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Shields and Brooks Weigh Obama’s Troop, Budget Plans

February 27, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks examine President Obama's newly-announced plan to end the combat mission in Iraq and what the president's budget blueprint says about his administration's spending priorities.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

It’s good to see you both, gentlemen.

Mark, let’s turn back to the president’s Iraq troop withdrawal announcement today. Most troops, he’s saying, won’t come out until next year and that he’s going to leave as many as 50,000 troops there even after combat operations are over. What do you make of all this?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, in a military sense, I mean, it is not what the left — the liberal part of the Democratic Party expected. And that’s why you got the mild criticisms from Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid and then more strident and more vocal criticism from Dennis Kucinich and other members of the Democratic left.

The president, I thought, watching him today make that announcement and that decision, he has a confidence in making the decision that is a direct consequence, in my judgment, of his having been against the war.

He doesn’t have to explain or defend the results, as John McCain would have or Hillary Clinton would have or Joe Biden would have, as supporters, or to say, “I was misled on this.”

And so he can lay down the terms in a way that, as he said in his interview with Jim, “I don’t want to re-litigate.” I mean, there’s a tremendous compulsion in Washington to go back and to say, “Who was right in 2003 on the debate to go to war? And were you wrong?” He’s freed from that, in a…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re not saying he’s not responsible for the policy going forward?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, no, I’m saying — no, but it’s a great advantage not to spend time, effort and energy re-arguing that. And I think that’s what he did today, and he does it over and over again.

I mean, we’ve mentioned that he’s not re-arguing the cultural wars of the baby boomer generation, he’s not re-arguing or re-litigating who was right and who was wrong about — I mean, he says, quite frankly, he thinks he was right, but he’s not going to spend time, effort and energy or goodwill and political capital arguing about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, the Iraq plan, is it a realistic plan?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: It seems to be a consensus plan. I mean, it’s got a wide support. Not all — I mean, there are some on the left who oppose it, but a lot of Democrats — Jack Reed — a lot of Democrats who know the most about military affairs support it, a lot of the Republicans, you get a sense of that.

I mean, the basic fact is, the reality changed. Because of the surge, Iraq is now like the bright spot in the Middle East, if you can believe that, and there’s just a sense that it’s a lot more peaceful. Progress has been made. I mean, President Bush signed a SOFA, which I think would get all troops out by 2011…

MARK SHIELDS: Status-of-forces…

DAVID BROOKS: Status-of-forces agreement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Status-of-forces, right.

DAVID BROOKS: Which is an agreement with the Iraqi government to get all troops out one year after the 50,000 that President Obama has assigned. So, you know, this is where U.S. policy was moving regardless of who won, so it’s become sort of de-politicized because the reality on the ground has changed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the fact that the Republicans are saying, like John McCain is saying, well, this is actually dramatically different from what he said during the campaign? And some of the Democrats — and Barack Obama, the president, is saying, no, it’s exactly what I — does that debate even matter anymore…the consistency question?

MARK SHIELDS: Probably not. I mean, in some precincts it does, and I’m sure there will be some criticism of him from the most strongly anti-war elements in the Democratic Party.

But he changed — he kind of nuanced as he went along during the campaign. He kept saying, “I will consult with military commanders,” and that’s what he hung it on today.

Obama projects confidence

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
We're having a review to determine our strategy of Afghanistan, but he just committed 17,000 troops to go in. So why did we commit the troops if we don't know what our strategy is? Shouldn't he have done the review first?

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you make, David, overall, of the interview and what he said to Jim, the rationale for Iraq and Afghanistan?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess the first thing that comes across is that he does project an air of confidence, and not only confidence he projects -- one does tend to have confidence in him when one hears him. And I certainly, just as a viewer, certainly had a sense, "Well, this guy is taking it seriously."

When he talked about, you know, I lose some sleep over the deployments, when talked about, "I wish the troops -- I didn't have all these planes stacked up at once, all these different issues."

When you hear that, you say, well, there's a level of candor there. I'm glad he thinks that way. I'm glad exactly -- the one part where I had some question about, he mentioned the review of Afghanistan that Richard Holbrooke is going to be running for him.

