Full Episode: Obama's New Term, Women in Combat, GOP Recovery and Benghazi

Oct. 28, 2014 AT 4:39 p.m. EDT

President Obama's assertive and progressive inaugural address. How did the GOP respond and what’s next for the party? Also, the Pentagon lifts the ban on women serving in combat and Secretary Clinton's Benghazi testimony. Plus, a short-term debt ceiling deal. Joining Gwen: Dan Balz, Washington Post; Jeanne Cummings, Bloomberg News; Martha Raddatz, ABC News; John Harwood, CNBC and New York Times.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Second term starts with a bang, women in combat, including Hillary, as the GOP plots its future, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect.

MS. IFILL: If Monday’s inauguration celebration was about optimism, the rest of the week was about reality as Hillary Clinton gave as good as she got.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From tape.) With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?

MS. IFILL: As Pentagon officially welcomed women into the ranks of combat warriors.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: (From tape.) On land and at sea and in the aid, we all wear the same uniform and we all fire the same weapons. And most importantly, we all take the same oath.

MS. IFILL: As Republicans pondered reinvention.

GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL (R-LA): (From tape.) We’ve got to stop being the stupid party. And I’m serious. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.

MS. IFILL: And as Congress geared up for new battles.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From tape.) We’re not going to focus on the real problem, which is not that we tax too little, but that we spend too much.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From tape.) The president stared down the Republicans. They blinked.

MS. IFILL: The parties are over. Now the hard part begins. Covering the week, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, and John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times.

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. President Barack Obama returned to the West Front of the Capitol to take the oath of office, four years older, grayer, and he hopes wiser.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

MS. IFILL: Dan Balz, writing in the Washington Post, summed it up this way. Four years ago, the president said come let us reason together. This year, he was there to say follow me. So whatever happened to the kumbaya moment, Dan?

DAN BALZ: As you suggest, this is an older and wiser president than we saw four years ago. I mean, I had the feeling that, you know, when you think back to the first inaugural address, he said things that he had to say, partly because of the campaign he ran and partly because of the condition of the country. And I thought that in this inaugural address, he said things he really wanted to say. He wanted to talk about a vision for the country that I think came much more directly from inside of him. And he has accepted the reality that this is a divided country.

He came into office, I think, thinking he might be able to, through force of personality and leadership, transcend some of those differences. And it’s been clear that he’s not been able to do that for a variety of reasons. And I think he approaches the second term with that in mind. So what he did was he talked about the America he believes we are and he would like us to be and basically said to people here’s where I would like to go, let’s see if we can do it.

MS. IFILL: The first wave of analyses had it that this was a liberal speech. Finally, the inner liberal has broken free. Was it really?

MR. BALZ: Well, I think there was a lot in there that people could say that was certainly the case. I mean, when you look at some of the specifics he talked about, it’s not that climate change is a liberal issue, but he cast it in a way of there are people who are disbelievers in climate science and I’m on the other side. No president has ever talked about gay rights in an inaugural address and him linking civil rights and women’s rights and gay rights and mentioning the Stonewall uprising that gave birth to the gay rights movement was, I thought, a significant articulation of a vision of where the country –

MARTHA RADDATZ: But that maybe is vision, but can he really get there, and particularly with a speech like that? Certainly, it had to do with being a second term as well, but with a speech like that, which was really sort of an in-your-face speech, how do you get, how does he get what he wants?

MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, I think that – I mean, it is the obvious question and, I mean, one thing you can say is, well, the way he tried in the first term, he does not think was successful. He got some things done obviously. He got some big things done with health care. But in the end, he wasn’t able to get those things done with that style of leadership, so he’s going to try something new. I don’t know that it will work.

MS. RADDATZ: Does his speech help or hurt that?

MR. BALZ: Well, the speech – the speech makes clear that he’s adopting a different approach. I mean, one of the things he said was we are not going to resolve centuries-old debates about the role of government completely, but we can do something. We should act. Now, that’s a different way of talking about it than he had before.

