MR. DAVID GREGORY: And, good Sunday morning. Time is nearly up before we go over the so-called fiscal cliff. Senate leaders spent the weekend working on a last-ditch deal and the House comes back today for a rare Sunday night session. Yesterday afternoon, in an exclusive interview, President Obama sat down with me in the blue room of the White House to discuss the way forward and his priorities for his second term.
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DAVID GREGORY: Mister President, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's great to be here. Thank you.
GREGORY: So the obvious question: Are we going over the fiscal cliff?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think we're going to find out in the next 48 hours what Congress decides to do, but I think it's important for the American people to understand exactly what this fiscal cliff is, because it-- it's actually not that complicated. The tax cuts that were introduced in 2001, 2003, 2010, those were extended and they're all about to expire at the end of the year. So on midnight December 31st, if Congress doesn't act then everybody's taxes go up. And for the average family that could mean a loss of 2,000 dollars in income.
For the entire economy that means consumers have a lot less money to make purchases, which means businesses are going to have a lot less customers, which means that they're less likely to hire and the whole economy could slow down at a time when the economy is actually starting to pick up and we're seeing signs of recovery in housing and in employment numbers improving.
And, so what Congress needs to do, first and fore-- foremost, is to prevent taxes from going up for the vast majority of Americans. And this was a major topic of discussion throughout the campaign. What I said was is that we should keep taxes where they are for 98 percent of Americans, 97 percent of small businesses. But if we're serious about deficit reduction we should make sure that the wealthier are paying a little bit more and combine that with spending cuts to reduce our deficit and put our economy on a long-term trajectory of growth.
You know, we have been talking to the Republicans ever since the election was over. They have had trouble saying yes to a number of repeated offers. Yesterday, I had another meeting with the leadership and I suggested to them if they can't do a comprehensive package of-- of smart deficit reductions, let's at minimum make sure that people's taxes don't go up and that two million people don't lose their unemployment insurance.
And, you know, I was modestly optimistic yesterday, but we don't yet see an agreement. And now the pressure's on Congress to produce. If they don't, what I've said is that in the Senate we should go ahead and introduce legislation that would make sure middle class taxes stay where they are and there should be an up or down vote. Everybody should have a right to vote on that. You know, if-- if Republicans don't like it, they can vote no. But I actually think that there's a majority support for making sure that middle class families are held harmless.
GREGORY: If you go over the cliff…
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Mm-Hm.
GREGORY: …what's the impact in the markets, which have been pretty confident up until now that a deal would get done?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, it's-- it’s hard to speculate on the markets, but obviously I think business and investors are going to feel more negative about the economy next year. If you look at projections of 2013, people generally felt that the economy would continue to grow, unemployment would continue to tick down, housing would continue to improve.
But what's been holding us back is the dysfunction here in Washington. And if, you know, people start seeing that on January 1st this problem still hasn't been solved, that we haven't seen the kind of deficit reduction that we could have had had the Republicans been willing to take the deal that I gave them, if they say that people's taxes have gone up, which means consumer spending is going to be depressed, then obviously that's going to have an adverse reaction in the markets.
GREGORY: What about automatic spending cuts? Those take effect January 1st as well. Do they have to be part of this deal? You've got half of those cuts in defense alone.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, the-- the other part of the fiscal cliff is Congress agreed that they would cut an additional 1.2 trillion dollars in spending. They put a committee together to try to come up with those numbers. They didn't figure out how to do it. And so what we now have is a situation where these automatic spending cuts go into place.
Now if-- if we have raised some revenue by the wealthy paying a little bit more, that would be sufficient to turn off what's called the sequester--these automatic spending cuts, and that also would have a better outcome for our economy in long-term.
But, you know, so far, at least, Congress has not been able to get this stuff done. Not because Democrats in Congress don't want to go ahead and cooperate, but because I think it's been very hard for Speaker Boehner and Republican Leader McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit-- as part of an overall deficit reduction package.
GREGORY: Well, you talk about dysfunction in Washington. You signed this legislation setting up the fiscal cliff 17 months ago. How accountable are you for the fact that Washington can't get anything done and that we are at this deadline again?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I-- I have to tell you, David, if-- if you look at my track record over the last two years, I cut spending by over a trillion dollars in 2011. I campaigned on the promise of being willing to reduce the deficit in a serious way, in a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy while keeping middle class taxes low.
I put forward a very specific proposal to do that. I negotiated with Speaker Boehner in good faith and moved more than halfway in order to achieve a grand bargain. I offered over a trillion dollars in additional spending cuts so that we would have two dollars of spending cuts for every one dollar of increased revenue. I think anybody objectively who's looked at this would say that, you know, we have put forward not only a sensible deal but one that has the support of the majority of the American people, including close to half of Republicans.
GREGORY: But when they say...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And it's...
GREGORY: ...leadership falls on you, Mister President, you don't have a role here in...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well...
GREGORY: ...breaking this impasse? You've had a tough go with Congress.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: David, you know, at a certain point if folks can't say yes to good offers, then I also have an obligation to the American people to make sure that the entire burden of deficit reduction doesn't fall on, you know, seniors who are relying on Medicare. I also have an obligation to make sure that families who rely on Medicaid to take care of a disabled child aren't carrying this burden entirely. I also have an obligation to middle class families to make sure that they're not paying higher taxes when millionaires and billionaires are not having to pay higher taxes.
