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New Year Brings New Congress, Foreign Policy Challenges

January 2, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and National Review Editor Ramesh Ponnuru discuss President-elect Obama's mounting foreign policy concerns, the shape of the new Congress, and an emerging economic stimulus plan.
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RAY SUAREZ: To the analysis of Dionne and Ponnuru, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. Mark Shields and David Brooks are both off tonight.

And President-elect Obama, Ramesh, is stuck with his one-president-at-a-time saying, but is it turning out to be less true on the economy than it is on foreign affairs? He’s coming to Washington over the weekend to begin consulting with Congress on a big economic package.

RAMESH PONNURU, National Review Senior Editor: I think you do find that President-elect Obama is honoring that one-president-at-a-time idea more in foreign policy than he is on economic policy.

And I think, among other things, that probably reflects his own passions and interests and his political needs at the moment. He can’t afford not to be taking an interest in the economy.

RAY SUAREZ: And, E.J., reflecting the needs of the situation, as well?

E.J. DIONNE, Columnist, Washington Post: Well, actually, I think he’s better off talking about the economy than he is on foreign policy because getting the economy moving again requires confidence in the future. And who is about the future? It’s Barack Obama who takes office on January 20th.

So he can begin the process of reassuring people in the country that the economy will get moving again and have some material effect, whereas his speaking out, for example, about what’s going on in Gaza now would almost certainly just undercut whatever President Bush says.

And he doesn’t know what that situation is going to look like when he takes office on January 20th. So I think one set of issues is in his interests, in our interests for him to talk about, and the other isn’t.

Stimulus linked to infrastructure

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
I think that what's striking is how wide the consensus is among economists that the government really is going to have to spend a whole lot of money to get us out of this mess that we're in.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Solman set the table beautifully for us, I think, because we got signals from Obama world that something big is coming. David Axelrod said the new president is going to have to go big on the stimulus package. In an op-ed, Larry Summers said it's going to be more of a problem if it's too small than if it's too big. Setting up expectations?

E.J. DIONNE: I'm waiting to see what will be Obama's Golden Gate Bridge. It's a pretty impressive list of achievements by Roosevelt and the WPA.

I think that what's striking is how wide the consensus is among economists that the government really is going to have to spend a whole lot of money to get us out of this mess that we're in. A lot of conservative economists say maybe I think we need to spend the money. There may be some arguments about what we should spend it on.

I think what he's got to be careful about is to make sure that when the average person looks at this package, they can say, as Paul Solman did in that piece, that in the end we'll be better off if these projects are built, even if we have to borrow the money to do it.

So he needs projects that are worth doing, but I think most people think we have to do something big to get out of the economic doldrums.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Ramesh, along with the signals from Axelrod and Summers come those from the Republican leaders in the House and Senate, Boehner and McConnell saying, "Hold on a minute. We're hearing figures as high as a trillion dollars. Maybe this is a bad idea."

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think in particular what you're hearing from Republicans is a lot of complaints about the idea of getting a $1 trillion spending bill through rapidly.

And they say, "Well, you know, we understand that there is a need for quick action to stimulate the economy, but we can't be passing a trillion-dollar spending bill without adequate scrutiny."

And I think one thing they're going to be very careful about is making sure that we don't get a bunch of bridges to nowhere and that we have infrastructure investments that are actually matching our infrastructure needs and not just an attempt to get money out the door.

Foreign policy looms large

Ramesh Ponnuru
National Review
There was sort of a confluence of interests between President-elect Obama and Israel right now, in that both of them have an interest in Israel dealing a decisive blow to Hamas before Obama takes office and then Obama can do a renewed push for peace.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, we've been talking about why the economy is looming large on the Obama o-genda -- Obama agenda. But isn't foreign affairs just as pressing now, with the attack on Gaza, Russia shutting off the gas to Ukraine? A lot's been happening during these couple of holiday weeks before the president-elect arrives in his capital.

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, you know, whatever any president's agenda is, a lot of the agenda ends up getting set by events.

I think, to return to something that E.J. was saying, though, I think there was sort of a confluence of interests between President-elect Obama and Israel right now, in that both of them have an interest in Israel dealing a decisive blow to Hamas before Obama takes office and then Obama can do a renewed push for peace.

RAY SUAREZ: Just before we went to air tonight, we got an advanced copy of the president's weekly radio address, and he hasn't been very much out on the stump, very much in evidence on this issue.

But he says the United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that's fully respected and says that promises this time from Hamas will not suffice.

E.J. DIONNE: You know, I think when you look at the situation in Gaza, the American government position is a little bit ambivalent. It's very pro-Israel, and it says -- rightly, I think -- that Israel has a right to retaliate when it's attacked. And 300 missiles have gone into -- rockets have gone into Israel since this cease-fire ended.

