MS. IFILL: President’s Obama’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week, plus fallout from the GOP debate and poverty in America, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, there’re folks in Washington who may be fine waiting until the next election to settle our differences and move forward, but the next election is 14 months away. The American people can’t wait that long.
MS. IFILL: That was the president’s sixth pitch this week for his jobs plan. But is anybody listening?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): Let’s be honest with ourselves. The president’s proposals are a poor substitute for the pro-growth policies that are needed to remove barriers to job creation in America.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): What the president proposed so far is not serious and it’s not a jobs plan.
MS. IFILL: As the battle heats up along Pennsylvania Avenue, GOP candidates draw new lines in the sand, too.
FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): The question is do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out and returned to the states, or do you want to retreat from that?
GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX): I think we ought to have a conversation –
GOV. ROMNEY: We’re having that right now, Governor. We’re running for president.
MS. IFILL: The fight is engaged over social programs, immigration, and mandatory vaccinations, while Census numbers show more Americans stuck in poverty than ever before. Will any of these debates speak to that?
Covering the week, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, Beth Reinhard of National Journal, Charles Babington of the Associated Press, and Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post.
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, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. A lot of things got thrown into sharper focus this week as the president upped the ante on the pitch to sell his jobs plan and as members of Congress whose political approval remain even lower than the president’s prepare to push back. But troubles are piling up. Democrats lost two special House races. And the American public is showing signs of despair that the nation will ever turn the corner. Tonight, we talk about the consequences. The president’s goal is to dismiss all opposition to his plan as garden-variety Washington politics.
PRES. OBAMA: They don’t want to pass it because it would give me a win. Give me a win? Give me a break. (Applause.) That’s exactly why folks are fed up with Washington.
MS. IFILL: The Republicans’ goal is to signal they are willing to at least listen to the president, but only this much.
REP. BOEHNER: Tax increases I think are off the table. And I don’t think they’re a viable option for the Joint Committee. It’s a very simple equation. Tax increases destroy jobs and the Joint Committee is a jobs committee.
MS. IFILL: The stakes seem to grow higher every week, don’t they, John?
MR. DICKERSON: They do. And for the president the stakes were growing in ways that were big and small. We had – in economic indicators we had these horrible numbers about the poverty that we’re going to talk about later, but we also had weekly jobless claims go up, which means this is looking like another bad month for jobs. The president lost – the Democrats lost those two elections. The Republicans had their best fundraising month in August, the best August they’ve ever had. That’s on the political side.
But if you look at the polling, CBS did a poll that came out today. And there’re two key numbers people look at when they look at reelections of presidents and that’s what we’re all about here. Even in this conversation about jobs, the focus is so much about the president and whether he’ll get reelected. Two numbers people look at: the approval rating of the president and also the right track, wrong track. Do people feel like the country’s on the wrong track? Well 72 percent feel like the country’s on the wrong track. That’s the worst it’s been under Obama’s administration. And then his approval rating: 43 percent, that’s the worst it’s been.
So those two numbers are very bad for the president. And if you look at this signature program he put out, he gave a big speech last week, he said pass this bill. And he went all around talking about pass this bill. No one seems to have the fierce urgency of now in Washington, a phrase the president used to use to actually listen and heed the president, which means he’s putting no pressure on the Republicans, and he’s getting some pushback from senators in his own party. So he’s not even able to assert or exert pressure on Democrats of his own party.
MS. IFILL: So is the plan bad for the president to try to rise above Washington, speak past like the people at this table, and say six times is the charm and just this week, but then he’s off next week again?
MS. REINHARD: Right, I think that’s what he’s trying to do – get out of Washington. He’s been to Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina.
MS. IFILL: Anything significant about those states?
MS. REINHARD: I was about to say. North Carolina I think is a state he won by the closest margin. Virginia, I don’t think it’d been won by a Democrat in four decades. And Ohio is always a swing state. So it’s no accident that he’s going to those states. Next week he’s headed to Rick Perry’s backyard, in Texas.
MS. IFILL: What’s he doing in Texas, it’s not like he has a chance to win Texas, does he?
MS. REINHARD: No, but probably doing some fundraising there and, you know, continuing to make his pitch on the road.
