GWEN IFILL: Two oaths of office, a big parade, two gala balls, and parties galore. Then, after the inauguration, the hard part starts. That’s what we’ll tackle, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
The president’s plate is already full. Pushing on gun violence.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: (From tape.) I have no illusions about what we’re up against – what we’re up against, or how hard the task is in front of us.
MS. IFILL: Coping with pushback from the NRA.
MAN [Narrator]: (From tape.) Are the presidents’ kids more important than yours?
MS. IFILL: And preparing for the next fiscal fight over raising the debt ceiling.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) We are not a deadbeat nation. There’s a very simple solution to this: Congress authorizes us to pay our bills.
MS. IFILL: But it’s far from clear if Congress will cooperate or if it should. Tonight, we look ahead to the challenges of the second term with Charles Babington of the Associated Press; Peter Baker of the New York Times; John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News; and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Monday will mark the 71st time we’ve sworn a president into office in this country. We don’t usually remember inaugural speeches, but we do recall the day with its pomp, its ceremony, and its political ceasefire. The atmospherics of President Obama’s second oath-taking are likely to have all three.
But there is no small measure of bad blood flowing just beneath the surface. The disagreement on foreign and domestic policy is both deep and real. The White House used this week to foreshadow coming debates over guns and butter.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) If there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.
Republicans in Congress have two choices here. They can act responsibly and pay America’s bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis.
MS. IFILL: So the question is: why are all these gauntlets being thrown down even before inauguration day, Peter?
PETER BAKER: Well, it’s the best moment to do it, because this is – he is now at the apex of the rest of his presidency. It will never be as sweet as this.
MS. IFILL: It doesn’t get better than this?
MR. BAKER: It doesn’t get better than this. You know, because, in fact, he’s already a lame duck. He has won his last election. We’re already beginning to talk about people who might succeed him, even earlier than ever before. And –
MS. IFILL: Speak for yourself.
MR. BAKER: By his own – by his own staff’s calculation, he’s got eight months, 12 months, 16 months at most to make his mark. So he has to come out of the box fast and energetic. And he’s coming out on guns, immigration, fiscal policy and energy. And that’s – he needs to push the other side into deferring to his judgment while he has the opportunity to do it.
MS. IFILL: If you agree, Chuck, that he has leverage that he may never have again, let’s talk about just this – the gun part of this. Does he have the leverage to get all of these plans they came up with, far more specific than I think that people expected, through this Congress?
CHARLES BABINGTON: Well, first of all, Gwen, because of the tragedy in Connecticut, this was an issue that suddenly had to be pushed to the front burner very quickly, unlike things like fiscal policy and immigration.
And I think the answer to your question is we’ll have to wait and see. But there’s a lot of doubters, including in Congress, at least on the big things like an assault weapons ban. Even though we had it for 10 years from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000, it’s lost probably so much – you know, support that that probably won’t happen. He might be able to get the universal background check. That seems fairly – fairly popular, and maybe the stiffer penalties for trafficking guns.
But the – this is an issue that his own party, the Democrats, are not as united on as they are on some other issues.
MS. IFILL: So, John, who are his biggest friends and who are his biggest enemies? We saw this week that the NRA, they clearly object to almost everything he proposed and raised questions about whether his children – they brought his children into the debate.
JOHN DICKERSON: Right. This was in a video the NRA put on their website. This was going to basically just enrage their members. This was not an effort by the NRA to bring, you know, moderate people into the argument on their side.
I think the Republicans have basically been very cruel to the president’s – cruel or outright hostile. John Boehner in the House has said he’ll go through the relevant committees and they’ll take these measures up one by one. The Senate, controlled by the Democrats, is going to go in a piecemeal fashion.
What interests me the most are those Senate Democrats though, both on the gun issue, but also in the whole second term agenda. Harry Reid has said about 10 of the 23 Democrats who are up for reelection may have a real problem with this gun control agenda. Maybe the number is a little shorter than that, but you’re talking about Democrats in states like North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, who will have trouble supporting the president on a whole host of these issues.
And it’s one thing for the president to demonize the Republicans. And he’s doing that and he’s taking a much more confrontational approach. But what happens on any one of these issues when moderate Republicans or – excuse me – moderate Democrats.
MS. IFILL: Democrats.
MR. DICKERSON: Or Democrats in states where they have to rely on some Republican leaning type voters balk at the president’s proposals. That changes the politics very quickly for him.
