GWEN IFILL: Two thousand and twelve was a test of a presidency and of a Congress, where American voters got a say and cliffhangers abounded. We explore it all at year’s end, tonight on “Washington Week.”
From the snows of Iowa to the heat of the debates, to election night. The political divide widened. The U.S. reexamined its role abroad. And a second-term president claimed a mandate.
We look back on a remarkable year and ahead to what happens next with Michael Duffy of Time Magazine; John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times; Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times; and Karen Tumulty 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, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Two thousand and twelve was a remarkable year, one that was shaped by our exploration of America’s essential divides: red versus blue, yes, but also red versus red, Congress versus the White House, and, when it came to foreign policy, whether and how to intervene. We begin, of course, with election 2012.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): (From tape.) Thank you, New Hampshire. Tonight we made history.
RICK SANTORUM [Former Republican Presidential Candidate]: (From tape.) He is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) Because if you’ve got a business, that – you didn’t build that.
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) When you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president in Iowa no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government.
I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you. I have learned from you. And you’ve made me a better president.
MS. IFILL: When a president is seeking a second term, voters have clear options: stay the course or throw the bum out. So was 2012, Karen – in the end, was it a referendum or was it a choice? That’s a conversation we kept having.
KAREN TUMULTY: Exactly. It was certainly the – it was the exact question we were asking a year ago. Given the state of the economy, given how most people felt about whether the country was on the right track or the wrong track, it should have been a referendum on Barack Obama’s performance as an incumbent.
But his campaign was determined to make it a choice between him and Mitt Romney. And what was really remarkable was that by time Election Day rolled around, the election had almost become a referendum on Mitt Romney.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. It’s (weird ?) how they turned that around. I was most taken by the fact that after it was all over, a lot of the things we didn’t believe during the campaign – the Obama people said, oh, we figured this out, we know who our voters are, we know where to spend the money, we thought they were boasting. And it turns out they were right.
MS. TUMULTY: The one thing that really I think defied everybody’s expectations, even though this is what the Obama campaign said from the very beginning they were going to do, was that they were going to turn out an electorate in 2012 that looked very much like the electorate in 2008, that they were going to get huge numbers of African-Americans, and young people, that they were going to mobilize the Hispanic vote.
It was something that – you know, it was one of the reasons that a lot of people, a lot of conservatives, a lot of Republicans couldn’t believe these polling numbers. And there was so much talk of skewed polls. And after the election, the Romney campaign too says they just couldn’t believe that the Obama operation was capable of doing this.
JOHN HARWOOD: Karen, to what extent do we think that the electorate that they produced in 2008 and in 2012 is a function of Obama himself as opposed to the changing face of the country?
MS. TUMULTY: It’s both of those things. I mean, it is – it is unclear whether the kind of appeal that Barack Obama had for young people, for instance, could translate to some other candidate. Certainly it’s the case with the African-American vote.
But the fact is the Republicans are up against a real demographic problem here, because they won the white male vote handily this time. And the problem was that this was the first election that that really wasn’t enough. And that is a foretaste of what they’re looking forward to in coming elections.
MICHAEL DUFFY: Yeah. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing, Karen, about money and how on the Republican side, particularly, a handful of people who had a lot of money played an outsized role. And yet, at the end of the election, it turns that Barack Obama had raised $1 billion, nearly a quarter of that in the last, you know, two months, all mostly from small donors.
So looking ahead a little bit, what does this tell you about the future of money and what it’s going to mean in politics? Will it get worse, get better, get – what can you say? Anything?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, this was a $2 billion presidential election, just an unfathomable sum. But most of the outside money, which was the big question mark this time, was on the Republican side. And it did not succeed, not only in the presidential race, but they came up short in a lot of Senate races as well.
So the question is: how effective this money really is if it cannot be coordinated with the campaigns? One thing we know that it did do, it made this race a lot more negative. The numbers and the analysis really shows there was just a lot more negative advertising because outside groups are not really capable of kind of putting forward the biographical or the positive thematic. They’re there to attack and to tear down the opponent.
DOYLE MCMANUS: Karen, I want to go back to the demographic factor you mentioned and ask what it means for the future. Have we actually seen what amounts to a realignment? Do Democrats have some kind of a lock for the next couple of cycles or have Republicans started figuring out what they need to do to make sure that doesn’t happen?
MS. IFILL: That last part was the real question: have Republicans figured out what hit them yet?
MS. TUMULTY: And, you know, there’s – it’s interesting to look back at where the Democrats were in the late 1980s. And, you know, a lot of the same conversations that you hear Republicans having now, the Democrats were having. For instance, they were worried in the 1980s that they were losing young people to the Republicans.
