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STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY

Interview With Mitch McConnell; Interview With Paul Ryan

Aired May 15, 2011 - 09:00   ET

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


CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: Some way, somehow, soon, Congress needs to raise the debt limit so the federal government can borrow more money to pay the bills and if not...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't know exactly what would happen if the debt limit was not approved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Nothing good would happen, that much everyone suspects. Speaker John Boehner says his House Republicans will OK an increase for a price.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN A. BOEHNER, R-OHIO, HOUSE SPEAKER: Without significant spending cuts and changes in the way we spend the American people's money, there will be no increase in the debt limit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Boehner wants $2 trillion in budget cuts before he agrees to raising the debt ceiling.

And then there's the Democrat-controlled Senate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID, D-NEV.: We shouldn't be drawing lines in the sand. We should be willing to work together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner says the U.S. could hit its $14.3 trillion debt limit tomorrow, but he can keep the country out of default until August.

So there is time. What they really lack on Capitol Hill is common ground.

Today -- Republican risk, reward and rhetoric with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. Then presidential politics as the field expands with Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart and Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson.

And challenges in the Mideast and Libya with former directors of national intelligence Dennis Blair and John Negroponte.

I'm Candy Crowley and this is State of the Union.

Despite fears a debt crisis will undermine the U.S. economic recovery and rattle the world, just 19 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters they want Congress to raise the debt ceiling. 47 percent said no, 34 percent said they didn't know enough to say.

Joining me now Minority Leader senator Mitch McConnell. Thank you Senator McConnell for being here.

Let me ask you just as a first question out of the box -- what would happen if the debt ceiling is not raised?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think we ought to look at this, Candy, as an opportunity, an opportunity to bring a Democratic president who's been leading a spending binge over the last couple of years and a new much more Republican Congress which believes the American people want us to reduce spending significantly, bring those two together and get something done born on a bipartisan basis.

You know, it is interesting that some of our biggest accomplishments in the last quarter of a century have been when you have divided government. Think of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill working together to save Social Security for another generation in 1983. Think of Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress balancing the budgets and passing welfare reform.

This is actually a great opportunity to address this burgeoning problem. We have a $14 trillion debt. It is as big as our economy which makes us look a lot like Greece. And over and above that, we have over $50 trillion in unfunded liabilities. That is promises we've made, very popular programs, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, that we can't meet.

So rather than thinking of this as a crisis, I think of it as an opportunity to come together and those talks are under way led by the vice president.

CROWLEY: So then let me see where the coming together is. On the House side, we've heard Speaker Boehner say that there has to be $2 trillion worth of cuts and that the amount of cuts has to at least equal the amount that the debt ceiling is raised. Is that where you stand? Is that a bottom line for you?

MCCONNELL: Well, let me just tell what you it would take to get my vote. We need to do something about the short term. We need to get a spending ceiling for the next two years because we're not likely to get a final budget out of a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. We need to know how much we're going to spend the next two years, and that needs to be on a declining basis. Then we need to do something mid-term, that is within what we call the budget window, within the next few years, both on the discretionary side and the mandatory side. And the mandatory side means entitlements. And we also need to do something long-term.

I just mentioned we have over $50 trillion in unfunded liabilities. The president doesn't seem to want to do Social Security without a tax increase which is clearly not need and we just heard from trustees Friday that both Medicare and Social Security are in serious trouble and it's worse than anybody thought. Maybe the president's open to doing something on the Medicare side.

But to get my vote, Candy -- and I can only speak for myself -- we need to do something significant, short-term, medium-term and long- term...

CROWLEY: All before you raise the debt ceiling?

MCCONNELL: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

CROWLEY: Short, medium, and long-term have to be done before you go for an increase in the debt ceiling.

MCCONNELL: Absolutely.

You know, my definition is significance -- you know Standard & Poor's is in the process of downgrading the U.S. credit rating. Now that's a serious problem. We need to impress the markets, impress foreign countries that we're going to get our act together and astonish the American people that the adults are in charge in Washington and are actually going to deal with this issue.

CROWLEY: So, let me see if I understand you. $2 trillion is not necessarily where you would go. You would leave that amount open while the Biden commission with Republicans and Democrats on it figure out the short, medium and long-term, is that correct? $2 trillion you don't stick with.

MCCONNELL: Yeah. What I'm not going to do is negotiate the deal with you here this morning.

