Friday, January 29, 2010

MS. IFILL: The State of the Union, divided, united, anxious, worried, or all of the above? We consider all the options tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: We don’t quit. I don’t quit.

MS. IFILL: The president’s big speech casts a spotlight on a critical political dilemma.

PRES. OBAMA: We have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust.

MS. IFILL: He took on Washington.

PRES. OBAMA: What frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day.

MS. IFILL: But blamed his own failings on poor communication.

PRES. OBAMA: I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people.

MS. IFILL: And today the president took his complaint directly to his most consistent detractors, House Republicans.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R-UT): I am one of 22 House freshmen. We didn’t create this mess, but we are here to help clean it up.

MS. IFILL: So what happens now? On job creation? On health care? On bipartisanship?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): We’re going to look for common ground, but we’re not going to roll over on our principles.

MS. IFILL: After a year of modest successes and setbacks, we assess the State of the Union with the reporters covering the week: Peter Baker of the “New York Times,” Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” Gloria Borger of CNN, and John Harris of Politico.

Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. It’s been a pretty remarkable week, the Treasury secretary was on the hot seat. The chairman of the Fed was reconfirmed. The president delivered his State of the Union speech, and today he and House Republicans went toe to toe live as the cameras rolled. In the end, agreeing to disagree.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): You’ve also said you want to take a scalpel to the budget going through it line by line. We want to give you that scalpel.

PRES. OBAMA: I’m not suggesting that we’re going to agree on everything, whether it’s health care or energy or what have you. But if he way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me.

MS. IFILL: What we saw there was what they call in the movies a failure to communicate. He was talking about Bolshevik plots. And they were talking about scalpels. On the other hand, though, they seemed to be communicating for the first time. Peter, you were in the room.

MR. BAKER: I was in the room. It was a remarkable moment. I think actually remarkable is the cliché of the day, but I think everybody’s turned to it because we haven’t seen anything quite like this in a while. I’ve covered a number of presidents. I’d be hard-pressed to remember a time when we saw a president exchange views and debate the opposing party for an hour and a half on live television. It’s a remarkable moment particularly coming after the State of the Union, where he is so clearly on the defensive trying to recapture this magic of 2008 when he seemed to be a post partisan type of figure.

MS. IFILL: Did they seem like they were really – was it tense in that room?

MR. BAKER: I would say intense, but not harsh, not bitter in the way that we often think of partisanship in Washington these days. It was remarkably civil, actually, and substantive. Nobody sort of did a lot of finger wagging, but they felt very strongly about the things that they were saying. In addition to being a debate of issues, it was also a part marriage therapy, in which both sides are sort of venting their grievances that they’ve held. President Obama saying “I’m not a Bolshevik. You guys got to stop calling me a radical.” And the Republicans saying, “You’ve got to stop saying we don’t have ideas. We do have ideas. Here’s a whole booklet full of them.

MS. IFILL: Who was the psychiatrist in the room? You guys were watching it, how did it strike you?

MS. BORGER: Well, I thought it was therapeutic for all of them probably because they did get to vent at each other. And I think it’s also very clear that the lifting of the veil, which is what the White House had asked the Republicans to do, was part of the White House strategy –

MS. IFILL: To televise it.

MS. BORGER: – to televise it and to talk to independent voters who want to see this kind of exchange without rancor, with civility. So there was tension. I could feel it just watching it. But it was very civil and very substantive discussion.

MR. HARRIS: I wonder what Dan thinks because Dan’s been based in London. To me, it did seem like something you’d see in the House of Commons, the sort of back and forth between their prime minister and the opposition party. I thought it was great theater. I do wonder if Republicans felt that maybe they got rolled. (Laughter.) I do feel like the White House had by far the better end of the –

MS. IFILL: Well, he’s the one standing at the podium with the light shining on him and in the end how mean were they going to be to him? He’s got better numbers than they do.

MR. HARRIS: Right. And he’s just made for that kind of interchange and I think he got the better of it.

