GWEN IFILL: Good news on jobs, mixed news on foreign policy, and voters weigh in on the first critical midterm primaries, tonight on “Washington Week.”
The jobless rate drops to its lowest point in five and a half years, and the Dow hits new highs – a spring economy. But at the White House, foreign policy is front and center.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our only interest is for Ukraine to be able to make its own decisions, and the last thing we want is disorder and chaos in the center of Europe.
MS. IFILL: Diplomacy, fence mending and sabre rattling, all on one stage, while midterm politics gets going in earnest in North Carolina, with a vulnerable Democrat in peril.
THOM TILLIS: I’ve been cleaning up Kay Hagan’s mess. I know what – I know what it’s like to come behind Kay Hagen and see the failed policies.
MS. IFILL: The rubber begins hitting the road.
Covering the week, Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, Janet Hook of The Wall Street Journal and Charles Babington of the Associated Press.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. We followed the news closely whenever it was bad – bailouts, shutdowns, long-term joblessness – but today the news was good: 288,000 new jobs last month, driving the unemployment rate down to 6.3 percent.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: All told, our businesses have now created 9.2 million new jobs over 50 consecutive months of job growth. The grit and determination of the American people are moving us forward, but we have to keep a relentless focus on job creation and creating more opportunities for working families.
MS. IFILL: There’s always a “but” in these announcements, or at least even in the celebrations at the White House after these announcements. What’s today’s “buts,” Jim?
JIM TANKERSLEY: The big but today is that the unemployment rate drop is not what it appears to be. It’s not that we’ve had so many jobs created that we brought down unemployment. It’s that we had a huge number of people who dropped out of the labor force, which is not good. But let’s step back. There’s a but to the but. The but to the but is –
MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) The but to the but –
MR. TANKERSLEY: There is! It’s a lot of – it’s a lot of jobs, and we had a lot of jobs for a few months in a row now, and this is a good thing, and we should celebrate that. The bad news is, it’s not as good as the unemployment rate would lead us to believe, because we want people in the labor force. We want them looking for work. There are still 10 million people who are looking for work and can’t find it, which is way too many, but there are millions more on top of that who have just given up.
MS. IFILL: We’re always looking for subtexts in these numbers. As we – it’s especially bad – usually, these unemployment numbers are bad for minorities. They’re bad for teenagers. How did that break down?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Yeah, it’s the same. It’s still – you know, it’s – we have, I think, the lowest unemployment rate for African-Americans in several years now, which is a good thing, but it’s still much higher than the rate for whites. This is true also for young people, I mean, true for noncollege graduates compared to college graduates. These are the structural divides in our economy right now for a lot of reasons, and they have not changed in the way that these numbers have gone up and down. So it’s just one more reason why, if we had a lot more jobs, we would have more people in those groups who would be working. And until we get to what economists like to call full employment, where the optimal number of jobs exist in the economy for the number of people who are looking, until we get there, it’s hard to feel good about this from those groups’ perspective.
JANET HOOK: Well, it does still feel like a big jump in employment is basically a good thing. The but that I wonder about is what they announced earlier in the week was a really kind of disappointing GDP, you know, economic growth number. How do you square these two different – completely different signals?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Right, yeah, it does – it looks really, really – (inaudible).
MS. IFILL: And while you’re squaring it, square – or triangulate it with the – with the stock market as well, which had a record high this week.
MS. HOOK: Yeah.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Right. So, yeah. So the economy sometimes does not speak in any kind of a clear voice, which is difficult. I think what it’s telling us right now are a few things. One, the GDP number looks like it might be off a little bit. We had a lot of weather happen in the first part of this year that may have held things down artificially. You would expect those kind of job numbers that it would be revised up, and we would hope that, at least. But the stock market, I think, tells us that we have a bifurcated recovery. The people at the top are still doing much, much (better ?), people who own stocks and own capital, whereas people in the middle and at the bottom who are still looking for work and aren’t getting much of a raise these days – and that’s still true in these numbers – they’re not doing as well.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: If the hiring was robust – and I’m paying attention to, out there, am I going to get a raise – because that’s what a lot of people are going to be thinking. Are these employers going to give workers raises?
