JOHN HARWOOD: Two thousand fourteen is here with a clean slate. After the yearend budget deal, can Washington find more compromise or is it back to politics as usual in a midterm election year? I’m John Harwood in for Gwen Ifill. We’ll explore those questions tonight on “Washington Week.”
More than anyone in Washington, the president hopes the new year will be better than the lousy old one.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.
MR. HARWOOD: There’s some optimism in Congress too.
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): (From tape.) I think the pendulum is starting to swing back toward the center.
MR. HARWOOD: One early test will be whether Congress can raise the debt ceiling without a crisis.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]: (From tape.) I doubt if the House, or for that matter the Senate, is willing to give the president a clean debt ceiling increase.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The debt ceiling is raised simply to pay bills that we have already accrued. It’s the responsibility of Congress. It’s part of doing their job.
MR. HARWOOD: Lawmakers from both parties face the voters in November.
MR. : (From tape.) The president won’t be on the ballot, but his allies will be.
MR. HARWOOD: But in some races, Republicans first square off against each other in fights that could be epic.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From tape.) We all knew that if we took on the Washington establishment, the establishment would fight back. And it’s going to take time to change Washington to turn this country around.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) I think they’re pushing our members our members in places where they don’t want to be. And, frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.
MR. HARWOOD: The agenda is just as challenging overseas, but the secretary of state won’t stop pushing in talks with Iran and negotiations for Middle East peace.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From tape.) We have always known that achieving peace is a long and complicated process. It’s a tough road. But this is not mission impossible.
MR. HARWOOD: Familiar challenges in a brand new year. We explore what to expect with Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, and Jeff Zeleny of ABC News.
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 Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times.
MR. HARWOOD: Good evening. Herb Block, the great political cartoonist, once responded to Richard Nixon’s election as president by drawing him with a clean shave, a fresh start. And that’s what the White House and Congress want now after leaving behind a terrible 2013.
Less than a week in 2014, they’ve got it. But they need to get busy to take advantage. From health care to immigration reform, from Middle East to midterm elections, they’ve got their hands full.
So I’ll start by quickly going around the table starting with you, Alexis, to talk domestically, what’s the first thing President Obama needs to do?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: You know, he might want to start the year by kicking it off with a State of the Union, but I think March is actually going to be on his mind. Why? We have the management of the Affordable Care Act, which is the end of the enrollment period. We have the debt ceiling crisis that could emerge again. And also, the White House is watching those early primaries trying to figure out whether the tea party of the Republican rifts might settle enough that immigration reform might seem possible.
MR. HARWOOD: Doyle, on the foreign policy/national security front, John Kerry has been busy even now. What’s the first thing he’s got to do to try to achieve some of his goals for a later year?
DOYLE MCMANUS: A whole lot of Middle East, John. As you saw, John Kerry is in Israel right now trying to push on that. There are negotiators meeting on the Iranian nuclear deal to try and get that interim arrangement to actually get implemented, which hasn’t happened yet. And in the second half of January, there is supposed to be a peace conference in – actually, near Geneva on Syria. And there’s kind of an irony there because this is an administration that said it wanted to do less Middle East and more Asia. So far, that’s not happening.
MR. HARWOOD: Jeff, President Obama leaves Hawaii Saturday night. Congress comes back on Monday. What’s the first thing they’ve got to take care of?
JEFF ZELENY: One of the first substantive things is this unemployment insurance benefits that expired at the end of the year. The president is pushing for a three-month extension. There’s a bit of a bipartisan plan, but only a bit, sponsored by Senator Jack Reid of Rhode Island and the Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada but it’s unclear how many Republicans will join in on that. So what this would do is help out those long-term unemployed, the people with these weekly benefits.
But what it’s also going to do is set the stage for a broader conversation that we’re going to hear throughout the year on income inequality – the essential theme of the president’s state of the union address. So how that vote turns out next week will explain a lot about how this year is going to go.
MR. HARWOOD: Amy, we’ve got 10 months until we get to November. For the consultants, the donors, the candidates, the party committees, what do they have to do right now?
AMY WALTER: Well, what they’re looking at, number one, is whether the president’s numbers can bounce back, all right? So we saw an 11-point drop in his overall approval rating from the beginning of the year until now. Will he, in the next few months, be able to get those numbers if now back to where he was at the beginning of 201 at least somewhere in the middle, in the mid-40s as opposed to the low 40s.
