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Shields and Brooks Mull Obama’s Intel Picks, Stimulus Plan

January 9, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks assess the week's news, including Obama's new intelligence team and his push to get a new economic stimulus package through Congress.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, how do you read the substance of the Obama stimulus plan, as we know and understand it at this moment?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Too complicated.

JIM LEHRER: Too complicated?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean, my basic view is, we’ve never done this before. No one has ever done — successfully stimulated an economy before. For 50 years, the economic doctrine, the common conventional view was that stimulus doesn’t work. You use monetary policy to fix recoveries. We have never used tax cuts…

JIM LEHRER: You mean, fool with interest rates and stuff like that?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and stuff like that. And then you have automatic things, like unemployment insurance. That stuff works. The conventional view was that tax cuts and big spending increases don’t work. And this was true in the Kennedy administration, in the Eisenhower administration. This was the conventional view.

And it’s totally changed in a couple months. And it’s not changed because we somehow know how to do stimuluses. It’s changed because we’ve already used the other stuff we believe in, so now this is all we’re left with.

So now there is widespread belief in stimulus, but no historical experience on how to do it and really no accurate guides. If you talk to the economists, they are all over the map on how to do it.

And so to me, if I’m Obama, with something you’ve got to do but you have no idea how to do it, you try to keep it big and simple and discrete.

So maybe you have a payroll tax cut to give funding. You use the infrastructure. You give money to the states, just three or four big things, because you’re not — you can’t do something too complicated.

But instead, if you looked at the Obama program, at least as he’s outlined it this week, he’s got the big things, but he’s also got a power grid, he’s got special-ed programs, he’s got basically most of his domestic agenda. The idea…

JIM LEHRER: Health care, a lot of health care in there.

DAVID BROOKS: Health care, the idea, I think…

JIM LEHRER: Schools.

DAVID BROOKS: … that he can pass these things so quickly that it’ll help as a stimulus measure exceeds the carrying capacity of Congress to pass it intelligently, exceeds the carrying capacity of a new administration to actually execute it.

And I’m afraid the risk is, first, that it may actually not get passed, because it’s so complicated, but, B, that it’s going to be hard to do special-ed programs or pre-K programs, things that I think are good programs, it’s going to be hard to implement them intelligently in three or four months to get it to stimulate the economy.

Democrats' fate tied to Obama

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I think there's more than lone voices on the Democratic side who are really objecting to the Obama plan. On the left, the liberals, including my colleague, Paul Krugman, are saying it's just not big enough. The problem is so much bigger.

JIM LEHRER: But other than that, it's fine, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Yes, I think there's a couple of things about it that have struck me. First of all, they've been incredibly conscientious and determined about consulting Congress, more so than any administration in my experience.

JIM LEHRER: But they're getting hit upon already.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they're getting hit upon. I think they're getting hit upon by lone voices. I really do.

I mean, at some point Democrats have to acknowledge and accept the fact that they're now accountable and they're the party not simply of the Congress, but they're the party of the White House. So whatever happens, it's the fate of all them.

And an awful lot of people in this town remember the last two change presidents who came to office, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. And they remember in both the cases, in the first election after they were elected, they were both subsequently re-elected to a second term, but their party in Congress paid dearly at the ballot box. Reagan lost...

JIM LEHRER: So you think the momentum is on the side of the Democrats no matter what Obama suggests?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there is. I think they know that their fate, fortune, and future is tied to him. And I think he has brings to it a sense of almost, I agree with David, he has to be able to explain this to people. But, Jim, this is the one train that's leaving Dodge, the one stage that's leaving Dodge.

JIM LEHRER: Whether anybody likes it or not?

MARK SHIELDS: So if you want something, if you want special education or you want the health care reform -- I'm kind of cheered, as an aging liberal, to see somebody who looks upon government as an instrument of positive change. I mean, that's -- he's saying we can do these things instead of saying we can't because of the economy.

He's saying we can make changes in the environment, we can make changes and improvements in medical care. You know, so I'm kind of on the other side.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say a couple of things. First, what about doing it in a deliberate manner?

I mean, the Kennedy administration had this thing and had this same situation in a much smaller form. And they said, "A recession is a horrible time to make policy. It'll lead to hasty decisions. You want to do it in a slow, deliberate way, where you can actually plan the policies."

