GWEN IFILL: Surprising new economic news, depressing new health care news, plus a big week in politics and gay rights, tonight on “Washington Week.”
A topsy-turvy post-furlough economy. Jobs are up, but so is the jobless rate. Growth is up, but spending is down. What’s the problem?
JAY CARNEY: (From tape.) Washington needs to stop throwing up obstacles in the way of positive economic growth.
MS. IFILL: On health care, even Democrats are now searching for a fix.
SENATOR MAX BAUCUS (D-MT): (From tape.) Why just keep limping along? Why not just shut it down and put it together the way it’s should be put together.
SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW (D-MI): (From tape.) There’s no words that can even describe the frustration that all of us have.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.
MS. IFILL: Will apologies be enough? Two big governors’ races delivered different messages for Virginia –
TERRY MCAULIFFE: (From tape.) What a great night everybody, huh?
MS. IFILL: – for New Jersey and for 2016.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: (From tape.) I know that if we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now, see how it’s done.
MS. IFILL: And the Senate moves to ban workplace discrimination against homosexuals.
SENATOR TAMMY BALDWIN (D-WI): (From tape.) It’s about opportunity, about whether every American gets to dream the same dreams, chase the same ambitions, and have the same shot at success.
MS. IFILL: But will the House stop it in its tracks?
Covering the week David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal, Christi Parsons of Tribune Newspapers, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, and Ed O’Keefe 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.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Assessing the state of the economy has become a puzzling task. Today we heard good news that employers added more than 200,000 jobs in October, but the jobless rate went up marginally from 7.2 to 7.3 percent. The president, traveling in New Orleans today, said things would have been brighter if Washington was not shooting itself in the foot.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The bad news is that the very day the economic quarter ended, some folks in Washington decided to shut down the government and threaten to default on America’s obligations for the first time in more than 200 years. And it’s like the gears of our economy, every time they are just about to take off, suddenly somebody taps the breaks and says, not so fast.
MS. IFILL: I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m puzzled, I get to turn to David Wessel to sort things out. So was the president right about the effect of the shutdown, David?
DAVID WESSEL: Not really. I mean, I think what you heard from most of Washington was a giant sigh of relief. Creating 200,000 jobs amid the shutdown was actually good news, better than had been expected. It tells us that while Washington was doing its thing, the shutdown showdown didn’t stop businesses from hiring. So it was mostly a good thing.
The unemployment rate going up is never good, but the numbers are so fluky in part because of the shutdown and how do they count government workers, and what week did they take the survey, that most economists are disregarding it.
But it doesn’t mean we’re in a good place. The thing that’s so frustrating is we have a good report. And the president is right – it seems like every time something gets going, we step on the breaks.
I was at the International Monetary Fund for a conference this week and Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate, New York Times columnist, described the United States as being halfway through a lost decade. We’re just not getting much traction and it’s really disturbing because it’s not – we’re never going to get to a good place. And then, I think the other thing the president has a point on, it does feel like the economy is a boat and the private sector is rowing one way and the government’s rowing another way.
This year, almost 100,000 federal jobs gone. In the GDP report which came out for the third quarter, the federal government was a minus, in part because of the shutdown. And you’re beginning to hear some people say maybe Congress is just a little too focused on the deficit and not focused enough on getting the economy going.
MS. IFILL: You started this by saying the president wasn’t really right that the shutdown caused – slowed down these numbers. But you ended by saying, yes, well maybe the federal government is rowing in the wrong direction.
MR. WESSEL: Just I don’t think it was the shutdown. I mean, basically what we learned this week was the economy was worse going into the shutdown than we had feared. The shutdown didn’t make it that much worse.
JOHN DICKERSON: So there’s a chronic government problem, just the special problem of the shutdown – so going to that chronic government problem, what can they do? Anything? Is there anything that’s achievable now that might be able to help us?
