MS. IFILL: Disasters abroad and confrontation at home, plus we remember David Broder, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Everywhere you look new challenges. In Japan, where hundreds are dead and thousands are missing. In Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi clings to power. In Wisconsin, where a collective bargaining confrontation finally comes to a head. Everything lands on the president’s plate.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can’t keep on running the government based on two week extensions. That’s irresponsible.
MS. IFILL: Plus, we remember the wisdom of David Broder.
DAVID BRODER: If you’re going to try to lead that government or achieve the leadership position in that government, you have to try to build some trust for yourself.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Dan Balz and Karen Tumulty of the “Washington Post,” and Doyle McManus us of the “Los Angeles 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. Is it just me or was it a really, really long week? Just look at the range of topics at today’s presidential news conference: toppling a tyrant in Libya, providing emergency aid to an earthquake and tsunami-stricken ally, and battling continued budget standoffs at home.
PRES. OBAMA: Both sides are going to have to sit down and compromise on prudent cuts somewhere between what the Republicans were seeking that’s now been rejected and what the Democrats had agreed to that has also been rejected. It shouldn’t be that complicated.
MS. IFILL: Well, maybe it shouldn’t that be complicated, but it is. House budget Chairman Paul Ryan offered the Republican view earlier this week
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): I do believe you have to compromise and you do have to meet somewhere. The good thing for us is we’re moving in the right direction. We’re moving off those 2010 really high elevated levels. We’re trying to stop spending money we don’t have and we’ve got a lot of Democrats that are coming our way.
MS. IFILL: In Washington, in Madison, in Columbus, in Tokyo and Tripoli, so much is turning on U.S. government action or inaction. Starting with the budget, are we detecting any kind of give on this, Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: I will tell you the president’s tone sounded almost like the adult telling the kids that they can come out of the time-out corner now and start getting to work. All we really have seen this week is – as we knew it would happen, the Republican plan failed in the Senate and then the Democrat plan failed in the Senate. And so it’s very clear now that while both sides really want to avoid a government shutdown, they are not going to be able to come up with a spending bill that funds the government for the rest of the year before the next deadline. So there’s probably going to be another two or three week bill, and then – at this point, as the president said, we’ve got to quit running the government on these kind of short-term fixes. But the important thing to remember is we’re talking about a fiscal year that’s already halfway over. This is not the main event this year.
MS. IFILL: But it sounds like both sides are counting in different ways on voter exasperation. That they’ll say “just do your job.”
MR. BALZ: Well, I think they are and I think both sides feel that they may have a little bit more of the upper hand. Democrats clearly want to believe that the Republicans are going to try to go too far and that the public will reject that. But the Republicans know that the message – one of the messages coming out of last fall’s elections was alarm about government spending.
And so you’ve seen the administration, at least rhetorically, move in that direction. But we don’t see a lot of progress on getting to where they need to get. The president made it sound, as you said, like it should be easy, but it certainly isn’t. And they’re in quiet conversations between the White House and the Republicans on the Hill, but we’ll have to see next week whether that begins to develop into anything that gets them anywhere close to a real compromise.
MS. IFILL: And how much of this is about positioning and how much of this is really about policy initiatives like rolling back health care?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, it’s about both, Gwen. What struck me is that the president’s – one of the thing the president wants to do and one of the things he tried to do in the news conference was to move this discussion from the general – let’s cut spending, which most Americans want to do – to the specifics. This Republican plan, he said, is going to cut Pell grants to needy students in college. It’s going to cut Head Start.
If the Democrats can move the discussion to specifics, they’re on good ground because even though most voters want to cut spending, most the voters hate the idea of cutting any of those things, especially education.
But the other thing that we saw today is that the president is having a really hard time getting his message through with all of these other events going on. What that news conference was basically called to talk about two things. First he wanted to rebut the Republican charge that he’s the cause of higher gasoline prices, and he spent some time on that and on energy policy. And then the other was to talk about the budget, and as I say, move it to specifics. And he ended up spending most of the time talking about Japan and Libya because they’re in the news.
MS. IFILL: Well, and because there’s an overlap. When you talk about oil prices and you talk about energy prices, you’re talking about what’s happening in Libya to some extent, aren’t you?
