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THE SITUATION ROOM
President Obama Nears Afghanistan Decision; President Obama Hosts First State Dinner
Aired November 24, 2009 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: President Obama feeds a huge guessing game, hinting at when he will announce his strategy for Afghanistan. But a source is now telling CNN how many troops the Pentagon expects to send.
Meanwhile, dinner and diplomacy will be served. The president tends to America's relationship with India and hosts its prime minister to a state dinner. It is the first of this administration. And Jennifer Hudson, well, she's going to be here, as well as there. The Oscar and Grammy winner will sing for the president and guests, but, first, she's going to be here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And she previews one of the songs for us.
Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Virtually the entire nation and the world waits to hear on how many more American troops President Obama might send to Afghanistan. Well, today, it was the president himself who fueled the fire. He is giving a sense of when he's going to announce that decision.
And although his plans are shrouded in secrecy, CNN is getting new information on just how many troops the Pentagon is planning for.
I want to go straight to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.
Obviously, Dan, that's the question that everybody is asking. Do we know what the decision of the president is at this time?
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president says that he will announce that decision shortly, and then added some time after Thanksgiving.
This comes after months of high-level meetings, not only with his Cabinet members, but also his military leaders. The president calls this long process comprehensive and extremely useful.
LOTHIAN (voice-over): President Obama has publicly condemned leaks from his closed-door Afghanistan deliberations. So, at a brief press event, that was used to try to pry the president's decision loose. QUESTION: Mr. President, I suspect you don't want my colleagues and I to rely on leaks until next week, so I -- I would like to ask you about...
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Why -- why stop now?
LOTHIAN: Mr. Obama didn't give an inch, providing no details on his new strategy. And even though most Americans are uneasy with the war in Afghanistan, the president didn't appear concerned.
OBAMA: I feel very confident that, when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, that they will be supportive.
LOTHIAN: After his ninth and most likely final war council meeting before making an announcement, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, the president has the information he wants and needs to make his decision.
That possible decision, according to a defense official with direct knowledge of Pentagon operations, expected orders to send 34,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and that includes plans to deploy three U.S. Army brigades of some 15,000 troops, and a Marine brigade about 8,000 strong.
With India's prime minister at his side, and almost a year after the deadly terror attacks in Mumbai, President Obama said the threat of al Qaeda and other extremists is a global problem, something the two leaders agree on.
MANMOHAN SINGH, INDIAN PRIME MINISTER: The forces of terrorism in our region pose a grave threat to the entire civilized world, and have to be defeated.
LOTHIAN: In his remarks in the East Room, the president also took a swipe at the Bush administration policy in Afghanistan, saying that, over the past eight years, there were times when they did not have the right resources or the strategy to get the job done, and the president saying that it is his intention to -- quote -- "finish the job" -- Suzanne.
MALVEAUX: OK, Dan, I want you to stand by for just a moment, because we want to ask our viewers how they feel about the potential for thousands more troops going in Afghanistan.
Well, this is our latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. Americans are essentially evenly split on the idea of sending 34,000 more troops, 50 percent in favor. There are 49 percent who are opposed. I want to also bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. This poll shows that Americans pretty much evenly divided.
Gloria, tell us, why do you -- why are they so torn at this time?
LOTHIAN: Well, you know, Suzanne, they are just not seeing results in Afghanistan right now. And they are watching these deliberations from afar, and they are hearing about all kinds of input the president is getting, from sending, you know, a few troops or no troops, to 40,000 troops.
And, so, they haven't quite decided where they are on this. Also, don't forget, this is a president whom they like personally, but they have grown increasingly skeptical about his policies, so they are not sure how they are going to feel about this.
And one more issue that's very important, don't underestimate the importance of the deficit here. They know that, if you send 40,000 more troops, it could cost us as much as $40 billion, and that's money we just don't have to spend right now.
MALVEAUX: And, Dan, I want to ask you -- you know, you and I have been covering this, and, certainly, things have ratcheted up over the last three months in terms of whether or not people think there's mission creep, or there's a real clear sense of how to get out, what the troop numbers are.
Do we know if there's still internal debate that is happening inside the White House among the senior advisers? Are they all on board right now?
LOTHIAN: Well, if there is that internal debate, it's not being leaked out.
In fact, as I said in my piece there, that was one of the issues that the president was referring to, when he talked about leaks that were coming out. There were a lot of reports about this internal division, as to some thinking that more troops or fewer troops should be sent in.
