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updated 12/15/2009 10:53:27 AM ET 2009-12-15T15:53:27

Guests: Jim Cramer, oe Conason, John Nichols, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Howard Fineman, Anne

Kornblut, Pat Buchanan, Eugene Robinson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Joe, the bummah (ph).

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in Washington.  Leading off tonight:

The “L” word, Lieberman.  Apparently, it wasn‘t enough for Joe Lieberman to say no on the public option.  Now this independent Democrat from Connecticut, who caucuses with the Democratic Party, has decided that he can‘t back the Medicare buy-in compromise worked out last week.  This raises the big question, Is Lieberman more interested in torturing liberals than in getting anything done here?

Plus, they used to say that Liberace, with his sequinned capes and candelabras, laughed all the way to the bank.  Well, today‘s top bank executives—are they laughing all the way back from the White House?  President Obama met with top bank executives today.  “Fat cats” he called them last night on “60 Minutes.”  He told them it‘s time for Wall Street to start lending money so Main Street can share in Wall Street‘s recovery.  But will it get the bankers to act?  That‘s our big question tonight.

And then in this interview last night with Oprah Winfrey, President Obama gave himself a B-plus for his presidency so far.  We‘ve got a couple of our HARDBALL regulars together and we‘re going to ask them to grade Obama and his presidency so far.  It‘s almost a year now.

Also, on a day when Hillary Clinton gave a major speech on the administration‘s approach to human rights, we ask, Is the relationship, you might call it the political marriage, between Mrs. Clinton and President Obama working out?  Did the president make the right choice here?  Is this good for the Obamas, as well as the Clintons, or either one of them?

And wait until you catch President Obama‘s reaction on “60 Minutes” when someone realized he hadn‘t been asked a question about something he clearly didn‘t want to talk about.  This is one of those rare times when the camera kept rolling, and we‘ve got the tape.  That‘s in the political “Sideshow” tonight.

Let‘s start with Senator Joe Lieberman‘s threats to torpedo health care reform.  We‘re talking the “L” word here, Lieberman.  Joe Conason‘s a Salon.com columnist and John Nichols writes for “The Nation.”

You first, Conason.  What is the motive here?  They used to say—what‘s the Italian phrase, Revenge is a dish best served cold?  Are we getting a cold dish of revenge from Joe Lieberman for having been dumped by the Democratic Party in that primary back in ‘06?

JOE CONASON, SALON.COM:  Well, it seems to be—if it is, it‘s revenge on the people of Connecticut, Chris, and everybody else in this country because as many as 60 percent of the people in his home state support the public option, for example, in the latest Quinnipiac poll.  So you know, if it‘s that petty, it reflects very poorly on him in the twilight of his Senate career.  I‘m not sure he‘ll be able to get reelected if he runs again, having done something like this.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s watch him in action on “Face the Nation With Bob Schieffer.”  Let‘s listen—yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT:  I think the only way to get this done before Christmas is to bring in some Republicans who are open-minded on this, like Olympia Snowe.  I‘ll tell you...

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST:  Well, what do you have to do to do that?

LIEBERMAN:  You got to take out the Medicare buy-in.  You got to forget about the public option.  You‘re probably going to have to take out the class act, which was a whole new entitlement program that will in future years put us further into deficit.  And you got to adopt some of the cost-containment provisions that‘ll strengthen cost containment that all of us favor.  If you did that, you‘d have an enormous accomplishment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s like a guy in a car lot saying, I like the car in the showroom, now, take the steering wheel, put it on the other side, repaint it a different color.

John Nichols, this guy wants a major retrofitting done of something that‘s been worked on now for almost a year.  And he‘s coming in here late at night, basically, saying, Do it all over so I can get you my support, maybe, and maybe some Republicans.

JOHN NICHOLS, “THE NATION”:  Well, you know, Joe Lieberman talking about bringing Republicans in is a bit comic.  The fact of the matter is, he doesn‘t control any more Republicans than he does Democrats.  What he‘s really saying is that he wants to be the central figure in this process.  And the reality is that tonight, he‘s going to go into that session with an awfully lot of Democratic senators who really wouldn‘t have minded if he had been extracted from the Senate back in 2006.

The frustration level is very high.  Democrats that I talked to really are getting angry, not at Lieberman but at Harry Reid.  And remember, Majority Leader Harry Reid has been Lieberman‘s primary defender since 2006, and a lot of Dems are asking, Why are we keeping this guy on?

MATTHEWS:  Well, what‘s the alternative?  It‘s not like they love Lieberman—even though I think that‘s what his name means in German, “lover man.”  But do they love him or do they simply need him to get their 60?  I mean, this isn‘t about romance here.

Let me go back to Joe Conason.

NICHOLS:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  The reason they need this guy is he‘s number 60.

CONASON:  That‘s, I‘m sure, all they want from him at this point.  I think John is right that senators who—Democrats who went out of their way to support Joe Lieberman back in 2006, when he was in that primary that he lost, including then Senator Barack Obama, probably feel a great sense of regret that he was reelected now because he‘s violated every promise he‘s ever made about health care, Chris, including in that election.

