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Stimulus Battle, Obama Cabinet Top Week’s News

February 13, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks mull the political news of the week, including the battle in Congress over the stimulus bill and Sen. Judd Gregg's decision to drop his bid to become the Obama administration's commerce chief.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, hello.

Mark, this stimulus bill is just about to become law. What’s your take?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it’s basically what the president wanted. I think it’s a monstrous success for him. Do you want to know how I feel about the bill itself?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: OK. I think it was strengthened in the conference. I was a little concerned in the Senate.

I mean, this is one of those instances, Judy, where elections really do count. The philosophy and approach of Barack Obama is in this bill, in the sense that, if you’re going to have an economic assistance act in the country, you start with a simple premise, and that is: We get money to those who need it the most.

And those — A, for the very simple economic principle that they’re going to spend it; and, B, the very simple humanitarian principle, perhaps that should be first, that these are the ones who need it.

These are the people who’ve been laid off. These are the people whose insurance is running out. These are the people who need food. And so, in that sense, I think it was strengthened when it came back to the House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And will it help the economy?

MARK SHIELDS: I am hopeful it will help the economy. After listening to Margaret’s interview with Christina Romer, I feel even better. I look forward to that Rooseveltian moment she spoke of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what’s your take?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: We all do, though less positive. I’m glad Mark is happy. I don’t know too many people happy with this bill. Most of my liberal friends think it’s much too little. Some of the more very conservative people think it’s just a big waste of money.

I think it’s a wasted opportunity. And I wish they had taken a bill and really done a sharp, short, shock, temporary, timely and targeted, as Larry Summers once said. And that would have been like a payroll tax going right to the lower middle class, giving them a lot of money right away.

But, instead, they married some stimulus with a bunch of long-term stuff which will spend out very slowly, very diluted across dozens or, really, hundreds of programs, and I think it will have a very limited effect.

And, you know, Christina Romer talked about the Rooseveltian moment. And that’s the crucial variable here. What is public confidence? We spent $1.7 trillion last year, had no stimulative effect that I can tell because confidence is so low.

And that’s the thing none of the economists can really calculate; it doesn’t fit into their models. So when they’re projecting job projections, that’s all based on a guess of how people feel. But if people are still scared about the future, then they’re not going to — they’re not going to invest. They’re not going to risk. They’re not going to spend.

And so I’m — my regret is that they didn’t really hit it hard, hit it temporary, and not shove in all these other programs.

Job loss in recent months 'tragic'

David Brooks
The New York Times
My objection is they took every program they've been thinking about for 14 years and they jammed a little here, a little there, a lot of education money. Believe me, I'm for education...But we've got to fix this economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The projections are just a guess, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, sure they are. I mean, I think a good part of it is confidence and where that confidence comes from. I certainly think that, based upon every measurement of public opinion, there's a lot more confidence in this president than there was in his predecessor.

And, I mean, it's just -- it is a different approach, Judy. Instead of saying that, the way we're going to stimulate the economy is to give, as John McCain said, when he opposed the tax cuts of 2001, is to give 65 percent of the tax cuts to 1 percent of the top wealthiest of Americans, that that was the way to somehow economic well-being.

And this is a different approach. This is an entirely different -- this is a bottom-up approach that I think has been attempted here to put people to work. And I'm hopeful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's what you object to?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no, I wish it were a bottom-up approach. I wish they'd given money to the lower middle class. I wish -- a big injection, like I say, to the working class, to poor people. And there's some of that in there.

My objection is they took every program they've been thinking about for 14 years and they jammed a little here, a little there, a lot of education money. Believe me, I'm for education. I'm for education spending. I'm for Pell Grants.

But we've got to fix this economy. And we should have focused all our resources on stimulating the economy, not on programs that will spend out over five years.

MARK SHIELDS: I would just point out that Pell Grants do stimulate economic activity. I mean, they do enable people to go to work. They do...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because students get an education.

MARK SHIELDS: It ups their skills. That's right. And they...