JOHN HARWOOD: Dan, I agree that he’s got more bounce in his step and an edgier approach to dealing with Republicans, but in some ways I find the idea that he’s left behind hope and change a little bit confusing because in the first term, from the beginning of the time he took office, Republicans said in the beginning partisan stimulus, partisan health care plan, partisan financial reform, partisan climate change, cap and trade bill. What’s really changed, other than the sense of determination he has to confront them?

MR. BALZ: Well, I think a couple of things, John. One is – you know, he would offer a different vision or description of what happened in that first term. He would say that on a number of those things, the stimulus package, he would say I put things in there that were in fact things that the Republicans favored. There were a lot more taxes than I might have put in there, but they – they decided from the beginning they weren’t going to support it. I worked very hard to try to get Republicans, at least a few Republicans to come aboard on health care, and in the end, nobody would because they had decided they were going to oppose it.

I think he’s accepted that that is in a sense the starting point of where things are, and so he’s going to try to adopt a different approach. It’s – yes, I want to work with people who are prepared to have a sense of common ground, but he’s not saying I’m going to go to the middle or bend over backwards to compromise. I mean, in the weeks after the election, he drew some very clear lines on fiscal cliff, for example. I mean, he said, tax rates on wealthy individuals have to go up. That’s a firmer way of approaching this than he sometimes did in the past.

JEANNE CUMMINGS: Dan, one of the things that was very different from his first speech is that this speech he didn’t appear to talk to Republicans, and nor did he reach out to the middle. When we talk about that it was very – had a lot of progressive elements in it, they were applause lines that seemed directed right at core Democratic constituencies. So who do you think his target audience was and is the country behind him now? Or is it once again he’s just solidified the same base we’ve come to know for the last four years?

MR. BALZ: Well, I think he’s concluded and I think it’s a fair conclusion that there’re voters in this country who are not going to be with him. You know, years ago, some years ago, we talked about how Democrats were looking for ways to win over rural America. This speech that he gave is an indication that he’s not looking to try to win over rural America. Now, there’re some Democrats in states with a lot of rural territory that are going to have to figure out what to do on this gun control issue. But he is talking about the coalition that has elected him, which he thinks, I think at this point, is a majority coalition. And if he can rally –

MR. HARWOOD: He did get the majority of the vote twice, which –

MR. BALZ: Right.

MR. HARWOOD: – very few presidents have done.

MR. BALZ: Right. If he can rally – if he can rally that part of the country enough, he thinks he can put more pressure on the Republicans. And I think the other thing that he’s trying to do is in a sense split conservative pragmatists and conservative hardliners, and looking to those Republicans who may be quite conservative, but who feel, like he does, that certain things have to get done.

MS. IFILL: And so he’s off next week to Las Vegas to talk about immigration reform. He’s got Joe Biden in Virginia talking about guns. He’s taking it outside of the beltway. That’s a term I hate, but which is exactly what he’s trying to do to get all of this done. Thanks, Dan.

So perhaps this next thing falls into the category of spoils of victory or perhaps it would have happened anyway, but history was made at the Pentagon this week when outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in direct combat.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: (From tape.) It’s clear to all of us that women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission of defending the nation. Women represent 15 percent of the force, over 200,000. The fact is that they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission.

MS. IFILL: Speaking of performing our mission, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Capitol Hill for the first time to talk about the Americans killed in Benghazi.

SEC. CLINTON: (From tape.) As I have said many times, I take responsibility and nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure.

MS. IFILL: We will get to the answered and the unanswered questions from Secretary Clinton’s testimony in a moment, but first, with so many women already serving in combat, the question is what practical effect, Martha, will lifting this ban actually have.

MS. RADDATZ: Well, first of all, it can open hundreds of thousands of jobs to women that they cannot perform now, that they’re not allowed to have. But I think if you want to look long-term, you saw the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s a man. You saw the Joint Chiefs. They’re all men. You really can’t get there unless you’ve had combat experience, unless you’ve led the infantry. You’re not going to get into positions like that. Yes, there’re some female four-stars, but they’re logisticians. There – and you look to a variety of services. There’re not people who’ve never been in combat and you really can’t be the Joint – the chairman of the Joint Chiefs if you can. Practically, though, there are women who I’ve met over there who are elated by this. It makes them equal, even though they are not going to lower standards. They made that very clear. They’re not going to lower standards. And none of the women want them to lower standards.

