: Let me ask you another question about our recent polling. Last year in 2010 in particular -- we're in 2012 now -- the Tea Party was the flavor of the month if you will, the driving force in American politics. If you look now at...

BACHMANN: It's more than a flavor of a month, John. This has been a long-term presence. This will keep. This is a two-year presence so far.

KING: So why these numbers? Favorable opinion of the Tea Party movement, 34 percent. Unfavorable, 43 percent. Unsure, 23. Why are more Americans now saying, "We have an unfavorable view" than a favorable view?

BACHMANN: I think what's even more important is the fact that people who call themselves Tea Partiers stand for the Constitution. They stand for "we're taxed enough already," and they believe that government has to stop spending more money than what it takes in.

When people know that that's what the Tea Party stands for, they say, "Hey, that's me, too." People share those dreams and goals.

And the Tea Party as an organization isn't looking at building itself up. It's looking at these ideas and issues. This is what they want to progress in the halls of Congress. And I think this fall President Obama won't be able to make the sale on any of those scores. He's a tax increaser. He's spent way more money than any other president has in past times. We've seen it with his debt accumulation. He's accumulated as much debt in one term as George Bush accumulated in two terms.

That's not going to sell well with the American people, and that's why I think he's going to have a very hard time this November. I'm very confident that our nominee will be able to win. It will be a tough fight. We've got to come together, but it can be done.

KING: Congresswoman Bachmann, appreciate your time tonight.

BACHMANN: Thank you, John.

KING: Thank you.

BACHMANN: As we learn more and more of the horrible details, we now know this. The spending scandal at the General Services Administration, well, it didn't start in Vegas, and it didn't stay there. We're learning that Vegas conference, $800,000 plus wasted of your money is just the tip of the iceberg. Your tax dollars also paid for -- ready? -- trips to Hawaii, Napa Valley, even a Palm Springs retreat for the interns. Here's one of the men on the front lines, GSA executive Jeff Neely, in a photo just released by a House committee. You see him there with a glass of wine in a tub in a Las Vegas resort. He pleaded the Fifth again today and didn't even show up for the hearing.

Here's our CNN congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.


DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Not only did this 2010 over-the-top Las Vegas GSA conference cost taxpayers more than $800,000, it turns out the lead conference organizer, regional administrator Jeff Neely, took eight trips to Vegas to advance it, for $147,000.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My anger and frustration has finally gotten to a boiling point.

BASH: As tales of extravagant spending unfolded during this five-and-a-half-hour hearing, it's clear why.

REP. TIM WALZ (D), MINNESOTA: But 44 bucks for breakfast? I'm a big man. I can't spend 44 bucks for breakfast. Somebody had to say that. Are you kidding me?

BASH: The GSA inspector general who investigated it put it this way.

BRIAN MILLER, GSA INSPECTOR GENERAL: We turned over every stone, and every time we turned over a stone, we found 50 more.

BASH: The organizer, Jeff Neely, seen here in what appears to be a Las Vegas hot tub, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights for the second day in a row, but he was very much the focus.

Story after story of allegedly skirting and breaking the rules, maybe even the law, to have a good time on the taxpayer dime. For example, it's against government rules to spend money for meals at meetings unless awards are given out, like here in Las Vegas. So they regularly made some up.

Listen again to the man investigating the whole thing.

MILLER: It was a running joke in Region 9 that, in order to get food, you had to give out awards. One of our witnesses characterized them as, I guess, fake awards and jackass awards and things of that nature.

BASH: Mindboggling excess went far beyond Las Vegas. A 2010 conference for interns in Palm Springs cost $150,000. Two months ago after the GSA inspector general warned the administrator about Neely's extravagant spending, Neely brought his wife along on a 17-day junket to the South Pacific, paid for by taxpayers.

And just last month, a conference in Napa Valley wine country, costing $40,000.

One GSA official said she raised a red flag, to no avail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You notified the regional administrator, Ruth Cox, about the upcoming junket and expressed concern, right?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what happened?

BRITA: I expressed concern and asked her to review the plans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that called it off, didn't it? No.


