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The Situation Room

Atlanta Shut Down for Next Twenty-Four Hours; Interview with James Butterworth; Winter Storm Creates Highway Hell; Obama Hits The Road To Sell His Agenda; Interview With Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers; Vulnerable Dems Keep Obama at Arm's Length; Could Biden and Clinton Both Run?; Interview with Dick Durbin

Aired January 29, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, an early rush hour turns into a 24-hour nightmare. A major American city paralyzed by less than three inches of snow and ice. Thousands of vehicles stranded on highways, people forced to seek shelter wherever they can find it.

And the public's fear turns to fury as officials blame one another for a management meltdown.

I'll ask a National Guard commander about the ongoing rescue efforts.

And as President Obama hits the road to sell his State of the Union agenda, I'll get reaction from the GOP's first responder, Congressman Kathy McMorris Rodgers, and the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


We begin with the breaking news. These are live pictures from Atlanta, where misery is turning to fury right now. This hour, one of the largest cities in the country virtually shut down for the next 24 hours. A half dozen states across the Southeast are now under snow and ice, with two people dead in Georgia and five in Alabama. More than a thousand accidents reported after just a few inches of snow turned major roadways into icy parking lots and stores into shelters.

Look at this. These are live pictures at traffic cameras around Atlanta, where efforts are underway to clear thousands of abandoned cars and trucks. Drivers, some after 10 hours or more of waiting in traffic, decided to risk their own lives and walk miles in bitter cold to try to get home. Thousands of children forced to spend the night in schools or on school buses. They are finally home tonight.

CNN has team coverage of all of the breaking story.

Our Victor Blackwell and Brian Todd, they are both standing by -- Victor, fist to you, downtown in the middle of it all. What are you seeing?

What are you learning?

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's rush hour here in the suburb of Atlanta. And typically, this is filled with bumper to bumper traffic. But not today, because this area, and most of the area around Atlanta, shut down -- schools, government offices, businesses closed. And it's because of the snow emergency and the ice crisis here yesterday.

As you said, thousands of people abandoned their cars after waiting for 12, 14, 16 hours in gridlock bumper to bumper traffic. Well, now, they have to walk back the sometimes four, six, eight miles to get the car that they left. And in many cases, those car have now been towed. So it's a hunt for who has my vehicle and why has it been moved?

We also know that the National Guard has been called to the Interstate 85 and 75. They're now searching buses and cars for people who did not leave their cars, but sat in traffic for most of the day, giving them meals ready to eat, the rations that are given to soldiers in Afghanistan.

So the nightmare continues, although some of the snow has cleared -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the outrage, the public officials, the way they handled all of this, this mess, really, it is a mess, that outrage is now clearly growing, isn't it?

BLACKWELL: Well, we're seeing it all over social media. We're hearing it from people on the street. And there is a lot of finger- pointing amongst the officials.

There was a news conference this morning, Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, the governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, Mayor Kasim Reed, he blamed the school districts for releasing all the students at once. The governor blamed the National Weather Service and local meteorologists. No one accepting blame.

But the people who sat in that traffic, who had to wait for more than 12 hours for their children to come home, they are blaming both the mayor and the governor and they want answers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Victor, stand by.

Brian Todd is watching some of the unimaginable ordeal that has been going on for hundreds of people who have been suffering over the last 24 hours -- Brian, what do you see?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, speaking to our people in Atlanta and the Georgia Department of Transportation, we're told that more and more vehicles have been steadily moved to the sides of the roads and highways around the Atlanta area. More snow and ice has been cleared from the roads. But we want to offer you a point of comparison here. Look at this Google Earth map. This is 10:00 a.m. Eastern time this morning.

The red represents the area of traffic snarl. And look at all the areas where traffic was incredibly backed up, especially north and west of the city, I-75 North, 285, which is the Atlanta Beltway, really a nightmare.

Here's the progression. 1:00 p.m. Eastern time this afternoon, a lot of it had cleared, especially east of the city and slightly noes and in the central areas. But, still, the west and the northwest, I- 20, I-75 there, at least had cleared a little bit there. But a lot of it was still snarled.

Now, look at this. This is a real time map. I-166 is the only area in Atlanta where we see major traffic snarls. We wanted to look at the forensics of all this.

How did it all happen?