There is a basic fairness that is at stake in this whole thing that the American people understand and they listened to an entire year's debate about it. They made a clear decision about the-- the approach they prefer, which is a balanced, responsible package.
They rejected the notion that the economy grows best from the top down. They believe that the economy grows best from the middle class out. And at a certain point, you know, it is very important for Republicans in Congress to be willing to say, "We understand we're not going to get 100 percent. We are willing to compromise in a serious way in order to solve problems," as opposed to be worrying about the next election.
GREGORY: You said that Republicans have a hard time saying yes. Particularly to you.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah.
GREGORY: What is it about you, Mister President, that you think is so hard to say yes to?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, that's something you're probably going to have to ask them, because, you know, David, you-- you follow this stuff pretty carefully. The offers that I’ve made to them have been so fair that a lot of Democrats get mad at me. I mean I offered to make some significant changes to our entitlement programs in order to reduce the deficit.
I offered not only a trillion dollars in-- over a trillion dollars in spending cuts over the next 10 years, but these changes would result in even more savings in the next 10 years. And would solve our deficit problem for a decade. They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way, but the way they're behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected. That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme.
And-- and at some point I think what's going to be important is that they listen to the American people. Now, you know, the-- I think that over the next 48 hours, my hope is that people recognize that, regardless of partisan differences, our top priority has to be to make sure that taxes on middle class families do not go up that would hurt our economy badly.
We can get that done. Democrats and Republicans both say they don't want taxes to go up on middle class families. That's something we all agree on. If we can get that done that takes a big bite out of the fiscal cliff. It avoids the worst outcomes. And we're then going to have some tough negotiations in terms of how we continue to reduce the deficit, grow the economy and create jobs.
GREGORY: If this fight comes back-- and I want to ask you specifically about entitlements: Medicare and Social Security.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.
GREGORY: Are you prepared in the first year of your second term to significantly reform those two programs? To go beyond the cuts you’ve suggested to benefits in Medicare, which your own debt commission suggested you’d have to do if you were really going to shore up Medicare at least. Are you prepared to do that in your first year of the second term?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: What I've said is I am prepared to do everything I can to make sure that Medicare and Social Security are there, not just for this generation but for future generations.
GREGORY: You've got to talk tough to seniors...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: But...
GREGORY: ...don't you about this? And say, something’s got to give?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: ...but I already have, David, as you know, one of the proposals we made was something called Chain CPI, which sounds real technical but basically makes an adjustment in terms of how inflation is calculated on Social Security. Highly unpopular among Democrats. Not something supported by AARP. But in pursuit of strengthening Social Security for the long-term I'm willing to make those decisions. What I'm not willing to do is to have the entire burden of deficit reduction rest on the shoulders of seniors, making students pay higher student loan rates, ruining our capacity to invest in things like basic research that help our economy grow. Those are the things that I'm not willing to do. And so...
GREGORY: Would you commit to that first year of your second term getting significant reform done? Telling Congress, “We've got to do it in…“
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, no, no...
GREGORY: ...”the first year?”
PRESIDENT OBAMA: ...but, David, I want to be very clear. You are not only going to cut your way to prosperity. One of the fallacies I think that has been promoted is this notion that deficit reduction is only a matter of cutting programs that are really important to seniors, students and so forth.
That has to be part of the mix, but what I ran on and what the American people elected me to do was to put forward a balanced approach. To make sure that there's shared sacrifice. That everybody is doing a little bit more. And it is very difficult for me to say to a senior citizen or a student or a mom with a disabled kid, "You are going to have to do with less but we're not going to ask millionaires and billionaires to do more." That’s not something that we’re...
GREGORY: Can I ask you about...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's not an approach that the American people think is right. And, by the way, historically that's not how we grow an economy. We grow an economy when folks in the middle, folks who are striving to get in the middle class, when they do well.
GREGORY: But I'm asking you about timeframe because, as you well know, as a second term president now, about to begin to your second term, your political capital, even having just won reelection, is limited. So what is your single priority of the second term? What is the equivalent to healthcare?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, there are a couple of things that we need to get done. I've said that fixing our broken immigration system is a top priority. I will introduce legislation in the first year to get that done. I think we have talked about it long enough. We know how we can fix it. We can do it in a comprehensive way that the American people support. That's something we should get done.
The second thing that we've got to do is to stabilize the economy and make sure it's growing. Part of that is deficit reduction. Part of it is also making sure that we're investing, for example, in rebuilding our infrastructure, which is broken. And, you know, if we are putting people back to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools, in part paying for it by some of these broader long-term deficit reduction measures that need to take place that will grow the economy at the same time as we're also setting our path for long-term fiscal stability.
Number three. You know, we've got a huge opportunity around energy. We are producing more energy and America can become an energy exporter. How do we do that in a way that also deals with some of the environmental challenges that we have at the same time? So that's going to be a third thing.
But the most immediate thing I've got to do starting on January 1st, if Congress doesn't act before the end of the year, is make sure that taxes are not going up on middle class families. And because it is going to be very hard for the economy to sustain its current growth trends if suddenly we have a huge bite taken out of the average...
GREGORY: Those are...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: ...American's paycheck.
