MS. MICHELE NORRIS: The turkey has been served, the cash registers are ringing, but there’s a lot of work ahead in the nation’s capital. I’m Michele Norris, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week. Questions of leadership, law and presidential ambition, tonight on “Washington Week.”
A Thanksgiving week makes way for a full plate ahead. For the president there are big challenges at home.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In the coming days, it is so important – in the coming months, it’s so important the Democrats and Republicans work together. The election is over. We’ve got to find places where we can agree.
MS. NORRIS: And challenges abroad.
PRES. OBAMA: It is important for the American people to remember that Afghanistan is not just an American battle.
MS. NORRIS: For the GOP is the Republican with the most name recognition serious about running in 2012.
BARBARA WALTERS: If you ran for president, could you beat Barack Obama?
SARAH PALIN, FMR. GOVERNOR OF ALASKA: I believe so.
MS. NORRIS: And the Supreme Court with a new justice on the bench prepares to chew on several weighty issues, including immigration and benefits for returning veterans. Covering these stories: Peter Baker of the New York Times; John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News; and Joan Biskupic of USA Today.
ANNOUNCER: 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.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, substituting for Gwen Ifill, Michele Norris of NPR.
MS. NORRIS: Good evening. I hope your Thanksgiving holiday was bountiful. Now that the president just finished his holiday celebrations, he faces a difficult road ahead as the White House regroups after two overseas trips that produced mixed results and as the administration reconsiders how to press ahead after Mr. Obama’s self-described shellacking in the midterm elections. Complicating matters, the U.S. must decide how to respond to North Korea’s military aggression this week. The president himself has acknowledged that the weeks ahead present a test of leadership.
And Peter, forget about the House – the Republican takeover of the House – the president looks like he’s facing significant challenges in the lame duck session ahead.
MR. BAKER: Right. Exactly. You thought your plate was full. Let me tell you: this guy has got a lot on his plate and not a lot to be thankful for this particular moment. He’s only had a couple of weeks since the election. And think of what’s been on his agenda since then: Asian trade, tax cuts, NATO summit, the new START treaty, Afghanistan transition, Iran talks – maybe – Middle East Talks – maybe – unemployment and insurance, the DREAM Act and (SES ?), the TSA pat-downs – and that’s even before North Korea starts opening fire at its southern neighbor. So this is all a time when he should be or wants to be thinking a little bit about how to recalibrate his presidency to move ahead. Any one of these things provides the test long before he has a chance to catch his breath and think, what do I want to do in this new political environment?
MS. NORRIS: But I’m interested in his thinking right now, because you were around the overseas trip. You spent a lot of time with him. He talked about the results of the midterm election as being a shellacking. And at the same time he’s sending another message. He’s saying that the Republican victory was not exactly a resounding victory that it was almost like an unearned win.
MR. BAKER: Right. He defines it as a message from the people to work together. That’s not how the Republicans necessarily see it. They see it as a mandate to stop some of what they see as the overreaching of President Obama’s agenda. So you have this – a remarkable moment where the president says, come on down to the White House, we’ll talk, and the Republicans say, yes, we’re going to come, but now when you say. Let’s wait another week or two. We’ve got things to do, Mr. President. So next week’s meeting, if in fact takes place, is going to be a very interesting test of this moment in terms of bipartisanship or partisanship.
MS. BISKUPIC: Let me ask you about another moment that we’re at because we’ve just come off of all these foreign policy issues, you know, the Lisbon summit, the issue we have now with North Korea. And also, I think on the front burner for a lot of people is still the Afghan pullout as it – if it indeed happens. Is that still on schedule? What have we learned from – what did you learn in Lisbon about support for that and if things are still headed toward 2014?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s interesting because, you know, foreign policy is usually the refuge of a president who gets in trouble at home, right? That’s the one place where Congress really doesn’t have as much of a role to play and a president can look like a leader. It didn’t work out so well for him in the Asia trip. It worked out better for him in Lisbon. He came home with support from the Europeans and the Russian leader for his arms control treaty.
MS. NORRIS: Though he had to massage that a little bit to ensure that support would –
MR. BAKER: He had to massage that to make sure that’s there and it’s not sure whether that will actually be very convincing to Republicans in the United States Senate when it comes to ratifying his treaty. And then North Korea comes along and tells us, you don’t really have control of this overseas agenda. It’s not really what you want to do, often it’s what comes up as a crisis for you to deal with. Who wants to be re-fighting the Korean War 60 years later? Not Barack Obama and not most Americans.
MR. DICKERSON: The president’s also re-fighting another old battle when he comes back and he meets with these Republican leaders on tax cuts, okay? If nothing happens, everybody gets a tax increase because the Bush’s tax cuts set to expire do so. And Republicans have said, if you don’t cut taxes for everybody, we’re going to let them expire.