TODD (voice-over): Snowmageddon in a major city. An auto graveyard on the interstate. Semi-trucks jackknifed. Cars abandoned by the hundreds, others struggling. Over a thousand accidents were reported in the City of Atlanta and the greater area. Look at these school buses -- children stranded inside them. Nearly 100 children were stuck on buses until about midnight.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I was super scared. I was like, if I don't get home to my parents, I'm like I'm going to freak out.

TODD: Other kids had to sleep at their schools.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He spent the night. All the teachers and the staff set up gym mats.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It took a long time for daddy to get here.


TODD: Good Samaritans tried to free cars that had been stuck for hours, while the National Guard came out to help stranded victims.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first priority was to look for people that were stranded, you know, hadn't had any food or water, and to bring that to them.

TODD: Trucker Greg Schroeder had been stuck in his truck for 23 hours when he spoke to CNN.

GREG SCHROEDER: I've seen hundreds of accidents. I'm not stuck on anything, it's just there's nowhere to go.

TODD: All from a snowfall of, at most, three-and-a-half inches, and a layer of ice so slippery, these kids could play hockey on it. Atlanta's mayor admits the government was partly to blame because schools and government offices let people out at about the same time businesses shut down in the early afternoon on Tuesday.

(on camera): Is that how it really escalates so quickly, everyone hitting the road at the same time?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It does. Practically, if everybody is hitting the road at the same time, your demand on the transportation network will be so high that the corresponding capacity or supply of your network will not be able to handle such demand.

TODD (voice-over): In Atlanta, that led to people taking 12, 14 hours, or longer, to get home.

What's it like to be stuck or sliding around in this chaos?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Five miles an hour.

TODD: Here's self-shot video from CNN meteorologist, Mari Ramos.

She chronicled her journey home traveling north on I-75. Before she got stranded at a hotel, look what happened.

MARI RAMOS, ATS METEOROLOGIST: OK, my car skidded off the road. I'm going to go ahead and get out now because it's pretty scary to stay in here. I'm not alone. There's emergency vehicles behind me, as you can see there. I need help, but they can't help me because there's a serious accident up the road. So they're trying to put some salt there. Because that big truck in front of me is sliding, as well.


RAMOS: I can, sir. I can try.


TODD: In these situations, one traffic expert says, drivers become distracted by stressful conditions, trying to stay warm, take care of children in the vehicle. They often don't obey traffic laws at those moments, he says.

And in many places, a simple lack of driving skill is a huge factor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you are dealing with a Southern state that is not used to getting different kind of snow, precipitation, among other weather conditions, the skills of the drivers will not be able to handle the roadway condition in a proper manner.


TODD: How do you mitigate this whole thing?

Well, Samar Hamda (ph), the expert we just spoke to, says in these situations, local governments can stagger the departures, make people leave their offices in different waves, with school aged children getting first priority. You can coordinate those departures by region. And, he says, you can have what's called contra flow, with police closing off the opposite incoming lanes of freeways, directing large waves of drivers leaving the area into those lanes to open everything up. That happens often during hurricane evacuations.

But it looks like none of that happened in Atlanta -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you have an update, Brian, from our meteorologist, what we expect now?

TODD: I just spoke to Mari Ramos. As far as the weather, that seems to be clearing. But she told us she just got home just a couple of hours ago, 26 hours after leaving work on Tuesday. She spent part of that time in a hotel, of course. But she was stranded there, as well. Twenty-six hours it took her to get home.

BLITZER: And we want to thank our affiliate, WSB, for contributing to Brian's piece with some of those powerful, dramatic images.

Brian, thanks very much.

The chaos on the Atlanta roads looked eerily familiar to some folks out there. Social media was actually buzzing. They were comparing the situation there to scenes from the hit TV zombie drama, "The Walking Dead," which is actually shot, by the way, in Atlanta.

Look at this image. On the right is a real photo taken by Ben Gray of the "Atlanta Journal Constitution." You can't miss the resemblance to the promotional artwork from the walking dead on the left.

Up next, troops mobilized to rescue stranded drivers in ice-bound Atlanta. I'll talk about the emergency operation underway right now with the commander of the Georgia National Guard.

And the Republican who gave the official response to President Obama's State of the Union Address -- I'll ask Congresswoman Kathy McMorris Rodgers if there's any room for serious compromise in Washington.


