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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Obama On Gun Control, GOP Presidential Race


And we're going to continue to spend a little time on politics with our Friday political commentators. Welcome back E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Hey there, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you. Happy New Year.

CORNISH: And with us, Eliana Johnson of Washington, editor of National Review. Welcome, Eliana.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Thanks so much.

CORNISH: So as we just heard, President Obama's set to unveil this kind of raft of executive actions on Monday on gun control, and it's a reminder that he's, like, trying to push his agenda through as his time is winding down in the White House. E.J., are there other kind of agenda items or legacy builders that you're going to be watching for out of this White House?

DIONNE: Well, the president has said a lot of stuff happens in the fourth quarter. And we are in the end of the fourth quarter. I think the gun thing is very important because this is something he really wants. He's been very frustrated by the failure to have action, and he's been under pressure from supporters of gun control to do more, and now he's going to do it.

There were also some interesting options the Industrial Areas Foundation has talked about, about using the enormous purchasing power of guns by governments to try to get something back from the gun manufacturers. I don't know if he's going to go that far.

I think if you're looking at the last year, I think he's also going to really try on sentencing reform, where there is some left-right consensus. A lot of his - he's going to try to sell his approach to the Islamic State, to ISIS and say, we are making progress. And some of the legacy will hang on how he succeeds in that. And then finally, the legacy will hang on who wins the election. You know, Ronald Reagan's legacy was stronger because George H. W. Bush won in 1988. Barack Obama's legacy will be stronger if the Democrats win this selection.

CORNISH: Another angle I want to take on this - and bear with me - comes from Jeb Bush. He was speaking to NPR's Steve Inskeep this week, where Bush actually credited Donald Trump's sort of grip on the Republican primary to Barack Obama.


JEB BUSH: I would argue that Donald Trump is, in fact, a creature of Barack Obama. But for Barack Obama, Donald Trump's effect would not be nearly as strong as it is. We are living in a divided country right now, and we need political leaders rather than continuing to divide us, as both president Obama and Donald Trump do, to unite us.

CORNISH: Eliana, I want to turn to you. You hear Jeb Bush talking about division but also the idea of Trump being something - where he's sort of being born out of the Obama era. What's your take on this?

JOHNSON: I don't think that's totally true. I actually think Donald Trump is really an embodiment of blue-collar frustration with what are really a bipartisan elite consensus on a number of issues that Republicans and Democrats in Washington agree on. One is free trade, and you see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders taking similar positions there reflecting frustration. Another is immigration, where Donald Trump is an ardent opponent of letting more immigrants into the country. And I think you see the far left and the far right coming together on that issue.

And so Barack Obama is certainly an embodiment of elite Washington opinion, but it's really, I think, frustration among the grassroots of both parties about issues, really, that Republicans and Democrats agree on and where they feel they are not getting a hearing.

DIONNE: I got to say, I expect Republicans to blame Obama for almost everything, but I never expected a Republican to blame Obama for Donald Trump.


DIONNE: But it's out there. And I suppose - I agree, by the way, with Eliana that Trump really is the tribune of the Republican working class, which is peculiar given who he is. But I think that's really happening in this election. But it shows what Jeb is going to - Jeb Bush is going to try to do to come back. He is spending an enormous amount of money. He is going to use attacks on Trump to try to push himself back in the front. He's starting to go after some of his other opponents. And if you're a Republican, what's a better way to discredit Donald Trump than to try to find some kind of cockamamie link with Barack Obama?

CORNISH: Cockamamie link - OK (laughter).

DIONNE: Yeah (laughter).

CORNISH: Well, I want to come back to you, Eliana, because, you know, another two presidential hopefuls who also, in a way, were born out of the Obama era that - the Tea Party, in fact - Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio. I mean, where have they taken that kind of Tea Party agenda, and how are they using it in this primary?

JOHNSON: You know, the Tea Party, again, really, was frustration with both political parties. And Rubio and Cruz ran against the Washington establishment, the overspending of the Bush administration and the perceived lack of conservatism or conservative principles of George W. Bush and then the parade of liberal policies passed by the Obama administration.

And - but once in Washington, they've really taken different paths. I think Rubio has taken a more traditional path, believe that having been born of the Tea Party, he could really unite the moderates and conservatives in the party with a policy platform. Cruz, I think, early on, elected right after Mitt Romney lost - he was elected in 2012 - saw that the old rulebook perhaps didn't apply anymore and that there was a different path that other people didn't see out of the presidential level, where he didn't need to unite the establishment and the grassroots, but he could unite the party by eliminating the establishment altogether. And I think that's really what he's trying to do on the campaign trail now.

DIONNE: I think the problem - Rubio has a big upside but a big downside 'cause he's trying to appeal to all wings of the party simultaneously. But that requires him to do a little bit of twisting and turning, and it's not clear where he stands.

CORNISH: Yeah - hard to make that fly these days.

DIONNE: If he - Cruz knows who he need to get to win this nomination. And so if you were - if I were betting, I'd bet that the Cruz strategy has more possibility to it in terms of winning. If the Rubio strategy works, it's really going to work in a big way.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think the troubled there is Cruz, who has courted the Republican grassroots, has done himself a lot of good in terms of perhaps winning the nomination but made himself a more limited candidate when the general election comes around. Rubio, on the other hand, may have more difficulty winning the nomination but is certainly probably a stronger candidate in the general election. So Republicans are in something of a bind in that regard (laughter).

DIONNE: Completely agree with that analysis. That's exactly right.

CORNISH: Well, we just have a few minutes left, and so I want to ask about 2016. Obviously we've heard some lessons about 2015 outside candidates and sort of how their approaching the party. Are there any sort of voting blocks, ideologies, ideas that you are going to be looking for in 2016? I'll start with you, Eliana.

JOHNSON: One thing - I think 2012 had a really psychologically damaging effect on the Republican grassroots and that that's - after Mitt Romney's loss, I don't think Republicans expected to win in 2008. I do think they expected to win in 2012, and that, really, was the catalyst for the grassroots turning against party leader. And I wonder, in 2016, if the result of the election will change that dynamic and the grassroots will turn their fury once again against Democrats or if that dynamic will continue. And I think it will have great implications for the party.

CORNISH: E.J., final word.

DIONNE: The social contract that allowed people to rise up from relatively modest circumstances is broken. What you might call the social Democratic bargain is broken, and that explains a lot of the discontent in the country. And the election should be about, how do we rewrite that social contract?

CORNISH: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of National Review, thank you both for coming in, and happy New Year.

DIONNE: And to you, too. Thanks.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.