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Obama’s Cairo Speech, Sotomayor Top Week’s News

June 5, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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David Brooks and Ruth Marcus discuss the news of the week, including President Obama's speech on U.S.-Muslim ties, Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court bid and GM's bankruptcy plan.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away tonight.

David, what did you think of the president’s speech to the Muslims yesterday?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: It says that on the headline. We all got to listen.

I liked it on the whole. You know, if you cover the Middle East, you know that there’s a lot of shouting there, a lot of people talking past each other. Famously, every group has their own historical narrative which they emphasize while ignoring everyone else’s narrative.

And I thought Obama did the right thing, which was to go there and give everybody — everybody’s narratives melded into one. Now, it meant he had to squeeze history here and there, but that’s fine. He melded it into one so everyone could have a common conversation.

The second thing he did…

JIM LEHRER: Shared facts, in other words?

DAVID BROOKS: A set of shared facts. The Holocaust really did happen. The treatment of Palestinians really kind of is pretty bad some times. So a set of shared facts.

And then gave people a chance to look at America in a new way. I think he said some very blunt things that needed to be said about how — America’s commitment to Afghanistan, defense of Islam, Islam’s role here, Muslim’s role, or in the population here.

And then — so that was the whole structure of the narrative, and I thought that was fantastic. Then there was the policy system. And there I — personally, I was less happy, because there I thought it was more realist, more cautious, more conservative.

So with the idealistic facade within the core of policy, I thought he was pulling back on almost every front, pulling back on Iran, pulling back, I think very importantly, on Egypt, not demanding democratization there, in a whole series of ways, pulling back. And so what you had was this idealistic facade, but really a realist George H.W. Bush-style foreign policy inside.

Speech as 'prologue to policy'

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post
I think we knew this was going -- intellectually that this was going to be a powerful moment, when we had the first African-American president, son of an African Muslim, going to an Islamic country and giving a speech.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: Kind of, except that I think I'm a little bit more positive about the things that David's negative about.

I think we knew this was going -- intellectually that this was going to be a powerful moment, when we had the first African-American president, son of an African Muslim, going to an Islamic country and giving a speech.

And I think, as he tends to do in these rhetorical moments, the president really rose to the occasion. It reminded me very much of his speech on race, in terms of his capacity to state both sides' views quite eloquently and understand that.

And it reminded me to some extent of his recent speech on national security and terrorism law, where he ticked through the very difficult issues.

I think this speech is to some extent prologue to the policy. It had a sort of oil-on-the-waters, calming effect for many people. He said some important things to both sides that needed to be said, that are important to be said publicly.

There is some healing to do. The reception it got in the Muslim world, the obviously only audience that it was intended for, was very good.

The proof will be in the pudding, in terms of whether we see this ultra-realist policy. He could have been -- you know, he talked about democracy. He might not have done it as fully as you like. He talked about...

JIM LEHRER: And particularly when he was in Egypt and he was talking about democracy...

RUTH MARCUS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: ... but he wasn't really talking about it directly, right.

RUTH MARCUS: I think everybody kind of knew what he was talking about.

JIM LEHRER: Kind of knew?

RUTH MARCUS: It depends on sort of how much you want to rub people's faces in the messes that they've created, you know, how much would that really change things? I'm personally a little bit relieved about the concept of a realistic and, dare I say, humble foreign policy.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say the two are not necessarily the same, but let's take the democracy case.

JIM LEHRER: OK, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Because this is something they had an internal fight about, and there was some resistance to mentioning the democracy. I still fundamentally believe...

JIM LEHRER: Internal fight, you mean, within...

DAVID BROOKS: Within the administration.

JIM LEHRER: ... what he was going say about it?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, how much -- how upfront to be on that.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. OK.

DAVID BROOKS: I still fundamentally believe it's not just a few extremists in the Arab world that are causing a lot of the terror. I think there still is a broad set of problems that stem from a bunch of terrible regimes.

Now, the Bush administration said, "We've been preferring stability to democracy. We've got to get rid of that. Let's just have democracy; to heck with stability." And that didn't actually work out. Even Bush couldn't follow through on that.

But you could have had a bottom-up series of democratic initiatives emphasizing judges, emphasizing honest courts, honest independent courts, funding the democratic activists. The Obama administration is cutting the funding to those activists.

Egypt, one of the most important countries in that region, is now in the middle of a terrible transition, where an autocratic, aging dictator is giving the country to his son. The country is falling apart at the seams because of the stagnation there. Are we really going to sit there and do nothing?

And it seems that we've scaled back so much that we are essentially going to do nothing.

Closing the West Bank settlements

David Brooks
New York Times
Israel could close the settlements. But as long as Hamas is sitting there, as long as Hezbollah is sitting there, there's not going to be peace.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Ruth, what do you -- where would you say if you -- in your view of it, that there are some realistic things to happen now, do you really expect things to flow from this speech in a realistic way, change on the ground, in other words?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, as I said, I think that this speech sort of lays the base for some change. And the president made clear, for example, on the Palestinian question what he would like to see from both sides there.

And I thought that was some good, tough and realistic talk -- I'm going to keep going back to that word -- on both the -- I thought it was a powerful moment to see the president talk about the absolutely unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States in that audience.

Those were what -- we tend to think that he's somebody who likes to tell people things that they want to hear. That was not an exactly popular point to be made, even though they -- I think the audience there understood that.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the audience in Cairo?

RUTH MARCUS: The audience in Cairo and the audience watching it in the Islamic world. At the same time, he's been very clear and very stern in terms of what he expects the Israeli government to do on settlements and what's tenable and not tenable there.

