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THE SITUATION ROOM

Public Health Insurance Option Dead or Alive?; Jackson Doctor Breaks Silence

Aired August 18, 2009 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In this make-or-break month for health care reform, it's our job to clear up any confusion about where the president stands right now. And, frankly, a lot of people aren't sure if he has privately given up on including a government-run insurance option.

This hour, we are drilling down on that question and whether the White House is trying to have it both ways.

Listen for yourself to the president's evolving message. Here is what he said in June about the so-called public option.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... insurance option. Now, and the reason is not because we want a government takeover of health care. I have already said, if you have got a private plan that works for you, that's great. But we want some competition.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, and here is what he said in July. He was even more emphatic.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange, a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, costs and track records of a variety of plans, including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This past weekend, his tone seemed to soften somewhat and eyebrows were raised.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So when you say a public option is now the president's preferred choice, has been and is his preferred choice... (CROSSTALK)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I am not just saying that now. I am saying, I have said that repeatedly. The president has said that repeatedly.

HENRY: OK. So is the public option an essential part of health reform.

GIBBS: I think the president answered that on Saturday.

HENRY: So, it's "yes."

GIBBS: No, no, no, no, no.

(CROSSTALK)

HENRY: Why did the health secretary say "no" on Sunday?

GIBBS: What did the president say on Saturday?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

We had that exchange you had with the White House press secretary trying to clear it up. Is it clear yet in your mind?

HENRY: I think the bottom line, there is a lot going around, Saturday, Sunday, what different people in this administration said. Bottom line is that what you played in the beginning shows the president used to be firmly behind a public option with essentially no caveats.

Now he is behind a public option with a big caveat, which is that if it becomes a deal-breaker, he will drop it, because he wants to get a deal in the end. So, if there is too much opposition, he will drop it. They are leaving that door open. That is the change. They won't admit that there is a change, but there has been a change in emphasis.

And there is one quick easy reason why. It's because they are caught between conservative Democrats in the Senate, who say they can't support a bill with the public option, and liberal House Democrats, who say they can't support a bill without an option. So, the president is squeezed in the middle right now.

BLITZER: So, basically what you are saying is he wants something to emerge from the House, something to emerge from the Senate, and then the legislative process can deal with a joint House/Senate conference committee and see what he can come up with?

HENRY: Exactly. And he wants to show flexibility right now. Maybe he didn't show as much flexibility at the beginning here. But in fairness to the president, we are at a later stage in the negotiations now. So, now is the time for him to start showing flexibility, try to light a fire under the House and Senate Democrats, because they haven't met all the deadlines he's already set.

But come September, when they come back to work, there is a narrow window to finally bring this to a conclusion. And at that point, he can't keep dancing around it. He is going to have to make a choice -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry working this story, thank you.

Now to the unfolding story in the Situation Room, not this SITUATION ROOM, the other one over at the White House. We have just received this picture of the former President Bill Clinton leaving his old home after meeting behind closed doors in the White House Situation Room with President Obama. They spoke about North Korea. And we don't know what else came up.

But let's walk over to CNN's Tom Foreman. He is here in our SITUATION ROOM together with the former Defense Secretary William Cohen. He's the president's CEO of The Cohen Group.

We want to talk to you about what might have happened in their Situation Room. But I want Tom to set it up a little bit with some background.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Let's get a sense of where we're talking about here.

When you look at the Situation Room in the White House, here is the White House. You have seen it when you have come as a tourist. You have seen this portion. If you move off this way, this is the West Wing we hear so much about. It's where the Oval Office is, where a lot of the official business takes place.

And inside here, underneath this basic floor plan is where you find the actual Situation Room at the White House. And in some ways, Wolf, it is a little bit like ours. If you look at the overall Situation Room, they have got a big official seal of their own.

But it is a room like this, where people can gather around the table and discuss very many important issues.

And, of course, Mr. Secretary, you have been there for some of these. So what are we looking at here in terms of what they would be talking about in a situation like this?

WILLIAM COHEN, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I assume that they are talking about President Clinton's meeting with Kim Jong Il of North Korea, making an assessment, conveying to President Barack Obama his assessment, number one, the physical condition of the leader of North Korea, perhaps the psychological condition, who asked questions, who initiated the questions.

Who was interpreting would be a good thing to know, whether or not President Clinton had a State Department employee or interpreter representing the U.S. to make sure that the translation was being conveyed properly and there were no nuanced things being said that weren't picked up. But I think, number one, physically making assessment, number two, judging whether he had all of his faculties. Been a lot of rumors about whether his condition was deteriorating. Number three, then trying to find out whether or not any signals were being sent about the desire on the part, if any, on the part of North Korea to open up negotiations again about canceling their nuclear program.