CROWLEY: Oh, come on.

MCCONNELL: I'd like to, I know, but I just can't.

What I'm trying to do is give you a sense of what I think would be significant, would be a clear indication that we're going to go in an entirely different direction.

And I think if you do something significant both short-term, medium-term and long-term, everybody will understand the Americans are going to get their act together and we're not going to end up being a Western European country.

CROWLEY: And you'll know significant when you see it, I take it. MCCONNELL: Yeah. And I think Standard & Poor's will be a good indicator of if they are impressed with what we've done, then that will mean the markets think the Americans will get their act together. Foreign countries, many of whom have been lending us an enormous amount of money would get the message that the Americans are going to get their act together.

We need to -- that's my definition of significant.

CROWLEY: And I think I can get a yes or no from you on this. No tax increases will you accept at all in either the short, the medium or the long term, and that includes close tap loopholes?

MCCONNELL: Well, there aren't going to be any tax increases. You know, that was settled by last November's election. The president knows that. We are not going to raise taxes in connection with this problem.

Look, we don't have this problem because we tax too little. We have it because we spend too much. And there certainly not going to be any tax increases.

CROWLEY: How about closing loopholes like the tax -- for instance, for the oil companies.

MCCONNELL: The problem with doing tax reform right now is it is very, very complicated. The Senate Democrats, you're right, do want to raise taxes on what they call the big five oil companies which of course will raise the price of gas at the pump, send jobs overseas and make us get even more oil from Hugo Chavez. That's just a political stunt that Mary Landrieu, Democratic Senator from Louisiana, called laughable.

That's not the kind of thing we're going to be dealing with here in connection with the serious talks that are going on with the Vice President's group.

CROWLEY: Let me turn you to foreign policy for a quick question. Do you think that President Obama ought to call on Syrian president al Assad to step down as he did for President Mubarak in Egypt?

MCCONNELL: Well, we certainly know that the Assad regime, just like his father's regime, is a thuggish regime that murders their own people. The president I think correctly is trying to put the squeeze on them in ever way possible. Calling for resignation? I don't know whether that's called for at the moment or not but this regime has turned out to be exactly what we thought. And there were some people in our own administration who thought that Bashar al Assad was going to be a reformer. I don't think there is any evidence of that. This is a thug regime.

And I think what comes out of it is that we're not likely to make any progress in the Middle East right now. I know Senator Mitchell decided two years was enough because it looks to me like we're kind of reached another stalemate in the Palestinian talks with Israel. We're not sure what comes next in Egypt. I think this is a period of great unrest in the Middle East and probably not a time when we're going to make serious progress in any of these countries.

CROWLEY: And let me turn you to politics. Mitt Romney as you know often called the front-runner in the Republican race for the presidential nominee, gave a big speech on Thursday, talked about how his health care plan in Massachusetts, which required mandates -- which had mandates for people that they must have health insurance, was different from the president's, which Republicans are so critical about.

Was it enough to satisfy you? Would you have any qualms if Mitt Romney were the presidential nominee for the Republican Party?

MCCONNELL: Well, look. I'm not going to start dabbling around or endorsing or criticizing one candidate or another running for president on the Republican side. But let me say this about Obamacare. It was the single worst piece of legislation that's been passed in my time in the Senate.

CROWLEY: What about the Massachusetts plan?

MCCONNELL: The biggest step in the wrong direction for America. I think it needs to be repealed and replaced. We've had that vote earlier this year. I would hope whoever gets elected president, if it's not the current president, would join with us and repealing it totally.

CROWLEY: And finally, this has often been described and often is at this time as a weak Republican field. Is there someone that is not being discussed that you would like to see get into this race for Republican nominee?

MCCONNELL: Well, on the weak field comment, I'm reminded of how the Carter administration was pulling for Ronald Reagan to be the Republican nominee because they thought he would be the easiest to beat.

Look, one of these candidates who wants the nomination and who is going to work very hard for it and run through this gauntlet is going to look a lot better than any of these people look right now. So I assure you, we're going to have a very credible, electable Republican nominee. I just don't know who that is.

CROWLEY: Me neither, Senator Mitch McConnell, thank you so much for your time today.

MCCONNELL: Thank you.