BASH: That is what really made these already angry lawmakers even more furious, that even after senior people at the GSA were told about Neely's extravagant spending, over-the-top spending, really, they still allowed him to squander hundreds of thousands of dollars more, John. As the chairman of the committee put it, you wonder why there is so much distrust of government.

KING: You wonder and every day more and more. Senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash. Dana, thanks.

Coming up, the GSA and the Secret Service scandals. A competence question. Might they end up being good for Governor Romney?


KING: You know the old saying, looks can be deceiving. Well, polls can be, too. We're getting a very good reminder of that today. For example, our new CNN poll shows that 56 percent of Americans have a favorable view of President Obama. Just 44 percent view Mitt Romney favorably. Bad news for the presumptive GOP nominee. Right? Not so fast. Romney's up ten points from February. Meaning now that the Republican primaries are effectively over, he's beginning to get a second look.

New Pew Research Center numbers out tonight also show a bit of a Romney rebound. President Obama leads nationally but by four points. That's down from 12 points just a month ago.

Tonight's "Truth" is a reminder. Reading polls can be like riding a roller coaster. And a lesson that, especially this far out, 203 days until you vote -- that's election day -- there are other benchmarks that are much more trustworthy.

The president's job rating, not personal popularity, is one time- tested data point. Forty-nine percent of Americans approve of how President Obama is handling his job. The last three incumbents to win a second term, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan, were all above the critical 50 percent line at this point in their reelection year.

Now, that number will rise or fall largely on the economic news over the next few months. Last month's jobs report, for example, there are new worries about the strength of the economy.

There's also, though, what I will call the competence question. It was a major factor in the collapse of President Bush's political standing. In his case, it happened in the second term.

And the news of recent days makes it a challenge now for President Obama. In the last administration, the Bush administration, it was bad management of the Iraq war and then the Katrina debacle that raised the competence debate.

The GSA and the Secret Service scandals are nowhere near the scale of Iraq and Katrina. But they do raise confidence and management questions, and they give the president's critics an opening.


REP. JEFF DENHAM (R), CALIFORNIA: The American public deserves to have money paid back, and where crimes have been committed, people will go to jail.


KING: Now, the GSA administrator has lost her job. So far the White House is standing by the Secret Service director.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has confidence in the director of the Secret Service. Director Sullivan acted quickly in response to this incident and is overseeing an investigation as we speak into the matter.


KING: Let's be clear. It's more than a stretch to pin the blame for any one or two agency failures directly on the president, but these instances do feed into the Republican argument that President Obama is a nice guy but a bad CEO.

Truth is, they'll likely need more embarrassing headlines and more weak economic news to be able to make that stick. But you can be sure the competence question will be front and center in the Republican argument for now, November.

Joining us to talk truth tonight, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger; Romney senior campaign advisor Kevin Madden; and CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.

When you look at these things, Kevin, you have a lot of experience on the Hill, too. You know how this town works. GSA scandal, Secret Service embarrassment with the military, does it reflect on the president, whether he's a Democrat or Republican?

KEVIN MADDEN, ROMNEY SENIOR CAMPAIGN ADVISOR: I do think it reflects on the president. I think -- what happens is, but it's -- it's by fiat, I think. It reflects very poorly on the way things are being run in Washington.

And in the public's mind, the person who's in charge of the way things are going in their government, the person who's in charge of the tone and any progress made in Washington, in large part that falls to the commander in chief, the president. The buck stops with him.

And so all of these different things that the public has outrage with -- spending, mismanagement in the GSA -- it becomes emblematic of what they don't like about Washington, and they blame the person at charge, the person at the top.

KING: When you look at these, Maria, as a Democrat, I have to assume it's the GSA one that makes you cringe, because the Democrats have to make -- Democrats have to make the case...


KING: ... it's in the Democratic, DNA, the government is an instrument of good. You send us your taxpayer dollars, we will do good with it. We will help people with it.

And then you see this. I'm not going to use the word that pops into my head when you see it. And it could be -- does the president -- he is the president. Life and politics are sometimes unfair. Nothing to do with it personally. He's in charge.