BLITZER: They could have had this meeting in the Oval Office, in the Roosevelt Room. There are a lot of rooms, the Cabinet Room at the White House. The fact that they went into their Situation Room, which has been renovated -- you were in that Situation Room on many occasions.

But they have clearly got some better video screens in there than they used to have.

COHEN: I think you're setting the standard...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: I don't know about that. But when I was covering the White House in the '90s, during the Clinton administration, their Situation Room was not that high-tech. But it has gotten much better now. And I'm sure you agree.

Why do you think they would have it in the Situation Room, given the fact that there are other rooms they could do this kind of in as well?

COHEN: Well, this is a much more is secure room. Obviously, when you walk into the Situation Room, the phones are not only turned off. They're left outside.

There is no opportunity to penetrate into the Situation Room. So, I am assuming that whatever President Clinton had to discuss was of a sensitive nature and didn't want to open it up to possible eavesdropping.

BLITZER: But you think in the Oval Office, there is possible eavesdropping, given the security at the White House?

COHEN: Anything is possible today. And it just -- you create the atmosphere in the Situation Room that this is more sensitive, more serious, and you are conducting business in a much more confidential fashion.

BLITZER: Because I remember at the Pentagon -- I used to cover the Pentagon -- they used to have a room called the tank, which was highly secure. They had all sorts of mysterious buzzing going on, so no one could penetrate that. You remember that room as well.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: That was their Situation Room. But hold on for a second, because Ed Henry, our senior White House correspondent, just getting some information on this meeting. There is a statement, Ed, I take it that has just come out.

HENRY: That's right, Wolf. In fact, Robert Gibbs just giving a readout of that meeting, saying that it took place for about 40 minutes in the Situation Room here at the White House.

And as Secretary Cohen has been laying out, it goes on to say that essentially President Obama wanted to get a read from former President Clinton about exactly what happened at his meeting with Kim Jong Il, go into some detail about that again in that secure environment.

But one new nugget is that Robert Gibbs says when that meeting wrapped up, President Obama then brought the former president to the Oval Office and they had 30 minutes more of a meeting in the Oval Office together, obviously where Bill Clinton used to work for eight years.

One of the big questions moving forward will be whether they had a chance to also discuss health care. We asked Robert Gibbs about that earlier. He said he wasn't sure if they would. Obviously, there could be some lessons learned from the Clinton administration -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And it's interesting, Ed, that the secretary of state was not at the meeting in their Situation Room. She had other meetings with the Colombian foreign minister.

Was that unusual do you think that the secretary of state would not participate in the debriefing with a former president on North Korea?

COHEN: Well, under the circumstances, I am sure that President Clinton had conversations with Secretary Clinton, perhaps even before he talked with President Obama. So, I think it's an unusual situation. We have a former president and the current secretary of state, but I don't think it's anything unusual in that.

Ordinarily, you would expect the secretary to be there. But this is a situation where President Clinton obviously was going to convey his impressions, his assessment. And maybe there are some opportunities that he saw that were not obvious before.

I would make one point. During the last year of his tenure in 2000, in October, there was a lot of pressure being generated to send President Clinton over to North Korea. The North Koreans wanted him to come very badly. But because they couldn't guarantee that there would be some kind of agreement reached, there were many of us who argued, you shouldn't go unless you know what is coming out of it.

I think this was very important to Kim Jong Il. And I think it was very important that President Clinton went for that reason.

BLITZER: And I will bet you when they had that half-hour chat in the Oval Office, it dealt with health care and other issues, not North Korea.

We have got to leave it there, guys. Good discussion. Thanks to both of you very much.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question of the week, perhaps the month, was it unusual that the secretary of state, who is in charge of conducting foreign policy for this country, would not have been present while the former president was discussing his trip to North Korea with the current president of the United States?

Nice job. Could Hillary Clinton have been right about Barack Obama? That's a quote from a Politico piece entitled, "Does Obama Have the Guts?" In it, Roger Simon reminds us how, during the campaign, Clinton warned voters that Obama gave great speeches, but lacked the strength, toughness, and will to get the job done.

Well, Americans are now going to get to see how President Obama governs when it comes to a divisive issue like health care reform. Even though many there are many critics, will he push through on the public option, which is probably the best way to compete with the insurance industry and thus bring costs down?

