GWEN IFILL: With unemployment cut in half, health care upheld and same-sex marriage on the books, this was vindication week at the White House. So what’s driving the competition to replace Barack Obama? We’ll take a look at the policy and the politics tonight on Washington Week.
The president basks in the afterglow of a very good week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) We are going to squeeze every last ounce of progress that we can made as long as I have the privilege of holding this office.
MS. IFILL: As he prepares to break new ground with Cuba.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) We are neighbors, now we can be friends.
MS. IFILL: But now Republicans are competing for the right to undo his legacy.
NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R): (From video.) America is tired of hand-wringing and indecisiveness and weakness in the Oval Office.
MS. IFILL: And a real fight begins brewing among Democrats.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Hello! (Cheers, applause.) In case you haven’t noticed there are a lot of people here. (Cheers, applause.)
MS. IFILL: It’s more than a horse race as candidates sort through issues from the Confederate flag to gay marriage to who is fit to lead.
Covering the week, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN; and Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic.
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. As you can see, we are in different digs this week, and I’ll explain why at the end of the program.
The White House victories are beginning to add up: another step toward normalized relations with Cuba, the afterglow of high court victories on housing rights, same-sex marriage and health care and, at week’s end, good news on the economy, yet another drop in the unemployment rate.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) Keep in mind, when I came into office it was hovering around 10 percent. All told, we’ve now seen 64 straight months of private sector job growth, which is a new record.
MS. IFILL: But even so, the president, who only weeks ago was branded in some circles as a fading lame duck, still faces challengers, often on the very flip side of success. Starting with Cuba, where the two governments have agreed to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals. Is true normalization on the way, Peter?
PETER BAKER: Well, it’s the beginning of something, obviously. President Obama last December reached an agreement with Raul Castro to normalize diplomatic relations and it took us six months to get to this point where they could actually set dates for the opening of embassies and all the arrangements that come with that. It’s a big deal. We don’t have embassies in only a handful of countries around the world – North Korea, Iran being the two other big ones. So this is the beginning of something big.
Now, what matters is what happens next. The president cannot go any further in terms of relaxing the trade embargo. That’s something that Congress would have to do, if it wanted to. The president can’t go much further in terms of relaxing travel restrictions beyond what he’s done at this point. And people are going to be watching what happens in Havana. Does this opening with the United States change Cuban behavior, or leave it still a pretty tough place for human rights?
MS. IFILL: It’s not insignificant that 1961 was when we closed – Eisenhower closed the embassies there, the year that President Obama was born, and now he wants to use this reopening as a way of saying, see, this is what change looks like.
MR. BAKER: It does. Right, look, remember back in 2007, 2008 when he was one of these candidates running around the way we see today in Iowa and New Hampshire, he talked about the idea of opening relations with our enemies, talking with our enemies. He was mocked for it by not just Republicans, but his own Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton. But this is what he meant. He said, talk to Cuba, talk to Iran. See if we can’t come up with some deals. And so even as Cuba opening happened this week, he’s hoping for a deal next week with Iran on its nuclear program.
MS. IFILL: I want to talk a little bit about the mini victory lap that the president took on this and other issues this week, traveling outside of Washington and kind of grinning to himself, it seemed – trying to calm it down – but grinning a little bit to himself about everything they’ve accomplished, including on the unemployment rate. Let’s listen to what Barack Obama had to say yesterday in La Crosse, Wisconsin, when he was talking about what Republicans had been saying about his plans before.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) I have these vague recollections of when Republicans were saying Obamacare would kill jobs and crush freedom and bring about death panels and – (laughter) – turns out we’re still celebrating the 4th of July. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) The only difference is another 16 million Americans can celebrate it with health care. (Cheers.)
MS. IFILL: Now, when he was asked about this at the White House, he was very – he was kind of – I don’t know, kind of low-key about it. But by the time he got to La Crosse in front of a crowd, no more low-key.