I think the – you’re going to see a big turnaround on a number of issues. Already, we’re hearing a lot of openness on the part of the Republicans, for instance, on immigration. I think that we are in the middle – in the middle of these negotiations now. I think this is also a test of where the Republicans are and whether in fact they can find their footing, and, again, not just on the presidential level, but a congressional one as well.
MS. IFILL: And maybe a test if they can do better recruiting next time because part of their wounds were self-inflicted with candidates like Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri, who served to be a great distraction, not only in their states but also for the candidate, nominee.
MS. TUMULTY: And they are also looking for talented, you know, high-profile, non-white candidates. In fact, Karl Rove’s group is going to be putting a lot of their money into recruiting, for instance, Hispanics to run as Republicans for the legislature.
MS. IFILL: Well, on to the person who won, because this year, Time Magazine named Barack Obama, of course, as its person of the year. But how has four years in office, and especially this last year, changed the president and the presidency?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The state of our union is getting stronger. And we’ve come too far to turn back now.
If you’re one of the more than 250 million Americans who already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance.
For me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ): (From tape.) And I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state and for the people of our state.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.
MS. IFILL: So if the presidency is about evolution, the word the president liked to use to describe his change on gay marriage, how evolved is he now, Michael?
MR. DUFFY: How has he evolved? You know, getting reelected changes every president. Doyle wrote a great book about Ronald Reagan’s second term that made it very clear he had been changed by his election. Barack Obama will be changed by his reelection as well. The question is whether for good or for ill and what he attempts to do with it.
You know, when you get reelected, especially after having been criticized for a couple of years, you come back, you’ve been reaffirmed the public loves you, even if it was just by three points, and you start dreaming big, swinging for the fences. You don’t have to worry about the polls.
And it’s clear Obama wants to go in that direction. I mean, he’s talking about this big – doing a fiscal, you know, solution, whether now or later, sometime this year. He’s talking about immigration reform, has another set of agenda items. He’s dashing it out on yellow legal pads and sending to his aides saying, let’s think about this for the state of the union.
You can hear in his voice some different things I think already. He’s drawing firmer red lines, both in his negotiations with Congress. In public, even tonight, when he talked, there’s a little more steel, a little more firmness in what he says than I think we saw in the first term.
MS. IFILL: Is that because he thinks he has this mandate that he talked about? He said his made wasn’t his mandate, it was the American people saying he should do this. And he also said in the last few days of the election that he didn’t want to surrender to the status quo. So does he have the oomph to follow through on that?
MR. DUFFY: You can see that he feels that he has more leverage. Just where it starts and stops, I don’t think even they know yet. He’s also said that he’s reading books and papers about other presidents in the past who’ve been reelected and then overread their mandate. And he doesn’t want to make that mistake either, because, you know, that can happen.
Because even if Obama is changing or has changed as a result of this, it’s not clear that a lot else has changed or that anyone else has. And, you know, the Congress is still in partial or effective Republican-controlled. And the Democrats aren’t really embracing compromise yet either.
MS. TUMULTY: But he was elected, Michael, to change Washington, to be a unifier. Has he given up on that? Has he – does he still believe it is possible to bring the two sides of the aisle together?
MR. DUFFY: I think he does. You know, I think he is increasingly more pragmatic sounding than either – the bulk of his party. I think we’ve seen just in his negotiations over the last couple of weeks him try to make concessions that his party will not accept. There have been other times when he wanted to do things that clearly people in his party and even in the other party would not let him do. There’s a limit to how far he’s been able to do it.
And I think on the broader question of changing Washington, that is kind of the mandate that everyone ascribes to him. He actually talked about it when he ran. It is almost an impossible thing to pull off, and yet it’s what every voter wants most.
MR. HARWOOD: But, Michael, I wonder if, you know, the imperative to unify and to swing big can be in conflict with one another. But I wonder if, in some ways, the very Republican problems that Karen was talking about before – their electoral problems, their demographic problems – could work in his favor and help him on both of those counts, on the issue of immigration reform because Republicans feel a very serious need to get right with Latino voters, which is the fastest growing constituency in American politics.
MR. DUFFY: I think that’s the biggest opportunity for him and his biggest problem on immigration reform, maybe his own party who may not want to do it quite as quickly as the Republicans do. We’ll see what happens.
On entitlement reform, where the Republican really would like him to put on some cuts on the table now or later in the year, again, problems with his own more than Republicans.
I think he’s thinking about criminal justice reform and perhaps military reform too down the road. These are things that need bipartisan support, would suggest that if he could pull them off, he would be doing some change. It’s been so long since we saw the parties work together, even one measure on which there was progress would be an improvement.