MR. TANKERSLEY: We’d sure like to see that. We sure don’t see much evidence of it. Inflation is low, but it’s still – wage growth is not much higher than inflation. And again, until you have that moment where there really are more openings than there are job seekers in terms of that optimal level of employment, until you have that competition to hire good people that’s really there when you have a lot of job openings, you’re not going to see that kind of wage pressure. And so, until we get to full employment, I think we’re going to have low wage growth.
MS. IFILL: You’re talking about hourly wages when we talk about these numbers.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Yeah, we’re talking about just the amount of money people earn for an hour’s work, absolutely.
CHARLES BABINGTON: What about the Federal Reserve? Is the Fed going to look at these numbers and change policy in any way, or are they going to, you think, just keep sitting sort of tight?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, what the Fed’s doing right now is it’s slowly withdrawing the stimulus, the level of stimulus that it’s giving to the economy. It’s still giving stimulus, this quantitative easing, but it’s reducing the amount of the stimulus, and I think we’re going to continue to see that apace. I don’t think there’s anything here that’s going to make them absolutely accelerate it, but there’s certainly nothing in here that’s going to make them think they need to be, you know, restimulating to a larger degree.
MS. IFILL: Do numbers like this translate to confidence level, to purchasing power, to other and more-difficult-to-quantify effects on the economy?
MR. TANKERSLEY: The thing that we would really like to see it translate to is some real confidence among business owners. If there is a sense that a real recovery, like what sometimes we call escape velocity was finally taking hold all these years after the recession ended, then maybe we would see a lot of that sidelined corporate cash be spent, a lot of hiring happen, and then it would be this virtual – virtuous cycle going up. We don’t really see that yet. There’s more, but it’s not like, boom, skyrocketing job growth, which we would expect.
MS. IFILL: So these companies are sitting on cash and we don’t expect a minimum wage bill go through?
MR. TANKERSLEY: I don’t – we don’t – we don’t – certainly when you read the politics in Washington, we do not see much of a minimum wage bill going through.
MS. IFILL: OK, but we’ll take whatever good news we can get around here. Thank you very much, Jim.
The conflict in Ukraine, which for the U.S. and its European allies has really become a conflict with Russia, is resonating in several directions. Some of that was on display today at the White House, where President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel endeavored to present a united front, promising further punishment if Russia does not disengage.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: If it continues to destabilize eastern Ukraine and disrupt this month’s presidential election, we will move quickly on additional steps, including further sanctions that will impose greater costs. But that is a choice facing the Russian leadership.
MS. IFILL: But some of the fallout is also affecting how Americans view their second-term president. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, nearly half of those surveyed say the U.S. should be less active in world affairs and approval of the president’s handling of foreign policy has dropped to its lowest point ever. So what did the White House do this week to speak to that? Alexis.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So the president and the administration started the week by talking about another round of tough sanctions. Most of the sanctions that started the week that the administration announced were aimed at the circle right around Vladimir Putin – President Putin of Russia. It was aimed at about seven different individuals and about 17 businesses or entities. And the idea was to put blockades on – or asset freezes on those individuals and the companies they controlled. And they were considered either government officials right around the president of Russia or his – what the administration fondly calls his cronies.
So the idea was just to begin to dial it up again this week as punishment. In this particular case, the week started off with the president arguing very loudly, as he did again today with Chancellor Merkel, that Russia has shown absolutely no progress toward honoring the Geneva statement that was ironed out in April. That was supposed to be the diplomatic step forward that Russia and Ukraine were supposed to get together.
MS. IFILL: But, Janet, it seems sometimes that the president is – there’s this rock and then this hard place, right? And it’s what the Washington – Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed this week, that he can win for losing. People want him to get tough and do these sanctions sooner than later, yet they don’t really want us to be involved in foreign policy that much.
MS. HOOK: Really. This – the rock and the hard place really came into view in our new poll. As you pointed out, the top line thing was this real sense of an inward-looking electorate, people really just having enough with engagement in the world. I mean, it’s kind of like a stay-at-home America – half of the people saying that they want to have a less-active government. And that’s the kind of finding that helps you understand why Obama’s moving kind of cautiously, why Rand Paul is kind of a potential presidential candidate among Republicans, is because this sentiment does cross party lines.