CROWLEY: When we come back, influential Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and his plan to reform Medicare.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: April 5th, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan introduced his budget proposal for fiscal year 2012.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RYAN: This is "The Path to Prosperity."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: A path followed by key Senate colleagues like Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), RANKING MEMBER, BUDGET COMMITTEE: We're going to stand up to those who are going to attack you for having the courage to tell the truth about the challenges we face.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: But when Congress went home for Easter Recess, angry constituents at town hall meetings grabbed the headlines. The uproar was almost entirely centered around the Medicare revamp in Ryan's budget, which by 2022 replaces Medicare with subsidized payments to seniors who would buy their own health insurance. The idea is a no-go in the polls and some of Ryan's Senate colleagues are queasy. Senators Lamar Alexander and Rob Portman say they are open to alternatives, Maine Senator Susan Collins delivered the harshest blow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I don't happen to support Congressman Ryan's plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Paul Ryan on the future of his proposal, next.

((COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Joining me now, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us. Let me talk to you about...

RYAN: Good morning.

CROWLEY: I think that you heard Senator McConnell say that he was waiting to see what was going to come out of the commission that Biden is heading with Republicans and Democrats on it. As far as you are concerned, must whatever plan comes out of this commission include Medicare reform before you would vote for an increase in the debt ceiling?

RYAN: Well, I think it should, because Medicare is in the future the greatest driver of...

CROWLEY: Must it? RYAN: ... our debt. We -- like Mitch McConnell, I don't think it is in our interest to be negotiating through the media. So, no offense, Candy, but I think we should be not doing that.

CROWLEY: You are no fun, but OK.

RYAN: But let's get this -- no, I know, I know. Let's get this straight though, we need to address the drivers of our debt. The whole reason we are running into this debt limit so soon is because of the spending spree that has occurred over the last two years.

And so just like Mitch McConnell was saying, we need short-, medium-, and long-term fiscal reforms to get this under control, to prevent a debt crisis from hitting us. And like John Boehner said, for every dollar the president wants to raise the debt limit, we are saying cut at least a dollar's worth of spending because that is the necessary thing to do to stave off a debt crisis.

If we get a debt crisis, Candy, then we have another recession or worse. And that's what we want to avoid. CROWLEY: So Senator McConnell also indicated that he didn't want to talk about a $2 trillion figure, which is what the speaker sort of put out there saying, there has got to be -- before I will bring along Republicans on the House side, has to be $2 trillion in cuts, which I took to mean in addition to whatever you are raising the debt ceiling by.

Do you believe the $2 trillion figure is where you start and you won't go below that?

RYAN: Look, we offered over $6 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years with our budget. What we've brought to the table is our budget, which has those spending cuts, those spending reforms. We have yet to see a concrete proposal offered by either the president or the Senate Democrats.

So we're the ones who have put out all the specifics and details. We have yet to see counter-offers from the other side. And the reason the $2 trillion number is floating around is because that is the number in which the president has asked Congress to raise the debt limit by.

And so when we say we want at least as much spending cuts for debt limit increase and the president throws up a $2 trillion number, that is where you're getting this $2 trillion number.

If he says let's do $1 trillion in debt limit increase, then we want at least over $1 trillion in spending cuts. And so that's why you'll hear that $2 trillion number.

CROWLEY: OK. And let me -- I just want to sort of get factually two things clear. You would agree that the Bush administration added greatly to this deficit and this debt that you are now looking at.

RYAN: Yes.

CROWLEY: OK. RYAN: I would. Look, both parties messed this up. This is not a Republican created problem or a Democrat created problem, it is both parties. And we've got to face up that if we're going to get this situation under control.

CROWLEY: And the president does have some ideas out there. You're not the only one with specific ideas. He's put them all out there, you all just don't like them.

RYAN: Well, yes, but you got to remember his budget does nothing close to closing the fiscal gap. He gave a speech which said do more Medicare rationing. We asked the Congressional Budget Office to give us an analysis of this framework. They basically said they can't score speeches. So we still have yet to see from the administration a plan that actually fixes our fiscal problem.

And of course, as you know, we've seen nothing from the Senate so far. CROWLEY: Right. Others I just want to add here. Certainly check facts (sic), have said that your plan also falls short in the deficit reduction, but rather than get into a numbers game with you, I want to step back and look at this a little politically.

And that is, I want you to sell me this politically. Because as you know, some of your members went home and took a beating on Medicare. The idea that Medicare, as we know it, would be replaced by a subsidy system that would be capped for those as you get wealthier. And a lot of people said don't change Medicare, we see this in the polls.

