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President Barack Obama said he is confident Congress will agree to a military strike against Syria despite divisions. But a top aide said on NPR this morning that it’s unlikely the president will act without congressional approval. The New York Times and other news media reported the National Security Agency has succeeded in breaking encryption that keeps people’s personal data safe online. The Labor Department reported mixed news on summer unemployment numbers as the jobless rate dips to 7.3 percent. Prospects for an immigration overhaul have dimmed over the summer congressional recess. And the White House steps up its public relations campaign for health care enrollment. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- Molly Ball staff writer, The Atlantic.
- Olivier Knox chief Washington correspondent, Yahoo! News.
- David Leonhardt Washington bureau chief, The New York Times; author of the e-book: “Here’s the Deal: How Washington Can Solve the Deficit and Spur Growth."
Olivier Knox of Yahoo! News discussed whether President Barack Obama set a precedent for future presidents when he asked Congress to agree to a military strike against Syria. David Leonhardt of The New York Times said it’s a mark of a democracy when Congress is able to say yes or no to such a request. “We don’t want a situation in the big picture in our country in which every time the president asks for the authorization to use force, Congress feels like it needs to do it for patriotic reasons,” Leonhardt said.
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MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on vacation. The administration continues its full-court lobbying effort to gain congressional support for a limited strike in Syria. Revelations about the NSA's ability to break into encrypted data on the Web raise new privacy concerns. And unemployment numbers for August suggest a strengthening U.S. economy but with problems.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio to talk about these and other top national news stories, David Leonhardt of The New York Times, Molly Ball with Atlantic, Olivier Knox of Yahoo! News. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DAVID LEONHARDTThank you.
MS. MOLLY BALLIt's good to be here.
MR. OLIVIER KNOXThank you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always Send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Olivier, we have Pres. Obama doing a news conference in Saint Petersburg, Russia, as we speak. As he opened his remarks, he revealed that he will address the nation on Syria next Tuesday. And then earlier this morning, one of his top aides actually made some news when it comes to Syria. What did we learn?
KNOXHe did make some news. He made news on NPR, no less. Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, was asked pretty bluntly one of the most important questions right now, which is if Congress votes no on authorizing force against Syria, will the president take action anyway? And what Tony Blinken said essentially was that he doesn't have the desire nor the intention to act if Congress says no. This is the clearest answer we've gotten on this question.
PAGEIn fact, it's interesting because last Saturday when the president announced he would seek congressional authorization he didn't respond to a shouted question about this. And when his aides have gotten questioned about this on Capitol Hill this week, they have quite carefully refused to answer. David, why do you think that they answered it this morning?
LEONHARDTI think there are probably a few reasons. First of all, just plain common sense, right? I mean if you're gonna go to Congress and do this and say I think I have the authority to do without it, it seems a little silly to not commit to the idea that you're gonna go to it for a real reason, which is if Congress approves it, you'll do it, and if they don't, you won't. The second is I think you wanna make clear to Congress that what they're doing here is real.
LEONHARDTAnd you would hope that that commitment might actually move some votes because they're having a tough time, particularly in the House. They're having a really tough time lining up the number of votes that they're likely to need in order to pass this.
PAGESo, Molly, is that surprising, the plight that the administration faces on the Hill in trying to line up votes in favor of a limited military strike?
BALLAbsolutely. I think this has been more of a challenge than they anticipated. We had the president initially saying he was very confident that the votes would be there. And early on, when we had the Republican leaders in the House break in favor, John Boehner and Eric Cantor both coming out saying, well, okay, we're gonna put partisanship aside here, and there's gonna be a big movement.
BALLInstead, we've seen exactly the opposite. We've seen Democrats and Republicans alike seeming to come off the fence in the opposite direction, toward opposition to the resolution. The grassroots passion is very firmly in opposition to a strike. We're hearing from members of Congress that it's 95 to five or 100 to one among their constituents against a strike. They're getting calls.
BALLThey're getting emails. They're getting yelled at, at town halls if they're still having them. And so to take a vote against their constituents when a lot of members are also saying the briefings that they're getting from the Pentagon and the State Department and the White House are not convincing enough to overcome that kind of opposition.
LEONHARDTHere's I think the mystery here. Why did the White House do this? And why did the president do it? Because I think we know not everyone in the White House wanted to do this. If there's one...
PAGEIn fact, we know that almost no one in the White House wanted to do this. So it was really...
PAGE...the president's call against the advice of his top advisers.
LEONHARDTIf there is one lesson that this administration and in particular this president have taken from their first four-plus years in office, it's that they shouldn't assume they can get Republicans in Congress to go along with them just because public is on their side or just because they come up with a plan that is halfway between conservative ideas and liberal ideas. That isn't the political strategy of the current congressional Republicans.
LEONHARDTIt doesn't help the congressional Republicans in their home. And so they go to them on an issue that the public isn't for. Either left or right, there is not a big outcry for this. And they're essentially giving the Congress an opportunity to veto something Obama says he wants and to make him look weak. And if this doesn't come to pass, the question I will always have about it is why did they think it would come to pass?
