Full Episode: Obama's Cabinet Nominations and the Future of Gun Laws

Oct. 28, 2014 AT 4:44 p.m. EDT

Obama's second-term cabinet continues to take shape with three new members nominated to his national security and economic teams. TheWhite House considers legislation to curb gun violence. Obama and Karzai agree to speed up Afghan military transition. Joining Gwen: Alexis Simendinger, Real Clear Politics; James Kitfield, National Journal; David Wessel, Wall Street Journal; Christi Parsons, Tribune

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GWEN IFILL: Shape-shifting at the Pentagon and Treasury, in Afghanistan, and on gun policy. More than meets the eye, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) There’s an unofficial saying over at Treasury: No peacocks, no jerks, no whiners. That’d be a good saying for all of Washington.

MS. IFILL: The president begins to fill out his second term cabinet. How do these men fit his vision? Chuck Hagel is picked for the Pentagon.

CHUCK HAGEL: (From tape.) Mr. President, I’m grateful for this opportunity to serve our country again and especially it’s men and women in uniform and their families.

MS. IFILL: Jack Lew, the choice for Treasury.

JACK LEW: (From tape.) As a kid growing up in Queens, I had dreams of making a difference in the world.

MS. IFILL: John Brennan at the CIA and John Kerry at State. Key advisors whose actions could define the Obama legacy.

Plus tackling two prickly issues: U.S. involvement in Afghanistan –

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: (From tape.) Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and beyond, in the region.

MS. IFILL: And gun violence in America.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: (From tape.) There’s no singular solution to how we deal with the kind of things that happened up in Newtown or in Colorado or just the general gun violence that exists in America today.

MS. IFILL: Covering the week David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal, James Kitfield of National Journal, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, and Christi Parsons of Tribune Newspapers.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill.

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. This week, we got a peek at the Obama administration’s second term priorities at home and abroad. Look for more disputes over the economy, foreign policy, defense cuts, and gun control in the weeks to come, but for now we take measure of the combatants.

First, new Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama White Houses, who will succeed Timothy Geithner.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Jack has my complete trust. I know I’m not alone in that. In the words of one former senator, having Lew on your team is the equivalent as a coach of having the luxury of putting somebody in almost any position and knowing he will do well.

MS. IFILL: So what does Lew’s appointment tell the senators who must confirm him about what comes next in our epic budget fights, David?

DAVID WESSEL: Well, I think it tells us that the president anticipates that this year will be a year about dealing with taxes and spending and deficits. It’ll be the fifth year which we have $1-trillion deficits and Jack Lew, as you said, has been budget director in two administrations. Unlike Timothy Geithner, he has very little experience in finance. That was Geithner’s strong point. He has very little experience in international. That was Geithner’s also his background. This is a guy who knows budgets and who knows Congress.

I think the second thing is it sort of marks a punctuation point in the financial rescue. Geithner was part of the rescue both at the New York Fed before Obama was elected and afterwards. They’ve been selling shares of insurance company AIG. Dodd-Frank has been passed. This is now moving to the – solidly on the fiscal thing.

And I think the third thing is that Jack Lew really is a creature of Washington. Ironically, he actually worked at a bank. He worked at Citibank. Tim Geithner never did, although everybody in Washington thinks he once – or everybody out in the country thinks he once did. But I think that Jack Lew is known as somebody – as a tough negotiator. He worked for Tip O’Neill. He has the confidence of the liberal Democrats in Congress who are needed. So I think it also shows the president understands that his adversary for the next year is going to be in the Beltway, in Congress, and he’s got a pro to deal with that.

MS. IFILL: He’s a creature of Washington, by the way, commutes home every single weekend to New York.

MR. WESSEL: I don’t know – I don’t know what’s wrong with Washington, yeah. You’re right. He mentioned Queens. When he became the director of the Office of Management and Budget – he replaced Peter Orszag – he took down the portrait of Alexander Hamilton, who Orszag had hanged in his office, and replaced with WPA posters from New York City. (Laughter.)

