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Interview With Ann Romney; President Obama's Agenda; Strange Gestures

Aired December 11, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: coming back. The president returns from South Africa hoping to push the reset button on his agenda and his legacy -- this hour, his new poll numbers and his problems.

Plus, strange gestures. Was the man on the sidelines of the Nelson Mandela memorial an interpreter for the deaf or a fake?

And hard to swallow. Milk prices may soar above $7 a gallon, and guess who would be to blame? Members of Congress.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin this hour with President Obama and a crisis of confidence. New polls show he's ending 2013 in a political hole. He may be starting to claw his way out, but many would still agree that his administration is in need of a major reboot right now, as the first year of his second term winds down.

Let's go to our senior White House correspond, Brianna Keilar, who is joining us.

Brianna, more disappointing news today for the president, but how can he bounce back?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I have spoken with veterans of past administrations who are split on whether he can.

While the White House has no specific personnel announcements at this time, today a sign that more are coming, as many observers wonder if it may take more than staff changes to right the ship.


KEILAR (voice-over): Back from South Africa, and back to cold, hard reality. President Obama returned to this, numbers showing just 365,000 Americans enrolled in Obamacare during its first two months, far short of the 1.2 million the White House expected.

While half of Americans say they disapprove of his signature health care law in a new poll, what may be worse, he may have lost credibility. Only 37 percent of those polled say the president is honest and straightforward, according to an NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll. So can he fix it? President Obama is bringing in two White House veterans, as he tries to turn things around, Phil Schiliro, his former congressional liaison who shepherded the passage of Obamacare, back to steer it to success, and most notably John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, who will serve in the influential advisory role as counselor to the president.

(on camera): Should that be seen as a reset and does the president think that he needs a reset?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: That's part of the natural transition you see on an annual basis at the White House. And I would anticipate that you would see more of that this year, too.

KEILAR (voice-over): A signal that more changes are to come. But now some are asking, will staff changes be enough? Or has the damage to the second term already been done?

RYAN LIZZA, "THE NEW YORKER": I think staff changes, they help change the media narrative to a certain extent. I'm skeptical that staff can change the fundamentals of the problems that Obama has.


KEILAR: Those fundamentals being his still troubled health care program, as well as the economy, because the recovery is still slow going, Wolf, and also the fact that President Obama faces a divided Congress. Even though we have seen this bipartisan budget deal, Congress is still resisting the big-ticket items on his agenda, such as immigration reform and climate change legislation, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar at the White House with that, thank you.

Millions are Americans about to get a sour taste of the gridlock here in Washington. Milk prices could soar above $7 a gallon. Yes, you heard that right, if Congress doesn't get its act together.

CNN's Athena Jones tells us what's going on.


ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Got milk? The real question might be, got cash? If Congress doesn't pass a new farm bill soon, prices for milk could almost double over time from a national average of about $3.47 a gallon to nearly $7.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Double price, it just seems a little bit too much to me.

JONES: Why? Existing subsidies for dairy producers expire in December, triggering a 1940s era rule that the secretary of agriculture explained requires the government to buy milk, butter and cheese at about double the going rate.

TOM VILSACK, U.S. AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: So a producer has a choice between either buying and selling it to me, USDA, or selling it to their normal processor. Obviously if they're going to get twice the price, they will set it to the USDA. That is going to create shortages for the processor, which ultimately leads to shortages in the grocery store.

JONES: Shoppers at this grocery store weren't happy to hear they could be paying double.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's horrible, especially as a mom with a family. I think milk is something that most people have always thought as something essential to have in their fridge.

JONES: Prices for products made with milk would also go up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would still buy milk and some cheeses and all, but probably half as much.

JONES: His message to Congress?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get your act together and don't increase these prices.

JONES (on camera): With just a few weeks to go before the current farm bill expires, lawmakers are still trying to reach agreement on issues like food stamps and crop insurance. Secretary Vilsack told us that if a framework for a deal is reached by January, these price spikes could be avoided.

Athena Jones, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: Still ahead, was he signing or faking it? The shocking claims about the man who was supposed to be interpreting for the death at Nelson Mandela's memorial.