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, Martha, how do you think, not just women who are currently serving, women on the outside will react to this? And will there be more recruitment, will there be –

MS. IFILL: And men.

MS. CUMMINGS: And men as well.

MS. RADDATZ: I don’t think you’re going to see a whole lot of women rushing to be in the infantry or Special Forces or Special Operations Forces, but I do think because it opens up, younger women might try to do that. That may be something they want to do someday. Certainly, I have met women who would like to be part of Special Operations, who’d like to be a Navy SEAL someday. Last year, the formal head of Joint Special Operations Command told me he thought it was time to open this up to women.

I have to read you this quote from 1991. This is how far we’ve come. Robert Barrow, former commandant of the Marine Corps in 1991, “extreme environments, brutality, death, dying, it’s uncivilized and women can’t do it, nor should they even be thought of as doing it.” We have come so far and the number one reason is because we’ve had all these women in Iraq and Afghanistan, in these wars, fighting these wars, even though not on the official frontline, and dying – 152 women have died in these conflicts, 800 wounded.

MR. BALZ: Martha, I mean, in addition to opening up a lot of jobs, what actually is the practical effect of all of this, how will it – how do they phase it in? Are there issues that they yet have to resolve once you lift the ban?

MS. RADDATZ: First of all, they’re giving this a lot of time. Implementation not until the beginning of 2016. Look, you’re going to have, and I’ve talked to some young male soldiers who don’t like this, who – it’s sort of like this that you heard 20 years ago, you know, we don’t want women there. It’ll ruin the band of brothers. So they’re going to go slow with this. Women will want them to go slow, too. They want to do it right. They want all the standards to be the same. They want to look at who’s qualified for these jobs because they’re not going to push them into these jobs. And those are mistakes they made with aviators in the very beginning putting females.

MS. IFILL: We promised we will talk about Hillary Clinton’s testimony. There was lots of talk about the emotion and about the yelling and the – it was very watchable, but I guess the question after the hearing was over, I wondered, was whether she answered the questions. What really – do we know what happened and why it happened in the end, not who said what after the fact, but what happened leading up to it?

MS. RADDATZ: I think – my biggest memory from there, other than the drama of that is that Hillary Clinton basically said, look, I didn’t read those cables. I didn’t know they asked for more security. If you look specifically at what has happened, there’s an accountability review board. They’ve looked at this. They’ve – already the State Department has implicated – implemented all these changes and Hillary Clinton said we’re going to keep doing that. They relieved four people from their jobs, but those people are really somewhere else in the State Department, so I think it’s something we really have to wait and see what’s changed. And I think there really is more to learn here.

MR. HARWOOD: Martha, what is the answer to the question that Hillary Clinton posed to Senator Johnson, which is what difference does it make whether we –

MS. RADDATZ: Why does it matter?

MR. HARWOOD: Yeah, what difference does it make the explanation that was immediately offered for why the attack took place?

MS. RADDATZ: And they’re talking specifically about Susan Rice, U.N. ambassador, who really probably could have been secretary of state, and all that controversy, put that aside. That’s what Hillary Clinton was talking about. What does it matter if Susan Rice said it started as a protest instead of a terrorist attack? I think that’s the kind of statement that actually could come back and haunt her someday, Hillary Clinton saying what does it matter that she said that or that we didn’t know those first days. She was –

MR. HARWOOD: So do you think that is a critical question?

MS. RADDATZ: I think saying what does it matter – I think it’s a critical question. I think that’s been – I think that issue has been put to bed, but I think by saying what does it matter, that might come back.

MS. IFILL: I can see it in a campaign ad, what does it matter, taken out of –

MS. RADDATZ: Yes, that’s what I thought, too. Yes.