GREGORY: Those are four huge things and you didn't mention after Newtown, although I know you're thinking about it, new gun regulations.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes.
GREGORY: Mayor Bloomberg of New-- New York told me a couple weeks ago on this program that ought to be your number one agenda item. You know how hard this is. Do you have the stomach for the political fight for new gun control laws?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, David, I think anybody who was up in Newtown, who talked to the parents, who talked to the families, understands that, you know, something fundamental in America has to change. And all of us have to do some soul searching, including me as president that we allow a situation in which 20 precious small children are getting gunned down in a classroom. And I've been very clear that, you know, an assault rifle ban, you know, banning these high capacity clips, background checks, that there are a set of issues that I have historically supported and one will continue to support.
GREGORY: But can you get it done? I mean the politics...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And...
GREGORY: ...is the question.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: ...so the question is are we going to be able to have a national conversation and move something through Congress. I'd like to get it done in the first year. I will put forward a very specific proposal based on the recommendations that Joe Biden's task force is putting together as we speak. And so this is not something that I will be putting off. But...
GREGORY: The NRA says it's just not going to work.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well...
GREGORY: It didn't work before. It's not going to work now.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, my response is something has to work. And it is not enough for us to say, “This is too hard so we're not going to try.” So what I intend to do is I will call all the stakeholders together. I will meet with Republicans. I will meet with Democrats. I will talk to anybody. I think there are a vast majority of responsible gun owners out there who recognize that we can't have a situation in which somebody with, you know, severe psychological problems is able to get the kind of high capacity weapons that-- that this individual in Newtown obtained and-- and gunned down our kids. And, yes, it's going to be hard.
GREGORY: Do we have an armed guard...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: But...
GREGORY: ...at every school in the country? That's what the NRA believes. They told me last week that could work.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I am not going to prejudge the recommendations that are given to me. I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools. And I think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow is going to solve our problem. And, look, here's-- here's the bottom line. We're not going to get this done unless the American people decide it's important.
And so this is not going to be simply a matter of me spending political capital. One of the things that you learn, having now been in this office for four years, is the old adage of Abraham Lincoln's. That with public opinion there's nothing you can't do and without public opinion there's very little you can get done in this town. So I'm going to be putting forward a package and I'm going to be putting my full weight behind it. And I'm going to be making an argument to the American people about why this is important and why we have to do everything we can to make sure that something like what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary does not happen again.
But ultimately the way this is going to happen is because the American people say, “That's right. We are willing to make different choices for the country and we support those in Congress who are willing to take those actions.” And will there be resistance? Absolutely there will be resistance.
And the question then becomes, you know, whether we are actually shook up enough by what happened here that it does not just become another one of these routine episodes where it gets a lot of attention for a couple of weeks and then it drifts away. It certainly won't feel like that to me. This is something that, you know, that was the worst day of my presidency. And it's not something that I want to see repeated.
GREGORY: It hit close to home.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely.
GREGORY: Let me ask you about a couple of foreign policy notes. After the attack in Benghazi, is there a need for more accountability so that this doesn't happen again? And do you know who was behind the attack at this point?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Two points. Number one, I think that Tom Pickering and Mike Mullen who headed up the-- the review board did a very thorough job in identifying what were some severe problems in diplomatic security. And they provided us with a series of recommendations. Many of them were already starting to be implemented. Secretary Clinton has indicated that she is going to implement all of them.
What I’ve-- my message to the State Department has been very simple. And that is we're going to solve this. We're not going to be defensive about it. We're not going to pretend that this was not a problem. This was a huge problem. And we're going to implement every single recommendation that's been put forward.
Some individuals have been held accountable inside of the State Department and what I've said is that we are going to fix this to make sure that this does not happen again, because these are folks that I send into the field. We understand that there are dangers involved but, you know, when you read the report and it confirms what we had already seen, you know, based on some of our internal reviews; there was just some sloppiness, not intentional, in terms of how we secure embassies in areas where you essentially don't have governments that have a lot of capacity to protect those embassies. So we're doing a thorough-going review. Not only will we implement all the recommendations that were made, but we'll try to do more than that. You know, with respect to who carried it out, that's an ongoing investigation. The FBI has sent individuals to Libya repeatedly. We have some very good leads, but this is not something that, you know, I'm going to be at liberty to talk about right now.
GREGORY: In the politics, in the back and forth in this, do you feel like you let your friend Susan Rice hang out there to dry a little bit?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No. First of all, I think I was very clear throughout that Susan has been an outstanding U.N. ambassador for the United States. She appeared on a number of television shows reporting what she and we understood to be the best information at the time. This was a politically motivated attack on her. I mean of all the people in my national security team she probably had the least to do with anything that happened in Benghazi. Why she was targeted individually for the kind of attacks that she was subjected to is-- is-- was puzzling to me. And I was very clear in the days after those attacks that they weren't acceptable. So, you know, the good thing is-- is that I think she will continue to serve at the U.N. and do an outstanding job. And I think that most Americans recognize that these were largely politically motivated attacked-- attacks as opposed to being justified.
GREGORY: You have another series of cabinet choices to make. Former Senator Chuck Hagel has come under criticism for some comments he's made including about a former ambassador nominee during the Clinton years that being gay was an inhibiting factor to being gay to do an effective job. Is there anything about Chuck Hagel's record or statements that’s disqualifying to you should you nominate him to run the Defense Department?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, I haven't made a decision about who to nominate. And my number one criteria will be who's going to do the best job in helping to secure America.