But the message is really not unambiguous because on the other hand when we asked about the style of leadership that people want from the president, more than half the people said that they wanted a president who projected strength in foreign policy. And you know, like 30 percent – much less – said that they wanted a more open, accommodating, I want to negotiate. So I – you know, it’s a real push-pull, like you said.
MS. IFILL: Well, listen to what the president had to say. He was this week, I believe, in Manila, or was it in South Korea, at the end of his Asian trip – and the Philippines – and he was – he was asked this very question and he seemed a little frustrated. Let’s listen to a little bit of that.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Typically criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force. And the question I think I would have is why is it that everybody’s so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?
MS. IFILL: That’s a problem, isn’t it?
MR. BABINGTON: Talking a little bit about our European allies, you mentioned German Chancellor Merkel who was out the White House today. The Germans have not been very enthusiastic about sanctions I Think. What about the broader European community? Are other important European allies more of her thinking or are they more of a get tough with Russia?
MS. SIMENDINGER: So the president has turned to Chancellor Merkel because of the relationship that Germany has with Russia, and because the Germans are considered so central to bringing the Europeans along. And you could see it today in the Rose Garden, the struggle that the Europeans – you could see it on display because she said a number of times: We will go to the next tier.
And she described the trigger for that being the May 25 elections that are scheduled in Ukraine, if they’re disrupted, if there’s a provocation that prevents them from going forward. But she kept saying, but this is not what we want to do. And she also very forcefully indicated that most of the European nations understand that they would be hurt if the energy sector is the next – is in the next tranche of serious economic sanctions because many of the European countries get a majority, if not almost all, of their oil and gas from –
MR. BABINGTON: It would hit average citizens there, right?
MS. SIMENDINGER: It would – it would affect the global economy. And President Obama has not been secretive about that. He has also indicated that. His body language with Chancellor Merkel was very conciliatory to this concept. And he actually did volunteer today in the discussion that it would be unrealistic to imagine – turning off the tap was the phrase he used – that that had not even happened during the Cold War.
So he was signaling that each country may want to go in its own direction, but that the – the purpose of the United States and Germany standing together was, as Gwen has already indicated, to show some level of unity – that there will be a walking forward together, even if each countries goes maybe a slightly different direction on sanctions.
MS. HOOK: He does seem to be putting the highest priority on maintaining unity with Europe which sometimes – well, it’s going to run afoul of the pressures that he gets from other places, you know, critics who are saying, oh well, he’s not – he’s not exerting American leadership. And even, you know, Republicans in Congress are saying, well, you should do more. You should arm the Ukrainians. How does the president juggle those kinds of cross-pressures?
MS. SIMENDINGER: So –
MS. IFILL: And I might add, there’s another item in your poll – 48 percent of those polled said that globalization is bad. That doesn’t speak to any pat on the back for any kind of walking in unity.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So he – I think the president is buffeted by the kinds of things that showed up in the poll. So for instance, his job approval in your poll goes up in the – in the month that you all looked at but it goes down on the – on the – on his job approval on the Ukraine and on international policy.
And he’s looking at Republicans in Congress who are saying getting tougher, intervene more, but he understands that the American people are saying, across party lines, that isn’t want the American people want to see. And he understands, and he also talked today, of course, leading into this discussion, what was the first thing he wanted to talk about, were the job numbers. He wanted to talk about the economy, the domestic – keep bringing it back to domestic policy. So the buffeting part is not going to get settled.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Janet, can you help me understand what the American people actually want here? (Laughter.) Are they feeling more isolationist or are they –
MS. IFILL: And once you figure it out, could you tell the president, because he’s like to know.
MR. BABINGTON: Yeah, he would like to know.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Right. Are they yearning for a simpler time in foreign policy? What’s – what does the poll suggest is driving the way the country is viewing engagement with the world in a security sense?
MS. HOOK: Well, the main thing is there really are very conflicting conclusions that we heard. One was, when asked about Obama’s foreign policy style, 40 percent said he struck a pretty good balance between bold and cautious, but 30 percent said he was too cautious. And so – and you see this decline in his support for his handling of Ukraine. Well, you don’t think that’s because he’s been being too bold. I don’t know.
