JOHN DICKERSON: A debate over the role of government sparked by the president’s state of the union address. Did he find common ground or open a deeper divide? I’m John Dickerson in for Gwen Ifill, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis. And we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong.
MR. DICKERSON: Mr. Obama tells Congress and the nation he’s got big ideas.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I propose working with states to make high-quality pre-school available to every single child in America. I proposed a fix-it-first program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs. Raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.
MR. DICKERSON: Republicans see it as a plan to balloon the size of government.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From tape.) To make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life, it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington.
MR. DICKERSON: So what’s next? And how will the clarion call on behalf of gun victims play out?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
MR. DICKERSON: Covering the week, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post; Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair; Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times; and Eamon Javers of CNBC.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News.
MR. DICKERSON: Good evening. This week, President Obama gave the first state of the union address of his second term. It was packed with almost 30 different policy proposals. Some, like immigration reform, were familiar. Others, like his call for expanding pre-school and rating colleges, were new. It was a robust vision for a president engaged in hand-to-hand combat with congressional Republicans over the basic exchanges of government. Still, the president said the country could afford all of it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad based growth.
MR. DICKERSON: So, Karen, if Bill Clinton coined the famous phrase in one of his state of the union addresses that the era of big government is over, did President Obama launch the era of smart government?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, I think that that’s going to depend on what side of the aisle you were sitting on when you listened to that – to that speech I guess.
But one thing about the speech – there was just a lot in it. There were essentially – he touched every single domestic policy initiative he has ever put together before, even the things that sounded sort of new – minimum wage, raising it to $9 an hour. In his first campaign for president, President Obama campaigned on raising it to $9.50 an hour by 2011.
But what really came through to me in that speech was his declaration that, essentially, after two years of doing nothing but fighting with the Republicans over deficit reduction, he was no longer going to have deficit reduction define policy setting in Washington. He said a balanced budget is an important thing, but it is not the same as an economic plan.
And I think he did that in part because the deficit has begun to come down, but also because he realizes that this has constrained him in doing a lot of other things that he wants to do in his second term.
MR. DICKERSON: Todd, you wrote that the president was sharp and focused. What was his tone here in delivering this pitch that Karen outlined?
TODD PURDUM: Well, I agree with Karen. He was very frank in saying, we can’t cut our way to prosperity. And we in the newspaper and journalism business probably have some experience with that. But he was very direct. He was not – if people thought his second inaugural was perhaps overly harshly partisan, I think this was just as firm a tone, but he did extend an olive branch or two to the Republicans. And, in fact, some of these ideas he talked about are ideas that at least in the past they have supported.
So I think he was remarkably self-possessed, as he always is, but he also said, I’m not going to just keep playing rope-a-dope here with you, guys. Here’s my plan, and we’re going to do something about it.
MR. DICKERSON: On the minimum wage, he even mentioned Mitt Romney, his former rival, saying that this was an idea that the two of them agreed on.
Jeff, you’ve covered President Obama since he was state senator Obama. We’re seeing and taking new soundings about this president in his second term, how he was different from his first term. What – did we learn anything about the new second term approach to President Obama in this?
JEFF ZELENY: I think what we saw in the speech on Tuesday was more of a confident air. It wasn’t the most poetic speech perhaps, but I think that was a sign that it was as – as Karen said, just chockfull of ideas. He saved the lyrical things on gun control for the end, but it really was – it seemed to me that he came in here with the clear purpose of – he knows that time is somewhat limited. He knows he does not really have a four-year term. He has much shorter than that, maybe a year or two years. He knows all these things won’t happen, but I think a challenge for the White House is giving a state of the union, you know, just a couple of weeks after, you know, he’s sworn in and after the inaugural address. So it wasn’t as lyrical, but these point-by-point items, he wanted to make sort of a marker for his second term.
But I was struck by just his confident air, walking into the chamber. He seemed sort of more sure of himself. And on climate and energy, those things, he knows that if anything will happen on those, it will be because of executive action, not because of people in that room. It’s always interesting to watch, you know, who’s applauding and who’s not. But the Senate Democrats, a lot of those – you know, Mark Pryor from Arkansas, Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, and a few others will not want to vote on this. So I think that –
MR. DICKERSON: Because they’re up for reelection in 2014.
