GWEN IFILL: Our post-Thanksgiving Day table, plenty to talk about as we take a long view of the American mood, tonight on Washington Week. High alert over domestic security –
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) Even as we’re vigilant we cannot and we will not succumb to fear, nor can we allow fear to divide us.
MS. IFILL: – over the prospect of foreign intervention –
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From video.) We have a three-pronged strategy with respect to Syria, Iraq, Daesh and the region. And we’re working with Jordan, with Lebanon, with Turkey and others to make sure that happens.
MS. IFILL: – worries about travel –
MS. : We need a little extra protection on our travels, period.
MS. IFILL: – and plenty of tough talk on the campaign trail.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) We have to take them on the ground. We have to take them on in the air. And we have to take them on online.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your – (censored) – I’d approve it.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) I want the world to see how these – how these ISIS leaders cry like babies when they’re captured.
MS. IFILL: No wonder Americans tell pollsters they’re worried about their safety, and the ability of their leaders to lead.
We take a look at the American mood with Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Kim Ghattas, North America correspondent for the BBC.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. From our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Well, we looked high, we looked low, but middle ground was hard to find this week. There was as much talk about war as peace, as much fretting about vulnerability as safety, and with Paris, Brussels, Turkey and Tunisia heavy on our minds, there was less confidence and more concern. This is one of those instances where the polls do tell the story. Sixty-nine percent of Americans think an attack in the U.S. is imminent and likely. The president’s approval rating has dropped since Paris, with 40 percent saying they strongly disapprove of him. That’s the highest number that has been in nearly a year. And only 11 percent approve of Congress. The president, flanked by his national security team, made a pre-Thanksgiving appeal to Americans to be patient and vigilant.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) While the threat of terrorism is a troubling reality of our age, we are both equipped to prevent attacks and we are resilient in the face of those who would try to do us harm.
MS. IFILL: But on the campaign trail, he who speaks loudest leads the polls.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) That’s why we’re going to hell, because we’re so politically incorrect. (Cheers.) Such a big deal. Such a big deal. I want surveillance of certain mosques, OK? If that’s OK, I want surveillance. (Cheers.)
MS. IFILL: We decided to take the long view tonight, because there’s a through line, one that connects fear to rhetoric to the choices voters will be making next year. So let’s talk about it. What are these polls, especially the ones about insecurity, telling us, Dan?
DAN BALZ: Well, Gwen, I think – I think two words are important. One is insecurity. Insecurity has been part of the political fabric for some time. Mostly it has been economic insecurity coming out of the 2008 crash. On top of that now we have fear – fear about what’s happening abroad. And you put it all together, and there is a kind of a sense, I think, on the part of the public that things are out of control, that people don’t have control over their own lives, that the country doesn’t have control over its own – its own situation or its own destiny at this point, that there are lots of different forces that are pressing in on us. And it’s made for one of the strangest political years we’ve seen in many, many, many years.
MS. IFILL: Well, I remember this same sense of insecurity after 9/11, Peter. And it makes me wonder why this feels different than that. I mean, we are not – our homeland was not attacked this time, yet there’s this sense of unease.
PETER BAKER: Well, I think after 9/11 we had a more traditional response to crisis, which is to say we rally behind our leaders and our government. Certainly George W. Bush, you know, soared in the polls in the aftermath of 9/11 as the country kind of rallied behind him. I think we’re 14 years into that now, and the same dynamics don’t apply. There’s now this sense of when will it end, how does this, you know, keep happening again and again and again? And instead of rallying to our leaders, we’ve decided that our leaders – whether it be Republican or Democrat for that matter – have failed us and that we are looking for something different, as if a magic solution is out there.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s one of the dynamics that doesn’t change, Kim, which is change. We always say we want change. This is how President Obama was famously elected on the hopey, changey thing, right? But now we’re talking about change for what?
KIM GHATTAS: I think, as Dan was mentioning, there is this sense of insecurity, of where is the country going. And fear turns into anger on the campaign trail. Seventy-one percent of GOP primary voters in a recent poll said that they felt out of place in their own country. They feel that their leaders aren’t delivering for them, whether it’s President Obama as a Democratic president or whether it’s what they see as the establishment of the Republican Party. So they’re looking for the outsiders.
When you talk to conservatives, when I travel around the country, they say, you know, we tried to wait and be patient with members of the Republican establishment. They’re not delivering. We’re not going to give them another chance. We want the outsiders. Maybe they can do better. And so that’s where you see Republican supporters going for people like Mr. Trump or Ted Cruz or we’ll see at some point how Marco Rubio is going to do.
