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State of the Union Fact Check; Speaker Boehner Talks with CNN; The Exceptionalism Attack; Someone's Watching Me

Aired January 26, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf, and good evening, everyone.

Tonight we fact check some the State of the Union declarations from President Obama.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Both parties in Congress should know this, if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.


KING: And from the Republican responders, including this singer from Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: A bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill.


KING: Plus, we'll explore what President Obama sees as a calculated but in his view fabricated conservative code.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), BUDGET CHAIRMAN: These are not easy times. But America is an exceptional nation.

BACHMANN: We believe in lower taxes. We believe in a limited view of government and exceptionalism in America.


KING: Also tonight, what impact will sobering new numbers about the government's fiscal mess have on the big spending debates to come? One thing we do know, the new deficit numbers, and they're big, didn't deter the president from pushing his new spending ideas during the post -- that traditional post State of the Union road show at a solar plant in Wisconsin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: In this new and challenging time, when America is facing tougher competition from countries around the world than ever before, we've got to up our game. We're going to need to go all-in. We're going to need to get serious about winning the future.


KING: Let's begin a busy hour breaking down the speeches and the impact on the fights ahead with our exclusive political duo CNN contributors James Carville and Mary Matalin joining us from New Orleans. Let's start right there.

Mary Matalin, to you first, 12 weeks ago the president suffered a shellacking. You just heard him there talking about our game. Did the president change the game? If spending was the big no-no, the big message, no more spending from the November election, has the president positioned himself after this speech to be able to sell some new spending?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Wonderful to hear the president talking about it but we don't know that it's any more than just talk. (INAUDIBLE) trying to count this up. I think you and I have covered together, what, 30 States of the Union, State of the Union messages, whatever is the plural. They're not really game changers.

Maybe the Monroe Doctrine or ending slavery or the Bush Doctrine even but this is just a political speech. I'm not saying that's a bad thing but there's no record to go with that rhetoric as beautiful and eloquent and as heartwarming to fiscal conservatives as it might be but now he's got to deliver.

KING: James?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, I didn't actually kind of agree with some of the things that Mary said. These things -- they come and they go, and they don't stick around very long. And, you know, I thought everything is -- to me everything is a kind of positioning for the inevitable vote on raising the debt ceiling and what might turn into a government shutdown and I think that's what's going on. In terms of that I think he positioned himself pretty well last night. I think he looked good. It's not the most difficult speech in the world to give but he executed it well.

The speech didn't have a central theme, a message in it, but he had a number of proposals that people reacted favorably to. I think in particular (INAUDIBLE) very favorably to education to talk about that and being competitive and jobs and as you would expect, but I don't think the political world has changed any different today than it was Monday. I really don't.

KING: All right -- interesting reviews there. You both make an interesting point. I want to illustrate it to our viewers that this is not to criticize any president. Every president of course wants to talk about the economy in their State of the Union. Every president wants to say things are going to try to get a little better. We certainly hope but the State of the Union is in many ways an official recycling project of the presidency as I will call it. Listen to this.


OBAMA: The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Tonight I announce an American competitiveness initiative to encourage innovation throughout our economy.

OBAMA: That's what Americans have done for over 200 years, reinvented ourselves.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To reinvent our government and make our democracy work.


KING: So the question is, especially after you lose a big election and President Bush in 2006, Mary, you were there, lost a big midterm election. James, you were around Bill Clinton back in 1994, lost a big midterm election. Yes, it's not a forever moment for a president but it's an important, huge audience for a president especially after the election drubbing to say give me a new look. Did this president at least achieve that?

CARVILLE: Yes, I think people were already giving him a new look, you know, his numbers were up. I think people kind of meant to spank him and ended up caning him (INAUDIBLE) feeling good about it, and so, you know, things were picking up a little bit, and, look, I think he -- you know, look, I think he picked up, you know, first down he picked up six yards. It was good. But it's still the same political environment we were in before the speech is I guess my overall point.

MATALIN: Absolutely. I have to agree with James on that. He did do what he's urging everybody to do even though I think it's irrelevant to legislation, which is tone it down. Last year he was rather rude to the Supreme Court justices so he did do that, but it was kind of a mash-up, that's why I was reflecting on how many of these things we've covered together.

It was a mash-up of Reagan in tone and it was -- had some Clintonian tactics in there like repeating the word investment. Remember that thing Clinton did when he said we're crossing the bridge to the 21st Century --


MATALIN: -- 22 times so it was like mashing those two together and it was a -- you know a good speech, but -- and so he's positioned to do, what, to let the games begin.