MR. DICKERSON: And he’s got three days at the United Nations next week, which is basically a huge distraction because they’re trying to stay focused on jobs. They focused on showing that the president is focused on jobs. And he’s got to go up to the U.N. and talk about foreign policy. And not only that, but he’s got some actually very complicated, nettlesome issues at the U.N. -- Palestinian statehood -- that are only going to cause him headaches. It’s not, in other words, a chance for him to go and be presidential in a way that burnishes his standing with the voters.
MS. IFILL: There was one day this week, where I picked up this paper, Beth, and there was a story about an attack in Afghanistan, where his leaders, his military advisors had told him the Taliban was now a dead letter. There was another story about the solar panel company that the White House has been advocating for, given a lot of government money before that collapsed. There was another – there were about five stories on page one, which were all bad news for the president and maybe only one about the Republicans fighting among themselves, which meant that he was in rock-and-a-hard-place time.
MS. REINHARD: Right, I mean I think there’s definitely a feeling that things have reached critical mass, wheels are coming off the bus, bottom’s falling out, use whatever metaphor –
MS. IFILL: Is that feeling among Democrats or among people in the White House? I mean Democrats outside the White House or inside the White House.
MS. REINHARD: Inside the White House at least, you know, what they told reporters like myself, I mean, there’s pushback. There’s no sense of panic here. You know, we’re still doing very well among the Democratic base. There’s 14 months till election, lots of time. And the other point that folks in White House make is that, you know, there’s no one that they’re comparing Barack Obama to now, right now. I mean, at some point, it will become a choice between Barack Obama and someone else. And right now, people are just asking people how do you feel about the president who’s in charge. And so I agree that once there’s that frame on it for the general election, that will be a different question.
MR. FLETCHER: So does it feel like, in their eyes, do they feel like they’re on the right track then just by holding steady, having the president continue to talk about the things he’s talked about for months and months now? Or did they – do you sense that they need a change or they sense that they need a change?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I think there’re kind of two minds. I mean, they obviously need to do some kind of change. And you see the president in that clip that we played. That’s a more campaign voice. He’s making – what they need to do is show that he’s being reasonable, that the policies he’s putting forward are reasonable, and that Republicans are the ones being unreasonable. And to make that third point part of that case, he needs to get into a slightly more of a campaign mode, although, of course, there’s danger in that because it looks like he’s then fully engaged in the campaign mode. And so they’re trying to strike that careful balance.
James Carville, who was Bill Clinton’s political guru, wrote something for CNN this week, saying it’s time to panic. President should be firing people. They should be indicting people for the financial scandals. It was a little hyperbolic because the problem with the president –
MS. IFILL: James Carville hyperbolic?
MR. DICKERSON: I know. It’s shocking. It’s true. But the problem of course for the president is that a lot of people on the left want this kind of really passionate action for him, but he’s a bit constrained because for the president to do anything bold enough to get everybody to kind of wake up and listen to him is probably boldness that’s beyond his office. People don’t like presidents to panic.
MS. IFILL: But we had elections this week. I mean sometimes you can talk about in theory what they should or should not do, but in the New York 9th District, a district – for a special House seat, Anthony Weiner’s seat, and which Democrats have held for 90 years, down the drain. In Nevada, which even though it was a Republican seat, the president actually run neck and neck there, he lost that seat by 22 points. Aren’t they worried about that?
MS. REINHARD: I mean, they should be, though I think both of those were alarm bells loud and clear in that they were both races that were framed on the president and while, like you said, the Nevada seat leaned Republican, the other seat was solid Democratic stronghold. And that should definitely be a warning sign.
MR. BABINGTON: John, you talked about the more combative voice, but we’ve kind of heard that before. The push and the pull is that he’s trying to show that he’s working with the Republicans and yet the Republicans have not yielded. And we’ve seen this going on for months. Is there a way out for him? What does he do? Does he just keep sort of inching along or –
MR. DICKERSON: Yes, well this is the problem. They got – they have not other measure. I mean, the president – and the bully pulpit isn’t what it used to be. He probably never was. We overemphasized the power of the rhetorical presidency, but it sure isn’t there for this president. But what else can they do? And their hope is that they can continue to make the case the Republicans will look so far outside the mainstream.