MR. BALZ: I think a president always is in command in a situation like that. They just have an advantage. It’s one against the group. I thought the Republicans were very tough and they kept coming at him and coming at him and coming at him. And I thought that one of the interesting things about the way the president handled himself, sometimes when he gets in a situation – we’ve seen him in interviews – he can seem peevish if you are pressing him in an interview. He didn’t show that today. He showed exasperation at times and he fought back on substance of what he was being challenged about. But I thought his demeanor kept him in command of that situation for, as we say, 90 minutes. John, you’re right. I had the same feeling of this was like question time in parliament in London.

MS. IFILL: And I couldn’t turn away. But earlier in the week – actually, I guess that would be yesterday, the Republicans were accusing – the long week – were accusing him of rhetoric and of lecturing them. And this came out as a result of the State of the Union speech. The president arrived there aware of his sliding poll numbers, his gridlock priorities and the chance he had to make his case to millions of Americans. Topic one for the president: demonstrating to the American public that more than anything else, he cares about the economy.

PRES. OBAMA: We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time home buyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for eight million Americans paying for college. (Applause.)

I thought I’d get some applause on that one. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: Not so much from the Republicans anyhow. But how did the economy become number one, Dan, in this election year, when health care felt like always had been – this election year, I mean this State of the Union.

MR. BALZ: Well, for the simple reason that health care has consumed Washington for the last seven or eight months to the detriment of everything else and to the detriment of the president’s poll numbers. And I think that there has been a feeling both in the White House and inside the Democratic Party that they lost sight of the real issue that has caused problems for the rest of the country.

Most Americans are more worried about the economy and jobs than they are about whether the health care bill gets through. That doesn’t diminish the importance of the health care debate, but it’s just reality. And I think that they came to a conclusion late in the year that they had lost sight of that, that one way or another, the public did not think they were paying attention, and so they needed to use this moment, the biggest moment a president has in any one year usually, to command an audience to say I get that, I’m going to pay attention to this this year in a way that I didn’t last year.

MS. IFILL: But I was struck, John, about how little the White House was willing to concede on this front. They said that they didn’t communicate this well, but they never said, we didn’t do enough.

MR. HARRIS: No, but regardless of what they say – and I don’t think we expect them to go out and sort of wear a hair shirt – the fact of the matter is they are facing like a serious, serious problem. Health care was in fact the issue on which they asked to be judged in 2009. They said, “ask us by what happens to health care.” It was so urgent we kept the Congress in on Christmas Eve to pass it, and now I think it’s going to – it seems clearly comatose and as near as I can tell there’s an effort to sort of just push it to the side almost indefinitely.

MS. IFILL: We’ll talk more about health care. I’m curious about what they’re going to do to address these questions about the economy besides saying message I care.

MS. BORGER: Well, they’re going to do a jobs package. They’re going to do small –tax cuts for small business, which is what the president was selling today in Baltimore. And the Republicans are skeptical of that. First of all, they want – they asked him today about, would you accept across-the-board tax cuts and that was not such a big hit with him. And then they’re skeptical that these small – these cuts for small business are really going to be – work.

MS. IFILL: And a budget freeze?

MS. BORGER: And a budget freeze – well, they would like more of a budget freeze and they think this discretionary nondefense freeze is just a drop in the bucket, which in fact it is. But this is a president who felt that he had to take a turn in this speech because he had to talk to the American people about what they care about, which is their economic future. I think the irony here is that he might have started out with health care because he thought it was going to help get the deficit under control, and that kind of flipped on him in a way. And now deficit is a larger issue to the American public than health care.

MS. IFILL: Five point seven percent increase in GDP today. That’s pretty good news, right?

MR. BAKER: It’s great news obviously for the president, great to the economy. It’s the fastest increase in economic growth in six years. The problem is that hasn’t necessarily given everybody jobs and that it’s the old lagging-indicator conversation we keep on having. We’ll know a little bit more when we get the next jobs report in January; begin to chip back down at that. Vice President Biden just said that he thinks that by spring we’ll be adding jobs, not subtracting jobs. That has to happen by then for political purposes for the Democrats because by midsummer people are pretty much cemented in their impressions, as they head into the fall campaigns.

MS. IFILL: And how much is – Dan the fall campaign? That’s driving so much of this 2010. You have everybody in the House and a third of the Senate, a little bit more, are out there trying to get their jobs back. And the president made a very big point about that today and on Tuesday – was it Tuesday night?