MS. IFILL: But I’m curious of where Americans are. And one of the things I saw on the president’s proposal, for instance, was that the Center for Disease Control should not be banned from investigating gun violence. Who knew that they were?
AMY WALTER: Right. I don’t think anybody did. But it does to this point too on guns, which is there’s a legislative piece. But I think what we’re also looking at is the fact that this is a cultural issue for so many people more than it is a policy issue.
So we’re here in Washington debating about, can they get this piece through? Can they get that piece through? For a whole lot of folks out there in the country that are saying, really, when you’re talking about guns, you’re talking about a certain way of life. When you’re – when people in New York City are telling people here, in my part of the country, that we don’t need guns, really, that’s just another way for – you know, these sort of elite thinker that that group of people –
MS. IFILL: That was the language they used in that NRA ad. Yeah.
MS. WALTER: They used that in that NRA ad. Exactly. You guys, you set these laws based on what – the world you live in. Why don’t you come and see the world that we live in.
MS. IFILL: The other thing that was interesting – and, Peter, you wrote about it this week, there’s just little – when you talk about culture is language. Our language is so fraught with gun references that we almost can’t get around it. That explains a little bit about how rooted we are. You take aim at something, or you take a shot at somebody. The vice president even used language like that.
MR. BAKER: Oh, the vice president says, I’m going to give these proposals next week. What he said is, I’m shooting for Tuesday. He says – he warns –
MS. WALTER: And there’s no silver bullet.
MR. BAKER: No silver bullet.
MR. DICKERSON: Although he had – he is a special homing device on that kinds of stuff.
MR. BAKER: He is. You know, we all do it. I do it. I mean, I don’t pretend that we don’t. We all kind of find ourselves using the vernacular of guns because it’s part of our culture. It’s part of our public mythology about who we are as a country. And I think that describes a little bit about what you’re talking about, that there’s a vast part of the country between the coasts that, you know, identify with a way of life. And whether it’s factual or not, and some people argue about that, it’s something that flavors the debate.
MR. DICKERSON: And I think the president was trying, by having that even when he announced the proposals with all of those kids around, and written in the wake of Newtown, what the president’s trying to do, what the White House is trying to do is to change this from a debate about rights, a debate about elites telling us what to do with our God-given Second Amendment rights into a conversation about safety of children.
MR. BAKER: And he specifically said there’s a right to life, a right to living happy lives, so he’s trying to pit two different ideas of the American cannon against each other.
MS. IFILL: But the gun rights activists are trying to turn it into the argument about hypocrisy. The elites get to protect themselves. And those people taking something from you that you need to protect yourself.
MR. BAKER: Right. And their use of children, by the way, to the people on the gun rights side was as objectionable as the ad that the NRA put out mentioning the president’s children, because it’s emotional blackmail, they would say, to use children like that, who –
MS. IFILL: Wrote letters to the president.
MR. BAKER: Well, as a political prop.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BABINGTON: You talked about how do people feel? The polls show that there’s fair amount of support for some type of greater gun restrictions. But the gun rights groups led by the NRA for so many years have been so intense, so well organized, so well funded.
MS. IFILL: Not even for background checks?
MR. BABINGTON: Exactly. So, for years, they kind of outmaneuver that larger, more placid majority. Now, whether this would change that, we’ll see. But I have my doubts.
MS. IFILL: Let’s go down to the other gauntlet that was thrown down. The president had his final press conference of his first term. And what he came to talk about was the debt ceiling and that he was – what did he say? He said, we should not be a deadbeat nation, he said. That was the quote of the day. So what was the point of making that the subject of his final fight?
MS. WALTER: Well, because he knows that the Republicans want to make this the centerpiece of their fight for the next couple of weeks, which is to use this debt ceiling vote to gain some leverage, because, let’s face it – when you’re in the minority, you’ve got nothing but threats – to use this debt ceiling fight, whether or not we’re going to pay our bills, as a way to extract spending cuts and maybe some entitlement reform. This was I thought the best opportunity to do that.
What we’ve seen in the last even few hours now is the Republican House now backing away from that saying, OK, look. Fine. We’re going to extend this debt ceiling. We’re going to pass something for a short period of time. But, in the interim, we’d better get some spending cuts.
MS. IFILL: But here’s the thing I didn’t understand about – you’re talking about what the House Republicans put out today, this idea that we would in April instead of immediately vote on the debt ceiling. Isn’t – I hate to use the term again, kicking the can down the road. Isn’t this just taking us back to where we were before, delaying the inevitable?
