MS. IFILL: The tale of the blind Chinese activist, the ups and downs of the economy, a secret trip to Afghanistan, and the fight for Virginia, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
AMBASSADOR GARY LOCKE: We undertook like a mission impossible retrieval to bring him into the embassy.
MS. IFILL: The complicated case of Chen Guangcheng that plunged the U.S. into a diplomatic standoff with China. The president’s secret trip to Afghanistan.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people. As you stand up, you will not stand alone.
MS. IFILL: What it meant and what it didn’t mean. Today’s new unemployment numbers – is the economy getting better or have jobseekers given up?
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): This is a sad time in America when people who want work can’t find jobs.
MS. IFILL: And Mitt Romney ties up loose ends. Their names: Santorum, Bachmann, and Gingrich.
FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): I’m asked sometimes, is Mitt Romney conservative enough. And my answer is simple: compared to Barack Obama – you know, this is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Peter Baker of the New York Times, David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal, and Charles Babington of the Associated Press.
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. One of the week’s most fascinating stories unfolded half a world away. It involved the blind hero, a daring escape, alleged death threats, secret negotiations, and a high-profile diplomatic dance between two tentative allies: the U.S. and China. The curious case of Chen Guangcheng.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: He confirms that he and his family now want to go to the United States so he can pursue his studies. Over the course of the day, progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants and we will be staying in touch with him.
MS. IFILL: So who is Chen Guangcheng and how did he end up in the middle of a debate between two of the world’s superpowers, Martha?
MS. RADDATZ: It was a whiplash week.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. RADDATZ: We all thought this was solved, that he would stay in China in the middle of the week, but alas, by the end of the week he’s going to come to the United States. Let me backtrack a little bit – a little bit more about Chen. Human rights activist, as you said, blind – so dramatic this week because he escaped. He’d been under house arrest for a couple of years. Before that, he was imprisoned. He was with his wife and young daughter in this house, in a rural province in China, and in the middle of the night, he certainly used his blindness because he is used to darkness and his guards weren’t. He’d played sick for a few weeks, so they were not really looking after him that well, climbed over a wall, through a field, through a river, felt his way around. Then another dissident met him, and then they linked up with the U.S. embassy. A car picked them up from the U.S. embassy. So behind the scenes, all this was being worked out with the embassy. He said he escaped and wanted to link up and go to the embassy. The United States was so quiet about this, as you know. The diplomats were saying nothing. They wouldn’t even confirm he was in the embassy until they worked this out.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is on her way for other meetings about security and the economy and they want to get this solved before she gets there.
MS. IFILL: Now, it’s 300 miles from Shandong Province to Beijing, where he ends up – no one confirmed yet – for a couple of days that he’s held at the U.S. – or being protected at the U.S. embassy. And at first we’re told he doesn’t want to leave China. He wants to stay and continue his work, but that changed.
MS. RADDATZ: That certainly did change. You saw all these amazing pictures of him with the U.S. diplomats – Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Kurt Campbell and you saw Gary Locke, Ambassador Gary Locke, and Harold Koh, who’s a legal advisor at the State Department, hugging, clutching hands with him. He looked so happy. He was going to be transferred to the hospital because he broke his foot when he climbed over the wall and he also had other health problems from years of, he said, beatings. But he got out. He got to the hospital, after saying he wanted to stay in China and the U.S. saying basically he’s happy to do this. He wants to do this. He has some guarantees. And he got out and suddenly he was saying he was pressured into leaving. The Twitter lit up. All sorts of social media lit up saying the story the media has is wrong.
MS. IFILL: It should be said the Twitter lit up not in China.
MS. RADDATZ: But not in China, but they know how to get over those firewalls in China and in fact there is some access there by getting over those firewalls, so they did know a little bit.
MR. BAKER: The question, of course, for a couple of days, was what happened with Secretary Clinton and her people. Did they misjudge? Did they make mistakes or were they misled or was this a series of unfortunate circumstances because it looked pretty bad for a couple of days there when he’s calling into every media organization and even to a House committee, saying, you know, help me, in effect –
MS. RADDATZ: Help me, help me, pleading for him to –
MR. BAKER: – turn him over to the Chinese.
MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think what happened initially when he got out and into the hospital, he linked up with his wife. And his wife said that she had been threatened, that they had threatened to kill her. In fact, some people said she was beaten while he was in the U.S. embassy. So she was threatened and if he didn’t leave the embassy – but the United States said, we didn’t know about that. We had no idea. And yet, it’s obvious they wanted to get this done before Hillary Clinton got into town. So that continued. Then, as you know, he changed his mind again.
MR. WESSEL: So why did the Chinese let this guy, who they’re kind of holding in a hospital, have a cell phone to speak to a U.S. congressional hearing? I don’t think Stalin did that with his political prisoners.
MS. RADDATZ: I know. Pretty incredible. He was talking on the phone, yet you couldn’t go anywhere near him. One of the things I think the diplomats didn’t do is they didn’t stay overnight. They didn’t have someone staying with him in the hospital and I think he got really spooked and really nervous about how this thing would go down. I did ask someone what did he think would happen to his wife while he was in the U.S. embassy after this dramatic escape. I mean, they had been beaten, he said, for years prior to that, his wife included, so I don’t know what he thought was going to happen to his wife.
I think part of this is fatigue, too. I think the diplomats were probably fatigued. I think he, Chen was in a terrible emotional state. So when he got out and he heard those stories from his wife, got right on that cell phone and started talking to people. So they didn’t take his cell phone. They wanted him gone. Let’s face it.
MR. BABINGTON: Martha what is this to the whole issue of human rights in China, in the U.S., which has been an issue for many, many years?
MS. RADDATZ: Certainly shines a spotlight on it, but with Chen in the United States, he’s not there to work for reform.
MS. IFILL: And we do think now he’s headed to the United States to be –
MS. RADDATZ: I think it will probably happen, but you never know.
MS. IFILL: But you never know. We’ll keep watching it.
While the distance from Beijing to Kabul is about 2,600 miles – I looked it up – however, it could also be measured this week as the distance between foreign policy stumble and foreign policy success. The day before the president flew out of Washington under cover of darkness on a surprise visit to Afghanistan this week, the talk was all about whether he was exploiting the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death for political purposes. The day after, not so much.
PRES. OBAMA: As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it’s time to renew America, an America where our children live free from fear and have the skills to claim their dreams.
MS. IFILL: But was the president’s dramatic visit, in and out and just a little over six hours, about substance, Peter, or was it about symbolism?
MR. BAKER: Well, you add a little dose of substance. You add a little of dose of symbolism and you get a recipe for the power of the incumbency. You know. And Mitt Romney, on the other side of the ocean is watching as the president’s able to command the dialogue for five straight days about his national security record, starting with the video tape that they released, boasting about the raid that killed bin Laden, all the way through this secret, middle-of-the-night trip to Afghanistan. There is some substance here.
He signed a strategic partnership agreement with President Karzai of Afghanistan that in effect lays out the map for what we see is our relationship for the next really 12 years until 2024, planning to draw out troops, most troops, not all troops by the end of 2014, and turning things over to the Afghans. And this is all in advance of the NATO summit. But a lot of symbolism, you saw the pictures of the president standing right there, beaming from a war zone. How many times does the president address the United States public from a war zone live? Mind you –
MS. IFILL: Never.
MR. BAKER: – four in the morning in Kabul, of course, not a lot of Afghans up watching maybe, but –
MS. IFILL: He awarded 10 Purple Hearts while he was there. He addressed the troops. He got a lot done in a little bit of time.
MR. BAKER: That’s right, exactly.
MS. RADDATZ: But what does it tell you – because he was in – also – still almost three years left of the troops. I mean, President Obama keeps talking about winding down, winding down, but they’re not really close to that yet.
MR. BAKER: No, that’s right, and it’s a really interesting straddle between hawk and dove here for this president. One day, of course, he’s boasting about killing America’s number one enemy; the next he’s talking about pulling out troops, but also staying there for a long time. He’s trying to, in effect, have it both ways by telling the Americans, look, we have a way to get out. We’re going to end this thing. And telling the Afghans, we’re not leaving altogether, don’t get nervous and don’t think you, the Taliban, could take advantage of the fact that we’re going to leave in a couple of years.
MR. WESSEL: And do the Republicans have any strategy for coping with this – that he got bin Laden, he’s delivering on his promise to wind down –
MS. IFILL: And is it even possible to have a political advantage with an incumbent president –
MR. BAKER: Very hard, right, very hard for a party out of power to take on a president who has Air Force One and the pictures of all those military vehicles behind him, right.
