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Interview With Rep. Peter King; Poll: Most Feel Economy Is In bad Shape; 1.3 Million About To Lose Jobless Benefits; A&E Lifts "Duck Dynasty" Suspension; 2013 the Worst Year of Obama's Presidency?; South Sudan Government Ready for Truce

Aired December 27, 2013 - 17:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Joe. Happening now, a federal judge rules it's legal for the NSA to collect data on almost every phone call made in the U.S. Will this now head to the Supreme Court?

And the economy may be bouncing back, but our poll shows most Americans don't feel it. Why some will soon feel even more pain?

And a story of a canine combat vet who used to sniff out roadside bombs in Afghanistan and now patrols the Pentagon.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar. And you're in the SITUATION ROOM.

A federal judge today ruled the massive collection of data on virtually every phone call in the United States is legal. That comes just a week after another federal judge said it's probably unconstitutional. Let's go straight now to CNN justice correspondent, Evan Perez. So, we're hearing two very different things here.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. You have two district judges, one in New York, one in D.C. They look at the same set of facts, the same program that's run by the NSA, and they've decided two separate and different, opposite conclusions essentially. What this judge in New York said today was you go back to 9/11 and you see what the government might have missed before 9/11 and ways that they could have stopped the attacks from happening.

This is what the NSA is doing now to try to prevent the next attack. And I think that is the biggest point that he was trying to make today as opposed to the judge last week who was focusing more on the privacy angle.

KEILAR: What does this do to the NSA's database? They've been collecting all of this information on phone calls and internet usage.

PEREZ: Right. Hundreds of millions of pieces of data that they're collecting. The program is continuing. Even the judge last week, he basically kept the program running while the government has time to appeal. The judge in this ruling today is going to allow obviously the ACLU which brought the lawsuit to appeal and that will, you know, will have two separate appeals courts will have to decide whether this continues or not. And that's going to wind its way through for the next couple of years, probably. KEILAR: So, you're thinking a couple of years. What is the next step here?

PEREZ: Well, the next step is that the president appointed a panel, as you know, to take a look at this and they came back and said they didn't think that the program, this program in particular, worked very well. It didn't really do anything to stop an imminent attack. And that's the same point the judge made last week in Washington. The president says next month, he's going to take a look at this.

He's going to make some decisions on how to go forward. One of the recommendations from that panel that he appointed was to take this program out of the hands of the NSA, put it back in the hands of the phone companies that collect this data anyway, and then make the NSA have to go to a court to be able to access the information.

KEILAR: So, you've got two judges. They've got the same set of facts, but they arrive at polar opposite conclusions. How?

PEREZ: Well, you know, the judge today in his ruling begins at 9/11. He's in New York. The judge appointed ironically, the judge today was appointed by President Clinton. The ruling last week came from a Bush judge.

KEILAR: That is ironic.

PEREZ: Go to figure, right?


PEREZ: The judge today begins at 9/11 and he looks at it from a standpoint of how crucial this is to prevent the next 9/11, the next attack. And I think the other -- the other side of this issue looks at the issue of privacy and says the government is collecting way too much information, knows way too much and it can't prove that this does anything to keep us safer. You know, that's the dichotomy here. That's the difference of opinion you hear every day on this issue all across the country.

KEILAR: Playing out in courts as well.

PEREZ: Exactly.

KEILAR: Evan Perez, thank you so much.

So, that's a big legal win for the NSA, but is that phone surveillance really effective and should the government continue the program? Joining me now to talk about this, Republican congressman, Peter King of New York. He serves on the homeland security and intelligence committees. Congressman, what do you think the ultimate result is here? Do you think this will be settled by the Supreme Court?

REP. PETER KING, (R) INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, first of all, I'd like to say that I fully agree with Judge Pauley's (ph) decision that the NSA's actions are entirely constitutional. Having said that, I think this case is going to go to the second circuit court of appeals. Judge Leon's decision or ruling is going to go to the District of Columbia court of appeals.

I think we can -- again, I have no way of predicting how that's going to go, but this certainly seems like the type of case that is going to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, because it does -- it is of paramount national interest and it is obviously conflict and that conflict may, you know, show itself again at the U.S. court of appeals level.

KEILAR: And congressman, this all started back with Edward Snowden. We've heard from him recently in an interview with the "Washington Post." He said mission accomplished. Partially, because he says that what he revealed stirred a great international debate on mass surveillance. Then this week, in a message broadcast in British television, he said this.


VOICE OF EDWARD SNOWDEN, LEAKED NSA SURVEILLANCE: The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it.


KEILAR: Now, so let me ask you, do you agree with Edward Snowden that this debate about surveillance has been an important one?