GREGORY: Anything disqualify…
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Not that I see. I've served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who's currently serving on my Intelligence Advisory Board and doing an outstanding job. So I haven't made a decision on this. With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it. And I think it’s-- it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about, you know, gays and lesbians serving our country. And that's something that I'm very proud to have led. And I think that anybody who serves in my administration understands my attitude and position on those issues.
GREGORY: Mister President, as you look forward to a second term, you think about your legacy, you think about your goals, how frustrated are you at how hard it appears to be to get some of these things done? Very difficult relationship with Congress. People come up to me all the time and say, "Don't they realize, all of them, the president, Republicans and Democrats, how frustrated we all are?"
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think we're all frustrated. You know, the only thing I would-- I would caution against, David, is I think this notion of, "Well, both sides are just kind of unwilling to cooperate." And that's just not true. I mean if you look at the facts, what you have is a situation here where the Democratic Party, warts and all, and certainly me, warts and all, have consistently done our best to try to put country first. And to try to work with everybody involved to make sure that we've got an economy that grows, make sure that it works for everybody, make sure that we're keeping the country safe. And, you know, the-- the-- does the Democratic Party still have some knee jerk ideological positions and are there some folks in the Democratic Party who sometimes aren't reasonable? Of course. That-- that's true of every political party.
But generally if you look at how I've tried to govern over the last four years and how I'll continue to try to govern, I'm not driven by some ideological agenda. I’m a pretty practical guy and I just want to make sure that things work. And-- and one of the nice things about never having another election again, I will never campaign again, is, you know, I think you can rest assure that all I care about is making sure that I leave behind an America that is stronger, more prosperous, you know, more stable, more secure than it was when I-- I came into office and-- and that's going to continue to drive me. And I-- I think that the issue that we're dealing with right now in the fiscal cliff is a prime example of it. What I'm arguing for are maintaining tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans. I don't think anybody would consider that some liberal left wing agenda. That’s some-- that-- that used to be considered a pretty mainstream Republican agenda.
And it's something that we can accomplish today if we simply allow for a vote in the Senate and in the House to get it done. The fact that it's not happening is an indication of, you know, how far certain factions inside the Republican Party have gone where they-- they can't even accept what used to be considered centrist, mainstream positions on these issues.
Now I re-- I remain optimistic, I'm just a congenital optimist, that eventually people kind of see the light. You know, Winston Churchill used to say that we Americans, you know, we-- we try every other option before we finally do the right thing. After everything else is exhausted we eventually do the right thing and I-- I think that that's true for Congress as well. And-- and I think it's also important for Americans to remember that politics has always been messy. People have been asking me a lot about the-- the film Lincoln and, you know...
GREGORY: Is this your Lincoln moment?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, no. Look, A, I never compare myself to Lincoln and, B, obviously the magnitude of the issues are quite different from the Civil War and slavery. The point, though is, is democracy's always been messy. And, you know, we're a big, diverse country that is-- is constantly sort of arguing about all kinds of stuff but eventually we do the right thing.
And in this situation I'm confident that one or two things are going to happen when it comes to the fiscal cliff. Number one, we're going to see an agreement in the next 48 hours, in which case middle class taxes will not go up. If that doesn't happen, then Democrats in the Senate will put a bill on the floor of the Senate and Republicans will have to decide if they're going to block it, which will mean that middle class taxes do go up. I don't think they would want to do that politically but they may end up doing it.
And if all else fails, if Republicans do in fact decide to block it, so that taxes on middle class families do in fact go up on January 1st, then we'll come back with a new Congress on January 4th and the first bill that will be introduced on the floor will be to cut taxes on middle class families. And, you know, I-- I don't think the average person's going to say, "Gosh, you know, that's a-- that’s a really partisan agenda on the part of either the president or Democrats in Congress." I think people will say, "That makes sense, because that's what the economy needs right now."
So if-- one way or another, we'll get through this. Do I wish that things were more orderly in Washington and rational and people listened to the best arguments and compromised and operated in a-- in-- in a more thoughtful and organized fashion? Absolutely. But when you look at history that's-- that’s been the exception rather than the norm.
GREGORY: My interview with President Obama. Coming up, reaction to the interview and what it tells us about what his second term will look like. Joining me, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, executive editor at Random House Jon Meacham, David Brooks of the New York Times and our political director and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd. All coming up, next.
GREGORY: Coming up, reaction from our roundtable this morning. You’ve just heard the president lay out his big agenda items for the second term--immigration, the economy, energy and middle class tax cuts, not to mention gun control. But can he realistically get any of them done given Washington’s track record of dysfunction? (Unintelligible) roundtable is here to break it all down after this brief commercial break.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm confident that one or two things are going to happen when it comes to the fiscal cliff. Number one, we're going to see an agreement in the next 48 hours, in which case middle class taxes will not go up. If that doesn't happen, then Democrats in the Senate will put a bill on the floor of the Senate and Republicans will have to decide if they're going to block it, which will mean that middle class taxes do go up. I don't think they would want to do that politically but they may end up doing it.
