MS. IFILL: Commando raids, an uncontrollable oil spill, an economy that can’t rebound fast enough, and political missteps here, there, and everywhere, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Is anything going right? Oil continues to gush from the ocean floor.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Right now, stopping this oil spill and containing its damage is necessarily the top priority not just of my administration, but I think of the entire country.
GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R-LA): Every day they wait, every day they make us wait. We’re losing our battle to protect our coast.
TONY HAYWARD, CEO, BP OIL : I’d like my life back. So there’s no one who wants this thing done more than I do.
MS. IFILL: A high sea standoff forces the U.S. to mediate newly inflamed tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.
ISRAELI PRIME MIN. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Israel should not be held to a double standard. The Jewish state has a right to defend itself, just like any other state.
DR. GHASSEN AL-KHATEEB, PALESTINIAN GOVT SPOKESPERSON: We think that Israel should be held accountable for this crime and should be punished.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: The situation in Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable.
MS. IFILL: The economy adds new jobs, but not enough of them.
PRES. OBAMA: While we recognize that our recovery is still in its early stages and that there’re going to be ups and downs in the months ahead, things never go completely in a smooth line.
MS. IFILL: And the White House political shop stumbles, again. What’s a president to do? We assess the challenges and the distractions with the reporters covering the week: Peter Baker of the “New York Times,” Michael Duffy of “Time” Magazine and Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times.”
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The oil is toxic. Tensions in the Middle East are suddenly deadly. The economy is listless and politics is tangled. This is the landscape Barack Obama faces on day 46 of the oil spill that won’t stop spreading or complicating everything else the White House is trying to do.
BILL NUNGESSER: Imagine a storm rolling that oil up and bringing it in and laying it down where we are here. Imagine that black gooky stuff on everything. We’ll never clean it up. We will devastate coastal Louisiana forever.
MS. IFILL: As we’ve seen this week no president has the luxury of focusing on one thing at a time, so Mr. Obama was back in the Gulf today for his third visit.
PRES. OBAMA: I do not want to see this thing repeated again and the American people and I promise you the people of the Gulf don’t want to see it either.
MS. IFILL: A domestic crisis forced the White House to cancel for the second time a planned trip to Australia and Indonesia. Last time they canceled it was because of health care. How much has this story just overwhelmed everything else, Peter?
MR. BAKER: Well, obviously, it takes a lot of the oxygen out of the room when every day you’re worrying about a gushing flow of oil that doesn’t seem to stop. The people originally called it “Obama’s Katrina.” That metaphor now outdoor we’re talking about Obama’s Iran hostage crisis, which obviously went on for President Carter 444 days. It’s the nonstop nature of it that has made it so difficult for them. If it had simply been a storm that wreaked havoc and then they had to clean it up, that would be one thing. This is a problem that looks like is going to continue for at least two more months before they really get this oil under control and then we’re talking about obviously a massive cleanup effort.
MS. IFILL: Late this afternoon, we saw the president went and met with the shrimpers and met with some fishermen down on the coast. And just before that, he did what people have been asking him to do – at least people in Washington have been asking him to do – was get a little annoyed – this case, at BP. Let’s listen to what he said and talk about it on the other side.
PRES. OBAMA: I want BP to be very clear; they’ve got moral and legal obligations here on the Gulf towards the damage that has been done. And what I don’t want to hear is when they’re spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they’re nickel and diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time.
MS. IFILL: Is that it? Is that as angry as the president gets?
MR. MCMANUS: That’s the furiest version of Barack Obama. But it was calculated and that line about nickel and – don’t let BP going nickel and diming – he used that several times and it was a little bit curious because Admiral Allen was asked today whether there had been claims that had been turned down, because they set up a new hotline for claims. Well, actually, no claims have been turned down. There’s not a lot of evidence of people being nickel and dimed on damage claims.
MS. IFILL: But he seemed annoyed that BP was spending money on a rehabilitation campaign and a little annoyed that – I don’t know – that they were paying money out to the stockholders.
