Examining Obama’s options to push his agenda in 2014

January 2, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama emerged from 2013 with near all-time low job approval ratings after the botched rollout of the health care law. Susan Page of USA Today and Jerry Seib of The Wall Street Journal join Judy Woodruff to discuss what the president can try to do to achieve a productive year as midterm elections approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Finally tonight, we look ahead to the challenges facing President Obama as he approaches the second year of his second term in office.

Mr. Obama finished 2013 with his job approval rating near an all-time low, following the botched rollout of the health care law.  What are the prospects for a turnaround in 2014?

We consider that question with Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Jerry Seib, Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.

Welcome to you both.

GERALD SEIB, The Wall Street Journal:  Thank you.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today:  Good to be with you.

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JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, Susan, just what shape is the president in as he begins this new year?

SUSAN PAGE:  Well, I think he’s in pretty sorry shape and it’s bad news for him, because the first year of your second term is really the opportunity you have to get things launched if you are going to get new legislative proposals through.

You have just got a little bit of window there before campaign politics starts to take over again.  And much that time is gone.  He still has got a little time left, a little time next year in the early part of the year.  But this year has been quite a disappointing one for the White House and it leaves him with some real vulnerabilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, Jerry, given that, what does the White House — what are they thinking right now they need to do?  Let’s start with health care because that what seems to have overwhelmed everything else.

GERALD SEIB:  Well, I think we are beyond the does the health care Web site work phase and into will the policy work phase?

And in a way, that is much more important.  You have to convince people that not only will the Web site work, but the policy will work, that it will get people enrolled, it will draw in young people, it will bring down the cost curve.  That is really important and that hangs over everything.

I think beyond that, they have a really interesting strategic choice to make at the White House.  Is the road back to cooperate with congressional Republicans and did the budget deal that was reached at the end of 2013 suggest there’s a path forward in cooperation?  Or do they simply confront congressional Republicans and make clear the differences between the two sides going into the midterm elections this year?

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Susan, do you think they have made a decision about that?

Of course, there are different issues out there that we’re talking about, immigration.  There are others.  Is this something they’re going to decide on a case-by-case basis?

SUSAN PAGE:  Well, I think on some things they will try to cooperate.

And immigration is probably the best example of that, because there perhaps is the possibility of getting some immigration legislation through the House.  You know, a bipartisan bill did get through the Senate last year.  There’s some hope of building on that, although it’s a tough issue and it’s an issue in which the parties are divided.

But you go to an issue like climate change or income inequality, which is another issue you have heard President Obama talking about.  Hard to see Republicans especially in the House going along with his proposals on those.  And therefore he needs the policy on those issues maybe more confrontation or trying to use executive orders and other executive powers to bring about change.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And, in fact, Jerry Seib, the president has brought in somebody who was a former chief of staff to President Clinton in John Podesta, who was known for working executive action, executive, in other words, taking steps, doing what a president can do without going through Congress.

GERALD SEIB:  That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  What does that say?

GERALD SEIB:  Well, I think that is an interesting question.  You sort have to be in President Obama’s head to know for sure exactly what he thinks that says.

But as recently as 2010, when Republicans took back control of the House, John Podesta was in fact writing, look, you can do more through executive actions than people think, that that is a way to enact Democratic policy even when Congress is recalcitrant.

So we will see.  Judy, we get an early test of the atmosphere on this, which is the debt ceiling, which could be either a crisis or simply something where both sides compromise at the end of February, early March.  Will that be a moment of confrontation or a moment in which both sides decide they’re going to approach the question in a civilized way?

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Susan, how much of all this does depend on whether the Republicans are ready to play, so to speak, really want to work with him on a few things?  Clearly, this is a congressional election year.  They’re going to have their mind, as are Democrats, on what happens this spring in the primaries and then in the fall.

SUSAN PAGE:  So, Republicans need to calculate what is going to serve their interests in the 2014 midterm elections.

But the Republicans are divided.  You know, there is a civil war going on in the Republican Party between those Tea Party conservatives who have really had the upper hand since 2010 and more establishment Republicans, more mainstream Republicans, including some of the business interests, some of the big donors, who want to steer a different path.

And that may make — that may create opportunities for President Obama to make deals with that part of the party.  But it also may create problems in trying to deal with a divided enemy.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And with that backdrop, Jerry, we have been talking about domestic issues.  Are there also international issues?  They may not be working their way through the Congress, but the president is going to be dealing on the side with what’s — with Iran, a potential nuclear deal with Iran, with the Middle East, perhaps, John Kerry, the secretary of state.

How much do international issues come into play at a time like this?

GERALD SEIB:  You know, in every second term, international issues increasingly take over the agenda for the president.  As his power at home is restricted, his ability or his desire to move abroad increases.

And that will probably be the story of the next three years.  I think in the next year, the big question on that agenda is the nuclear deal with Iran.  Will it come to — you know, there is a temporary deal in place.  That will expire in a few months.  Will there be a permanent deal in place to restrict the Iranian nuclear program?  Will it go down well in Congress, where there is a lot of skepticism about it?  Will it go down well with the allies?  Will it go down well with the Israelis?

I think that is the big international question, and it is a tough one for the president in the first few months.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Susan, do you have a reed on read at this point on lessons learned at the White House?  This has been a really — 2013, really tough year for them.  What is your sense of that?

SUSAN PAGE:  Well, obviously, they learned some lessons.

There’s been a kind of minor staff shakeup at the White House with some new people being brought in.  But at this point, I’m not sure that I think P.R. strategy or even a big speech like the State of the Union on January 28 is enough to reset things.  It seems to me that what will determine the success of President Obama this year is going to be the reality, the reality of the Iranian deal, the reality of whether the Affordable Care Act ends up working, the reality of do we have a smooth transition out of Afghanistan at the end of the year.

That is another big issue this year.  I think this is a time when P.R. will only take you so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And, meanwhile, Jerry, there was yet another poll out today showing the American people have their lowest — they hold not just Congress and the White House, but government, in the lowest, at the lowest level ever seen.

How much does that affect a president’s ability to get something done?

GERALD SEIB:  You know, I really think it’s become the story of this phase of public life in the United States.

And somebody has to change that.  Somebody has to convince people they can trust people in Washington and government again.  You know, and there are constraints on both parties because of this.  You know, the president has to worry about, will my Democratic base allow me to compromise?  Republicans have to worry, will the Tea Party wing of our party allow us to compromise?

And then they have to worry, will people in the middle, who clearly want there to be some compromises in Washington, will they stand for more gridlock?  I mean, this is a really poisonous period in Washington.  I think we have all been here long enough to agree it’s way up there on the poisonous scale right now.  And I don’t think that’s going to change rapidly.  I think it changes only over time.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Surely, you both want to leave us with some uplifting note here.


SUSAN PAGE:  You do see the states doing more and more.  There is this state of dysfunction in Washington.  We all see that.

But you see states moving ahead on issues with experimentation, on health care, on mandatory minimum sentences and on a variety of things.  And that’s been one of the interesting things to see as you look at the politics of the country as a whole.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Silver lining?

GERALD SEIB:  And the economy is doing better.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  That’s right, and we didn’t even…

GERALD SEIB:  Let’s not forget we spent a lot of time talking about that for the last five years, and it’s better.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Affects everybody.

GERALD SEIB:  Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Jerry Seib, Susan Page, thank you both.

SUSAN PAGE:  Thank you.