ABC Interview: Michelle Obama Sees Personal Stake in 2012 Election

ABC News(CAPE TOWN, South Africa) -- First lady Michelle Obama on Thursday said her global advocacy on behalf of women and young people gives her a personal stake in her husband's re-election, and that she eagerly awaits the coming campaign.

"I think there's so much more work to do. We've really just begun to lay the foundation," Obama told ABC News' David Muir in a wide-ranging interview in Cape Town, South Africa, where she's on a weeklong trip to promote youth leadership, education and political and cultural exchanges.

"I'm passionate about these issues. I want to make sure there's a footing in them in the same way that my husband does," she said. "So, more time would be helpful."

"So you like the job?" Muir asked.

"I love the job, I do. I love people and I like having a positive impact," she said.

Mrs. Obama, who was an outspoken advocate for her husband during the 2008 campaign, said she enjoys the rigorous schedule of stump speeches, fundraisers, and meetings with supporters across the country.

As for relentless criticism of President Obama and his handling of the job, including from some Democratic corners, the first lady said she follows her husband's lead.

"He's so good at understanding that you just keep building, you don't keep looking back, you don't keep checking polls, you keep doing the work that needs to get done," Obama told Muir. "That's why I like him as my president, because he is really focused on doing what he thinks is the best thing to do even when it's hard."

The Africa trip is Obama's fourth to the continent but first visit to South Africa, where she and her daughters, Sasha and Malia, have captured national attention.

The Obama family Tuesday visited with former South African president and global anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela at his home in Houghton.

"It was powerful because his presence in and of itself was powerful," Obama, 47, said of the experience. "At the same time, it was sort of like being at Thanksgiving dinner because we were surrounded by his family. ... A little chaotic, but a lot of fun, lot of excitement. And there he sat just happy, and that was good to see."

The Chicago native and lawyer said she told Mandela, 92, that his story had a profound impact on her family.

"I said you cannot imagine how important your legacy is to who I am, to who my husband is," she said. "And I just said, thank you, thank you, thank you."

Obama also said the Mandela meeting and outreach to South African children were meaningful experiences for her daughters, who have had to walk a fine line between maintaining privacy and embracing public roles as members of the first family.

Malia, 12, and Sasha, 10, visited a shanty town in Johannesburg Wednesday, when they donated 200 copies of Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat and took turns reading aloud to children in the crowd.

"I want them to do service to give back and to engage," the first lady told Muir. "They're on the world stage here, but they were also doing something for the kids at that center.

"It's always a balance, but our priority will always be protecting their privacy. It won't be often that you see them reading the Cat in the Hat, but I think this was an important exception for them."

The first lady also made clear that her motherly instincts extend beyond her immediate family and drive her outreach to young people around the world.

"The thing you realize when you become a mother is that kids don't really even need much, but so many kids aren't getting anything," she said. "These opportunities are my one chance to give hugs and shine that light on a few...You have to pass it on, you have to be that little point of light in some child's life so they can find their way to that promise."

Watch ABC News' David Muir interview Michelle Obama Thursday night on World News and Nightline.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Debt Talks: Kyl Drops Out, No Republicans Left at the Table -- Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, (R-Ariz.), will also drop out of the debt talks, a source within his office confirmed Thursday.

After House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) dropped out of the talks earlier in the day, Sen. Kyl was the lone Republican in the group left. And with his withdrawal, the group does not have a Republican negotiator left in the room.

A senior Democratic aide tells ABC News, “Cantor and Kyl just threw Boehner and McConnell under the bus. This move is an admission that there will be a need for revenues and Cantor and Kyl don't want to be the ones to make that deal.”

The group was set to meet for the eleventh time Thursday afternoon with Vice President Biden, their third meeting of the week.

The group started as six -- but is now down to four members from Congress.  The remaining members are Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Assistant House Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.), and House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


McConnell Rails Against Obama on Debt Talks

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor Thursday railed against what he called a "worrisome development" in the debt talks: President Obama’s lack of leadership.

"Where in the world has President Obama been for the past month?" McConnell said. "What does he propose? What is he willing to do to reduce the debt and avoid the crisis that is building on his watch?"

On the same day that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor dropped out of the Biden-led debt talks, and as the group was set to meet for the eleventh time Thursday afternoon, McConnell said that most Americans want President Obama to start acting like he's in charge.

“It's not enough for the President to step in front of a microphone every once in a while and say a few words that someone hands him to say about jobs and the economy. Americans want to see that he’s actually doing something about it.”

McConnell said that President Obama has “stood in the background.”

“He’s the President. He needs to lead. He needs to show that he recognizes the problem. And do something about it,” McConnell said noting that the Republican Party is not in the majority. “This is his problem to solve.”

In April, Obama appointed his vice president to lead the bipartisan deficit reduction talks with a group of lawmakers from each of the four caucuses, in order to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit before the Aug. 2 deadline for action.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Eric Cantor Pulls Out of VP Debt Limit Negotiations

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Thursday morning that he is pulling out of the debt limit negotiations led by the vice president because the group has reached an "impasse" over the Republicans' opposition to raising taxes that can only be broken by the president.