MS. IFILL: There was a story in the Post about the people who make up the Donald Trump coalition are interesting, because they all – they simultaneously do not favor immigration reform and do not want Syrians – Syrian refugees to come into the country. They are the same kind of group of people who are also appealing to Donald Trump.
MR. BALZ: Yes, the interesting thing about the Trump coalition, clearly he has – he has galvanized people who feel insecure about the way the country is changing. And we know that’s –
MS. IFILL: Take America back.
MR. BALZ: Right. As Kim said, that’s a substantial number of people. He’s focused it on the immigration issue. And I think that’s one of the reasons that his poll numbers have been as stable as they’ve been. I mean, we talked earlier in the year about his surge. We’re now in the period of his sustainability. How long that lasts, nobody really knows. But he has been the leader in our polling for four months, which is pretty remarkable given what everyone predicted.
There’s one element. We did a poll with ABC that came out earlier this week. And a majority of Republicans – (coughs) – excuse me – said what they are looking for in a candidate, the most – the thing they are looking for most is somebody who can bring change to Washington. And when you ask them which of these candidates can do that, 47 percent said Donald Trump. Now, only 32 percent said they’re for him. So even people who aren’t supporting him at this point –
MS. IFILL: Who’s number two in a number like that?
MR. BALZ: Carson is number two.
MS. IFILL: Oh, change because of the –
MR. BALZ: But way, way down.
MR. BAKER: I was struck by that same poll that you wrote about that it wasn’t ideological, that Trump actually was leading more among his Republican colleagues with liberals and moderates in the Republican Party, and only tied, is that right, with conservatives, even though he, of course, is sounding pretty conservative themes.
MR. BALZ: His key constituency are people who do not have college degrees, people who have had some college or high school diplomas. He is far and away the leader with that part of the Republican Party.
MS. IFILL: Well, take that and layer it over what we’re going through right now, this kind of international insecurity moment. We want action, right? We want people who say they are going to do things. So what does that mean? Does that mean military action? Does that mean actual American on the ground – we saw President Hollande in Washington. He clearly wants more American engagement. Are we talking about revival of waterboarding, which we – the waterboarding debate which we saw Donald Trump talk about? What kind of action are we talking about?
MS. GHATTAS: I think it depends who you’re listening to. When you listen to the Republican candidates, I have to say none of them so far have given a lot of details about how they suggest defeating a group like to so-called Islamic State. Donald Trump is very good at the rhetoric, the bombastic rhetoric. Let’s bomb – let’s bomb them, let’s build walls, let’s –
MS. IFILL: You don’t want to say it, do you? (Laughter.) Go ahead, go ahead. It’s OK. We’re a genteel program.
MS. GHATTAS: Let’s build walls, let’s monitor mosques. I think that is a way also of masking his relative inexperience when it comes to speaking in depth with knowledge, with command about foreign policy. And it appeals to people at a moment of insecurity, of vagueness to hear somebody say, OK, this is the action we need to take. But none of the Republican candidates are really advocating for large scale overseas deployment, because this is still a country –
MS. IFILL: Except Lindsey Graham.
MS. GHATTAS: – that is wary of what happened –
MR. BAKER: Who’s an asterisk in the polls.
MS. IFILL: I’m sorry, what?
MR. BAKER: Who’s an asterisk in the polls. Even though Lindsey Graham is suggesting a large scale, that has not sold with the Republican electorate any more than it would with the Democratic electorate at the moment.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the Democratic electorate, because theoretically – there are two ways of looking at this, that Hillary Clinton should be the one with the experience and the strength. On the other hand, the mistrust?
MS. GHATTAS: And the fact that she was a member of the current administration.
MS. IFILL: The current administration.
MS. GHATTAS: So I think foreign policy for her is both a liability and an asset. When she was speaking in Des Moines, Iowa during the debate just 10 days ago, she seemed very uncomfortable on stage asserting her natural instincts about muscular foreign policy because she was speaking to probably mostly Democratic primary voters who were tuning in that evening. And she understands that for them it’s the economy that matters most.
When she spoke a few days later, she did not say, as she said in the debate, this is not an American fight. She said very much this is a fight that America must lead with its allies. She was much more forceful, much more muscular. She went way beyond anything that President Obama had said. In the debate, she didn’t mention a no-fly zone. At this follow-up speech in New York, she certainly did mention a no-fly zone.
