Full Episode: The State of the Union Impact at Home & Abroad and Potential 2016 Republican Candidates Head to Iowa

Jan. 23, 2015 AT 9:16 p.m. EST

President Obama's State of the Union was met with pushback from the Republican-controlled Congress, but where is there room for compromise on the president's 2015 legislative agenda? Alexis Simendinger and Ed O'Keefe report on the president's proposals for community college and trade as well as the Republican opposition. It was also a busy week abroad, with diplomatic talks in Cuba, upheaval in Yemen and potential Iran sanctions. Michael Crowley reports on how President Obama is firing back at critics of his foreign policy. And the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls are converging in Iowa for the Freedom Summit this weekend. John Dickerson is on the ground to preview the first cattle call for the increasing field of GOP candidates.

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

GWEN IFILL, "WASHINGTON WEEK" MODERATOR: The State of the Union, the state of Congress, the state of the White House, and the state of the 2016 presidential campaign. Everybody in the pool -- tonight on WASHINGTON WEEK.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn't screw things up. The government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm.

I know there are Republicans who disagree with my approach. I could see that from their body language yesterday.

IFILL (voice-over): But it was more than body language. It was a significantly different world view.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: All the president really offered last night was more taxes, more government, more of the same approach that has failed the middle class for decades.

IFILL: But what instead?

We dive into a debate that extends far beyond Washington domestic policy to Sana’a, and Riyadh, and Havana, and Jerusalem, and Tehran.

ANTONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: New sanctions at this time are both unnecessary and far from enhancing the negotiations risk fatally undermining our diplomacy, making a deal less likely, and unraveling the sanctions regime that so many have worked so hard to put in place.

IFILL: And we're back in Iowa, where a conservative summit is attracting nearly a full complement of Republican presidential hopefuls. Raising the question, who's not running?

Covering the week: Alexis Simendinger, White house correspondent for "Real Clear Politics", Ed O'Keefe, congressional correspondent for "The Washington Post", Michael Crowley, senior foreign affairs correspondent for "Politico", and in Iowa tonight, John Dickerson covering politics for "Slate" and CBS News.

ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capitol, this is WASHINGTON WEEK with Gwen Ifill.

Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.


IFILL: Good evening.

The annual State of the Union Address can be many things -- a call to action, a laundry list of policy initiatives and, as it was this week, an opportunity for an incumbent president nearing the end of his term to say -- yes, I still do matter.


OBAMA: If you share the broad vision I outline tonight, I ask you to join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you'll at least work with me where you do agree.


IFILL: But many Republicans only heard the president talking about taxes and veto threats. They say the collaboration train has left the station.


BOEHNER: We need to fix our broken tax code, balance our budget, replace the broken healthcare law with solutions that lower costs and protect jobs. The veto threats and fantasy land proposals from the White House will not distract the people's house from the people's priorities.


IFILL: Fantasy land.

Alexis, surely, the White House saw that coming.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Not only did they see it coming, but in the speech itself, you can see it -- you know, it threaded throughout all the pages were these lovely lures to Republicans that the middle class economic agenda that the president was presenting was supposed to be a very stark contrast to what the president was arguing Republicans are for.

And you could see that in the ingredients of the speech, itself, which was -- let's raise taxes on the wealthy and let's try to spend some of that money, maybe $320 billion over 10 years on some of these middle class tax proposals or family benefits that I had in mind.

You could see the president talking again about free community college, which was the rollout. We haven't had a speech -- we had a month of the speech, right?

So, all of these ingredients in the speech, whether it was raising taxes, trying to apply a fee to big banks, whether it was trying to help the middle class, all of this was to frame an argument very much for Democratic -- the election going into 2016 but also for the arguments to come. And the president and the White House do not expect and the president framed the speech this way, he does not expect a lot of buy-in on all of these proposals.

IFILL: So, assuming that what part of what the president was doing was baiting the trap, as Alexis suggests, did they get -- did they bite, the Republicans on the Hill?

ED O’KEEFE, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, on maybe one or two things. But otherwise, everything else is dead on arrival. In fact, a pretty interesting "60 Minutes" interview airing this weekend where John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are asked, you know, what about the community college proposal? Eh.