MR. BAKER: Well, look, you know, it’s been a rough few years for him, obviously. At times, it felt like nothing could go right. And so it’s hard to begrudge him, you know, a little satisfaction on weeks where things do seem to be going in the right direction. But not to throw cold water on it, this is not the end of the story.
He got a trade deal with Congress, but he still has to arrange it with the other 11 countries and then get it back to Congress and pass it. So that’s only a partial step. He takes credit for same-sex marriage, but the truth is he waited till 2012 to endorse it. He really got in front of a movement that was happening anyway. And on the economy, yes, he got some good job numbers this week, but with Greece on the edge of a precipice here we don’t know what’s about to happen in the world economy. Some terrible things could happen in the future. So enjoy it while you can, but he obviously knows better than to think this is the end of the story.
MS. IFILL: You know, on the flipside of all of the buts that you just outlined is the economy. We saw good numbers, but this wage stagnation problem is right underneath the surface.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. That’s right, exactly. People’s wages are basically staying still. They’re not rising with the number of jobs. The labor participation rate was also a concern with this report, people still not necessarily getting back into the marketplace at the level we hope that they will. And the thing I would worry about – I’m not an economist – but the thing I would worry about is after a certain number of months of growth, when do you hit the natural cycle when you head to a recession? Does that come at the very end of his presidency, just the natural up and down of the economy? And is there anything he can do to stop that?
MS. IFILL: And there’s a lot of – his approval rating has gone up, however. I mean, he still can look at this and say he’s doing better than he was, at least in the way he’s perceived.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Yeah, so it’s not fabulous. I mean, his approval rating has stayed in this band between, you know, 42, 43 to 52 over the course of his presidency. He’s at the higher end of that band right now. It’s not overwhelming, but it may be in these polarized times that’s the best a president can hope for. Certainly George W. Bush didn’t get above 50 percent in his second term. So I think that he is feeling a little bit better, but he doesn’t yet have the kind of numbers that would help him push Congress to do things that Congress doesn’t want to do on its own.
MS. IFILL: Have you guys seen this resonate at all on the campaign trail?
JEFF ZELENY: Sure. I mean, the person who is most excited about President Obama’s approval rating, probably other than him, is Hillary Clinton. I mean, a third term effectively – although she’s not running for that – electing a third Democrat in a row depends upon his approval rating here. So I mean, they’re watching this very, very sort of carefully. And a lot of her advisers were sort of his advisers. So there’s a lot of overlap. I’m guessing you’re seeing that at the White House as well.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. In fact, I think one of her top advisers, Jennifer Palmieri, was spotted at the White House just yesterday, obviously consulting with them, trying to keep things on track. And they do have some tensions, obviously, over trade and so forth.
MS. IFILL: I never understand why they have these meetings at the White House, where they’re going to be spotted.
MR. BAKER: We’re going to see you, yeah.
MS. IFILL: We’re going to see it. But here’s the thing, though, the White House, we know, is clearly watching the politics playing out. But they’re mostly kind of pleased about what they’re seeing Republicans do. And it would be interesting, before we get to you guys and talks about the politics of it, to hear what the president had to say about the Republican field, once again yesterday before a very supportive crowd in Wisconsin.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) We’ve got some healthy competition in the Democratic Party, but I’ve lost count how many Republicans are running for this job. (Laughter.) They’ll have enough for an actual “Hunger Games.” (Laughter.) That is a – that is a – that is an interesting bunch.
MS. IFILL: (Chuckles.) Later on, he says it was like they were all on a bus. I think he wanted to say clown bus. I think he really wanted to say that, but he did not. Is the White House watching the Republican field very, very carefully?
MR. BAKER: Well, they’re watching it, of course. And they take this moment of validation on some of his policies to kind of push back, because usually they’re the punching bag, right? The problem for the Democrats is there’s really one major candidate, and Bernie Sanders and a couple others trying to get attention. On the Republican side you’ve got 14, 15 and maybe eventually 20 candidates. And they’re going to flood these television shows on Sunday and other times. And so a lot of the conversation is how Obama is failing. So when he has a moment to say, hey, I’m actually doing OK, don’t worry about me, I think he’s enjoying it.
