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Potential Candidates Suffer From Measles: The Week In Politics

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Republicans may control both houses of Congress, but even though they're in the majority, that hasn't meant they've been able to pass much of their agenda just yet. We'll hear more about the limits to Republican congressional power in a moment.

First, a look at the week that was in politics. The president's budget came out, potential presidential candidates got tangled up in the measles outbreak, and a powerful trio is leaving the White House. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us to sort it all out. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK, so we saw all kinds of political candidates weigh into this debate about measles and vaccines. You wrote about this. What's your take?

LIASSON: Well, I think vaccine politics are a very good mirror of the current dynamics in the 2016 presidential field. On the Republican side, the two candidates who've been doing really well lately, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, managed to navigate the crosscurrents of vaccine politics really well. The two candidates who've been floundering a bit couldn't. It's a hot potato for Republicans because even though there are plenty of rich, liberal, whole food parents who don't vaccinate, it's a much more burning issue for the Republican grassroots. They're more likely to see it as an issue of individual freedom and liberty. And Rand Paul, who wants to appeal to those libertarian-leaning GOP primary voters, came out in favor of parental choice, against mandatory vaccines and then went on to suggest that some vaccines might cause mental disorders. He was roundly criticized for that. He had to backtrack.

Chris Christie, who's been having a spate of bad press for his penchant for luxury travel and his refusal to speak to reporters on a trip to Europe, was initially equivocal about whether parents should vaccinate. And he got criticized for that. But the people who've been moving up in the polls are doing a lot better than the guys who are stuck.

MARTIN: OK, what about on the Democratic side?

LIASSON: Well, the other thing that vaccine politics showed us about 2016 was the advantages that Hillary Clinton has. She doesn't have to worry about a primary opponent. And the vaccine debate gave her a chance to set herself apart from the Republican nominating battle free for all instead of being their favorite punching bag. And she weighed into the vaccine debate with a simple tweet making fun of the vaccine deniers saying, quote, "the Earth is round, the sky is blue, and vaccines work."

MARTIN: OK, so moving on. The president released his budget for 2016 this past week. Anything catch your eye? Anything surprising in this budget?

LIASSON: Well, I think there was something surprising. All budgets are political documents. This one was the president's vision. It was a template for what he wants his last two years to be about and what the 2016 race will be about. He calls it middle class economics. And even though it was greeted on Capitol Hill the way all presidents' budgets are when they get sent to an opposition Congress, as in dead on arrival, what surprised me is that there are a number of areas where both sides say there might be compromise. Both sides say they want to undo the tight spending caps on defense and domestic discretionary spending known as the sequester. Both sides say they want to do some kind of tax reform, infrastructure investment and trade deals. So I wouldn't hold my breath for a grand bargain. But maybe we will get some baby grand bargains.

MARTIN: OK, and lastly, some political comings and goings at the White House. We learned that three top aides in the administration announced that they're leaving in coming weeks. Isn't this kind of normal towards the end of an administration? Or is there something else at play here?

LIASSON: Well, it is normal. John Podesta, Dan Pfeiffer and Jen Palmieri are all leaving. But it tells you this is the end of an era. Dan Pfeiffer was the fiercely loyal keeper of Obama's message. He's been with the president from the beginning. John Podesta was the architect of the president's strategy for his last two years; the strategy of using his executive authority in any ways he can. And Palmieri was the communications director; one of the most important women in the White House. Podesta and Palmieri are both leaving to take top roles in Hillary Clinton's campaign, and it just shows you how 2016 is already underway and how attention is already turning away from President Obama.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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