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Top U.S. General Forced Out; Iran Frees Jailed American Reporter; Shuttle Mission Wrought With Danger

Aired May 11, 2009 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. The top U.S. general in Afghanistan forced out. The defense secretary just announcing the change in command in a deteriorating war zone.

Plus, President Obama stands with some surprising new health care allies. They're some of the same groups that stood in the way of former President Bill Clinton's push for reform over a decade ago. Will change happen this time?

I'll ask the new Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And she entertained the president, celebrities and Washington's media elite, but critics say Wanda Sykes' rant against Rush Limbaugh simply wasn't funny. They say it was hateful.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary stories from around the world.


Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. military can and must do better in Afghanistan. The breaking news this hour, General David McKiernan asked to hand in his resignation as NATO commander in Afghanistan. His replacement, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, who led Special Operations Forces in Iraq.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is here. She was over at the briefing when the defense secretary made the announcement.

This is never a pleasant situation for the secretary of defense.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: No it is not, Wolf, and the secretary was clearly very uncomfortable. He has fired General David McKiernan, a man who served in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years, fired as the top commander in Afghanistan after just 11 months on the job.

He had asked for more troops, he hasn't gotten them all there yet. The troops are just beginning to flow in, and he has been sacked.

We asked Secretary Gates what General McKiernan did wrong if the troops aren't all there yet, what's gone wrong? Why does he no longer have any confident that General McKiernan can do the job?


STARR: Was he uncooperative with the new thinking, the new way forward? What went wrong here?

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, first of all, General McKiernan has been in Afghanistan, I think, 11 months. And first of all, I would say nothing went wrong and there was nothing specific. It is -- it simply was my conviction, based on my consultations with Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus, that a fresh approach, a fresh look in the context of the new strategy probably was in our best interest.


STARR: And the man who will now lead the forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who, in fact, is a top aide right now to Admiral Mullen, who you saw there, also clearly uncomfortable. General McChrystal, also with years of experience in anti-terrorist operations, counterinsurgencies, he will now go and see what he can make of all of this.

This now, Wolf, is President Obama's war -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's pretty surprising for many, many reasons, Barbara. But only a week ago, "TIME" magazine cited General McKiernan as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In the world -- 100 most influential people in the world.

There was a really beautiful article about him that General Wesley Clark, the retired NATO supreme allied commander, wrote. And all of a sudden, he's sacked, he's fired today. So that was pretty surprising, at least from this reporter's perspective.

STARR: Well, you know, Wolf, it is. And so we poked into this a little bit behind the scenes.

It turns out this has all been in the works for months. Admiral Mullen, General David Petraeus, Secretary Gates, they have all been talking about replacing General McKiernan for some weeks and months now, as we understand it. It was just a couple of weeks ago, however, that General McKiernan was personally told he was on his way out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Wow. All right. We're going to have more on this story coming up.

Stand by, Barbara.

In another story being watched virtually by the entire world right now, a surprising new twist regarding an American journalist who had been in an Iranian jail for months. She is now free, and President Obama is said to be relieved.

Let's bring in Brian Todd. He's working this story for us.

So far, pretty happy ending to what seemed like potentially years in prison for this young American.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It could have been. She had gotten that kind of sentence, Wolf. There had been a huge public outcry over the detention of Roxana Saberi, but after months of intrigue surrounding that case, she is now getting ready to return to the U.S.


TODD (voice-over): A three-and-a-half month detention that included a hunger strike, an espionage conviction, and an eight-year sentence, comes to an end for Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi. She's not seen leaving Tehran's notorious Evin prison after her sentence is suspended by an Iranian court, but her father talks about her condition.

REZA SABERI, ROXANA SABERI'S FATHER: Roxana is fine, and there's no problem. And we will be getting ready to leave the country soon.

TODD: Reza Saberi says his daughter will be seeing a psychologist. A journalism advocacy group says she was first arrested for buying a bottle of wine, then charged with not having proper journalist credentials, then with spying. Saberi and U.S. officials still maintain the charges were bogus.

HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We continue to take issues with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released.