MR. BAKER: Right.
MR. DICKERSON: The president has said I want a permanent one for the, quote, unquote, “middle class” and he maybe is open to a temporary one for the wealthy. But they’re at loggerheads and yet the president says they’re going to work together. How does this get resolved?
MR. BAKER: Well, one thing that does crystallize this kind of thing, as you say, is a deadline. One thing they’re simply not going to leave town with is a tax increase for all Americans. It’s – let me say that it’s unfathomable. I suppose a lot of unfathomable things have happened. But it seems hard to imagine. So what we’re talking about is one of the terms of the deal. Are we going to have a deal now or we’re simply going to punt it down the road? I think punting looks very viable at the moment for both sides. The question is even how do you punt it? The White House would like to decouple them: let’s have one solution for the middle-class tax cut, another solution for the wealthy, and then when we deal with the wealthy down the road, if we extend it for a year or two years, we don’t have to make it about everybody. Republicans say, no way. We’re not going to do that. It’s all or nothing.
MS. NORRIS: Peter, you talked about a certain recalibration at the White House. What exactly does that mean because we haven’t seen a major shuffling of the seats?
MR. BAKER: No. We really haven’t yet. The personnel changes that we’ve seen even before the election and probably coming up in the next few weeks are really about moving people around who are already inside President Obama’s orbit. David Axelrod, his senior adviser, likely to leave after the state of the union. David Plouffe, his campaign manager in 2008 likely to come in in early January.
This is not an influx of fresh voices and eyes and ears. And what it says so far is the president doesn’t see the need for a wholesale reshuffle. And I think he kind of looks down on the sort of the perennial Washington solution to a political problem of throwing out a bunch of aides and bringing in some new ones as if that was necessarily the problem. Ultimately, of course, the problem is you’ve got a bad economy and the choices that were made were ultimately made by the president.
MS. NORRIS: I’m wondering – you’ve talked about the problems that the president and the White House faces. Are there – there are some opportunities. I mean, I’m thinking about the START treaty.
MR. BAKER: Sure. Absolutely. In moments of trouble come moments of opportunity. And certainly that’s been true for past presidents. We saw that with President Clinton ultimately after the 1994 election. With President Obama, they hope on this new START treaty, for instance, to I think shame the Republicans in the Senate to either go along with him, which would make him look stronger after a pretty debilitating election night, or, if for some reason they were to block it, he could blame them for that and portray them as so unwilling to work with him that they would even block a treaty that was endorsed by Henry Kissinger and James Baker and other Republicans.
MS. BISKUPIC: The only thing is when you – you know, it’s funny. Everything is colored by the election. He just said on the – during Michele’s introduction, the election is over. But just what you’ve said about the response on START and also what you said to John on the tax cuts, there’s another election that’s so much right there, right now, 2012.
MR. BAKER: The election’s over. Let the election begin.
MS. BISKUPIC: Exactly. Do we have any kind of window for – I guess for the tax cuts?
MR. BAKER: Yes.
MS. BISKUPIC: But maybe not for START.
MS. NORRIS: Well, speaking of 2012, making a splash this week with the release of her highly anticipated book, Sarah Palin. In her latest publication, the former Republican vice presidential candidate tackles everything from politics to pop culture with her stinging critique of both Obamas and her praise for Simon Cowell, the tell-it-like-he-sees-it judge on “American Idol.” Sarah Palin seems to be everywhere all at once with her Alaska-based reality TV show, her daughter Bristol’s run for the top trophy on “Dancing with the Stars,” her constant presence on Twitter and the book tour that will take her, coincidentally or not, to some of the major presidential primary states like Arizona, Iowa and South Carolina. But some high-profile Republicans are not cheering the Palin parade, including one prominent first lady and first mother.
LARRY KING: What’s your read about Sarah Palin?
BARBARA BUSH, FMR. FIRST LADY: I sat next to her once. I thought she was beautiful. And I think she’s very happy in Alaska. And I hope she’ll stay there.
MS. NORRIS: Add to that some recent polling that shows many people don’t believe Sarah Palin’s qualified to be president. So John, where is all this going?
MR. DICKERSON: Barbara Bush, still throwing the elbow there from all the way across the country. I think Sarah Palin has built this amazing machine which is – on the one hand, it’s a pre-presidential machine and on the other hand it’s a book selling machine. And they both have magically been able to serve each other. So she goes out now and she’s selling her book and the speculation begins in part because she’s fueling it saying I’m thinking very seriously about a run. She said her husband is kind of pushing her towards a run. She answered Barbara Walters’ question, says she thinks she can take on the president. So she’s an incredibly good marketer. And for her purposes, both – she doesn’t have to make a decision just yet because both of these things serve themselves. But she certainly looks like a person who’s running for president.