And you’re right; those numbers, they drive a lot. They drive recruiting. They drive fundraising. Republicans who see a president in peril, they’re much more interested in running; Democrats not as interested in giving to a party that looks like it’s going to lose seats.
So that I think is going to be the most important thing to look at. Whether that number comes back up or whether he’s stuck in the low 40s is going to tell us just how bad of a night one party or the other is going to have.
MR. HARWOOD: All right, guys. We’re going to drill down a little bit more closely on some of the main themes on each of these subject areas, Alexis, starting with you. When you look at what the president’s got on his agenda, we’re thinking about changing his management priorities; recovering trust with the public. His numbers took a big hit, as Amy just indicated. And how does he avoid a midterm disaster? When you think about those priorities over the course of the year, what’s most important? What’s most difficult?
MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things that presidents in second terms have a hard time doing – and I listened to the president at the end of 2013 and he said he wanted 2014 to be a year of action, and there’s this great ambition to try to play catch-up.
So one of the things that I think the president, his new team, some of the wise men who are coming in, people who know the president, have worked in the White House before – John Podesta is a former Clinton chief of staff – one of the things they’re going to advise him is to be selective, to think about the time that he has in 2014 and use it judiciously as opposed to just being all over the map on these issues that he keeps saying we have more work to do that it’s left over.
So we’re going to see him try to manage what he’s already done. That’s a big challenge for second-term presidents, you know, try to massage what you’ve already accomplished, whether it’s the Affordable Care Act or any of the other elements that he wants to use, executive action, climate change, for instance.
MR. HARWOOD: Right, so some of the action that he can undertake is things that are within his control, if he uses the power that he has. John Podesta wants to focus on that.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Within his control. Expert on that. And then, you know, restoring trust, we know that Edward Snowden and the NSA is something that’s dogged him. And, as Amy pointed out, his numbers went down 11 points for a reason. And the NSA surveillance is a big reason why. The president’s defending it. We’re going to see more of it in the courts. That’s not going away in 2014.
And then, if the president wants to sure up his legacy, as you pointed out, 2014 is when you want to make sure that you’re holding your Senate seats, that you’re helping Democrats, whether you are overtly standing next to them or you are standing far, far away from them. And that’s a choice the president wants to play. And, you know, Democrats are looking to see how much he will be of help, as Amy was pointing out, or a fundraiser – a big help on the fundraising.
MR. HARWOOD: When you think about the intersection of management and elections, getting the health care exchanges running in a successful way, that’s got to be huge.
MS. WALTER: That is, and making the case for the health care exchange because it’s not just about the website. We’ve been talking about this for a long time now. Once the website is fixed, which it looks like it’s on the path to doing that, there are still many other issues that need to be resolved, right?
MR. ZELENY: People who are buying insurance through the website, and some of them are like, oh, this is so expensive and whatnot. I mean, you can look at the Democrats in the Senate who are worried about this – they’re up for re-election – who had their own bills they’re introducing to do something to sort of slow “Obamacare.”
MS. WALTER: And that’s been the most interesting thing to me about 2013 in terms of missed opportunities. Given that this issue, health care, was his shining legacy, the fact that his political organization and his White House spent so little time promoting it, talking it up, there’s been a vacuum on this issue and it’s been filled completely with negative attacks by Republicans.
So this is not going to just turn the tide. People aren’t just going to wake up one day and go like, oh, I love “Obamacare.” Thank you so much. It’s people who currently have health care who are going to determine whether or not this is a success or not, whether they feel that their own benefits or their ability to go see a doctor is threatened by this, that will be the success or failure of this.
MR. ZELENY: Also a challenge for Republicans though – Republicans I talked to on the Hill know that they have to take a slightly different strategy in 2014 to not overreach and still have the same voting to repeal this. I mean, you talk to Speaker Boehner or some other leaders, they believe that they were sort of handed a second gift here after the government shutdown – sort of a second shot at life. And how Republicans deal with the Affordable Care Act is also very significant to what’s going to happen in the midterms.
MR. HARWOOD: And, Doyle, I was going to say, Jeff was talking about Democrats being uneasy with it. I still can’t see Democrats really seriously undercutting the president on this. Can you?