Well, we're having a review to determine our strategy of Afghanistan, but he just committed 17,000 troops to go in. So why did we commit the troops if we don't know what our strategy is? Shouldn't he have done the review first? So that was my only question, but, in general, as always, very impressive.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that's a legitimate question that David raises.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean about sending the troops?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, because Colin Powell did endorse him. And I think you could hear echoes of the Powell doctrine, which was, you don't go in unless there is an overwhelming reason, it's the last resort, with overwhelming force, and with a clearly defined mission and a clearly defined measure of exit, how you determine when you exit. He was sort of tip-toeing up to that, I thought, today.

I thought -- David's right. He does project incredible reassurance. I mean, if you look at what he did this week, both on the budget and this, it's a combination of boldness and sort of reflectiveness. I mean, you get a sense of -- I mean, it really is a major, major change in the way the government will be run and what it will do, but it's -- there's also -- I'm just trying to think -- thoughtfulness about him that is reassuring, especially as you listen to him in the interview with Jim.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was almost as if he relishes -- I mean, Jim was saying there's so much going on right now, in that part of the interview. It was almost as if he relishes all this at one time, all the airplanes in the air at once.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did he say? He said this is -- at a time like this, this is when the political system starts to move effectively...

DAVID BROOKS: We all have...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... as if he's got an advantage.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, we all have the vices of our virtues. And his virtue is self-confidence, and the thing I worry most about Barack Obama is his self-confidence. I mean, the self-confidence is, A, to run for president at age 47, that takes a high degree.

But even among the level of self-confidence it takes to run for president, he's sort of off the charts in terms of self-confidence, and he feels up to this task.

The worry, of course, is that he is trying to do too much at once, that he's really got a very skeletal staff in the White House and they really are trying to reorganize the whole economy or half the economy.

And then he presents a budget this week which is, by many lights, I mean, to me, sort of shocking, shockingly off the charts in its ambition, and I think its ambition far exceeds its capacity to pay for exactly what it's promising.

So this budget, for example, was a tremendously self-confident document, the most self-confident and the most liberal document we've had from the White House in probably 60 years. And a lot of moderates and people like me were really shocked and a little scared by it; a lot of people on the left were ecstatic about it.

Opposing views on Obama budget

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
We have not mentioned in any budget for the past eight years the cost of Iraq. We haven't mentioned the cost of Afghanistan. We haven't mentioned the cost of Katrina. Those have all been off-budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But does that tell you something about him, Mark? I mean, what is the budget -- what do you learn about Barack Obama in the budget?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the budget is a statement of any administration's priorities, its values, its aspirations. And this was -- I mean, this is not a bashful budget. David's right.

I mean, he really laid it out there in terms that -- it's not simply about the current economic crisis. He wants to rearrange the relationship between the federal government and the citizenry of the country. He wants to close what he thinks is the income gap that is out of -- what is an income gap, but he doesn't think it is, and a concentration of wealth in the highest.

I mean, we've had presidents in recent years who have basically said, "You want it? You got it," and not tax and spend, but tax cut and spend. And he's -- taxes have been the third rail of American politics. He's come out and said, "I'm going to raise taxes."

DAVID BROOKS: Mark, he said he wouldn't -- he'd only offer tax cuts to 95 percent of the American people. And you've been talking about shared sacrifice. There's more shared sacrifice at a Bernie Madoff retreat than in this speech. I mean, there's nothing here.

He's imposing all the costs on the upper 2 percent, which, fine, the upper 2 percent deserve to pay more, but if he would pay for the bill, I'd be somewhat comforted, but this budget is more honest than the Bush budget, so let's be fair about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because it includes the war?

DAVID BROOKS: Because it includes a lot of stuff that the Bush budget put off. Nonetheless, there's lots of trickery here. They include -- they projected that the economy is going to have a roaring recovery next year and they're going to get their revenues from that. Who thinks that's going to happen?

They have savings by -- they pretend that, because we're not going to spend $170 billion in Iraq for the next 10 years per year, that we somehow have saved that money. So they're claiming savings on money we never would have spent anyway.

There's a whole series of things here, including some revenue bills which I suspect will never come in, which will leave us with a large fiscal hole because the ambitiousness.

