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Editorial Page Editors Respond to State of the Union Address

January 24, 2007 at 11:15 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me for a sample of views are three editorial page editors: Frances Coleman of the Mobile Press-Register; Bruce Dold of the Chicago Tribune; and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Cynthia, why don’t you start us off here with your overall reaction to last night’s speech by the president?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Well, I was underwhelmed. Most of what I heard I expected to hear, of course.

The president had already laid out his strategy of escalating American involvement in Iraq; he had made a major speech on that. So that wasn’t surprising.

His health care initiative had already been laid out, much of it, and it’s pretty much dead on arrival in a Democratic Congress, because they’re not persuaded, and neither am I, that it’s going to increase insurance for the uninsured.

And I basically agreed with the Sierra Club’s representative on energy initiatives. I didn’t hear anything that was aggressive enough, so I was underwhelmed by the president’s speech.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frances Coleman, underwhelmed? Did you see the same speech?

FRANCES COLEMAN, Mobile Press-Register: No, I think that the glass that Cynthia thinks is half-empty I saw as more half-full. I saw a quietly confident president who realized that he needs to take a mild approach, given the setting, a conciliatory approach.

I thought he did that. I thought he was firm when it came to discussion of the war in Iraq. I thought he laid out a pretty nice list of domestic proposals, some of which, as Cynthia said, we know are dead on arrival.

And I remembered in all of that that we’ve been talking about alternative fuels now for, what, 25 or 30 years, so I wasn’t too optimistic about that.

But, overall, I saw a man who understood that the Congress is not as receptive to some of his ideas as he wished, but who understands that he’s still the president. He’s still the commander-in-chief. He’s still got the bully pulpit, and he’ll use it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bruce Dold, pick up on that, about the president himself. Were we seeing last night a diminished somehow president, or someone who knows he still has some strengths, or both?

BRUCE DOLD, Chicago Tribune: I thought it was a very sober speech, almost apologetic. I think it was smart for him to limit his domestic agenda; I think that was a recognition that he’s not going to set the domestic agenda. It’s going to be set by the Democrats in Congress.

I thought his introduction of Nancy Pelosi was incredibly gracious, and I think that was important, because he’s going to have to work very carefully with her.

And I think, you know, the upside for Bush is that maybe he sees where he stands now, Bill Clinton in 1994, and maybe he sees that, you know, Bill Clinton in some ways had a godsend when Republicans took over. He got welfare reform by compromise. He got a balanced budget by compromise. And Clinton wouldn’t have gotten that if his own party had stayed in power.

I think Bush, by setting out some doable things — and I think immigration is doable, health care may be doable — may find that he does get some accomplishments on a domestic agenda that he hasn’t seen, really, since his first year in office.

Nonverbal clues of the night's tone

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Cynthia, you talked about some of the policies that he brought up. What about tone? What about body language? What did you see in the president last night?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, we didn't see the swagger that we saw in his early years in office, and I, quite frankly, was glad to see that go. And I think he certainly is aware, very aware of the very changed political climate on Capitol Hill.

I think the only reason you heard a mention of global warming, climate change in a major speech from this president is an acknowledgement that he now has to work with a Democratic Congress, and he is certainly hoping that he can get a few domestic initiatives passed. And immigration reform, quite frankly, might be his best hope.

But Bruce referred earlier to Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was not saddled with an extremely unpopular war. And the president is going to be hamstrung on almost every front, including his domestic initiatives, by that unpopular war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Frances Coleman, on the split government, I know a lot of commentators were watching the scene behind the president, where you had Vice President Cheney sitting next to Nancy Pelosi, and one would pop up and the other would be seated, and vice versa. What did you make of that? What did you see?

FRANCES COLEMAN: I saw Capitol Hill at its best. It was interesting to watch. We hadn't seen the divided Congress in, how many years now, 12. But it wasn't surprising. I thought everybody was polite and respectful. And she's going to stand up and applaud most of the time, but not all of the time. But nobody was rude. And so I saw it and smiled.

Sen. Webb's response

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bruce Dold, speaking of the change in Congress, the changed politics, it was one of those new Democratic senators who gave the Democratic response. That's Virginia Senator Jim Webb. What did you think of his response?