And it is not just about health care either. Some suggest the president is beginning to appear weak and wishy-washy on a range of issues, whether it's gays in the military, or immigration reform, or going around apologizing to foreign countries. At times, the president appears to be ineffective at even leading his own party as the Democrats continue to wander around like a gaggle of unruly children.

Mr. Obama ought to call a meeting of the Democratic leadership and explain some things to them: Look, I'm the boss. And if you don't like that idea, there are ways I can make your life miserable, especially when it comes time for your reelection.

After all, there is something to be said for declaring, I'm the decider. President Bush may not have been our smartest president -- there is an understatement -- but he made an effort to communicate to us and to the rest of the world that he was in charge, he was running the country.

President Obama is a lot of things. He's articulate, and smart, and polite, and a gentleman and a master political campaigner, but can he govern when the going gets tough? That's the question: Is President Obama tough enough for the job?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

What was Hillary doing meeting with somebody from Colombia?

BLITZER: Yes, Colombian foreign minister was over there at the State Department. So, she was trying...

CAFFERTY: I love it.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Jack, thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Lawyers for a condemned man trying to file a last- minute appeal, but the judge refused to keep her court open.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are supposed to be a judge. You are supposed to be impartial. Why not give them an extra few minutes? We're talking about literally somebody's life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, that life is over and the judge is on trial. But there is another part of the story.

Also, disturbing new details of the killings that shocked the nation, that couple with so many adopted special-needs children. Now we're learning at least one of those kids actually witnessed the slayings.

Plus, a shocking death at Disney World -- how a performer was killed on the job.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The doctor who was with Michael Jackson when he died is now speaking out for the first time. Dr. Conrad Murray has posted a brief video on YouTube. Dr. Murray is under investigation in connection with Jackson's death.

CNN Ted Rowlands is following the story for us joining us live.

All right, tell us what happened, Ted.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this was posted a few hours ago on YouTube. Dr. Murray doesn't talk at all about what happened the night that Michael Jackson died, but he does make a point of saying that he is telling the truth.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS (voice-over): In a soft, accented voice, Michael Jackson's former doctor Conrad Murray broke his silence with what his lawyer says is a thank you to his supporters.

DR. CONRAD MURRAY, PERSONAL PHYSICIAN OF MICHAEL JACKSON: Because of all that is going on, I am afraid to return phone calls or use my e-mail. Therefore, I recorded this video to let all of you know that I have been receiving your messages. I have not been able to thank you personally, which, as you know, is not normal for me.

Your messages give me strength and courage and keep me going. ROWLANDS: But near the end of the minute-long video which was posted on YouTube, there is also a message that seems to be directed to the general public.

MURRAY: don't worry. As long as I keep God in my heart and you in my life, I will be fine. I have done all I could do. I told the truth, and I have faith the truth will prevail.

God bless you. And thank you.

HOWARD BRAGMAN, FOUNDER, FIFTEEN MINUTES PUBLIC RELATIONS: I think it was very well-executed, very smart, and a great P.R. move.

ROWLANDS: Publicist and author Howard Bragman says the video brings Murray to life, transforming him from just a voiceless potential suspect in the death of Michael Jackson. Bragman also applauds the way the message was delivered.

BRAGMAN: These kind of sites, the MySpaces, and the YouTubes and the Facebooks are a great way to get messages out there without having some of the risks of the mainstream media. When I say risk, I mean tough questions.

ROWLANDS: And there have been plenty of questions for Murray to answer since Jackson's death. Subjected to search warrants at his home and his offices in Las Vegas and Houston, he has met with detectives twice since Jackson's death. His lawyers say he continues to cooperate with the investigation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS: And according to his lawyer, Murray taped this message actually last Wednesday in Houston. They decided to release it yesterday.

I asked them if there was any timing towards this release, if they were expecting anything in the investigation, i.e., a possible arrest. They said, no, it has nothing to do with the investigation. They just thought that it was time to do something in terms of an appearance for Dr. Murray.

BLITZER: And the family has now announced the funeral arrangements, haven't they?

ROWLANDS: Yes. It's going to be a private ceremony. It's going to be a week from Saturday. It will be the 51st anniversary -- or birthday of Michael Jackson, and what would have been his 51st birthday, a private ceremony here in Southern California. So, the speculation about his burial now over, family announcing that on the record.

BLITZER: Ted Rowlands, thanks very much.