MR. WESSEL: It’s a really good question. I think that one thing that might actually happen is to do a little – let the belt out a little bit on the sequester, the across the board spending cuts. If there is a budget deal, and Lord knows if there’ll be one, the one that would be good for the economy is to have a little more spending in the near term and trade it for some cuts and benefits in the long term because the economy really can’t take too much of this austerity and it’s showing up.
The other thing, which the optimists, and I’m afraid I’m not one of them, think is that maybe the president and the Republicans could agree on some kind of infrastructure program. Traditionally Republicans are not allergic to infrastructure. We have a problem, but I just find it hard to believe they’re going to do it.
CHRISTI PARSONS: David, if the economy is not doing so well, what – how do you explain what’s going on in the market?
MR. WESSEL: That’s good question, too. Good questions tonight. (Laughter.) The stock market’s up 20 percent so far this year, even though the economy’s kind of been flat-lining. And I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is corporate profits are great. And the other is the stock market has kind of hooked on free money from the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserved has zero interest rates. They’re buying lots of bonds. They’re pushing people into the stock market. And you can see, every time the economy starts to get a little bit better, the stock market gets a little shaky because they’re afraid that the Fed is going to take away some of the juice.
ED O’KEEFE: Is there any reason to believe the unemployment rate’s ever going to drop below 7 percent again anytime soon?
MR. WESSEL: Oh, yeah.
MR. O’KEEFE: And how’s that going to happen?
MS. IFILL: And those that – I mean, is that 7 percent a magical number for us?
MR. WESSEL: Well, look, the unemployment rate was about 7.9 percent at the beginning of the year. Now it’s at 7.3. So it is coming down. There’s no magic about 7 percent. In fact, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said just today that the unemployment rate kind of is not the best indicator at the moment. The unemployment rate makes the labor market look better than it actually is because so many people have dropped out of the workforce.
MS. IFILL: You mentioned the Fed. One of the things I find interesting about especially Wall Street is whenever there is good economic news, they kind of put on the breaks because they think to themselves this means the Fed is going to stop the stimulus, and that would be bad news for us. That seems kind of counterintuitive.
MR. WESSEL: It is. It is – well, it is because, first of all, a lot of people on the Wall Street benefit from the Fed policy because cheap money if you’re a borrower is a good thing. And I think the other thing is that so much of the recent economic policy has turned on what the Fed does, that they’re overly focused on that.
MS. IFILL: And that’s why I turned to David Wessel. See that, very easy.
The president also said today that deficits, as David was mentioning, have dropped by half since he’s been in office. That too was good news, but the administration is busy digging itself out of a new hole, explaining and re-explaining what happened to its shiny new health care rollout.
This is part of the lengthy explanation that president offered yesterday to NBC’s Chuck Todd.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I regret very much that what we intended to do, which is to make sure that everybody is moving into better plans because they want them, as opposed to because they’re forced into it – that, you know, we weren’t as clear as we needed to be in terms of the changes that were taking place.
MS. IFILL: I think you can say that “not as clear as we needed to be” is something of an understatement. The president says he has one more campaign, to fight for the Affordable Care Act. Do we have any clue what the bones of that campaign look like, Christi?
MS. PARSONS: Well, not really, because he hasn’t gotten a chance to launch it yet. That’s what he had been hoping to do right now is to run those – another one of those famous Obama campaigns, and you know, go out and draw big crowds and talk up his product and get the mojo going, right? But instead, he’s explaining and he’s apologizing. And really what he’s got to do now is buy time. That’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying – the White House is trying to stave off some attempts from Congress to change the law, maybe even reopen the law. And what they really are hoping will happen is that folks can hold out until the end of November when, you know, if things go as they plan, the website will be up and running, people will be signing up, and then you’ll start to get these testimonials from satisfied customers that they hope will kind of help tamp down this (controversy ?)
