All-Star Panel: Gearing up for the State of the Union address

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," January 27, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is going to exercise his authority. He's going to use his pen and his phone to advance an agenda that is focused squarely on expanding opportunity, making sure that in America, hard work and responsibility are rewarded, and that opportunity is expanded.

REP. TOM COLE, R - OK: I think if you want to work with somebody, you don't start with a threat. And there's a little bit of a menacing tone in terms of this, I've got my pen or I've got my phone speech that he made.

I think the president's got a big choice to make. Is it going to be a speech about confrontation or is it going to be a speech about cooperation? We have demonstrated in recent months, if you'll meet us halfway, we'll find some common ground, work with you. If that's what he wants to do, we'll have a productive year.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Setting up for the State of the Union address tomorrow night, the president is putting the final touches, we're told, on the speech. We don't know exactly how long it's going to be, but today the White House tweeted out a photo of the pen the president can use to write his speech or take that executive action that they have talked about.

This comes as some new polls are out. There's a new poll that is very interesting, ABC/Washington Post poll, "how much confidence do you have in President Obama to make the right decision for the country's future?"  Great deal or good amount, 37 percent, some or none, 63 percent. That's the environment in which the State of the Union address takes place tomorrow night.

Let's bring in our panel, Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard, Charles Lane, opinion writer for the Washington Post, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. OK, Steve, what about this whole back and forth about the pen and the phone and what's going to be said and what won't be?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, we have heard it all before. Remember, the president did this back in 2011 after Republicans took over the House of Representatives. The White House declared we can't wait. We're going to do these things that the Republicans, intransigent Republicans in Congress won't allow us to.  That's how we're going to govern.

The problem for the president is he doesn't have much to point to in terms of real accomplishments in going around Congress, number one. And number two, politically it's hard for me to enough how this is going to actually help him. The Republicans who ran and won in 2010 are the ones who are going to be up in 2014. The Senate Democrats we have talked about so much in red states are the ones defending their seats. Does the President of the United States think in effect declaring Congress irrelevant is going to help them help them? I don't think it's likely to have that effect.

BAIER: What about the executive actions that are possible? Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to the president, appeared on "Fox News Sunday" this weekend.


DAN PFEIFFER, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER: You can do a lot. I think two things from 2013 that don't get enough attention. First, the president put in place a climate action plan to reduce carbon pollution, taking historic steps – something he did without Congress.  And then we also worked with the FCC so that we have an initiative in place that is moving forward to provide wireless access to 99 percent of school districts in this country. That is significant something to do without Congress.


BAIER: Chuck, the most common word I heard this weekend was "practical" about this address, "realistic." It seems like it's being scaled back as to expectations.

CHARLES LANE, EDITORIAL WRITER, WASHINGTON POST: Well, you know, the truth of the matter is I spent my whole afternoon trying to think of significant, practical steps the president can take to advance his agenda, which by the way, is a popular one. It's a strong theme, expanding opportunity, that don't involve Congress. And the list isn't very long. I sort of think that maybe over there at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they could make mortgages easier to get, or something like that.

This is politics. It's 2014. It's about giving the Democratic base something to get excited about, to Steve's point. They are annoyed or a little dismayed that Obama wasn't able to push through more last year, and this is kind of like a promise, OK, this year, I'm going to deliver.

Here's the dilemma. One of his big items, which Dan Pfeiffer mentioned, is climate, regulating CO2 emissions. That would be a problem for at least two Democratic senators I can think of running for re- election –

BAIER: And maybe more.

LANE: -- Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Begich in Alaska. So he's going to have to be careful about how he calibrates all that.

BAIER: Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: This is just all empty rhetoric. This is the framing of issues for Election Day. They know they're not going to achieve anything, surely not in Congress. And the idea, as Steve says, there was a speech in 2011 that was called the "We can't wait" campaign, and here's what the president said. "We can't wait for Congress to do its job. Where they won't act, I will. I told my administration to keep looking every single day for actions that we can take without Congress." And what did we achieve? Nothing.

And the reason is that under the Constitution, I know it's a something that often gets in the way of the president, it's the Congress that appropriates the money, and he can't do anything without appropriations.  So all he can do is to move money around, or he can stop and obstruct and regulate.

And the one area where he has a lot of leeway is the EPA because the courts have ruled that carbon can be called a pollutant, and once it's a pollutant, that means you can regulate any fossil fuel you don't like into oblivion if you want, as with coal. But of course, that's going to hurt a lot of Democrats in the coal states. So he doesn't have a lot he can do.

And the idea that you would tweet out a picture of the pen, I mean, god, how low can you go? I mean is this all he can do is to wave a pen? What is he going to sign, what's he going to do? They can't tell you.

BAIER: From 2011 to now, you're saying they could wait?

KRAUTHAMMER: They can wait.

BAIER:  Steve, let me put up the newest Fox News polls about if the elections were held today. You have the Republican-Democratic head-to-head. Republicans up slightly. You can see how it has changed since October 2013, up by a couple points. But overall, congressional job approval is still in the dumps, in fact, historic, approval at 13 percent.  So you know, Republicans have an issue here, too --

HAYES: No question.

BAIER: -- as the State of the Union address goes forward.

HAYES: Well sure, everybody in Congress does. But think back to where we were after President Obama won re-election. The Republican brand was, you know, there was all this hand wringing in Washington about the Republican brand, the shutdown, going back to the shutdown. Republicans were never going to survive that. You had serious analysts were saying Republicans were never going to survive the shutdown, and here they are with an advantage on the generic ballot. That's pretty significant.

And if you think back to where President Obama was at the beginning of his presidency, when he announced he would be a transformational president. He had these huge goals. He governed largely as a partisan for two years. But now he's gone from transforming the country, making liberalism safe for America, in effect, to touting wireless access around the country. If you take the White House's argument on its own terms that is the small ball that President Obama announced he wanted to avoid doing on his way to becoming president.

BAIER: Last thing, Chuck. To Congressman Tom Cole's question, is it going to be a speech about confrontation or is it going to be a speech about compromise?

LANE: Well, it sounds like from everything we're hearing, that it is a speech that promises, if you don't cooperate, I'll in effect go around you or over your head with my pen and my phone. And I think that with the debt ceiling vote coming up and things like that, that's throwing down a gauntlet to the Republicans and challenging them to go against him.

BAIER: And do the Republicans tie something to the debt ceiling significantly this time and do that standoff again?

KRAUTHAMMER: They should. And I think it ought to be the bailout of ObamaCare. They've got to pick an issue where there is absolutely widespread support, maybe 80 percent support. When you have that, you can win on the debt ceiling. You have anything less, you're going to lose, as we have seen in the past.

BAIER: Next up, Rand Paul, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the war on women.

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