GREGORY: That, of course, from our interview just moments ago with the president. I sat down with him yesterday at the White House, putting the onus squarely on Congressional leaders to either do a comprehensive package now or a short-term solution to prevent middle class taxes from going up. Joining me now, NBC News political director and our chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd; NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw; author of the bestselling-- New York Times’ bestselling book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Jon Meacham; columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks; and presidential historian, author of the Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Welcome to all of you. David Brooks, let me start with you. My big take away, the president is setting a tone here with Republicans, putting them on notice that yes, taxes are going to go up, and that he’s going to drive a pretty hard bargain on a lot of different issues rather than try to bring them into the fold. He doesn’t feel like compromise is going to work at this point.
MR. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, New York Times): Yeah. Well, first, let’s say what’s happening in Washington right now is pathetic. When you think about what the revolutionary generation did, what the Civil War generation did, what the World War II generation did, we're asking not to bankrupt our children and we've got a shambolic, dysfunctional process. Now I think most of the blame still has to go to the Republicans. They've had a brain freeze since the election. They have no strategy. They don't know what they want. And they haven't decided what they want. But if I had to fault President Obama, I would say that sometimes he’s-- governs like a-- a visitor from a morally superior civilization. He comes in here and he will not-- he-- he'll talk with Boehner, he won't talk with the other Republicans. He hasn't built the trust. Boehner actually made a pretty serious concession, 800 billion dollars in tax revenues, probably willing to go up on rates. But the trust wasn't there to get that done. And if the president wants to get stuff done over the next four years, it's got to be a lot more than making the intellectual concessions. It’s got-- got to get to the place where Republicans say, okay, we’ll take a risk. This guy won’t screw us.
MR. BROOKS: They don’t feel that right now.
GREGORY: Chuck, just your reading of the…
MR. CHUCK TODD (Political Director, NBC News): Yeah.
GREGORY: … immediate news that’s going to be made over the course of today and tomorrow. Again, what I think is significant, the president saying we either get this deal now, or we’ll go over the cliff. We’ll come back right after the…
MR. TODD: Right.
GREGORY: …first of the year and we’ll try to get the tax cuts through again. But the Republicans are going to be forced to be in a position, they’re going to have to say no because we’ll put it on the floor.
MR. TODD: Yeah. There didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency of, oh, my God, we can't go over the cliff, right? The president was laying it out, you know, what, we might go over. This is how we’re going to deal with it once we go over. We’re not going to end up, you know, in the long-term raising taxes on everybody. But he seemed to be not making today do or die, not making the next 48 hours the big thing here, which will-- it will be interesting to see if that’s how Senate-- the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who is the key here, right? Does he sign off on a deal? If he signs off on a deal, something will happen. Does he read that and say, boy, we need to take this tax issue off the table. He’s been a big believer of this. Take the tax issue out that give the president his tax hikes on the rich now, fight him on everything else when taxes aren’t part of the conversation. Fight him on everything else in-- in six weeks when the debt ceiling is hit or perhaps it ends up eight weeks, 12 weeks, whenever that fight happens, and do that. I do think that McConnell-- that’s where he wants to be. Can he get there in the next 24 hours, that’s what we don’t know.
GREGORY: Tom Brokaw.
MR. TOM BROKAW (NBC News): Well, it-- it-- it-- it seems to me that the middle class is going to have a date for the prom. I mean, everybody is talking about protecting the middle class here. So I think this deal will probably get done around the middle class tax cut. It’s at what level. Is it 400,000 dollars or 250,000 dollars or some other number, which is going to be critically important? A lot of people don’t realize in the large urban and suburban areas of America, 250,000 dollars doesn’t make you rich. You’ve got two kids in college at 60,000 dollars. If you’re a boomer, you may have a dependent parent of some kind. You’re spending another 20-25,000 dollars on. So we have to have the definition of what is the middle class. To David’s point, I do really believe that the president doesn’t work hard enough at bringing everybody into the White House and rolling up his sleeves, having them in the living quarters, getting them around the table and saying how do we get this deal done. He didn’t talk downstream about tax reform, for example. And I think it would have been helpful to him this morning to have said, look, we get this tax deal done, I’m here to help on Medicare and Social Security Reforms. We’ve got to address those, instead of just saying I’m going to protect the seniors who are there and the Medicare and Medicaid recipients. Give a little something. Show good faith about what needs to be done on deficit reduction and the entitlement programs.
GREGORY: Doris, Republicans I have talked to in the last couple of days on Capitol Hill had said, look, you know, the-- the president meeting with all the congressional leaders, it’s a first time that’s happened since November 16th. This is not somebody who has been actively engaged in negotiating. He’s basically saying yet again; I won, we’re going to get this through. But the president says, no, it’s-- it’s Republicans who just won’t say yes to reasonable proposals.
MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (Presidential Historian; Author, Team of Rivals): Well, that may be the conclusion that he’s drawn. I mean, we don’t really know what’s going on. Invitations put out, not necessarily accepted. What interested me about the tone of his talk with you was that, I think, he's learned from that first term where he was arguing with-- to explaining things. He talked simply in this thing. He talked conversationally. He repeated over and over again his own points, fairness, balance. He talked about middle class out rather than from the bottom up. That seems to be a new phrase. And I think he’s learned what Theodore Roosevelt had learned that when you’re speaking to the American people and you want to make an argument, it has to be simple. Maybe as Theodore Roosevelt said, “My Harvard buddies might think it’s commonplace,” but I thought he spoke in a different tone today, more conversational, and that’s something you learn from your first term, where he thought he had spoken too much over people’s heads or too explanatory.