PAGEAnd you know, Olivier, the other thing that has surprised me last weekend when he heard the president make this announcement in the Rose Garden was it's at odds with what modern presidents of both parties have done in asserting their right to make a judgment on when a limited military strike is called for.
KNOXWell, you're still hearing that from the president that he has the authority constitutionally to go ahead with or without Congress. I think the answer to David's question is that that the reason they went to Congress is that they had to sort of dilute the political problem here, which is he was completely boxed in. His credibility was on the line, and he basically tried to put everyone's credibility on the line.
KNOXOtherwise, he was heading to a situation where he had no international legal authority, no, quote and unquote, "coalition of the willing," no meaningful one. I mean, you know, I'm French. I respect France. But a two-country coalition is not the way to go. And he was really in a box here. And by basically trying to extend the credibility question to Congress, I think he may have tried to blunt this politically.
PAGESo did it work, Molly? Has it succeeded in getting some allies in with him with their credibility on the line, or does he continue to be pretty isolated?
BALLHe still looks pretty isolated, to me. I would just point out I think David's point about the Congress was exactly right, but it's also the case that this can't be pinned on Republicans. Democrats really have chosen not to follow into line for a number of reasons. And you have a liberal Democrat, Alan Grayson, whipping votes in his own party against the president. Democrats who might have initially been on the fence because they were sort of caught between their public or their principles and their president are deciding that their loyalty is not to this White House, not to this president.
BALLAnd coming out -- more and more Democrats were seeing coming out against Obama and against Nancy Pelosi either because they see this as the potential for another Iraq and another quagmire or because they're just hearing from their constituents so strongly and again they haven't been persuaded by the administration.
PAGEYou know, I'd like to say that I am often wrong but never in doubt and so in line with that theory of life I would say that it's -- we're making it sound as though he's going to lose in Congress. You know, some of the lobbying hasn't really started yet. The president hasn't given his address to the nation. Nancy Pelosi has a pretty good history of being able to deliver Democratic votes.
PAGEAIPAC is gonna be out lobbying next week, and they're a powerful influence. So I wonder, David, if you think a week from now the News Roundup team will see this as something that the president was able to turn around.
LEONHARDTI think it's possible he'll win this. This is the way I'd handicap it right now. I think he's more likely than not to win the Senate because I think he will be able to bring along a lot of Democrats in the Senate and some number of Republicans, even some of the people who are opposed to it will have a hard time voting against overcoming a filibuster for technical reasons we won't get into.
LEONHARDTSo I think his odds look pretty good in the Senate. The problem he has in the House is not only is he losing some Democrats, as Molly said, but he's got almost no Republicans. There are fewer than 10 House Republicans who have come out and said they will support this. And so you can pass something in the House with almost all the Democrats and a few Republicans. You can pass something with the majority of vote, obviously, or you can pass something with all the Republicans.
LEONHARDTBut if you have only a few Republicans and something like two-thirds of Democrats, you just can't get there. And so he's gonna have to get substantially more Republicans than he now has.
PAGEThis was a gamble by Pres. Obama that address some of his promise but created new ones. So if he loses, Olivier, what are the consequences of that, if he loses in Congress?
KNOXWell, for one thing, if he abides by Tony Blinken's comments today, it means no limited military action in Syria. I would still hold the odds of that -- I wouldn't rule Tony's comments as decisive here. It's gonna be Obama's decision at the end of the day. The White House is making the point this is a terrible, terrible thing if Congress votes no for American credibility, you know, having committed military resources to the region, having said that the use of chemical weapons is a red line.
KNOXTo back off now, they say it would take -- it will send a terrible message not just to Syria but to other countries, like Iran, that are embroiled right now in pretense standoffs with the United States over weapons of mass destruction.
PAGEWe know from the debate about the Iraq War that years later that can have huge consequences for people who want to be president of the United States. So, Molly, what did we hear from Hillary Clinton who might -- we might put in that category for 2016 when it comes to this issue of Syria?
BALLA very interesting moment for Hillary Clinton as a potential obviously presidential candidate in a couple of years, she said she supported the president's call for a strike, which on the one hand obviously Hillary Clinton was a member of Obama's Cabinet, the secretary of state, and who was perceived as a very -- a more hawkish voice within the administration. She also was a candidate running against Obama in 2008 who probably more than any other single factor in her defeat was the most important thing was her vote in favor of the Iraq War.
BALLThat was -- she refused to apologize for it. Democratic activists deplored that vote. And she really suffered for it. So for -- you can very well imagine Hillary Clinton, you know, at home, in New York, contemplating this vote and being really -- not a vote for her obviously -- but this decision of being really anguish about whether she's heading for a repeat of that.
LEONHARDTI think -- and so I think that's why we see she's come out for it, but we're not gonna see her particularly publicly. And I'm not even sure how many votes she could move in Congress. And not only that but there's now a way in which Obama's interest and Hillary Clinton's political interest are very much aligned, right? Obama cares about the Democrats winning in 2016 for a whole variety of reasons.
LEONHARDTHe's a Democrat. It would make him look better. On policy measures, it would matter for the implementation of things like health care reform. She's almost surely the strongest Democrat. And so he has no interest in weakening her by making her come way out on a limb for something that might not actually bring that much benefit to him.