But, you know, did I talk to a senior administration official, who told me, listen, the president welcomes this division within -- behind closed doors for everyone to give their opinion on what they think the strategy should be going forward.
But, at the end of the day, he said, once the president does come up with a strategy, he believes that everybody will be on board and make sure that that strategy is successful.
MALVEAUX: And, Gloria, how do you think the president manages to do that, to actually convince Americans, because that -- that seems to me...
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure.
MALVEAUX: ... with that poll, that that's a pretty tough sales job at this point?
BORGER: Yes. He -- and he -- Suzanne, he's got to go out there and sell it.
You know, it's very crucial, not only what he decides, obviously, but how he frames his decision and how he pursues it with the American people, whether he addresses us from the Oval Office next week or whatever. He has to tell the American people why he decided what he did, and let the American people know that he intends to pursue his decision, and not be buffeted by the political winds, whether it's from within his own political party or outside his own party. He's got to stand firm and explain this.
MALVEAUX: Dan, did you want to jump in?
LOTHIAN: Yes, I just wanted to say one other important issue here is that I think the American people want to know when the president plans to get out.
LOTHIAN: And that will be important, for the president to give sort of an exit strategy here, for people to really embrace this.
MALVEAUX: All right.
MALVEAUX: All right, Dan, Gloria, thank you so much. And we will come back to you both later in the show. Thanks.
Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File."
Hey, Jack. How you doing?
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Suzanne, with more and more Americans now saying that health care is not the government's responsibility, it's not difficult to see why some could feel that way.
All you have to do is look at a history of government-run programs in this country. For example, Social Security created in 1935, it will be paying out more than it takes in by 2016, seven years from now. And, unless changes are made, it will be gone by 2037.
Medicare and Medicaid programs signed into law in 1965, Medicare will run completely out of money by 2017, and the situation for Medicaid is even worse. Spending on Social Security and Medicare, more than $1 trillion last year, or more than one-third of the entire federal budget.
The U.S. Postal Service, created in 1775, it's broke. It posted a $3.8 billion loss for this year, which is $1 billion more than it lost last year, despite $6 billion in cost-cutting moves in the past year.
How about Fannie Mae, in operation since 1938, Freddie Mac, established in 1970? They are both broke -- the two home loan agencies seized by federal regulators 14 months ago. Fannie Mae is now asking the government for another $15 billion, which would bring the tab for rescuing these two companies to about $111 billion.
And don't forget the hundreds of billions of dollars in the first round of TARP money that went virtually unaccounted for. Now the government wants another $1 trillion, roughly, to reform health care over the next 10 years, $1 trillion we don't have.
Here's the question. Do you really want the federal government more involved in health care? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog -- Suzanne.
MALVEAUX: Guaranteed you will get a lot of responses on that one, Jack. Thanks.
CAFFERTY: I would think.
MALVEAUX: Well, angry air travelers, they might see it as revenge. For the first time ever, the government is punishing airlines for refusing to let passengers off what some call a nightmare flight.
One man's horrifying ordeal ends in amazing discovery. For more than 20 years, doctors thought that he was unable to understand much, but he was fully conscious all along.
And, on the menu, dinner and diplomacy -- President Obama hosts India's prime minister for high-level talks and a high-profile treat. It's the first for this administration.
MALVEAUX: The leaders of the world's two largest democracies are teaming up to tackle a host of challenging issues. President Obama and the Indian prime minister held talks today at the White House, and Mr. Obama says that India's partnership with the United States is going to play an influential role in the 21st century.
The two leaders discussed several pressing issues, including nuclear deals, climate change, as well as the economy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SINGH: Mr. President, I bring to you and the people of the United States of America the friendly greetings of over one billion people of India.
OBAMA: As leading economies, the United States and India can strengthen the global economic recovery, promote trade that creates jobs for both our people, and pursue growth that is balanced and sustained.
As nuclear powers, we can be full partners in preventing the spread of the world's most deadly weapons, securing loose nuclear materials from terrorists, and pursuing our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: In less than three hours, the president and the first lady will host a state dinner for Prime Minister Singh at the White House.
Now, it's the Obamas' first state dinner. And the question, of course, why was India's leader chosen for such a historic honor?
Our CNN foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, she explains.