MR. DICKERSON: Yes. But their thinking is – because it’s not just about the debt ceiling. These dreary fights – and this is one of the reasons the inauguration comes at kind of such a dreary time – we just had one of these boring, intractable fights over the fiscal cliff.
MR. BABINGTON: I thought it was exciting.
MS. WALTER: It had the word “cliff” in it. Now, that –
MR. DICKERSON (?): It did.
MS. WALTER: That’s why this debt ceiling, that’s not exciting ceiling.
MS. IFILL: You clearly have different ideas of excitement.
MR. DICKERSON: So we had that fight. And now we have three of those fights coming up. The debt ceiling was one of them, but then there is also a fight over the sequester, these across-the-board cuts. And then there’s the fight over the regular old budget.
And the Republicans were on the – the worst fight for them to pick is the debt ceiling, the debt limit fight, because that’s one in which real bad, ugly consequences would happen. And they were likely to get blamed.
So they want to move that fight to the last of the fights and then have these other fights where they think they have a little bit better of a chance, a little bit more leverage, but it’s still going to be the same fight over how do you distribute resources in a time of scarcity?
MR. BAKER: But for once actually, President Obama kind of stared them down on this. I mean, he said from the beginning, I’m not going to negotiate about the debt ceiling. I’m not going to make that a – you know, a condition of spending cuts and so forth. This is a separate thing. It’s non-negotiable. And, in fact, they said today, OK. You’re right. We’re decoupling it from the immediate two other showdowns coming up.
MS. WALTER: Yeah. And here’s their one opportunity, I think, if that Republicans want to see their opportunity to say, OK. The fight has all been internal for Republicans, right? You’ve made us fight amongst ourselves about taxes. Fine, Democrats. Let’s see what you do on entitlements. Let’s go. You keep putting it on the table. Let’s hear you – let’s hear you really do something about it.
MS. IFILL: Who has the leverage? We keep coming back to leverage.
MR. BABINGTON: Because some of the points that have been made here and the concession that we think the Republicans made today, there is leverage on the part of the president in terms of letting this debt ceiling deadline go past.
And John’s right. The blame would largely go to Republicans, and also the business and corporate community cares very much about that. And that’s a problem for the Republicans.
Keep in mind though, the Republicans proposed this idea at their retreat in Waynesburg, Virginia, today. They still haven’t gotten it through the House. You know, we’ll probably get some variation of a three-month delay. But they have all kinds of problems.
For one thing, if the Democrats don’t help them out with the votes, and there were aspects of this that the Democrats didn’t like, then the Republicans have to produce nearly all the votes. And John Boehner, the speaker, will have a very hard time doing that. So they each have some leverage over each other. And to get anything through the House these days, it almost has to have some Democratic support.
MS. IFILL: Does anybody find it interesting that the conversation is always about the House and never about the Senate?
MR. BABINGTON: It used to be the opposite for so long with the filibuster power. Right.
MS. IFILL: It did. What’s different?
MR. BAKER: What’s different is the Senate doesn’t want to go forward on things that the House is just going to either vote down or not even vote on it. If you’re a Democratic senator and you’re being asked to vote on tax increases or spending cuts that are very painful, why would you want to take that vote if it’s never even going to come to an actual floor consideration in the House?
MR. BABINGTON: But it’s also the fractious nature of this Republican Caucus that usually the speaker, you know, by working hard enough can get his or her members on board. There are so many very staunch conservatives in this Republican Caucus that Speaker Boehner really has very little leverage on them because they do not respond on national argument.
MR. DICKERSON: And one of the things the House Republicans are trying to do by delaying this debt limit vote is say, or – excuse me – allowing the extension for three months, is go and say, OK, Senate Democrats, you come up with a budget now. You haven’t done it for four years. You keep kicking the can down the road. You keep not doing your job. You do your job and then we’ll get back to this debt limit things.
Why do they want to do that? Back to Amy’s point. They want to make Democrats have to pony up and make some tough decisions and put real numbers in place about entitlements and about what they really believe about that.
MS. WALTER: Which, of course, they won’t do.
MR. DICKERSON: Right.
MS. WALTER: I mean, Senate Democrats are not going to feel intimidated. Oh, OK. You’re right.
MR. : Well, give us more rope.
MS. WALTER: We should do it, yeah.
MS. IFILL: But this idea that if you don’t do your job, you should get paid. I wonder if that has been tested. I wonder if there’s a sense that that is something that’s going to resonate with American people.
