Friday, January 15, 2010

MS. IFILL: The disaster in Haiti, the challenges of the past, the present, and the future, plus, populist politics at the White House and maybe in Massachusetts, too, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: To the people of Haiti we say clearly and with conviction you will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.

MS. IFILL: A terrible earthquake.

AMB. RAYMOND ALCIDE JOSEPH: It’s a major catastrophe for Haiti.

MS. IFILL: A devastating death toll.

MR. : We need more people down here.

MS. IFILL: Grief and uncertainty everywhere.

PRES. BILL CLINTON: The most urgent thing we can do now is get them through the next week, eight to 10 days. We have to find the living and the dead and we have to take care of both.

MS. IFILL: Can Haiti, plagued by decades of deprivation, survive? In Washington, the president talks tough to bankers paying themselves big bonuses.

PRES. OBAMA: We want our money back and we’re going to get it.

MS. IFILL: But will taxpayers still pay in the end? And in Massachusetts, a potential political upset that could undo Ted Kennedy’s legacy. Covering the week, Helene Cooper of the “New York Times,” Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times,” Deborah Solomon of the “Wall Street Journal,” and Dan Balz of the “Washington Post.” Plus, a special report from ABC’s Martha Raddatz on the ground in Haiti.

ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 40 years of journalistic excellence, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with “National Journal.”

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ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. One of our regulars, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, is on the ground in Haiti – (audio break) – by phone just a few minutes ago about the views she got from the air today of the devastation.

MS. RADDATZ: We flew into Port-au-Prince this morning and it was a helicopter ride so you could completely see the destruction here and you can see why the death toll is so great. There were buildings pancaked down, mountain sized and then later when we drove through town the devastation got worse and worse. There are blocks and blocks and we’ve all seen video of this, but I cannot express how devastating it is here. These buildings pancaked and know that there are bodies inside. People are – it’s like a mass exodus with nowhere to go. Even getting into the airport, which is where we are, there was total chaos. The 82nd Airborne – (inaudible) – 82nd Airborne are now in here but they were out in front of the airport trying to keep people back. People truly were frantic to get out of this country.

The aid distribution – I’m at the airport right now – we watched all day the aid coming in, massive amounts of aid, food, water, all sorts of supplies and yet large distribution has not taken place yet. There are protocols in place. The Haitian government has to decide where the distribution is going to be. The World Food Program then tries to come up with a plan. And then the U.N. peacekeepers here and the U.S. military try to provide security to deliver that aid. What they’ll do is perhaps deliver it to a soccer field. But they can’t just drop the aid in and let people looking for food and water. We’d have a – (inaudible) – few days. So that’s why this is taking so long. That’s how they explained it’s taking so long. I think it’s largely a matter of security. They have to make sure the area where they distribute the food is secure so people aren’t injured when they’re trying to go get the food and water, so they say it will probably take place tomorrow.

MS. IFILL: A tragedy of such epic proportions forces us to ask questions big and small about why bad things happen, about who lives and who dies, and about what the rest of us do when calamity occurs. In an attempt to get at that last one, the eyes of the world turn to the United States, where President Obama spoke again today.

PRES. OBAMA: The entire world stands with the government and the people of Haiti, for in Haiti’s devastation we all see the common humanity that we share.

MS. IFILL: So what is the scope of the U.S. public and private response so far? Helene?

MS. COOPER: Well, this has been – the scale of this disaster has been so huge and right on America’s doorstep that for the Obama administration their response had to be huge. When you’re talking about 50,000, 100,000 people killed, no matter where this had happened in the world, the United States would have responded. But when you’re talking about somewhere that’s right on our doorstep, the response had to be huge.

I think for President Obama, this is the first full-scale catastrophe, humanitarian type disaster of his presidency. And he’s been determined – he was determined from the start that he was going to be right up on top of it. Within 30 minutes of his being informed on Tuesday about the earthquake, he already had convened his national security aides. He was sending out statements, and they started very early on pledging the $100,000 million and sending the ramp up of military, of Marines and soldiers. Now we’re talking about 10,000 American troops are going to be on the ground in Haiti by Monday, Defense Secretary Gates says.