PAGEWe saw the -- on the Republican side, some of the potential presidential candidates coming out against this. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, not surprisingly. More surprisingly, Marco Rubio who had taken a different position rhetorically earlier.
KNOXMm-hmm. You have to be careful with Marco Rubio. If you go back and you look at all of his remarks over the past couple of years, he actually never comes out and says, you know, the United States should be carrying out military strikes in Syria. He talks about arming the rebels. He talks about boosting humanitarian aid, but he's been very, very cautious. And, you know, we actually dug into this at Yahoo! News because we were a little surprised after his hawkish rhetoric.
KNOXAnd we figured out that actually he's never come out and said, you know, the United States should carry out military strikes. It was interesting. I think, you know, obviously, the number one, 2016, who are in favor in this is Joe Biden. You know, the White House is putting out photos of Biden briefing lawmakers in the situation room, but it's gonna be an interesting challenge for them.
PAGEOlivier Knox, he's chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo! News, and I'm also joined in the studio by Molly Ball, a staff writer for The Atlantic, and David Leonhardt, he's Washington bureau chief for The New York Times. he's author of the ebook "Here's the Deal: How Washington Can Solve the Deficit and Spur Growth." We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation. Stay with us.
PAGEMolly Ball, we got unemployment numbers for August this morning. Good news because the unemployment rate dipped down just a bit to 7.3 percent, but some bad news in there too.
BALLYeah. What we're seeing is the labor participation rate also dropped, which means more people are dropping out of the workforce. And the number -- the total jobs number came in slightly below expectations. There was also a downward revision to some of the previous jobs numbers. It's really sort of in keeping with what we've seen for many, many, many months now, which is a recovery that is very sort of eh. It's not a booming recovery. It's not -- nothing's getting worse, but the whole economy is sort of treading water.
PAGEYou know, David, one reason I think analysts were looking so closely at these numbers is because it's the last unemployment number the Fed will have before its promise to start revisiting its strategy.
PAGETell us about that.
LEONHARDTSo the Fed has gone to extraordinary lengths over the last five years to try to, first, stop the financial crisis and then mitigate its lingering effects. And the Fed has consistently made the same mistake, which is they have been -- Fed officials have been too optimistic about when the recovery would truly start to pick up. The Obama administration has made the same mistake. A lot of private economists have made the same mistake.
LEONHARDTAnd they now finally thought that the economy seemed to be getting strong enough that they could begin to taper, in their words. But a report like this, which isn't vastly different from what we've been getting, but it's just another reminder of, as Molly said how eh the recovery is. There is a real risk of the Fed doing this, that they are gonna make the same mistake they've made really three times since 2010 in which they begin to pull back their stimulus efforts to lower interest rates too soon, and then some months later, they have to say, oops, we made a mistake. We got to go do more.
PAGEOlivier, it is a parlor game in Washington to guess who the president will appoint to chair the Federal Reserve to succeed Ben Bernanke. What are you hearing?
KNOXWell, obviously the debate has now boiled down to -- the parlor game debate has boiled down to two people: Larry Summers, the former senior Obama economic adviser, and Janet Yellen who's a former Fed official herself. The White House does seem to favor Summers. You know, he's been in the Obama inner circle. I keep insisting that it's gonna be a panel of bloggers that's gonna replace Ben Bernanke, but I think the White House is signaling it could be Summers just because he's close to the president.
KNOXThe president has worked with him before. And we should find out, actually, in the coming weeks. They've signaled an announcement will come in the fall. I don't expect it in the middle of the Syria debate, which is another impact that Syria is having. It's pushing all of these other debates on the debt ceiling, on the Fed, on these things down the road a little bit.
PAGEYou know, Molly, is he just asking for a fight, though, if he names Larry Summers? I mean, there's a lot of people who -- including Democrats on the finance committee. There was a story in the Wall Street Journal this morning about their concerns about Larry Summers. Is it a fight he might better avoid?
BALLThe answer to whether he would get a fight is yes. It's been a remarkably political process for an appointment that has not been this political in the past. We've had lobbying going on. You've had women's group agitating. You've had, you know, Democratic senators making their preferences known. And there are several Democratic senators now saying they would vote against a Larry Summers nomination chiefly for policy reasons.
BALLYellen is seen as being a little bit more in favor of some of the unemployment functions of the Fed and some of the policies that they're doing right now. Summers, in his time in the Obama administration, his views on policy were a little bit more conservative. And then, you know, you also have the political specter of having the first woman Fed chair. A lot of people believe that would be symbolically important. I think Obama is caught between not wanting look like he's caving to pressure.
BALLThis is his prerogative. He wants to feel like he's exercising it, particularly in his second term. He sort of wants to get his way and get the guy he likes. But at the same time, there is a lot of pressure. And when that pressure actually manifests itself in the form of no votes for Summers, it's hard to think he wouldn't listen to that.
PAGEDavid, a big scoop on the front page of your newspaper this morning, more documents from Edward Snowden. This go to the issue of the NSA and its ability to read encrypted emails, data that Americans have been told is secure on the Web. What are you reporting this morning?