O’KEEFE: What about that tax cut, that would mean tax increases for the wealthy? No. Child care? Maybe. And trade? McConnell said, definitely would like to work on that.

So, that gives you some sense of the game plan.

Look, as far as Republicans see it, they won the elections. The president got a chance to have his night, but as McConnell said just a few hours before the speech, he doesn't control the agenda. We do.

And so, they will continue moving legislation they believe not only has Republican support but might get modest Democratic support, and then just force the president to make decisions. Do you approve of this or do you veto? And so far, he has issued, what, six or seven veto threats against what the Republicans are working on. You know, it's only week three. Not necessarily a good sign.

SIMENDINGER: And he issued two in the hours before he delivered the speech.

O’KEEFE: Right.

SIMENDINGER: And the speech mentioned four others. You can see the interesting mix of confrontation and this supposed olive branch for collaboration.

O’KEEFE: Right.

IFILL: So, fighting the -- on the Hill, though, it felt like part of what the Republicans were doing was fighting the president and part of what they were doing was fighting each other.

O’KEEFE: That's right. This was an unforced error like no other, this problem that they had. You know, Thursday was the 42nd anniversary of the Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision. As Republicans when they control the chamber of Congress do every year, they try to pass something related to abortion.

The plan this year was to pass a bill that would illegalize abortion after 20 weeks with exceptions for incest, life of the mother, and rape. But in a slight change, a woman would have to report the rape to law enforcement before she could go and get the abortion if she needed or decided to.

That was seen as a bridge too far for a little more than two dozen moderates, mostly women notably. And a lot of those women frankly on just about everything else are not moderate.

IFILL: You're talking about Republican moderates.

O’KEEFE: Republican women.

IFILL: Right.

O’KEEFE: Twenty-two women now in the House Republican Conference, and most of them said I can't support that. This is too far. And we can't be discussing this in week three again when we were elected to do things about the economy, about job creation, and finding ways to work with Democrats. This is just something we can't accept.

And so, they pulled that bill and voted instead on something they'd done before which is to ban taxpayer funding for abortion.

SIMENDINGER: And this feeds right into the narrative that the president, you know, actually teed up in the speech which is if we can't agree on these things do we want to agree on the idea teen pregnancy and other issues related to this are bad and this idea that -- well, it's your time to govern. That stark contrast coming just a day after the speech --


SIMENDINGER: -- it's really astonishing.

O’KEEFE: And it was sign that, you know -- Boehner had gone around the country recruiting more Main Street or Chamber of Commerce-like Republicans. Well, it was those members who said to him and his leadership team this is not what I came to Washington to do. A lot of them were then applauding him and saying, well, at least they listened to us. We'll go back to the drawing board on this.

But I think they got the message. And it's a sign that these types of political messaging bills no matter what they are, the kind of just to make a point but not to make progress, you know, their days could be numbered.

IFILL: Michael?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, POLITICO: What about the reaction among the many candidates for president in 2016 to the president's speech? I mean, did he create an opportunity for anyone including Marco Rubio, for instance, or Rand Paul, to stand out from the crowd in their response?

IFILL: Go ahead.

O’KEEFE: Well, I mean, a lot of them frankly are going to be doing that this weekend in Iowa and in California.

IFILL: A lot of them aren't members of Congress.

O’KEEFE: And a lot of them aren’t members of Congress.

And, look, I think to a person they don't see much to agree with, with the president, with a few exceptions. Maybe things like sentencing reform or criminal justice reform. Some of this child care tax credit. Some of those proposals certainly would be in theory at least, they would agree with.

SIMENDINGER: To expand it to $3,000 per child.

O’KEEFE: Exactly. And Boehner himself also said he realized this is something we could probably work on.

But beyond that, you know, they don't really see any real opportunity to work with him. Rubio and Cruz to some extent have really been handed a gift in a sense with the president going out and --

IFILL: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were the three people who don’t know what you’re talking about (ph) --


O’KEEFE: Marco Rubio and Cruz, because they're Cuban-American, he has sort of given them an issue by extending an olive branch to Cuba, and they have sort of exploited that to some extent as well.

But, you know, I think for now, what will be interesting is how often do we see those guys go out on the campaign trail and how often are they actually going to stick in Washington and come up with proposals to either counter the president or find ways to clearly demonstrate they're opposed to what he is doing?