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: You were talking about what a tough negotiator he can be. And obviously that’s a big part of the year that we’re in now, but Republicans complain mightily about whether he is a fair, even-minded, fair-minded guy in negotiations, and yet one of the pieces of his persona we keep hearing about is how low-key he is. Can you be low-key and also an irascible negotiator?

MR. WESSEL: Apparently. (Laughs.) Look, I think he is kind of a low-key calm guy, but he’s really passionate about government. I mean, I’ve talked to him. How many people do you talk to in Washington who say I’m passionate about Medicaid and about the people who it helps?

So I think partly it suggests that the president knows it’s not going to be a kumbaya thing with the Republicans. He had – being known as a tough negotiator is not a bad thing, but I think the other advantage is that the Republicans will have no doubt that Jack Lew speaks for the president. They’re very close. If he’d taken an outsider who was from business and installed him, you would never know if he really had the president’s confidence. They know they’ll be dealing with the president’s man.

JAMES KITFIELD: Is the fact that he doesn’t have that international experience a major setback because there’s such an international dimension to this financial crisis?

MR. WESSEL: Well, it does suggest that the president doesn’t think that’s the top priority. Now, I think that we’ll see him put in as deputy somebody who has a lot of international experience. Might be Lael Brainard, who’s now the under secretary of the Treasury. We’ve had situations like this before, when Lloyd Bentsen was the Treasury secretary. He had strong international people. But it could be a problem because the crisis you don’t see is the one that can hurt you and it could be Europe. It could be China.

CHRISTI PARSONS: So he’s the guy who’s got to navigate the president through the cliffhangers to come. What are the big economic policy things yet to do?

MR. WESSEL: Well, what we’ve done is we’ve gone past the fiscal cliff. We’re now looking at the three gorges. We have the – (laughter) –

MS. IFILL: Oh, good.

MR. WESSEL: – the debt ceiling, which has to be raised. We have the across-the-board spending cuts, the so-called sequester, which comes back March 1st. And then, at the end of March, the government runs out of money to operate and the Republicans are going to make an issue with that. So it’ll be really interesting – I think Geithner was shrewd. He’s leaving on January 25th, Tim Geithner says. So he’s basically telling the Senate I’m not sticking around till you confirm Jack Lew. Either you confirm him and he’s the Treasury secretary or the deputy Neal – you’ll be dealing with the deputy, Neal Wolin. So I think that this – Lew’s going to have a really hectic first couple of months.

MS. IFILL: You know, all that said, this has been a remarkably stable economic team with the president. We’ve had Tim Geithner there the entire time, people like Gene Sperling have been there their entire time. But now, we’re also expecting in a few months for the head of the Fed to leave, so that’s going to be more upheaval.

MR. WESSEL: Right. Well, it is true that Jack Lew has been part of this establishment. The president does seem to like people with whom he’s comfortable, but you’re right – there’s a huge decision coming up. Ben Bernanke’s term is up in January 2014. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t want another term. And that’s a pretty big decision of lasting consequences, we’ve seen.

MS. IFILL: OK. It never calms down. Well, second term presidents often leave their most lasting stamp on foreign policy. If that happens this time, a lot of the outcome will depend on three men who went before the cameras this week: Defense Secretary Nominee Chuck Hagel, CIA choice John Brennan, and today, Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. Both he and the president were talking about the end of America’s longest war.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Every day, more Afghans are stepping up and taking responsibility for their own security. And as they do, our troops will come home. And next year, this long war will come to a responsible end.

PRES. KARZAI: Once the transition to Afghan forces is completed, once the bulk of the international forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan, we hope that the dividends of that transition economically to Afghanistan will be beneficial to the Afghan people and will not have adverse effects on Afghan economy and the prosperity that we have gained in the past many years.