LEONHARDTSo this is part of a program called Bull Run, and it turns out that the NSA has gotten extremely good at taking encrypted information and reading it anyway. And this is the latest in a series of revelations we've gotten about the success of the NSA's program to look at all this information out there and the breadth of it. And I think a lot -- what a lot of people are wondering -- wait a second, what are they actually -- can they see of mine?
LEONHARDTAnd I think we still don't know that answer completely because this administration and the prior administration and the NSA have not been particularly forthcoming about this. They've been only as forthcoming as they need to be when forced to, right? That's been the odd thing where Obama says, I welcome this debate, but the only reason we're having it is because of someone who the administration obviously wants to put in jail for a very long time.
LEONHARDTI think what we know right now is the administration has -- the NSA has vast ability to get our metadata, vast ability to know when one phone number called another phone number for how long to get into things like bank records. What so far there is no evidence of and which would take this to an entirely new level was that they were snooping on the content of Americans' phone calls, the content of our email searches, the content of our Web and mobile phone behavior.
LEONHARDTI think the question, though, is are they doing that in ways that we just don't know? Are there rouge people doing that? So far, there's no evidence of that, and I think that's why the outcry has been somewhat muted. But I consider that the big, huge, next question.
PAGEIs it clear that the disclosures in today's story are legal, that it is legal for them to be doing what it is they're doing?
LEONHARDTWell, I think that this is one of these areas in which the legality is highly murky. I think there are some things that they are doing that are legal. They have legal authorization for. There are other things that are decided in surveillance courts that we don't hear about
LEONHARDTAnd my colleague, Charlie Savage, reported that these surveillance courts have been stocked with people of very similar ideological views, almost all appointed by John Roberts, almost all are very hawkish in the national security sense, less interested in privacy than national security. And so legal is one of these questions that I hesitate to answer because they -- it's clear they have the legal authority to do some things. It's also clear that they don't always hue extremely strictly to that legal authority.
PAGEAnd, Olivier, do we know how much cooperation -- voluntary cooperation they're getting from tech companies?
KNOXWell, we do. We have some details. I mean, every piece that's come out about this, whether it's about your cellphone metadata, the when are you calling, from where are you calling, the ability to snoop on the Internet and all those things. Every one of these stories includes a line about how the government is working with high-tech companies to build in ways to make it easier for them to look at your email, you know, track your phone calls and the like.
KNOXThere is a big question here about the gap between capability, what can they do and what are they doing. And actually, we have had some evidence of abuse, whether it's reports of NSA officials spying on former flames or the intelligence community quite forthrightly saying, you know, X number of thousands of searches were later found to be improper. It's a pretty scary message to Americans. You know, the government can look at all of these things. The question is whether they do and how they do it.
PAGELet's go to the phones and invite some of our listeners to join our conversation. Let's go first to Fort Bragg, N.C., and talk to James. James, hi. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JAMESThanks for taking my call. Can you hear me OK?
JAMESI am a little concerned. I didn't expect any support from Congress at all. I did expect some from the Senate. Actually, a lot from the Senate, considering what Sen. McCain and Lindsey Graham did in support of going to war, although I'm a little concerned that we just seem to be overlooking the fact that the president is the commander in chief. When do we draw the line and say, we have to follow our commander in chief in doing what is right?
JAMESI mean, I think he's gone a long way to try to avoid war if we listen to something. We could be fighting in Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Africa and Syria. I just think this is just a political thing to keep people at odds...
JAMES...especially in Congress.
PAGEJames, thanks so much for your call. Molly, is than argument that works with Congress that he's the commander in chief, it's -- that it's important to back him up?
BALLIt clearly hasn't so far, and I think that it speaks in part to the difficult relations that Obama has had with the Congress. Even with Democrats and Congress' outreach has been perceived as lacking. He's not someone who has shown a lot of desire to really lobby even his own party to get through all of his initiatives, really, throughout his first and second terms.
BALLBut, you know, I think we see Obama in these really difficult positions sort of caught between two pillars of his own persona on the one hand saying that he wasn't really an anti-war candidate. He was against just dumb wars and sort of positioning himself in the tradition of liberal interventionist, having Samantha Power in his administration who's a very strong advocate of action against genocide and for humanitarian reasons.
BALLBut then on the other hand, positioning himself against the perceived excesses of the Bush administration in terms of the use of executive power. And so going to Congress would seem to be a symbolic way to embody that part of his persona. But as we're seeing, it could backfire for him quite badly.
PAGEYou know, one of it reflects two other things. One is an end or a reduction, at least, to the tradition of politics stopping at the water's edge. That seems like a kind of quaint notion at this point when we look at these debates. And the other is that presidents of both parties used to be able to count on a very hawkish Republican Party. That's no longer the case, David.
LEONHARDTNo, it's not. I mean, there is a real divide in the Republican Party. I mean, I think what -- it's important to say that in both parties, we've seen a little bit more of an emergence of a dovish wing. I mean, we've seen Barack Obama become more dovish since he became president, right? He became president, doubled down on Afghanistan, called it the good the war, did the surge and came to think that that was a mistake and then overruled his military when they wanted to do yet more in Afghanistan and instead pulled out.