KING: No. First of all, I think Edward Snowden is a disgrace. He's a traitor. He's a defector. And what he spread really is mass hysteria and also mass misinformation. For instance, the NSA is not collecting information on phone calls other than one phone number to another. There's no names involved. There's no content involved. They're not surveilling e-mails either.

So, there are all these false stories out there. Like Snowden says the NSA knows where he is or follows people or they can listen in on the president's phone calls. No. It's under strict court supervision. Last year, after billions and billions of phone numbers were assembled, there were less than 300 even looked at and right now, I think 60 American citizens throughout the world are on any type of surveillance because of the NSA's efforts.

And it's not done by the NSA. It's done by the justice department. So, no, this is the most carefully monitored watch in (ph) constitutional program we have. Edward Snowden has spread fear and hysteria and to me is an absolute disgrace.

KEILAR: Congressman, last week, President Obama was asked directly for evidence that NSA programs had stopped another 9/11. He didn't name a specific one. Has there been a single terrorist threat that you say has been stopped by this program?

KING: Well, in his opinion today, Judge Pauley refers to three of them. I am virtually with one of them, and that's the attempted attack by Zazi in 2009 on the New York City subway system. I was actually there with Commissioner Kelly when this was unraveling, when the plot was unraveling and the NYPD and the FBI were on to it.

And this came in large part because of the efforts of the NSA. They were absolutely instrumental in that. There's any number of others. I mean, the NSA has given examples of over 50. Judge Pauley today cites three of them in his opinion. And Judge Leon last week, you know, you have the president of the United States, the director of national intelligence, and the head of the NSA and CIA all saying that the surveillance is important.

Judge Leon is not an intelligence expert. He went outside his lane. As a federal judge, he has no say at all on whether or not something is helpful or good or bad. He has to decide strictly the constitutionality and for him to say he wasn't impressed or he wasn't convinced that it served an intelligence purpose, that's none of his business.

The constitution has judges interpreting laws and applying it to the constitution. It's up to the president and the Congress to define and decide whether or not something is of importance as far as intelligence is concerned.

KEILAR: So the White House -- the president appointed this independent panel to give him suggestions on recommendations on what to do with some of these NSA programs. We're expecting for him to detail his response to them next month. What do you think that President Obama needs to tell the American people about the NSA programs and also about the concerns that so many Americans have about their privacy when it relates to these programs?

KING: Well, first of all, no one's privacy is being violated. I think it's up to the president to show leadership. I mean, on the one hand, he's saying that the NSA is not violating anyone's rights, that it provides useful intelligence, and that the Snowden leaks have been damaging. On the other hand, he says he's going to look to reform.

So, what's he going to reform? If the system is working, if it's being done honestly, intelligently and constitutionally, what does he want to reform? So, I think the president is trying to have it both ways. I wish he'd show leadership. If he thinks this program is working, he should come up and say that and he should stand by it. He shouldn't be trying to have it both ways.

On the one hand this, on the other hand, that. The fact is he's commander in chief. It's time to show leadership and stand by the program which he, himself, says is working and is constitutional. What he's going to do? I have no idea what this president's going to do.

KEILAR: Let me play devil's advocate to that.

KING: Sure.

KEILAR: There have been tremendous concerns voiced by many Americans. Are their concerns warranted? Shouldn't they be part of the debate here? Whether or not you think Edward Snowden is a disgrace, isn't this a debate that the American people should have some say in? KING: If the debate is done honestly. The average American I think believes that their phone calls are being listened to. They think their e-mails are being looked at. That is totally untrue. No one's phone calls are being listened to by the NSA. The fact is that it's under total court supervision. Now, there are thousands of phone calls being listened to every day by local prosecutors, by local police, by federal law enforcement, by federal prosecutors.

That's done in narcotics and pornography and organized crime. That's totally separate from the NSA. The NSA, as I said, I believe, there's a total of 60 Americans, that's 6-0 Americans having their phone calls listened to and that's because they're in contact with terrorists. And that's 60 all over the world and it's only done under strict court supervision and the granting of an order by the court.

KEILAR: But some of them know that their calls aren't necessarily being listened to, but just the fact that the government has this blanket access to, should it be needed, to this phone data, to this internet usage data. I wonder -- and we've heard many people put concerns out there because they feel like they've been misled.

For instance, let's talk a little bit about DNI, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence.

KING: Right.

KEILAR: He testified before Congress that I think a lot of people took that to mean that there wasn't even this sort of blanket grabbing of phone and internet usage. His critics actually include Republican senator, Rand Paul. Do you think there should be any consequences for Clapper, and we certainly noticed that President Obama didn't really defend him in his testimony before Congress last week?

