MR. WILLIAMS: Drilling for energy and for support on health care, shaking hands with the troops on a surprise trip overseas, and uncovering a possible threat to domestic security, tonight on “Washington Week.” The president rallies for support of the health care law as new poll numbers show low marks for him and Congress. The president says, give it a chance.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: The polls haven’t changed yet. Well, yes, it just happened last week.
MR. WILLIAMS: Looking to expand the energy sources, the administration takes the first steps in allowing more oil and gas drilling offshore.
SEC. KEN SALAZAR: This is a good balance between conservation and development that gives us the energy security that we need.
MR. WILLIAMS: But how much energy would it actually produce at how much risk to the environment?
Half a world away, a reminder of the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the president visits American troops.
PRES. OBAMA: We did not choose this war. This was not an act of America wanting to expand its influence.
MR. WILLIAMS: But did he make any headway with the government in Afghanistan plagued by corruption?
And the FBI rounds up nine members of a militia style group in Michigan charged with plotting violence against police.
FBI Agent: They could kill a lot of people just by themselves.
MR. WILLIAMS: What does it tell us about the threat of domestic terrorism? Those stories this week from the reporters who covered them: Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” John Harwood of CNBC and the “New York Times,” Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and Michael Duffy of “Time” Magazine.
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: Here again, live from Washington, substituting for Gwen Ifill, Pete Williams of NBC News.
MR. WILLIAMS: Good evening. President Obama was a man in motion this week. Free from having to pace like an expectant father in the waiting room while Congress gave birth to the health care law, he made a surprise trip to Afghanistan, inspected flooding in the Northeast, and worked hard to turn the focus to the economy. But new polls out this week suggest that public concern over the health care law and the overall direction of the administration may be draining his political batteries, not recharging them. A new Gallup Poll showed 50 percent of respondents think he does not deserve reelection. By that same split, a “Washington Post” poll also found about the same number opposed the new changes in the health care law more than support them. But the president said it’s too soon to be asking these questions.
PRES. OBAMA: Can you imagine if some of these reporters were working on a farm and you planted some seeds and they came out next day and they looked. Nothing’s happened. It’s been a week, folks. So before we find out if people like health care reform, we should wait to see what happens when we actually put it into place.
MR. WILLIAMS: So how about that, Dan? Does the president have a point?
MR. BALZ: Well, yes, we are an impatient lot and we’d like to see instant results. I think the reality is that this White House watches polls as closely as anybody else and if there were any sign or movement, they would be trumpeting. So far there isn’t. Public opinion on health care right now reminds me of what it was on Iraq in 2006 and 2007 and a good part of 2008, which is to say frozen and divided. And it’s going to take some external events and time for that to change. And I think the real issue is how much can President Obama hasten that change in public opinion. He knows he’s got a sales job to do. He’s been out selling it since it passed. There are a lot of people, A, who don’t like it and a lot more people, I think, who don’t really understand it. And so he’s got to do that, but he’s also got to focus on the economy, where he got a little good news this week, but not out of the woods. And he wants to score some other legislative victories. And whether he can do all that and sell this health care bill is another question.
MR. DUFFY: Yes, last week, we heard from Republicans, Dan, almost a chorus of repeal and replace. That seems to have abated. Is that good news for the president or is that just a short-term quiet?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think it’s some good news. I think it’s a recognition that while that was a very catchy slogan, nice and succinct, and something people could remember, A, it’s impractical. There’s no way this bill will get to this law and now it will get repealed as long as President Obama’s in the White House. And there clearly are things in this new law that people like and are going to like more as they learn more about it. And so you can almost write the ads that the Democrats will run against Republicans who say they’re going to repeal it. So we’ve seen some squishiness on the side of the Republicans in the last few days and I suspect we’ll see more.
MR. HARWOOD: Let me ask you to play the role of a wise farmer, thinking about his crop, not a mindless pundit, and think about these seeds the president’s planted. So you’ve got two things that you mentioned. One is explaining the law, letting people comprehend what’s been done. And the second thing is going out on the road and trumpeting specific provisions, what’s going on with preexisting conditions, letting kids stay on their parents’ health care plan until they’re 26 years old, closing the donut hole? How effective can a presidential bully pulpit in a bad economy like we’re experiencing be in breaking through?