KING: All right, well, let's fact check. We're going to fact check all of the speakers last night. Let's start with the president of the United States. One of the things he said, and he was very emphatic when he said it, at this time of fiscal discipline, he said Washington needs fiscal discipline. The president of the United States who doesn't use this word that often, promising if necessary to use his veto pen. Let's listen.


OBAMA: Because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this, if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.


KING: Now sounds like tough language from the president but this is an easy promise to make so a fact check here is really debunking whether this is really a bold promise or not. Let's talk about what we mean here. Because just on December 17th, the House speaker, now a Republican, John Boehner and we want you to hear it right here, he already made clear before the president stood up there that the new House of Representatives under Republican rule won't allow earmarks.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: The House has banned the practice of earmarks. Earmarks are too many Americans are a symptom of a broken Washington and we're not going to have them.


KING: Let's look quickly at the president's history on this issue. Back in March 2009, this president, President Obama did call for an earmark ban so is on the record saying this should be done but he called for that ban after he signed a piece of legislation saying he thought earmarks should not happen, but he signed a big spending bill that had $8 billion of earmarks in it, so the president has signed them before despite his reservations.

And if go all the way back to his campaign -- his career in the United States Senate, during his time in the Senate he, James and Mary, he did get more than $700 million in earmarks. Now that's not to say that his conversion is legitimate, but Mr. Carville, I have to say it's not necessarily such a bold promise for this Democratic president when he knows he's very unlikely to get many earmarks.

Now Harry Reid doesn't like that, the Democratic Senate leader. A lot of Democrats in the House don't like it. Truth be told, a lot of Republicans don't like it but if the House won't put any earmarks in the budget, how likely are they going to get to the White House?

CARVILLE: Right. Well they probably won't, but the Senate does and it -- you think they're going to hold up the entire budget if he gets 85 percent of what he wants and there's $500 million in earmarks. First of all, of all the problems that this country faces and fiscal problems we face, earmarks ranks about 192nd and I mean you're right. It's not a terrible thing. He -- people rail against him. I don't -- I actually think they're pretty good as opposed to anything else, but regardless of what you think about it, they're not going to solve very much and of course you would sign a legislation that had -- you wouldn't shut the government down over earmarks, I don't think.

KING: But it sounded good, Mary.


CARVILLE: Yes, yes.

MATALIN: Well, that's the point and I go back to my other point, the record versus the rhetoric and I think with the big walk-up to this and buildup, people were expecting one of those sort of pivotal moments like you suggested, Clinton saying in the -- after the '94 cycle the era of big government, there's nothing semantic (ph) like that. There was no big re-posturing in that way.

There were a lot of platitudes. It was fun to listen to and he delivers a good speech, but earmarks as symbolic as they are, Boehner never had earmarks and they're not coming, as James said. What he actually proposed, to address the number one issue of the last campaign and what is still a 2-1 issue for Americans cutting spending, reforming entitlements. He put nothing on the table and he himself said what I've addressed is less than nothing.

It's less than one-half or one-fourth of the budget. It's 12 percent, not enough, and then he goes on to not address any fundamental spending reforms whatsoever. That's the challenge for him and giving a good speech is not going to meet it.

KING: Well the details will come. The Republicans were pretty vague on the details, too. It is a huge challenge. The president of the United States --


KING: -- did not lay a lot out. The Republicans did not lay a lot out. This will be a defining challenge as we look ahead. Let's now put the same test, the truth test to Michelle Bachmann. She gave not the official Republican response but a Tea Party Express response a bit later and in her assessment of the Obama administration she was harshly critical including this.


BACHMANN: What did we buy? Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill.


KING: Now, is that true, 16,500 IRS agents policing the health care bill? Well, let's look. Here's the IRS staff, this is the IRS official staff, 14,264 revenue agents, 2,700 plus special agents, so about 17,000 agents at the IRS, but these agents are the entire agency for all IRS investigation, all IRS investigations, number one.

Number two, it says specifically -- let's make that go away. It says specifically in the health care law "in the case of any failure by a taxpayer to timely pay any penalty imposed by this section such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure" and to be clear, just to play devil's advocate for Congresswoman Bachmann to say she doesn't trust the law or trust the IRS, the IRS commissioner did testify under oath, Mary, under oath, Douglas Schulman (ph) told the Congress IRS would not audit taxpayers to make sure they have bought health insurance as required so was that, shall we say, at least a stretch.

MATALIN: So let me get this straight. It says in the health care law that there is no penalty for violating it. Let's just set that aside, the substance (ph) of this. The bigger picture who does -- who is everybody covering today as opposite the president of the United States -- Congresswoman Bachmann.

