News Brief: Blinken's Testimony, Calif. Recall Election, Inflation Indicator
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Californians have until 8 p.m. tonight local time to vote yes or no on recalling Governor Gavin Newsom.
NOEL KING, HOST:
President Biden was with his fellow Democrat last night, making the case to voters that this election is important.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The eyes of the nation - this is not hyperbole - the eyes of the nation are on California because the decision you're about to make isn't just going to have a huge impact on California; it's going to reverberate around the nation and, quite frankly and not a joke, around the world.
MARTÍNEZ: With us now is Ben Christopher from CalMatters, a state news outlet that's part of a collaboration between California public radio stations and NPR. Ben, tell us some more about what President Biden's message was to California voters ahead of today's voting deadline.
BEN CHRISTOPHER, BYLINE: Sure. Well, President Biden had plenty of nice things to say about Governor Newsom. He applauded the governor's aggressive handling of the pandemic, which he called courageous. He praised Newsom's progressive views on climate policy. But really, I think the thrust of the president's message was less about praising Newsom and more about warning what would happen if Newsom was replaced by a Republican. And in a way, the president was kind of making this recall into an extension of the 2020 presidential race. And that's very much in line with what the governor has been saying for months and months now, framing the recall, which is not officially partisan, as a strictly Republican effort, tying it specifically to the politics of former President Trump, who is obviously not super popular out here, broadly speaking, in California.
So we've had this kind of narrative tug of war for months now, with supporters of the recall framing it as a referendum on the governor's job performance, on the pandemic, on the cost of living, on wildfire, on homelessness and so on, whereas Governor Newsom and the no campaign, it's kind of - it's really summed up in their campaign slogan, which is stop the Republican recall - emphasis on Republican. And given that Democrats do outnumber Republicans in California by almost 2 to 1, it's easy to see why they would pursue that strategy. And so, sure enough, President Biden in Long Beach yesterday very much hitting on that same theme. And in fact, he called the leading replacement candidate in this race, Larry Elder, the clone of Donald Trump. So there you go.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And so - OK. So heading into the final day of voting, how is the governor polling? And his rivals, how are they polling?
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. So at this point, the governor is looking pretty secure in his job. Just to back up for a second because the recall process here is a little wonky. There are two questions on the ballot. The first is, do you support the recall? And polls put the no vote there leading by anywhere between 10 and as much as 20 percentage points. So it's looking pretty good for Governor Newsom. The second question is, if the recall is successful, who should replace Governor Newsom? And on that question, there's not much doubt Larry Elder is at least 10 points ahead of any other candidate in basically every poll. Larry Elder is a longtime conservative, sort of libertarian-leaning talk radio show host. He's kind of got a very confrontational style. He's kind of bombastic. And on labor protections and abortion rights and vaccine mandates and a whole host of issues, he's kind of outside the mainstream in California. It's not a coincidence that the president name-checked him last night.
MARTÍNEZ: Ben, quickly - a lot of Democrats in the state are upset over how easy it is to trigger a recall in California. Any movement to change that?
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. It's definitely a conversation the Democrats in particular are having in the state. They've been having it all year, maybe making it a little bit harder to qualify a recall and also perhaps making it so that a replacement candidate would have to win a majority of the vote to become the governor. But that would require a ballot measure and another election. So...
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. All right. That's Ben Christopher with CalMatters. Ben, thanks a lot.
CHRISTOPHER: Thank you.
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MARTÍNEZ: An unmitigated disaster and a disgrace - that's how some Republican lawmakers describe the end of the war in Afghanistan while questioning Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing yesterday.
KING: Blinken did push back.
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ANTONY BLINKEN: We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan.
KING: He will answer questions again today, this time before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen watched. Michele, things got pretty heated yesterday. So how did the secretary handle that?
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, you know, he's kind of a very even-keeled kind of guy. But he bristled when some Republicans accused him and his administration of manipulating intelligence to downplay the threat of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. He said no one was predicting the Afghan government and the Afghan armed forces would fall as quickly as they did. Take a listen.
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BLINKEN: The director of national intelligence has said that even in the days leading up to the Taliban takeover, intelligence agencies did not say collapse was imminent. This unfolded more quickly than we anticipated, including in the intelligence community. And I could go on. So what has been said and alleged is simply not true.
KELEMEN: Now, some Republicans have been calling on him to resign. Others say his legacy has been tainted by this. He tried not to be drawn into a political fight, but Blinken did defend the decision to leave Afghanistan and carry out a deal that the Trump administration made with the Taliban. And he pointed out that the U.S. brought 124,000 people out of Kabul in very dangerous conditions last month.
