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Politics chat: NATO and the defense bill; Biden touts his role reviving the economy

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The idea that the United States could prosper without a secure Europe is not reasonable.

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

President Biden made the security priorities of the United States clear in Lithuania last week. Will Congress muddy that message this week? For that and more political news, we have NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us. Morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Mara, that NATO meeting in Lithuania was happening as we hear so much about how stressed and divided NATO is because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. How much, if at all, did that summit do to bring the members closer together?

LIASSON: I think that NATO, led by the U.S., is still united behind Ukraine. President Biden repeated his pledge that Ukraine could count on U.S. support against Russia's invasion for as long as it took. I actually think the bigger divisions might be inside the United States, where you have the two top Republican candidates for the nomination for president, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, both questioning U.S. support for Ukraine.

PFEIFFER: Well, that's interesting. And the NDAA, of course, that annual bill that spells out the Pentagon's priorities, has made supporting Ukraine at the top of the list. And I know that the NDAA has been in the news this week. Remind us what's been going on with that.

LIASSON: Right. The NDAA, which is the National Defense Authorization Act, usually passes by big bipartisan majorities and with little difficulty. But this year is different because Republicans in the House are different, and hard-right Republicans attached a bunch of culture war amendments to the bill on abortion and diversity and transgender care. And those passed. But when they tried to put amendments on reducing military aid to Ukraine, those amendments were defeated by big bipartisan majority. So it suggests that at least for now, aid to Ukraine still has wide bipartisan support in the U.S. The defense bill itself, of course, faces an uncertain future because now it goes to a conference with the Senate.

PFEIFFER: Another money question, this one relating more generally to the economy - Labor Department said it had some good news this week, which is that inflation slowed further to a 3% annual rate in June. How much are voters crediting the president with that?

LIASSON: Not very much. You know, it used to be that a president's approval ratings rose and fell with the economy, but that's just no longer the case. Donald Trump had a good economy before COVID. He was very unpopular. Joe Biden is presiding over wage growth. Inflation is coming down. Jobs are up. But his numbers are still stuck. People don't give him high numbers for the economy at all. Part of that is just our hyperpartisan moment. When there's a Democratic president in the White House, Republican voters think the economy stinks and vice versa. But also it's the case that for a very long time it was harder and harder to pay for college, afford a house, pay for health care - long before this recent bout of inflation. And voters are sour on the economy in general.

PFEIFFER: Of course, President Biden isn't shy about touting the state of the economy and what he says his role is in it. Here he is from July 6.

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BIDEN: People are off the sidelines - 20 years, 20 years high, higher than every single one of my predecessors. And to pay for low-wage workers - the pay for low-wage workers has grown at the fastest pace in two decades. And folks, it's no accident. It's Bidenomics (ph) in action.

LIASSON: Yep, Bidenomics - that's the new buzzword, and you're going to hear a lot about that from the White House. He knows that Republicans are going to try to hang every bad thing about the economy around him, so why not try to take credit for the good stuff? And that's what he's doing. The economy is very mixed. There's things that are great about it. Job growth and wages are up, as he said, but there's also still inflation. And I think the White House knows that it just has to take credit for whatever it can.

PFEIFFER: And before you go, Mara, a political question for you - there were some new fundraising numbers out this week. What about them stood out to you?

LIASSON: What stood out to me was Biden's numbers. He raised $72 million together with the Democratic National Committee. He has $77 million of cash on hand. That's pretty healthy, but it's lower than Trump had at this time - he had about 105 million - and it's lower than Obama had at this time in his term. So he's not as prolific a fundraiser as they were, but he's no slouch. Also, lots and lots of small donors - that's always a very good sign 'cause you can go back to them again and again. He had 394,000 individual donors.

PFEIFFER: That is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: You're welcome. 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.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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.