MR. MCMANUS: No, although there are any number of Democrats who in those dark days in October and November kept saying, can’t we exempt some people? Can’t we spear some people from the pain?
And it’s hard to figure out, what do you if you’re the White House to make this picture better, because so much of it now is in the nitty-gritty of implementation? And one of the things we’re going to see very early, we already know this, is just about everybody in America who likes their new insurance plan is going to be very quickly on a stage at the White House or somewhere else talking about how this has been a good thing for their lives.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And, as Doyle was pointing out, four years after the enactment of this legislation, and it’s law, they’re now telling a story about the good news of individuals who are in individual states trying to market this in a good news story, you might argue, and some Democrats have argued very late.
MS. WALTER: Too late.
MR. HARWOOD: All right. So if that’s the biggest domestic focus, you’ve got a lot of foreign policy challenges the administration is looking at. The ones we’ve identified are searching for Middle East peace, trying to curb the Iran nuclear program through negotiations, and trying to finally execute that pivot to Asia the president’s talked about. When you look at those storylines, what stands out to you, Doyle?
MR. MCMANUS: How much is on the plate in a sense? If 2013 was the year in which the wheels came off of “Obamacare,” which was supposed to be a good thing for the president, it was also the year in which the wheels came off the Middle East, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Syria, across a whole range of places. And in the middle of that, a new secretary of state – surprising just about everybody – jumps in to all of those conflicts all at the same time.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, you mentioned that; let’s listen from a sound from Secretary Kerry and John McCain, his own friend from the United States Senate on this subject.
SEC. KERRY: (From tape.) I know that there are many who are skeptical of whether or not the two parties can achieve peace. But I will tell you that I have personally learned something about the power of reconciliation.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From tape.) We support a legitimate peace process, but we also are very concerned about some of the aspects, as has been presented to us, of this agreement as to whether they are truly enforceable and viable options that does not put the state of Israel in jeopardy.
MR. HARWOOD: Doyle, do you think the skepticism is on target?
MR. MCMANUS: Sure. Anytime a secretary of state has to get up and say, as in the clip at the beginning of this broadcast, this is not mission impossible, that’s because a lot of smart people think it’s mission impossible, including some people in the State Department. Israel-Palestinian peace is a big, time-consuming thing and John Kerry didn’t have to tackle it. But he’s 70-years-old. This is his last turn. He is behaving as if he thinks this is his last turn on the world stage.
MR. HARWOOD: But do think it’s possible? Not that he’ll do it, but is it possible it’s a realistic attempt?
MR. MCMANUS: It is possible, but, boy, it is a real long shot. And the reasonable question is for a secretary of state who also has to try and do something about Syria – equally insoluble – do something about Iran, which it tells you something when a nuclear deal with Iran may be the most realistic place for getting something done.
MR. ZELENY: And speaking of that though, so many skeptics in a Congress, some from the president’s own party have sort of, you know, been holding their tongues a little bit, but is that going to change this year do you think on Iran specifically? I mean, do you foresee the Senate or House doing something sanction-wise if this deal doesn’t hold?
MR. MCMANUS: Actually, so far, the White House has been remarkably successful in beating back those attempts to pass something. You know, Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, keeps wanting to pass a sanctions bill that would not put sanctions on Iran right away that would blow the deal up. It would say down the road, if they don’t comply. And the White House has been very, very strong saying even this would blow it up.
And so far, those Democrats have been happy to in a sense fight the good fight, say to their constituents, I tried. I’m there for you and they wouldn’t let me do it. It’s really going to depend on what happens over the next weeks.
Remarkable thing: that interim deal that was worked out a month ago still isn’t in effect yet. That’s got to happen real soon. And then what happens over the six months of negotiation.
MR. HARWOOD: Amy, how relevant is any of this to the election campaign?
MS. WALTER: Oh, of course it’s always relevant.
MR. HARWOOD: You can tell the truth on this show.
MS. WALTER: I know. On this show, I can do it. It’s very hard to believe that most Americans are going to be paying that much attention to this when they’re much more focused on issues like their health care and certainly on the economy.
I think what’s going to be interesting, though, is whether or not the president can show some strength. Alexis was talking about sort of getting that mojo back, getting that trust back. Here’s a place to do it. He doesn’t – in some cases, doesn’t need Congress to do many of these things. This is an opportunity for the president to look presidential, to look like an executive in charge. And that’s where he – you know.