MR. MCMANUS: You are. And Libya is one of the causes of the spike in oil prices, but it sure doesn’t make it any easier for Barack Obama to get all of us to start thinking every day about Pell grants.
MR. BALZ: And I think the president and his people recognize that whatever may happen in Libya, rising gas prices are a real political problem for them, whatever the cause may be. The recent “Wall Street” Journal-NBC News poll showed a decline in confidence in people’s view of where the economy was heading, and this was a couple weeks ago. And oil prices and gas prices have gone up. The fact that they telegraphed in advance what the main message of this press conference was going to be, i.e. gas prices, tells you everything you need to know about the sensitivity level there.
MS. TUMULTY: Okay, so it’s causing economic anxiety, but the president also pointed out the paradox, which is that one of the reasons beyond the uncertainty in the Middle East that oil prices are going up is that the economy worldwide is improving. And as it improves, demand for oil is going to be greater. So I think the president was doing a couple of things on his energy message. One, he was trying to explain that oil prices go up and down. And we’re in an up phase and we’ll be in a down phase eventually, too. But he also wanted to set it against the broader context of the need to be doing some long-term things toward energy independence, and he also wanted to rebut this idea that somehow these oil prices are going up because he’s preventing drilling from happening.
MS. IFILL: You talk about paradoxes. One of the paradoxes that we saw today is that when you talk to Americans – when you talk about intervention, you talk about intervention when it comes to something like a tsunami and an earthquake, Japan is our ally, the pictures are horrific, people say what can we do to get over there and help. When you talk about intervention in Libya, it’s a little more complicated and that’s been the source of a lot of the debate this week as well.
MR. MCMANUS: It’s a lot more complicated. And the problem that the president faces and his aides face on Libya is there are a lot of different kinds of intervention that sound bloodless and sound easy – a no-fly zone, humanitarian aid to the rebels, recognizing the rebels, arming the rebels – but all of those get you in on the ground more deeply and at every step, not just the Pentagon but in the State Department, everywhere else you have to ask yourself the question, what if that doesn’t work? What if that goes wrong? What if – to take the easiest one – humanitarian aid, let’s send a ship of medical and food aid to Benghazi, the liberal – pardon me – the rebel headquarters. And what if Gaddafi’s air force fires on those ships? Then we’re engaged in combat.
MS. IFILL: Not only that, but we are very fond, in general, of having some sort of coalition of the willing as it were and not be out on a limb by ourselves. Did we get any movement on that this week?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, the president – actually, the president, again, pointed to a contradiction here because what he’s been trying to do is make this part of the international effort. And he was also – tried to assure the American people we are not going to find ourselves in another situation as we did in the ’90s in the Balkans and in Rwanda. But as of yesterday, his own director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said in testimony in front of Congress he said, “look, the way things are going now, Gaddafi is going to prevail,” and I think that –
MS. IFILL: Which was not exactly on message.
MS. TUMULTY: – it was not on message but it, you would assume, would be the best reflection of what our own intelligence is telling us, which does suggest that there is some urgency toward getting together some kind of international effort and if not, the question becomes then what is the United States willing to do on it, though?
MR. BALZ: But the president was quick to deal with that when he was asked about it at the press conference and said, well, that may be a reflection of the fact that Gaddafi has greater forces and armaments, et cetera, all of which is correct, but that’s not policy and policy is set by the president. But we’re still waiting to see what exactly that policy is going to look like in a week or two.
MS. IFILL: How difficult is it for a president who has such a crowded agenda, living in a time when anything can happen, to crowd it even further, as we saw today with what happened in Japan and the prospect that we had for much of the day that it might actually strike U.S. shores?
MR. MCMANUS: On the tsunami you mean? Well, we left out 16 things that are also on the president’s agenda that we haven’t even talked about. Just on the foreign policy side, we’re still at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s a semi-revolution going on in Yemen and one in Bahrain. In any quiet period, you’d expect the president to be able to focus on any of those. So this is a very, very crowded agenda.
MS. IFILL: And there is a public demand for action, or is there? I don’t know. You’ve been reading the polls, Dan. Is there a public demand for action on any of these many things, on deficit reduction, on spending reduction, on international intervention?