TODD: U.S. officials say there were no behind-the-scenes deals made for Saberi's release, but they say they did work the case through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, and that officials from Japan and Russia played positive roles. One analyst believes Iran's leaders made this move now to separate the Saberi case from any talks that might occur with the U.S. over Iran's nuclear program.

CLIFF KUPCHAN, EURASIA GROUP: The Iranians don't want their political system, they don't want human rights to be part of the negotiation. They want to deal on the nuclear issue if they can get one on their terms. This release gets the Saberi issue out of the way.


TODD: But if and when any nuclear talks resume, other prominent human rights cases may still hang over them. Former American FBI agent Robert Levinson is still missing in Iran. The regime is still holding Cal State grad student Esha Momeni on a traffic charge. And the Americans are still holding some members of Iran's special forces, who they captured in Iraq more than two years ago -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The whole notion of the talks that are going on to try to deal with Iran's nuclear program, is there any indication that they're making any progress at all on this?

TODD: What we're hearing from the State Department and elsewhere is that the talks are in limbo right now. Mainly, that's because Iran has presidential elections less than -- well, about a month from now, on June 12th. So U.S. officials want to wait and see how that shakes down.

Now, President Ahmadinejad said to have some solid support in that election, but we're also hearing that his reelection is not a certainty. That's going to be a huge development one month from now, Wolf. They've got to wait until that shakes down before talks can even be considered.

BLITZER: Yes. The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, he's here in the United States right now. He'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're going to talk about this very subject, Iran's nuclear program. That's coming up.

Brian, thank you.

Amid celebrations for one freed journalist, ongoing calls for the release of two others. Laura Ling and Euna Lee are being held by North Korea. The state-run news service reports they will stand trial. Their alleged crime, according to the new service, entering North Korea illegally, intending what they call hostile acts.

Ling and Lee were taken into custody March 17th, along the Chinese/North Korean border. They work for the media outlet Current TV.

Jack Cafferty is joining us with "The Cafferty File."

Jack, I hope you had a nice weekend.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: And yourself, Wolf. Thank you.

President Obama may not have much time to help broker a peace deal in the Middle East. King Abdullah of Jordan tells "The London Times" that Mr. Obama's meeting next week with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has become the acid test for the administration's commitment to Middle East peace.

King Abdullah says all eyes will be on Washington. And if there are no signs of progress, the Arab world will feel like yet another American government has let them down.

He suggests that overnight, President Obama could lose the tremendous credibility that he's built up in the Arab world. And that would be a shame, because Mr. Obama has a very impressive level of support over there, unlike his predecessor.

A new Ipsos survey polled 7,000 adults in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. That poll shows President Obama gets a 48 percent favorable rating -- these are Arab countries -- running as high as 58 percent in Jordan.

Only one in 10 residents across that region think that the U.S. president will have a negative effect on their country. Now, compare those numbers to the numbers for the country of the United States. The country only has a favorable rating of 33 percent and a negative rating of 43 percent.

President Obama set to give a major speech, it was announced last week, to the Muslim world. He'll speak in Egypt next month. Perhaps his high approval ratings can help him get closer to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

There's no question the stakes are very high. King Abdullah says if peace negotiations are delayed, there will be another conflict between Muslims and Israel in the next 12 to 18 months.

So here's the question: When it comes to peace in the Middle East, how can President Obama succeed where other U.S. presidents have failed?

Go to and post a comment on my blog.

It's a tough road to hoe over there, but if I had to bet on somebody, I wouldn't bet against this guy.

BLITZER: You mean President Obama?

CAFFERTY: Yes, I do.

BLITZER: Yes. OK, let's hope that this peace process can simply get off the ground. And a lot of us would be encouraged if he manages to achieve that.

CAFFERTY: That would be terrific.

Did you go to that correspondents' dinner over the weekend?

BLITZER: I did. I did. I'm going to have details for you later this hour.

CAFFERTY: Oh, details? Breaking news.

BLITZER: Details to come.


BLITZER: All right. Say goodbye.

The Republican Party's chairman is speaking out and managing in the process to insult a major player in the GOP. Coming up in our "Strategy Session," a dustup now between Michael Steele and Mitt Romney.

Also ahead, is the health care industry finally ready to cure itself? I'll ask the new secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll ask her what the Obama administration learned from the Clintons' mistakes.

