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Are 'Fiscal Cliff' Conversations Going Anywhere?


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. The latest unemployment numbers are out and while things are getting slightly better overall, younger people who want to work are still having a very tough time. We reached out to an economist who says apprenticeships might offer one way to offer more opportunity to the younger trying to get into the world of work. We'll talk more about that in just a few minutes.

But first we want to talk more broadly about a big issue facing the country. By now you have heard about - you might in fact be tired of hearing about that so-called fiscal cliff. That's the package of automatic spending cuts and tax rate hikes that will go into effect if Congress and the White House can't agree on a plan to reduce the deficit by the end of the year.

The speaker and the president of the United States met over the weekend to talk privately, but there's been a lot of public debate about it too, on the public affairs shows and in press conferences, and even some campaigning. President Obama has gone so far as to take to the road to promote his ideas. Here's a clip from a speech he gave in Michigan yesterday.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to put people back to work rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our schools.


OBAMA: That's how we grow an economy. I want us to bring down our deficits, but I want to do it in a balanced, responsible way.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this. Just how are both sides making their case to the American people? We're also wondering if this is affecting the way they're talking to each other. With us to talk about that and other political issues we're joined now by Ron Christie. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now the president of Christie's Strategies, a media and political strategy firm.

Also with us Michael Fauntroy. He's a professor of public policy at George Mason University. Welcome back to you both. Happy Holidays to you both.

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: Thank you. Thank you very much.

RON CHRISTIE: Happy Holidays.

MARTIN: So, Michael, it's worth noting that this isn't the first time the president's taken to the road to drum up support for his policies. It's interesting that over the course of his term, you know, various people have said that he's talked too much, or that he's talked too little, to the public. So what's the temperature on this? Too much, too little, or just right this time?

FAUNTROY: You know, I'm a little conflicted about this because these events strike me as the thousand events I just heard about during the election. I mean, I thought it was over. Why are we still doing this kind of stuff? We had an election. Everybody knew what the president was running on. He won reelection.

Now, I'm not saying that gives him the, sort of, right to do whatever he wants, but clearly the people have decided.

MARTIN: You think it's a waste of time?

FAUNTROY: Well, I think it's the kind of thing that is designed to keep the issue in front of the people in hopes that they will put pressure on their members of Congress. But I have to also say I'm not convinced that that's an effective strategy. You know, to your point in the open, I don't know of anybody who's paying any attention to stuff, generally, that hasn't heard of the fiscal cliff.

And so I think people, you know, people are where they are on this. And if they supported the president they probably take the president's position. And if they didn't they probably still oppose it.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know about this. Ron, according to a poll by the Associated Press that I'm looking at now - the headline is "Americans Prefer Letting Tax Cuts Expire for the Country's Top Earners as President Obama Insists." This according to the Associated Press. Support has declined for cutting government services to curb budget deficits.

And fewer than half of the Republicans polled favored continuing the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy, Ron Christie. So does it seem - I don't know how you feel about this but public opinion is moving in the president's direction. So maybe this is a good idea.

CHRISTIE: No, absolutely not. I mean, this president has been so irresponsible when it comes to fiscal issues I don't even know where to start. You know, the president talks about a balanced approach and a balanced plan. He's not put a specific spending cut plan on the table. He hasn't talked about how to rein in entitlements.

He ignored his Simpson Bowles Commission to do exactly that. And the president's own budget office has projected the president will - if we continue with his budgetary priorities - will have accumulated a deficit near $25 trillion over the next 10 years.

So, you know, Republicans have been reelected by their constituents to hold the line on government spending, to try to rein in the size and the scope of government and that's exactly what they're doing in the House of Representatives. So, you know, polls might indicate one thing but Republicans were elected by their constituents to do something entirely different.

MARTIN: Well, it's interesting because it does appear that some of the Republican leaders either don't quite share your view or have a different view of how to proceed here. Here, I'm going to play a short clip from Senator Bob Corker. He's a Republican from Tennessee. This is from his appearance on Fox News this past Sunday.


REPRESENTATIVE BOB CORKER: A lot of people are putting forth a theory and I actually think it is has merit where you go ahead and give the president the rate increase on the top two percent. And all of a sudden, the focus then shifts to entitlements and maybe that puts us in a place where we actually can do something that really saves this nation.

MARTIN: And Ron, today the former governor of Mississippi and the former RNC Chair Haley Barbour said he would be willing to, quote, "hold his nose and accept higher taxes" and feels, as Senator Corker suggested, that that opens the door to Democrats willing to move on entitlement cuts.

So in your view, is this a negotiating strategy on their part? Is this response to public opinion? What's your sense of this?

CHRISTIE: I think so. And, again, the question is do you raise taxes or do you raise revenue. The president has said in his balanced approached that he wants to raise - initially he said he wanted to raise $800 billion and now of course after his reelection he's doubled that to $1.6 trillion. So the question is are you looking to impose tax rate hikes on the top two percent which would net out at about $89 billion.

