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The McLaughlin Group Host: John McLaughlin Panel: James Pethokoukis, Reuters; Eleanor Clift, Newsweek; Michelle Bernard, MSNBC; Mortimer Zuckerman, U.S. News & World Report Taped: Friday, June 24, 2011 Broadcast: Weekend of June 25-26, 2011

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JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: Iraq Is Back.

Over 100 people wounded, over 20 killed, this week in a deadly attack in a crowded market in central Baghdad. Bodies were strewn everywhere. The war in Iraq just ended its eighth year. It is now the second-longest war in U.S. history, second only to the Afghanistan conflict.

Here is the Iraq war human toll: U.S. military killed, 4,421 American soldiers; injured, amputeed, wounded, mentally ill, 31,922 Americans. The U.S. military is still there. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq now is just short of 50,000, roughly the population of Biloxi, Mississippi. The U.S. military in Iraq had been scheduled to leave Iraq by December 31, 2011. Secretary Gates now says he wants them to stay, and he's trying to figure out how he can get the Iraqi government to, quote-unquote, "ask" the U.S. to stay in Iraq.

DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: (From videotape.) The Iraqis and we are talking about some kind of a residual American presence in terms of helping them with beyond December of 2011.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Some believe that we are sinking our roots in Iraq, and all the signs point that way. The U.S. embassy in Iraq -- get this -- is the largest embassy in the world, with a current population of 8,000 people in the embassy. And the embassy soon expects to build that 8,000 -- get this -- up to 17,000 people. The U.S. embassy also has 19 planes and 24 helicopters. The amount of U.S. dollars spent in Iraq since day one is now more than $806 billion.

Question: What's the Pentagon's justification for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq? James Pethokoukis.

JAMES PETHOKOUKIS: We have a tremendous amount of both blood and treasure invested in Iraq. I think they don't want to throw that away. They see some heightening levels of violence. And I think they would like to keep at least 20,000 troops there past the first of the year. I think there are plenty of people in the administration who would like to completely bug out of Iraq and get them all home. So we have sort of the military component.

But, you know, we really haven't been digging our roots in Iraq. We haven't been doing enough to encourage more cultural exchanges, more business exchanges. Iranian businesses are flooding into Iraq. We want to have influence there beyond military and hard power. We need to have soft-power influence. We need to be doing a lot more in that part of it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

ELEANOR CLIFT: It's an oil-rich part of the world. I think going in there was a huge strategic mistake because we have emboldened Iran. We've made Iran the powerhouse country in the region. But we do have this large embassy, as you point out, and there will be a residual American force.

But I think this president is making good on the deal that was negotiated by former President Bush to get the troops out of there. So I don't see a big footprint continuing in the future. And whatever happens in Iraq is going to be their problem. They could well still have difficulties along the lines of a civil war.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Michelle. MICHELLE BERNARD: You know, it's a difficult balancing act. As you know, I've worked with lots of Iraqi women over the years. And we have seen that the United States went into Iraq under one mode. There were no weapons of mass destruction.

But the bottom line is we went in as a nation. We have started promoting democracy. We are seeing the promotion of women's rights. There's a burgeoning women's rights movement in Iraq. It is in the best interest of the United States to have a stable Iraqi government. It's not there yet. I fully believe that we will be out by 2012. But I think it's important for us to stay there.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that the nation has empowered the Congress or the president to send American citizens, the military, into battle without a critical national-security reason for doing it? Obama has mentioned -- the president has mentioned no critical national-security reason for us to be there. Now, this has to be imminent and it has to be commensurate with the true national-security interests of the country.

MORTIMER ZUCKERMAN: Let me put it this way. Any president who decides in his own mind, for whatever reasons, that there is a national-security interest will find a way to put it to the American public exactly in those terms, and he will keep troops there, if that is his judgment. In fact, he should keep troops there if that is his judgment.

But we have been there for God knows how many years now, nine years, 10 years. We've lost a lot of people. We've spent a fortune. But what is going on there now is a huge divide between the Sunnis and the Shias, which is an enormous problem in that part of the world. We don't think of it very much, but Iran does, OK, because Iran is a Shiite country, and the Shiites now are in power.