MR. ZELENY: Because they’re up for reelection in 2014. So he had this focus on the Republicans, but it was a message for Democrats too.
MR. DICKERSON: He had that – a couple of times, he said, you know, if Congress doesn’t move, I will, matching that aggressive message.
Eamon, I want to talk to you about the specifics. We’ll talk now about what’s in the speech before we get to the politics. Let’s talk about minimum wage. This was new in the speech, although, as Karen said, he supported it before. What’s the economics behind that? What are the chances that minimum wage is going to come? And is it a good idea?
EAMON JAVERS: Well, it’s probably a long shot politically to get this thing done. Minimum wage now is $7.25 an hour. The president would like it to go to $9 an hour. But remember that a lot of states already have minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum wage now. And, of course, you know, what a wage should be in a given market really varies across the country a lot based on the type of work and the type of economy in that local area.
Typically, what you find with this is that big companies have more of an ability to absorb the costs of the minimum wage increase. And it’s the small business lobby that really agitates against it. And so it’s going to be an uphill push. A lot of Republicans are going to argue, look, all that this is going to do is make jobs more expensive for employers to create and, therefore, we’re going to create fewer jobs and we’ve got to resist this. Obama, I think, thinks that this is going to play well with this political base.
And I like Jeff’s point about – you know, a lot of these ideas are not necessarily going to pass that the president was talking about. And so then you ask the question, why would a president talk about a lot of things that aren’t going to pass? And I think it’s to create a patina across his whole presidency that’s appealing to a lot of different voters, by checking a lot of different boxes. And that helps you with the one thing that you do need to do. And that’s the sequester fight that’s coming up on March 1st. And those tactical decisions that he needs to make are going to be easier if he’s got the public behind him, even if it’s by talking about a lot of things that aren’t going to actually pass.
MR. DICKERSON: We’ll get to the sequester in a minute. Karen, in this speech, what – who was – what box was he trying to check with – the pre-school, expanding pre-school? That was another new policy proposal here. What do you make of that?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, you know, I – on Thursday, I sat through three hours of watching focus groups with a demographic that the pollsters have begun to call the Wal-Mart mom. These are swing women voters.
And of all the proposals that were brought up in the speech, when they heard about the jobs proposals, they’ve heard this so many times. And as one of the – the woman who conducted the focus group said, she said it’s almost like they’ve got earmuffs on. They don’t believe it anymore. The minimum wage, they had almost a negative reaction to. They said, well, I can’t feed my family on $9 an hour. One woman said, I get more than that from my unemployment. And people might have to start laying people off.
But the universal pre-school got a bigger response from them than any other proposal. And they believed the research that says that kids who begin their education early do better in life. And they all were also able to relate the stories of their own children. And, again, that was just something I think that women voters in particular could really relate to and see a very tangible benefit from.
MR. JAVERS: If doesn’t come through, though, are they going to hold it against the president or has he generated some warm feelings by at least talking about that issue, even if it doesn’t happen?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, I think that – I think that is one of those things where they are going to give him credit for having a good idea. Now, if he doesn’t push it hard enough or if, you know, Congress can’t find the money for it, it might be a different story.
MR. DICKERSON: And that’s the question. Anywhere from 80 billion (dollars) to 100 billion (dollars) over 10 years to pay for that and nobody’s – it seems to be at the moment, no Republicans are interested in paying for that.
Todd, I want to ask you about the end of the president’s speech, the peroration on guns, in which we saw a little bit of him talking about it. That was the most emotionally powerful moment of the speech.
MR. PURDUM: Clearly. And for him, every since Sandy Hook, you have a feeling he has not made guns a focus of his public career really ever, certainly not in his presidency and not in either of his presidential campaigns.
And I couldn’t help the feeling in the aftermath of Sandy Hook when he gave that very emotional speech that he felt a little guilty for that, because I think if left to his own devices, it would be a very important issue to him. And this incident in Chicago, a mile from his house, in which this young woman was killed just two weeks after seeing his inaugural, must have landed home again in another way.
So I think that is very much an example where he wants to be out there in the leading edge of that question. He’s made himself vulnerable because he said he would fight as hard as he could. So now if he gets something like universal background checks and to the gun show loophole, some things on trafficking – maybe he doesn’t get the magazines – limits on the size of the ammunition, maybe he’s clearly – probably will not get a ban on assault weapons – he can say he’s done something important. And I think he’d be very happy to have six months from now or three months from now that in his out basket.