Or would fund the federal government for about nine days. Or are you interested in a long-term more balanced approach that will rein in spending in entitlements? The president seems to be almost obsessed with the idea of soaking it to the rich and raising taxes rather than Republicans' willingness to give him the revenue that he sought originally in the campaign. So it's an issue over, I think, he's wanting to humiliate Republicans rather than make any meaningful contribution to reducing the size and the scope of government.

MARTIN: We're talking with former Bush administration advisor Ron Christie and public policy professor Michael Fauntroy. Michael?

FAUNTROY: There's not one responsible analyst who believes that this problem can be solved simply on the backs of spending cuts. There has to be some added revenue and I think reasonable people understand that. Now, there's some debate as to whether or not that new revenue should be in the elimination of certain deductions or if it should be in rate increases.

What we do know is that there was an election and the president said he wanted to increase the tax rates. And he was reelected. And it should also be noted that more people voted for Democrats in Congress this past election than for Republicans. So however you want to play it is fine but just understand that there is only one balanced approach and that's an approach that will increase revenue and cut spending. And there's just no other way to do it.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask you about some political news outside of Washington. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie is enjoying a boost in his approval ratings. One recent poll finds him at 72 percent approval, which is kind of an amazing thing, particularly when the Northeast is still having some tough times, economically. Also, you know, there is recovery from the hurricane.

Still, Newark mayor Cory Booker says he might challenge Christie. Let's listen to what he had to say on CBS' "Face the Nation."


MAYOR CORY BOOKER: I am absolutely considering running for governor as well as giving other options some consideration. I'm going to be focusing on that for the next week to 10 days, or so. And really come up with a decision that answers my basic question is where do I believe I can make the best difference for the city I love, for the state I love and the nation that I've pledged my life to.

MARTIN: Michael, it's so unfair to ask you to predict but what do you think Cory Booker is going to do? He's clearly one of the people - that sort of younger, up and coming political figures that people like to watch. He's got a huge social media following. What do you think is next for him?

FAUNTROY: Well, I think he's waiting for the moisture on his finger, which is in the wind, to dry. At which point he will decide which way to go. I have to confess I'm not a huge fan of his, but I do understand the, sort of, dilemma he's in. He wants to run for governor but now he's faced with a governor whose popularity has taken off tremendously.

And he may not be able to overcome that. However, at the national level in 1991 when Bill Clinton announced he was running for president, President George H. W. Bush had an astronomical approval rating. And look what happened. So, you know, if he's going to do it he probably ought to run for governor. But people will at least initially be asking why are you doing this, given how popular Christie is?

MARTIN: Ron Christie, what do you think about it? I don't think you're related to Chris Christie but - just to clarify.


MARTIN: Make sure that there's no cousin there that...

CHRISTIE: I've been asked many times, and I joke sometimes he's a second cousin, but I'm happy to say that we're not related.

MARTIN: Well, you know, some Republicans were not too thrilled with him toward the close of the election, because he was seen as being too accommodating and too laudatory toward President Obama. Do you think that he is vulnerable, as Michael Fauntroy suggests, that - you know, those 72 percent approval ratings might not be all that?

CHRISTIE: I think he's fine. I think he's in good shape. I'm not exactly a fan of his, but I think that a lot of people in New Jersey like his brash style. They like his form of governance, and they think that he did a good job in the aftermath of the hurricane.

Unlike the good professor, I'm a big fan of Cory Booker. I think he has really taken the grassroots approach to politics. He lives in the neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, one of the most rough urban environments in our country. And I think he deserves an opportunity to run for national - if not statewide - office.

I'm not looking at 2013, Michel. I'm looking at 2014. By all indications, the senior senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, is set to retire. If Lautenberg retires, I think Booker would have a far easier chance running for the Senate than he would going up against a very popular governor in Chris Christie in 2013.

MARTIN: Ron, before we let you go, I wanted to ask you briefly about the news that South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint announced that he's leaving the Senate for a position at the Heritage Foundation. That's a research institute, a think tank - conservative think tank, and he was viewed as kind of the godfather of the Tea Party movement on Capitol Hill, and I'm just interested in what you think that this move means.

CHRISTIE: I think this gives him a bigger platform. I think Senator DeMint has been very frustrated by the pace of the Senate. They haven't passed a budget in over three years. It's a more deliberative body, and I think as head of the Heritage Foundation 0 a very influential think tank, as you noted, in Washington, D.C. - will give him a platform, not only in Washington, D.C., but across the country, to really take to the roads and to espouse his very strong and his very balanced conservative views. So I think this is actually an elevation, believe it or not, of leaving the Senate and taking on this new spot.

MARTIN: Ron Christie is the founder and president of Christie Strategies. That's a media and political strategy firm. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Michael Fauntroy's a professor of public policy at George Mason University, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us once again.

CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

FAUNTROY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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