And the second thing I'd say -- I think there's more than lone voices on the Democratic side who are really objecting to the Obama plan. On the left, the liberals, including my colleague, Paul Krugman, are saying it's just not big enough. The problem is so much bigger.

JIM LEHRER: The spending part?

DAVID BROOKS: The spending is just not big enough. And then in the center, you've got the Blue Dogs saying, "If we run up $2 trillion deficits every year, how do we know the Chinese will still invest in our country?" And if they stop investing, then we're in big trouble. So these are big groups that are both disagreeing on real substantive grounds.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree. But I think that the picture that he painted in his George Mason University speech was solemn, sober, serious, and grave, without being exaggerated.

I mean, I think this isn't a recession. I mean, this is -- I think there's a sense in the country that this is as serious as it's ever been and ever will be and the failure to act and to act boldly -- and I agree with you that the bailout of -- the recovery, the troubled assets recovery program that we saw last fall, as we saw in John Sununu's piece with Judy, has hardly been a resounding success of pumping a lot of money in.

But I really do think there is a need and an urgent need for action on the part, psychologically and politically.

Bipartisan spirit will pay off

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think that he has -- David's right -- he's taken some criticism already from those on the left for being too conciliatory, the president-elect is, for reaching out to Republicans, for having too much in the way of tax cuts.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what about -- Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, said on this program last night that, for this thing to really be effective, it must be hugely successful in the vote and it must be hugely bipartisan. Do you agree, this cannot be seen as a Democratic plan?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think it will be seen as a Democratic plan.

JIM LEHRER: You don't?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that he has -- David's right -- he's taken some criticism already from those on the left for being too conciliatory, the president-elect is, for reaching out to Republicans, for having too much in the way of tax cuts.

I mean, probably, if I were doing it, I'd do it more differently, differently from the way he's doing it. But I think she is right. You don't want to pass this the way Bill Clinton passed his deficit reduction, only -- I mean, not a single Republican in the House or the Senate voted for Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he's done a very good job with that, not only the tax cuts, which are significant -- and I think they're the best way to stimulate -- but...

JIM LEHRER: That's a philosophical thing, is it not?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no.

JIM LEHRER: No?

DAVID BROOKS: Christina Romer, his chief economic adviser, says that tax cuts are the most effective way to stimulus. But not only that, but things he said this week, tremendously significant, that next week he wants to tackle entitlements.

Whether we spend $2 trillion for a couple of years we can afford, but if we don't tackle entitlements, Medicare and Social Security in the long run, we're in real trouble. And he said this week he would make that a central part of his budget. And I think that was to calm a lot of the Blue Dog Democrats and a lot of Republicans.

He also said I don't want to, over the long term, increase the size of government. And so he's really made an effort to reach out to moderate Democrats and to Republicans. And I think that's going to be greeted successfully.

I spoke this week to Sen. Judd Gregg from New Hampshire who's a fiscal conservative Republican. And he had some problems with certain aspects of the plan, but he was not opposed in principle. It was not opposition. He saw a lot he could agree with.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of senators from New Hampshire, yes?

MARK SHIELDS: The Republicans are absolutely -- I mean, they're wonderful Americans. They're good human beings.

JIM LEHRER: You heard that...

MARK SHIELDS: They have about as much standing, Jim, to talk on deficits, having gone from $5.7 trillion to $11 trillion under the past eight years, six of those eight years with Republican total rubber stamps, I mean, it's like my talking to you about the joys of L.A.

DAVID BROOKS: Now, Judd Gregg has standing.

JIM LEHRER: You just walked all over my transition, by the way.

MARK SHIELDS: OK, I'm sorry.

JIM LEHRER: The transition was, speaking of New Hampshire senators, we had John Sununu, you just mentioned.

MARK SHIELDS: Which you did.

'TARP gets some credit'

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
If you're going to spend $350 billion quickly, you're going to get a lot of waste. If we're about to spend $770 billion quickly, we're going to get a lot of waste.

JIM LEHRER: What about that, the way the TARP thing, the financial rescue thing has been handled?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that -- you can see the TARP effect in the economic stimulus. One of the reasons you call it...

JIM LEHRER: A good effect?