So you have that, that the Republicans are -- at least your plan and many Republicans backing it, is out there. And then you have Republicans refusing to say, yes, we ought to cut the subsidies we give to the multi-multi billion dollar oil industry. Sell me on that to me politically. How is that shared sacrifice?

RYAN: OK. So first, I would say our town hall meetings went phenomenally well. Mine in particular. Second of all, Medicare is going broke. The trustees just reminded us of this last week.

And so it's not a question of if Medicare is going to change, it clearly is because it is going broke, the question is how will we reform it.

CROWLEY: But politically, don't you think it is a problem for you all to be kind of backing the tax breaks that oil companies are getting while requiring seniors or asking that seniors pay more and have a different Medicare system or seniors to come. I realize it won't affect seniors today.

RYAN: I would argue that's really kind of a non sequitur. The comparison of the two numerically speaking, are infinitesimally different. Medicare has tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities. It overwhelms any other thing such as small provisions like that.

Now with respect to oil company tax subsidies, we've all along said let's reform the tax code, let's clear out the brush in the tax shelters for all different businesses so we can lower tax rates on everybody so that we can have a more internationally competitive tax system to get jobs created.

Now with the one provision you are tacking about, it is a tax benefit that goes to all manufacturers in America if they make something in America. What they're talking about singling out the oil and gas industry and raising their tax rates compared to every or manufacturers which simply eliminates this tax benefit that goes to every manufacturer and therefore raise the cost of producing American oil and gas and make us more dependent on foreign oil and gas. I don't think that's really a good idea.

I just filled up my Suburban yesterday. It cost me $100 to fill up with gas and I couldn't even fill the tank because the pump cut off at $100. We've got high gas prices. raising taxes on American made oil and gas doesn't help that, it hurts that.

But let's go back to the scratch here. We have a country that's going broke. We have a very important entitlement, Medicare, that millions of seniors depend on. And so what we're saying is don't change these benefits to people who are in and near retirement. Who have already organized their lives around these benefits but we have got to reform this program for the next generation if we're going to save it for the next generation and that's what we're proposing to do.

CROWLEY: I have two quick questions I must ask you. And one is I know that you are giving a big speech tomorrow in Chicago. I don't think it is coincidence it is the president's hometown. I heard from a number of Democrats who knew you were coming on going this is a do- over tour that you're on, that you got so blasted for your...

RYAN: It's anything but.

CROWLEY: ...and it's damage control. Is there anything different in these speeches?

RYAN: No. It's basically we believe the president is articulating a vision which I would call shared scarcity. I believe the president's economic vision and the speeches he's been given are speeches in which they pit people against each other, play class warfare, envy economics which is bad economics. And I think it is really a vision of shared scarcity in bringing America to a period of managed decline, economic stagnation.

We are pushing a vision of renewed prosperity. Our budget puts the budget on a path to balance and our economy on a path to prosperity. And so anything but.

We are pressing ahead because we sincerely believe that our budget, which fulfills the mission of health and retirement security, repairs the rifts in the social safety net and pairs of our debt and grows our economy is the right vision we believe that is what Americans want, we believe that's historically in keeping with what created our country so we want a system where America is more defined by upward mobility and equal opportunity and economic prosperity. And I don't think that's the outcome of the president's vision and that's why I think it's important to contrast these two approaches.

CROWLEY: Congressman, and I think I'll get a quick answer from you on this one, but I would be drummed out of the corps if I didn't ask. Senator Kohl is retiring. That leaves an open seat and people are wondering whether you would run for the U.S. Senate. Would you be willing to give up the House budget chairmanship to run for the U.S. Senate?

RYAN: Well, Herb just announced this Friday. It was a bit of a surprise to all of us. And so my family to voters we just started digesting this. I plan on making an announcement very quickly. I don't want to dwindle on this but we're just beginning to process this information.

CROWLEY: This week maybe we'll hear? RYAN: Yes.

CROWLEY: OK, great.

Thanks so much. Congressman Paul Ryan, we appreciate your time.

RYAN: Thank you, Candy.

CROWLEY: Up next, the Republicans' field of presidential candidates takes shape. Do any of them have the right stuff to beat President Obama in 2012?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Two familiar names formerly ventured into 2012 this week -- former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an old political hand, declared his well known presidential ambitions the new millennium way -- on Facebook and Twitter. And another no surprise here candidate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul went official on morning TV.