MS. IFILL: It’s quite a – it’s quite a balance that she’s trying to strike. But let’s talk about reality here. There are real complications for rhetoric, right? You can’t just say something. Eventually you have to do something. And that’s the dilemma the president finds himself in, in that he’s actually got to execute. But there are a lot of complications along the way. Let’s talk about the Russia complication, Peter, because that is huge.
MR. BAKER: It’s huge. And of course, after Paris President Hollande of France decided maybe we can bring everybody together. The Russians had just lost a passenger jet, in theory, at least, to a bomb planted by the Islamic State. Paris was still reeling. So why shouldn’t we all get together against ISIS? And that sounds logical on its face, but the problem is the reality, as you say, isn’t so easy. The Russians have a very different view of Syria than the West does. They believe that the West created this problem by undermining the government of Bashar al-Assad, whereas the West is saying Bashar al-Assad has to go and that his very presence there has been a magnet for conflict and terrorism.
And this is not a small difference of opinion. This is pretty fundamental to it. And the flight – the warplane that got shot down by Turkey this week was flying near the Turkish border, or perhaps over the Turkish border as the Turks have said, only because it was bombing targets or involved in operations that had been bombing targets that are opposition to Bashar al-Assad, not against ISIS.
MS. IFILL: Is there any discussion at all – and everybody weigh in on this – whether the U.S. can change its policy or its focus on Assad to make that more palatable, in general, to the public? So right now our focus has been getting him of office. He’s going nowhere. Obviously the allies we’re seeking to ally with, that’s not their main focus. They want everybody to get together and fight ISIS. How unsellable is this at this stage?
MR. BALZ: Relatively unsellable. ISIS is the target that Americans want this administration focused on. The complications of Syria, I suspect, escape a lot of people. They know it’s a terrible, messy, bloody civil war, but at this point they are worried about a Paris-style attack happening in the United States. And they want the president focused on that.
MS. IFILL: Does that give an advantage? Kim mentioned people, candidates, who don’t have a full grasp on all the complications of foreign policy, to put it kindly. Does that give them an advantage, that it’s – or are we underestimating the American public in saying that they just don’t get it?
MR. BALZ: I don’t think we’re underestimating the American public, but right now in this moment – in the sort of the heat of this moment, somebody who speaks strongly and forcefully gets more attention. They are saying things in a way that people register from the gut. At some point in the election as people have to make a final decision when they go into the polling booth, whether it’s in Iowa or New Hampshire or the other states for the primaries, they’ll be making a perhaps slightly different calculation. Who do I really trust to be in the Oval Office, as opposed to who is kind of expressing what I feel in my gut right now?
MS. IFILL: What is the dilemma, the complication for the president at this – with his approval ratings dropping again? Is it second-term-itis, or is specific to these questions which we’re talking about tonight?
MR. BAKER: I think he’s got a real problem with both policy and politics when it comes to terrorism right now. The latest poll that CBS did showed 36 percent approve of his handling of terrorism. This used to be a high point for him in the polls. People used to think he was doing pretty well on that. He did kill Osama bin Laden. He had the drone strikes which more or less – as controversial as it might be with constitutional scholars and the peace left – have been reasonably popular.
So he hasn’t sold the idea that he’s got his hands on this. And even Democrats, not just Republican candidates who have a reason to complain – even Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, Leon Panetta, Adam Schiff, a congressman who’s on the Intelligence Committee, all of them have been saying, we aren’t doing enough. This isn’t working. We have to rethink it.
MS. GHATTAS: I think part of the issue, going back to your previous question to Dan about, you know, what do you do – is it Assad or is it ISIS? I think when you are the United States and you have allies, you have the option of focusing on two things at the same time. The U.S. can be determinedly going after ISIS while understanding that some of its allies like the Saudis and Qatar are more interesting in bringing down President Assad. They see him as the real source of all the trouble.
And then you have the French, who straddle the two. President Hollande made very clear that for him there is no future for President Assad in Syria. He also sees President Assad as the source of this chaos in which ISIS is able to thrive. And he has in the past indicated that in his opinion if the U.S. had gone ahead with the military strikes against President Assad in 2013, we wouldn’t be here today. So for President Obama, there is the option of choosing those two parallel paths by focusing on the diplomacy to bring a political solution to Syria, and asking some of your allies on the ground to build leverage against President Assad.
MS. IFILL: All of which is really –
MS. GHATTAS: Complex.
