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Shields and Brooks Weigh Obama’s First Week, Economy Plans

January 23, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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President Barack Obama wasted no time putting his stamp on key policy areas during his first few days in office -- including renewing a push for an economic stimulus plan. Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the moves.
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JIM LEHRER: Now how the Obama administration looks after three-plus days and other questions for Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

OK, Mark, I’m going to ask you to complete the following sentence, all right? “Overview. The Obama beginning, so far so…”

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Good.

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Also good.

JIM LEHRER: What?

DAVID BROOKS: Also good.

JIM LEHRER: Also good. Why is it good, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, understand this, Jim, about the election of 2000 and the election of 2008. George Bush…

JIM LEHRER: By the way, I’m never going to ask you a question like that again. I just thought I’d try that.

DAVID BROOKS: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: I used one word; David used two, you’ll notice. But George Bush was elected to change the face of the presidency, the conduct of the presidency. It was a change of leadership. It wasn’t a change — it was a reaction against the conduct of Bill Clinton, in large part, and that’s what he ran on, not that he was going to change the direction.

Barack Obama ran on changing the direction of the country, its policies, and he is obviously committed in the first 72 hours of his presidency to fulfilling and honoring that promise, those promises.

JIM LEHRER: David, what do you mean when you say what you said?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, similar. I mean, I think he’s been prudential, but also signaling a change. I mean, the meeting today with Republicans was not just the only thing he’s done with Republicans. There has been a whole series of outreaches to change the tone.

But he hasn’t done anything radical. It’s not like FDR going to close the banks. On Guantanamo and other issues like that, he’s made a change, but not a totally dramatic change. He’s dealt with the complexities and the realities. And so I think it’s been prudential, cautious, but different.

Changing the 'war on terror'

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
What the Bush administration did was expand considerably the power of the government in many areas, domestically, as well as militarily and internationally. But ... they thought there was less responsibility to be open and transparent with people.

JIM LEHRER: Much has been made today in the newspapers, at least, about Obama's changed the whole approach on the war, quote, "war on terror." Do you agree with that? I mean, with Guantanamo, but also interrogation enhancements and other things?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he has. The first thing he did, which -- beyond honoring the pledge he made repeatedly about Guantanamo -- and I would remind our listeners and everybody else that that was John McCain's first promise, running for president, "I will close Guantanamo." So, I mean, there was a consensus among the two nominees on that.

But he turned that responsibility over to the attorney general. And it's -- in other words, this is a matter of the Constitution. And he wants that to be determined -- the process, the trials, the disposition -- to be by the principal legal officer of the country. And that, in itself, is an enormous change.

Go ahead.

JIM LEHRER: I was just going to say, David, do you agree? This was an enormous series of -- there wasn't one, there were two or three things...

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, no, I don't think it's enormous.

JIM LEHRER: You don't think it is?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it's clearly a shift. The policy, especially in the last four years, has been shifting away from sort of what you might call the hardcore Cheney policy. And if McCain had won, it would have shifted, as well.

But say on Guantanamo, he's going to close it, and we get a big global public relations victory for that announcement, but he's left himself a year. And who knows what will happen in a year, what we'll actually do with the people in Guantanamo? So he's left himself a lot of running room. I don't know substantively how serious the change will actually be.

So we get the nice publicity boost, but he hasn't actually made a decision. He's made a promise to make a decision within a year, sort of like a campaign promise after the election.

And then, on the torture stuff, again, clear shift of policy away from the hardcore Cheney, but -- and so he said that they have to go by the Army Manual, but he's also created a task force to say in some circumstances when you need harder tactics than is in the Army Manual, we'll see if that's possible.

So he's shifted, but he's in each case left himself openings for things to look not quite as different as they might otherwise have been.

JIM LEHRER: On the...

MARK SHIELDS: ... just openness and responsibility and accountability. What the Bush administration did was expand considerably the power of the government in many areas, domestically, as well as militarily and internationally. But at the same time, they thought there was less responsibility to be open and transparent with people.

If anything -- I think David would agree with this -- we've been overwhelmed by their transparency, I mean, whether it's pool reports or whatever else, everything that's done seems to be open and it's, frankly, getting tedious.

Obama 'wrestling' Congress

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think the stimulus package was a perfect example of this. Stimulus package -- the House Appropriations Committee put it up on the Web last Thursday. It was there for everybody to see, not simply Republicans, any citizen of the country.

