updated 4/1/2009 10:13:59 AM ET 2009-04-01T14:13:59

Guest: Roger Simon, Stuart Rothenberg, Roger Simon, Chris Cillizza, Paul Vandenburgh, Chrystia Freeland, Eugene Robinson High: President Obama makes his first overseas trip, beginning in London for a meeting of the E-20 that will focus on the worsening economy.

Spec: Politics; Economy; Europe

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Our American president and the first lady go to Europe.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Leading off tonight: He‘s the new us.  That‘s right, President Obama‘s in London tonight as the new emblem of the American people.  He is us, just as, to the consternation of our allies and the often cringiness (ph) of his countrymen, George W. Bush was us for eight years.  Tonight, the first family of America, Barack and Michelle Obama, sleep in Winfield House, the residence of the u.s. ambassador to the Court of St. James.

President Obama pledged as a candidate to improve our image in the world.  This is his moment.  He makes his debut on the global stage this Thursday at the Group of 20 summit, where he will call upon European and other industrial powers to pump up their economies, as he is doing here in America.  Can the new American president convince reluctant world leaders to pour more money into the global economy?  NBC News‘s Chuck Todd is on the scene in London and will be with us in a minute.

The president arrives in Europe with the wind at his back.  A new “Washington Post”/ABC News poll out today shows Mr. Obama with a 66 percent job approval rating.  That‘s two thirds support from the American people for the job he‘s doing.  Not bad for a president with such a huge agenda.  Three times as many people now believe the country is on the right track as compared to October, the month before the election.

We may get a hint tonight of just how much trouble the Republicans are in or aren‘t when we get the results of that special congressional election in upstate New York.  It‘s a Republican district that voted for Barack Obama, and this apparently neck-and-neck race is the first test of whether the GOP is positioned far comeback or remains buried under Obama‘s poll numbers.

Also, it seems as if the Republicans don‘t know what to say about President Obama‘s firing of that General Motors boss and telling Chrysler to hook up with Fiat or die.  It could be because they really don‘t know what to say.  We‘ll look at that in tonight‘s “Politics Fix.”

And speaking of not knowing what to say, what do we make of the fact that the key men designing President Obama‘s car rescue plan all drive foreign cars?

But first, President Obama‘s trip abroad.  In a moment, we‘ll be talking to NBC News chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, who‘s in London with the president.  But first, here‘s a clip from the great movie “Love Actually,” where the British prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, publicly calls out the president of the United States, played by Billy Bob Thornton, after the president bullies the British in a meeting and is caught making a move on Hugh Grant‘s secretary in a way that reminds most of us of our last two presidents at their worst.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILLY BOB THORNTON, “LOVE ACTUALLY”:  Our special relationship is still very special.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And prime minister?

HUGH GRANT, “LOVE ACTUALLY”:  I love that word relationship.  Covers all manners of sins, doesn‘t it?  I fear that this has become a bad relationship, a relationship based on the president taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to Britain.  We may be a small country, but we‘re a great one, too, a country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham‘s right foot—David Beckham‘s left foot, come to that.  A friend who bullies us is no longer a friend.  And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger.  And the president should be prepared for that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I love that scene.  Anyway, let‘s go to Chuck Todd.  I hope we don‘t see that scene again.  I think we‘ve seen the last of Billy Bob Thornton as our president.  Anyway, we‘ve got Barack Obama as our president and Michelle Obama as our first lady.  We‘re all immensely proud.  I‘m looking at a new poll from CNN tonight, Chuck Todd.  It‘s got the wind at our back as a country, actually -- 86 percent of the American people love the fact that these two people are representing our country on the world stage today.  What‘s it feel like over there in London?

CHUCK TODD, NBC CORRESPONDENT, POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Well, look, we just got here, and of course, it‘s closer to late in the evening.  In fact, the president‘s done for the evening.  He‘s already—they‘ve called that full lid (ph) on the pool, so he‘s already getting reach to catch some Zs.  You know, spent most of the day and traveling time zones, getting over the big pond.

But I‘ll tell you this.  The president‘s got an interesting challenge.  On one hand, he‘s very popular with the rank-and-file Europeans.  We know that.  We found that out during the campaign.  The problem he‘s got is with European leaders.  They‘re not as ready to jump on board and jump in with him philosophically on the economy and some other things, so he‘s got to figure out, just like back at home—I mean, it‘s really no different than a political campaign back at home.  He‘s got popularity on the ground, and he‘s struggling with leaders in the same way—over here in the same way he sometimes struggles on Capitol Hill.

MATTHEWS:  Well, Chuck, listen to what you probably read on your way out today.  Here‘s what Dan Balz, one of the smartest print guys in the business, had to say today in “The Washington Post.” Quote, “Can President Obama lead the world?  That may overstate the ambitions Obama will take with him to Europe, but it is the question that will shadow him throughout his trip and likely become the basis for judging the outcome once he returns.”

Do you see it, as a traveling correspondent, that that is the president‘s role, to walk into that room in Strasbourg when he‘s with the G-20 and lead the way towards stimulating the economy of the world?

