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Obama Threatens to Sidestep Congress; Creigh Deeds Work on Mental Health Issue.

Aired January 28, 2014 - 11:30   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We are less than 10 hours and counting from President Obama's fifth State of the Union address. It appears he is setting the stage today with in executive order to raise the minimum wage for new federal contract workers. It will now be $10.10 per hour. The White House says tonight you can expect to hear a push to raise the minimum wage for the whole country, and that the president plans to sidestep Congress and issue more executive orders as well. House Speaker John Boehner is already firing back saying there is a Constitution to follow and that it is Congress' job to write the law.

I'm joined now by former Clinton speech writer, Michael Waldman; and presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley.

Michael, I'd like to start with you, if I can.

Who is the president talking to tonight, Congress or to me and you and everybody watching the show right now?

MICHAEL WALDMAN, FORMER CLINTON DIRECTOR OF SPEECHWRITING: Well, of course, he has that audience right in front of him with members of Congress. Absolutely, he is talking to the whole country. That's especially true now. The president doesn't face a hostile Congress. He faces a divided and dysfunctional Congress that aren't doing much of anything. No president should do that which exceeds his bonds of his authority. Other than that, we would expect any president to do what they can to try to advance their policy goals. This kind of action today is that kind of thing. President from Teddy Roosevelt, with the environment, to Bill Clinton, with all kinds of consumer protections and other things, and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have all done that.

BANFIELD: So, Doug Brinkley, I want to throw up a statistic on the screen for everybody to look at. People know that the approval ratings for the president are in the toilet. He is at a 43 percent approval rating according to CNN's poll of polls. That's no margin of error. That's lumping in all the polls together. He has a big disapproval rating. It's right around George Bush's at the same time in his administration.

But, Doug, let me ask you about the reason for doing these States of the Union. They are mandated by the Constitution. I remember the day when we popped the popcorn and we all gathered around the television and these things mattered. Today, in the days of information overload, I feel like this is more noise and it doesn't get the kind of traction or have the effect of raising approval ratings like maybe it used to. Am I wrong?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No. The State of the Union has gone through many different changes. When Thomas Jefferson was president, he wouldn't deliver a speech. He would just write it as a memo, would go to Congress. We are living in the age of Ronald Reagan. When he was president, he would bring guest people in. In this case, people from the Boston Marathon for the Obamas. But some people that you are automatically going to give a standing ovation for. So many of the stars tonight aren't the president. We all look for body language. Who is sighing? Who is half asleep? It becomes theatrics.

With that said, I think the president is doing something kind of bold, putting down a hefty executive order raising the minimum ways for $10.10 for federal employees. Now he's going to push that on the country this year. And it is not a bad issue. It resonates with the 99-1 message he won re-election on. The back drop is politics. 2014 is an election year. The president should get a two or three, maybe more bump in the polls just from this speech. Even though a lot of people are going to turn out -- turn off to watch something else.

BANFIELD: Hopefully, they will stay with us to watch Wolf Blitzer, because he is so engaging.


But, Michael, what's the theme here? Are we looking at a State of the Union that's going to set the stage for the Democratic agenda in a mid-term year -- Douglas mentioned that -- or is this going to be a lot of flowery rhetoric?

WALDMAN: I think a speech like this is more about the substance than the rhetoric. Even in this day and age, while it may not be the civic ritual it once was, it is one of the only remaining civic rituals. More people will be hearing President Obama tonight unfiltered than any other time of the year.

And you are right. It is the opening bell for a mid-term election and a political year. A lot of the issues of economic opportunity and economic fairness that are embodied in the minimum wage will be what the president talks about.

Again, I would bet and I hope that he doesn't limit what he says to what he thinks he can pass in Congress right now. He shouldn't let his aspirations be limited at least in this moment by whatever the House Tea Party caucus will allow. There are some bipartisan things, real areas for action that he can talk about. A year ago, he decried the disgrace of people having to wait in line for hours to vote. His own bipartisan commission has put out a strong plan for modernizing voter registration. And there's a bipartisan bill to fix the Voting Rights Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court gutted this year. He can point to those. Show some progress from last year and maybe surprise everybody by getting applause all around the room. BANFIELD: Douglas, I am no speech writer. I always wonder if we are going to have something remarkable that a speech writer is able to cobble together like the access of evil revisited for George W. Bush. Do the speech writers through the dawn of the ages think about like that when they are writing these speeches? I want to be remembered for this line and, gosh, darn it, I'm going to make it happen.