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's the world's largest democracy, population almost 1.2 billion. It's a nuclear power, a major trading partner with the U.S.
Now, President Barack Obama puts India center stage, hosting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his first state dinner, so large, the White House has constructed a massive tent on the back lawn.
ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is a very important relationship with a very important country that we have in the world. That's why India was chosen to be the first visit.
DOUGHERTY: The relationship started with economics and trade. President George W. Bush reached a landmark civil nuclear deal which allowed the U.S. to do business with Indian on nuclear technology. Now, no matter what the issue, India's importance is growing -- counterterrorism, nonproliferation, climate change, the conflict in Afghanistan.
SINGH: I sincerely hope that the world community would have the wisdom to stay engaged in that process and any premature talk of exit will only embolden the terrorist elements who are out to destabilize not only our part of the world, but civilized worlds everywhere.
DOUGHERTY: President Obama's recent visit to China and his attention to Beijing makes India nervous. So does his focus on India's neighbor and rival, Pakistan. This visit is one way Mr. Obama will try to alleviate those concerns. But long term, India's burgeoning economy and its effect on global warming, says one expert, could be a key issue between the U.S. and India.
TERESITA C. SCHAFFER, DIRECTOR OF THE SOUTH ASIA PROGRAM, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I will also be listening for what, if anything, they say about climate change, where India and the United States are actually both having a little difficulty taming this issue domestically. They both have serious domestic problems with what we'd like to do.
MALVEAUX: Well, as Jill said, no other nation in the world has a democracy as large as India's, with more than one billion people. Now, India also has an unemployment rate of just more than 9 percent.
Meanwhile, I want to take a look at India's gross domestic product. That is the basic measure of the nation's overall economic activity. India's GDP of $3.3 trillion -- trillion -- dollars ranks fifth in the world. But when you take a look at the GDP per capita, or per person, India ranked 167th in the world.
Well, might Republicans soon have to prove how Republican they really are? There's an idea for a so-called purity test to measure how conservative a Republican really is. Could this idea drive out moderates?
And could made-in-America turn into made-in-Asia? The company that -- the company that makes NBA uniforms may be taking business elsewhere.
MALVEAUX: Alina Cho is monitoring all the stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
Alina, what are you working on?
ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Suzanne, this may or may not come as a surprise, but it's going to be a long, slow economic recovery, with little hope for a significant drop in unemployment for years to come.
A new Federal Reserve report says a full recovery could take five or six years, and the jobless rate could hover between 8.6 percent and 10.2 percent over the next year.
In Kentucky, police say the death of a part-time census worker was a suicide, possibly to collect life insurance. Back in September, the body of William Sparkman Jr. was found in a forest with a rope around his neck and the word "fed" written on hi chest. But authorities now say that Sparkman could have done this himself, and there was no DNA but his at the scene.
Today, for the first time ever, the Transportation Department is fining airline companies for stranding passengers in a parked plane. How about that. The fines were for the so-called nightmare flight. Back in August, 47 passengers were kept all night on a plane in Rochester, Minnesota, with the terminal just yards away. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says this should serve as a warning to the entire airline industry to respect the rights of passengers.
And Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is going full-court press, literally. He's asking Adidas, the German-owned apparel company, to drop its plan to make NBA uniforms in Thailand. That company's decision would wipe out about 100 jobs at a factory in Upstate New York, and, according to Schumer, this would end a made-in-America tradition that's as old as pro basketball itself -- Suzanne, back to you.
MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Alina.
Well, two key figures in China's tainted milk scandal were executed today. Several children, you may recall, were killed, hundreds of thousands sickened, when there was a toxic chemical that was added to infant formula last year.
Reporting from Beijing is CNN's Emily Chang.
EMILY CHANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: More than a year after the scandal and 10 months after the sentences were handed down, Chinese state-run media is reporting two men have been executed for their role in the tainted milk scandal, both of them basically middlemen in this giant scheme that sickened hundreds of thousands of children across China.
Zhang Yujun ran a workshop that produced a chemical called melamine that was reportedly the largest source of melamine in China. Geng Jinping added melamine to raw milk and sold it to big dairies, like Sanlu. That melamine artificially inflated -- inflated the protein levels in the milk, so that it would pass inspection.
But, in fact, melamine is a chemical used to make plastic that, when ingested, can be toxic. In the end, up to 300,000 children got sick. At least six babies died, most of them suffering from kidney failure.
