Meet the Press   |  August 25, 2013

3: Is the American Dream still alive and well?

A Meet the Press roundtable, including Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, discusses the concept of the American Dream and its status in today's society. Also, NBC correspondents update David Gregory with the latest developments in Syria.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> and we're back. before we get back to our roundtable, the lathest on the developing situation in syria . the white house this morning is saying there is, quote, little doubt chemical weapons were used in syria , as president obama weighs military action against the country. and also this morning a warning from iran that, quote, crossing the red line on syria will have severe consequences. nbc's chief foreign correspondent richard engel joins me now from turkey. richard, you got additional information about what's happening on the ground in syria .

>> reporter: several new developments, david . we've spoken to commander of the syrian army , and he confirmed to us that large weapons supplies have arrived to the rebel force. they came through turkey and we're talking about tons of weapons that they hope will change the momentum of the battle. the general also told us that he believes that bashar al assad , the syrian president , personally ordered the use of chemical weapons against civilians in those outskirts of damascus last week. when we asked why, he said two reasons. one, that syria was responding to a failed assassination attempt against bashar al assad when there was an attack on bashar al assad 's personal convoy in damascus earlier this month. he said that infuriated him and he ordered his military council to draw up options including the use of chemical weapons . the second reason, according to the general, was that the rebels in this area that was attacked, which is right on the outskirts of damascus , had recently acquired their own weapons. they had taken some missiles from the regime and that syria found this unacceptable, that it couldn't have such well-armed rebels right on the outskirts of damascus and that these two things combined, the failed assassination attempt and then these heavily armed rebels right on bashar al assad 's doorstep led the syrian president to take this action.

>> a developing story and our richard engel is right on top of it, joining this morning from turkey. richard, thanks.

>>> i also want to go to the white house this morning and check in with our correspondent there, kristen welker. kristen , as i've been mentioning, another development is this morning is that damascus is saying they'll allow weapons inspectors in. this is a big point because the white house wants verification of whether this was a chemical attack .

>> reporter: it is, david . i just spoke with a senior administration official who confirms that the administration is aware that the syrian government has agreed to allow u.n. inspectors in to syria . there are some concerns. they don't believe the inspectors will get in today. they also say that area has been shelled for five straight days so there's some real concern that any evidence may have been lost or destroyed in all of that shelling. but there's another headline coming out of the white house today, david , and that is that administration officials say at this point there is very little doubt that chemical weapons have been used inside syria . now we know that president obama met with his national security team on saturday. there will be high-level meetings throughout day as the administration tries to determine exactly how to respond. president obama has called the use of chemical weapons a red line . he has ruled out putting boots on the ground , but we know that he's considering a range of options including and possibly limited air strikes . so that is the situation right now from the white house , david , as we continue to monitor this breaking news.

>> kristen welker, thank you very much, on an ongoing story in syria . we have breaking news this morning but also a time for some reflection, looking back 50 years since the i have a dream speech. we wanted to have a broader conversation of the broader american dream , the state of that dream today. the president took this on when he was speaking about college education last week. here's a portion of what he said.

>> times have been tough because wages and incomes for everybody have not been going up. everybody's pretty anxious about what's happening in their lives and what might happen for their kids. and so they get worried that, well, if we're helping people in poverty, that must be hurting me somehow.

>> the zero-sum aspect of our politics. the big question is what is the state of american dream today?

>> it's become harder. i want to pick up on what cory booker said earlier, the phrase the conspiracy of love. we talk a lot about jobs and wages and all the economic policies we do well here in washington , but inequalities show up phenomenally early, the age of 2 or 3. getting the economic pieces right, it's also right to get policies and have fam sis with secure attachments, constant discipline, love, large vocabula vocabularies, lack of stress and dysfunction in the home. those are the things that leave permanent scars and make it impossible for kids to graduate from high school . we have a firm argument on economic policies . we're not good at talking about the word flov washington . if you use that word in a congressional hearing they look at you like you're oprah. but that is what we need to do.