Maliki is a Shiite, and the Sunnis are headed up by Allawi. And we are trying to find some way, as we did before, to try to make government under the two of them. There was a deal which was made which the Maliki government has not lived up to.

What I think we're worried about is that as soon as we leave, Maliki will take over the entire government and you'll have another Shia country, which is going to be very dangerous to our interests, for example, with the Saudis, who are absolutely in a rage over that.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think we have the image worldwide of being a militaristic world power?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I think we have a different kind of an image. I mean, in one sense, you could say we've always had that image, because we are so powerful and do have the military capacity to extend our military reach. I do think they think we are not a competent country any longer, that we are not the powerful country as we used to be. And I think that's our problem. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you make of the polling, Eleanor, on this, the American people wanting us out of Iran --

MS. CLIFT: Out of Iraq.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- out of Afghanistan?

MS. CLIFT: Well, we're --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And certainly out of Iraq.

MS. CLIFT: Well, we're coming out of Iraq. I mean, we're going to be out by the end of this year, and --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, how long do you want to stretch that out? We've been there -- it's the longest war in our history.

MS. CLIFT: Well, no, it's the second-longest after Afghanistan. And I think, because of the loss of life and the potential risk in Afghanistan, that's much higher on people's minds. Iraq was a huge -- it consumed the Bush presidency. It's cost thousands of American lives, displaced lots of Iraqis. Lots of Iraqis have lost their lives. It's a huge mistake.

But John, it is not in the forefront of people's consciences right now. We are responsibly, I think, winding down. We will continue to have a presence in the world. We can't undo all of the harm that we've done.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK, Afghanistan drawdown.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) Starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: This reduction leaves the balance in Afghanistan at 90,000 U.S. troops. The president says he will remove 23,000 soldiers next year. That leaves a balance of 67,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Do you think the president senses that there is a national call to get out and he wants to get out soon, especially before next year's elections?

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: (Laughs.) I think absolutely. I think he's --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: I think it's politically --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think his talk this week was motivated by that?

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: Absolutely. Listen, I think he believes it'll help in the election. They're already thinking about how to spend the money, the theoretical money we're supposed to be saving over the next 10 years by not having these troops there, absolutely.

There's an article saying that he sort of mentally already checked out of both Afghanistan and Iraq, and I think that's absolutely the case. He's checked out mentally. Now he wants to check out actually physically by bringing all these troops home.

MS. BERNARD: I have to tell you, watching the president's speech the other night, earlier this week, I was actually pretty disappointed with the speech. I think it was probably one of the poorest speeches he has given since he took over as --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Content or --

MS. BERNARD: -- president of the United States.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Content or --

MS. BERNARD: Content.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He looked robotic.

MS. BERNARD: Content, delivery.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Single teleprompter right in front of him.

MS. BERNARD: The most important problem was the content. There was too much in there for everyone. This is one instance where we need our president to be the decider in chief. There was something there for Democrats. There was something there for Republicans. When he used -- when he used the phrase "It is time to engage in nation building at home," I literally felt like I was speaking to one of my colleagues at MSNBC who says that all of the time.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, I --

MS. BERNARD: If the president believes it, that's one thing, but -- MS. CLIFT: I would totally --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let her finish.

MS. BERNARD: But the problem is with there being so much for everyone, you couldn't help but watch the speech and wonder, is this because there's an election coming around the corner or is this because the president truly believes --

MS. CLIFT: I would totally disagree.

MS. BERNARD: -- that this is the best he can do for the country?

MS. CLIFT: I would totally disagree.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: This is "No Drama" Obama.

MS. CLIFT: That's exactly right. And he's doing what he said he would do. He said he was going to begin withdrawing the troops. And this is the first time --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Did he look unhappy to you?

MS. CLIFT: He looked like a war president who was soberly discussing a serious issue.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: He looked like a guy who'd rather be talking about clean energy and infrastructure.