MR. DICKERSON: Right. So we’ve talked about now what was in the president’s speech. And the thing though is that the president is not alone in this divided government. Marco Rubio gave the official Republican response to the speech.
SEN. RUBIO: (From tape.) More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them. And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private sector jobs. It’s going to create uncertainty.
MR. DICKERSON: House Republican Leader John Boehner sat behind the president during the speech and did not stir a muscle in any way that might be mistaken for approving of any of the president’s ideas. This was the reaction from Mr. Boehner the next day.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) Last night, the president offered up more of the same: higher taxes and more stimulus spending. And just as disappointing, we’re weeks away from the president’s sequester. And the president laid out no plan to eliminate the sequester and the harmful cuts that will come as a result of it.
MR. DICKERSON: Eamon, any of the things the president talked about going to pass, any of this new stuff that he brought up in the state of the union?
MR. JAVERS: I think he’s got a real fight on his hands. I mean, Republicans, as you saw, just from the body language of Speaker Boehner sitting behind the president, Republicans are not in a mood to offer him any major wins here. I don’t think they feel they need to, except perhaps on immigration, which kind of runs on a separate political track. So the president is proposing these things. They’re not really going to get done. And it reminds me a lot of Bill Clinton going small-ball toward the end of his presidency with high approval items.
MS. TUMULTY: But isn’t it – the criticism I think of the Republican response was that they were still criticizing Barack Obama’s ideas, but there really wasn’t a lot there offered in terms of their own ideas. And in that sense, you really sort of think that maybe they missed an opportunity here.
MR. DICKERSON: Yeah. Jeff, there were two responses. There was from Senator Rubio and Senator – what was the – if you were to take it away, what was the response?
MR. ZELENY: Well, that was the best example of the Republican Party is still a bit divided. Senator Rubio, as we saw, who is now I guess an establishment Republican, he, of course, ran in 2010 as sort of a tea party candidate, but there was also a response from Senator Rand Paul. So we saw an early preview to what maybe the Republican primary in 2016, but I think Karen’s right. And we didn’t hear any new ideas necessarily from Senator Rubio.
But we did hear sort of a new biography. Mitt Romney could not have delivered that speech. He could not have said my father was a bartender. He came over here. So it was repackaged a bit. But biography is an important thing, as we saw in 2006 and 2007 with a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.
So I think the Republican response is always sort of a pro forma thing. We probably would have forgotten – we’d not be talking about who’s giving it, if Marco Rubio hadn’t reached for glass of water, or his bottle of water, which he did. But that aside, I think the – the fissures in the Republican Party were clear because Rand Paul was much more aggressive in his tone against the president on drones, on spending, on the budget.
So I think we’re going to see the Republican Party still trying to – not a unified response. We’ll see if senator – if it was a smart idea, you know, a few years from now, for Senator Rubio to be giving this speech or not. He was sort of carrying the burdens of the Republican Party. Like Karen said, talking a lot about Barack Obama, still trying to defeat this president. Well, he won. He has a second term. His agenda may not get through, but he’s president for at least four more years.
MR. DICKERSON: So, Todd, I was interested – the president started his whole speech with a quote from Kennedy. He said the constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress. But they – he does not – the White House doesn’t think he has a willing partner. So what’s he doing?
MR. PURDUM: You’re exactly right. He doesn’t face anything like the geopolitical situation that John Kennedy faced 50 years ago. In that case, he was actually able to get Republicans to help him on questions like civil rights because the Southern Democrats were opposed to that. And cross-party coalitions were not only possible, but absolutely necessary for the internal reasons of the own – of the parties themselves.
Now, I don’t know how much money President Obama would have to spend to influence those House members who have no pressure in their districts to support them on questions like gun control, and, in fact, feel opposite pressures and ran well ahead of them in their districts. There are only – what is it, Karen? Fifteen members of the Republican Caucus who did more – in whose districts President Obama won last year? So I think he has a terribly – if they want to spend a lot of money, maybe they should spend it on redistricting in 2020 and try to change the dynamics of –
MR. DICKERSON: Too far out, but the president hit the road three days this week trying to sell these proposals, Karen. He tried that in 2009 using his campaign apparatus. They say they’re going to do it again. What will be different?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, I think that – the president has said all along that he is going to – you know, he’s given up on the idea that you can change the way Washington works so he’s going to try to make the country change the way Washington works.
