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THE SITUATION ROOM

Why Shirley Sherrod Turned Down A New Agriculture Department Job; Another Nine Years in Afghanistan?; Jimmy Carter's Risky Rescue Mission; McCain, Money & Primary Battles

Aired August 24, 2010 - 17:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Rick.

Happening now, Shirley Sherrod turns down the Agriculture secretary's job offer. The former administration official tells me how she feels now about her ouster and whether there is a culture of racism within the government.

Also, the House Republican leader on the attack and aiming for President Obama -- why John Boehner says it is time for top members of Obama's economic team to go.

And an undercover video exposes shocking conditions at an egg farm.

Could mistreatment of chickens have contributed to the salmonella outbreak that is rocking the industry and scaring consumers?

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Today was the first time that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had seen Shirley Sherrod face-to-face. Now, since he pushed her out of her job and helped dragged the administration into an ugly controversy over race, Sherrod has had the last word. She turned down Vilsack's offer of a new job created to improve the department's civil rights efforts and its image. Sherrod says she needs a break from the uproar surrounding her forced resignation after video of a past speech was posted on the Internet out of context and used to falsely accuse her of discrimination.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHIRLEY SHERROD, FORMER AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I only lasted 11 months but I did enjoy that work and would want to see that work continue. I just don't think at this point, with all that has happened, I can do that at a -- in the new position that was offered or as state director for rural development in Georgia. It doesn't mean that I'm not interested in that work, because I certainly am.

I was working on many of those issues long before coming to the government and would hope to be able to work on many of those issues in the future. So I've had lots of support from around the country. I've had many, many, many thousands of pieces of mail. Many of those I would like to answer. I need a little time to be able to deal with that, to sort of take a break from some of all that I've had to -- to deal with over the last few weeks.

And I look forward to some type of relationship with the Department in the future. We do need to work on the issues of discrimination and racism in this country. And I certainly would like to play my role in trying to help deal with it.

So thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: President Obama personally called Sherrod last month to try to make amends. And Secretary Vilsack apologized.

Today, he took full blame for the fiasco.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM VILSACK, AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: I didn't speak to anyone at the White House. As I said earlier, this was my responsibility. And I had to take full responsibility for it. And I continue to take full responsibility for it. I -- I will take it for as long as I live. This was, you know, I pride myself on the work that I do. And I know that I -- I -- I disappointed the president and I disappointed this administration. I disappointed the country. I disappointed Shirley.

I have to live with that. And I accept that responsibility. That's what happens when you have this kind of position. My only hope is and my belief is that despite this difficulty, despite the challenges and the problems that we've seen and that poor Shirley had to go through, maybe, just maybe, this is an opportunity for the country to have the kind of conversation that Shirley thinks we ought to have. And maybe, just maybe, this will put a spotlight, not necessarily on this incident, but with all of this media attention maybe there will be a spotlight on the efforts that USDA is making in the area of civil rights, is trying to solve and settle cases that have been outstanding for how many years, Shirley, 20?

SHERROD: Almost 30.

VILSACK: Almost 30 years -- is trying to reopen cases that were denied access and review in previous years, is trying to engage in a cultural transformation so that our workforce is modernized and as diverse as the country is and is engaged in an effort to try to get the programs of USDA to the people who are most in need, not necessarily the best connected people, but the people who are most in need.

So to me, if we're going to make anything out of this, apart from Shirley's circumstances, that's what I have to do. And that's what I'm committed to doing.

I am very serious about this. I came into this office committed to trying to close the chapter of civil rights that has been a difficult chapter for USDA and a very sordid chapter. We want to create a new chapter. And that's -- this unfortunate circumstance has at least given us the opportunity to have that conversation with the nation, which, you know, if it's personal pain I have to endure for that, I'm happy to take that, if we get that message out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Ahead, Shirley Sherrod talks to me at length about how painful the last month has been for her and the wider problem of racism in the government and in the country.

Well, the Obama administration says it's met its goal for the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq a week early. The number of troops now is below 50,000 -- the lowest level since the 2003 invasion. The president had set next Tuesday as a deadline to reduce troop strength. The White House confirms he'll give a major speech on Iraq on the day of August 31st. No word yet on the exact time or place.

