ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Webcast Extra.
GWEN IFILL: Hello. I’m Gwen Ifill. Joined around the table by Molly Ball of The Atlantic; David Sanger of The New York Times; Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine; and Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics.
Next Tuesday night President Obama will head to Capitol Hill to deliver his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. But instead of looking back on what he’s done, the president is expected to look ahead to what awaits in his final months in office. Any hints about what that’s going to contain, Alexis?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that’s always tough in a final year of a presidency is how do you get people interested, right? How do you get –
MS. IFILL: Excellent question for those of who have to watch.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, and have to cover. So they’re trying to do all kinds of interesting stunts in social media. And they were giving special television coverage and all of that. But basically, the president is trying to say – put a bow around what he has accomplished. It’s not like he’s going to ignore what has happened in the past, but the theme is going to be: It’s about you. It’s about you, America. And he’s going to be talking about the big issues and what Americans themselves have contributed to the mobilization and the path that the United States and its economy is on. You look dubious, Gwen. Are you all right? (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Isn’t the problem that when you say “you” there’s a different answer? There are a lot of you people out there who think that their lives are not very good. And if you’re speaking to them, they don’t want to hear what you have to say.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, that might be why he is going the days after to Omaha, Nebraska and Baton Rouge. And those are not states necessarily that were big Obama states, as you know. And he’s going to be going to try to celebrate some very specific things that he thinks that those states have been great at.
MS. IFILL: Has it made it to all 50 states yet?
MS. SIMENDINGER: He has, yes. And then –
MS. IFILL: OK, so this isn’t just ticking that off.
MS. SIMENDINGER: No. And then after that, in the month, he’ll be visiting Detroit to celebrate the salvation of the auto industry. So you can see we’re having a month of State of the Union. You look even more excited now.
MS. IFILL: I am terribly excited. Michael, I want to talk – so much, that I’m going to change the subject.
Michael, let’s talk about politics a little bit more. We have another Democratic debate coming up, right, next weekend? What, if anything, are the candidates hoping to accomplish in this? We now hear some talk about who will be on the stage and who will not, even though there are only three Democratic candidates.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah, NBC came out with their guidelines today. And they said you need to have 5 percent in one of the early states or nationally. And Martin O’Malley, depending on the polls you look at, has just under 5 percent, they’ll round up. So he just barely makes it now. But he condemned the guidelines. And it’s possible –
MS. IFILL: But so did Hillary and Bernie, too.
MR. SCHERER: Yes, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which was interesting.
MS. IFILL: Oh, she did?
MR. SCHERER: (Laughs.) She’s joined in. I mean, Martin O’Malley’s trying to get noticed still. He’s been trying to get noticed from the beginning. He hasn’t been having a very good time of it. I think you’re going to see a far more aggressive Hillary Clinton. I think she wants to clip him – clip his wings a little bit –
MS. IFILL: Sanders?
MR. SCHERER: Yeah, clip Bernie Sanders’ wings. And I think you’ll see a more aggressive Bernie Sanders. I think that fight is going to get tougher and tougher. And it will be like last – previous debates, where they go at each other and O’Malley keeps trying to interrupt to say pay attention to me, pay attention to me.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, on the night of Martin Luther King weekend. So people as usual, like the week before Christmas, will be watching closely.
David Sanger, let’s talk about another difficult and consequential fight which is brewing, which is Iran and Saudi Arabia.
MR. SANGER: Well, you know, the Sunni-Shia split is hardly a new story, many centuries old. But this one’s a little bit different, because this is less about Sunni and Shia and more about the Saudis and the Iranians, who are in this death-struggle in each of their minds for dominance in the Middle East. And that’s been made all the more acute by the Iranian nuclear deal with the U.S. and its allies, which the Saudis believe is basically empowering the Iranians now to not only take a bigger role, but over time to loosen the Saudi alliance with the United States, that many in the U.S. believe the Iranians may, over the long run, after the ayatollah is gone, in a new Iran, be the more natural ally.