DAVID BROOKS: I don't know about that. I'm trying to figure out what's going on with the stimulus package. I can't get word one.

MARK SHIELDS: I couldn't disagree more. I mean, I think the stimulus package was a perfect example of this. Stimulus package -- the House Appropriations Committee put it up on the Web last Thursday. It was there for everybody to see, not simply Republicans, any citizen of the country. They didn't vote on it until Wednesday.

I mean, that's precedent-shattering in this city. That isn't the way things are done.

JIM LEHRER: But in general, though, the number-one agenda item for the president and everybody in the country right now is the economy. Seventy-two hours in, what impact has he made, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think he's had a positive impact, but he's wrestling Congress. He has this inaugural. The inaugural is a great, glorious moment.

The very next day, the House Appropriations Committee meets. It's a brutal series of party votes with information embargoes placed against the minority so they have really no say and no knowledge of what's going on.

And the whole bill is structured in a way that can make it impossible for any Republican to vote for it and, indeed, throughout the House, in every single committee, no Republicans have been able to vote for this stuff because the bills are structured in such a way that makes it impossible.

Now, in the Senate, it's going to be different.

JIM LEHRER: Why is it impossible for a Republican to vote for them?

DAVID BROOKS: Because what they did in the House Appropriations Committee -- and, again, the Senate is taking a different approach -- they took the kernel of Obama's idea, which was infrastructure for jobs, which most people support, Republicans and Democrats -- and they surrounded it with a vast layer of every single Democratic spending idea that's been floating around there for 14 years, and they just piled on, whether it's stimulative or not.

And that's why the percentage of the infrastructure -- of the whole bill that's infrastructure and jobs, tiny percent, 5 percent or 10 percent.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, do you see it the same way?

MARK SHIELDS: David, I think this report -- the House bill dedicates $189 billion to payroll taxes; $300 billion is pumped directly into state and local budgets chiefly for education and health programs; and more than $100 billion for food stamps and for new health care and jobless benefits.

Then you add -- and then $100 billion of the things that you cherished, business and energy taxes, the broadband, information technology, for health care, and you're up to $700 billion.

I mean, you know, to me, it's a logical stimulus. What you said time and again, I agree with you, we're in uncharted waters. But, I mean, I think this gets it out as quickly as possible.

The other thing the committee has added is, if they don't spend this -- I mean, if they don't spend it, they don't get it. The money comes back. I mean, there really is a sense of urgency and mission, I think, in what the House will be voting on.

DAVID BROOKS: First of all, the Congressional Budget Office, which Ray referred to earlier in the program, found that a small percentage, a minority will go out within two years, and a very, very small percentage in the next year.

Second, and we're not disagreeing on what's in the bill. It's perfectly obvious. There are 11 big appropriations that account for most of the jobs, but there are 152 appropriations in the bill, and they include the stuff like Head Start and special ed and training for nurses.

I don't know what that stuff is doing in a stimulus bill. It may be good; it may be not. But it's got nothing to do stimulus. It's just off-the-shelf stuff.

Obama must send strong message

David Brooks
New York Times
You can buy up their bad debts. But if (banks) don't have any confidence in each other and if they don't have confidence in where the economy is going to be in a year, they just won't lend and you can't force them to do it.

JIM LEHRER: I don't know we're going to resolve that one here, so let's go to the banking situation, which Judy just had the discussion about, the John Thain story. The president -- did you interpret anything he has done or said that he's going to get a handle on that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, he expressed anger. And, I mean, he was just tapping into what is the natural reaction.

JIM LEHRER: But isn't he talking about reforming the whole...

MARK SHIELDS: He is. I mean, Jim...

JIM LEHRER: ... the rescue package?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, the anger that people express is not simply that banks aren't lending, which they haven't been, but that the banks took the money and then feel not at all accountable or responsible to tell anybody what they're doing with it.

And then we get a peek at something like the Thain story, and you just imagine the worst. So, I mean, that redounds to the detriment of everybody who supported this package, who includes a lot of Democrats and Republicans, including Barack Obama.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say to their immense credit, they understand the centrality of finance to this whole recovery, that if the finance system doesn't work and people don't have the confidence to lend, the stimulus will not work. That's the engine of the economy, and so they're putting a lot of attention on that.