Among other things, the president will talk about the next phase of the mission, helping to train Iraqi security forces with a target end date of December, 2011.

JOHN BRENNAN, ASSISTANT FOR PRESIDENT FOR COUNTER-TERRORISM: They have been successful, but they are wrong. We are reducing our footprint in Iraq under our terms and through a transition to over 600,000 Iraqi security forces who have proven up to the task.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Look for Republicans to dispute the president's take on Iraq, as well. House Minority Leader John Boehner plans to deliver his own speech about the war on the same day as President Obama.

Ahead, more on Boehner's new challenges to the president and his policy.

And inside the U.S. military, there is less confidence that American troops will be able to leave Afghanistan any time soon. Some blunt and gloomy new assessments about the road ahead.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, U.S. troops are supposed to begin leaving Afghanistan in July, 2011. But there are growing questions about whether that will really happen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: (voice-over): Grim words from the head of the U.S. Marine Corps.

GEN. JAMES CONWAY, UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS: I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war.

STARR: General James Conway just returned from Afghanistan. Facing plummeting public support for the war, he is skeptical that President Obama's order to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 will mean much for his Marines fighting in Southern Afghanistan.

CONWAY: Helmand and Kandahar, adjacent to it, are the birthplace of the Taliban. I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.

STARR: Similar worries from the head of Army Special Operations Command. Lieutenant General John Mulholland says he doesn't have a crystal ball, but he does have a projection.

LT. GEN. JOHN MULHOLLAND, COMMANDER U.S. ARMY SPECIAL OPERATIONS: When I talk to my leaders and to my families who are coming up on nine years of this war now, I tell them that it's going to be at least another nine years.

STARR: Many top officers now openly are raising the prospect of an extended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

When General David Petraeus was asked if he could reach the point where he might have to tell the president the July, 2011 date needs to be delayed, he answered, "Certainly. Yes."

Why the sober outlook?

One reason -- Afghan security forces are far from ready to take over. The top U.S. general in charge of training them says while some Afghan units are eager to fight, many are illiterate, some are on drugs, corruption remains a huge problem and there just aren't enough of them.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, COMMANDER, NATO TRAINING MISSION, AFGHANISTAN: So if somebody says when will the security force have the lead in a particular area, we will not have finished building the entire army until October of next year.

STARR: For Conway, public support appears to be an increasing issue.

CONWAY: The only concern, perhaps best expressed by a lance corporal that I spoke to, was when he said, "Sir, don't let our country go wobbly on us now."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: General Conway's candor may be, in part, due to the fact he's about to retire as head of the Marine Corps. But even some junior enlisted troops are expressing concern about public support for the war and how long they may be serving on the front lines -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Barbara.

He's a former president and speech maker. Now we are told that Jimmy Carter is heading to North Korea. We're going to tell you what he hopes to accomplish and whether the Obama administration is on board.

And the White House weighs in on a court ruling aimed at undoing the president's policy on embryonic stem cell research.

And John McCain's political future on the line -- some major primary tests today of incumbents and the power of money.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Hey, good morning.

We're looking forward to a good turnout today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- hey, Jack, told you I'd be back.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, Suzanne, I -- I've been waiting.

Hungry?

Well, you won't be after you hear this. The massive nationwide egg recall just one reason to question the safety of our food supply. Five hundred and fifty million eggs have been recalled in 22 states and the government says the related salmonella outbreak has made about 1,300 people sick.

Still hungry?

There's also a nationwide meat recall. Zemco Industries in Buffalo, New York recalling about 380,000 pounds of deli meat which was distributed to Wal-Marts across the country. The meat may be contaminated with Listeria, which can kill you.

Next up, let's talk fish. Officials in Louisiana say thousands, as many as 15,000 dead fish and other marine animals were found at the mouth of the Mississippi River outlet into the Gulf of Mexico. They say the fish kill does not appear to be directly related to the BP oil leak, but there are lingering questions about the effects of those millions of barrels of oil on all sorts of seafood, including shrimp in the Gulf.