MR. WESSEL: But do they have an alternative plan for Afghanistan?
MR. BAKER: They don’t really. I mean, there’s some debate about it. They know that they don’t like the withdrawal deadline. They think that sends a signal to the enemy. All you have to do is wait us out and we’ll leave. But there’s a real discomfort either in the Republican Party about what’s now already America’s longest running war. You saw this rather interesting Republican response in the few days between last week and this in which they – initially complained about President Obama talking about the bin Laden raid, but then by the time he landed in Afghanistan they realized this is not a winner issue for us. Let’s try to say we appreciate what’s happened here and move on to the economy, which they think is better territory politically.
MR. BABINGTON: Is it a coincidence that the same week we get the first look at the bin Laden papers that were picked up when he was killed a full year ago? Why did that happen when it happened?
MR. BAKER: Even the White House didn’t try to pretend that that was just a coincidence. (Laughter.) They said, look, you know, everybody’s interested in the anniversary, so we decided it was a good time to put them out. And there were some interesting things in these documents. These are 175 pages worth of letters that bin Laden had written or had written to him that talk a little bit about what he was like in these final days, final months, and even years hiding in Pakistan.
But the political impact, again, is to draw out the story one more day. Remember that bin Laden guy. Who was the guy who got him again? Right, it was President Obama. So it’s been a really interesting orchestrated, all leading up to Saturday’s official kick off of his reelection campaign, no accident there.
MS. IFILL: But remind people why the secrecy wasn’t just about creating heightened drama about the president, oh, look, I’m in Afghanistan. There’s – even on these war zone trips, they are – there is a reason for it.
MR. BAKER: Well, and in fact, these papers show you this. Bin Laden, in his hideaway in Abbottabad, ordered the assassination of President Obama or General David Petraeus if it could be carried out if he ever came to Afghanistan. So they have real reasons to be afraid of security. And in fact, President Obama landed in darkness. They rushed to get done before dawn, before light came. And within an hour and a half of his departure, there was a suicide bomb attack in Kabul that the Taliban claimed was an attempt to send a signal to the president.
MS. IFILL: And this is probably unfair to ask you to be brief on this, but the partner, the other guy who signed this document is Hamid Karzai. Do we have any reason to believe that he’s a partner we can work with at this point?
MR. BAKER: Very, very tough question, not an easy answer. We happened to hit him at a good moment, you know, when General Eikenberry, who’s the ambassador there, once talked about whether he was on his meds or not – he seemed to be on his meds – (laughter) – it was a good behavior. He was happy to have this partnership agreement signed, and we were not angry at each other about issues of Koran and other terrible pictures.
MS. IFILL: Well, there were more mixed messages today on the economy. Unemployment is down, but only slightly, while the number of people who have given up even looking for work has increased. Yet, consider these numbers as well. Since the president took office in 2009, the unemployment rate has risen three tenths of a percent, from 7.8 percent to 8.1 percent, we heard today. Meanwhile, the number of private sector jobs has grown a bit by 35,000, and the number of government jobs has shrunk down a whopping 607,000. What are we to read into all of these numbers, David?
MR. WESSEL: Well, I think it gives you a picture of an economy which is healing, but at a painfully slow rate. The jobs numbers look like this. In January and February, we had pretty good numbers, more than 250,000 jobs a month. Then in March and April, we have lousy job numbers, less than 150,000 a month. So there’s two explanations. One is that there was warm weather and maybe some of the economic activity was pulled forward into January and February and now we’re just settling back into a normal pattern. The other and somewhat more frightening thing is what if the economy was, as it’s done in past years, started the year strong and then started to taper off? You know, the stock market had a lousy day today, suggesting that they think this is more than just some weather fluctuations. But I think the point you make about unemployment is really important. The unemployment rate fell because so many people dropped out of the job market.
MS. IFILL: And how could that be good news?
MR. WESSEL: It’s not good news. There are, as a percentage, fewer men working or looking for work – that’s the definition of being in the job market at any time since 1949. When the Congressional Budget Office, a few years ago, projected what the workforce would be this year, they said there would be five million more people working or looking for work than there actually are. So this is the wrong way to get unemployment down.