MS. NORRIS: Well, as we all know at this table, a presidential run is something quite different than just marketing her personality or marketing a book. And you wrote an interesting piece this week that lays out some of the obstacles she might face if she really decides to get serious. What are the primary obstacles?
MR. DICKERSON: That’s right. I think there are three big obstacles for Sarah Palin. One is the polls you mentioned. The biggest is that her unfavorable rating is – about the average of it is 51/52. That’s quite high. Not the highest it’s ever been. Bill Clinton had a higher unfavorable rating. So she has to get over that. People have to like you. She’s very popular in the Republican ranks, not popular with independents and moderates.
Then there’s a competency question: 67 percent in a Washington Post poll said they didn’t think she was qualified for the job. That includes a lot of Republicans. She’s quite popular with them. Still a lot don’t think she’s qualified. And then the third is she is a hard worker. No one could be in so many places as she is. You almost expect to see her at the local Starbucks. But that hard work needs to translate into another kind of hard work for the campaign and campaigns are drudgery and they are unpleasant. So she would have to kind of buy into the grind of that because you can’t really fake it in a campaign.
MS. NORRIS: Does she have early organization in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, she has the Mamma Grizzlies. She has this extraordinary fan base. And this is another reason why you can imagine she would run. As much as she loves Alaska and her family, when you have this many people telling you, please, run, begging you to run, it is something – if you have ever been in the political waters, you cannot resist that call. She has these people out there who are willing to crawl across the desert to work for her and that is a readymade organization. But it’s not enough. Rudy Giuliani thought he had that kind of support. So did Fred Thompson. And they thought, well, we’ll just add water to the support and I’ll win. And those two candidacies were total failures. So she’s smart enough to know about that. But what organization would require is expanding her circle. She’s got a very tight knit circle that’s worked very well for her. But she’d have to expand it, start trusting people in states she doesn’t know. And that trust can be troublesome because a lot of time she trusts people who aren’t that – you know, don’t always have your interest as closely in mind as the circle she’s got now.
MS. BISKUPIC: Let me pick up on the Barbara Bush comment, who represents the Republican establishment if anybody does. Can Sarah Palin pull this off without the Republican establishment?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, if she’s going to win, she will have to get around some of these obstacles. And one of them is this question about her competency and her popularity comes not just from the left or the mainstream media as she’s gotten us all to start calling it, which is another clever trick on her part. But she’s got Barbara Bush, Karl Rove, Lisa Murkowski with whom she has a personal spat, but nevertheless senator from Alaska. She can probably do it because one thing the establishment will finally get in line with is power. And there are a lot of establishment people who thought the tea party was just kind of some noisy people over there. Well, then Mitch McConnell, the leader in the Senate gave up a lifelong support for earmarks because the tea party now holds control. So she just needs to get power in a way that the establishment can worry about. And you’ll see some people start coming behind her. Yes.
MS. NORRIS: They’ll be drawn to her then.
MR. BAKER: What about this reality show? Talk about that for a second. I mean, this is not a conventional path to the Oval Office. Karl Rove said this doesn’t make you look like you’re presidential. On the other hand, I was talking to a Democrat in Washington today, who’s not a Sarah Palin fan. He said she came across as very authentic to him and it really changed his view of her.
MR. DICKERSON: Most candidates we’ve all covered – what’s the big thing they try and do? Come across as authentic. George Herbert Walker Bush seen in that clip earlier, remember, he ate pork rinds and there was a lot of telling us about how he ate pork rinds.
MS. NORRIS: And the supermarket scanner.
MR. DICKERSON: They used to even try and do this with Nixon which was, of course, a lost cause. So they’re all trying to be authentic. And Sarah Palin comes across in that show as quite authentic. You can’t fake the things she is doing. And so she has that in her corner and that’s why so many of her people they love her because she’s authentic and she tells it like it is.
The problem with these approval ratings though is from moderates and independents. If they don’t like you telling it like it is – and in this book, she tells it – like she goes back to the ’60s and militant bra burners that she talks – she disinters Murphy Brown. Remember that show? She brings that up again. The Kennedy speech on religion. A lot of values, kind of confrontational things. If you’re trying to make people like you, some may love that kind of tell it like it is. Others may think that’s a little abrasive. So how does that message from the book mix with this authentic message in the TV show and that mix will be what determines whether she’s able to do it or not.
MS. NORRIS: Let’s turn to the Supreme Court where now two months into the latest term it’s a court with three women on the bench for the first time. But nonetheless, there have not been major ideological shifts. The court will tackle or consider a number of hot-button issues in the weeks ahead, including a controversial immigration statute in Arizona and a class action civil rights lawsuit against Wal-Mart. But first, Joan, what have we seen in the early months of this newly composed court?
