MS. IFILL: Joblessness, political distractions, foreign policy challenges, three reasons why President Obama may lose to Mitt Romney, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
The jobless rate heads up again.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): You’d expected this deep recession to come back – come back to an aggressive turnaround and it didn’t happen.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): President ought to get out of the badminton game and get into the rugby game that's right in front of him.
MS. IFILL: And the president is thrown on the defensive.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, we’re still fighting our way back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
MS. IFILL: But which candidate really won the week and was the victory tactical or practical?
Plus, in the wake of a civilian massacre, the international community struggles with the continuing crisis in Syria.
JIHAD MAKDISSI: We absolutely deny that the government armed forces had any responsibility in committing such massacre.
AMB. SUSAN RICE: I think quite simply it’s another blatant lie.
KOFI ANAN: We are at a tipping point.
MS. IFILL: Tough times, tough choices. We explain it all with the reporters covering the week: Jim Tankersley of National Journal, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, and Helene Cooper of The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Economists didn’t think today’s jobs news would be good, but they didn’t predict it would be this bad either. A net gain of only 69,000 jobs last month, nearly half of what have been expected. Response and counter response was swift.
MR. ROMNEY: The president’s policies and his handling of the economy has been dealt a harsh indictment this morning.
PRES. OBAMA: We will come back stronger. We do have better days ahead and that is because of all of you. (Applause.) That’s because all of you. I place my bets on American workers and American businesses any day of the week. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: But the underlying questions are clearly bigger than the monthly numbers. Chief among them, what is stunting growth and is there any the nation’s chief executive can really do about it? Tackle the first one for me, Jim.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, it’s a great question and it’s a lot of things that are very much related to the headwinds of the global economy right now. For one, Europe is, as I wrote today, a capital P problem. The debt crisis has turned into a financial crisis, has turned into a huge drag on global growth. And it’s spreading around the world. We’re seeing slowdowns in Asia. We’re seeing slowdowns in Brazil. The countries that have been powering global economy are slowing down. That’s hurting us.
The other thing is oil prices remain very high. That’s depressed consumer spending, all of these things are just big headwinds to the U.S. recovery, and just like we saw this last spring and the spring before, America’s economy appears to be slowing again.
MS. IFILL: That’s the president favorite word, “headwinds.” He’s used “headwinds” to describe what’s happening in Europe, what’s happening with gas prices, what’s happening with everything that he intimates is out of his control. Is he right?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, a lot of that is out of his control, although – I mean, particularly but Europe, there’s not a lot that you can imagine the president doing right now. But there are some things that he particularly could have done or that he and Congress together could have done to be ready for this. It’s not as if Europe came out of the blue to be a problem. There should have been a lot more effort over the last year to really goose growth even more, to get the U.S. economy really powered up. The president and Congress couldn’t come together on some ways to do that. What we need now is more juice for this recovery. We need more help for the housing market, which is slowly but surely turning around, and we need more ways to get consumer spending and investment back on track so that the U.S. economy can grow. There’s just probably not a lot of chance that happens between now and November.
MR. BALZ: Jim, and given the paralysis of the political system and the stalemate between the White House and Congress, does this leave it to the Fed and what can the Fed do?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Yes, Dan, it’s probably down to Ben Bernanke now. He is the last best hope. It’s like Star Wars, help us, Ben Bernanke, you’re our only hope. But really, the Fed doesn’t have great options, but they’re probably the only options that are out there, a third round of quantitative easing or another operation twist could provide some more tailwind, if you want to keep with the winds, to this – to the growth of sales in America right now.
MS. COOPER: Well, Jim, we saw the stock market down today. Is there any kind of silver lining in these – the job numbers that we saw in the economy just going forward?
MR. TANKERSLEY: The job numbers were pretty grim, Helene, but there’s a couple of things that are happening that could help the economy. And if we’re thinking about between now and November in particular, one is that oil prices, while still very historically high, are coming down. And so the faster gas prices fall, the more spending we’ll see.
The other thing is that the housing market, which has been, in my opinion, the biggest drag on – and in the opinion of a lot of economists – the biggest drag on the recovery since the recession ended, is slowly but surely bottoming out and I a lot of very key areas is coming back. So Phoenix, Orlando, Miami, Denver, these are housing markets that are recovering. When the housing market recovers and home values go up, people can start borrowing against their own homes. They can start businesses. This is investment, hiring. This could be a virtuous cycle we could see.
