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Week In News: Economic State, Power Of NSA

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

In a major economic address this week, President Obama outlined the problems that still plague the U.S. economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

LYDEN: That's the president speaking in Illinois earlier this week. James Fallows is on vacation. Doyle McManus is the Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and he's joining us now in the studio. Hello, Doyle, and thank you for coming in.

DOYLE MCMANUS: Hello, Jacki. Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: So as we just mentioned, President Obama was busy touring the country this week in an almost campaign-style mode to talk about the economy. What's behind this? What's the impetus for these speeches now?

MCMANUS: Well, there were a couple of reasons. There was a sense among White House aides that the controversies of the last few months have allowed the agenda to kind of slip from their grasp. We haven't been debating the economy or the budget in Washington. We've been debating immigration. We've been debating gun control. We've been debating a lot of mini scandals. But I think, in a sense, what was really going on was it may feel like mid-July to most of us, but to the White House and Congress, it's already September.

There's going to be a gigantic set of collisions over the federal budget and federal spending in September. And the president was firing his first shots across the bow.

LYDEN: Here in Washington, there's been quite a lot of discussion about that. Are the Republicans lining up - some of them have even threatened to consider perhaps shutting down the government to repeal Obamacare?

MCMANUS: There's actually a three-way split among Republicans on how tough to be. Some of the - let's call them the Tea Party conservatives, including, for example, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, have argued that they ought to go ahead and threaten to hold up the debt ceiling if Obamacare is not defunded. Other more moderate Republicans - senators like Richard Burr of North Carolina have said - and I'll quote Senator Burr - "That's the dumbest idea I ever heard of." And then you've got the Republican leadership in the middle. So that's going to be a lot of the drama in August as well as September.

LYDEN: Doyle, Congress is busy evaluating its position on how government surveillance programs ought to work. And they fail to defund the NSA spying on Americans and to demand more transparency from this court, this foreign intelligence surveillance court known as FISA court, which no one had ever heard about before this all came into play. Why did this happen right now? What does it mean as far as future efforts to curtail spying on U.S. citizens?

MCMANUS: Why it happened was that there is a widespread sense in the public that the collection of telephone data on ordinary Americans, that's really not under control, that we don't have a sense of what's going on there, that there is too much secrecy there. And so you have this extraordinary vote in the House where a majority of Democrats and a large minority of Republicans voted to defund that telephone metadata program. It was beaten back by an enormous effort by the administration, including help from Nancy Pelosi.

But that issue is not going away. In fact, Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to President Obama saying: You haven't heard the last of this. There are going to be efforts to limit this program in a whole lot of other ways.

LYDEN: I don't want to leave today's conversation without saying something about former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, the outspoken civil rights leader who passed away yesterday at the age of 97. And as many NPR listeners will know, the mother of longtime contributor Cokie Roberts, and I'm sure someone that you met.

MCMANUS: Yes. And an absolutely remarkable and amazing woman who in many ways represents, if you like, a couple of transitions that happened in American politics in the last century. She began as a congressional wife, but then she became a power in her own right, held a congressional seat for 18 years, managed to represent both white and black constituents in Louisiana and blazed a path in women's rights. A remarkable figure.

LYDEN: Doyle McManus is the Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Doyle, thank you so much for coming in.

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