WASHINGTON DC, SEPT. 15, 2013 -- STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning. And welcome to a special edition of "This Week." One on one with the commander-in-chief. At this defining moment of the Obama presidency.
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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is not a world we should accept. This is what's at stake.
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STEPHANOPOULOS: With a crisis overseas, new showdowns with congress here at home, we go inside the White House, challenging the president trying to save his second term and stop a war. One on one with President Obama...
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STEPHANOPOULOS: You've done it in the past.
OBAMA: No, no, no, no. George...
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STEPHANOPOULOS: An ABC News exclusive.
Plus, live analysis from our powerhouse roundtable. It's all right here this Sunday morning.
ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, a special This Week with George Stephanopoulos starts now.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It has been a perilous month for President Obama. After that chemical weapons massacre in Syria, he took America right to the brink of a military strike, then backed away, turning to congress first and surprisingly the Russians, choosing diplomacy over war.
And this weekend, a major new development, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart has struck a deal for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons. If it works -- and that's a big if right now -- the president may be able to claim a measure of victory for an approach that's brought in a mountain of criticism.
And on the eve of the deal, we went inside the White House to speak with the president. He was confident, convinced that America is in a better position now than when he was poised to order military action just two weeks ago.
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OBAMA: Well, we're definitely in a better position.
OBAMA: Keep in mind that my entire goal throughout this exercise is to make sure that what happened on August 21st does not happen again, that we do not see over 1,000 people, over 400 children subjected to poison gas, something that is a violation of international law, and is a violation of...
STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you confident that won't happen again?
OBAMA: ...common decency.
Well, I think we have the possibility of making sure that it doesn't happen again.
Think about where we were. This event happens, and the initial response is the Syrians act as if they don't know anything about it. At that point, they're not even acknowledging that they've got chemical weapons.
The Russians are protecting the Syrians, suggesting that there's no possibility that the Assad regime might have done this. And the inspectors weren't even in yet. And as a consequence of the pressure that we've applied over the last couple of weeks, we have Syria first -- for the first time acknowledging that it has chemical weapons, agreeing to join the convention that prohibits the use of chemical weapons. And the Russians, they're primary sponsors, saying that they will push Syria to get all of their chemical weapons out
The distance that we've traveled over these couple of weeks is remarkable. And my position, and the United States' position, has been consistent throughout. Which is that the underlying civil conflict in Syria is terrible. I believe that because of Assad's actions, his response to peaceful protests, we've created a civil war in Syria that has led to 100,000 people being killed and 6 million people being displaced.
But what I've also said is that the United States can't get in the middle of somebody else's civil war. We're not going to put troops on the ground. We can't enforce militarily a settlement there. What we can do...
STEPHANOPOULOS: But in the past, you said he had to go.
OBAMA: What we can do -- what we can do is make sure that the worst weapons, the indiscriminate weapons that don't distinguish between a soldier and an infant, are not used. And if we get that accomplished, then we may also have a foundation to begin what has to be an international process in which Assad's sponsors, primarily Iran and Russia, recognize that this is terrible for the Syrian people, and they are willing to come in a serious way to arrive at some sort of political settlement that would deal with the underlying terrible conflict that's taking place.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And you're-- and President Putin has become your unlikely partner--
STEPHANOPOULOS: ...in this. And, you know, even in this op-ed, which has stirred up a lot of controversy here in United States, he said, "There's every reason to believe that the rebels are the ones who used the chemical weapons." So does that tell you he's willing to lie to protect Assad?
OBAMA: Well, nobody around the world takes seriously the idea that the rebels were the perpetrators of this...
STEPHANOPOULOS: He wrote it in The New York Times.
OBAMA: Well, I understand. What I said is nobody around the world takes seriously the idea that the rebels perpetrated this attack.
Now what is true is that there are radical elements in the opposition, including folks who are affiliated with al-Qaeda, who, if they got their hands on chemical weapons, would have no compunction using them in Syria or outside of Syria.
And part of the reason why we've been so concerned about this chemical weapons-- issue is because we don't want those folks getting chemical weapons, anymore than we want Assad to have chemical weapons. And so the best solution is for us to get them out of there.
But with respect to Mr. Putin, I have said consistently that where the interest of the United States and Russia converge, we need to work together. And I had talked to Mr. Putin a year ago saying to him the United States and Russia should work together to deal with these chemical weapons stockpiles, and to work to try to bring about a political transition..
STEPHANOPOULOS: But do you trust...
OBAMA: ...inside of Syria.
STEPHANOPOULOS: ...he has the same goal? Do you really trust that?
OBAMA: Oh, I don't think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do. And I think obviously by protecting Mr. Assad he has a different attitude about the Assad regime.