BLITZER: The metropolitan Atlanta area largely paralyzed a full day after snow and ice left thousands of vehicles and the people inside them stranded on area roads and highways. The National Guard has now been coming to the rescue.

Let's get the very latest on this crisis with Major General James Butterworth.

He's the adjutant general of the Georgia National Guard.

General, thanks very much for joining us. Based on your information, how many cars are still stranded out there?

How many people are still out there who are in desperate need of your help?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES BUTTERWORTH, NATIONAL GUARD, GEORGIA ADJUTANT GENERAL: Well, we've been monitoring the situation. I think the answer I can give you is the number of folks that we have actually provided assistance to, and the Georgia National Guard specifically has provided assistance to over 500 individuals and provided transportation to that many people.

As far as the individuals that might still be in harm's way because of the temperatures, I can tell you that they have been offered assistance at this point.

BLITZER: Is it -- how difficult is it to reach these folks who are in harm's way?

BUTTERWORTH: It has been more difficult than it is right now. To be quite honest with you, the roads are markedly improved over what it was 24 hours ago or less. And last night, in the middle of the night when our folks hit the ground running, we had some challenges. But we have made -- as you have already reported, we made drastic improvements and we've got a lot of success stories.

BLITZER: Are you confident that all the school children, whether on school buses or in schools, are now back home?

BUTTERWORTH: Yes, sir. Absolutely. I'm confident of that. I can tell you that, but that was our first priority, and that's what the governor, the direction that he gave us last night. We had, as you've mentioned, almost 100 buses that were identified. We cleared -- because some buses were empty by the time we got there. But we cleared over 40 buses.

We provided assistance to special needs children and to a lot of other children that were on those buses, transported them to shelter, provided them food and water. Might not have been their choice of the type of food, but we made sure that they were taken care of. That was our first priority.

BLITZER: What advice do you have for the thousands of people who simply had no choice but simply to abandon their vehicles, their cars, their trucks and start walking because it was just too dangerous to stay in those cars, too cold. They didn't have food, they didn't have water. What should they do now?

BUTTERWORTH: Well, if you're talking about getting back to those vehicles that have been abandoned, we have a plan. We have -- the governor has directed us to provide transportation back to those vehicles that are out on the highways and on the different areas in the city. And we have a plan. Ten o'clock tomorrow morning, we will begin providing transportation from central points back out to those vehicles to make sure that they can get their safely. We will stop traffic as necessary to make sure those vehicles are moved and, quite frankly, that they'll start.

BLITZER: Have you ever seen anything like this in the Atlanta, Georgia, area before?

BUTTERWORTH: I've lived here all my life, and the one thing that I would tell you, we probably average something like this every seven years, seven or eight years or so. And our team was prepared, but it is definitely something a little different than what we're normally prepared for.

BLITZER: I mean, I don't remember -- I know that you get snow at least once in a while, but I don't remember the kind of traffic jams, the nightmare scenarios that we've seen over the past 24 hours, do you?

BUTTERWORTH: Well, actually, in 2011 we had a similar event. It snowed. The temperatures -- they fell drastically, and everything froze, and it was very, very similar to this situation. Prior to that, though, to be honest with you, 1982 was the last time we had anything close to this.

BLITZER: Major General James Butterworth of the National Guard in Georgia, good luck to you. Thanks for all the important work you're doing.

BUTTERWORTH: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: Coming up, we have more shocking stories coming in from the ice bound nightmare that's infected Atlanta right now. I'll speak with a woman who was stuck on the highway, get this, for 21 hours.

And my interview with Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers who gave the Republican response to the state of the union. Can the two parties agree on immigration reform? You're going to be anxious to hear what she says in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: President Obama hit the road today selling the second- term agenda he laid out in his state of the union address and acting on his pledge to take action. Let's go live to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these post state of the union speeches have all the feel of campaign events. That's because the president still has a sales pitch to make to convince a skeptical public that with the stroke of a pen, he can move the country in the right direction.


ACOSTA (voice-over): After days of promising to use his executive powers, President Obama put his pen to action at a Pennsylvania steel plant. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's done.

