GWEN IFILL: A rare presidential news conference covers the waterfront on foreign and domestic policy. We sort out the details tonight on “Washington Week.”
Who’s listening in?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.
I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot.
MS. IFILL: How dangerous is al-Qaida.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) This is an ongoing process. We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism.
MS. IFILL: How frosty are things with Russia.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I think there’s always been some tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union.
MS. IFILL: And how frosty are things with Congress.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) We’re not in a normal atmosphere around here when it comes to, quote, unquote, “Obamacare.”
MS. IFILL: These issues and more will follow the president as he leaves on vacation. We take a look with Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times; Martha Raddatz of ABC News; and Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics.
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. The president of these United States strolled into the White House East Room today to unburden himself of a few things before he follows Congress’ lead and escapes Washington for a summer vacation.
But the next 10 days will clearly not be a vacation from work. In his briefcase: how to sooth fears about domestic surveillance programs; how to paper over a Cold War-like rift with Vladimir Putin; and how to brace for Republican pushback on various domestic issues like health care.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) My friends in the other party have made the idea of preventing these people from getting health care their holy grail, their number one priority. The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have health care.
MS. IFILL: But let’s start with the president’s comments on domestic surveillance programs, where he promised greater transparency and said the U.S. is still better at it than its critics.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) It’s true. We have significant capabilities. What’s also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don’t even think to do, refuse to show. And that includes, by the way, some of America’s most vocal critics.
MS. IFILL: So if we are so good at this, what is the president proposing to fix, Alexis?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things he quickly disclosed that he wanted to fix was Americans’ discomfort with the idea of domestic surveillance and how it’s being used here and abroad. He talked about that full out. He said that the question is: how do I make the American people feel more comfortable? And in some ways he was trying to deny that he would have done this without the disclosures from Edward Snowden or perhaps from the agitation on Capitol Hill and the efforts to try to deal with some of this legislatively to clip the wings of the National Security Agency.
But what he was proposing to do was try to make things more transparent, he said. He wants to put together a task force, which in the old Obama world would have been where you put things into the filing cabinet, right? But he wants to put together a task force of experts. He’s been talking to tech and CEO experts.
MS. IFILL: A blue ribbon commission. I feel like we’ve been here before.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Blue ribbon commissions. And work with Congress on pending legislation. And Democrats and Republicans have come together on legislative efforts.
MS. IFILL: Is there a sense, Doyle, that this is really – no matter how much he says – he said, I had this all in the works before – Edward Snowden was at least a catalyst for it?
DOYLE MCMANUS: There’s no question that Edward Snowden was a catalyst. Yeah. There was a little bit of stuff that the administration was doing. Yes, they were reviewing their procedures. Yes, they tell us that they had tightened up some procedures.
But here’s what hadn’t happened until Snowden came along. Congress wasn’t paying any attention. You had Ron Wyden in the Senate and a few others trying to say, hey, folks, there’s something here you ought to be worried about, but there was no pressure to move on any of this.
So there’s no question that this package of changes – in addition to a task force, the president did have one specific he talked about, which was changing the procedures of the court that rules on these issues and putting an adversary in there so there’s someone arguing the other side.
MS. IFILL: That seemed new.
MR. MCMANUS: That one – that idea has been around for months or years. And it was getting nowhere fast until Edward Snowden.
MS. IFILL: Apparently, Wyden let it be known that a lot of these were his ideas originally. So, Martha, the president said – he was almost disdainful when asked about Snowden. He said, he is no patriot, but he also said there were many other ways if someone conscience was stirred that they could have acted. Are there really – are there other – this idea of whistleblowing avenues?
MARTHA RADDATZ: Well, I mean – yeah. He’s saying, come back. And if you really believe that, go on trial and we’ll charge you with these three felonies, and we can see if there’s another way that you could have revealed all these things.
MS. IFILL: That sounds very appealing, doesn’t it?
MS. RADDATZ: It sounds very appealing I’m sure to Edward Snowden. But one of the things is the president made very clear he doesn’t really – he likes these programs. His assessment of these programs, I think he said, has not really evolved.
One of my favorite moments in the press conference about this was, our Jon Karl stood up and said, Mr. President, if you’re being so transparent, can you talk to us about these drone strikes because there have been so many drone strikes in Yemen after the past week. And the president, I thought, looked a little taken aback by that. He would say absolutely nothing about those drone strikes. And believe me, those drone strikes are tied into NSA intercepts.
MS. IFILL: So secrecy is really – still remains. This was a lot of talk but secrecy is still something that this administration is wedded to.
MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things that the president has struggled with is this idea that he believes the checks are there, the potential for abuse has been limited. But he struggles with this idea that he’s not trusted. And that was a question posed to him today: do you understand why Americans are not trusting that you’re saying, we have this capability but we won’t abuse it.
