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Shields and Brooks Mull Obama’s Agenda, Economy’s Troubles

March 6, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks weigh the week's news, including February's spike in unemployment, President Barack Obama's priorities amid the economic crisis and the debate over the future of the GOP.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how well is the president doing reassuring the public about this relentless decline in jobs?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: About as well as anybody could, Jim, as the floodwaters rise. I mean, as soon as the election was over, as soon as he was inaugurated, it continued. Every day that he said things were bad and they were going to get worse. I mean, he’s been consistent in his message.

I think a couple of things. One, I don’t think people believed that things were really that bad and probably doubtful that he did, as well. And I think it becomes doubly difficult, when you get sort of the icons, the cornerstones of what have been American corporate leadership, companies like General Motors and General Electric, where so many Americans — 55 million American households now have stock portfolios, which is double what it was 20 years ago. And that’s because of 401(k)s and IRAs, which have taken the place of retirement programs.

So the president’s confronted with a whole set of realities. I think, quite honestly, to be fair, he did misstep and he lost his surefootedness when talking about the market, which, of course, everybody watches because it goes up and down. Nobody understands it, but the numbers are there. We do it; it’s there in the morning; it’s there at night.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. We report it every night on the program.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. And he said, look, it’s like a tracking poll in a campaign. And that was a misstep, because the president has to be commander-in-chief, but he also has to be empathizer-in-chief. And I think that was making light of what is understandable anxiety on people’s parts.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that was a mistake?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes, because the president should only talk about what he knows about. And the president doesn’t really know when the market is going to bottom out. I mean, he has no clue. We don’t know what moves the market.

So I think that was a mistake. But I think — the one thing I would say is that my sense is — we all have our perceptions based on our conversations…


DAVID BROOKS: .. is that, in the past week, there was already a lot of economic anxiety, but I think we fell another level.

Where should Obama focus efforts?

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I were [Obama], I'd focus a lot more attention on [the administration's policy on the banking industry] to give people some sense of confidence that the financial sector is going to be basically taken care of and that we've got a plan.

JIM LEHRER: You mean up here or up here?

DAVID BROOKS: Up here, yes. I just hear more, "Gee, is there going to be a depression?" I just hear a greater sense that, "Gee, maybe this is something really serious."

And so the one thing that I think the president has to react and say, "Listen, I care about education. I care about health care. I care about energy." But because of the sudden increase in panic, there's a lot more focus on the right now.

I mean, a health care plan or an education plan that will yield results in 2015, that would be great. But right now. And to me, there is still a black hole in the administration policy concerning the banking response and the financial world.

And if I were him, I'd focus a lot more attention on that to give people some sense of confidence that the financial sector is going to be basically taken care of and that we've got a plan at least.

JIM LEHRER: And that will...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that -- but that would be the first order of business. And I'm afraid he's spreading his -- you know, he's got the health care summit this week. Next week, there's a little education going on.

If I were him, I'd just focus on this, because if he goes down in history badly, it will be because he didn't focus like a laser, as Bill Clinton would say, on the immediate crisis at hand.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree he's trying to do too much, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't. I mean, I think, Jim, every president, whoever that president is, when presented with a crisis, seizes upon the crisis to advance his values, his goals, his agenda.

I mean, many of the same people were critical of the president doing too much right now or overreaching or -- I mean, there's nothing he's advocating right now that he did not advocate during the campaign, I mean, for better than a year-and-a-half. Anybody that listened to his speeches, they didn't pull some program out of left field.

JIM LEHRER: Like health care reform, education reform, et cetera, OK.

MARK SHIELDS: No, that's always been the ritual, the mantra. And I think I guess what I'd add to that is, I mean, we had a crisis in this country in 2001 after 9/11. And President George W. Bush used that crisis to advance his own agenda, which it turned out to be consolidation, a vast expansion of executive power, a war against a country that had never attacked us and in no way threatened us.

I mean, so there is a natural inclination, an impulse. I think the president has made the case that it's an organic whole, the health care is part of the economy, and it's an important part of the economy.