Now to a disturbing new twist in a murder case we have been covering. You remember that Florida couple known for adopting special-needs children? We are now learning that one of their kids was actually in the room when they were shot and killed last month.

CNN's Brooke Baldwin is here with details.

Brooke, this must have been horrifying for that child.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I have thought about this today. I don't think there are really words for what that must have felt like.

When we talk about this story, we have all seen the surveillance video from outside the Billings home, right? Well, new detail. In fact, this is just -- take a look at this, part of the 700-page document, this is from the Florida DA office, involving perhaps what was said, what was seen inside of the home.

I want to start with what you started with, this child who was in the Billings bedroom that night. Through a nurse, this autistic child has explained he heard a knock on the bedroom door and then saw two men in black masks barge in.

Here's what he said: "Two bad men said, you are going to die, one, two, three and then, no way, no way. Dad grabbed one of the suspect's necks and mom got shot in her shirt." That's how he phrased it.

Another child also in the home at the time told the nurse he had heard seven booms and then he crept into the hallway. And according to the autopsy, which is also detailed in this document, Melanie and Byrd Billings were shot multiple times in the face, head, chest the body -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We know there are eight suspects, seven of whom have been charged with first-degree murder, home invasion, robbery. Is there information now coming out that at least some of them had been planning this murder for some time?

BALDWIN: The short answer is yes. And we should mention, Wolf, that all eight of the accused have pleaded not guilty. But, again, according to these documents, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr., he is one of the suspects. His wife told investigators that he and his son had conversations about robbing the Billings for a couple of months.

He told her someone asked him to do it. Gonzalez Sr. told his wife -- quote -- "I have got a job I have got to do. Byrd Billings is molesting these children and he supposed to have been laundering money. And there is also a bunch of cocaine there, too."

We should point out the Escambia Sheriff's Department have investigated the Billings and do not suspect the couple of any wrongdoing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Authorities are also suggesting -- and correct me if I'm wrong, Brooke -- that Leonard Gonzalez is believed to have organized the crime and that two of the suspects, at least according to court doctors, are saying that he is the one who pulled the trigger. What is Gonzalez telling investigators? BALDWIN: Right. And it is important to differentiate this is Gonzalez Jr. This is the son of Gonzalez Sr.

Of course, he said he didn't do it. He claims a group of car dealers were unhappy with Byrd Billings over business dealings, money issues. And he also told investigators that a known Hispanic gang, you have heard of them, MS-13, that they were involved with the Billings murders.

And he told police for them to look into that. Well, prosecutors believe there were dual motives involved in the killings, both robbery and a contracted hit. But so far, authorities have not linked MS-13 to this case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brooke Baldwin doing some good reporting for us, thank you.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: A judge goes on trial for refusing to hear the final appeal of a death row inmate because it was after office hours.

And a legendary NFL quarterback coming out of retirement now for a second time -- what it took to make it worth his while. We're talking about Brett Favre.

And a stunt performer dies after an injury at Walt Disney World, the third death at the park this summer. We have the details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Some state lawmakers have scored a sweet deal, or is it a scam?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: You retired last year?

HARVEY WEISENBERG (D), NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLYMAN: Yes.

CHERNOFF: But you are still working?

WEISENBERG: That's correct.

CHERNOFF: And you are still getting a pension?

WEISENBERG: Absolutely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Could this be happening in your state? Anything wrong with it? We are looking into broken government. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: This hour, CNN is uncovering another example of broken government. Legislators in New York State are supposedly retiring, but guess what? They are keeping their jobs and their salaries and they are getting pensions to boot. What's going on?

Our senior correspondent, Allan Chernoff, is looking into this story for us.

Allan, is all this legal?

CHERNOFF: Wolf, this is entirely legal. It is the kind of situation that can lead people to say, hey, how do I get one of those jobs? Lawmakers can do it here in New York. And some may be doing it in your state, too.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHERNOFF (voice-over): Long Island Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg is retired from the job he still holds.

(on camera): You retired last year?

WEISENBERG: Yes.

CHERNOFF: But you are still working?

WEISENBERG: That's correct.

CHERNOFF: And you are still getting a pension?

WEISENBERG: Absolutely.

CHERNOFF (voice-over): Weisenberg, a member of the state assembly for two decades, gets a pension of $72,000, while earning $101,000 in salary. It is all legal.

In New York, state and local elected officials over 65 can theoretically retire to get a pension while continuing to hold the same job, earning a salary. Weisenberg is one of four members of the assembly who retired last year and now gets a pension and salary, "The New York Times" reported Tuesday, and the state comptroller confirmed to CNN.

