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Politics chat: Biden to Saudi; next Jan. 6 hearing Tues.; gun owners support control


We'll start this hour by looking ahead to President Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia this coming week. He's getting heat for that because of the kingdom's record on human rights. But it's also an important partner right now, especially as Biden is trying to keep oil prices down. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins us now to talk about it. Good morning, Domenico.


RASCOE: So Biden defended his trip in an op-ed in The Washington Post saying that engaging with Saudi Arabia will help America's position with Russia and China. That is a very different tone than what he was saying as a candidate. Can you explain that?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, this is the first time it sounds like Biden is going to outline some of his stances toward the Middle East as president. You know, he acknowledged there was going to be a lot of criticism of the trip because, for example, U.S. intelligence has detailed that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the killing of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi, who had been writing opinion columns for The Washington Post, criticizing the country where he was a former adviser to the government. You know, but in that very paper this morning, Biden writes his own op-ed saying that the U.S. has interests in the Middle East that essentially can't be ignored - for example, waterways that are essential to global trade, supply chains the country relies on, energy resources that he says help mitigate the impact on global supplies of Russia's war against Ukraine. And, you know, Russia, of course, a big oil producer.

And Biden talks about how it's key to have stability in that region. And engaging Saudi Arabia, as odious as it might be from a human rights perspective, is vital to all those goals. And maybe most importantly, he notes that he, quote, "will be the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without U.S. troops engaged in a combat mission there. And it's my aim to keep it that way," he said.

RASCOE: OK. Well, Biden has been facing not only criticism for that, it seems like he's getting criticism all around. You have progressive Democrats saying that he's ignoring the social agenda, too focused on inflation. But then he's also gotten criticism for not focusing enough on the economy by more moderates. So, you know, how does he win here, or can he win?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, we're not talking about an election - right? - where...


MONTANARO: ...He would have to go against, you know, somebody who, you know, might, you know, be less favorable than him, like former President Trump, for example. But when you're talking about Biden himself, there's been this ongoing criticism from the left, not just about economics, but about abortion rights as well, as we've seen. You know, they're upset - people are - on the left are upset with the conservative lurch of the country.

And, you know, honestly, they've never been in love with Biden. You know, they really - he was elected for two reasons, really - to beat President Trump at that time - former President Trump - and to fix COVID. And, you know, he's really suffered when it comes to his intensity numbers, strongly approved numbers. They're far lower than former President Trump ever had with his base. Biden just doesn't have them quite as locked in. So even though the White House will say that they have talked about a lot of the things that progressives want them to fight for, they feel like it's never good enough for the left. But they're doing what they can. Hopefully around an election, the White House feels that those progressives will come back home.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, looking ahead to the midterms in November, like, is it possible that inflation may have eased by then? There were strong job numbers from the Labor Department. Like, is it possible that there - things may be looking up by then?

MONTANARO: You know, it's very doubtful, honestly, because, again, those intensity numbers among progressives is going to be difficult to overcome. Historically, it's been really hard for a sitting president who's unpopular - for his party to do very well. And, you know, Democrats and Republicans I've talked to, when it comes to the House anyway, say the cake is essentially baked for this fall, that the dual whammy of high inflation and high gas prices are really pinching a lot of Americans and have put people in a pretty bad mood overall. Biden's approval numbers, as I mentioned, are down an average of about 39% right now. And it's especially true with key swing groups like independents. Our last poll had him at just 27%. So Democrats - best they're hoping for right now is to potentially hold onto the Senate.

RASCOE: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thank you so much for joining us.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.