MS. IFILL: It wasn’t insignificant that he was in Wisconsin yesterday, Molly, shaking hands and smiling with Scott Walker.
MOLLY BALL: Right, exactly, who’s one of the front runners and certainly the front runner in Iowa at this point, and who has also run into a lot of roadblocks back home in Wisconsin. You know, there’s a bipartisan loathing for the budget that he proposed in Madison. And his approval rating has dropped precipitously. I think it’s as low as 41 percent since he started going out on the campaign trail, not spending a lot of time back home in Wisconsin.
He’s talking a lot on the national stage about issues that he de-emphasized in order to win re-election in 2014, especially the social issues that he’s talking about to win over the voters in Iowa, and so there’s some nervousness among the Republican establishment about how that’s going to play if and when he becomes the nominee.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s just wrap up a little bit with Peter talking about what the White House is saying they’ve got to do. They think that – everybody said they were lame ducks, they were in the last quarter, all of the sports metaphors you can think of. Are they now thinking they’ve turned a corner and they can actually have a lot to show for these last 18 months?
MR. BAKER: Well, they do see potential there. We’ll see a lot in this next week with this Iran deal. Can he get an Iran deal with these other world powers that he can bring back to Congress and defend and push through without any rejection by lawmakers who are very skeptical to begin with? That’s a big step toward a legacy. Cuba’s a big step toward a legacy. He’s got climate change. They’re heading toward a December conference in Paris. Can they get a worldwide agreement on climate change? For him, who spent most of his time on foreign policy dealing with drones and death and war and pretty bad setbacks in places in Syria and Iraq, that will be a pretty positive thing for him to talk about.
MS. IFILL: OK. Thanks, Peter.
And as we promised, now to 2016 politics. The field continued to expand this week as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joined the Republican field and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb jumped in on the Democratic side.
GOV. CHRISTIE: (From video.) I am not running for president of the United States as a surrogate for being elected prom king of America. When I stand up on a stage like this in front of all of you, there is one thing you will know for sure: I mean what I say and I say what I mean. And that’s what America needs right now. (Cheers.)
MS. IFILL: Jim Webb’s announcement, released online in a blog post, was more low-key. He wrote, “Our country needs a fresh approach to solving the problems that confront us and too often unnecessarily divide us. We need to shake the hold of these shadow elites on our political process.”
A connection does exist between the increasingly robust field of candidates and the incumbent president’s fortunes. That’s because it is the very nature of the competition to argue for change. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal aimed his fire at Democrat Hillary Clinton, who released yet another batch of previously private emails this week.
LOUISIANA GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL (R): (From video.) By putting her emails on her own personal server, what that means is China and Russia may already have access to those emails. We may be – America may be the last superpower to see those emails. Hackers may already have them. That’s ridiculous that we may have to ask them to actually see those emails.
MS. IFILL: Same with Democrat Bernie Sanders, who actually is running against Clinton. He’s attracting huge crowds wherever he goes.
SEN. SANDERS: (From video.) This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. It is not about Hillary Clinton. It is not about anybody else. It is about you. (Cheers.) It is about putting together a grassroots movement of millions and millions of people who stand together and make it clear that we need fundamental changes in the economics and politics of this country so the government works for all of us, and not a handful of wealthy campaign contributors. (Cheers, applause.)
MS. IFILL: And all of the candidates are being sucked into the news of the day, from same-sex marriage to the future of the Confederate flag.
FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): (From video.) The symbols that have divided the South in many ways, the symbols that were used in most recent modern history – not, perhaps, at the beginning of the time – but the symbols were racist. And if you’re trying to lean forward rather than live in the past, you want to eliminate the barriers that create disagreements.