MS. IFILL: Let’s take a look. Let’s take apart the jobless numbers. There’s 15 million people altogether, either unemployed, long-term unemployed, stopped looking for work, discouraged, part time, whatever – 15 million people on this hamster wheel.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Yes.
MS. IFILL: Who are they?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, they’re a wide swath of Americans and it sort of breaks down in some very bad ways, depending on where you are in the economy. If you don’t have anything more than a high school education or even worse, you have less than a high school education, you are far more likely to be out of work right now than any other education demographic.
Hispanics have seen their jobless rate skyrocket in this last report, which is very bad news, again, to the president, because he’s counting on that coalition, but also for a class of vulnerable middle class workers. Maybe the most disconcerting number is that now almost five and a half million Americans have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. This is a huge problem. Long-term unemployment has the potential to turn into basically permanent unemployability. And so you could have a class of American worker who, because they’ve been out of the job market for so long, just aren’t able to get new jobs because they can’t get in the door. Their résumé has that big gap. And it gets harder and harder and harder to get a new job again.
MS. COOPER: Well, Jim, are either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama talking about what’s actually – real issues that are actually holding back the economy?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, the president just spent the last week talking about Bain Capital, right, and Mitt Romney just spent the last week talking about Solyndra. So no, you’re not hearing either of them talk about what the United States should be leading on in Europe, for example. Neither of them is really talking at great detail about how to better fuel the housing market and neither of them, even if they’ve like deep detailed economic plans, neither of them has a big jobs plan. Mitt Romney is not offering sort of a huge expansionary austerity plan like even David Cameron has in the United Kingdom. And the president does not have –
MS. IFILL: The really popular austerity plan of the United Kingdom –
MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, but –
MS. IFILL: – which may explain why there’s not an American plan.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Exactly. And the president does not have like a Roosevelt style jobs corps or anything like that. So –
MS. IFILL: Because it’s not politically –
MR. TANKERSLEY: Yes, exactly, because people don’t want big spending and because people don’t really like the results of austerity so far, but if you sort of follow out their economic philosophies, that’s what they should be calling for.
MR. BALZ: Well, the question I have about the European piece of this is isn’t there anything that the U.S. and particularly the president can do? I know he likes to say he’s been active that he has influence, but there’s no evidence that any of that has had any impact.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Right, well the biggest thing we can do – well, there’s two big things we can do. The first is to try to insulate our financial system from a rolling shock that could come. A worst case scenario meltdown in Europe would be that contagion spreads, bad loans go throughout and basically shutdown the European banking system. And then, that spreads into the U.S. banking system, too. The more we can try to insulate by capital requirements and other things our banks from that, the better. The other thing that he could do is try to get our growth rate up higher because the faster we’re growing, the better we could withstand a huge wave from Europe that would knock growth down nation and worldwide.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well thanks, Jim. The Obama campaign, last week, as we were talking about, tried to make the case that Mitt Romney’s record as a businessman fall short. This week, the idea was to undermine his record as Massachusetts governor. Romney, meanwhile, spent yesterday raising questions about the Obama administration’s support for a now defunct solar energy firm, Solyndra, but both candidates’ messages got stepped on, Romney’s by a warm and funny White House event with the Obamas and former President George W. Bush yesterday, and also by supporter Donald Trump, who revived discredited claims about the president’s place of birth. And the president’s message got stepped on by another former president, Bill Clinton.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: There’s no question that in terms of getting up and going to the office, basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold. But they have dramatically different proposals. And it’s my opinion, anyway, that the Obama proposals and the Obama record will be far better for the American economy and most Americans than those that Governor Romney’s laid out.
MS. IFILL: This was Clinton unapologetic today.
PRES. CLINTON: The great thing about not being president is you can say whatever you want.
MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) Well, this seems to be destined, Dan, to be the off-message campaign.
MR. BALZ: Yes, it’s great to be able to say what you want, but if you’re President Obama and the former president is doing what he did, you’ve got another view of that. You know, it’s interesting. These campaigns go to great lengths to figure out the message, the strategy. They test it. They hone it. And then all of a sudden, unexpected events knock it off the track.
I mean, look at this week. This was a week that Mitt Romney clinched the nomination finally, finally went over the 1144 threshold to be the nominee with his big victory in Texas. Where is he that night? He’s with Donald Trump in Las Vegas, at a time, you said, that Donald Trump is talking about the birther issue of all things.