What does that say about the Democrats that they think that the counterpart to their president is to cover Michele Bachmann who will be one of, if she runs, one of many challengers in the 2012 Republican primary and go ahead? Go ahead. He's about to make fun of her.


MATALIN: I just want to say this, if liberal men dismissed and demean and trash talked liberal women the way they do conservative women they would have their manhood in a vice (ph). They love to just -- to demean these conservative women --

CARVILLE: I'm crazy about her. (INAUDIBLE) PolitiFact checked her out on 13 things and all of them were wrong. But it doesn't matter. I don't think it really matters. She got an associate justice of the Supreme Court to come to her Tea Party (INAUDIBLE). She was sponsored by the Tea Party, which is the most powerful thing within the Republican Party.

She's a dynamo. She's the intellectual center of gravity of that party right now. I think that we're right to pay attention to what she says. I mean she said the founding fathers wanted to end slavery or that it didn't matter what color your skin was in the 19th Century. I don't think she has much of a future as a history teacher, but as somebody that is a very, very influential dynamic person in the Republican Party, I think Michele Bachmann fits that. I do.

MATALIN: There's nothing James loves more than to make fun of conservative women, trust me on this, and he does it all in an effort to shut them up. Not going to happen --

CARVILLE: No I don't -- believe me --

MATALIN: Not going to happen.

CARVILLE: -- the last thing I want to do is shut -- the only thing -- the last thing in the world that I want to do is shut Michele Bachmann up.


CARVILLE: I promise you that.

MATALIN: It's not happening.


CARVILLE: I don't want to shut her up --


CARVILLE: Talk more.

KING: Mr. Carville is married to a fabulous conservative woman.

CARVILLE: That's right.

KING: On that note we'll let you guys continue this debate when we turn the camera off. Appreciate seeing you both.

When we come back another new Republican voice, yes, we do cover Michele Bachmann here, but we cover all of the fresh Republican voices. When we come back, we'll talk to Senator Ron Johnson. He came to the Congress from Wisconsin. That was a blue state. He knocked off a big-time liberal hero, Russ Feingold. Ron Johnson wants to cut spending. We'll hear his views in a moment.


KING: Senator Ron Johnson listened to his first State of the Union speech last night in the House chamber. He is Wisconsin's new junior senator, a Republican who with the help from the Tea Party knocked off liberal favorite Russ Feingold. He is also a businessman who says when it comes to the economy President Obama doesn't seem to get it.

Senator Johnson joins us from Capitol Hill. Let me begin there, Senator. The president gave his speech last night. You were in the chamber and then today as part of the traditional road show to go and sell his ideas, the president of the United States went to your state. He went to Wisconsin and he tried to sell his investment agenda.

And I know Republicans call it spending. Let's listen to the president just a second. He was at a solar plant and he says the government has to help businesses by building roads and bridges, by investing in new technology. Let's hear from the president.


OBAMA: We need to make sure American workers can go to head-to-head with workers in any country on earth. We've got to be more productive, more capable, more skilled than any workers on earth. It means making sure our infrastructure can meet the demands of the 21st Century, rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, connecting America and the American people with high-speed rail and Internet. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Can you agree to work with the president on those investments if you get sufficient cuts in other areas or is that simply out of bounds new spending?

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Well, my concern is that when the president talks about investments, he's talking about government spending and government control and obviously I'm from the private sector. I've been running a manufacturing business for 31 years and by and large I do it on my own and I -- my concern is obviously the federal government, state governments, local governments do need to provide infrastructure for businesses.

That's obvious, but capital is far better allocated by millions of individuals operating freely within a free market system, and I'm afraid the president really doesn't understand that. He's never operated in the private sector. That's the type of perspective I bring here to Washington.

KING: But based on what he said last night, do you think you could sit down with him and talk about targeted investments and I'll ask the question in this context. You say you just ran a manufacturing business and you did. Before you were in charge of that business, the business did benefit from some of the things the president seems to be talking about.

There was a $75,000 federal grant to help build a rail link essentially and then to help build a factory. That was government assistance from both the city and some federal money involved that helped that business sell its products, ship its products, so is it -- it's not totally a bad thing, is it?

JOHNSON: No -- like I said there's basic infrastructure, for example, cities obviously invest in things like industrial parks, that's where my business was located and, of course, cities put in roads. They put in sewer systems and they put in rail spurs. I mean that's what government needs to do. But the problem is, is, you know, we're spending $3.6 trillion a year.

Our deficit has just been re-released by the CBO. It will be $1.5 trillion this year. We've got a very serious spending and debt problem. We need to address that. Government can't be spending money on everything it wants to spend money on.