MR. MCMANUS: So one of the things that struck me about his campaign was that he really didn’t lay out a big, long, detailed agenda. There was that famous interview with the Des Moines Register that sort of got halfway there, but that was supposed to be – that was off the record, right?
And it’s almost as if – you remember, in his first term, he was going to do everything. He was going to do the stimulus. He was going to do health care. He was going to do immigration. He was going to do climate. He was going to do energy. He got only the first two of those done.
So you said logically, reelected, he should have a much bigger, more ambitious agenda. Is that one of the lessons he learned? Don’t lay it out?
MR. DUFFY: I think he has much more limited room to maneuver, particularly inside his own party on some of his agenda items than he has been telling us.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about some of the limitations on his maneuvering, because it’s coming from Capitol Hill. From the challenge to the president’s health care law, to downing his cabinet trial balloons, to the continuing battle at the edge of that fiscal cliff, relations between either end of Pennsylvania Avenue have seldom been more dyspeptic.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) Why do people insist that we have to have a political fight on something where there is no fight? There is absolutely no fight. But, my God, do we have to fight about everything?
SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV) [Majority Leader]: (From tape.) The negotiations between the president and the speaker have fallen apart as they have for the last three and a half years.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) There’s too much at stake for us not to all be rowing in the same direction.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Minority Leader]: (From tape.) The Republicans aren’t about to write a blank check for anything Senate Democrats put forward just because we find ourselves at the edge of the cliff.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I’ve got one mandate. I’ve got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get in the middle class. That’s my mandate.
MS. IFILL: It’s almost like we’re seeing a lot of exasperation in every corner now in Washington, John.
MR. HARWOOD: No question about it. And to the speaker’s question, my God, do we have to fight about everything, the answer to that is yes, we do.
And that’s because the two parties are in a state of permanent warfare with one another. You’ve got very high stakes in every election because the margins are reasonably narrow in the Congress. And the margins in presidential races are reasonably narrow. The president won decisively but only by three percentage points.
I think it’s important not to exaggerate the dyspeptic and the acrimony that we see in Washington. We did, after all, in the 19th century have disputes that led to a civil war and took us quite a long time to do the right thing on civil rights legislation in the ’50s and the ’60s.
But we are seeing the perfection, if I could use that term, of the ways in which the two parties have become polarized over time in ways that overlap ideology, region and partisanship, and so the walls are getting thicker and thicker. And because of that, it trickles down to the state level.
And so, the gerrymandering that we see that reinforces the strength of people in particular pockets of the country means that most members now fear a primary challenge more than they fear a general election challenge. And that gives all the incentives for ideologs to push to the extreme edges and disincentive to compromise.
MS. IFILL: Is it fair to say either side is being intransigent in all of this?
MR. HARWOOD: Yes. Republicans are being more intransigent because they are a more ideological party. Why are they a more ideological party? If you look at the United States, the bloc of conservatives is larger than the bloc of liberals. And what that means is the composition within the Republican Party has a higher purity, a level of ideological purity than Democrats do.
Sixty percent of the votes that Mitt Romney got in 2012 were from people who call themselves conservative. Only 42 percent of the votes that the president got were from people who call themselves liberal.
So what that means is a more ideological Republican Party, a party that finds it more difficult to compromise, a party that has problems in primary elections. The primary campaign pushed Mitt Romney to the right in ways that complicated his ability to win the general election and created some of these extreme candidates who trashed their chances of regaining the Senate.
MR. DUFFY: Obama said in an interview before the election that when he was elected, that all of this would change because the Republicans would realize that that whole party of no thing was not working. Do you think he is right about that after 50 days?
MR. HARWOOD: I think there’s a chance that he will be just right enough to get something done on the fiscal cliff. We saw the president this afternoon meet with the bipartisan leadership in Congress.
Remember, the Republicans, because of the intransigence we talked about, their own caucus sunk the speaker’s plan for a plan B. That weekend, the Republican negotiating position – and now the president has maximum leverage because the tax cuts are due to expire at the end of the year.
And so, after this meeting with the president, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, came out and said he was hopeful and optimistic that they could get a deal that would pass.
Well, the reason that that could happen is that if Mitch McConnell lets it happen in the Senate and enough Republican senators vote for it, John Boehner may feel no option but to put that on the floor for passage, whether or not most Republicans are for it. That would be the realization of that Obama prediction.
MS. TUMULTY: But wouldn’t that violate the principle that has governed the Republican conference in the House since Denny Hastert, which is that nothing can pass unless a majority of the majority would support it?
MR. HARWOOD: It would violate the principle. But some Democrats think that Mitch McConnell is ready to force John Boehner’s hand. You know, we know the Republicans are going to lose the fight over taxes because the tax rates are going to go up for every – the only question is how many people they go up for.