MR. HARWOOD: Alexis, do you think he wants to invest the time and energy to do that?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Oh, I definitely think he does, in part because he sees it as something that he campaigned and promised that he would try to do and that it might be considered a long-term legacy if it is in some ways successful. In other words, his argument has been this is worth trying because the alternative is so bad.
MR. MCMANUS: And there’s one other foreign policy issue that we’ve neglected that is going to help the president, I think, in the November election, congressional election. And that is the return of troops from Afghanistan. This is the year when the last American combat troop –
MR. HARWOOD: Everybody can identify.
MR. MCMANUS: – is supposed to come home. There will be parades. There will be homecomings and there will be lots of speeches by Barack Obama saying, I promised to do this and I did.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The only reason I hesitate about this is because he has two different ideas. One is, we’re coming home, all of them are coming home, and also we’re going to leave 7,000 to 10,000 there. And how do you satisfy that friction with voters who are done, finished?
MR. HARWOOD: A little bit of a mixed message.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes.
MR. HARWOOD: All right. Let’s talk about Congress, Jeff. We’ve got a couple of top priorities there passing immigration legislation, which has cleared the House but not the Senate; trying to have a smooth budgeting process, crisis free; and some sort of overhaul of the surveillance practices that the NSA has taken up. Now, let’s listen to Speaker Boehner and the president on prospects for immigration.
REP. BOEHNER: (From tape.) Is immigration reform dead? Absolutely not. I’ve made clear going back to the day after the last election in 2012 that it was time for Congress to deal with this issue. And the only way to make sure immigration reform works this time is to address these complicated issues one step at a time.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I think 2014 needs to be a year of action. I think immigration potentially falls in that category, where let’s – here’s an area where we’ve got bipartisan agreement. There are a few differences here and there, but the truth of the matter is is that the Senate bill has the main components of comprehensive immigration reform that would boost our economy.
MR. HARWOOD: Jeff, comprehensive action on immigration?
MR. ZELENY: I think the chances for a comprehensive action on immigration are very, very small to not going to happen. What Speaker Boehner was saying there is that he thinks that there needs to be a step-by-step approach. And the White House is not fighting him on this. They would be satisfied with that. What does that really mean a step-by-step approach? It probably means that the path to citizenship is not included in it.
So I was talking to someone in Speaker Boehner’s office today and they said they really want to take the temperature of the Republicans at the annual retreat at the end of this month to see how many of them are willing to do it. And the signs have been on the wall that the party has to do something. But if it is going to happen, if something is going to happen on immigration, it’s going to come probably a few months down the road after most of those filing deadlines are over. What Republicans are worried about is, you know, suddenly getting primary challenges for supporting some type of immigration bill, but it’s hard to say –
MR. HARWOOD: This would be something, Amy, that is relevant to the election.
MR. ZELENY: Absolutely.
MS. WALTER: Right. And it would be – actually, the interesting thing is it would be much more relevant to 2016 than to 2014, and that’s I think the difficulty for so many of these Senate and House Republicans is that most of them are not sitting in places where they have to worry about currying votes that are not white. The average Republican district now is 75 percent white. So they have to be thinking big picture way. This is not about me winning my election. This is about Republicans winning the White House. And if they feel threatened, then of course they’re going to be much more reticent to support something on immigration reform. And if they see the president is down on the mat, do they really want to give him the opportunity to get back up by giving him something that he wants very much and will take a lot of credit for and he will get more credit for than Republicans.
MR. ZELENY: Some of the party elders, some of the wise sort of men and women in the party though really are saying, look, like, this is what the party needs for the long term.
MS. WALTER: That’s right.
MR. ZELENY: The party will not likely, potentially not be successful in 2016 or down the road if you – you know, you sort of don’t change the image, but Marco Rubio is exhibit A. He was out there supporting the Senate Comprehensive Immigration bill. He touched the stove, got burned in – among some of his conservative supporters.
MR. HARWOOD: What about the budget debt issues as well as the NSA, which the president has indicated he wants to do something with?