MS. IFILL: And then there is Donald Trump. But first, let’s walk our way through the new kids on the block, Christie and Webb. Jeff, what is the governor’s plan?
MR. ZELENY: Well, Governor Christie hopes there is still a path for him through this Republican nomination. Boy, I mean, I cannot think of a candidate who has sort of diminished himself even before he got into the race as much as Chris Christie. You know, eight months, nine months or so ago, when Republican governors swept a lot of state capitals across the country. He took credit. He was the chairman of the Republican National Governors Association. He was a straight talker.
Thinking about running in 2012, maybe he should have. I mean, now he is diminished in the sense of what has happened back home in New Jersey. The fiscal condition of the state is very tough. He has a crowded sort of field. But he is going to try and get his way through this crowded field, one town hall after another, after another, after another in New Hampshire. That is his whole sort of strategy, is New Hampshire based. And we’ll see if it works for him. It’s such a wide-open field, it could. But I think that he is diminished in a lot of ways, compared to what he used to be here.
And the question is sort of what is his lane? His lane, he says, is straight talk. It worked for John McCain. He’s not quite John McCain. So we’ll see. It’s a very complicated path, I would say, for him to win the nomination.
MS. IFILL: But he has a path, at least, whether it’s plausible or not. Let’s talk about Jim Webb, Molly, the senator from – former senator from Virginia, Vietnam veteran, kind of staking out this kind of middle of the road worldview, the only Democrat, I think, who defended the Confederate flag staying up, for instance.
MS. BALL: Yeah, well, Jim Webb has always been a maverick. He’s a very unconventional figure. You know, he was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, and then turned against the Iraq war, which his son was fighting in, and that spurred him to run as a Democrat. Everyone who covered him in Washington knew how much he hated it. He hated politics. He didn’t really like being a senator, and that’s why he quit after one term. So to see him come back is a little bit puzzling.
The case for how he could have a path to the nomination is also quite puzzling. Most Democrats I’ve spoken to don’t really understand what he’s up to. It’s not much of a campaign juggernaut. I don’t think you can say that there’s a real hunger in the Democratic base for a candidate who’s sort of to Hillary’s right. You see a lot of hunger for a candidate to her left, and Bernie Sanders has emerged very strongly as that candidate.
MS. IFILL: Is it possible that Jim Webb sees it as reading this, the Sanders boom in particular, as just a sign that there’s room for someone who’s not Hillary, and that’s why he sees room to move in it? Because a few weeks ago the rumors was he wasn’t going to run at all.
MS. BALL: Yeah, again, you know, I haven’t spoken to Jim Webb. I don’t know what he’s thinking. And most people don’t really. But you know, he’s written and spoken a lot about this idea of bringing the white working class back into the Democratic Party and the sort of rural Scotch-Irish, the southern members of the Democratic Party of yore.
It’s not clear that that base exists for the Democratic Party anymore, or that anybody really wants a Democrat who will stick up for the Confederate flag, but is against affirmative action, for example. But he’s also more liberal than Hillary on foreign policy. And so he certainly speaks for that – the wing of the party for whom that’s important as well.
MS. IFILL: Molly mentioned just now that Bernie Sanders is running to the left of Hillary Clinton and doing fairly well, at least now. Does this – does this make him the Howard Dean of this campaign, which is to say big boom and then what?
MR. ZELENY: It could be. They’re both from Vermont, so that is the – is the beginning of the comparison here.
MS. IFILL: Ah, I forgot about that.
MR. ZELENY: And remember back to Howard Dean in 2003. He was the candidate of the summer into the fall. And the other – his other challengers at the time were very worried about him. They started sort of taking him on. Bernie Sanders strikes me as being slightly different. I mean, I think that he is sort of combining – even though he has been in Washington longer than, you know, most anyone else in the field, he is the oldest candidate in the field, he’s drawing the youngest audiences. It’s really an interesting phenomenon. Sort of like Ron Paul, you know, for all the times he’s run, but just the flip side.