CARDONA: That's right. And you're right. It does make us cringe. I think it's making all of the American people cringe, and Democrats are no different. But I think that you have to look at these -- right now at least the isolated incidents. And when you look at the whole of what President Obama has done these four years, that's what the American people are going to judge him on.

And right now it's still front and center with the economy. There have been 4.1 million jobs created. If the jobs report continue to go up, that's what this president is going to be judged on. Ii think these right now are isolated incidents. I think that at least they have said the right things, and Democrats are as outraged as Republicans are on the whole GSA thing. I agree with the Republican that you just showed, that this -- money should be paid back.

But again, I think right now these are isolated incidents, and President Obama is going to be judged on what he is doing with the economy.

KING: I remember early on in my tenure in Washington, back when the dinosaurs were roaming the earth here...

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I was around, too, by the way.

KING: ... Jack Kemp was the housing secretary. And man, he moved on and Sam Pearson before Jack Kemp, like I said -- and all of these things were happening in the bureaucracy and you talked to people, and they had no idea. They had no idea. That's one of the problems here. When you see the GSA, if you're in the Obama White House right now you're thinking, "OK, where else do we need to look and look fast?"

BORGER: Well, and since Republicans run the House, you can be sure that they're going to start saying, "OK, if this happened at the GSA, where else was mismanagement going on?"

And it does, to your point, speak to a competence question. People want a competent president of the United States. They don't want a person who seems to be a captive of Washington, because they don't like Washington. And the closer that the president is drawn to mismanagement in Washington, the bigger problem it becomes for him.

You know, he's standing by the head of his Secret Service right now, and so he has put himself out on a limb there. He's been very angry about the GSA. The question is whether the public is going to differentiate.

MADDEN: That is the key. And Maria and Gloria both make good points about the public's outrage and that there's Democrats -- you know, they're expressing outrage.

It's whether or not the actions match what the public really wants to see as far as change in Washington, and I think that's going to be the biggest challenge here. And I don't have much confidence that the White House will be able to navigate it.

KING: Well, let's talk a bit about what I'll call the Romney reboot. You're essentially clinched. You're essentially clinched, and you've got to deal with your problems. It happens to everybody. President Obama, then Senator Obama had the map (ph) for being Hillary Clinton. As Michele Bachmann noted earlier, you had to reach out to Clinton voters.

Romney's got a chance, too. In our polling, it shows the American people are pretty open-minded. Already know enough about Governor Romney, 45 percent say yes. Fifty-three percent say they plan to give him a look.

As he gets this second look, I want you to listen to him here, borrowing a line from Senator Clinton about his critics.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There will be an effort by the, quote, "vast left-wing conspiracy" to work together to put out their message and to attack me. But they're going to do everything they can to divert from the issue people care most about, which is a growing economy that creates more jobs and rising incomes. That's what people care about.


KING: Kevin Madden, he's on Breitbart TV. That's a conservative outlet there. But should he be complaining when you're in a position to get a second look, or no matter -- when anyone asks him a question, even if he does want to complain, shouldn't he pivot to make it about his economic message, rather than the left-wing conspiracy?

MADDEN: You know, I've come on the show, and I say when the polls are really bad, I say, hey, the polls are just a snapshot in time. Right? I'm going to say that when they're really good, too. Because I'm going to be consistent there.

And I think the reason that the governor -- there's a much more -- larger persuadable audience out there that hasn't made up their mind yet on the right or the left. I think that's where the governor is focused. And the reason that he is getting a second look and he's had an opportunity to be able to grow his favorability and grow his numbers is because he is very focused on the economy.

And I think you're going to see the White House with the Buffett rule, with the calls for tax returns, they're going to wave a lot of these shiny objects. But the public is very focused on the economy.

KING: As a member of the vast left-wing conspiracy. I want to show some pictures. We have Mitt Romney sitting down at the picnic table with some families today in Bethlehem Park, Pennsylvania. He's trying to show -- this is one of his issues, one of the biggest issues for the governor is proving he can relate to people. And you see him there. That's a smart image for a campaign. I might loosen the tie. But as a member of the vast, left-wing conspiracy, you see they're trying to address their problems.

CARDONA: Well, of course, because they desperately need to make it seem like he can relate to normal people, which up until now has been a huge problem for him.