And I think we saw that yesterday at the White House conference, that there's a recognition that the United States is less competitive, our economy is less vital and viable because of the health care costs.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think -- yes, go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, Barack Obama attacked George Bush for taking his eye off the ball because of going to war in Iraq after 9/11. That was the exact argument he made. And I think there's some of -- he's making some of the same mistakes.

Now, that doesn't mean I don't sympathize with health care and education and all that other stuff. I absolutely do. But as long as you've got this black hole in the financial sector, none of that stuff is going to matter.

The second thing to be said is that, if we don't take care of the immediate crisis, there just will be no money to pay for any of this stuff. In the president's budget, he expects deficits of $500 billion, which I think is wildly optimistic.

In the health care, say, he's, to his credit, raised in theory at least $640 billion as a down payment on health care reform. Well, where is he going to get the other $600 billion? Where is he going to get it if the economy continues to decline?

And so, to me, he's just trying to do too much and tried to spend -- first, there's the issue of the overload of the staff, which is tremendous, but, secondly, the overload of the resources.

And I think realistically, even with his budget, which has some very good things in it, we're looking at deficits of a trillion dollars as far as the eye could see, a trillion dollars a year.

Stimulus plan will take time

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The man has been president of the United States for less than seven weeks. In 1981, Ronald Reagan came in having carried 44 states. He got his economic plan passed in July. Bill Clinton in 1993 got his in August.

JIM LEHRER: And we've talked about this before, but, David, Mark, is there also this kind of feeling that, well, there's the financial plan, there's the stimulus plan, there's a this plan and this plan, but still there was another 600-and-some-thousand jobs lost and nothing seems to be working. It isn't so much that there's a deep hole; it's that everybody has a plan, but none of them have begun to work yet.

DAVID BROOKS: I would give him a little break on that...


DAVID BROOKS: ... because the plans are not going to take into effect for a while, even the stimulus plan. I wish the stimulus had been more front-loaded...


DAVID BROOKS: ... but even that will take months. So we'll be in this for the year.

But I just think, well, a number of things. First of all, they are just -- it's Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. It's those two guys trying to do a million things all at once, without any staff. Tim Geithner just lost the woman who was going to be his deputy. They've got no staff.

And executing this stuff is going to be phenomenally hard. There was some talk of hiring another 100,000 or 300,000 new federal workers. Well, hiring that alone is a headache, let alone getting those people in place to oversee something you're going to try to enact in a year.

JIM LEHRER: So what's happening? What's going on, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, Jim, I mean, first of all, the man has been president of the United States for less than seven weeks. In 1981, Ronald Reagan came in having carried 44 states. He got his economic plan passed in July. Bill Clinton in 1993 got his in August. George W. Bush in 2001, with nothing but really a tax cut, which -- and quite appealing, got it passed at the end of May.

So, I mean, by the middle of February, he's passed an economic stimulus that we understood when it was passed that it wasn't going to be a week or two weeks. I mean, I don't know. This is like get rid of belly fat in 15 minutes or something, you know, the hot fudge sundae diet. It doesn't work that way.

JIM LEHRER: But wasn't there the expectation, right or wrong, Mark, that, hey, he's got all these things, it's going to work, and everybody is going to have their confidence lifted, and everything would be fine?

MARK SHIELDS: No, his consistent message has been, "Things are bad, and they're going to be worse, and we're going through hard times." Now...

JIM LEHRER: No, I'm not saying he didn't say that.

MARK SHIELDS: No, he has said that. But, I mean, if the expectation were there, I mean, there is something about instant gratification and that is a -- remains a problem.

Health care reform looks likely

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
It's much more likely that we'll get health care reform this year than we did when Bill Clinton tried to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, he did have a health care summit, David, to good purpose?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I'm not sure how much the summit -- I'm not sure how much these summits are achieving. And maybe that's too much to expect in one day.

I guess I think two things. First, I think, in the Senate, there is a growing consensus around a series of things which Max Baucus seems to be at the center of...

