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Economic Strategy, Stem Cell Policy Top Week’s News

March 13, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and Michael Gerson weigh the news of the week, including President Barack Obama's approach on the economy, his decision to lift restrictions on stem cell research funding, and more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight.

Gentlemen, good to see both of you.

Mark, you’re in New York. I’m going to start with you. New efforts over the last day or so by President Obama, his administration, to boost public confidence in the economy, in what lies ahead. Are they striking the right tone?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think it’s important, Judy, that the president, in addition to being the commander-in-chief, also be the empathizer-in-chief, that he understands what people are going through, and, to some degree, the inspirer-in-chief.

What you want to avoid is that overly rosy scenario where, “Tomorrow morning, everything is going to be better.” And I don’t think that has been part of the message, but it is necessary for the leadership to try and inspire confidence, both in their policies and the course being pursued.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, is it the right tone? I mean, they’ve been criticized for being too downbeat; as Mark says, they can’t do the rosy scenario.

MICHAEL GERSON, Washington Post Columnist: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What should they be saying?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, you know, as a former speechwriter, I believe in rhetoric, but I believe in reality even more. And the problem here is that the president has not been particularly reassuring on the major economic challenge we face, which is the credit crisis.

The administration has not intervened in a decisive, effective, credible way on this set of issues. People don’t understand how it’s going to work, how they’re going to get from here to there. That seems to me the largest sap of confidence in this system, is, in fact, a substantive one, not a rhetorical one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, you agree, not reassuring?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s reassuring, Judy. I find some of the criticism of the president rather interesting in this sense, that a number of commentators, columnists, pundits, even some who’ve graced this show, have expressed disappointment in the president, somehow that they attributed his victory to great personal qualities or superb campaign or maybe a rejection, a referendum on President Bush’s policies.

And it’s very much — the reaction is very similar to that of Democrats when Ronald Reagan won, and that was that Ronald Reagan had won because of his personal qualities, that people liked him, but they didn’t endorse his policies.

Well, Barack Obama has not done anything as president of the United States that he did not stand for and endorse in his campaign, whether it’s in health, in education, in taxes in particular, where he wants to return to — my goodness — the runaway rates of the Clinton years, the most pro-business Democratic president in the 20th century, and, you know, in education.

So I think there’s a disappointment which was totally misplaced in the criticism of the president.

Obama contends with criticism

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
But there's no question that the Obama supporters and admirers would far prefer that the president be criticized from the right, from conservatives and Republicans, rather than from economists who do not think that they're spending enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Misplaced, Michael? You wrote today that you think he's not hewing to the same things he said in the campaign.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, in some ways, you know, an emphasis on education and health care are from the campaign, but this is a different circumstance now. He seems to be talking about constructing the welfare state at a time when our credit system's burning to the ground. And that's not creating a lot of confidence. People want to see action on this specific set of issues to enable that economic confidence of recovery.

Now, I don't think conservatives should over-interpret this, because I do think the president, you know, could have an effective plan on this. I think the economic recovery might come more quickly than some people think. I don't think you can overemphasize it.

But right now, he's in a difficult circumstance, increasingly criticized not just from the right, but actually from moderates on -- for his failures to articulate a confidence-building economic agenda on the biggest issues that face us right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, what does it say about President Obama that he is getting this kind of criticism?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the old consolation is, if you're being criticized from the right and being criticized from the left, which he is, then you're probably doing something right.

But there's no question that the Obama supporters and admirers would far prefer that the president be criticized from the right, from conservatives and Republicans, rather than from economists who do not think that they're spending enough or there's enough stimulus or that there hasn't been enough intervention in the credit markets. I don't think there's any question about that.

Education, health core of stimulus

Michael Gerson
Washington Post Columnist
So the first announcement on the banking crisis was widely panned as being not very specific. They've not followed up since then, because, if they did it again, there would be a huge consequence for failing expectations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, just to get back to your point, I mean, the president argued -- I mean, he's made various arguments. Today he argued -- or yesterday, I guess, talking to the business -- the Chamber of Commerce, he argued again the country can't afford to put off, he said, intervening in education, energy, health care, all those things that he said the country's put off for so long.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right. Well, I think that that's a valid argument about the long term of the country. We need an education system. We need health care reform. There's a broad openness to those things.

I guess it's a question of credibility in the sequencing of these things. I mean, it was viewed that his main focus in introducing the budget was really on long-term things, rather than these immediate needs in the economy.

