MS. IFILL: Shaking things up at the White House, on the economy and at the United Nations. Who’s asking? Who’s telling? We’ll get the bottom of it all, tonight on “Washington Week.”
VELMA HART: Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Times are tough for everybody right now. So I understand your frustration.
MS. IFILL: Weeks before voters go to the polls in the midterm elections, Republicans want to take advantage of that frustration.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [House Minority Leader]: (From tape.) The American people are speaking out like never before. They’re concerned about the future of our nation and the future for their children.
MS. IFILL: But who are the people listening to. And how many distractions can one White House handle, including at the U.N.?
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD [Iranian President]: Some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy.
MS. IFILL: And on the Senate floor –
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is an appeal to the gay and lesbian base.
MS. IFILL: Finger pointing on parade. Covering the week: Jackie Calmes with of the New York Times, Naftali Bendavid of the Wall Street Journal, Tom Gjelten of NPR, and Nancy Youssef of the McClatchy Newspapers.
ANNOUNCER: 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. Economic Advisor Larry Summers has become the latest member of the president’s inner circle to head for the exits this week. With the recent departures of Christina Romer and Peter Orszag and the rumored imminent decampment of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and perhaps David Axelrod, a shift is clear underway at the White House. Bill Clinton is among those who believe the president still has to assert control over his biggest challenge – the economy. The former president sat down with my NewsHour colleague, Judy Woodruff, this week.
FRM. PRES. BILL CLINTON: If this is a referendum on people’s anger and apathy, so our side stays home and their side’s inside – we don’t do well. If it’s a choice between who’s going to do what, we can do well. The president’s out there now and I think it’s high time and it’s good and it’s good that he’s taken some shots. That’s what people want to see. They like to see their presidents get hit a little bit.
MS. IFILL: And he would know. But does the White House subscribe, Jackie to this Clinton principle that sometimes you’ve got to take your hits?
MS. CALMES: You know, they’d never admit that they subscribe to anything that’s described as Clinton’s. But, of course, the danger in that is that you get hit, you look – depending on your reaction, you could look prickly or defensive. And occasionally, this president does that. Of course, Bill Clinton did that occasionally too. But the opportunity – and you saw a little of this in President Obama’s performance Monday in the town hall that CNBC sponsored – you can look like you’re more empathetic and you’re more human as opposed to being bloodless and professorial as the president’s often accused of being. There was a remark made that the National Bureau of Economic Research has decided that this recession ended over a year ago in the summer of 2009. But the president there – and he could not then nor can he now take credit for that or gloat over it when there’s 9.56 percent unemployment.
MS. IFILL: Because no one feels like it’s true. So why did Larry Summers leave? Or is he leaving? I guess he’s not quite gone yet.
MS. CALMES: Yes. He’ll be there through the end of the year. This was expected that some time maybe after the election there was a sense to get this news out now because if the Democrats, as expected, suffer some big losses on election day and people think it’s time to raise the question: is he going to sack his economic team, you look at the principals who’s left there, Summers and Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary. Neither, Larry Summers nor people close to him wanted him to be in that position. So the news sort of leaked out this week that he was going.
MR. BENDAVID: Jackie, is the new team that the president’s putting in place – I mean, how is it going to be different or is it going to be different from what went before.
MS. CALMES: The first thing that strikes me is the continuity. So we’ve already seen two people leave, Peter Orszag, the budget director left at late summer and he’s been replaced by Jack Lew, who was budget director to Bill Clinton, at a time when surpluses were building. And he was brought over from the State Department where he had been Hillary Clinton’s – and still is, I guess, until he gets confirmed by the Senate, deputy secretary of state. And then, Christy Romer, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, she left at the beginning of this month to go back to Berkley and she’s been replaced by Austan Goolsbee, who was one of the members of the Council of Economic Advisors. So it’s very much – he’s brought people from within his team and brought them in so it’s not a big change. He hasn’t reached outside.