KING: Is that the line for you, priorities line, and do you see a way to draw that line to keep some of the president's investment or new spending agenda if you get the other cuts or is it simply the deficit is too big, Mr. President. You'll have to wait until the economy is better.

JOHNSON: What we need to do is we need to establish hard spending caps that will force the politicians in Washington, quite honestly, in states and local governments as well to start prioritizing spending. Right now we just have a credit card without a limit and that's how government is spending. You know, like a teenager that has no constraint whatsoever.

So we need to establish that hard spending discipline. And I'm for constitutional amendments to limit the size of government to 20 percent of GDP or under or balance the budget, also maybe a statute that will also limit government spending. We have got to recognize that the root cause of the problem here is the ever-expanding size, scope and cost to government.

That is what's keeping our economy from progressing forward. Business people, consumers have no confidence that we're going to bring spending and debt under control and until they have that confidence I don't think this economy is going to be moving forward and growth is the number one solution. We have got to start growing our economy.

KING: Deficits -- reducing deficits, controlling government spending that was the major theme. The president touched on it, but also was the major theme of both of the Republican responses last night from the House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan who of course is from your state and then from Michele Bachmann who delivered a Tea Party address. I want you to listen to both. We'll talk on the other side.


RYAN: Americans are skeptical of both political parties and that skepticism is justified, especially when it comes to spending. So hold all of us accountable.

BACHMANN: Instead of a leaner, smarter government we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy in which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill.


KING: What did you make of the substance and the tone -- some people saw this as a bit of a competition, a tug-of-war between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. Do you see it that way?

JOHNSON: No, not at all. I see -- we're all responding to what the president had to say yesterday. Michele Bachmann is talking about overregulation, which the president was also talking about, the harmful effects of overregulation in terms of job creation and, of course, Paul Ryan is talking about the fact that nobody has really gotten serious about spending control in this nation.

It's why I ran. I did not see that seriousness. I was not happy when Republicans were spending two, three, $400 billion more than we were taking in. But again let me repeat we're spending 1.3, not $1.5 trillion more. It's a big difference. People understand that simply is not sustainable.

KING: We can see it on the House side there are some tensions and some of it is not so bad and some of it is a little bit more tense between some of the new Tea Party guys and the establishment. A lot of the Tea Party guys think even the Republican leadership will be a little bit too timid in going forward with these cuts. There was a lot of talk that you know Leader McConnell on the Senate side would have a hard time with all the several new Tea Party members like yourself. Do you see him as -- is he as committed as you are to pushing as hard as possible for cuts?

JOHNSON: You know, I'm new here, but I tell you, all I've been really hearing about since I've been here is how do we control spending and debt? People understand we've got a very serious problem. The Debt Commission, I think their report was that we had better cut -- real cuts, $3.9 trillion over the next 10 years or we're going to be suffering very serious consequences, so all I can tell you is that's all that anybody is talking about here in Washington on the Republican side.

KING: And does Ron Johnson have a number, a firm number that has to be attached to any legislation, increasing the debt ceiling in terms of the size of the package of the cuts?

JOHNSON: What I -- my preference is really going -- getting that structural reform to put on that hard spending cap, the straitjacket on all of us to force some prioritization. That's what I'd like to go after.

KING: Senator Ron Johnson, new Republican senator from the state of Wisconsin, sir, appreciate your time.

JOHNSON: Thanks for having me on.

KING: In Houston today doctors upgraded the condition of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. When we come back we'll talk to one of the new members of her medical team.


KING: Check that out -- a live picture of the White House. We get snow sometimes in Washington, but this is pretty good snow by Washington's standards. It's pretty hard to see the White House obscured there by the snow now. The president is home safe and sound but check this out -- the one guy who normally does not get stuck in traffic is the president of the United States.

But he could not helicopter in from Andrews Air Force Base tonight. He was in Wisconsin, as we just told you, so when he came back, the president is in one of those SUVs. That's the media trailing behind him shooting the pictures coming in from Andrews Air Force Base in slushy rush hour in Washington, D.C. in from the suburbs to the White House, a much longer ride than normal for the president of the United States, but he is safe and sound tonight in the White House and they got nice fireplaces there. I'm sure he's warming up.