MARTÍNEZ: And obviously, still a lot of concern over those who were left behind. What is he doing about that?
KELEMEN: Right. And he heard from both Republicans and Democrats about that because they've been very involved in trying to help those left behind, and they've been very frustrated with Blinken's State Department. The secretary says there are about 100 Americans and several thousand green card holders still trying to get out of Afghanistan. About 50 have made it out with U.S. help in recent days on a couple of flights from Kabul and some over land. But there are still hundreds, mostly Afghans who worked with the U.S., still waiting to get out on charter flights from Mazar-e-Sharif. And lawmakers have been pressing him about that and about the many, many others who just haven't gotten through a complicated visa process.
MARTÍNEZ: Michele, what can you tell us about that vetting process of the thousands of Afghans who were evacuated?
KELEMEN: Well, he says there are checks both in transit countries like Qatar and Germany, countries he visited last week, and here in the U.S., where refugees are going through processing centers for security and health checks before being cleared for resettlement.
MARTÍNEZ: What about U.S. dealings with the Taliban - because many members of the new government face U.S. sanctions and are wanted by the FBI? So what has the secretary said about that?
KELEMEN: Well, he described the interim government as very short of the mark that was set by the international community, he said, as members with very challenging records. You know, but - what Blinken's trying to do is work with other countries to make clear to the world - clear what the world expects of the Taliban. And that starts, he says, with allowing freedom of travel to anyone who wants to leave. He says the Taliban will also have to keep their counterterrorism commitments and respect basic rights if they want international legitimacy.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks a lot.
KELEMEN: Thank you.
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MARTÍNEZ: All right. From the grocery aisles to the car lot, the stuff we need to buy just costs more and more these days.
KING: That's right. Inflation in both June and July was 5.4%. That's the highest it's been in more than a dozen years. And when the consumer price index for August comes out later this morning, we could be looking at another jump.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Scott, what is driving these higher prices?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, there's still a lot of demand from consumers, and a lot of businesses are just having trouble keeping up. You know, some businesses say they don't have enough workers to make all the stuff that people are buying. We continue to see delays getting parts and products to market. All of that spells higher prices. A couple of things to watch for in today's report - first off is the overall rate of inflation. Is it going up, or is it leveling off? But we'll also be looking at what's getting more expensive and what, if anything, is getting cheaper. You know, lumber prices have come down from their peak in the spring. We expect to see falling prices for used cars as well. In addition, because of the delta variant, people aren't traveling or going out as much. So we could see a drop in the price of things like rental cars and concert tickets.
MARTÍNEZ: Now, both the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve have said repeatedly that they think this period of high inflation is a byproduct of the pandemic and that it's likely to be temporary. Are people buying that?
HORSLEY: You know, financial markets are still betting that way, and most professional forecasters still see inflation moderating, although not right away. When it comes to regular folks, though, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York just put out a survey, and they generally do see prices staying higher for longer. On average, consumers now expect inflation to be 5.2% a year from now, so only a little bit lower than it was in June and July. And three years from now, consumers think inflation will still be 4%, which would be double the Federal Reserve's long-term target. The Fed does keep an eye on consumer expectations because if people think prices are going to keep climbing, there's a chance they might start to demand higher wages. And you can get into a sort of ugly feedback loop where wages and prices just keep ratcheting up. So the Fed is on guard for that, but it doesn't see that happening right now.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now for the politics of inflation, will these rising prices, Scott, be a political problem for President Biden?
HORSLEY: You know, the White House is certainly sensitive to that. While the administration says it's not terribly worried about inflation, it has bent over backwards to show it's paying attention. Some prices pack more of a political punch than others - groceries, for example. People go shopping every week. And if there are big swings at the checkout aisle, they notice that. Just last week, the White House put out a report suggesting that concentration in the meatpacking industry is partly to blame for the rise in grocery prices. That's both a way to highlight the administration's efforts to promote competition and also maybe deflect a little anger over the rising cost of ground beef.
Of course, gasoline is the most visible price in the country. We post that on great big signs outside every gas station. Gas prices have actually been pretty flat over the last month. It caught my eye over the weekend that the price here in D.C. has dropped below $3 a gallon now for the first time in a while. Of course, gas prices vary a lot around the country. $2.99 a gallon would seem pricey if you're living on the Gulf Coast, but it would seem dirt cheap where you are in California.
MARTÍNEZ: Below $3 a gallon - Scott, it'd blow your brains out if you come to California and see those prices. That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks a lot.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you.
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