MS. IFILL: So apology at this stage, after your Health and Human Service secretary has apologized and the head of Medicaid, Medicare has apologized in congressional hearings, now the president. Is this part of them looking at him bleeding in the polls and thinking we’ve got to put an end to that?
MS. PARSONS: Right. I think that’s exactly right. And they – again, they’re very careful about the ground that they cede to those who would like to change the law. And you know, it started low level. It worked its way up the food chain and then finally the president himself had to say those words, “I am sorry.”
MR. O’KEEFE: Why are they – why are they so averse to changing this? I mean, you had a two-hour meeting with the Senate Democrats up for reelection next year. Nobody gets a two-hour meeting with the president these days. Why – I mean, was this interview partly designed to quell that Democratic fear?
MS. PARSONS: Right. And it was a two-hour meeting that was kind of a message event of the day. The president didn’t do anything else to detract from that as well. That’s how much he wants people to know that he’s trying to listen.
MS. IFILL: It’s fair to assume they weren’t saying, we’re behind you, this is – all looks great to us –
MS. PARSONS: No, they didn’t and they came right out and there was no beating around the bush. People said exactly – you know – they were very critical of the president and they’re very worried. All those Democrats who were in that room, except for one, are facing reelection.
So I mean, there’s a couple of things going on. One is if they – if there are changes to the law, like for example, if you delay the mandate requiring people to get it or you extend the enrollment period, then that’s what jimmies the insurance pool. And that’s troublesome for the insurers, that they might not actually work, and then you might not – you might see the following year, for example, they have to jack up the premiums in order to make up for the losses.
MR. WESSEL: Because you only get sicker people. You don’t get healthier people.
MS. PARSONS: Right, exactly. And the other thing is, you know, they’d like to make this change taking care of the cancelation problem, all these people who’ve had cancelations, they’d like to, you know, take care of this administratively in-house without going back to Congress and reopening the law because then, you know, it’s a feeding frenzy and it’s could be – you know – everyone will have something they’d like to change about the law. And again, we’re going to be talking about the problems, rather than enrolling people in the insurance plans.
MR. DICKERSON: Is there anything he can actually do to fix that problem in the individual market where people are getting their plans canceled? I mean, I know he said he’s going to look at some things –
MS. PARSONS: Right.
MR. DICKERSON: – but what are those things?
MS. PARSONS: You know, I talked to a lot of people about this today, trying to figure out what the possibilities were. I mean, you know, the law is pretty clear about who can, for example, qualify for a subsidy, maybe if they wanted to spread the subsidies around a different way and try to help those folks who are complaining about higher premiums. That’s prescribed in the law. There is also, you know, the Grandfather clause that protects some of the people is also from the law. Now, the question that most people sort of looking in that area see that maybe where they think they can do something administratively to somehow protect more people than are currently protected by the –
MR. WESSEL: Are they really going to be able to get the website fixed by the end of November? It’s like a month.
MS. PARSONS: You know – right –
MS. IFILL: We’re going to get our first enrollment numbers next week.
MS. PARSONS: Yes. Next week will be some indication –
MR. WESSEL: Is it over six yet?
MR. DICKERSON: Hoping for double digits.
MS. PARSONS: Well, that’s what’s nerve – you know, that’s what’s nerve-wracking, is these single digit reports that you’re getting from some of the states. And you know, the White House has kind of used up its trust-us well, right? They can’t really go to that well again. And people are very nervous.
MS. IFILL: We heard Max Baucus say why can’t we just delay this? Why can’t they just delay this? Is that just ceding the ground you’re talking about?
MS. PARSONS: It’s ceding the ground. It’s also – if you delay it, another thing that they might – a psychological effect might be that the people you’re trying to get into this pool, the younger people, the healthier people, you know, if there’s no deadline. Oh, and you’re kind of squishy about the deadline. That’s not really – I don’t really have to do it by then. Maybe they’ll just not do it and pay the penalty.
