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updated 9/16/2013 8:26:21 AM ET 2013-09-16T12:26:21

DAVID GREGORY:

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THIS SUNDAY MORNING - THE BREAKING NEWS ON A CHEMICAL WEAPONS DEAL IN SYRIA - COULD PRESIDENT OBAMA WIN WITHOUT A FIGHT? OR IS THE DEAL JUST A STALL TACTIC?

(NAT SOUND - EXPLOSION)

WITH NO END IN SIGHT TO THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR...THE QUESTION REMAINS... WILL SYRIA'S PRESIDENT ASSAD COMPLY? THE VIEW FROM KEY MEMBERS OF THE SENATE PLUS NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST TOM FRIEDMAN WITH HIS ANALYSIS.

AND OUR ROUNDTABLE ON PRESIDENT OBAMA'S SEARCH FOR A SOLUTION. AUTHORS BOB WOODWARD AND RICHARD WOLFFE, WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST KATHLEEN PARKER AND REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST ANA NAVARRO ANALYZE THE PRESIDENT'S DECISION-MAKING.

PLUS...THE 5TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FINANCIAL MELTDOWN. THE GREAT DISCONNECT...THE DOW IS UP AND SO ARE CORPORATE PROFITS. BUT INCOME INEQUALITY IS BIGGER THAN EVER. ARE WE BETTER OFF THAN WE WERE 5 YEARS AGO? FORMER TREASURY SECRETARY HANK PAULSON IS HERE IN AN SUNDAY MORNING EXCLUSIVE ALONG WITH FORMER CONGRESSMAN BARNEY FRANK AND CNBC'S MARIA BARTIROMO.

(ON CAM)

I'M DAVID GREGORY...ALL THAT AHEAD ON THIS EDITION OF MEET THE PRESS FOR SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 15TH

(MUSIC)

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, the world's longest-running television program, this is Meet the Press.

(END)

DAVID GREGORY:

AND GOOD SUNDAY MORNING,

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY IS ON THE GROUND IN ISRAEL RIGHT NOW WHERE HE'S MEETING WITH PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU - WHOSE REACTION TO THE DEAL IS CAUTIOUS BUT SUPPORTIVE. WE’LL GET A RESPONSE FROM SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN IN A MOMENT BUT FIRST NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT ANDREA MITCHELL JUST BACK FROM HER TRAVELS WITH THE SECRETARY OF STATE WITH THE VERY LATEST ON THIS DEAL...

And Andrea, it amounts to this: Assad and the Russians committing to say exactly all the chemicals weapons that he's got.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Right.

DAVID GREGORY:

And to get rid of them by the middle of next year. So why shouldn't that be universally cheered?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Well, it is a very big deal, it's a sweeping deal, but, a lot of if's. Is it going to work? First of all, the Russians say they're speaking for Assad. Assad has not personally committed to this. He's supposed to disclose in a week. What if he doesn't meet that deadline?

The only enforcement us up to the U.N.. And that has still to be negotiated. And Russia has ruled out the use of force as a threat. That doesn't mean that the president couldn't use force. But with Congress leaning against that, with the American people against that, how credible a threat is that?

DAVID GREGORY:

I don't want to get into the weeds on the United Nations. But again, when it comes to force, if somebody plays cat and mouse, if somebody wants to gum up the works--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Right.

DAVID GREGORY:

--the U.S. is in a position to go to the U.N. and say, "Hey, if that happens, then we're going to threaten force here, and we're in a position to use it."

ANDREA MITCHELL:

That's correct. And in fact, tomorrow there's going to be this big report from the U.N. inspectors, which is going to be devastating, not literally tying it to Assad, but so devastating, that it will build international pressure. At the same time, though, the only threat of force, if it's credible at all, will be U.S. unilateral force.

The Brits have said no. The French now have huge public opinion against it. There'll be some Arab support. But the U.S. would have to stand alone. And is it really credible that this president would do that now? One other quick thing. Libya voluntarily-- Qaddafi gave up his weapons. After he was gone, we found more chemical weapons. So the process of destroying these weapons, the U.S. is still-- and Russia is still destroying our weapons, 15 years after we agreed to. It takes a long time. This is very challenging.

DAVID GREGORY:

Andrea Mitchell, more from you as we go on throughout the hour.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

You bet.

DAVID GREGORY:

Joining me now, Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona, member of The Armed Services Committee, as you know, one of the most outspoken voices in the Senate about U.S. policy in Syria, which is why I wanted you here, Senator. Look where we've gone in a week. I've talked to the chief of staff at the White House, and he says, "Look, Russia was not on board a week ago. Assad denied even having chemical weapons a week ago. And now, they're both on board to destroy these weapons. And yet, you've called this deal a provoc-- an act of provocative weakness. Why?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Well, suppose that this deal is made, and then Bashar Assad does not comply and continues, by the way, the slaughter of over 100,000 people. The problem, by the way, in Syria, is not chemical weapons, although as horrible as they are, they're the 100,000 that have already been killed.

But suppose that he doesn't comply. They go to the United Nations. Let me give you the quote from Mr. Lavrov. He said, "Nothing is said about the use of force or sanctions." So they go to the United Nations, it's clear they would veto again. It is now in the hands of Russia to decide whether Bashar Assad is really complying or not.

DAVID GREGORY:

Can I ask you, then, how might we be, in the United States, in a different position--

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Simply put--

DAVID GREGORY:

--if the goal was to prevent him from ever using chemical weapons again-- I realize your goal's different by the way, but just work with me--

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Sure.

DAVID GREGORY:

--on this.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Sure.