MS. IFILL: – context, exactly. Thanks, Martha.

So on a week where Democrats got their group back, how are Republicans coping with the aftermath of defeat? Two ways: looking for change from within and looking for opportunities to regain the offensive. Newly reelected Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had this to say at a party meeting today.

REINCE PRIEBUS : (From tape.) There’s one clear, overriding lesson from November. We didn’t have enough voters. I’m no math whiz. I’m an attorney. But I don’t need a calculator to know that we need to win more votes.

MS. IFILL: In Congress, the fight is a fiscal one, as Republican lawmakers look for ways to regain the upper hand on debt and spending debates.

SEN. MCCONNELL: (From tape.) We should start with spending and debt because if we don’t get a handle of that, nothing else matters.

MS. IFILL: What are party leaders saying, Jeanne?

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, with all due respect to their colleagues in Washington, the message down in Charlotte, at the RNC meeting was let’s change the subject. Very much coming out of there was a sense that their leaders in Washington have become reactive. They have become trapped by these fiscal debates. And what the party needs to do is expand and elevate their dialogue with the public and to put a spotlight on some of the governors, put a spotlight on the work that they do in the states – basically turn the page on this last election and move on and start talking about, again, how would they lead and show how they would lead by showing the governors.

Bobby Jindal gave the keynote address. And it was interesting, at one point in his address, he said that the party had become so fixated by these fiscal clashes with the White House that we seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping. This is a rigged game and it’s a wrong game for us to play.

MS. IFILL: Well, let me ask John this. What happened this week – the – kicking the debt ceiling deadline farther away, was that rigging? Was that government bookkeeping in the eyes of the leaders here in Washington?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think it’s adjusting the game and changing some of the contours of the game and making sure that the context did not have the same kind of heat and high stakes for the economy, for markets, for everybody’s 401(k) out there, that people perceived in – if we really got up to the brink of a potential default or the United States not being able to meet all of its obligations.

You know, I’m not sure – on the point that Bobby Jindal and others were making at the meeting in North Carolina, I’m not sure the – what Republicans are about if they’re not talking about the size of government, cost of government, tax and spending issues. So they’re going to have to deal with those, but at the moment they didn’t want to deal with them in quite such a pressurized environment. So John Boehner was able to convince his caucus to accept that counsel to move past the debt limit. They’re now shifting to other fiscal fights and we’re going to have a series of them all through February, March, April, May, which is when the debt limit, the current extension is going to run out. But I think they’re hoping that they can take some of the pressure off.

MS. RADDATZ: What are – I’m sorry, go ahead.

MR. BALZ: No, go ahead.

MS. RADDATZ: OK. What are some of the specific fixes here? I mean, you talk about leadership and they want to talk about leadership. And they want to show something different. But what do they actually do?

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, that’s where there’s a real disconnect in what the RNC is doing. Jindal’s speech was all about messaging and framing the party. But when you look at the panel that newly elected RNC Chairman Reince Preibus has put together to come up with specific recommendations on how to fix things and improve their competitiveness –

MS. IFILL: This is the growth and opportunity project. I love that name.

MS. CUMMINGS: Yes, it sounds like a federal bill, doesn’t it? (Laughter.) A stimulus project, yes. But they’re all tactics. They’re all about tactics. It’s about, on abortion, let’s not talk mean about our fellow Republicans who support abortion rights. They’re not going to change their policy. They’re going to change their rhetoric. They’re talking about limiting the number of debates in the primary. They were 20 last time. They want to control it this time. That maybe a laudable goal, but that’s not what’s going to move Latinos to vote for them. And so what –

MS. IFILL: Maybe it will if they stop talking –

MS. CUMMINGS: They won’t be saying things like self-deport. But at any rate, their solutions thus far from the committee and from the chairman have been really tactical. They want more technology, so they can reach out to voters. They want to launch not – they want to launch a continual conversation with their supporters, modeling Obama’s organization in which they were constantly – they emailed their people all the time. And the RNC would, you know, raise money and stockpile it and then let it all go in the –

MS. RADDATZ: No grand strategy.