There is one difference though in that you could say he had a team of wonks, these four principals. And both Jack Lew for budget director and Austan Goolsbee are more political veterans. And this will be important because this next half is, of course, going to coincide with the president’s reelection campaign.
MR. GJELTEN: Jackie, there were some pretty vigorous policy debates and even disagreements in this administration between some of those figures, Peter Orszag, Christina Romer and Larry Summers. Do we have any sense of what remains sort of unresolved in terms of policy challenges, economic policy challenges they’re going to be facing decisions that are going to have to be made now?
MS. CALMES: Well, they’ve been balancing from nearly the start of this administration after they got out the big stimulus package in the first 28 days of the administration. Over time, and because things worked so slowly that people still to this day think it was a failure, that the public has increasingly not wanted to support a lot of it and with the Republicans voting and block against anything that’s additional stimulus. So within the administration, you had debates over how to balance this – whether the economy needs more stimulus, what kind, how much versus the need to sort of look like the medium term and down the line you are aware that you have to start bringing down deficits.
MS. YOUSSEF: So how would you rank or rate the administration on its economic policy? Can you give it a rating this soon or is it too early to say?
MS. CALMES: Well, it’s too early to say when unemployment remains stuck at 9.5 percent. Most people think that – most economists who aren’t partisan think we will avoid a double-dip recession and that the stimulus did work, but it – maybe should have been more of it or better designed. And one thing that is going into this election, one of the least popular things they’ve done is the – which was actually started in the Bush administration – was the TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. That actually officially ends in the coming month. And by all accounts, except partisans, it’s been pretty successful.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about those partisans because everybody doesn’t think it’s been successful and those are the Republicans who know full well that they are not terribly more popular than Democrats right now. So they unveiled their own economic plan, something like 1994’s Contract for America except it’s not a contract. It’s a “Pledge to America.” Get that right. Lawmakers left their suits and ties in the closet and abandoned the Capitol steps where they appeared 16 years ago for a small Virginia lumber business instead. But the biggest difference – their target audience, other Republicans.
REP. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (R-WV): Our pledge – and you’ve heard from everybody – did not originate behind closed doors in Washington, D.C. It originated with the American people, who have spoken out against the tyranny they feel and we feel of excessive, unchecked, unaccountable government.
MS. IFILL: So Naftali, what is this pledge that they are making exactly?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, what it is is kind of a good question because if you read it, it reads very much like a campaign manifesto or a campaign platform, but they insist it’s not. They call it a governing agenda that could be implemented right now. And I think they’re a little nervous about calling something their platform and putting it out there. It becomes sort of a target. So it’s a document that’s fairly carefully crafted, has a lot of old ideas in it, has a few things in it that I think are targeted very much to reach tea party activists and the things that they’re talking about. And it’s just something that they can put in front of the American people and say, we get it. Here’s what we’re about.
MS. IFILL: We get it, but it seems that’s one of those things that if you say it, then you’re already in trouble. So what is it that they are saying that they get, they believe the American public is asking them for?
MR. BENDAVID: I think they have a sense, like a lot of people do, that there’s a certain amount of outrage, a certain amount of anxiety and sort of distress in the American public and also a certain amount of anger particularly at Washington and the politicians. The tea party, as you alluded to, doesn’t have great love necessarily for Republicans. They’re angry at Democrats right now. But it’s kind of an open question whether Republicans can kind of ride this wave. This was their way of saying, we feel what you feel. We understand what you’re saying. I mean, John Boehner literally said, “we get it” a couple of times because that was a big part of the message they were trying to convey.
MR. GJELTEN: Naftali, the big theme in the tea party protest is the deficit. How do you assess this document? I mean, okay. No repeal of the tax cuts, entitlement spending stays the same and no reduction in spending on national security issues, right? How does that add up to an impact on the deficit?