MR. DUFFY: The White House has to be careful not to let too many demands from elsewhere run them from pillar to post. Some people want them to be angry or some people want them to emote more. This is not a president who has a great range on any of these scales, and so he’s probably wise not to try.
I think a larger concern for the White House is less how he appears himself ,but how they navigate this crisis going forward because it’s not going to end today. As they say, no one is under any illusion at the White House that this is – that they have turned the corner or even begun to with 19,000 gallons still coming out. They have to walk this line essentially, if you ask White House officials. On one hand, we can do nothing to contribute to the sense that this has sort of taken over our presidency, the way the hostage crisis done that.
On the other hand, we can’t belittle it or be glib about it, say it’s just a regional problem, because it very soon not just be a regional problem, as this oil moves up the coast. So they have to navigate between these buoys, if you will, and they’re going to have to keep doing it while they advance the rest of their agenda.
MR. BAKER: Well, there are a limited range of options for the president in these circumstances anyway, either – both in terms of substance and in terms of public leadership, presentation type things. How many times can he go out to the camera and say, “I’m fully engaged. We’re in charge. We’re on top of this as the oil keeps coming out now without any progress in stopping it.
MS. IFILL: There’re two things that they did this week, the administration – they tried to assert some control over it – one was to send Eric Holder, the attorney general, to the Gulf Coast to say, we’ll sue you if you don’t do the right thing. And the other was for the president to use as a way to pivot talking about the energy bill and saying maybe this will get his bill through in the same way that financial deregulation got through because of so much outrage at Wall Street.
MR. DUFFY: They actually went further than sue when they said, we might actually indict you on criminal charges. This was very much a – opened a criminal investigation as much as anything else, which was a definite turning up of the heat, something they said they have been thinking about for weeks, but announced fairly quickly once Holder had gone – actually levied a fine on BP today, I think, and some 60 – some million dollars.
MS. IFILL: They sent a bill to pay to pay $69 million.
MR. DUFFY: And if there is a silver lining anywhere in their ability to maneuver, it was we also began to hear this week talk from the White House and from people in Congress, Democrats, that perhaps an energy bill which had long up been given kind of for dead this year, now may have a chance. If you really press White House officials to say, do you really think you’re going to be able as a consequence of this disaster to move energy legislation which had previously been stalled, they say don’t bet it. But let’s remember that seven or eight weeks ago, when Goldman Sachs came under sudden investigation for fraud, everyone thought the financial regulation bill was dead too and now it’s heading towards conference next Monday.
MR. MCMANUS: But are also using the energy bill to make a point. Harry Reid sent a letter this week to his committee chairman on White House instructions in effect, saying let’s get this bill out of committee by July, and he began talking about it not as a climate bill, which is how it started, not even as an energy bill, which it then turned into, but now it’s an offshore oil regulation bill.
MR. DUFFY: And he asked for ideas about how to punish anyone who isn’t playing by the rules. So now it’s a regulation of offshore oil.
MR. MCMANUS: Exactly. So if you can get to the Senate floor and start having a debate with Republicans on should we regulate BP more, that’s a good debate for Democrats.
MR. BAKER: Just 10 weeks after, of course, the president said, let’s have more offshore drilling, I think that’s part of our solution.
MS. IFILL: People are going to remember that?
MR. MCMANUS: Is anybody going to remember that?
MR. BAKER: Oh, no, of course not.
MS. IFILL: Oh, we’ll remind them. (Laughter.) So – on the piece about the potential for indictment, there is a lot of symbolism. This is politics. We understand symbolism. But how much was – how symbolic was that as well, sending the cajole of the attorney general to the coast?