Tian Wenhua, the chairwoman of Sanlu Dairy, the biggest dairy at center of this scandal, admitted in court that she knew the milk was making children sick for at least three months before she reported it to authorities. The government didn't report it to the public for another month, and, in that time, Sanlu knowingly sold hundreds of tons of tainted milk to people in China.
Emily Chang, CNN, Beijing.
Well, this story is a horror that, for most people, is really just unimaginable. Doctors think that a man is deep in a coma and he is unable to understand much. But then this man actually is fully conscious. He's unable to let anybody know. Well, this went on for more than 20 years.
And if thousands more U.S. troops go to Afghanistan, how much is that going to cost? Well, there are varying estimates -- and one lawmaker's idea to pay for it: possibly slap another tax on wealthy Americans.
MALVEAUX: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now: We are getting a clearer picture of the new Afghanistan strategy that President Obama is going to announce next week, but is there any number of new troops that can turn the tide against the Taliban? Michael Ware is here with a tough look at the president's plan.
Plus, how do you keep from catching the H1N1 flu during those cramped holiday travels? We're going to have a report for you.
And a very real dream girl will be headlining at the White House tonight. Jennifer Hudson will join us to preview the Obamas' first state dinner.
Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We are learning new details on when President Obama is going to announce his decision for Afghanistan, how many more U.S. troops he might send.
Now more on our top story: The president is going to announce his plans early next week. And a source that -- with direct knowledge of Pentagon operations says that the Pentagon expects orders to send 34,000 additional troops.
Now, how much might more troops in Afghanistan cost? That is the question.
I want to bring that question to CNN congressional correspondent Brianna Keilar.
Obviously, you have been looking at the numbers, crunching the numbers. And many different people have ideas about what this war is going to cost.
What do we know?
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, varying numbers, but the answer of how much is it going to cost, in short, a lot.
Estimates varying widely, depending on how many expenses you factor in, but based on an assumption slightly higher than what the Pentagon is expecting, that 40,000 more troops would go into Afghanistan, the Pentagon estimate is $20 billion per year.
Now, the number coming from the White House budget director, Peter Orszag, is $40 billion per year. And then, looking at the cost over a decade, David Obey, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is citing numbers as high as a $1 trillion.
That is about as much as Congress is planning to spend on overhauling the nation's health care system over a decade. So, now the question is, does Congress just add the anticipated cost of ramping up the war in Afghanistan to the nation's debt, which is over $12 trillion at this point, the way it has paid for much of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far -- so far?
And some Democrats -- and, mind you, Democrats largely oppose a troop surge in Afghanistan -- some Democrats say, no, taxpayers should pick up the tab in the form of a war tax.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. DAVID OBEY (D-WI), HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: We saw Harry Truman's Fair Deal wiped out by Korea. We saw Lyndon Johnson's Great Society wiped out by Vietnam. I don't want to see the restructuring and reforming of our own economy wiped out because we get stuck in a 10-year war, a war that isn't paid for.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Now, Chairman Obey is proposing to increase income taxes on all Americans, but wealthier Americans, under his plan, would pay more.
This war tax proposal is coming from prominent Democrats, along with Obey. These are prominent Democrats close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And, in the past, she has actually opposed a tax like this one to pay for the Iraq war. But, this time, she has not publicly opposed this latest version. And, in fact, today, she said, "There is serious unrest in our caucus about, can we afford this war?" -- Suzanne.
MALVEAUX: And Brianna, it was interesting to see Peter Orszag, the head of OMB, in the last war council meeting with the president. Clearly, the president is thinking about those numbers, how much this war is going to cost.
KEILAR: Certainly. And if Democrats were to say this has to be paid for, there's going to be a tax, that is a huge political no-no, basically, because in an economic climate the way it is right now, to tell Americans you are going to have to pay for this makes it even more unpopular when poll numbers show that the majority of Americans are opposed to the war in Afghanistan.
MALVEAUX: OK. We'll see how the president explains all this.
Thanks very much, Brianna.
Well, our CNN's Michael Ware, he was recently in Afghanistan. He's getting ready to join us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're going to get his take on the president's pending troop decision.
Well, turning now to a story that many people, they are talking about around the world. It involves a man who doctors thought was in a coma for more than 20 years, but that man was actually -- he was fully conscious. The doctor credited with helping to reveal that says that dozens of other cases are being re-examined now.