MS. IFILL: But taken together, what did the president’s personnel choices tell us about how he will deal with the challenges facing him in places like Afghanistan, Alexis?

MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, one of the things that I was thinking about when we heard these nominations and saw these – and I’m including John Kerry in this, too, for secretary of state – is I think of them as implementers in the president’s mind. These are individuals that he can rely on, people he’s known for a long time, who were actually with him at the beginning of his launch onto the national stage in some ways. They’re in some ways very trusted loyalists to him, but also as implementers of policies that he had set forward.

If he’s thinking about the second term as a way of legacy building or finishing a portfolio of things, so John Brennan has been with the president since actually the transition phases when they first met. He considered John Brennan for CIA director at that time and passed him up because of the controversy over the Bush policies and brought him closer into the White House. Some people argue that the CIA moved into the White House actually.

He obviously turned to John Kerry, and we’ve already talked about that, but someone who can implement diplomacy with a national reputation and lots of seasoning on the Hill. And then, you know, obviously with Chuck Hagel, someone who helped launch him as a senator into the international arena, someone he likes –

MS. IFILL: And he was a Republican.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And they’re all – they all have had something in their background that’s a little contrarian, right? The Republican who has sided with Democrats, the two war veterans, including Kerry, who oppose the war, and Brennan who has straddled both sides in fact, of the war.

MS. IFILL: Yeah and then he served Republican administration as well. But here’s the thing. So if we have a president, we have now established, likes relationship politics, values people who were with him at the beginning, who have been with him, how is he getting along these days with Hamid Karzai? (Laughter.)

MR. KITFIELD: How is he getting along with Karzai? I think that they both – you know, they have sort of a cordial relationship, but there’s no great warmth between them. I think that they both are being driven by their domestic constituencies to do the same thing, which is to end –

MS. IFILL: Did you see that today?

MR. KITFIELD: Yes. They are both talking about – they couldn’t end this war quick enough. On the president’s side, you know, saying, we’re going to transfer sovereignty to the Afghans as soon as possible, Karzai saying that’s exactly what we need right now. We don’t care how many troops, is really the long-term relationship and the fact that sort of we’re in the driver’s seat. But the devils will be in the details. There’ll have to be a residual force left there if the Afghan security forces are to have the enablers that are really going to let them succeed. And there’s very unclear whether, you know, in the debate about what – whether they will have immunities, et cetera –

MS. IFILL: That was my next question. It seems to me that one guy was talking about immunity. That is American troops won’t be hold responsible for anything they may have done in Afghanistan. And the other guy was talking about sovereignty. And they weren’t necessarily talking about –

MR. KITFIELD: Right. And there is some tension there, although President Obama laid down a red line and I think Karzai understands the red line, but he wants to use his – accepting that red line as some leverage to get the Americans to commit as much money for as long as possible to throw to the Afghan security forces.

MS. PARSONS: Do you think they stepped up the timeline today in their meeting or did the president signal that when he came out? And I wonder if you also think that Hagel, the choice of Hagel signals something about the president’s commitment?

MR. KITFIELD: Well, I think Hagel’s very interesting. I mean, if I had to say what is the Obama doctrine, it is end today’s wars as quickly as possible, be very reticent about getting involved in future wars and to nation-build here at home, as he said constantly during the campaign. And that means drawing down the Pentagon because you need that money. And Hagel is very, you know, comports with that worldview exactly. So I think that Hagel really does signal and he fits very perfectly with the Obama administration’s sort of agenda right now, which is –

MS. IFILL: Alexis, you were at the White House this afternoon for this news conference. And to get to Christi’s question, did you have a sense that they meant to make an announcement that things were changing or was this just basically coming out to say everything is fine? We’re going to proceed apace.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the administration has been lining up thoughts about how many troops will be left and how firmly the president believes that the United States is going to proceed on that timetable. So the administration was dangling the idea that there might be zero troops –

MS. IFILL: Right.