MR. BENDAVID: And there’s also not a balanced budget amendment in there which a lot of people on the right had wanted to see. I mean, the reaction to this was kind of mixed. It was mixed even among I think the target audience, which is conservative activists. And one of the big criticisms was, as you suggest, that it doesn’t do enough to cut the deficit. It talks a lot about the deficit. It talks a lot about cutting spending and they have things like a freeze in federal hiring and so forth. But it also – they want to spend more money on missile defense. They want to continue the tax cuts. They don’t really say what they would do about Social Security and Medicare. So a lot of people took a look at it and said, you talk a lot about spending and deficit cutting, but where is it?
MS. YOUSSEF: So how many of these changes or proposals in the pledge could actually end up becoming laws?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, you know, as some people remember, in 1994 when there was the Contract with America, the majority of those things never did take effect. And it’s not because couldn’t pass them. The House passed them fairly easily, but most of them died in the Senate. And even if the Republicans take the House in November, the Senate may remain Democratic. Certainly the White House will remain Democratic. And it’s not clear that all Republicans favor everything that’s in here either. So this is the kind of thing that you say you’re for. But much like many party platforms, there’s a certain question. There’s a certain doubtfulness about whether or not any of it will actually become law.
MS. CALMES: Well, I was covering Congress back in 1995 when the Gingrich revolution took power and the Senate Republicans –
MS. IFILL: And yet you look so young. (Laughter.)
MS. CALMES: Thank you, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: It didn’t age you at all.
MS. CALMES: No. I did age that year. So where were we? Anyway.
MR. BENDAVID: So ’95.
MS. CALMES: Senate Republicans never were on board with that. And it showed once they tried to enact this. Why weren’t the Senate Republicans – was there any effort to bring the Senate Republicans on board this time?
MR. BENDAVID: You know, I talked to some of them and they said, well, we consulted with them, we knew what they were doing, we support what they’re doing, but you didn’t see the Senate Republicans out there. It was very kind of notable. This was a House Republican document. And I think it’s the same reason right now that it was back then. People in the Senate tend to be a little less partisan. They’re a little harder to get on one single page. They tend to go their own way. There’s a little bit more moderation and there’s a little bit less willingness to toe the party line. So I don’t think it’s an accident. We saw the Contract with America in ’94. We saw the Democrats had something called “Six for ’06” in 2006. Now we’re seeing the “Pledge to America.” But you never see the senators getting on board with any of these things because they tend to really be much more lone operators.
MS. IFILL: In the end, how much of an idea like this is about united Republicans? A lot of tea party folks feel it’s pox in everybody’s house so not necessarily in love with the Republicans either. How much is it about uniting them, getting them in the fold and how much of it is it just stopping or signaling that they’re going to stop anything that the president is for?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, there was a lot of that in there. They wanted – they said that they want to repeal the healthcare plan. They say they want to repeal TARP. They want to stop a lot of things that are in President Obama’s agenda. Now, they said that before but this was a way of bringing it all together. But, in my opinion, it was less about bringing all Republicans onto a single page than sending a message to those tea party folks, listen, we hear you. We see that you have a lot of energy. You’re able to pick candidates in primaries. We’re not like the Democrats. We’re on your side. We hear what you’re saying. And I think that was what they tried to say over and over and over again in this event yesterday.
MS. IFILL: Well, we do nothing better in Washington than send messages. And sometimes they get received and sometimes not. But try as he might, the president can’t spend every waking moment on the economy, especially when world leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are in New York stirring up trouble or when there’s a chance to make another pitch for the Middle East process. But what a difference a year makes since the last time the president visited the U.N. General Assembly. What’s the same and what’s changed, Tom?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, what’s changed for one thing is the fact that President Obama is now much weaker than he was a year ago. When he went to the United Nations last year, there were cheers. There were applause. Delegates were taking pictures of him. His main message was we’re going to reengage with the United Nations. It was an end to the so-called got at it alone years of the Bush administration. So he was really given a very warm welcome. And now, he has been criticized over the last year, as you know, for having been naïve perhaps in his faith in engagement. And this has been used against him by his Republican critics. So he comes back to the United Nations this year with a much more down to earth message. I need help on this issue. I need help on this issue. I need help on this issue.