MS. IFILL: Raising money. He –
MR. BALZ: They were raising a lot of money. They raised a lot of money and these are some of the things that go along. But when you’re with Donald Trump, you’ve got potential problems. You know, this was yet another week in which the president’s message got stepped on by outsiders or others. You know. A few weeks ago was Vice President Biden who got in the way of things, when he talked about same sex marriage, then it was the mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, who attacked the Bain ads, and this week, Clinton. So I think that realistically the view in both Chicago and Boston, where these two campaigns are being run, is that these tend to be distractions that mostly distract the chattering political class, what they describe now –
MS. IFILL: You mean us?
MR. BALZ: What they describe now –
MS. IFILL: The chat that we’re doing now.
MR. BALZ: – in Chicago as the Acela Corridor, that the Acela Corridor gets fascinated by all of this. They think that real Americans are less distracted by these and that these strategies, whatever the Obama campaign is trying to do, whatever the Romney campaign is trying to do, actually will resonate over time.
MS. IFILL: So who are their target audiences if not us?
MR. BALZ: Well, the target audiences are the swing voters. I mean, there’s two. One is to rev up their bases. But obviously, they’re trying to speak to the swing voters who will decide this election. I mean, this is a polarized election and the president will get roughly nine in 10 Democrats and Governor Romney will get nine in 10 Republicans, but there is a slice of this public that’s in between. The Obama campaign desperately does not want this to be a referendum. And today’s job numbers make that much more difficult, I think.
MS. IFILL: No incumbent really wants that.
MR. BALZ: No. All incumbents really want to make it a choice. So therefore, they are trying in this stage to discredit Governor Romney. Governor Romney’s view is that they are doing everything they can to remind people of the disappointment they may have about what President Obama has tried to do and to suggest yes, he’s a good person. He’s a good family person, but the best he is able to do is not good enough. And I think that’s the – those are the two messages that they’re trying to drive despite all of the outside distractions.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Very disappointing jobs report today for the president. How does that change – how does responding to that kind of a dismal job creation report change his strategy?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, they’re – I just think they’re stuck at this point. I mean I thought that the responses that they had to point out that there’s been 27 consecutive months of job growth was, you know, about all they could do. But I think the biggest danger for the president at this point is that people’s perceptions of the economy and economic performance by the incumbent tend to lock in by summertime. If you go back to 1992, the economy was actually growing by the time of the election in 1992, and yet president then George H.W. Bush had lost voters by the time that happened. That’s the risk for the president. And we had a couple of week, months, not great months. We’ve had – now had a surprisingly bad month. He’s only got a couple of more months to really show some progress. So this was a tough report for him.
MS. COOPER: It’s so interesting listening to you talk about the surrogates going out with Obama because it drives himself crazy because you know at the end of the day, he believes he can do this so much better than anybody else can. So Cory Booker and Joe Biden and Bill Clinton –
MS. IFILL: And David Axelrod shouted down on the steps of the state house.
MS. COOPER: But did – so did Clinton actually undermine Obama this week?
MR. BALZ: Well, he undermined one piece of it clearly by suggesting, A, that private equity is a legitimate part of the economy –
MS. IFILL: He’s not the only Democrat to have said that.
MR. BALZ: No, he isn’t, but he is the former president. Even President Obama has said that. But also to suggest that he has, as the president put it, a sterling record in business, and so in that sense, he did undermine it. I think that the second part of what he had to say in some ways kind of baited a trap for Governor Romney because basically he said what they ought to be talking about are the ideas that they have. This ought to be a battle for ideas about what to do about the economy, which is to say this is not just a referendum on the record. It is who has something concrete, innovative, creative, and new to offer. And he put, I think, both candidates on the spot in doing that.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Finally, tonight, another set of events that seem to be spiraling out of control, this time in Syria, in the city of Hula, more than 100 civilians, dozens of them children were massacred. The U.N. Security Council denounced it. International diplomats were withdrawn and a peace plan was shelved. Yet, President Bashar al-Assad, widely thought to be behind the onslaught, remains in power. So does the United States, Helene, have any leverage when it comes to these things? I think back to Bosnia. I think back to other times when people have looked to the U.S. and said help.
MS. COOPER: You know, the United States is really between a rock and a hard place right now on Syria. I mean, not as – obviously not as bad a position as the Syrian people have been in, but still a pretty bad position. When you look at what happened in Hula, those horrible of these children being killed at point-blank range and you think this is – this is something that started off in the euphoria of the Arab Spring democracy movement, a year ago, you see how far we’ve come. But it’s come at exactly the time where the United States has lost its appetite completely for military engagement, even if we were interested in doing it, and we’re not.