ACOSTA: And signed an order establishing a new retirement program. The new MY-RAs as the white house is calling them will allow Americans to contribute a part of their paycheck to new accounts they can tap at any time with the savings and interest backed by the government.

OBAMA: I could do more with Congress, but I'm not going to not do anything without congress. Not when it's about the basic security and dignity of American workers.

ACOSTA: The post state of the union sales pitch started at a big box store in Maryland where he unpacked another one of his executive orders, a new minimum wage for federal contract workers, something Mr. Obama said Congress should extend to the rest of the country.

OBAMA: It's time to give America a raise.

ARNE DUNCAN, EDUCATION SECRETARY: I look forward to having great conversation.

ACOSTA: The Obama administration went into full campaign mode with the new unilateral approach as cabinet members and staffers flooded social media. But Republicans see a tidal wave of White House overreach and bypassing Congress.

REP. JEFF DUNCAN, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: You've got a pen and a cell phone. You also have the constitution of the United States. This is the most important document. I know the president knows this. He taught it.

ACOSTA: At a Senate hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder argued the president is just following the lead of his predecessors.

ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I also want to assure you and the American people that the president will not act in a way that is inconsistent with the way other presidents have acted in using their executive authority.

ACOSTA: Back at that steel plant, Jim Lloyd said at least somebody in Washington is doing something.

JIM LLOYD, U.S. STEEL EMPLOYEE: Well, we understand he's only able to do so much.


ACOSTA (on-camera): As for those retirement savings accounts, the White House is yet to say how many people will be affected by all of this. That's because it's going to get started as a pilot program that may not be up and running until the end of the year. As for the rest of the president's campaign-style swing, he'll be in Wisconsin tomorrow to talk about job training programs and it's on to Tennessee to talk about upgrading schools -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He's selling his agenda. Jim Acosta in Pittsburgh, thanks very much.

Republicans rolled out a small army to respond to the president's state of the union address, but in keeping with one of the themes of the evening, the first response, the official answer to President Obama came from a woman.


BLITZER: And joining us now, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chair, the number four Republican in the House of Representatives. Thanks, congresswoman, very much for joining us.

Absolutely. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: You gave a very emotional speech last night, a strong speech. You raised some important issues. You didn't go into a lot of the specific points of those issues. So, let's go through some of them right now. Immigration reform, which looks like there's something that House speaker, John Boehner, and the president might be able to eventually reach an agreement on.

Are you ready, though, when all the dust settles that agreement would allow millions of these illegal immigrants eventually to have what they call a pathway to citizenship?

REP. CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS, (R) WASHINGTON: Right. Well, obviously, immigration is a big issue that faces the country. We've been a history -- we have a history, a long history of legal immigration. Later on this week, the Republicans are going to be meeting. It's our annual gathering. And we're going to be talking more about these issues and the specifics as we move forward.

But there is a desire in the House led by Speaker Boehner to take action to fix what is a broken immigration system, and we recognize that as a country. The house believes that we should take it in a step-by-step approach. And you've seen the judiciary committee been working on different pieces of immigration, whether it is the border security piece, interior enforcement, the guest-worker program, visa reform.

The Republicans believe that it would be more successful if we took these pieces one at a time and moved forward.

BLITZER: Personally, would you support, though, when all the dust settles some pathway to citizenship?

RODGERS: We are looking at taking action to deal with the 11 million that are here, bring them out of the shadows. We have not made a decision as to what those details look like. The judiciary committee has had some hearings, but some kind of a legal status so that we can bring them out of the shadows if they meet certain criteria, but that would be -- that all needs to be determined still.

BLITZER: So, you're not necessarily ruling it out. RODGERS: I'm not personally in favor of citizenship, but I'd like to look at some kind of a path in which those that are here could work through a process and become -- get some kind of a legal status if they meet certain criteria.

BLITZER: What about the children of these illegal immigrants, the dreamers as they're called, would you be open to allowing them eventually to get citizenship?

RODGERS: Well, again, the House is looking at some options, but most that would address those that are here, especially the children that, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a situation where they don't have the papers, but yet, they were -- they grew up here. They basically do not have a home country. We need to take action.

But it's most important to me, and I think I represent a lot of Republicans, and that we got to start taking some steps and we've got to get the foundational pieces in place before we jump to what is going to be probably the hardest part of this issue to address.