MS. BORGER: Wednesday night. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: That’s why it seems long ago. Basically saying that should not be the driving force in this argument about the economy.

MR. BALZ: Well, he said, and he’s right. He said “the American people don’t want us here worrying about our jobs. They want us here worrying about their jobs.” And so they have to do something. But the political context, both of the State of the Union, and I think this remarkable show we saw today is all about the president trying to change the political dynamic that has turned against him over the last six months. The White House – all Democrats are well aware that they’re going to lose seats this year. The question is how bad is it going to be? And I think that the White House view is it will be good for all Democrats if the president can move his poll numbers back up from around 50 or a little below to the mid 50’s and higher.

MS. IFILL: But it’s not in his control if it’s – necessarily if it’s the economy unless he can make the stimulus plan seem like the great solution.

MR. BALZ: Well, I think that – you asked earlier how much are they going to be able to do. They spent most of the money they have to do something last year. The stimulus package and the bank bailouts and the auto bailouts left him with a pretty bare cupboard in terms of what he can do. So part of this will be smaller projects and a lot of it will be rhetorical and a lot of it will be hope that what they have in place already will pay dividends in a few months.

MR. HARRIS: I think that’s right and I do think Peter’s right about jobs do lag behind. But I think perceptions of the direction, of the trajectory are what matters. And I do think the president can affect that by how he talks about the economy, the sort of rhetorical pitch that he makes. If people feel like we’re moving in the right direction, the political impact can be felt.

MS. BORGER: My big question is at what point do the Republicans believe it is in their own self-interest to pass legislation with the president and help Barack Obama succeed?

MR. BAKER: That’s an essential question, right. Is this going to be a year where any governing can take place or is it simply setting up the fall campaign? The president and the Republicans today made the show at least of saying it’s about some possibility of governing, but that’s a really open question I think.

MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the thing that the president threw all in on this year, which was about health care or rather let’s hear what the president had to say.

PRES. OBAMA: Now, let’s clear a few things up. (Laughter.) (Applause.) I didn’t choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: Good politics is good politics if it works. (Laughter.) (Inaudible) – it doesn’t. And it has not worked. So has the White House decided, Peter, that what they’re going to do on health care is just slow down?

MR. BAKER: Well, I think they are. That’s right. Just as a practical matter, they have very little option at this point. The fact of the matter is, by the way, they thought it was good politics a year ago.

MS. IFILL: Right. They did.

MR. BAKER: It’s not that this was somehow – a bitter pill they were forced to take. This was something that was part of the program that they ran on that they thought was successful. It’s become bad politics. So there’s a little reinvention of history with that discussion – the first time ever for a president, I’m sure. (Laughter.) But health care now is at risk of becoming a campaign issue rather than an issue of legislation.

MS. BORGER: When you look at the State of the Union speech, it took him about 25 or 30 minutes to get to health care.

MS. IFILL: I noticed that.

MS. BORGER: And that was so telling because this was their legislative priority and suddenly no longer.

MR. BALZ: And I think what was interesting, not just that it took him a while to get to it, but that he expressed resolve. That was the message he wanted. But what he did not have was any way forward – any way out of this logjam, and this – there’ve been any number of moments in the health care debate when people have said “he needs to step up more forcefully, he needs to drive this to a conclusion.” In a sense, if he wants to get this done, he’s going to have to do that again. And that, again, puts the economy back into a secondary position if he has to invest a lot in getting the health care bill revived.

MS. IFILL: Just kicking the ball down the road, John, isn’t really the solution here, is it? If what he really does – if what he says is true, which is that he believes that health care truly has to be fixed and he’s not going to back away from that.

MR. HARRIS: If what he’s said and the Democratic leaders in Congress have said is that we need comprehensive health care. It’s really hard to see how that happens by kicking it down the road. What could happen kicking down the road is some small pieces which Republicans will say, “okay, we can live with that. We’ll declare victory with that as well. And we will see –

MS. IFILL: For instance?

MR. HARRIS: – back when Peter said like they thought health care was going to be popular, I think that’s right. But they always assumed that would be passed in the middle or at the most in the fall of 2009. Rahm Emanuel said, we need to pass health care a year before the election so then we can frame it politically. They do not want 2010 to be defined by health care in the way that 2009 was, even if it results in a victory.