But what I've also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable. As long as Mr. Assad's in power, there is going to be some sort of conflict there, and that we should work together to try to find a way in which the interests of all the parties inside of Syria, the Alawites, the Sunnis, the Christians, that everybody is represented and that there is a way of bringing the temperature down so that -- that horrible things that are happening inside the country...
STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you...
OBAMA: ...are continuing to happen.
And I think there's a way for Mr. Putin, despite me and him having a whole lot of differences, to play an important role in that. And so I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, "I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons." Because I think that if, in fact not only Russia gets involved, but if potentially Iran gets involved as well in recognizing that what's happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but destabilizing the entire region...
STEPHANOPOULOS: But aren't you worried at all that Putin is playing...
OBAMA: ...we can do something later.
STEPHANOPOULOS: ...for time and playing you?
OBAMA: Well, you know Ronald Reagan said, "trust but verify." And I think that that's always been the experience of U.S. presidents when we're interacting with first, Soviet leaders, and now Russian leaders.
You know Mr. Putin and I have strong disagreements on a whole range of issues. But I can talk to him. We have worked together on important issues. The fact of the matter is, is that we couldn't be supplying all of our troops in Afghanistan if he weren't helping us in-- in transporting those supplies through the northern borders of Afghanistan.
So there are a whole range of areas where we currently work together.
We've worked together on counterterrorism operations.
And so you know this is not the Cold War. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia. I mean the fact of the matter is, is that if Russia wants to have some influence in Syria post-Assad, that doesn't hurt our interests.
I know that sometimes this gets framed or looked at through the lens of the U.S. versus Russia. That's not what this is about. What this is about is how do we make sure that we don't have the worst weapons in the hands either of a murderous regime, or in the alternative, some elements of the opposition that are as opposed to the United States as they are to Assad.
STEPHANOPOULOS (voice-over): This weekend, after intense talks, the U.S. and Russia hammered down a deal.
JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Providing this framework is fully implemented, it can end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people, but also to their neighbors, to the region...
STEPHANOPOULOS: It calls for Syria to admit international inspectors by November and to allows its chemical weapons to be destroyed starting next year. But President Assad has not yet endorsed the deal. And the rebels fighting his regime fear it will empower him.
STEPHANOPOULOS: If, one year from now, Assad is in the process of surrendering his chemical weapons, but he's strengthened his hold on power, is that a victory?
OBAMA: Well, the chemical weapons issue is the issue I'm concerned about first and foremost, simply because that speaks directly to U.S. interests. It speaks to the potential that other countries start producing more chemical weapons, that the ban on chemical weapons unravels, and it becomes more accessible to terrorists which, in turn, could be used against us.
So I have a primary concern there.
I also believe that the U.S. has an interest in seeing a stable-- Syria in which people aren't being slaughtered. And it is hard to envision how Mr. Assad regains any kind of legitimacy after he's gassed or his military has gassed innocent civilians and children.
And so part of my argument here is that we will not intervene militarily to bring that transition about. But all the countries in the region, and I think the entire world and the United Nations, should have an interest in trying to bring about that stability.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What do you think Iran makes of all this? You mentioned Iran. Do you think they can look at all this and say, "Maybe all options aren't on the table, you're not willing to use force?"
OBAMA: No, I think -- I think the Iranians, who we communicate with in indirect ways...
STEPHANOPOULOS: Have you reached out personally to the new president?
OBAMA: I have. And he's reached out to me. We haven't spoken directly. But --
OBAMA: Yes. And I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer to our core interests, that a nuclear arms race in the region is something that would be profoundly destabilizing.
And so my suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn't draw a lesson that we haven't struck to think we won't strike Iran. On the other hand, what is what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically. And --
STEPHANOPOULOS: You think they're there? You think they believe that?
OBAMA: I think they recognize, in part, because of the extraordinary sanctions that we placed on them, that the world community is united when it comes to wanting to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region.
And you know, negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact, you can strike a deal.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But --
OBAMA: And I hold out that hope.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Final foreign policy question. You've had some -- a lot of armchair criticism.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm sure you're used to that.
OBAMA: I am.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Corker, Foreign Relations Committee, said you're not comfortable as commander in chief; it's like watching a person who's caged.
The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, "Words like ad-hoc, improvised, unsteady come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy in your presidency."
What do you make of that?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that folks here in Washington like to grade on style. And so had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that, because that's exactly how they graded the Iraq War until it ended up --
STEPHANOPOULOS: So this doesn't change your view --
OBAMA: -- blowing in our face.
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- of President Bush?
OBAMA: No, no. What it says is that I'm less concerned about style points; I'm much more concerned about getting the policy right.
And what I've said consistently throughout is that the chemical weapons issue is a problem. I want that problem dealt with.
And as a consequence of the steps that we've taken over the last two weeks to three weeks, we now have a situation in which Syria has acknowledged it has chemical weapons, has said it's willing to join the convention on chemical weapons, and Russia, its primary sponsor, has said that it will pressure Syria to reach that agreement.