And you know, going to Beth’s point she mentioned earlier, the argument from the White House is that, look, if you look at the president’s approval ratings, they’re not great, but Congress’ approval ratings in that CBS poll is 12 percent. You have to actively hurt people to get it much worse than 12 percent. And also if you look on the individual attributes, voters say they prefer the president’s plans to the Republican plans. They think the Republicans are being obstructionist. And on down the line, the president comes out ahead.
But remember before the 2012 – 2010 elections. There were all these instances in which you’d ask voters down the line, who do you prefer. And they’d answer always Republicans, Republicans. And then you’d say in the end, well, then which party will you be voting for in the congressional elections? And they would say, we would prefer the Republicans. So instead of saying that the Democrats were the ones that they preferred on these individual items, but they voted for the Republican in the end. So with the president, the question is when voters say we prefer the president to the Republicans, will they say that on individual items, but in the end pick the other guy?
MS. IFILL: You know, I want to meet the 12 percent, by the way, and ask them kind of what it is they like because I’d be really very curious to know the answer.
Let’s go to Florida, which is a perfect example of a swing state in which the Republicans are taking a couple of bites at that apple. They did a debate there last week. They’re coming back again this week, different areas of the state. Is that gettable anymore or at least in this current environment if the elections were held tomorrow, as people like to say?
MS. REINHARD: You know the president’s approval is fairly low in Florida and not surprisingly the unemployment rate and foreclosure rates are both higher in Florida than the national average. So it makes sense that his approval would be low. You know, it is 14 months out, but the polls show if the election was held tomorrow, he’d be in trouble. And his Republican rivals are polling pretty evenly with him at this point.
MR. DICKERSON: Although the White House says that given this terrible environment we’re in, 9 percent unemployment, 14 million people unemployed, that pulling even is okay because the president hasn’t fully engaged and they started putting ads on the air. That’s their answer for why even it’s still okay because, you know, they expect it should be worse given the president’s problem.
MS. IFILL: Are these the same political advisors who thought New York 9 was going to work for them?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, they – of course they argue in New York 9 this is just a snapshot of what has been a volatile situation. Several months ago, you remember, in the 26th District in New York, there was a victory by a Democrat and everybody was saying, ah, this is a sign that Republicans have overreached. So they argue this is momentary volatility. Look, things are quite bad.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. DICKERSON: But they at least have a case that they’re following that they believe is – you know, all hope is not lost.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you both. And welcome to Washington Week, Beth.
MS. REINHARD: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: More consequences, this time on the Republican Side. As presidential candidates met to debate having apparently discovered that before they can take on President Obama, they need to sort things out among themselves. Front runner Rick Perry was the target. Here, Michele Bachmann takes him to task for supporting HPV vaccinations for young girls.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN): To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. (Applause.)
The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor and this is just flat out wrong.
MS. IFILL: Perry, meanwhile, tried to keep the focus on the president.
GOV. PERRY: We don’t need to elect a nominee who’s going to blur the lines between this administration and the Republican Party. We need a nominee who draws a distinct and a clear contrast.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s certainly a distinct and clear contrast. And there weren’t any lines blurred on that debate stage, either, Chuck.
MR. BABINGTON: No, there weren’t, Gwen. A couple of weeks ago, you had a debate in California that was kind of between Romney and Perry. And this debate in Tampa, last week, it was everybody ganged up against Rick Perry. He’s clearly a frontrunner. Everyone knows that they can’t keep talking about Obama in this context because this is what primaries are for. This is what elections are about. They only can select one nominee in the end. So now that Perry is the frontrunner, they came at him really on a number of fronts.
We’ve heard a lot about Social Security. They slightly changed the tactic on that. They had been harping before, but then calling a Ponzi scheme, that sort of thing. This time, as we saw on the clip, Mitt Romney focused on what he had said in a book earlier, thinking that he can get a little more traction on that. But they came at him on this vaccine issue and other –
MS. IFILL: Explain the vaccine issue a little bit because we just heard what Michele Bachmann said, but we didn’t hear Perry’s answer.