Plus, new drama for the Washington Redskins. A star player is benched, and now there's a frenzy of second-guessing. CNN's Rachel Nichols will give us the backstory.

And Ann Romney here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a rare interview on her husband, her family, and any lingering regrets from the 2012 presidential campaign.


BLITZER: The Washington Redskins seem to be a magnet for controversy these days, from the team's name to its management.

The star quarterback Robert Griffin III has now been benched for the rest of the season. This is a player who was last season's rookie of the year. Many sportswriters and fans are questioning the move.

CNN's Rachel Nichols is joining us. She is the host of "RACHEL NICHOLS UNGUARDED" on CNN.

Quarterbacks gets benched all the time. Rachel, why is this such a big sports deal?

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, quarterbacks usually get benched because the team doesn't think that they can win with them anymore. That is definitely not what's happening here.

As you point out, RG3, the offensive rookie of the year last year, he's certainly considered the future of this franchise, so the questions are, why would you bench him now? There are a lot of people who think he's getting caught up in a power play between the coach, Mike Shanahan, and the owner, Daniel Snyder, Dan Snyder very close to RG3.

There are people who say that Mike Shanahan isn't so crazy about that. The Redskins are out of contention now for the playoffs, and Shanahan is saying that the reason he is sitting his star quarterback is because of the risk of injury, that he doesn't want to put RG3 out there when he could get hurt and then have people second-guess him for that. There are people who have said, hey, maybe it is worth sitting this guy a couple games to try to get him to learn behind some of the more veteran players, a different perspective of the game.

But there's some doubt whether that is really the true motive, because this is a kid who wants to play. He actually went to Mike Shanahan today and said, I want to be out there. Mike Shanahan said, no. He said he's shutting it down.

And now we have just to wait for the palace intrigue to continue over there. We will have to see who lasts this season over at Redskins Park.

BLITZER: From football to baseball, Rachel, a huge decision today, Major League Baseball announcing from now on they're going to ban these home plate collisions, where the runner coming into home plate tries to jar the ball from the catcher. These home plate collisions are pretty powerful, pretty brutal sometimes.

This could change the game. What do you make of this?

NICHOLS: Absolutely. And it's been a part of baseball for a while, but the discussion about it has really intensified in the past couple years.

You had San Francisco catcher Buster Posey who was injured in one of these collisions. He ended up being out for most of the season. San Francisco was like, hey, we lost an All-Star over this. This shouldn't be happening that a player can just take one of our major, major components of our team out like this. There's been discussion. The Detroit Tigers this year, during the playoffs, their catcher had to leave a game because of a similar collision.

At the rules meeting, they have decided the catcher can no longer block the plate if he doesn't have a ball in his hand, and the runner coming in is going to have to slide. He can't intentionally try to just crash into the catcher the way you're seeing in pictures here. Hopefully, it will keep these guys a little bit safer.

It's going to take some of the pyrotechnics out of the game, but it will be better for the players on the field.

BLITZER: And much better for the catchers who usually gets slammed in those collisions.

Rachel, thanks very much.

And to our viewers, remember, you can always catch Rachel on "RACHEL NICHOLS UNGUARDED." It airs 10:30 p.m. Eastern Friday nights only here on CNN.

One of the biggest memorial services in history has unleashed a very bizarre controversy. See that man on the sidelines of the tribute to Nelson Mandela? There he is right there. You might think he's signing for the deaf, but if you take a closer look, there are experts out there that say he is a fake.

Brian Todd is here.

Brian, the deaf community pretty furious about this. Explain what's going on.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, the deaf community all over the world seems furious with this. The South African government is now investigating.

Experts are pointing to what they say are obvious signs in this man's gestures that he was butchering the speeches of one dignitary after another.


TODD (voice-over): He seems to be gesturing with authority, signing to keep pace with the speaker.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Side by side, dreaming the same dream.

TODD: But this sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial service was a fake, according to the Deaf Federation of South Africa. They claim he's had no formal training. The signs he's making are not used in South African language, and he never used facial expressions, a key part of signing.

The federation says there are established signs for famous people in South Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Former President Thabo Mbeki.