DAVID GREGORY:

If the U.S. goal was, "Don't use chemical weapons again," how might the situation have been different, had the president stayed on course and been bombing by now?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Well, of course the president probably would have been bombing. And if it had been an unbelievably-- small attack, I'm not sure--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

As Secretary Kerry said it would be.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Yeah, how much difference it would make. That's not really scary, an unbelievably small attack. But the point is, if the agreement had said that, "There will be the use of force automatically," or the Russians had agreed that they could go under Chapter Seven to the United Nations Security Council, that puts an entirely different cast on it.

Right now, it's up to the Russians to decide that. And by the way, they didn't even assign blame for this attack. In fact, Putin, in his op-ed piece, stirring piece, said that it was the rebels, it was the Free Syrian Army that committed this. There is not a seriousness on the part of the Russians.

And again, here we are going to see-- if it works, we're going to see the Russians facilitating the departure of chemical weapons while planeload after planeload of Russian aircraft coming into Damascus were full of weapons and devices to kill Syrians, of which there is over 100,000. Whatever happened to the President's red line, where he said, "If they use these chemical weapons, we're there, we will respond at-- "

DAVID GREGORY:

Okay. But as you know, I think the president would say to you, "Okay. The reality is that that red line was to prevent him from using weapons. And we have the prospect here, even if we don't completely trust the Russians, of getting to a point where he no longer has weapons." Why shouldn't that be seen as victory?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

It's not a matter of trust. It's a matter of whether it will be enforced or not when the (CHUCKLE)-- Mr. Lavrov said, "There is nothing in this agreement about the use of force." I.e, they will not agree to the use of force--

DAVID GREGORY:

Okay, so fair enough. So--

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

--no matter what Bashar Assad does.

DAVID GREGORY:

So, two points that I want to try to pin you down on.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Sure. (CHUCKLE)

DAVID GREGORY:

Which is, if the Russians stand in the way, if they're gaming the president and the United States right now, and this is a waste of time--

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

They're in charge. They're in charge.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, they're in charge.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Yeah. Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

DAVID GREGORY:

So if they stand in the way of any potential force, what would you do as president in the interim, in case they do that, and if that eventuality happens?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Well first of all, I would step up our support for the Free Syrian Army. The president, two years ago, said, "Bashar Assad has to go." Where is that statement? And I would give them the support that they need to change the momentum on the battlefield to lead to the negotiated departure of Bashar Assad.

That has always been the goal, at least certainly stated by the president of the United States. Now there is no comment about that. Now he is able to have killed 1,400 people. And he has killed over 100,000. Where is the United States' response to that? And up until a few days ago, not one single weapon had reached the hands of the Free Syrian Army except for some MREs whose time was about to expire.

DAVID GREGORY:

Your goal, is the President's goal ultimately, to get--

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

That Bashar Assad will not mush (PH)--

DAVID GREGORY:

Should go. Should be out of power.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Should go, yes. And he--

DAVID GREGORY:

What should the United States sacrifice in order to achieve that goal?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Sacrifice-- some of our weapons that are-- viable, like anti-tank and anti-air weapons, which we have not given them. AK-47s don't do very well against tanks. And give them the support that they are needed to succeed. Look, they--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

Do you have a partner on the other side in the opposition that you are prepared to say--

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Absolutely.

DAVID GREGORY:

--is going to lead--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

--Syria in a democratic future?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Listen, then we're going to have to help the Free Syrian Army and The Syrian National Council get rid of this jihadists and extremists. And two years ago, by the way, they weren't there. A year ago, it would-- momentum was on their side until 5,000 Hezbollah Iranians stepped it up, the Russians stepped it up, and it reversed the momentum.

It's going to be tough. It is going to be difficult. But to believe that the Syrian people, who are moderate, are willing to be governed by al-Nusra is a misreading of the Syrian people.

DAVID GREGORY:

So bottom line here, before I move on, this deal, which the president supports, a winner or a loser in your mind?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

I think it's a loser because I think it gave Russia a position in the Middle East which they haven't had since 1970. We are now depending on the good will of the Russian people if Bashar Assad violates this agreement. And I am of the firm belief, given his record, that is a very, very big gamble.

DAVID GREGORY:

Senator McCain, thank you very much.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

Thank you.

DAVID GREGORY:

As always, I appreciate your time. I want bring in the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, Republican Senator Roy Blunt, who's a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, will join us in just a moment. Chairman Menendez, I want to start with you. You heard Senator McCain. You have said this past week that anything short of punishing Assad would be a mistake. Well, he's not getting punished, not at the moment.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ:

Well David look, this is a diplomatic breakthrough that is full of opportunity and fraught with danger. The opportunity is that we actually end up in a better place than we envisioned with the use of force, which is the elimination of all of Assad's chemical weapons and his production facilities. In essence, closing down these factories of death.

The fraught part is that, in fact, Assad, who has still not said whether he has signed on to this agreement, ultimately, even if he begins to move forward with some of the beginning elements of the agreement, doesn't fulfill elements of the agreement as we move along. The Russians find, as they often do, saying, in their minds, some plausible reason why there should be no enforceable action at the United Nations. And we're back to where we started, except that Assad has bought time on the battlefield and continued to ravage innocent civilians.

That's the challenge here. And so I'm looking forward to keeping the use of credible force on the table, because that's the only reason we've gotten to this point, even to this possibility. And it is the only reason, for example, in the past, that Quaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, when the issues were about them giving up their chemical weapons originally, believed that the use of force against them was real, and therefore, gave up those weapons at that time.

DAVID GREGORY:

Senator Roy Blunt is here, as well. And before I ask you what you would have done along the way, you opposed a military resolution. You opposed military force in Syria. That's what the president was after. Do you think Congress will keep the threat of military action alive as this process goes on?