When it comes to farming, there are ongoing concerns about the use of fertilizers, pesticides and growth hormones.

This is an area where the government is supposed to protect us. The United States Senate has been sitting on a food safety bill that was passed by the House more than a year ago. The present food safety law is 70 years old. It is so weak, that the Food and Drug Administration can't even authorize recalls. Instead, the government has to wait on the companies to do the recalls themselves. This pending law would give the FDA recall authority and would create stricter rules for mandatory inspections. Both are sorely needed and long overdue.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apparently doesn't agree. He's had this legislation for a year and has done nothing with it.

Here's the question: How confident are you that the food you eat is safe? Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile, post a comment on my blog -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, Jack. Thank you so much, appreciate it.

Kate Bolduan is monitoring some of the other top stories that are coming into the situation room right now.

Hi, Kate. What are you working on?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Suzanne.

Well, the White House is closely reviewing a federal judge's decision to stop federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The judge issued a preliminary injunction yesterday saying government funded research that involves the destruction of embryos violates current law.

Last year, President Obama repealed a Bush-era policy limiting federal funding for human stem cell research.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL BURTON, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: The president said very plainly when he laid out his stem cell policy that this is important, life saving -- potentially lifesaving research that could have an impact on millions of Americans and people all around the world.

He thinks that we need to do research, he put forward stringent ethical guidelines, and he thinks his policy is the right one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton you heard right there also says the judge's ruling could even cut off research that was allowed under the Bush administration.

Talk about home sales. Existing home sales plunged more than 27 percent in July, that's a much steeper drop than experts had predicted and the third straight month of falling sales. Single-family homes fared the worst with sales reaching their lowest level since 1995.

Much of the drop can be attributed to the expiration in April of the $8,000 Home Buyer Tax Credit which triggered a major sales surge. The homes report rattled investors' nerves about an economic slowdown and helped push the Dow down 134 points today.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have all been announced winners of the Race To The Top. That's a competition launched by the Obama administration to encourage improvements in education. All winners will receive a portion of the prize -- get this -- $3.4 billion in educational funding. Thirty-six candidates presented school reform plans, including strategies to boost student and teacher performances. That is definitely some cash that schools across the country would love to get their hands on right now -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And our own region as well, D.C. and Maryland.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

MALVEAUX: Good news. Good for the kids. Thank you, Kate.

House Minority Leader John Boehner is delivering a blunt message to the White House today. He wants President Obama to fire his entire economic team, including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. We'll tell you why in today's "Strategy Session."

And can you believe this? Stuck in traffic for ten days, this is the nightmare that actually happened in China. An update is just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: In the midst of enormous tension between the United States and North Korea, right now CNN has learned that the former president Jimmy Carter is heading to the communist nation on a high stakes rescue mission.

Our Brian Todd is here with more. Brian, tell us a little more about what we expect from President Carter.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, senior administration officials tell us that President Carter is making this trip on his own. As one official said, he won't be carrying any message to the North Korean regime on behalf of the U.S. government.

But as he tries to free an American held prisoner there, Carter's mission could still have plenty of diplomatic potholes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): He is a 31-year-old American imprisoned since January in North Korea, sentenced to hard labor. The North Koreans say he illegally entered the country, but the circumstances aren't clear. North Korean media reported Aijalon Mahli Gomes attempted suicide and U.S. officials are concerned about his health.

He is also the reason former President Jimmy Carter is about to venture into North Korea for the second time, that's according to two senior administration officials and another source familiar with the trip who tell CNN, Carter is going there on a private humanitarian mission to try to get Gomes released.

Victor Cha, who dealt with Kim Jong-Il's regime as a member of President Bush's National Security Council, says this comes at a time of high tension between the U.S. and North Korea. VICTOR CHA, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC& INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: We are doing military exercises as well as unleashing a whole panoply of financial sanctions against the country.

TODD: That is in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean navy ship last spring blamed on North Korea; the North Koreans denied involvement.

We couldn't reach President Carter or his representatives for comment about the trip. The Obama administration is not formally sanctioning the mission.