MATTHEWS:  Well, here he—OK.  So guys, the last thing he‘s done today is he says he doesn‘t like this Medicare buy-in.  Of course, we watched this over the weekend develop, which is a proposal to help with the liberal base of the party by allowing people at the age of 55 to pay several hundred dollars a month, perhaps, to be able to get the benefits of Medicare at a younger age, at 55.  He says he doesn‘t like that now.  But apparently—well, we have him a couple of months ago—in fact, three months ago, in an interview with his local paper, “The Connecticut Post”—let‘s listen to what he said to them on this very topic of letting people buy in, in their 50s, into Medicare.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

LIEBERMAN:  When it came to Medicare, I was very focused on a group post-50, maybe post—more like post-55, people who have retired early or unfortunately been laid off early who lose their health insurance and they‘re too young to qualify for Medicare.  And what I was proposing was that they have an option to buy into Medicare early.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, is this a lapse of memory, John Nichols, and then Joe?  I mean, here he is on tape recommending—recommending, taking the initiative in recommending the very proposal he‘s now slamming in order to sort of recraft this bill his way.  Your thoughts, John Nichols?

NICHOLS:  Well, it‘s not a lapse of memory.  I think we have to be very clear.  From the start of the health care debate, every time that Democrats have been close to getting some sort of broad agreement within the caucus, Joe Lieberman has stepped up to say, no, he will not support the deal.  So the fact of the matter is, they probably could have come up with an agreement to name the bill for Joe Lieberman‘s mother and he still would have opposed it.

He is determined to be the person who redefines this bill in his own image, as he wants it.  And I don‘t think that we should be at all surprised by the hypocrisy on this.  I think it‘s consistent with him throughout the debate on this bill.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the old expression on television when I was growing up was, Four out of five doctors recommend.  Well, the latest polling shows that 81 percent of Democrats in this country—that‘s four out of five, more than four out of five—say he should be taken out of the chairmanship, lost that chairmanship of Home Security—Homeland Security for this infraction.

Let me go now to the real dangerous point.  And I haven‘t been taking

this position for most of the year because I‘m pretty much an establishment

type when it comes to procedure.  Joe, if Joe Lieberman is going to be the

person who brings this down, brings this whole thing down—because with

now just a couple of days left really to get this cloture vote put

together, the 60 votes they need to basically reach the Christmas deadline

and he himself mentioned a couple minutes ago on that tape—if they have to deal with this, I think they may have to go with reconciliation.  They have to go the extraordinary route to get this passed and not rely on 60.  What is your thinking?  If Joe Lieberman can take this down single-handedly, you got to wonder about the quality of our majority rule in this country.

CONASON:  I completely agree with that, Chris.  We have a Senate where small states with low populations are able to block this kind of important national legislation, and Joe Lieberman has made himself this instrument of this all along.  As John was saying, we‘ve had many an impasse with Lieberman, where I‘ve come to believe not only that he—worse than wanting to shape the legislation, which he could have done all along if he‘d really wanted to, he wants to kill this legislation.  And it seems to me Joe Lieberman and a few other senators are the prime examples of why Harry Reid needs to go to reconciliation, if they‘re going to try to block this with a filibuster.

MATTHEWS:  Is there—John, is there a possible motivation here of Hartford, Connecticut, being an insurance capital, just like Omaha, Nebraska, is an insurance capital?  You have to wonder about Ben Nelson that way.  You don‘t have to wonder about him.  You‘re supposed to represent your state, but the people, not necessarily the businesses.  Is this something that—as I speak right now, Hartford, up in those high buildings, when you go past there on the turnpike there, right, the interstate, and you look up at all those high buildings—are they clinking their glasses now every we trash Joe Lieberman, saying, He‘s our boy, that‘s what he‘s there for, he‘s looking out for us?  Is that what‘s going on up there in Hartford, Connecticut, the insurance capital?

NICHOLS:  I think there‘s very little question of that.  And I‘m not sure that we‘re going to get very far beating up Joe Lieberman on that issue.  The fact of the matter is, he has always been overly representative of the insurance companies.  He‘s certainly carrying their water in this debate.  They benefit most by a health care reform plan that does not include a public option or any extension of Medicare because then...

MATTHEWS:  Explain—explain why that helps them.

NICHOLS:  ... it is simply a blank check for insurance.  Yes, it helps

well, if—if we set up an insurance, quote, unquote, “reform,” health care reform, that requires people to carry insurance policies, that even gets the government into the business of writing a check to folks who can‘t afford insurance policies to then turn over to insurance companies, insurance companies come out far richer.  They become essentially utilities, and they are utilities without any controls, without any competition.  That‘s a dream come true for a big, powerful insurance company.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s like the president of the United States saying, I want to buy everybody television sets.  That‘s probably good for the television industry.

Let me go—finally, I want you to sum up here, Joe Conason, my old pal, as to what are the remaining obstacles to getting health care in the next couple of days.  It seems to me it comes down to Joe Lieberman primarily, after him, Ben Nelson on this issue of the Medicare.  And to some extent, they have to deal with some language on abortion.  The two senators from Arkansas and Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu—are those the main—and then possibly Jim Webb.  There‘s talk of Jim Webb of Virginia being an obstacle.  Where do you see the obstacles right now?

CONASON:  Well, I think...

MATTHEWS:  To getting this moving.

CONASON:  I think that list is probably very accurate, Chris.  The other possible obstacle, though, is in the House, where progressive Democrats, if they water the bill down too much, some of them—or add abortion language that‘s unacceptable to progressives in the House—will jump ship on this bill and you won‘t have—you won‘t be able to have it pass in conference.  I mean, that‘s the final potential hurdle.  If you really sell out the bill all the way, as Joe Lieberman would want you to do, you end up with—you‘re pulling too much from the other end.  So—but I think that list that you made of senators who seem to be the most reluctant to go along with the deal is correct.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Joe Conason, thanks very much.

