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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With White House Press Secretary Jay Carney; President Obama to Deliver State of the Union Address

Aired January 28, 2014 - 18:00   ET

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


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE House CORRESPONDENT: Still, there were some successes.

OBAMA: So let's set party interests aside and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.

ACOSTA: With that track record, aides say the president will focus more on executive actions, including an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 for new federal contract workers, part of his call on Congress to do the same for the rest of the country.

And there's another he priority that's eluded the president in speech after speech that's returning.

OBAMA: Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now.

CECILIA MUNOZ, WHITE House INTERGOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: The path to fixing what's broken about our immigration system goes squarely through the United States Congress.

ACOSTA: White House domestic policy adviser Cecilia Munoz says the president will issue executive actions where he has the authority.

(on camera): Will it be a year of inaction?

MUNOZ: You are going to see a year of action this year, certainly from the president of the United States.

ACOSTA (voice-over): President Obama knows executive actions can go only so far. He ordered the closing of the prison at Guantanamo, but Congress blocked him. And as a candidate, he vowed to undo many of President Bush's executive orders.

OBAMA: When I'm president, one of the first things I'm going to do is call in my attorney general and say to him or her, I want you to review every executive order that's been issued by George Bush.

ACOSTA: Something a future White House could easily do to President Obama. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And a White House official tells CNN that you can expect to see the president talk about executive actions in ways that he never has before in a State of the Union speech. You might actually see some surprises tonight in the State of the Union speech, of course, another reason to stay tuned for 9:00 tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do we expect the president is willing to compromise on what is called comprehensive immigration reform, accept an after from the Republicans that doesn't necessarily include a pathway to citizenship but does include some sort of legal status for many of those millions of illegal immigrants?

ACOSTA: Wolf, I have asked that question and the White House has said repeatedly that the president will insist on a path to citizenship, that that has to be part of an immigration reform package but that the way that they get there eventually is really sort of up in the air.

They like the bill of course that passed through the Senate and they understand the House doesn't want to do a comprehensive bill. They want to break it up into parts. The White House has indicated that the president is receptive to that approach, but at this point it is very interesting, I think, Wolf, to hear what I was hearing from a Democratic source just a few minutes ago before we were talking here about this speech, Wolf, and that this Democratic source is saying that the president is not going to come out tonight and really hammer Republicans over this failure to pass immigration reform, which, as you know, Wolf, is a campaign promise from the 2008 campaign, something the president has talked about in the last four or five State of the Union speeches.

And so he wants to get this done. So it's interesting to see that the president tonight will be talking about it in sort of everyday American terms, not in political terms. That's to give the Republicans space to get this work done over in the House, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I think they're getting closer and closer to a deal, but they're not there yet on this critically important issue, Jim Acosta at the White House.

Let's go up to Capitol Hill right now. Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is up there.

Dana, some strong words from Republican leaders on the Hill today urging the president, basically warning the president, don't try to go it alone. There is, after all, they say, a U.S. Constitution.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

The House speaker said there is going to be a brick wall in front of the president if he tries to use his executive power more than he should based on the Constitution, reminding that Congress is the one that writes the laws. It's the executive branch that executes those laws. But big picture, Wolf, you will see the president speak -- and that's going to happen in the chamber right behind me. That's the House chamber. He's going to be facing the Democrats, many of whom are very worried about losing the Senate this election year. But when it comes to the House, who he's been battling for the past three years with Republicans in control, there might be a bit of a different tone as this year progresses.

For example, you were just talking with Jim Acosta about immigration reform. That is atop of the House speaker's agenda to try to push that through because it fits with the Republicans' national goal, which is to draw his voters back into the fold. That is something that there is actually some positivity around here that can be done this year.

And also we have seen so many fights over the past several years on economic issues. Well, in the next couple of weeks there will be the big question about raising the debt ceiling again to make sure the U.S. doesn't default on its loans. The House speaker is making it really, really clear to his rank and file he doesn't want to fight here. The question is how he's going to thread that needle and avoid that fight.

But, yet again, it's kind of a different tone that we have seen with regard to economic issues. And, you know, just generally, I was at a breakfast this morning with the House speaker who was talking about the fact that Republicans really want to get away from the perception that they're the party of no.