MR. BALZ: I think there is a public desire for action on getting the government spending issue under control or dealing with the deficit, but the biggest thing people want is jobs. I mean, in terms of what the public wants, it goes back to this bread-and-butter issue of make the economy better.
MS. IFILL: Every day he’s not talking about that.
MR. BALZ: Right. I don’t think that there is a great hue and cry for intervention in Libya. People may want U.S. to lead more strongly, but I’m not sure that people are saying, yes, let’s go in there and put troops on the ground or start firing from the air. That hasn’t shown up yet.
MS. IFILL: Is there any connection at all between what we saw happening in Madison, Wisconsin this week and the state capitals, where there’s a lot of angry shouting and in this case the governor basically forced action on this bill rolling back collective bargaining rights for public unions? Is there any connection between what we see there, that sensibility, and what’s happening in Washington?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, I think it goes to what Dan was saying, which is the president’s embrace and everyone’s embrace of that we have to do something to get the budget under control, to get the deficit under control. And these governors actually do have to balance their budgets every year in almost every state. But the question in Wisconsin was whether this governor, Scott Walker, was using a crisis to further some sort of ideological agenda which was to get rid of collective bargaining for labor. Now, he insists he can’t do what he needs to do fiscally unless he does that. But that become question.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, I wanted to end this segment by talking about state politics because, of course, the person we want to talk about next loved state politics and loved talking to governors. One thing we all know for sure is that David Broder would have loved covering a week like this. You may know by now that David, one of our longest-serving and most popular “Washington Week” panelists passed away this week at the age of 81. We admired Dave for his smarts, his wit, his grace, and for being the kind of journalist we all wanted to be. In 1994, he saw President Clinton’s health care bill was about to collapse for lack of congressional support.
DAVID BRODER: He went up to Capitol Hill, as you know, this week and told the Democrats, you got to stand and fight. You got to be with me on this. We’re all in this together. They’re sending these members home very worried, frankly, that many of them will hear things at home that will make it harder for them, not easier, to vote for the president’s program.
MS. IFILL: We turned to David again on the evening of September 11, 2001, this time to gauge George Bush’s performance on the darkest night of his presidency.
MR. BRODER: I wrote down three things that I thought the president had to do before this speech begin: had to display strength, compassion, and give reassurance. I think on the first two he did well. I don’t think that, given the way these events have unfolded, he provided a great deal of reassurance that we know how to prevent it from happening again.
MS. IFILL: The dean, as we liked to call him – not to his face – as usual he was spot on. We and you benefited from his wisdom in countless inches of newspaper copy and hundreds of television appearances. And we all got to work with him, Dan literally side by side – there you are – for the last couple of decades. What a gift that was, Dan.
MR. BALZ: It’s a great gift, Gwen, and our newsroom, but many, many others that we’ve all heard from this week feel the loss, as do a lot of people who watch this program. He was the most remarkable colleague. He was the best political reporter of any generation. He defined what political reporting was. He showed us all how to do it. He was our mentor and our teacher and he did it in the most gentlemanly way imaginable.
So – he wrote a column for four years at the “Post,” and he always thought of the column as what he did in his off hours, which he literally did, as you know. He was a reporter. He was a reporter’s reporter. And he believed first and foremost that the way you did political journalism was to go out and report and particularly talk to voters.
MS. IFILL: People ask me all the time, who’s the most famous, the most important person you’ve ever interviewed, and I – thanks, I’m sure, to the inspiration of David, it’s always someone you’ve never heard of. It’s some guy in the supermarket aisle who told me what he really thought about George Bush or about John Kerry, in 2004. It’s some woman on the National Mall on the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated, sobbing and crying and telling me the story of her son. And I realized that I always got more from talking to people like that in lots of ways than in talking to presidents.
MR. MCMANUS: David spent an immense amount of time talking to voters. There’s actually a wonderful little video on the “Washington Post” website – if I can give a plug to someone else’s website – that everyone ought to go take a look at, once you’re through watching this show, because it shows David talking to voters, interviewing voters, and the fact he spent so much time talking ordinary people, getting beyond the polls, which he did look at but it’s too easy for all of us to use polls as a crutch –
MS. IFILL: Start there and end there instead of moving on.
