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President Obama Meets with Media; 'Duck Dynasty' Controversy; NSA Snooping Hounds Obama Into 2014; Utah Same-Sex Marriage Ban Struck Down; Holiday Travel Nightmare

Aired December 20, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama looks forward to 2013 being nothing but a memory, a painful, painful memory.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead, the president facing up to the year's many failures. Will this go down as the worst year of his presidency?

The money lead. It's a show about his family, about his business, shot in his home. But now that "Duck Dynasty"'s patriarch is suspended for remarks about gays, how will the show go on without him? Will the family even let it?

And the pop culture lead. For some, it's not really Christmas until they watch this movie? Others would rather watch a loop of their own colonoscopy video. Is "Love Actually" the most divisive Christmas movie of all time?

Good afternoon. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the national lead. President Obama would probably like nothing more than to take a knee, run out the clock on what's been, to put it kindly, a challenging year. To put it less kindly, you could call it, in a nod to Judith Viorst's famous children's book, Barack Obama and the terrible horrible no good very bad year.

But before the president could say aloha to Washington and aloha to Hawaii, where the first family will be vacationing for the next 16 days, the president took part in the unofficial tradition of a year- end presidential news conference. This year, the president watched as his administration fumbled the rollout of, the public learned of the massive extent of the NSA's reach thanks to damaging leaks.

There was the IRS scandal, questions about what happened in Syria. I could go on and on at length. The president may have been expecting the first question he got from the Associated Press.


QUESTION: Has this been the worst year of your presidency?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I -- I got to tell you, Julie, that's not how I think about it. I look at this past year, there are areas where there obviously have been some have frustrations, where I wished Congress had moved more aggressively.

If you're measuring this by polls, my polls have gone up and down a lot through the course of my career.


TAPPER: About those polls that the president claims not to be too worried about, here's the latest CNN/ORC poll showing his approval rating, 41 percent.

It matches the all-time low for him on our polling. So was this the worst year of his presidency and where does the administration go from here?

Let's bring in our panel, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist Kevin Madden, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today" Susan Page, and co-host of CNN's "CROSSFIRE" Van Jones.

So the president was asked what his biggest mistake was this year and this is what he said.


OBAMA: It didn't happen in the first month, the first six weeks, in a way that was at all acceptable.

And, since I'm in charge, obviously we screwed it up.


TAPPER: He's talking about Obamacare there. Was Obamacare the biggest mistake of the year, do you think?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": What a year when the questions at the end of the year are, is this your worst year ever? What was this your biggest mistake? Will you ever improve in the polls because you're in such a terrible state?

Can you imagine? Yes, Obamacare, his biggest legislative achievement, now his biggest problem, the one that's defined him in a way that is very damaging, that likens him really I think in a lot of ways to President George W. Bush and the Iraq war. Very different enterprises, but their effect on these presidencies I think are quite similar.

TAPPER: Would you have advised the president to have answered any of these questions differently, Kevin? Was there anything -- I thought he did a pretty good job of staying on message and not answering questions, which is what politicians do.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I think the overall goal here was to do exactly that, was to stay on message and not make any news. I think for the large part he was very successful today.

I actually think he answered that question about what his biggest mistake was perfectly, to tell you the truth, because to answer it any differently, I think he would really hurt his credibility. If the president is going to rebound, if he's going to rebuild these numbers, he has to get that trust back and that level of credibility back with the American people because, right now, it's at an all-time low.

TAPPER: Van, how does he rebuild? Forty-one percent approval, that's really low. That's George W. Bush low. And George W. Bush, as you know, never climbed out of that hole. He never got back to 50 percent, which is where you need to be, over 50 percent. How does the president do it?

VAN JONES, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Well, first of all, it was very interesting. He was definitely doing his best Muhammad Ali rope-a- dope, laying on the ropes, taking tough questions and hoping that the next round will be better. He was trying to get on Air Force One today and he succeeded. He did not make news, which was his goal.

But in the background, while we focus on the lumps, there are some good things beginning to emerge and surface. The economy is beginning to come forward. One of the quarters got revised up to 4 percent growth.

TAPPER: I was actually surprised he didn't talk about that more.

JONES: I would have been pounding on that. I would have been pounding -- 4 percent growth. You're chasing China at that point. You're really -- so that was good. The other thing, he missed a huge opportunity because of the fatigue to pound on the fuel prices.