MR. BAKER: Well, what John said I think is right about the idea of possibly breaking up a big piece of legislation like health care, climate change, a lot of these other ones into more component parts, economic packages they can support. They talked about that today in Baltimore. John Boehner came out, the Republican leader in the House, afterwards and said, the president is right, some of these different pieces of the stimulus and some of these different pieces of some of this legislation are things we can support if we broke them out into separate things as opposed to 2,500 page bills, maybe there’s something we can get done.

MR. BALZ: But for the president the politics of that are tricky because John Boehner mentioned two things, nuclear power and offshore drilling.

MS. IFILL: Well, the president mentioned those two things and he –

MR. BALZ: I understand it.

MR. BAKER: But that’s all Obama gets out of it.

MR. BALZ: But he put it in the context of a larger package. If that’s all he gets, the base of the Democratic Party is going to be furious with him.

MS. BORGER: Well, that’s the other thing because he’s got Democrats who are angry at each other in the wings of the party and Democrats in the House are angry at Democrats in the Senate.

MS. IFILL: Democrats – let’s remind people, Democrats who are still unhappy in the House that the public option went away, Democrats in the Senate who are the ones who insisted on abortion language.

MS. BORGER: Right.

MS. IFILL: They’re not going to meet.

MS. BORGER: And liberals do not like this discretionary spending freeze, for example, and Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said, well, if you’re going to freeze discretionary spending, why not freeze defense spending with that? So he’s got not only to unify Republicans and Democrats together to come up with legislation, he has to unify Democrats to agree to things.

MR. BAKER: And that’s the really interesting thing, right. Presidents get in trouble all the time. He has no natural constituency to fall back to, right? All wings of all the spectrum and so forth are mad at him for some thing or another. Who does he turn to in this moment of difficulty? He doesn’t have a national base.

MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that. Why can’t they all get along? (Laughter.) Some say priorities. Some say policies. The president says politics.

PRES. OBAMA: I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it’s clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual, but we still need to govern. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. (Applause.)

MS. IFILL: So is this the shift in tone that we’ve been promised, John, that the president talked about it today, he talked about it Tuesday night. He set himself up as the great conciliator and says, we need to stop acting like – he said today – so Washington-like.

MR. HARRIS: Gwen, there is an enormous hunger in the country, particularly among the independent voters and that goes independent voters are the ones who have taken flight from the Democratic Party in these recent elections, including Massachusetts, including in Virginia at the end of 2009 – an enormous hunger for sort of an end of politics as usual and for the parties to get along and not bicker. The problem with that is Barack Obama is or was an ideologically ambitious president.

Remember the theory of 2009, the so-called “big bang.” They’re going to pass in one year comprehensive health care. They’re going to pass cap and trade legislation to fight global warming and they’re going to pass financial reregulation. All those things are big ideas. He can stand for big ideas or he can stand for bipartisanship and splitting the difference with the Republicans. It’s really hard to stand for both.

MS. IFILL: Well, especially when you have a lot of – I listened to the Republicans today who said, you know, we really like the president personally. He’s a nice guy. It’s Nancy Pelosi who is the problem. How is that any better?

MS. BORGER: (Laughs.) Well, it isn’t. And I think the problem for this president has been that I think he made a decision with health care reform that he was essentially going to contract it out to Nancy Pelosi and to Harry Reid and let the Congress work its way because he didn’t want to do what Hillary Clinton had done, which was go up to Congress with a bill and put it out there as a target. So in this move not to be Hillary Clinton and contracting it out to all of them and to Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, that didn’t work with Republicans because the members of Congress may be indeed more partisan than the president of the United States. And so –

MS. IFILL: He said today “I’m not an ideologue.” That didn’t impress them much.

MS. BORGER: – yes – in the room was there a little murmuring.

MR. BAKER: There was murmuring. There was some murmuring. And then he says “I’m not.” (Laughter.) They didn’t believe him. They didn’t understand that.

MS. IFILL: So is he effectively – no matter how much they deny it – I know they do at the White House – is he trying to set the reset button? Is he trying to reorder the way we talk, the way we exchange, the way things get done? Is that even possible?

