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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reporter’s Notebook: Steve Inskeep On Obama

President Obama is interviewed Monday in the Oval Office by Steve Inskeep for NPR's Morning Edition. (The White House)

President Obama is interviewed Monday in the Oval Office by Steve Inskeep for NPR’s Morning Edition. (The White House)

Last night, Congress was unable to come to an agreement on a government spending bill. So at midnight, for the first time in almost two decades, parts of the government officially shut down.

NPR’s Steve Inskeep sat down with President Obama yesterday to hear his thoughts on the crisis.

Inskeep joins Here & Now to open up his reporter’s notebook from the White House.




Well, that's the latest on Congress. What about down the road at the White House? NPR's Steve Inskeep sat down with President Obama yesterday in advance of the shutdown showdown, and Steve joins us now. Hi there, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hey, how are you?

CHAKRABARTI: I'm doing well. So let's start with the scene at the White House. You interviewed President Obama just hours before the government officially went - entered its partial shutdown. First of all, what was the mood like?

INSKEEP: Remarkably normal, maybe because this is a White House that has constantly been in crisis from President Obama's earliest days. If it wasn't an economic crisis, it's been a political crisis or some other kind of crisis. Now, some of that, of course, is the White House just projecting confidence. I mean, you show up and meet people, they're going to act very calm and very cool.

And yet at the same time, Democrats are just striking a very different pose than the very perceptive remarks we heard from Rick Klein about the Republicans. I mean I was talking to one Republican House member who was describing his fellow members' dismay when they threw one bill after another at the Senate and got no sense of any compromise. They keep asking for some kind of conference committee. Throw us a bone is what this member said.

They're essentially saying to Democrats, give us something to get us out of this. Give us something that we can use to save face and get away from this, and Democrats are refusing, which suggests that at least for the moment they like the position they're in, although of course there's always a risk that could change.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, does the president like the position that he's in? I mean on the campaign trail in years past he's been famously dubbed as no drama Obama. What was his demeanor?

INSKEEP: Well, you meet him he is always cool. He is always calm. It's only rarely that the anger has come through. I would say that in this case, even though the president is not in a situation that he's ever argued that he wants to be in - he claims to of course be someone who wants to rise above partisan politics - this is a roll in which he seems comfortable or a moment in which he seems comfortable being a partisan.

And I would say one difference between this interview and earlier interviews that I've had with him is the sharpness of some of his statements in an interview, the definiteness of some of his statements, saying I will not negotiate, I am not impressed with anything that the Republicans have sent my way. I'm not going to do what they asked.

And when we move forward to the debt ceiling debate, which we may have over the next couple of weeks, or which we must have over the next couple of weeks, he said I will never negotiate on that issue. He was absolute about this.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, well, you did ask the president, though, about what he would be willing to offer Republicans, and here's what he said.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I shouldn't have to offer anything. They're not doing me a favor by paying for things that they have already approved for the government to do. That's part of their basic function of government. That's not doing me a favor. That's doing what the American people sent them here to do, carrying out their responsibilities.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, Steve, so there's President Obama telling you that he shouldn't have to offer anything. But does that necessarily equate to the president saying he's not willing to negotiate?

INSKEEP: Not exactly. I'm glad you played that piece of tape. There's been a really remarkable reaction, a polarization of reactions that I've seen to that remark as it spread through the Internet and others ways over the last 24 hours. People who oppose the president's position have heard him say I shouldn't have to offer anything and have basically responded on Twitter and other places: What a jerk.

And people who support the president have been saying things more like right on, way to go, you're being strong. What the president is arguing, though, is - at least what he says, is that he wants to defend the integrity of the office, that it is simply unfair to try to have a negotiation where he would give away some major part of his agenda in exchange really for just running the government for 45 days.

The Republicans are not offering very much, let's be frank about that, and so the president is arguing he should not have to offer very much. He is claiming, he is saying that he is willing to negotiate almost anything other than the actual enactment of Obamacare in the broader context of budget negotiations in the ordinary rule of things, in the ordinary way of things, and not in this situation that he describes as blackmail.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, well, so this is just a taste of what we might be seeing coming up with the debate over the debt ceiling. Let's listen to what the president told you about that.

OBAMA: If we establish a pattern whereby one faction of one party controlling one chamber in Congress can threaten default, that the United States of America is no longer is meeting its obligations and fulfilling the full faith and credit of the United States unless they get 100 percent of what they want, then we've established a pattern that fundamentally changes the nature of our government.

At that point any president, not just me, any president is subject to that kind of blackmail continuously.


And there again, Steve, is that word blackmail. What did you make of the fact that he, you know, he was speaking so forthrightly?

INSKEEP: Well, people have used stronger language than that to describe this situation, and again, it entirely depends on whether you're the person who feels a gun is pointed at your head or whether you feel you're the person who's just using your leverage, which is the way that House Republicans would like to use that.

Every side, though, seems to acknowledge that we are approaching a very dangerous moment. Even the Republicans who want to use the debt ceiling to extract concessions from the president quietly acknowledge that it's a very dangerous thing to do and something that worries them, and I don't think that anybody knows how that drama is going to play out.

Really what we're watching now is a preliminary, and in fact a question that a lot of people are asking is, how does this budget battle and this shutdown affect everybody's mood heading into the next battle?

CHAKRABARTI: OK, well, what's interesting here is that there seems to be evidence of what politics in reality in Washington is like. There's one more piece of tape from your interview with the president that I'd like to play, and here it is.

OBAMA: What we're not going to do is to negotiate whether or not Congress pays its bills and whether or not Congress passes a budget that keeps government open. And the reason for that, particularly when it comes to Congress paying its bills, is that we cannot be a country that is lurching every two months or three months from crisis to crisis to crisis.

CHAKRABARTI: So Steve, in the last 30 seconds we've got or so, is this the new normal in Washington?

INSKEEP: Well, let's be frank: It is normal for right now. There have been a series of confrontations. We have at least one more to go in the next couple of weeks after this one. And I want to come back to that normality that I felt when I went to the White House hours before the shutdown. It didn't feel extraordinary at all, the mood of people around there.

CHAKRABARTI: Steve Inskeep is host of NPR's MORNING EDITION. Steve, always great to talk to you, thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Enjoyed it.

CHAKRABARTI: We'll be back in one moment, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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