MR. BALZ: My sense is that it’s going to be difficult. And that’s based in part on the evidence of the last year. They have been talking about these provisions for the better part of the year, and it has not had much effect on the way the public generally sees the law. Now –
MR. HARWOOD: Is that because they’ve been talking about it badly or because in the media culture we’re in right now it’s hard for anybody to break through, even if you’re doing it right.
MR. BALZ: Well, part of it is it’s hard to break through. Part of it is he can’t do it every day in the way that if you’re on campaign trail you can deliver the same message every day. But also, I think that part of the opposition has less to do with specific provisions and the sense that this bill is too big, too costly, too much government. And individual provisions won’t necessarily erase those perceptions.
MS. RADDATZ: Dan, obviously there are other issues here and there’re other issues in the poll that we cover. Is there anything in your polling that is encouraging, that the president can look forward to?
MR. BALZ: Yes. The most encouraging thing we saw in the poll – and it’s a small thing, but could be significant – and that is there seems to be now more enthusiasm among Democrats about this bill. Fifty six percent of Democrats said they are now – they strongly favor what’s in this bill. A month ago, that was 41 percent. Now, that’s important because of this enthusiasm gap that we’ve seen for the last six or eight months. Republicans are more energized. They’re more motivated to go out and vote. This passage of this bill was crucial, I think, to the White House and to the Democratic Party’s hopes of revving up their base.
MR. HARWOOD: How survivable is this for some of those marginal Democrats? You were out in Colorado this week visiting one of them.
MR. BALZ: I was in the Fourth District in Colorado. Representative Betsy Markey, who is a first term Democrat in a Republican district, is in trouble. She was in trouble before. She switched her vote from no to yes. She’s going to have not just a strong Republican team running against her, but also outside groups. She knows she’s on the defensive. She thinks she can weather it.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right, Dan, thank you. Back in the State of the Union message, the president said that he would open new areas off the U.S. coast for oil and gas drilling. And this week he followed through, taking the first step toward allowing it along much of the East Coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, and along parts of the coast of Alaska. And he said this week that he hoped the response would not follow familiar battle lines.
PRES. OBAMA: Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all, and those who would claim it has no place.
MR. WILLIAMS: So John, you followed the announcement and the response. Did the president get his wish?
MR. HARWOOD: He did. And one of the things you hope for with an announcement like that is you tick off people on both sides and that provides evidence to the voters that you’re splitting the difference in a balanced way. He got some criticism, cool statement from Speaker Pelosi, who said anything that he does on this has to be done in an environmentally responsible way, although her home state and Barbara Boxer’s home state, California, was spared from drilling off that coast, and of course, criticism from Republicans that he hadn’t opened up enough land.
The political calculation behind this is pretty straightforward. He’s trying to get his comprehensive energy bill going. And you can see in this announcement why this is not like health care, where they didn’t need any Republican votes and moved forward without it, and not even like financial reform, where they do need a couple of Republican votes, but they think they can compel that support because Wall Street’s so unpopular. This is an issue that fractures Democrats. They’re going to lose some Democrats, especially those from energy states and more conservative states. They’ve got to pick up some Republicans and putting these 40 million acres up for potential drilling is one way to try to do that.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I want to also ask you about the economy today because the president talked about the new job numbers today while he was in North Carolina.
PRES. OBAMA: Today is an encouraging day. We learned that the economy actually produced a substantial number of jobs instead of losing a substantial number of jobs. (Applause.) We are beginning to turn the corner.
MR. WILLIAMS: But the Treasury secretary also said this week that the unemployment rate will probably remain the same, 9.7 percent, for some time to come. So what has to happen to get that rate down?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, they need to add more jobs than they’re doing right. This was the month, though, that the administration has been waiting for – positive job growth, triple digit positive job growth, more than 120,000 new jobs in the private sector. And with the revisions they made to the estimates for January and February, that added another 60,000 or so jobs to the total. What that is is evidence that the economy is beginning to turn around, but of course as that happens more people enter the labor force, look for work. That keeps the rate high and it’s likely to stay in the 10 percent range through November.