KING: Let me say several things. First of all, e-mails are not being surveilled. The NSA on its own stopped doing that more than two years ago because they felt they cannot ensure privacy because there was so much extraneous information in an e-mail. So, they stopped that. There is no e-mail surveillance. It stopped more than two years ago. As far as General Clapper, he was in a position, he was asked a question by a senator that the senator knew the answer to.

It had already been discussed in a private confidential top secret session because we did not want the enemy to know what we were doing and what we were capable of. What General Clapper was trying to do, first of all, he didn't expect a question like that would be asked in public, because of its top secret nature, and he tried to give an answer which he thought was the least offensive, where he would be protecting the men and women of the NSA and those -- and protect the programs we're using to stop al Qaeda.

And there's nothing in this for the NSA. They have not abused this. They're not using it for political purposes. They're not going after anyone. They're doing it to save American lives and it has worked. That's what General Clapper was trying to protect. So, as far as Rand Paul, I think he's also absolutely terrible when he said -- when he was comparing General Clapper to Edward Snowden. I mean, a four star general who's dedicating his life to his country to a guy who's a traitor and a deserter? Rand Paul again does not know what he's talking about. He also on another show once was saying the NSA follows him and knows everything he's doing. The guy's having delusions of grandeur. Nobody really cares what he's doing.

KEILAR: Strong opinions, Congressman Peter King. We appreciate you coming on to share them with us.

KING: Thank you, Brianna. Happy New Year.

KEILAR: You, too.

Well, next, stocks have soared and the economy may be on its way back, but most Americans say they don't feel it. Some are about to feel a lot more pain.

And coming up, a python on the loose after strangling a security guard outside a luxury hotel.


KEILAR: Wall Street is in record territory, unemployment is at a five-year low, and housing has bounced back, but our latest poll shows Americans remain pessimistic about the economy. Most think it's still in poor shape. That mindset poses yet another tough challenge for the Obama administration. CNN's Athena Jones is in Hawaii where the president is vacationing -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon, Brianna. You're right. Americans are still feeling glum about the economy according to our new CNN/ORC poll. Sixty-eight say economic conditions are poor and more than half, 56 percent, say conditions will still be poor a year from now. This pessimism is affecting consumer spending, which is of course a big part, a big driver, I should say, of the economy. More than a third, 36 percent, say they've cut back on food or medicine because of the economy.

Fifty-eight percent say they've cut back on clothes and 56 percent say they've postponed major purchases like furniture or appliances. Now, a lot of the president's focus has been on how wage and income inequality is keeping the American dream out of reach for millions of Americans who are struggling, and you'll remember this, Brianna. At the beginning of December in a speech, the president said that battling inequality and the lack of upward mobility is the defining challenge of our time.

In his press conference on that Friday right before heading out here for Christmas vacation, he talked about how more needs to be done to create jobs that help the middle class and the people trying to get into the middle class. Let's listen to what he had to say then.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think 2014 needs to be a year of action. We've got work to do to create more good jobs, to help more Americans earn the skills and education they need to do those jobs, and to make sure that those jobs offer the wages and benefits that let families build a little bit of financial security.

We've got to build on the progress we've painstakingly made over these last five years with respect to our economy and offer the middle class and all those who are looking to join the middle class a better opportunity.


JONES: And so, the question that remains is how well the president can work with Congress to get the policies passed that he believes will help -- Brianna.

KEILAR: That's right. They may determine whether it really is a year of action. Athena Jones for us in Honolulu, thank you.

Now, while most Americans don't feel the economy is improving, many are about to feel some more pain. Federal long term unemployment benefits will end tomorrow for more than a million people, and CNN's Tom Foreman is breaking this down for us -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is going to be quite a blow to some people out there. Now, what's going to be different, if this -- if you're long term unemployed this affects you, if you simply become unemployed in the coming year, you will still get regular unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. For several years now, we've had these additional benefits that go on beyond that for people who are long- term unemployed.

That's what's going away. They get about $300 a week. That means a lot if you've been out of work that long or longer, and there are about 1.3 million people who will be immediately affected. It's not the same all over the country. Those places that have more people out of work longer in the dark areas here like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, Texas, California over here, they will really feel this much more than others, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Tom Foreman, thank you so much. And let's bring in now economist, pardon me, Peter Morici. He's a professor at the University of Maryland. You heard Tom describing these benefits that are about to evaporate for some people. Let me tell you how the White House is responding to this.

The president's economic advisor, Gene Sperling, saying this afternoon it defies economic sense, precedent and our values to allow 1.3 million Americans fighting to find jobs to see their unemployment insurance abruptly cut off, especially in the middle of the holiday season. Does it really defy economic sense?