BLITZER: I want to move on, but I just want to be clear, on the children, you are open to a pathway to citizenship for them.

RODGERS: I'm looking at what the judiciary committee is working on. I haven't yet made a commitment.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about the minimum wage. Do you support the president's push to raise the nation's federally mandated minimum wage?

RODGERS: The president needs to be working with Congress on a whole host of issues that will get people back to work. And, I think that the best response to minimum wage, to unemployment, and on all of these issues is to focus on job creation, actually getting people back to work. And I think states have made -- can make their own decisions as it relates to minimum wage.

But we need to be focusing on policies that are actually going to get people back to work and get them employed, because as I said last night, a job is so much more than just a paycheck. It's what gives you purpose, dignity. It's the foundation for a better life. And we have seen really lackluster job reports.

We need more jobs in this country, get our economy growing. That's the best solution to the issues that are facing the unemployed and those that are seeking better jobs.

BLITZER: So, I take it that means you don't necessarily support an increase on the federal level of the minimum wage.

RODGERS: I think there's better solutions.

BLITZER: But philosophically speaking, do you support a federal minimum wage to begin with? RODGERS: I -- you know, minimum wage -- you know, that is -- there is a federal minimum wage. That is -- I think that's appropriate. But at this point I think we need to be focusing on policies that are actually going to get people back to work.

BLITZER: Let's talk about women and equal pay for women for the equal work. President pointed out last night that women represent about half of the workforce but they only make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. And then he went and made this point. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a "Mad Men" episode. This year let's all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from wall street to main street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed America succeeds.


BLITZER: This was the high point, one of the high points of the president's speech in our focus group in Iowa of voters who were actually watching the president. Are you with the president when he says that there should be laws mandating equal pay for equal work for women?

RODGERS: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Republicans and I support equal pay for equal work. My message last night was one about empowering everyone in this country no matter what your background, no matter where you live, what corner of the country, no matter what your experiences are. We want you to have the opportunity for a better life.

BLITZER: Cathy McMorris Rodgers gave the official Republican response to the president of the United States last night, a very emotional, strong, powerful story you have, Congresswoman. Thanks so much for joining us. I'm glad we could get through some of the substantive issues from the Republican perspective.

RODGERS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, a top Senate democrat responds to what we just heard. Can they actually reach an agreement on immigration reform?

And I'll ask the number-two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin. He's standing by. We'll discuss that and more.


BLITZER: House Republicans say they're open to a deal on long- stalled immigration reform, although the question of a pathway to citizenship remains a major stumbling block. Did Democrats think they can overcome it?

And joining us now, the number-two Democrat in the United States Senate, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Looks like you have an opportunity to achieve some immigration reform. The president spoke about it, Cathy McMorris Rodgers. I interviewed her. She said she's not personally in favor of citizenship for the illegal immigrants, a pathway to citizenship, but she is open to some sort of compromise. Other Republicans are as well. Can you work out a deal that avoids the issue of a pathway to citizenship?

DURBIN: Well, understand that was one of the two pillars that we built the Senate bipartisan immigration reform bill on. First, effective border enforcement, which Republicans assisted on, and pathway to citizenship, which Democrats insisted on. I want to sit down and talk. I don't want to quit on this issue. Our immigration system is broken. If we can sit down with house Republicans, I believe we can achieve agreement.

BLITZER: What about just achieving legal status for those illegal immigrants, maybe getting citizenship for the kids, the children, the so-called dreamer, but avoiding the issue of the pathway to citizenship for the adults?

DURBIN: You touch med in a tender spot because I introduced the dream act 12 years ago and those dreamers mean an awful lot to me. The first thing they're going to say to me is what about mom and dad? And we have to have an approach to this that doesn't create a class of second-class people in America who aren't residents, aren't citizens, have some odd legal status.

Some European countries are struggling with that today. We don't need that in America. Let's give people ready to step forward, declare who they are, where they work, where they live, pay their fine, learn English, an opportunity to find citizenship. Now, how they reach that point, let's discuss between Democrats and Republicans.

BLITZER: It doesn't look like you have a lot of Republican support right now or at least enough Republican support to raise the federal minimum wage. So is that really for all practical purposes going to be left up to states?