And the Space Shuttle Atlantis sets off on a repair mission so daring, that another shuttle is ready. It's on standby right now to come to the rescue.


BLITZER: What a spectacular sight. We have liftoff. The Space Shuttle Atlantis on its way from space.

Its mission, a complicated, risky job on an almost 20-year-old space telescope. But for the first time ever, another shuttle is now standing by for a possible rescue mission because there's simply so much risk and danger involved.

Let's go to CNN's John Zarella. He's over at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

I love seeing those shots. No matter how many times you see them, John, it's pretty amazing.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it really is spectacular. And Atlantis now in orbit and on its way, chasing down the Hubble Space Telescope some 350 miles up in space.

But as you mentioned, while Atlantis has gone from Pad A, Endeavour is sitting over on Pad B, and it is the first time in the history of any space program that a rescue vehicle has been ready to go if another shuttle were to get in trouble.


ZARRELLA (voice-over): If something goes wrong endangering the Atlantis crew on their mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Endeavour would be launched within days in a last-ditch attempt to save them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel as confident about our ability to pull this off, if need be, as I would any other mission.

ZARRELLA: The need for a rescue vehicle standing by at the ready grew out of the Columbia disaster. But until now, there's been no need. All the previous missions since Columbia have gone to the International Space Station.

The crew of a damaged shuttle there could take refuge there for months, if need be, until another shuttle was ready to go get them. But Atlantis going to Hubble won't be anywhere near the station and can't get there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In this case, it's a much shorter fuse, because the shuttle crew, the Hubble crew would only have their vehicle to survive aboard.

ZARRELLA: Consumables like food and oxygen would run out quickly.

For Atlantis Commander Scott Altman, it feels good knowing Endeavour is ready.

SCOTT ALTMAN, ATLANTIS COMMANDER: Even in the worst possible, imaginable case, we can stay up there and last until somebody comes up and gets us. So it feels like we've got all our bases covered.

ZARRELLA: But the rescue would be no cakewalk. It would be a series of spacewalks. Endeavour would come up underneath Atlantis and hook on using its robotic arm. Over the course of two days, the seven astronauts would spacewalk to Endeavour, holding on to a tether line strung between the two vehicles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The spacewalkers can come out of Atlantis and go hand over hand on a rope.


BLITZER: John, we all hope it's not necessary, but if necessary, if they need to launch the next shuttle, how many days before it would take to get ready to launch that shuttle?

ZARRELLA: Well, they already have the countdown down to about three days, but they say that they would go within seven days to get up there and go ahead and get them. And they would be bringing back 11 total on the Shuttle Endeavour -- four crewmembers goes up on Endeavour and the seven on Atlantis. Never before has a shuttle carried 11 passengers, but that's how many will be coming back.

And Wolf, one of them put it to me, "You know what? It's going to be tight quarters. It wouldn't matter to me if I were wrapped in bubble wrap. If they can could get me back, I would be glad to come back any way possible."

BLITZER: All right, John. Let's hope it's not necessary, obviously. And good luck to those astronauts.

Tomorrow, the National Transportation Safety Board begins a public hearing. At issue, why did a plane fall from the sky into a house near Buffalo, New York, in February? Fifty people were killed. Today, there are questions on whether or not the commuter plane's pilot had enough training for a certain kind of emergency.

Our Senior Correspondent Allan Chernoff is joining us now.

Lots of implications, Allan, and I know you covered that tragedy in Buffalo at the time. But there are lots of implications on what we are now learning.

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Implications for all of us, Wolf. Indeed, it appears that the pilot was not trained as fully as he could have been, even though his training did meet FAA specifications.


CHERNOFF (voice-over): When Flight 3407 was about to stall, an emergency system called a stick pusher activated to push the aircraft's control column forward. Yet, the pilot, Marvin Renslow, had never been trained in a flight simulator to respond to a stick pusher emergency, only in a classroom, an experience gaffe that may have been a factor in the pilot's failure to save the aircraft. DOUG MOSS, COMMERCIAL PILOT: I think that's a significant problem. You can study it academically all you want to, but you really need to develop the proficiency, the skill, the muscle memory required.