One of the interesting things is I think this president is looking far ahead now, at the next president, and thinking part of his legacy is to put things together so that he can – you know, all presidents think they’re on the side of the angels, but to hand it over to his successor in some way that the American people are comfortable with it and it will prevail after him.
MR. MCMANUS: But it was also important to remember, as I think Martha alluded to, the things the president did not say. He did not say that the collection of data about your phone calls, those phone records, ought to be reined in or that access to that ought to be controlled more than it is now.
MS. RADDATZ: He just wants to reassure everybody there’s no abuse.
MR. MCMANUS: More transparency. He did not say – he did not say that the collection of emails that go overseas ought to be limited beyond where it is now.
MS. IFILL: That didn’t come up. This was all about domestic situations. Well, it’s interesting because there were so many things covered in the news conference. We want to get through as many as possible because also, which world leader – if you were watching this today, which world – it’s like a “Jeopardy” quiz – was compared to a schoolboy slouching in the back of the room?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) When President Putin, who was prime minister when Medvedev was president, came back into power, I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia. And I’ve encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues, with mixed success.
MS. IFILL: Mixed success. At almost the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was at the State Department downplaying any rift between the two nations. Secretary of State John Kerry compared the tension to occasional collisions in a hockey game which sounds very Kerryesque. Is that what the problem is here, for real?
MR. MCMANUS: That would be a good thing if that were the only – if that were the only problem. That’s actually a figure of speech that John Kerry has used before because both he and Sergey Lavrov have played hockey in their youth. Kerry still does. I don’t think Lavrov still does. They apparently get along OK. And then an important part of the U.S.-Russian relationship is managing all of those places where the two countries collide with each other. They don’t agree on missile defense in Europe. They don’t agree on Syria. They don’t agree on a whole lot of things.
MS. IFILL: Iran.
MR. MCMANUS: Iran they’re a little closer, but, yeah, basically, they don’t agree. But this has gotten much worse. What we really saw this week – look, the reset of the relationship with Russia was one of the proudest accomplishments of President Obama’s first term, him and Secretary Clinton, then the secretary of state. For a long time, the administration has at least publicly been in denial: these are just small bumps on the road; these are collisions on a hockey rink, but things are basically OK.
What this week made official is that the reset has gone into reverse and nobody can deny it. It would be nice if these were just hockey – friendly hockey players bumping into each other, but when the president of the United States compares the president of Russia to a schoolboy slouching in a chair in the back of the room, you can’t deny there’s something personal there.
MS. IFILL: There were some things throughout this press conference where there were casual descriptions about willy-nilly this and schoolboys that. It seemed that in this particular case, he couldn’t be doing it by accident, the relationship between Putin and he, and Medvedev and he, very different.
MS. RADDATZ: Very, very different. And you don’t say those things about another world leader. You just don’t say those things if you’re – if you’re trying to say it with great respect. There was no great respect there in anything. He said – you know, it’s not a reset button; it’s a rewind button. It really is. I mean, he said, it’s time for a pause. You can almost – I was thinking this week, you can almost see President Obama just saying, I’ve had it with that guy. I’ve just had it with that guy. Let him slouch off someplace else.
MS. IFILL: Well, he made that slouching comment as a way to say, this is what you all notice, body language. But, in fact, when we meet, sometimes we’re – what did he say – blunt. We’re candid.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Candid, blunt.
MS. IFILL: And he said, pause, pause, and occasionally helpful or constructive.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Constructive. Right. Exactly. There is no question that that international putdown was meant to be a slap at someone who in Russia fancies himself a blend of James Bond and Marlon Brando, right? I mean, this is his image at home. It’s supposed to be a slap towards him, and it was stunning to hear it.
MS. IFILL: Except at the same time, we’ve mentioned Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry, they were having perfectly – and Chuck Hagel and his counterpart – perfectly cordial relationship, having a conversation. It was moving along. So is some of this psychodrama and some of this the real work getting done?
MR. MCMANUS: It’s both. Look, there’s still a big long agenda that has to get done. All of those issues we named and others that include trade, that include Edward Snowden, that include all kinds of stuff. And you can’t let those go by the board.
But it’s clear that the Obama-Putin relationship isn’t moving things forward.
I thought one of the interesting unasked questions about cancelling the summit in a sense was compared to what? Would this summit – in the old days, you had a summit with a Russian leader when you knew there was going to be clear progress forward.
MS. IFILL: Which actually was part of the administration’s explanation for cancelling it.
MR. MCMANUS: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: They had nothing they hadn’t already done.
MR. MCMANUS: We had gotten away from that and this relationship was so close, you could have a routine summit. You didn’t have to have forward progress. Well, now we’re back to the old Cold War rules. If you think of the kind of summit this would have been, if the president had gone ahead, number one, Obama would have undergone terrible criticism for looking weak and spineless. He would have given Putin an enormous boost on prestige. And Obama would have had to go into that meeting and say, give me Edward Snowden. Mr. Putin would have said, get on your horse and get out of there. And Barack Obama would have looked humiliated again.