>> we know, sheryl, that people around the world still want to come live in america . this is a country of enormous wealth and influence and opportunity. still today for all the tough stuff, but is the american dream still what it has always been?

>> look, the american dream is still available but for the well educated. so a couple of doctors coming from china or india, you know, in the middle class , they can come here and they can live the american dream . but for an inner city single mom who lives in a bad neighborhood with bad schools, that's a challenge. and that's the problem right now. so the civil rights scandal isn't jim crow laws . it's actually that a poor minority kid living in inner city chicago, you know, he has nowhere to go, whereas the, you know, rich white kid living in the suburbs with first-rate schools, you know, he's got everything. and education is the escalator out of poverty, but unfortunately that escalator is broken for kids who need it most.

>> what the president was speaking of, doris, is this idea that there's huge inequality in the country in terms of median income . we have a chart here. this isn't purely an economic discussion, but this is one of those data points that really illustrates the point. you look at the bottom 10%, it's like a straight line . it's not going up. for the top 5% it's steadily progressed as you look back to 1963 . i don't have to tell you, you look at that chasm among women, also horrible 50 years later, and the feeling that there's not as much opportunity to move out of that state of affairs .

>> i mean, the fact that studies are show noug that people born in poverty are likely to be tracked in poverty belies the whole idea of what america was founded on, the idea that if you come here, you use our talents, you work hard, you'll have a more generous life for you and your children. we have to make a national commitment again. i think the lesson of the civil rights march, there must have been doubt that you could change an entire system of segregation, but they overcame that doubt. we now have to overcome the doubt that we can change poverty. there was a national commitment to poverty under lbj. he had a multipronged approach. he had model cities, work-studies, job corps , education. the war in vietnam cut it short. there were some flaws in it. he once said we're going to crawl, walk, and run, we'll get this thing. we need to recommit to that. it's not a zero-sum game. poverty for us as a clasless supposed society one of the scourges on our system.

>> reverend, is that a blind spot for this president that he is focused maybe too much on the middle class , not large on poverty?

>> i think it's a blind spot on the congress. when you can't pass a jobs bill, when you can't deal with any of the economic inequality that the president has addressed and talked about, what we are really seeing in this present congress is they are trying to revoke any remnants of the great society that came out of the '60s with lyndon johnson . we cut head start this week. we are retreating on the very things young people need to step out of poverty. so you can't in one hand say that we want to see young people advance and have one america , but we're going to take away the things that could bring us there, and i think the other part of that is that we've got the deal with the american dream must always correspond with people being able to have the individual dreams aligned with -- so a dream for an immigrant or a dream for a woman or a dream for a gay. all of that must not be encompassed in the american dream .

>> you talk about today's congress. raul labrador is joining us, as well. congressman, republican from idaho. congressman, good to see you back on the program. you know, part of what we're talking about here is the tension between what government should do to address the idea that the american dream is perhaps a little bit out of reach and as i ask you about the state of american dream , i note your own you ewe nique story, born in puerto rico , moved to las vegas , became a morrmon, a single mother , and went to military school . you practiced immigration law . i would argue that you would argue the american dream is alive and well for people like yourself.

>> i would. and it saddens me actually to hear some of the things that i'm hearing here because i think the american dream is alive. i was born four years after the march on washington . i was born to a single mother who lost her job because she got pregnant by me, who he decided to give me life, but the most important thing that she decided is she was going to give me a good life. i didn't go to military school when i was a young man because my mother was rich. i went to military school because she decided to sacrifice. she decided to go without some things in her life so she could put me in a military school . then she couldn't afford that anymore, so she put me in another private school and eventually when she wanted to move to the mainland, she decided to put me in a bilingual school because she thought that the only way i would be successful in life is by gaining an education, by being better educated, by learning english. i remember when we moved to the united states , she told me something that was so significant in my life. she said in private we can speak spanish, but when you're in public, you need to speak english because i want you to speak english to the best of your ability. these are things that she thought about. i spent the last 24 hours , i watched the martin luther king speech three times over the last 24 hours , and it was fantastic. and the rhetoric that he used, the words that he used, message that he used was a message of hope. unfortunately what i've been hearing from your panel is not a message of hope. it's a message of despair. i think we need our leadership to be more hopeful.

