MS. IFILL: How can Washington turn the page if it keeps getting stuck in a jobless recovery and a contentious midterm campaign? We’ll get to the bottom of it all tonight on “Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq. We have met our responsibilities. Now it’s time to turn the page.
MS. IFILL: Looking forward, moving ahead, accentuating the positive, what president doesn’t want that? But as the Labor Day launch to the political season arrived, the White House faces a stubborn jobless recovery.
PRES. OBAMA: Jobs are being created. They’re just not being created as fast as they need to, given the big hole that we experienced.
MS. IFILL: A tenuous new effort to arrive at Middle East peace.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President, you have the opportunity to end this conflict and the decades of enmity between your peoples once and for all.
MS. IFILL: And a newly energized Republican opposition.
SARAH PALIN, Former Governor of Alaska and Republican Vice Presidental Candidate: Let’s stand together. Let’s stand with honor. Let’s restore America.
MS. IFILL: We examine why the page can turn both ways with Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” Deborah Solomon of the “Wall Street Journal,” Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times,” and John Dickerson of “Slate” Magazine and CBS 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 produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. So tonight, we tackle the challenge of turning the page. President Obama’s Oval Office address provided a useful frame this week. It was supposed to be about Iraq, but it was about so much else, including a traumatized economy, uncertain foreign policy and dangerously perilous politics. So why is August never a good month for Barack Obama? Now that we’re safely in September, the question must be asked.
MR. BALZ: You’ve detected the pattern haven’t you? Four Augusts in a row, he’s had difficulties in each August. And he ended this one on a very busy week as we’ll talk about tonight. When he gave that speech in the Oval Office, he talked about turning the page. And what he meant to convey was it’s time now to really focus on the economy. But as that speech showed, the tension in that speech as he was trying to deal with a lot of issues at once, I think underscored the sort of the political problems that he and the Democrats and the administration have. He said “the economy is my principal responsibility as president. That’s why we want to turn the page.”
But turning the page – let’s just start with Iraq. Yes, the combat mission is over. We still have 50,000 troops in Iraq. We will have a troop presence there until the end of next year. Violence has not gone. It’s been down, but it continues to flare and it’s flared pretty significantly recently. And the political issues have not been resolved. That’s a government that still can’t come together months after the election. So turning the page on Iraq alone is going to be difficult.
Then you take Afghanistan. Iraq was never Barack Obama’s war. Afghanistan is. That war is not going well. He’s signaled, A, a commitment to that because of the high stakes and also signaled limited patience within the American people and perhaps among a lot of his advisers to keep an open-ended commitment. So he’s not even close to turning the page on that.
MS. IFILL: And in tying himself by saying our troops did – went and did what they were supposed to do and we salute the troops, now it’s you, America. It’s your turn, America, to deal with the tough stuff here at home. It was kind of an awkward turn, but it was a turn.
MR. BALZ: I frankly thought the whole speech was awkward. I thought he tried to pack so much into 18 minutes. And the problem I think on the economic front is that he didn’t have anything concrete that he was prepared to offer that night. And so all he could do was use prime time in a significant national television audience to kind of restate to people, “I know what you are worried about. I get that. I’m on the case. We’re working on it.”
MR. DICKERSON: So, Dan, what were the reviews of this kind of mixed and muddled speech?
MR. BALZ: This is a president who earned his spurs as somebody who is a gifted rhetorician and I think the reviews of this speech were generally mixed to poor. That, in fact, in both of his Oval Office speeches – he’s now had two, the first one on the oil spill earlier this summer – that in one way or the other, they did not convey everything that he needed to convey. So that I think that on this, maybe they feel they got a lot out of it, but I think there’re a lot of other people who think that because he was delivering a lot of messages, the single clear message that they may wanted to put out didn’t come through.
MR. MCMANUS: Dan, how did it happen that way because this is a White House that has been talking in a way about turning the page since last year? Last year was, well, enough of this other stuff, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs. And then a few months later, when they get distracted by something else like VP, they say “now, we’re going to turn the page and talk about” – well, how come they never quite get the page turned?