MS. SIMENDINGER: – as a pressure – a way to pressure Karzai and the Afghan, you know, government, in order to suggest, you know, you’re on the stage now –

MR. KITFIELD: Try too hard. The bargain – this is the bargain they get.

MS. SIMENDINGER : – you want to watch us leave town, you know, here’s your hat, what’s your hurry, as my mother used to say. (Laughter.) And so the idea would be, you know, we’re not going to have zero, but we’re going to have something maybe in the range of, you know, 2,500 or 3,000. And Christi was asking was it sped up. It was interesting the president’s way of saying we are speeding up a new way of describing this situation – (laughter) – in the spring, but we still will be in combat positions, but the –

MR. KITFIELD: The semantics of this have been tortured from the very beginning.

MS. IFILL: Spring is summer, midyear, which is which? I don’t know.

MR. KITFIELD: Afghans take the lead, take the full lead, take all the lead, you know, which part of the lead –

MR. WESSEL: Can we go back to Hagel for a minute? He’s not been confirmed by the Senate, yet. And there’s a lot of noise. So, A, why are the Republican senators so hostile to him and, B, is there a chance he won’t get confirmed?

MS. SIMENDINGER: You would look back in the history of nominees who don’t get confirmed for the cabinet and it would suggest that that is not going to happen, that he will get confirmed, because most of what we’ve seen in the history is there has to be something personal, some horrible embarrassment that comes forward.

In this particular case, you’re hearing Republicans, and even a few Democrats – Senator Schumer, right, from New York – describing some of their concerns or objections as a way to either return to some arguments that they used to have with Senator Hagel. I would mention John McCain in that particular category of disagreements they’ve had in the past. But also to hold the president’s feet to the fire on some other things that they want to have more on the table.

MS. IFILL: I have a hard time imagining Senator Schumer, a leading Democrat, in the end – I mean, he made hold out what he supports, but in the end, not supporting the president’s choice. That’s –

MR. KITFIELD: No. And Hagel’s going to say what Schumer wants to hear about support for Israel. There’s no question about that. He’s already –

MS. IFILL: Already has.

MR. KITFIELD: Yeah and he’s calling, you know, Senate offices and basically saying that he’s a strong supporter of Israel. But on the point of, you know, if – if he’s going to not get confirmed, I would find that to be shocking actually, because the Democrats are going to line up behind President Obama’s choice –

MS. IFILL: Two Purple Hearts.

MR. KITFIELD: And it’s going to be very hard for some Republicans not to join them, given his record, given the fact he’s a former colleague –

MS. IFILL: Well, John Brennan also has to be confirmed and he has been the architect of – for many Democrats of far more troubling policy, targeted killings and using drones.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Drone policy, right. So I would imagine that his confirmation hearing – as confirmation hearings should be a full discussion about what the president’s policies are going forward and what his true beliefs are. In this case, all three of these gentlemen – Kerry, Hagel, and Brennan – will all say the president’s policies are I – you know, I will be executing the president’s policies.

MR. KITFIELD: And Brennan – you know, the most controversial thing for him and the Democrats is are his fingertips on the enhanced interrogations during the Bush era, when he was a CIA top counterterrorism guy? You know, Obama has looked at his record and seems to think that that’s not a problem. And he has made indications that he doesn’t think that’s a problem for him.

The drone program, you know, let’s admit it, it’s very popular. It’s popular with the Americans. It’s President Obama’s signature national security program. It has protected his right flank.

MS. IFILL: Not so popular in Pakistan, say.

MR. KITFIELD: Except for Pakistan, but I mean, I’ve looked at the polls and American public really supports this program.

MS. IFILL: Well, I wanted to talk some more about this – what this handprint was, because one of the things that comes out of this conversation with Karzai at the White House is the echoes of Iraq. Pulling out is so much harder than going in. So is there any fear, any concern, as they begin to come up with this plan for a withdrawal in a year, I mean, essentially leaving behind residual force, whatever, that they might get stuck?