BRUCE DOLD: I thought it was unnecessarily harsh, almost cold. And I didn't think it had any sense of optimism that the Democrats really ought to be offering to the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, what did you think?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I actually thought it was the speech of the evening. I thought it was passionate. I thought his use of the photograph of his father was great political theatrics.

And he, after all -- not only has he served himself and had a father who served, but he has a son on the ground in Iraq right now. So he has credibility.

And the simple fact of the matter is: Most of the American public is not "optimistic" about so-called success in Iraq. And so I think that Jim Webb was playing to not only his own strengths -- he's a former secretary of the Navy, after all, and he knows something about warfare -- but he also was playing to the political realities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you hear, Cynthia, a new tone that you expect to hear more of from the Democrats in Congress now?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I think that, in presenting Jim Webb, Democrats understand that they still struggle with being seen as the party that is not as competent and credible on national security issues.

President Bush's low standing in the polls, on that matter notwithstanding, I think the Democrats understand that they still have to struggle with that.

I think you will also see a Democratic Congress that strives to be centrist on many, many issues. That's what the first 100 hours were about. So I think that, while they will continue to battle the president on Iraq, they're going to look for other issues, such as immigration and the minimum wage, where they can get legislation passed that gets something accomplished.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frances Coleman...

BRUCE DOLD: What I thought was missing from Webb's speech, though, was that sense of centrism...

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, go ahead.

BRUCE DOLD: ... that sense that we understand the president is the president for another two years, and we're going to work with him. I thought the off-the-cuff interviews with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were much more conciliatory, much more giving a sense that we want to work with the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frances Coleman, why don't you jump in here on Jim Webb's response and the tone that you're hearing from Democrats generally?

FRANCES COLEMAN: Well, the tone -- I thought he was a good choice by the Democrats, in that they wanted to put a person up there who I think was a result of the voters wanting a change, and so they put him up there.

Yes, I thought his tone was a little harsh. But I think the public -- this is terrible, because I think the media have done this to the poor public -- is we've given them "Crossfire," and we've given them all these pro and con and in-your-face talk shows.

And so I think that they expect -- you know, the minority person, not the minority party, but, you know, the person giving the response, to be tough and rough, and so I think the public wasn't put off by that. It was a pretty good choice.

Chances for bipartisanship

JEFFREY BROWN: Looking forward, Frances Coleman, the president certainly talked last night about wanting to work with Congress, especially on some of the domestic agenda that he raised. Do you feel hope for bipartisanship, as we go forward for the next two years?

FRANCES COLEMAN: A little hope, not too much. That would be, I guess, politically naive.

But there's some -- a friend of mine who shares my political views said the other day, you know, there's something to be said for gridlock. There's something to be said for one party in power on one side and the other party in power on the other.

I think they'll be able to work together, as politicians always do, when they've got mutual needs and mutual goals. And I think, as I think Cynthia said, immigration is probably something we may finally see something accomplished on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bruce Dold, you raised this earlier, this bipartisanship, and you were comparing it to the Clinton years. Do you have hope going forward? Do you see signs that they can work together?

BRUCE DOLD: Yes, I do, because this is the first time in the Bush presidency that both parties have a stake in authorship, that getting laws passed, they will both get credit for anything that does come through.

Again, I think immigration is an opportunity. I think a balanced budget is an opportunity. And the Congressional Budget Office gave some more optimistic assessment of how quickly that could be accomplished. Both parties seem to have picked up on that.

So, yes, I think we could see a different politics the next two years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, are you that hopeful, especially where we're now in the last -- we're sought of getting to legacy mode, a lot more talk about the president's last two years and what that will mean for his legacy. Are you hopeful for what can be accomplished?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I'm not sure that we will see a lot of bipartisan outreach from the White House. The president uses the word a lot, but I'm not sure he's committed to it.

I think there is hope that moderate Republicans in the Senate and in the House will find occasions to join with Democrats to get bills passed. I think that, on issues like stem cell research, in addition to immigration, you will find moderate Republicans peeling off from their colleagues to support legislation, and we'll get a few things done.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Cynthia Tucker, Frances Coleman, and Bruce Dold, thank you all very much.