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Inauguration, Transition and Bush Farewell Top Week’s Political News

January 16, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks look ahead to Inauguration Day, discuss Barack Obama's dinner with conservative columnists and analyze President Bush's attempts to shape a legacy.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, four days, there’s going to be a new president. What are the anticipations and expectations that you have in your head right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, Jim, I mean, it’s — you can’t be in Washington anywhere in or near the beltway — inside the beltway — without feeling excitement and electricity and anticipation. It is just remarkable.

I guess my hope is that the weather is — warms up. It’s brutally cold now in our city. And I hope as well that President Obama, if the weather isn’t warmed up, even if it is, will speak briefly.

MARK SHIELDS: He speaks so well there’s a temptation always to speak long. But I hope he speaks briefly.

But I think it’s just a remarkable, remarkable time in the country. And I think it is shared across party lines. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans now like Obama. I mean, that is rather remarkable.

JIM LEHRER: Remarkable time in our country, David?

DAVID BROOKS: It is. Even as the economic mood goes down, the political mood really does go up.

And I’m personally very excited about it, and excited about the day, but even excited about the mood that has already happened. I mean, Obama talks about changing the tone. He really has. Republican senators are saying they hear more from Obama than they did from Bush. He’s had conversations with conservatives, with liberals.

And he’s demonstrated he’s not a guy who is partisan. And I really…

JIM LEHRER: Not partisan?

DAVID BROOKS: And I really think — you know, he’s a Democrat.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: And, so, his beliefs…

MARK SHIELDS: He better be.

JIM LEHRER: … after all this.

DAVID BROOKS: Here’s what I…

JIM LEHRER: He better be.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, he told me was switching parties.

DAVID BROOKS: Now, what I mean by that, with some people, when you disagree with them, you get the sense that it’s like a little status battle, that their side is a little better than your side.

And he has absolutely none of that, in part because he is so self-confident. But there’s no status. It’s not a cultural war. Like, with the Clintons, there was a little cultural war, with the Bushes. There was a little status. You know those Democrats, you know?

But, with him, there is absolutely none of that. And, therefore, disagreement doesn’t carry a lot of the emotional baggage that it might otherwise.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

What about the expectations saying — there’s already stories now, oh, the expectations are so high, there is no way in the world that the country cannot be anything but disappointed with Barack Obama, because the expectations are so high.

MARK SHIELDS: Boy, we will find an angle, won’t we?

Obama already changing tone

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
One of the great advantages that Barack Obama has, in addition to his exceptional personal qualities and strengths, is that he is the first post-cultural president we have had in this country.

MARK SHIELDS: I -- just on that, I just did want to say one thing about David.

One of the great advantages that Barack Obama has, in addition to his exceptional personal qualities and strengths, is that he is the first post-cultural president we have had in this country. I mean we have...

JIM LEHRER: Culture war president, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, we fought over Vietnam, who didn't go, who did go, who was for it, on the sexual revolution, who was for women's rights, who was against it, who said that they wanted to fight for the family.

I means, that is -- our politics have been defined along those lines. And Bill Clinton and George Bush, the two people you mentioned, you know, really sort of represented an apotheosis, if you would, of that whole battle.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it was generation.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Generation.

And Barack Obama, it couldn't mean less to him. And he has none of those scars. He has none of that baggage. He doesn't have to prove that his side was right, because he didn't have a side.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if you were born in 1961, you have an extraordinary perspective on politics, as some of us were.

JIM LEHRER: Now, David...Moving right along. You were at a special dinner with -- you and a few other right-wing fanatics... went to this off-the-record dinner at George Will's house.

I'm not going to ask you what was said. But what was the feeling that came out of that, from you? How did you feel?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he was carried in by cherubs with Oprah Winfrey spreading rose petals at his feet.

DAVID BROOKS: And he said, David, which sort of wine would you like me to turn your water into? That was...

JIM LEHRER: I see.

DAVID BROOKS: No, I -- we can't talk about what happened. But I will say a couple of things.

The one thing that comes across -- first of all, the one thing I will say is, it's a bunch of conservatives, mostly, and him. There was no sense that there were ideological sides. It was just a bunch of people sitting around talking about policy.

And there was no sides. And then I think the things that comes out of the whole series of interviews he did -- he did one with conservatives and the next day with liberals, and then The Washington Post editorial board, and I think...

JIM LEHRER: USA Today.

