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President Obama, 'Honest And Trustworthy?'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, data mining and privacy issues are in the news. But we want to talk about some data that could affect your life in ways you might not have considered. We're talking about your credit reports and we'll talk about how errors can appear and cost you plenty, and what to do about that. That's coming up later in the program.

But first, we want to talk politics because the president is overseas. He's been meeting with the leaders of the world's biggest economies, but problems at home are following him there. And we wanted to talk more about that with Lynn Sweet. She's the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. Welcome back Lynn, thanks for joining us.

LYNN SWEET: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Ron Elving. He's the senior Washington editor at NPR. Ron, welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So Ron, I'm going to start with you because the latest poll numbers show President Obama's approval ratings taking a big hit. According to a CNN poll, only 49 percent of respondents found President Obama honest and trustworthy. That's compared to just 58 percent a month ago. And his numbers are way down with voters under 30 and independents. Why is that?

ELVING: That's because of the news that has affected the president in the minds of voters all across the political spectrum in the last month. You have people on the right very upset about the IRS, maybe still upset about Benghazi, upset about the NSA surveillance. And on the left, you have a number of people who are upset about the NSA surveillance and see other things in the president that they are disturbed about.

Plus, there is a sense, I think, in any president's fifth year, in his second term, but particularly in those early months of a new term when everything starts out so high and then rapidly falls into a reality gap. And people start to turn against the president.

MARTIN: Just briefly, Ron, before I turn to Lynn, though, it's interesting that recent numbers about the surveillance program in general found that it seemed at the time that a majority of Americans did feel that a level of surveillance, if it was foiling terrorism, was appropriate. Has something changed or is it that the, you know - you know, intellectually yes, it's okay, but I'm still mad at him? I mean, how does that - how does both those things work together?

ELVING: Because you're not talking necessarily about all the same people, there's some overlap. There's some Venn diagram there. But at the same time, a certain number of people have been saying consistently that they cannot accept the NSA surveillance.

And among those people - and it's in the forties percentage wise, it's a substantial fraction of the country that does not feel good about this. And in that group of people, you have many people who are, maybe generally speaking, more of a left-leaning persuasion, voters for the president, 2008, 2012, who are disturbed about this particular thing and so, at this moment, that tends to magnetically pull them away from the president a little bit. They are not the same people who are saying it's fine with them if the NSA does these things.

MARTIN: So Lynn, you've covered this president for a long time and his administration for a long time. He's not running for anything, but he does have an agenda that he wants to carry forward, which is presumably why he ran for reelection. Is there a sense in this administration that these poll numbers coming down like this, this level of anger, which does kind of cross across different groups - it does affect his key constituencies, which is his younger voters - is there a feeling that this could jeopardize his ability to move forward with his agenda?

SWEET: Well, I think there's a lot of factors right now that are jeopardizing it. And the poll is fascinating in that it did find a generation gap, because those in the 18 to 29 age group that had given the president a boost now are, you know, now have taken back some of that support. Now some of it could be that this whole - these whole issues of snooping are something that perhaps it just touches a younger generation who lives on social media. This is the world they grew up in.

Now, whether or not it translates itself into - translates itself into how Obama works with Congress, I don't think it's an exact translate right now. Maybe Ron will disagree with me. I think that the problems that Obama has in dealing with the Republican House and, you know, getting the supermajority in the Senate are more situational to right now. The problem with maybe losing youth support could be more of a problem if he had to run again. You know, I don't know since a lot of these voters are Democratic, it may or may not be a lost pressure point on some members of Congress.

MARTIN: Well, just to Lynn's point, for example, asked about handling of the surveillance of US citizens, that only 33 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 approved of the surveillance techniques, 62 percent disapprove. Ron, what do you think about that? Do you think this could affect the president's ability to get to his long-term agenda? We're particularly interested in immigration, for example, which is in front of the Congress right now. Amendments are being debating.

ELVING: Lynn is quite right that it is a different political calculus when you turn to Congress because then it's what the individual members, particularly senators who are running for reelection in 2014, think about their own political prospects. That's the key issue for them and the president can either appeal to those things or seem tone deaf to those things, and that will affect how much they're willing to support the immigration plan, the immigration package - Gang of Eight, if you will, legislative leaders in both parties have put forward in the Senate. The president is supporting that legislation.