BURTON: I'm not going to comment on anything that could have a negative impact on any private humanitarian mission that might be happening.

TODD: But one senior administration official speaking anonymously said Carter is the perfect person for the job.

Victor Cha says this is different from Bill Clinton's mission to free two American journalists from North Korea last year. On that trip, Cha says Clinton was on a short leash and stayed on point because he has a close relationship with the Obama team.

Carter says Cha doesn't have that relationship. Carter also caused some tension with the Clinton administration in 1994 when he freelanced a deal with the North Koreans on their nuclear program and Cha says he could do it again.

(on camera): If he does that, what kind of fallout will that have with the Obama administration?

CHA: Well, I think you're always in a delicate situation when you have an ex-president that is conducting diplomacy on the fly. I think the Obama administration, on the one hand, is very committed to these sanctions and the exercises.

I think there's also some interest in finding a way to eventually get back on a diplomatic track.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Victor Cha says one thing to watch closely here is whether Carter meets personally with Kim Jong-Il. If he does, it could be a signal that Kim is still in reasonable control of the country.

If he does not, Cha says that could be more ominous, a possible sign that Kim is still suffering the effects of a stroke he had two years ago and that his hold on power may be slipping, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: So, Brian, in light of that fact, what do we know about the transition of power that is taking place inside that country?

TODD: Well, Victor Cha says there is a lot of speculation surrounding a meeting that is going to be held among the North Korean leadership next month. There is going to be some kind of conference. He says that Kim Jong-Il is expected to announce some leadership changes in his cabinet at that meeting.

He is also expected to kind of smooth the way for his third son to take gradual control of the government. That third son is only in his 20s, he doesn't have the leadership credentials that his father or grandfather had, so this transition could be fraught will all sorts of concerning possibilities if the son, you know, takes control gradually and doesn't have the hold his father had.

MALVEAUX: OK, thank you very much, Brian. Sounds like a risky mission for the president to take, but well worth it.

One of the worst -- if you can imagine this -- traffic jams on the planet is finally clearing up. Now, it lasted for ten hellish days on the Beijing-Tibet (ph) expressway. At its worst, thousands of vehicles were stuck or stalled for 62 miles. Now, some drivers played cards to pass the time. Others over paid nearby vendors just to get something to eat while they waited.

The nightmare may not be over. The construction project that caused the chaos? Well, it continues until mid-September.

A controversial billionaire businessman is going up against the Democratic Party's old guard in Florida. What is it going to tell us about the power of money in this election cycle?

And is anyone taking blame after that deadly hostage standoff onboard a tourist bus?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Here in THE SITUATION ROOM, happening now, an unbelievable drama is playing out thousands of feet below the ground in Chile. Dozens of trapped miners describe the precarious situation while officials are scrambling to save the men's lives and sanity. A live report from the rescue site is coming up.

Plus, disturbing undercover video of conditions at an egg farm that are linked to the company at the center of a salmonella outbreak. We're going to have the latest on that investigation.

Wolf Blitzer is off today, I'm Suzanne Malveaux and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

There is another round of primary tests today in the lead up to the volatile midterm elections. Now five states are holding a variety of contests, but only a handful of races are likely going to offer some clues about the final battle in November.

I want to talk about two states that are under the brightest glare right now. Our senior political editor Mark Preston is in Florida and our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin is in Arizona. We're going to bounce back and forth to both of you, but, Jessica, I want to start with you first. Senator John McCain faces a primary challenge today. Most believe that McCain doesn't have much reason to worry, but that wasn't always the case. Where do we stand tonight?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Suzanne. After months of facing a fierce primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth that had them almost nearly tied, Suzanne, now John McCain has a healthy lead on his opponent and heads into today with some confidence. But I'll tell you, he seems to be a bit wary. Right now he's been saying things to reporters like, I take nothing for granted, it's not over until it's over.

And in another sign he is being extremely cautious after a very fierce primary, he wouldn't take reporters' questions. He came out and spoke to the media today after voting. His challenger has been accusing him of planning to move far to the left if he's reelected, so I tried to ask him about that. Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Great day. A little warm, but I'm sure we'll have a great turnout.