CONASON:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Joe Conason, of course, is with Salon.com.  And John Nichols is with “The Nation.”

Coming up: President Obama says he didn‘t run for president to be helping out the “fat cat” bankers on Wall Street.  Well, there‘s the language we‘ve been waiting for.  But today, he met with a group of them, except for the three that couldn‘t make it.  There‘s a story right there.  Can the president get tough with Wall Street?  Does he need to do more than just call them bad names?  CNBC‘s Jim Cramer will join us.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I work for a company that lends me out to cowards that don‘t have the courage to sack their own employees, and for good reason...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Who are you, man?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  ... because people do crazy stuff when they get fired.

I‘m going to need your key card.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  People do crazy stuff when they get fired.  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That‘s a clip from the new movie, “Up in the Air,” which hammers home that we‘re in a tight era of tight money and tight job markets.  Businesses are contracting, banks aren‘t lending, and today President Obama met with leaders of the financial services industry and told them it‘s time to step up to turn around the economy.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Given the difficulty businesspeople are having as lending has declined, and given the exceptional assistance banks received to get them through a difficult time, we expect them to explore every responsible way to help get our economy moving again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Specifically, the president wants banks to take the following steps: the increase lending—that‘s the big one—limit foreclosures, rein in executive pay—that would be a popular move—and support financial regulatory reform.  Well, but can he get them to do any of that stuff?

Jim Cramer hosts CNBC‘s “Mad Money,” and Andrew Ross Sorkin is the author of the great new book, it‘s a “New York Times” best-seller, “Too big to fail.”  He covers the financial world for “The Times.”

Let me start with Jim.  You‘re smiling, and I have no idea why except

well, I‘m on the air with you.  It is Hanukkah season.  We‘re all in a good mood.  It‘s the holidays.  I guess that‘s why you‘re smiling because I‘ve got a real hell of a question for you.

JIM CRAMER, HOST, CNBC‘S “MAD MONEY”:  Hit me.

MATTHEWS:  Most people think that the financial world, which you cover, has taken the money from the government, that the government gave them, basically, taxpayer money, and is using it to fatten their bonuses, their salaries, their profits, everything.  They‘re not lending it, they‘re grabbing it and hoarding it and enjoying it, and we‘re a bunch of suckers.  That‘s the way people look at Wall Street right now.

CRAMER:  I‘m not going to...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Your response?

CRAMER:  You know what?  I‘m not going to disagree with some of that.  I think that there are a lot of banks that literally are taking the money and they‘re just buying Treasuries, OK?  They take it at the very low level, they pay you nothing, and then they invest it and they make that difference.  It‘s a better business than lending.  They‘re taking advantage of what Ben Bernanke is doing.

MATTHEWS:  OK, how do they give themself bonuses money—bonus money based on what, 1 or 2 percent?  I mean, where‘s the fat money?  They‘ve been getting these big profits up at Goldman in this—what, the second quarter, the huge profits.  Where are those profits coming from, if they‘re not lending and getting interest from people?

CRAMER:  Well, remember, Goldman doesn‘t—I mean, Goldman is exhibit “A” and it‘s a shame because it‘s really not a bank.  It did get bank protection, which is why it needs to give back to the community.  That‘s why they‘re doing the $500 million small business loan program.

But I have to tell you, the money is being made right now not by lending for anyone.  The way you make money is strictly to pay you nothing on that deposit and then go invest it risk-free.  And we‘ve got to change that in order to prod them into lending.  Although they don‘t have a lot of customers that really want money because this is not a great time to build a business in this country, in part because of what‘s happening in Washington, frankly.

MATTHEWS:  You talk faster than I do.  Where do they make the profit, if they‘re only just getting just interest on T-bills?

CRAMER:  Well, you can...

MATTHEWS:  Short-term T money—Treasury bills?

CRAMER:  You can borrow money.  You can lever that up.  You can do it over and over again.  It‘s considered to be a risk-free trade.  It doesn‘t run afoul of the regulations.  And they did it in 1990, 1992, rebuilt the capital.  They‘re doing it again.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s go to Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Congratulations on your book.  And here‘s the big question.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  First let‘s dissect this starfish here.  First of all, number one, are banks lending money to people who have good collateral and good business prospects?  Are they lending money at the rate they should?

SORKIN:  Yes.  Probably.  But that‘s the adage of Wall Street, which is, We will give you money when you don‘t need it.  And that‘s the problem today, which is...

MATTHEWS:  Well, are they giving it at a lesser rate than they would have at other times?

SORKIN:  Not so much.  In fact, the rates aren‘t incredible.  They‘re not getting a great deal.  But you‘re right, if you have decent credit, they will give you a loan.  But if you‘re even close to the edge, they won‘t go near you.

MATTHEWS:  Is that good or bad?

SORKIN:  It‘s obviously bad.  But from the bank‘s perspective, it‘s not so bad at all because part of the issue is they don‘t see the recovery, frankly, the way the Obama administration sees the recovery.  So they‘re not going to start lending, and it really doesn‘t have to do with what Obama is saying.  They will not start lending...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

SORKIN:  ... until they feel comfortable that they‘re going to actually get paid back, and that‘s the issue.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Whacking them over the head, what good will that do?

Let‘s listen first.  Then I want your reaction, Andrew.  Whacking them over the head, as the president did last night, was this just P.R. for our benefit, or is it meant to be instructive to the people he‘s talking to, hopefully?  He—he said this on “60 Minutes” last night with Steve Kroft. 

Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “60 MINUTES”) 

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat-cat bankers on Wall Street. 

The people on Wall Street still don‘t get it.  They don‘t get it.  They‘re still puzzled why is it that people are mad at the banks.  Well, let‘s see.  You know, you guys are drawing down $20 million, $20 million dollar bonuses after America went through the worst economic year that it‘s gone through in—in decades, and you guys caused the problem.  And we got 10 percent unemployment.  Why do you think people might be a little frustrated?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Andrew, is that for us or for the bankers?  Who is he talking to? 

SORKIN:  That‘s actually for you.  And I will tell you why.  Because there‘s sort of two faces to President Obama. 

You know, last night, he gives that kind of rhetoric, and then today from the people I talked to who were at the meeting, he didn‘t really talk like that directly to them.  So, he says it for the public, but I‘m not sure in the room he‘s saying it that way. 

MATTHEWS:  How about John Mack and Parsons and other guys?  They didn‘t show up today.  They had a conference call with him.  They said their plane wasn‘t ready or something.  How is that going to go over?  Was that a little smack at the president? 

SORKIN:  I think it was a little smack.  It was not on purpose.  They were actually trying to take commercial flights.  They were trying to do the right thing, and they got stuck in the fog. 

But, at the same time, it sort of represents, how important meeting was this meeting to them?  You would have thought they would have been there last night or they would have had 12 plans to get there.

MATTHEWS:  How about taking the train? 

SORKIN:  Exactly. 

(CROSSTALK)

CRAMER:  David Gregory made them take the train Saturday night to get to “Meet the Press.” 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Every time my wife—she‘s not the only one—hears that there‘s going to be terrible weather, we get the train reservation.  It‘s what people do when they really want to get somewhere. 

If they don‘t really want to get somewhere, they say the weather is bad.  It was foggy. 

Jim, you are a normal person.  Would you please translate what those guys—were they basically saying to the president, we‘re the big macro money guys, we make the money in this country, you‘re just some politician? 

CRAMER:  No. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t think they were doing that?

CRAMER:  No, I don‘t.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, they just didn‘t have—they didn‘t have adequate schedulers? 

CRAMER:  No.  This is like—they weren‘t like watching the Eagle-Giant game and therefore they blew off the president.  It‘s not like that.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, no.  It‘s because the Eagles won.

(CROSSTALK)

CRAMER:  That would be—from Philadelphia, it‘s OK.

John Mack has called for more regulation, so that‘s not fair.  He‘s in a different category.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

CRAMER:  He actually welcomes the regulators.  Dick Parsons has been a very forward-thinking guy.  And I doubt that this is his chance to dis the president.  Lloyd is just on the—Lloyd Blankfein has been on the firing line.  I think he is probably wanting to kick himself right now. 

But we should point out that the president wants these guys to lend.  The regulators are saying, you better let the customer put down far more money than the old days.  So, you have the regulators saying don‘t lend.  You have the president say lend.  These guys don‘t know which way is loose.  They‘re just afraid.  Everybody‘s afraid to lend because they don‘t want to run afoul of the regulators. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you something.  You know—you see that collar you are wearing, Cramer?  You know, the one that goes sideways, rather than down? 

CRAMER:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s my absolute superficial judgment about Wall Street.  If you guys would start wearing the kind of collars that go down forward, like most of Americans, people wouldn‘t dislike you so much.  But you and Geithner, I know he‘s not a rich man, but Geithner wears the same kind of collar that goes to the side. 

That‘s how Europeans dress.  You guys have got to stop dressing like Europeans.  That is the problem. 

(CROSSTALK)

CRAMER:  I get to Goldman Sachs.  I get to Goldman.  And I‘m wearing button-downs.  I‘m wearing button-down shirts, because I didn‘t have two nickels, right?

(LAUGHTER)

CRAMER:  Then, my boss tells me, Jim, do you ever wear button-downs.  That‘s what you look like when you don‘t have a job.  So, it‘s a dress code thing. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s like when you‘re at GS-13 over at Treasury.  That‘s all right.

But, Andrew Ross Sorkin, would you agree with me that Geithner looks like one of the bad guys?  Why do they dress like Wall Street?  I‘m sorry. 

It‘s hard to...

(CROSSTALK)

SORKIN:  Where am I going to go with this, Chris? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The president is out...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... talking, trashing these guys saying how they‘re all fat cats, and his own Treasury guy looks like one of them.  It doesn‘t click. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He doesn‘t look like he‘s really mad at Wall Street.  He may have used the words, but it doesn‘t look like he‘s mad at Wall Street.  He hires from Wall Street. 

Go ahead.  Your thoughts, Andrew.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Get in trouble.  Get in trouble. 

SORKIN:  Well, I‘m probably wearing the wrong kind of collar.  So, I don‘t know how this is going to go.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No, yours is a little European.  You‘re right.  Go ahead.

SORKIN:  A little European. 

But I think that—does Geithner have the wrong look?  I don‘t know.  I think there is this element of group think, and I think there is an element where the American public says you are or were part of Wall Street or part of this system. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

SORKIN:  He wasn‘t part of this system per se.  But he clearly was around the hoop.  And I think that having people who were on the police force at the time of the crime makes it a little bit difficult today. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, if he was on a police force, it would be all right. 

You‘re right, though.  He was.  He was up at the Fed up there. 

Anyway, thank you, Andrew Ross Sorkin. 

Thank you for the fashion statement, Jim Cramer.  But just watch those collars. 

By the way, go, Iggles. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s how you pronounce it, by the way, ladies and gentlemen.