But the key thing for most of those senators is, will that legislation help me and my party in the long run, is it the right thing to do, not so much whether or not it's what Barack Obama wants them to do. And yes, it does have an effect, even though he's not going to face the voters again personally, it has an effect on him if his numbers fall this badly and don't recover because it is a cut into his influence with Congress and with everyone else in the world. Right now, he's at G8. He's meeting with these world leaders. They follow each other's polls obsessively. They know who's up, they know who's down, and it affects whom they listen to.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with two of our trusted political observers. Ron Elving is senior Washington editor here at NPR. Lynn Sweet is the Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief. I was - Ron, just to pick up that thread for a minute, I was going to ask you about that. The president's overseas right now, traveling to northern Ireland and Germany. Do you think - are his approval ratings affecting his influence over there? I mean, we note that Syria is on the table, for example. People are in a lot of - very concerned about that. They just issued a tepid statement that they all agreed they want to stop the bloodshed. It doesn't seem to represent any advance in terms of actual policy or strategy.

SWEET: May I jump in?

MARTIN: Lynn, do you want to take that? Sure, please do.

SWEET: I would love to because I was in Berlin with Obama in '08, and obviously, I'm not with him on this trip. And the - he's speaking tomorrow at the Brandenburg Gate, and in '08, in the midst of the campaign, he got 200,000 giddy Germans flocked to hear him speak. You may or may not recall - your listeners may recall, that prompted John McCain at that point to issue a mocking ad, as if he were, you know, Obama the Messiah. Well, he comes to Europe, now a different man. The four years that he has been president has shown the world whatever you thought he was - it was a political Rorschach, I think we always knew that. You have the snooping stories that have come out.

Guantanamo is still open. There are drones, which is something that is a very sensitive issue outside of the United States. It may not be as big - it's not an everyday issue for a lot of people, but it is in other areas of the world. I think all this has taken, you know, maybe it just brought him down to Earth and people might have had unrealistic expectations. But I'll sure be looking tomorrow to see what kind of crowd is there. Interesting, back in '08, Chancellor Merkel was not enthusiastic about Obama speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, this very important historic place in Germany. Now as the president, of course he gets that position.

MARTIN: Ron, what do you think?

ELVING: I think back in 2008, a lot of Germans and a lot of Europeans and a lot of people all around the world looked at Barack Obama as a completely different kind of American politician. And they dreamed that somebody like him could become president of the United States and they imagined that if he were to become president, everything would be different. He would run the country in a totally different way and the United States would no longer behave the way it had since World War II, or in many instances since World War II. It would be a new day.

The Nobel Prize committee saw so much promise in him as a candidate. They basically gave him the Nobel Prize for his promise as a candidate. Well, now he's in his fifth year of actually being the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces and he is cast in an entirely different light as the enforcer of American foreign-policy desires and wills. And that is not so popular.

MARTIN: Well, what about, though, the fact that, for example, it's just - it's been reported that senior administration officials said the Taliban is now opening offices in Qatar and that they are actually going to have talks with them. I mean, isn't that the kind of break in with, you know, past postures by U.S. presidents or do these kinds of - I mean, I think, you know, clearly none of us speaks for the administration, but don't these kinds of moves mean anything or is it just the kind of the meta-story, the headlines, overwhelms these kinds of initiatives? Lynn.

SWEET: Well, you know, there's a lot of things going on at once in a complicated world, I think, is part of the story. And what Ron said, I want to underscore about how Europeans thought things would be different who might - and these might be Europeans who had some vaguely anti-American sentiments coming into the Obama administration, stemming a lot from the Iraq war, which you give Obama credit for. He wound down wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Still, isn't it funny, I think it's interesting, Michel and Ron, just being a good U.S. president, dealing with wars, being just in the mode of U.S. presidents wasn't what Europe wanted. They had a different idea and, oh, my God, it turned out that Obama is a conventional president in how he approaches a lot of his foreign-policy.

MARTIN: A point he made in his Nobel address, where he made it very clear that he is not a pacifist, certainly not in the way it's understood in Europe. Ron, a final thought from you. I mean, are these - you know, you've been covering presidents for a long time and you've seen these kinds of ebbs and flows. I mean, President Clinton had some very difficult days in his administration in the second term and it ended on a note of triumph, and not loved by everyone, but certainly loved by enough. Do you foresee that ahead?

ELVING: Year five and year six are usually pretty tough years. Richard Nixon, back in his day, wound up, you know, almost impeached and resigning to avoid being impeached. Bill Clinton had tough years. George W. Bush - very tough years - in his fifth and sixth years, really reached the point of being almost a defeated president while still in office, lost control of the House and Senate in his midterm election. This is not an unusual pattern. It's something we've seen before. It's how you deal with it and how you try to make it back. That's what makes the second term.

MARTIN: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. He was kind enough to join us from our studios here in Washington, D.C. Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. We caught up with her in her office. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SWEET: Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Coming up, school's out for the summer, but a new report gives most teacher training programs a failing grade. We'll talk about the report and what needs to change to get educators and their students to improve. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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