That’s very politically difficult territory for Democrats. But what the president wants is along with GDP growth, along with the solid performance of the stock market, some evidence that these policies are beginning to take root, beginning to turn around. And some economists think if you look at what’s likely to happen the rest of the year, they may end up adding a million or so jobs almost by Election Day. If that happens, that at least gives them a way to try to mitigate some of the bad public mood that they’re experiencing.
MS. RADDATZ: So John, talk a little further about the political impact of this, jobs and the oil. What does that mean for Obama?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, energy is less salient because right now we’re in a bad economy. That is an issue. It’s a very tough, uphill push for the president to get that through. A lot of people, even inside the White House, have been skeptical from the beginning that they could get that going –
MS. RADDATZ: We don’t know whether that will happen.
MR. HARWOOD: – well, right. And it goes to the point that Pete was mentioning at the top of the show, which is are the president’s batteries really drained or does he get a little extra juice from the passage of health care reform. The jobs number is really the more important issue for the electoral prospects for Democrats. And the key thing is to get something positive for a series of months, not just one job report, but over six months or so, so that Democrats can begin to say, “yes, 10 percent unemployment is bad and it’s going to be difficult job market for some time, but we’re moving in the right direction.” That’s the argument they’ve got to be able to say.
MR. DUFFY: The drilling piece that he put on the table this week, can you talk a little bit about how that represents a change in scope or scale from what the president was talking about during the campaign, a big cap and trade, much broader piece of comprehensive legislation? To what really they are likely to get even if the stars align and something? There has been a shift in scope over the last – this could be a much smaller undertaking by the time they’re done, even if things go well, correct?
MR. HARWOOD: Possible, although even a smaller bill, kind of like with a smaller health care bill, which was talked about after the Massachusetts senate race, it’s sometimes hard to make that work because one of the things the cap and trade system gives you is revenue to pay for other things that you want to do.
The president is still for capping carbon emissions, putting a price on carbon. That’s really the key thing in terms of transforming the energy foundation of the economy. But the president, of course, did not emphasize, while he was running for the Democratic nomination, oil drilling, and nuclear power. He didn’t rule them out altogether, but that clearly was not his emphasis. As he’s gotten closer to the election and to legislation since being president, he’s indicated, as Pete said, in the State of the Union and other places, that he was willing to make some compromises to try to get Republican support. And now he’s really amped that up. He picked this opportune moment after health care passed. There’s no Republicans to say, “here’s some evidence that I want to work with you, take me up on it.”
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Thank you. This week actually began with a surprise when we woke up to the news that Mr. Obama was in Afghanistan, his first visit there as president. He met with Hamid Karzai and he also spoke to American troops, saying that the U.S. would stay until the job was done.
PRES. OBAMA: We did not choose this war. This was not an act of America wanting to expand its influence, of us wanting to meddle in somebody else’s business. We were attacked viciously on 9/11.
MR. WILLIAMS: So Martha, you were along on this trip, the big surprise. You knew it was coming. What did the president get out of it? Does he get more ownership of the war there?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, he owns this war and he’s owned this war for a long time. But I think going there, he had to go there. He had to go there at some point. He’s wanted to go there since the beginning of his presidency. I think they’ve had some trips planned up until now and they just couldn’t do it because of logistics and timing and they even said because of the weather they couldn’t get over there. But I think getting there and on the ground and talking to Karzai and not having such a successful trip with Karzai, if you all noticed this week. He left – he pushed him a little bit on corruption. And then Karzai comes out and says a few days later, “today, I have come here to tell you that there was widespread fraud and rigging in the presidential and provincial elections.” And he blamed the UN. He didn’t specifically say the U.S., but he said “embassies in Kabul.”
Well, today, there was a quick turnaround. Secretary Clinton actually released a statement saying Afghan President Karzai called Secretary Clinton today to clarify his statements from yesterday. In other words, what Hamid Karzai meant to say was not actually what he said. And they pledged to continue working together in the spirit of partnership. But what happened and immediately that Hamid Karzai turns around and says things like that right after President Obama has left does not bode well for the situation.
MR. WILLIAMS: A warm thank you note.