MS. CLIFT: Excuse me.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: That's what he looked like to me.

MS. CLIFT: It was the first time in my memory that a president has gotten up and talked about affordability in war. We've had everybody talk about --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Right.

MS. CLIFT: -- guns and butter.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Right.

MS. CLIFT: Nobody ever wants to make the choice.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Right.

MS. CLIFT: And affordability --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, is he tuned into the national psyche?

MS. CLIFT: Exactly. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We're in a recession.

MS. CLIFT: That's right.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Yes.

MS. CLIFT: And our economic security is as important as our --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What about the --

MS. CLIFT: -- international security over there.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- human lives component that we saw on the screen. Do you feel happy or OK with sending more and more soldiers in there to get cut up and wounded?

MS. CLIFT: We're not sending more and more. He's bringing them home.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Nobody ever wants --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, that's not true. In Iraq, he is replacing people --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Well, no doubt. But nobody -- no president, I think, ever wants to send troops --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, why do it? You don't have the justification if there's not a crying national-security need.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Clearly --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You can't send people -- we are guaranteed under the Constitution and our Founding Fathers life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Life comes first.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: John, I don't disagree with that. But when you have the national-security interest of the United States, as determined by the executive branch -- it is the president who has the power to make war, as you know. And this is something which he has to decide.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mort -- MR. ZUCKERMAN: And you have to pay attention to his decisions.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- this country has become accustomed to the face, the face of war. And it is -- I think it's a --

MS. CLIFT: They don't like it.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I'm not opposed to --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They've become accustomed to it.

MS. CLIFT: No.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We've been living by it.

MS. CLIFT: No.

MS. BERNARD: But --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We've been living in it.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: We've been -- the country doesn't like it.

MS. CLIFT: For the first time --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It has been used --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: John, the public is against this.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It has been used as a defense against al-Qaida. And now we have seen the slain leader of al-Qaida. We're still in that mode. And he wants to, you know, gradually get out of it.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Well, that's why -- look, when we went into Afghanistan, we didn't do it just casually, right? We suffered this enormous attack at home. OK, that just transformed American politics and the American view of the world. And there was a sense we had to do something --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mort, what did Eisenhower say? He said, "Beware of the military-industrial complex." There's money to be made in war. Follow the money. Follow the money.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I have to say, I don't think that --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Follow the money.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I don't think that was the rationale for our going into either Afghanistan or Iraq.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: No, not in the president's mind, I'm sure.

MS. CLIFT: This is a war he inherited. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: But the lobby for it, the national lobby for it. We've grown accustomed to war. War is the most evil feature of civilization today, and it always has been.

MS. BERNARD: John --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It only may be justified by a series of four propositions, the first of which is the legitimacy of your national security as a towering need for this particular kind of action to be taken.

MS. CLIFT: Well, this is a war --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Can we get that straight?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Well, yes, I don't -- but we are faced with a situation in which we are looking at a different kind of war, a different kind of war, people who come in and attack our civilian sites.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, wait a minute.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: OK, and the question is, how do you stop them? We had a sense we had to do something about al-Qaida. We then --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, we've been feeding off that --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: For a long time. And I'm not saying we did the right things. I was opposed to the president's policy in Afghanistan, for example. I believed in an anti --

MS. CLIFT: This is a war he inherited. And the immediate reason for going in there, which was they're harboring bin Laden, is now gone.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK, I feel better about Barack hearing that from you Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: And he is trying to find a responsible way out. And the cost of war is a whole other issue about all the special interests embedded in our defense industry. But that's a whole other issue aside from this president saying we're going to get out of Afghanistan.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK. Well, you saw the figures on the screen about how much these wars are costing us.

MS. CLIFT: Yes. And that's why I said that affordability --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That's because they're not --

MS. CLIFT: -- finally -- MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Not the intrinsic fighting on the ground. It's the war craft.

MS. CLIFT: Affordability has finally entered into the equation.

