GWEN IFILL: We’re halfway through 2013, so it’s time to take stock of the president, of Congress, of the world. Tonight, it’s the “Washington Week” report card.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect.
MS. IFILL: As the nation celebrates its independence this week, we examine what democracy really looks like. It doesn’t always move in a straight line.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (From tape.) The Senate will come to order.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (From tape.) The House will be in order.
MS. IFILL: And one side’s victory is often the other’s bitter defeat.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From tape.) We know the status quo is unacceptable, but we also know that there are many who will want to kill this bill.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): (From tape.) And we’re not interested in punishing people just for the sake of punishment. We’re interested in rewarding good conduct.
MS. IFILL: We are leaving Afghanistan, but crises loom in Syria and Egypt. And joblessness is declining, but not for everybody.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From tape.) The Obama economy is producing slow economic growth, high unemployment, and stagnant wages.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From tape.) Still no jobs bill, still no budget agreement.
MS. IFILL: After a shocking schoolhouse shooting, Congress tackles gun violence.
SENATOR JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): (From tape.) This is common sense. This is gun sense.
MS. IFILL: But it only goes so far.
FRANCINE WHEELER: (From tape.) Help this be the moment when real change begins.
MS. IFILL: Are relations between the Congress and the White House permanently broken? And what do the American people have to say about that?
Joining us this holiday week, Susan Davis of USA Today, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal, and Jeff Zeleny of ABC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. And welcome to a special “Washington Week.” We’re six months into the president’s second term and already the priorities and challenges are clear: health care, jobs, immigration, gun violence, the economy, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, and of course, pure politics. How is the president doing and what about Congress?
A few weeks ago, Charlie Rose asked the president about some of this and he volunteered that if he doesn’t get the economy right, he won’t get anything right.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I think that the biggest challenge we face right now, in addition to the ongoing challenge of national security, is having recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression, having dug our way out, with the economy now growing, how do we now go back to the issue that led me to run for president in the first place, which is the fact that the economy’s not working for everybody.
MS. IFILL: That’s as good a place as any to begin. David, is he getting anything right? Is he getting the economy right, which –
DAVID WESSEL: Well, I think the president would very much like to look forward and say the recession is history. We’ve climbed out of the hole and now we can think about these long-term issues like middle class wages and how do we improve our education system, but I think the reality is that we had slow, halting growth for the last couple of years, and we still are very deep in the hole. So some things we’re doing well. Housing is back. Home sales are increasing, home prices are going up in most cities. Auto sales are extraordinary. We’re going to sell more cars this year than any year since 2007.
Employers are hiring, but just not enough to really bring down the unemployment rate very quickly and despite some ups and downs, the stock market is doing reasonably well, up about 15 percent so far this year. And one sign that things are getting better is to hear these words from the Federal Reserve chairman saying I’m looking forward to the day when the economy doesn’t need quite so much of the juice that the Federal Reserve has been in –
MS. IFILL: Which freaked everybody out.
MR. WESSEL: It freaked them out. (Laughter.) It freaked everybody out. A masterpiece of communication.
MS. IFILL: Exactly. So Sue, on the Hill, where so much of the conversation it’s been about the budget and about deficit cutting and spending, cutting spending, is that still the conversation?
SUSAN DAVIS: It’s not right now, but it’s going to be. I think we’ve taken a bit of a time out on what had seemed like a Congress – the previous Congress that was full of these budget crises and lurching from one to the next because of a bit of a reprieve, because of the fiscal cliff deal that they had earlier in the year, some of the questions that they’ll need to address – we’re going to have another debt ceiling fight later this year. There’s potentially going to be another argument over whether or not we’re going to shut down the government at the end of September if we can’t figure out how to fund the government at current levels, and we still have this thing called the sequester that’s happening, which is the across the board spending cuts that we’ve seen piecemeal fixes to. Congress seems to fix what they don’t like about it. But there does seem to be a sort of a growing consensus on Capitol Hill that those cuts are here to say.
MS. IFILL: You know, we spend a long time talking about the sequester and the fiscal cliff and all of these terrible things which are about to happen. They didn’t really happen.
JEFF ZELENY: No, they didn’t. A lot of things were a cosmetic, meaning a lot of the agencies across the board said we’re going to stop our travel. Well, in the sort of – as we looked under the hood of this, these agencies, including the IRS and others are spending a ton of money on things they probably should not have been spending money on, impersonators and other sort of entertainment like things. But, I mean, there have been some real effects of the sequester, I think, that we don’t have to look all that hard to find. I remember talking, about six weeks ago, to a mother in Indiana who had to enter a lottery for Head Start education program. Her child did not make the cut for that. So there are some real effects that have happened out across the country that just aren’t as massive as predicted.