That's my goal. And if that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And we have much more from President Obama, all the challenges here at home, when we come back.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight, stocks plummet: the worst day on Wall Street in six years, as one of Wall Street's largest investment firms goes bankrupt and another is bought out.
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STEPHANOPOULOS: That was five years ago today, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, sparking the worst financial crisis since the Depression.
Five years later, most Americans aren't convinced that we've recovered from it. And I challenged the president with that concern.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Five years out, let's take stock. You know, I'm looking at the cover of "Time" magazine this week. It says, "How Wall Street Won." And we've got polls showing that, you know, two-thirds of the country still think we're going in the wrong direction, think the economy is no more secure.
What do you say to those Americans who think Wall Street is winning but they're not?
OBAMA: Well, let's think about where we were five years ago.
The economy was on the verge of a great depression. In some ways, actually, the economic data and the collapse of the economy was worse than what happened in the 1930s. And we came in, stabilized the situation. We've now had 42 straight months of growth, seven and a half million new jobs created, 500,000 jobs in manufacturing, 370,000 jobs in an auto industry that had completely collapsed.
The banking system works. It is giving loans to companies who can get credit. And so we have seen, I think undoubtedly, progress across the board. The housing market has recovered.
But what is also true is we're not near where we need to be. And part of it has to do with a whole bunch of long-term trends in the economy, where the gains that we've made in productivity and people working harder have all accrued to the people at the very top, will average --
STEPHANOPOULOS: (Inaudible) 95 percent of the gains to the top 1 percent. That is so striking.
OBAMA: It is. And the folks at -- in the middle and at the bottom haven't seen wage or income growth, not just over the last three, four years, but over the last 15 years.
And so everything that I've done has been designed to, number one, stabilize the economy, get it growing again, start producing jobs again; number two, trying to push against these trends that had been happening for decades now.
That's why we made sure that we had a tax system that was a little bit fairer by asking people to pay more at the top. That's what the Affordable Care Act health care reform is about, is making sure that folks who have been left out in the cold when it comes to health care are able to get health care.
That's why we strengthened the entire banking system so that, you know, "too big to fail" is far less likely to be in place if, heaven forbid, there's a crisis the next time.
Because we've said, you know, banks, you've got to double the amount of capital that you have so that you can absorb losses when you have them, so taxpayers aren't bailing you out. If you do start going under you've got to have a plan -- a living will, we call it -- so that we don't have to come in and clean up after you. You're going to be on your own.
STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, but you do all these things --
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- and still, 95 percent of the gains go to the --
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- top 1 percent.
Do you look at that, four and a half years in, and say, "Maybe a president just can't stop this accelerating inequality?"
OBAMA: No, I think -- I think the president can stop it. I -- the problem is that there continues to be a major debate here in Washington. And that is: how do we respond to these underlying trends?
If you look at the data, a couple of things are creating these trends.
Number one, globalization. Right? Capital, companies, they can move businesses and jobs anywhere they want. And so they're looking for the lowest wages. That squeezes workers here in the United States, even if corporations are profitable.
Technology: if you go to a lot of companies now, they've eliminated entire occupations because they're now robotized. We don't have travel agents. We don't have bank tellers.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It's bigger than Washington.
OBAMA: Right. So there's a whole bunch of stuff that's happening in the marketplace. But if we have policies that make sure that our kids are prepared for higher skilled jobs, if we have policies that make sure that we're rebuilding our infrastructure -- because a robot can't build a road -- and we need, you know, new ports and a smarter electricity grid, if we're making investments to make sure that research and development continues to happen here, if we have tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States as opposed to overseas, all those things can make the situation better.
It doesn't solve the problem entirely, but it pushes against these trends. And the problem that we've got right now is you've got a portion of Congress who -- whose policies don't just want to, you know, leave things alone, they actually want to accelerate these trends.
There's no serious economist out there that would suggest that, if you took the Republican agenda of slashing education further, slashing Medicare further, slashing research and development further, slashing investments in infrastructure further, that that would reverse some of these trends of inequality.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But the stalemate may lead to something even more disastrous. It's deja vu all over again here in Washington. You're a couple weeks away from a government shutdown; few weeks away from a possible default one more time.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Speaker Boehner says, "Listen, you just have to sit down and negotiate with me."
Are you still absolutely refusing to talk, in any way, shape or form?
OBAMA: No. No, no. Keep in mind my position here, George, because I've -- I have been through this a couple times with Speaker Boehner. What I'm -- what I've said is, with respect to the budget, we've presented our budget.
And now it's the job of Congress to come up with a budget that keeps our long-term trends down of -- or our current trends of reducing the deficit, moving forward, but also allows us to invest in the things that we need to grow.