YELLIN: Senator, your opponent said, if elected, you'll move to the left.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, guys. Thanks, guys.

YELLIN: Senator, your opponent said, if elected, you'll move --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, Jessica. Thanks, Jessica.

YELLIN: He won't answer any other questions?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

YELLIN: He is running for U.S. Senate. He is not going to answer any questions?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: So a man of few words today, Suzanne. Obviously, doesn't want to take any risks.

MALVEAUX: Wow, Jessica, you really tried though. You tried really hard to get him to at least acknowledge and answer some questions. Very good point. He is running for the U.S. Senate, he should take some questions.

He is far from being the maverick that he painted himself to be, very much a Washington insider.

What do we think the primary race says about the state of incumbents? Is it as bad as previously believed?

YELLIN: Well, you'll see in this state clearly the incumbent John McCain is ahead. I'll leave Florida to Mark Preston who is also here but there the establishment candidates seem to be doing well and in Alaska the same is true. One of the things we've seen, Suzanne, is that earlier in the cycle some of the insiders, the incumbents, were beaten handily and were sort of canaries in the coal mine, a warning, cautionary tales to these later candidates who had the benefit of seeing what happened to the other guys and they have realized they can take nothing for granted. So for example here John McCain has spent more than $20 million in a primary broken a record there with his spending because he knew it's a fierce campaign and it's a tough year for incumbents. They might do well today but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good year in general.

MALVEAUX: Mark jump in. And tell us about what's taking place in Florida on the Democratic side.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL EDITOR: Well, Suzanne, basically two pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. Marco Rubio will be the Republican nominee and the Republican turned independent Governor Charlie Crist will run as an independent. He was the front runner, Suzanne. Tonight we will find out who the Democratic nominee is. We have a billionaire real estate investor who has come out of nowhere, has dumped more than $20 million into this race in a few months. We have Kendrick Meek who is the establishment candidate, the son of a former Congresswoman. He took her seat. He has clung to a very precarious lead, jumped back and forth. Right now polls showed that he is up. What this comes down to is we are coming down to the wire here in Florida and for Democrats across the country right now things do not look very good. However, here in Florida Democrats might have a shot at winning this race. If Kendrick Meek or Jeff Greene, the Democratic nominees, do not win in November, perhaps it will be Charlie Crist. And if it's Charlie Crist he will caucus with the Democrats. So Democrats have a pick up opportunity here in Florida. Republicans hope to hold on to the seat with perhaps one of the biggest stars, one of the biggest rising stars in the party Marco Rubio.

MALVEAUX: You had a chance to talk to Jeff Greene as well.

PRESTON: I did. And, you know, he is an interesting fellow. He is a billionaire. I mean, not very often thaw get to sit down and talk to a billionaire. I asked him why, Suzanne, why did you get into this race? He said that he felt he had to get into the race. However, there has been this huge cloud of controversy around him. He has been linked to Lindsay Lohan, to Mike Tyson, to wild parties on a yacht. He says that he, in fact is conservative, not conservative in his politics. He says he is a conservative family man that has a 10- month-old. He really has a tough fight tonight, though, Suzanne. As much money as he has poured into this race polling shows Kendrick Meek heading into the poll closing tonight at 7:00 has a lead. We'll have results hopefully around 8:00 or 9:00 tonight.

MALVEAUX: Excellent. Mark, Jessica, thank you very much. Obviously very exciting races to watch this afternoon and evening and we'll be keeping a close eye on that. Thanks again.

Stay with CNN throughout the night for vote results and updates in all of the key races. Join John King and the best political team on television for our coverage.

It is hard to imagine what it's liked for trapped miners in Chile right now. We'll get a better understanding of how these cramped and scared and desperate they are feeling right now, those miners.

Could a former police officer have been stopped before he took a bus load of tourists hostage and opened fire?

And a new clue about where all that oil spewed into the gulf has gone.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Kate Bolduan has a story breaking at this moment just in and she is monitoring some of the other top stories. What are we following?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: CNN has just confirmed that the justice department, the Obama administration plans to appeal the stem cell decision to the U.S. court of appeals. That appeal is expected to be filed later this week. We've been talking a lot about this. This coming after a judge issued a preliminary injunction yesterday saying that this government funded research involving stem cell research violates current law. Now we know the Obama administration is planning to appeal that decision.

