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Politics In The News: Political Arena Activity Increases


This first week of the new year promises to be even busier than usual in the political arena. President Obama is talking executive action and gun control, a certain former president hits the campaign trail and footage of presidential candidate Donald Trump turns up in a video from the Islamist militant group al-Shabab. To guide us through all of these political goings on, we're joined now by Cokie Roberts and NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning to you both.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.


ROBERTS: Happy New Year.

MONTAGNE: Happy New Year to you all. Let's start with President Obama, just back from the family vacation in Hawaii. He's jumping straight into possibly the toughest issue in politics to date - gun control. And Mara, what's going on here?

LIASSON: Well, this is one of the toughest issues. And for President Obama, it's one of the most frustrating issues because he hasn't been able to get the Congress to move on his gun-control agenda, even when Democrats had the Senate. But his team has been working on a set of executive actions on gun safety for some months. And today, he's going to discuss them with his attorney general, his FBI director and other officials. Then on Thursday, he's going to hold a town hall meeting on gun violence. Basically, the centerpiece of these executive actions is his effort to close some loopholes that allow certain smaller gun sellers to avoid doing background checks on gun purchasers.

MONTAGNE: And Cokie, Congress - Congress is also coming back this week with a lot of talk that the Republican leadership is forming its own agenda. What's their reaction going to be to this particular rollout from the president?

ROBERTS: Just to completely shoot it down and ignore it. One of the things you're already hearing is a lot of complaints about executive orders, and the Republican presidential candidates going on a lot about that yesterday as news of this gun-control agenda was rolling out. But also, the Republicans in Congress are thinking that they need to do something to show the American people what they stand for, and some of it is - could even be bipartisan - for instance, criminal justice reform. But right away, they're going to go back to their tried and trues of repealing Obamacare and cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood, send the president bills that he will veto certainly. So the two sides are nowhere near each other, and it's all just a setup for the 2016 presidential campaign.

MONTAGNE: And Mara, sticking back to gun control for a moment, what about on the campaign trail? I mean, there's already been plenty of talk about that.

LIASSON: Yes. And not surprisingly, Democrats are in favor of what the president is doing. Hillary Clinton is even taking some credit for suggesting some of these measures on the campaign trail first. Republicans, as Cokie said, are completely against these efforts of the president. They are promising that if they're elected, they will undo whatever executive actions the president takes on guns. And that's the thing to remember here - executive action is temporary. It doesn't have the permanence of legislation. So it's really a strategy born from weakness. This is all the president can do if he can't convince Congress to pass his agenda.

MONTAGNE: Well, OK, everyone's watching the calendar very carefully I know now. It's 2016...

ROBERTS: Finally.

MONTAGNE: ...Weeks away from the Iowa caucuses and also the primary in New Hampshire. One of the most skilled campaigners ever - former President Bill Clinton - will be hitting the campaign trail for his wife this week. Donald Trump has already taken him on. Whoa - how is this likely to play out?

ROBERTS: Well, President Clinton is a skilled campaigner. He did not help his wife in 2008 when he made some intemperate remarks. So you have to assume that he will be more careful this time around. But Donald Trump is just going after him and going after his difficulties with women accusing him of various things along - over the years and saying that Hillary Clinton was complicit in Bill Clinton's activities and that she should be attacked for it. How that plays is really something we have no idea about. It's going to be - but, you know, we've had no idea about how anything that Donald Trump has done would play. And he continues to ride very high in the public opinion polls, something that he makes a point about.

MONTAGNE: And here comes down the pike another thing - the terrorist group al-Shabab using his words for a recruitment video. But what - what's his response, first of all? I mean, what, is it going to hurt him?

LIASSON: Well, we don't know if it's going to hurt him. It probably will help him to have a terrorist group attacking him.

ROBERTS: Right, exactly.

LIASSON: But he did dismiss this video. It was an al-Shabab video that quoted him saying that we're going to ban Muslims from the United States temporarily. And the video says this is evidence that the U.S. is turning against Muslims, so Muslims should join the jihadists. Donald Trump dismissed it. He said I have to say what I have to say. And it's interesting because in the last Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton had said that Donald Trump's words were being used in terrorist recruiting videos. At that time, there was no evidence of that. Now we have a video.

ROBERTS: But, you know, the other thing that's happening is Trump has released his first television ad. He says he's going to spend $2 million a week in advertising leading up to the Iowa caucuses on February 1. And the ad is very stark with images of terrorists in the - and people coming across the border. And he talks about how he is going to cut off the head of ISIS and build the biggest wall ever and make Mexico pay for it. He is not - he is quite the contrary from backing down on any of this. He's doubling down on all of it, thinking that this is what has made him so popular for so long.

MONTAGNE: Well, lots more to come in the months ahead. Thanks both of you for joining us.

LIASSON: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And that's Cokie Roberts and also NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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