They're going to be a lot more engaged in talking about what they want to be for, giving policy prescriptions like an alternative to health care and things like that, trying to get back to talking about issues that they know people care about, the economy, and jobs, and so forth. So that does lay out a different kind of atmosphere for the president than he has seen, especially over the last three years since House Republicans have been in control.

BLITZER: Dana, we're going to check in with you throughout the night. Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jim Sciutto, our chief national security correspondent. He's in Tehran, Tehran, Iran, right now, where they will be listening and watching the president's speech.

There will be some references to this nuclear deal with Iran. What are they saying on the street over there? What are you hearing from average Iranians, Jim, as well as from government leaders?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I will tell you, Wolf, Iran will be listening to what the president says tonight, both average Iranians and officials.

I went to the Foreign Ministry today and I asked them what they want to hear from the president and also what they don't want to hear, and, well, I was told what they want to hear is a recognition that Iran's nuclear program will stay. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson saying that this program belongs to the Iranian people and that Iran will not give it up.

I can tell you what Iranians and what Iranian officials don't want to hear is a restatement of a military threat. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent comments in an interview that the military option was still on the table if negotiations fail with Iran sparked a real firestorm here. The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps saying that Iran would be ready for war, would relish war, in fact, if the U.S. carried out a strike.

One other interesting thing coming out of the Foreign Ministry today, they said that the agreement between the U.S. and Iran over the nuclear program was largely a verbal agreement, that there were details agreed to that were not written down on payment. This is certainly something to give ammunition to some of the opponents of the agreement back in the U.S., that there were things that were agreed to that were not publicized.

This is, of course, something that the administration says is not the case, but I think also Iranians, Wolf, here, they want to hear that there will be economic relief. It's the economic sanctions that really filter down to average Iranians. That's how they feel the discord between the U.S. and Iran. They want to hear from the president that if this diplomatic path goes forward, that there will be a relief from these economic sanctions in all walks of life here, from airplane parts for planes here where they're worried about safety to auto parts to medicines and just can they do trade, can they do business, can they travel to places they haven't been able to travel because of the sanctions regime.

Wolf, they will certainly be listening here.

BLITZER: They will be listening closely and we will be checking in with you throughout the night. You're staying put there in Tehran. We will get Iranian reaction to whatever the president winds up saying about this Iranian nuclear deal, Jim Sciutto in Tehran. Thanks very much.

John King is here. He's watching what is going on.

John, give us a sense of what you're looking at right now.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as the president delivers the State of the Union, asks the Congress to accept his wish list, asks the American people to accept his agenda for this year, his political standing has a lot to do with whether he can make that case and whether we can sell it here in Washington and across the country.

Let's look at where the president is right now. I'm going to slide this across. These are through the years of the Obama presidency. When he speaks tonight, he's near a low, not at the lowest point of his presidency, but a 43 percent approval rating, well below 50.

That's one of the reasons the Republicans are encouraged. They think if this they can keep the president near 40, they have a very good shot not only of keeping their House majority, but of picking up the six seats they need to capture the Senate. That's a number, Wolf, that makes Democrats nervous. They want the president up a little higher.

If the president stays in the 40s, look for especially those moderates in red states like Arkansas, like Louisiana to run away from the president. A little bit of context and what's unusual about this president, normally, the rule in politics is as the economy improves, well, the president improves with it.

I want to just pull this back so you see the full context of it. I will come back to about 2010 right here. You see where the president's approval rating -- it just dipped below 50. But look at the unemployment rate. It was 10 percent at that point of his presidency.

The unemployment rate has actually dropped quite dramatically and right now as the president speaks tonight, the nation's unemployment rate below 7 percent, and yet the president at a low. Normally, the unemployment rate goes down, the president goes up.

This has been one of the great anomalies of the Obama presidency. He doesn't get credit, Wolf, for the improving economy or in a lot of places of the country -- and the president will talk about this tonight -- people don't feel the recovery. They didn't get the benefits of the stock market last year. They're still worried about jobs and their future.

The president, one of his political problems is he's not benefiting from the improvement in the economic statistics. Let's put the president in context of two-term presidents over the year. Richard Nixon at 27 percent in what was to become the final year of his presidency, the Watergate scandal deeply affecting that number.