And I've told him and I've told the country what I think we need to do. I'm happy to have a conversation with him about how we can deal with the so-called sequester, which is making across-the-board cuts on stuff that we shouldn't be cutting, while continuing tax breaks, for example, for companies that are not helping to grow the economy.
There are ways of doing this; it's just that they haven't been willing to negotiate in a serious way on that. What I haven't been willing to negotiate, and I will not negotiate, is on the debt ceiling.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But presidents have done --
OBAMA: This --
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- that in the past, and you've done it in the past.
OBAMA: No, no, no, no. George, if you take a look, what has never happened in the past was the notion that, in exchange for fulfilling the full faith and credit of the United States, that we are wiping away, let's say, major legislation, like the Health Care Bill. That -- that's --
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're not open to any changes in --
OBAMA: that --
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- ObamaCare?
OBAMA: -- that's never happened before.
And when it comes to budgets, we've never had the situation in which a party said that, you know, unless we get our way 100 percent, then we're going to let the United States default.
That's never happened, George. That didn't happen when you were working here in the White House.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But there were reforms added to the debt limit legislation.
OBAMA: The -- George, I think it's fair to say, you -- that never in history have we used just making sure that the U.S. government is paying its bills as a lever to radically cut government at the kind of scale that they're talking about. It's never happened before.
There have been negotiations around the corners, because nobody had ever presumed that you'd actually threaten the United States to default.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But how does this end, then?
You know, they say they need changes in ObamaCare. You say you're not going to negotiate.
Are you just betting they're going to cave?
OBAMA: No, no -- George, here's the problem. The -- if we set -- if we continue to set a precedent in which a president, any president -- a Republican president, a Democratic president -- where the opposing party controls the House of Representatives, if that president is in a situation in which each time the United States is called upon to pay its bills, the other party can simply sit there and say, well, we're not going to put -- pay the bills unless you give us what our -- what we want, that changes the constitutional structure of this government entirely.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're not going to negotiate -- are you --
OBAMA: So we can't negotiate around the debt ceiling.
If Mr. Boehner has ideas about how we can grow this economy, strengthen the middle class, put people back to work in a serious way, of course we're happy to, you know, support the negotiations that are taking place between the House and the Senate.
If we're going to continue to reduce the deficit -- and I think a lot of people aren't aware of the fact that the deficit's been cut in half since I came into office; it's continuing on a trend line of further reductions -- if we want to do more deficit reduction, I've already put out a budget that says, "Let's do it."
I'm willing to reform entitlements. I'm willing to, you know, cut out additional waste that may be there.
But I -- what I also think we should be doing is eliminating corporate tax breaks that nobody can defend, but keep on reappearing each year in the budget. If we are serious about it, there's no reason that we can't do it, and do right by --
STEPHANOPOULOS: How about --
OBAMA: -- by the -- by the country.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How about beyond the deficit? You were, you know, reelected a little more than a year ago, 332 electoral votes --
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- 51 percent of the vote --
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- first president since Eisenhower to do it twice.
You put gun control at the top of the agenda, immigration reform, climate change, all of it stalled or reversing.
How do you answer the argument that, beyond the deficit, this has been a lost year? And how do you save it?
OBAMA: Well, on immigration reform, for example, we got an -- terrific bipartisan vote out of the Senate. You had Democrats and Republicans in the Senate come together, come up with a bill that wasn't perfect, it wasn't my bill, but got the job done. It's now sitting there in the House.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Not going anywhere.
OBAMA: Well, but what I will say is this: If Speaker Boehner put that bill on the floor of the House of Representatives right now, it would pass. It would pass.
So the question then is not whether or not the ideas that we've put forward can garner a majority of support, certainly in the country. I mean gun control, we had 80-90 percent of the country that agreed with it.
The problem we have is we have a faction of the Republican Party, in the House of Representatives in particular, that view "compromise" as a dirty word, and anything that is even remotely associated with me, they feel obliged to oppose.
And my argument to them is real simple: that's not why the people sent you here.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We're out of time. Final question: your vice president is at Tom Harkin's Steak Fry in Iowa --
STEPHANOPOULOS: -- this week. And clearly, Secretary Clinton is positioning for a possible run for president, too.
You chose both of them.
What do you say to your fellow Democrats when they're thinking about that possible choice?
And are you determined to stay neutral throughout this whole process?
OBAMA: What I would say to folks out there is we are tremendously lucky to have an incredible former Secretary of State, who couldn't have served me better, and an incredible vice president who couldn't -- who couldn't be serving me better.
And I suspect if you asked both of them, they'd say it's way too premature to start talking about --
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he's in Iowa.
OBAMA: -- 2016. Well -- you know, Iowa's a big state, and he's an old friend of Tom Harkin's.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're staying completely neutral?
OBAMA: Listen, I think, as you pointed out, I just got reelected last year. My focus is on the American people right now. I'll let you guys worry about the politics.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thanks very much.