TODD: But one expert says the signed name for Mbeki never appeared. The deaf community in South Africa is outraged.

ABRAM MARIPANE, DEAFSA LANGUAGE TRAINER: Because he's a fake interpreter, and he's just been signing arbitrary signs.

TODD: A deaf member of the South Africa's Parliament tweeted during the ceremony, "He's just making up. Get him out of TV sight."

That lawmaker is an alum of this place, Gallaudet University in Washington, the world's only liberate arts college for the hard of hearing. Melanie Metzger, chair of the Gallaudet Interpretation Department, says she doesn't know South African sign language, but there are universal indications of something wrong here.

MELANIE METZGER, GALLAUDET UNIVERSITY: You see the repetitive movements here and here. There's a repeated gesture, but the speaker is not repeating the spoken message. So, you can see just by that the interpretation is not an accurate equivalent.

TODD: If this man was a fake, was he a security risk? He stood inches from President Obama and other world leaders. The White House seemed uncomfortable talking about it.

EARNEST: I would refer you to the South African government about who that person was and what their responsibilities were.

TODD: Who is he? It's a mystery. The South African government won't comment, saying it's investigating. Former Secret Service agent Larry Johnson says for these events the host organization provides names of everyone in the inner perimeter to the Secret Service 48 hours in advance, so names, backgrounds can be checked, but:

LARRY JOHNSON, FORMER U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: Being bad at your job is not a concern of the Secret Service. The concerns are, is he someone that shouldn't be there because he has bad intentions, he's known to law enforcement, he's a security risk?


TODD: Johnson says it looks to him like those red flags did not show up in the background checks. Did the Secret Service vet him? The agency tells us that agreed-upon security measures between the Secret Service and South African security officials were in place during the ceremony.

The Secret Service says the host organizing committee was responsible for the selection of the interpreter. Wolf, and as we told you, the South African government for the moment not commenting. They're investigating.

BLITZER: There are reports, though, plenty of them, this man has been observed doing this elsewhere in the past.

TODD: That's right. "The Guardian" newspaper says that members of South Africa's deaf community have raised concerns before about this interpreter. He's apparently been used at some events staged by the African National Congress.

Now the ANC has told us they have used him in the past, but they did not hire him for this.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much. What a bizarre story that is.

Just ahead, Ann Romney here in THE SITUATION ROOM. She will share her thoughts on a surprising poll that suggests her husband could win the White House if the election were today. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We want to follow up on a very moving story we shared with you in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday.

Today, the House of Representatives approved the bill named after 10- year-old Gabriella Miller, just weeks after her death from a brain tumor. It would probably an additional $126 million in funding for childhood cancer research over 10 years.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, spoke to Gabriella's mother right after the vote.


ELLYN MILLER, MOTHER OF GABRIELLA: That was Gabriella's hand in there. She didn't want it to wait. We are going to get funding for kids, and be able to do research to help find cures for all childhood disease.


BLITZER: The bill now goes to the Senate, where there are no immediate plans for a vote. We will continue to watch its fate.

South Africans have been lining up to say farewell to Nelson Mandela. His body is lying in state in Pretoria for three days before a burial on Sunday.

Here in Washington, D.C., Vice President Joe Biden attended a memorial for South Africa's first black president. He called Mandela the most impressive person he had ever met.

Americans of both parties have been praising Nelson Mandela and his legacy, including Ann Romney, who joins us in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What has Nelson Mandela meant to you and to your husband?

ANN ROMNEY, WIFE OF MITT ROMNEY: You know, I think there's maybe not a person living that has had a bigger impact, not just on Africans' lives, but everybody's life.

I think he was the most extraordinary example of forgiveness, of kindness, of generosity. I don't know if there's anyone that is held in higher esteem in the world than Nelson Mandela. He was a powerful example in my life, a powerful example in my husband's life of how you move something that is so significant with such a peaceful, loving, generous, wonderful essence of who he is.

You look at his face, what you see is amazing, such love and kindness and generosity, an extraordinary human being.

BLITZER: Well said.