MS. BERNARD: Can I just --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK, the brutal wars.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) We have spent a trillion dollars on war at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now we must invest in America's greatest resource, our people.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The actual total figure of both wars is $1,250,000,000,000 -- $806 billion in Iraq, $444 billion in Afghanistan. Again, the total: $1,250,000,000,000.

Question: Did President Obama in his televised address justify the Afghan involvement on the grounds of vital national-security interest? I ask you again, Michelle Bernard.

MS. BERNARD: If you read in between the lines, he did; he absolutely did. I personally am somebody who is -- I'm actually glad at the rate of withdrawal. I know there are people who think that it's too slow. I think the rate that he came up with is appropriate.

I think that the American public deserves to hear a little bit more about why we will continue to have troops there after he brings back the -- or withdraws the 33,000 that he talked about earlier this week. People need to understand the conditions on the ground.

You talk about war in the United States as a national-security issue. But one of the things that we don't want to do either as a nation -- and war is horrible; no one wants to engage in war -- but we also don't want to become numb to human suffering all over the world.

And I think if you would talk to former President Clinton, for example, and President Bush, you know, the fact that people can watch television and watch the genocide that has happened in Sudan and sit back and do nothing as a nation -- we are the greatest nation on earth. We have the greatest democracy in the world. How can you look back -- how can you look at the women in Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran who are raped as a tool of war, who are not allowed to be educated, who are forced to dress in clothing where you can't see anything of them because they are rated as second-rate citizens? Nowhere in this world will we have a democracy or will our country be safe when you can demoralize half your population.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You still have to make the intellectual leap for relieving the situation of misery or, as is the case in Sudan, split government and so forth -- relieving it through war. That is a terrific ladder to get up to see war as actually relieving that rather than compounding it, because you're going to probably make more enemies on all sides --

MS. BERNARD: It is --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- and look militaristic.

(Cross talk.)

MS. BERNARD: It is a very difficult --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: There are other ways to attack the problem that are far more efficient than fleeing into the war bag.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: Listen, there are some terrible countries that you can change those countries via more trade, opening them up. Maybe that's how we deal with Iran. But there are some very bad countries led by very bad men which need to be the hard kill, decapitated. And Iraq was --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You're talking about Libya?

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: And Iraq was one of them.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You're talking about Libya?

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: Yeah, I'm talking about Libya as well.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, that vote --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: I understand that.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That vote is --

MS. CLIFT: Iraq --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: There are some countries led by very -- listen, these countries are not going to change. They're not going to change if we trade more with them or we have more exchanges. Some places you need to go in and get rid of the bad guys.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, who are the bad guys?

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: Iraq --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: We cannot solve -- MR. MCLAUGHLIN: How do we know that the rebels now fighting in Libya are going to take over and be standup citizens?

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: Well, you're also having a problem with Iraq. Iraq was very clearly led by bad guys, by villains, and we decapitated that regime.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, but there are lots of --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: And those people over the long term are going to be a lot better off than if we had done nothing.

MS. CLIFT: There are lots of bad --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: But we have to --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: But how many lives, and how much money did we invest there?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Excuse me. You also have to do --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And what do we say to the American people? What do we say to the mothers and fathers whose --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: We cannot solve all the problems of the world.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: We cannot solve all the problems of the world.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: We're not -- we're incapable of it. We do our best. We do more than any other country of the world. We can't do everything.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And we actually make enemies in trying to solve the problems of the world.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Yes, we do.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We probably produce more enemies than --

(Cross talk.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: No matter how you weigh it --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: No country is more generous than the United States.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: What is the -- John, what is the popularity now, what is the popularity now of al-Qaidaism right now versus 2001 after these two horribly unpopular wars? All throughout the Middle East they do polls. "Do you favor -- before he was killed -- "Did you favor bin Laden? Did you favor" -- that has gone down dramatically.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why don't the --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: Everybody else was against --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why don't you address your --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: (inaudible) -- going up.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why don't you address the figure of recruitment and what our opposition to al-Qaida has done? It has increased their recruitment.

MS. CLIFT: No, al-Qaida actually is not doing that well.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: How many people are left of al-Qaida?