TODD:  Well, he sure hopes so.  But I tell you, there‘s a whole bunch of folks challenging him.  You have got Merkel in Germany.  You‘ve got Sarkozy in France.  The two of them have this alliance of sorts against the British and American way of regulating the economy, for instance.

You know, for a long time, it was the U.S. and U.K. way of economic prosperity that the world followed, and now because so many folks around the world are blaming this nexus of Wall Street and London for our problems, they‘re in many ways—you know, Brown, Gordon Brown, the prime minister over here, and the president, they‘re having—they‘re finding themselves defending sort of the American way and the British way of dealing with the economy against, frankly, a more emboldened Sarkozy in France and Merkel in Germany.

And then throw in the fact that you‘ve got Russia challenging the president—America‘s role a little bit, and then, of course, China.  And he sits down with both presidents, the president of China tomorrow and the president of Russia tomorrow in one-on-one meetings.  And I think those are going to be a little contentious because they‘re testing out this guy.  They‘re trying to see, you know, how movable is he?  Can they roll him?  Can they not?  So this is—there‘s a lot of tests that our new president is undergoing out here.

MATTHEWS:  An economic question.  Can these countries in Europe have the economic power that we have?  In other words, we‘re $13 trillion of a $55 trillion world economy.

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  We can leverage our money.  We can borrow the money from the Chinese or anywhere...

TODD:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  ... even from our own people.

TODD:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  Do the European powers have that clout?  Can they borrow money like we can when they want to stimulate their economies?

TODD:  Well, look, this is a big challenge for the whole European Union, you know, the idea of it.  The idea behind the euro was to get all of Europe under one currency and make them a global economic power on par with the United States.  And it worked when things were going well.

It‘s going to be a real test for them now that things aren‘t going well.  How do these sort of struggling Eastern European economies who are just—you know, who only discovered democracy 20 years ago, only discovered capitalism 20 years ago—how are they going to—how are they going to do under the—in this financial crisis?  And that‘s going to be a test for these—sort of the old world European leaders, France and England and Germany.  And if they can keep those folks in line, then maybe they can challenge America‘s status as sort of the number one world economic power.

But I think they‘ve got their own problems, and if you listen to economists in America, they‘ll tell you that Europe is about six months behind us in pain when it comes to the economic downturn.  And when they see the pain and feel it in six months, then suddenly, they‘re going to want to do more stimulus and then they‘re going to want to—we‘ll see.  I mean, that is certainly the Obama administration argument.

MATTHEWS:  You know, Chuck, I lived through the back-and-forth or the test of glamour and greatness between Charles DeGaulle and Kennedy when he went over there in a trip very like this...

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... back in the ‘60s.  And DeGaulle was going his own way. 

He was taking the French...

TODD:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  ... out of the NATO military force.

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  And in a way, he was competing with the glamour of Kennedy.  Do you think Sarkozy, with his model wife, Carla Bruni, is going to try to out-macho or out-glamour the president of the United States by standing up to him just for macho reasons?

TODD:  Well, you know, I don‘t know Sarkozy well enough to wonder if that‘s the reason.  I know that his wife, Carla Bruni, is not here in London, and some are seeing that as a—as France snubbing England, that he didn‘t come with his spouse.  But she is going to be at the NATO summit later this week, and that‘s when...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  ... I‘m sure lots of folks will enjoy those pictures of Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni together at some point during that.

But I do think that you do have Sarkozy and Merkel, Angela Merkel in Germany, both who—the two of them really personally don‘t like each other, but they seem to be on the same page as far as regulatory reform and about holding back on stimulus a little bit, and that together they want to challenge this president.

But I actually think President Obama‘s bigger worries aren‘t here in Europe.  It‘s with Russia and it‘s with China.  That‘s where...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

TODD:  ... he‘s going to feel the challenge.  That‘s where he‘s going to—when you want to say, Is he going to—testing his fortitude here as president, it‘s China that‘s going to do it.  It‘s Russia that‘s going to do it, not as much as Sarkozy.

MATTHEWS:  Is it Sarko-zee or Sarkozy?  I think over here, we say Sarkozy, but now that you‘re over there, you‘re talking their way, aren‘t you.

TODD:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  You have switched over the Atlantic, Chuck.

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  I‘m being very cosmopolitan.  I‘m spelling all my words with an extra U.  You know that.  It‘s “labour.”

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I know.  Let‘s take a look at Michelle Obama‘s numbers.  These aren‘t a surprise to you, being a political guy.

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Look at these numbers -- 76 percent favorable.  She‘s even going up from January.  The internals there apparently show Republican support growing for Michelle.

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  This is her big tour, isn‘t it.  This is her big sort of debut globally to go on and to deal with the European old worlders.

TODD:  It is.  It‘s a very Jackie Kennedy—you know, not since Jackie Kennedy on the world stage have we seen probably so much interest in a first lady, so we‘ll find out how she does.

But you know, one of the reasons I think she is so popular right now is, unlike—she has not touched any controversial issue.  She is sticking to stuff that every American can agree upon, which is helping military families, reading to children around Washington, D.C.  I mean, she certainly isn‘t trying to be another Hillary Clinton, or even a Nancy Reagan, when it comes to her role as first lady, so we‘ll see.