Meanwhile, that patient himself is revealing what it was like to live this kind of personal horror. Our Robert Moore of ITN explains.
ROBERT MOORE, ITN REPORTER (voice-over): Rom Houben's story is both terrifying and uplifting. After a car crash, it was thought for two decades he was in a vegetative state with no awareness of his surroundings. Now it's known that, while paralyzed, his mind was strikingly alert, but he had no way of telling the doctors.
(on camera): My name is Robert. And I work for a British television station, ITV News.
(voice-over): I interviewed him. While his carer supports his hand and elbow, Rom guides a pen onto a keyboard. He understands English, but types his answers in Flemish.
(on camera): How lonely, how frightening has it been for you these last 20-something years?
ROM HOUBEN, PATIENT (through translator): At some moments, it was terribly lonely, but I knew my family was believing in me.
MOORE (voice-over): It was his mother who demanded specialists reassess Rom. With the latest scanning equipment, they confirmed his brain was fully functional. Staff at the center say it's now clear Rom was aware of events here all along.
JAN THIRY, CLINIC MANAGER: It's a second birth. We were amazed. We really -- we were stunned. We didn't know what happened because he proved to be totally aware of everything that happened around him.
MOORE: "I simply want to enjoy life. I notice a big difference now. I'm back in contact with the world."
Neurologists say such dramatic cases are so-called Locked-in Syndrome, unmercifully uncommon.
DR. ADAN ZEMAN, NEUROLOGIST: It would be a very, very scary predicament indeed. So I think people are going to be a little alarmed by this. I think it is important for neurologists who see these kinds of problems to emphasize that this kind of misdiagnosis, the kind that's been reported recently, is distinctly rare.
MOORE: It is remarkable to witness how a man once so utterly trapped is now able to express himself.
(on camera): People have described you as optimistic, which is an astonishing tribute to your character.
(voice-over): And to that comment, he slowly and simply typed the words, "I'm just being myself."
Robert Moore, ITV News, in eastern Belgium.
(END VIDEOTAPE) MALVEAUX: Well, there is strong reaction to a controversial proposal by a group of conservative GOP leaders. They want Republican candidates to take a so-called purity test to determine if they are towing the conservative line on issues like abortion. Well, their political gurus are going to weigh in for today's "Strategy Session" over that very controversy.
Plus, the first lady, well, she's giving us a sneak peek of tonight's state dinner. We're going to take you behind the scenes at the White House.
And we'll also hear from an award-winning actress and singer who will perform at the event. It is a one-on-one, my one-on-one interview, with Jennifer Hudson.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: Give me a few bars, for those of us who don't have tickets and can't go to the dinner. You have to sing.
JENNIFER HUDSON, ACTRESS/SINGER: Well, we have to call the president and tell them to get them in there so you guys can come and hear me sing. If you sing it with me I'll sing it.
MALVEAUX: Go ahead. You start.
HUDSON: Are you serious?
MALVEAUX: Oh, sure. Go ahead.
HUDSON: Oh, lord.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: Among Republicans, who might be considered a real Republican? Well, we're hearing about an idea for a so-called purity test. It's being posed by some conservative members of the Republican National Committee. It's a resolution that calls on Republicans to oppose President Obama and the reports of a 10-point check list to gauge just how committed a Republican is to the party's ideals.
Now, the party has not adopted this plan. It's only a proposal at this point. But how might prominent Republicans like, say, Mitt Romney, for example, feel about a diverse party?
I want to turn to our CNN national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin.
You've been following all of this. It seems a little confusing at first, but there are some people who believe that there's a certain way they should do things and that's it, bottom line.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And this proposal before the Republican National Committee is yet to be voted on.
When I interviewed Mitt Romney not so long ago, they had not yet proposed this idea. So we weren't able to ask him about it specifically, but we did ask him broadly about conservatives versus a big-tent party. And he said while he believes in a big tent, he is focused on electing just conservatives. In his words, he believes there is a growing movement in this country for a return to the basic principles of conservatism.
MITT ROMNEY (R), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, we'll see. Time will tell. Time will tell.
YELLIN (voice-over): These days, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is spending his time fund-raising, campaigning and generally building alliances with party leaders.
ROMNEY: Seeing friends and leaders of the conservative movement from across the country is something that warms my heart.
YELLIN: For someone who won't say if he's running for president again, he's acting an awful lot like a candidate in waiting.