Officially not running, a former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee who made his non-declaration on his FOX TV show yesterday.

CROWLEY: Former Governor Mitt Romney hasn't done his 2012 paperwork, but he's done years of groundwork preparing for his second presidential bid. He devoted a Thursday speech trying to repair a potential Achilles' heel -- similarities between the health care plan he started in Massachusetts and President Obama's plan.

In other 2012 hints, former U.S. ambassador to China and former governor of Utah Jon Huntsman sat down for a big interview with Time magazine, and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels put his wife Cheri in the spotlight at a fund-raising dinner.

2012 analysis from Joe Lockhart and Michael Gerson, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Joining me now, Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary for President Clinton, and Michael Gerson, former speech writer and policy adviser for President George W. Bush.

Thank you both.

So the latest that's happening, 2012, which seems to be gearing up a little, which -- you know, we like...

(LAUGHTER)

... is Mike Huckabee is out. He was largely seen as here's where the social conservatives would go. Who now has that crowd to attract?

GERSON: Well, I was in Iowa not too long ago and people were already starting to make their choices, former Huckabee supporters. He was really the front-runner in that state. And among social conservatives, kind of, the harder-edge ones that had supported Huckabee were interested in Michele Bachmann. The softer-edge ones were interested in Tim Pawlenty, who is much more electable in a certain way.

And so I think the Huckabee people will divide among a couple of members of the field, but those were the two that people were talking about.

CROWLEY: And do either one of those -- if you said, well, now social conservatives -- and that's big in Iowa, certainly, well, in the early states -- do you see anybody there that you think this is the guy we really don't want to run against? LOCKHART: Well, I mean, I, kind of, put them in two categories, and Huckabee is a little hard because I actually do have some respect for him. But there are the serious candidates, Pawlenty, Romney, and then there are the people who have TV shows...

(LAUGHTER)

... Huckabee, Palin, Donald Trump. And I think anything on the Republican side that takes some of the Hollywood out and lets the serious candidates get some oxygen is good for Republicans and, by definition, slightly bad for Democrats.

The problem that some of what I'll call the more serious candidates have right now is they have trouble getting oxygen when you've got, you know, carnival barkers running around sucking it all up.

CROWLEY: Right. And that -- but they drive the conversation, which is why some people actually get into the race is just -- you know, they don't expect they're going to win, but they do drive the conversation, which I think we've seen some. We've certainly seen Donald Trump do it. I think Michele Bachmann is another example of people who expect to move the party conversation somewhere.

You mentioned Mitt Romney. So I want to read something The Wall Street Journal wrote. Now, he gave a big speech this week about why Romneycare in Massachusetts is different from Obamacare for the nation.

And -- but right before he gave it, here's what The Wall Street journal wrote: "The debate over Obamacare and the larger entitlement state may be the central question of the 2012 election. On that question, Mr. Romney is compromised and not credible. If he does not change his message, he might as well try to knock off Joe Biden and get on the Obama ticket.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pretty tough.

CROWLEY: Yeah, Wall Street Journal -- this is not good news for -- for Romney. They then, after his speech, said, no, it didn't really, you know, satisfy us. And so there's a back-and-forth, as you might imagine, between Romney and The Wall Street Journal.

But is he -- he may well be electable, but let's start -- is he nominatable?

GERSON: Well, he already has met his quota of flip-flops in the past. He couldn't do it again on the health reform, his reform in Massachusetts. And he really believes that the individual mandate's important.

But for conservatives in the party, the individual mandate is the red line. I think he's going to have a really tough time with the nomination in that context. It makes him a very fragile front-runner in -- in New Hampshire.

CROWLEY: And do you agree? I mean...

LOCKHART: Sure. I mean, the essential problem for Republicans is, to win a national election, you've got to have someone who's somewhere near the middle, but the electorate that will nominate a candidate, caucus-goers in Iowa, a small number in New Hampshire, down and around the country, are very conservative and not necessarily in the same place as where a majority can come from.

So it's -- the Democrats have faced problems in the past like that, where the liberal wing nominating -- you know, if you look at the '60s and '70s. This is a big fundamental problem for Republicans, and there's nothing about this race so far that indicates that they're going to work through this in a way where they can nominate someone who can fight for the center.

CROWLEY: And, you know, a couple other things happened this week, and one of them is Newt Gingrich got in. And I'm -- I'm of two minds about whether he's driving a conversation or really could be nominated.