MR. BABINGTON: Right. He’s still governor of Texas. There’s a virus that can cause cervical cancer. There’s a vaccine that’s pretty effective and it’s most effective if it’s given to girls when they’re about 12 or 11, that age. And so Governor Perry wanted to mandate that unless parents said no, all the school girls in Texas would be vaccinated. He – the legislature said no. It never was implemented. And now Perry says he handled it badly. But one of the problems is that Merck, the company that made it, has given him money and one of his former top aides is a lobbyist for Merck.
MR. DICKERSON: Is the worry about Perry – because these are hits from the right – the argument about HPV is that this was an overreach by the government. He was also hit on immigration that he was too lenient. Is he vulnerable from the right or is it a larger problem about his potential electability in the general election?
MR. BABINGTON: I think his rivals are trying to figure that out, John, because they certainly are coming at him from the left, if you will, on Social security, saying he’s too far out there. He’s radical. He’s out of the mainstream. Romney has gone so far to say, you know, this will ruin the party if he’s a nominee with these positions on Social Security. I think they’re sort of trying the kitchen sink. You know, they’re just throwing everything at him and seeing what might work and not work. They’re feeling their way – we’re going to see – we have another debate in Orlando, on Thursday. There can be some other forms there connected with that. I bet you’re going to see them keep coming at him and – because they have not knocked him off his pedestal yet.
MR. FLETCHER: What has he done so far? Has he pushed back much or has he stuck to his guns?
MR. BABINGTON: Yes, he’s pretty – Perry is not – doesn’t seem to be rattled. He went to Liberty University in Virginia, Falwell’s school, and spoke to like 13,000 students and spoke almost entirely about religion, his religious faith. He did not make a political speech there. And then I think he was in Richmond in that clip that we saw a minute ago and he’s staying focused on Obama. And again, he can afford to do that because he is the frontrunner. He is defending himself and he did on Social Security. It’s interesting. He is still saying I think it’s a Ponzi scheme. I don’t apologize for that. But he is not proposing any alternatives yet. Time Magazine had a long interview with him saying what would you do with Social Security. And he said, we’ll talk about that later.
MS. REINHARD: What is your glean from the debate about the other candidates, especially Mitt Romney, but also Michele Bachmann, who we were talking about a lot not that long ago, Jon Huntsman?
MR. BABINGTON: Yes, Bachmann, you know, clearly was probably the Tea Party favorite until Rick Perry came in. As soon as he started going up in the polls, she started going down. Two debates ago, she did not have a strong debate. This time, she clearly came out fighting much harder to try to regain some of that.
Huntsman, who many I guess establishment Republicans, if you will, think might – perhaps could be a good candidate, is still very low in the polls. He just can’t seem to get out of that.
MS. IFILL: One thing should be said that Michele Bachmann was great right up until the debate ended and she came out and said that that HPV vaccine caused retardation.
MR. BABINGTON: Because a woman had come up to her and said that and Michele Bachmann, without vetting that, repeated it on TV a few times. And she’s caught a lot of criticism for that.
MS. IFILL: Is it fair to say the Tea Party has a big new influence now? They were the co-sponsors of this debate. That’s who was in the room.
MR. BABINGTON: I still think, Gwen, the Tea Party is still the most dynamic force in the Republican Party now. We don’t know how long that’ll last, but, again, you know, Rick Perry – he’s not Tea Party right down the line, but he’s fairly close and he is at the top.
MS. IFILL: And if they can solve the idea of giving tuition to undocumented immigrants in Texas that perhaps he can stick with them. We’ll see. We’ll see. It’s going to be fun to watch.
Finally tonight, though, troubling news that goes beyond politics. The Census Bureau reported that one in six Americans is living in poverty. In raw numbers, that means more than 46 million people lived below the poverty line last year, 22 percent of them children. How much of this has to do with this struggling economy, Michael?
MR. FLETCHER: A big part of it. I mean, there’s sort of two things at play here. The high unemployment levels we’ve seen have pushed a lot of people who were hanging on the edge of what we would call middle class existence, pushed them back into poverty. And we’ve seen now for the fourth year in a row the number of people in poverty go up in this country. And that’s – you know, it’s been a huge problem and it’s going to continue. And that’s I think the scariest thing facing people because the joblessness is projected to continue.
MS. IFILL: We have some stereotypes in our mind about who these people are. When we look at these Census numbers, what does it tell us about the demographics of poverty, who are the faces of poverty?