CRAMER:  It‘s Iggles.

MATTHEWS:  Iggles.  Iggles.  It‘s not Eagles.

Anyway, “Mad Money” airs weekday nights.  When does “Mad Money” air, Jim? 

CRAMER:  Six and 11:00.  You got it, chief.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Up next:  What do politicians do with their sex scandals like Mark Sanford and John Edwards when all the focus is on Tiger, Tiger Woods?  There‘s a little sex scandal envy going on here.  Stick around for “Saturday Night Live”‘s take.  It‘s pretty funny. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.” 

First up, can‘t get enough.  With Tiger Woods and his pursuits dominating the media sleaze patrols, “Saturday Night Live” imagines what it must be like to have your sleaze story overlooked. 

Here they were this weekend from left to right, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and John Ensign. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE”)   

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  It‘s not as though our affairs weren‘t messy.  For example, when I went to visit my girlfriend, I had a really preposterous cover story about hiking the Appalachian Trail. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Tiger didn‘t even bother to think of one. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  My girlfriend was married.  That‘s pretty bad. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Again, I had a love child. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  But the press barely covers us.  My wife just filed for divorce.  Try finding that in the papers. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  I paid hush money to my ex-girlfriend‘s husband. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Excuse me.  Maybe I wasn‘t clear.  But I had a love child, an illegitimate, out-of-wedlock, parents-not-married, baby bastard love child. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  I wonder if even they were laughing. 

Next, one last question?  Check out the final bit of that “60 Minutes” Obama interview from last night. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “60 MINUTES”)  

STEVE KROFT, CBS CORRESPONDENT:  At that point, we thought the interview was over, and then our executive producer suggested one more question.

The gate crashers.

OBAMA:  Yeah.

KROFT:  By now, you must know...

OBAMA:  It‘s really a shame that I had to go through a whole “60 Minutes” interview without talking about the gate crashers.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  Good catch.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wonder what he‘s really thinking.  That‘s the bit of real life you don‘t usually see on TV. 

Anyway, over in Italy, another security breach, and this one had much more serious consequences.  The prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, was hit by a statuette thrown at him by a man with a history of mental illness who somehow got close enough to the Italian leader to do real damage to him.  Berlusconi had a broken nose and two broken front teeth.  Word today is that Berlusconi will be hospitalized until at least tomorrow. 

And now for the “Big Number.”  Joe Lieberman said this weekend that he would filibuster the historic Democratic health care bill in its current form.  So, here‘s some tit for tat.  How many Democrats nationwide say that they would want Lieberman stripped of his chairmanship at the Homeland Security Committee if that happens?  According to a new poll, 81 percent.  Four out of five Democrats nationwide, 81 percent, want Joe Lieberman punished if he joins Republicans in filibustering health care—tonight‘s very political “Big Number.” 

Up next, after nearly a year in office, President Obama gives himself

he was asked to—the grade of B-plus.  That‘s his own score for a year.  Is that a fair mark or a case of grade inflation?  He did go to an Ivy League school.  They do inflate grades up there. 

Anyway, Pat Buchanan and Eugene Robinson will be here with their grades for the president next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRIAN SHACTMAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Brian Shactman with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks seeing some moderate gains today on a big buy for ExxonMobil and a lifeline for Dubai, the Dow Jones industrials adding 29 points, the S&P 500 up seven, and the Nasdaq strong today percentage-wide, jumping more than 21 points. 

ExxonMobil stirring up the energy sector today, announcing plans to buy natural gas developer XTO Energy, the all-stock deal valued around $31 billion.  Exxon shares down more than 4 percent, usually is the case with an acquiring company—XTO Energy more than 15 percent. 

Sun Microsystems jumping 11 percent today on reports that European regulators are warming up to Oracle‘s takeover bid for that company.  But Citigroup finishing sharply lower as it prepares to repay $20 billion in TARP loans.  Investors concerned about the potential for dilution of the stock. 

And an almost audible sigh of relief on Wall Street today.  Abu Dhabi pledges $10 billion in surprise aid to its debt-burdened neighbor Dubai. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business world—now back to the pride of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, Chris Matthews. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

It‘s report card time.  It‘s the end of the year.  And Oprah Winfrey asked President Obama to grade—she‘s pretty good at this.  She asked him to grade himself on his first year of president.  Here‘s that back and forth being Oprah and the president. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OPRAH WINFREY, HOST, “THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW”:  What grade would you give yourself for this year? 

OBAMA:  Good solid B-plus. 

(CROSSTALK)

WINFREY:  So, B-plus?  What could you have done better? 

OBAMA:  Well, B-plus because of the things that are undone. 

WINFREY:  OK.

OBAMA:  Health care is not yet signed.  If I get health care passed, I will—we tip into A-minus. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  So, does the president deserve an A, a B-plus or not? 

Eugene Robinson is the “Washington Post” columnist and an MSNBC political analyst.  And Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst. 

So, let‘s go by what‘s happened already, not by what might happen. 

First of all, talk a little bit about the economy and how you would see the president‘s performance qualitatively before I get to the grades.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Right. 

On the economy, I think you have to ask where were we when he took office and where are we now?  When he took office, we at least believed we were at the precipice, that we could be falling into not just the worst recession since the Great Depression, but in fact another Great Depression. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ROBINSON:  We‘re not in a Great Depression.  So, I think he should get fairly strong marks for keeping disaster from happening to the economy. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Fairly strong marks for averting the great—second Great Depression. 