With me now is CNN's Kathleen Parker, she of course the co-host of "Parker Spitzer," which comes up at the top of the hour, but Kathleen is with us. You just had a little experience getting through the snow and you weren't that far away, up at the Capitol to see the new speaker. KATHLEEN PARKER, CNN'S PARKER SPITZER: I did and my feet are still thawing as we speak because it is some kind of cold out there. But I did meet with Speaker John Boehner. We sat down together just the two of us in the small room where dignitaries meet with him, and in fact, where the president sat and was held until he gave his speech last night, so we had a nice chat and --

KING: Let's listen to some of it because one of the things you wanted to press him on is of course the big debate here in Washington and the president talked about it. Both Republican responders talked about it. The question is what will they do about it and you raised debt and deficit with the new speaker.


PARKER: We know that we're talking about debts and deficits in the trillions. We've got to do some serious, serious cuts. Are you talking about doing -- you know cutting Medicare, Medicaid, defense, those are the big areas where we spend the most.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: Well I do think there will be some reductions in the defense budget. I don't think there is any agency of the federal government that -- where there's not room for improvement so I would expect defense, we'll find savings there, as well. When it comes to the big entitlement programs, as I've said it's time for us as Americans to have an adult conversation with each other about the serious challenges that face us.

I was a little surprised last night in the president's speech that he didn't say more about working with us on real entitlement reform. There was somewhat of a mention, but I think that the American people want us to have this conversation. We have to remember that I as speaker of the House, Republicans only control one of the three levers of government. The Democrats still control the Senate and the White House.


JOHN KING, HOST: He says there he's a little surprised the president essentially wasn't more forthcoming, didn't show more cards, didn't get deeper into what he wants to do.

I guess he has to say that publicly. But can he really be surprised in the sense that we all know at the beginning of this chess game, the Republicans haven't laid out a lot of details yet either?

KATHLEEN PARKER, CNN'S PARKER SPITZER: Well, exactly. I mean we can't get anybody to lay any cards on the table. And that's what I said to the speaker. You know we all talk about cuts, cuts, cuts, but nobody wants to say what.

And you know, I -- you'll have to watch tonight to see what he says but he was, you know, fairly reluctant. He said everything is on the table, but when I pressed him for specifics, you know, he was like most people on the Hill, he wouldn't say what exactly.

KING: Like most politicians.

PARKER: Everything is on the table.

KING: Everything is on the table. And you know, you have a nice fancy studio in New York where you do the show. But you've never been around the magic wall here. So if you want to walk over here, I will show you.

PARKER: Oh my gosh. It's the magic wall.

KING: Because if you want to talk about -- you know they have the -- he says everything is on the table and we know now why. CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, put out some new estimates today. We go back in here through history.

This is the federal deficit as a proportion of GDP, as a proportion of the economy. And here's where we are now, 62 percent, which is pretty high. Post -- right in the middle of World War II we got way up here -- right up here.

Some projections say now it will go up here back into the '90s, if -- 90 percent of the economy will be deficit if we don't get this under control. This is the new numbers out from the Congressional Budget Office today. So obviously they've got a lot of work to do in terms of dealing with the deficit.

Some other interesting things in here. I find this striking not just for President Obama, Kathleen, because John Boehner, if he's going to stay speaker, Republicans need to do pretty good in this next environment, too.

This is the unemployment rate. The Congressional Budget Office projects 9.4 percent today. They think it will stay at 9 percent for the rest of the year and maybe get to 8.2 percent or so in 2012 when not only is the president of the United States up for re-election but all those House members that could keep John Boehner speaker.

Do you get the sense from him -- he's a legislator by trade. John Boehner's worked out deals with Democrats in the past but now he has the tensions of these Tea Party guys who don't want to give him too much of a leash to do business with the president.

What was your sense of talking to him about that?

PARKER: Well, I asked him about the Tea Party, particularly in light of Michele Bachmann's, you know, standalone response last night, and Speaker Boehner held fast to what he has said to me before. And that is, there's not that much light between the Tea Party and Republican establishment.

We all want the same thing and he seems to feel that they'll -- you know, they'll be able to work it out. He wasn't -- I don't think he said anything that would surprise you in that regard. You know, he is convinced that they can come together, find some cuts, what they're going to be, I don't know.

He says Michele Bachmann has a right to speak just like anybody else and as he has done in previous years so we'll see.

KING: I want your take on this part of the interview, as well. Because we were watching it feed in while you were up on Capitol Hill doing it. And later in program, we're going to break this down.

The president of the United States thinks this is a calculated Republican code to discredit him. Let's listen to John Boehner talking about American exceptionalism.


BOEHNER: They've refused to talk about American exceptionalism. We are different than the rest of the world. Why? Because Americans have -- the country was built on an idea that ordinary people could decide what their government looked like. And ordinary people could elect their own leaders.

