Special: Education Secretary Steps Down, Obama Addresses Critics of Syria Policy

Oct. 02, 2015 AT 9:32 p.m. EDT

Original Obama administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his plans to step down at the end of the year. Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics discusses his legacy. Plus, a t a White House press conference, President Obama addressed critics of U.S. policy in Syria -- including his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In Congress , a bipartisan group in the Senate have negotiated a deal that will bring about significant criminal justice reform to mandatory prison sentences and end the “three strikes” life provision. Susan Davis of USA Today explains the significance of achieving a strong bipartisan response on drug reform within the federal government. And Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast discusses the story she wrote on CENTCOM intelligence analysts claiming that their reports were altered by their superiors to lean in favor of U.S. operations against ISIS.

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ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Webcast Extra .

MR. WILLIAMS: Hello, I’m Pete Williams. I’m joined around the table by Susan Davis of NPR, Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast, Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, and Peter Baker of the moderately clear New York Times . (Laughter.)

In his news conference today, Peter, the president was asked about Hillary Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone over Syria. It’s something John McCain has endorsed and something the president has dismissed.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) I also think that there’s a difference between running for president and being president. And the decisions that are being made and the discussions that I’m having with the Joint Chiefs become much more specific and require, I think, a different kind of judgement. And that’s what I’ll continue to apply as long as I’m here. And if and when she’s president, then she’ll make those judgements. And she’s been there enough that she knows that, you know, these are tough calls.

I think Hillary Clinton would be the first to say that when you’re sitting in the seat that I’m sitting in in the Situation Room, things look a little bit different, because she’s been right there next to me.

MR. WILLIAMS: So, Peter, might you call this in The New York Times a gentle rebuke?

MR. BAKER: (Laughs.) It was a bit of a zing. He might have tried to couch it so it didn’t sound like it, but it was. He’s saying, she’s politicking. It doesn’t count. It’s not real. And what’s, of course, true is that she was before this before she was politicking. She was making advocacy for policies like this while she was secretary of state, while she was sitting next to him in the Situation Room. She’s not doing it, entirely at least, because she’s trying to campaign.

But he’s got himself wrapped up around the axle about this criticism of his policy being too passive, not sort of enough. Before he even mentioned Hillary – was asked about Hillary he said, you know, these critics, they have these half-baked ideas and they just lead to mumbo-jumbo. And he was asked, well, what about Hillary Clinton, is that a half-baked idea? And he said, well, you know, he tried to sort of say, no, but it doesn’t really count because she’s a candidate.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, what was she thinking when she advocated this? Is she trying to distance herself from the policy?

MR. BAKER: Well, I think she is a little bit, yeah. And again, it’s not just campaigning, although obviously that’s part of it. It’s because she did genuinely advocate these ideas while she was in office. She tried to push for a harder – for a more robust training and arming of Syrian rebels from the beginning. So she can legitimately say, I have a different point of view about this than the president. And she has to distinguish herself in some ways from him as she’s putting herself out there as a presidential candidate. And this is one place where she can do that.

MR. WILLIAMS: Thank you, Peter. Alexis, one of the original members of President Obama’s Cabinet stepped down today, the Education Secretary Arne Duncan. What kind of a legacy does he leave?

MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, Arne Duncan as education secretary is very close to President Obama. And they go back 20 years, back to Chicago. One of the things that the president admired and brought Arne Duncan to the Education Department to do was to try to be a reformer, to break some china, to press for the kinds of things that they shared as ideas. So one of the things that probably will be part of his legacy is that he did clash with nearly every entity that had an interest in education, whether it was the unions or for-profit education, or the idea of testing, you know, Congress.

And yet, he still is going to leave the Education Department probably with a lot of admirers from both parties who’ve said that he was always honest with them and up front and truly believed in what he was trying to advocate for. They admire his dedication and think that probably the legacy of education is not – change is not going to be seen any time real soon. And in fact, the president talked about this as a long-term effort on the part of this administration that will go into the next administration. So it’s not like he got instant rewards, but he certainly made waves in every arena that he tried to tackle in education.

MR. WILLIAMS: So we’re talking about education. Here’s your question for extra credit. Who are the other original members of Obama’s Cabinet?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Tom Vilsack, the Ag secretary from Iowa, is the remaining. And it would have come to my mind eventually, but I just want you to know that in the State Dining Room today the education staffers were all sitting in the room and ahead of me, right in front of me, they were talking about Tom Vilsack and how he was going to be sort of like the lonely Maytag repairman, left alone in the Cabinet as the survivor. (Laughter.)