SEN. ROY BLUNT:

You know, I think it depends a lot on what kind of military action the President's talking about. In fact, until--

DAVID GREGORY:

Well, we know precisely what it's not.

SEN. ROY BLUNT:

Well, we also know precisely what he said he was going to do.

DAVID GREGORY:

Yeah.

SEN. ROY BLUNT:

And this is not the president coming to us and saying, "I'd like to do something in Syria. This is the president coming to us and saying, "Here are the two things I'd like to do. I'd like to do something that's incredibly small but consequential," whatever that means, "and Assad will still be there when it's over."

That's-- that's a different verification. As late as March of this year, I was for establishing a safe zone of some kind of in Syria for the refugees, and probably the insurgency. That, as the insurgency got more complicated, I'm not sure that that was still as viable in March of this year as it was a year earlier, when I thought it was the right thing to do.

But I didn't think what the president was proposing, in such specific terms, was the right thing to do. And I think it would have been a mistake for us to have a small attack that Assad was still-- said, "Look, the Americans took their best shot at me," which it wouldn't have been, but he could say whatever it wanted to be, "and I'm still here." I think Assad's a lot stronger today than he was two weeks ago.

DAVID GREGORY:

But Chairman Menendez, for you, as well. Look, Senator McCain disagrees about this, right? Senator McCain would have done a no-fly zone. He would have sent lethal weapons a lot earlier. He would have tried to bolster that opposition in a way that this administration did not.

But the reality is that the goal that this president has is not to get involved in a civil war, and to try to stand up for a principle, which is that you shouldn't use the worst weapons in the world, no matter what kind of conflict that you're in. That's it. That's the limited American goal. And the public's not even for that. Chairman Menendez, to you first?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ:

Yeah. Well, look, David. Number one is I think I've heard the president say there are two goals. The immediate goal is the punishment of Assad, and in this case, if you can achieve giving up all of the chemical weapons and all the production facilities, then you've even gone beyond that, for the use of chemical weapons, and to send an international message that, "Do not cross that line."

And also, my view, strategically sending a message, for example, to the Ayatollah in Iran, "Do not think about marching towards nuclear weapons. There is a consequence." Or to the dictator of North Korea. The other one independently that the president has said, apart from the specific set of contemplative actions that he had, is that he has said that Assad must go.

Now, that is through, hopefully, a diplomatic process. Part of the-- when I say this is full of opportunities, if we could not only eliminate the entire chemical weapons program and eliminate all the chemical weapons, it might also create a foundation in which you could finally go to the negotiated agreements that Russia and the United States were going to pursue in what they call Geneva Two. That's an opportunity.

But there's a lot to go before we realize the opportunity. But I have heard the president say that Assad must go now. I agree with Senator McCain in this regard. Dramatically more assisting the vetted moderate Syrian opposition is, I think, incredibly important to achieve the first goal. And I also hope that we will pursue Assad for war crimes, even the comments of Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General--

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ:

--of the United Nations, are very significant, he's very reserved most of the time. The comments that he has committed crimes against humanity--

DAVID GREGORY:

That is-- yeah.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ:

--is something I'd like to see pursued.

DAVID GREGORY:

That's interesting. I want to underline that. Because I've heard others, and heard from some viewers, too, about that being a big issue, whether he's pursued for war crimes. Let me give you the last word here, Senator, before we--

SEN. ROY BLUNT:

Well, I would think, you know, Senator Menendez mentioned Iran.

DAVID GREGORY:

Yeah.

SEN. ROY BLUNT:

I think Iranians should understand that what's happened in the last two weeks is not the template for Iran. A nuclear capable Iran is not acceptable. This would be a totally different debate in the Congress. I hope the administration's reaction would be totally different.

And frankly, I think what's happened in the last two weeks is going to take us awhile to recover from. Our friends wonder what we'll do. And our adversaries have taken heart in seeing the uncertainty of the last two weeks.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. We're going to leave it there. Senators both, thank you very much. Andrea, you're sticking around. You'll be right back, along with Tom Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg and Robin Wright, with analysis on America's role in the world. And what is it we're seeing here? What are Americans saying about what they want out of U.S. leaders in the world? The debate over intervention versus isolationism coming up.

Plus, five years ago today, the U.S. economy was near collapse after the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression. Are we any better off today? Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is here, along with one of the chief Wall Street watchdogs at the time, former Congressman Barney Frank. Later, our political roundtable, and what the crisis in Syria means for the President's broader agenda. We're back here in one minute.

(**COMMERCIAL OMITTED**)

DAVID GREGORY:

And we are back. Joining me now, columnist for The New York Times Tom Friedman, Bloomberg View's Jeffrey Goldberg, author and senior fellow at The Wilson Center, Robin Wright, and our own Andrea Mitchell back with us, as well. Welcome to all of you. Tom Friedman, here was the cover of The Week Magazine. And I thought it was a good one. We'll put it up.

"Sick of the job," that is the U.S. as the world's policeman. And you wrote something in your column this week that really struck me. And I'll put that on the screen, as well. You said, "Give Obama credit for standing up for an important principle in the chaotic region, in a chaotic region, but also give the American people some credit. They're telling our leaders something important. It's hard to keep facing down Middle East Hitlers when there are no Churchills on the other side." Where are we this morning with a potential deal at hand and a real statement of non-intervention on the part of this president and the American public?

TOM FRIEDMAN:

Well, let me take it from several perspectives, David. One is I think the feel that's been proposed is, if it can be implemented, it would be a great deal. The president will have affirmed the ban on chemical weapons. We will have avoided a military strike. We also may have laid the foundation for a ceasefire, maybe through further negotiations with the Russians. If this can be implemented, I think it's an unambiguous win for the United States and for the region.