MR. BAKER: Medical or legal problems with that? I don’t know if that would actually –
MS. WALTER: Constitutional problems.
MR. DICKERSON: They have to seek an escrow, right? So they can’t actually not pay them. They just have to hold it.
MR. BAKER: It’s a way of saving face, a way of saying, we’re not in fact caving to the president on this, that we’re standing firm on things that really matter. We’re just – we’re going to find some clever ways to enforce fiscal discipline.
MS. WALTER: And this is what’s so hard. Those folks who were elected in 2010, the class that brought Republicans to power in Congress, they were elected on spending. This is what they came to Washington to do. They’ve been trying to do this since 2011. And, by God, they’re not going to leave until they get something.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s look forward for a moment, because four years ago, the president feels he was sent to Washington to do the very specific set of things and now is trying to find a way, as presidents will in their second term of office, to follow through on some of those and to do other things he didn’t feel he had the – he had the room to do.
But I thought we’d go back and listen to just a bit of what President Obama had to say four years ago when he took that first oath of office.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations, and worn out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.
MS. IFILL: OK. This is what the preacher’s daughter speaks up about that childish things line. Four years later, does it feel like the childish things got put away?
MR. BAKER: Conflict and discord and petty grievances are all gone.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. It’s gone.
MR. BAKER: It’s amazing. And it’s – look, every president, of course, outlines a hopeful vision in his inaugural address first or second that is sometimes more aspirational, let’s say, than realistic.
But to compare what he said four years ago to what he will say on Monday I think is a testament to what has happened these last four years. He will probably not suggest there is unity of purpose this time around.
MS. IFILL: Because there’s just not.
MR. BAKER: Because there’s not. Yeah.
MR. DICKERSON: And if you read the other second inaugural addresses that presidents have given over time, they all try to summon this national sense of purpose.
But, I mean, how does this president call the nation to collective action while standing on the steps of a building where collective action goes to die? I mean, that’s the example we’ve had leading up to the inauguration and the example we will have afterwards. And, often, they haul in historical characters, George W. Bush in his second inaugural, even holding the liberty bell.
But he – although George Bush was a divisive president in his second term, he talked about the international cause, which is actually in retrospect also striking, which was spreading freedom throughout the Middle East, another experiment that went a bit pear shaped. But, at least he had a big, grand, national cause that he could call the nation to and that even his enemies could rally around. How this president speaks to common purpose in the speech will be a real testament to rank and file.
MS. WALTER: You know, there was – I think this is a Pew poll that came out the other day. And it said, so this coming year, do you think that Republicans and Democrats will work together to solve problems? So when that speech was made in 2009, 50 percent of Americans thought they could come together. Today, it’s 23 percent. And –
MS. IFILL: They were paying attention.
MS. WALTER: They were actually paying attention to this.
MR. BAKER: This 23 percent, those are hopeless romantics.
MS. WALTER: They are. I give them some credit for that. But the other piece of this that was in the poll, which I found fascinating, and it answers the question about why we haven’t seen compromise, you ask conservative Republicans, do you think that elected officials should compromise or stick to their principles? Sixty percent of conservative Republicans say stick to principles. Sixty percent of liberal Democrats say compromise, because, of course, I think – because their guy is in charge. So that’s going to get you absolutely nowhere.
MS. IFILL: That said, what are –
MS. WALTER: So please be hopeful.
MS. IFILL: Assuming that the 23 percent are right, what are the second term priorities the president is now – it’s not a state of the union speech we’re seeing on Monday, but he’s going to lay out the broad swath of what he would like to see happening – (off mic.).
MR. BABINGTON: Well, two things he’ll probably talk about, Gwen. And we’ve mentioned some of them, are driven by fairly recent events and happenings. And, guns, of course, tragically, is driven largely by the massacre in Connecticut. It was really a back – very backburner issue until that happened. So that’s what’s moved that up.
Immigration, you know, which used to be talked about a lot, eight, nine years ago and then just went nowhere. It became an issue that neither party wanted to talk about.
Well, what’s happened is in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, Republican really got clobbered by the Hispanic vote, which continues to grow. Now, that’s – the immigration issue isn’t the only issue that Hispanics care about, but it’s a big issue. And Republicans, at least those who care about presidential elections, realize they have got to do something about that. So now, there’s an incentive for Republicans to get on board on some type of comprehensive immigration reform. So those are two events that help give energy to those two issues for Obama.