MS. CUMMINGS: Not yet.

MR. BALZ: The – I mean, the Jindal speech to me was interesting in part because it did say let’s put – let’s put a focus back on the states and governors. And many times when a party is in a situation like the Republicans are in today, the governors do lead it back. But I was struck by the tone of that speech and the content of the speech, in a sense, basically saying we should not be talking about government and governing. And yet, he’s the governor of a state. All these others have – they’re trying to put in place in the states a conservative model for governing. And I was – I thought that there might be more in that – was there a reaction to that within the party about what he wasn’t saying or what he should have been saying in that context?

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, I think that the sense that – of his message on how do you balance the fact that you’re running to run a government, but you – he’s saying let’s not get trapped in a conversation about government, that disconnect isn’t what captured the people who were there. It was the don’t say stupid things, which again, great advice, but, you know, that’s not a long-term vision. That’s not a long-term plan.

MS. IFILL: But here’s the part that we’re talking about. What we have been – what is happening in Washington is governing. It’s messy. It’s not pretty to look at, but right now, what we’re facing are two more deadlines, the March 1st deadline, which means across the board budget cuts, could kick in, and if you listened to Paul Ryan this week, will kick in, and then at the end of March a potential government shutdown, which is exactly what those folks in Charlotte were saying, no, no, please don’t do that. How do they cope with that here – the inside game versus the outside game?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, they’ve got trouble on both of those fronts because to the extent that the Republican Party becomes more modern on some of the social issues, they run the risk of alienating their conservative Christian allies, who are very important. The opposition to government spending is one of the unifying characteristics of the Republican Party. And we have trillion-dollar deficits right now. And Republicans, not just since the tea party, before the tea party, had been acting in reaction to what they’d seen for decades from Democrats, some of which they saw from George W. Bush. And they’ve got to figure out a strategy to approach shrinking the size of government, shrinking deficits, allowing tax rates to remain low, without running headlong into the American people and the argument that Bill – that President Obama seemed to prevail on in the election about the role of government.

So it’s going to get harder for Republicans, too, because remember, the Paul Ryan budget that was so provocative on Medicare pushed all those cuts out 10 years in the future. Now in order to get the votes to allow the debt ceiling to be raised for three months, Speaker Boehner promised his members the opportunity to vote on a budget that would be balanced within 10 years. You can’t tell people between 55 and 65 don’t listen to this anymore. You’re not going to be affected by this if you balance the budget in 10 years. So their challenge in winning over Americans to a vision of smaller government in a practical way is getting tougher.

MS. CUMMINGS: And I think, John –

MS. IFILL: Well, and you see someone like Saxby Chambliss, the governor from – the senator from Georgia who says today he’s not going to run. He says has nothing to do with the fact that he might have had a tea party challenge coming up. But people like that, people like Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, getting a little nervous.

MS. CUMMINGS: Well and I think that is a real link between what John is talking about in that the people who are in office got to worry about the tea party wing and its demands for these really significant cuts. And then you have the RNC down in Charlotte saying let’s not focus on those things anymore at an event, by the way, where no tea party person was invited. How can they balance these two things if they don’t engage that wing in the conversation?

MR. HARWOOD: I think what John Boehner is counting on and he’s counting on it within – in Washington and hopefully by extension the country is people being hardened themselves by the experience they had in going up against the president, losing this past election, and realizing they’ve got to be more pragmatic about it. And ultimately, for Republican voters and Republican politicians, pragmatism has got to be their route back. That’s what the Democrats used as their route back when Bill Clinton helped to lead the way in 1990s.

MS. IFILL: This is what happens at the end when the losers lose and the winners win and the people in the better position to figure out what comes next are almost always the winners.

Thank you, everybody. We have to leave you for now, but the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, where among other things, we’ll talk about the senior Republican who said Democrats want to annihilate his party.

Also go with us down memory lane into the “Washington Week” vault, where 15 years ago tonight, we covered the breaking Monica Lewinsky scandal. That’s at pbs.org/washingtonweek.

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