And 235 years ago that's a pretty novel idea. And so we are different. Why is our economy still 20 times the size of China's? Because Americans have had their freedom to succeed, the freedom to fail. We've got more innovators, more entrepreneurs, and that is exceptional, but you can't get the left to talk about it. They don't -- they reject that notion. I don't.

PARKER: Why do you think that is?

BOEHNER: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know if they're afraid of it, whether they don't believe it. I don't know.


KING: Now does he really believe the left doesn't believe this and specifically the president doesn't believe? We're going to break this down more a little bit later in the program but the president and his team think this is a fabrication, that it's part of a deliberate Republican strategy to convince people whether they're the birthers, whether they don't -- you know, whether they just don't think Obama is like them.

It's a deliberate effort to essentially disqualify Obama. He's not like you.

PARKER: Well, I see why they would feel that way. I brought this question up because as I told you last night when we were on the balcony waiting for the speech, I was sort of listening for that word because I heard the president say it in another speech and I thought, wow, I've never heard him talk about exceptionalism or talk about America's being exceptional.

And I was sort of curious to see if he was going to put that in somewhere. This is a speech about common purpose and you know defining America. And that's -- you know this is a word that is -- that has a lot of meaning for a lot of people in this country because I think most Americans really do think we're exceptional.

There are shades of meaning within different groups, the shining hill, you know, sitting on the hill, is it God's country, is it one thing or another? But conservatives feel very strongly that the president needs to declare himself and so I think, you know, the White House can feel defensive but the White House could also just say, look, of course, I think we're exceptional.

KING: That's an interesting way to put it. We're going to break this down more in the program, and all of Kathleen's interview with Speaker Boehner at the top of the hour on "PARKER SPITZER."

Appreciate your coming in. Braving -- the weather is not so bad, right?

PARKER: It's wonderful. Thanks, John.

KING: You can come anytime. You're welcome here. You don't even need to go back to that New York place.


KING: And when we come back we'll break down what the president believes is the code. What conservatives believe is an essential issue. American exceptionalism.


KING: Are conservative questions that the president in their view doesn't believe in American exceptionalism -- is that a fair political debate or is it, as those around the president believe, conservative code to somehow leave the impression that he's not patriotic, that he doesn't love America or think it's special?

Let's continue the conversation we started before the break. With us now, John Avlon in New York, Rich Galen and Cordell Belcher with us here.

And John, first, I want you to listen to the use of the word exceptional, came up in both Republican responses last -- responses last night. Not in a way that is directly critical of the president but let's start with what we heard last night.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), BUDGET COMMITTEE: These are not easy times. But America is an exceptional nation. In all the chapters of human history there has never been anything quite like America.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: We believe in lower taxes. We believe in a limited view of government and exceptionalism in America. And I believe that America is the indispensable nation of the world.


KING: Now, if you were just listening to that, both use of the words exceptional came near the end of Paul Ryan's speech and Michele Bachmann's speech. If you just listen to that, you would think OK, what am I to make of that? But if you've been paying attention to what conservatives say about this president since the very beginning, it might make you a tad curious.

Listen to this.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: Where I think we have some problems with regard to the president is over this whole issue that best could be expressed as American exceptionalism, whether America really is an exceptional country.

LIZ CHENEY, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He's not been willing to say flat out, you know, I believe in American exceptionalism.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: It's a sign he didn't have a clue what the question was. American exceptionalism comes from the Declaration of Independence.


KING: All right. Let's stop here for a minute. We'll get to the president's view on this in a second.

But Rich Galen, to you first. Is this a legitimate question? Does the president of the United States think he is the leader of an exceptional nation?

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I could only assume he does because he's my president, so I want to believe that.

KING: So why do those leading conservatives say he doesn't?

GALEN: Let me finish.


GALEN: Because it depends on when the dates of those things were. At the beginning of his presidency I really do think that in his order, the president's order, to reach out to the rest of the world, he -- it appeared to many, including me, that he was -- he was willing to for those who thought that America put itself on a pedestal step down from a -- that pedestal and I think that's what kind of rubbed people the wrong way.

But I think -- based upon what I saw last night, I mean I think this is a different man than those people were talking about.

KING: Well, I think that's a fair point and I want to continue the conversation but I would say this, I know from the president's take when he was first criticized he gave a speech during an overseas trip, his point was that Wall Street -- not during his tenure on the presidency, and I'm not saying he's blaming Bush for this.

But Wall Street, the American markets collapsed the world economy and that he should be pretty diplomatic on his first one or two times around the track overseas and so he said, yes, we're exceptional but the Brits probably think they're exceptional. The Greeks probably think they're exceptional. That's what people see.

GALEN: The French don't.


GALEN: They know they're not.