PROF. PETER MORICI, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: no, it really doesn't. The president is using the unemployment benefits as a wedge issue. The reality is that we're five years into the recovery. This is an extraordinary program. Twenty-six 26 weeks is what we've historically had for unemployment benefits and there is a question as to whether people delay job searches if they get very long benefits. Will it be a drag on the economy? Will there be disruptions? The president, the administration, the Congress has led people to believe these would always be extended and they haven't been.

KEILAR: But at this point, when you are dealing with someone who's been long-term unemployed, they're struggling to find work as opposed to someone who's been unemployed for a short period of time. Isn't this a necessary lifeline, especially for someone who is expecting to have this benefit?

MORICI: It certainly is a necessary lifeline if people have developed the expectation that it would always be there. However, there is information that would indicate that people delay looking for a job depending on the length of benefits they receive. So, it's a matter of when do you adjust the policy. You can have long term unemployment benefits down to five percent unemployment. When do you draw the line? This is where people differ.

KEILAR: And this is one of the arguments that we hear Republicans make as they argue with the White House over whether this should be extended or not. Certainly, one of the big issues they have is that if this is going to be extended, they want to make sure that it's paid for. They don't want to be adding to the deficit.

But, I guess if you are going to say, OK, these people who are long term unemployed, we 're not giving you this benefit anymore, there has to be some other answer, assuming, you know, some people aren't just sitting around, you now, not trying to get a job. In some ways, you know that their jobs have, perhaps, not -- they've gone away, the jobs, the skills that they have don't really match maybe the jobs that are out there.

What is the answer then really to getting some of these long-term unemployed people back to work?

MORICI: We have to develop new industries. Some of the old jobs aren't going to come back. We need to create ways that Americans can be more competitive in Asia where there's a lot of growth. Suggestions have been made to the president on that score with regard to say China and its economic policies that keep our products out. We have an energy boom in America, but it could be much larger.

We prohibit drilling off both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and we significantly curtail it in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. if we did that, we can increase oil production by four million barrels a day, but more importantly, we could create three million new jobs and lower the unemployment rate by two percentage points.

KEILAR: But let's take it to the personal level. Who are, in short, the long-term unemployed?

MORICI: There is no single person. I can't give you a prototype. They're scattered throughout the country. They've lost their jobs in industries like various kinds of low wage manufacturing. They've lost the jobs in agriculture where there's been consolidation. They've lost jobs because of competition from abroad. They've lost jobs simply because the focus of economic activity has shifted to the two coasts, North Dakota and Texas.

KEILAR: So, what do they need to do? What needs to be done for them in order to move them into a job where they can be part of the economy?

MORICI: Well, in addition to creating industries and creating jobs, we need to increase mobility. Mobility is at an all-time low in the United States. We take it for granted. The reality is even if you've got the skills and you're living in Kansas where there used to be a factory and there's now a job available for you in Nevada, you don't have the means to move. Too little attention has been given to increasing the mobility of people.

Part of this is the housing crisis. People under water in communities where there's high unemployment. You're stuck. But also, just the wherewithal, the money to pick up, a mother with two kids. She's 38 years old. She's got two years of college, three kids, no husband, how does she move to a big city? We haven't addressed that. In other countries, they do.

KEILAR: Peter Morici, thank you so much. Looking at this a different way, we appreciate it.

Now, coming up, breaking news from A&E. The network is taking new action on "Duck Dynasty." We'll have details next.


KEILAR: Breaking news now, the A&E network is lifting its suspension of "Duck Dynasty" star, Phil Robertson. The patriarch of the reality show family was sidelined for remarks about homosexuality and race that many found offensive. Now, A&E says it will resume production in the spring and will also produce public service announcements about tolerance.

Let's bring in now our CNN senior media correspondent and also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," Brian Stelter. What do you make of this decision?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I suppose this is the kind of thing that was expected to happen at some point. But I'm surprised it happened so fast. Nobody really thought "Duck Dynasty" was going away. The show is too valuable to A&E and is too valuable to the Robertson family. But it's interesting that it only took about a week between the time the suspension was announced and now the time that it's lifted.

KEILAR: It shows you -- we saw Cracker Barrel do this. They pulled "Duck Dynasty" merchandise and very quickly, after getting so much reaction from people, put it back in. And we're also seeing that A&E, while they had suspended Phil Robertson, were running marathons of episodes --

STELTER: Yes. High rated marathons.

KEILAR: High rated marathons. For hours and hours over this holiday week with Phil Robertson in it.