At the same time, you know, what was I talking about there, the American people. We know that, in the last few days, people were overwhelmingly opposed to the use of force. I say a couple things. One is this has not been a left-right issue. This has been an elite-base issue. You have the elite focused on this story. I don't think the base is at all, of the country.

I think the base has concluded something. They've done the math in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, now looking to Syria. And I think what they said is, "Okay, every time we face these issues, you ask three questions. 'Do we have an interest? Can we accomplish what we want to accomplish with a reasonable price and in a reasonable time?'"

I think the American people are saying, "You know, there's a fourth question we need to start asking. Do we have real partners here? Do we have partners for when we actually bomb or strike or whatever, will actually take ownership of what we've done and make it self-sustaining?" And I think a lot of people might not articulate this, you know, exactly that, are asking, "Do we have people there who really share our values?"

Because what happened in the whole Middle East with the Arab Awakening is people got their freedom from these regimes. But, you know, one of my teachers, Dose Iben (PH), the business profesory, I said, "Well, there's freedom from, but there's freedom to. What do you want freedom to do what?" And it turns out some of them want to be free to be more Islamist. Some of them want to be free to be more tribal. Some of them want to be free to be more sectarian. And some want to be free to be citizens. But not a critical mass here.

DAVID GREGORY:

Jeffrey Goldberg, you were writing me this morning as you were coming in, saying, "Wow, this looks like a pretty big victory for Assad, given where things stand."

JEFFREY GOLDBERG:

Yeah, no. I mean I think it's an unambiguous victory for Assad, which doesn't contradict the point that maybe this is a victory for Obama, too. But look, a year ago, we were talking about removing Assad. Now, in a kind of perverse way, we're partnering with Assad on this huge project, which I think is an outlandish project, given that there's a war going on, to remove all of the chemical weapons from Syria.

So now he's invested in this, we're invested in this process in the same way. And what is off the table is working to remove the regime. Because remember, chemical weapons are ultimately not the problem. The problem is the people who use the chemical weapons. And they're not only in place, but they are now endorsed. They are part of a process.

DAVID GREGORY:

Robin?

ROBIN WRIGHT:

Well look, this is something that concerns me a great deal, because we are involved in what is just a sliver of this problem. And it's not just Syria that's at stake, it's really the whole Middle East in the middle of a transition to a new order. And we are being very kind of political and parochial in our views of what we do, kind of, with each country. There's no grand principle. There's no helping design, whether it's using our aid, using our kind of infrastructure we have to assist people in writing constitutions, in getting there.

Now, one of the messages out of the Middle East today is they want to be the ones to make the decisions of what their future looks like. But at the same time, this is where, when you look at the Middle East, you can argue that we haven't had a real success since Jimmy Carter, that even the Golf War in 1990-'91 was a tactical victory but a strategic failure, in that it unleashed, you know, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and a period where Islamic extremism really began to define the region. We need something much bigger to put out there to deal with the issue of Syria, the issue of Egypt, the issue of the Middle East.

DAVID GREGORY:

Well Andrea, the question for everybody, but Andrea started on this, we are at a similar point that we've been in other points of our history, which is what is our vital interest for continuing to get involved in a place that's so difficult?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And have we empowered Vladimir Putin? And what are his self interests? Clearly, he has interests in making sure that chemicals don't go to the caucasus and aren’t in Chechnya. So he had a real interest in working with the United States here. But does he now hold all the cards on the timing, on the implementation?

And to all of your points, my colleagues here, what is the big vision? We've drawn a red line on chemicals. Belatedly, we are trying to enforce it. We're not enforcing it with force. But what are the other red lines? What is the message that Tehran is receiving? What is the message that Netanyahu is receiving in Jerusalem here?

(OVERTALK)

ANDREA MITCHELL:

You know, how is the world now viewing us? As strong? As weak? And what is the big picture regarding not only Syria--

JEFFREY GOLDBERG:

There's been a--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

--as you say, but the rest of the region.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG:

Andrea makes a very good point. There's a red line about friendship, in a kind of way. I mean you have a situation now, going to strategy, you have a situation now in which every American ally in the region: Turkey, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, they don't know what the Obama administration is doing precisely. They don't know how friendly they are. They don't know if they have their backing. There's a great deal of confusion.

And so I think one of the things that Obama administration has to do in the coming days is reassure its friends. "Just because we're no longer working to remove Assad from power doesn't mean we've abandoned you."

TOM FRIEDMAN:

You know, we tend to focus, because we're in America, and this is an American show, on what we do. But my own feeling is what's much more important is what they do, okay? And that, you know, we didn't have a problem worrying about the transition in South Africa because there was a Nelson Mandela there.

Think about this, David. About 30,000 young Arabs and Muslims have come from all over the Arab world, all over the Muslim world, to fight with the jihadists. We know that. How many have come there to fight for a multi-sectarian, multi-party, democratic, consensual Syria that empowers women and has modern education?

The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them. Okay, we can amplify that. But if the underlying thing there is completely fractured between jihadist tribalists and people who truly do want to be democratic, I'd have a lot more sympathy for the administration. Because we're--what do we do? But also who are you? Why is it we need all these people to tell us who the Syrian opposition really is?

ROBIN WRIGHT:

And--

TOM FRIEDMAN:

Does anyone need to tell us who Mandela was?