Just think if gas prices going up the way they're going down. He would be getting killed on that. So I think when you have this level of fatigue and just get me to the vacation, you miss some opportunities. He missed some opportunities to brag on himself today.

MADDEN: Well, I think one of the reasons why is because I think the White House is very aware there is a canyon between some of the economic indicators, the metrics of it, and the way people feel about it, like whether or not they feel the economy's growing at 4 percent or they feel like there's a lot of economic optimism right now.

I still think there's a certain level of economic exasperation that's at its zenith. Now, whether or not that changes over the next year remains to be seen. But I think that was the delicate balance that the president and the White House had today.

TAPPER: There was an interesting moment, a few interesting moments, one when ABC's Jon Karl asked the president about his difficult year and what it meant to him on a personal level.


OBAMA: It's not that I don't engage in a lot of self-reflection here. I promise you, I probably beat myself up, you know, even worse than you or Ed Henry does on any given day.


OBAMA: But I have also got to wake up in the morning and make sure that I do better the next day.


TAPPER: He seemed a little downtrodden there.

JONES: Yes, obviously, but I think...


MADDEN: I think Van was right. He looks very tired.

JONES: He's tired. He's tired.

Listen, you're trying to bicycle across the country and your opposing party has the brake on the whole time, you get a little tired. But I thought it was really interesting that those were the moments where I think people like him a little bit more, when he's not just trying to push through all his talking points and he gets a little bit more human.

I think what you're going to see is, you get six more months of this kind of economic performance, unemployment is due to go down, you do have better growth, you have got the stock market there, and if he can then start hammering on this question around minimum wage and put the Republicans in a box on minimum wage, because the Tea Party folks even want minimum wage to go up, you start to see a little bit of a shift, I believe.

SUSAN PAGE: I think the only way you see a shift here and he gets out of this hole is with reality.

You need the economy to continue doing what it started to do, which is pick up. You need unemployment to drop some more, and most of all you need the Affordable Care Act to work. You need the Web site to be working on the front side. You need it to work on the back side when it goes to the insurance companies.

The only thing that will save President Obama from George W. Bush's fate is reality.


TAPPER: And he seemed to be setting the stage for that. He seemed to be saying like, 2014, that will be a big year, we will have a lot of good things happening. It was kind of buried in this Eeyore kind of mood, but...


SUSAN PAGE: He also needs to come back. The next big speech he will give we think will be the State of the Union on the 20th. He needs to show a lot more energy than he was showing there.

MADDEN: I think you're right, but I think this is where I disagree with Van. When folks see the president saying, I beat myself up, they do not care. They don't care that the president's hard on himself. What they want to know is that there are some concrete solutions, that he's going to do something to right the ship, that he's going to do something to work with Congress. I thought he was still pretty defiant when he was talking about Congress, saying things like there's a lot of brinksmanship up there.

Folks know that, but they want the president to take a leading role in stopping that brinksmanship or building up -- building the legislative coalitions that he needs to get things done on Capitol Hill.

JONES: Kevin's right about this. You see his internal struggle. He has got to make a decision. Does he want to breathe more oxygen on this bipartisan moment and really be the guy standing for that or does he want to keep punching back on the Republicans? He's not made up his mind. It was obvious today.

MADDEN: And I thought Speaker Gingrich earlier made a good point where he said he started off the year in a very defiant tone and he's ended it in a very defiant tone.

It will be interesting to see whether or not that changes from here to the State of the Union and whether or not the State of the Union does provide a bigger platform for maybe some potential progress.

TAPPER: One other interesting answer he gave when our own -- CNN's own Brianna Keilar asked him about the upcoming debt ceiling fight, Republicans, some Republicans have suggested that they're not just going to raise the debt ceiling without getting some sort of concession, and here was his response to that.


OBAMA: To repeat, the debt ceiling is raised simply to pay bills that we have already accrued. It is not something that is a negotiating tool. It's not leverage.


TAPPER: Jack Lew, the treasury secretary, is saying we have seven weeks to raise the debt ceiling. Where are we headed here?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, how did the showdown work for the Republicans last time? Not so well. So, I'm assuming that it's like they have been burned on the stove and they will not jump back on it and that there will be not be the kind of showdown politics that we saw the last time around, although there are Republicans, there are Tea Party Republicans, I don't know, maybe they will do it again.

JONES: I still think this is an issue that Republicans believe we need a showdown on, because it's a spending issue, and they believe -- most Republicans believe they are aligned with the American public sentiment on that.