MR. WESSEL: But I think what it is, is the people who are affected are feeling it. I talked to a housing authority in Southern California, where in order to avoid reducing the number of vouchers, they were raising the rent on people who made $10,000. But to the rest of the economy, it seemed that’s just shrugged it off.
JOHN DICKERSON: You know, you asked, Gwen, earlier about the conversation that’s going on. And even when we’re talking about the fiscal cliff and sequestration, we were talking about sort of this era of stopgap budgeting, where we have these ferocious fights. But a tiny little corner over here, it affects people, also people are getting Meals on Wheels. There are some cancer patients who are not getting the treatments they need because of the sequestration cuts. But that’s still sort of over in the corner. The big questions about entitlements, tax reform -- the grand stuff that had to get fixed to transfer this government and this economy from the sort of even the New Deal era to a more modern era, that conversation just isn’t happening. And in part, it’s because the politicians can’t get their act together, but it’s also because – look at polling – four-fifths of the country doesn’t want anyone to touch the entitlement programs.
Well, if you’re not touching the entitlement programs and you’ve cut as much as you can on everything else, you are stuck.
MS. IFILL: And part of this argument is this health care problem, the problem with implementing the health care plan, which we hit another bump this week, and which the employer mandate was – is being pushed back for a year. So that’s maybe not strictly the economy, but has its effect.
MR. WESSEL: Well, I think the important thing about health care is that health care cost growth has slowed and that’s made the deficit problem look more benign, which takes the pressure off. But I think you’re right. I mean, it’s just an incredible admission by the White House that they can’t implement the Affordable Care Act as they had hoped. To say by this little blog post by someone at the Treasury, oh, by the way, this thing we’ve been talking about, this employers who have more than 50 people are going to have to provide health insurance, well, we’re putting that off for a year, leaving open the question, are other things going to be put off too?
MS. IFILL: Well, here’s something else which may be put off, that’s happening in Congress, Sue, where you spent your days and many nights –
MR. WESSEL: God bless you. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: – so we don’t have to. Let’s talk about immigration. This is one of the big issues which – that made its way through the Senate. We’re waiting to see what the House does, but not at all resolved.
MS. DAVIS: No, there was the sort of triumphant moment last week when the Senate passed this bill, because it was the sort of historic moment. And it had – Joe Biden presided over and the senators sat at his desk. And then, as soon as you passed it, we’re kind of reality check that it doesn’t really mean much –
MS. IFILL: Even before it passed. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: I cannot be more pessimistic about immigration prospect, a comprehensive immigration overhaul, similar to what the Senate Does, its prospects in the House. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but as we sit here today, there’s almost no clear trajectory to get it through the chamber in any way that wouldn’t fundamentally shake the speakership of John Boehner or upend the political dynamics in the House as we know it.
MR. ZELENY: I think you’re right. And the question here I think we have to ask ourselves: is John Boehner willing to lose his speakership over immigration? And one of his top advisers told me earlier this week, why would he do so over a priority of the president’s. He’s much more focused on a grand bargain on fiscal things –
MS. IFILL: But isn’t it a priority of –
MS. DAVIS: Not in the House.
MR. ZELENY: Yes, but in the House, there’s not. I mean, as House districts are drawn, the people generally are representing their constituents by opposing this. I traveled earlier this week to Lynchburg, Virginia, a town hall meeting on immigration and other things. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, from Virginia, he’s been in the House since 1992. He was opening the – his meeting up, his discussion up. And it is clear where his constituents, at least those who attended that meeting, are. They are opposed to the pathway to citizenship. That is what most members of the House strongly object to.
What happened in the Senate was there’re 14 Republicans who joined all the Democrats in voting yes. How did they get that deal? They sweetened the pot significantly by spending billions of dollars on border security.
MR. WESSEL: And public employment.
MR. ZELENY: Exactly. (Laughter.) And the House – several House members think it’s overkill, it’s too expensive, it’s not the right way to go, but it includes that pathway to citizenship, and that’s what is the most objectionable part for most House Republicans I talked to.
MR. DICKERSON: It’s only still – in the Senate, the idea was the momentum of Senate passage would affect the House. Well, it’s still only a minority of the minority that joined on, only those 14 Republicans who joined with Democrats. We just don’t see bipartisanship so 14 seems like it’s a big deal. But if you look at those House districts, there’re 234 of them. About 200 of them are districts in which it would hurt the incumbent Republican more to vote for a comprehensive bill. And so that’s the way in which you have some national Republicans, sort of represented by the 14 Republicans in the Senate.