ROBIN WRIGHT:

And that's absolutely the problem for us going to the next phase. Because the big issue is: Can you translate this into something that's a real peace process? And the reality is we're faced with a deeply divided opposition where you have something like 1,000 different militias, you have a political opposition that hasn't been able to get its act together in two and a half years to form either a shadow government, which would be an interlocutor for us, or to create a shadow government that's operating inside, as we saw in Libya. There's nothing valid or viable--

(OVERTALK)

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I interviewed General Idriss on Friday. And he-- I was in Geneva, he was in Syria, somewhere in Syria. And he is today, you know, condemning this because John--

DAVID GREGORY:

He's the rebel commander, of course.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And he's the rebel commander. John Kerry is going on to meet in Paris tomorrow morning with the British, the French, and the Saudis, and to try to reassure them. But there has been, as we've all suggested, a lot of zig zagging here. And the rest of the world is looking to American leadership. But Americans are looking to what's happening at home.

DAVID GREGORY:

So I just am out of town. So Jeffrey, button it up this way, this part of the conversation, unfortunately we didn't get to talk about the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, which (LAUGHTER) we'll likely talk about next week.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG:

Next week's show.

DAVID GREGORY:

Next week's, yeah. But the stakes here of where America is, where Congress is, I mean this level of apprehension which we see, the stakes are what?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG:

Well, the stakes are, I mean in a slightly narrow frame but important, the stakes are the next big issue, which is Iran, right? I mean that's what we're all thinking about, even though we're talking about Syria.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

That's right.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG:

And the question is are we signaling to the Iranians that, "Hey, we could put down a red line, but we don't actually mean it." This is what all of America's allies in the Middle East are worried about. And that's a very, very important issue.

ROBIN WRIGHT:

And this morning, the Iranian press announced that Putin is going to Tehran to talk about a nuclear deal. You know, Putin Volume Two.

DAVID GREGORY:

Okay. We'll leave it there for now. Thank you all very much. After his prime time push this week, our political roundtable on whether President Obama is actually winning the debate on Syria, and what are the implications for the rest of his agenda. Bob Woodward, Richard Wolff, Kathleen Parker and Anna Navarro.

And later, five years after the U.S. economy was nearly brought to its knees, is "too big to fail" still a problem? Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is here, as well as former Congressman Barney Frank, and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo with me live. We are back here in just a moment.

(**COMMERCIAL OMITTED**)

DAVID GREGORY:

Welcome to all of you. Let's talk about the pure politics. Let's talk about how President Obama's handling this, the leadership test. Kathleen Parker, in your column this morning in The Washington Post I think you capture something, which is the two styles that America's now dealing with, going back to President Bush and now President Obama.

You write this: "We can't seem to get it quite right at the helm. Either we're saddled with a cocksure decidinator, who-- " I had to say that in Bush's voice, (LAUGHTER) "who is feared for his lack of paws, or we're stuck with an over-thinker so afraid of making the wrong decision that he paralyzes himself into a pose of ineptitude." So then for everybody, and I'll start with you, how has Obama handled this?

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, it's been painful watching, really. Because we've been witness to, I think, what seems to be his internal struggle. I mean his id and his superego are at odds with each other, or maybe it's his inner hawk and his inner dove. But in any case, he can't quite get where he needs to be.

And I think, in a way, he's almost thinking out loud. And of course we all do that in this business. And we appreciate when people are reflective and self aware. But when you're the president, I think it's taking him an awfully long time to understand how important everything he says and does is. You know, there's great freight in the world. And I mean we're paying for that right now. Now, it could turn out well, in the end. And then we'll have to re-appraise how he led.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right. I mean the way he's led up until now could really be dependent upon the outcome. Your new book, Richard Wolff, is The Message: The Reselling of President Obama. So how does his leadership look about now?

RICHARD WOLFFE:

Well, what we're seeing is the president trying to, as he puts it, send the message to the Syrians and the rest of the world about his leadership, about red lines. And it's very confusing because there has been a pattern all along with this president, whether it's health care, the recovery act. And what I'm reporting, as well, in the campaigns, where his message has been muddled.

We like to say that he's great at campaigning and struggles at governing. But actually, the campaigns were anything but a smooth glide path to victory. And these questions of leadership really come back to has he got the people in place where he's going to allow a debate? He has policy debates all the time. One thing he won't debate is about his messaging and his communications and his politics. On that, he does not want to hear different opinions.

DAVID GREGORY:

So, but I mean the question is, is he-- we heard Senator McCain and others say, "Look, this is weakness. This deal is weakness. You can't trust the Russians." The other side of that is, "Maybe this president has given space for something unexpectedly good to happen."

BOB WOODWARD:

Well, that's possible. But if you look at this, in a sense, he tried all the policies. Other words, "We're going to get Assad out. Oh, there's a red line if chemical weapons are used. Oh, we're going to strike militarily. Oh no, we're not, we're going to go to Congress." And it was Karl Rove who always said, "You have to measure things like this by outcomes."

And if you think about Judo, using the power of the other side against them, by drawing Putin in and Russia in on this, it's-- I mean now they are committed to something that it may not work, it may take months or even years, but the result is a stabilization almost by accident.

DAVID GREGORY:

Is that a bad thing?

ANA NAVARRO:

I think this is a tough spot for President Obama. We've seen the sausage making in the last two weeks. And it's almost been like having a president who's not a Commander-in-Chief, but a Commander-in-Confusion. At times, it seems like it's been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At one moment, he says, "We've got the power, we're going to strike, we can do it unilaterally. Assad must go. There's a red line." And then the next moment, he's vacillating and he's trying to do anything but what he has said. What we've also seen for the first time is a Congress abandon him, including some of his staunchest supporters in the Democrat Party.

You've seen people like the Congressional Black Caucus members, like the Hispanic Caucus members say, "We're not going with you." And you've seen a lot of criticism coming, even from Democrats, on his administration, the lack of clarity, the lack of vision, the lack of policy, the lack of strategy.

