MS. IFILL: Democrats and Republicans jockey for position in Washington, while Americans at home grow increasingly disenchanted with the spectacle. We look at the fallout, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I understand that McConnell and Reid are out doing snow angels on the South Lawn together.
MS. IFILL: Well, not exactly.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): Why are we going to talk about a bill that can’t pass?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): What we need to do is start over.
MS. IFILL: Bipartisanship remains elusive on the issues of the day, including how to fix health care and how to create jobs.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): We feel that the American people need a message. The message that they need is that we’re doing something about jobs.
MS. IFILL: But as Americans clearly lose patience with their government, some are lining up to capitalize on that discontent.
GOV. SARAH PALIN: How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?
MS. IFILL: While discontent of another type roils Iran. We look at the week with the reporters covering the stories: Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” Naftali Bendavid of the “Wall Street” Journal, Janet Hook of the “Los Angeles Times,” and David Sanger of the “New York Times.”
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, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. It would be fair if you were wondering right about now, what good is bipartisanship? Is it worth the compromise? Can lawmakers afford not to compromise? Everyone’s aiming for the same fine line – appearing to long for bipartisanship, but giving up as little as possible to achieve it.
PRES. OBAMA: But here’s the point that I made to John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Bipartisanship can’t be that I agree to all the things that they believe in or want, and they agree to none of the things I believe in and want, and that’s the price of bipartisanship.
SEN. JOHN KYL (R-AZ): The reality is on a lot of things we do work together and we do get things done. But there are a few very high-profile things on which there are profound differences, and therefore, on those matters we have an obligation to represent our constituents as best we see it.
MS. IFILL: Profound differences or not, many Americans just don’t want to hear it. A clutch of new polls told basically the same story this week – nobody’s popular. Only a narrow majority approve of President Obama’s job performance, 51 percent to 46 percent. But a much wider margin disapproves of lawmakers in Congress – 71 percent to 26 percent. And when it comes to the vaunted notion of bipartisanship, the same “Washington Post” ABC News poll shows no one is winning the day. About the same amount say the president is doing too little as say he is doing about the right amount to compromise with Republicans – 44 percent to 45 percent. But 58 percent say Republican leaders are doing too little, while only 30 percent say they are doing the right amount. So who should be riding to the rescue? Not, apparently, Sarah Palin, who made an appeal to tea party activists last weekend. Thirty seven percent view her favorably, while 55 percent see her unfavorably. Perhaps it’s a pox on everyone’s house.
Well, due to weather-related traffic snafus here on Washington tonight, both Dan Balz and Naftali Bendavid join us from studios downtown. We’ll start with the political peril for the Democrats. What do you see in all this, Dan?
MR. BALZ: Well, Gwen, I think the first thing that we clearly see is that the combination of the sour economy and the polarization here in Washington has created a very sour mood in the country. Two thirds of the people that we surveyed said they are either dissatisfied or downright angry with the way Washington is operating at this point, and that’s particularly the case among Republicans. What we are seeing is some of the highest levels of dissatisfaction that we’ve seen in a decade. Some of the things we’re seeing in the polls look similar, though not entirely identical, to what we saw before the 2006 elections, when Democrats took over the House, or the ’94 elections, when Republicans took over the Congress. So there is a lot of trouble out there. And if you’re the party in power, it tends to fall on you.
For the Democrats, I’d say there’s bad news and somewhat better news. The better news is that people still blame others more than President Obama for the current state of the economy and for the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into. They tend to blame George W. Bush, Wall Street, bankers, things like that. But the trouble for the Democrats is that President Obama’s approval ratings are hovering around 50 percent. They’ve been steady for a few months, but they are not much higher than that.
The second is that while he has an advantage over the Republicans on who the public trusts to deal with a lot of major issues, those advantages are much, much smaller today than they were last summer. Then he had advantages of in the range of 20 to 25 points. Today it’s single digits. So this is a tough environment for Democrats to defend a lot of seats that they’ve won over the last two cycles.