CHERNOFF: Colgan Air said, "We stand by our FAA-certified crew training programs which meet or exceed the regulatory requirements for all major airlines and include training on emergency situations."

The FAA concedes its requirements aren't exact enough to demand stick pusher training in a flight simulator.

MOSS: The FAA generally trains to a standard of routine line operations with only a minimal tolerance for deviation outside the norm. They don't focus at all on the edges of the envelope, which, if they were to do that, it would be costly. But I think it would improve the overall competency of airline pilots.

CHERNOFF: Veteran pilots tell CNN today's cost-conscious regional airlines need to provide more training because many of their pilots are far less experienced than those at the major airlines. The Regional Airline Association counters that the Buffalo tragedy notwithstanding, its flights are safer than ever.

ROGER COHEN, PRESIDENT, REGIONAL AIRLINE ASSOCIATION: The training standards for regional airlines, mainline airlines, network airlines, low-cost airlines, all identical, under the exact same protocols, all approved in the exact same category by the Federal Aviation Administration.


CHERNOFF: Pilot training will be among the issues discussed at the NTSB hearing that begins tomorrow. Remember, it's a three-day hearing. And also, certain to come up is the history of Captain Renslow.

Colgan Air says it is true that Captain Renslow failed five pilot exams, but ultimately he passed the tests he needed to pass and he was fully certified and accredited to fly the Q-400 aircraft -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Allan, thanks very much for that report.

He's the popular priest some call "Father Oprah." Caught up in a scandal, he now admits a struggle between his love for God and his love for a woman. Wait until you hear what he has to say about priests and celibacy.

And get this -- weeks after a presidential plane reignited memories of 9/11, another plane wants to fly over New York City. You may never guess what happened.



BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, it's the deadliest attack on U.S. troops in Iraq by a fellow service member. A U.S. soldier is in custody after allegedly killing five U.S. troops in Baghdad.

A Miami priest says he may leave the Roman Catholic Church for a woman he loves. He was removed as head of the Archdiocese International Radio Network after a photo surfaced of him kissing a woman.

And you may be consuming a lot more salt than you thought. A watchdog group is warning about dangerously high levels of salt in chain restaurant meals.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama today is welcoming a new move by the health care industry to start reforming itself. It's a $2 trillion offer to try to cut costs and it represents, at least potentially, a major about- face from the Clinton era, when the industry rallied against him.

Let's begin our in-depth coverage of this story with CNN's Jill Dougherty. She's over at the White House.

The president apparently trying to show, Jill, that he's learned some of the mistakes from the Hillary and Bill Clinton effort to reform the nation's health care system.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Right. You know, 15 years ago, Wolf, health care reform went down in flames, but now President Obama is trying his hand at it. This time, however, the political winds have shifted.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): The president stood side by side with leaders from six major health care trade organizations.

OBAMA: What's brought us all together today is a recognition that we can't continue down the same dangerous road we have been traveling for so many years, that costs are out of control, and that reform is not a luxury that can be postponed but a necessity that cannot wait.

DOUGHERTY: Fifteen years ago, some of these leaders helped kill the Clinton administration's attempts at reform with the so-called Harry and Louise ads.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Coverage we can keep even if we change or lose our jobs. Coverage we can afford.

DOUGHERTY: Their pledge now, reduce the growth in health care spending and save $2 trillion over 10 years. It's all voluntary, and House Republican Leader John Boehner says there's no enforcement mechanism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Listen to those who already have government- run health care.

DOUGHERTY: And there's a new group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights that plans to spend $15 million to $20 million on TV and Internet ads.

RICK SCOTT, CONSERVATIVES FOR PATIENTS' RIGHTS: We have a system that works. It doesn't work perfectly. So let's solve those -- fix those problems, not change the whole system.

DOUGHERTY: This time, Democrats control Capitol Hill, but the president says, there's work to do.

OBAMA: The only way these steps will have an enduring impact is if they are taken, not in isolation, but as part of a broader effort to reform our entire health care system.


DOUGHERTY: Now, the president wants health care reform, comprehensive health care reform, by the end of the year. But the specific details of that legislation, promises aside, are still a big question mark -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Huge question mark, Jill. Thank you.