(on camera): So you'll campaign going into 2010?
ROMNEY: Yes, I pretty much plan that from now until November 2010, I'm going to be working to help elect conservatives across the country.
YELLIN (voice-over): Once labeled "inauthentic" by critics for governing Massachusetts as a centrist, then moving to the right, these days Romney says he believes conservatives are at the heart of his party.
(on camera): You didn't say electing Republicans, you said conservatives. Is it important to you that you find people on the conservative edge of the Republican Party?
ROMNEY: I want to elect Republicans, and Republicans are conservative. I will, by and large, be supporting those who are conservative Republicans.
YELLIN (voice-over): And he's staking out ground as a fierce critic of President Obama.
On foreign policy...
ROMNEY: I think he's made America less safe in that our friends are more concerned about their -- the reliability of the United States.
YELLIN: ... on governing philosophy...
ROMNEY: I think he fundamentally believes that America is in slow decline, that other parts in the world are becoming stronger, and that we should manage ourselves through this decline.
YELLIN: ... and on economic solutions...
ROMNEY: His stimulus plan was crafted by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. He abdicated his leadership on the most critical piece of economic legislation of his administration.
YELLIN: Romney has been put on the defensive which fellow Republicans over Massachusetts' universal health care plan which he helped establish as governor. It's expanded coverage but has also cost the state more than projected.
MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Seventy-five percent of the people in Massachusetts have said they don't think it's a success.
YELLIN: Romney's response?
ROMNEY: We found a way to get everybody insured in the state, and we did that without a public option, no government insurance, and without the need for raising taxes.
YELLIN: Big picture, Romney is optimistic about the future of the Republican Party. And guess who he credits?
ROMNEY: Well, I think the Republican Party has been rejuvenated by the missteps taken by President Obama.
YELLIN: Now, of course, I asked Mitt Romney if he plans to run for president, and he insists he hasn't even considered it.
Suzanne, he says he'll take that thought up after next year's midterm elections.
YELLIN: We'll see what happens, right?
MALVEAUX: We'll have you back in the next hour. We'll be able to talk a little bit. But you saw this purity test. Anything surprise you?
YELLIN: Well, one thing we'll be talking about is whether current officeholders, members of the Republican Party who are now in Congress, would actually now fail the test. And if the Republican Party could potentially lose members, lose standing in Congress if they hold to these principles.
MALVEAUX: So there are some who would actually fail that test?
MALVEAUX: All right, Jessica. I'll talk to you in a little bit. Well, we'll hear how that purity test proposal is playing out among rank and file Republicans, as well as Democrats. That's just ahead in today's "Strategy Session."
And just a few hours ago, the first lady, she gave a sneak preview of tonight's state dinner with India's prime minister. Michelle Obama presented details of the history and the protocol that surrounded state dinners to a group of young women from the White House Leadership and Mentoring Program.
A major focus, of course, is the china. Now, tonight's table will be set with china from the White House historic collection. It will also have pieces from George W. Bush's presidency, as well as the Eisenhower and Clinton administrations.
Mrs. Obama told the audience today why state dinners are important.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: The state visits and dinners are a really important part of our nation's diplomacy. Throughout history, they have given U.S. presidents and the American people the opportunity to make important milestones in foreign relations. So these dinners and events are really critical to what we do internationally, and they have helped build stronger ties with nations, as well as people around the world.
That's what President Obama and Prime Minister Singh are doing today. And I know that all of us on our team here at the West Wing and the East Wing, we wish that we could include many, many more people in today's events and this evening's events, because it's not often that you get to do this. But even with a big house like the White House, there's only so many people that we can invite.
So one of the ways that first ladies in the past have tried to include the broader public in on what's going on is by holding these types of events, where we invite the press to share some of the incredible behind-the-scenes work that goes on to planning and pulling off this amazing day. But today we're also doing something a little different by having you all here.
As our mentees know, one of the thing we've talked about that the president and I have tried to do is really open up this White House to our neighbors here in Washington, D.C., especially to local students and to children in our community, because what we know is that even though many of you guys live just a few minutes, maybe a little bit away from here, but you're close, these events probably seem like they are miles and miles away, like they are just untouchable. So that's why we've really tried to think about ways to include kids in the community all throughout today's events.