Weisenberg says he wants to be sure to provide for his wife, but says he works mainly to provide public service.

(on camera): The average person looks at this and says, wait a minute. He is retired, but he is still working?

He's getting a pension and a salary?

WEISENBERG: Yes, but do they get elected to office every two years?

We get elected to office. And the reality is the people...

CHERNOFF: And that's why you should have a pension now.

WEISENBERG: The pay -- the pension is earned.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's outrageous that the law is the way it is, but they're allowed to do what they're allowed to do.

CHERNOFF (voice-over): In the majority of states, legislators can double dip by holding a second government job to earn two salaries. Only nine states ban it. In half the states in the nation, legislators can double dip by holding a second elected office on the county or municipal level. And in some states, including Delaware, Arkansas and New York, public officials can pull in both a salary and a pension at the same time.

Nonpartisan watchdog groups say this is an example of broken government.

SUSAN LERNER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMON CAUSE NEW YORK: There's no oversight on this and there's no accountability because there's no one other than the legislators who decide what the deal is for the legislators' pensions. That doesn't sit right.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHERNOFF: It's tough for any New York State elected official to look good these days, after the state senate fell into a stalemate over the summer that threw the government into chaos. A new Quinnipiac poll out today shows nearly three quarters of New Yorkers disapprove of the state legislator -- Wolf, that is an all-time low.

BLITZER: And this story will only reinforce that notion.

Thanks very much, Allan, for that.

A powerful Texas judge is now on trial, her ethics in question, her career on the line. And here's why -- she refused to keep her court open past 5:00 p.m. to hear the final appeal of a death row inmate. We have a new report on this developing story from CNN's Ed Lavandera -- Ed.

HENRY: Wolf, Sharon Keller's fiercest critics called her "Sharon Killer." She's the highest ranking criminal judge in the State of Texas and right now, she's fighting to keep that job.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: (voice-over): On September 25th, 2007, convicted murderer Michael Richard's attorneys were trying to file a last minute appeal. It was his execution date. Richard's attorneys say computer problems kept them from filing the paperwork before the clerk's office at the court of criminal appeals closed for the day. They asked for the office to stay open for them, but Judge Sharon Keller denied the request. The office closed at 5:00 p.m.. Michael Richard was executed three hours later.

MARSHA RICHARDS, INMATE'S WIDOW: To have his appeal basically blocked like that, I mean, who expects that?

You're supposed to be a judge. You're supposed to be impartial.

Why not give them an extra few minutes?

We're talking about literally somebody's life.

LAVANDERA: Judge Keller has been charged with five counts of judicial misconduct and could be removed from the bench. Keller says she was never told that Richard's attorneys were trying to file an appeal and that she thought it was a simple question about what time the clerk's office closed.

Keller's attorney also argues that Richard's attorneys had other after hours options to file the appeal and failed to do so.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY MYSANANTONIO.COM)

CHIP BABCOCK, KELLER'S ATTORNEY: The allegation is that Judge Keller closed the court to these lawyers. And I think that she denies that allegation very strongly. And I think the evidence will support her when all is said and done.

LAVANDERA: Michael Richard was sent to death row for sexually assaulting and murdering a 53-year-old woman. Nobody argues Richard was innocent. But on that day in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that temporarily halted executions across the country. Other appeals similar to Richard's were granted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a travesty of justice.

LAVANDERA: Keller's case has sparked anti-death penalties protests outside the courthouse where Keller's misconduct trial is underway in San Antonio.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're expecting all these sort of last minute appeals when there's an execution date. So for her to show that callus disregard for human life, that's not -- as a taxpaying citizen, I don't want her to have a job anymore.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: Judge Sharon Keller will testify in her own defense. The misconduct trial is expected to end by Thursday. The charges could either be dismissed or she could lose her job -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera, thanks.

You give us an update.

The health care reform question reaches across all age groups, and not least of them seniors. Now, they're taking it out on the Obama administration and even the AARP -- at least some seniors are.

And the honeymoon is apparently over big time between the Obama camp and the news media. How will that cooling relationship play into the health care debate?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Some members of the AARP are not very happy about health care reform.

Let's talk about that and more with former Bush speechwriter, David Frum; the Politico's Nia-Malika Henderson; and our own senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

But let's get some background first from CNN's Joe Johns -- all right, set this up for us, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, seniors have turned out in huge numbers to protest health care reform. Now they're objecting in another way. Sixty thousand of them are quitting AARP -- and that's just in the last six weeks.