MS. IFILL: Those are the same people who tried to get on the first week, couldn’t, and they’re not doing it anyway. So it seems like a six of one, half a dozen of the other. Thank you, Christi.
There is a tendency to over-read the meaning of off-year elections. But that doesn’t stop us. (Laughter.) We had several truly interesting stories on Tuesday night, including the rise of urban progressives in the cities, the defeat of two tea party candidates – one rural, one urban – and the victory of two men, one a Democrat, one a Republican, whose personalities defined their races.
We’ll start with Chris Christie. Why not? The New Jersey governor who has single-handedly jumpstarted the race to replace President Obama. Too soon, John?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, considering that a number of very powerful Republicans trying to get him into the race in 2012, a lot of people think it’s too late. (Laughter.) That he should have been their candidate last time.
I mean, when you look at his victory, the reason people are talking about 2016, in addition to the fact that he’s giving every possible hint that he’s – is if you look at his demographic success, I mean, he won by 22 points, but he also got a third of the Democratic voters. He won with women voters, though he was running against a female candidate, and he got 50 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Now, can you duplicate that –
MS. IFILL: I was going to say –
MR. DICKERSON: Any Republican can duplicate with that? Well, he’s a special case and also he had Hurricane Sandy, which it was this devastating weather event that a year ago gave him a chance to basically play to all of his strengths. And that’s how he built this amazing coalition. But still, when you run up those kind of numbers, that’s why you get this kind of speculation.
MS. IFILL: When he looked in the camera on election night and say, hey, Washington, this is how we do it in Trenton, this was widely taken by people in Washington to be a gauntlet thrown down. But is it really? He also said I plan to stay in New Jersey and serve as long as possible. We’ve heard that before. But I’m just curious about how serious we have reason to believe he is or whether this is wishful thinking on the part of some moderate Republicans who want to take the tea party down and on the part of reporters who want to get the (the story ?)?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, false choice, Gwen. We could all be – everybody – I think anytime anybody wins 20 – by 22 points in the state where there are 700,000 more Democrats registered than Republicans; you’re going to get Republicans saying he should run for president. And as you said, he looked right at the camera. Yes, he mentioned New Jersey, but considering he was just reelected to governor, might as well mention his home state before moving on to the presidency.
I think what was striking about his message was, when he said, if we can do it here in Trenton, they can do it in Washington. That’s a message to Washington, but it’s also a message to Republicans, saying I’ve got the key to this national argument that I can make for people. And he was kind of unspecific, but what he said was basically I can get it done. There was no – he didn’t say what it was. He didn’t talk about a second-term agenda. But he was speaking to a national need. People look at Washington and they say they can’t get it done. They can’t do their basic job. And this guy is saying he can get it done. And that’s an attractive message.
MR. WESSEL: So what are his pros and more interesting what are his cons as a candidate?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, as a – before he can get to the general election, where he can perhaps appeal to Democrats, he’s got to get through the Republican primary. The question there is is he conservative enough? In New Jersey, he cut taxes. He fought the unions. He’s prolife. But what conservatives are worried about are things like his support for gun control or the fact that he took Medicaid money as a part of the president’s Affordable Care Act. So – and also he’s got the wrong friends. He was with the president during Hurricane Sandy. People in the media like him. He’s got a lot of establishment figures in New York who like him.
MS. IFILL: We like people cursing us out on a regular basis.
MR. DICKERSON: For the grassroots, those are all, you know, bad people to have like you, and so there’s some suspicion. And it’ll be rough and tumble in the primary and it’ll be interesting to see whether his eruptions for which he’s so famous play well in the country. They play very well in New Jersey.
MS. PARSONS: So is there a broader lesson for the Republican Party, either out of that – the outcome of that race or in Virginia, perhaps, do you think?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I think that Virginia is the interesting case because the Republican lost there, Ken Cuccinelli, but the debate continues. It’s not just finger-pointing about why he lost, but in the discussion of why he lost is a question about strategy for the future. You’ve got the tea party folks saying, you know, if only national Republicans had spent enough money here and supported him enough, he might have won because in that race there were some polls that showed a big gap and then showed the polls closing with Cuccinelli, the Republican, getting very close at the end.