I've had Congressmen who those classified briefings, I can tell you, Mario Diaz Balart from Miami, he wanted to be a yes. And he said, "That briefing was like being-- like hearing the Keystone Cops. And I might be offending the Keystone Cops."

DAVID GREGORY:

Well, but here's the-- (LAUGHTER) here's the question. A friend of mine, who's a lot smarter than I am, said to me, "Look, it's easy to be critical." And this is someone who said, "Look, I don't know what the answer is. But what would you have done differently at any stage along the way?" is the question.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, if I were president--

DAVID GREGORY:

Yeah.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Oh, good. That's a good question. Look, I've never been in favor of going in, because I felt that the consequences were too severe. The unknowns were so problematic. I mean what happens--

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

--when our planes are shot down?

DAVID GREGORY:

But you let the kind of wanton killing of innocents using chemical weapons go on?

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, you know, we can get into all of that over and over and over again, the 100,000 that preceded, there were gas attacks or some other chemical attack earlier, and we didn't respond to that. I think just to segue a minute, if I may, that one of the problems with the way Obama has done this is that we are now having a conversation as equals with Assad.

I mean he's now got a place at the table, along with Putin. And they're lecturing us and making demands on us. And it diminishes our president, our role, in the world and how we negotiate these things. I don't envy the president. For heaven sakes, I don't want to have to make that decision, either. But I think that, you know, I also am not privy to the information.

(OVERTALK)

ANA NAVARRO:

What we should have done differently is use the last two years to arm the rebels, to change the momentum on the ground. We've lost that window of the last two years. It's not like we woke up one day suddenly and Assad was a bad guy with chemical weapons. We've known this for a while. And yet, it seemed like we were making up the policy as it went.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, we're not--

BOB WOODWARD:

And it's this daily crisis management. It's a mentality that pervades all White Houses. But they don't do strategic thinking and say, "What are our goals now? How are we going to get there? Let's figure out where we want to be in six months and then move toward it."

And so there is this ad hockery. But Kathleen, you're saying that Assad is making demands on us and the Russians, to a certain extent. But the big demand is ours, that something has to be done with the chemical weapons. And they have achieved buy-in, at least rhetorically. And, you know, if you go back two weeks or two months and you say, "We'd be at this point," granted, with all, you know, this and that and the back and forth, which is a problem, everyone would say, "Wow--

(OVERTALK)

ANA NAVARRO:

But if the Russians are saying that use of force is off the table, what leverage do we have?

(OVERTALK)

BOB WOODWARD:

They don't decide that.

RICHARD WOLFFE:

Hang on a second. They--

ANA NAVARRO:

It proves to me they decided on that.

(OVERTALK)

RICHARD WOLFFE:

Ana, disagreement. One of the extraordinary things about this agreement is that, in the case of noncompliance, in the case of any chemical weapons by either side, those are provisions for the use of force under Chapter Seven of the United Nations. Now, we can say that's never going to happen. But this agreement is a substantial achievement.

You know, you say, "Let's just arm the rebels." We don't know, and you certainly don't know, who are the rebels we would want to arm, never mind how this would spin out? There's an extraordinary-- we can talk about the politics of it and what this means for the president. And I do believe his leadership has taken a knock here.

But the idea that there's a clean path, if only we could have found the right people to arm, is delusional. We tried the same path in Afghanistan, and we ended up arming people who ended up, the Mujahidin, who formed the core of al-Qaeda. And now, we can say, "Well, we've got perfect clarity." We don't. We know that intelligence doesn't do that. Syria is incredibly complex. Those are questions of leadership. But the outcome they have stumbled into is generally a good one.

ANA NAVARRO:

But I don't think anybody's saying that there's perfect clarity. And I think it's equally delusional to think that we're going to go, if they don't comply, to the Security Council, where Russia, who doesn't even admit that Assad has used the chemical weapons, has got veto power. So our chances--

(OVERTALK)

ANA NAVARRO:

But any use of force requires their approval--

BOB WOODWARD:

No, it does not.

ANA NAVARRO:

--if we have to go back to the Security Council.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

No.

BOB WOODWARD:

No, it does not. Is the Commander-in-Chief-- and this was the whole debate a week ago, he said, "I'm going to strike militarily without the U.N., without Congress now." Whether that's a good policy or not. But, you know, this is stabilization by accident and maybe another case of Obama good luck. We'll see.

(OVERTALK)

ANA NAVARRO:

--without Congress much less will he strike without the U.N..

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, I want to--

DAVID GREGORY:

Well, we'll see. But I want to bring up a point, with about a minute left, of, you know, Syria is now going to get mired in whether this agreement is lived up to or not. We've got a budget battle that's brewing again with the debt ceiling. Bob, you think this is really the next crisis that Obama's facing with Congress. Are we going to raise the debt ceiling? Will he negotiate? He says, "No way."

(OVERTALK)

BOB WOODWARD:

This is really serious. Back in 2011, when the crisis visited them, the Secretary of the Treatment, Tim Geithner, was running around and saying, "If we don't fix this, we could trigger a depression worse than the 1930s." And when I talked to Obama about this, he said it was the most intense three weeks of his presidency, more than Osama bin Laden and so forth.

And the Republicans are out here, a group of them in the House, essentially using extortion and blackmail (CHUCKLE) methods to say, "If we don't de-fund Obamacare, we're not going to do the routine things of government."

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, we're at a game of chicken at this point. And no one thinks they're going to de-fund Obama, not even the people who are pushing for it. And at some point, you know, the Republicans are going to have to blink, and they're going to fund it. If they pass a bill that doesn't include funding for Obamacare, then the Senate won't pass the bill. And, you know, somebody's got to blink. We're not going to shut down government.