I have a feeling when Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama and that—and that meeting, I have feeling the world paparazzi could just explode.  They might not be able to handle all the photos that‘ll be snapped at one time.

MATTHEWS:  Well, bring me back a copy of “Paris Match,” will you, and “Figaro,” so I know what it feels like to be able to pronounce the president of France‘s name properly.  Sarko-zee!

TODD:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Chuck Todd.

TODD:  Just wait until I have to go to Turkey and figure out all those names.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, God.  Well, good luck over there.  Thank you, Chuck Todd.  Bon voyage.

TODD:  All right.

MATTHEWS:  Coming back—or coming back, strong poll numbers here at home for President Obama.  We‘ve got great new numbers from the ABC/”Washington Post” poll, lots of numbers here.  And the fascinating number that we‘re looking at is who‘s getting blamed for this economic downturn.  You‘re going to be amazed at the sharp divide—in fact, the clear divide, where most Americans overwhelmingly, four out of five, don‘t blame him, the president, they blame the corporations and the banks.  It‘s really dramatic.  It feels like it must have felt during one of the revolutions.  I don‘t think the Soviet, but maybe the—not the Russian, maybe the French revolution felt like this.  We‘ll be right back with these numbers.

You‘re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  New poll numbers out today gave President Obama a hearty bon voyage today as he left for Europe.  A new “Washington Post”/ABC News poll—look at these numbers -- 66 percent job approval for the president.  That number lines up with Pollster.com‘s trend line.  They have a 61 percent approval rating for the president, with the line heading upward.

And look at this.  Compared to October, today nearly three times as many people think the country is headed in the right direction.  It‘s up to 42 percent.  Not great, but a hell of a lot better than it was over the last several years, up 10 points, for example, from February, up 20 points from January, up 30 points from this past October.

For more on these numbers and who the country blames—these numbers are going to be great, too—blames for the economic trouble, let‘s bring in “Politico‘s” Roger Simon and Stu Rothenberg of “The Rothenberg Political Report.”  We got two great people here to tell us about these numbers.

First of all, I want you to go over the numbers we‘ve just represented here.  Stu, you—“Stu you”!  I didn‘t mean it to be a little—you know, a rhyme there.  Tell us, what do you think of the 66?  What do you think of the fact that the right direction number is creeping back up to 50 percent for the first time, apparently, in about five years?

STUART ROTHENBERG, “THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT”:  Right.  Well, there are two things going on here.  One, we continue to see the popularity of the president.  People like Barack Obama.  They like his effort.  Whether or not he‘s turned things around, they see him doing things.  So they‘re giving him high marks because they think he‘s engaged, he‘s talking to them, he seems energetic.

And in terms of the turnaround in the “right direction,” again, you pointed out, Chris, it‘s not as if everybody believes things are going in the right direction, but there‘s a fundamental shift in mood.  And some of this is Democrats finally offering a sigh of relief.  They got rid of George W. Bush.  They have somebody they have confidence in.  They see some light at the end of the tunnel.  The tunnel may be very far away, but there is a sense of optimism.

MATTHEWS:  Stu, I need your help here.  What is that they—is it the fact that the Dow went up again today?  It‘s been on an upward trend for three weeks.  Is that the stuff of CNBC all day and “The Wall Street Journal”?  Is that the good news, or is there any other real sign of good life (ph) besides the market?

ROTHENBERG:  No, that is the only good news.  Except there‘s the other part of it, Chris, which is the president and the administration talking about—they have taken steps that will result—result—in a rebound.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROTHENBERG:  So I think it‘s the combination.  But you‘re right.  If you look at most of the economic numbers, there‘s no reason why the public should think things have turned around.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROTHENBERG:  But the mood turned around.

MATTHEWS:  Roger?

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO.COM:  Well, Stu‘s right.  Actually, the economy is worse off than it was in October.  Unemployment is higher.  The stock market is lower.  Home values are lower, sharply lower.

MATTHEWS:  But?

SIMON:  But people are impressed with Barack Obama.

MATTHEWS:  Is it the action?

SIMON:  No, I think...

MATTHEWS:  The fact that he does something every day?

SIMON:  I think it‘s that.  I think the fact is that he is projecting real intelligence.  I know we don‘t like to use that word sometimes with presidents, but you know...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Explain.

SIMON:  Even though our...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re an objective guy.  You‘re not a partisan.  What do you mean by that?

SIMON:  Sure.  Our last president was, in fact, a Harvard MBA, the first MBA...

MATTHEWS:  But he didn‘t let it show.

SIMON:  ... the first U.S. president who was an MBA, who didn‘t let it show.  And maybe there was nothing to show.  Maybe he didn‘t let it show.

MATTHEWS:  No, he didn‘t want to look sophisticated, for some reason.  This guy is not afraid to look like these are complicated issues and he‘s dealing with them.