OBAMA: I enjoyed it. Thank you, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And when we come back, our panelist roundtable here with their take on the president's interview.
And what's next on the crisis in Syria and the looming showdowns in Washington?
Plus "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston has taken on a new role as President Lyndon Johnson. That's our Sunday spotlight.
And we'll have the latest on those floods in Colorado that have claimed four lives.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Ginger Zee is live from the flood zone.
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CONAN O'BRIEN: Agreed to a tentative plan to hand over all its chemical weapons to Russia. Vladimir Putin said, and those weapons better not be gay.
JIMMY KIMMEL: The "New York Times" today published an unusual Op-Ed piece. It was unusual because it was written by Russian President Vladimir Putin. I like that he thinks we read the "New York Times" Op-Ed section. Unless he had it published in the crossword puzzle section, 99% of us will never see it.
JON STEWART: The Russian peace proposal, it's not a familiar one. I mean if you do a search on it, Google assumes you misspelled it.
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STEPHANOPOULOS: Not a lot of love from, for Vladimir Putin from the late night comics. Let's bring in our roundtable to talk about all this. We have, from ABC, Matthew Dowd and Cokie Roberts, the Editorial Page Editor of the "Wall Street Journal" Paul Gigot and from the Congress, Republican Justin Amash and Democrat Donna Edwards. Welcome to all of you.
And Matthew let me begin with you, you saw the president, right out of the box there say we are in a better position now than we were two weeks ago. Is he right?
MATTHEW DOWD: Well yeah. Because there's an agreement between Russian and the United States and hopefully Syria. I assume Russia's been talking to Syria since this is about their country.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well not yet.
DOWD: Well I assume there's been conversations going on. The last two weeks I think has been one of the most fascinating periods I think that I've seen in a long time. Because first of all we were going to go to war and then we weren't going to go to war. Then we're going to Congress for permission then we weren't going to go to Congress for permission. Then the president was going to give a talk and then his talk got usurped by the discussions going on, the proposals going on. And then he's about to have all these interviews and then now there's a proposal to get rid of chemical weapons.
And all the allies are all topsy-turvy. Some Republicans support him not going, some Republicans support him going to Congress asking permission, some are against it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you heard the president, he said that all doesn't matter we ended up in the right place.
DOWD: Well that's what I'm saying. I'm saying in the end, I think you know it's, he, using a football analogy, here's a guy that fumbled to the goal line, here's a guy that fumbled to the goal line and scored on the goal line and many people are criticizing because he wasn't more efficient or more disciplined about a rush on the field.
COKIE ROBERTS: A lot of people feel that way about the Cuban Missile Crisis in retrospect. In going--
ROBERTS: Exactly. Kennedy essentially stumbled toward success. And I think the big difference here is we've known every step of the way. Not only do we know every thought that's going on, people are not, it's all in real time. So that it looks so dis--just disheveled.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But Congressman on the substance, some of your Republican colleagues, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, harshly criticizing the agreement. They say they see it as an act of provocative weakness on American's part. We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon. Do you agree?
AMASH: I don't agree. And increasingly they're views are the fringe views within the Republican Party. The Republican Party believes we shouldn't have gone to war. I think most Republicans believe we're in the right spot now in the sense that at least there's a process where we can get the chemical weapons out there.
We haven't achieved success yet, but at least we're avoiding the bombing. And people back home do not want us to get involved in a war over there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And Congresswoman I think this is one of the places where the majority of Democrats in the House agree with the majority of Republicans?
EDWARDS: That's true but not all. I mean I think one of the, you know, questions I have coming from the left is that we were highly critical of George Bush because we didn't think he negotiated enough. And so now there's a big criticism of the president because he negotiated like, a lot, right up until the 11th hour. And I think we have to take some stock in that.
I mean what really is clear to me is that the reason that the Russians are at the table is because of the threat of force. And I think it's unavoidable to come to that, not to come to that conclusion.
GIGOT: And to be at the center of this table George, I don't think that we are better off than we were two weeks ago. Because the president has made himself hostage to Vladimir Putin and to Bashar al-Assad.
We're asked to believe now that the man who denied he had chemical weapons until last week. The man that John Kerry called a thug and a murderer, has fallen off his tank on the road to the Damascus suburbs and is going to change is suddenly a changed man.
He's going to come clean. And Vladimir Putin, the man who has protected him for two years, is going to turn around and say; yeah sure, everything's on the table.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So how do you see this playing out? He's supposed to come up with Assad, if he endorses this agreement, supposed to come up with a full catalog of his chemical weapons in a week.
GIGOT: Right. There are a thousand ways to cheat on this. He could just like on the declaration. Then once he makes the declaration, by the way, already Russia and the United States don't agree on the weapons that Syria has. So we're going to fight about that for a while. Then we're going to fight over the U.N. resolution.
I think you can hide the weapons. And all the while, Assad is buying time so that he can escalate against the opposition.