GREGORY: Jon Meacham, there’s something I also wanted to pick up on. The president’s obvious irritation, Chuck was just mentioning it before we started, at the notion that it’s a pox on both Houses.
MR. JON MEACHAM (Author, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power): Right.
GREGORY: And one of the president’s top advisers is rather defensive on Twitter saying that it-- you know, it should bug every American because it’s lazy journalism and punditry and has a real effect on our political system. Well, here’s the reality that even his advisers have to understand. The American people, Republicans and Democrats, do look at results or the lack thereof. So, it’s not lazy punditry when people are out there very frustrated with both ends of this.
MR. MEACHAM: Right. And I see the system as broken because as you say, it doesn’t produce a result, a desirable result.
GREGORY: Right. Being right is not enough, even if you’re the president.
MR. MEACHAM: Exactly. Exactly.
GREGORY: Even if you believe you’re right, it doesn’t necessarily get a result.
MR. MEACHAM: You know, presidential politics is about wholesale and retail as we say, you know, in-- in the trade. And so today, this morning, he was doing a wholesale sell. He was using the bully pulpit. He was talking to you. He was making an intellectual case and trying to say, I won. This is what you voted for. This is what we adjudicated in the election. But on the retail side, as-- as Tom says, all evidence suggests he has not been the warmest and fuzziest of cajolers. And you have to do both. And you can’t just be right on the idea. You do have to sell this. And even the greatest presidents, let’s be clear, Ronald Reagan-- the modern era-- Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, they sold their initial deals in the first year. (Unintelligible) for Reagan and the tax rates for Clinton and it was close. It was one, two, three votes. It was very tight. But they did it. And they pushed and they pushed on both the wholesale and the retail.
MS. GOODWIN: But I don’t think you can have the congressmen over too often. I think they should be there sleeping with you if you want them to be, but on the other hand…
MR. MEACHAM: Well, that could have some people in trouble.
MS. GOODWIN: I didn’t quite mean that.
GREGORY: You know, the Civil War era, people, Doris, you know.
MS. GOODWIN: But I think he finally has made a decision, perhaps, that the inside game didn’t work. He said that which…
MR. MEACHAM: But he has never tried these…
MS. GOODWIN: …means immobilize the outside game.
MR. TODD: But he has-- inability to try the inside game, but let’s make sure we are about to come up on the most-- the least productive Congress in history, we have in mathematical terms, 218 bills this Congress has passed. It’s the lowest number since this has been tracked. The lowest number before that was 333. Let’s go through the highlights of this Congress. No farm bill. By the way, milk prices have been going up. We both talked about the milk cliff. That-- that debacle we saw on the Senate on the U.N. Disability Treaty right in front of Bob Dole. And that was just a-- a bizarre moment, if you will. This fiscal cliff, three budget standoffs. I mean, this-- this Congress has been uniquely atrocious.
MR. BROKAW: You know, the fact is the system is red, 75 percent of the congressmen come from gerrymandered districts in which they are bulletproof. They only play to one constituency. There are no swing states. They don’t go home and have to prove their case because they have got a choir back home. And that’s a huge part of a problem here. There’s another reality in this town today. We need a lighter moment here. A lot of folks as I was coming into the office today said they have to get this done by kickoff time tonight.
GREGORY: Yeah, exactly.
MR. TODD: It’s a good thing. That was a good thing…
GREGORY: That’s right.
MR. TODD: …NBC moved its kickoff to prime-time. It’s very important that…
GREGORY: …clinch today. That’s not important. David, I think we’re going to make a point but I-- I also think it’s important to-- to go back to the president’s argument, that, you know, you have to be able to say yes to something that’s reasonable. Charles Krauthammer and other conservatives have argued that he’s effectively exposed big internal divisions in the Republican Party that they have yet to work out, which prevents them from getting to a reasonable place of compromise to then move on to fight other battles.
MR. BROOKS: Right. Well, Boehner was close to a deal, but he couldn’t sell-- not the rank and file wild men of the caucus, he couldn’t sell it to the senior leadership on the deal because they thought they were giving away what they needed to do tax reform later on. But you have got to sort of anticipate that. You have got to know beyond Boehner what the party wants. But in some sense, the Republicans are being shambolic and they’re making fools out of themselves. But in another sense, they are reacting favorably or rationally to the incentive structure they are with in. The big lie in this whole thing is that we have got the sensible country with the dysfunctional Washington. The reality is we have a country of people who want to bankrupt their children to spend money on themselves, and they will punish any politician who prevents them from doing that. And therefore they will punish Republicans if they-- if they cut entitlements. They will punish Democrats if they cut entitlements. So what you saw today was the president shifting the attention from debt reduction to tax cuts, which is the easy thing.
MR. BROOKS: So, I think the problem is centrally in the country, and the politicians look like idiots because they are responding to horrible incentives.
GREGORY: And it interesting…
MS. GOODWIN: And it’s shambolic. That’s a great word.
GREGORY: Yeah. What does shambolic mean exactly?