At the opening ceremonies today we invited about 50 students from local schools to attend the welcoming event. And that's why we're so happy to have you guys here with us today. And for those of you who don't know, these girls are a part of our young women who participate in the White House Leadership and Mentoring Program.
And we're really thrilled to have you guys here, because this is your White House.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: OK. Here are some fascinating facts about the Obamas' first state dinner.
India's prime minister, he is a vegetarian, so he's going to be served vegetables right from the first lady's garden. Now, another homegrown offering that is also creating quite a buzz, guests are going to be given a gift bag that includes a jar of honey from the White House beehive.
Well, a staggering number of Americans owing more on their homes, more than they are worth. Well, how bad can the economy get before President Obama pays a political price?
And more traffic troubles for California's first family. First it was Maria Shriver. Now it's her husband, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appears to have violated some road rules.
MALVEAUX: A disturbing new report on homeowners and their financial plight. "The Wall Street Journal" reports that 40 percent of borrowers who took out a mortgage when the prices peaked are now under water. That sobering economic reality and its political implications, well, they top today's "Strategy Session."
Joining us now, CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist, Paul Begala, and Republican strategist Tony Blankley of Edelman PR.
I want to start off first with "The Wall Street Journal" here very quickly. It says, "More than 40 percent of borrowers who took out a mortgage in 2006 when home prices peaked are now under water. Prices have dropped so much in some parts of the United States that some borrowers who took out loans more than five years ago owe more than their home's value. Even recent bargain hunters have been hit. That's 11 percent of borrowers who took mortgages out in 2009 already owe more than their home's value."
This is very challenging for this president. How does he get around these figures? How does he deal with these figures and maintain public support here?
PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Right. Well, there's no getting around it. This is bad news, it's serious news, and the most important thing is for him to move the needle on jobs.
You know, the gross domestic product is starting to move up, but, you know, as they say, you can't eat the GDP. He's got to move the needle on jobs.
I suspect once he gets health care -- and I think he's got a good chance of getting that -- they'll shift their approach to a jobs bill, a second jobs bill. But what I would do differently is, rhetorically, I would remind people how we got here.
And, you know, the media always says, oh, you're doing finger- pointing. Yes, I am pro finger-pointing.
This is a case of arson. It was not a lightning strike. The Republican economic policies drove this country in a ditch. Mr. Obama is the person trying to fix it.
I would have him remind us of that in the same way that Ronald Reagan did every day he was in office. He beat on Jimmy Carter every day for eight years. I think we ought to beat on George Bush for, oh, 80 or 90 years.
MALVEAUX: But, Paul, one of the things that we saw in one of the latest polls is that Americans are no longer blaming the Republicans and President Bush.
BEGALA: Why? Why? Why?
MALVEAUX: They see this more as Obama's problem?
BEGALA: Why? Because they can't process information they are not given. I mean, the truth is Mr. Bush was handed the greatest economy in history, the greatest surplus in history. He destroyed it.
TONY BLANKLEY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Look, the problem is, as you state -- I was in the Reagan administration. We tried to blame Jimmy Carter, but it's a different...
BEGALA: It worked.
BLANKLEY: But it's a depreciating asset as the public decides increasingly that the president is responsible.
In the situation regarding the foreclosures that are going to come out of these houses that are under water, it's a terrible situation for which I do not believe there is a good federal policy solution. I think Paul is largely right that getting unemployment up -- getting unemployment down in the long term is what -- is all you can hope for, because we don't have enough money on the planet to buy out all of the people whose mortgages are in trouble.
MALVEAUX: Would you agree with Paul when he says that he should address health care first and then deal with the jobs?
BLANKLEY: No, no. I've obviously thought from the beginning that health care was a bridge too far, that he should have done what Roosevelt did in '33, which is focus entirely on the economic crisis. He didn't -- Roosevelt didn't do Social Security until 1935. And just -- because right now the public is seeing that the economy is not getting better. They are beginning to blame the president, and they have seen that he's divided his attention.
MALVEAUX: Well, let's take a look at what the public is thinking.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll showing in November here, the effect of Obama's policies on economic conditions? Thirty-six percent say improved, 28 percent say worsened, 35 percent say no effect.
The biggest test for this president, is it the economy? Is it Afghanistan? Is it health care?
BLANKLEY: I think that it is the economy plus debt, which is a huge growing concern for the public. But it's largely that.