Moving on to other headlines that we are watching, mounting anger and mea culpas over a botched hostage rescue effort in the Philippines. Yesterday a former police officer, upset about being fired, you saw that video, commandeered a bus filled with tourists. Police shot and killed the gunman after he opened fire on hostages. Eight people were killed. Today police admitted mistakes were made, saying hostage negotiations were handled poorly. Rescue officers were inadequately trained and there was insufficient crowd control.

Also, a new study may shed light on how so much of the oil in the gulf seemingly disappeared. Researchers studying an oil plume from the gushing BP well had discovered the crude degraded at a much faster rate than expected. They attribute that rapid breakdown to microbes in the water interacting with the oil particles.

Danielle, well, she has been downgraded to a tropical storm. Its maximum sustained winds have fallen to 70 miles an hour but the winds are expected to strengthen once again and the storm could again become a hurricane tonight or tomorrow. Right now Danielle is churning in the middle of the Atlantic and is not expected to hit land.

A new member of the family. British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha are celebrating the birth of their fourth child, a little girl. She was born today a few weeks shy of the official due date in September. The couple was on vacation in southwest England when Mrs. Cameron went into labor. The baby weighs six pounds one ounce and hasn't been named quite yet or at least we don't know. Mr. Cameron's office says mother and child are doing very well. That's quite a vacation surprise.

MALVEAUX: Two weeks early. Wow. What a great gift. Thanks, Kate. Congratulations to them.

A top Republican gives President Obama some unsolicited advice. John Boehner tells him to fire his entire economic team including Timothy Geithner. That story is just ahead in today's "strategy session." And later, Shirley Sherrod is offered a job at the agricultural department after being forced to resign but she takes a pass. We'll tell you why. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: House minority leader John Boehner makes this surprising declaration today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: President Obama should ask for and accept the resignations of the remaining members of his economic team starting with secretary Geithner and Larry Summers, the head of the national economic council. Now, this is no substitute for a referendum on the president's job killing agenda. That question will be put before the American people in due time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: That tops today's "strategy session." Joining us today Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist Mary Matalin. Both are CNN political contributors. Thanks for joining us. Obviously the Republicans are feeling pretty strong about this issue here, that this is a winning issue. Take a look at the numbers. Unemployment still high. Housing market crumbling. Paul, why shouldn't the Republicans call for the resignations and say, you know what? This is a strong issue for us. We've got a winner here?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think it's a smart move by Mr. Boehner because for a couple reasons. First, I was one of those Democrats of 2006 when George W. Bush was president who was advising Democrats around the country to call for the firing of Donald Rumsfeld. Right? We were stuck in the war in Iraq. It wasn't going well. If you called for Rumsfeld's head then every Republican in America had to say, well, yes I defend him or want to fire him. Now every Democrat in America has to say well yes I stand by Timothy Geithner even though the economy stinks or you can throw your own president's treasury secretary under the bus. Politically it is a very clever move. The other thing it does is it puts the focus on something other than John Boehner's ideas and the Republicans' ideas because their ideas are, as unpopular as Barack Obama is, the Republicans are much less popular and the ideas like privatizing social security even less popular still.

MALVEAUX: But you're saying it's a smart idea for Republicans to go after the economic team. If you're a Democrat aren't you in a position where you can't throw them under the bus, right? You have to defend him. So how do they counter that? As you said, the economy stinks.

BEGALA: The truth is, there's a lot of Democrats who are probably even angrier with Timothy Geithner than Mr. Boehner is. The liberals at least in my party see Timothy Geithner is far too close to wall street and a product of that kind of wall street culture but here's what I think the Democrats need to do. They need to say, well, of course the Republicans' first answer to everything is to fire people. That's what they do. They enjoy firing people. That's why they're Republicans. What they really want to do is shift jobs overseas and shift the debate to that. Mr. Boehner and his colleagues support a tax provision that rewards big corporations for shipping jobs overseas. If the Democrats were smart they would make that a central issue in this election. Democrats want to repeal that provision for shipping jobs overseas. Republicans want to keep it and continue it. That's a debate Democrats can win.