You know, truth to tell, you know what I think the secret factor is here? That – not secret, but the hidden factor that isn’t mentioned anywhere in our poll is I think this is the legacy is George W. Bush’s presidency, that even still today his – you know, the decade of very active American involvement militarily sort of still hangs over what people feel about things – like, enough already. Long wars – and I do think that the hidden thing in the – in the question, do you want to be more or less active – it’s not just active. It’s militarily involved. And I think people are really, really done with –
MS. IFILL: But is there also something about this president and this presidency – or is it just second-term-itis – that makes people more likely to say – to use the weak word to describe him? Of course, we all remember when H. W. Bush had the wimp cover in TIME or Newsweek. But I wonder if there’s something else that’s sticking to President Obama as well in these polls.
MS. HOOK: Not surprisingly. I mean, he did run as an anti-war president. He ran to disengage from the world. And you just don’t have the sense that he’s just longing to exercise military strength. And it happens also that the problems that have been presented to him, thrust in front of him, are not very easily amenable to military – simple military solutions anyway. So that – you know, I think even Bob Corker isn’t talking about mobilizing troops to solve the problem in the Ukraine – in Ukraine and Russia.
MS. IFILL: Even though he’s calling what the president is doing rhetoric. He’s calling the sanctions rhetoric.
MS. SIMENDINGER: I would also add that pollsters keep mentioning the loss of trust that Americans have in government, and that’s across a lot of different issues. And that keeps coming up. And that may be playing a part in the second term.
MS. IFILL: But I wonder, in this case, whether the loss of trust on foreign policy alone can be traced back to Syria and the lack of action in Syria and the walking up to the brink and then not acting, because that’s something the White House worries about.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It could be. It could be Middle East. It could be Iran. It could be, as Janet is suggesting, that there are few places in the world where you can say look at the beautiful success of that policy over the last five years.
MS. HOOK: Yeah. Yeah, no, I think the searing thing about the back and forth on Syria wasn’t just that he didn’t intervene, but that he said he wanted to and then didn’t. And he was pulled back. But he was pulled back by Congress as many as anything. And maybe he misread public opinion. He certainly misread Congress –
MS. SIMENDINGER: And the British.
MS. HOOK: And the British. Right. Right, they kind of pulled the rug out from under him.
MS. IFILL: If there are to be new sanctions, what is – what will trigger that next step? I’ve heard two different versions of what the trigger is this week.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So on Monday we started off the week by learning from the administration that the trigger looked more like it would be troops crossing over the Ukraine border from Russia – actual Russian military intervention – or intercession. Today, in the Rose Garden, we heard a different trigger. And that trigger is the May 25 elections. And the president listened to Chancellor Merkel –
MS. IFILL: In Ukraine.
MS. SIMENDINGER: In Ukraine – and listened as she described this as very important to her, to Germany, to let this ride out until we can see whether the elections will actually take place in order to elect a new president. And the president acknowledged this and confirmed this – that this was a new trigger for the United States, working with Europe.
MS. IFILL: Interesting. Well, maybe we’ll watch that and find out whether people respond – more Americans respond more to the idea of doing something for the sake of democracy than doing something for the sake of respecting someone else’s borders. We’ll see. Thank you both.
As 2014 unspools we’ll be dipping in from time to time as voters go to the polls to send their latest message to Washington. There will be 13 party primaries this month, several of which will be a test of incumbency, liberal survivability and tea party strength. This week in North Carolina, a bit of all of that will be on view as Republicans compete to challenge vulnerable Senate Democrat Kay Hagen. Chuck’s been covering the goings-on in his home state. What would you say is going on in your home state, Chuck?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, I was there a few days last week. And the – Tuesday is the Republican primary for the nomination to run against Kay Hagen in the Senate race. It’s got – it’s a crowded primary, but there’s really three prominent candidates. We saw Thom Tillis at the – in video at the top of the show here. He is the establishment candidate. He’s the speaker of the state House. He’s got the backing of the Chamber of Commerce and many other groups.
There was a lot of thinking, Gwen, that he would be pushed really hard by a tea party candidate named Greg Brannon and a Christian right candidate named Mark Harris. It’s possible they’ll do well on Tuesday, but the thinking among a lot of people there is that these guys did not do what they needed to do. They didn’t perform particularly well in the three debates that took place; they didn’t get a lot of money. They just haven’t generated much enthusiasm and attention. And I think one thing we’ve learned from this is for all the talk about tea party insurgencies, these thing(s) don’t just happen by themselves. You have to have the right mix of candidate, money, issues.