I also found it interesting that he said I'm not going to negotiate, but I'm willing to talk. Well, guess what, that's negotiating.

TAPPER: Right. That is negotiating.

Stick around. We are going to keep you guys for another block.

Coming up on THE LEAD: The president talked about the 46 recommendations he was handed for curbing the NSA's power. They are sitting on his desk. Will he follow any of them? Let's hear what the president had to say about your privacy today.

And from beach towels to bobbleheads, the merchandise alone from the show has raked in $400 million this year. Did A&E shoot its golden goose or golden duck? Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're going to continue with the national lead. President Obama did address somebody that may be in hiding thousands of miles away, but he still cast a long shadow over today's news conference. Of course, I'm referring to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.


OBAMA: And as a consequence of these disclosures, we've got countries who actually do the things that Mr. Snowden says he's worried about very explicitly, engaging in surveillance of their own citizens, targeting political dissidents, targeting and suppressing the press, who somehow are able to sit on the sidelines and act as if it's the United States that has problems when it comes to surveillance and intelligence operations.


TAPPER: I want to welcome back our panel, Van Jones, Kevin Madden, Susan Page.

The NSA surveillance program, some people think -- it's so hard to figure out when things started to go wrong for President Obama -- but some people think it started to go wrong with this disclosure of the NSA programs because, especially for progressives --

JONES: Absolutely.

TAPPER: -- who thought that the president was not living up to what he promised. Can he regain that trust?

JONES: Well, I think so. But, listen, the termites that began to eat through his numbers, NSA. That's where the termites started. Then, the broken Web site and the broken promise, that's when he fell through.

But once you have the president of the United States caught doing things that people just did not expect this president to be doing, for progressives and also, it created a weird alliance between liberals and libertarians. You had progressives and Rand Paul suddenly united against the president. That was the first time that happened. So, I think the NSA scandal is a bigger deal in terms of appearing this crash in his numbers.

PAGE: But a big opportunity, because he does need a lot of legislation to get passed. He does need to rely on Republicans in Congress to do some kind of grand bargain with him. He can figure out what the post-post-9/11 balance between security and privacy ought to be.

He's well-positioned to do that. It's an issue he talked about even before he became president. He's seen what it's like from the inside. And I think we will hear him talk about this in a serious way in beginning of the New Year.

TAPPER: It's interesting, Kevin, I don't -- I don't know yet how much the American people actually care about bulk surveillance of metadata. I don't know. I don't know how much -- but I feel like there was something as Van says.

JONES: Symbolic.

TAPPER: There was something about he's not living up to what he said he would do type thinking, that began to --

MADDEN: Right. And it was a stark -- I mean, the remarks he made defending it were a stark contrast to the remarks that he made criticizing it when he was a senator and a candidate.

I think to Van's point also, the president did miss an opportunity here when this initial news came out. He could have forged an alliance with a lot of Republicans on a really -- as a really -- and build a really strong national security profile. Folks like John Boehner and Peter King and others that are involved in the intelligence matters up on Capitol Hill, they were just yearning for him to come out and say something very pro-actively, very bold and defend it robustly and he didn't. And what we've seen is over the last few weeks and months is just -- every once in awhile he gets asked about it, he says something, but then he goes back and pushes the focus somewhere else.

TAPPER: We have only another minute but I want to get into this question about Iran. President Obama today accused his detractors of basically beating their chests on Iran.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is no need for new sanctions legislation. Not yet. Now, if Iran comes back and says, we can't give you assurances that we're not going to weaponize, if they're not willing to address some of their capabilities that we know could end up resulting in them having breakout capacity, it's not going to be hard for us to turn the dials back, strengthen sanctions even further. I'll work with members of Congress to put even more pressure on Iran. But there's no reason to do it right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: That's a bipartisan coalition in the Senate, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who's a Democrat from New Jersey, Robert Menendez -- easy for me to say -- that he's going after there.

PAGE: And, you know, there's another point in that clip where he said I know it looks good for you if you're running for office or in office to stand up for tougher sanctions on Iran. Pretty tough charge because there is, of course, a substantive reason that you might think sanctions against Iran were a good idea besides the politics of the moment.

TAPPER: All right. Susan Page, Kevin Madden, Van Jones, thank you so much.

MADDEN: Great to be with you.

TAPPER: Great discussion. Appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD, if you plan to start your holiday travel this weekend, you better stick around to hear what parts of the country are in for in terms of a winter weather nightmare.