DURBIN: States are going to move forward. They're going to outdistance the federal Congress. But look at the national polls. Democrats, Republican, and independents all accept the following premise. If a person gets up and goes to work every single day, they should be paid a fair wage. They ought to be able to make it. Not only live from paycheck to paycheck but put a little money in the bank. They can't do it at $7.25 an hour, and everybody knows that. So let's come up with a wage that's reasonable. These are not just wage earners. They are also spenders. They're buying goods and services to make the economy move.

BLITZER: So on this sensitive issue, you don't see an agreement anytime soon. Is that right?

DURBIN: Well, it depends. We've not called it in the Senate. I can't measure it against how many Republicans will step forward. Wolf, I can even remember the day when this was a bipartisan issue. Now it's sadly very partisan. I hope that changes.

BLITZER: The president threatened to veto legislation in the Senate, legislation that would increase the sanctions against Iran if this deal doesn't work out. The Iranians say that's a deal killer. The president said he would veto it. Many of your democratic colleagues, they supported like Chuck Schumer, the number-three Democrat in the Senate, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Are you with them or on the president on this issue?

DURBIN: I'm going to stand with the president on this. I don't trust Iran. I think the president's right. We have to verify everything that they promise. But what's the alternative? If we don't work out a negotiation, there are two options -- a nuclearized Iran, which is unacceptable, or a war, which is also unacceptable. Let us give these negotiations a chance. If they fail, then of course I'll vote for more sanctions on Iran.

BLITZER: Big picture. The president made it clear he wants to cooperate with congress, he wants to get legislation through, but if not he's going to take unilateral executive action as it's called. So what d/does this say in your sense of this presidency?

DURBIN: Well, it says this. Our memories are still fresh of the 16-day government shutdown which the Republicans thought was a good way to play their political handle. It was a disaster. But our memories are also fresh of a bipartisan budget agreement. Just a few weeks ago, we want to work with the Republicans and solve problems. But the president has said he has a responsibility to the American people to create jobs and help working families. If he can't get the cooperation of Republicans he'll do everything in his executive power to achieve it.

BLITZER: Senator Durbin, thanks very much for joining us.

DURBIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: On this note, CNN's Jake Tapper will be sitting down with President Obama and you'll be able to see the interview Friday morning starting at 6:00 a.m. eastern on "NEW DAY" and of course later on Jake's show "THE LEAD." That's at 4:00 p.m. eastern only here on CNN.

Just ahead, Democrats afraid of being seen with President Obama, why some are keeping their own party's leader at arm's length.

Plus, a 21-hour nightmare. I'll speak to a woman who was trying to get home only to become trapped on Atlanta's icy roads.


BLITZER: President Obama is taking his second-term agenda on the road, but some of his own party may run the other way when they see him coming.

The president right now near his all-time low in the polls is seen as harmful to the re-election chances of some vulnerable Democrats.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash -- she's really been all over this story. First on the story, way ahead of the curve on it.

What's going on here?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, there's actually a term for this, Wolf. It's known as the six-year itch. And for about the last 100 years or so, nearly all presidents who get a sixth year in office lose seats in the midterm elections.

It's especially true when the president's popularity is really waning. No surprise there. But vulnerable Democrats up for re- election in the Senate now want to avoid being part of that pattern.


SEN. MARK UDALL (D), COLORADO: Coloradans love the president's optimism.

BASH (voice-over): Colorado Democrat Mark Udall carefully praised key parts of the president's speech. The senator is up for re-election this year.

(On camera): Does that mean you're going to campaign with him or you're going to have him campaign with you side by side?

UDALL: We're going to be running a strong campaign based on Colorado's interests.

BASH: That was a yes or no. Yes or no?

UDALL: We'll see what the president's schedule is, we'll see what my schedule is. Coloradans are going to re-elect me based on my record.

BASH: Wow. One more chance. You're not going to say yes or no, are you?

UDALL: Let's see what the schedule allows.

BASH (voice-over): Translation, he's keeping his distance, and Obama actually won Colorado twice.

Alaska is a different story. Obama lost it twice. And the Senate Democrat running there knows it, saying this about the president.

SEN. MARK BEGICH (D), ALASKA: If he wants to come up, I'm not really interested in campaigning.

BASH: Democrat Mark Begich didn't stop there.