But Ronald Reagan at this point, the six-year itch State of the Union, if you will, was riding high at 64 percent, even though the Democrats regained the Senate in that midterm election year. Bill Clinton was at 59 percent at this point in his presidency. And Democrats had a very solid year, defied history actually in the midterms.

Again, Wolf, this is what Democrats worry about. Barack Obama identical in terms of his presidential job approval rating to George W. Bush 2006, opposition to the Iraq war. Later, Katrina came in to affect Bush's numbers. Obama's numbers exactly the same right now.

Why are Democrats nervous about that. In this midterm election in 2006, the Democrats gained 30 seats. No one thinks the Republicans can pick up 30 seats in the House. But as of now, when Democrats look at the number, most of their smart strategists think as of now the Republicans will keep the House. And they have a pretty good shot, it's not guaranteed, but a pretty good shot of getting to that majority in the Senate.

The president starts at a relatively low point for him tonight, Wolf. He has to try to move up in this important midterm election year.

BLITZER: All right. John's going to be with us throughout the night as well. John King, thanks very much.

We're standing by. We will speak with the White House press secretary, Jay Carney. He's joining us live this hour. We will talk, get a little preview of what the president has in mind to tell the American people tonight.

Also, more analysis. Gloria Borger is here. She's just back from the White House herself.

Much more from our special coverage coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're counting down to the president's State of the Union address coming up later tonight.

Gloria Borger is here with us in THE SITUATION ROOM, our chief political analyst.

The president has got a sort of unique situation he finds himself in. He's making some threats to Congress. He will take unilateral executive action. At the same time, he's reaching out to Congress saying, help me, let's work together. Let's achieve some common goals.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He's got to thread that needle, Wolf, and it's not going to be really easy for him to do.

Look, he comes into a situation where, as John was pointing out, he has got a low approval rating, he has got a public right now that's very pessimistic about what the rest of his term can achieve. The thing that he has going for him, Wolf, is that he's more popular than the Congress is right now.

So if he says to people, look, I came to Washington and I tried to change the way Washington works, but he wasn't successful at that, he couldn't change the way Washington works, so what he's going to say is I'm going to try and work around Washington. When you look at the polling, a majority of the public says, look, if you have to work around Washington to get something done and you can get something done, whether it's through executive action, do it. Get something done.

And so I think what he's going to try and do is tell the public, listen to me. I think I can actually work with them on certain things and work around them on other things, and he's hoping that that message will get through, and the public will sort of take another look at him, because they need to get those approval ratings up.

BLITZER: The Republicans keep pounding away on the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, which had a pretty poor rollout October 1. How does he finesse that tonight?

BORGER: Well, he's not going to back away from the Affordable Care Act at all. What he's going to do is acknowledge that there may be some things that need to be fixed, that they need to do better, that they're on the road to getting the number of people enrolled that they need to get enrolled.

This is an administration that doesn't want to be tied to certain numbers right now when it comes to enrollment, but it seems he's going to say, look, this is the way it's helped people so far. This is what it's going to do for you in the future. Give it a chance. And where it's broken, we will work to fix it with Congress, but we're not going to get rid of it.

BLITZER: Gloria is going to be with us throughout the night as well.

Gloria, thanks very much.

We will take a quick break.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, he is standing by live at the White House. We will talk to him about the president's address tonight when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're getting ready to hear the president's State of the Union address.

Let's go to the White House. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, is joining us right now.

Jay, thanks very much. I know you guys are busy. I'm glad you got a few moments to just update our viewers.

When the president says he has got a pen and a phone, that that strategy of executive action may be necessary, is that appropriate on a day like today, when he's trying to reach out to Congress for some cooperation?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Absolutely, Wolf, because today is not just a day in which he speaks to Congress.

He speaks in front of the members of Congress in the Capitol, but he's also speaking to the millions of Americans out there who will tune in tonight and want to hear from their president what plans he has and what vision he has for moving the country forward.

And I think every American expects the president, whether he or she is a Republican or Democrat, to use all the tools available to him or her in order to advance an agenda that expands opportunity and rewards hard work and responsibility. That's what the president will say. He wants to work with Congress. And when Congress will cooperate with him to move forward on his objectives, he looks forward to doing that. But he will also use the powers he has through executive actions and through convening stakeholders around the country, to move that agenda forward.