MR. KITFIELD: Sure, I mean, the dynamic is when you hear Karzai talk about well, we’re not going to necessarily give immunity to American soldiers, something – we put status of forces agreements, you know, front and center all around the world. That’s the same thing the Iraq negotiations broke down over. And that’s a clear red line. The good news is they’re starting much earlier. In Iraq, they really started in the last few months. And for domestic political reasons both sides felt difficult to actually say the things that needed to be said to ensure a continued American presence. You know, we – so there is concern that that dynamic can take hold again the good news as there’s a lot more time to iron out the problems this time.

MS. IFILL: And are done with trial balloons for now with these cabinet picks or are we going to be a couple more before it’s all done?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Oh, we’re going to –

MS. IFILL: We’ve also –I think we’ve also seen now a couple of more cabinet members have announced they’re leaving, including the administrator of the EPA and the secretary of labor.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Indeed. And most of the time in a second term, you see half of the cabinet, at least, historically turn over or get reshuffled. And I would think that we might actually see a little bit of that, too, maybe.

MS. IFILL: OK, we’ll be watching. The White House is also attempting to use Congress’ absence from Washington this week and next to force movement on a key domestic matter, gun violence. That task has fallen to Vice President Joe Biden, who says he will send recommendations to the president by next Tuesday.

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) There’s got to be some common ground here to not solve every problem, but diminish the probability that what we’ve seen in these mass shootings will occur and diminish the probability that our children are at risk in our schools and diminish the probability that weapons will be used and firearms will be used in dealing with the aberrant behavior.

MS. IFILL: While the vice president was talking about common ground, gun rights groups like the NRA were saying, fine, as long as it doesn’t include restricting access to guns. Where does it look like the White House is heading on this next week, Christi?

MS. PARSONS: Well, they’ve been – the vice president’s been involved in a series of meetings, casting a wide net, looking for what he describes as a comprehensive solution to the problem of gun violence, not a silver bullet, as he sort of memorably said.

MS. IFILL: Said that – he did say that today.

MS. PARSONS: He did, he did. And we’re moving sort of expeditiously toward an early next week announcement. He now is saying like it might take a little bit more time to put together that comprehensive plan. But probably – what we’re looking at are things that are really out there and have been discussed widely for a long time. The president will push an assault weapons ban, even though the White House has calculated that that’s a really tough lift. That’s still going to be a key part of his talking points and part of that package. They’re looking at limiting the magazine capacity with ammunition and also it now seems like there’s a lot of focus on background checks. And they’re even talking about pushing for universal background checks for all gun sales. So I think those are feature you’re going to see in that package.

MS. IFILL: I guess what bothers me is that we’ve been through this before. We have covered these gun rights issues and the NRA has not moved at all, at least maybe there’re other people at the table this week, who are talking about finding common ground. But it wasn’t the most powerful folks at the table.

MS. PARSONS: It’s not the NRA and I’m not sure that that hurts the president’s case all that much, as they say. I think they expected that. I think getting them in the room was a surprise for them, but you’re right. I mean, they’re staking out a position that the White House was expecting and I’d believe you’re going to see the president go around the country and make use of that and make use of his bully pulpit and – you know – to address the bad guys –

MR. WESSEL: Do you see signs that there’s changes in Congress? As we saw, Senator Manchin from West Virginia, who seemed to have changed his mind. Is that the beginning of a trend, do you think?

MS. PARSONS: Yeah, well, today, Chuck Grassley actually said that he was open to the same thing to looking –

MR. WESSEL: The senator from Iowa –

MS. PARSONS: The senator – conservative senator from Iowa. So the White House’s take on this is that there’s opportunity here. Yes, the assault weapons ban is a tough thing to pass. Universal background checks are very difficult to address, but maybe the shooting in Newtown and the public response to it have sort of destabilized the politics on this a bit.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Christi – go ahead.