ROBERTS: And the sanction in the proposal is to go back to the United Nations to the Security Council where of course Russia can veto it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The president says he reserves the right to use force.
EDWARDS: The one thing that's not going to change, the force posture that is there currently isn't going to change. And the president has not said, you know what, now all hands are off. He said you know there's still a possibility of a threat of force if over this period of time until mid-2014, the weapons aren't identified, that they aren't removed, that they aren't destroyed. I think it's--
STEPHANOPOULOS: (inaudible) that Congress backs him up on that. I want to put the question to you Congressman Amash that I put to the president, what if this, despite all the difficulties in trying to find these weapons and get the inspectors going, let's say it goes on for a year. Assad keeps the process going but it strengthens his hold on power. What does that mean? Is that a victory for him, a defeat for the United States?
AMASH: Well I wouldn't call it a defeat for the United States. It may be a victory for him. But at the end of the day, we can't be involved in every civil war around the world. And I think the American people feel very strongly about that. I was back and did 11 town halls in two days. I can't tell you how strong the response was in opposition to the war. It was incredible; I've never seen anything like it.
EDWARDS: Because you were wearing your Darth Vader uniform.
AMASH: So I think, yeah, he may, Assad may achieve a victory. But it doesn't mean that the United States has lost. We don't want to--
DOWD: Foreign policy right now, his foreign policy decisions and actually all domestic policy decisions are being infected by two huge dynamics that are going around in this country.
First we spent $1 trillion on a war and lost thousands of lives that ended up us being no better off in the aftermath in those 10 years. The country or the world not being better off.
And two, as of today, and it's been this way for the last few years, the trust in the government's ability to do anything right, foreign policy, domestic policy, whatever, is at an all-time low. So when you put that in a president's hands, he is really handcuffed in his ability to exercise any foreign policy.
Which is why I think his agreement with Russia was the best case scenario for this president.
ROBERTS: I must say if Assad looks at history, now this takes a while, but if he looks at the last places that we did this kind of thing, in Libya and Iraq, Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein are dead.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Eventually, yes.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But that would lead him to not give up the weapons.
GIGOT: That's right but then the chances that the president is going to go back to Congress and ask for more sanctions is vanishingly small. I just don't see it. And the problem here is not just that we're washing our hands of Syria and Assad might win. It's that his patron, Iran, would win. And then you look at the prospect of Iran with nuclear weapons and they're going to see this as--
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you heard the president there, he has reached out personally to the Iranian president, feels there's some opening there.
GIGOT: I think the danger here is that they look at this; he's now, the president's now in the diplomatic maze. And he, Iranians look at this and say, you know what? We can get in that same type of diplomatic morass and get some kind of hazy deal. And they meanwhile go on to keep marching nuclear weapons--
And what does Israel do? Israel now has to make a calculation; can we trust President Obama's assurances to protect us? And if they can't, they might strike--
DOWD: The history of the world, the civilized world, it shows no real good example where somebody came in and imposed an external rationale on a foreign company. So we're going to impose democracy on you and therefore it's going to succeed.
Every single time--
(UNKNOWN): You lived a lot of that in the Bush White House.
DOWD: Every single it's succeeded in the history of the world, it's because the country itself decided it was the right thing to do.
GIGOT: We're not going to try to impose, nobody's talking about imposing democracy--
DOWD: Well we're talking about, you're talking about taking out Assad.
GIGOT: We're talking about using the rebels--
STEPHANOPOULOS: One at a time.
EDWARDS: The last thing that the president wanted and I think that any of us needed is to take down Assad in a state of chaos. Because there's so many different actors on the ground there. We need somebody to actually have control over those chemical weapons now until they're removed and destroyed.
And so I think that you heard the president saying that was not their goal as regime change. But I mean the use of chemical weapons was a game changer. The fact that the Russians finally came to the, came to the table I think makes a huge difference for the president in our ability to move forward on this.
And you know what? I think Iran must look at this and say, you know what; maybe those Americans really are serious. Maybe they really would force against us. I read that completely differently.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Find out in the next couple weeks. I do want to switch to domestic policy. The rest of the president's interviewing. Congressman Amash let me bring this to you. The president talking about these looming showdowns over the potential government shutdown this week. We hit the debt limit on October 18, I believe.
And you saw the president; he pushed back a few times. He certainly seems to be saying he is not going to negotiate at all over the debt limit despite the precedence. Are you, and he's banking, I believe, on Republicans in the House either falling apart or caving.
AMASH: Well we have to have compromise. The president himself is arguing that we're not willing to compromise. We're willing to compromise. And part of that compromise means when you want to borrow more money, we're going to have to have some cuts in government. And that's all Republicans are asking for.
And we're not talking about draconian cuts--
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well there's a strong faction asking for defunding Obamacare though.