MS. IFILL: Okay, Naftali, so let’s flip the script to what’s happening for Republicans. Are they in the same kind of peril? They have the same kinds of challenges?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, I think the danger for the Republicans is that they interpret what’s happening right now as some sort of great outpouring of love for their party, because I really don’t think that’s what’s happening. I think what we’re seeing is a great deal of frustration with both parties and the Republicans do face the peril of possibly overplaying their hand, of coming off as being mean-spirited, of coming off as being obstructionist.
I think what we’re going to see over the next few months is the Republicans trying to make this upcoming election a referendum about Obama and the Democrats, and the Democrats really trying to make it more of a comparative contest and trying to remind voters that you may not like the Democrats, but if you vote out the Democrats, you get the Republicans, and you like the Republicans even less than you like us. So I think that’s a dynamic that we should watch for over the next few months.
MS. HOOK: To both of you, I’m wondering what you think about the – one the things that’s worked against Obama and the Democrats is the sense of failure around the health care bill that hasn’t yet – they haven’t yet finished it. And the Democrats are making the case that if the bill passes, they no longer have the liability of inaction, and then people will be judging the effects. They’ll feel the benefits of what Obama and the Democrats have delivered. And I’m just wondering if you see anything in the polls that indicate that that would turn people’s attitude around, because it seems like they’re so much more focused on the economy now.
MS. IFILL: Dan?
MR. BALZ: Janet, the polls can’t really tell us the answers to that question. But in our poll there were some interesting and I would say sort of conflicting numbers. On the one hand, around 60 percent of people think that the bills that the House and Senate pass are both too big, too complicated, and too expensive. At the same time, some of the major elements in those bills are highly popular, including the mandate that employers require – provide health care to everybody and that insurance companies not discriminate against people with preexisting conditions.
The other interesting thing is that more than 60 percent – almost two thirds – said that Congress ought to continue to try to keep working to pass comprehensive reform, which is what President Obama would like to see, and not give up. So both parties can look at these numbers and say, well, there’s something in here for me, but the public at this point would still like to see some action taken.
MR. SANGER: I’m fascinated by the role of independents in these polls because on the one hand they seem to be the ones who are moving away from President Obama most dramatically. On the other hand, it seems as if they might be won back if one side or the other could come up with the right combination, and I’m wondering what you see the polls indicating about what the independents at this point, even though they’re hardly a coherent group, might be looking for?
MS. IFILL: Naftali?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, I think right now there really is a great deal of frustration with incumbents of all stripes. And one of the interesting things we’ve been seeing over the last few weeks is a great deal of retirements. And interestingly, more of those retirements are actually coming from the Republican side than from the Democratic side, despite all the ostensible lack of popularity of the Democrats. And so I think what both parties are going to try to do is run people who can be perceived as fresh faces, and it’s people who are perhaps anti-establishment. And I think if the Democrats are careful and recruit and select and choose candidates that can put forward that idea, that they are fresh faces and that they have something new to say, then I think there’s a potential for that to work in their favor.
MS. IFILL: Well, Naftali, let me ask you to follow up on that. Someone who was considered a fresh face and still sees herself as one is Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, the not to consider running for president. Yet these same polls don’t show that she is A, that popular, or that this tea party movement that she’s been appealing to is that well-known.
MR. BENDAVID: I think one of the fascinating things that we’re seeing is exactly that, Sarah Palin’s poll numbers. Ostensibly there’s this enormous populist rage throughout the land, and nobody has done more to try to embody and represent that rage than Sarah Palin. Yet if we look at her poll numbers, they’re going steadily down, and more and more people seem to see her as a sort of celebrity commentator, rather than somebody who’s qualified to be president. Even conservatives, most of them don’t seem to see her as qualified for the presidency. And so I think we may see her energize the Republican Party. We may see her split the Republican Party, but it seems unlikely that we’re going to see her leading the Republican Party.