MS. IFILL: Was the execution of that cleric a provocation, however?
MR. SANGER: It was. It was interesting because the State Department, Secretary Kerry, others had warned the Saudis quite specifically against executing Nimr al-Nimr, this Saudi cleric who was himself considered a great dissident by the Saudis because he not only was critical of the royal family, but he wanted a breakaway section of Saudi Arabia for the Shia.
MS. IFILL: Hmm. Wow. So that problem’s just beginning to percolate –
MR. SANGER: It is. And you know, you think about what Molly said before about – I’m sorry, what Alexis said before about the president coming up in the State of the Union. Every month between now and the end of the year he’s got another big international trip to sort of get him out of here and toward areas where he thinks he can act by himself.
MS. IFILL: But which are not the least bit uncomplicated.
Molly, you wrote an interesting story in The Atlantic this week – this month, I guess – about – (laughs) – I keep forgetting it’s a monthly – about an interesting thing, which is taking the concept that we have gotten about the tea party and we have internalized and kind of turning it on its head. It turns out that there’s – someone is trying to start a tea party on the left.
MS. BALL: Someone is. Yeah, I took a little bit of a break from the campaign trail to take a look at the Working Families Party, a progressive third party that – your viewers in New York will have heard of them. They’re quite a powerhouse in New York State politics, particularly in New York City politics. Bill de Blasio would not be mayor of New York, almost certainly, if it weren’t for the efforts of the Working Families Party. They are also – they’ve also had a lot of success racking up policy victories and sort of making themselves a – pulling the Democratic Party to the left in Connecticut, New Jersey, and to some extent Oregon.
Now, they are going national. They’re expanding to 11 states. And they do want – you know, a lot of people on the left get offended when you say a tea party for the Democrats, because they hate the tea party and they think the tea party are just this sort of bunch of Kamikazes. But the Working Families Party wants very much to do what the tea party has done, which is not just pull the Democratic Party but pull the entire national conversation to the left. They believe too much of our national political debate happens between sort of a moderate corporatist Democratic line and this far-right tea party line that represents the Republican Party. They’d like that dynamic to be the opposite. They’d like to shift that whole window –
MS. IFILL: How do they propose to do that?
MS. BALL: Well, they are mostly active on the state and municipal level. Part of this is just –
MS. IFILL: Which is how the tea party started.
MS. BALL: It is sort of how the tea party started, but they haven’t managed to do what the tea party did, which was these high-profile beheadings of incumbents, right? They haven’t done that. They have taken out incumbents, but it’s been mostly state legislators who – county executives, that kind of thing. But you know, Democrats are concentrated in urban areas. So if you do leverage that strength in – to work at the municipal political level, you can have a lot of effect on policy. You can get things like paid sick leave in 10 cities in New Jersey or in New York City.
And so that’s where they have focused a lot of their efforts. And they’re focused, again, on these policy discussions. They have had an effect already on sort of the national Democratic platform. I don’t think you would hear, you know, President Obama and Nancy Pelosi talking about paid sick leave, as they have now, or this national push for a $15 minimum wage that Bernie Sanders has embraced, those would not be as high profile issues as they are if it weren’t for the Working Families Party.
MS. IFILL: They’d be a lot happier if Elizabeth Warren were running, wouldn’t they?
MS. BALL: Well, they have endorsed Bernie Sanders, actually.
MS. IFILL: Well, there you go. That’s –
MS. BALL: They’re trying to capitalize on this moment of sort of rising leftist sentiment nationally.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll wait and see how that goes. One day we’ll say you were prescient, maybe. (Laughter.)
Thanks, everybody, for the first webcast of the new year. There is sure to be a lot of talk online all year that we miss on the air, so be sure to check us out right here every week. And when you log onto the website, you can also find my New Year’s resolutions for candidates and for voters. That’s at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And we’ll see you next time on the Washington Week Webcast Extra.