MR. BAKER: Clearly it’s meant to be – we are not simply relying on BP to do whatever is they tell us. We’re not simply in their pocket, the way a lot of people had been accusing them of being. The interesting question though is, you’re in the middle of a crisis in which you’re relying on BP, whether you like it or not, because they are the ones with the personnel and the technology and the equipment down there. You’re relying on them to be a partner in this effort to stop the leak. At the same time, you’re telling them, by the way, we might send you to jail. That’s an interesting two-track system there.
MS. IFILL: Let me – well point out one other little interesting detail. Our partners at “National Journal” do an insider’s poll every week in which they ask people what they think about things. The question this week was about the president’s handling of the oil spill. Democrats gave him a C minus and Republicans gave him a D minus. Nobody’s given him high grades right now. And let’s talk about other thing because there’re a lot of crises that never seem to end.
This week, we saw another unfolding drama as nine activists were killed as they attempted to penetrate the Israeli blockade off the coast of Gaza. The Israelis called it self-defense.
PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: We want to maintain a situation where we prevent weapons and war materials from coming into Gaza, and allowing humanitarian aid to go to the population of Gaza. That is a difficult task.
MS. IFILL: But any number of nations from Britain to France to Turkey condemned the action which they said was avoidable. And once again, the U.S. found itself searching for a middle ground.
PRES. OBAMA: It’s not premature to say to the Israelis and to say to the Palestinians and to say to all the parties in the region that the status quo is unsustainable. We have been trying to do this piecemeal for decades now and it just doesn’t work.
MS. IFILL: Maybe not premature, but it’s certainly complicated. Doyle.
MR. MCMANUS: Oh, it’s always been complicated. Look, if the – Gwen, if the narrative on the domestic side has been about events like BP making it impossible for the White House to focus on the things it wanted to do, that’s exactly what’s happening on the foreign policy side as well because of this incident. The White House wanted this week to be about progress toward a resolution at the UN on Iran sanctions. There was a new report out from the IAEA, the UN Atomic Energy Agency, on Iranian violations. And they wanted it to be about the resumption of the George Mitchell’s peace talks in Israel, which amazingly enough, totally under the radar, got restarted this week. And it is kind of interesting –
MS. IFILL: I wonder why that was under the radar?
MR. MCMANUS: – well, both the Israelis and the Palestinians went ahead and did it despite what’s going on. But instead, Israel – the combination – the fatal combination of the Israeli navy and these so-called peace activists who included some very militant people who for whatever reason ended up taking up cudgels, created this mess, it was complicated by the fact that it was a Turkish ferry and Turkey and Israel have had this terrible falling out. Turkey is a key ally of the United States not just on the Israeli account, but on the Iranian account, so the president had to get on the phone to Turkey’s prime minister, Prime Minister Erdogan, for the second time in about –
MS. IFILL: The Prime Minister Erdogan was calling this a massacre. He was not sparing any harsh words in the same way that Netanyahu was pushing back. And most of the democratic world was saying, well, Israel you overstepped this time, except for the U.S. I was just so interested about this middle ground.
MR. BAKER: The Americans supported a resolution of the United Nations Security Council that said “we are unhappy about the actions taken,” but not saying we are unhappy with Israel specifically. It was very much where we – we expressed our condolences on the tragedy of what happened without assigning blame. Because of course, President Obama’s position on Israel has been quite tenuous for months now to begin with. And he came under –
MS. IFILL: He’s viewed with suspicion.
MR. BAKER: – with a great suspicion by the Israeli supporters in the United States and in Jerusalem.
MR. DUFFY: And vice versa. Don’t forget that it was on Tuesday that President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu were supposed to have met in Washington, a meeting that got canceled on account of this incident amid. They ended up talking three times on the phone instead on Monday, both to say, sorry, I can’t come, but also, what actually are we going to do now?
It looks like that at the end of the week, the U.S. which had – don’t forget, had been – I don’t want to say complicit in the blockade of Gaza, but certainly supporters –
MS. IFILL: Had looked the other way.
MR. DUFFY: – certainly looked the other way – seems to have moved a little bit – isn’t that fair to say – off that by the end of the week. And to some extent, you could say, if that was a goal of this flotilla, that might have been a success.