MS. IFILL: If there is any complaint that liberal Democrats and Obama supporters have had in the last four years is that the president hasn’t been tough enough, that he hasn’t pushed hard enough. So is this his opportunity?
MR. DICKERSON: Yeah. Those days appear to be gone. He’s been tough. He stood tough on the debt limit. He’s been tough on guns.
What will be interesting here is to see whether the president exploits weaknesses in the Republican Party. He certainly did it in the primaries, where basically he took the most extreme position on immigration, which is what Mitt Romney had among all the contestants in the primary. And he just stuck him with that. And Mitt Romney did very poorly with Hispanics.
And the Republican Party is in the scrambling mode, trying to figure out how in the changing electorate, they no longer can rely on the votes of basically white southern men. They need to reach out to minorities and young voters. So there’s a conflict in the party.
So the president can work that conflict and get Republicans at each other. He certainly did – has already on these fiscal issues, where there was near revolt in the House Republicans. So does that create some opportunities for him? Are there Republicans who are going to say, maybe we need to – as a party change and maybe kind of come to some kind of an agreement here or it will just be a huge fight over what direction the party should take?
MS. IFILL: And is he positioning himself or Obama supporters by taking Obama for America, the campaign organization, and turning it into kind of a grassroots priorities type (c), 104 – what am I – 501(c)(4). I knew that. Is that going to – is that going to now change how he’s able to get his priorities through?
MS. WALTER: I’m a little bit skeptical of this. And I’ve been trying to sort of figure out how this is going to work. We’re going to hear more about this actual group as they come together, as the new – Obama for Action.
MR. DICKERSON: Organizing for Action.
MS. WALTER: Organizing for Action even though the O is still – I think a lot of people still think of the O as for Obama. But here’s the thing. Those supporters that we hear so much about, this list, all these e-mails, all these activists who now no longer have a campaign to focus on, they’re giving them something to focus on that is an agenda. At the same time, these are the kinds of people who live in the districts that the president has already won.
MS. IFILL: Already.
MS. WALTER: What would be more effective is to try to figure out how do we get to those Republicans? There aren’t many that sit in Obama districts or about a dozen of them. So what about those 50 or 60?
MS. IFILL: It sounds very Clintonesque to me, Amy. I don’t know –
MS. WALTER: They’re –
MS. IFILL: Yeah. They triangulate. Yeah.
MS. WALTER: Well – and to John’s point, I mean this really is a question for the president in this score. And I’ve had a conversation with a Republican today about this. Does he want now like many second-term presidents to be spending his time worrying about his legacy? Here’s the president, right? I spent the first four years trying to get reelected; now I’m going to spend the next four cementing my legacy. Or does he use it as an opportunity to try and – as you pointed out, you know, really cement the Democratic coalition and prevent Republicans from ever getting in that coalition.
MR. DICKERSON: What’s interesting about that, that it was his view of Republicans, as expressed in his press conference this week about their capacity to ever agree with him basically on anything is zero. And so he feels like you could imagine a legacy-minded president reaching out to the other side, cement some big wins. But he doesn’t think they’re going to reach back.
MS. IFILL: That plus, as Peter has has written about – he only has a certain amount of room to run in a second term before people start saying, who are you again? Right?
MR. BAKER: I know. Exactly. Look, I think he’s got a year, a year and a half, whatever the number turns out to be to push the big legacy ideas – immigration, gun control, things that will add to his legacy. And then he’s got to focus on implementing the things he has done. He has to make this economy better. If it’s not better by the time he leaves office, he will not be viewed as successful. And health care as well.
MS. IFILL: Final thought. Legacy.
MR. BABINGTON: You know, when he made that speech in 2008, the tea party did not even exist by name. And we have to remember that things have happened. The 2009 health care debate was so divisive, it gave birth to the tea party. In 2010, you had a huge Republican win in the congressional races. And that changed everything.
MS. IFILL: So much has changed in the last four years.
MR. BABINGTON: That changed dramatically. Right.
MS. IFILL: Chuck, Amy, John, Peter, thank you all very much. And thank you to all of you as well.
We’ve got to go for now, but the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where you’ll be able to find us still talking about all of this at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
And for complete coverage of the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, join me over at the “NewsHour” on Monday, beginning at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time.
I’ll answer your questions about that and more in my monthly web chat that’s like on Thursday at noon, Eastern. What a busy week. But you can send your questions in advance to WashingtonstonWeek@pbs.org. Then we’ll see you again right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.