MR. KITFIELD: I was just going to say, haven’t we seen people rally from the sort of other side against the NRA? Gabby Giffords and others are talking about, you know, going out there and try to sort of counter that message. Is that going to help the –

MS. PARSONS: You know, I think it’s useful to the president. He’s – the administration is definitely trying to pull a lot of stakeholders, as they call them, into this to sort of, you know, share the push and share the responsibility. I can’t remember what the figure was that Gabby Giffords was trying to raise, but I recall that it’s minuscule compared to what NRA has been able to pump into the system over time. So you know, it’s no small matter. It’s helpful as he makes the case, but it’s not a light lift.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Christi, we’re expecting the State of the Union address. The schedule got completed this week. So it’s mid-February, February 12. One of the things I was wondering is when you were talking about comprehensive, are we imagining that the entertainment industry gets woven into that? I know the vice president was trying to talk to some representatives of the video gaming and the entertainment, Hollywood folks, is that part of what could be proposed as a package – a comprehensive package?

MS. PARSONS: It’s definitely part of the package in some way. And as you mentioned, they were in the video game makers. Call of Duty, the maker of Call of Duty, for example, was in the room today in the conversation. Chris Dodd from the Motion Picture industry was there. There will be some way that they address that, but you know, there’s a lot of pushback. You’ve got – we’ve heard a lot of Second Amendment arguments about what the president’s about to propose. There’re going to be some First Amendment concerns as well.

MS. IFILL: David talked about Senator Manchin a moment ago. I wonder if the landscape has changed in any political way. Today, we heard the retirement of Senator Jay Rockefeller from West Virginia, a state that’s become very red, and he was the last living Democrat, probably, in the state. So how does that change the landscape and make it tougher to do the kinds of things that the vice president is talking about?

MS. PARSONS: Right, it’s tough to start with because conservative Democrats, Democrats from rural areas are not supportive of gun control, especially the particular points that have been hashed out over time. And as you note, the Senate’s not getting any more – any less conservative, any more blue and, you know, the House has its own problem, so –

MR. WESSEL: Is there anything the president can do without legislation?

MS. PARSONS: There’s a lot the president can do without legislation. For example, the – if there’re going to be background checks, the database could be stronger, and that’s something he can order by – and make it easier for background checks to be conducted. But –

MS. IFILL: That’s something the Department of Justice could just do unilateral.

MS. PARSONS: Right, exactly. But it’s seen – the White House sees that is not very effective if the background checks aren’t required to begin with.

MS. IFILL: So is there anything else that he can do – just – I just – it’s so curious because the politics that have been done seem to indicate that he sort of gets immediate embrace from Congress.

MS. SIMENDINGER: What about ATF? You know, there’s no directorate. The Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the president’s lamented that and – but that seems like something he said looking to Congress –

MR. WESSEL: Was he now –

MS. IFILL: He hasn’t and he says Congress –

MS. SIMENDINGER: Congress hasn’t taken it up. So will – maybe?

MS. PARSONS: That’s a possibility. There’s also – you know, there’re other things that can be done by administrative action. And also, you know, it’s no small matter to talk about access to mental health services in this conversation, and I’d be surprised if that weren’t part of the proposal as well.

MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be watching all that. One more note on Senator Rockefeller. This will be the first time in 60 years where’s not a Rockefeller or a Kennedy in the Senate. How about that? I looked it up.

MR. KITFIELD: Change in the guard.

MS. IFILL: Thank you, everybody. We have to go for now, but we will pick up where we left off in the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, trillion dollar coins, hands – you name it. We’ll do it all. You can find us online still talking at pbs.org/washingtonweek, where you can also read my blog about what it takes to be a political journalist, my tribute to author Richard Ben Cramer, who passed away this week.

Keep up with daily developments over at the PBS “NewsHour.” And we will see you again right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.

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