MR. BALZ: Well, part of it is the nature of the presidency. Presidents can’t always focus on exactly what they want to focus on and opportunities present themselves, as this week’ discussions on the Middle East showed. Marking the end of combat in Iraq was a way for him to say to at a minimum, his base, “I kept an important promise from the campaign.” And needs that base to be quite energized for the fall campaign. But the reality is there are lots of problems he’s dealing with. The economy may be the one that hangs over him and the Democrats this fall, but it’s not the only thing that he’s got to worry about.
MS. SOLOMON: Speaking of the base, what did Democrats think of his speech and what he had to say? Did he do what he needed to do for them?
MS. IFILL: Yes, did they pressure him to do something other than what he’s doing?
MR. BALZ: Well, they want him to do all his effort on the economy. And I got an email from some Democrats this week, a sort of sense of dismay – and I’m sure others around the table did also – why is he spending prime time on national television to talk about Iraq? Now, the White House would argue, they didn’t just talk about Iraq and they were able to use prime time television to talk about the economy. But a lot of Democrats thought, “why are we doing this speech? Why are we talking about this now? We need to focus on the economy.
MS. IFILL: Why didn’t he just say “here’s anniversary” and then talk about something else? But here’s the other question I’m curious about, the president got the health care bill he wanted. He got the Wall Street regulatory reform bill. He got – he kept his promise in Iraq. How come we don’t hear him getting credit, or he’s not able to seize credit for the promise that he keeps?
MR. BALZ: I think for two reasons. One is that this is a very polarized country again. And so I think depending on which side you were on, particularly if you’re on the opposite side of him on those issues, you don’t give him any credit. And I think that the other is that at the center of the electorate or among independents at least, the economic program has not delivered in the way that people want it to deliver. And until it starts to and does more significantly, he’s not going to get that credit.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s move onto the other big issue that blurs the credit, and that’s the state of the economy. The unemployment rate, we learned today, is up to 9.6 percent and the economy lost 54,000 jobs in August, better than expected but not at all good. According to the latest “National Journal”- Political Insiders poll, most Democrats, 59 percent, now think it might be a good idea to extend the Bush tax cuts before election day, but only for those earning less than a quarter of a million dollars a year, while most Republicans, again, interestingly, 59 percent, think the issue of extending the tax cuts should be left up to a lame duck Congress, a way to keep the issue alive. Both sides know this, with the president’s approval rating under 50 percent and congressional approval ratings even worse than that; the dire economy is also a dire political issue. But what’s the most revealing indicator in those numbers we saw today, Deborah?
MS. SOLOMON: Well, that you’re still losing jobs. The numbers were better than expected. The private sector did add jobs, but the U.S. economy continued to lose jobs. And that’s why you saw the president today saying he’s going to roll out a package of proposals again. We had a $787 billion stimulus that hasn’t in any people’s eyes done enough. He said he’s going roll out a new package next week. He’s going on a road trip to Wisconsin and Ohio to talk about the economy and jobs. And he’s going to end the week with a press conference on the economy. But the problem, though, is that there’s really not much they can do. They are so constrained both by the political climate in Washington and the concerns about the budget deficit and there’s not much you can do in the short-term. These things take a while to flow through the economy. And even something like a payroll tax cut is going to be hard to get through. Republicans are not going to be willing to give the Democrats a win before election day. And then who knows what happens after November.
So the administration itself is split about what to do. Do they propose something that they really think would have impact but they know can’t possibly pass or do they kind of try and throw a bone to the Republican Party and say, “if you don’t vote for something like a payroll tax cut, it’s on your head.”
MS. IFILL: I think they have two problems here. One is that the Republican Party has no particular political interest in accepting bones thrown to it. And the other is that people on the left are saying “we want a lot more money spent, not just a little bit, just not little payroll tax cuts.”
MS. SOLOMON: Right. There is – concerns about the deficit are clouding all of this. And a payroll tax cut would cost a lot of money. And you have sort of mixed into all of this concern about what to do about the Bush tax cuts and I guess how there is the ability to allow tax cuts to expire for one group, but not another. Why are some tax cuts good, but others bad?
MR. DICKERSON: Why is that? What’s happening on the Bush tax cut – has opinion shifted? Is there a middle road to happening? Where do things stand on it?