They say they're concerned about possible cuts to Medicare and they're mad the organization, which is for Americans 50 years older and up, has taken a stand in favor of reform, even though AARP has not officially endorsed any plans yet.

For his part, President Obama has tried to ease fears.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: What we've proposed is not to reduce benefits. Benefits on Medicare would stay the same. It's not to ration. What we are asking is that we eliminate some of the practices that aren't making people healthier.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: But that message isn't resonating with seniors.

Listen to what one woman told our own Sanjay Gupta.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have read some things that says that as you get older, you're liable to wait and wait and wait before you can have surgery. I've heard that they're going to look at the older people and you're going to wait longer than the younger people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: The White House denies younger Americans will have better health care than seniors.

So the question is this -- how much of a problem is it politically for President Obama if he doesn't get seniors on board with health care reform -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Joe, stand by.

David Frum, how much of a problem is it?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER: The president is going to have a problem. The core of what the president is talking about is that he -- his proposals would drive out of business or into a reduced business the programs called Medicare Advantage, the private insurance component of Medicare.

These programs typically appeal to healthier seniors. They offer more lavish or more generous benefits at a -- at somewhat higher costs to the government and to the participants. Those will shrink under the Obama plan. And for the people who are beneficiaries, they are unhappy about it.

BLITZER: Because, you know, seniors vote, as you know, Nia, in much bigger proportions than younger people vote. And no politician can afford to ignore seniors.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: Right. And I mean, what we see the president doing now is really trying to kind of tailor his message to seniors. And so the AARP last week -- and he was talking about his grandmother and he was also talking -- essentially kind of trying to downplay this whole idea of death panels by saying we're not going to pull the plug on grandmother.

And they all have launched -- they've also launched this kind of Internet rumor fighting campaign, as well.

I mean it's hard to tell if seniors are really going to be plugging into that and sending it out to all of their friends, even though polls do show that -- that seniors are plugged into the Internet.

BLITZER: Because a lot of seniors don't get e-mail, necessarily.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. That's true. But many of them don't. And, you know, it's not just that seniors vote. Seniors vote by a large percentage in mid-term elections and, you know, those are the next elections coming up. By far, those are the most important voters for many of these -- of these lawmakers.

And, you know, David is absolutely right. It's not just the death panels which got so much buzz and play last week. It is the Medicare issue.

For example, I remember speaking in the hallway to Senator Bill Nelson, who represents the State of Florida, who was telling me about how upset and how vocal he was in a very, very intense meeting among Democrats saying come on, guys, you can't do this and have this health care reform by cutting benefits to Medicare. Think about how it's going to play in Miami-Dade. He's just one senator with a big population, but it's -- it's pretty widespread. BLITZER: Because, Nia, as you know, the Republicans say, you're going to cut $500 billion from Medicare. The White House may say that's waste and abuse and fraud or whatever is going in on there, but there are a lot of people who think that that cut over the next 10 years could affect Medicare recipients.

HENDERSON: Exactly. The president, you know, says it's savings and seniors hear cuts when they hear that. He also talks about, you know, cutting down on the number of tests and sometimes seniors, you know, hear that and essentially say maybe they're not going to get the care that they're used to.

BLITZER: Stand by, guys.

We have a lot more to discuss.

To hear critics tell it, during the campaign, the relationship between then candidate Barack Obama and the news media -- the mainstream news media, shall we say -- was a love fest. Well, maybe not any longer. The White House seems peeved and downright ornery with some reporters in the Briefing Room right now.

Why the cold shoulder?

What's going on?

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with David, Nia and Dana, as well as Joe Johns -- Joe, the media -- it's a -- it's always a good subject.

JOHNS: It certainly is, Wolf. It was a constant joke on the campaign trail -- the media is in love with Barack Obama.

(MUSIC)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The media's love affair with Barack Obama is all consuming.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: The feeling most people get when they hear Barack Obama speak -- my, I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don't have that too often.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: That was then. This is now.

GIBBS: I always regret when you guys take something and make it an outsized thing, yes.

BASH: And how did...

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: How did that happen?

GIBBS: On occasion.

BASH: How did that happen...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sorry.

BASH: -- over the last few weeks or months since...

GIBBS: I...

BASH: (INAUDIBLE).

GIBBS: I would love to have been in your newsroom on Sunday and deduced the very same ration -- rationality.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is complaining about continued questions from reporters on whether a public option will be included in health care reform.