But I did think one thing was interesting in the speech. It was almost the dog that didn’t bark. He talked about immigration, but not with the kind of passion that he talked about some of these other issues. And that’s possibly because immigration is the big thing that could actually, possibly happen. And it might have hurt his cause to sort of wrap his arms around this at a time when he needs to give the Republicans as much political flexibility and running room as he possibly can. I thought that was a pretty shrewd move.
MR. DICKERSON: Yeah. Eamon, let me – let’s go to the sequester now, which you mentioned earlier. We have basically another chapter in this ongoing – as Karen wrote, basically, from 2010 on, we’ve had a weekly battle and we’ve got another crisis coming March 1st. What’s your sense of where the question of the sequester – just to remind people, those across-the-board cuts that kick in.
MR. JAVERS: Right. Yeah. And remember, the sequester, what it was designed to be, it was designed to be sort of a poison pill that would be so awful that it would incentivize everybody in Washington to hold hands and make a deal. And they didn’t make a deal. They didn’t hold hands. They punched each other in the nose. And now, we’re looming with this March 1st deadline, which they kind of cobbled together over the Christmas break.
So we’re looming on March 1st. It’s a huge crisis. Enormous spending cuts. It could result in a pretty hefty drag to GDP for the following year, about $85 billion in cuts in the first year. What happens as a result of that? Congress went on vacation. So they’re going to be out of town until just a couple of legislative days before that.
I think that gives you pretty much all the information you need to have about where we’re going in the sequester. Voices on the left and on the right are saying, let’s just have the sequester and get it over with, rip off the Band-Aid. It’s a meat cleaver, not a scalpel, but at least it’s a spending cut for those folks on the right who want to see some spending cuts at all. This is their best shot at having some.
MR. DICKERSON: Todd, we might agree that everyone gets embarrassed when they leave town with business to be done. But who gets the blame here if the sequester happens, these big cuts happen, people are hurting? Is there any sense of where this – you know –
MR. PURDUM: Well, Congressman Boehner just tried to call it – you know, the president’s sequester. I’m not quite sure how that could really be fair since it was the Congress itself that passed the measure.
But Secretary Napolitano of Homeland Security testified last week on the Hill twice: once on immigration, before the Judiciary Committee, and the next day she had to go before another committee and explain how terribly harmful to border security – the equivalent of 5,000 border patrol agents – the sequester cuts would be. She said she had a kind of, you know, out-of-body experience doing that.
And I think – I think the Republicans have a history – they did it in 1995 and ’96 with Bill Clinton. They did it again with impeachment. I think they have a history of overplaying their hand. And I – and I do think the president has now set them up to look intransigent. And I think that’s part of the whole rationale for his speech the other night. So we’ll see who gets the bigger blame.
MR. DICKERSON: Karen, you covered closely that last blow-out with Republicans. Do you see that same parallel? Does – or – you know, there are now a lot of Republicans who are happy to see the sequester go through because, as Eamon said, it’s actually getting some cut – spending cuts, even though it’s harmful to some Republicans in their districts?
MS. TUMULTY: But in some ways, in a lot of ways, I think the stakes are actually higher now than they were in 1995, when the government shut down. Then it was a case of, oh, you know, parks would close down for a few weeks. This, as Eamon said, is jeopardizing the economic recovery. And, you know, that – that’s a gun that they – you know, they really shouldn’t have – I mean, this was – again, it was a – it was designed to be so dire that it wouldn’t happen. And, here it comes.
MR. DICKERSON: So partisanship can’t rescue them from this dire situation. Partisanship is also, Jeff, locking them into a fight over Senator Hagel, Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee for the secretary of defense. There is – the Republicans have effectively filibustered him. What is going on here?
MR. ZELENY: What is really going on is a re-litigation of what happens when a member of a party speaks out against his own party. Of course, we’re talking about the Iraq war. Chuck Hagel, former Republican senator from Nebraska, was asking the sharpest, hardest questions about the Iraq war throughout – really throughout its duration. And he clashed with his old friend, John McCain. And now he is – he’s paying a price for it. And they basically have admitted that.