To give you a sense of how health care costs are growing and growing and growing, look at this. Back in 1993, '94, when Hillary Clinton was spearheading health care reform, the United States spent just more than 13 percent of its gross domestic product on health care.

By 2006, the latest numbers available, the U.S. spent 16 percent of its GDP on health care. And a federal health agency estimates that, by the year 2017, unless something is done, more than 19 percent of America's economic output will be devoted to health care spending.

One person you'll be seeing and hearing a lot from amid this push for health care reform hasn't been on the job for even two weeks yet and she's already about to take on a huge, huge new role.


BLITZER: And joining us now the secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius.

Thanks so much for joining us. Welcome to THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Will there be health care reform enacted this year?

SEBELIUS: I'm confident that the parties are coming together and with the president's leadership we will get a bill passed and signed into law this year. BLITZER: Why isn't the administration crafting the legislation? Because it seems like you've punted, you've told members of Congress, "You put it together. We'll give you some advice. But we're not going to do it."

SEBELIUS: I think this president looked at the experiences really over the last 50 years of lots of chief executives saying they wanted to pass health reform and not getting it done, and particularly paid attention to what happened in the early '90s when a bill was crafted, put together by the White House, delivered...


BLITZER: That was Hillarycare, as it was called, it was the -- it was the Bill Clinton health care...

SEBELIUS: That's correct.

BLITZER: ... initiative, which was so complicated, more than 1,000 pages, it collapsed in the face of a lot of opposition.

So what I hear you saying is that you've learned from that blunder and now you've decided to let Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy and all those guys on the Hill put this legislation together.

SEBELIUS: Well, the president had a plan he talked about a lot in the campaign, and it is universal coverage, it has to lower costs for all families, not just families who don't have insurance, but help families who currently have coverage. It wants high quality care. We want to transform the health system.

So there's some principles and definitely an outline of that plan, but he knows it won't pass, it won't be successful unless Congress engages, and that's just what's going on.

BLITZER: Will there be universal health insurance, universal health care enacted? In other words, will every American be eligible to get health insurance once your legislation is enacted?

SEBELIUS: Well, that's certainly one of the principles the president has as a core.

BLITZER: Everybody?

SEBELIUS: Absolutely, everybody.

BLITZER: Universal?

SEBELIUS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: And when do you think that will happen?

SEBELIUS: Well, Congress is on a very aggressive agenda to pass the legislation. I think that what most people understand is that the legislation may be phased in, but we're definitely looking at covering all Americans, making sure that we get the pinnings under way. One of the first bills that the president signed was insuring 4 million more American children under the CHIP program.

SEBELIUS: And that rollout is starting. We want to make sure that Medicaid and Medicare will...


BLITZER: So you think that this would be phased in over a period of years, if you get your way?

SEBELIUS: Well, I think that a lot of people are talking about a 2012 start date, or 2011. I don't know how fast things like an information exchange can be up and running, making sure that the system pieces are in place, but definitely it will start soon.

BLITZER: Will this be a single payer system along the lines of Medicare?

SEBELIUS: No. I think that what the president has made it very clear is he wants to actually build on the supporting system. There are about 85 million Americans who have employer-based health coverage and are very satisfied -- a lot of them are very satisfied with the coverage they have. They don't know what's going to happen to the cost...


BLITZER: So you don't want to simply expand Medicare to include everyone?

SEBELIUS: That's correct.

BLITZER: But there are some who would like to do that.

SEBELIUS: There -- there definitely are some single-payer advocates. But that is not the president's proposal, and I think he -- he thinks choice, that Americans should have choice of doctors and providers, have an opportunity to keep that coverage that they have, if they like their coverage.

BLITZER: Here's what the president said during the campaign:


OBAMA: If you don't have health insurance, like 45 million Americans don't have health insurance, then we're going to make sure you can buy the same kind of health insurance that members of Congress get for themselves, and we will subsidize you if you can't afford it.


BLITZER: Does that still hold?

SEBELIUS: Well, there definitely are -- again, there isn't a plan sitting in somebody's desk drawer that answers the questions you're asking with some specificity. But certainly there is a discussion that for the lowest income working Americans, for working parents who can't afford coverage right now, that the government may play a role in helping to subsidize their coverage or -- or it will continue to be unaffordable.