MS. RADDATZ: That would have been a great “Washington Week” to talk about. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Even better to be in the room. We would have liked to do that. OK. There was another big topic. Renewed threats from al-Qaida that brought about U.S. evacuations this week from Yemen, which raised the question: has al-Qaida, as promised, really been decimated? This is the president’s answer.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) This tightly organized and relatively centralized al-Qaida that attacked us on 9/11 has been broken apart, and is very weak, and does not have a lot of operational capacity. And to say we still have these regional organizations like AQAP that can pose a threat that can drive potentially a truck bomb into an embassy wall and can kill some people.
MS. IFILL: So was that the fear of what was happening this week and that’s why Americans were evacuated?
MS. RADDATZ: Yes. That’s – the officials I have spoken to say that was precisely the fear in Yemen. It started in Yemen with the threat to blow up the U.S. embassy or the British embassy. And they thought truck bombs were out there. It expanded the threat.
One of the things that happens is – when there’s a threat in a certain country, you throw in all your assets and you get more drones in there and you get more surveillance so you hear more, you see more. And I think the threat expanded. And that’s why they closed all the other embassies.
MS. IFILL: Which are going to be reopened as of this weekend.
MS. RADDATZ: Reopened on Sunday, except the embassy in Yemen. But one of the things, when I listened to President Obama talk about decimating the core al-Qaida, I think we don’t know what we don’t know. Still today, as much as we think we know, the fact that Osama bin Laden is dead, terrific. That broke up core al-Qaida.
But the idea that no one is capable anymore of another 9/11, I think that’s a dangerous road to go down to say that publicly. They are still very fearful someone is going to get a body bomb on an airplane or another printer cartridge that will actually work to bring down an airplane. And, frankly, who knows what other plots are out there? I don’t mean to sound doom and gloom, but I don’t think we know what we don’t know, even though our intelligence is pretty terrific in the world now.
MS. IFILL: Well, it circles back to this question about surveillance – international surveillance. You’re not going to give that up as long as –
MS. RADDATZ: No. And we had Zawahiri, who was bin Laden’s number two guy, who is now number one guy in core al-Qaida, if you want to call it that, communicating with the head of al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula. That tells you something, too.
MS. IFILL: Was there any sense at the White House, Alexis, that part of what drove this was in the way that Edward Snowden drove the announcements about surveillance today that the fallout from Benghazi may have driven some of this decision to shut down so many embassies, so many government, put out such a broad travel warning throughout so much of the world?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Clearly. And I don’t think that there was any apology for that that we heard at the White House and anyone I talked to. It was about this is the era of abundance of caution. And you also heard members on the Hill who had been critical of what had happened after Benghazi, saying publicly, we can’t be critical of that and then try to be critical of this idea of being on the side of ultimate safety or extra safety. The president was also, as Martha is saying, as sort of caught in this idea that he had claimed a certain level of victory over al-Qaida. And now he –
MS. IFILL: Well, and Leon Panetta, the former secretary of defense.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely, and campaigned on that aggressively in 2012. So, you know, I could hear this sort of downgrading verbally the rhetoric, you know, he was tamping it down, but the actual activity level had certainly been quite dramatic.
MS. RADDATZ: I just want to say quickly about Benghazi, this is a huge change in the last 10 days. They are overriding ambassadors. They are saying, I’m sorry. It’s no longer your decision. We’re the ones who are going to make the decision and we’re going to decide whether your embassies and consulates are closing.. That’s a big change.
MR. MCMANUS: A lot of those working diplomats want to keep those embassies open. And there is under the radar at the State Department a lot of talk about this really feels like an overreaction. Are we going to be weak? Actually, the government of Yemen put out a statement saying, you folks are going out of business here. Do you really think you need to do that?
MS. IFILL: Well, you mentioned the government of Yemen. I think it was just a week ago today that the president of Yemen was with the – was with the president in the Oval Office doing the grip and grin. And then, right after that was when all these warnings came out. Do we know whether there was any connection at all?
MR. MCMANUS: There was in the sense that we are told that the president was pushing President Hadi of Yemen for more cooperation and more permission to do drone strikes. There was a resurgence –
MS. IFILL: Because the president knew that this was coming?
MR. MCMANUS: Yeah.
MS. RADDATZ: And the Yemenis have been cooperative. I mean, they really have been cooperative.
MR. MCMANUS: It’s been up and down though and there was a –
MS. RADDATZ: It’s a little better. Yeah.
MR. MCMANUS: It’s better now. There was a – yeah. There was a connection.
MS. IFILL: And do we have anybody understanding why this extended so far into Africa? It went pretty far afield. There were at least, two, three, four cities.