MR. MCMANUS: Exactly. And also he talked to county chairman and local politicos all over the country. And that kind of old-fashioned shoe leather was, as someone wrote this week, the secret of his reporting, which wasn’t really a secret. And it was one of the reasons, for example, that in 1980, the weekend before Ronald Reagan’s election against Jimmy Carter, when everybody thought that was going to be – everybody here in Washington thought that was going to be a close election, and when his own newspaper’s poll, the “Washington Post’s” poll showed Carter slightly ahead in the national vote, Broder wrote a front-page piece saying, “it looks to me as if Ronald Reagan is going to win this thing.” And it was an act of brilliance –
MS. IFILL: Defiance.
MR. MCMANUS: – courage. Courage on the part of the editors. But the important thing for David was he was right.
MS. TUMULTY: The thing about David, too, was that in politics – he was a political reporter, but he was never – politics to him was never a game. It was never about keeping score. And if he had a true bias, it was that he wanted to see things work. And I keep on my desk at the office a copy of a book that he wrote with his colleague Haynes Johnson called “The System.” And it was the most remarkable behind-the-scenes look at the failed Clinton health care effort in 1994. But it was really extraordinary in that, as you read it, every page, you understood that all this machinery of government and this machinery of politics is really about whether you can get things to work for people. And in this case, it failed because it got too much caught up in the game.
MS. IFILL: One of the things I thought about David is – it’s a cliché for us to say, oh, he was a member of a dying breed. Journalism is so different. It’s so much changed. But in fact he was his own breed. Even in his heyday, he was always unto himself.
MR. BALZ: He was unique. He was unique in this important way. He did a column, had an opinion column on the op-ed pages of the “Washington Post,” and did straight news reporting. And no one questioned his integrity, or his fairness, or his balance when he came to report a story about them. They trusted David’s judgment and they knew that he would treat them fairly in his reporting. He would call it as he saw it, but he would listen to them, get their view, and put it together. So in that way, he was unique.
I think he had another thing that’s unique and you touched on it. He loved the game of politics, but he did not think of it as a game. And he always wanted to bring something more serious to it, something more elevated to it. Political reporting, today, is so much more about inside stuff and minutia. And David loved all of that, but he didn’t get trapped in it and he didn’t think that was the highest form of political journalism.
MS. IFILL: I think we can all tell our stories. In fact I’m going to ask you to when you first met David. Because when I did, I was this kid. I was this kid who was being allowed, given the great good ability to work on a national campaign for the “Washington Post” and he was so kind. And I thought “oh, this is unique what has happened between me and this man” only to discover this week that everyone has a story in which David was unnecessarily kind to us when we didn’t know better. Do you have one like that?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, I do. That’s true. You hear these stories and you realize that what you think of your own personal stories with him are actually clichés. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Who knew?
MS. TUMULTY: But my first time I ever laid eyes on him in person and having come to this business worshiping and starting by reading about him and the boys on the bus was in the Senate press gallery. And I was brand new to Washington I was in my 20s. And he was standing over one of the most junior reporters at the paper, Margaret Shapiro at the time, she was on deadline, and he’s standing there with his own notebook sort of giving her all this stuff as she’s writing. I’m going “oh, my gosh, he’s being a legman for a 20-something reporter.”
MR. BALZ: I have a different story of how I met David Broder. I was literally a kid. I was in my senior year in college and I had come out to Washington and I was working on an independent study project for my senior year in college. And I went to interview David. I set it up in advance because he was a great man and I wanted to get his view. I went to interview him. I asked him two questions and he said to me, “what does this have to do with the topic of your paper?” (Laughter.) Talk about crushed –
MS. IFILL: And talk about focused.
MR. BALZ: But it was and it was a reminder, was that thing about David that you always remember. He was gentle and helpful, but he was also focused and he would keep you focused as a journalist.
MS. IFILL: Thank you all so much for helping us to remember our friend. He will be missed at this table. He was always game for coming here and telling us what he thought and we want to know that you join us in sending our condolences to Anne, Dave’s wife for 59 years and to his sons George, Joshua, Matthew, Michael and their families, seven grandchildren. See you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.