SIMON:  Exactly.  And that‘s the right match-up for complicated times.  When he—it doesn‘t matter whether he‘s reading the video—the teleprompter or not, you feel that he understands what he‘s saying.  You feel that he gets it, he has a plan, he‘s going to execute his plan.  This hasn‘t been a flawless first few months for him.  He‘s had some bumps in the road, troubles with his cabinet, trouble with the AIG bonuses.  But yet the American people are saying, yes, I believe in this guy.  I think this guy gets it.  And I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE) check on that.  Stu, do you agree with the fact that you—that you see in this—do you see in this president this kind of almost apparent intelligence, meaning—not that the past presidents—

Clinton was very smart.  Bush was smart.  I could tell when he‘s fight with the press.  He always looked smarter than the press, but—if that says anything.  But I think this fellow does something.  What do you see him doing that seems to work with people?

ROTHENBERG:  I think you‘re right.  I think there are a couple things.  First, he‘s extremely well spoken, and compared to the last president—whatever you think of President Bush or his intentions, his principles, his goals, he just didn‘t have the gift of gab.  He wasn‘t a great speaker.  And not only that, I think it‘s clear from President Obama—listening to him—I remember when I first interviewed him when he was running for the U.S. Senate, he was clearly analytical, and it comes through...

MATTHEWS:  Analytical?

ROTHENBERG:  ... and it impresses people.

MATTHEWS:  I like the word analytical.  I think that is the word, because he seems like he‘s trying to figure out a complicated situation. 

And, by the way, he still hasn‘t explained it to me yet. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  It is very complicated. 

Let‘s take a look at these numbers, which I find interesting, because, on a program like HARDBALL, we like to know who the bad guys are.  It makes life simpler. 

Look at this.  Eighty percent, four out of five people, say the people to blame for the situation right now are the big bankers and the big industrialists, the corporations.  Eighty percent, four out of five people out there are mad at the (INAUDIBLE) They‘re out there knitting the shrouds of these people. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m telling you, it is almost like the French Revolution, the attitude.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Look at this.  Seventy percent blame the previous president, and only 26 percent blame the current president.  And, by the way, they also asked if you blame the spenders, the consumers, that ran up their credit cards.  And they—they‘re pretty high on that list, too.

But I found it fascinating that the reason the president has probably made a smart move in yanking the head off of Rick Wagoner, the head of GM...

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, THEPOLITICO.COM:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  ... the public wants to yank the head off these people. 

SIMON:  Yes.  Why—why wouldn‘t you blame the bankers?  I mean, it is always good when a poll actually links up with reality. 

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON:  Why wouldn‘t 70 percent of—of sentient human beings believe bankers got us into this problem, and not President Obama, who—who the collapse did not occur, after all, on his watch?  It occurred on George Bush‘s watch.  Why wouldn‘t George Bush be the second guy to be blamed? 

I mean, this is just sort of common sense being reflected here. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Look at this number here.  It shows how things—one reason why you might be on to something, Stu, about the mood of the country.  And maybe we‘re all into it with this sense of action. 

Only one out of four Americans approve of the government‘s response to the economic crisis back in December.  That‘s not a million years ago, by the way.  That‘s Christmastime, the holidays. 

ROTHENBERG:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Today, it is about an even split.  In other words, it‘s just about even now, which I found very interesting.  We‘re all sort of iffy with this new president.  You know, it‘s still wait and see.

But, back in December, it was not wait and see.  It was get out of town. 

ROTHENBERG:  Right.  Yes.   

MATTHEWS:  You guys can‘t do this thing, right, Stu? 

ROTHENBERG:  Yes. 

Well, Chris, I think that we always say that the devil‘s in the details.  I think this response is not about the details at all.  It is general sense that Barack Obama, President Obama, the administration, are acting.

And for the final few months of the Bush administration, rightly or wrongly, the president was regarded as passive and not hands-on.  And I think that‘s why you see this change. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at the Republicans and how they‘re doing over in the Congress, especially, where they still have some clout. 

Republicans aren‘t gaining any steam, according to a new “Washington Post”/ABC News poll.  It shows President Obama thumping them on the question of, who do you trust more to handle the economy?  Now, look at this difference.  Fifty-eight percent—it‘s not overwhelming -- 58 percent—it is a solid majority—think he is the guy to put your trust in.  Only 25 percent say that the R‘s over on the Hill. 

That is interesting, because what‘s left of them?  It‘s Boehner, the guy with the tan...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... and Mitch McConnell, who never seems to say anything.

SIMON:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  And—and—and they don‘t seem to have a lot of profile. 

But maybe that‘s good. 

SIMON:  Well, it is a little unfair comparison. 

I mean, Barack Obama is alone on the national stage.  You‘re—you‘re comparing one magnetic human being personality...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

SIMON:  ... with the GOP in Congress.  Well, who would like the GOP in Congress...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, wouldn‘t there usually be a leader that you could recognize? 

SIMON:  Yes, but there isn‘t one. 

(CROSSTALK)

SIMON:  You know, tens of millions of people voted for John McCain. 

But how many of them are saying, gosh, I wish John McCain had won; he...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

SIMON:  ... would have gotten us—he would have gotten us out of this mess by now?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  But we have had leaders on the Hill.  We had LBJ during the Eisenhower administration.  We had Tip O‘Neill during the Reagan administration.  We have had leaders on the Hill who have stood out at the time of opposition. 

ROTHENBERG:  Chris...

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t have one now. 