I don't know if you saw this poll that came out in "The Washington Post." It said, registered voters, if the 2012 presidential election -- you remember that -- were being held today, for whom would you vote? President Obama 45 percent, Mitt Romney 49 percent.

This is a year after that election. You see those numbers, what goes through your mind?


ROMNEY: Well, it's too bad the election isn't today. That would have been obviously a different outcome.

It's frustrating a bit to watch what's happening with the Obamacare rollout.

But we are where we are. We're happy. Our lives are good. Our family is strong. My husband and I have a wonderful marriage. We're blessed enormously. This country is still a wonderful country. It's got great people in it. And we just -- everyone's just -- obviously, we all just move on.

BLITZER: He's moved on. But does he wake up every day and say to himself, I should have done this -- I should have done -- does he look back a lot?

ROMNEY: No. No. We don't look back. Neither one of us ever look back. We look forward.

Learned that lesson from Mitt's father very well. No, we look forward. Enjoy life. We're having a great time right now.

BLITZER: Let's talk about "The Romney Family Table." Why did you write this book?

ROMNEY: You know, I think it was a bit cathartic. That is about as far away from politics as you can get.

And it's about love, family, traditions, and for me right now celebrating holidays, the season that is coming before us right now, and it's so wonderful to have family traditions.

BLITZER: And there are great recipes in here? It's really a cookbook, too.


ROMNEY: It's a cookbook, but it's also -- you know what? It's a bit of a look into our life and how to raise children, and the struggles you have.

But I'm glad you mentioned, too, that the proceeds go to neurological research. So, it's obviously a concern of mine, and hopefully people can have a good Christmas present, good holiday presents, and also know that they're contributing to trying to find cures for neurological disorders.

BLITZER: And I was happy that the recipe for your Welsh cakes is in this book. When I was out on the campaign trail in Iowa, I was on your bus, I had the pleasure of eating some of those Welsh cakes. They're pretty popular, aren't they?

ROMNEY: They are. They're real hits.

BLITZER: Give us the secret ingredient.

ROMNEY: Nutmeg.

BLITZER: Really?


BLITZER: It's nutmeg.

ROMNEY: That's right.

BLITZER: So, you -- and you do it yourself?

ROMNEY: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I made those, Wolf, those that you ate on the bus. The few days I was home, I was making Welsh cakes.

BLITZER: I saw Mitt Romney having a -- I think it was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread. Right?


BLITZER: He makes those himself or somebody makes those for him?


ROMNEY: Oh, no, no, he makes those himself.

BLITZER: He does that himself. You're not -- no recipes for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

ROMNEY: There's a funny one in there on peanut butter and fluff.


BLITZER: Oh, there is, huh?

ROMNEY: There is a funny one, yes.

BLITZER: It's a good book. It's an especially good book at this time of year.


BLITZER: Thanks very much.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Merry Christmas. Happy new year. Our best to the whole family.

ROMNEY: Thank you very much. Wolf. BLITZER: All right. There's some breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We're just learning about a serious situation on the International Space Station.

Joining us on the phone is CNN's John Zarrella.

What are we learning, John? What's going on?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: Wolf, what we know is that one of the two pumps on the station that actually cools the international station has failed.

Now, most importantly, there is no danger to the crew. The life support system is working fine. Science experiments are working fine, but they have had to transfer a lot of the load over to the second pump. So they have had to shut down the noncritical systems on three of the modules on board the International Space Station.

They're still troubleshooting the problem. It certainly could mean that, at some point, they will have to do an emergency space walk. They do have spare pumps that they can install a new one, but that would of course require a space walk, because the pumps are located outside the International Space Station -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, no immediate call for any evacuation or anything like that, right?

ZARRELLA: No, that is absolutely correct, Wolf, no call for evacuation. The astronauts, the cosmonauts are not in any danger, certainly not at this point. Life support system is fine.

BLITZER: And they could fix it by doing the space walk? They have been trained to do something like that?

ZARRELLA: In fact, they did a space walk months ago to replace the same pump, and now the replacement pump has failed on them. So they are practiced at it. They certainly know how to do it.

BLITZER: John Zarrella with the latest. Let's hope for the best for all of those on the International Space Station. Good luck to them. Thank you.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.