MS. IFILL: Well, if that was a goal to pull Palestinian activists onboard, you’re right, then they got the attention they wanted because we kept hearing, first Hillary Clinton, and now over and over again people saying that the blockade itself is unsustainable, but we should all try to get along.
MR. MCMANUS: Yes, actually, to be fair, Mike, the administration had said things criticizing the blockade before, but had never found a way to act on them and looked remarkably ineffective about it. And what the flotilla incident did was – and in a way there may be a weird analogy to BP and trying to move the energy bill – it provided, in fact, President Obama called it “an opportunity” to try to make lemonade out of the lemons. And so they are pushing very hard on the Israelis to come up with a significantly new regime in Gaza, which would allow the United States and the West and other countries to increase the flow of aid in there, to increase the categories, to increase things like building materials and industrial supplies that Israel has been keeping out, and even to use this to muscle both sides, including the Israelis, on those George Mitchell talks with the Palestinians
MR. BAKER: Well, remember, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff says of course, never let a good crisis go to waste. He in fact has got back from Israel himself –
MS. IFILL: Where he had a personal meeting.
MR. BAKER: – where he had a personal vacation, but also had a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu. His son was there, being bar mitzvah, which is a very interesting moment, of course, because Rahm Emanuel is a controversial figure in Israel, even though he served there as a young man. He’s been criticized by a lot of the hawks there. So it’s been an interesting dance, if you will, by the White House.
MR. MCMANUS: The question I’d love to ask Rahm Emanuel is, is there such a thing as having too many good crises at the same time?
MR. BAKER: Yes.
MR. DUFFY: But just going back to the U.S. role in Gaza, it’s worth noting that one of the reasons they didn’t make a bigger deal out of it was that they had other fish to fry with the Israelis, particularly in Jerusalem, particularly on Iran. And the last thing they really needed in their deck of cards, which wasn’t a very good hand to start with, was also having to worry about Gaza. So it was third on their list of issues. And now, it’s pretty clear that this is first on the issue of those in the Muslim world.
MS. IFILL: But Iran, which was supposed to be what was on the schedule this week – is that still there? Does this get pushed aside for now?
MR. BAKER: You’re going to still see Iran next week. I go to the Security Council next week and try to have a vote on sanctions that they have negotiated with China and Russia. And –
MR. MCMANUS: They say they have the votes. They say they’re going to do it by the end of the week. There may be some no votes. It’s going to be interesting to watch Turkey, and Brazil and Lebanon and a few other countries. So it’s not going to be unanimous, which makes the message weaker than it should have been.
MS. IFILL: Well, earlier this week – it was a chock-full week – the White House officials began hinting that we will be seeing very good news on the jobs front when new unemployment numbers were released today. Well, thanks to temporary hiring for the census, there was some improvement, but not much worth boasting about. So you can add politics to the list of things that aren’t going so well for this White House right now.
Isn’t politics 101 all about playing down expectations, Michael? That’s not what they did on this.
MR. DUFFY: No, in fact, on Wednesday, in a speech in Pittsburgh, the president – which was a very good speech about, not his whole agenda and the economy in particular – there was a line in there that said we expect a really strong jobs report at the end of the week. And what they got was the opposite. This is a particularly difficult outcome for the White House because this jobs number is the metric they care about most, not only because it affects real people but it has clout. We created X number of jobs. Bill Clinton used to say all the time, “we created nine million jobs.” Last month, yes, –
MR. BAKER: He would correct you, by the way. He said 22 million over the course of his presidency. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: So you don’t get a phone call tonight.
MR. DUFFY: But he said, today the numbers were 450,000 new jobs last month, but only 41,000 were in the private sector. The rest were in the government and not just in the government, but census jobs. So they’re short-term. And this kind of plays not only to the idea that the economy isn’t improving, which is not what the story line has been, but also plays into the sort of Republican critique that the only thing that’s really keeping the economy up is public sector spending, deficit spending, borrowed spending. And that’s tough.