DAVID BROOKS: USA Today. And I think CNN.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But the thing that comes out, a couple things. One is the intense pragmatism of the guy.

I really think he's a Democrat. And Mark will be fine with him. But he really is empirical. And I think he sees himself as a very empirical person, data-driven, no grand philosophy of what the role of government should be, just what works.

And, second, I think a real sense of stability and order, which will be of comfort to conservatives. And he's emphasized this quite a lot this week, that we are going to be spending a lot of money over the next couple of years on the stimulus package.

But, over the long term, he's aware of the deficit, the possibility of fiscal imbalances. And he's very serious about Social Security and Medicare reform, entitlement reform, to get the long-term budget in line. And, so, if he's really going to be serious about entitlements, if he's going to get a commission that will help us solve it, then he can spend a lot of money in the next year or two -- I don't care -- because that's the real fiscal issue.

And -- and he stressed that this week in his public interviews, that he really wants to take care of that issue.

MARK SHIELDS: That's a real fiscal issue, but the dominant economic issue is jobs. And that's what he is going to be measured on.

I mean, I agree with David, the deficit and the debt is a real problem. I mean, the fact that it has doubled in the eight years of George Bush's watch is a very, very serious indictment and a very serious statement, and that we fought the only war we have ever fought in American history in 168 years without a draft or a tax increase.

So, we have reaped that fiscal whirlwind. But the reality is, Barack Obama, what people are hoping and planning for and expecting is that he will put Americans back to work. That is what is terrifying. That is the terror in this country right now.

Bush administration's legacy

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
And I just say about Dick Cheney, he leaves with the lowest numbers that any vice president in the history of the country has ever had. Compared to Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle looks like Ronald Reagan.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned George Bush's watch.

Let's -- we talked about it last night, after Mr. Bush's farewell address. What are you -- in four days, he leaves as well. George -- I mean, Barack Obama comes, but George W. Bush, of course, leaves.

What -- what do you think about that at this point? I mean, you -- and not just George W. Bush, but Dick Cheney, the whole Bush administration, what it did and did not do?

MARK SHIELDS: I guess a couple of things.

First of all, in 2000, they ran on the repeated theme, to every military group, help is on the way. There is no objective observer who could make the judgment, eight years after Dick Cheney and George Bush have been in charge, that the morale of the American military is not lower, that the veterans have been treated with indifference or incompetence or worse, that we are -- our equipment and our personnel have been stretched, that young, able officers have been forced to leave, that we don't have the equipment or the personnel that both presidents have talked about, President outgoing Bush and incoming Obama, to fight in Afghanistan.

We don't have the personnel or the equipment to do it. We don't have the equipment to go to Darfur. So, I mean, that was, in fact, a very, very hollow statement. And recruitment remains an enormous, enormous problem.

So, I guess the thing that hit me in his interviews and his final press conference was his regrets, the president's regrets, seemed to be more symbolic, rather than substantive. I mean, it was the "Mission Accomplished" sign, not going to -- to New Orleans after Katrina.

And I thought the one substantive regret he had that seemed to make sense to me was, he regretted, that in 2005, that he hadn't -- that he had pushed Social Security reform, rather than immigration -- they tried to do the two of them -- that, if he had pushed immigration reform at that time, he might very well have gotten it through. I think he was right, that he would have.

And I just say about Dick Cheney, he leaves with the lowest numbers that any vice president in the history of the country has ever had. Compared to Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle looks like Ronald Reagan.

And I think, in a strange way, he will be remembered that what looked to be a strength -- that was that he was not interested in succeeding the president, not running on his own -- became, in some sense, an emboldening quality for him, that he didn't have to worry. He was almost indifferent to voters' attitudes and feelings.

JIM LEHRER: He made that point in the interview he did hear here on the "NewsHour," that that gave him freedom to...

MARK SHIELDS: He did.

But it gave him license.

JIM LEHRER: He talked -- yes, well, he didn't use that term.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

'Centrality' of 9/11

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
[Cheney] created a secret channel in the White House, so that even senior Bush administration officials had no idea what was going on between Cheney and Bush in their private conversations. Cheney never said anything at the meetings.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right.

But what would you add or subtract from that? That is a long indictment.

DAVID BROOKS: That is a long list.I didn't know he was going to do cabinet by cabinet. But, first, on VA spending, I think Bush -- I'm not sure about this, but I think Bush's increased VA spending by a tremendous percent -- oh, I think he's done that by a tremendous percentage, certainly more than Clinton. There has been a lot of money spent on the military and on the VA.