MALVEAUX: Mary, I want you to jump in. First I want to play a sound bite. The president is on vacation at Martha's Vineyard but they're not going to let this kind of thing stand so Vice President Joe Biden weighed in on the issue. Here is what he said earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: His chief proposal when you look at it apparently was that the president should fire his economic team. Very constructive advice. We thank the leader for that. But let's take a look at the rest of his advice. First let's review a little history here. For eight years before we arrived in the west wing, Mr. Boehner's party ran the economy in the middle class literally into the ground.

MALVEAUX: So, Mary, we do know at least two things happened on President George Bush's watch. The economic prices did start to unfold and the economic stimulus, the money trying to fix the problem also was unveiled. So does the vice president have a point here? How strong can the Republicans take that argument?

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, they -- there is no argument that the Democrats can make that are going to distract from the indicators, some of which he is ticked off and others which are coming from the commerce department, labor department, Federal Reserve. There is not one positive economic indicator. I'm sure there are plenty of Democratic Congressmen who aren't going to be fired by the voters this fall but would agree with Boehner's assessment as Paul was suggesting because they know that this is unsustainable. And these policies that were promised by that very same vice president to produce a half a million jobs per month in this recovery summer have produced maybe charitably net 80,000 for the entire summer. And that is only one issue. They can say whatever. They can demagogue about the Republicans and blame everything on Bush. Their own pollsters are saying that isn't working. There is one and only one thing people care about today in all elections are a referendum on the present and the future. They don't want to look back and their present is unsustainable and they're scared about the future. That is what the elections are going to be about.

MALVEAUX: Any other message? What can the Republicans offer that -- besides saying that the Obama administration's policies are not working?

MATALIN: You know, honestly, and I'm a partisan but this is about the role of government. Who we are as Americans. It transcends parties and in fact people are going to make the difference, don't identify with either party. There is little they can do. They could probably mess up some races but the electorate in the political terrain has been remarkably stable for the past year. The intensity of opposition to Obama policies has accelerated and has gotten deeper and stronger but they do need to lay out some markers for when they are in a governing position to say, we said we were going to cut spending. We said we are going to extend the Bush tax cuts. We said we are going to get liberal entree's, cut corporate welfare. Some of the things laid out this morning. But those won't make a difference in the fall. What will make a difference is the referendum on this administration's economic policy.

MALVEAUX: All right. We have to leave it there. Obviously the debate will continue over the role of government and how significant that is specifically when it comes to the economy. Thanks for joining us.

Stand by for an exclusive and combative interview with the Republican Party chairman Michael Steele. CNN's Soledad O'Brien tries to pin him down on one of the issues the GOP.

Also, my interview with Shirley Sherrod on her decision not to go back to work at the agriculture department. Why she feels President Obama can't quite catch a break.

And Jack Cafferty is asking, how confident are you that the food you eat is safe? We'll be back in a moment with the Cafferty file.

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MALVEAUX: Jack joins us again with "The Cafferty File." Hey, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Suzanne, the question this hour, how confident are you that the food you eat is safe?

Bill writes: "This is from an ex-food plant manager for many years and the majority of the food that you and I eat is very safe. The laws are not the problem. It is the inspection people and how they are trained. Some like in any profession do a great job like any other job, but some are lethargic and can be manipulated by plant management. Companies don't try or wish to hurt anyone, but when profits are the driving force, these incidents can occur. We need laws and policies enforced correctly and with judicious oversight."

John in San Antonio says: "No confidence whatsoever. The crowd that insists that government should not regulate business is reaping the benefits of this failed policy as are the rest of us. Factory farms controlled by big corporations have taken over our food supply and we now have an abundance of low-quality food. No problem though, because the big pharmaceutical companies are standing by with the remedy." Anthony in New Jersey says: "Soft, obese, and overindulgent Americans cannot wait to find the new reason to be afraid. Why don't we call spend our vacations this year in Haiti or Pakistan? We can have fun finding potable water to drink and morsels of food to eat. We people only see life from a privileged position and don't see the world as it is, a few spoiled eggs don't compare to the hardships billions of people suffer everyday."