MS. CLIFT: Excuse me.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let her in. Let her in.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: There's 100 --

MS. CLIFT: He was addressing me. Excuse me.

Al-Qaida has actually lost a great deal of strength. But jihadism is prevalent around the world, and they're not looking at, gee, what America did in Iraq as saying that that did in al-Qaida. And there are lots of bad guys in the world. We went into Iraq because we lied and said there were mass --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: That's absolutely not right.

MS. CLIFT: -- there were weapons of mass destruction.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: That's absolutely not true. The president did not lie.

MS. CLIFT: And what is interesting about this president, he's the first president since John F. Kennedy, I think, to stand up there and really outline a doctrine that says, "We will -- it's no longer 'Bear any burden, pay any price.'" MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: "Rest of the world, you are on your own."

MS. CLIFT: It's a different world today.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: That was his doctrine --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All right, James.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: -- the "You're on your own" doctrine.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue Two: Big Ben.

BEN BERNANKE (Federal Reserve Board chairman): (From videotape.) Maybe some of the headwinds that have been concerning us, like, you know, weakness in the financial sector, problems in the housing sector, balance-sheet and deleveraging issues, some of these headwinds may be stronger and more persistent than we thought.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: At a rare press conference this week, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, lowered the Fed's forecast range for 2011 economic growth and 2012 economic growth.

MR. BERNANKE: (From videotape.) The economic recovery appears to be proceeding at a moderate pace, though somewhat more slowly than the committee had expected. And some recent labor-market indicators have also been weaker than expected.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: One indicator in the slide is the jobs report. Growth is down and claims up. On inflation, the rate rose slightly in May, but the chairman expects inflation to fall back in line to the Fed's targeted 2 percent level, but it will not happen overnight.

The chairman also pointed out that events taking place in Europe could play a role in the U.S. economy.

MR. BERNANKE: (From videotape.) A disorderly default in one of those countries would no doubt roil financial markets globally. It would have a big impact on credit spreads, on stock prices and so on. And so, in that respect, I think the effects on the United States would be quite significant.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is he talking Greece there, James?

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: Yes. I think he is tremendously -- in fact, I know the Fed is very concerned about what's going on in Europe. I know the White House is very concerned about what's going on in Europe, because they view the economy as sputtering and it really can't take a serious hit at this point.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah. I think that's one of the reasons -- MR. ZUCKERMAN: Well, the fact that --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let Eleanor in, Mort.

MS. CLIFT: I think it's one of the reasons they dipped into the strategic oil reserve, along with, I think, 27 other countries, to inject more oil into the market, because the impact of the rising oil prices and Libya and Yemen unrest were really having a dampening effect on the world recovery. I mean, this is something -- this is not just --

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: And Obama's polls.

MS. CLIFT: Well, 27 other countries joined in.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mort --

MS. CLIFT: It's not only Obama's polls, if you want to look at it that way. (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mort.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: The critical thing that he is referring to is that we have had the most stimulative monetary policy in the history of this country and the most stimulative fiscal policy in the history of this company (sic/means country) and we haven't come out of this recession. We have barely 2, two and a half percent growth projected by his numbers. And, in effect, what he's saying, "We don't fully understand why, because with all of this stimulus, we should be doing a lot better, and we aren't." And that is something that could get a lot worse, and that's what he's worried about.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is the good news here that he's not talking about a double dip, either directly or indirectly?

MS. BERNARD: I think that's absolutely good news for the economy. It is good news for the president that he's not talking about a double-dip recession. I think that if the president can take the message that we heard from Bernanke earlier this week and message appropriately to the American public just where we have come from, how close we were on the brink of bankruptcy and just how quickly he has been able to, you know, get the country level.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue Three: Michelle's South Africa Tour.

FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: (From videotape.) The story of young people 20 years ago, 50 years ago, who risked and sacrificed everything they had for the freedom they deserved. It is because of them that I stand before you as first lady of the United States of America. (Cheers, applause.) Yes, we can. What do you say? MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Soweto may turn into the highlight of First Lady Michelle Obama's six-day trip to the Republic of South Africa. Soweto is the most populous black residential area in the nation, and Soweto is the birthplace of the South African anti-apartheid movement.