MS. IFILL: Right and now we’re hearing Secretary Clinton and Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID, are on their way there tomorrow.

MS. COOPER: Hillary Clinton is going to be arriving in Port-au-Prince. I think she’s only going to stay for a day and she’s probably not going to leave the airport. You’re not going to see too many big name type people going into Haiti right now because the infrastructure just can’t really handle it. President Obama sent Dennis McDonough, one of his national security aides, and I was emailing with him today. And he said that the communications are very hard right now in Haiti and you don’t want to see a lot of big names. But getting in – Rajiv Shah, for instance, said today that they think they can get about $48 million – pull together $48 million worth of food assistance at this point for Haiti. But right now they’re still focusing on search and rescue teams because they haven’t given up yet. It hasn’t quite moved to a recovery type of operation yet. So the next few days are going to be critical.

MR. MCMANUS: Helene, there’ve been plenty of natural disasters over the last few years where the United States has taken some kind of leadership role. I’m thinking of hurricanes in Central America or the tsunami in Asia. How does this compare in scale to those?

MS. COOPER: I think it’s bigger but I think it would have been bigger no matter who was president because this is such a huge disaster. You’re talking about a really, really poor country that was in such horrible shape to begin with. And when you see tens of thousands of people dead right next door to the United States, I don’t think – if Bush were president, you’d be seeing a similar type of ramp up, but with Obama he’s been particularly aggressive about that.

Part of that is because of Hurricane Katrina and what happened with Bush and how the Bush administration got slammed after Katrina. The Bush administration even got slammed after the Asian tsunami saying that our response at first was too weak and President Bush ramped up the American aid to $350 million soon after that when he was criticized. But I think when you look at the scope of the disaster, the response by the Obama administration has been very aggressive.

MS. SOLOMON: I’m curious what you think we’re going to see in the next few weeks, both in Haiti and in the U.S. What types of relief we’ll see and what types of moves we’ll see once we do move to a recovery stage.

MS. COOPER: I think you’re going to see a lot more of this on TV. You’re going to see the administration continuing to go out on this. President Bush -- former President Bush, and Clinton will be at the White House tomorrow with Obama to talk about how they – and I think that one of the things the White House is looking at doing is try to get those two men to really ramp up the American private relief effort and encourage more Americans to donate. Apparently that text messaging system that AT&T set up has come up with $10 million already from people just texting Haiti on their phones. I think you’re going to be seeing a lot more of that.

MR. BALZ: Part of what people expected in a moment like this is the sense of reassurance that a president can offer. How does President Obama, as comforter in chief, compare with President Bush or President Clinton or his predecessors?

MS. COOPER: That’s been so interesting to watch because President Obama – he’s known as being very cool. He wasn’t that great in Fort Hood. President Bush and President Clinton, for example, both after 9/11, after Ron Brown’s plane crash, they’re much more – they seemed at first much more comfortable with giving the big bear hugs and sort of playing that role. President Obama, because he is known as being so chilled and cool doesn’t immediately step to that role. But I think with the Haiti, this Haiti disaster, he really has grown into that. His comments on Wednesday night when he – on Wednesday morning when he stepped forward and he said, “I want to talk to the Haitian people. You have not been forgotten. You will not be forsaken” were very, very powerful and he seemed visibly moved by that. I thought it was pretty effective.

MS. IFILL: Well part of the rest of what makes all this so arresting and so sad is that it seems whenever we hear news of Haiti it’s all bad. With a population of nine million people, a third of whom were reported injured or killed in this week’s earthquake, the country was the poorest in the western hemisphere even before this happened. From coups to disaster, there’s quite a history here, isn’t there, Doyle?

MR. MCMANUS: There is, Gwen. You could argue that Haiti in a sense has had a 200-year run of bad luck. When Haiti was founded in 1804, when African slaves overthrew their French overseers, the French government responded by imposing economic reparations on the new country, so its economy started out in the hole right at the beginning. For much of the 20th century, Haiti was under one of the worst dictatorships in the world, the Duvalier dictatorship. That was overthrown and was followed by a decade of instability and coups, as you mentioned. U.S. military intervention during the Clinton administration, and to be quite frank that was the last time many of us in Washington paid close attention to Haitian politics.