MS. IFILL: Who’s got the money and the issues?
MR. BABINGTON: Right now, Thom Tillis definitely has the money, although a lot of – a lot of the money is being spent against Kay Hagan by outside groups – and we could talk about that more if you’d like. But Tillis has not just the money, but because he’s speaker of the House he has the leadership. The governor’s endorsed him. The other senator, Richard Burr, has endorsed him. So that – you know, in a kind of low-energy primary that just seems to be so far, that helps a lot.
MS. HOOK: You know, Chuck, it seems like for the longest time Kay Hagan wasn’t running against a Republican, she was running against Americans for Prosperity, this big conservative group that’s running all these ads against her. It will be kind of refreshing to have a real candidate to focus on. Is it clear that there isn’t going to have to be a runoff? Does Tillis have it locked up, or do you think it’s going to – you’re going to have to go another round? Because what’s the rule? Let’s see, he has to get 40 percent?
MR. BABINGTON: Forty percent, right. So it’s a little less than a 50 percent threshold. So the thinking earlier was there probably would be a runoff. Now a lot of people – (inaudible) – avoid a runoff. If there is a runoff, it would be July 15th, a good ways away. That could be a problem for Tillis because in the interim there’s going to be a special session of the state legislature, which means he, as speaker of the House, would be very front and center. And he said he absolutely will not, you know, step aside from his job as speaker. And the legislature has been pretty controversial in North Carolina because the Republicans have taken control of the legislature as well as the governor’s office, and they’ve really moved to a much more conservative agenda. That’s one of the main issues that Kay Hagan wants to use. So it could be problematic, probably not fatal, if Thom Tillis doesn’t – if he gets into a runoff, but he would have a lot of advantages in a runoff as well.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Chuck, we keep hearing either Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or other Democrats try to really castigate Republicans for relying on outside money, and trying to encourage voters to think of that as a suspicious sort of intrusion into the state. Talk about the outside money that’s coming into North Carolina, maybe the Koch brothers, Harry Reid’s favorite mentioner.
MR. BABINGTON: Right. A group affiliated with the conservative billionaire brothers, the Koch brothers, has been spending a lot of money. More outside money thus far has been spent in this race than any other race in the state, millions of dollars’ worth of TV ads attacking Kay Hagan, overwhelmingly on “Obamacare,” which, like all Democrats, of course, she supported “Obamacare.” And there have been some other groups as well.
You know, so she’s just been getting pounded, while the Republicans can sort of run their primary race. And it is interesting that it’s not the Republican Party that’s pounding her and it’s not a candidate who’s doing it. And this really is the – you know, we’re seeing the fruits of the Citizens United case, that basically let – you know, unlimited money, millions and millions of dollars, can go into these types of ads and you don’t have to disclose who’s doing it.
That’s been a problem for Hagan. Her approval ratings are not very good now. She’ll have a lot of work to do to try to improve that. But she has a lot of time.
MS. SIMENDINGER : Do you think the voters – I’m just curious. Do you think the voters are paying attention to where the money comes from?
MR. BABINGTON: No. I think – she’s trying to get them to do that. I think it’s a hard thing to do. Most people have no idea who the Koch brothers are, and they – probably it’s hard to get them to care, I think.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, let me just say we’re going to be watching a lot of other – to see if this means anything for Kentucky, Arkansas. There are a lot of other states we’re going to be watching to see if this very same sort of thing plays out.
MR. BABINGTON: Yeah, exactly. In Kentucky, there’s a tea party candidate who’s having a hard time against Mitch McConnell.
MS. IFILL: OK. All right. Well, thank you very much. Thank you everybody else, as well.
We have to go now. But as always, the conversation will continue online. That’s where you’ll find the Washington Week Webcast Extra. We stream live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, or you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Among other things on the web case – webcast, we’ll talk about that awkward White House moment when the German chancellor was asked about U.S. spying.
Keep up with develop – byahh – (chuckles) – keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the “PBS NewsHour” – I can see the end in sight – and we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.”