KING: OK. I appreciate the way --

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: It's a low world bar for exceptionalism, but understand --

KING: But it comes up a lot. Speaker Boehner just used it with Kathleen Parker.

BELCHER: And understand, you know, Rich aside here, when you hear it come up that many times across the line, there's a strategy behind it and there's a strategy behind it and there's some research behind it.

Two things. One, there is not a president over the last decade who's talked about American exceptionalism more than this guy. Who's talked sort of only in America could someone like Barack Obama stand before you as president.

No -- he's talked about that very passionately.


BELCHER: Second thing is, this American exceptionalism also goes back to this sort of -- the strategy of he's different. It comes up when he's a socialist. He's a fascist. He's not an American. There's a string here, start connecting the dots, that sort of leads, that sort of -- want them to say that he is different.

He is not one of us. That is a political strategy and it's a political strategy they use time and time and time again.

KING: And John, I want you to come in. First, I want our viewers to hear the president of the United States. Because I know that this grates him. I know that he thinks it is Republican code to essentially try to disqualify him and from his perspective he would say look at the very first time the entire country got to see me, back in 2004 at John Kerry's Democratic convention. He doesn't use the word exceptional but listen.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Our pride is based on a very simple premise. Summed number a declaration made over 200 years ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is the true genius of America. A faith -- a faith in simple dreams. An insistence on small miracles.


KING: And, again, last night in his speech, again he does not use the word exceptional but he says this.


OBAMA: As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth.

We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try.


KING: So John Avlon, can you say this guy doesn't think America is exceptional?

JOHN AVLON, SENIOR POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR, DAILYBEAST.COM: No, not honestly you can't. And he went on to say in that -- later in that speech that only in America could he be president. Only in America could a working class kid from Scranton be vice president. Only in America could a guy who swept the floors of his family's bar become speaker of the House.

American exceptionalism was not only woven throughout the speech last night. It has been a part of the president's stump speech since he first ran for president, since he first introduced himself to the American people by always saying only in a country like this could I be standing here before you.

This has been steady right-wing talking point. I think it's a mistake to say it's a grand strategy, but it has been something they've been hammering, hammering, hammering on. They've been hammering at it for a long time for a very specific reason.

The Achilles' heel of the far left going back to the late 1960s, which is why they always loved to re-litigate this, is that at a time in the anti-war movement during Vietnam became blurred with anti-Americanism. And that's what they want. To keep re-litigating the late '60s. And they keep want to hammering home this point.

It is part of an Achilles' heel of the far left. But it has nothing to do with this president.

KING: Is that what it is?

GALEN: Well, it's a little bit like Lombardi used to say. We're going to keep it on the same plain until you figure out how to stop us. And to a great degree, that's the same thing here.

AVLON: Moving on, Rich.

BELCHER: No, but that's what happens in these kinds of things and for the Republican -- for a great majority of the Republican base, that's still does ring true, that Democrats tend to not be as flag wavingly patriotic as --

KING: If it continues does the president of the United States ignore it or does he specifically address it?

BELCHER: No. He keeps doing the same thing over and over. I mean he is American exceptionalism, he is the ideal of America coming together. Look, you know, this only sort of works for a small fringe element of the right's base. This is a fight they keep fighting over and over again. And I'm not going to be shy about it, as well.

Race has something to do with him being different. This is part of that dialogue. A complicated dialogue but in that intermix is sort of this is the first black guy we've had as president. That's different. That works into that different narrative with this guy.

But guess what, America, they know he's black. Independent, middle America know he's black and they still voted for him.

KING: All right. We'll watch and see if it continues. Rich, I appreciate your perspective tonight. Cornell and John, as well. I appreciate everybody coming in and fighting the snow to get it here. Snow all up the East Coast.

Gentlemen, have a great night.

When we come back, Gabby Giffords' doctors say she's doing better. Remember she's in Houston now. She's been upgraded. We'll talk to one of her doctors after this.


KING: A wintry live picture of the White House here. Look at that snow falling and the forecasters say the latest winter storm, well, it's moving up the East Coast quickly and that should hold down the snow totals.

Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider in the CNN weather center.

Bonnie, when will the president be look out and not see that snow?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It won't be until tomorrow, John, because the snow is still very intense.

Take a look at the radar picture and you'll see that snow continues to sweep in as the colder air catches up to that heavy rain. It's still kind of a mix in New York City, but to the south and Washington it's all snow. The temperature holding steady right around freezing.

There is some warm air trying to come in and that's changing it over a little bit more to rain along the Jersey shore.

