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tv   Washington Week  PBS  August 1, 2009 5:00am-5:30am EDT

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gwen: six months in. is the president truly hitting a rough patch, or are the white house and congress in a standoff? we take a look tonight on "washington week." as the president's popularity begins to slide, the tests narrow down to the the future of health care. >> nobody is talking about some government takeover in health care. i'm tired of hearing that. >> the only problem with having
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a bipartisan is cooperation in the senate. >> congress is in such a rush to pass any reform rather than the right reform. >> the trouble is you folks are looking for news and there ain't no news. gwen: but there has been news, and it's all about complicated choices, whether it's about reviving the economy -- >> we now have problems. we're going to have to tighten our belts. we can't do it in the middle of a stimulus. we can't do it in the middle -- just as the economy is coming out of a recession. >> he's taken a bad economy and made it worse. gwen: or tackling racial reconciliation by photo-op. whatever happened to the summer doldrums? covering it this week is charles babington of the associated press, dan balz of "the washington post" and alexis simendinger of "national journal." >> celebrating 40 years of journalistic excellence. live from our nation's capital,
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this is "washington week" with gwen ifill. produced in association with "national journal". corporate funding for "washington week" is provided by -- >> they shape our world. create new wonders and new conveniences. america's minerals. they're the stuff dreams are made of. there's more information at >> corporate funding for "washington week" is also provided by boeing. major funding for "washington week" is provided by the annenberg foundation, the john s. and james l. knight foundation, the corporation for public broadcasting. and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. once again, live from washington, moderator gwen ifill. gwen: good evening. six months in, it appears
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things in washington are more complicated than clear. the president's poll numbers are uniformly headed down. his health care plan is snagged in the house and senate and the success of his economic recovery plan subject to debate. vice president joe biden speaking in chicago today to the national urban league to defend it. >> housing starts are up for this month. does that mean we're out? no. does that mean there won't be more foreclosures? no. but we're beginning to move in the direction we have to. the unemployment rate still is unacceptably high. but not growing nearly as fast. less good is not good but less good is better than worse. gwen: ok. that makes a funny kind of sense. is less good enough to get the health care reform passed? that's the big question facing the white house and congress this week, starting with the white house, chuck, how are they doing on this?
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>> well, it's less good. gwen: i dare you to throw that out. >> one thing that's perplexing is the numbers definitely are not good for obama. they're coming down across the board. his general approval ratings. the elements of the health care debate. and yet if you break out, well, how are republicans? they're worse. they're less good. i think it's perplexing to the white house and their allies, really, in that obama himself -- and dan can talk about this more when we talk about polls, still remains relatively popular. and people seem to like him and want him to do well. when you start looking at the specifics of especially his health care plan, for example, that's when the numbers start dropping down and it's a frustration that i think the white house is trying to figure out, how can we transfer or at least -- i don't know if transfer is the best word but that popularity and explanation and get the numbers up for health care.
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gwen: let's talk about those polls and what we mean when we say he's sliding. he's not down. not all the way. >> he's down but not in freefall. gwen: ok. >> and based on historical standards, he's still reasonably good. if you look at the new patch of polls that came out this week which confirm what we've been saying the last few weeks is his overall approval rating is trending down. and as chuck said, support or approval of his handling of the economy or health care have gone down more rapidly. now, if you look at where he is, in a couple of polls this week he was at 53% or 54%. that's down from about 62% since april. that's a decent drop but it's not! ityous. if you look at the handling of health care he's down under 50% and depending on which poll he's down well below 50%, same on the economy. and we're seeing significant concern about his handling of the deficit.