BLITZER: I guess the question is will everyone be eligible for the same kind of health insurance that members of Congress have?

SEBELIUS: Again, the specifics of the -- well, we're talking about benefits, what the benefits look like exactly. That certainly is one of the options being discussed by Congress.

But, also, there may be different kinds of options put forward. But having a choice, having full coverage, real insurance, not catastrophic coverage, not just something that you can tap into if you have a cancer situation or get hit by a car, but coverage that helps American families pay their health bills is what the president's talking about.

BLITZER: Based on what you're seeing and hearing right now -- you've only been on the job for a matter of days, but do you think the doctors, the hospitals, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, they're on board with you or will they fight you?

SEBELIUS: Well, today, there was an historic meeting in the Roosevelt Room in the White House that I participated in, and the representatives, the CEOs of the groups that you've just outlined -- health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, the people who run the biggest health systems in the country -- were there with the president, not only assuring the president that they want to pass health reform this year, that they will be a part of this, but they also are going to take major steps right now to begin lowering costs.

They think they can get about $2 trillion worth of savings out of the current health care system over the 10-year period of time. And that goes a long way to making sure every family saves about $2,500 on average.

BLITZER: Secretary, good luck.

SEBELIUS: Thank you.


BLITZER: Former Vice President Dick Cheney choosing sides between two powerful and feuding Republicans. Who speaks for the party now?

And the president got in a few laughs himself at his own expense. Stand by to hear the comic in chief.


OBAMA: Finally, I believe that my next 100 days will be so successful, I will be able to complete them in 72 days. (LAUGHTER)


OBAMA: And, on the 73rd day, I will rest.




BLITZER: President Obama is getting some pretty good reviews for his stand-up routine at the annual White House National Correspondents Association Dinner.



OBAMA: All in all, we're proud of the change we've brought to Washington in these first hundred days but we've got a lot of work left to do, as all of you know. So I would like to talk a little bit about what my administration plans to achieve in the next hundred days.

During the second hundred days, we will design, build and open a library dedicated to my first hundred days.


OBAMA: It's going to be big, folks.


OBAMA: In the next hundred days, I will learn to go off the prompter and Joe Biden will learn to stay on the prompter.


OBAMA: In the next hundred days, our bipartisan outreach will be so successful that even John Boehner will consider becoming a Democrat. After all, we have a lot in common. He is a person of color.


OBAMA: Although not a color that appears in the natural world.


OBAMA: What's up, John?


OBAMA: In the next hundred days, I will meet with a leader who rules over millions with an iron fist, who owns the airwaves and uses his power to crush all who would challenge his authority at the ballot box. It's good to see you, Mayor Bloomberg.


OBAMA: In the next hundred days, we will house-train our dog, Bo, because the last thing Tim Geithner needs is someone else treating him like a fire hydrant.


OBAMA: In the next hundred days, I will strongly consider losing my cool.


OBAMA: Finally, I believe that my next hundred days will be so successful I will be able to complete them in 72 days.


OBAMA: And on the 73rd day, I will rest.




BLITZER: The Republican Party chairman typically blasts Democrats, so why is Michael Steele going after a Republican who might again become a presidential candidate? Wait until you hear what Michael Steele is now saying about Mitt Romney.

And will the main spokesman for Republicans please stand up? Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Colin Powell, they're all speaking, but they're going after each other. Is this good for the party or good for Democrats?


BLITZER: Republicans are struggling to find their voice and remembering back to the days when George W. Bush spoke through a bullhorn and their party was in power.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

Bill, what are the Republicans trying to do right now to have a say in the agenda?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they're trying to bring back an issue that has worked for them in the past.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Four months after 9/11, Karl Rove signaled that Republicans would run on the terrorism issue.


KARL ROVE, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BUSH: We can also go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might, and thereby protecting America.


SCHNEIDER: It worked -- for a while. Terrorism was the major issue driving Republican victories in 2002 and 2004.

Then it stopped. Democrats won big victories on the Iraq issue in 2006 and the economy in 2008. The terrorism issue was losing prominence. Only one in 10 voters said terrorism was their top concern in last year's election. Those who did voted overwhelmingly for John McCain.