But I asked one of his advisers, why are you in Madison, Wisconsin this week with 10,000 people, as opposed to in Iowa City with, you know, 2,000 people, because they can actually caucus for you, or in New Hampshire? And they said, because this is how he’s going to get the attention and the buzz and to make money, by doing all these big rallies. And it certainly has gotten a lot of attention. And he raised $15 million. And that to me, if you translate it, is worth more –
MS. IFILL: In three months.
MR. ZELENY: In three months – is worth more than Hillary Clinton’s $45 million, and this is why: Because they’re all small donations, average of $33.51. That means they can give and give and give again. And it’s coming organically, not out there. He didn’t hold a single fundraiser to raise $15 million. That’s interesting.
MS. IFILL: So are the Clinton people worried about this?
MR. ZELENY: They are not worried at this point because they like to see an alternative like Bernie Sanders. I mean, like, they’d much rather prefer an alternative to be Bernie Sanders than, say, Elizabeth Warren or, say, even Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, actually sort of taking her on. So right now they’re kind of looking at him like, oh, isn’t he cute? Aren’t those crowds cute? But they, I think, will find them less cute as it goes into the fall. I mean, you know, you’ve been out there as well as I have. There is more enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders than I think that they would like to admit.
MS. BALL: Absolutely. I mean, her – Hillary’s people know that she has an enthusiasm problem, and you can see that in – you know, going to her events, there are a lot of people in the crowd who are openly skeptical of her.
And you know, you heard in that first clip that you played Bernie Sanders saying this is not about me, this is not about Hillary Clinton. Well, it is about Hillary Clinton. It’s very much about the hunger for an alternative to Hillary. But it’s also about Bernie Sanders because these other alternatives to Hillary Clinton are not catching on the way he is.
MR. BAKER: I wonder, whether in fact – and there are some people in the Clinton camp who worry that the success, such as it is, that Sanders has experienced might draw in, say, Joe Biden, right, who has not ruled out a campaign, most people don’t think he’s going to do it, and yet I don’t think has completely given up the temptation that he has felt. He’s run twice before. He’s way behind Hillary Clinton in any matchup, but he could pose a significant threat if he decided to run. I don’t think he’s going to, but it’s not – he’s not ruled out –
MS. IFILL: The fact that people aren’t ruling it out tells you something about what the contentment level or lack thereof of the field. But let’s step back from the horserace for a second, who’s in and who’s out, and talk about the policy issues, which keep polluting – if you can look at it – or enhancing the campaign.
Gay marriage decision last week at the Supreme Court. Molly, you’ve written a lot about this. To what extent do the candidates, especially Republicans, feel they had to respond to this? And did they?
MS. BALL: Well, they all had to respond because they all got asked about it, and they all had to take a position. And all of the – it was interesting that for all of the buzz there has been, you know, even with the RNC when they did their autopsy after 2012 about how Republicans need to sort of get with the future when it comes to issues of gay rights, every single Republican candidate said that they disagreed with the decision and that they personally dislike same-sex marriage. But then there were a lot of degrees, right? You had Mike Huckabee actually – and I think Ted Cruz – actually advocating sort of civil disobedience against this decision.
MS. IFILL: Bobby Jindal saying maybe we ought to get rid of the Court.
MS. BALL: Right, right. So that’s one end. And then on the other end of the spectrum you had Rand Paul, for example, saying let’s get government out of marriage altogether, I don’t care what anybody else wants to do. And he was the only one taking that sort of libertarian – but then you had others, including I believe Marco Rubio, saying that the Court has ruled and we’ve got to go along with the decision. But you don’t see any Republican candidate sort of positioning himself as the one who can get ahead of these issues.
MS. IFILL: You know, Jeff, before this happened, the trade issue was the big dividing issue among Democrats. It’s now law and the president can go off and negotiate this deal. Have the bad feelings gone away? Did we ever hear from Hillary Clinton about what she thought about it? (Laughs.)