MS. IFILL: When Ahmadinejad shows up and says –
MR. GJELTEN: This is what is the –
MS. IFILL: Yes. Right. He said – he’s blocks from ground zero and he’s saying that the terrorists were not really – they didn’t really exist or whatever it was. He said people who are critics of the president, who advocated for engagement with Iran, get a little fodder, don’t they?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, they sure do. You know, the big suspense every year around the U.N. General Assembly is what is Ahmadinejad going to say this year in order to get a reaction. Last year he said – made very thinly veiled anti-Semitic comments asking why a small minority is able to dominate the world. And this year, as you say, he came right out and said that he claims that most people in America think that the U.S. government was behind the Twin Towers coming down. I don’t know what poll results he was citing for that. But he just outdoes himself every year. And last year, he got up and walked out. This year the United States got up and walked out. So that has obviously stayed the same.
MS. YOUSSEF: So what does all this mean then for the U.S. policy towards Iran? What does it say about sanctions and what they’ve been able to do or not do in the last year since when Obama was there last year?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, it’s interesting, Nancy. In the last year he laid out this vision of engagement with Iran. And yet, paradoxically, his big success, the U.S. big success over the last 12 months has not been on that front of engagement. It’s actually been on the opposite front, on increasing pressure on Iran. The United States has been able to get very tough sanctions imposed on Iran, first by the United Nations in July, and also by the European Union, by individual governments like Japan. And as a result, the sanctions regime on Iran is really starting to have some effects. This is just the opposite of what we might have been thinking a year ago when all the focus on, all the talk was on engaging with Iran. That produced nothing. The sanctions have produced quite a bit of pressure.
MS. CALMES: Well, do the remarks like he made at this U.N. General Assembly, do those have the unintended, by him, result of helping to solidify opposition to him, of stiffening the spine maybe of some of our allies that we want to help keep these sanctions in place and give them some muscle?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, more countries walked out this year than walked out last year, so that might be one objective measure of how much he has isolated himself. But there is right now, I think, much broader support in the world for being tough on Iran. And so I think – and the other factor that has changed is that Ahmadinejad himself is much more isolated at home, really in a very politically weakened position. He is now facing opposition not just from the green movement, the democrats and the reformers. He’s facing a lot of opposition from his own fellow hardliners who think that he has usurped a lot of power. So he is in a very weak position politically.
In fact, this is one of the theories about why he comes out with these outrageous, provocative, bizarre statements at the General Assembly because it sort of detracts from the political problems that he’s facing at home.
MR. BENDAVID: Didn’t the president actually give a – I mean, President Obama – didn’t he actually give an interview today to try this kind of push back on some of the things that Ahmadinejad was saying? That’s right, Naftali. He gave an interview to the BBC Persian Service in which he came out and said how offensive these comments were, particularly being made in New York at such a short distance from the Twin Towers. And you know, it’s really kind of bizarre that Ahmadinejad would make these comments now nine years after these towers came down. Nevertheless, there is a lot of support for conspiracy theories in the Arab and Muslim world and this may have been an effort on his part to sort of fan some of that resentment against the United States in the Arab and Muslim world.
MR. PETERSON: Okay. Well, thank you, Tom. The president’s back now from the General Assembly, but there was one last distraction for the administration this week. Remember when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defense secretary said a few weeks ago they would support repealing the policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military? Well, apparently no one told the Senate. This week, the issue morphed into a fight over parliamentary and procedural politics. Republican Senator Susan Collins, who actually favors the repeal, ended up being the deciding vote against it.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): I think we should welcome the service of these individuals who are willing and capable of serving their country. But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down the debate and preclude Republican amendments. That too is not fair.