Now the Republican Party is flat on its back. One idea for reviving it, get the terrorism issue back on the agenda.


RICHARD B. CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They have moved to take down a lot of those policies we put in place that kept the nation safe for nearly eight years.


SCHNEIDER: Like the Guantanamo detention facility.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND (R), MISSOURI: While President Obama has no plan for what to do with these killers, he has pledged to close the terrorist detention facility in January to fulfill a campaign promise. This is a dangerous case of putting symbolism over security.

SCHNEIDER: The White House response?


GENERAL JAMES JONES, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The president is absolutely committed to making sure that -- that we -- we recognize the -- the rule of law principle, and we don't make America less safe.


SCHNEIDER: The public agrees. Last month, in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, by nearly 3-1, people rejected the idea that President Obama's actions have increased the chances of a terrorism attack.


SCHNEIDER: The Obama administration is stepping up the war against terrorists in Afghanistan, but the White House rarely uses the phrase "war on terror" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

Let's get to our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, Democratic strategist Don Baer, a former Clinton White House communications director, and Republican strategist Karen Hanretty.

Guys, thanks to both of you for coming in.

Michael Steele, who's the chairman of the Republican Party, was on a radio show earlier today, and said this.


MICHAEL STEELE, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: It was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life.

It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism. It was the base that rejected Mitch -- Mitt because they thought he was back and forth and waffling on -- on those very economic issues you're talking about.

I mean, so, I mean, I hear what you're saying, but, before we even got to a primary vote, the base had made very clear they had issues with Mitt, because, if they didn't, he would have just defeated John McCain in those primaries.


BLITZER: It didn't take Mitt Romney very long to respond, issuing a statement saying: "Sometimes, when you shoot from the hip, you miss the target. This is one of those times."

Karen, you know these guys. What is going on here?

KAREN HANRETTY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think there's nothing to be gained by the chairman of the Republican Party looking back and debating what happened in 2008.

We -- we need Republican leaders is to look forward, lay out a path for victory in the future, to climb that mountain. It's a steep mountain that we're climbing right now. And I see nothing that he gained today.

BLITZER: Because a lot of people are looking at 2012, and think Mitt Romney is one of the early favorites for the Republican presidential nomination.

DON BAER, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, Wolf, I think it's a little early to be including people out, if you're the Republicans, and you're the out party, you don't hold either house of Congress, you don't hold the White House. I think back to the late Ron Brown, who was the Democratic -- chairman of the Democratic Party back in the late '80s and early '90s. His whole goal was to sort of open the party up and make sure that they were not picking winners and losers too early.

BLITZER: Now, in fairness to Michael Steele, he was filling in for Bill Bennett as the host of a radio show.


BLITZER: And he was, I guess, trying to be a radio talk show host.

HANRETTY: But he's not a radio talk show host. He's the chairman of the National Republican Committee. And it's not his job to be an entertainer. It's not his job to look back and to criticize the base and what happened and didn't happen.

It's his job to look forward, raise money, expand that tent, exactly what you said.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk a little bit about the White House Correspondents Association Dinner Saturday night. They always have a comedian. This time, it was Wanda Sykes. And some people think she just crossed the line, went too far, with this.


SYKES: He just wants the country to fail. To me, that's treason. He's not saying anything differently than what Osama bin Laden is saying.

You know, you might want to look into this, sir, because I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was just so strung out on OxyContin, he missed his flight.




BLITZER: All right, she really was going after Rush Limbaugh.

Here's Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary -- press secretary -- reacting today.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think there are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection, rather than comedy. I think there's no doubt that 9/11 is part of that.


BLITZER: Yes, she -- he wasn't very happy with that joke. BAER: Smart strategy. He's going to lift up above that. It was funny. You and I were there. And the president had a hard time not smiling, although he kind of cut it back.

But, you know, it's probably better to -- for the White House just to move on from this. But, you know, we have seen these before. There are always the -- the performers come in there. They always kind of go over the top a little bit. Everyone loves it when they're in there, and, then, the next day, there's some reflection on all of it.