LEONHARDTWe've seen him be extremely reluctant to get involved. And so I think we see whether it's the dovish wing of the Republican Party like Rand Paul or whether it's the president himself, people saying, whoa. War brings big costs. Let's think about those costs before we do it.
PAGEIt's the shadow of the two wars. We've just gotten out of two, you know?
LEONHARDTYes, it is.
PAGEPresident Obama has said Americans are war weary and said, so am I. I'm sure that's true, Olivier.
KNOXI think that's right. And I think that, you know, if we had a booming economy, I think some of these questions might not be as present. You know, the president, you know, in speeches after speech, focusing on domestic policy, has been saying that the weak economy actually has handcuffs his domestic policy, his drive on things like climate change and things like that.
KNOXI think it also affects the debate over military action quite clearly. If things were better at home, then, you know, maybe the appetite for overseas entanglements might be a little bit greater.
LEONHARDTThe tactics here, I do think, have hurt the White House. It's impossible to know how much they're gonna affect the vote in the end. If the White House and the administration come out and said, we have this evidence, we wanna bring it to Congress, I wanna remove us from a permanent war footing, this line that Obama said, and thus, I'm going to Congress, I think it would've send a different message from that week we had last week where it just looked like they were inching closer and closer and closer to an attack.
LEONHARDTAnd then they shocked everyone by saying, and we're gonna go to Congress, because it didn't make it seem like this idea of going to Congress was quite the philosophical argument that he wanted to be. It instead looked like a little bit of an out.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead, Olivier.
KNOXI just wanna say one thing that's been really striking about this debate is actually how little debate in Congress there is about the intelligence. I would have thought there'd be a lot more questions about that. But honestly, the doubts are about whether doing something is better than doing nothing or whether doing something will either escalate the American presence in yet another Middle East conflicts, make things worse, lead to retaliation and the like.
KNOXI haven't heard a lot of doubts from members of Congress about the quality of the intelligence about this Aug. 21 incident. And that's been very striking, especially as we debate the legacy of the Iraq war.
LEONHARDTThere's broad agreement that this was a chemical weapons attack, and it was carried out by some level of the regime.
BALLWhat you do have a doubt about, though, is whether a strike is the appropriate...
BALL...response to that, as Olivier is saying. And you have some Democrats now saying they want to even bring a counterproposal that would consist of either working with the International Criminal Court or some of the other actions that we've talked about -- working more closely with the rebels, more diplomatic engagement, more engagement with the U.N., although that's tricky. And so you have a lot of voices calling for something short of a strike.
PAGELet's go to Tysir, (sp?) calling us from here in Washington, D.C. Tysir, thanks for holding on.
TYSIRThank you so much for taking my call. I do have a question, but I just wanna precede it by saying that as a Syrian whose family lives four miles away from where the chemical attack happened 10 days ago, I say that the president is not really in a hurry to get into any kind of engagement militarily in Syria. And because I've been observing what's been happening ever since the revolution started, you realize that the president has tried to dodge every possibility that the Syrian president has crossed the line by using chemical weapons.
TYSIRThey have used them in small amounts where between 100 and 200 people got killed. But because they used them in that much capacity where over 1,400 people died, they're now -- the president is feeling more pressured to do something, but...
PAGETysir, just let me ask you if I could. Do you have family members now living close to the side of that chemical attack?
TYSIRThat is correct, yeah.
PAGEAnd were any of them affected by it?
TYSIRWell, they were sick for a few days, just coughing, a lot of tearing, a lot of other symptoms. But they have been able to get medical health, and they have access to a medical facility.
PAGEWell, I'm glad they're doing OK. Let me ask you: What was the reaction there in Syria, in that area, to the announcement that there was gonna be a congressional debate for the actions the president's taken after, as David just said, seeming to signal that an attack was imminent?
TYSIRWell, initially, when there was a strong response thing that there's gonna be a consequence to that action, everybody in -- most people, I should say -- in Damascus were very happy, and you could see that from -- I could monitor it from the different Facebook posts from my friends that are living there. And I quite was very fatherly, if you will. You know, I felt sorry that they actually feel that there is gonna be a response, a strong response, and things might be going straightened, you know, by the international world.
TYSIRI told them that everything, you know, not -- it's not gonna be to their expectations. It's gonna be very limited. But then I feel that the president, what he did is he didn't wanna react, and that is his move to take it to Congress is his way of saying, you know, with the questions that I have, I do wanna react. But you know what, the Congress is saying no, so therefore I'm not going to.
TYSIRBut my question is, the reason why I'm calling, is for the panel: What do they think when probably, you know, this proposal is gonna be shot in the Congress? What do they think if another chemical attack happens?
PAGESo we have just a little bit of time left before the break. What would be the reaction to a next chemical attack, do you think, if there's a decision not to respond to this one militarily?
BALLI think that remains to be seen, but that is one of the warnings that is being summoned by the administration and by others who support a strike is that it will embolden Assad to act again if the United States does nothing.