MR. BROOKS: It some British…
GREGORY: Okay. But you-- Tom-- Tom when you-- I’m not afraid of it-- well, you know, I thought I’d let it go the first time. On second thought I had to say I don’t really know what you meant. Tom, you know, you interviewed-- you interviewed then candidate Obama in 2008. You said-- you asked him then, would you get Medicare and Social Security reform done in your first two years? He said, well Tom, I don’t know if I can do that but-- certainly in the first term. I asked him to make a commitment for the first year of his second term. He’s not prepared to do that. This is the driver, David you-- you recently linked to a Weekly Standard piece about you’re going to run out of discretionary money to do the things the president wants to do if he doesn’t take on entitlements.
MR. BROKAW: They’ve got to address it. And the president I think, could help himself a lot if he were tougher on the AARP for example, and said look, it’s not about the people at the bottom for whom Medicare really is the lifeline. It’s about all of the people, including those of us around the table who get the same benefits, members of our family who are very working class. My brother, you know, has a really great working class career working for the telephone company. But there’s a big disparity between what I’m worth and he’s worth but we get the same benefits at the end of the day. There’s something wrong with that. And, you know, the fact of the matter is that we’re all living longer as well. Social Security can go up if you give it some lead time to retire at 67 and probably 20 years from now to retire maybe at 70 because people are staying in the workplace longer. He ought to be able to raise those issues in a way that he can begin to sell them to the idea of-- sell to the American people the idea that we’ve got fundamental reforms that we have to do, as David says, downstream because we are going to be bankrupt not just our children but your grandchildren.
MR. TODD: But this so goes on the Republicans a little bit. If they want this, right, and McConnell I think does, I’m not sure all-- to go into your Senate structure here. They demagogue Medicare to their own success, a lot of them got into Congress demagoguing Medicare. But if they want this, and this all good-- you know, they are going to, A, need a Democratic president to sign the legislation. It can never-- the Republican Party can’t have it where it’s all one party that does this with Social Security and Medicare. And they have got to be well in to say all right, if they want to do this, they’re going to have give on something that they don’t like, maybe even higher tax-- and, you know, that’s where the moment was there. They almost-- they almost got this president to move on Social Security. They almost got him to move on-- on Medicare reform and they didn’t take the deal.
GREGORY: Let me bring up…
MR. BROOKS: The reality is…
GREGORY: Go ahead.
MR. BROOKS: …that at the end of the day, they are going to walk away from this without any spending (Unintelligible). We’re going to get a deal which will do nothing on deficit.
GREGORY: And nothing even with the sequester issues.
MR. TODD: And it’s their own fault.
MR. BROOKS: I totally agree with that.
GREGORY: Jon, Let-- let me bring up the gun issue. The president said he’ll put up his-- his full weight behind--his first year--gun control legislation. But I-- the-- the question still stands, does he have the stomach for how difficult this is going to be politically? I’m not sure.
MR. MEACHAM: I’m not either. I--I-- you know, there’s a great line in Tom Sawyer where Tom Sawyer says that the-- an evangelist came through town who was so good that even Huck Finn stayed saved till Tuesday. I worry that our attention span on these things is so-- so limited, you had to bring up the question of guns as the president was laying out his second term agenda. It is one of these cultural political issues where you have a ferociously well-organized opposition, and a more diffuse common sense broader population. And I think that that’s-- that’s where the tension is. That also by the way is not-- the well organized interest plus the common sense diffusion is not just limited to guns. It’s…
GREGORY: But, Tom, talk a little bit more about guns. As-- as you remember, the Assault Weapons Ban in ‘94; passes the House by four votes. And that was a Democratic House.
MR. BROKAW: And-- and-- and by the way, it had a lot of loopholes in it. I brought a copy of a magazine I'm sure the rest of you don’t get at your home, but I do. It’s called Shotgun News. And…
MR. TODD: Smarty, over here.
MR. BROKAW: Almost the entire-- this is for people who own guns and are gun collectors and some are gun nuts. Not all of them, obviously. But the fact is, it’s all about what we call assault weapons. And there are lots of variations on them. This entire publication is dedicated to the idea that there are lots of new-- what they call platforms for AR 15s. And there are ways that you can change the barrel, as you can change the stock, you can change the trigger mechanism.
GREGORY: This is the gun used in Newtown?
MR. BROKAW: Yeah. And the fact of the matter is that everybody talks about it as if it’s one weapon. It’s not. It’s a lot of variations on those same weapons. So they always find a way to do around it. And there is no more in my judgment unified constituency in America than the passionate gun owners. They are out there. And they believe-- so many of them believe the government is going to knock down their door and take their guns away. And what I say if we get to that, we get a lot of bigger problem than guns. We’re in anarchy.
GREGORY: Let me-- let me-- let me get…
MR. TODD: There is an 89-page, what do we up here, a 92-page newsletter against assault weapons.
GREGORY: All right, let me-- let me-- we’ll-- we’ll come back to this. I want to get a break in here. I was in Kentucky over Christmas and saw a bumper sticker that said a lot, I am the NRA and I vote. And they will on this issue. We’ll get a quick break in here. Talk about the president’s priorities for a second term and what’s really possible, more with our roundtable after this.
GREGORY: We’re back with more from our roundtable. We’ll get to some of the headlines that the president made on the wires here before we’re through. But Doris Kearns Goodwin, how does the president set priorities in a second term? He’s got a pretty long list there and a pretty difficult environment in which to operate.