MR. ZELENY: We heard from her, but I’m not sure we quite know what she thought about it.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. (Laughs.)
MR. ZELENY: I mean, she kind of tried to have it a little bit both ways. She didn’t want to get squarely involved. This was finally an issue where she was probably relieved in the fact that she did not have to take a vote on it. You know, she was stung in 2007, of course, by having to take a vote on the Iraq war, something that her then-opponent, Barack Obama, never had to because he wasn’t in the Senate at the time. So why should she sort of weigh in? But she was criticized. That gets to Bernie Sanders’ enthusiasm. He genuinely came out so hard against this trade bill and said she should have more.
But Peter pointed out earlier this deal’s not done. I mean, once we get to the substance of this matter, hmm, I think she’ll have to comment on this once again. And that, again, will sort of pit her against maybe Bernie Sanders.
MS. IFILL: Well, here’s another issue which has percolated to the top in the most unusual of ways, and that’s immigration, this time because of the wonderful, or whatever you would how describe it, input from Donald Trump. He, of course, famously announced, and in part of his announcement talked about how Mexicans were rapists and maybe – he was certain there were some who were good people. This is what he said when he was asked this week about it.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) People are coming into our country. We have no idea – and they’re from all over the world – we have no idea who they are. We have to have strong borders. If we don’t have strong borders, you don’t have a country anymore.
MS. IFILL: He is not backing away, and it’s making it very difficult for some Republicans who’ve been trying to tread a path.
MR. ZELENY: No question. And I was – sort of been watching every week, or all week. Day by day by day we’ve seen different Republican candidates jumping in and saying, wait, we don’t need this kind of rhetoric inside the Republican Party, this is not what we’re all about. So I think Donald Trump has managed to diminish himself in the course of one week here, never mind his business sort of interests. A lot of companies have been sort of throwing his products overboard, saying we’re not going to do business with you. But Republicans are coming out really to a person, saying whoa, whoa, whoa. Rick Perry was the latest this week, saying we don’t need that kind of language.
MS. IFILL: But Ted Cruz did not do that. Mike Huckabee has not done that. I wonder if this kind of rhetoric or whatever it is, belief system, puts Republicans between a rock and a hard place on this issue.
MS. BALL: And Jeb Bush, who you might have expected to be the one to really come out early and say – and try to distinguish himself, since he’s one who has taken a moderate stance on immigration, he really has been pretty silent and has even said nice things about Trump. It’s a real – a lot of Republicans that I talk to in the sort of consulting class feel like this is a missed opportunity, that more Republicans – more candidates could have stood up and said, I don’t want to have anything to do with that kind of rhetoric, and if that’s what it takes, you know, I don’t – I don’t want anything to do with it. I think part of the problem for the party is they’ve gotten used to taking Trump’s money. And so you’ve had a few people who’ve come out and criticized Trump and Trump has been able to say, well, I got a fundraising letter from you a few weeks ago where you sounded a lot nicer. He’s been giving a lot of money, and that’s a lot of why they’ve given him a platform for so many years before he became a candidate.
MS. IFILL: It sounds like it’s in everyone’s interest, probably, to change the subject whenever his name comes up, at least for the short term, and then we’ll see what else they’re all willing to talk about.
And what we’ve been willing to talk about. Thank you all very much for coming in on a holiday to help us figure this week out. If we look a little different tonight, it’s because we are temporarily out of our normal studio while there’s a little renovation going on there. But it looks really, really cool here.
And some things never are going to change. We have to go, as usual. The conversation’s too short, but it will continue online, where you can catch a holiday weekend edition of the Washington Week Webcast Extra at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Among other things, we’re going to discuss Molly’s deep dive into the 45-year fight that made same-sex marriage constitutional. Also online, Joan Biskupic and Pete Williams reflect on 10 years of the Roberts Supreme Court. Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour, and we’ll see you right here next week on Washington Week. Have a wonderful 4th. Good night.