And then you have the House Republicans, who just follow – it’s a different country to them. And so their politics and what’s driving them is much different than what’s driving the Senate.
MR. WESSEL: Aren’t they going to get some pressure from – there’s the business Republicans are for it, Grover Norquist is for it. Aren’t they going to get some pressure to do so?
MR. ZELENY: That’s the open question because there’s – it is – there’s no question, regardless of what side you’re on, this debate is so different at this point than it was during the last major immigration debate because the Chamber of Commerce is supportive of it. Some of these big Republican super PACs -- Crossroads, other things -- are supportive, they’re spending money on ads. So we’ll see how much they pressure House members. I’m not quite as pessimistic as Sue over here. I don’t know how they get there, but the Republican Party can see its future and it’s potentially a short one if they don’t do something.
MS. IFILL: But I remember having this conversation about the table right after Newtown that they had to do something about guns -- that we now had the moral authority of Gabrielle Giffords. We had the weeping parents from Newtown, who went door-to-door campaigning. And as far as we know, that’s not going anywhere.
MR. ZELENY: Not at all. Even the watered down version of what – I mean, back at the time, six months ago, as the year began, they were talking about, you know, really sweeping things. Even something as small as expanding background checks -- that’s not going anywhere. And really, these positions are hardened in. I mean, all week long, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords has been out traveling across the country – Nevada, Alaska, North Dakota. She’s going to New Hampshire. She’s even firing a gun, her and her husband, Mark Kelly, firing a gun at firing ranges to show that gun control, in their mind, is not taking guns away. So if it’s come to that, I think you kind of wonder what is the future of gun control.
MR. DICKERSON: But I think in both of these cases, the people who are passionate about stopping the change, in the case both with gun control, the Second Amendment advocates, passionate about not having new laws, and also those who are passionate about securing the border, not having amnesty, are affecting the politics in these Republican districts. They are more powerful even than the big campaigns. A lot of money’s been spent on the immigration issue. But the grassroots energy in an off year election, when that’s – the grassroots energy is most important to your campaign, that’s what’s driving both of those same votes.
MS. IFILL: Well, let me ask you about another issue, which seemed like it was popping along, and at least it was a very potent political issue during the election, and then it came to a screeching halt this week, and that was student loans, the doubling of the rate on student Stafford loans, which was a big rallying point for the Obamanauts (ph), as you remember, #dontdoublemyrate. And then, this week, the rates doubled. What happened?
MS. DAVIS: This is sort of comedy, too, in a sense, because even when they agree, they can’t agree.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: What they’re likely going to do and what was crafted by House Republicans and the counterparts among Senate Republicans was taking a page out of President Obama’s budget in terms of taking setting student loan rates out of Congress’s hands and tying it to free market rates. It’s a complicated formula. But there’s broad consensus that that’s the way it should be done. The president agrees with it. But then suddenly, when they even agree, they think well, this can’t be a good idea.
MR. ZELENY: Because Senate Democrats jumped in. I mean, the villain here, if you’re going to use that – since it’s a report card show – I mean, the villains are Senate Democrats. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the HELP Committee, which oversees education policy in the Senate, was not willing to sign on to even what the White House wanted.
So – but this student loan issue – they’re still likely to come back after the recess and do something retroactively. But still, I mean, a lot of time has been spent on this. But this is not one case where even Democrats will say on the Hill – they told me all week – you can’t blame Republicans on this only. I mean, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
MR. WESSEL: But there’s a symptom about this inability of Congress –
MR. ZELENY: It is.
MR. WESSEL: – to even do business on these little things on which they agree –
MS. DAVIS: On a relatively small policy.
MR. WESSEL: – which is why doing something on entitlements or tax reform just seems almost impossible.
MS. IFILL: Let’s get out of Washington and in fact out of the U.S. for a moment, go abroad, because for the –
MR. WESSEL: Makes us look good. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Well, kind of. For the president, this has been a dilemma about when do we intervene? When does the U.S. show up? When does it tell people what to do, what not do to? When does it backfire? We’ve seen it time and time again. We’re seeing it again this week in Egypt. Is interventionism no longer the thing here?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, it always was – no – President Obama, always when he – Senator Obama, when he campaigned, talked about sort of smart intervention. I mean, he always said about his opposition to the Iraq war that he wasn’t against using U.S. military power, but he wanted to use it in a smart way.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, so if you look at what he’s tried to do, he’s trying to get through messy situations being smart. But there are no smart options.
MS. IFILL: So small arms for the rebels in Syria.