MS. IFILL: Dan, the Democrats seem to have their own problems with people – probably mostly in the liberal wing of their party who are pressuring them to do more.
MR. BALZ: Well, that’s been a consistent theme really through the fall and now into the winter for the Democrats, the unrest among the liberal wing of the party. They’re unhappy that there was not speedier action and more comprehensive action on health care, and they certainly want more action on the jobs front and they want a more robust response on that. President Obama is trying to sort of deal with that to try to keep them as happy as he can make them or as less unhappy, but that’s going to likely be a continuing problem through the spring and into the summer, is to keep the party both coherent and pushing in the same direction. We see constantly fights between one wing of the Democratic Party and the other in terms of what looks like legislation for jobs or health care. So that’s a problem that he’s got to worry about.
MS. HOOK: Well, and it seems like for all of the emphasis that Obama and others are putting on bipartisanship, those are the kinds of solutions that aren’t going to satisfy the liberal wing of the Democratic Party or the conservative wing of the Republican Party. How do you think Obama might square that circle?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think at this point the president wants simply to get some action, and if he can get a few Republicans onboard, all the better. But, I think it’s – the question is what is the White House strategy? Is it genuine bipartisanship or is it to put the Republicans in a box to make it look to the American people as though the Republicans are the ones who are blocking bipartisanship? And I think we’ll begin to see some answers to that later this month when there’s the health care summit that the president has called for February 25th.
MS. IFILL: And so far, Naftali, what we’re hearing from Republicans on the Hill is this is a setup. Is this a trap? They seem very, very concerned about walking into this meeting.
MR. BENDAVID: I think they do. I think on one hand it’s clear that the public blames them more for not being bipartisan than they blame President Obama. The polls consistently show that people give Obama credit for reaching out more. And so they are worried about seeming like they’re rebuffing everything he does. On the other hand, they don’t want this all to play into his hands, so he can then claim a victory in some way that will be politically advantageous to him.
But I think this goes to a larger frustration that people are feeling with Congress and with Washington in general. There’s increasingly a feeling, I think, that Congress can’t deal with any of the country’s big problems. Everybody agrees that health care needs to be reformed, but somehow Congress can’t get that done. People are feeling desperate for jobs, but Congress can’t pass a jobs bill. We’re in the middle of a huge financial crisis, but reregulating the banks – that seems to be beyond Congress’s abilities, too. And I think that explains some of the urgent desire on the part of the White House and the Democrats to get something done, just so that people don’t feel like no matter how many big problems the country is facing, they’re just incapable of dealing with them.
MR. BALZ: Gwen, I would add one more thing. I think the challenge for President Obama is to both try to elevate above Washington, which he has certainly been trying to do the last few weeks or months, to try to identify himself more with this kind of anger and dissatisfaction out in the country that he was able to identify with so well during the campaign and at the same time, kind of get his hands dirty trying to get Congress to move on some of these things. That’s a very difficult balancing act, one that he had trouble with in 2009, and I think that’s the big challenge for 2010.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well, we’re going to hold your thought, David, because we’re going to get back to you in a minute, because we want to move on to the question that Naftali just alluded to, which is this jobs bill. Everybody agrees on this, right? So riddle me this: if everyone does agree that something needs to be done about job creation and two leading senators come up with a bipartisan jobs bill, when is that not a slam dunk? Answer: when the majority leader says it’s not. That’s what happened within the last 24 hours here on Capitol Hill, when an $85 billion compromise was whittled down to a $15 billion one. What happened, Janet?