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. While you’ve been watching Sarah Palin, Elena Kagan’s in our sights. She is our newest justice. She succeeded Justice John Paul Stevens. But we also have Justice Sonia Sotomayor who’s only been on for a year herself having succeeded Justice David Souter. And it’s a whole new bench. It’s a whole new bench. They’re quite – both of those new justices are quite active. Elena Kagan, because she used to be the government’s top lawyer before the Supreme Court, has had to recuse herself, take herself out of a handful of government cases. But in the ones that she’s in, she’s very focused. She mixes it up. She can get in there and ask a lot of pointed questions. I think she’s going to be a real player both during oral arguments but also on the law. So we’ve seen our freshman justice come in and already start making a difference. But at the same time, despite these changes, we have seen a lot of the same ideological divisions: five conservatives still on the bench, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito on one side, and then the liberal appointees from Presidents Clinton and Obama on the other side. And that emerged, for example, in one early case we had where the justices by a five to four vote let an Arizona murder be executed with a lethal injection that was part from chemicals obtained abroad. It was the very first time that apparently a lethal injection had gone forward with chemicals that were not manufactured here. And it was the conservative majority led by John Roberts saying, no. We don’t think there’s any problem. But the liberals protested. Elena Kagan cast her first major vote there.
MS. NORRIS: Joan, there are a lot of interesting cases ahead. But of all those that are ahead on the docket, is there one in particular that you think is worth flagging?
MS. BISKUPIC: That’s a tough question.
MS. NORRIS: I know it’s a tough question to ask as a (courtroom ?) reporter.
MS. BISKUPIC: They’re all so interesting. But let me tell you one that’s under the radar screen right now that might be interesting to viewers, especially in light of the fact that we’re in two wars right now, in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s a case that will be heard on December 6th, Monday, in the new sitting where the justices will look at a veteran from the Korean War who was denied some veteran’s benefits. He had come back from Korea with paranoid schizophrenia. He had been deemed 100 percent disabled because of his service and because of the mental health issues. And he had filed for additional in-home care as an older vet, had been denied and missed a deadline for appeal by – this 120-day deadline for appeal by a short period and was shut down in all lower courts. They said, you missed the deadline, you don’t get benefits.
So he’s appealing in a case that’s very sympathetic for him. He actually has recently passed away and his widow has taken the case. But think of all – what do we have, about 40,000 returning vets with injuries who are all going through the VA system? I think this is going to be a very important case to see how the justices interpret the statute and say, you missed a deadline, pal. You’re out of luck.
MR. BAKER: Talking about Chief Justice Roberts. He’s now been on the court about five years, right?
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes.
MR. BAKER: So what have we learned about him as a leader of this court? How has he put his mark on it?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, it’s interesting. He’s been part of this very conservative block still. He’s liked among his colleagues – that’s for sure. But he has not been as willing to compromise on some things as it appeared that his predecessor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist did. He’s been pretty hard lined. He’s taken – you know, at oral arguments, I was – mentioned it to Michele – he’s had to play a big of a traffic cop role now because of how active this bench is. So I’ve heard him say, you know, we’ll be watching arguments and he’ll say to the lawyer at the lectern, could you please go back to Justice Breyer’s question because you were just cut off by Justice Scalia? You know, so he’s definitely liked by his colleagues. But I have to say he has shown himself to be consistently what President Bush wanted on the court, a strong conservative.
MR. DICKERSON: Joan, do we know anything about how these new folks get along? Are there sort of any special relationships that have grown in this new court?
MS. BISKUPIC: Oh, that’s a good question because, you know, they’re appointed for life. So for better or for worse –
MR. DICKERSON: It’s a long time.
MS. BISKUPIC: But Elena Kagan recently went skeet shooting with our favorite hunting justice, Antonin Scalia who, of course – yes. Yes. They actually – they get along splendidly. She’s sort of his kind of liberal, even though, of course, he doesn’t really care for liberals. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg is also a pal of his and they do a lot of opera and theater together. But it emerged that Elena Kagan, who used to be the dean at Harvard Law School where Justice Scalia had gone, they’ve developed quite a palship themselves.
MS. NORRIS: One quick question: will they show up for the state of the union?
MS. BISKUPIC: Oh, Stephen Breyer says it’s a lot of fun. He’ll go. I don’t think all of them will. (Laughter.)
MS. NORRIS: That’s it for tonight. That will wrap it up for us. But our conversation will continue online with the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” Be sure to check it out at pbs.org. And also, look for our latest entry “From the Vault” and there we’ll take you back to Thanksgiving week 1993. I’m Michele Norris. Gwen will be back around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.