DAVID BROOKS: When are we going to get our first Pell Grants? When do you think the first Pell Grants in this bill will actually hit people's pocketbooks and hit schools? It'll be months; it'll be years.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it will be months. But, I mean, part of the reason that Larry Summers' "timely, targeted," you know, whatever, that has become the mantra is that it was before we had gone through three months in a row of 200,000 people being laid off.

I mean, the job hemorrhaging in the last three months has really been tragic. And I think that's what's led to a different approach and a larger approach.

Bill 'harmful' for bipartisanship

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I just think that Judd Gregg and President Obama were mutually infatuated with the idea of this marriage working out. And they both deliberately, in the sense, this spirit of infatuation, put under the rug all sorts of problems that did exist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, do you see any winners in all this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, just politically, you know, I -- as I say, most people I know are not happy with this. Politically, the big story is getting zero Republican votes in the House.

It happened the first time. When it happened today, frankly, I was surprised by that. I think there was some expectation they'd get 20, 30. And then, even yesterday, I thought seven or eight.

And I think they made it easy for the Republicans, again, by not just stimulating the economy, but adding to the baseline, adding to the permanent cost of government, instead of a stimulus bill -- marrying a stimulus bill with a bill to really rewrite and recreate the role of government. And that made it hard for any Republican to support it.

So the big story is the -- the lack of bipartisan support, with the exception of three Republicans in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Were you surprised, Mark, no Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: I was surprised that no Republicans in the House...

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the House.

MARK SHIELDS: ... voted for it today. I really did. I thought -- I mean, there were some Democrats who had opposed it the first time around who did, Allen Boyd of Florida, Blue Dog Democrat, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, among others, not accidentally, but the president had visited both those states this week and gotten very warm responses in both places.

But I think that you have to say that Senator Susan Collins of Maine, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania are winners. I mean, they were enormously influential in whether the Senate did pass the bill.

And they could have acted selfishly and self-indulgently. They didn't. They acted reasonably, I think, in their demands or their requirements for their support. There were changes that I probably wouldn't have made, but there was nothing that was reckless in a true sense.

I think that you have to say the president is a big winner. I mean, really did. And the fact that David points out no Republicans, he's absolutely right, but 97 percent of House Democrats backed it and 100 percent of the Senate Democrats. I mean, that shows a unanimity for a party that is, for the first time, a governing party, which is, for a controversial initiative, rather impressive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which raises a question, David. This president talked during the campaign and after he became president -- he'd been talking almost daily about wanting to bring the two parties together, bring Republicans on board. It hasn't happened.

Is he misguided? Is this -- where does that stand right now? Is he looking naive or what?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I still think it's possible. And we may get -- if he's serious about reforming entitlements, we could get something bipartisan.

To me, the problem was the substance here, again. In stylistic terms, in the way he met with people, the way he visited, he was fantastic. But if you're going to propose a bill that is hard philosophically for any Republican to support, which doesn't actually include a lot of the ideas, like the payroll tax holiday, that a lot of people across parties could support, then you're not going to get support.

And that's reflected in Judd Gregg. I mean, what he typifies is a lot of people who have very warm feelings about Obama, who admire Obama, but who are disappointed in this bill and see, well, at the end of the day, maybe there really are big philosophical differences between me, even someone who admires him personally, and him. And maybe there is no bridge. So it's really been harmful, this bill, for bipartisanship.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Judd Gregg?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I just think that Judd Gregg and President Obama were mutually infatuated with the idea of this marriage working out. And they both deliberately, in the sense, this spirit of infatuation, put under the rug all sorts of problems that did exist, I mean, really deep philosophical problems.

But, I mean, I think the country...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the country sees Barack Obama reaching out. I don't think there's any question about it. And I think he remains the dominant political figure in our firmament and, really, he showed this week in his press conference, in going to Indiana and Florida, that he, A, has this rather remarkable ability still to communicate with American voters and at the press conference, to, at the same time, Judy, in my judgment, anyway, to communicate with the voters at large in a way that was persuasive, impressive, without any talking points, without any 3x5 cards, without any stumbles. It was quite a tour de force.