When you look at Newt Gingrich and his past -- because you didn't mention Newt Gingrich when you talked about where would those certainly conservatives go.

LOCKHART: Right.

CROWLEY: What are his chances?

LOCKHART: I think he'll drive the rest of the field crazy rather than drive the conversation. The one thing he will do is -- I mean, debates are important when you're trying to sort through and sift out candidates. He will dominate those debates. He is a force of nature, both intellectually and politically. I think he has no chance of being nominated. I think he's disqualified himself over time, but he will drive the rest of them crazy.

CROWLEY: What makes -- do you agree with that assessment, no chance, or virtually no chance? What makes Newt run?

GERSON: Well, there are some precedents. You had Richard Nixon in 1968; you had Ronald Reagan in 1980. These were politicians who had been out of politics for quite a while. He thinks that he can play this role, but he has a lot of baggage.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: ... say his problem may not be that he's been out of politics. It may be...

GERSON: Yeah, there's other baggage. He's gaffe-prone, which I think is a serious problem. He's creative but not disciplined. These are not a good mix of skills for a presidential campaign, where discipline is quite important. Message is quite important. He's often off-message. CROWLEY: And let me ask you about where the president stands now. We all know we're doing a snapshot in time; things change. Is he -- in terms of past presidents running for re- election, a strong position?

LOCKHART: You know, it's -- I actually think, if you look at the numbers in composite, it's -- there's, kind of, a remarkable story there. I saw a number this week that said 29 percent of the country thought the country was going in the right direction, that bellwether number. Gas prices are above $4 a gallon. The bellwether economic number, as far as how people feel about their own economic security. And anywhere between 50 percent to 60 percent of the country approves of the job the president's doing.

I mean, take a step back from that...

CROWLEY: That was -- I mean, he was below 50 percent for a while. That was post-Osama bin Laden.

LOCKHART: Sure, but...

CROWLEY: But right now...

LOCKHART: Even right now, even if he was at 48 percent, numbers like that -- you normally expect a president's approval to be at 28 percent, 32 percent.

LOCKHART: So I think the country - and politics is often about giving someone the benefit of the doubt. And I think the country is willing to look at the circumstances that the president came in and look at what he has done and say, you know, we're willing to sign up for another four years because he's taking us and doing the right things. I think, you know, take these numbers separately, and they could be troubling. Put them together and I think it is an interesting story.

GERSON: Well, his low point was pretty high. I mean, there's no question that he has significant support. But he had before this bump lost a lot of ground among independents, in particular. And he had a tough challenge -- has a tough challenge to motivate his base and appeal to independents which is the way that you win presidential elections.

CROWLEY: His own personal primary.

GERSON: Right, exactly. And so, you know, I think that this is still a serious challenge. He needs more than a bump. He needs sustained economic growth and a kind of better labor market. Otherwise, he's going to have trouble appealing to some of his core constituents, Hispanics and he's appealing to others.

LOCKHART: And I think Michael is right, and that brings the first part of the conversation back, which is the Republicans choose among conservative, more conservative and even more conservative. That's going to help in appealing to independents for the president. And he can put that coalition back together.

Will it be, you know, as exciting and historic as the last election? Of course it won't. This will be a tough slog for the president and he'll have to earn it. But I do think if you look at the broad picture, it sets up pretty well for him.

CROWLEY: He's floating above some of those numbers, that's for sure. So Joe Lockhart, Michael Gerson, thank you so much. Come back.

LOCKHART: We will, thanks.

GERSON: Sure, thank you.

CROWLEY: And when we come back, a check of the top stories. And then the Arab Spring and what Obama plans to say about it. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Time for a check of today's top stories. In Louisiana, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is considering opening at least two more floodgates along the Mississippi River which will flood some farmland and homes, but spare larger cities. The floodgates are in Morganza, over 100 miles away from New Orleans. The Army Corps already opened one gate yesterday, the first time in over 40 years.

Clashes between pro-Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces along Israel's borders today have left four people dead. The violence also left 65 demonstrators injured along the Gaza border and 20 others wounded along Israel's border with Lebanon. The demonstrations marked the 63rd anniversary of Israel's creation.

And Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the leader of the International Monetary Fund, and a possible candidate for president of France, was arrested early this morning for the alleged sexual assault of a New York City hotel maid. His attorneys tell CNN Strauss-Kahn will plead not guilty to the charges against him. Strauss-Kahn is considered the strongest potential challenger to President Nicolas Sarkozy in France's 2012 presidential elections.

And those are today's top stories.

Two months into a vicious and deadly government crackdown against protesters in Syria, a bipartisan group of 16 U.S. senators signed a joint resolution urging President Obama to up the pressure on Syria's leadership with stronger sanctions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Bashar al-Assad should no longer be treated as the legitimate ruler of Syria. Like his father before him, he is a criminal.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: And it is time for the president of the United States to speak up forcefully.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: It is strategic and moral nonsense to say that we should hold back from supporting the Syrian people against Assad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Though still not as aggressive as the senators want, Thursday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did seem to pump up the volume saying: "The recent events in Syria make clear that the country cannot return to the way it was before. We will continue to work with our international partners in the E.U. and elsewhere on additional steps to hold Syria responsible for its gross human rights abuses."

President Obama is expected to address the violence in Syria during a foreign policy speech next week. We will talk about the president's next moves with two former directors of national intelligence, next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: President Obama had a big week coming up in foreign policy. Tuesday he meets with King Abdullah of Jordan, Thursday he will give a speech on U.S. policy in the Middle Eat and North Africa, Friday he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Joining me now to talk a bout all of that and more two former directors of national intelligence, Ambassador John Negroponte and retired Admiral Dennis Blair. Gentleman, thank you.

Let's talk about this foreign policy speech, because I think the one thing that I've heard from people trying to piece the Middle East and Northern Africa together is why do we have this policy in Libya and then it seems to be different in Egypt and now it is totally different in Syria?

As you step back and look at what is evolving over the course of U.S. actions responding to all these things, what do you think U.S. policy in the Middle East is?

BLAIR: Well, I think, Candy, it has four big elements that I think the president addresses. Underlying all of this I think is our dependence on Middle East oil. And we need to understand that that's what such is so closely to this very volatile and difficult area of the world.

Number two is that I think it brings us the opportunity to get on the right side of history. The things we believe in. The Arab spring is not just about Israel, it is about freedom and democracy.

And I think that sentiment is very powerful, plays to our strengths and we should be strongly in favor of that.

And number three, we still have this al Qaeda fringe that tries to kill Americans. And despite the death of Osama bin Laden I think that is something we have to deal with.

And number four, although it is not the end of the road, the Middle East peace process is an essential part of what we have to do. And that stalled. And as Senator Mitchell's resignation showed us, that chapter is closed.

So I think those four elements have got to all be there at the strategic level.

CROWLEY: And we heard -- I don't know if you heard Senator McConnell saying at the opening of the show that Middle East peace process at this point just seems to be dead for a while.

NEGROPONTE: Well -- I don't think we -- first of all, should never give up hope. And I -- in that fourth element, I would add to what the admiral said by saying that, you know, support for the state of Israel, which is a critical element of this multifaceted policy we have in the Middle East. And in order for Israel to be viable over the long term, we do have to reach some kind of Middle East peace settlement. So we can never take it completely off the table.

CROWLEY: And one of the things that -- when I -- was talking to one of the president's top advisers last week. He said, listen, here are -- here's the difference between Libya and Syria, for instance -- or Egypt and Syria. And that is, one, militarily Libya seems doable. Number two, there was an international consensus. And number three, it could be justified by international law.

Is that the basis you think under which we are really in Libya or is the fact we are not in Syria because it is too darned complicated?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think first of all, there is the issue of bandwidth. How many of the different situations can you handle at the same time? But overlaying that, I think we do have a general policy of support for democracy in the Middle East and support for democracy around the world.

And I think even though the president hasn't stood up there and said Bashar Assad must go, I think we deeply hope and fervently support the notion that the Syrian people also deserve democratic government. And sooner or late I'm sure that will come to pass.

CROWLEY: Well, sure. But when it came to Egypt, we did -- I mean, to Libya, We went with NATO forces to protect citizens but we all know what that's about. It's about getting rid of Gadhafi by pressure at the very least.

And number two, in Egypt, we said -- Gadhafi -- I'm sorry, we said Mubarak has to go.

BLAIR: Right. It is complicated.

But -- I think that -- what the ambassador said is exactly right that -- there are different circumstances and different -- in different countries. But underlying it all I think is a tremendous force of the Arab Spring that these repressive regimes are not going to last their -- they are bottling up forces which will eventually push them out.

