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Bleak U.S. Economic Outlook Stirs Recession Fears, Candidate Proposals

April 4, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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Large jobs loses, stock market tremors and a slumping housing market continued to build fears this week of a recession. NewsHour analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the latest economic developments and reflect on the Martin Luther King, Jr. anniversary.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, “New York Times” columnist David Brooks.

David, picking up on professor Charles’ point, what are your own thoughts about the American legacies of Martin Luther King?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, this might be a little broader.

I was at the Lorraine hotel this week. I went up to the room with Reverend Billy Kyles, who we saw at the very of beginning of the program, who was there at the assassination, was describing it day by day. And there happened to be — we were all standing around, just listening to him talk.

And there was a German high school teacher with his class sitting there listening to them all. After they were rapt. And after Kyles left, he shook all our hands and went off to something else.

And the teacher was saying: “I’m shaking. I’m shaking. I can’t believe what I have just seen.”

And to see this whole German high school class, including the teenagers, who are teenagers, after all, so incredibly moved, it was a pretty dramatic moment for a lot of us. But one thing Corey Booker said which I think is dead right which is that the Santa Clausification of the guy, I think we do get carried away.

When you read the biographies of the man, the complexity of the man rivals Churchill or Lincoln. Very few people have the great soul, great flaws, great gifts. And you have to remember, in the final days, he was in despair. He was being attacked from all sides. He was depressed. He couldn’t sleep.

The great feeling that he had, which then came out in the mountaintop speech, it’s the richness of the speech which transcends the one issue. It’s the great soulfulness of the man which I think is why he has risen to this level.

JIM LEHRER: You could see it in the speech. There was a sadness there, I mean, almost anger, not…

DAVID BROOKS: When you read about Memphis in those days, everyone knew something was going to happen. There was a — the day he was killed, there was a quote from one the city managers saying, we’re really afraid he is going to be killed today. And that was in the paper that day.

The feeling of menace — and then that underlines his courage. But it was also his relentless assertiveness, always asserting, always going forward, always doing the next march, never backing forward, which was part of him.

King's legacy: 'moral courage'

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
Martin Luther King is remembered as a great orator and an inspiring speaker, which he was. But both by his life and his actions, he was a master strategist, which is forgotten.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I guess moral courage is the legacy of Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King is remembered as a great orator and an inspiring speaker, which he was. But both by his life and his actions, he was a master strategist, which is forgotten. I mean, he was the one who chose Selma. Selma, Alabama, was the heart and soul of evil racism in America.

And he confronted it with his own moral courage and physical courage. I mean, he put himself on the line in the face of those police dogs and Sheriff Jim Clark and the worst of America at that point. And he -- by doing that, and by his own actions and his words, he touched the conscience of white America. He moved the conscience of white America.

I just think of four white American politicians. I was at Martin Luther King's funeral in 1968 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. As we marched the 4.3 miles from that church to where he was laid, a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people, we went by city hall, the Atlanta City Hall, the city too busy to hate.

Ivan Allen, a great mayor, a white Democrat, the city hall is draped in black bunting, in black crepe. And across the street, there's less dramatics. The white segregationist governor, he's got 160 state troopers there. He himself threatened to personally pull the flags up to full-mast.

Martin Luther King touched both of those men and made them react to him, and exposed them, their strengths, and their weaknesses. I mean, Ivan Allen was a great man and an even greater man because of the way he handled that.

But Lyndon Johnson, in his -- as a consequence of King's leadership at Selma, gave the greatest speech of his life, the speech for the -- in favor of Voting Rights Act, and the guarantee that every American would have that access to the ballot box.

JIM LEHRER: And, of course, Martin Luther King negotiated a lot of this with Lyndon Johnson.

MARK SHIELDS: He sure did.

And when he gave that speech, he ended it with the lyric of the civil rights anthem. "We shall overcome."

And, finally, I would say, Robert Kennedy, who, four days after Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidency, Martin Luther King was assassinated, in Indianapolis, gave one of the great speeches any American leader has ever given, announcing his assassination. And...

JIM LEHRER: And there was a great book written about that last -- came out last year, Nick Kotz, Nick Kotz's book.

MARK SHIELDS: Nick Kotz did a marvelous book on it.

But -- so, I just think -- I mean, his -- obviously, his influence on black America is profound, but his influence on white America is just -- is more -- even more significant.

Economic woes

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
You have got the flat income, the increase in costs, and, what, $2 trillion in the stock market in the first quarter of the year gone. I mean, people are understandably anxious.

JIM LEHRER: And, of course, jobs, the economy were all part of what he was talking about, as was said earlier. And we have a jobs report today, to bring it to today.

And how would you implant that or overlay that over the presidential campaign right now and the economy generally? Is it becoming what it appears to be, the campaign issue, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think we have said that it is rising.

I was super struck, if that is the right way to put it, by a poll "The New York Times" and CBS had measuring right track and wrong track, do you think the country is basically heading in the right direction, and the number of people that think it is heading in the wrong direction is highest, I think, since we have been doing the poll. Eighty-two percent, I think it was.

JIM LEHRER: And you think it is because of the economy?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it is.

And the striking fact is, when you ask people, "Are you satisfied with your own life?" 72 percent think, economically, they're doing OK. And, yet, at the same time, when they look at the country as a whole, they -- they think it's going in the wrong direction. This is Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, black, white. Everybody is super scared.

And, so, that is just an underlying reality, not about their own life, but about the long-term shape of the country. And that's got to be the shaping factor.

JIM LEHRER: I'm OK now, but I may not be OK soon, is what you're...