MR. ZELENY: Right. A huge issue on the budgeting: the top thing – the top line is there won’t be any more government shutdowns at least in the short term. And that’s no small thing really, but there are going to be other budget fights. You know, if you’re watching this at home, there aren’t going to be any budget fights. The first one will come over the debt ceiling. And we saw the back and forth there with the president at the top of this show. But Republicans still I think by and large learned a lesson from the government shutdown, so the debt ceiling will be able to go through.
Now, they have to figure out also in this month how to appropriate all this money. We’re going to see things, the omnibus package and all these things. But the budget is likely not as big of a problem as it looked like – no tax reform probably, perhaps only slightly on the edges. But NSA and surveillance, this is something that the Obama administration has gotten basically a free ride on this. Still needs the old Bush administration policies. Now, tough questions from Senator Patrick Leahy, now there’s this month on the NSA practices because of Edward Snowden.
MR. HARWOOD: All right. Election agenda – you’ve got a couple of things going on. First of all, battle for Congress, Democrats trying to hold the Senate, Republicans the House. You’ve got state-level elections where some of the Republican governors are trying to run for president in 2016. You’ve also got some high-profile primaries. What stands out for you?
MS. WALTER: Well, you know, I think that in the control of Congress, the House is going to be very difficult for Democrats to be able to take back.
MR. HARWOOD: Not happening.
MS. WALTER: The bottom line, it’s just not going to happen. The real focus is going to be the Senate – six seats separate Democrats from Republicans. There are 21 Democratic seats up in the Senate next year, seven –
MR. HARWOOD: Another good Republican map.
MS. WALTER: Very good Republican map, seven of those 21 are seats that Mitt Romney carried. Six of those seven are states that he carried – Romney did – by double digits. So these are very, very red states. The opportunities are there and that’s where we get to the intra-party fights.
We’ve seen in 2010, we saw in 2012 Republicans really snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by putting forward candidates that were totally unelectable in these states. There is still opportunity for those candidates to emerge once again in places like Georgia, North Carolina, Iowa, Alaska. And then you have the intra-party fights that aren’t going to determine control, but they will determine the tenor, what these – what the next set of Republicans in the Senate are going to look like.
So in Wyoming, Mike Enzi versus Liz Cheney, in Mississippi, long-time Senator Thad Cochran versus a tea party challenger there. You, of course, have – in Kentucky, you have Mitch McConnell versus a tea party candidate. So we’re going to see plenty of opportunities for establishment versus the tea party.
MR. HARWOOD: Alexis, does the White House fear that they’ll lose the Senate or do they look at some of these primaries – McConnell, Cochran – and see opportunities there for them to pull it out as they’ve done in 2010?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, I talked to a very seasoned Democrat at the end of 2013, and he talked about, as Amy suggested, it was the worst map that he could remember seeing, you know, in his career. So the White House is worried about that and very aware that Democrats in the Senate want to have the president either help sculpt a script or help them lead. And you can see income inequality idea setting it up, the effort to try to contrast the Democratic Party from the Republican Party while Republicans are all over the map about what their message is. So I think that they’re worried, yeah.
MR. HARWOOD: And, Doyle, you and I both remember that as popular as Ronald Reagan was in 1986, when he had his second midterm, he couldn’t hold the Senate because he had some very vulnerable candidates.
MR. MCMANUS: Almost every president hits a rough time at this stage in his presidency. Ronald Reagan went out and campaigned in 1986.
MR. HARWOOD: I was on some of those trips.
MR. MCMANUS: We’re not going to see Barack Obama campaigning in Louisiana, in North Carolina.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Arkansas.
MR. MCMANUS: Certainly not in Alaska, out in Arkansas. He’s going to stay a long way away from there, but it is going to be that larger economic message. One thing that helps Democrats is that, actually, the economy is finally growing. And so it’s a more benign environment for them in general, certainly than it was in 2010 where unemployment and the economy were fata.
MR. ZELENY: Except health care, which is still there and it’s still an issue.
MR. HARWOOD: It’s funny that only now we mention the economy, huge factor in the election.
Guys, that’s going to wrap it up for us tonight but this reminder: be sure to jump online at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time for our webcast extra, stream live and available all weekend long on our website pbs.org/washingtonweek. Tonight we’ll take a look at some of the sleeper stories to watch for in the coming year.
I’m John Harwood. Gwen will be back at this table next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.