MARK SHIELDS: ... you call it infrastructure, you call it assets, people want to be able to see something. They want to be able to see, after this enormous expenditure of effort and money, that there are improvements, there are tangible changes, that I don't think, after TARP, there really is a sense that troubled homeowners who are besieged have been bailed out.

We know that the credit system did not collapse, but we don't see the transparency or the accountability that I think most Americans want in that kind of a program.

JIM LEHRER: Sununu said that nobody -- that the public doesn't get -- has not been told all of this yet, they don't understand whether this thing's worked or not.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the financial reform is just tremendously complicated. I would say, first of all, we had $165 billion stimulus package last year, which was separate, which did zero good. Talk about something that didn't work, $165 billion used to be a lot of money.

As far as the TARP, I think Sununu said -- and I think there would be wide agreement on this -- the financial system is not in the extremely fragile state it was in a few months ago.

JIM LEHRER: And you think...

DAVID BROOKS: I think TARP gets some credit. I think TARP gets some credit.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think people understand that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if you pay attention to the stock market, remember, we were getting those 700-point swings. We're no longer getting that.

So as for the oversight, he's right there's not enough oversight. But let's remember: You spend $350 billion quickly, that's really hard to do well. I mean, in wartime, when you have to do a lot quickly, you get a lot of waste.

If you're going to spend $350 billion quickly, you're going to get a lot of waste. If we're about to spend $770 billion quickly, we're going to get a lot of waste.

Panetta a good choice for CIA

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Leon Panetta is, in my 45 years in Washington, as valuable and able a public servant as I've ever met. He brims with integrity and character. He

JIM LEHRER: Leon Panetta choice for CIA. What do you think of that?

MARK SHIELDS: I met Leon Panetta 42 years old. We were both working in the United States Senate.

JIM LEHRER: I thought you were going to say you were both in high school.

MARK SHIELDS: No, he for Tom Kuchel, progressive Republican in California, and I for Bill Proxmire, a maverick Democrat from Wisconsin, back when Democrats could talk to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Leon Panetta is, in my 45 years in Washington, as valuable and able a public servant as I've ever met. He brims with integrity and character. He takes his tasks serious, never for himself. He's a person of just enormous ability, great leadership, high integrity.

Dick Gephardt said to me, he said, of all the people he's ever served with in Congress, nobody has had, you know, Panetta and those qualities.

JIM LEHRER: And yet no intelligence experience, and he got hit for that.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, he got hit for that. But I don't know Panetta well, but I basically have Mark's take, that having relationships around Washington matters a lot, character matters a lot, and especially having access to the president matters a lot.

When we've had unsuccessful CIA directors, quite often they've had no access to the president, and that's hurt the whole agency. And he will have access, and he will know his way around Washington.

So it's an obvious liability that he doesn't have the intelligence experience, but I think...

JIM LEHRER: But you still think he gets confirmed?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and I think his character overwhelms that.

JIM LEHRER: You think he's going to -- he's going to be confirmed?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he will be confirmed, and I think he should be confirmed.

JIM LEHRER: And the Roland Burris situation, it looked like he wasn't going to make it, but he may be a U.S. senator after all, do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the last thing I heard this afternoon was that now they're holding off, that without the signature of the secretary of state in Illinois, even though the court ruling, Dick Durbin was reported, the Democratic whip in the Senate, as saying, well, they don't know if they could seat him.

I think that we're in now to a waiting game. If somehow Rod Blagojevich goes before, that the lieutenant governor takes over, Pat Quinn, would somehow have the power to do it.

But I think they've rolled him. I think they've rolled the Democratic leadership. I think they rolled...

JIM LEHRER: Blagojevich has?

MARK SHIELDS: Blagojevich and Burris together.

JIM LEHRER: And Burris?

MARK SHIELDS: And I don't think there's any question they've gone from, "Not in a chance in the world," standing in the schoolhouse door, "Don't you come in here," to, "Seems like a nice fellow, he probably belongs on Mount Rushmore."

DAVID BROOKS: Some of the Harry Reid and Dick Durbin press conferences, it was like it was the second coming of Henry Clay coming the way -- he was a great guy, wonderful guy.

MARK SHIELDS: What a great guy.

DAVID BROOKS: So I think he's going to be seated.

JIM LEHRER: OK, all right. Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.