DAVID BROOKS: Right, or my kids may not be OK or -- there is a lot going on in the world, and I'm not quite sure how it's going to impact me, even though, right now, I seem to be doing OK.

And to be fair, I think there's a little scare-mongering or -- not scare-mongering -- people are a little overanxious compared to the reality you actually see in the economic numbers. So, there is a little just raw fear.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read all that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: There's no good economic numbers. I mean, this is the first and only recession in the history of the country after which the recovery, the median income of the country, is lower than it was before.

I mean, every other one, we have come out of that with a recovery with national income lifted. That has not been the case in this one. We have had 236,000 employers no longer offer health insurance. We have got 47 million Americans without health insurance. Gasoline has never been higher, a gallon of gas. A gallon of milk has never been higher. The cost of health care and the cost of college are both going up.

And, so, you have got the flat income, the increase in costs, and, what, $2 trillion in the stock market in the first quarter of the year gone. I mean, people are understandably anxious. And then you get this jobs report upon it. We need 100,000 jobs every month just to...

JIM LEHRER: To stay even, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... to stay even, and we have lost 914,000 jobs in the last year.

Candidates' economic plans

David Brooks
New York Times
Irresponsible lenders, he [McCain] is not going to help you. If you were flipping a house to make a profit, he is not going to help you. Well, who is he going to help? And he really hasn't come up with that.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Mark, put -- in the presidential campaign, just the politics of it now, are there huge philosophical differences, first, between Obama and Clinton, and then between either one of them and John McCain over the approach as to what to do about the economy that you perceive?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, I would say fewer differences between McCain and between Obama and Clinton. I was with both of them this week in Pennsylvania.

JIM LEHRER: And they're talking about the...

MARK SHIELDS: Talking about this to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention. And they were pretty explicit on the -- on the issue.

John McCain -- it was interesting. I was talking to the labor people in Pennsylvania, where there has been concern that Reagan Democrats would be drawn to John McCain because of his personal history, because of his personal appeal, his independence, and was assured by a number of pretty straight-shooting people, from my own experience, that John McCain had put himself on the right of George Bush and Henry Paulson on the economy, and that they felt enormously relieved.

I mean, McCain basically said, we don't want any regulation, any intrusion, any intervention from Washington. I think what we saw in the Congress this week is, Republicans in the Senate, even though they might not have been willing to bite all the way to the bullet, they weren't going to be branded with inaction.

Johnny Isakson of Georgia being the most prominent one to say, you are either deaf or you're absolutely not listening if you didn't hear every single voter talk about the recession.

JIM LEHRER: And also, of course, the housing -- the Senate, in a bipartisan way, is moving very quickly on a housing stimulus bill, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, whether it is effective or not, we can have an argument about.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But just on the politics of it...

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: ... McCain has not had a positive agenda. He has been extremely good at talking about who he is not going to help.

Irresponsible lenders, he is not going to help you. If you were flipping a house to make a profit, he is not going to help you.

Well, who is he going to help? And he really hasn't come up with that.

And I spoke with a House Democrat who represents a working-class district who thinks McCain has a real shot at some of these working-class voters. I think that is true. But the thing he really has got to do -- and I understand why he is doing a biography tour this week, but he has really got to have a series of proposals that average voters can say, oh, he is for that, he is for that, he is for that.

I know things because I know a lot about his campaign, but average voters have no idea what he is for positively.

Campaign fundraising totals

David Brooks
New York Times
The big story is, Obama is really closing in Pennsylvania. And I don't think it is the ads. I don't think it is the money. I think it is just the way the structure of the campaign is. And there has been real movement there.

JIM LEHRER: Before we go, a couple of really clean political questions.

Just today, Hillary Clinton, the Clinton tax returns came out. They made, the Clintons, Bill and Hillary Clinton made $109 million dollars in seven years, from 2000 to 2007. Any political impact likely from that?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, the Bush economy has been very good for the Clintons, wouldn't you say?

So, I guess that's what the RNC would say.

No, I mean, I think the devil is in the details, where they make it, who did they make it from, I mean, not her, but him. I think there will be endless fascination. You dump it on Friday afternoon if you -- that is the traditional Washington...

JIM LEHRER: As we reported, $50 million is from the former president's speeches; $40 million is in books.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And the rest -- yes.

But, you know, what do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: David wants to know...

DAVID BROOKS: Those of us who write books, $40 million?

I don't think people resent making money. I really don't. And, so, I don't think it will be a problem for them.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK.

Another money question. Obama has risen has -- has -- well, he is now $40 million in this month in the campaign, compared to $20 million that Clinton has and has -- in this month. What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well...

JIM LEHRER: Does it matter at this point?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, if somebody had said to you a year ago, the trailing candidate in the Democratic race is going to raise $20 million in March of 2008, you would say, my goodness gracious, that's -- what an achievement. That is an amazing accomplishment.

And it is, but for the fact that Obama has this incredible following that are producing money for him.

JIM LEHRER: So, it matters?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not sure. It is a party of the rich people, the Democratic Party.

MARK SHIELDS: The median contribution to Obama is $96, 96 bucks.

DAVID BROOKS: The big story is, Obama is really closing in Pennsylvania. And I don't think it is the ads. I don't think it is the money. I think it is just the way the structure of the campaign is. And there has been real movement there.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I -- boy, I would question that. I have been in Pennsylvania. I think that Senator Clinton still has a solid lead, and I think she is still connecting with voters.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Thank you. On that note of disagreement, thank you both very much.