Pat, your qualitative notion on the economy, how he‘s done? 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  He has inherited a tough situation, but it‘s gotten far worse.  You got 10 percent unemployment, rather than 7 percent.  One-fourth of all mortgages are in arrears -- 10 percent of them are under water.  Middle America is suffering like the devil.  The stimulus package didn‘t work as predicted and promised.  But he did inherit a tough situation.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Grade on the economy? 

ROBINSON:  I gave him a B-plus on economy.

MATTHEWS:  B-plus.

Pat, grade on the economy? 

BUCHANAN:  Professor Robinson grades on a high curve.  I will give him a C-plus, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you are a Jesuit-trained person.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to the health care issue.  Again, your qualitative thoughts—the narrative, rather, right now. 

ROBINSON:  My narrative on health care is that this has been an ugly, messy, still incomplete process.  But...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re not going to give him an incomplete, are you? 

ROBINSON:  No, I‘m not.  And I was tempted to. 

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  But I‘m not, because he has actually brought us closer to health care reform, I really do believe that, than any president before him has managed to do. 

And when you actually look at what we think is almost certain to be in a final bill once they finally get it out, I think there are really quite significant reforms.  I think we will look back on this as a very significant piece of legislation. 

And Clinton tried to do it all the way back to Harry Truman tried to do it.  They didn‘t get this close. 

BUCHANAN:  Oh, Chris, look, Lyndon Johnson would have had this done. 

He has been disengaged. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t he do it? 

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t know why Obama...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t Lyndon Johnson do it? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Well, I‘m talking about Lyndon Johnson went from Medicare and Medicaid and Voting Rights.  He rammed this stuff through.  He would have Republicans, dragged them over.  This would have been done before the tea party town—before the town hall things. 

I think he‘s been unengaged in this.  Frankly, it‘s Pelosi‘s bill in the House and Harry‘s bill in the Senate, if he gets it. 

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  Your grade on health care?

ROBINSON:  Professor Buchanan and I really disagree on this one.  I gave him an A-minus. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Pat, a grade on health care.

BUCHANAN:  I wish I studied under Professor Robinson. 

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  I‘m going to give him a C on health care. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

You start on Afghanistan.  What do you think of his performance first? 

BUCHANAN:  I think his—I don‘t give him high grades, for this reason.  He went to his—first, he did take three months to decide.  But instead of saying, look, we have got to get out of there, or, look, this is so critical we have got to win this thing, he split the difference.

And when presidents do that, I don‘t think it shows real leadership.  It wasn‘t Eisenhower going one way or it wasn‘t frankly some other president going another way. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What would you have done? 

BUCHANAN:  I think when I came in, I would have looked at it and said, this is not doable; let‘s get out.  I would not have put the 21,000 troops in.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think about the—Afghanistan?

ROBINSON:  I thought Afghanistan—you remember those problems in math where you had to show your work? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  I like the work that I see he did.  He just didn‘t come up with the answer on my answer sheet, which is basically the same as the answer on Pat‘s answer sheet. 

MATTHEWS:  So you gave him—

ROBINSON:  I give him—the points I give him on this are points for—number one, adding the troops early in the year, when the general said we‘ve been waiting the better part of a year; this whole thing is falling apart.  He had to do something.  I think it was the right thing to do to put in the first 21,000 troops. 

I think it was right then to stop the momentum of the whole process, to have this long sort of examination of what we should be doing.  I just don‘t like the answer he reached. 

MATTHEWS:  You gave him a C-plus. 

BUCHANAN:  So did I. 

ROBINSON:  So did I.

MATTHEWS:  What does that tell you?  You‘re the same as him on Afghanistan. 

BUCHANAN:  I think—Look, I don‘t—

MATTHEWS:  It tells me that neither one of you guys like the policy, ironically. 

BUCHANAN:  I would understand if he went one way or another, Chris. 

But he took a long time to decide and then just split the difference. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean 30 rather than 40?

BUCHANAN:  Yes, and instead rather going one way here, one way there. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to overall score.  Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the “Washington Post,” and many other papers, scores of other papers, I should say, or hundred; overall grade, B-plus. 

ROBINSON:  Overall B-plus.  I think we will look back, again, on this as a very successful first year of a presidency, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. 

BUCHANAN:  Difficult circumstances, but I don‘t see any success.  He got a stimulus package, didn‘t get cap and trade.  There‘s no foreign policy success here.  I think he did a good speech at Cairo.  No follow-up in the Middle East.  It has not been successful if you fall from 68 percent to 48 percent. 

MATTHEWS:  What grade did you give him? 

BUCHANAN:  I‘m going to give him a c-plus. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s do what the president did.  You say B-Plus.  You say C-Plus.  OK, so that averages out to a B.  OK, that‘s probably what most people would say. 

(CROSS TALK)  

MATTHEWS:  If between now and New Year‘s, or between now and the State of the Union, Pat, he gets health care through—if he gets health care through, do you want to adjust your scores? 

BUCHANAN:  Yeah, upward.  I would give him a B, because I don‘t think his -- 

MATTHEWS:  B?  And what would you do, Gene? 

ROBINSON:  I would probably go up to A-minus. 

MATTHEWS:  You might get a B-plus out of this guy.  You know what?  You guys may be anticipating—or rather he was anticipating we were going to end up.  But I think this health care thing is still up in the air, as we go to Christmas.  Hanukkah already. 

BUCHANAN:  Is it really his? 