MS. IFILL: It was also how Bill Clinton first got involved intimately –

MR. MCMANUS: Bill Clinton got involved. But the economy still never took off. Most Haitians live on less than $2 a day. Now, there have actually been some signs of optimism in the last few years. The current president, Rene Preval, has gotten quite high marks from other governments and from international aid organizations for trying to reform the government and for the most serious effort at economic development and attracting investment that has ever happened.

But that string of bad luck never goes away. And I think it was in 2008, Haiti got swept by hurricanes that had an effect, not as large as the earthquake but another setback and then now this.

MS. COOPER: Well, Doyle, you have earthquake in San Francisco, 6.8 on the Richter scale, 60 people died. You have 7.0 earthquake in Haiti and we’re looking at tens of thousands. Why did so many buildings fall down?

MR. MCMANUS: Two reasons and it’s a great question. Disasters always harm poor countries more than rich countries, but there’re specific reasons for that. And those two reasons are number one, engineering, and number two, what you might call the medical infrastructure. Engineering – California has terribly strict building codes because of earthquakes. Haiti doesn’t.

MS. IFILL: China doesn’t. Afghanistan doesn’t.

MR. MCMANUS: You have – exactly. You look at – that’s right. This isn’t a Caribbean thing.

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. MCMANUS: That earthquake in China a couple of years ago in Szechuan, I think 68,000 was the official number of dead and we don’t know how high it was. Why was that? Concrete buildings fell down just as in Haiti. Haiti has a particular problem. Concrete is expensive there and so they put more sand in the concrete. It is some of the worst concrete in the world. So that’s one half of it. And then the medical infrastructure – what kind of hospitals are there, how easily can you get people there. Well, you can medevac people in this country or in Japan if they need specialized care – there’s that one airport in Port-au-Prince and it’s jammed with incoming aid flights. You can’t medevac people out of it.

MS. SOLOMON: I’m just curious. Why is Haiti so poor? What is their economy like? What is it based on and – what is sort of the growth potential there?

MR. MCMANUS: Haiti is poor because it has no natural resources. It has an agricultural economy with too much population on it. And because of all of that instability, because of the security problems, Haiti fell behind its neighbors in attracting foreign investment. There is a great labor pool there. For many years the baseballs in Major League Baseball were sewn in Haiti. There is a textile industry and they make T-shirts and clothes in Haiti, but they’re competing with other countries like Barbados and Jamaica that have had fewer problems, so they keep falling behind.

MR. BALZ: Doyle, what are the prospects or chances of a refugee crisis coming out of this disaster?

MR. MCMANUS: Well, it would be unfair to say that the international aid response has been because of fears of a flood of boat people from Haiti, but it would also be unrealistic to pretend that that wasn’t there. The last time Haiti went through a cataclysmic crisis was after the coup of 1991 and the boat people spiked. And that was one of the reasons the Clinton administration intervened to settle Haiti down. The policy of turning Haitians refugees back has been as a practical matter quite effective. But it will be important to get Haiti back on its feet so that problem doesn’t just recur.

MS. IFILL: Okay, well, now we’re going to move to some domestic matters because the famously cool president that Helene was talking about appeared to get hot under the collar this week about the behavior of banks America bailed out and the profits they’re now making.

PRES. OBAMA: If these companies are in good enough shape to afford massive bonuses, they are surely in good enough shape to afford paying back every penny to taxpayers.

MS. IFILL: JPMorgan Chase, which announced today its earnings doubled in 2009, will pay 19 percent more in bonuses than it did in 2008. So will the financial responsibility fee that the president has proposed -- some simply call it a tax -- will it really make a difference, Deborah?