So I think that what the United States does is to encourage that in generally and then we support specifically where we can.

Now, Libya was in a civil war. So -- it was a different situation from Syria now from the other country.

But I think we should take heart that things are moving in the right direction. And we should support the direction and move when it can make a difference in help.

CROWLEY: Well, the rationale for the U.N. resolution was we have go in there and protect the these citizens from being slaughtered by their own leader and -- I am asking this because I people don't get it and I think there is a nuance here that somehow we are missing in that you have Syrian there clearly slaughtering their own citizens who are peacefully demonstrating for a change in regime or change in how things work. And -- we have seemed so reticent to do it. And what I'm trying to get at, why do we seem so reticent to push Syria harder?

NEGROPONTE: Part of it I think goes to the issue of we had different levels of influence in different places in North Africa and the Middle East. And Egypt, you cited that example at the outset, is a country where we had substantial influence because of years of engagement with that country and very, very strong tie was the Egyptian military. I think our relationship with the Egyptian military was a critical factor in our ability to ease Mr. Mubarak out as quickly as we did.

I don't think that means that we -- any less wish democracy for Syria but we have fewer cards to play. I think we immediate to go about it carefully. And if the president were to tomorrow walk out in the White House press room and say Mr. Bashar al Assad has to go and that will beg the obvious next question is well, what is the United States going to do about that?

CROWLEY: Right. Which was the question in Libya with Gadhafi. They started to say, He has to go, he has to go. But what is then the next move in Syria? Are we doing enough? Should we do more? Is this a matter of escalating rhetoric?

BLAIR: I think we have to remember these are movies, not still pictures. And I think the Syrian movie is going to end up in the same place as the Libyan movie eventually, that this repressive dictator who shoots his own people now is going -- is going to go.

But there are a number of key things that have to fall into place. Because a primary drive has to be from the Libyan people themselves. In case of Egypt, the -- the Libyan people who opposed Mubarak convinced the security forces that they were right, Mubarak was wrong, that hasn't happened yet in Syria. Security forces are still hanging beside their leader. That has to move.

And then there's -- there are the practical difficulties that Ambassador Negroponte talked about in terms of the influence that the United States and the international community can bring to bear.

So this one is going to go the right direction eventually. But the driving dynamic has to come within Syria itself. Those of us on the outside can cheer for where it is going and then help when it really makes a difference.

NEGROPONTE: And from -- if I may interject -- from the rest of the international community. And the Libya case, I think, is instructive in that regard because you will recall that President Obama stipulated that there needed to be more unilateral and European engagement in that situation. And I think ditto with respect to Syria.

The region has to step up. The Arab countries -- Arab league and so forth and the international community. CROWLEY: Let me ask you just to turn you to Pakistan in our final moments here. And we now see that Pakistani parliament saying OK, this was -- if this happens again, this sort of breach into our sovereign territory, there will be consequences. You kind of expect that sort of thing.

But from what you know, how broken, if at all, is the U.S./Pakistani relationship over the Navy SEAL incursion in to -- eventually to kill Osama bin laden?

NEGROPONTE: I think it is very strained. I mean, you see overt evidence of that with denunciations coming from the leadership of their military and of their intelligence community. I think we are going to have to -- we have a great challenge ahead of us in order to repair that damage. I think we have to work hard at that.

I think we have to also work harder at trying to encourage greater civilian military cooperation inside of Pakistan itself, because I think one of the issues -- problems has been the fact the Pakistani military have had a monopoly on their national security and diplomacy. And I think that has to change also.

CROWLEY: Give me your take on this whole back and forth about whether intelligence service in Pakistan high up knew about the presence of Osama bin Laden or were they merely incompetent? I believe that's the choice Leon Panetta said they either are really incompetent or they knew.

BLAIR: I dealt with those leaders for a period of time. I think the -- I think that the -- I can see no way in which hiding bin Laden was in Pakistan's interest. We know that the ISI hides some people from us, but bin Laden was one that I think had been known at a high level, they would have cooperated with us in taking him. So if we have other problem with Pakistani ISI, that's not one of them.

CROWLEY: Gentlemen, thank you both so much for your time.

And thank you for watching State of the Union. I'm Candy Crowley in Washington. Up next for our viewers here in the United States, "Fareed Zakaria GPS."