IFILL: If you step away from the laundry list stuff, goaded Republicans here and there, it seems like the president was leaning into finally the legacy piece of his eight years, which is he started talking, he harked back to 2004 when he gave the speech to the Democratic National Convention about red states, blue states. He went back to his inauguration, happened to be the anniversary of his inauguration and his first inauguration, and you wonder whether that is also what he's trying to do, that is speak to Democrats, actually speak to his base. Remember the days when we were all happy, when we got along so well? It felt like he was stirring that up again.

SIMENDINGER: It was striking because for a State of the Union Address, it was a very personal kind of speech. It was very much -- you know, an amalgam of all the things that President Obama wanted to argue he came to office to do. And he wasn't going to retreat from those things.

And he never mentioned the November midterm elections, which walloped Democrats. As you say, he came around to the end of that speech. It was very personal and very rhapsodic about what he was -- almost hitting head on one of the most prominent rebukes of President Obama that he did not change Washington. Washington has almost changed him in more ways you could argue.

And the legacy part of it, you know, I covered several two-term presidents before and you usually get to the eighth year before they're talking about the bow that's supposed to go around their doctrine or their issues, or in this case, the president argued, and rightly so, he wanted to spend some time talking about his legacy on the economy, what the economy was doing and the markers that things are -- let's turn the page.

O’KEEFE: I had some conversations with Democrats this week who privately marveled at the fact that income equality was something that started with them. It started with sort of the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party. It’s now been seized upon by the White House, by Hillary Clinton to some extent.

And getting back to your question about 2016 candidates, Republicans are now talking about income equality as well. So, even if they lost the elections, a lot of Democrats at least on the Hill believe they're winning the argument because they’ve now forced both parties to concede that there's been economic growth, economic progress, but that this now, the wage stagnation and the continued inequality, something that has to be dealt with, and that Republicans will have to answer for in two years if there hasn't been a solution.

CROWLEY: And quick point on legacy. You heard the president reiterate his call to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Republicans have heard his arguments on this over and over again. To me, it feels like something that really gnaws at him that he hasn't been able to do this and I think, to your point, a reminder to his base -- people, I’m trying, I don't like this.

IFILL: Right.

CROWLEY: I just can't get it done on my own.

IFILL: It also seems like there were two things that he teed up, which Congress is going to be moving on this week, one is the border security portion of the immigration reform discussion we keep having, and the other is Keystone oil pipeline.

O’KEEFE: That’s right. Both of those, you know, heading for conclusions in the House and the Senate. In the House, it's -- this is, what's interesting here is this is an example of the kind of bill the new Republicans want to vote on. And this proposal had been out there in the last Congress, never really got a vote.

Republicans now realized -- if we're going to do anything on immigration we have to do it our way which is border security first. It’s a very aggressive measure. Homeland Security Department not thrilled about it. The administration not thrilled about it. But the Republicans will be able to say, we're now doing it our way, which is to start with border security.

On the Keystone bill, they will get to some sense of a conclusion in the coming week. It will be three full weeks now that they have debated this bill, but there were some concerns that perhaps Republicans are shutting down the amendment process a little early. So, there is the possibility that this bill fixes a closer than anticipated vote and that sense of bipartisanship is almost lost.

IFILL: But these are two of the things the president promised to veto, right?

SIMENDINGER: Well, what is interesting about Keystone is he has suggested, if you send this to me, I will veto this. In the Senate, it's unlikely there are other votes right now to support an override of the president, so we'll see.

On immigration, I want to mention we need funding for Department of Homeland Security.

O’KEEFE: Right.

SIMENDINGER: So, we're going to end up in a different kind of argument.

IFILL: OK. Well, we'll be watching all of the arguments. It's what we do best.

Most of the State of the Union was devoted to domestic policy, but it’s fair to say the administration was forced to spend much if not more of its time this week on challenges abroad. Whether it involved the looming Iran sanctions bill that the president says would derail sensitive negotiations, or the upheaval in Yemen, where a key Mideast ally was tossed out of office or the death of another key ally, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

Each of these events plus Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint session of Congress just weeks before his own country's election day sucked the U.S. back into probably its most complicated foreign policy challenges.

Michael, what would you say is at the top of the list of those challenges?