Last week, President Obama laughed about the media, too.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I also get my news from the cable networks because I don't like the spin that comes from them other places.

OBAMA: Oh, you've got to be -- you've got to be careful about them cable networks, though.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: It's not the first time the president has criticized the press. Back in June, he told Brian Williams he doesn't listen to cable news chatter because he doesn't learn anything.

Still, the White House has no problem asking the TV networks for air time when the president has a press conference.

So here's the question -- what does the it mean that the White House is taking on the media in the health care debate?

BLITZER: A good question.

Let's ask Dana.

What does it mean? BASH: I mean, Robert Gibbs, I've known him for years, since he was a staffer on -- on Capitol Hill. But, give me a break. I mean give me a big break, because we know the reality here from talking to sources -- I'm sure you do, as well -- inside the White House and, more importantly, just even as of a few minutes ago on Capitol Hill.

This was a deliberate strategy from the White House to do this right now, to make more clear than they have before -- yes, they've been going down this path -- but to make more clear with very deliberate words that a public option isn't necessarily the end all, be all -- isn't essential.

It was (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Those were the words of Kathleen Sebelius...

BASH: Kathleen Sebelius...

BLITZER: ...on Sunday morning.

BASH: Right here on CNN.

So, look, I mean, you don't have to, you know, be in -- you can be in any newsroom. You can basically be on Planet Earth to know that that -- this is what's going on, especially with our sources telling us that they were told explicitly that this was a deliberate strategy from the White House.

And it's facing reality. And the reality is that the votes simply aren't there in the Senate, even among Democrats, for a public option.

BLITZER: And, you know, whenever -- and I've been around a long time. Whenever you hear administration officials, any -- Republican, Democrat -- going after the news media, you know they have a problem.

HENDERSON: Exactly. I mean the old phrase is if you're blaming the media, you're losing. And I think that's essentially what's going on here with the Obama administration. They're having a problem getting their message out. So, you know, in addition to blaming the Republicans and blaming Sarah Palin for ginning up the conversation about death panels, now their new target -- at least in this debate -- is -- is the media.

And I think -- I mean the question is do they continue to do this?

Are they going to continue to kind of demonize the media, because it is kind of more familiar -- a familiar Republican kind of playbook to -- to kind of throw the media (INAUDIBLE)?

BLITZER: Yes, because when the president of the United States says on Saturday it's just a sliver, the public option -- a sliver.

Do you know what the definition of sliver is?

You know, a little -- give me a little sliver of that chocolate cake, a tiny little sliver...

FRUM: And I think it's something that stings...

BLITZER: Yes.

FRUM: ...that gets under the skin.

BLITZER: Yes, a little sliver. And when the secretary of Health and Human Services says on "STATE OF THE UNION" Sunday morning, it's not essential -- I believe those were her words...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ...that -- that's news.

FRUM: You have to have some sympathy for the Obama people. I mean the transition from worshipful press to merely positive press must be very painful. I think one of the problems that Democratic administrations have is that Republican administrations don't expect anything. They expect to be bitten and yelled at. It's no shock.

But for Democrats, it's always painful -- I thought you guys were supposed to be on our team. And when, periodically, the press displays some skepticism or actually, in this case, repeats the news that they want to put out but not exactly the way they'd like it reported, they are shocked, betrayed, hurt.

BLITZER: Yes. And so I guess that's something they're going to have to get used to from time to time.

Buys, we've got to leave it right there.

Good discussion.

Let's check in with Lou to see what's coming up fat the top of the hour -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: David's nailing those things -- Wolf.

Thank you very much.

Coming up at the top of the hour, the White House insisting tonight it's not sending mixed message about the president's health care plan. After days of shifting policy, the Obama administration now says a government-run public option remains a key part of the president's plan. We'll have that report.

And the fight over health care exposing what is now a deep rift within the president's party in Congress. House Democrats threatening to withdraw their support for a bill without the so-called public option. With opposition in the Senate growing as well, passage of any kind of health care legislation in this Congress seems increasingly remote. We'll be talking about all of that and we'll bring you the very latest.

And why is no one focusing on more than 30 million Americans without a job in this country?

Why are their interests not being represented?

Tonight, we will do just that. A special new segment that begins tonight, Dobbs and Jobs Now.

Join us for that, all the days news and much more. And all of that is coming up in just a few moments, right here on CNN -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Lou.

Thank you.

Let's go to Jack right now.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour: Is President Obama tough enough for this job that he's got running this country?