AMASH: We're talking about delaying Obamacare for a year, which is something the president has asked for with the Employer Mandate. So let's delay it for everyone. I think we're doing the president a favor if we delay it.
AMASH: The president is not ready to be implemented. If anything the president should be asking us to delay it because it's better for him politically.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Does he see it as a favor to him?
EDWARDS: I don't think so. You know the fact is that we've voted now 41 times to defund Obamacare. I mean maybe 42 is the charm. I mean I think the president is right. You know we can't negotiate over the debt ceiling. And we can't be irresponsible in shutting down the government.
The fact is Speaker Boehner has to decide what kind of Speaker he wants to be. He can be a Speaker who governs and achieves success by getting Democratic votes to continue government operations and to raise the debt limit or he not.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're saying that he's going to turn his back on the majority of his conference to say--
EDWARDS: No he's going to turn his back on 50 members of the Republican Party--
AMASH: No, no, not at all. I mean look, when you go back home and talk to Republicans at home on the grassroots level, they want us to delay Obamacare. They want us to defund Obamacare. They want us to stop Obamacare.
ROBERT: Republicans at home on the grassroots level want Obama to be gone and it has, it has, it's a (inaudible) anything his name is attached to.
AMASH: You talk to Republicans and Democrats at home about Obamacare, it doesn't work, premiums are going up, access to healthcare is going to go down. We need to do something to delay it.
DOWD: What's happening on this issue is the outcome of President Obama's biggest failure which is, he came to Washington and it was polarized and it was divided. And he's now going to leave office or he's in his last three years of his office, more polarized and more divided.
Part of which is from him, part of which is from Republicans. He said he was going to fix it. He didn't.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So Paul, how does this showdown end? I mean it does appear that the Speaker is in a quandary which is why he was reaching out, begging Democrats to come to the table this week. It doesn't seem he can get a majority together for anything right now.
GIGOT: It's too bad. Because I think Republicans have forgotten the most important number for them. It's 218. That's the majority in the House. And without 218 agreeing on something, they have no leverage.
(UNKNOWN): And it's not there now.
GIGOT: And it's not there right now. And they need to get their act together. Because if they don't do that, then the Senate and the President are going to have the whip hand and be able to drive policy on them. And in the end, they'll end up surrendering. So they need to get organized.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you see a prospect of that? Is there anything right now on these big issues that can get 218 votes in the House?
AMASH: I think we're working toward it. We've got a deal that some of my colleagues have looked at; Tom Graves is working on a proposal to fund the government outside of Obamacare. So everything except Obamacare. Send it to the Senate. Send the Republican version to the Senate. Let them negotiate on it and we'll try to come up with a compromise.
But you can't start where the Democrats want us to start. You have to start with a Republican proposal. We have a Republican majority that was elected by Republicans. Let's starts with a Republican proposal.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You know Matthew Dowd I want to bring another question about the president to you. This whole notion that basically 2013 has come a cropper for the president. Everything he's put at the top of the agenda is stalled or failing or in reversal. So he kind of deflected.
If you were in the White House right now, what would you tell him is the best path to salvaging this year?
DOWD: Well what's interesting is, is I was in a White House at the same point in time in the presidency in the aftermath of Katrina where the president, President Bush's job approval dropped to about 43 or 44. Exactly the same--
STEPHANOPOULOS: It's getting there right now.
DOWD: It's exactly where he is today. And basically you have Congress that is in a dysfunctional place which is where it was when he was president. And that point in time, it was basically the beginning of the end of President Bush's presidency.
I think the president, he's a very big fan of history, understands that. He watched that go on with the president. I think that unless the president changes the trajectory he is on the road to irrelevancy and that's why your last question which went to 2016 president, which is what everybody now wants to talk about, even though there's all these huge issues. Understand that this president is fast becoming irrelevant in Washington.
GIGOT: I think his gamble will be, I'm sorry Cokie, just briefly, I think his gamble is to take back the House in 2014. Which is why I think he may be, he may want a shutdown. Because--
STEPHANOPOULOS: He wants a shutdown?
GIGOT: He wants a shutdown because that's a way he can blame it on the Republicans, blame any economic fallout on the House Republicans and say, you've got to give me the majority for the next year.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Shutdown but not default. He can't--
GIGOT: Shutdown, shutdown.
ROBERTS: He can't go to default. But shutdown the government works for the president.
DOWD: I would have a hard time believing that the president would want that. I would say he's probably not opposed to it. But I would have a hard time saying he wants it.
ROBERTS: OK he hopes the Republicans are silly enough to do it.
GIGOT: That's right.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And that's why he's going to hold on to this firm negotiating position right now. You know, we've got to take a break right now. Thank you all very much.
But before we do, I want to get the latest on those devastating floods in Colorado. They've already taken four lives. Hundreds may still be trapped and ABC's Ginger Zee is on the ground in Fort Morgan today.