MS. HOOK: Yes, it was a little bit of an Alice-in-Wonderland moment on Capitol Hill, when Republicans sign on to an $85 billion bill and the Democratic leader proposes a $15 billion.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. HOOK: What happened – in many ways this is an episode that shows how much the political landscape on Capitol Hill has changed and how hard it is for Democrats to get their footing. Now that they don’t have their filibuster proof 60-vote majority, if they really want to do something, they have to get Republican votes. So they set out to get a jobs bill that could win Republican votes. They set Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley, Republican and Democratic leader of the Finance Committee, to work on a bill. They produced an $85 billion bill that had tax cuts and spending programs to help stimulate jobs. Presents this bill early in the day one day, and then Reid comes out and says that he’s just –
MS. IFILL: Yesterday. This was all yesterday.
MS. HOOK: – he just wants to focus on this one small part of the bill, move that forward quickly. It’s uncontroversial. It’s stuff that will make jobs quickly. It’s tax cuts for – a payroll tax exemption for employers who hire unemployed workers, and it’s infrastructure spending to get construction moving.
MS. IFILL: And will send a message.
MS. HOOK: And it’ll send a message. Now, okay, so what’s wrong with this picture? You have to look at what he cut out. And the parts that he didn’t go along with explain both what he was – what he was worried about and why it was a risky thing. What he was worried about is some of the other things in the bill were completely unrelated to job creation. It was blocking a fee cut for doctors under Medicare. It was disaster assistance for flooded areas. And he thought it started to look like the kind of porky stuff that had been in the health care bill that gave him a lot of trouble.
MS. IFILL: David?
MR. SANGER: Janet, what strikes me the most about the $15 billion number is that while it’s a lot of money by anybody’s measure, it’s not a lot of money within the – given the scope of both this economy and even the federal budget. We’re going to have next year or this year a $1.6 trillion deficit. Fifteen billion dollars doesn’t add up to very much on that and certainly doesn’t seem to add up to many jobs. How do they reconcile this with what economists tell you it would or would not accomplish in the job market?
MS. HOOK: Well, you’re right. Fifteen billion dollars doesn’t sound like a lot and neither does $85 billion when you’re looking at the scope of the problem. But I think what you’re seeing is that this is the price of what happens when you’ve got a gridlocked political system and you’re looking for common ground. You go small. And I think that the House has passed a much bigger bill. They, in December, acted and voted strictly party lines for $150 billion. And there’s also a debate about the $15 billion. Is it well spent? Tax cuts versus spending. So I think one thing everybody agrees on is this is an underpowered program.
MS. IFILL: Naftali?
MR. BENDAVID: Yes, I wanted to ask. Republicans seemed kinds of miffed when Harry Reid did this. And I’m wondering sort of what happens next? Do Republicans sign on to this smaller bill that Reid is proposing? Or is that something that they react against? And what about all the stuff that Reid took out? Is that something that Congress is likely to act on? What’s the next step?
MS. HOOK: Well, Naftali, that’s – the million dollar question is what do Republicans do now? Because while they signed on to this bigger compromise, included in the stuff that Harry Reid took out were some provisions that were important to the Republicans, like a big part of why they agreed to the compromise – some tax breaks for businesses, an extension of some that had expired. So right now they’re all really mad because they thought that they had a deal, and the deal was off. And so they’re not going to be voting on anything for another week because Congress is in recess. And as soon as they come back Harry Reid scheduled a test vote, and the question is whether Republicans are going to be still so mad about the deal-breaking that they’re willing to vote against a bill that has provisions that they not only supported.
MS. IFILL: Time for a quick question, Dan?
MR. BALZ: Yes, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, seems cool to the package that the Senate is looking at. How much difference of opinion is there between Democratic leaders in the two chambers, and what can President Obama do to try to resolve that?
MS. HOOK: I think both sides, the House and Senate, are interested in getting anything they can. And if they can only get a small bill out of the Senate, Nancy Pelosi isn’t going to stop it. I do think that they disagree on the substance, but maybe not on the tactics.
MS. IFILL: Okay, thanks, Janet. Now we’re going to turn to foreign policy. New developments in Iran about a set of old issues – domestic unrest, nuclear ambition, and threatened international sanctions. But as we look at the unpredictable state of affairs there, what of these three things is real, David, and what is not?