On top of that, the United States doesn’t – has never had that much influence in Syria. We barely started talking to them again only a few years ago. And so we’ve looked to other countries to sort of – to guide and to some sort of international coalition. The latest idea coming from the Obama administration now is what – is to sort of try to pressure the Russian government, which has been standing in the way of any real pressure on the Assad government to look for a way to orchestrate some sort of political transition in Syria that would ease out Assad in a negotiated kind of settlement, ease him out. Remnants of the regime would stay in place, but he would end up leaving. This is modeled after what you just saw happen in Yemen with President Saleh leaving. And this has been – the Obama administration has broached the Russians about it. In Moscow, they’re calling this the Ing-Manske-Variante (sp), which sounds very Jason Bourne, you know, but that’s what they’re looking at right now.
MR. TANKERSLEY: How long can Assad hang on. I mean, it seems like he’s sort of entrenched here in power and without any real outside pressure, it could be a while, right?
MS. COOPER: It could be. I mean, on the one – it all – so much of this, for once, really hinges on Russia because Russia is – Syria has two big allies right now: Iran and Russia. I mean, China to a certain extent, but it really is. And Russia sees Syria as its last bastion, you know, a power of influence in the Middle East.
MS. IFILL: Would this be Russia where Putin didn’t come to meet with the U.S. at the G-8 meeting.
MS. COOPER: This would be that Russia, yes, exactly. That shows just how much – how much trouble are we in. President Obama broached his idea, for instance, at the G-8 meeting in Camp David, but with Medvedev, not with Putin, because Putin refused to come because he’s still angry at the United States for a whole sundry list of reasons that we won’t go into right now. But – and Medvedev said – the Russians feel very much that they were sort of hoodwinks with the Libya, case that it spiraled out of their control and Medvedev has taken a lot of heat for it, you know, this whole – and he brought up when Obama – when President Obama suggested this whole Yemen option, maybe if we try to get you guys to ease them out of power, and he said, you know, that might not be a bad idea as long as it’s not a force military – you know –
MS. IFILL: If that’s being Russian, yes.
MS. COOPER: Exactly. But they don’t – you know, Assad’s base – I really wouldn’t be surprised to wake up any morning and see that he’s gone, but – because there’s any number of things that could happen, but he could hang on for another – for months and even like a year or two, depending on what Russia – what Russia does, and then Iran becomes an issue as well.
MR. BALZ: If the Russians are uncooperative, are there other options that could be invoked? And secondly, could this become an issue in the campaign?
MS. COOPER: Yes to both. There are other options, but they’re not really tenable. There’s the diplomatic option. You saw – you just showed Kofi Anan who’s been trying for several months. But that hasn’t gone very far. You know, he’s gotten a few UN monitor –
MS. IFILL: Six-point plan that never really –
MS. COOPER: Yes. And it’s not gotten off the ground very much, although one thing that’s really interesting with that is he has now started saying that he thinks Iran has to be involved in any kind of diplomatic solution in Syria. And you can imagine that’s going to go over like a led balloon –
MS. IFILL: Not so much.
MS. COOPER: – over at the White House. The other option is the military one and nobody here wants that. And I don’t think there’s the appetite for that, but if we see a few more Hulas, a few more – if it continues to spiral out of control, there are people in the administration, a few people now, who are starting to say, you know, look, is this the kind of legacy, President Obama, that you want to leave behind?
MS. IFILL: So they’re counting on the prospects of civil war, a horrific civil war being enough to change American opinion, as well as internal opinion?
MS. COOPER: We don’t know yet. That’s such – because at the end of the day, we don’t really want to go in there either because if we move – if the United States – even with Assad gone, nobody knows what happens, then you have the prospects for huge sectarian conflict that could engulf the region. And you have Iraq right next door that would probably get involved and then all things come apart. And you asked about the resonance on the campaign trail. You’re hearing all these different sorts of things that Republicans haven’t like coalesced around one thing yet. McCain is calling for military strike, whereas, Mitt Romney wants us to arm the rebels.
MS. IFILL: And we remember what happened in Egypt and in other places, where once we – there was an overthrow, there was not guarantee of what happened next.
MS. COOPER: Yes, yes.
MS. IFILL: Well, thank you, Helene. Thank you, everyone. We’re going to have to leave you just a few minute early this week to give you the chance to support your local PBS station, which in turn, supports us. But the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, where among other things, we’ll be talking about the verdict in the John Edwards corruption trial. Keep up with daily developments with me on the PBS “NewsHour” and we’ll see you right here again next week on “Washington Week.”