SIMON:  Not now.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Your thoughts, Stu, about we don‘t seem to have a prolific, a well-known, prominent opposition leader up on the Hill. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I mean, I guess Eric Cantor is trying to go for that. 

ROTHENBERG:  Well, let me just add one thing on this.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And Gingrich back in the—in the Clinton administration. 

ROTHENBERG:  I think Roger‘s point is—is terrific. 

This is kind of unfair.  Remember, any time you ask people about Congress, they have a much worse opinion of Congress than they do of the president.  This—this question would have been better if it was Democrats in Congress vs. Republicans in Congress. 

You throw Congress into the wording of a question and you‘re going to drive the response down.  So, I think the Republicans don‘t have a comparable leader, of course, but trying to match anybody up against the president is really unfair.

MATTHEWS:  Why do you—why is that?  Let me ask you a fundamental. 

Why don‘t they like the Hill? 

ROTHENBERG:  Well, polls are all showing congressional job approval running way—way behind the president‘s approval.

And I suspect—now, this is a guess—that people see Congress as much more of a partisan, petty, backbiting, infighting institution. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

But when you disaggregate it, when you separate it right now, I believe—and I have seen this in polling recently—the Democrats are doing a hell of a lot better than the Republicans up on the Hill. 

ROTHENBERG:  Yes, I think they—the numbers show that as well. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  OK.  Thank you. 

It‘s great to have you on, Stu Rothenberg of “The Rothenberg Report” and...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... Roger Simon of Politico.

Up next:  President Obama says he wants the Detroit, the Detroit automakers to survive.  But key members of the president‘s task force don‘t exactly help the cause.  I‘m going to tell you, when you get back—please stay with us—what cars these guys who are designing the American car industry right now in the White House drive. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.”

First up:  The White House yesterday encouraged Americans to stand by Detroit.  But what do the key players in President Obama‘s own auto task force actually drive themselves?  Well, courtesy of Politico.com and “The Detroit News,” here‘s a rundown. 

The man of the hour, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, owns an Acura, fellow economic czar Larry Summers, a Mazda, Budget Director Peter Orszag, a Honda and a Volvo.  Well, give it to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the only Republican in this carpool.  He drives a good old American Buick and a hip new Ford hybrid, just like the president. 

The old expression was, put your money where your mouth is.  How about put your money where you put our money? 

Speaking of the car business, Jay and Dave had a hoot over Obama‘s firing of the GM boss. 

Gentlemen, start your engines. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”)   

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, “THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”:  I have an announcement to make.  This is my last night. 

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN:  The White House has asked me to step down. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”:  Now, the government didn‘t ask any of those Wall Street CEOs to quit.  Isn‘t that kind of a double standard? 

I mean, if you build Cadillacs, you are screwed, but if your chauffeur drives a Cadillac, you‘re OK. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

LENO:  The Obama administration has asked General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner to step down, and he agreed.  He agreed, which is good news for Obama.  You know, last time, he tried to get someone to quit, it took months.  And, even then, he had to promise her a job as secretary of state. 

So, whew! 

(LAUGHTER)

LENO:  Whew!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

LENO:  Whew.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I forgot about that one. 

By the way, Jay‘s not the only one keeping political score.  Nate Silver, that polling wunderkind, has figured you can predict next year‘s congressional elections based entirely on how President Obama is doing in job approval. 

Check out this graph from Nate‘s latest piece in “Esquire.”  It shows the correlation between presidential job approval and how many House seats the party of the president wins or loses in a midterm election. 

Here‘s some recent presidents who saw their parties lose big.  That‘s George W. Bush in 2006, as the war in Iraq deteriorated, Ronald Reagan in 1982 during the depths of his recession, and Bill Clinton in the aftermath of his failed—failed health care bill back in ‘94. 

But look at George W. in 2002, when he was riding high thanks to his initial response to the September 11 attacks, Bill Clinton after the Republicans overdid the Monica mess in 1998, and Ronald Reagan in the glow of his morning in America in 1986.  Those were years when the president‘s party either gained seats or lost only a handful. 

So, the past being prologue, I have got your “Big Number” tonight.  As I have talked about tonight, Barack Obama is doing great in the job approval rating so far.  How does he have to be doing in November of next year to avoid the usual midterm losses in 2010? 

Well, according to Nate Silver, who‘s been brilliant lately, 65 percent.  Next November, the Democrats need Obama‘s approval rating roughly right up there where it is right now, pretty much sky-high, at 65 percent, to avoid losses next November.  That‘s tonight‘s “Big Number.”  And I love it. 

Up next:  It‘s Election Day, believe it or not, in New York State and the first competitive race of the Obama presidency.  Will the House race in New York‘s 20th District be a referendum on President Obama and his policies?  Will the result be a sign of things to come in the midterms in 2010?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARGARET BRENNAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Margaret Brennan with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks rebounded on this, the final day of the first quarter, recovering some of yesterday‘s losses.  The Dow Jones industrial average gained just 87 points.  The S&P 500 picked up 10, and the Nasdaq gained by just about 27 points. 

Stocks were lower for the sixth straight quarter, the worst for the Dow since 1939.  But, if you look at the month, they actually posted a percentage gain, the biggest in March in seven years. 