PAGEAnd one argument the president's making is there's been a cultural norm that we will not permit. We, the world, will not permit chemical weapons to be used. This might send a different message, Olivier.
KNOXI think it would -- the administration would give you a cautious, you know, we-told-you-so message about this. But I think it would actually reopen the debate.
PAGETysir, thanks so much for your call. We're glad your family's doing all right. We're gonna take another short break, and when we come back, we're gonna talk about the Affordable Care Act and the PR campaign that the administration has begun. We'll take your calls, read your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio for our Friday News Roundup: David Leonhardt, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, Molly Ball, she's a staff writer for The Atlantic, and Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo News. Well, Olivier, we started this hour by talking about the news from Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser at the White House.
PAGEHe said on NPR this morning that if the president failed to get congressional authorization for a limited military strike on Syria, he would not go ahead. Well, the president who's been having a news conference in St. Petersburg, got the same question. He declined to answer us directly. Tony Blinken may have gotten out a little bit ahead with the boss. When President Obama was asked the same question, he said, "I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate because I'm working to get as much support as possible from Congress."
KNOXRight. Well, let's start by saying that whenever you hear someone say I'm not gonna speculate, what that really means is I'm just not gonna answer. You know, it's -- he's perfectly happy to speculate about other things...
LEONHARDTAt great length.
KNOX...such as what would happen if Congress voted no. It would affect global credibility et cetera, et cetera unless he won't. I mean, I think it makes perfect sense for him to say that. You know, one of the things that they're trying to hammer home to Congress is that, you know, this is a real vote and this is not a freebie.
KNOXThere's not some course of action -- some absolute positive course of action that the president is gonna take whether or not they vote on this or how they vote on this. It's very important for individual lawmakers to get the message that how they vote here is gonna have a net effect on American policy.
PAGESo, Molly, we have the health insurance exchanges open for business -- or supposed to open for business anyway on Oct. 1. What's the administration doing about that in this last few weeks leading up to that date?
BALLWell, it's an all-hands-on-deck moment obviously for the future of the president's signature domestic accomplishment. They have announced a major marketing campaign. I believe they're spending $12 million marketing the exchanges. There's a huge full-court press going on on the state level, the local level, the federal government responsible for operating a lot of these exchanges in the states where mostly Republican governors have refused to create state level exchanges and -- you see them doing a lot of outreach.
BALLThere's been a lot of talk about using the data capabilities that the Obama campaign used, using those types of tactics to reach out to people, because the important thing here, the crucial thing is to get people who don't have health insurance to sign up for insurance through the exchanges, to know about the exchanges, to consider them a reasonable option, not to be scared away from them either by the sort of political campaign that's going on on the other side. You have conservative groups trying to discourage people because they want the exchanges to fail.
BALLAnd people have to, number one, know that it's an option, number two, be convinced that it's a good deal for them, that they'll, you know, either get subsidies or that the insurance will be worth it and that these will be affordable for them.
PAGESo, David, the White House rolled out one big gun this week. His name is Bill Clinton.
LEONHARDTThe big dog, Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton, as we saw at the Democratic Convention, is very good at talking about this subject. He's very good at talking about many subjects. I think it's his speech that would have gotten substantially more attention, were it not for the Syria debate. Olivier made version of this point earlier in the show. I think that, obviously, there are a lot of challenges to implementing the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare for the administration.
LEONHARDTAny big program like this is hard. Any big program like this ends up having little bumps in the road early on. Medicare Part D did. Medicare itself did. Medicaid was adopted by very few states when it started. They clearly have disadvantages, and there's a much bigger partisan divide over this and in the country generally than there used to be. They do have one advantage, which is, a big key to this is getting young, healthy people to sign up because, basically, one of the ways health insurance works is young, healthy people, overall, subsidize sicker people.
LEONHARDTAnd so what they need to do is go to young, healthy people and say, look, this actually isn't that expensive for you, given the subsidies we're giving you, and some of you are gonna have a real reason to need this. You're really gonna need it. You can't know in advance when you're gonna need it. And it's the right thing to do. And the one advantage they have in making that argument is young people are extremely sympathetic to the president. Young people voted overwhelmingly for the president.
LEONHARDTAnd so that's some of the data that Molly was referring to. They can try to reach out to some of these people. That doesn't mean it's gonna work, but with all the challenges, that's one advantage they have.
PAGEWe're gonna -- we continue to have some Republicans call for defunding Obamacare. That is unable to repeal it outright, but eliminate funding for it. How is that argument going, Olivier?
KNOXWell, for the Republicans who are making it, it's going great. They're getting a lot of attention. They're getting a lot of support from the Republican base. For the people who are thought to be eyeing a run for president in 2016, this is an unavoidable argument to make. You know, Marco Rubio has made it. Ted Cruz had made it. Basically everybody who might be in the running has made it. So for them, it's running really well. In terms of the actual legislative accomplishment, obviously, it's failed. And there's no sign that it will succeed.
KNOXThe president has signed a couple of bills that defunded or modified some small elements of Obamacare, but there's just no sign that he's gonna sign on, even if were an authorization to use force in Syria and defund Obamacare. You know, he's just -- it's not just gonna happen. He's not gonna vote for -- he's not gonna sign that kind of legislation.