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that's gone way up. if if you ask people today if you should spend more money to stimulate the economy or not spend more money because of concerns of the deficit, it's close to 60% say we shouldn't spend more money. he's gotten himself flattened down but he still has, as chuck suggests, there's a lot of goodwill out there for him, and i think the white house people believe that he has strong support from his supporters. in other words, his base is very solid and that's important. gwen: so, alexis, does that mean the people who are not his supporters and even some who are his supporters but who are nervous right now, do they look at the numbers and say ok, i've got a way to push back the president's priority? >> absolutely. i've been covering the senate and paying a lot of attention to the the republicans who looked at all the dynamics dan just talked about, very popular president, as chuck was saying. what can we do with a popular president? well, what they've looked at is the details about how you can find room to bring him down on
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the idea that he's not as popular on certain policies, so they're not trying to be personal, per se except for a few senators. but they want to attack him on policy and also want to slow everything down. what's the rush? and then try to talk up the things that republicans believe are winners for them for their supporters. let's worry about the debt. let's not worry about taxes or raise taxes but curb spending. a stimulus plan was largely unpopular until what we've seen it become. so they're trying to capitalize on the little niches that they can find to bring the president and the democrats to some kind of -- even the majority whip admitted this past week to a stand still. gwen: let's talk a little bit about how the battle lines are being drawn because you don't have to listen closely to detect a strategy emerging from some republicans and some democrats on capitol hill. listen first to the republican argument, courtesy of
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representative virginia fox of north carolina. >> republicans have a better solution that won't put the government in charge of people's health care, but make sure we bring down the cost of health care for all americans and that insures affordable access for all americans and is pro-life because it will not put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government. gwen: democrats have found someone else to blame, house speaker nancy pelosi spoke with judy woodruff last night on the "newshour." >> there's a lot of interest in taxing insurance companies because people really do see across america, they know that they have caused the problem that we have with their anti-trust exemption that they have and the immoral profits. gwen: so there you have it. the government wants to put seniors to death or the insurance companies are immoral. it doesn't sound like common ground to me. >> no. it's not.
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and there's a lot of wild comments being thrown around there. the government is not going to be putting people to death. that comes from a new wrinkle in the house bill if it becomes the law that would say for the first time medicaid -- medicare would pay for -- you'd have a consultation with health professionals about your end of life choices. gwen: the president found himself having to knock that down this week at town hall meetings. >> one thing, i think that's a difficulty for the administration and its supporters is that this is a very complicated issue to begin with and all the more complicated because it's moving through congress slowly. you have two main bills that are very different in the senate, an entirely different bill in the house, none of which are done yet. while they sit out there with this confusion, it's easier for the types of attacks that alexis was talking about, it's too much money, it's too much this or too much that. even for polling, do you support obama's health care plan? what is obama's health care plan? you know the general principles of it. but i think that's one reason
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the proponents are doing pretty well now. maybe it will last. but they might have a harder time if this legislation does -- if we get a more specific plan that has some appeal, maybe that will make it easier for the supporters to defend. gwen: but i was interested in what nancy pelosi had to say. she didn't say that once but said it several times, the comment about immorality and the evil insurance companies and the president also changed his language a little bit this week to start blaming insurance companies who i guess are the only industries not on -- >> but their rhetoric is a little different. what nancy pelosi and harry reid, the majority leader in the senate is that they're evil and make too much money. what the president has been saying is their business is to be responsible and provide the services that all of us are paying for and that they're not providing the services safety net we're all paying for. he talks about the word "responsibility." and they're saying something a little different, which is they're making excessive profits and that they are in
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effect evil companies. he doesn't go quite that far. gwen: how much is this coordinated if at all? >> it's well-coordinated on both sides. there's a lot of work going on trying to figure out what's the best way to sell this, what's the best way to attack it. and i think what you saw this week is that the administration and the democrats decided, you know, there's one person in the white house, you're either a stick or pinata, and they'd rather be the stick than the pinata and they were getting hit very hard. they spent a lot of time trying to talk about this in terms of bringing down costs, that this would save money, it would save the government money and in the long run be good for the deficit. but as the committees have struggled with this and as the sausage making has become the focus of attention, it's been clear that they're struggling to meet those goals that they've set and that the choices that they have are painful. now with the republicans going after government as the boogeyman on this, the administration has decided, let's go back to sort of square