MR. DICKERSON: But the problem in the Middle East, in both Syria and Egypt, and even this is true in Libya, is that once the U.S. puts its fingerprints on something, it has – no matter how little it does – it creates unintended consequences. It’s not just the Powell rule -- the Colin Powell’s rule that if you break it, you bought it; if you engage a little, you go in the whole thing. That’s part of it. But it also can interrupt what’s going on, on the ground. So if a certain outcome happens in the street, they’ll think well, this is because the U.S. backed it. And then we’re not only engaged, but our engagement has fired up all sorts of people who would have otherwise perhaps not have been so fired up.
MS. IFILL: Does the argument have to be about national security, for instance in the NSA arguments, security versus privacy in order for anybody to feel the need to engage?
MR. ZELENY: I don’t think necessarily, but I mean, I think the NSA argument is a prime example of how the U.S. is viewed abroad now. I mean, it wasn’t all that long ago when we were talking about and writing stories about how, you know, the world is viewing this new administration as a bright light. Well, we’ve seen how much people like us, in some respects, on this whole unfolding saga of the Snowden ordeal, still on the loose. A lot of countries are not exactly eager to help the U.S. out on this. So I think that this is still unfolding, but not making this administration look very good. It’s a drama –
MS. IFILL: Not interested in helping U.S. out, but they’re not interested in (snubbing ?) us either.
MR. WESSEL: The other thing that makes this different and different if we were having this conversation a year ago is increasingly we’re not as sensitive to oil coming from the Middle East, as we were. And that gives us more freedom to let these things play out.
Skirmishes in the Middle East don’t push up oil prices as much as they used to because there’s so much supply coming from –
MS. IFILL: You know, the one thing that’s been a common theme throughout these first six months has been distractions, the ways in which pure politics has driven what ends up happening. So let’s talk about this a little bit. Sue, on the Hill, we’ve spent more time talking about the IRS and Benghazi and the NSA and privacy and tapping or gathering information from our phones than almost anything else. And now, is that just because it’s more interesting to talk about a distraction than to try to get policy done?
MS. DAVIS: Well, I do think, particularly in the IRS case, there was such a sense of public outrage to what we had initially learned and what the IRS was doing. It seems like presidents in second terms, the things that dog them are the things out of their control or the things that happen independent of the decisions they make. We do know that congressional Republicans, certainly in the House and certainly on the IRS issue – we’ve seen it on Benghazi already – but they are just getting started on this IRS issue. And even though we have not really seen anything revelatory that’s come out of the investigation in terms of actually tying it to the president – in fact, I don’t believe we’ve seen anything that has tied anything to the president – to President Obama, but there is a determination to make sure that every possible pathway is exhausted before they call it off. So it’s not going to go away, whether there’s any substance to it, I’m not sure it even matters at this point.
MS. IFILL: So it seems to me that one of the things that they made up their mind to do, the president; that is, the White House has made up its mind, is forget about Congress. We’re not going to get them to agree. So let’s do things by executive action.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, but they’re one foot on the brake, one foot on the gas. They started off after the inauguration, Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser, said basically we don’t have a willing partner over there with the Republicans, very kind of hard charging. We won the election. This question or these big entitlements versus taxes question, they’ve been adjudicated. We won and we’re doing great. Well, then, that didn’t work out so well. They got – they certainly had Congress on – excuse me, Republicans in Congress on the run in terms of the fiscal cliff deal. They got Republicans where they wanted to be, but that was it. They couldn’t press their advantage any further. So then the president adapted pretty quickly and went to this outreach strategy. He had Paul Ryan for lunch at the White House, for goodness’ sake. This –
MS. IFILL: The charm offensive –
MR. DICKERSON: The charm offensive in which he looked for the common sense caucus, going back to the 14 Republicans Jeff talked about, who voted for immigration -- comprehensive immigration reform. The president trying to put together a group on the budget in the hopes that an agreement with them would carry some weight over into the House. That effort is pretty much dead. It still burbles along a little bit, but that effort is over. But those were two very different approaches for this president, trying to get something done before the string runs out on his second term.
MR. ZELENY: I think John’s right. I mean, even those dinners and things, that could not have hurt, and that was at play here in the immigration bill. Even if nothing happens in immigration long-term, the White House still view that as a major victory, getting 14 Republicans, and in this moment of time, it was. I mean, I spend most of time in Congress these days watching things. It’s hard to spend time covering a deal. Most of the time you’re covering something being blocked. It was really fascinating to see, you know, things being thrown in for people, sweeteners and things, and it was as close to a big deal as we’ve seen in a while and probably will see for a long time.
MR. WESSEL: Which is why if it actually does get through the House, it will be seen as a real change in Washington. They can actually do something.