And I think the political situation is pretty obvious. The worse the economy, the better it is for Mitt Romney. So Mitt Romney did the predictable thing and said these are terrible numbers. He said, we seem to be slowing down, not speeding up. And President Obama did the predictable thing, which says, look, when I came to office, the economy was sinking, and if you measure it from the bottom, well, we’ve created four million jobs since the bottom and we’ll have to –
MS. IFILL: We’ve almost replaced all the jobs that we lost.
MR. WESSEL: We’ve almost replaced all the private sector jobs we lost, huge layoffs in state and local governments.
MR. BAKER: Here is the third year, right, where we started off the year with fairly robust growth in jobs and then petered out by spring, got down to these same sort of mediocre numbers. Why is that? Is that now a new pattern that we’re going to have to live with or does it mean we haven’t really got a recovery going in any meaningful way?
MR. WESSEL: Well, it does mean we don’t have a recovery going in any meaningful way. Part of the problem may just be that when they seasonally adjust the numbers, they’re distorted, but I think you have to remember that in the past couple of years something unexpected has happened in the spring. There was the Japanese earthquake. Then there was the – Europe decided to do its semiannual blow itself up exercise. And then, of course, last summer, there was the debt ceiling debacle. So one view is that the economy is trying to get going again, but then something always comes to knock it off. The other view is there’re some weird seasonal pattern that we just don’t understand.
MS. RADDATZ: What about the housing market, David? How is that looking?
MR. WESSEL: The housing market is bumping along the bottom, which, after all this time – housing prices down 30 percent – is not good, but it’s just not getting worse. One result of this slightly worse news about the economy is that mortgage rates are falling again. You can now get a 30-year fixed rate mortgage for 3.8 percent. Those are levels that haven’t been seen in decades. In ordinary times, a whole lot of people would refinance. They’d have money, and that would get things going again. But the system is so broken, so clogged that that’s not happening.
MR. BABINGTON: David, you mentioned Europe. What’s going on? The U.K. is back into another double-dip recession. And how does this affect what’s going on here or does it?
MR. WESSEL: Well, it does, of course, because we live in a global economy and part of the game plan here, we were supposed to export our way out of our mess. And the rest of the world is doing worst than we are. Europe is – you’re right. U.K. is in double dip. The rest of Europe, Southern Europe is 25 percent unemployment. Australia, which has been one of the stars of the world economy, is running into a little trouble. China’s slowing down. So it would be a really good time for the U.S. engine to get going again, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.
MS. IFILL: David, these jobs that we’ve lost, the jobs that seem to have disappeared somehow, will they ever come back or we basically turn the corner into a different place now, in which we have to get used to a assessing a shrunken economy?
MR. WESSEL: I think we’ll get back. We will someday get back to full employment. The jobs will be different. We see, for instance – it’s a good news in manufacturing – some manufacturing jobs are coming back. Manufacturing is one of the sectors that’s adding jobs, but it’s going to be a long time before we feel like everybody who wants to have a job has one.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well thank you on that. You always cheer me right up. (Laughter.) Not exactly.
Well, on to politics. If you happen to live in New York or California or Utah, say, and you don’t make big campaign contributions, don’t expect to see a lot of presidential campaigning this year, but if you are, say, an independent working class voter living in Ohio, Florida, or any of about a dozen other swing states, expect to hear a lot from both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Consider it the commonwealth of Virginia. Candidate Obama kicks off his official campaign there this weekend, but President Obama just so happened to be there today.
PRES. OBAMA: My message to Congress is going to be just saying no to ideas that will create new jobs is not an option. There’s too much at stake for us not to all be rowing in the same direction.
MS. IFILL: But Mitt Romney is ceding no ground in the Old Dominion. He was there yesterday.
MR. ROMNEY: But he’ll blame Congress and he’ll blame ATM machines perhaps and the tsunami, I mean, he’ll have all sorts of things he’ll talk about that have resulted in the fact that a guy who promised he’ll keep unemployment below 8 percent has not been under 8 percent since.
MS. IFILL: Actually, Mitt Romney was in Virginia yesterday and he was saying that President Obama was wrong on this idea about the economy. He was wrong in what he was saying to Virginia voters, obviously. So.