More grim news about housing—home prices fell a record 19 percent in January from the previous year.  That‘s according to a widely watched index that measures home prices in 20 major cities. 

Meantime, consumer confidence held just about steady in March. 

And Ford and GM are both now offering new incentives to carbuyers. 

Among them, they will cover payments for new carbuyers who lose their job. 

Hyundai launched a similar program back in January. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to Chris and HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Well, it is voting time again.  The vote is under way now in Upstate New York to determine who fills that House seat what opened up when Kirsten Gillibrand was tapped to fill Hillary Clinton‘s seat in the U.S. Senate. 

Usually, this would not be a big deal, obviously, but this race is a very big deal.  Depending on how it turns out, it could signal a turnaround for the Republican Party nationally and a victory for the new national chairman, Michael Steele, or show the power of the Obama brand to influence even down-ballot races like this one. 

Here are just some of the big names who either campaigned for the candidates up there or turned up in their advertising.  President Obama sent a get-out-the-vote e-mail encouraging upstaters to vote for the Democratic candidate.  Vice President Biden did a radio ad for the Democrat. 

The new national chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, visited the district twice to stump for the Republican candidate.  And Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and former President George W. Bush were featured in an ad against the Republican candidate.  Hmm. 

Here to break down the race and what it means are WashingtonPost.com‘s Chris Cillizza, and in Albany, New York, the radio talk show host Paul Vandenburgh. 

I want to go to the local fellow, first, Paul Vandenberg.

What does it smell like, my old question in politics? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  What does that election smell like up there tonight, sir? 

PAUL VANDENBURGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  It doesn‘t smell good for the Republicans, Chris.  In fact, it smells pretty bad for the Republicans up here. 

There‘s been one major poll that has been done up here by Siena College.  It started off with the Republican up 12.  It went to the Republican up four.  And then, last week, on Friday morning, when the latest Siena poll came out, it had the Democrat plus four.

And, as you pointed out just a moment ago, there‘s been a lot of very popular people up here doing radio and TV ads, including the president, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand, and others.  And they have all come within the last 96 hours.  So, this does not shape up very well for the Republican, who, by the way, has a 71,000-vote plurality in a district that has just over 400,000 voters. 

MATTHEWS:  In registration. 

Let me go to Chris Cillizza. 

Well, Paul has just given me the two numbers I usually need to make a prediction.  Give me the late, end-of-the-week, before-the-election number and tell me which way the wind is blowing, and I will tell you who is going to win the damn thing, because people don‘t really change minds over the weekend.  They tend to go with the flow, whichever way it is going. 

What do you think?  What do you smell down here? 

CHRIS CILLIZZA, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I think polling...

MATTHEWS:  Oh, you don‘t have a good drift down here as well.

CILLIZZA:  I have a good—I have a good sense of smell, though.

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  You know, I think Paul‘s exactly right. 

You talk to Democrats, they‘re cautiously optimistic.  As Paul pointed out, this is a district where Republicans have a 70,000 voter registration edge. 

But Democrats feel pretty good, because, again, it is exactly what you just talked about, Chris.  The trend line is moving in the right direction, their candidate moving up.  The Republican candidate‘s line is moving down. 

This is shaped up very much as a national referendum.  You know, people say we make too much out of these special elections.  They don‘t mean that much. 

Well, Scott Murphy, the Democratic candidate, has staked his almost entire campaign on the fact that he supports both President Obama and the president‘s economic stimulus plan. 

Tedisco, the Republican candidate, is opposed to that plan.  So, it is hard not to see a Democrat winning in a Republican-leaning area who threw his arms fully around Barack Obama as good news for Barack Obama and his economic plan.

And one other quick thing, Chris—if you‘re a House Republican, remember, none of them voted for that $787 billion economic stimulus plan.  If the Democrat wins today, you might be getting a little nervous about that vote. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  National issues, like the bank bailout and AIG, as you have said, have dominated the local race.  The candidates sparred over the issue.  Here it is, a hot moment from a debate. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MURPHY (D), NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE:  What AIG did, paying those bonuses, was reprehensible and wrong.  They shouldn‘t have been paid.  The money should not have been taken from taxpayers and paid to bonuses. 

So what do we do now?   Now we need to work to get that money back.  That‘s what I want to do if I go to Washington, get busy getting to work to make sure we get that money back for you, the taxpayers.  That‘s whose money it is.  That‘s what we need to do.  That‘s what I‘ll do if I get sent to Washington. 

TEDISCO:  They shouldn‘t have given it away in the first place.  He voted for a bill that gave it away in the first place. 

MURPHY:  The bill did not give away the bonuses. 

TEDISCO:  They‘ve got what‘s called—

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Paul, that‘s the question.  Who‘s the most guilty of being pro-corporation in that list, between those two guys? 

VANDENBURGH:  Well, I don‘t know if it comes down to that, Chris.  I think what it really comes down is, if you go back to the origins of this campaign, the Republicans were lined up to run in this race.  They thought it was a slam dunk for the Republican party.  And what happened was Jim Tedisco, the Republican candidate, never once came out and said where he stood on the stimulus bill until they were 15 days into the campaign. 