Gregg withdrawal damaging

David Brooks
The New York Times
If 3.5 million jobs are created by next year, than this will be a success. If Geithner's program goes through and it stabilizes the banking, it will be a success. So far, you have to give him a B.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But did the White House feel burned because of what's happened?

MARK SHIELDS: The White House, I thought, looked bad. I mean, Judd Gregg looked a lot larger in ending this relationship. He took all responsibility to himself.

The White House, unexplained, including the president, said, "Oh, he had made the approach to us." I mean 300,000 people, last time I checked, have applied for jobs here. What's going to be the knock, that they made the approach to us?

I mean, President Obama personally chose him, so they ought to, you know, stop finger-pointing and say, "This was a mistake, and let's get somebody in there whom we agree with."

JUDY WOODRUFF: So maybe two Republicans in this Democratic cabinet may be enough?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I wouldn't think so, but they're running through commerce secretaries by the week. So there's plenty of room for more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, he's three-and-a-half weeks in. You're reading the critiques. It's not too soon to ask. What are you seeing?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I guess I would say he's doing -- I mean, he's passed this major piece of legislation, he's passed SCHIP. From his perspective, he's doing fine.

Where he's failing is that he set such remarkably high standards for himself: no lobbyists, change politics, bipartisan. By those standards, he's not living up. But by the normal standards of normal politics, he's doing fine.

But it all determines how this stuff works. If 3.5 million jobs are created by next year, than this will be a success. If Geithner's program goes through and it stabilizes the banking, it will be a success. So far, you have to give him a B, not up to the standards he set, but -- but successful by his own right.

MARK SHIELDS: I think he's doing remarkably well. If somebody had said, "You're going to take on this major an initiative in this short of time, I mean, before the President's break," I mean, "This is folly. The Congress won't move that quickly on it."

He's done it, and he's achieved it. The stumbles along the way are real; make no mistake about it.

I'll tell you, one consequence inevitable -- it's going to happen -- as a result of the latest fiasco with Judd Gregg is that the process will slow down. The natural inclination of an administration now is to say, "Oh, my god, we're not going to send anybody up there unless we're absolutely sure."

JUDY WOODRUFF: In picking...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, let's go -- even people who are perfectly clean, perfectly qualified, perfectly good, they'll want to go back and check whether they ever double-parked outside an orphanage on Christmas Eve or something of the sort. I mean, it's going to slow it down, and I think it's going to hurt the administration for that reason.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean slow it down in naming...

MARK SHIELDS: Slow down the nominating process. They'll be reluctant to put anybody up, because, you know, no one wants to get caught now in a vetting mistake.

DAVID BROOKS: It's true already they're vastly understaffed. I had an interview with one of the agencies this week, and they allowed me to wander through the building, because there was nobody to escort me. Believe me, that does not happen in a fully staffed administration, so they're hurting.

Entitlement reform next challenge

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I think it's imperative, but it's going to require two things, Judy. It's going to require tax increases, which conservatives oppose, and it's going to require a curtailment, a limitation on benefits, which liberals oppose.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So just to come back to this quickly, too much emphasis, do you think, David, on trying to reach across the aisle? Was that just a misguided idea?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that's what some are saying, but I still think that's the only way you're going to solve -- listen, solve the real problems. This bill, the stimulus bill that passed, is giving away free money, giving away money. That is not the hard lift.

The hard lift is when you actually ask people to sacrifice. And so they're going to need bipartisanship on that stuff, and so it's still useful to try to work on it and build it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if they didn't get it on an easy one, then -- because you're saying...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you can structure things differently. When they get to entitlements, when they get to housing, finance, it will be possible.

MARK SHIELDS: That will be the test. He certainly has laid the predicate of goodwill, of reaching across, of establishing personal relations.

But David talks about entitlement reform. I think it's imperative, but it's going to require two things, Judy. It's going to require tax increases, which conservatives oppose, and it's going to require a curtailment, a limitation on benefits, which liberals oppose.

And I think that's going to be the problem. Are conservatives going to swallow in the larger interest of entitlement reform and actually support tax increases?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm going spend this weekend thinking about entitlements. Mark Shields...

MARK SHIELDS: I hope you have a better weekend than that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... and David Brooks -- I do, too.