Jeff writes from Hawaii: "It's starting to look like no. I voted for President Obama in the last election, swept up by his calls for change. I'm beginning to become disheartened, however, as I have yet to see him forcefully deliver on anything he campaigned for; be it new jobs -- I haven't worked since January; lower taxes -- you can't tax what you don't earn; health care; regulating Wall Street, etc. The only place I find him strong is in e-mails asking me to donate more money."

Jim in Los Angeles writes: "The president is still young and doesn't carry the battle scars necessary to push his agenda. The jury is still out, but it's deliberating. He needs to get his own party marching in step. Study Lyndon Johnson for that technique, then go after the opposition with a pitch fork and a smile, but get going. He talks swell, but that doesn't move people to action."

Nick writes: "Yes, 14 hour days, not taking money from special interests, running for president as an African-American when there's still racism and inviting your toughest competition from the primaries to be in your administration. If tough can be defined as doing unprecedented things and actually following through, then, yes."

Pete writes: "Chicago politics, tough? Yes. Real world tough? No. His failures thus far can be chalked up to naivety. This is a very dangerous trait for the leader of the free world. Is there even a backbone in his staff or cabinet? Where do we turn when it hits the fan?"

Debbie writes: "In a nutshell, no. He's a nice guy, no question. But this is not what it takes to get the job done. His inexperience is the really showing. I just wish it was Hillary in the White House."

Nikki in San Diego writes: "Jack, not only is President Obama tough enough, but he's cool with it, too." And Lisa writes from Dublin, Ohio: "If he doesn't lower the boom now, the rest of his presidency is doomed. Pick your battles only when necessary, but for God's sake, don't let the cheerful troupe of morons we call Congress run all over you. We're all screwed if that happens."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile and look for yours among hundreds of others -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack.

Thank you.

It doesn't take much to become an Internet sensation these days. A squirrel did it simply by sneaking into a family photo. Jeanne Moos chronicles the meteoric rise of the crasher squirrel.

And a former NBA star takes a shot at politics and gets some hometown help.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In "Hot Shots," Marines gather in a hallway and played poker in Afghanistan.

In Seattle, a volunteer pounds the pavement for former NBA player and mayoral candidate, James Donaldson.

In Sri Lanka, a boy ends the day by playing cricket.

And in Moldova, a farmer sets up a watermelon stand.

Hot Shots -- pictures worth a thousand words.

And now the shots seen around the world.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Most squirrels remain anonymous, especially one that gets a yogurt container stuck on his head so you can't see his face. But this is a squirrel you'll find yourself face-to-face with all over the Web -- the crasher squirrel crashed a photo being snapped by this couple vacationing in Canada.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE TODAY SHOW," COURTESY NBC)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to talk to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: It got them an exclusive on "The Today Show" explaining how they were using a timer and remote to take a pictures of themselves when the squirrel stepped in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE TODAY SHOW," COURTESY NBC)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He heard the shutter releasing and became interested, thought, perhaps, it was going to give him some food.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Now that squirrel is climbing the branches of the Internet. You'll find him in the arms of Vladimir Putin; in Sarah Palin's sights; mugging in Nick Nolte's mug shot; posing with everyone from Ahmadinejad to North Korea's "Dear Leader" and Bill Clinton; even nosing in on Michael Jackson, whose music...

(VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: ...had already inspired a video of dancing squirrels.

(MUSIC)

MOOS: The crasher squirrel is now crashing town hall meetings on health care and even a recent beer summit at the White House. He's gone back in history to Nixon's resignation. He's even scampered on the moon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY MASHABLE.COM)

NEIL ARMSTRONG, ASTRONAUT: It's one small step for man.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: One giant leap for squirrelkind. He's become a tourism mascot for Banff, British Colombia.

(MUSIC)

MOOS: Their Web add ends with the tag line "bring your cam to Banff, I'll be waiting."

(on camera): The squirrel -- that squirrel -- is even responsible for the indication of a new word into the English language.

(voice-over): Squirrelizer -- a Web tool that allows you to take any photo and add the squirrel. Web sites like BuzzFeed feature the squirrel on hand for an ultrasound; present at the Hindenburg disaster; hanging out with President Obama as The Joker; sharing the picture frame with another favorite Web rodent, the dramatic prairie dog.

(VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: From Mount Rushmore to The Last Supper, other squirrels may try to avoid humans...

(VIDEO CLIP) MOOS: ...this one's the toast of the past.

(VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Who needs "Esquire" when there's a squirrel?

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Leave it to Jeanne.

Thanks very much.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.