TOPICS > Politics

Obama Back in Campaign Mode as White House Sizes up Gingrich, Romney

December 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama is still waiting for Republicans to pick a nominee to challenge him in next year's election, but that hasn't stopped him from entering the campaign fray. Judy Woodruff discusses the state of Mr. Obama's re-election campaign with The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama is still waiting for Republicans to pick a nominee to challenge him in next year’s election, but that hasn’t stopped him from entering the campaign fray.

Eleven months from Election Day 2012, the president took to the White House Briefing Room in full-blown campaign mode. Mr. Obama’s appearance, announced just minutes beforehand, came shortly after Senate Republicans blocked his nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The president said he would continue to challenge Republicans to defend their position.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will not take any options off the table when it comes to getting Richard Cordray in as director of the Consumer Finance Protection Board.

We have a Congress right now Republicans in Congress right now who seem to have entirely forgotten how we got into this mess. And part of the reason was because we didn’t empower our regulators to make sure that they were ensuring fair play. That’s what the Consumer Finance Protection Board is designed to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president also expressed frustration with the ongoing stalemate in Congress over extending the payroll tax cut, which is set to expire at the end of the year.

Mr. Obama pledged to delay his holiday plans for as long as it took lawmakers to reach an agreement.

BARACK OBAMA: When I hear the speaker or the Senate Republican leader wanting to dicker, wanting to see what can they extract from us in order to get this done, my response to them is, just do the right thing. Focus on the American people. Focus on the economy right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Those comments followed a Kansas speech earlier this week in which the president said the country faced a — quote — “make-or-break moment” for the middle class.

BARACK OBAMA: I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.  

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many saw those remarks as a general election preview. But they were not the only issues taking on a political context this week, from the administration’s announcement today about workers with disabilities, to yesterday’s decision by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to block over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill to young girls.

Mr. Obama endorsed that policy today.

BARACK OBAMA: As the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine.

And, as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going to a drugstore should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect. And I think most parents would probably feel the same way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president also responded directly to criticism of his foreign policy by some Republican presidential candidates.

BARACK OBAMA: Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With election year around the corner, most moves the president makes going forward will likely be seen through that lens.

We are joined now by two political reporters covering the president’s re-election campaign, Anne Kornblut, White House reporter for The Washington Post, and Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent for The New York Times.

It’s good to you have both with us.

Jeff Zeleny, let me start with you.

How much is the campaign on the minds of the folks at the White House? Are we right to see everything going forward now through the campaign lens?

JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: Well, the campaign is entirely on their minds.

I mean, it’s not unusual for that to be the case. It’s always the case in a re-election. And everything is going to be viewed through this prism. His State of the Union is going to be viewed — viewed through this prism and everything is. But the White House is still saying that they are focused on policy and focused on things.

But the speech in — in Kansas earlier this week really sort of began to frame this argument that the president is going to make for the next 11 months about, he is the defender of the middle class and he is out there fighting for you. And I think that everything he does is going to be viewed through that prism, you know, rightly or wrongly. He will be criticized for it, but that’s how it goes when a president seeks re-election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anne Kornblut, is that — I mean, is that the theme that they have now seized on? And, if so, why?

ANNE KORNBLUT, The Washington Post: Oh, absolutely.

I think we should start counting the number of times we hear him talk about the middle class. People in the re-election campaign are also taking note of when Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich don’t use the phrase middle class. This is all about the economy.

But they don’t want to be talking about small-bore economic issues. They don’t even want to just be focusing on jobs, because the thinking is they are not going to be able to do too much to turn around unemployment between now and next November. Instead, they want to have a big-picture discussion about philosophy and about economic philosophy.

And, as Jeff said, that’s what the speech in Kansas really was all about, was some of the bigger philosophical differences that the campaign hopes to set up between them and whichever of the candidates is their nominee on the other side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff, do they worry that things look too political at this point? Or do they just assume that’s the way it’s going to be?

JEFF ZELENY: I think that they have stopped worrying about that.

I mean, I think, in the early days of the administration, and even in the months leading up to the midterm elections last year, I think they were very careful, sort of drawing a line: This is an official trip and this is a campaign trip.

And now everything is sort of blurred. They still — the speech in Kansas this week, for example, was an official White House trip. And we’re going to see more official trips than political trips that he’s paying for out of the campaign fund.