Allen writes from Georgia: "Careful Jack, in today's climate of smaller government, we don't want to imply that the government should be doing more than they are. Leave it to private business capitalists folks, because they will do a better job of keeping the food safe than the government could ever hope to do, or so they say. I am thinking about going back to raising my own chickens and eating salad like I remember when I was growing up."

Jeff in Minnesota says: "If you prepare and cook food properly it's safe. If you take short cuts or don't cook it correctly you will have a higher risk of getting sick. We have created a world where there are so many safety nets people have forgotten how to protect themselves and expect the government to protect them."

And finally K. writes: "First cheap oil and gas, now steak and eggs, American traditions falling one by one, another gravestone on the path to the third world status. You have to love the global economy."

If you want more, you can read it on my blog at CNN.com/Caffertyfile.

MALVEAUX: Have you changed your diet because of the egg scare?

CAFFERTY: Absolutely not but my diet is not something to talk about on a family program, because the nutritionists would get upset immediately.

MALVEAUX: And we saw the picture of the pig in the can and you said that is how you ate.

CAFFERTY: That is -- wasn't that a panda bear.

MALVEAUX: Cuter than a pig. Oh, there you go.

CAFFERTY: Much cuter than a pig.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Jack.

Another story and more than 30 men trapped below ground knowing that they may be there for months. New insight into what those miners are going through right now.

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MALVEAUX: The fifth anniversary of hurricane Katrina is less than a week away begging the question of course of how much has the government done since the storm hit to build up New Orleans' levees and protect the people from another monster storm. Our CNN's Tom Foreman traveled to New Orleans to find out.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Suzanne, many people around the city have talked for five years about the twin disasters of Katrina, the storm itself and the failure of flood walls and levees all around the town that were supposed to protect it, but did not. So, the Army Corps of Engineers has been aggressively working on a project to build up those defenses and they unveiled some very big parts this week.

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FOREMAN: All around New Orleans, the federal government's latest promise to keep this city safe from the next big storm is rising.

COL. ROBERT SINKLER, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Yes, we are doing about 15 to 20 years of construction work in about 36 months.

FOREMAN: Colonel Robert Sinkler of the Army Corps of Engineers is supervising construction of this two-mile-long storm surge barrier across one major waterway and improvements to pumping stations, hundreds of miles of levees and floodwalls all of which he admits which were never what they should have been. The walls you are building out here are fundamentally much, much stronger.

SINKLER: No doubt about it, in every way they are much stronger and more robust.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Public safety is the top priority of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

FOREMAN: In promotional videos by the Corps, the improvements are billed as technological marvels and anchored by pilings driven deep into the earth and reinforced with clay, and rock an concrete and a series of defenses working with natural barriers such as marshlands to dull the teeth off of even the most fierce storm. Vic Zillmer is in charge. If this system were completed and had been in place when Katrina hit, would we have seen the results that we did?

VIC ZILLMER, RESIDENT ENGINEER: Absolutely not. It would have been very, very different.

FOREMAN: But some locals and other experts have their doubts, and their own movie. A new documentary called "The Big Uneasy" suggesting the Corps bares much blame for not building better levees long ago. Actor Harry Shearer directed the film. Their project looks very big and very impressive, but you don't have much faith in it?

HARRY SHEARER, DIRECTOR, "THE BIG UNEASY": If you place the reassurances, the reassuring statements that the Corps is issuing today against the reassuring statements that the Corps issued before Katrina, they track totally, and they have been giving us these reassurances before.

FOREMAN: Shearer and others want to see more commitment to restoring those protected wetlands, more attention to possible weaknesses in the Corps plan. With the project scheduled for completion by next summer, the Corps can only offer promises.

ZILLMER: So as far as design goes, it's the best you can do at this time.

FOREMAN: And hope that next time, their plan for stopping the big one will work.

(END VIDEOTAPE)