Ginger this has been such a punishing storm, officials now are engaged in the largest air rescue since Hurricane Katrina. We were just talking about. And I see that river right there is about to breach.
GINGER ZEE, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah this is not even the river. This already breached George. This is actually the runoff. The river is actually a quarter mile back. This is the South Platte River and it's the one they're most concerned about today.
Because it's not done rising. We've seen it now feet above its record or historic levels. And let me show you, because you've got all the runoff, chunks of the road falling apart as we've been here. You can see it. All of the flood waters gnawing away at parts of Colorado.
So the rescues really are the part that's so dramatic. Yesterday we got to see some of them. We also got to meet people who were evacuating their homes. I want to show you the pictures though of all of those dramatic rescues. Some of the students that got caught up in the mountains, airlifted out.
You've got the rescues of the horses, because it's not just the people that are stuck, this is a lot of farmland out here. Farms that are now completely ruined. Everything that they had. And we're hearing a lot of that here in Morgan County.
So this has been watching the rivers rise and go into people's homes is painful. And that's where we're at with flood watches and warnings around.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That's right the president declared a disaster zone overnight, yet there's more rain coming.
ZEE: Right. We get another one to three inches widespread today. That's something we haven't seen for the last 36 hours. More rain, not only today but until early tomorrow. Finally drying out by Tuesday.
STEPHANOPOULOS: OK Ginger Zee, thanks for being on the ground there. And when we come back, one of television's hottest stars takes the stage as America's Accidental President. Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon Johnson. That's next.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And coming up, you know him as the high school teacher turned ruthless drug lord on "Breaking Bad." Now Bryan Cranston plays the president. His star turn as LBJ is next in our Sunday Spotlight.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Time now for our Sunday Spotlight shining this week on Lyndon Johnson. In a new play about one of the country's most tortured presidents, "Breaking Bad's" Bryan Cranston stars as LBJ portraying those moments in 1964, when a president anointed by tragedy achieved the goals of a lifetime.
ABC's Linsey Davis takes us behind the scenes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LINSEY DAVIS: As recorded by history.
LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: The greatest leader of our time has been struck--
BRYAN CRANSTON, ACTOR: Struck down by the foulest deed of our time.
DAVIS: And now reenacted on stage, Lyndon Johnson was a man who suddenly found himself front and center during a turning point for the country.
CRANSTON: I'm an accidental President, Dick.
DAVIS: In "All the Way," Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan's highly anticipated new drama opening this week, the self-described "accidental president" is played by actor Bryan Cranston.
CRANSTON: So let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skylar, I am the danger.
DAVIS: Cranston has won three Emmys for his role as Walter White in the critically acclaimed AMC hit, "Breaking Bad," about a chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, who turns to a life of crime to ensure his family's financial future before he dies.
CRANSTON: Where, where did he keep it?
Maybe you think Goldwater ought to be elected, is that it?
DAVIS: And now another intense role. Our cameras were there as Cranston rehearsed for his latest turn as the country's 36th president.
Why'd you choose Bryan Cranston for LBJ?
ROBERT SCHENKKAN, PLAYWRIGHT: To have somebody who is funny and entertaining and endearing and then terrifying. And that's what LBJ was; he was all of those things.
DAVIS: The play takes us through a period of 12 months. Beginning with LBJ's swearing in as president in November of 1963 through the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
JOHNSON: Its purpose is not to divide but to end divisions.
DAVIS: He is responsible for some landmark legislation. Would you say then that he was a masterful politician?
SCHENKKAN: Oh without question. He loved the deal making. He loved the muscling and he was ferocious about it.
DAVIS: One major theme of the play is the morality of power and the lengths LBJ was willing to go to get Congress to act.
SCHENKKAN: We take pleasure in how he bullies and manipulates and lies in order to achieve passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. And then we watch him use the same toolkit to ensure his re-election and to take us into Vietnam. And we stop cheering. That's what this play is about. It's a bloody, messy business.
DAVIS: A business that's only gotten worse.
SCHENKKAN: At least before it was productive. Now it's bloody and messy and we're not doing anything. In 1964 there was no shame in crossing the aisle and making a deal.
DAVIS: In the end it's a story about a president, an "accidental president" who very purposefully managed to shift the politics of the day.
SCHENKKAN: What he did in terms of civil rights in this country was extraordinary. The Civil Rights Act broke the back of Jim Crow and changed this country forever. To me, that's heroic.
DAVIS: For "This Week" I'm Linsey Davis in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANOPOULOS: Cannot wait to see that performance. Remarkable resemblance. And now we honor our fellow Americans who serve and sacrifice. This week the Pentagon released the name of one soldier killed in Afghanistan.
And that is all for us today. Thanks for sharing part of your Sunday with us. Check out "World News with David Muir" tonight and I'll see you tomorrow on GMA.