MR. WILLIAMS: You still get the credit though.


MR. WILLIAMS: Sue, this week we had a bipartisan group of members of Congress come forward with a bill for changing the sentencing policy in the criminal justice system, something that the previous attorney general, Eric Holder, pushed for. And it’s unusual, isn’t it, to see this kind of a bipartisan coalition on what used to be a very controversial issue of criminal sentencing?

MS. DAVIS: It is, absolutely. It’s one of those issues that has sort of bent the philosophical curve, where even the most liberal and most conservative wings of the party in some elements are getting behind sentencing reform. What this bill would do is essentially change mandatory minimum laws for non-violent crimes – a lot of drug crimes, people that are serving that are not – no indicator that they would be a danger to society when they get out. It would change – it would ban solitary confinement for juveniles. And it would end the three strikes law, the for-life permanent – mandatory lifetime sentences, it would reduce that to 25 years.

MR. WILLIAMS: For the federal government only, right?

MS. DAVIS: For the federal government only.

MR. WILLIAMS: States like California could still do it.

MS. DAVIS: Yes. And it’s an odd coalition of senators that are behind it. You have Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, one of two African-American senators. Mike Lee from Utah, representing one of the most conservative states. And outside groups, like the Koch brothers, who are endorsing this effort. And it’s a substantive piece of legislation. If Congress can get this done it would not only be a significant win for Obama in his final time in office, because the president also really wants this, but it would be a remarkable bipartisan achievement for a Congress that has otherwise been fairly divided, particularly on issues as being seen as tough on crime.

MR. WILLIAMS: And so do you think it will pass?

MS. DAVIS: It has a good chance. It is – particularly because of the odd bedfellows that are behind it, in the Senate at least. I think that there’s less appetite in the House. The House conservatives tend to be less interested in the issue. I think it’s going to take a significant amount of effort.

MR. WILLIAMS: But perhaps less opposed – you know, not as opposed as they might be if they were hot for it.

MS. DAVIS: Yeah, and there’s just not as much of an effort to get the bill done in the House, so I think it’s going to take a little bit of muscle on their part to get some enthusiasm over there. It probably won’t really come to pass till next year, if at all. But it’s certainly a possibility.

MR. WILLIAMS: All right, fine, thank you. And, Nancy, you broke a story this week about an intelligence analyst being concerned that their conclusions about how things were going with ISIS were being distorted, and now there’s a Defense Department investigation. Tell us about that.

MS. YOUSSEF: Well, CENTCOM, Central Command, which is in charge of the wars in Iraq and Syria, has hundreds of analysts there, and roughly 50 signed onto this compliant saying that they felt that their reports were altered in such a way to give a more favorable view of how the wars were going in the last year against the Islamic State. And so this was brought to the Pentagon independent general’s office –

MR. WILLIAMS: Independent counsel.

MS. YOUSSEF: Excuse me, yes. And has now led to an investigation. And so it was related in a way to some of the events that we’ve seen this week, in that it really reinforced a perception out there that this is an administration, or at least a military that isn’t clear on its strategy, that you have people internally saying we cannot give honest assessments coming forward in such an aggressive way, putting the reputation of analysts at CENTCOM on the line to say: We need to be honest about what the U.S. efforts are doing, what the Islamic State’s doing, what the impact of the strikes that the U.S.-led coalition is conducting.

MR. WILLIAMS: On the other hand, who would think that the operation against ISIS was going well?

MS. YOUSSEF: Well, that’s a fair point, but the funny thing is remember early on it wasn’t as clear. And one of the things that they talk about is that when reports were positive, they faced very few questions. When they were negative, they got a lot more critical assessment. And so it kind of becomes degree. And remember, this is a very nuanced war where that difference in understanding can really lead to big impact in terms of how the war is being conducted.

MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Thank you all very much. Thanks, everyone.

Stay online and let us know what you’re thinking about this campaign. Upload your videos and share your opinions at #16for2016. That’s at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And while you’re there, also check out, from our vault – that vault feature, looking back on our broadcast just before the second Obama administration, when talk of new gun legislation was actually a priority for the president’s second term, with some very analytical thoughts from our own Peter Baker.

I’m Pete Williams. Gwen will be back next week for another edition of the Washington Week Webcast Extra .

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