BRINKLEY: Absolutely. One thing a historian like myself does is, when I write a biography of a president, you always look at the State of the Union addresses. You are always looking for beautiful lines. There could be a few sayings in there today that will end up being carved in the wall of the Obama Presidential Library probably in Chicago someday and be quoted in biographies. These are very important speeches. I have to say, President Obama's speech writing team has been amazing. If you go back and read many of these speeches, they are really quite strong. That's why I am confident he is going to get a bump out of tonight.

The setback is that, last year, he pushed, for example, gun reform. He was moving the country forward after the Newtown massacre. It kind of petered out by the end of the spring. When you started saying, I'm going to use a lot of executive power, then you better use it. Don't say it. It is in action, executive power. So this is going to be, as the administration is calling this, a year of action. Tonight is the opening.

BANFIELD: Michael, this is totally unfair. I'm going to give it a shot anyway. Since you are a speech writer and you have a shot at getting one of those fantastic expressions or lines or statements, and you had to think about what you would do for this State of the Union looking forward to 2014, what would you say?

WALDMAN: Golly. That is --


BANFIELD: Golly. I like that you started with golly.


WALDMAN: That is far too much pressure than I could ever possibly respond to.


BANFIELD: Try to be a live broadcaster.


WALDMAN: When I worked with President Clinton, he said the era of big government is over. I kind of have the feeling that isn't the one they would trot out again this time.


WALDMAN: But we did used to joke about not writing to have the words carved on the wall at the Clinton Presidential Library. But these speeches are about action. They are about the here and now. They are about the current fight. And the key thing is actually not that the word ring, but that the policies surprise. President Obama, the one criticism I would have, is that he hasn't surprised us enough with these speeches. Maybe we will hear some surprises tonight.

BANFIELD: Pop your popcorn. I still do it. I love this stuff. I am geeky and that's what I do.

Michael Waldman, Douglas Brinkley, nice to see you. Thanks so much. Good to see you both.


BANFIELD: Stay tuned for CNN's complete coverage and analysis of for the president's State of the Union address. Our coverage begins live at 7:00 p.m. eastern tonight.

A state Senator, whose mentally ill son stabbed him and then killed himself, bears his soul about how he wants his son to be remembered despite what happened to him, and also, more importantly, what changes America needs to make to prevent something like this from happening again, just ahead.


BANFIELD: He was stabbed over and over and over again by his own son. Now, Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds is speaking out about mental illness. The day before the attack, Deeds had tried to get his adult son, Gus, committed to a hospital. He was told there weren't any psychiatric beds available. Gus, by law, had to be released after six hours.

Deeds shared what happens next with our Anderson Cooper.


CREIGH DEEDS, FORMER VIRGINIA STATE SENATOR: I got up. As I said, I was a little nervous. I knew the job of taking him to Lexington was going to be tough. I knew there would be some confrontation. I didn't think there would be any violence. I knew there would be discussion. I got ready and went out to the barn to take care of feeding the equine. I was feeding them. I had some in the barn. I had another big feed tray in my hand for this thoroughbred that belongs to my oldest girl. He was coming across the yard. I said, hey, bud, how did you sleep? I waved my hand, because I had feed in my hands. He said, fine. I turned my back and I took it twice in the back.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, A.C. 360: He stabbed you twice in the back?

DEEDS: Yeah, yeah.

COOPER: Did you know instantly what was happening?

DEEDS: No, I had no idea, no idea. When I turned around, I could see he had something in his hand that was coming at me but I didn't really -- I had no idea what was coming. It was in his left hand. I couldn't tell. I thought it was a screwdriver. I had no idea what it was. He just kept coming at me with stuff. I said, what's going on? I said, Gus, I love you so much. Don't make this any worse than it is. He just kept stabbing. I think he either knew that I was disabled enough that I couldn't interfere with whatever else he wanted to do. He decided at some point, maybe after I said that I loved him, he decided that I didn't need to die after all or he thought from the amount of blood that he had already done some damage. The first blow to my back was pretty close to a spot where he could have drawn a lot of blood. The second one punctured a lung. So it is possible. There was a good bit of blood. I like to think that Gus, at some point in that attack, the old Gus came back. I like to think that.

COOPER: Because he certainly wasn't himself when he started?

DEEDS: No, no, he wasn't himself.

COOPER: That's not your son.