MS. RADDATZ: I think – again, I think it’s Benghazi. I think it’s an abundance of caution. I think it’s that aperture was opened. And you heard Zawahiri and Wuhayshi talking about some big strategic strike and they just weren’t taking any chances.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The question I have as someone who’s trying to learn more about this from talking to the White House folks is the next time, the next level of intelligence. Do you do this again? I mean, is this now a protocol that is going to be –
MS. RADDATZ: It’s like shutting down the city of Boston, right, when there was a terror attack. They shut down everything.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Taking every plane out of the sky. Is that what this is?
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk a little bit before we run out of time about the domestic issues brought up at the press conference today. The president was incredibly aggressive in pushing back at Republicans who say not only want to shut down the government, but that they don’t have a plan to replace health care. They used to say repeal and replace. Now they just want to repeal. Was that also worked out politically in advance, let’s just rub it in their faces and then go on vacation?
MS. SIMENDINGER: The president has been warming up to this. And you know that we’re going to hear him give a big health care speech in September, when Congress is back, and the president is back on the road anticipating the October 1 date for the beginning of the sign up for the health care exchanges.
The president has been practicing versions of this. And we’ve heard the president’s advisers tearing their hair out like this makes no sense that Republicans want to pull away the benefits that so many Americans are telling even their lawmakers that they like and they would like to keep. And they keep pointing to the polls that say Americans not do want the Affordable Care Act repealed. They would prefer to have it fixed or upgraded or amended, or whatever, but not repealed. And the president’s trying, I think, to lean into what he’ll be saying this fall about they have no – he said it today, they have no agenda.
MS. IFILL: But he also seems like he’s pushing them to – he’s pushing the libertarian ones in the House especially into saying, shut down the government? Shut down the government, really. There seems to be a poking going on.
MR. MCMANUS: Oh, absolutely. Now, the president is taking advantage of the division among Republicans and he’s doing is deliberately. The problem that – look, Speaker John Boehner, Eric Cantor, the leader of the Republicans in the House –
MS. IFILL: Who, by the way, says, we don’t want to shut down the government.
MR. MCMANUS: They don’t want to shut the government down. They both know that that is a terrible trap, but they can’t control their caucus. And the same kind of thing is going on in the Senate, where Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and others are working on the idea of shutting the government down if “Obamacare,” if the Health Care Act isn’t defunded. Well, that really is kind of a “bring it on” invitation for President Obama. And he took advantage of it. I don’t know why he doesn’t do more news conferences. He got an infomercial out of this one.
MS. IFILL: Except that that the one thing that he didn’t talk about that I would have expected that he would have found a way to steer it more was the state of the economy, which is the thing that’s so high on people’s agenda, and that didn’t really –
MS. RADDATZ: And no one asked him about it, which is pretty incredible as well.
MS. IFILL: Except about the Fed, yeah.
MS. RADDATZ: Yeah. A little bit about the Fed. That’s true. But yeah, he should start talking about the economy as well. I’m sure we’re going to get a lot of that when he gets back.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yeah. We still have a few more speeches to go.
MS. IFILL: So that’s what I want to ask. He goes – my final question. He’s going off on vacation. What is in his briefcase? Besides the things we talked about today, what do we expect when they get back?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, what isn’t going to be happening when they get back? So we’ve got the budget, immigration reform, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, part of the agenda that you just described is what do we do about the debt ceiling, which will come up in November, and whether we hold it hostage to that.
And then all of the other international issues that are brewing and all the appropriations bills. We talked about the budget. And then the president’s going to be giving a whole series of speeches coming back to the middle-class economy and trying to keep that drumbeat going. Every time I see him, it’s very reminiscent of 2012. It’s like watching him on the campaign trail.
MS. IFILL: Really? Does it feel –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Very similar. The look of it, the way he does the speeches, it’s very – it just seems to me that 2012 never ended.
MR. MCMANUS: And that’s not accidental – 2012 came out pretty good for Barack Obama.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: And 2016 is looming – or 2014. What’s the next one up?
MR. MCMANUS: Twenty fourteen.
MS. IFILL: I don’t know. I keep losing track.
MR. MCMANUS: The congressional election in 2014.
MS. RADDATZ: That’s because they’re squeezed together so much. Yes.
MS. IFILL: Oh, they are. They are. But you know what? There was a lot more in this new conference and a lot more to get to. And we are going to get to it, just not here. Thank you everybody.
We’re leaving you a few minutes early this week because we have to give you the chance, which I know you’re longing for, to support your local PBS station. They in turn support us.
But the conversation will continue online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where, among other things, we’ll sort through the rest of the highlights from the president’s news conference, including whether he does the dishes in the White House. What do you think the answer to that question is? That’s streaming live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and available all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
Keep up with daily developments with me on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you right here again next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.