MR. BAKER: Oh, sure. I think – is it possible? I don’t know. Can he be the person he was or seem to be to the public in 2008? A lot of water is under that dam. President Clinton obviously had moments in his presidency where he managed to turn in an agile fashion to a different way of doing things and changed people’s opinions and trajectories. A year ago we would have said the Republicans can’t possibly come back in any short amount of time. Here they are a year later.

MS. IFILL: You may have said that at this table.

MR. BAKER: Yes. (Laughter.) So a year from now I’d be loath to predict that we would have any clue.

MR. HARRIS: Any president, any president, Gwen, especially one who got all the personal political skills of Barack Obama has all the power he needs to retake, reclaim control of the agenda. What I don’t think Barack Obama can do and I think the White House is kind of coming to terms with this, he cannot succeed by the standards that he himself laid out a year ago. If Barack Obama of January, 2009, were to judge the results of Barack Obama of 2010 by his own rhetoric, he would fail that test.

Now, he can change the terms of the test. That’s what they’re going to have to do. But I don’t think the White House itself has sort of reckoned with the fact that the big bang strategy of doing it fast in one year has failed, what is the new strategy?

MS. IFILL: They know it’s failed but haven’t figured out what the new strategy is?

MR. HARRIS: I don’t think they have a new strategy that marries their political goals with their policy goals.

MS. BORGER: And when you ask people at the White House all along, aren’t you trying to do too much, aren’t you trying to do too much, the answer that you get is, well what is that we shouldn’t do?

MS. IFILL: Well, that’s what he said during the State of the Union.

MS. BORGER: Right. So he’s still saying that. He wasn’t apologizing.

MR. BAKER: He didn’t retreat much at all this week.


MR. BAKER: I think you’re right. In fact health care will now be on the back burner. He didn’t get to it until 20 minutes into the speech. But he rhetorically didn’t say rhetorically “let’s try something different.” He really didn’t.

MS. BORGER: Right.

MR. BALZ: I had the feeling, watching him this week, both in the State of the Union and again today that he is trying to rechannel the Obama of the campaign in part to reidentify himself with the public. You make a very good point, which is he won the presidency without being indebted to any particular part of his party, which means he doesn’t have certain constituencies that are there rallying for him but he did have some connection with the American people. And I think that he senses that the anger that really has hit the Democratic Party hardest is an anger that is focused on Washington itself, not just on Democrats or just on the president. Certainly they –

MS. IFILL: So he’s trying to –

MR. BALZ: He’s trying to identify himself with that anger as a way to take a little bit of it off what the Democratic Party has felt.

MS. IFILL: But I’m intrigued, and this is going to be our final thought around the table, which is when he – he gave an interview I guess this week in which he said he’d rather be a one-term president than give up basically on his goals.

MR. BAKER: A good one-term president.

MS. IFILL: A good one-term president. Well, that’s true. He didn’t say he failed one-term president. (Laughter.) But I’m curious, is that what he’s signaling now? That’s not backing up.

MR. BAKER: I think any good one-term president would tell you he wanted to be a two-term president. And the fact is it you can’t have eight years; you can’t get a lot of things you want to get done. So the idea that somehow you can simply put principle first and forget about politics is obviously not going to happen.

MS. BORGER: I was talking to a Democratic political strategist this week who said to me, “I didn’t want to hear him say that. That’s not what incumbents in the House who are facing real problems want to hear, that this president wants to be a good one-term president.”

MR. HARRIS: I’d be stunned if we hear that line again. (Laughter.) The fact is successful presidents become two-term presidents.

MS. IFILL: That’s what he needs to do. Final thought.

MR. BALZ: And I think that he still is a president who has great ambitions for his presidency and intends to do whatever he can to try to succeed in that front.

MS. IFILL: And it will keep us all busy. Thank you, everyone. So much happened beyond the State of the Union this week – Tim Geithner answering the Congress, Ben Bernanke’s controversial reconfirmation, Justice Alito’s eye roll. (Laughter.) Well, we’re out of time here, but the conversation continues online along with your questions on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. You can find us at Keep track of daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour” and we will see you around the table right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.