STELTER: There probably is room for a little cynicism about this, you know, because at the end of the day, the bottom line is what's most important. And this is a very lucrative show. I mean, A&E once again in this statement took the chance to say they reiterate that these are not views we hold, but then they continue on by saying "Duck Dynasty" is not a show about one man's viewers. You know, they go on and on, kind of defending, basically pre-defending their decision to bring him back.

KEILAR: You heard a lot of gay rights groups who were very upset over his comments. Is this a defeat for them?

STELTER: I think we will hear from them later today and I have a feeling that they would be very disappointed by this, because they interpreted this as a big victory last week when they were able to have him suspended. The same is true for some civil rights groups that spoke out about his comments about African-Americans. You know, I find one of those group leaders, though, I probably have a feeling in the back of my head that this show wasn't going to disappear. It was simply too valuable.

KEILAR: Do you think that part of the reason this is happening is because this sort of happens -- he was talking about the bible, his interpretation. He was talking about this in the context of his religion and how he understood homosexuality, and it was -- he made comments about race, but these comments about homosexuality, I think, really did grab a lot of the attention as well.

Do you think that if this didn't have anything to do with religion, these were just blanket statements that he made, that this would have been different? That in a way, that added some -- a different element to this of religious freedom?

STELTER: It did. It made a lot more people upset with A&E's decision. You know, I've said before, I think they were in an impossible position. There was no good choice they were able to make here, because they were going to upset some group of people either way.

You know, but especially around the Christmas holiday, with people getting together for dinner, talking about this, you know, I think a lot of religious people from all different points of view, they were bothered by this, for various reasons. And because it involves religion, it made it harder for A&E.

KEILAR: You are a social media guru and social media played a big part in this.

STELTER: It did.

KEILAR: How important was that, do you think, in, I guess, the initial reaction and then -- and then now, this development?

STELTER: Well, "Duck Dynasty" was trending for days. I mean, it was the best publicity that A&E could buy for this show even though it may make A&E look bad in the short term. It was great press for the show. And of course now we're going to see tons of reaction to this as well now that they have reversed.

Here is my favorite tweet so far from a TV critic who wrote, quote, "Conservative groups will pretend A&E caved to their pressure. A&E just caved to the pressure of the almighty dollar." That's what kind of feels most true to me right now, although we'll see what we hear from A&E in the days to come.

KEILAR: So then it's not necessarily -- I mean, even though the debate -- actually, I thought it was a fascinating debate.

STELTER: I'm kind of glad it happened for some reason.

KEILAR: To hear -- yes. I --


STELTER: Even though it did upset people.

KEILAR: Of course, you know. And I can totally understand how what he said offended many people. But I thought it was an interesting debate to have. I thought it reminded people that there are people who have different points of view and it created a discussion.

STELTER: His views are shared by millions of people. On the other hand, so are GLAAD's and other gay rights and civil rights groups. It's going to be interesting what these PSAs are going to look like. You know, they say they're going to film public service campaign around unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people. You know, that's not what comes to mind when people think of Phil Robertson. So we'll see how A&E is able to straddle that line.

KEILAR: But what -- this was an interesting debate and I think one that a lot of people found to be pretty fascinating. But it really does just sort of come down to the buck, doesn't it?

STELTER: Well, and also to the fact that this is a television show that's not about religion. Yes, every episode ends with a prayer but it's really a family comedy. The show is not about the more serious parts of life. It's about the more fun parts of life. It's about family togetherness and they're going to go to reflect that now because as A&E says, they'll be back taping again this spring.

KEILAR: I want to bring in right now, Brian, a couple of our political guests, Mark Lamont Hill and Will Cain, to get their reaction to this.

Will, what do you think? Are you surprised? Brian is surprised that this happened so quickly, even though perhaps it was heading in this direction.

WILL CAIN, COLUMNIST, THE BLAZE: No, I'm not surprised. I heard Brian a moment ago say that there was no correct choice for A&E. They were put in a little bit of a no-win situation. You could be -- and I have heard you guys invoke a little bit of cynicism here, you could be very cynical and say they made exactly the right choice. They made a meaningless suspension that didn't interrupt filming whatsoever for A&E, got "Duck Dynasty" and A&E splattered across every headline in this nation and thus create a marketing boon for it.

Now I say that only as a cynic on the marketing side. I think A&E was wrong from the start to silence people, that they had some kind of group think disagreement with, when in truth, what Phil Robertson had to say was a religious point of view and a personal preference and it's one that many Americans, not including me, many Americans agreed with.

It was the wrong thing morally, perhaps the right thing marketing wise.

KEILAR: I mean, it was -- but to be clear, "Duck Dynasty" wasn't some little tiny show at the beginning. "Duck Dynasty" was a --

CAIN: No, no, no.