(OVERTALK)

KATHLEEN PARKER:

We can't shut down the government.

ANA NAVARRO:

But let's let the-- I think fair to the Republicans here, it's not all Republicans saying--

KATHLEEN PARKER:

No, of course not.

ANA NAVARRO:

--"Let's shut down the government if we don't de-fund Obamacare." So I don't think it's fair to paint it as the Republicans. Because the Republicans that have been here today, including John McCain, have been very much against this, in saying--

BOB WOODWARD:

Yeah, it's just the--

(OVERTALK)

ANA NAVARRO:

--"It is political suicide."

BOB WOODWARD:

--40 extremists.

ANA NAVARRO:

Yeah, it just--

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. (CHUCKLE)

BOB WOODWARD:

That's who's doing it.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

The insane caucus? What was it? (LAUGHTER)

BOB WOODWARD:

You used it. (LAUGHTER)

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

Thank you all.

ANA NAVARRO:

They're going to get a lot of flak from mental advocates--

(OVERTALK)

ANA NAVARRO:

Mental health advocates now.

DAVID GREGORY:

That will be a first.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Never had that happen.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, thank you all very much. We'll leave it there. Coming up next, the future of our economy, five years after the biggest financial crisis since The Great Depression. Among our guests, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, along with former Congressman Barney Frank on where we are five years later. First, our political director, Chuck Todd will be along with his first Read Sunday, what to look for in the week ahead in politics. Back here in just a moment.

(**COMMERCIAL OMITTED**)

DAVID GREGORY:

We're back with more politics. Our political director, Chuck Todd, with his First Read Sunday. We just talked about the debt ceiling business. You're looking at this, this week, out of our poll.

CHUCK TODD:

We did. And we have a poll, and we show the initial gauge of the public. The default position is, "Don't raise it." Look at this, 44% say no, 22% say yes. The White House pushing back on this poll saying, "Well, you have to explain it to the people." Well, this is the exact same place the debt ceiling was in April, 2011.

Now, by the time it hit a crisis point, more of the public moved into in favor of raising the debt ceiling. But what this shows is the president has to use political capital and time to flip these numbers. It's going to be a lot of work.

DAVID GREGORY:

We're going to talk to Hank Paulson in just a minute, five years after the financial collapse. And the next Fed Chair would be a bigger story if not for Syria. It's Larry Summers losing steam or what?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I tell 'ya, politically it looks like he's losing steam. We've got four, now, Democratic senators against him, just in the banking committee. That could be problems. The assumption is it's his job to lose. The president feels like he's leaning towards him, rather than Janet Yellen, who's in the Fed.

But if the president had his druthers, it would be Tim Geithner, the former Treasury Secretary. Geithner has said no to him multiple times on this. So this finally could come this week. I know the markets are waiting for it.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right. I mean it's good that there's no picture of Geithner, because I don't think he wants to come back to Washington.

CHUCK TODD:

He doesn't want to come anywhere near Washington.

DAVID GREGORY:

Meanwhile, we're talking about not only 12 years after 9-11 and the Middle East, Benghazi back as a political focus this week.

CHUCK TODD:

It is. The House Republicans have not dropped this as an issue. They didn't talk about it last week during the one year anniversary of the Benghazi attack. But this week, on Thursday alone, three different hearings are going to be taking place on the same day on Capitol Hill. House Republicans, they don't want to drop this. And by the way, what happened in Benghazi, this is the larger context in the Syria debate, where some people think if we'd gotten involved in Syria, it could look like what Libya looks like today.

DAVID GREGORY:

My sense is that the president has to go back to Congress on Syria at this point.

CHUCK TODD:

He is. There's no interest, no-- in doing that unless Assad does something else.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. Chuck Todd, thanks very much. We'll see you 9:00 AM Eastern, the Daily Rundown tomorrow. Coming up next here, five years after the financial collapse, has anything changed? We're back in just a moment.

(**COMMERCIAL OMITTED**)

DAVID GREGORY:

We are back. On the brink of economic collapse, that was the state of the U.S. economy five years ago. What is our economic reality now and our future? Joining me, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. He is the subject of a new documentary on Netflix called Hank: Five Years From the Brink. Also joining me, former Congressman Barney Frank, one of the co-authors of the Wall Street reform legislation known as Dodd-Frank. And of course, CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. Welcome to all of you. Such a big topic. And Hank Paulson, I think the obvious question: We staved off collapse, but five years later, is the economy better off than it was?

FMR TREASURY SEC HANK PAULSON:

Well, that's an easy question. It's much better off than it was. We avoided a very bad fate. Things could have been as bad as The Great Depression. But today, the economy is growing at 2%. And although that's not enough, in many ways, it's something we can take satisfaction in, given the amount of de-leveraging that needed to be done, consumers and institutions. And capital markets are behaving as normal. We've still got some problems we need to address.

DAVID GREGORY:

Barney Frank, one of the issues that comes up in asking the "better off or not" question five years later, as Senator Elizabeth Warren said, "Look, the banks are 30% larger than they were." "Too big to fail," she asserted, is still a reality. Could what happened five years ago happen today?

FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK:

It could not happen in the same way. The biggest single cause of the problem last time, I think everybody agrees, was that mortgages were being given to people by institutions that shouldn't have given them to people who shouldn't have received them, and then they packaged them and sold them to people who didn't know what was in them.

We have threat-- there's only one prohibition in our legislation. It's mostly pro-market. It does not tell the financial community they can't do this or that. We do try to say, "If you're going to take risks, you should be responsible if those risks go bad and have enough money to pay yourself off."