So if you already know what the outcome is going to be, the question for Republicans is: how much punishment do they want to take before they finally accede to that? It is possible that they would wait until after January 1st, because tax rates would be up, and they say, well, OK, we’re just going to cut taxes now instead of vote to allow them to go up.
MS. IFILL: Let’s move on because there’s one more thing we want to get to. And it’s hard to point to a foreign policy triumph in 2012. From Iran to Syria, to Libya, to Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian standoff over Gaza, the Obama administration’s wishes have seldom been granted.
MAN [Reporter]: (From tape.) Violence throughout Syria continued on Tuesday.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From tape.) We and the world have joined in condemning the brutality of the Assad regime.
No one wants to determine what happened that night in Benghazi more than the president and I do.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From tape.) And this administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover up.
BENJAMIN NETANYHU [Prime Minister of Israel]: (From tape.) A red line should be drawn right here before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I will not keep Americans in harm’s way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security.
MS. IFILL: Doyle, there is a lot of unfinished business on the table.
MR. MCMANUS: Unfinished business. You can call 2012 the year of unsolved problems around the world. And that list you gave at the top didn’t even include all of them. I mean, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Congo, North Korea, even China is still, you know, bumping up against its neighbors.
And, in a sense, it’s striking how little of this was discussed in the campaign, although it shouldn’t have come as a surprise because in a year when the economy is a big issue, it always gets in the way of foreign policy.
About the only piece of foreign policy that made its way into the campaign was, first, President Obama’s often repeated claim that he had taken down Osama bin Laden, which he had, and then, the Benghazi incident, when Republicans came back and said, wait a minute. There’s a cover up going on here, something’s wrong. It ended up being, of course, that wrangle over poor Susan Rice’s talking points.
But even under that one, there was a bigger picture and a bigger lesson I think that we can draw, which is this: I mean, the fighting in Libya that produced that terrorist attack on the American Consulate was part of the very long aftermath of what we used to call the Arab Spring. John Kerry, who’s going to be secretary of state, probably says we shouldn’t call it that. It’s going to take much longer than one spring. He’s right about that.
And the people who did it were not members of the old al Qaeda that was based in the caves in Afghanistan, but they were an offshoot. They were inspired by al Qaeda. So one of the things we’ve learned is that Osama isn’t there anymore. And that – and the old al Qaeda probably doesn’t have the capability to do 9/11 anymore, but the problem of extremism and Islamist terrorism is still out there and we still have a very long way to go.
MR. DUFFY: I was going to ask about one topic you didn’t touch on just briefly: Iran. Looking back over the year that President Obama’s had on that subject, have you seen any change in his approach? Has he gone from containment of that to just saying, let them have the bomb, but we’ll manage it to a more confrontational posture, or is he not quite – do you think that’s happened?
MR. MCMANUS: That actually has happened. It was in part because of the relentless prodding and pressure from Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
But I – we’re told that, in fact, over time, the president went through a long period of weighing all of the pieces on this thing and they studied it and studied it. In the beginning of this administration, there were actually two schools of thought on Iran. Could you contain a nuclear Iran or could you not?
And it’s always been a narrow – you could always get Democrats to fight over this. Republicans were mostly on the side of, no, you can’t do it. They’re all nuts. And by the end of it – and we’ll never know how much of it was the political pressure and the problem of the election – but Obama actually did take a stand. He drew a line. Not every Israeli is happy where he drew the line.
And what that means is that one of these years – every year, we say this is going to be the year of decision on Iran, right? This is going to be the – we’re still – we’re always at the point where they’re 18 months from having nuclear capability, which is still 18 months away.
One of these years is going to be the year of decision, and the Iranians are either going to back down, or if this president is in office, and if he continues the way he does, which is he usually delivers on his promises, we may have a military intervention.
MR. HARWOOD: Doyle, we’re accustomed to thinking of this president as one whose fundamental priorities are domestic and that foreign policy is a secondary concern. Will events allow that to be the case in a second term?
MS. IFILL: Quick question, quick answer.
MR. MCMANUS: They never fully allow that to be the case. It’s the still the case – he still wants – his agenda for the next two years will still be mostly domestic, but what happens after the midterm election, every president at that point runs out of gas domestically and suddenly discovers how much fun diplomacy can be. Like every other two-term president, Barack Obama will turn into a foreign policy president.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be watching for all of that. And we’ll be talking about that some more. We have to go now, for now, however, because the conversation will continue online, all that stuff on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra” at pbs.org/washingtonweek, where you’ll also find links to the rest of the stories our panelists are reporting, and the latest on the battle over the fiscal cliff. Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night and Happy New Year.