"As it stands the Democrats continue to insist that any deal must include tax increases.  There is not support in the House for a tax increase, and I don't believe now is the time to raise taxes in light of our current economic situation. Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue," Cantor said in a statement. "Given this impasse, I will not be participating in today's meeting and I believe it is time for the President to speak clearly and resolve the tax issue."

The group of bipartisan negotiators was set to meet for an 11th time Thursday in talks that began in May at the request of President Obama.  The group met three days last week and already twice this week before Cantor pulled out of the talks.

Each party’s leader of each caucus in the Congress appointed up to two members to participate in the talks.  House Speaker John Boehner tagged Cantor as the House GOP’s lone representative.

Although progress at the meetings appears to have stalled, Cantor once again applauded Joe Biden’s leadership at the meetings.

“The vice president deserves a great deal of credit for his leadership in bringing us this far,” Cantor, R-Va., said.  “We have worked to find areas of commonality to meet the goal of identifying spending cuts commensurate with or exceeding the amount of the Obama Administration's request for a debt limit increase.  I believe that we have identified trillions in spending cuts, and to date, we have established a blueprint that could institute the fiscal reforms needed to start getting our fiscal house in order.”

“Once resolved, we have a blueprint to move forward to trillions of spending cuts and binding mechanisms to change the way things are done around here,” he added.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Day After Afghan Troop Announcement, Obama Heads to Fort Drum

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The day after delivering his strategy to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, President Obama will visit troops at Fort Drum in upstate New York, which has sent thousands of soldiers to fight in Afghanistan.

The president will spend time with members of the elite 10th Mountain Division, one of the most frequently deployed divisions to Afghanistan. Obama will also meet privately with Gold Star families who have lost loved ones in combat. More than 1,500 U.S. service members have died in the war in Afghanistan.

There are currently 100,000 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan. Wednesday night, the president announced that starting next month, he is bringing 10,000 U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the end of next summer, several months earlier than originally anticipated.

Thursday evening Obama will pivot to campaign mode in New York City, where he will deliver remarks at three DNC fundraisers, including one to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender supporters.

The president will overnight in Pittsburgh, where on Friday he will deliver a speech on manufacturing and job creation from Carnegie Mellon University.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Obama Snubs Key Meeting, Increasing Latino Frustration

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images(SAN ANTONIO, Texas) -- President Obama won't be attending the nation's largest gathering of Latino elected officials this weekend in San Antonio, Texas, drawing some blunt criticism from members of a constituency he's gone to great lengths to court.

"We have a standing commitment from the president that we are still waiting for him to fulfill," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), of the group's annual meeting.

NALEO invited Obama to deliver the keynote address each of the past three years.  Each time he's declined, despite a promise candidate Obama made in 2008 that he'd return to speak as president.

"So the president went to El Paso, Puerto Rico, and convened a number of stakeholder meetings at the White House.  That's terrific," Vargas said, "but people also want to talk to him about unemployment, education, health care, all the other challenges that cities and counties and states are dealing with day in and day out, and here's a gathering of the second-largest population group and their elected representatives."

A White House official said the president's schedule couldn't accommodate the trip to Texas for the event, and that they offered to have Obama speak at the group's February gala instead, which NALEO declined.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will deliver the keynote address to the group on Saturday.

Obama is scheduled to address a separate Hispanic advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza, in Washington, D.C., in July.

"The scope of the president's efforts on behalf of Latinos and all Americans is not defined by his participation at one event but rather by the work carried out every day to put our economy back on track and spur job creation," said White House spokesman Luis Miranda in a statement.

Obama has said that his approach to improving economic conditions among minority communities -- particularly African-Americans and Hispanics -- is a broad one: "if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats," he said at a press conference in 2009.

Yet, as the effects of the recession linger, Hispanics -- like most economically frustrated Americans -- want to see results.  And that has put Obama in a bind, speech or no speech.

Polls show that Latinos, who voted for Obama by a two-to-one margin in 2008, remain supportive of the president, but their enthusiasm has waned.  The Obama campaign is now trying to reinvigorate their support, especially in key swing states, before the 2012 campaign.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Obama's Afghanistan Timetable Gets Mixed Reactions

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte, 300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment(WASHINGTON) -- Moments after President Obama announced a timetable for the withdrawal of 33,000 troops from Afghanistan over the next 15 months, reaction from lawmakers in the House of Representatives streamed in, ranging from high praise from the top of his party’s Congressional leadership, to criticism that the president is pulling out too quickly, but also complaints that he is not bringing troops home quickly enough.

Inside his own party, the president received the highest praise from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who credited the president for “beginning the process of bringing our troops home and ending the war in Afghanistan” and shifting the focus to rebuilding America.

“It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out -- and we will continue to press for a better outcome.  Concluding this war will enable us to reduce the deficit and focus fuller attention on the priorities of the American people: creating jobs and investing in our nation’s future by building a strong, thriving economy for our children,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

On the other side of the spectrum, although still from within the president's own party, Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California said the plan is not nearly aggressive enough.