MARK SHIELDS: It's the competence.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that could be.

I guess on -- let me stick to Dick Cheney. The problem with Dick Cheney -- a couple problems -- first, we talked about last night and I think Cheney talked about in his interview the centrality of 9/11.

I think they, and especially Dick Cheney, had an emergency mentality, in which everything had to be done super fast and without the normal procedures of government. And, therefore, it was unsustainable and in many cases wrong, what Dick Cheney thought he had to do, throwing out the rule books.

The second thing about Dick Cheney was that he created a secret channel in the White House, so that even senior Bush administration officials had no idea what was going on between Cheney and Bush in their private conversations. Cheney never said anything at the meetings. It was just a secret channel. And you can't have a White House...

JIM LEHRER: He talked only...

DAVID BROOKS: They only talked to each other. You can't have a White House with one policy process and then another process.

And then the final thing I would say is, I think, in the last couple years, Bush understood the weaknesses of that and I think distanced himself from Cheney. You know, Bush does an impersonation of Cheney. And that began to surface a little more in the last couple years.

And I think that was a sign that he thought: Well, he has some strengths. And Dick Cheney was a primary supporter of the surge, but he is taking me down some places I don't want to be.

And, in the last couple years, I think the White House moved away from the Cheney model, which was a very secretive model, and toward a more open model. By then, a lot of things were too late. But I think that secretive -- you might almost -- as one Bush aide told me, Nixonian model, was something Cheney brought in.

JIM LEHRER: And you think the secrecy led to some mistakes that might have not otherwise happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Because it stifled debate.

JIM LEHRER: It didn't get air; it didn't get discussed; it didn't get debated? Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: In his interview with you, Jim, one answer of his just absolutely -- you asked him, any regrets, or -- and he said he granted -- or disappointed, mistaken that the people of Iraq had been so brutalized by Saddam Hussein, that they, he had underestimated that.

Well, I mean, there was no sense of responsibility in his case for the fact that we moved in to Iraq without adequate force numbers to secure the country, to protect the electrical grids, to protect the country itself, to stop looting and pillage.

At the same time, we disbanded the army. These were all decisions made by the administration that Dick Cheney had a very, very dominant role.

I do agree with David that, in the second term, in part after Colin Powell had been driven out, that, when Rumsfeld was gone and Wolfowitz was gone and his -- his real allies inside were gone...

JIM LEHRER: Cheney's allies.

MARK SHIELDS: ... Cheney's, he was...

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... that the president did assert more power in the relationship.

Geithner under scrutiny

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I still think he is a remarkably talented guy who is going to be a good treasury secretary. But he deserves some scrutiny.

JIM LEHRER: A couple of things before we go, quickly, the Obama confirmation process. Is Tim Geithner in trouble, do you think, for treasury secretary?

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think he is in trouble. But he will get more scrutiny than anybody else.

JIM LEHRER: Does he deserve it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think a bit, because, you know, summer camp is not child care. And you should just -- should not write it off for your taxes. That looks like are you stretching.

That said, I still think he is a remarkably talented guy who is going to be a good treasury secretary. But he deserves some scrutiny.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: It is a new standard, a new standard.

If a guy is good enough, then it doesn't make any difference if he pays taxes. Republicans are not taking him on because they are against paying taxes anyway.

But the only...No, they are against -- quite frankly, there's two things going for him.

One, he wasn't in the private sector the last eight years. He was in the public sector. He was on the public payroll, the International Monetary Fund, where he was told regularly that you had to deduct. When he was finally audited in 2000 and he had to pay his 2003, 2004, he didn't pay his 2001, 2002, didn't pay his child care.

But there is only one Republican who could stop him from. And that's Chuck Grassley of Iowa, because he's got the traction just standing. He won't do it. And so he will sail through, because people are scared stiff about the economy.

JIM LEHRER: Scared that -- do you agree with that? That is why they're not going to do anything?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think, in general, we should be a lot more tolerant about people's foibles. I just think the standards...

MARK SHIELDS: Not the secretary of the treasury, in charge of IRS, not paying taxes.

DAVID BROOKS: People are human beings.

JIM LEHRER: Goodbye, two human beings.

DAVID BROOKS: One-and-a-half.

MARK SHIELDS: Geez.