JIM LEHRER: The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

DAVID BROOKS: ... and so I would say, first, it's much more likely that we'll get health care reform this year than we did when Bill Clinton tried to do it. I'd say somewhere, if I had to guess...

JIM LEHRER: Because or in spite of the financial crisis?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, in spite of it.

JIM LEHRER: In spite of it.

DAVID BROOKS: I think it's because you have a group of people cohering around more of a consensus than you had back then.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the...

JIM LEHRER: You heard what was said on our program last night. Excuse me. There were three people who were at the summit who said there's more cohesion of...

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

JIM LEHRER: ... belief in, hey, we've got to -- there may not be on what to do, but there certainly is on do something.

MARK SHIELDS: First of all, big difference from 1993. It's on C-SPAN, OK? All the meetings in 1993 were closed. Everybody was invited. I mean, the insurance companies, the doctors, the Congress. They were not part of the 1993 experience.

So I think, in that sense, there was an inclusiveness. And I think there's no question, there's a recognition -- I mean, in the self-interest is a compelling motive. And American corporate interests know that health care has become an enormous burden for them to compete internationally.

And that there -- now, back -- when Bill Gradison, who was the former congressman from Cincinnati and the head of the American health insurance association in 1993, came up with the Harry and Louise ads, says, you know, I really feel that this thing is moving in the right direction, I think there is, I mean, I think there's a sense of movement, and I think they've done well in shepherding it.

JIM LEHRER: Last night what they said, as you know, was that the consensus is that it's the cost that is the problem. It isn't the delivery system. We can deal with all of that. But if we don't get the cost down, forget reforming health care.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, we spend more on health care, twice as much on health care as the gross national product of India. I mean, you want to think -- I mean, India is a pretty much of an economic success story. And you want to know the human cost? A hundred and twenty Americans every hour declare personal bankruptcy because of health care costs.

JIM LEHRER: Because of health care.

DAVID BROOKS: But there is -- bringing down the cost, how you do it, there's still an argument.


DAVID BROOKS: And I think the White House...

DAVID BROOKS: ... their right instincts are this comparative effectiveness, that in some parts of the country they're paying half of what they pay elsewhere, and using -- getting a sort of Federal Reserve Board of health care or something like that to really study what works and what doesn't.

There's no consensus around that, so we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. But I think there's a little more agreement than there was 15, whatever, years ago.

Obama still popular in polls

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
It's a rather remarkable achievement that [Obama's] been able to buoy the spirits of the country in a sense of even limited optimism at a time of such empirically just overwhelmingly bad news.

IM LEHRER: Speaking of -- go ahead.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one quick thing, that kind of -- over this week. In the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, Barack Obama is at 68 percent favorable. He's more popular than his policies. He's risen in popularity. Americans feel better...

JIM LEHRER: As things gets worse...

MARK SHIELDS: ... about direction of the country than they did. I mean, it's a rather remarkable achievement that he's been able to buoy the spirits of the country in a sense of even limited optimism at a time of such empirically just overwhelmingly bad news.

So I just say that because Ronald Reagan -- I compare him to Ronald Reagan, in the sense that he came to office just as Ronald Reagan did, with a big victory at a time when people wanted government to do more, just as Reagan came when people wanted government to do less.

JIM LEHRER: We have 25.3 seconds left, and I'd be derelict in my duties if I didn't ask the two of you to say, in the struggle between Rush Limbaugh and the Democrats over who speaks for the Republican Party, who's winning, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Tactically, the Democrats are winning. The Republicans either have to dis Rush Limbaugh or sign on to him. And both of them are bad choices, from their point of view.

MARK SHIELDS: David is right, but the White House should not be involved in this...

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

MARK SHIELDS: ... in any way. I mean, this is a time -- we've just gone through the litany of horrors, what Americans are facing, the pain of 8.1 percent of Americans without a job to go through to Monday morning. And there -- you get the White House talking about Rush Limbaugh and the chief of staff of the White House...

DAVID BROOKS: I completely agree with that. I underline that.

JIM LEHRER: We have 8.1 seconds, and we just used it. Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.