MS. SOLOMON: There’s three camps. There is the camp that says you should extend them for everybody including the rich, and Republicans fall into that camp and increasingly some Democrats do, too because they say, “any money that you take out of the economy right now, if you take,” it’s about $35 billion that those tax cuts would bring back in revenue if they were allowed to expire. They say “you take that out of people’s pockets, even wealthy people’s pockets. You’re taking stimulus out of the economy. Then there are folks who say “just extend them for the middle class because the rich don’t need it.” And then there’re others who say “don’t extend them for anybody because the deficit is such a huge issue.” So you don’t even have agreement intra-party.
MR. MCMANUS: The administration is saying officially they are not going for another stimulus package, but aren’t all of these basically disguised stimulus and don’t they all run the deficit up higher?
MS. SOLOMON: Well, it depends. Some of these, they say will be paid for. One idea floating around out there is you let the tax cuts expire for the rich and then you use that small piece of money to pay for something else. And the Democrats would sort of say that’s not new spending. Republicans would say that’s not only new spending but it’s a tax hike. But yes, all these things probably are going to add to the deficit.
MR. BALZ: Is there any consensus on what it would take, in addition to what’s already out there, to really get the economy moving?
MS. SOLOMON: There really isn’t. The one thing people all say could help in the short-term is tax incentives that encourage hiring, but those are expensive and they tried them before. They have to be broad enough so that they really impact a broad swath of new employees.
Right now, we have a tax credit just for employees who’ve been out of work for 60 days or more. Some people have said that’s too small. But doing it bigger it’s going to cost far more than $35 billion. There’re others who say, “fund infrastructure projects,” that that’s a long term solution, but that takes months, if not years, to get underway. We’re just now, this summer, this past summer, seeing some of the stimulus money that was passed in February of ’09 flowing through those infrastructure projects.
MS. IFILL: The White House said this morning, “the good news here is that we actually increased private sector jobs and lost public sector jobs.” Is there some concern about that that local and state governments losing jobs, is exactly the kind of job loss which hurts them the most politically?
MS. SOLOMON: Well, yes and that’s one of the things that Christina Romer and some of the others in the administration have argued is why you should spend some of the money to give to state and local governments. And they obviously have given a huge chunk of money, but it’s not enough. The state and local economies are still very much in shambles and the stimulus money is going to dry up. And so what you did see was a big drag on, even though the private sector is creating jobs, you’re seeing the lags in employment and layoffs in state and local government that’s going to continue to drag down any kind of employment growth that we might otherwise see.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well, as we have seen this week timing often forces a shift in priority. That’s what happened when we saw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas come to town to reopen the Middle East peace talks that have plagued a half dozen U.S. presidents. And they actually talked to each other.
ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I see in you a partner for peace. Together we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict.
PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS: Let us sign an agreement, a final agreement for peace and put an end to a very long period of struggle.
MS. IFILL: But is it real? And why are we seeing this now? There’s something remarkable about watching Netanyahu turn to Abbas and say, “I see in you a partner for peace.” They didn’t like each other that much.
MR. MCMANUS: They haven’t liked each other until relatively recently. But is the answer – the White House wouldn’t actually have chosen this month to do this. They were trying to turn the page to the economy. A president can’t always control the pace of diplomacy. Actually, President Obama has been trying to get these talks going since day one literally of his administration. So you have to ask, “what took you so long?”
MS. IFILL: Which is very different from what the last president did. It took a long time before he picked up –
MR. MCMANUS: That’s exactly right. Part of what’s going on is that there’s a deadline. There is a settlement freeze right now, a construction freeze in the West Bank. That’s running out. That was the immediate reason. But there’re two larger reasons. One is that both of those leaders were looking at circumstances and seeing that things were going to get worse not better, if they didn’t have some kind of process going. And the other is a big outside factor, a kind of wild card, and that’s Iran. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, it appears, both concluded that not having a peace process going with the Palestinians was getting in the way of some of the things they wanted to do to confront Iran.
MS. IFILL: But Iran is kind of the backdrop for everybody and also the backdrop for other Arab nations who are now sitting at the table literally flanking these two and pushing them along.