BEGICH: If he wants to come up and learn about Alaska, bring it on. I'll drag him around, I'll show him whatever he wants to see, but I want to convince him and show him that some of his policies are not in the right direction.

BASH (on camera): There's as much distance between you and the president now as between here and Alaska, is what I'm going to say after that answer.

(Voice-over): But wait, there's more. Begich's own campaign later sent out this press release touting his criticism of the president on CNN. "These Senate Democrats know their history."

In midterm elections, the president isn't on the ballot but he can often hurt his party in Congress. In fact, since FDR, second-term presidents have lost an average of six Senate seats. That happens to be exactly what Republicans need to win the Senate this year.

In 2006, when George W. Bush was president, Democrats benefited, seizing the House and the Senate.

It's now the same point in the Obama presidency and it's tricky for Democrats.

The Senate majority leader Tuesday.

(On camera): You would encourage some of your most vulnerable Senate Democratic candidates to invite President Obama to appear with them?

SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: Yes, and they will.

BASH (voice-over): Today he clarified.

REID: It's up to the individual senators. I mean, that's -- you know, I can't tell them who to ask to campaign for them. That's up to them.


BASH: Now Reid's point is that President Obama is someone who is personally popular and in Reid's words loved, that's especially true, of course, among core Democratic voters but most importantly among Democratic donors.

So at the very least, Wolf, congressional Democrats want the president to get out there and raise money big time like other second- term presidents have. But so far there is nothing, nothing on the schedule to do that.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Stand by. I want you to be part of this conversation.

Gloria Borger, our chief political analyst, is here. Ryan Lizza, our political commentator and Washington correspondent for the "New Yorker" is here as well.

This isn't a new phenomenon, as Dana points out, some of these Democrats running away, in effect, from an incumbent Democratic president, whose job approval numbers are in the low 40s.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, that's what he was trying to do last night is get those numbers a little bit up because if he grows more popular, more and more of those folks are going to want to be campaigning with them and he'll be able to give them the help that he would like to give them.

As Dana points out, he can always raise the money for them, that's one thing, but they would like it if they had a popular president to help them out. And right now they don't.

BLITZER: The president's -- you know, as Dana points out, there's not just Mark Begich in Alaska but Kay Hagan in North Carolina. The president goes to North Carolina, she's busy. She can't be there when he is there. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.


RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Scheduling is very difficult with this president.

BLITZER: She was very busy.


BLITZER: She couldn't be in Louisiana when he goes to Louisiana. Are we going to see more of this with these vulnerable Democrats?

LIZZA: You'll see these guys looking at the polling in their state, seeing how popular Obama is and seeing where he can help them. I think some of them -- I think the southern candidates it's a little different. But some of these candidates are going to at some point say, you know what, there are -- there's a subset of Obama voters who came out in 2008 and 2012, and I need them because I don't want the electorate to look like it did in the last midterm.

BORGER: Right. Yes.

LIZZA: Which was very, very Republican. And so there is this balancing act. How can they get Obama to help them turn out the Democratic base at the same time not turn off some of the older, frankly, whiter voters that are really low -- really down on him right now.

BORGER: How about Landrieu in Louisiana?

BASH: Yes.

BORGER: I mean, you know, big minority vote there. Obama can really help get out the vote for her.

BLITZER: And in North Carolina, too, which is a state he carried.


BASH: Ultimately, I can tell you that at this point I am told by people involved in making these decisions there is nothing on the schedule and there's no desire to get the president there yet. But one other interesting point to what you were saying, both of you were saying, about getting the base out, in 2012, somebody has told me this statistic.

There were 10 states where Mitt Romney won and there were Democrats on the ballot for Senate. Five of those Democrats actually won with Obama actually on the ballot. Now a couple of those talked about legitimate rape and --


BASH: -- the Republican candidates who just kind of torpedoed themselves.

BORGER: Right.

BASH: But others, Democrats point out, won because they were good candidates on their own and they are hoping that they do have a cast of good characters.

BLITZER: All right. All right. Let me move on. Because the vice president, Joe Biden, he appeared on the broadcast network morning shows this morning. He defended the president, deflected questions about his own potential run for the presidency in 2016.

Let's hear a little bit of what he said.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT: In my heart, I'm confident that I could make a good president. It's a very different decision to decide whether or not to run for president. I'll make that decision later, but now's not the time to talk about that. Now is the time to talk about the opportunity we have this year.