MR. BABINGTON: The very fact that Romney is having to devote so much time and attention to Virginia and it’s going to continue is a problem for Mitt Romney because this is a state that Barack Obama won in 2008. It had not been won at the presidential level by a Republican since 1964. Even North Carolina had voted for Jimmy Carter. Virginia did not. So for years and years and years, decades really, Virginia was seen as a solid Republican state. Barack Obama changed that when he also won North Carolina and Indiana. For Mitt Romney to win the presidency, he almost surely has to win Virginia. If he doesn’t win Virginia, he’s got bigger, bigger problems. You mentioned Ohio and Florida. They’re the states that we always expect to be in the fight, but if you start by losing a state that really for years and years had been in the Republican column, that’s – you started behind.
MS. IFILL: We’ve seen polls this week in all three of those states. What does it look like?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, the Washington Post had a poll today that showed Barack Obama with a lead in Virginia. Now, you know, it’s very early. But still, the things that had been happening in Virginia are problematic or at least worrisome for Romney and the Republicans because where Obama did so well, there’s a growing Hispanic population there and Hispanics are going to play crucial roles in the other swing states. Where he really did so well was in the Washington suburbs of Virginia, and that’s where there’s a lot of college educated people, mobile people, and these are increasingly tend to – are turning a little more Democratic. And so they’ve got – Romney has to worry about that type of electorate in other states, the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, and that sort of thing.
MR. BAKER: Chuck, we saw the endorsement, if you will, from Newt Gingrich. I mean, he also had Michele Bachmann endorse him. With friends like these, you might wonder, but what was – what do those mean now, at this point, and what about Rick Santorum?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, Santorum still hasn’t gone all the way with an endorsement. It’s – endorsements – if any of them refused to endorse, that would be the bigger story. You’re right. They were very tepid – that was extremely tepid –
MS. IFILL: We can take them off the running mate list, you think.
MR. BABINGTON: Yes, well, I think we could have done that before, but, you know, there’s a big question. There’s a question about enthusiasm on both sides. You know, Barack Obama definitely has some concerns about enthusiasm among young people who were so important in 2008. There is concerns in the Republican Party about the enthusiasm of the conservative base. The conservatives have never seen Mitt Romney as their guy and it doesn’t help that Santorum and Gingrich aren’t a little more enthusiastic. At the end of the day, they’ll probably – they’re going to vote, the vast majority of them, because they don’t want Obama.
MS. RADDATZ: And is this going to be all about the economy? I know, at one point, as Peter said, it was about foreign policy this week. But what’s it going to be about in these states?
MR. BABINGTON: Both parties very much believe that overwhelmingly it would be about the economy and jobs. That doesn’t mean other things won’t be talked about. But at the end of the day, that is by far the biggest issue. And you got to remember. We think of these campaigns as big national campaigns, but they really – there’s only a handful of states, maybe a dozen at the most, and in those states, you’re only looking at the number of truly persuadable voters, the swing independents. There’s not that many. So you’re focusing on those types of voters and they tend not to be ideological. They tend to look for – you know what I’m –
MR. WESSEL: Bread and butter. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Finish that sentence, yes.
MR. WESSEL: But isn’t it true that when you ask about foreign policy, the polls show the president has an enormous advantage.
MS. IFILL: Well, but do people vote on that?
MR. WESSEL: Right, so –
MS. RADDATZ: And can you swing them over to talk about that, that’s the problem.
MR. WESSEL: So if you were Romney and you want to make – have a shot at Obama, it has to be the economy, right?
MR. BABINGTON: Yes. Where he might talk about foreign policy is, again, where it’s like fundraising, again with probably true-believer groups. He does talk about Israel quite a bit with Jewish groups and with Evangelical Christian groups. But I don’t think you’re going to see these persuadable voters that we’re talking about – they’re not going to cast their votes.
MS. IFILL: Well, it’s not an accident as the people – the president’s spending his weekend in Ohio and Virginia and that Mitt Romney gets to Ohio on Monday, so –
MR. BABINGTON: Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida, we’ll see these guys over and over and over.
MS. IFILL: Well, at least you can get your hotel reservations made. Thank you, everybody. Follow “Washington Week” online for campaign coverage over the weekend with all these events and all next week. While you’re out there, find out what our panelists are reporting in the Essential Reads section at our website at pbs.org/Washingtonweek. You can also keep track of daily developments with me on air and online at the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here next week, on “Washington Week.” Goodnight.