DEEDS: No. Whatever took my son -- bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, whatever mental illness there was -- that took my son and worsened in the last few months. Because he was on medication. He wasn't keeping appointments. There was very little I could do to turn that around. I had done everything I could the day before. I had taken him to the mental -- it is not like, you know, he is my son, so I can automatically enroll him in a hospital somewhere. He is an adult. Everything I had done the day before, we tried and we have been rejected. My son was about to suffer.

COOPER: He was suffering for a long time.

DEEDS: He was suffering for a long, long time. I mean, at least he is at peace now. It is a price to pay.


BANFIELD: Anderson is going to continue this conversation when we come back. Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds is going to share with us how it was that he ultimately learned that, after the stabbing attack, his son killed himself. We are also going to find out why the Senator now thinks the time is essentially now to address mental illness in America.


BANFIELD: We're back with the story of Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds. His son attacked him last November, stabbing him multiple times. He survived the attack.

In a conversation with Anderson Cooper, Deeds tells about how he heard about his son's suicide.


DEEDS: Either in the rescue squad or the helicopter, I heard a scanner report that there was a second victim with a gun shot wound to the head. Well, at that point, I was worried about Gus. When I got -- when my cousin took me up to his house, there was a trooper up there. And I said -- he was going down to the house. Because I told him, I thought that's where Gus had gone back to. And I said, please don't hurt him. You know, because I had no -- you know, honestly, I -- I didn't know even at that time that Gus was trying to kill me. I just couldn't -- I didn't want to think that. And I certainly didn't think he was going to hurt himself. And I said, please don't hurt him. And when I heard that on the scanner, you know, I worried -- I was worried about Gus, but I knew there weren't any bullets in the house. So -- there was no ammunition for that .22 rifle in the house that I was aware of, and so I didn't think it was possible for it to be Gus.

So when I woke up, you know, they got -- surgery and stuff the next day, you know -- the next afternoon, sometime when I woke up and I got that thing out of my mouth, I asked -- I said, Gus. Because I couldn't -- I didn't have any voice. And his mom told me then what happened.

COOPER: One of the things I think that's so horrible about suicide is that -- at least for me, I often get stuck thinking about how my kids -- my brother, ended his life as opposed to how he lived his life. And I'm wondering if you -- do you think about that?

DEEDS: You know, I do. People have been so kind to me. And they reach out. And, you know, they don't understand sometimes that I've got to be left alone because I've got to focus on the good things. You know, these pictures and the Facebook page set up for Gus, there's so many good pictures. There's so many good memories. And that's what I have to focus on. You know, I'm determined that Gus not be remembered just for his illness and what ended his life. That's nothing. He was such a good boy, a good man. He had a good heart. He loved people.

COOPER: It was a long time before I was able to talk about my brother. The fact that you're able to talk about him is great.

DEEDS: Got no choice. Life goes on. Now there is a little focus on mental illness. And if I can make a difference, if we can make a change that's going to save lives, we have to do it. You know, I have got no choice.


BANFIELD: State Senator Deeds says Americans need to approach mental illness the way we consider physical illnesses, like cancer. He says we need to talk about it. We need not to be ashamed about it. He's also going further and pursuing legislation to lengthen the amount of time that patients like Gus could be held before they're released. In his state currently, it's six. He would like to lengthen that to 24.

We're back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BANFIELD: The man who confessed to slipping his girlfriend, pregnant girlfriend, an abortion pill, will spend 13 years in prison. John Weldon is scheduled to turn himself into federal authorities tomorrow morning. He pleaded guilty to consumer product tampering after he got a bottle of an abortion drug and replaced the name on the outside with amoxicillin and then tricked his then-pregnant girlfriend into taking the pills. Needless to say, she lost the baby.

Leave it to a show called LEGAL VIEW to point out with zero irony that liars cannot be lawyers, at least in California. Where 16 years after so-called journalist, Steven Glass, was exposed as a fraud, that state's highest court has denied his request for a law license. Like all good scandals, this one gave rise to a movie called, of course, "Shattered Glass." A California court found, quote, "A lack of integrity and forthrightness that continues, allegedly, until today." Liars can't be lawyers. I'd like to say lawyers can't be liars, either. But I have a feeling I would be deluged with e-mails.

Thanks for watching, everybody. It's been great to have you with us. AROUND THE WORLD starts right now.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: The south is bracing for snow and ice, even as far south as New Orleans. And schools, they're closing all over the country.