MR. MCMANUS: That’s right. That’s a big reason that Egypt was there and Jordan was there and the Saudis are pushing this, too. You also ask, is this real? And the answer to that is we don’t know yet. There’s plenty of ground for skepticism. These are the same old issues, Jerusalem, settlements, the return of refugees. The parties are still far apart. But there actually are – I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say there actually are some – reasons for a glimmer of optimism. One is the one you mentioned. Barack Obama has gotten into this at the beginning of his presidency. He’s given himself plenty of time. Time ran out on George W. Bush. Time ran out on Bill Clinton because they waited until they had safely been re-elected before they took this on. Another one, really interesting factor, Benjamin Netanyahu is a super hawk in Israel, but he has said for the last two years, he wants to go down in history as a peacemaker. And more people who know him say they’re actually beginning to believe that he means it. Will that actually be the case? We’re just going to have to see.
MR. DICKERSON: If you are on a limb, here is the president. What are the risks for Obama?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, actually there are risks for President Obama. And oddly enough, there are risks in failure and also risks in success. If this thing grinds to a halt and doesn’t get anywhere, President Obama has these risks. He will have used up a lot of time and energy on it, when people think he should have been doing the economy. And he will look like a weak negotiator and peacemaker and he tried to make his name as a negotiator, as a mediator. It’s going to diminish his stature. If this thing starts to succeed, he faces another risk. The history of Israeli-Arab peace talks suggests that they actually only come together when the United States is pushing hard on both sides. And that means he’s going to have to push the Israelis potentially going into an election year in the United States, when Republicans are already accusing him of being too tough on Israel.
MR. BALZ: Is the goal of trying to get this wrapped up in a year close to realistic?
MR. MCMANUS: Not if you say “get it wrapped up and get a peace treaty.” But that’s where the administration has given itself a lot of wiggle room. They said that what they want to get is a framework by a year from now. Well, what’s a framework? A framework could be very precise. A framework could be pretty vague.
MS. IFILL: Haven’t we seen frameworks before?
MR. MCMANUS: We’ve seen frameworks before. So in a sense, this whole thing is being driven not because the chances of success are blindingly high, but because everyone is worried about failure. So there is a little bit of a bumper there, a buffer against failure.
MS. SOLOMON: And how does it affect Iran? What does the timetable mean for them and these negotiations?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, the theory here is that – it’s really in two senses. One is that at this point, the administration is trying to put together a kind of de facto alliance between the Arab countries and Israel, which are both worried about Iran more than anything else. And we’re getting deeper into a defense relationship with the Saudis and the Gulf states. And that gets easier to do. It gets easier for those Arab countries to do it if this process is going on with the Palestinians. The public opinion doesn’t get in the way so much.
The other unstated reason down the road is that at some point, the United States or Israel may be contemplating military action against Iran. And whether you can pull off military action against Iran and have a full-blown crisis the next day, well it would help if you actually had progress on the Palestinian issue if you ever wanted to pull that trigger.
MS. IFILL: Next meetings happen in a couple of weeks in probably Sharm el-Sheikh, some place in the region.
MR. MCMANUS: Hillary Clinton will be there. President Obama isn’t going to go there. And then they have said they’re going to step up the pace and the two leaders are going to meet, Netanyahu and Abbas, every two weeks. So something could come out of it.
MS. IFILL: Something, something, there’s something going on. Okay, we’ll watch, as always. But if the violence fades in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy rebounds, and there is movement on Middle East peace, just imagine this, things could calm down on the domestic political front, right? Hard to say, especially when every poll in virtually every contested race shows Democrats in as deep a hole as they can be entering the last two months of the midterm elections. Is the president capable of turning that page, John?
MR. DICKERSON: If he’s capable of turning the page, he’s going to turn it after the elections have happen. There’re 60 days left. There is not a lot of time to turn the page between now and election day. And we’ve talked about how be bad the economic numbers are. Well, those economic numbers are driving some bad political numbers. We had this week in the Gallup poll; they asked people “would you vote for a Republican or Democrat in these congressional races.” Fifty one percent said Republican, 41 Democrat. That 10 point gap is the largest in Gallup history.
Polls also show enthusiasm among Republicans, 25 points ahead of enthusiasm among Democrats, also historic high. Other signs showing Republicans are going to show up at the polls. Another interesting finding, Republicans are not that well liked. In fact, in some polls, they are less well liked as a party than Democrats. But in the Gallup poll, it also showed that when you talk to people who are going to vote for Republicans, as many say “we’re voting against the Democrats,” as say “we’re voting for the Republicans. This means you don’t really necessarily have to like the Republicans. It also means Republicans who’ve been reluctant about putting forward an agenda don’t necessarily have to because people are voting against the party in power.