And I think that, unfortunately, some of that has been the over-promising and underperforming related to this specific issue. So the first announcement on the banking crisis was widely panned as being not very specific. They've not followed up since then, because, if they did it again, there would be a huge consequence for failing expectations. They need to get their ducks in a row and make an announcement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, anything to say on that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, just two quick points. I think, first of all, that health care and particularly education are a major part of the economic stimulus. I mean, I think that they stimulate the economy, spending money in those areas does, and I think, for the long-term competitiveness of the nation, they're absolutely indispensable and essential.

As far as the president himself is concerned, the president cannot speak 100 percent of the time on the economy or devote his energy 100 percent of the time to the economy. He does have other people with major responsibilities.

I mean, Chairman Bernanke obviously has a responsibility as chairman of the Federal Reserve, but so does Larry Summers, so does Secretary Geithner, so does Chairman Paul Volcker, Sheila Bair, I mean, there's just a lot of voices there.

His cannot be the only voice on the economy. In fact, I think any administration suffers when the president becomes the economic voice.

Stem cell policy changes

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I mean, an embryo is either actual life or personal life. And the idea or the concept of these little beings being harvested for their parts I think is anathema to most people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, let me ask you about something else that the president did talk about this week, and that's stem cell. He announced a chance in stem cell policy, but he's clearly leaving some of the details to others. What do you make of this right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, unless we're going to go through on stem cell research what we've gone through politically -- I'm not talking ethically or medically or scientifically -- what we've gone through on family planning and contraceptive availability, where you just switch by executive order -- from administration to administration, the policy changes -- I think that, first, the president made the decision and kind of passed it on to NIH, the National Institutes of Health, to come up with rules in 120 days.

I think that the Congress itself will have to write guidelines. I mean, there were many cheers and congratulations that they've taken science out of politics and politics out of science and all the rest of it. But there are fundamental ethical and basic questions here, Judy, which have not been addressed and I think can only be addressed in legislation.

I mean, an embryo is either actual life or personal life. And the idea or the concept of these little beings being harvested for their parts I think is anathema to most people. And so I think that we face a very real, important, and, I hope, thoughtful debate on this policy. But I think the president has made his decision that he is committed to stem cell research.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You've got some strong views on this.

MICHAEL GERSON: I do have strong views. When you look at Clinton in 1999, he drew a very clear line. We are not going to produce embryos for the purpose of destroying them in medical experimentation. That was the thesis of the Castle bill, the one that Bush, you know, vetoed. It said we're going to use spare embryos, not produce embryos for these purposes, because it's morally problematic.

Obama's decision was the most radical he could have taken, which is science will decide. You know, there will be no restrictions other than what they place on themselves. And science is a human institution, just like government, just like business, as we've seen.

And when it doesn't have that kind of outside, you know, restraint and analysis, you can get real problems, as we saw in the 20th century, on eugenics or forced sterilization or a lot of other issues. This is an area where there needs to be a moral voice in this that comes from a democratic process.

And I really agree with Mark that eventually you're going to have to have something more than just saying, "Scientists, do whatever you want."

Freeman withdraws nomination

Michael Gerson
Washington Post Columnist
many of the objections to Freeman were on his views and ties to China, to Saudi Arabia, and other things. And the opposition was not from some mysterious lobby. It came from people like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you all about something very different and that is the man who had been nominated to head up -- to chair the National Intelligence Council. Charles Freeman withdrew his name this week. There were charges, Michael, or he made charges, essentially, that the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is far too powerful.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where has this left the discussion about that?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, many of the objections to Freeman were on his views and ties to China, to Saudi Arabia, and other things. And the opposition was not from some mysterious lobby. It came from people like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who were concerned about his substantive views.

I think that we were saved, in many ways, from a very scary prospect, to have a man like this who is conspiratorial in his view of the Jewish community that close to a sensitive position. That's a frightening thing. And I'm glad it didn't take place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with Michael. I think there's no question Charles Freeman had made statements which gave his critics and his opponents ammunition.

But I think that for somebody to express as he did the very factual statement that the oppression and brutalization of the Palestinians was not only not right, but was not in the long-term interest of -- an occupation was not in the long-term interest of the state of Israel or the United States of America was speaking very truthfully.

And I think that that -- he was doing a service to both Israel and to America and to peace by so doing.

I think that the administration, when David Broder called to find out, as the nomination was still very active, very alive, if they still supported him and said, "We'll get back to you on that," did not cover itself with either glory or courage in the way they handled it. If they wanted to drop him, drop him, but don't pretend that he's not your choice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A real difference, and we are going to have to leave it there. We heard you. Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, good to have you. Appreciate it.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.