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one where we've always been. it's the insurance companies that are making life difficult for all of you who are denying you coverage, who won't -- you know, who will continue to raise your rates. so they've decided to go after them. and we're going to see in august a big message war over the shape of this plan. gwen: the message war it seems to me to extend also to this idea of the government as the boogeyman. and when you think about the economy, this also -- we saw last night the news came out that the cash for clunkers program might have run out of money. so immediately the message was, see that, you can't trust the government with something to stimulate the auto industry, how are you going to trust them with your health care? is that a message which is resonating that we can tell? >> it's hard to know -- in 1993-1994 when hillary care, remember, it was attacked as a government program, attacked very successfully. there's a lot of feeling things have changed so much over that time. and one thing, this argument,
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where you don't want the government between you and your doctor, you and your health care, a lot of people say i've already got an insurance person between me and my doctor and my health care. i think there's a sense, no, if that line of attack can be come at hard enough and sustained enough, they feel they can pick it apart, but it is an easy line to deliver. you know, the cash for delunkers, they can't trust the government but it was a government program that was so popular. gwen: exactly. so here's the big -- the person who loses or the concept that loses out in this which is partisanship. remember bipartisanship was supposed to be the holy grail and now we saw this week, sonia sotomayor come out of -- it was a long time ago but come out of the senate judiciary committee on a party line vote with only republicans supporting her, we've seen few republicans who say on the senate floor they're going to vote for her. is bipartisanship dead? >> it's darn near dead at this point. you know, there's still a clear
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effort in the senate finance committee, the gang of six, three republicans and three democrats trying to work together to pull off a bipartisan approach, but they are struggling. they're not going to meet the deadline of getting a bill done by the time they leave next week. so i was struck by what happened in the vote on sonia sotomayor in the judiciary committee this week just because, you know, the president had said one of the things he wanted to do with this nomination was to dampen down the hot wars we've seen over judicial nominees and presumably find somebody who could get more bipartisan support, and you just have not seen that. i think the country repolarized after this election faster than most people expected, certainly faster than the white house expected. and they're now having to live with that. >> and on the hill, the republicans are -- have experimented enough months now that they're persuaded that
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there's no real political risk for them to go against the president, not on his popularity, but on his policies and to resist, that they shore up their base, that they're attracting independents, in the case of sonia sotomayor, the national rifle association has some republicans scared to the point that they don't feel that in their state that they can support someone who the n.r.a. went up against, sonia sotomayor, and someone who is against. gwen: john cornyn in texas -- or kay bailey hutchinson running for governor of texas who you would think would want to support the first hispanic nominee but who are balancing out the pressure. >> exactly. they feel the n.r.a. will be far more important to their political future than perhaps the hispanic vote. they made a calculated decision. >> and one tie-in on the health care debate, if lip rams inside the congress and outside are somewhat unhappy with obama and others that are letting this senate finance committee look for this big compromise and
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they're saying, why are you trying to pick up some republicans? look, you can't even get a handful of them to vote for sonia sotomayor, why are we chasing this bipartisanship that's a phantom, let's just go ahead and particular with -- stick with our liberal ideals and get this through because we have large majorities on the house and national. you're hearing that on the right and the left. gwen: in fact you talked to mitch mcconnell, the senate minority leader who says he's happy the angst is all on the other side. >> he was absolutely delighted. mitch mcconnell is not the most demotive person but for him was incredibly happy and happy to show his delight that the infighting among the democrats was certainly a gift to the republicans, at least at that point. gwen: dan balz, you with your colleague hanej johnson i'm sure a best-selling author of the new chronicle of the campaign, called "the battle for america 2008." and as you watched this unfold,