And later, Charlie Brown or Christmas story? Everyone has their favorite holiday flicks. But there's a controversy over what makes a movie a Christmas classic. Take your hand off that leg lamp because our pop culture lead is coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Some breaking national news now. A federal judge has struck down the state of Utah's ban on same sex marriage. In the ruling, the judge wrote that the law denies gays and lesbians their quote, "fundamental right to marry" and called the ban unconstitutional. We'll have more on that story as it comes out.

In other national news, the only thing missing from this weekend's holiday travel forecast is a plague of locusts. Ice storms, tornadoes, severe flooding and heavy snow could leave many travelers going nowhere fast. The band of rough weather will cover a span of 1,200 miles, impacting more than 10 states.

So, which areas could be most in jeopardy of dealing with canceled flights and flooded-out roads?

Well, let's get the latest from meteorologist Jennifer Gray in the CNN weather center -- Jennifer.

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Oh, Jake, this one is going to be big. And where the last couple of storm systems have had mainly a wintry component to them, these are mainly going to be a rain event. We have everything from heavy snow to ice to flooding rains, even severe storms possible, as we go through the next 24 to 48 hours. So, we're going to break it down for you. We're going to start with the ice. And anywhere from Oklahoma City through Wichita, Kansas City could see anywhere from a quarter inch to half an inch of ice. There are already ice storm warnings in effect, including Oklahoma City and Tulsa as we go through Friday into Saturday, so it could be very slippery on the commute if you are traveling for the holiday.

Also, the severe storms, we could see storms anywhere from Shreveport to Memphis, even down to south Louisiana. We could see anything from tornado to damaging winds with this and that's going to carry on into Sunday as well. This shift moves a little more to the east, the severe threat goes down just a tad on Sunday but we're still looking at very strong winds and the possibility of isolated tornadoes even for the East Coast as we go through Sunday.

The snow component with this stretches anywhere from Kansas City, Des Moines, even including Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, could see anywhere from four to six inches of snow, some isolated amounts, up to eight inches possible and so we also have those snow watches and warnings in effect as well.

So, heavy rains, two to four inches possible across the Ohio Valley as we go through Saturday. We could see anywhere from five inches of rain possible across the country's midsection and this even stretches up into the Northeast. So, this will travel to the east on Sunday and affect the Northeast, New England as well.

So, temperature-wise, very, very warm. D.C. gets up to the low 70s by Saturday and Sunday. New York City could be close to 70 degrees on Sunday, Jake, but then we do return a little closer to normal by the time we get into, you know, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. So could be a mess for travelers this weekend.

TAPPER: Sounds like a potential nightmare. Jennifer, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

In the world lead, you shell out for tickets and get a sitter for a big night out at the theater and this happens. Two people are still in the hospital after part of the ceiling collapsed at London's Apollo Theater. Both are listed in stable condition.

About 720 people were in the audience when chunks of plaster began raining down. Some people stumbled out bloodied, covered in dust. Some were trapped inside for a time. Thankfully, no one was killed.

Investigators are now trying to find out what caused the collapse inside the building which has stood in central London for more than a century. The police believe it did not involve a criminal act.

Who says Vladimir Putin holds a grudge? Today, the Russian president signed a pardon for one of his most prominent critics. Of course, it did take him a decade to do it. Putin freed Mikhail Khodorkovsky so he could see his mother, who is very ill. Khodorkovsky, an oil baron, was once Russia's richest man, but he was a vocal Putin critic.

And in 2003, he was thrown in prison on charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. His lawyers always claimed the charges were trumped up to shut him up. Khodorkovsky immediately went to Germany but in a sad twist, his mother in Moscow tells CNN that she may be feeling too sick to go meet him.

If Kim Jong-un wants to fulfill his desperate desire to be seen as a world power, he might want to pay a visit to the North Korean equivalent of Office Max. His country using cutting edge 1994 technology sent a fax to South Korea -- you heard me right, a fax -- threatening to quote, "strike mercilessly without notice" after protests against the Kim regime broke out in Seoul this week.

But the North's military has not made any big moves, according to South Korea's defense ministry.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman is in North Korea right now. He has said he's not there to involve himself in politics, but perhaps he can teach his friend Kim how to do e-mail.

Coming up on THE LEAD: with the future of "Duck Dynasty" up in the air, how is A&E handling the P.R. crisis? We get the inside scoop in our money lead, next.