ROBINSON:  If you‘re president—

BUCHANAN:  Look at Reid.  Look at Pelosi.  He‘s sitting there watching them.  Why didn‘t he bring them down there.  They could have gotten a deal, Chris, in September.  After that town hall stuff—

MATTHEWS:  Pat, this thing goes down, you‘re going to give him loss, aren‘t you?  Oh, come on.  You would give him the loss, but you don‘t want to give him the win. 

BUCHANAN:  I‘d say he hung back. 

MATTHEWS:  You wouldn‘t give him the loss, your magazine, your writings?  You wouldn‘t say he—

BUCHANAN:  I would go back to a C-minus. 

ROBINSON:  If you‘re going to give him the wash, you got to give him the plus. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘ve got to be consistent, one way or the other.  That‘s my judgment.  These gentlemen have agree that it‘s somewhere around a B right now.  It could be up as high as a B-plus.  Given the nature of some of the candidates here, an extraordinarily, but good showing by the president. 

Thank you, Gene Robinson.  Thank you, Pat Buchanan.  I think it‘s interesting you both agree that the Afghanistan policy is the most problematic, the biggest problem we‘re into as a country.  I‘m as troubled as you guys are. 

Up next, what‘s Joe Lieberman up to?  We call him the L-man right now, Joe the Bummer I called him.  Joe the Bummer.  This guy just wants to rain on this parade.  Does he have a serious policy problem with health care reform or his he just looking to bring down the Democrats who brought him down in ‘06, when they dumped him in that primary?  Is he still nursing those wounds?  Is this the case of a dish of revenge being best served cold?  The fix is next, with HARDBALL coming back on MSNBC..

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  Time for the politics fix, with “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman, who is an MSNBC political analyst, and the “Washington Post‘s” Anne Kornblut.  Thank you.  We‘re awaiting that book.  It‘s coming out soon.  Good timing, by the way, right after Christmas.  Before New Years.  We‘re all going to be at the news stands.  Lots of cash in people‘s hands that time of year.

Let‘s go with this one—no really, all the gift money, you go buy a book with it.  Let‘s talk about this thing with Harry Reid and Lieberman.  I call him Joe the Bummer, as in Joe the Plumber, because he‘s brilliantly timing this thing of I‘m not for this; I‘m not for the public option; now I‘m not for the buy-in on age 55.  He‘s just killing these guys. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE”:  I talked to a spokesman today. 

I said, look, I‘m going on HARDBALL; give me your side of the story. 

MATTHEWS:  Good move. 

FINEMAN:  OK, their side of the story is, it‘s a principled thing.  There are many parts of the bill he believes in.  The Medicare buy-in is an add on because there are all these subsidies.  The guy gave me a lot of plausible stuff.  And I half believe it.  I‘m sorry, I half—

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the other half of your belief, revenge? 

FINEMAN:  The other half is personal—not with Obama.  Don‘t forget, Obama, the president supported Lieberman in the fight in the party in Connecticut. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh. 

FINEMAN:  It‘s the grass roots left of the Democratic party that—

MATTHEWS:  -- that enjoyed his torture. 

FINEMAN:  -- that enjoyed his torture.  And this is pay-back to them.  Obama‘s caught—excuse me, the president is caught in the middle here.  That‘s my take on it.

MATTHEWS:  So he wants Markos Moulitsas to take it. 

FINEMAN:  He wants Kos.  He wants Fire Dog Lake.  He wants all those people who rode around on—on the bus of the challenger who defeated him in the Democratic primary. 

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  You think this goes back to that defeat in the primary up in Connecticut, where, after all those years in Connecticut politics as a Democrat, he got bumped by the party? 

ANNE KORNBLUT, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I think Howard makes a really good point.  I have two colleagues at the Post, Ezra Klein and Alec McGillis, who have been covering this really closely, who both earlier today made the point that it was hard to find the policy reasoning here behind this.  You know, he says it‘s got to make it more expensive.  The CBO hasn‘t scored it yet. 

MATTHEWS:  Especially since he came out for this very proposal three months ago.  Luke Russert, Tim‘s son, who works for NBC News now, went out and dug this story up, that three months ago, he came out for exactly the same thing he‘s now saying is unacceptable.  He initiated it. 

KORNBLUT:  More recently than that, even, was cool to the idea, but didn‘t outright oppose it, and, of course, could have blocked it sooner.  The timing couldn‘t be worse.  It‘s so I think hard to—there‘s absolutely no way to overlook the politics in this, because it‘s driving the liberals crazy.  As a result, as Howard points out, it‘s driving the White House crazy. 

MATTHEWS:  So, as a straight news person, who is not allowed to tell opinion, you can say now, Anne Kornblut, that this is an act of political revenge? 

KORNBLUT:  I can say there‘s a good case to be made.  It sure looks like it. 

MATTHEWS:  Political observers believe that—

FINEMAN:  I consider myself a straight news person too, and I‘m trying to understand the motivation here. 

What Lieberman‘s people told me made sense, because they will distinguish the thing from September.  They will say that now there‘s subsidies in the bill. 

MATTHEWS:  Is Joe Lieberman a Democrat or is he an independent completely now? 

FINEMAN:  He‘s an independent. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he going to keep the chairmanship of Homeland Security?

FINEMAN:  As we speak, there‘s a meeting of Democrats going up on the Hill.  My understanding was everybody going in was ready to yell at Joe Lieberman.  They‘re not going to kick him out of the room.  They‘re not going to say out, because the question somebody said to me is do they want a scapegoat or a bill.  They‘ll vent.  But they still want his vote in the end. 