We see in the poll, huge problem with women. We know that with that kind of gender gap he's not going to be able to win the election.

But he's got two problems. The first one is, even though Americans are -- 53 percent of Americans are willing to give him a second look, he has been running for five years. He is pretty much a known quantity. So he's got to be very careful in how he has given that second look, No. 1.

No. 2, he already has been very clear in what he wants to do and the positions he has taken in order to gain the nomination. It's going to be a lot harder for Americans to...

BORGER: You are doing what Democrats want to do which is remind.

CARDONA: Of course, we want to remind, remind him about what exactly his own words were.

MADDEN: Neither of the two were under 50 percent on the economy.

KING: Two hundred -- 200 plus days. The conversation will continue. Guys, thanks for coming in.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. And Erin, you're looking at the lawmaker's pet projects. What are some of the examples you found of the egregious, wasteful spending?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: There is a pretty egregious one out in Hawaii. Don't they have the wonderful things in life without special earmarks? There's some pretty egregious ones out there. We're going to share them. And Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma is going to be our exclusive guest to talk about that.

Also, a terrible story, John, about a soldier, an Army soldier missing in Fort Bragg, went missing apparently this weekend. No one knows where she is. Kelly Bordeaux is a private first class. We are joined by her sister tonight to try to find out what happened to her. Police say that she could be in danger. We're going to find out why.

Top of the hour. Back to you.

KING: We'll see you in just a few minutes. Erin, thank you.

A sleepy pilot sends his plane diving after mistaking a planet for a plane coming right at him. That's what he says. Now we have new details about just what happened in that cockpit.

Plus President Obama asked if he could get behind the wheel of a NASCAR champ's Chevy.


KING: Welcome back. Here's Lisa Sylvester with the latest news you need to know right now.

Hello again.

SYLVESTER: Hi there, John.

Well, add Australia to the list of countries speeding up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Under a plan announced today, Australia's troops would be out by the end of 2013, a year ahead of schedule. The Australians have about 1,500 troops in Afghanistan right now. The U.S. has 90,000.

An Air Canada pilot woke up from a nap so groggy he thought the planet Venus was another plane heading right toward him, so he sent his plane into a violent 400-foot dive. Canada's safety board released a report on the January 2011 incident today. Sixteen people were hurt. Plenty of passengers were tossed around.


LOUISA PICKERING, AIR CANADA PASSENGER: I was literally violently thrown out of my seat and slammed into the ceiling. I was in a window seat, and so I hit the top of the ceiling and fell back to the ground. After that it was just kind of chaos.


SYLVESTER: The pilot had been sleeping for over an hour. Those controlled naps are only supposed to last 40 minutes.

And better hold onto your Twinkies. They may not be around for much longer. Hostess brands, which makes the treats, is heading to court to try to dump its union contracts. Now, the unions say they'll strike if the deals are thrown out, and both management and unions say the company won't survive the strike. Hostess filed for bankruptcy protection back in January, John.

KING: State fairs everywhere will be in peril if you can't get a fried Twinkie on a stick. What are we going to do? What are you going to do?

SYLVESTER: Got to have them.

KING: The country can't survive.

Lisa, stay with me. Tonight's "Moment You May Have Missed." President Obama standing shoulder to shoulder -- there you see him -- with the NASCAR sprint cup champ Tony Stewart at the White House. And you know this is going to happen. The president, how about taking a spin in Stewart's No. 14 Chevy Impala.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's good to see No. 14 on the South Lawn. Every year I try to take a lap. Nobody lets me do it, but I'm still holding out hope.


KING: One thing every president hates. They don't let him drive.

We all know NASCAR. Both parties want to appeal to the NASCAR vote. Before the White House event, Stewart posed for pictures with the Republican speaker, John Boehner. You know, there's @JohnKingracing. John King is a NASCAR truck driver, a young guy, won a race back in -- back in February.

SYLVESTER: He's got that great name like somebody else.

KING: He's got a great name. He promised me. He invited me. I couldn't make the one time. We're going to take a spin.

SYLVESTER: You know what? And you have to have the video of that. I'm sure we will see it right here on CNN.

KING: Amen.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.