MS. IFILL: But let me broaden this out a little bit because it seems that one of the interesting things about this calculation and how they talked about the economy was that this White House gets a lot of credit for being sharp political people, except they’re not doing sharp political things. We saw this week yet another person who’s running against an incumbent, this time in Colorado, who wasn’t bribed, he wasn’t convinced or persuaded, but it was certainly suggested that there was another job he could have if he didn’t run against Michael Bennett, the senator from Colorado – the Democratic senator. But that blew up again.
MR. BAKER: But one of the things that’s interesting about that is this is now the second week in a row they’ve had to confirm that they had offered or at least discussed a job with somebody to get them out of the way of an incumbent Democratic senator. In a way, though, this is a problem that they brought on themselves by months after months not answering the questions when other people had asked them. Joe Sestak, in Pennsylvania, said in February, well, they offered me a job to get out. I refused. The White House for three months. I will not going to talk about it until Joe Sestak wins the primary against Arlen Specter. And suddenly they sort of have to talk about it, creating the idea that there is in fact something suspicious here as opposed to politics as usual. So it’s not surprising that there is a big cover-up about it.
MR. DUFFY: Both in the case of Andy Romanoff, who talked to people this week about his job offer and Sestak, who talked about his, these disclosures are coming from people in their own party. It’s a sort of –
MS. IFILL: It seems disrespectful somehow.
MR. DUFFY: – yes, exactly. And that’s a little bit of a turn up. Presidents and governors and party chairmen have been offering jobs to people to get into races and to get out of races since forever, so it’s nothing unusual. But they came into office promising a slightly different – well, a different kind of politics, one that was in theory at least cleaner. The ideals of the campaign had a very different tone than the practices –
MS. IFILL: Is it possible that when these Democrats look at the president struggling on things like the oil spill, struggling with the economy, struggling to keep the spotlight where he wants it, that they see him as someone vulnerable, who they don’t really have to pay much attention?
MR. MCMANUS: Oh, that’s absolutely the case. That’s absolutely true. They look at his approval ratings. They look at the news and every member of Congress who’s running for re-election is asking the question in a very practical way, how close do I want to get to this guy this year? Do I want to invite this president into my district? Do I want to do it for fundraising? Do I want to do it for something else? And there’s a whole bunch of Democrats in the House, principally the blue dogs, the centrists, whose answer is, well, a little bit of fundraising, but I sure want to keep it under the radar and I’m going to run in the opposite direction from any of these positions that I don’t want to be near.
MS. IFILL: Does the White House care?
MR. BAKER: I think they do care, sure. Sure they do care. Having said that – you could understand why some Democrats might not take these job offers, given sort of how chancy they seem. The offer to Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania was an unpaid position on a board that it turns out he actually couldn’t get on anyway because he wasn’t qualified for it as a member of Congress. And to Andy Romanoff in Colorado was we’ll make you deputy administrator of USAID. Like, well, I can imagine why I wouldn’t want to be a United States senator – (laughter) – become deputy administrator –
MS. IFILL: Well and here’s the good news that we can look forward too, which is the Rod Blagojevich trial starts, so just in case there was any – I don’t know – bad news still waiting. There’s more.
MR. DUFFY: But White House reaction to this whole sort of – we called it tangle – is, yes, we came into Washington to do politics differently, but we didn’t say we weren’t going to do politics. And you’ve got to do some to cut deals and make compromises and balance human interests. And so they feel like they’re in – damned if they do, damned if they don’t do this.
MS. IFILL: They are because they are. That’s exactly why they feel that way. Well, thank you everyone. We actually have to leave a few minutes early tonight to give you the opportunity to support your local station, which, in turn, supports us. But the conversation continues online. Check out our “Washington Week” Webcast at pbs.org and we’ll talk about all the other stuff we didn’t get to at the table. Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you again right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.