MS. IFILL: Complex in an election year.
MS. GHATTAS: Very.
MS. IFILL: And that’s – I mean, it makes perfect sense, except when you’re running against people who are selling it in short bites. So let’s talk about temperament for a while. Assuming for a moment that people like the temperament of the president – they did when they elected him; now it’s kind of a drag, he doesn’t seem energetic enough. And Donald Trump’s worst thing he can say about you is that you don’t have energy. What happens to the next level of GOP candidates? Who can break through? If you’re Chris Christie, if you’re John Kasich, if you’re Jeb Bush, who have all been testing out little ways of taking it to Donald Trump, how do you break that ceiling in such an uncertain time, I guess?
MR. BALZ: Well, most of the people you’ve mentioned are trying to break through in New Hampshire. There is enormous and what will become increasingly intense competition in New Hampshire for that kind of mainstream conservative establishment group, however you want to define them. Chris Christie, whose personality is controversial to say the least, now believes it’s clearly an asset in this environment. Jeb Bush is having to step up in his approach as a candidate to be more forceful, to counter the caricature that Donald Trump has laid on him. Marco Rubio has tried to present himself as well-schooled – even if inexperienced, well-schooled in foreign policy. John Kasich is doing it by going directly after Donald Trump, but in a way that is almost as bombastic in its attacks as Donald Trump has been as a candidate.
MS. IFILL: And if you’re Ted Cruz?
MR. BAKER: Well, Ted Cruz’s strategy up till now has seemed to be wait for Donald Trump to implode, and then inherit his part of the electorate. And you saw even this past week, when he found himself disagreeing with Trump –
MS. IFILL: Mildly.
MR. BAKER: – mildly, he says, I love Donald Trump, I just disagree with him on the idea of a government registry, and then he moved on. He wasn’t trying to emphasize that. He wasn’t using that as a wedge. He was trying to keep – make sure he didn’t put himself in a position he didn’t want to be in. But he still finds – he’s riding in Trump’s wake, and he’s doing well in Iowa. He’s suddenly now number two in one of the most recent polls there and coming on strong. So we don’t know where that’s going to go.
MS. IFILL: And if you’re Bernie Sanders – remember Bernie Sanders? – does – he still has an incredibly raucous, very loud, very supportive grassroots coalition. But in this environment, how does that work against Hillary Clinton?
MS. GHATTAS: Well, I think there are some things that work against Bernie Sanders, which is that he has not been able to demonstrate command of the issues on foreign policy. And it was very clear in the debate which happened a day after the Paris attacks, barely a day after. In his opening statement, he said two lines about Paris and then he made this very strange segue straight into his usual stump speech about the economy being bad and so on.
MS. IFILL: It seems strange to those of us who are listening for an answer on foreign policy. It may have made perfect sense for his strategy not to talk about what he doesn’t –
MS. GHATTAS: Absolutely. And interestingly enough, actually, going back to Clinton’s uncomfortable positioning during that debate, he sounded tougher on foreign policy in that debate than she did.
But I think that, going back to Hillary Clinton, what I found was an interesting poll, is to see how she is polling against Republican candidates when it comes to who voters trust most on issues of handling terrorism. And she comes ahead of all the candidates. She’s within the margin of error with Rubio and Bush. And it’s interesting, it doesn’t – I guess talking about temperament, you know, when you ask the question generally about the Democratic Party versus the Republican Party, who handles terrorism issues better, the answer is overwhelmingly the Republican Party. But when you – when you break it down to the individuals in this case, in an election year, Hillary Clinton seems to be doing quite well – although both her and her teams and Bernie Sanders’ teams think that the economy will still dominate a year from now.
MS. IFILL: Well, right now there’s just no sign of that, is there? And it’s all about how people self-identify, how these candidates are self-identifying, and how we as Americans are trying to self-identify. I guess we’ll wait to see what the voters think.
Thank you all very much.
MS. GHATTAS: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: Welcome to Washington Week, Kim.
We have to leave you a little bit early to give you the chance to support your local station, which in turn supports us. But we’re going to continue this conversation online. That’s on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we’ll dig a little bit deeper into the ripple effects from our unsettled American mood. Also, get a head start on your weekend reading or your upcoming gift-giving with our holiday reading list, recommendations for your library courtesy of our Washington Week panelists, voracious readers all – especially Dan and Peter. You’ll be able to find all of that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Keep up with Judy Woodruff and me every night on the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you again right here next week on Washington Week. Good night.