IFILL: Yes, good luck with that.

CROWLEY: Wow. I mean, it's quite a list.

I would say in the moment right now over this weekend, it's the chaos in Yemen -- where a government with whom we have partnered to fight al Qaeda's deadliest branch now, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, and to the insiders who do counterterrorism, they're based in Yemen. That group has ties to the massacre at the "Charlie Hebdo" newspaper in Paris, as well as the Christmas Day 2009 underwear bomber and some other plots, really scary group.

We had been working with the Yemeni government in a counterterror kind of partnership because this AQAP, in addition to wanting to strike Americans and Westerners, was trying to topple the government in Sana’a in Yemen, so we had been working with the government against this common ally AQAP. In fact, President Obama cited this as a counterterror success story when he gave his big national address about the campaign against ISIS in September.

Well, now, that government has essentially been deposed by a rebel group that is not AQAP. It gets complicated really fast. The main thing people need to know is turmoil now, basically a power vacuum. It’s not clear who is going to be running the government. Although AQAP is not going to take charge of the government, these al Qaeda guys, they are not going to be in charge, they appear to be exploiting the chaos and these counterterror operations that we were running against them in conjunction with the government are essentially on pause, just at a moment when we are reminded about how dangerous al Qaeda is.

In the longer term, it's the nuclear deal with Iran. I think that’s still the president's top foreign policy priority, to strike some kind of accommodation that prevents Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability without some kind of military conflict.

O’KEEFE: You've got a new king in Saudi Arabia, a mess up in Yemen, a rebuilding government in Egypt, a shaky government in Iraq, and elections coming in Israel. Is the administration -- have they been anticipating this kind of volatility and how are they sort of adapting to it or preparing for the potential for even more volatility?

CROWLEY: Yes. They were not anticipating it. The big slogan in this administration a few years ago was that we were going to pivot to Asia.

O’KEEFE: Right.

CROWLEY: And we were going to -- the Middle East was bogging us down, consuming too much blood, treasure, and bandwidth, and Asia is the future, its growth. We have to figure out the rise of the next great superpower in China and really manage it.

Well, it just hasn't worked out that way. And when you say how are they dealing with it, how are they prioritizing -- I mean, what do you do when your house, when fires are breaking out on three different floors of your house? I mean, you just grab a bucket and you dump water wherever you can to try to contain it.

I really think it's not a criticism. It's just the reality of what they're dealing with. I think they're improvising. They're reactive. They’re trying to put out fires one at a time.

If there is a kind of grander, strategic idea here it is this idea of a deal with Iran that could be the first step toward somewhat more normalized relationships with Tehran.

We have a long way to go. Even if we do see a nuclear deal by this deadline that's coming up June 30. And I think that's at best a 50/50 proposition. There are still a lot of other issues that have to be resolved before we're friends with Iran -- like we were by the way before the Islamic revolution there.

But I think that that is the -- if there is a strategic idea here, it's that we can change the strategic dynamic in the region. And, by the way, I think Saudi Arabia, after the death of the king, will probably be status quo for now. But what is interesting as a question is sort of who is coming next in the line of secession?

IFILL: Right.

CROWLEY: That is a little murkier and a little more potential for trouble there. But the main thing is the Arab Spring was a once in generation or longer geopolitical event. No one could have anticipated it. And I think we have to be sympathetic to this administration as it tries to cope with the really chaotic --

IFILL: Really quickly, because we don't have a lot of time but I want to ask about the Netanyahu issue, the gamesmanship from Israel. Is that what it is?

CROWLEY: Well, yes. Some of it is gamesmanship and some is really we're seeing the partisanship in Washington now infecting foreign policy. I mean, we have talked for years about divided government but we have divided foreign policy now in a way that I don't think people have seen where the speaker of the Republican House issues an invitation to a foreign leader to come and speak to Congress and in effect to lobby for legislation the president has vowed to veto. The president says new sanctions on Iran the Republicans intend to pass will blow up the nuclear talks and increase the threat of a military confrontation. It's pretty dramatic stuff.

The last thing, I’d say, quickly, the fundamental relationship between the U.S. and Israel, you talk to people in both countries, and they say it's still solid. The military-to- military security partnership is there. There is a lot of ad hominem tension at the top, though.