At the end of the day, he probably will still be confirmed, but he has to wait now another – until the week after next to when the senators come back to Washington to see if he can be confirmed. So I think that it’s an embarrassment to the president. That’s what they’re trying to do in some case. But enough Republicans have said that they’re going to vote for him ultimately.
But you really have to wonder: is this really going to weaken Senator Hagel as a possible defense secretary? All the defense ministers from around the world are meeting next week in Brussels. He had hoped to be at the table, but Secretary Panetta has to stay on because of this. So I think Senator Reid was probably right when he said on the floor this week that this is, you know, the worst example yet of partisanship in Washington. But who knows? Something may come up in the next week and a half that might hurt Senator Hagel. But the White House still seems somewhat confident.
But the question is how does he sort of emerge from this? I mean, he – everyone thought that he would get through because he’s a senator. But the thing is 43 senators who were voting on him never served with Chuck Hagel. He’s only been out of the Senate for four years. He left in 2009. That’s what’s going on here. I mean, it’s almost an entirely – half the Senate is almost entirely new so he doesn’t have relationships and the relationships he has are bad.
MR. DICKERSON: Right. So, Todd, is that it really? It’s just about politics. It’s bad feelings –
MR. PURDUM: Well, it’s hard to think it’s about anything other than politics and personal pique in the case of Senator McCain, who at times was asking some of the same tough questions Chuck Hagel was, until they broke over, you know –
MR. DICKERSON: Tough questions about the Iraq war.
MR. PURDUM: Tough questions about the Iraq war, definitely. Senator McCain was a very tough critic of the Bush administration’s execution of that war in – you know, 2003, 2004, 2005. So I think if they’re just putting it off for 10 days past the recess, it’s hard to think that it’s really anything other than a kind of petty political thing if they acknowledge it will eventually happen.
MR. JAVERS: But to what extent was Hagel’s own performance in his confirmation hearing –
MR. PURDUM: It was terrible, obviously.
MR. JAVERS: His own worst enemy. I mean, this is a guy who looked unprepared and was unable to answer, you know, a lot of questions about what he would do as defense secretary.
MR. ZELENY: But you have to wonder if any Republicans, though, would have voted for him even if he would have had a good performance. Some of these –
MR. JAVERS: But he even had Democrats coming out and criticizing him.
MR. ZELENY: But they’re all voting for him. This is a litmus test for 2014. That’s what we’re seeing right now. You see Republican senators who are afraid of primary challenges: Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, John Cornyn in Texas. The divide we talked about in the Republican Party is playing out right here in this debate.
MR. DICKERSON: So they have to be tough on Hagel so that they don’t get a primary challenge saying you’re not a real Republican.
MR. ZELENY: They’re talking about Benghazi. Senator Graham is saying he wants more answers on Benghazi. That has nothing to do with Senator Hagel. And he wasn’t there then at the time. So it just seems to be that even some Republican Party elders think that this is – you know, it’s not wise politics: Bill Cohen, former secretary of defense, Bob Gates from a Republican secretary of defense say this does not – it’s not good for the party or the country.
MR. DICKERSON: Lindsey Graham may have a Republican primary challenge, Karen. So in the last analysis here, very quickly, do you think Hagel becomes the new secretary of defense?
MS. TUMULTY: I think he would probably still bet that he will, but one thing we know – I mean, we’ve seen it happen time and time again. There’s going – when you leave something hanging like this, you never know what is going to pop up.
MR. DICKERSON: Twisting in the wind. OK. Jeff, Karen, Todd, Eamon, the state of our panel is strong. Thank all of you.
That will wrap it up for all of us tonight, but I have two reminders. First, you can join Gwen for her monthly chat next Thursday at noon Eastern, or send your questions ahead of time to us at email@example.com.
And also next week, Washington Week is part of the weeklong PBS After Newtown Initiative, a series of documentaries, news reports and programs that will provide thought-provoking context to the national conversation about gun violence in America. Be sure to tune in to PBS all week long.
I’m John Dickerson. Gwen will be back at the table next week, right here, on Washington Week. Good night.