So, from my point of view, we'll see where they go on democracy. I'm something of a cynic on what's achievable, but I do think his commitment to driving the peace process forward is very welcome.

JIM LEHRER: And, of course, he followed up on that today. We had it in the news summary, talking to the German chancellor, said the Israelis and the Palestinians have -- two-state solution is it, but they have to do it. The United States cannot do it.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I hope he follows through on that, because of the momentum of what's happened in the past week, as Ruth's colleague on the editorial page wrote today, was that there's a lot of emphasis on the settlements, and there is going to be a natural progression, especially in the region among the Arab countries, to say, "OK, U.S., now force them to close some settlements. We're going to sit back. You, U.S., are going to lean on Israel to close the settlements."

Now, I'm all for closing the settlements, but having a solution based on U.S. pressure on Israel, which is now being felt quite strongly, is probably not the best way to bring the two regions together.

And then, to go back to my fundamental point, which is why the region needs fundamental change, Israel could close the settlements. But as long as Hamas is sitting there, as long as Hezbollah is sitting there, there's not going to be peace.

I, frankly, am much more pessimistic about peace between Israelis And Palestinians in the next 20 years than the administration seems to be, which to me is an argument for working on the fundamentals in the region.

Sotomayor's path to confirmation

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post
I do think that Democrats, at least, are braced for what somebody called to me the mother of all battles. And I was surprised to hear that.

JIM LEHRER: New subject, the nomination of Judge Sotomayor. Where does that stand at this moment, do you think?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I think it's, to some extent, the calm before the storm. We had a little bit of a storm, the talk about her being a reverse racist. I think we can now all recite the 32 words.

She had some meetings on the Hill this week. I think they went quite well, from everybody I've spoken to who's spoken to her. She's quite personable. She was described to me as a people person. There was somebody who asked her to give an autograph, and she stopped and signed his cast.

And I think she will do very well in her public viewing, when that comes along, which may be later rather than sooner. But I do think that Democrats, at least, are braced for what somebody called to me the mother of all battles. And I was surprised to hear that.

JIM LEHRER: Mother of all battles?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm surprised to hear that, too.

JIM LEHRER: Are you?

DAVID BROOKS: Because I don't pick up that vibe sort of on the Republican side. Some of the groups are opposed, but not -- I don't sense -- after the Rush and Newt racist, all that stuff, there's been a little pullback, even from Newtster.

But among the groups, there's some opposition. Among the elected senators, the sense I get there -- one certainly doesn't feel their blood boiling. John Cornyn from Texas has been very moderate. Jon Kyl from Arizona, if anything, has been sort of positive.

Lindsey Graham has said, "I may oppose her because of the way Barack Obama opposed John Roberts," so a few people are taking shots at Barack Obama, but I don't get a sense that there's really internal, authentic anger and opposition toward her. I get the sense of acceptance.

And, frankly, I wouldn't be that surprised if she went with, you know, a little fight, but not a huge fight.

RUTH MARCUS: It's going to be interesting to watch. I think that everybody wanted to pull back from using the words "racist" and things like that, but -- and nobody, I think, rationally thinks that she will not be confirmed. She is going to be confirmed. Even if there were a filibuster, she would be confirmed, but...

JIM LEHRER: Going to be a rough time getting there?

RUTH MARCUS: It could be a rough time, and aimed at much as the president, as you were saying, as at Sotomayor herself.

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not sure the case is there. I mean, Ruth wrote a very good column on this. And, believe me, if the case was there...

RUTH MARCUS: Since when has it mattered whether the case is there?

DAVID BROOKS: I think Newt Gingrich is reading your column, you know. But, you know...

RUTH MARCUS: He Tweeted me and said he was completely convinced.

DAVID BROOKS: Just quickly one thing Ruth mentioned. A lot of people are talking about the SCOTUSblog. This blog did an analysis of her decisions on cases that involved race.

In the vast, vast, vast majority of those cases, she rejected the claim of discrimination. So if she's -- so if the speech are translating into a judicial activism, there's no evidence for that. They're translating into judicial restraint, it seems.

General Motors' Future

David Brooks
New York Times
I think it's extremely likely we'll be back giving [GM] more money and more money and more money. It will just be very hard to get out of there.

JIM LEHRER: Does the General Motors bankruptcy translate something good for America?

DAVID BROOKS: No.

JIM LEHRER: Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS: What's the alternative, I think, is my answer. I think this was a least terrible alternative to having General Motors implode, an expensive alternative.

JIM LEHRER: You said no. Why?

DAVID BROOKS: Because we're in the middle now. We are funding G.M., but we are not controlling G.M. We not changed the culture of G.M. We are handing power to the old executives and to the UAW, not exactly change agents. So I think it's extremely likely we'll be back giving them more money and more money and more money. It will just be very hard to get out of there.

JIM LEHRER: Are you optimistic they're going to build cars that people are going want to buy?

RUTH MARCUS: I'm not hugely optimistic about that, but I'm more optimistic than David is that we -- we, meaning the U.S. taxpayer, the federal government -- will close the spigot and will manage to get out of this at a loss, but relatively quickly. And I think that would be a good thing for everybody.

We had Steve Rattner in this week who was very much -- who's the administration's car czar who was very much...

JIM LEHRER: You mean to your editorial board at the Washington Post.

RUTH MARCUS: Into the editorial board. And he was very clear that this was -- they very much wanted it to be the last dollars flowing to them.

JIM LEHRER: We have to get out quickly at this point. Thank you both very much.