MS. GOODWIN: Well, the most important thing a president has to do knowing he has limited capital is to decide where do I put my-- my ambitions, where do I hold back? FDR once said, "I'm like a cat. I know when to pounce and when to pull back." So I think the fact that he did not mention gun control makes him understand that unless he can argue public sentiment to overcome the enormous special interests, that’s going to be a much harder one. Immigration right at the top and that’s the one where he can mobilize that base. It’s the base that elected him. It’s going to make it harder for Republicans. If he were to get immigration through; he starts on a successful platform, and then maybe moves to these other ones on entitlement.
GREGORY: There is an incentive for Republicans to cooperate on immigration.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, the sad thing from the fiscal cliff is we’re going to be stuck in trench warfare for another-- maybe for another couple of years.
MS. GOODWIN: That’s why you got to go for immigration.
MR. BROOKS: I think-- but I would-- make sure you do it so you can get the George W. Bush Republicans on your side. Do with a Bush type comprehensive package. Then you break the trench warfare. You get some from column A and column B, and then maybe you’ll begin to do the things that you want to do. The second big issue, that does the same thing up for a coalition is tax reform.
GREGORY: But-- but the question Tom raises when we’re talking about guns, there’s a larger approach. Does he have more of an opportunity on gun control if there’s a big mental health aspect to it, if there’s more to it, Tom?
MR. BROKAW: Well, that’s what I think. I think it has to be holistic. The fact of the matter is I’m not an assault weapon fan of any kind, but I know people who go out to the target ranges and feel strongly that they have a Second Amendment Right to fire them off as many times as they want to with .30 caliber, I mean, with 30-round magazines in them. So sportsmen, people who have weapons for hunting deer or big game or birds as I do and other people, have to become part of this debate as well, and say, look, there have got to be limits of some kind. I mean, I have even talked to people who are gun owners saying, why couldn’t you have a club where they actually own the assault weapons, and if you want to shoot it for target practice, you have to go to the licensed club, get the gun, shoot it and then check it back in.
MS. GOODWIN: That’s all the more reason why he has to use the bully pulpit to educate the country on the holistic approach you’re talking about. He’s got to get out of the White House more. I think he should take a train and go around the country for his vacation this summer, talk to people about all of these issues so that you can mobilize public sentiment. As Lincoln said, without it nothing can happen and that’s still the-- that’s the goal of the second term.
MR. MEACHAM: I-- I think the gun question, though, is-- is almost less a matter of presidential leadership and more a matter of cultural leadership from people like Tom and like me, I suspect we’re the only two gun owners here. David, I know is…
MR. BROOKS: The pen, the pen is mightier.
MR. MEACHAM: … the pen, yeah the pen-- the pen-- the pen is mightier. But it-- it-- if you’re a moderate, if you’re a quail hunter, if you’re a dove hunter, you-- you have to get into this and say, look, assault weapons are not what this is about. As President Clinton said, you’d never known anyone that needed an assault weapon to kill a deer. And this is a case where if people-- if this is not an organic movement from the country, it’s not going to work. It can’t come from top down.
GREGORY: But let’s-- Chuck, you want to just-- I want to inject the larger political point. We have mid term elections coming up in two years. He’s talking about immigration, there’s the trench warfare on the budget and entitlements which could take a long time, and gun control if he wants to do that this year as well.
MR. TODD: Well, and that’s something you got to pick, Doris is right, you got to pick and choose. You got to be careful if you pick-- on-- on one hand it could be tempting to go guns, because you-- it needs the most political capital. It’s going to be the hardest slog. It’s the most work. But if you do it and fail, you know, you’re not going to get anything else done. Ask George Bush when he did social security first…
GREGORY: Right, of course.
MR. TODD: …and he did immigrate. Immigration is going to be relatively easy. Now, it’s going to feel-- there will be some painful moments, but you have a Republican Party of which there is incentive to get it done. You got a big victory early and may be that is what it does (Unintelligible) but I tell you, the fact that we’re going to be stuck in these budget-- these budget impasses in-- in-- and it’s going to keep the economy dragging down, I mean, I think that’s the biggest, I mean, we’ve already gone over the-- the political cliff here, if you will. With-- with what? Because the deal that happens-- if it happens is temporary. We’re going to have this debt ceiling thing in three-- in six weeks which is just a-- a abominable.
GREGORY: Let me just underscore some of the headlines being made here. The president saying that the U.S. has good leads now on who carried out the Benghazi attacks. He also touts Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary saying there’s nothing disqualifying but says he hasn’t made a defense choice yet. The president also says failure to reach a fiscal deal would hurt the markets. And as we’ve been talking about, the president wants gun violence measures passed in 2013, something he said in the course of our interview. We’ll take another break here. Be back in just a moment.
GREGORY: Thank you all for the discussion today and for all your contributions to the program this year. I really appreciate it. Before we go, I wanted to point out that if you missed the interview with the president, there are several opportunities to watch a rebroadcast on MSNBC. That’s later today at 2:00 PM, 4:00 PM and 9:00 PM Eastern and again tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. And for highlights from the interview, make sure to follow me on Twitter @davidgregory is my handle. That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. Until then, have a Happy New Year. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.