“This plan withdraws too few troops and takes too long to do it.  We can no longer afford to spend $10 billion a month on a war that is not making us safer at a time when Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling the United States ‘occupiers,’” Speier said in a statement.  “President Obama should immediately withdraw at least 30,000 troops -- the amount equivalent to the 2009 surge.  The remainder should come home by the end of next year."

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence committee, said that he was “concerned about the president’s plan to begin troop withdrawal in Afghanistan” and said President Obama made the wrong decision.

The president also caught grief from a good share of freshmen Republicans.

Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-North Carolina, slammed the president for announcing “to the world his intention to set a deadline for withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan.”

“Less than two months ago, American special forces led one of the most successful missions in modern history to kill Osama Bin Laden,” Ellmers stated.  “The success of this mission was due largely to its secrecy.  But now, the same President who oversaw this mission is giving a speech announcing to our enemies and the world our military strategy."

Rep. Randy Hultgren, who is also a freshman, said in a statement that he disagreed with President Obama’s timetable because it “reduces the U.S. presence more quickly than that suggested by his military advisers.”

House Speaker John Boehner, however, said that while he wants to bring our troops home as quickly as possible, “we must ensure that the gains we’ve made are not jeopardized.”

“It’s important that we retain the flexibility necessary to reconsider troop levels and respond to changes in the security environment should circumstances on the ground warrant," Boehner said.  "Congress will hold the Administration accountable for ensuring that the pace and scope of the drawdown does not undermine the progress we’ve made thus far."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Tim Pawlenty Calls Obama's Afghanistan Plan a 'Grave Mistake'

Scott Olson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- GOP candidate Tim Pawlenty criticized President Obama's decision to bring home 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer as "a grave mistake."

"I thought his speech tonight was deeply concerning," Pawlenty said in an interview with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Wednesday evening.  "Look how he phrased the outcome of this war: He said we need to end the war 'responsibly.'  When America goes to war, America needs to win.  We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building.  What it means is to follow General Petraeus' advice and to get those security forces built up to the point where they can pick up the slack as we draw down."

Pawlenty said Obama apparently believes he knows better than Petraeus, who Pawlenty praised as "the smartest, most insightful guy in this debate."

"This decision should be based on conditions on the ground and success, not some vague notions of a responsible wind-down and then jumping over what the real mission is now, which is stabilizing the security of that country," he said.

"To leave now when we're so close to a successful completion...I think is a grave mistake," he said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Florida Lawmaker Faces Ethics Probe over Alleged Sexual Harassment

AlceeHastings [dot] House [dot] gov(WASHINGTON) -- Just when House Democrats thought they had the sexting scandal involving former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner behind them, another potential mess has surfaced.

There were reports Wednesday that Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings has been accused of sexual harassment by a former female staffer and that the 74-year-old lawmaker faces a House ethics probe over the charges.

The conservative group Judicial Watch, which filed a lawsuit against Hastings on behalf of Winsome Packer, said that the Office of Congressional Ethnics is well into an inquiry about the matter and will decide whether to recommend a further investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Packer has accused Hastings of subjecting her to "unwelcome sexual advances" and "unwelcome touching" while she worked on the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which the congressman chaired.

She also claims that Hastings and staff directors threatened to retaliate against her if she reported the alleged sexual harassment.

Responding to the lawsuit when it was filed last March, Hastings asserted that it was filled with "inaccuracies" and said in a statement, "I have never sexually harassed anyone.  In fact, I am insulted that these ludicrous allegations are being made against me.  When all the facts are known in this case, the prevailing sentiment will be, 'How bizarre!'"

Nonetheless, Hastings has had previous troubles involving ethics charges.  In 1989, he was impeached and convicted by the Florida Senate for bribery and perjury, losing his job as a U.S. District Judge.  During a criminal trial in the same case, Hastings won acquittal when his alleged co-conspirator refused to testify against him.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


GOP Lawmakers Sign 'Cut, Cap and Balance' Pledge in Debt Limit Deal

ABC News Radio(WASHINGTON) -- A group of conservative lawmakers in the House and Senate have signed on to a pledge to oppose an increase to the debt ceiling if the legislation does not include three conditions: substantial spending cuts for the upcoming year, caps on federal spending and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

So far, 11 senators and 14 representatives, including Texas congressman Ron Paul, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, have signed on to the pledge.

Paul, a Tea Party favorite, said that the pledge is “symbolic of what we’re up against and how difficult it is,” but said that it’s also evidence “that at least some of us are listening.”

“I have maintained that we shouldn’t have gotten in this trouble when we could have avoided it by just obeying the Constitution and only doing those things precisely authorized," Paul, R-Texas, said. "That’s what we should have been doing a long time ago, but in the meantime, we have a terrible problem to deal with -- dealing with this deficit financing and I see no way that we can reach a resolution to this if we take anything off the table -- whether it’s the foreign policy expenditures or the entitlements.”

“If we pretend that we can do this with nickeling and diming it -- and think it’s an accounting problem -- it’s not going to work. It’s much bigger than that," Paul added. "It has to do with defining the role of government. When the role of government is properly defined, the budget will be balanced.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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