MR. SANGER: Well, one thing that’s real is that the government is under continued attack from some portion of its own people – 30, 40 percent. And, yet, in these particular protests this week, which mark the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution, very few of the protesters ventured out. The crackdown was very effective. The government cut off a lot of the internet and Twitter connections that the protesters were using so successfully in the past to organize themselves.
The second thing that’s clear is that President Ahmadinejad has managed to exaggerate what Iran’s nuclear capability was. He stepped out and said, “We are now a nuclear state.” Well, that’s great. They were a nuclear state last year, too because they were enriching uranium. Many others that don’t have nuclear weapons are nuclear states – Japan, for example.
What he then went on to say, though, was that he had ordered the government to begin to enrich uranium to a much higher level, not to fill “Washington Week” with too much physics here, but for reactor fuel the Iranians have been making enriched uranium at about 3.5 percent. The president of Iran now says they’re going to 20 percent, and that’s most of the way, given the effort, to get to weapons grade fuel.
MS. IFILL: So the next part becomes what are we or the international community going to do about it? And the president was making noises about sanctions again this week.
MR. SANGER: He was. He’s moved fairly slowly on this. He’s been talking about sanctions for a long time, but there is still no proposal out that’s being circulated at the United Nations for exactly what those sanctions would look like. The president has said he wants to focus them on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The problem with this is that there have been three successive sanctions resolutions through the United Nations that haven’t done much good. It’s not clear whether President Obama could survive with much credibility if he passes a fourth set of sanctions that also don’t have much effect on the Iranian government.
MS. HOOK: Well, and for sanctions – international sanctions to work, don’t you have to have China on board? And I’m just wondering. Can Obama work that into the deal?
MR. SANGER: This is the big part for his credibility and also for how well his engagement policy works with the Chinese. The Chinese get most of – a good deal of their oil from Iran, about 15 percent. And that means that they are very hesitant to cross the Iranians. And so far President Obama has not come up with the magic formula to bring them around. The Russians seem to be coming to the thought that some sanctions are needed.
MS. IFILL: Naftali?
MR. BENDAVID: Yes, I just wanted to go back to the protests. It did sort of seem like the government relatively successfully suppressed them. Is that’s sort of where the balance of power is now, are they now able to pretty much clamp down on these demonstrations whenever they occur? What is the balance of power between the protesters and the government these days?
MR. SANGER: That’s one of the great mysteries right now, Naftali, because the protesters have been very good until now at taking the government by surprise. Everybody knew that because this was a big national holiday, the protesters would be out there, and so the government brought out all their big guns, literally and figuratively. And one of the questions now is are the protesters just biding their time waiting for a less obvious moment, or is it more like Tiananmen, where the Chinese actually cracked down on a protest movement and managed to break it?
MS. IFILL: Dan?
MR. BALZ: David, the question I wanted to ask you has to do with the issue of the administration’s position on this, that for the first year the president wanted engagement, diplomatic outreach. How do they view that policy at this point? Do they think that that has failed, or they still defend that as having been necessary to try to move the process forward?
MR. SANGER: They certainly defend it, Dan. And you’ve heard a lot of criticism from the Republicans, even from the tea party about how engagement has failed. The administration tells a very different story. They believe that unless President Obama had tried this, had reached out to the Islamic world, had made an offer to talk to the Iranians, that there would be no way to put sanctions together now. That he had to show that he was making a bona fide offer. The potential weak point in this strategy is that if he’s made his bona fide offer and he still doesn’t get the sanctions, people will come back and say, did you waste a year?
MS. IFILL: Thank you, David. Thank you, Janet for making it around the table. Thank you, Naftali, and to Dan, for trying to make it here. We have to leave you now, but the conversation continues online. Send us your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll use them in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour” and then join us again around the table, we all hope, next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.