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Prisoner Swap One Of Several Tough Moments For Obama In Recent Weeks


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. One week ago today, President Obama announced that he had secured the release of America's only prisoner of war in Afghanistan. Almost immediately, the news of the trade with the Taliban that secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl set off a barrage of criticism Republicans and Democrats.

Yesterday the president, speaking with NBC's Brian Williams, defended his decision.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is something that I would do again and I will continue to do wherever I have an opportunity.

RATH: Joining us now is NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, Bowe Bergdahl's release had all the makings of a feel-good story for their family and certainly for the president. How did it all go wrong?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, it never would have been a hundred percent feel-good story. And actually the White House knew that it was very complicated. But they tried to spin it - maybe they tried too hard by having that Rose Garden ceremony, by sending Susan Rice out on the Sunday shows to say that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction, even though there are many questions about that. So the White House got a tremendous amount of blowback because they knew that Congress did not want the swap of the five Taliban officials from Guantánamo. They knew Congress would be mad about not being notified. They weren't prepared for the attacks from conservatives and Republicans on Bergdahl himself and his family.

I think on the basic question of - should the president as commander-in-chief had gone to great lengths to get Bergdahl back no matter what the circumstances of his capture, no matter what the condition of his health, I think the president's on pretty firm ground there. I think the Republicans - many of whom called for Bergdahl's release and hailed it when it happened, but then quickly deleted the tweets when the controversy mounted - I think they're on firmest ground when they criticize the Taliban swap and on weakest grounds when they criticize Bergdahl himself and his family.

RATH: Well, also this week, the president caused some agitation in Congress by revealing the administration's new emission standards. I imagine that's not good news for congressional Democrats from fossil fuel states that are facing reelection.

LIASSON: No for a handful of Democratic incumbent senators or Democratic challengers in those states, it's not good news. This was a case where the president had two competing interests - his legacy and keeping a Senate majority. And I think President Obama, like so many second term presidents before him, chose his legacy in this case.

RATH: Finally, Mara, acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson announced that 18 veterans died while awaiting appointment at a facility in Phoenix. We still don't know if they died because of the wait times, but it is clear that there seems to be no end of bad news from the VA.

LIASSON: No. This is a real scandal. The White House can't dismiss it as a ginned up scandal by the right wing like they did with the IRS controversy or Benghazi. And they are taking it very seriously. Like the rollout of the health care website, this goes to the president's competence - questions of whether he can make the government effectively. So it is real. It does hurt the president. However, like all real scandals in Washington, this one has deep bipartisan roots. The problems at the VA started long before Obama was president. And Congress is complicit. It's been telling the VA to do more - treat more vets with more disabilities without giving the agency more funds or flexibility.

And believe it or not, this week, Congress appears to be trying to rectify this, kind of admit its own responsibility. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have come to an agreement on a bipartisan bill that would give veterans on long waiting lists more options to see private doctors. It would give the VA secretary more flexibility to fire people and free up some more money to hire more doctors. This probably will pass with big bipartisan majorities - so how's that for an exception to the rule story from gridlocked Washington, D.C.?

RATH: Finally. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, Thank you.

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