MS. IFILL: He only lost by 2.5 points.
MR. DICKERSON: Only lost by 2.5 points. But then, these sort of establishment Republicans will say, look, he was seen as too conservative, not necessarily because of his positions but because of his tone. And that basically we can’t keep running these races in states like Virginia, which is sort of the bellwether state now. The results in the national level in Virginia have matched the national numbers in the last two presidential elections. So this is a crucial state. And establishment folks are saying you can’t have candidates like this who are just a little too strident for the electorate and particularly for women voters.
MR. O’KEEFE: I know there’s been a lot of talk about establishment versus tea party. You know, what does the – what does the Cuccinelli loss tell us?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I think one of the things that they talk a lot about is “Obamacare,” is that he ran on this at-the-end ad they thought that’s what tightened up the race. And that’s part of the reason these Democrats were over at the White House is they saw this happening in Virginia. I think that’s not necessarily shown in the data in terms of what shrank this race. I think what a lot of people believe is that was a good message for him to have. It was a better message than the government shutdown, which had caused some issues for him in the polls.
MS. IFILL: It should be said that government workers live in Virginia – many of them, so –
MR. DICKERSON: Right. And that has a special effect in Virginia. But I think at the end of the day what this race shows is basically if you are a member of the tea party, you take a certain lesson from it. If you are a member of the establishment, you take a certain lesson. And nothing has been resolved. It’s going to be sort of like –
MS. IFILL: And if you’re Democrat, maybe you think that Terry McAuliffe won the race instead of Ken Cuccinelli losing it.
MR. DICKERSON: You do think that and you – and you know – and McAuliffe had 15 more million dollars, but he’s not a great, not a great candidate. And so – as far as some Democrats think. So this was a – this was a race that the always thought was going to be – they in the McAuliffe campaign – was going to be 3 or 4 points. So they don’t think that in the last minute or in the last few weeks this discussion of “Obamacare” changed anything at all. They saw the race headed in this direction anyway.
MS. IFILL: OK. We’ll be watching that as well. It took two decades, but the Senate voted this week to create federal workplace protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees. It was a bipartisan vote, 64 to 32, that came in the wake of other moves earlier this year at the Supreme Court and in state houses to legalize gay marriage.
SENATOR PAT TOOMEY (R-PA) One great enduring and important value for all Americans is equality. And this bill today clearly makes a strong stand for greater equality.
MS. IFILL: That was Pat Toomey, who was one of several Republicans who joined the Democratic majority in easing the bill past the 60-vote threshold it needed. So what has changed since ENDA, which is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, died in the Senate in 2007, Ed?
MR. O’KEEFE: Public opinion.
MS. IFILL: Really?
MR. O’KEEFE: Generally, Americans now favor gay – same-sex marriage. They are supportive of advancing gay rights as much as possible. And Democrats were running around the Hill this week saying, you know, some polls suggest that a majority of Americans already thought this was the law, that it was illegal to discriminate against someone based on their sexual preference or their gender identity in the workplace. So –
MS. IFILL: It doesn’t seem like a startling thing to pass, too.
MR. O’KEEFE: No, and in fact, you know, roughly 20 states have laws on the books for either of these or for both of these protections. But Congress has not done it. It started back in 1996, the Senate rejected it then. There’ve been several attempts ever since. But they’ve never been able to get it through, and this week they did.
MR. WESSEL: So what happened? What accounted for this? Who pushed this?