The only reason a man or woman should run for president -- I'm sure Hillary views it the exact same way -- is if that they think they're better positioned to be able to do what the nation needs at the moment.


BLITZER: All right, Gloria, you've spent some quality time with the vice president. What do you think about those responses?

BORGER: You know, those are just your usual hemming and hawing, I wish once in a while someone would just come out and say, you know, I'm really interested in the presidency and I'm starting my super PAC.

BASH: You know, what if -- (CROSSTALK)

BASH: If there's anybody who would do it by accident it's Joe Biden.

BORGER: It's Joe Biden. It's Joe Biden. But his problem is that you've got some of the Obama people like Jim Messina, a top Obama person starting --

BLITZER: His campaign manager in 2012.

BORGER: Right. Starting a super PAC for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden doesn't have that going for him right now. And I think that's a problem for him because it implies some kind of not real but maybe endorsement from Obama, which isn't there, but --


BORGER: You know, these are Obama's people.

LIZZA: Maybe the elephant in the room with Biden -- I hate to say this. He's been a good vice president. Obviously he's been a great asset to Obama. But he was not a good candidate the two times he did run for president. In 1998 he flamed out and in 2008 he flamed out.

And, you know, a lot of people criticized Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2008 for being a pretty messy campaign. You know, it's hard to see the case for Biden in terms of being a great presidential candidate. Being vice president for eight years, that doesn't turn you into a better candidate out on the stump either. So I think he's got some -- he's got some --

BORGER: As opposed to who if she doesn't run?

LIZZA: -- candidate issues to overcome.

BASH: The difference is in '88 and in '08, he had this huge Democratic field at the beginning, a much bigger Democratic field. So we had a stiff competition. Presumably he would only run if Hillary Clinton weren't there, and then there would be other people out there, but nothing -- nobody of the stature of Joe Biden.

BORGER: And he would also be 74 years old on Inauguration Day.

BASH: Yes.

BORGER: And that's -- you know, that's something to consider when you talk about a transition in the party to younger base, they brought in all these younger voters. It might be a mismatch.

BLITZER: Yes. But if Hillary Clinton doesn't run, and we assume she's going to run, assuming she's healthy.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: If she doesn't run, do you think he would run?

LIZZA: Well, the way I look at these guys is they are running until they say they're not running, right?

BORGER: Right.

LIZZA: Unless you rule it out, you're -- basically you're running. That is the process of running. Right? You do all the things, you make sure the media talk about you, you don't rule it out. You have the advisers on the outside.

BORGER: You go to Iowa.

LIZZA: You can start organizing. You do all those things. So in my mind he is running and Hillary Clinton is running even though they're not -- haven't publicly declared. And when at the point where they say, OK, I'm not running, that means they lost. I think that's the sort of useful way to look at these guys --


BLITZER: But it must be frustrating to the vice president -- he's been vice president for five years. And as Ryan says, a good vice president, five years he's been -- to see all these Obama folks now, for all practical purposes, working for Hillary Clinton.

BASH: Sure, I'm sure it's very frustrating, but he's been around the block. He's been here for years. He's run a couple of times. He knows how it works. And he knows that Hillary Clinton is a force and somebody who, if she did decide to run, if you look at any poll, will be the person Republicans would fear most. So he gets it.

Look, I think -- I don't know, maybe this is going too far, but people who know Biden and have covered him for a long time, you sort of look at him and you say, aw, Joe Biden. Because everybody likes him. He's a really likable guy. And the question is whether that translates, if Hillary doesn't run, to somebody who can be a formidable candidate.

BORGER: You know, and watching him this morning on these news -- on these new shows answer the questions about Secretary of Defense Gates who criticized him in the book, he said, look, he and I disagreed on every -- on every single issue. We -- I make -- I make, you know, no apologies for that. Well, who do you think Biden is talking to? The base of the Democratic Party.

BLITZER: All right. We'll have a lot more discussion with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, down the road.

Guys, thanks very much.

Coming up the city paralyzed by snow and ice. We're getting new stories of people trapped in their cars in some cases for almost 24 hours.

And we're about to go live to Tehran for exclusive reaction to the president's State of the Union speech.