But, look, it’s just sort of how it is. I mean, he’s going to get the upsides and the downsides from running for re-election. And, I mean, everything is political. It just — I mean, it’s hard to escape it. It’s not saying he’s doing things only for political reasons. I mean, obviously, there are policy things here as well. But he has the music, the bunting, the banners. He is running for re-election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Anne, I ask that question because there was the announcement this week, yesterday, by Secretary Sebelius about the contraceptive, so called Plan B. We talked today about the decision coming out of the Labor Department about jobs for people with disabilities.

How broadly does this campaign — I guess I’m asking, does the umbrella cover everything?

ANNE KORNBLUT: Well, there’s no way that it won’t. And, of course, we’re going to look at all of these decisions through the lens of the political season. We’re doing that on the Republican side and the Democratic side. And we’re less than a year out.

But I do think it’s important to note that’s why these decisions are coming out of the Cabinet agencies. This White House has not been one that has often distributed all the goodies to the agencies. This is a very closely controlled White House. But when there are big, controversial decisions that need to be made, you’re going see the cabinet secretaries doing it.

That is why they have gone out of their way to say that, in particular, the Plan B decision was one that was made by Secretary Sebelius. For better or for worse, they don’t want to have that one be too closely tied to the president, even though obviously he did acknowledge that he agreed with it today.

But, nonetheless, on some of the trickier issues, you are going to see those go back out to the agencies, because they know too well it’s all going to look political, no matter what they do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff Zeleny, on the one hand, the president is dealing with the Republicans in Congress opposing much of, if not all of what he would like to see pass.

But, meantime, he is facing the Republicans running for president. How is the White House reacting to the sudden emergence of Newt Gingrich?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, they’re certainly intrigued by it.

I mean, they have been focused, with almost a single focus, on Mitt Romney, because they, like most other people, assumed that he had a lot of advantages going into this and he might be the nominee. But the White House is trying to keep an open mind about the possibility of Newt Gingrich.

It’s interesting. If you talk to Democrats who worked in Washington during the Clinton administration, they’re sort of viewing Newt Gingrich through an old lens. But some of these Obama political hands didn’t work in the White House or in Washington during that time. And they are trying to view him through a new lens.

They’re really trying to find out what he is tapping into out there. So the focus is still on Romney, but they are going to begin to sort of bring Newt Gingrich into the fold. And the added benefit here, a long campaign on the Republican side, Democrats think, the president’s advisers think that that helps him at the end of the day. So we will see.

But they are intrigued, and perhaps doing a bit of mischief-making here by highlighting Speaker Gingrich’s rise a little.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to that, Anne? What are you hearing about thinking — the thinking — the Obama thinking about Gingrich?

ANNE KORNBLUT: Well, Jeff is absolutely right.

I will say there are a few people, perhaps the ones who were — who did live through the Clinton era, who are just the teensiest bit gleeful of the prospect of Newt Gingrich as the Republican nominee.

But he does have something that Mitt Romney doesn’t that could be dangerous for the president, which is he has a way to tap into the Hispanic vote. He has this expansive network that is Latino. He has himself learned — been learning to speak Spanish.

And the polling data suggests that he could do better among Hispanics in certain key states, places like Colorado and in the West, and especially in Florida. And that is something that, if a Republican nominee could just do a tiny bit better with Hispanics, could make him much more threatening to President Obama.

So that is something that his re-election campaign is keeping an eye on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Anne, finally, for the longest time, the White House has seen Mitt Romney as the president’s toughest potential opponent. Do they still feel that way?  

ANNE KORNBLUT: In some ways, yes. They see him certainly as somebody who had at one point in time been able to tap into the centrist vote and to some independents.

But I think, if anything, they see him now as weaker than he was before. They do think he is going to have to run to the right of Newt Gingrich, now that Gingrich has presented such a threat, and they think that only works to their advantage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you — what do you hear from the White House about their view of Romney, who was, their — the assumed nominee for the Republican Party, I guess, many people thought?

JEFF ZELENY: They definitely are not taking their eye off Mitt Romney, because they believe that he is well-disciplined, well-financed, well-structured.

He’s been thinking about running for president for a long time. This is his second go-round, so he is experienced in that front. So the White House — for the first time, there is a bit of disagreement. They’re not sure, frankly, who the nominee is going to be. But most people believe in their heart of hearts that Mitt Romney probably has a better shot at this, and they are still going to keep their focus on him.

They believe, at the end of the day, all these flip-flops that he has had over the years on some social issues actually could make him more appealing to independent voters because he’s flexible. So the White House is very much not losing focus on Gov. Romney.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the whole thing has certainly gotten more active just in the last few days.

Jeff Zeleny, Anne Kornblut, we thank you both.

JEFF ZELENY: Thank you.

ANNE KORNBLUT: Thank you.