MS. SOLOMON: Well, the administration is sure hoping that this helps to tamp down some of the huge public anger over the banks and the amounts of money that they’ve been awarding to their executives. There’s no secret that there’ve been huge payouts of banks that just a year ago were taking tons of money from taxpayers. So you’re seeing multimillion dollar payouts at a time of 10 percent unemployment, people living on food stamps. And so the picture is not good. And they’ve been searching for a way to kind of tamp down some of the pitchforks.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that banks are going to stop paying big bonuses. They president said this week that he doesn’t think this fee should be passed on to consumer, but you come out of the amount –

MS. IFILL: How does he stop that exactly?

MS. SOLOMON: – exactly, yes, it’s pretty unenforceable. The banks could pay whatever they want to pay. And at the end of the day, the banking industry is saying, “hey, you tax us. We’re going pass it along to you, the consumer.

MR. BALZ: Deborah, a lot of Republicans have voiced opposition to the bank bailouts, kind of this populist anger that they’re echoing. What’s been the reaction to this proposal?

MS. SOLOMON: Well, a lot of the Republicans voted against TARP in the first place – the bailout in the first place, and this time they’re saying, “Look, you’re imposing a fee at the worst moment when there’s going to be a situation where banks can’t afford to lose any more capital. They’re going to stop lending even more than they have so far. And they’re just going to pass it on to consumers.” And so they are saying this is not the time to do this and it’s not going to have an impact.

MR. BALZ: When this crisis started a lot of the bankers seemed tone deaf to how they look politically. They took – there was one banker – you’ll remember who it was, I don’t – who said that he thought bankers were doing the lord’s work and they ought to be admired and not reviled. Have they figured that out yet? Have they tried to get on the right side of this issue?

MS. SOLOMON: That was Lloyd Blankfein, the SC of Goldman Sachs and the answer is no. This week we saw the heads – (laughter) – of the banks come to Washington where most people thought maybe they would apologize for some of the things that had happened but they basically said this was a storm that happens every once in a while and did not apologize, basically said regulators got it wrong.

MS. COOPER: So here’s one thing I didn’t understand, why tax liabilities instead of profit?

MS. SOLOMON: Well, the administration looked at taxing profits which most people say “Hey, these banks are making lots of money, just tax that.” They were worried banks would be crafty, as banks tend to be, and either pay their people more so that their profits were less or move their profits into some sort of special purpose vehicle so that they could sort of shield them. And they also thought that taxing liabilities would have the secondary benefit of maybe bringing down some of leverage that these financial institutions, the kinds of risk taking that got us in the problem in the first place.

MS. IFILL: Why not just tax the bonuses. The bonuses are what got everybody so worked up and there are people in Congress who wanted to do that. Why not do it that way?

MS. SOLOMON: That’s a good question. And actually there’re some in the House who are still saying we should tax bonuses, that this doesn’t go far enough. But the administration just felt that that was not the right way to do it, that you would basically be taxing something and putting – that it’s a free market and that people should be able to pay what they want to pay and that taxing bonuses was just not the signal that they wanted to send.

MS. IFILL: And finally, is there anything to the argument that putting this kind of pressure on banks is going to slow down the economy?

MS. SOLOMON: I think there is a concern that the regulators are telling banks, you know, don’t make stupid loans, don’t get us into the same situation we were in before, keep your capital ratios high, and so the banks are saying, “Hey, you’re telling me to keep my ratios high, not make bad loans and you’re also telling me I’ve got to pay you more money, so I’m just going to sit. I’m going to sit and wait and not do anything with this capital right at the moment.” That said, banks make money by making loans, so.

MS. IFILL: I’m thinking the jawboning, not working so much, yes, but a good effort.

Finally tonight, a good old-fashioned political barnburner is underway in Massachusetts as Democrat Martha Coakley faces an unexpectedly vigorous fight with Republican Scott Brown to succeed the late Ted Kennedy. Today’s polls declare the race a tossup and President Obama is heading there to campaign this weekend, a sure sign of trouble. At stake for the White House, 60 votes in the Senate and perhaps the future of the president’s agenda. So what’s up with this, Dan?

MR. BALZ: Gwen, this is what makes politics so interesting.

MS. IFILL: Absolutely.