Soweto was once a slum, but has urbanized over time.

First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at a U.S.-sponsored Young African Women Leaders forum, where she exhorted her young audience to serve and to lead their communities. The first lady also spoke candidly about her own rise from a modest upbringing and the U.S. civil-rights movement. She cited her husband's familiar political slogan and applied it to the young South Africans there: "Yes, we can."

Question: On a political asset scale, zero to 10, zero meaning zero asset, no asset, 10 meaning solid-gold asset, rate Michelle's political asset to her husband, zero to 10, political asset to her husband.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: I tend to put it zero or one, because I don't think first ladies really matter very much. I think she's a great first lady, you know, but I just -- ultimately it doesn't matter a lot for the president's political fortunes.

MS. CLIFT: She's a 10 --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: None of it transfers?

MS. BERNARD: (Laughs.)

MS. CLIFT: She's a 10.

MS. BERNARD: It's critical.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: I don't think so.

MS. CLIFT: She's a 10 on steroids. I mean, she's terrific. And she clearly is enjoying the job, and I think she's -- she thinks she's making a difference, and I agree. On obesity, she's really put that issue center stage. She has made zero gaffes. And if you take his proposition that first ladies don't matter, they sure matter if they screw up.

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: That's right. They only matter on the down -- that's my point.

MS. BERNARD: No, they are critical. MR. PETHOKOUKIS: You made my exact point. They only matter on the down size.

MS. CLIFT: The great role model --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hey, what about selling vegetables up on H Street here --

MS. CLIFT: That's fine.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- and messing up the traffic up there, right in front of the White House?

MS. CLIFT: That's showing urban people that food actually comes out of the dirt. It doesn't come prepackaged in little plastic bags.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: (All lessons ?) from Obamas. Is that it?

MS. CLIFT: (Laughs.) That's right.

MS. BERNARD: Hey, I've got to tell you, first of all, the role of the first lady, in my opinion, is absolutely important. And on this trip, Michelle Obama is solid gold for the president -- sitting down with Nelson Mandela and her two children, doing pushups with Desmond Tutu, the entire trip talking to young African women.

It makes you think back to the pre-apartheid times and it takes you back to those beautiful pictures of millions of South Africans standing in line to vote for Nelson Mandela the first time he ran for president of South Africa.

As an African-American in this country, you can't help but be proud. And, quite frankly, for the president, he cannot afford to have even one dip in the African-American vote in the South if he's going to get re-elected in 2012.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you want to point out that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island off the coast, and he was there for how many years? Twenty?

MS. BERNARD: Thirty years.

MS. CLIFT: Thirty years.

MS. BERNARD: Thirty years.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Thirty years in prison.

MS. BERNARD: Absolutely.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Came back and he -- MS. BERNARD: And he was elected president of South Africa in democratically elected -- in a democratically held election. And the parallels between what has happened in South Africa and what has happened in our country are unmistakable. This is a proud time for the entire country.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So good. And when they were pictured together as Mrs. Obama, the first lady, and Nelson Mandela, that was history- making.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: It was history-making. And I'll say one other thing about Nelson Mandela. After all those years in prison, he came out, he did -- was not bitter. He didn't have a chip on his shoulder in any way.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Right.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: He was the most constructive and positive force in that country. And that, to my mind, is a work of genius and a work of character that we haven't seen very many times in our lifetime.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hey, Mort, are you doing business in South Africa?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: No, I'm not.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: There's money to be made there. (Laughter.)

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Maybe, but there are a lot of countries, I suppose, where that's true. I'm just trying to make a living here in the United States.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Forced prediction: When will the economy pick up?

MR. PETHOKOUKIS: December 2012.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: Late fall 2011.

MS. BERNARD: November 2011.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: 2014.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That's good enough for me, Mort.

Bye-bye.

END.