During that 15 day period, the Democrats seized on that.  They branded Tedisco as being a old-time politician, a guy that couldn‘t make up his mind.  Let‘s face it, the reason Tedisco didn‘t come out in favor or not favor is because you have a district that‘s pro-president.  He has a 65 percent approval rating here.  And it‘s also—he‘s also a Republican and every member of the House voted against this.

So the Democrats seized on that issue.  They painted Tedisco in a corner.  And he never got out of it and he has never recovered. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Chris on this.  Chris Cillizza, this is supposedly, based on the registration figures, heavily Republican.  How did Gillibrand win up there? 

CILLIZZA:  Two things.  Number one, it is changing a little bit. 

Obama won this district narrowly in 2008.  He won New York overwhelmingly.  So take that with a grain of salt.  But Gillibrand ran as a very conservative Democrat.  Now, she benefited in 2006 because she ran against an incumbent Congressman named John Sweeney, who got himself into a lot of trouble, personal and politically.  So she won it there based I think a lot on a referendum on Sweeney. 

But she did a very good job in Saratoga County.  Keep an eye on Saratoga County.  It is a place where Tedisco must, must win, must carry if he has a chance of winning.  If he loses Saratoga County, he will not win this district.

And I think right now Paul is right.  I think if you are a Democrat, you are feeling very optimistic. 

MATTHEWS:  Paul, it‘s great having you on.  You are a great guest from up in Duchess County.  That‘s Roosevelt country.  We‘ll see how it goes.  We‘ll be watching this tomorrow on HARDBALL.  Chris Cillizza, as always, thank you for your brilliance. 

Today in the U.S. Senate, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the Senate Health Committee.  By the way, she is not quite there yet.  She is a candidate for that job, the nominee.  The chairman of that committee, Senator Ted Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer. was there.  Here‘s Senator Kennedy. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  Over the past ten months, I have seen our health care system up close.  I have benefited from the best of medicine. 

But we have too many uninsured Americans.  We have sickness care and not health care. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Interesting.  There‘s a guy suffering and knows the cost of medicine both.  Senator Kennedy returned to Washington last week and it is good to see him back where he belongs. 

Up next, why can‘t the Republicans find a unified message to respond to President Obama‘s message about, well, firing the head of GM and telling Chrysler they have a month to marry Fiat?  Did the president catch the opposition flat footed?  That‘s coming up in the politics fix.  The politics of the car industry, the Republicans don‘t seem to have a plan, the Democrats have a plan.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time for the politics fix with MSNBC political analyst Eugene Robinson of the “Washington Post,” who is big time in this town and across the country.  Chrystia Freeland, US managing editor of the “Financial Times.” 

I want you to go first, Chrystia, because I‘m thinking this president has two realities going over to Europe tonight.  He‘s over there sleeping at the ambassador‘s residence in London already.  He and Michelle are superstars in the tab word.  I can just imagine Perry Match and all the covers they‘re going to be, and especially when she has to go head to head more or less with Carla Bruni for the glamour department. 

But let‘s talk substance for a couple minutes.  When‘s the heavy lifting President Obama has to achieve in the next couple of days? 

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “FINANCIAL TIMES”:  What he really has to do is create a global consensus and some sort of confidence in U.S. leadership in resolving the current global economic crisis.  And the real balancing act he‘s going to have to achieve is to find a balance between the key American thrust, which is for global fiscal stimulus, for the rest of the world to go out there and spend the way that the U.S. government is doing, versus what the Europeans want to emphasize, which is a new regulatory framework, ideally a global one, which will prevent future crises like this one. 

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s going to duke it out with him?  Who‘s going to be the big face that goes in his face, if you will? 

FREELAND:  Well, she is not a lady who dukes it out in public, but the real power house behind the European point of view is Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.  And the Germans are the country which most strongly believes fiscal stimulus is, for them, first of all, not so necessary.  They say, you know what?  We already have a national health care system.  We already have a very effective social safety net.  We simply don‘t need as many additional programs as you guys do.

And the other thing is they‘re much more scared of inflation as a culture than Americans are.  The Germans‘ culture, if they have a choice between inflation and growth, the danger of inflation, the danger of low growth, they prefer the danger of low growth. 

MATTHEWS:  They are sort of at one end of the scale and Brazil‘s at the other end, right? 

FREELAND:  That‘s for the hot rhetoric, sure.  The Czechs also have shown us they‘re prepared to insult the Americans, too. 

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t know what would happen there.  But I know we have had Latin American inflation rates through the world, and yet the Germans seem to hate inflation.  Let‘s get back to this mano a mano aspect of this.  The president, when you know and I were growing up, Kennedy had to deal with De Gaulle.  Who‘s he going to have to deal with? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, he‘s going to deal with all of them.  He‘s got to deal with Angela Merkel.  He should start by not doing what George Bush did.  Remember, he gave her that little back rub on the shoulder.  He should not do that. 

He‘s also got do deal with Nicholas Sarkozy. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re becoming a European too.—saying Sarkozy now. 

ROBINSON:  I‘m sorry.  Pardon.  But he is threatening to be—you know, he‘s not really going to walk out.  But he has let threatened to walk out. 

MATTHEWS:  On what grounds?