LEONHARDTIt was interesting to see Clinton use this line this week, enforce the law. We've all take an oath to uphold the law. And that's part of the point he was making. He was saying everyone should uphold Obamacare. Obviously, that's an argument you'd expect a Democrat to make, but it was little rhetorical flourish that had not been emphasized before.
BALLWell, it's interesting. As Olivier said, this is not something that has gotten traction among lawmakers and the numbers that it would need to actually pass in either House or even to stop or to shut down the government, which is the real threat underlying this push. Where it has really gotten legs and gotten traction is among the Republican grass roots, and you have multiple conservative organizations getting huge attendance at rallies supporting defunding Obamacare.
BALLJim DeMint's Senate Conservative Fund, the Heritage Action Group, the Tea Party Patriots, other groups, all really hitting this hard and getting a huge reaction. Let's not forget that the sort of seminal moment for the Tea Party was in 2009 when they all came out against the original passage of Obamacare. So this is sort of reunite -- reigniting a lot of that Tea Party flame. And they're creating ads against a lot of sitting Republican senators who are refusing to go along with this.
BALLSo the real test of whether the Tea Party still is a real active force in our politics will be, are they actually gonna knock off any of these guys in Republican primaries?
PAGEYou know, Molly, earlier in this hour, you referred to the Affordable Care Act as Obama's signature achievement, and I think that's quite right. He had hoped, Olivier, to have some other additional signature achievements, including on immigration. Great hopes at the beginning of this year that it comprehends of immigration bill was gonna get through the Congress no longer looks so good.
KNOXNo, and it's -- brings down the wall here for a little bit that this is gonna be a real heavy lift. I talked to some House Republican leadership aids yesterday and they said, whoa, whoa, whoa, we're not ruling this out at all. It's just that with Syria and these other debates about spending, we need to find a place both a physical space and sort of psychological space in the calendar of the House to take steps.
KNOXThey haven't ruled this out. What they have said, though, is that they're likely, more inclined to go with the piecemeal approach than with the catchall that the Senate passed. So definitely not out of the woods yet. This is gonna be a real interesting fight.
PAGEBut you know, we know, David, that there are kind of windows of opportunity to do big complicated bills. You wanna be -- right after an election, you wanna be as far away as possible usually from the next election.
PAGESo if this immigration bill, a comprehensive approach that might do something for the so-called DREAMers, who were brought here illegally by children, for other of the millions of people who are here illegally, does something about the work situation that many employers worry about. If it doesn't get done this year, could it get done next year? What would be the timing looking ahead?
LEONHARDTIt could get done in the future, and here's the way in which it could. I agree with you, there are windows. But this issue is a little different. What this needs is Republican support. It's already passed the Senate. It would pass overwhelmingly among the Democratic caucus in the House. And here's the thing. Republican in the House right now have no real political incentive to vote for this now. If anything, it only exposes them to a primary challenge in 2014.
LEONHARDTThe calculus starts to change a little bit for the Republican Party once you get into the run up of a presidential election because Republicans are very worried about how hard it will for them to win a presidential election if they keep losing the share of Latinos that they lost in '08 and '12. And this is a hurdle for them. Ari Fleisher has made a version of this point, the former Bush spokesman.
LEONHARDTYou could see a way in which the politics for immigration are easier in the two years running up to a presidential election than they are in the two years running up to a midterm election.
PAGELet's go to Ed. He's calling us from Centerville, Md. Ed, hi. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
EDHi. Thanks for taking my call. I think one of the problems on Syria is that it, as well as the remnants of the war in Afghanistan and the previous war in Iraq, other than the war fighters and their families or a great many of us has become kind of topics for conversation as opposed to real events. I think that degrading the president's capability to respond militarily to threats is gonna come home to roost before too long, and it's probably in Iran.
EDSo among all the other cause in terms of international credibility, I think there's a real one and one that we will be sorely missing if and when Iran attempts some activities with its nuclear weapons.
PAGEAll right. Ed, thanks so much for you call. Comments from the panel.
LEONHARDTThe one thing I'd say in defense of Congress is -- about degrading the president's ability to do it...
PAGEAnd, you know, you don't hear that that much.
LEONHARDTNo, I know.
PAGEDefense of Congress is a pretty rare thing.
LEONHARDTAnd I mean it as an institution, which is if a president goes to Congress to get authority to carry out a military action, the whole point is that Congress should able to say yes or no, right? And so I do think that while there is a risk of undermining the president here in a specific case, we don't want a situation in the big picture in our country in which every time the president asks for the authority to use force, Congress feels like it needs to do it for patriotic reasons. The point of a democracy is to have checks and balances.
PAGEHas the president set a precedence with this that other presidents are likely to feel obliged to follow, do you think, Olivier?
KNOXThey're clearly very mindful of that. And that goes to the core of this repeated statement that he has the authority to go no matter what they say. But they also -- they're pretty keenly aware of the president they sat in Libya. You know, the House voted a couple of times, symbolic votes, I grant you, but they voted a couple of times against the operation in Libya and failed to stop it in any meaningful way. But, yeah, at the White House, they're absolutely mindful that he might be curtailing in some way the ability of future of presidents to take military action.