The problem is, it's fundamentally a psychological issue. You can recapitalize the banks. You can buy up their bad debts. But if they don't have any confidence in each other and if they don't have confidence in where the economy is going to be in a year, they just won't lend and you can't force them to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Can't force them to do it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the biggest criticism I heard from Democrats about Barack Obama's speech was that he didn't nationalize the banks. I mean, I think there really is a growing impatience on the part. Confidence is critical and crucial.

What he's got to do is deliver a psychological message to the country that is both emotional and contradictory, and that is, things have never been worse, but we're going to get out of it, because there's a sense of urgency, but there has to be that sense of confidence, as FDR projected in World War II.

Inaugural address, three days later

David Brooks
New York Times
... the more I think about it, the joyous occasion, that chilled spine that ran through the speech is, to me, I think a view into Obama that nobody else would have introduced into the speech, something real about him.

JIM LEHRER: OK, a couple of other things quickly. The decision, the announcement today about abortion -- international -- he said he was going to do it. He did it. Any significance to that beyond it...

MARK SHIELDS: It's ping-pong. I mean, the Republicans come in, take it down, Democrats come in, change it. Republicans come back, Democrats...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree. It would be very curious to know what actual effect it has. I remember going to AIDS groups in Mozambique and Namibia, and we have these big social issue battles over these issues. On the ground, it made no difference at all. So it'd be curious to know what the practical effect is.

JIM LEHRER: With three days now afterward, both of you had some interesting things to say right afterward about Obama's inaugural address. How does it look to you now?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess it's diminished a little in that I've forgotten a lot of what's in it. I can't remember a core argument.

And a lot of people on the left and right -- my colleague, Paul Krugman, on the left, others on the right -- have said there was no core argument. And to me, what resonates most I guess is the wintry spine, which we did talk about, you know, put away childish things, era of responsibility, we've been behaving badly, and I think that -- the more I think about it, the joyous occasion, that chilled spine that ran through the speech is, to me, I think a view into Obama that nobody else would have introduced into the speech, something real about him.

MARK SHIELDS: The event remains emotionally exciting, riveting, the speech -- great speaker, only a good speech. And I think we'll look back on it and see it as a missed opportunity.

JIM LEHRER: A missed opportunity?

MARK SHIELDS: When he could've galvanized the country behind an argument, behind a summons to march, and instead of making the case of how serious the problems are and how we got here.

JIM LEHRER: Final word about the announcement today about the new United States senator from New York. Your reaction, sir?

DAVID BROOKS: My reaction is positive. Legislating is a tough job, and I want a professional legislator to do it, and I think Paterson has selected a professional legislator.

MARK SHIELDS: Kirsten Gillibrand is fine. I mean, I think she's got a tough row ahead of her, given where she comes from. Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs, not exactly population centers, but I think everybody was diminished by this process.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you about it. You think it was?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, it was. I mean, I feel bad...

JIM LEHRER: Governor Paterson did not do well for himself?

MARK SHIELDS: Governor Paterson sent this incredibly mixed message. He loved the spotlight. He loved the microphone. He didn't want to make a decision. I mean, at 2 o'clock in the morning, he's calling Randi Weingarten and the teachers to tell that she's not the choice. I mean, her mother is seriously ill. I mean, he tells...

DAVID BROOKS: The leaking after. In the last couple of days, the leaking against Kennedy...

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, it's horrible.

DAVID BROOKS: ... the cross-leaking, it's just -- it is just, why do it? What's the point of all that?

JIM LEHRER: Has Caroline Kennedy been hurt by this?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, she didn't behave particularly well, either, and the legacy I guess because of Paterson's leaking is she wasn't up to the job. And I don't know if that's true or not, but that's sort of the message that seems to be emerging.

MARK SHIELDS: I assume that, if she wants something that President Obama is sufficiently admiring of her and appreciative of her support, that she would get it. And I can't recall anybody being subjected to this sort of water torture of press exposure. I mean, was he trying to make up his mind?

And, you know, I thought it was awkward, it was painful. And I feel badly for her. And I think the governor has been hurt, and I think he probably is inviting himself a primary challenge in 2010.

JIM LEHRER: In his own election?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. OK, David, Mark, thank you both.