ROBINSON:  He‘s wants the G-20 to make a concrete step toward some sort of supra-national regulation of the financial system, something a bit more concrete than obviously the Americans want, or the Brits. 

MATTHEWS:  So they implicitly blame the bankers on Wall Street for this hell we‘re going through? 

ROBINSON:  I think everybody in the world is—

MATTHEWS:  The American people believe that. 

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  So everybody is going to blame the American banks.  The question is, will the Europeans get this meeting to move any closer to some sort of, you know, cross-border regulation that can reign in these guys.  And obviously, the Americans aren‘t going to like that.  And then there‘s the whole question of stimulus and that—what Obama wants to do.  I just don‘t see how he can get a commitment out of this meeting for a very substantial stimulus from Europe.  For one thing, Britain, for example, already has a deficit, percentage of GDP is pretty close to what ours is after all the stimulus.  They‘re not—even they are not anxious to spend a lot more. 

MATTHEWS:  Chrystia, the bad guys from the European point of view, led by Merkel at Germany, the chancellor, is the failure to deal with the banks, letting them get out of hand in terms of their over-leveraging.  The bad guy in terms of Barack Obama‘s world view is deflation.  Right? 

FREELAND:  Or low growth.  What Barack Obama and the people around him are saying to the Europeans (INAUDIBLE) since we‘re speaking continental languages today—is now is not the moment for us to think about presenting the next fire.  The current fire is raging and that‘s what we all have to focus on.  The other figure who I think Americans might not expect to be potentially dangerous for Barack Obama at the summit is actually the British prime minister, Gordon Brown. 

I think the political danger there is Gordon Brown is really up against it at home in Britain.  And he really needs to show that he is the world‘s economic mastermind, in the way that I think he felt he had become last fall when Britain seemed to be leading the world on how you fix the banking crisis.  So there is that unknown factor of whether Gordon Brown will try to pull some rabbit out of a hat that could, in ways, be embarrassing and difficult for the Americans. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think our guy is going to show?  What rabbit is he going to pull out of his pocket? 

ROBINSON:  He‘s going to go and be Barack Obama.  He will be charming.  He will be intelligence.  He will be someone the Europeans can talk to on the plane that they believe they inhabit.  So, you know, in that sense I think there will be real communication there.  I‘m just not sure—

MATTHEWS:  There they are arriving, by the way.  That‘s a great scene. 

ROBINSON:  It is. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve thought about that scene for months, the first time they get to come as our American couple, to represent us really in a new way, a sophisticated new leadership. 

ROBINSON:  There will also be this atmosphere around the meeting of excitement that the Obamas come, that this is something really new.  And the opportunity is for him to capitalize on that as much as possible. 

MATTHEWS:  He must know that every word he speaks—you know, talk about being hounded by Youtube.  Every word this guy speaks gets picked up on.  He‘s got to be brilliant all the time.  We‘ll be right back with Eugene and Chrystia to talk about what‘s happening here at home. 

Is the Republican party got something—are they afraid, I should say, of what to do with Barack Obama, because the president lopped off the head of GM.  That‘s so popular right now.  Are Republicans stunned into silence?  You‘re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Eugene Robinson and Chrystia Freeland.  I was worried that President Barack Obama may have gone too far in lopping off the head of a major CEO, Rick Wagoner the other day, of GM.  Then I read the “Washington Post” poll this morning.  I realized he‘s perfectly in synch with this country.  Four out of five people blame the big corporations for the hell we‘re going through. 

ROBINSON:  It‘s what took you so long?  Do you have the others lined up?  What about a few bankers too?  That‘s the general reaction, I think. 

MATTHEWS:  Chrystia, in this country, we‘re always afraid of big brother, as you know.  I thought the president might be guilty of being too much the big shot.  But it seems like the country is ready for a president who will go after the big industry and tag them. 

FREELAND:  I think you‘re absolutely right.  I think what the president understands—and with the sacking of Rick Wagoner, this is the first time we‘ve seen him really act on that understanding—is that what Americans feel is that if a company is going to get a lot of government money, the people who ran that company into the ground need to pay the price and the government needs to assert more control. 

We interviewed the president on Friday.  And one of the things he said, referring to his conversation that day with the Wall Street CEOs, was he said to them, you know, gentlemen, this is a time of shared sacrifice.  And you have to help me help you.  And I think that is the message that he is delivering right now to America‘s CEOs. 

I think they have been served their notice and they‘re all going to be treading a little more carefully now. 

MATTHEWS:  We had Jay Leno—rather David Letterman—I‘ve just been fired.  There‘s a sense the heads are going to keep rolling. 

ROBINSON:  I‘m not sure, actually.  If he creates that impression and they get in line, the banks, for example, start lending some of the money that we‘ve been pouring their way -- 

MATTHEWS:  That would be a great idea if Mr. Potter doesn‘t start lending money—he‘s not going to be alive anymore.  Last thoughts? 

FREELAND:  I was going to say, the actual point about lending money, that‘s a little trickier.  The problem may be as a business decision, that might be the wrong decisions for the banks now.  That‘s a real political dilemma. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Eugene Robinson.  Thank you, Chrystia Freeland.  Both for being on a great show tonight.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE” with David Shuster.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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