But I think there's a lot of questioning about whether this was prudent or wise and that the question is, where will Israel end up at the end of this process? Will this be like their incursion into Lebanon, which didn't work out very well?

And so I think that, you know, and Gaza was actually getting -- I'm sorry, that Hamas was getting weaker when this attack started. And they've been able to strengthen themselves.

So Israel really has to figure out, how much can it undercut Hamas in this period? Or else Hamas could still, even if it barely survives, count it as a victory and be stronger against Fatah, which wanted to make a deal with Israel.

RAY SUAREZ: During the campaign, President-elect Obama famously said the president of the United States has to be able to do more than one thing at a time. Is Gaza a pressing kind of issue that really has to be handled right out of the box, right after the inaugural speech?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, we have no idea what the facts on the ground are going to look like by that time. And I'm sure President-elect Obama is hoping that the situation will be a lot easier for him to handle then than it is now.

Democrats reject Burris appointment

Ramesh Ponnuru
National Review
This is something that Illinois Democrats could have prevented in the first place. They could have stripped Gov. Blagojevich of the power to make this appointment. They could have stripped him of the governorship, for that matter.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, we just saw Roland Burris a few minutes ago, E.J., or, as his office, when they answer the phones there, Sen. Burris. What do you make of that whole situation? And aren't there going to be several empty seats on the Democratic side of the aisle come Tuesday?

E.J. DIONNE: Indeed, there will be. I mean, I think, if Gov. Blagojevich wanted to cause trouble for the Democrats who are down on him right now, he succeeded brilliantly.

Democrats are faced with real difficulty. Burris is right that the appointment is, at least on its face, legal, and he keeps saying that, and it is going to be his calling card when he gets to the Senate.

The problem is Democrats, including President-elect Obama, who's been very clear about this, do not want to be inveigled in any way with Gov. Blagojevich, given the cloud he's under and the charges he is likely to face if Patrick Fitzgerald has his way, the prosecutor.

And so they've decided that even know it's not a good choice either way, don't seat a senator from Illinois and lose that vote and face controversy over that, or be involved somehow with the Blagojevich appointment, they'd rather take the chance and not be involved in that appointment.

I think what they're probably going to do -- my friend Tom Mann called it, I think, the slow and deliberate seating of Burris, where you don't seat him right away. You send it to the Rules Committee. You ask, is this whole process so tainted that we can't accept this appointment? And hope that something turns up or that maybe Burris has a change of heart and says, "Maybe this appointment isn't worth it after all."

RAY SUAREZ: And they're doing what on the other side of the aisle, passing the popcorn, Ramesh?

RAMESH PONNURU: I think that's right. I think that, you know, this is a problem that -- I think Republicans say, look, this is a problem for the majority to handle.

This is something that Illinois Democrats could have prevented in the first place. They could have stripped Gov. Blagojevich of the power to make this appointment. They could have stripped him of the governorship, for that matter. They chose not to, partly because Democrats in Illinois and outside Illinois didn't want a special election where a Republican might get elected.

Some Senate seats still vacant

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
If the Republicans decide that they want to try to block the stimulus, then getting to the 60 votes the Democrats need to pass it could get more complicated. It could also complicate the negotiations.

RAY SUAREZ: There are other seats in question: New York, Minnesota. They don't look like they're going to be settled by next week.

RAMESH PONNURU: No, they're not, you know, and there could be some interplay between some of these seats, because if I were one of Burris' supporters, for example, I would look at the possibility that Caroline Kennedy is going to be appointed in New York and say, "Isn't Burris as qualified, if not much more qualified, than Caroline Kennedy is? What's wrong with putting him in this position?"

E.J. DIONNE: And then in Minnesota you've the problem -- Al Franken, the Democrat, is now ahead by it looks like about 50 votes. And Sen. Coleman, the incumbent, the Republican who would lose, before was very critical of Franken for going to court. I think Gov. Coleman has discovered how wonderful the courts are, and he could keep this thing going for some period of time.

I think at some point it's going to be, if Franken holds his lead, at some point Democrats are going to say, "Look, we want to seat Franken. We can't let this seat go empty for months at a time."

RAY SUAREZ: Given the mix of the new Senate, could this be critical, as the new president is trying to get an economic stimulus bill through, just a couple of seats here and there?

E.J. DIONNE: If the Republicans decide that they want to try to block the stimulus, then getting to the 60 votes the Democrats need to pass it could get more complicated. It could also complicate the negotiations.

The assumption -- I think fairly -- is that the two Republican senators from Maine are quite moderate, quite prepared, probably, to do business with by then President Obama. The question is, how many more Republicans would he need to pick up?

So that if you have a lot of seats empty, that could be a problem. If you had only the Illinois seat empty, they could probably get by without too much difficulty.

RAY SUAREZ: We're out of time. Have a great weekend, gentlemen, and a happy new year.

E.J. DIONNE: Nice to be with you.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.