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you talked just a moment ago how quickly everything repolarized and you go back to when you were talking to barack obama, joining his campaign before he was president, did he see this coming, is this what he was vying into or could you have seen it coming? >> i don't think anybody could have seen it coming this way. this was an extraordinary campaign and the country was galvanized and, you know, george w. bush was, you know, the force against which people were reacting. and i think that the president, and a lot of the people around him thought they would come into washington on a mandate for change, but also because of what had happened in the last months of the campaign, the collapse of the economy, that there would be a sense in washington of let's roll up our sleeves and get something done together, that the country is in such bad shape we ought to work together and that simply hasn't happened. you can blame everybody. the republicans can legitimately claim they've been
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shut out on things by the democrats. the democrats and the white house would argue the republicans have pushed -- they made a decision early on they're going to be the party of no. but we're back into an environment that i think the people thought wouldn't happen quite so quickly. gwen: chuck, is part of the reason for that because he bit off so much? it's the one thing that seems to keep showing up as we dig deeper in these polls is the uncertainty about all the things on the president's plate. >> a number of people in the polls are saying slow down, you're taking on too much. but in fairness, barack obama did run on all these things. he hasn't pushed anything he didn't campaign on and he has said, what's the point of having a mandate and winning an election and changing the parties in the white house if you don't go for these things? he says, now is the time to do it, don't wait. so i think he has been true to his campaign and the one question on the republican side is, is this go slow a genuine
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win sincere effort to get it right or a way to kill things? gwen: alexis? >> it is both. the party apparatus at large wants to go slow to stall or kill legislation that they feel they can't support that has the stamp of liberal left. but those folks in the room in the coalition of the determined, those six, there are republicans who are honor-bound to try to create something out of the finance committee that can get bipartisan support and also their feeling is that's the last stop for something that might be truly bipartisan on the health care. gwen: then there are the distractions. we have -- sadly, this is only water. there were other beverages drunk in washington this week. >> amber. gwen: at least an amber glass, trying to imagine there are suds here. what really was that about other than a huge distraction from the president's agenda? and of course i'm talking about the beer summit at the white house between henry louis gates jr. and sergeant james crowley
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of the cambridge police, the president and vice president. >> i think it mostly was an effort to extract president obama from a mistake. and he had waded into the middle of a very delicate issue and he had waded in in an impolitick way, clearly regretted it, said so. this was the last step, i think, that probably at the time they decided to do it, it seemed like a good idea. i think by the time it happened -- gwen: it took a long time for it to actually happen. but is that the way they saw it at the white house and were they happy to have it -- is it done? do we not hear them talk about it anymore? >> they sure hope it's done. they truly are taken aback at the way this thing -- the media went totally overboard, but, you know, 80% of the american people knew about it and seemed to have some interest in it. it's one of these weird things. it shows certainly that race is still a very sensitive issue and obama talks about that. i think dan's right, i think by talking a little bit off the cuff at that wednesday night press conference, he probably didn't word it the way he wished he had.
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>> he actually acted a little stupidly. >> boy, you'll get in trouble for that. gwen: you're going to get letters. there's room for conversation, i'm not sure the conversation happened but here we are on the lip of august when everyone -- congress is going to leave town, the president will leave town presumably, does august give us a chance to take a deep breath or do people get hardened and concrete? >> chuck is going to be covering a president who is going to be talking for a month until he goes on vacation, right? and talking, talking, talking, selling health care and everything else. and members of congress are going to fan out and keep talking and spending enormous amounts of money on advertising and trying to keep their business alive, i think. gwen: you see an opportunity there for the president or for congress? >> there's an opportunity for the president to get back on the offensive on this. but it's a risk. i mean, that's one of the reasons they did try to set a deadline is because they wanted at least some things done by the time congress broke. and you now have lots that's
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still undone. you have pieces of this that people can attack. and so august could be a very decisive month. and as they come back, whether there is greater support or whether it continues to erode. >> today deadlines got set, middle of september. gwen: for? >> for health care, both house and senate. gwen: we've seen these deadlines before. >> wanted to mention. gwen: thank you all very much. thanks for wrapping it up for us. of course it's not too soon to preorder "the battle for america," dan balls. got to support our own. we are leaving you a few minutes early tonight so you can take advantage of the opportunity to support your local pbs station which then they support us. but the conversation will continue online. check out "washington week" q&a website. and keep up with daily developments on "the newshour with jim lehrer." we'll see you again next week on "washington week."
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