KEILAR: It was a big hit from the get-go.

CAIN: No, that just means now instead of 13 million people watching "Duck Dynasty", perhaps it will be 20 million with this kind of headline splashing thing over the last several weeks.

KEILAR: I don't know. I think you sound a little more cynical maybe than us, Will.


What do you think about --



KEILAR: Yes, Mark, you chime in, please.

HILL: I mean, here's the thing. I am not surprised that they did this. They had to make some sort of gesture to make people happy, and they did that with Wilson, with the suspension which essentially meant nothing.

Companies have a right to make decisions about who they want to stand next to. That's where I disagree with Will. If for example he had stood out and said he was a card carrying atheist that he was working for the Bible Network, it'd be reasonable for them to say we don't want that person representing our network.

As a card carrying homophobe, A&E has a right to say, as people who care about the LGBT community, we don't want him standing next to us. I don't think it's about silencing speech or behavior. It's about deciding who you want your brand to represent, to be represented by. Now in this case A&E decided that the 14 million viewers and the millions and hundreds of millions of dollars that come with that is worth more than the LGBT community.

That was the choice that they made. I don't like their choice. I think it's morally reprehensible but they let the market decide. They were swayed by the market and unfortunately --

KEILAR: Well, Marc, let me --

HILL: -- justice lost out this time.

KEILAR: Let me ask you this. Dollars aside, what did you think about this debate? I'm not saying that it was pretty. I'm not saying that people aren't offended. But did you think in a way that it revealed where different opinions are and that it sparked, you know, a debate that you could at least say sort of intellectually in revealing where different parts of our country are, that it was worthwhile?

HILL: I think it's always good to have a spotlight on the American public and the American citizenry to find out where we are. Surely anti-gay sentiments are still prevalent in this country. It's the last form of sort of -- it's the last thing you can say in public space and it be acceptable. You can run for president not liking gay people. You can have a TV show not liking gay people.

If you were to say that about women, blacks or disabled people, he wouldn't have a job but the LGBT community is the last form of discrimination that's publicly acceptable. That's what we learned from this. That it's still OK to not like gay people in full public space. You can get rich off of it.

KEILAR: All right. Obviously this is -- this is something -- you know, and here the discussion continues.

Brian, Marc, Will, thank you so much.

We'll be right back with a little more.


KEILAR: Fresh off a re-election victory that seemed to validate his agenda, 2013 looked like it was President Obama's year, but fast forward 12 months, and the president has slumped to his lowest approval rating yet, leaving a big hole to dig himself out of in 2014.


KEILAR (voice-over): His year started like this.


KEILAR: But it's ending like this.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Has this been the worst year of your presidency? KEILAR: President Obama is closing out 2013 on a sour note. His approval rating, above 50 percent this time last year, now at an all time low. The drop began in the spring when the IRS admitted to targeting conservative groups, and stories of extensive spying by the NSA began to emerge. At issue, whether Americans trusted him. It didn't get any better in the fall, when he pushed for a response to Syria's use of chemical weapons.

OBAMA: I have decided that the United States should take military action.

KEILAR: But then abruptly changed course when a war-weary Congress rebuffed him. And the Syrian civil war rages on.

In October, a two-week government shutdown cemented many Americans' views that Washington can't get anything done. All that would be bad enough, but the year's biggest pitfall was still to come.

OBAMA: We fumbled the rollout on this health care law.

KEILAR: The botched rollout of led to a candid admission of failure and a new dip in the polls but it wasn't just the Web site. It was this vow, now debunked.

OBAMA: If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan.

KEILAR: Obama was forced to apologize.

OBAMA: I am sorry.

KEILAR: And fact-checking Web site PolitiFact crowned it the biggest lie of the year.

OBAMA: I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president.

KEILAR: You'd think this is as bad as it gets but if he doesn't turn things around ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, he could slide further.

AMY WALTER, COOK POLITICAL REPORT: The only question now is whether it gets worse for him because then he loses control of Congress.

KEILAR: President Obama, though, is looking at the bright side.

OBAMA: I have also got to wake up in the morning and make sure that I do better the next day. And that we keep moving forward. And when I look at the landscape for next year, what I say to myself is we're poised to do really good things.


KEILAR: Let's get more now with CNN political commentators Marc Lamont Hill and Will Cain, a columnist for "The Blaze," as well as the anchor of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," Candy Crowley. And actually, Will, I'm going to put the first question to you because you saw that piece on the president's horrible, terrible, no good, very bad year, but when we talk about the economy and we see indicators coming back up, let me ask you this. Does he get some credit for that?