Now, we have to take a little side trip because we're going to go to Iowa which has already become ground zero for senators, governors, retired physicians, you name it, who want to cut their teeth on 2016 primary politics. Some, like Senator Rand Paul, challenged their likely opponents on Twitter as with this cheeky post. "Jeb Bush apparently gave Mitt Romney a third time's a charm bracelet at their meeting in Utah today."

Others like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker will be overtly taking part in the primary cow call for the first time. That will at the Iowa Freedom Summit where John Dickerson finds himself tonight.

Which raises the question, John, why are you there?


JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE MAGAZINE: Seems a little early, doesn't it, Gwen? We got two years until the 2016 election.

But you can't get started too early in Iowa. The caucuses are a year away. And the reporting -- so, we have the Iowa Freedom Summit as you mentioned, and you have seven to 10 depending on what definition you use, Republicans who are thinking about running for president. And then, you have a bunch of them who are not here.

But what the Iowa Freedom Summit is, is it’s a chance for some of the marquee names -- Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas -- to come, make their pitch to this very conservative group of Republican voters, and it's kind of the kick-off event of the caucus. That's the way the people I’ve been talking to all week that I have been referring to. That’s the way they’ve been referring to it.

The other thing that's going on, though, among all campaigns, including the Romney campaign, Bush campaign, and when I say "campaign", what I mean is campaigns in waiting, campaigns in starting. They're trying to grab those volunteers and organizers because there are so many people running that the good talent for this very important organizational event, the caucus in Iowa, is much different than a normal election. It requires some organizational skills. They're fighting for those staffers and there are not enough to go around.

IFILL: John, what does it mean who's there and who's not at this stage? For instance we know Scott Walker is finally there. What we also notice, both Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney are not, at least not this weekend.

DICKERSON: Well, I think what it means is that, you know, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, they have -- they're just doing things a little bit differently. First of all, they have the name ID, the voters know them. So, obviously, Mitt Romney has run twice before.

Jeb Bush seems to be putting a lot of his effort into his fundraising operation, trying to sort of scare everyone else out of the pool. And when I say everyone else, I really mean Mitt Romney and Chris Christie. Those are his two closest competitors in terms of the same pool of money. And Bush is launching a very aggressive fundraising operation.

So, he is focusing on that part. This isn't really his audience. I mean, particularly Jeb Bush whose ideas on immigration are much further to the left of this group, Steve King, the congressman from Iowa, is very hard line against illegal immigration, undocumented workers. He will ask all the candidates who are showing up or potential candidates who are showing up what their positions are.

And the interesting one in that case would be Chris Christie, who has two things. One, he's considered kind of moderate by some of the people in this audience but he has a very close personal relationship with Steve King. And it will be interesting to see how he comes out of this.

Why does showing up at this thing matter? Is that the activists who would leave the hall will leave with some impression of these candidates. Scott Walker had some work to do in terms of exciting people. Well, if he does something to excite them in this event, then it starts to get passed around among these activists here in Iowa.

IFILL: John, how much of the scrambling that you talk about for talent, just for campaign workers is going on for money as well, and going on far beyond Iowa?

DICKERSON: That's right. In Iowa, the fight is not really for money. It's for these workers. I was talking to representatives from the various campaigns and I talked to the Bush and the Christie campaigns and got a kind of list of people who are signed up and ready to go for the candidates.

Well, it turns out some of the people are on both lists.


DICKERSON: So, it's not quite -- there are going to be some awkward conversations in Iowa. So, that gives you a sense of the scramble though for this talent.

Outside of Iowa, the fight is for the money. And that happens in the big cities and with the big Republican names who cannot only write checks themselves --

IFILL: And --

DICKERSON: -- but have a network of people they can bundle together. So that's the bigger fight that's going on outside of Iowa here.

IFILL: Well, keeping track with you coast to coast, all year long, John Dickerson. You go so we don't have to. Thank you.


IFILL: Thanks everybody else as well.

We have to go now, but as always, the conversation will continue online. That's on the WASHINGTON WEEK Webcast Extra, which you can find later tonight, and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Among other things, we'll talk about the White House digital strategy and why it has to do with green lipstick. You have to watch.

Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the "PBS NEWSHOUR", and we'll see you here next week on WASHINGTON WEEK.

Good night.


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