PAGEHere's an email we've gotten from Chris, who's writing us from Flagstaff, Ariz., "Please discuss Syrian alternative or more options in just to attack or sustain, but everyone is discussing only these two." And here's another email from Constance. She writes, "Once again, we hear the panelists have a typical inside beltway discussion about Syria, examining the politics of it from a contestant perspective. It is not about that. It is about the fact that the country does not want another war, not a surgical strike, not any kind of military action.
PAGEWe are told we cannot afford food stamps, health care, Social Security, fill in the blank, but we have money for war. That is the issue. We want alternatives explored, humanitarian aid given, cooperation with international sanctions and war crimes decisions. Please quit talking as though bombing Syria is a done deal or even something that is appropriate." And, Molly, this is an email or a point of view that we're hearing from a lot of listeners this morning.
BALLWell, in defense of this panel, I would say that we have talked about the fact that public opinion is overwhelmingly against the Syria strike. And indeed I believe we have talked about it more as a not-done deal than as a done deal. It seems to be going down in the Congress, and the White House seems to be leaning against, you know, I don't like to make predictions. But if the vote were held today and the action were taken today, it seems as though Congress would vote it down and the White House would decide not to strike.
BALLSo it is not at all a done deal, but there is still a lot to be done. The votes have yet to be taken, a lot of the, you know, the president has yet to speak. I think it is our job here to report on the conversation that's happening among the policymakers as well as the residents of the country because that's how these decisions get made in this country.
KNOXAnd we do discussed that, in fact, the biggest question is not -- is about whether these strikes would make things better or worse and talked about some of the alternatives and the box the president is in. I think the alternatives question is very interesting because the Obama administration had been saying now for a couple of days that they have actually exhausted the alternatives, that they've imposed as many sanctions as they can get on Bashar Assad and his officials, and that they've -- that they're gonna get anything from the U.N., so they have talked about those alternatives.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David.
LEONHARDTThe one thing I'd say is I don't think there's some magic solution here that gets Assad to stop killing Syrians and doesn't involve military action of some kind or another. I think the serious arguments to have are, you know, what, this is a terrible tragedy. But we don't go launching a war every time there's a terrible tragedy and we shouldn't hear. Or Assad's killed 100,000 people. He's broken international norms. He's used chemical weapons. We need to either arm the rebels or we need to hit Syria.
LEONHARDTI don't think there is some way in which humanitarian aid or diplomacy or any of these things that don't involve military force get Assad to stop killing his people.
PAGEConstance and Chris, thanks very much for your emails. You know, the White House this week said that the Department of Veterans Affairs will now provide spousal benefits to married gay couples. That's something, of course, the administration's been doing in various aspects of the federal government in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
PAGEBut it's distinctive in -- at the VA because the law that provides spousal benefits for the VA actually specifies that veterans provides benefits to veterans' spouses who are of the opposite sex. So how unusual is it for the administration to simply decide we're not gonna abide by that provision of a law?
BALLI can't speak to how unusual it is. But it's certainly in keeping with, as you said, the approach that the administration has taken since the DOMA decision. I think one thing that was not widely acknowledged at the time the Supreme Court overturned DOMA was that this was not a sort of cure-all or a panacea for eliminating what gay rights activists see as discrimination against gay married couples in federal law. This is all over the federal statutes and regulations.
BALLIt's not -- even if you were to knockdown all of DOMA, which actually the Supreme Court decision did not do, you would not get rid of these pockets of the law where these exists. The administration seems to be taking the view that the Supreme Court action opened the door to more of these types of things. But there is also a move among gay rights activists and some members of the Congress to pass a law that would be a more broad overturning of not only DOMA but all of the different pockets of what they consider marriage discrimination in federal statute.
PAGEYou know, we're almost out of time, but I want to just take a minute, David, to talk about the rollicking primary contest that is going on in New York for the mayor's race.
LEONHARDTWe have had now -- unbelievably, we had 20 years without a Democratic mayor of New York City. The big pulsing liberal metropolis of New York has gone 20 years without a Democratic mayor. It now looks like it's finally get one. We've got a big Democratic primary. People have been up and down in it. It had the sideshow of the Anthony Weiner. The big question now seems to be, of the three leading candidates, will one or two of them survive the primary? They are Thompson, de Blasio and Quinn.
LEONHARDTChristine Quinn is the speaker now. She is the closest to Bloomberg, and she has suffered from that. Even though people like Bloomberg and he's been mostly successfully, they are little tired of him. And so instead, recently, de Blasio, who's quite liberal, and Thompson have been doing better in polls. And the big question, people think de Blasio now has a chance to clear the 40 percent hurdle and win without a runoff, and then he would move to a general election and be the heavy favorite. But it's totally fascinating.
PAGEDavid Leonhardt, he's Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. And for this first hour of our Friday News Roundup result, we've also been joined by Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo News and Molly Ball from The Atlantic. Thank you all for being with us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Thanks for listening.
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