Now, my colleague, Paul Krugman, thinks we're going to wind up with this big fiscal hole and then a VAT, a consumption tax, to fill it in, and that means, at the end of this journey, we haven't repaired the American system. We've transferred to a different sort of political economic system, much closer to Europe.

And that's why -- I don't know if we're going there, but that's why a lot of people I think in the center and on the right are either alarmed or nervous by the dramatic nature of this budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is alarm...

MARK SHIELDS: I think there's a reason. I mean, at a time of crisis, bold leaders try and put their imprint upon the relationship between the government and its people.

I mean, it has to be voted upon. Ronald Reagan did it in 1980, much to the consternation of many on the liberal side. Franklin Roosevelt certainly did -- Barack Obama is doing this. And he's doing it.

Now, David mentions he's more honest. More honest? I mean, Judy, we have not mentioned in any budget for the past eight years the cost of Iraq. We haven't mentioned the cost of Afghanistan. We haven't mentioned the cost of Katrina. Those have all been off-budget. We haven't mentioned the cost of the alternative minimum tax.

He's confronted those. That is not a pleasant thing to do. That leads to a deficit of this size. He said we're going to have to spend more for banks. That is not an easy thing to do. That's an unpopular thing to do.

Some budget measures 'dubious'

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
There are other things that are revenues that are supposed to come in on cap-and-trade, on this measure which would make it more expensive for rich people to give to charity. These things are politically very dubious that they're going to pass.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But David also said there's -- your word was trickery in here.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say gimmickry might be a better word.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gimmickry.

MARK SHIELDS: Not even remotely compared to what has gone in the previous eight years, in terms of trickery or gimmicks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But to the point that -- what if the economy doesn't grow at the rate that this administration's counting on?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, all budget statements are, you know, whether it's rosy scenario, I mean, there is an optimism about them. I mean, he is -- they've said, I mean, they've laid out those tax increases for 2011, the tax repeal, the repeal of the tax cuts.

I mean, that is predicated upon the economy improving. And, you know, I think that will be the test; that will be the measure.

DAVID BROOKS: But, first, on the rosy scenario, I don't think we're going to get 3 percent growth next year or 4 percent, which they're projecting outward.

The second thing, a lot of the tax measures -- they've set aside $634 billion for health care reform, which they -- they don't have a plan, but they have that chunk of money. That will pay for about half of it. Where is the other half going to come from? Now, they deserve credit for setting that chunk.

Then there are other things that are revenues that are supposed to come in on cap-and-trade, on this measure which would make it more expensive for rich people to give to charity. These things are politically very dubious that they're going to pass.

I think cap-and-trade is a good idea; I'd be a little surprised if they could pass that.

So the spending is for sure. The revenues to pay for it, to the extent they exist at all, are very dubious. And that's why we could have this huge gap.

Budget debate continues

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
This is finally a president who's going to do something. David applauds his putting $634 billion. He isn't coming in with a preordained blueprint and saying, "This is it; take it or leave it," if it was conceived in privacy or anything of the sort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Mark's point is that this administration wants to make transformative changes...

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right. And I...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... in government's relationship to the American people?

DAVID BROOKS: I think we all want that. And the debate will be over the nature of it. If it's a transformative relationship that basically keeps the American model with repair, you'll get a lot of people in the center for it. If it's a transformative relationship that turns us into France, with a consumption tax and a much bigger federal government, you will not.

MARK SHIELDS: That's a straw man, turning it into France. That's not the case. I mean, this is bold. I mean, we have known in this country for better than a generation that the private health care system was not working for 47 million Americans and was not -- was making American industry and business less competitive internationally.

And this is finally a president who's going to do something. David applauds his putting $634 billion. He isn't coming in with a preordained blueprint and saying, "This is it; take it or leave it," if it was conceived in privacy or anything of the sort.

He is saying, "I understand the legislative process. We will present ideas, and I will work with you." I mean, I think -- you know, to me, it is thoughtful and bold at the same time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're sticking with the France comment?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, I wish he would have a little more control. I'm afraid he's going to hand it all off to Congress and they're going to mess it up.

But as for the France numbers, if we head toward a single-payer health care system, if -- we have already narrowed the gap of our government as a percent of GDP to Europe. We're getting quite close to that. It's not a straw man; it's a possibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Much to debate here, much to think about over the weekend. Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.