MR. FLETCHER: It’s sort of – it’s everyone essentially but the elderly. It’s interesting. And throughout this whole economic decline, the people who have suffered most were those who were closest to the bottom. Another thing that was industry put was income levels. You’ve seen growing inequality in this country and the people on the bottom 10 percent of the wage earners have lost the most. And the people on the top have lost the least, kind of just making worse or trying – that’s been a kind of a disturbing part of our economy for the last 10 or 15 years. So it’s been everybody but the elderly in terms of losing ground and becoming more – African-Americans high, you know, high levels of poverty, Hispanics. Hispanic children are the biggest group of children in poverty right now.
MR. DICKERSON: And so we’ve got this terrible news and we’ve also got a Washington that doesn’t seem to be able to do anything. So what’s the – how do the policy makers respond to this?
MR. FLETCHER: It’s been cricket so far. The policymakers don’t talk about poverty. The president himself, I haven’t heard him say anything about it yet. Members of – just a few members of Congress talk about this and for the reason they don’t see votes talking about poverty. All of their campaigning, all of their talking is around the middle class and middle class issues. And looming out here are budget cuts. I mean, you talk about supporting people in poverty, but yet all the talk in Washington is about how are we going to cut domestic spending essentially going forward. So I think things are just going to be (worrisome ?).
MR. BABINGTON: That’s really interesting. Going way back, Robert Kennedy, to some degree Lyndon Johnson made political careers, a part of their political careers fighting poverty and the war on poverty. And I guess we felt like a long time ago the war on poverty must be won. And it really has just fallen off the table.
MR. FLETCHER: It fell off the table. There was rapid improvement in the ’60s and it’s kind of stopped. And we’ve been stuck in this place. When you have a bad economy, you now, poverty ticks back up. But even when things are good, it sort of stays at this level that should be uncomfortable for a country as rich as ours.
MR. BABINGTON: John Edwards tried to talk about it and he didn’t get much traction.
MR. FLETCHER: Yes, he didn’t get a lot of political traction with that.
MS. IFILL: And turned out to be a flawed messenger.
MR. BABINGTON: Yes, he did.
MS. REINHARD: The other struck me reading about those statistics was the way they define poverty. It’s something like $20,000 or $22,000 for a family of four. So when you think about that, I mean, I think most of us would consider people who earn considerably above that, fairly low income. It really – can’t grasp how big this problem is.
MR. FLETCHER: It really is. And there’s a lot of sort of controversy in think-tanks circles about sort of how you define poverty, what things are included. Do you include Food Stamps? Do you include subsidized housing? And these things aren’t included. But even if you took the most generous measure and included all of these things, a lot of people are living close to the economic edge in this country. And you know, as we said, few policymakers see any political advantage in talking about it.
MS. IFILL: How much –how much is this theme – whether it’s about poverty or even about the struggling middle class of downward mobility driving a lot of the political anxiety that we see in our political discourse, not just – everyone may not know someone who lives under the poverty line, but everybody feels that stress.
MR. FLETCHER: Yes, I think so and I think what we saw even before the recession hit, you saw more and more Americans kind of engage in this high wire act of kind of trying to sustain a middle class lifestyle, but with increasing amounts of debt, whether it was a home equity loan, whether it was the credit cards. So you have people making less, but wanting to maintain a lifestyle and borrowing more and hoping – just hoping against hope that the future will be better. So I think that’s created anxiety in them. And I think you see it in the kind of the volatility you see in politics. You know, we elected Republicans one year, throw them out because they’re not making my life better. Elect the Democrat and vice versa.
MS. IFILL: And the president is the – (inaudible) -- extend to the White House.
MR. FLETCHER: Indeed they do.
MS. IFILL: Yes, okay. Well, thank you. Thank you, Michael. Thank you everybody else as well. And thank you for joining us. The conversation has to end here, but we’ll continue it online. Want to know what we make of Tim Pawlenty’s endorsement, the Jackie Kennedy vote? Find out in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” It’ll be posted tonight at 11:00 p.m. Eastern at PBS.org. And keep up with daily developments all week online and on the air at the PBS NewsHour. We’ll sum it all up for you again as always next week, on Washington Week. Good night.