I think health care he's turned into a bigger problem than he needs. Afghanistan maybe a problem in the out years. I don't think it's -- I mean, he's going to make his progressive left unhappy probably, to some extent, but I don't think that's critical to him.
He can survive whatever Afghanistan decision he makes now for the first year, year and a half. It may be a bigger problem in the out years.
MALVEAUX: Paul, do you agree?
BEGALA: Yes, he's got to move the needle on jobs. This country needs a jobs package. And 2010 should be a Republican year, just by the arc of history. If 2010 is dominated by a Democratic president, Congress saying we need a jobs package and a Republicans saying we oppose it, that's pretty good politics for the Democratic Party.
MALVEAUX: One last point here, Tony. Especially, I want your take on this.
Conservatives proposing this check list, this purity test, if you will, to make sure that Republicans are Republican enough to get funding, to get support from the RNC.
Is that a good idea? Should the RNC support that?
BLANKLEY: I've never been in favor of litmus tests. On the other hand, factions in both parties are always trying to apply litmus tests to their parties.
If they have enough of a following, they don't need a litmus test. The candidates tend to go to the center of gravity.
I looked at the particular list that they came up with, and you have -- you get eight out of 10, I think, and you pass. I got 8.5, I think, as I read it. If you maybe brought it down to 7, even a New England liberal would have passed it. I mean, it's not that hard, but it's largely silly. MALVEAUX: But isn't the problem anyway that you're losing support from the moderate Republicans to begin with?
BLANKLEY: No, we're gaining support right now on the Independents and the soft Republicans.
MALVEAUX: Well, Michael Steele doesn't agree. He believes you need to -- he says hip-hop the party, if you will, and that may open the tent a little bit.
BLANKLEY: But Independents are shifting back to the Republicans. A lot of the people who were Independents the last couple of years used to be Republicans who are now coming back.
And I don't doubt -- I mean, the one point about this litmus test that I buy, it's the thinking behind it, which is that there's a huge conservative reaction occurring in this country. And the Republican Party has got to be embracing that. If they are to the side of that in some way, they have no chance to catch the wave if there's to be a wave.
MALVEAUX: All right. I'm going to leave it there and I'm going to let you have the last word.
I understand that you have a big turkey that you're cooking.
MALVEAUX: Twenty-two people.
BLANKLEY: Two turkeys.
MALVEAUX: Oh, two. OK.
MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you so much.
Tony, Paul, appreciate it.
Well, some people may be saying, "Say it ain't so." Just after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife was caught making a parking infringement, well, the California governor himself appears to have been caught red-handed.
And a child goes missing, is found, and it's revealed that he rode New York City subways for 11 days. His mother talks to CNN about what happened.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's kind of extraordinary for a young boy...
MALVEAUX: Jack joins us again with "The Cafferty File."
CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Do you really want the federal government more involved in health care?
Dave writes, "Jack, thank you. It's about time someone starts looking at facts rather than the emotional appeals. With the government's lack of control with regards to fiscal matters, we cannot afford to let them run anything else. If we do, we better start learning to speak Chinese, because to pay back the debt we'll have to start giving them large blocks of U.S. property. Maybe we could start with Washington, especially if they promise to keep the politicians."
Steve writes, "Jack, you did your best to pose the question in order to elicit a 'no' from the non-thinkers among us. I, however, would love the government to provide all my health care and kick the health insurance companies to the side of the road where they belong. How much longer are we going to stand for the abuse they put Americans through every day?"
Scott in Panama City writes, "I do not want the federal government involved in any aspect of my life. The federal government is all about control."
"When asked where the Constitution authorizes Congress to order Americans to buy health insurance, Nancy Pelosi says, 'Are you serious?' As Mark Twain said, "Politicians are like diapers. They need changing often and for the same reason."
Jeff in Indiana: "We should trust corporate America to do the right thing like we did with the mortgage debacle. What would be a better choice than letting elected officials manage health care? There are no really good choices."
Del in Texas writes, "Do you really want the private sector to run health care like Enron, General Motors, AIG? Give me a break, Jack. I had the best health care in the world when I was on active duty in the Army."
And Ed writes, "Medicare for all. Fold all the existing programs -- VA., Medicaid, et cetera -- into one program, and then get serious about fraud and waste. The bills I've seen look like the IRS code. Of course, I haven't been paid off by the insurance companies."
If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can check my blog. You'll find it at CNN.com/caffertyfile -- Suzanne.
MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Jack.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.