MR. O’KEEFE: This was very quiet. You know, I covered the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a few years back, back in late 2010, when they got that through. It was also a very, you know, very steep hill to climb. But immediately, the gay rights community said, OK, you’ve repealed the ban on gays and lesbians in uniform, now pass ENDA. So very quietly every since, they’ve been focusing on getting states to legalize same-sex marriage and then very quietly this year, got the Senate to approve it. They discovered there were enough Republicans out there who were at least thinking about supporting this – guys like Senators Orrin Hatch and John McCain, who voted no, back in 1996, when a similar version of this bill was brought forth, and then all these other Republicans, a little more socially moderate, more willing to make deals with Democrats. They basically put together a large lobbying campaign across the country and got it done.
MR. DICKERSON: And some of those – Pat Toomey’s up for reelection in 2016 in a state that is a kind of a Democratic state for him, so –
MR. O’KEEFE: That’s right.
MR. DICKERSON: But what happens in the House with this?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, that’s the sort of big unanswered question. The Speaker, John Boehner, has said he doesn’t think that this is necessary because state protections are already in place. Most corporations already have policies that basically ban this from happening. There’s also concern among Republicans that this is too broadly written, that it will invite new litigation. But a Government Accountability Office report that was done over the summer actually helped quell that criticism by saying in the states that have these types of laws, there’s been no litigation explosion. That helped convince guys like Senator Rob Portman to sign on.
MS. IFILL: Wasn’t there, though, a religious liberty argument that was made as well?
MR. O’KEEFE: There was. And that’s why you were able to get Pat Toomey’s support by the end of the week because there were some concerns that the way it had been written was going to leave the door open to some religious organizations, perhaps some nonprofits to potentially take a legal hit. They put two amendments on the floor this week, one of them to sort of clarify that the state or local government couldn’t retaliate against an organization that for whatever reason might not employ gay, lesbian or transgender people. Another offer from Senator Toomey didn’t pass. But he did sign on. And he’s the most interesting of this bunch.
Yes, he’s from Pennsylvania, which at the presidential level usually is very Democratic, but it’s still a very socially conservative state. And you know, Rob Portman has said, I’m now for same sex marriage because his son is gay. Republicans like Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller come from places that have state laws on the books. But for Toomey, it was most notable.
MS. PARSONS: Oh, sorry –
MR. O’KEEFE: Go ahead.
MS. PARSONS: I was just going to say were you surprised by any of those or –
MR. O’KEEFE: The Toomey one especially. The others all begin to make sense if you start to put it together. Mark Kirk, the Republican from Illinois, has been fighting for this since he came to Congress. Susan Collins, the Republican from Maine, a big champion of gay rights. But getting someone like Toomey signals a few things. One, that he understands the politics of his state. He’s going to be running for reelection in 2016, when there may be a very popular Democratic candidate on the ticket for president. The other, though, is that if a conservative, a social conservative like Pat Toomey can suddenly come along on the issue of gay rights, perhaps there are other conservatives out there who are seeing the polling and understand it’s time to make some changes.
MS. IFILL: But then briefly on this, in the House, if their heels are dug in, does this make the Senate vote just a show vote?
MR. O’KEEFE: To some extent it does. And I think the timing was somewhat notable in that it came right as the 2013 political cycle was ending and the 2014 midterm cycle was beginning. Remember, the gay rights community, pretty much loyal Democrats, give a lot of money to Democratic candidates. To some extent, this will be seen as a show vote. There is some hope that perhaps this could get tacked on to something like the defense bill and force it to get passed in the House, but Republicans generally who said they’re not for it.
MS. IFILL: And maybe there will be other show votes to come. It’s election time, everybody.
Thank you all very much. We have to leave you for now, but the conversation is going to continue online, where we’ll be talking about what worked in the Obama campaign that doesn’t seem to be working in the Obama White House. That’s on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” streaming live at 8:30 p.m. Easter Time and all weekend long, at pbs.org.washingtonweek. That’s where you will also find links to the rest of the stories our panelists are reporting. We call it our “Essential Reads.”
Keep up with daily developments now seven days a week on the PBS “NewsHour.” Remember to honor our veterans this weekend. And we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.