CAIN: The economy, yes, I will give him a little bit of credit on that, Brianna, but here's the deal. If I were President Obama, I wouldn't hang my hat on short-term economic gains. This is a long, slow recovery out of a credit bubble recession. Ones that historically last longer than seven years. And in that seven-year period of recovery, they look like this, Brianna. They are up, they're down, they're back, they're forth -- they're back and forth.

And just because you might see a couple of months of growth, and I'm not rooting, by the way, for the recession to continue. I'm telling you how it has gone historically. When it turns back to sour, as these recessions tend to do, again, bounce up and down, he won't have that there for him. All he'll have is his policies, the lies they were sold on and their own failures for the public to be staring at again for another year.

KEILAR: And, Candy, let me ask you this. We heard about the horrible 2013. President Obama said hey, I want to do these things, was unable to do it. He's talked about what he wants to do in 2014. Immigration, climate change, continue with the economy, obviously wants to get Obamacare back on track. What can he accomplish?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR, STATE OF THE UNION: I think -- well, first of all he said I'm focusing on jobs, I'm focusing on the economy and the middle class. I'm assuming that will be what the talk is. He has promised immigration reform since his first four years, so I think there's a possibility they'll get immigration reform, but I think it has to be after the primary season, because what's freaking out Republicans is if they go for piecemeal, even piecemeal immigration reform, a lot of their members will get hit from the far right.

But I think they have probably a better chance of doing it but not much time after the primaries.

KEILAR: So you can imagine Republicans in a primary where they're worried about someone on the right, they don't want to get embroiled in that debate.

Marc, what do you think? Do you think there's really a shot for immigration reform?

HILL: No. I think immigration reform is going to be dead in the water. As Candy said, the best shot at immigration reform won't be wholesale, but piecemeal. But there are just too many people whose political futures hang in the balance and simply, you won't -- you won't see Keystone Pipeline, you won't see immigration, you won't any really substantive type of reform other than perhaps -- those fueled by economic populism.

You may see federal minimum wage, you may see an extension of unemployment benefits. Democrats are already saying they want to come back in January and hit that hard again. There's a possibility there because even in the reddest of red states, there are everyday Americans who want these things.

Even their Tea Party members overwhelmingly want to see financial relief. And so that's the best shot Obama has. And Obama, contrary to what Will said, I think needs to ring the bell that this isn't just short-term growth, this is really a turning of the corner in the American economy from the GDP to auto sales to gas prices to Nasdaq since January, all across the board, with the exception of this pesky unemployment thing, we see some growth.


KEILAR: What do you think --

CAIN: The problem is that --

KEILAR: Will, go on.

CAIN: The problem is if that doesn't turn out to be true, Marc. That's the simple problem. You go out there and you say we've turned a corner, and we haven't, and then we put this in a package that leads into segments of you and me talking to each other that shows all of the lost credibility over the past year.

The next year for President Obama and the reason Candy is right and you're right is there will be no comprehensive immigration reform, is because of Obamacare. In 2014, it will again be about Obamacare.

The only critique I have about the conversation we have about it is right now, we talk about it in terms of politics, failed rollouts and Web sites. In 2014, we will be talking about the policy itself. More about things like if you like your plan, you can keep it, because when that hits the employer market, and we talk about insurance company bailouts, that will dominate the news cycle. There will be no room for immigration, climate change or anything else.

KEILAR: And last word to Candy.

CROWLEY: Just on the economy, these numbers are basically meaningless to those who are not feeling the recovery.

KEILAR: And --

CROWLEY: They don't care what the growth is. They are clearly not feeling it. Why? Because the fact of the matter is when this recovery began, 2009 to 2012, 95 percent of the household gains went to the top 1 percent. People are not feeling it. So I don't care if it's 2.5 percent growth or 3 percent growth, what really is going to be hard on Democrats this fall, if people don't start feeling it, is the fact that they are going to go into an election year or election time in November when people feel like things are on the wrong track. That's the number to watch, not 2.5 percent growth.

KEILAR: Sure. And when the electorate will be stacked against them already in November.

Candy Crowley, Will Cain, Marc Lamont Hill, thanks to all of you.

CAIN: Thank you.

KEILAR: Now just ahead, new information just coming in on the conflict in South Sudan as the warring factions get an ultimatum.


KEILAR: This just into CNN. Seventy-two United Nations peacekeepers have arrived in South Sudan's capital. They are the first of 5500 additional peacekeepers authorized this week. South Sudan's warring factions got an ultimatum today. East African leaders are warning them to lay down their arms or face possible intervention. South Sudan now says it is prepared to enter into a truce.