>> sheryl, what is the optimistic case? facts are facts, and again the challenges of the american dream being within reach are still facts that government has to deal with and individuals have to deal with. what is the more hopeful case, though, about the american dream ?

>> well, i think that the problem is government gridlock. it really is. i mean, head start , as the reverend said, 57,000 kids have been shut out of head start . and illegal immigrant children have no way to move up. the chances of an american moving up is, you know, worse. it's 1 out of 12 versus in britain it's 1 out of 8. so what does that mean? that means as washington dithers america burn, and that's really important. the government used to be the provider of opportunities, mass education , you know, local community high schools , secondary and tertiary education . the president mentioned head start , and that may be the single most critical thing that actually could help us build the american dream again. but as washington dithers, america burns.

>> head start 's not a successful program. let me play the positives.

>> exactly.

>> i actually don't -- it's debatable.

>> i want to talk about something congressman labrador said. we are an amazingly tolerant country. you go school, you have names like juwanda goldberg in there. we still have these fantastic stories . i just had lunch with old man caity from a not great family, she's homeless, decides she's going to enlist in the navy. the officer says you should go to annapolis. she garage waits this year, number one academically in her class, gets a rhodes scholarship , runs track, she's a marine. you run across these stories all the time and they still are endem toik the way we live.

>> there's no question that those inspiring stories still exist. the question is, is there a generation where too many people are not having that inspirational moment. i mean, i grew up in the world war ii generation. there's a reason why that generation -- my father had an eighth-grade education. he left work because he was overfanned. he became a bank examiner. we had a house in the suburbs. i was part of a whole generation in the '50s that moved up together. why? there was full employment in world war ii , there was the g.i. bill of rights , an income tax that was passed. there was a sense of commitment at that point to bringing that generation going. that's eroded. it started eroding in the '70s and the '80s for the middle class and the poverty. it doesn't mean you always have these wonderful people that come up, but how many people with talent are not being realized? lincoln used to -- haunted about a person of a poem who had great talent and was in an unmarked grave because he never had that chance.

>> all those realities are true.

>> very quickly, think that as you hear dr. king's speech 50 years ago, yes, it was of hope, but it was pointed at what we had to fight. he talked about governors whose lips dripped with the words of interposition and nullification, which is no different than we're talking act changing stand your ground laws today. he talked about american gave blacks a bad check . so let's not act about all he talked about was poeltry. he went directly at issues that we're raising today. i agree with david that we are tolerant more than other countries. the question is not to compare us on how we are to other countries. it's compare how we treat some americans to other americans inside our country.

>> congressman, just a few seconds left for final thought from you on this.

>> you know, we're still the greatest nation on the earth. if you listen to what martin luther king talked about, we talked about making sure that we were not bitter about what was happening in america but that we had hope. it was a beautiful speech, and i think that the leadership, the african-american leadership, needs to start thinking about that hope that martin luther king gave us instead of trying to get the community to think that everything is hopeless and without -- without a future. i think when we tell our young people that in america they cannot succeed anymore, you will see more and more young people not succeeding.

>> quick response to that.

>> the quick response is that is why we marched yesterday, to tell them to do what dr. king did. you can change america . you can fight what's wrong. we are not hopeless, but we also know from the champion of hope, hope needs legs to it, and you need action.

>> all right. different perspectives here. thank you all very much.

>>> i want to add a programming note here. many of our nbc stations will be showing a special rebroadcast of our 1963 "meet the press" featuring dr. king and naacp director roy wilkins . it aired 50 years ago today. please check your local listings for details. history coming alive.

>>> up next, an update on the wildfire that's now reached yosemite national park .

>>> and later, my live interview with louisiana governor bobby jindal . possible 2016 gop presidential contender.