MS. RADDATZ: A warm thank you note might not even make it better.
MR. BALZ: What is happening militarily at this point and what is coming?
MS. RADDATZ: Good question because one of the things that president said is the real reason he went over there was to see U.S. troops and to talk to U.S. troops. We’ve had this operation in Marja, which has been largely successful so far. But I think that was just a little pre-Kandahar operation. Marja was very organized, still ongoing, but Marja – they got the bad guys out of town largely. Everybody was surprised that they basically announced when they’d be going into Marja. In some ways, that lets people know what they’ve done and how well they’ve done there because they didn’t have so many enemies facing them there, although they did have a lot of explosive devices around.
But Kandahar is the key here. Kandahar is the heart of Taliban country. You’re not going to see all the Taliban leaving that area. That would be a big fight. It’ll probably start in a couple of months. And Stan McChrystal, who the president met with, who’s leading all the U.S. forces there – all the forces there – said we have to be successful in Kandahar or there won’t be success.
MR. DUFFY: By the way, surprise trips by presidents to a war zone, particularly Afghanistan, have become almost SOP, standard procedure.
MS. RADDATZ: And I’m always the one who’s surprised. (Laughter.)
MR. WILLIAMS: And the one who goes.
MS. RADDATZ: There I am on Air Force One, yes.
MR. DUFFY: The question is, after so many of them, do they still have the same political impact or are they intended to have any political impact back here at home?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think just to wave the flag and certainly to go see the U.S. troops. I have to say that – first of all, it’s at night, so it’s very odd that you’re there, standing in a courtyard with Hamid Karzai in the middle of the night. They planned this last minute, so they can’t really do all that –
MR. WILLIAMS: But they do that for security reasons.
MS. RADDATZ: – they do that for security reasons, yes indeed. But then it does become strange because he didn’t have that many activities. The U.S. troops had waited – some of them told me – four hours in the hanger, 2,000 troops. And I actually thought the chairing was not very sustained. But I’m not sure that was any sort of political statement. But you’ve got a bunch of tired, tired, tired forces over there.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I wonder, related to the question what Michael asked you, how much impact does it have on the troops and the president’s relationship. Democrats have labored on to the perception in recent years that they’re not so akin on the military, that they’re not tough on national security. Does this make an impression on the military?
MS. RADDATZ: Honestly, I think they’re thrilled to see the president. They were very excited. Cameras are flying. But then they just go right back to work. I think it’s thank you. The president was here. This is great. It doesn’t have an enormous impact, but he absolutely had to do it.
MR. WILLIAMS: I was struck by something you said in one of your web reports. You quoted the National Security Advisor General Jones as calling Hamid Karzai, quote, “an adequate strategic partner.” (Laughter.) Not exactly a –
MS. RADDATZ: Boy, that is a ringing endorsement, isn’t it? Yes, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and others took us on a conference room on Air Force One, on the way over there, to talk about what they would be saying to Hamid Karzai. And they did this fine line balancing act. In fact, at one point, I pushed Jim Jones and said has he been inadequate? He said, “no, no, he’s been adequate.” Is he falling short? “No, I wouldn’t exactly say he’s been falling short.” So everybody has their domestic politics to think about as well.
MR. HARWOOD: A very adequate answer. (Laughter.)
MR. WILLIAMS: Martha, thank you. This week, also brought back a word that we haven’t heard much about for a decade or so, “militia.” The FBI revealed that it had infiltrated and then arrested members of a group in Michigan; nine people accused of plotting to attack police there and hoped of touching off some kind of antigovernment violence. Word of this came at about the same time that we’re learning about threats against members of Congress for the passage of the health care bill. But Michael, was this part of that or was something separate?
MR. DUFFY: Something separate and something in the works far – a long time ago. Government agents got wind of this group called the Hutaree nearly two years ago, when they were investigating a Michigan gun dealer. They infiltrated the group. They learned of a plot to attack a local police station as part of a larger hoped for rebellion and then arrested everyone last week when the group was planning a dry run that could have turned violent, the government said. And today, in Michigan, they were all held without bond, definitely facing charges of sedition. That’s a reminder that there’s been a huge jump in activities by antigovernment groups, much as there was in the early 1990s in the first days of the Clinton era. Most of these activities are still largely rhetorical, words, not deeds. On the other hand, we have seen in the last couple of months a man attack the Pentagon and wound two guards, a man fly a plane into an IRS headquarters on Austin, Texas. And of course, there was a letter that was released, I guess discovered on Monday, by a group which asked all 50 governors to resign within three days or face forcible removal.