MS. DAVIS: And I’m not sure the White House could take much credit for immigration. I mean –
MR. DICKERSON: Well, he stayed out of it –
MR. ZELENY: That’s for adaptation. I think that’s a strategy of how they’re doing it. And they were working behind the scenes. The White House had a war room in one of the Senate office buildings. And they were working very diligently behind the scenes, and not making this look like the Obama plan. That would have killed it.
MR. WESSEL: And Obama himself is calling around now, trying to get people to put pressure on Republicans in the House.
MR. DICKERSON: And that’s a way in which some Senate Republicans have argued that the distractions helped on immigration because while everybody was fussing around, talking about other things, it allowed them to do quiet work on immigration. And for a president who has to learn quickly, particularly in the second term, how to apply different methods – we saw him on the gun control question really out there pushing, using the bully pulpit as much as he could. But as Jeff said, on immigration, they knew the strategy was the opposite. That if he put his name on it too much, if he was out there too much, he would scare people, Republicans –
MS. IFILL: And does that help his job approval, because we see these numbers and they go up and down? And there’s much discussion about second term slumps and, you know, whatever, but he doesn’t seem to be sinking like a stone. He actually seems to be – and meanwhile, Congress still bumps along at 10 percent, right?
MR. ZELENY: And there is a resiliency. In some respects it’s because, you know, him compared to whom? He still looks more attractive – his approval still looks better than the Republican Party, certainly than Congress. I mean, the White House is – you know – has a lot of problems, a lot of things on their plate now, but they have a better approval rating than Congress –
MR. WESSEL: Even the press has a better approval rating. (Laughter.)
MR. ZELENY: That’s true.
MR. WESSEL: I think also that the improvement in the economy is giving his poll a little lift. And if the economy weren’t doing better, some of these other things might be dragging him down.
MS. IFILL: It gets back to that original point, which is –
MR. WESSEL: He’s right.
MS. IFILL: – if the economy’s not doing right, nothing will go right. But is he a lame duck yet? Have we reached a point – you know, they say when they’d take off a second term, you’ve got most a year to get things done, and then everyone looks at you as a lame duck. Has he put that off for a minute?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, it depends – you can argue that he was stuck in lame duck, in a sense, right after he won the election, because the players didn’t change. The majorities were roughly the same. And this calcified partisanship in Washington that he had before the election and that wasn’t changing after the election -- that that limits his options. And so his options were limited – Republicans are going to move on immigration because they feel pressure from their own political fortunes, not because of anything the president does.
But there’re still many things the president can do that are powerful. He’s doing it on climate change with EPA regulations. He’s going to be able to name some Supreme Court picks at the end of his term. That could change people’s lives in huge ways. And he’s also –
MR. WESSEL: And also Reserve chairman.
MR. DICKERSON: A new Federal Reserve chairman. So he is a lame duck in terms of the old-fashioned work with Congress, make a deal, but that may be an outmoded way of looking at things.
MS. IFILL: So you talk about calcified partisanship. Is bipartisanship dead on Capitol Hill?
MS. DAVIS: I’m not sure it’s been much alive since 2010. I mean, the divided Congress has not really lent itself to bipartisanship. I do think that if he does want to have any kind of productive legislative efforts in the second term, then White House has got to figure out a way to communicate with a Republican-controlled House. And it’s just –
MS. IFILL: Jeff –
MR. ZELENY: Well, I mean, the biggest thing going forward for the next half of this year is the fight for the control of the Senate. It is taking shape. And this is going to shape and affect the final chapters of this administration, this president’s term. If Republicans would happen to win only six seats, they only need to pick up six seats, they win control of the Senate. And boy, wouldn’t that make 2015 and ’16 interesting if Mitch McConnell is the majority leader, presuming he wins.
MS. IFILL: That means we’ve just made the pivot into 2014-2016. Are you looking forward to it?
MR. WESSEL: Boys –
MR. DICKERSON: Well – because of the reason Jeff says, yeah, because those items – naming Supreme Court picks, the EPA regulations, a lot of this can get knocked back if it’s a Republican controlled Senate and House.
MS. IFILL: OK. And the economy’s going to bounce back, right, for everybody?
MR. WESSEL: Right, definitely.
MS. IFILL: OK, well, thank you all very much. That was a nice report card. And I didn’t make you give grades, so you can thank me for that, because then I could hold them over your head later. Thank you all very much. There are only six months to go before the yearend roundup. We’ll have more to say about newsy week in our “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. It’s up right now at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
Keep up with daily developments with me over on the PBS “NewsHour.” And while you’re online, see how we are passing our time this summer holiday weekend, good choices for you over on the “Washington Week” summer reading list. And we’ll see you again right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.