MS. IFILL: And as a result, we see any number of tracking folks, like Charlie Cook, who say, “well, the Senate may now be in play,” when they never said it before. The House, people have always said is in play. And I read this afternoon that governors’ races are now in play, that 30 governor seats could go Republican.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s right. The Republicans need to pick up a net 39 seats in the House. For a long time, that’s been considered plausible. They need to pick up on that 10 in the Senate. That’s been considered a real long shot. This week, the prognosticators are saying it’s now plausible. And I talked to people who are very optimistic, Democrats working in these Senate races, and they now are suddenly worried.
And so what we have is what we’ve been talking about, which is the potential for a big wave election in which people who really have no business getting elected do because there is just all this momentum.
MS. IFILL: Want to name them? Do you want to name who that would be?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, this wave worked – has worked for Democrats and in fact it’s why some of these Democrats are vulnerable because they came in on wave elections. I won’t name names.
MR. BALZ: What is the playbook for the president as we go through the fall? What’s the political role that he should be playing or could play that would be helpful to Democrats?
MR. DICKERSON: We talked about what he’s trying to do on a policy level to deal with this economic problem. The thing is he can’t do much and it won’t affect voters in time for election day. So what’s he going to do, he’s going to get on the stump and try and make these distinctions clearer. We’ve talked a lot about how they want to make this an election a choice, not a referendum. I talked to somebody in the White House today. It’s been us against the world. Now, they want to make it us against the Republicans.
The president will go to Cleveland on Wednesday, where John Boehner, the House Republican leader gave an economic speech. And the president will say, “if you want to go backwards and you want to go and support these policies that got us in this economic mess, do what Boehner talked about in this town. If you want to go in another direction, do what I’m going to talk about or what I believe in.” And so that’s a direct contrast in a way that we haven’t seen from him yet.
MS. SOLOMON: And what do you do if you’re a Democrat in one of these races? Do you distance yourself from Obama? What is the strategy?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I talked to – one strategist who is working in this race. And they said “to the extent anybody’s running positive ads, they won’t be for much longer.” You’ve got to make this – the race has to be local and it has to be negative, because you want to again turn it into a choice and with all of these bad numbers that I talked about clouding the race and making things good for Republicans, you have to do something to take your opponent down. And so we expect to see a lot of that negativity on the airwaves.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, John, if the race has to be local, then I’m going to go back to part of Dan’s question, which is does Barack Obama help? Can he – if he goes out and draws this contrast and tries to explain incidentally to voters who on earth John Boehner is –
MR. DICKERSON: Right, exactly. (Laughter.) He might bring a picture, perhaps, or a small doll.
MR. MCMANUS: – does it work?
MR. DICKERSON: Does it work? Well, it hasn’t worked so far. He’s given a lot of these speeches. He’s gotten increasingly more political. It hasn’t broken through. What it can do is motivate Democratic voters – a lot of the Democratic plan is to bring out those first-time voters who voted for Barack Obama. He can speak to them. But there is a view that actually there isn’t that much a president can do, that the economy is really speaking the loudest in this race. But I talked to a Democratic strategist who said “yes, but this notion hasn’t been tested.” In other words, they really don’t think the president has been out there hustling for Democratic candidates. We talked about it earlier. They said – this other person I talked to said “for the last two weeks, everything the president has done hasn’t gotten us a single vote,” from his vacation, to the Middle East, to the redecoration of the White House, we’re talking about things that don’t have to do with Democrats.
MS. IFILL: Name quickly one, two places where Democrats are not doing terribly.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, Congressman Grayson, in Florida 8, was supposed to be in a troubled district. He’s released an internal poll that suggests he’s ahead. Of course, when you release an internal poll, you can say you’re Santa Claus. So they’re doing – they’re doing well there, but everywhere else, people are terrified.
MS. IFILL: Hoping that Republicans will stumble instead of Democrats win, but that’s always been done before. Thank you, everybody. The conversation will end here, but we’ll pick it up online in our “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. You can go to pbs.org to find out what else we have to say. And keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour.” We’ll see you right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night. Have a labor-free Labor Day.