More now from CNN's Frederik Pleitgen.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The few videos that are coming out of South Sudan show devastation after battles and looting in many towns. And the desperation on the faces of those who were forced to flee. The U.N. says more than 1,000 people have been killed and more than 120,000 are on the run in South Sudan, causing the international community to drastically increase its peacekeeping force there.

HILDE JOHNSON, U.N. ENVOY TO SOUTH SUDAN: All peacekeepers are under the instruction to use force when civilians are under imminent threat within their capabilities.

PLEITGEN: South Sudan's conflict is both political and ethnic. It pits the president, Salva Kiir, head of the largest tribe the Dinka against the rebel forces of his former vice president, Riek Machar, who's from the second largest transcribed, the Nuer.

There are reports of ethnically motivated killings, summary executions, and reports of mass graves. The U.S. is urging both sides to come to the table or risk the young nation falling apart.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: If there is not a political dialogue, the consequences could be devastating for members of many ethnic group in South Sudan.

PLEITGEN: Many of the displaced have fled on to U.N. bases. More than 60,000 at this point. International aid groups say they're having trouble supplying them with food, water and medicines.

The U.S. helped South Sudan separate from Sudan in 2011 after a bloody civil war that killed about two million people, and has given the country about $500 million in aid. Before the referendum for independence just over two years ago, President Obama said it could help end conflict in this volatile African region. OBAMA: At this moment the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance. What happens in Sudan in the days ahead may decide whether a people who have endured too much war moved towards peace or slip backwards into bloodshed.

PLEITGEN: These are some of the youngest South Sudanese, born into conflict on Christmas Day. The actions of the leaders of the warring factions will probably soon determine what sort of country they will grow up in and whether there will be a nation called South Sudan to grow up in at all.


KEILAR: Now joining me now to talk about this, human rights activist John Prendergast. He spent three decades in and out of government working for peace in Africa. He is the cofounder of the Enough Project.

John, thanks for being with us. And you heard that, the South Sudanese government is now saying that they agree in principle to a cease-fire.

Is this something we can hang our hat on?

JOHN PRENDERGAST, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Well, I think it's a small nail to hang your hat on because the other party, which is the rebels, and their leaders, Riek Machar, wasn't invited to the meeting. So what you've got is a government that's willing to play ball and participate in a cease-fire, but a rebel group that has not yet agreed to that cease-fire.

So the government is restraining its counter-offensive right now which is a very positive thing, but how long will they wait before they counterattack in some of these locations in the oil fields. Nobody knows if the other side isn't part of the process.

KEILAR: So they're not having a true conversation at this point. How do you assess the situation there? We've heard about mass graves. We've heard about ethnically motivated killings. What is your assessment of what's going on?

PRENDERGAST: Well, it's an old-fashioned power struggle. You know, these leaders -- the newest country in the world, it's born -- the institutions are very weak, they're both battling for power. They both feel it's a zero-sum game, winner take all, and they use ethnicity to mobilize people on their behalf.

It's the oldest trick in the books. You use identity, you use race, you use religion in some other places. In this place they use ethnicity. And that's the scary part. If they don't get the Genie back in the bottle of ethnic conflict, then South Sudan could be in for a very, very rough period in the coming weeks and months.

KEILAR: And this is a region, John, that has really, I think, captured the attention of so many Americans in recent years. The crisis in Darfur that ultimately led to the founding of South Sudan, the fact that the U.S. backed the foundation of -- of South Sudan. What has struck me, as we've talked about this crisis recently -- pardon me -- is that there doesn't really seem to be an answer of what can be done. What are the options here?

PRENDERGAST: Well, I'm glad you asked. You know, I think when states are born and they have a history of conflict, they often -- those cycles continue to repeat themselves until institutions are built that can withstand these disputes and turn military disputes into political ones. And so that's what South Sudan has embarked on right now. This is the first big test in its -- first 2 1/2 years of its life. Building those institutions.

So an election is coming up in 2015, part of the solution will be negotiating an agreement between the parties that will allow for a transparent free and fair political process that gets us to those elections. So South Sudanese people get to choose their own leaders instead of the big guys with the big guns deciding it for them.

KEILAR: It is a big test and we will be watching as will you.

John Prendergast, thanks for being with us.

PRENDERGAST: Thanks, Brianna.

KEILAR: Now next, an update from Antarctica where a ship with dozens aboard is trapped in ice and a rescue attempt has been stalled.


KEILAR: Happening now, stolen PINs. Targets now says the numbers were swiped by hackers, along with data on millions of debit and credit cards. Will they give the thieves access to your bank account?

And Mideast rage. Clashes, riots and a car bomb rocked the region. Casualties include a former ambassador and Washington ally.