BLITZER: Because the theory is, you should singe a little bit, but you never burn, in these kinds of events.

But what was your -- when you heard that, what did you think?

HANRETTY: Look, I think the best thing for Wanda Sykes is to talk about Rush Limbaugh, because, you know, when has her name been in the headlines recently, right? So, if you attack Rush Limbaugh, then your name gets in the headlines. So, this was a good publicity stunt from her.

And, you know, she got some laughs from a probably Democrat crowd, very Hollywood-centric crowd there. And I'm sure that they enjoyed it.

BLITZER: She did get a lot of laughs.


BAER: Wanda is a great entertainer. She's terrific. She's on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It's a terrific show. She's on other shows on TV.

HANRETTY: It is a terrific show. It's a better venue for her.

BAER: And she's -- she, you know -- you know, look, these scenes have always been ones where the entertainers come out. They push the envelope. That's part of what entertainers do.

BLITZER: Remember, a few years ago, Don Imus, when Bill Clinton was president...


BAER: Exactly.

BLITZER: ... when Bill Clinton was president -- you were probably at that dinner.


BAER: Yes.


BLITZER: There was a joke about the pickup truck. And...

BAER: I was the communications director at the time.


BAER: You know, and we all had to sort of take the high road, and just -- just as Gibbs did today. And that's what you do.

But these are fun events. And everyone was laughing. And, sure, some things maybe go close to the edge, but that's kind of the role that these people play.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much. We will have more on this story coming up later. Appreciate your coming in.

HANRETTY: Thank you.

BLITZER: President Obama says he's been vindicated, and he says he has a certain victorious basketball team to thank.

Plus, an internationally known priest's confession -- the photos of him embracing a woman told the real story after all.

And President Obama calls it shocking -- a U.S. soldier apparently opens fire on fellow troops in Iraq.


BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker": President Obama met just a short while ago with the NCAA champs from the University of North Carolina. And he thanked them for salvaging his brackets and for vindicating him before the nation.

UNC was the only one of the president's Final Four picks to make it that far in the college basketball tournament. But he did pick UNC to go all the way, and they did.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out our "Political Ticker." Go to

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, this might be a little tougher than picking the winner of the NCAA basketball tournament.

The question this hour is, when it comes to peace in the Middle East, how can President Obama succeed where other U.S. presidents have failed?

Richard writes from Canfield, Ohio: "The president can succeed if he can get the women of Israel and Palestine to provide input into the peace process. It is the women who have suffered the most with all the killings on both sides. They are losing their families in this strategy -- tragedy. The women can succeed where the men have failed." Phil in Washington writes: "The real problem here is Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who is a hard-core right-winger. If Obama can convince him to have an open mind and be receptive to compromise, there could be a real breakthrough here. But I won't be holding my breath."

John in Louisiana says: "Bush set Middle East peace back 10 years by his completely one-sided policy in favor of Israel's ultra-right government and every anti-Palestinian action they took. Obama can help by restoring balance and honesty to U.S. policy and stopping Israel's right-wingers from continuing to isolate and assault these people. Get rid of the wall, for one. Get rid of the settlements, for two, and honor all the agreements from the past, for three."

Cliff in Rego Park, New York: "President Obama will never succeed unless he manages to elicit a fundamental change from the Arab world. First, they must recognize Israel's right to exist and, second, remove all anti-Semitic teachings from their school textbooks. Peace begins with human decency and respect. That is the first lesson that President Obama needs to convey."

John in Massachusetts: "The term Middle East peace should be forgotten. Most Israelis are in favor, as I'm sure are most Palestinians, but we will never see it. There are simply too many militants who will never put away their automatic weapons and their rocket launchers."

And Debbie in Kansas City says: "President Obama has a chance to win the hearts and minds of the public. And, as we know, it is the people who can best influence what happens in the government. Presidents and prime ministers will be more inclined to make agreements if their people want them to."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at Look for yours there, among hundreds of others.

Just one more little minor thing that he needs to tidy up, peace in the Middle East.


CAFFERTY: Health care reform, energy independence, yadda, yadda, yadda.



BLITZER: He's got a huge agenda.

CAFFERTY: Oh, it's unbelievable.

BLITZER: I know. Stand by.