Now, and analysts inside the government and outside kind of agree on why this is happening. It’s a combination of factors – rapid change, a globalized economy, unemployment over 10 percent, a country that is much more multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic than it was a generation ago, even than it was 10 years ago. And of course, you can’t ignore the fact that we have the first non-white president in the history of the country. But it’s also true – that’s kind of at the 10,000 foot level – it’s also true that we’ve been through a year, a long debate about health care – this is where it is kind of related – in which many of the criticisms for this whole thing would result in a great leap forward into socialism, in fact a great leap into your private life. And whether those are true or not, there’s no question that the distribution and the display of those criticisms has gone around much faster than it would have a decade ago.
MS. RADDATZ: Michael, you make it sound like there is some sort of connection between all these groups. Is there – is that what they’re finding or they just all split or do they agree on things other than the sort of antigovernment thing that you outlined or?
MR. DUFFY: They come in all flavors. There’re groups that are worried about their gun rights. There’re groups that are worried about taxes. There’re groups that are worried about just basic liberties. One of the – the group that sent the letter put out a release. They all have websites. Many of them are still up. We don’t like driver’s license and marriage license. If you got them all in a room, it might look like the anarchist convention, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t potentially dangerous. It doesn’t mean that they’re dangerous either.
I think what the government has learned over the last couple of years is that they come in all shapes. They all have to be monitored. But they spend a lot of time looking at foreign threats. And I think it’s –
MS. RADDATZ: Like the Pentagon shooter was acting alone and the man who flew the plane at the IRS, acting alone, not really connected to groups.
MR. DUFFY: – well, except this. This is the thing they also learned with Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City. You can be part of a group and the group doesn’t take action, but there can be lone wolfs. There can be guys who simply say, “this isn’t – you aren’t aggressive and extreme enough for me,” and then they take matters into their own hands. But that’s something they learned.
MR. BALZ: How good is the government at knowing who these people are, tracking them, understanding the differences? Are we more sophisticated about this than we used to be?
MR. DUFFY: We seem to be and this is an example where we’re ahead of it and acted preemptively. But you can’t assume that it will always be that way. The FBI, in particularly, learned through the events of the 1990s, culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing which killed 185 people, that you have to pay attention, not only to groups, but to individuals, that you have to infiltrate early. They also have said in a bulletin as recently as six months ago that as good as they are at getting into these groups through electronic means, the groups had gotten better at encrypting their communications and may hit harder for the government to track. The government has a new weapon as well in that area thanks to the war on terror.
MR. HARWOOD: Michael, there’re some people who felt that at some psychological level, the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing was where Bill Clinton found his footing, his comeback in the struggle he was undergoing with Republicans about the size and the role of government. Whether that was fair to Republicans or not, do you see any evidence that this movement, in the absence of anything approaching what happened in Oklahoma City, will have any political impact, anything that Democrats want to try to use or the Republicans fear in terms of being associated somehow with people who dislike the government intensely?
MR. DUFFY: It was very interesting. When the president was in Portland, a day or two ago, talked about driving down the road and seeing people going like this. And he said, “that’s what’s great about this country. You can say whatever you want.” And so you can hear some anticipation of this criticism because on a lot of places it’s increased dramatically and it’s quite – it can get ugly.
President Clinton will say to this day that the reason he lost his majority in 1994 was because of a gun bill that he forced through the Congress, helped force through the Congress that year. And even the government’s bulletins about the right wings groups said that was a pivotal moment for them and they – and sort of warning, “if this happens again, you can expect the same kind of behavior.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Thank you. Thank you, Michael. Thank you all very much, everyone here around the table, all of those of you at home. Gwen will be back next week, but until then Happy Easter. I’m Pete Williams. Good night.