I don‘t think he thinks of himself as anything other than the one man member of the Lieberman party.  That‘s who he is.  He may not run again in 2012.  He‘s estranged from the base of the Democrats.  He‘s off on his own here.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s one thing, Anne, to be really tough and to make the Democrats do—basically say heal, dog, heal, and get the Democrats do this bill the way he wants.  Is he willing to bring down the house, kill this bill right before Christmas, and be the the guy who does it?  Is he willing to do that?

KORNBLUT:  We didn‘t think that he would do what he did in the

Connecticut race and he did.  He‘s shown nothing but political courage, if

you want, or willingness to buck the party all the way through.  I wouldn‘t

it wouldn‘t surprise me all that much if he did. 

MATTHEWS:  What a story this is. 

KORNBLUT:  I will say this is expanding now beyond just Democrats yelling at him in the caucus meeting.  You have got liberal bloggers and even some Democrats again saying that they don‘t want, especially if he kills this, to be the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.  There‘s been today for his wife to no longer be a global ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Cure for Breast Cancer Foundation, which they said wouldn‘t be.  I think this thing is expanding, but you cannot, I don‘t think, overstate the level of anger. 

FINEMAN:  Those are the same.  By the way, those are the same blogs who were out after him in 2006.  So this is a continuing fight.  And it‘s going end up being more than Lieberman.  I don‘t think Joe Lieberman would like to be—as egotistical as he sometimes can be or seem, I don‘t think wants to do this alone.  I think if it happens, he sure as heck would like to have Ben Nelson and maybe a couple of others. 

I don‘t think the deal is over yet.  Despite all the yelling and screaming, it‘s still possible.  They‘re holding reconciliation in the background.  They don‘t want to mention it.  Harry Reid doesn‘t want to mention it, because the moment he mentions or doesn‘t react negatively to the idea of reconciliation, everybody will immediately interpret that for what it is. 

MATTHEWS:  The left will want it, yes.  He‘s saying OK.  That is really Armageddon. 

We‘ll be right back with Howard Fineman and Anne Kornblut to talk about something that may be going much better, the relationship between the president and the secretary of state, his former rival, Hillary Clinton.  Could this be the marriage made, if not in heaven, in some really nice place?  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Okay, we talked about Joe the Bummer as I called him, the guy causing all the trouble, Lieberman, the L-word.  Let‘s talk about something really nice.  Howard Fineman, Anne Kornblut, both of you—I know, Anne, your book‘s a lot about women in politics and how they‘re getting up against that glass ceiling.  But you start.  How is the secretary of state doing?  How is that doing for the president?  Has this been a good deal for both of them? 

KORNBLUT:  She‘s had her ups and downs.  But I think overall, looking back over on the year so far, both sides would say it‘s been a pretty good one.  There were these rocky moments, certainly in the Middle East.  She made some remarks about the settlements that were viewed by many as a setback. 

But in total, I think people didn‘t expect for them to get along as well as they have and, frankly, for there to be so little drama.  It was unclear whether the no-drama Obama lifestyle would suit the Clinton orbit.  That was a concern a lot of Obama people had with her as secretary of state.  So far, there has been very little, less than people would have expected, all throughout the Afghanistan process and everything else. 

MATTHEWS:  Howard?

FINEMAN:  Her husband basically launched his presidential campaign with a series of speeches in ‘91 in that very room, in Gaston (ph) Hall, the Healey Building out at Georgetown.  So that‘s a historic spot for the Clinton family.  So I thought that added an extra dimension to it.

I thought the speech was very well done, very thoughtful.  She was very careful to not that this was part of President Obama‘s policy, that she was just enunciating President Obama‘s policy.  I‘m trying to think, how is she regarding that?  I think she‘s come to terms with it very almost happily, I would say. 

MATTHEWS:  But she‘s not in a Walt Disney stage right now?  She‘s not frozen cryogenically, waiting for her chance? 

FINEMAN:  No, no, that‘s not what I meant.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m asking.

FINEMAN:  No, she sees the history.  She sees her husband‘s history, the family history.  I think she‘s pretty happy and focused on her mission.  And she likes detail.  Hillary Clinton is the kind of person who likes to get her hands around a complex problem.  There are so many diplomatic problems in the world.  It‘s a great job for her. 

MATTHEWS:  Getting up in the morning, Anne, and having five or six really smart people, I assume, telling you what‘s going on in the world that morning, just for you to know, I mean, what a great way to start your day?  Your thoughts?  Is this marriage good for the Clintons?  Is it good for Hillary Clinton?  Is she glad that she‘s secretary of state, rather than the senator from New York? 

KORNBLUT:  Look, I think after the campaign, we were all surprised she would want to travel as much as she had to as secretary of state.  By in large, absolutely.  Whatever concerns there were that this wouldn‘t be rehabilitation, that she should have stayed in the Senate and had her own New York power base I think for now have been set aside.  Again, if she can avoid some of those missteps that she‘s had earlier this year, not have any more diplomatic gaffes, then I think ultimately it will have been good for her.  

MATTHEWS:  I think it‘s great domestically.  In domestic Democratic politics, it‘s kept the Democratic party united.  It could have been coming apart over this economic thing we‘re facing right now.  It‘s a united party. 

FINEMAN:  I agree.  And Obama needs the Clintons. 

MATTHEWS:  He does.  He needs it for the white working class too. 

Thank you very much, Howard Fineman and Anne Kornblut.  We all agree it‘s been a great marriage so far. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Happy Chanukah, everybody, out there.  Right now, it‘s time “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz. 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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