MR. BALZ: Two weeks ago this race was a sleepy contest heading towards a certain outcome, which was that Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee, attorney general, was going to win this thing fairly easily and without working very hard. And then suddenly in the last 10 or 12 days Scott Brown has roared up and presented the Democrats with a huge problem. You’ve talked about the polls.

The polls in this have been all over the lot, actually, for the past couple of weeks, have been – there was a public poll earlier this week that showed Coakley up by 15 points. There was another public poll last night that showed Brown up by four points. Most of the people on both sides of this, and everybody is now running tracking polls. There are three Democratic tracking polls going and multiple Republican tracking polls. They all have concluded that this is a very, very close race. Nobody knows how it’s going to come out. Democrats are hoping that the wake-up call arrived in time, that they can get the resources into the contest, that they can get Martha Coakley going and that they will be able to pull it out. But they are very nervous today.

MS. IFILL: Is it she’s a bad candidate or he’s a good candidate, or are there outside issues?

MR. BALZ: Well, I think it’s all of the above. He has run a better campaign. He has been more aggressive in this campaign. He got on the air before she did. He has taken the fight to her. And he’s done it in a kind of populist, grassroots, independent minded way. She has drawn very bad reviews from Democrats who have been watching this race closely both in Massachusetts and here in D.C. Their feeling is she went to sleep over the holidays and she has been lackluster as a candidate and that she has not made the case aggressively in her own behalf.

MS. COOPER: Well, okay, so here’s a guy who said that campaign against the health care reform package that’s on the Hill right now that President Obama is working on with the Democrats. What happens if he wins?

MR. BALZ: Well, that’s the big issue. The stakes on this could not be higher, Helene. If Scott Brown wins, the Republicans in the Senate will have 41 votes. And as we all know and have talked about a hundred times on this program, with 41 votes, they can stop the Democrats from doing something. And they will stop the health care bill dead in its tracks. There’s been talk of various ways to perhaps delay Brown’s seating if he were to win, but there’s no doubt that Democrats believe if he wins they’re going to have a terrible time getting the health care bill through.

MR. MCMANUS: If he’s campaigned on health care, has he turned this into a national story, a referendum on Obama or is this about local issues, all those peculiar things that make Boston kind of like New Orleans on the – (inaudible)? (Laughter.)

MR. MCMANUS: I like that. He has run a conservative campaign and he has run against health care but he has tried – he had tried until earlier this week to sort of keep it local, in other words, to be the voice of people in Massachusetts who are upset and not to tie himself to the national Republicans or to other groups. That’s all out the window at this point. Every group with 10 bucks and the ability to run an ad is now in Massachusetts. And he had Rudy Giuliani in today. She had Bill Clinton in today. Barack Obama, the president, is coming in on Sunday. This is now a national race. And as a result of that, if Martha Coakley loses this race, it will be a hit for President Obama, and it will cast a pall over Democrats as they start year 2010 already in a state of nervousness.

MS. SOLOMON: The thing I can’t get over is this is Teddy Kennedy’s seat, the liberal lion. How do we have this happening just so close to his death? Is Massachusetts turning Republican or is she just a bad candidate?

MR. BALZ: Well, Massachusetts is a blue state in presidential years. But don’t forget that Massachusetts over the years has elected a lot of Republican governors.

MS. IFILL: A Republican U.S. senator.

MR. BALZ: But not for a long time.

MS. COOPER: But they all ran as moderates. This guy isn’t – Scott Brown isn’t running as a moderate. He’s running –

MR. BALZ: He’s running as a conservative, but he is running as a kind of a grassroots conservative against some of the things that even Democrats in Massachusetts may be nervous about in terms of what the administration is doing. And as I’ve said, she has not run an effective campaign.

MS. IFILL: Okay, well, we’ll be watching Tuesday – this election and we’ll see what happens. Thank you, everyone.

It’s been a long week, if at its end you would like to make a donation for Haitian relief, you can text the word “Haiti” to 90999 to send $10 to the American Red Cross. Or you can go to our website for a link to a list of other approved charities. That’s our website at Keep up with daily developments on the PBS NewsHour and we’ll see you around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.