But we banned the bag mortgages. I very much admire Senator Warren, but she is wrong if she thinks "too big to fail" isn't gone. Here's what the law explicitly said. And by the way, this is bipartisan, as this whole boat should have been, because Secretary Paulson was the one who suggested the basic approach.

There are some large institutions that are too big to fail without taking account of the consequences. So what we have is the power in federal officials to step in, put those institutions out of business. As I said, I have one disagreement with Sarah Palin. She was right that we enacted death penalties a couple years ago. But they're for big banks, not old ladies.

And what happens is the bank is abolished. Some of the debts may have to be paid to prevent there from being contagion. But any penny that is advanced, by law, has to be recovered by the Secretary of the Treasury from the largest financial institutions in America. So what happened with AIG, what happened with other institutions, that cannot happen again. You cannot, if are overly indebted, receive help from the federal government in paying your debts and stay in existence.

DAVID GREGORY:

Here's the reality, Maria Bartiromo. You look at the favorability of Wall Street firms still very negative, 42% on the negative side in our latest poll. As I talk to CEOs this week and bankers, they say, "Look, one of the issues is we have to keep so much capital in reserve now, there's not enough capital to invest. That ultimately hurts economic growth. We're not able to make as much money, make as many deals." And we have tremendous income inequality five years later. The cover of Time Magazine: Did Wall Street Win in All of This?

MARIA BARTIROMO:

Yeah, you mention a very important point. I agree with all that has been said. On the capital front, capital has doubled. Liquidity has doubled or tripled. I think the industry is in much better shape. We need to get beyond the conversation of "Is Wall Street evil? Are the bankers evil and causing pain?" and toward the conversation of, "How do you create sustainable economic growth?"

That will answer the issue of inequality. Because with growth comes jobs. So we need to come together and figure out how businesses, banks included, are actually going to spend that money. Trillions of dollars on the balance sheet. You're right, they're sitting on it. But the idea that capital has been raised is absolutely a positive, not a negative, the fact that they have it in reserve.

FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK:

Hear, hear. Yeah.

DAVID GREGORY:

Go ahead.

FMR TREASURY SEC HANK PAULSON:

Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I mean to me, that's what it's all about, sustainable economic growth. And I think the best thing--

DAVID GREGORY:

But what we're still-- our growth is so sluggish, right? Yeah.

FMR TREASURY SEC HANK PAULSON:

It is sluggish. And so what we need to see is we need to see Democrats and Republicans coming together to deal with some of the big, structural reforms we need. Immigration reform. We need a new tax system. I could go on and on. And so that's what Washington really needs to focus on.

MARIA BARTIROMO:

And these are the reasons that companies are sitting on cash.

FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK:

Remember, by the way, America doesn't exist alone in the world. I mean I just listened to a group of people act as if Syria was one of the 51 states and we could just step in there and run it. We deal in an international world. If you look at the developed economies, yes, we're not doing as well as we'd like. But we're doing better than any other, just about. And they are our customers. And there's a slowdown in China. So given the economic reality, I think we're doing well.

I do want to add one thing, though, to your question about those poor beleaguered bankers who have been forced to do so much to keep from not being able to pay their debts that they can't lend money. If they really are running businesses that are so stressed that they can't do their basic work, why are they paying themselves so much money? Where did these enormous salaries come from if they were, in fact, in such serious trouble? (LAUGHTER)

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

MARIA BARTIROMO:

Thank you for giving me that one, okay. (LAUGHTER)

DAVID GREGORY:

But your point is to get beyond some of the resentment in the bankers and get to a place where we actually have more hiring going on, more investment going on, and Washington plays a more constructive role beyond whether it was the bailout of the banks, which changed our politics.

FMR TREASURY SEC HANK PAULSON:

Right. And I would like to come back to that, David. Because what we did was very unpopular, very unpopular. Because we never made the case. I was never able to make the case. So what we did was for the American people, to prevent economic disaster. It wasn't for the bankers.

But I want to also make the point, is we will have other financial crises. That's the history of mankind. As long as there are markets, there will be crises. Most of them have been manageable. We want to avoid these big dislocations like, you know, The Great Depression or we had in 2008, which easily could have been The Great Depression.

But we have to continue to clean up our messes. We need to fix Fannie and Freddie, okay? And that, we should be focused on that. We need to focus on some things in the shadow banking market.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

(OVERTALK)

FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK:

Can I say, David?

DAVID GREGORY:

Yeah, but can I make your point, I want to ask you one newsy question which is who should be the next Fed Chair? I don't want that question to go unanswered. (CHUCKLE)

FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK:

Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but-- (LAUGHTER)

DAVID GREGORY:

You're not going to answer?

FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK:

I'll be honest. I'm not in that business anymore. I have too many friends involved there. It becomes too deeply personal for me. And, you know, there's a tradeoff. You leave office, you don't have a lot of power, and you don't have to make decisions. But you don't have to annoy a lot of other people, either. So I'm going to duck that one. But can I just say, on--

DAVID GREGORY:

Very quickly.

FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK:

All right. First of all, many of the banks didn't want this money. It's not that we did it for them. But secondly, the federal government made money on the advances to the banks. What cost us money was the automobile industry bailout.

DAVID GREGORY:

Okay.

FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK:

But we made money in the banks.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

I got-- on that note--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

But-- (LAUGHTER) I want to tell--

FMR TREASURY SEC HANK PAULSON:

--cost $32 billion.

DAVID GREGORY:

I'm out of time. We've got to take a break. We're more right after this.

FMR TREASURY SEC HANK PAULSON:

Okay.

(COMMERCIAL OMITTED)

DAVID GREGORY:

That is all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press. (MUSIC)

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