So it's not an either/or situation. It's a both/and. It's acting through Congress and on your -- using your authority as the president of the United States.

BLITZER: A dual strategy.

On comprehensive immigration reform, I know he wants it to include a pathway to citizenship for the illegal immigrants. But is he ready to compromise and accept some sort of legal status for them without necessarily guaranteeing citizenship?

CARNEY: Well, first of all, Wolf, as you know, even though there wasn't all the progress we had hoped for in 2013, there was significant progress when it came to comprehensive immigration reform.

The Senate passed a bipartisan bill with significant support from Democrats and Republicans that meets the principles the president laid out. He looks forward to the House taking action. And we are encouraged by some of what we have heard from House Republican leaders about their intention to move forward on immigration reform.

We haven't seen a proposal from them yet, but it's our belief that there's a way forward here that will allow for the president to sign comprehensive immigration reform into law. And that would be a huge benefit for our businesses, for the middle class and for our economy.

BLITZER: As you know, the nation has to extend, raise the debt ceiling by the end of February, early March. The Republicans say they will go along with it, but they want at least something from the administration, maybe approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, some concession from the administration.

Is the president still demanding a clean bill, no concessions whatsoever?

CARNEY: What the president insists on is that Congress act responsibly and pay its bills, without drama, without delay, and without demanding a ransom.

I mean, the item that you just mentioned and the others that have been talked about are about partisan, you know, desires that have nothing to do with the responsibility Congress has to ensure that we don't default for the first time in our history.

So, absolutely, we will not negotiate over ransom demands so that Congress fulfills its responsibility. When Congress did that last, we saw the government shut down. We saw the middle class punished, and we saw all the political damage that caused Republicans. I can't imagine they want to go down that path again. BLITZER: There was a new poll in "The Wall Street Journal," the NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll, in what direction is the country heading? Right direction, 28 percent, wrong track, 63 percent.

The president has got a major challenge ahead of him, doesn't he?

CARNEY: Well, there's certainly a lot of frustration out there among the American people directed towards Washington.

There's certainly a lot of concern out there about the need for further economic growth and expanded opportunity. We have come a long way in the economy since the depths of the great recession. As you know, Wolf, the private sector has created 8.2 million jobs since the depths of the recession, but we have more work to do.

And what the president wants to do is harness the energy of the American people, work together with Congress, work with business leaders and others around the country to try to expand that economic opportunity for everyone, so that hard work is rewarded.

You know, I think, as CNN reported, the president will announce tonight that he is signing an executive order to lift the minimum wage paid to federal contractors to $10.10. That's an example of something he can do using his executive authority.

He will still call on Congress to act to pass a bill that raises the minimum wage to $10.10 across the country for everybody, because that's the right thing to do for hardworking Americans who are taking care of their business and being responsible to themselves and their families.

BLITZER: All right, so when some Republican leaders say those kind of executive decisions, unilateral actions potentially could violate, could go against the Constitution, may not be constitutional, I assume your lawyers have looked at all of that.

CARNEY: The president absolutely has the authority to take this action.

And I think it's worth noting that President Obama's predecessor signed more executive orders in the first five years in office than President Obama has, and I don't remember Republicans complaining about that.

It is entirely appropriate that any man or woman who has the privilege of sitting in the Oval Office uses all the tools in the toolbox of the presidency to advance an agenda that expands opportunity and rewards hard work. I don't think the American people expect anything less.

And I think it's a narrow vision of what we can do here in the White House and Washington to measure progress only by the number of bills we can pass through Congress. We can do that. We can make progress. We saw bipartisan compromise on a budget deal, a very hopeful sign at the end of last year, and bipartisan majorities support the funding bill for the spending going forward for this fiscal year.

That's positive progress, and that's positive progress in Congress. But the president is not going to limit himself just to that. And he's not going to let Congress prevent him from doing his job.

BLITZER: A clean-shaven press secretary to the president of the United States, Jay Carney.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thanks very much for joining us. Was that a tough decision, getting rid of that beard?

CARNEY: Well, I just -- I couldn't compete with you, Wolf, and I decided it was time to go clean-shaven again.

BLITZER: All right. You look mighty good. Jay Carney without the beard, thanks very much. We will see what happens later tonight.

I will be back in a half-an-hour, as our special coverage continues at the top of the hour.