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Politics chat: More U.S. strikes; Biden wins South Carolina; House Republicans vote

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

President Joe Biden said the U.S. would retaliate against Iran-backed targets in the Middle East, and so it has. Friday, the U.S. launched airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, a response to a drone attack last Sunday on an American base in Jordan that killed three American troops. Yesterday, the U.S., along with Britain, launched strikes in Yemen. More on the U.S. strategy with Iran in a moment. First, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Elissa.

NADWORNY: So the U.S. blames Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and militias affiliated with it for the drone attack. And, of course, Houthi militants have been attacking commercial ships and military vessels in the Red Sea almost daily. A spokesman for the group said yesterday that they will, quote, "meet escalation with escalation." So did these retaliatory strikes have any perils for the Biden administration?

LIASSON: Well, if they led to a wider war with Iran, possibly.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

LIASSON: But right now, Republicans and Democrats agree that the U.S. had to send a message to Iran. They had to degrade the assets of the militias that are backed by Iran and are attacking Americans. But if these airstrikes don't spark a wider war, I don't think Biden has a political price to pay.

NADWORNY: South Carolina held the first official Democratic primary yesterday, and no surprise, President Biden won big time. What else can you tell us from the results, Mara?

LIASSON: Biden got the win he wanted. It looks like he's going to get over 90% of the vote there. That is exactly what he wanted because Biden has been having trouble generating enthusiasm among one of his most important core constituencies in the Democratic Party, and that's African American voters. There are a lot of them in South Carolina. That's one of the reasons he wanted the primary contests to start in South Carolina. That's why he's been down there campaigning several times. He has to figure out a way to get enthusiasm among African Americans up so that African American turnout is up in November, and polls show he has a real hard job, because a YouGov poll recently said only 61% of African American voters said they'd definitely vote for Biden in the fall, and in 2020, he got 87% of them.

NADWORNY: OK, so the primary season has just begun, but it's effectively over.

LIASSON: Yep, it's effectively over. It looks like Biden and Donald Trump are the presumptive nominees. This election is going to be nasty, brutish and long. It's probably going to be the longest one we've ever had 'cause the primaries ended so early or were wrapped up so early. It's also one that most people don't want. Americans have told pollsters in big majorities on both parties that they wish they had candidates other than Biden and Trump running. And I think both sides are going to be extremely negative in their campaigning. If you can't drum up enthusiasm to get people to vote for you, then you have to convince them that the alternative is horrifying. And Biden starts this election with some of the lowest approval ratings ever for a modern incumbent president, and Donald Trump is also incredibly polarizing.

NADWORNY: Yeah. We had another really good jobs report on Friday, one that actually kind of stunned analysts. Is that going to have an effect on the race? Has it so far?

LIASSON: It hasn't yet. For many decades, presidential approval rating was tied to the economy. Presidents got credit when the economy was good, blame when it was bad. But historical rules only work till they stop working, and they stopped working with Trump. He had a very good economy before the pandemic. He was still very unpopular. Biden seems to be having a good economy. It looks like we're going to get that soft landing, inflation down without a recession. Wages are up. They're growing faster than inflation. Unemployment is down. And so far Biden's approval ratings haven't budged. One possible answer for this is that we're just so polarized that when Democrats are in the White House, Republicans say the economy is bad, and when Republicans are in the White House, it's vice versa. So the connection between the economy and presidential approval ratings might be broken.

NADWORNY: Yeah. The contest between Biden and Trump is also resulting in some big legislative disputes on Capitol Hill. What's the latest with the border policy bill?

LIASSON: The latest is that House Republicans plan to vote on a standalone bill to give military aid to Israel, about $17.6 billion, with no offsets. In the past, they had insisted that any military aid would be paid for with cuts to other areas of the budget. In this case, they wanted to cut IRS funding, but that - they're now putting a clean bill for military aid to Israel on the floor. That bill has no chance in the Senate, because in the Senate, there's a bipartisan group of senators still working on a big bipartisan border deal that would include aid to Ukraine and Israel and Taiwan. But Donald Trump has told Republicans don't vote for any bipartisan border bill because it might help Biden politically in the next election. And this is why voters are so cynical about Washington. You know, immigration is a problem that could be solved, but Republicans don't want a bipartisan bill, which you have to have in divided government, because it might help Biden. And on that crass just political calculus, they're probably right.

NADWORNY: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.