But what will happen next? Let's take a look as we check out the graphics now. You'll see that we're advancing the storm to the north and east and as this system moves up, especially by the overnight period, the low gets off the coast of New York City, and we'll still be looking at very strong winds and heavy snowfall totals, in total about six inches for areas into Washington, D.C.

And then even more as you head further to the north. You can see the totals right here up to a foot in many locations including Boston. John?

KING: Bonnie Schneider, appreciate that. I'll have to go home, build a fire and shovel out, I guess.


KING: All right. Let's check in with Joe Johns for the latest news you need to know right now.

Hi, there.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: It's rough out there. I got tot tell you right now.

On other news. The second day of anti-government protests in cities across Egypt triggered a heavy police crackdown today. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the Egyptian government to allow peaceful protests and to be open to reform.

Sixty-four-year-old singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett fell off a concert stage today during a show in Sydney, Australia, seen in this video from TMZ. Buffett is doing well and should get out of the hospital tomorrow.

A law enforcement source tells CNN Jared Loughner's computer indicates he searched the Internet for information about political assassinations, lethal injections and solitary confinement.

Doctors in Houston say Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is recovering at lightning speed and have upgraded her condition from serious to good. They moved her into a rehabilitation center today. Hearing that a part of this is about her physical condition, she's just in great shape.

KING: And when we heard that term lightning speed we wanted to understand what they mean, so I spoke a little bit earlier, Joe, to Gerard Francisco. He's the head of the medical center where she is right now.


DR. GERARD FRANCISCO, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, TIRR MEMORIAL HERMANN: What we're doing in rehabilitation is preparing her for even more recovery. We expect her to recover a lot so we want to be able to maximize that recovery process. We are preparing the body through conditioning and strengthening programs. You know, when someone is in bed for a long time, even you and I, if we have the flu and we stay in bed for a couple of days, on the third day when we try to get up we feel a little bit dizzy. We feel that our muscles are tight so what we're trying to do here is to reverse the complications that commonly occur in people who have been in bed for a long time. We're doing strengthening exercises. We're doing various activities so that we will be able to maximize the recovery from this injury.

KING: And there was talk today after the briefing at the hospital of a speaking valve of sorts being it. What would that entail?

FRANCISCO: Well, the speaking valve is a device that we use to train people to communicate while they still have a breathing tube.

KING: And is she at the point where you're confident she could do that?

FRANCISCO: We will -- we're assessing her ability to perform various activities and to tolerate different exercises every day, so it's definitely one of the things that we will be doing in the course of her rehabilitation program.

KING: Just before they left Tucson, Captain Kelly, her husband, said he was confident. He was confident based on the trajectory of her recovery at that point that she would be able someday to return to her duties in the Congress.

Do you share that confidence based on what you've seen so far?

FRANCISCO: Well, the optimism of his family, the optimism of the various caregivers and therapists that have seen her is one of the reasons why I strongly believe that we're going to have a very good and healthy rehabilitation program.


KING: Keep in touch with the doctors there.

Ever feel someone is look over your shoulder watching you? "Pete on the Street" knows that feeling well. He's next.


KING: So how hard is it to give a major speech knowing one of your biggest critics is just over your shoulder? Well, for that, we turn to our veteran of stage and comedy clubs. Our offbeat reporter Pete Dominick -- Pete.

PETE DOMINICK, JOHN KING, USA'S OFFBEAT REPORTER: John King, that's right. I mean watched the State of the Union like everybody else last night. I took notes. I was paying close attention. But I was distracted, John King. I was distracted as anybody would be when there's motion behind, when there's movement, when there's, in this case, live people.

I don't care if they both agree with you. I don't care if they disagree with you. Having the vice president and speaker of the House behind him. John King, here's my live shot right now. Watch what happens when I introduce the variable of two live individuals standing behind me. Is it a little distracting especially because one of them looks like my future -- my future father?

I mean this guy looks exactly like me. I mean it's distracting. It just is weird to see, John King. This guy is taking a phone call. They approve, they disapprove. We have to change this for this president, for any future president, just a brick background, just an American flag, deliver the message, sir.

KING: I think the phone call was, we were just calling him back to say we accept both of them as your replacements.

DOMINICK: Is that so? Really? All right. Well, good night then, because this is distracting enough as it is. We'll see if one of these guys want to do a live shot.

I want to thank both of our photojournalists from CNN, Ken Borland and Mike Gittelman, for joining me and distracting our whole audience from my message.

KING: I'm coming to one of your shows at the comedy club to see how this works.

That's all for us tonight. We'll see you tomorrow.

DOMINICK: Bring it.

KING: "PARKER SPITZER" starts right now.