MS. IFILL: Which means what exactly, Nancy, when she’s talking about a system that would preclude this? What’s she talking about?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, on the face of it, it appears to be a debate about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but this was really posturing in anticipation of the upcoming elections. For the Republicans, adding this -- the amendment, adding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal was a way for them to galvanize their base in the face of tea party sentiment growing within their party. And the way to say, look, we’re here to stop these liberal Democrats from foisting things like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” onto us.
MS. IFILL: But this was something that people had said they were for and which seemed like a slam dunk not long ago. Why not bring it up? Why not attach it to a defense bill?
MS. YOUSSEF: For the Democrats?
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. YOUSSEF: For the Democrats, they have a problem in that they – it was sort of the Lady Gaga effect, if you will. They want to show that they’re going to do something about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but yet are afraid to do it in the face of the elections. So this was a way to appear to be doing something, knowing full well that the vote wasn’t going to go through. So the military has said that, yes, they’re for it – the secretary and the chairman has, but the service chiefs have not. And then, at the same time, there’s a survey going on within the military looking at the ways, the effects that the repeal could have. So there all these sort of moving parts going on. And I think people are looking for something to galvanize, to get their base around, to get them to the polls in November. And for a lot of people, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is not about the military but it’s an emotional, moral issue. And I think it’s a way to try to get people to the polls.
MS. CALMES: Isn’t there a sense though within the military that this is going to happen eventually?
MS. YOUSSEF: Yes. And in fact, that was the reason for the study that the secretary commissioned earlier this year – it’s supposed to be completed December 1st. The idea was if this repeal happens, how it will affect the military and how will the military implement it? What’s interesting in this debate is that went from being something that the military was doing in anticipation of Congress to Congress saying, we need to see what the military says first. It’s sort of chicken and egg argument now, which came first. And so it’s being used as a way to sort of buy time on this issue.
MR. BENDAVID: So what happens now with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? I mean, it did have a sense of inevitability that it would be repealed, but if the Senate doesn’t want to do it, and it seems like the Senate is only going to get more Republican after the elections, where does it all end?
MS. IFILL: And I might add – what happens to the underlying bill? There’s actually an appropriations bill – thiss funding for the military.
MS. YOUSSEF: Just to make a distinction. The appropriations bill is the one that actually puts the money in the coffers of the Defense Department. The authorization bill, of course, authorizes Congress to do it. Usually in the past what’s happened is they’ve taken out the military pay raise which this year is just under 2 percent and done it as a separate bill down the road. The anticipation is that the proponents of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will bring this up again in the lame duck session because of concerns that Republicans will have more seats and this would be less likely to pass. And so –
MR. BENDAVID: Would it pass in a lame duck session, though, any more than it passed just now?
MS. YOUSSEF: It’s unclear because I think it depends on how the election comes out in November, how people feel, how confident people feel after that election in terms of their standing within their home districts.
MR. GJELTEN: But there probably is also some sense that after this review comes out, the results of this review or survey, I mean, people like Senator Collins and others who may just want to wait for this process to play out, might that change the lineup of votes after that review comes out?
MS. YOUSSEF: It certainly could. And the expectation is that that survey will find that the military, by and large, supports repealing the act. But in the meantime, you have top combatant commanders saying that they’re against repealing the act. We just heard from General Amos today, who’s the nominee to be Marine Corps commandant, come out and say, I’m not for the repeal. And so, there’s this friction that I think some people feel needs to be resolved before the repeal happens.
The real question becomes is what is the danger in sort of dragging out the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal? What effect does it have on soldiers? You know, it used to be the military would make social changes, if you will, in its ranks assertively. And this protracted debate over it leaves some wondering what effect will this have on soldiers? Will they take the message that their civilian leadership isn’t really behind this repeal and will they then lash out potentially against gays and lesbian service members.
MS. IFILL: That’s what we’re going to wait to see. I’m so glad we cleared all of this up. Not at all. But for even more clarity, keep up with daily developments on the PBS NewsHour. Find additional “Washington Week” reporting, blogs and our webcast at pbs.org. And we’ll see you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.