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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Shifting Oil Leak Rhetoric, Responsibility

June 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the week, including the White House's response to the oil spill and special-interest spending this election season.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, the Red Sox are not involved in the World Cup, right?

MARK SHIELDS: They aren’t, no, the Celtics either, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right.

President Obama has escalated his rhetoric on the oil spill, used some profanity and other tough words. Is he doing the right thing?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was a gaffe on President Obama. And this is a gaffe-free president, gaffe-free candidate to a great degree. I mean, you could count on the fingers literally of one hand the mistakes he made on that long slog two years running for the White House with microphones at the ready all the time.

I thought “looking for whose ass to kick” wasn’t authentic, wasn’t — it appeared contrived, to answer the criticism that he hadn’t been angry enough, that he hadn’t shown enough passion.

And the White House has played — been playing catchup. I think they have done it better with Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral, out there. I think he is a very effective spokesman. I do think there is a sense of the president’s own involvement now, and continuing involvement, which they somehow downplayed at the outset.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the language issue, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, I was — when I look at the problem of the Gulf, I’m really thinking, you know, I really wish the president would be cursing more.

So, I agree with Mark. It was extraneous. It was unnatural. And, unusually for him — he is the sort of person who doesn’t look like he needs public approval, and isn’t going to go out of his own skin in order to win it. And yet, in this case, he did.

And I thought — so I thought it was an unfortunate moment. But, you know, the political pressure is ratcheting up. The polls are extremely negative now when people are asked, how do you think the government is handling this? The polls are more negative than how they thought Bush was handling Katrina.

And so that’s a lot of political pressure. And, up until now, I guess a lot of people, including me, have thought, well, it’s not really his — he didn’t — he is not really responsible. But I think that a little bit of evidence is piling up that they could be doing more.

You run into people from the Gulf, and they have a whole series of critiques of things that are not being done, that the Dutch offered this and it was not taken. There are skimmers sitting there. I ran into a Louisiana congressman yesterday who said he was down in his district. He saw 50 boats sitting there in the harbor that could be used. They are just sitting there.

He said, you know, why — we have got all these other oil companies. Why don’t we get them more involved?

And so you are beginning to see more specific criticisms of, not only the whole, but the way that the coverage of the spill is being handled. And that really does redound on to the president. And so that is causing a lot of political heat.

JIM LEHRER: You said earlier Mark that it didn’t really matter whether it was legitimately his fault or not. He had — he had a spiritual responsibility here.

And you think — and you said before that he hadn’t met it. Do you think he’s beginning to do this, or do you find this whole thing is kind of false?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think it’s genuine on the president’s part.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: I really do.

I do think, Jim, it’s — his responsibility is more than spiritual. I think it’s on his — it’s on his watch.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you mean? OK.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, it’s on the president’s watch.

If this — you know, if this continues, the criticisms will continue and mount. And there is a critique. Democrats — it’s a little bit like health care right now. The Democrats are with him. The independents are split.

But there was a wonderful poll yesterday that kind of — if you — we have talked about this town being polarized, the nation being polarized. Very simple question, FOX News/Opinion Dynamic question: Do you approve or disapprove of how the Obama administration is handling — dealing with the oil spill on the Gulf Coast, and how do you feel about how BP is? The president was 40/50. David is right, 40 percent favorable, 50 percent unfavorable. BP was 13 percent favorable, 79 percent unfavorable, 6-1 unfavorable.

But among Republican voters, Republican voters, they thought BP was better than the president.

JIM LEHRER: Than the president.

MARK SHIELDS: Now, I mean, that’s just — if you want to see polarization and blind partisanship at a time in 2010, those are your numbers right there.

JIM LEHRER: There is also a poll, speaking of polls, that showed that, like, 70 percent of the American people are following the BP oil spill story and care about it deeply.

And at the way bottom of the list now, with 3 percent, care deeply about health care. It’s at the bottom of a long list of about 15 issues.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and, actually, an extremely unpopular bill.

And one of the spillovers of this is, the president really wanted to spend a lot of time this month selling the health care bill, and he’s not allowed to do that because of it.

But, listen, we take a look at the country, and everyone sort of knows somebody in the Gulf or meets somebody or sees them on TV. And a way of life is potentially being destroyed. They’re affected by that. And there is another factor, that we’re Americans, and deep in our cultural DNA is a sense of the wilderness, of the nature that we have — that is part of us.

And whether it is in Alaska, or whether it is out West, or whether it is in the Gulf, when that is polluted, it goes deep into the spiritual sense of who we are as a country, because we’re not just — we don’t have feudalism in our background. We have nature and our nature that we’re lucky enough to have in our background.

So, I think this story goes phenomenally deeply, aside from the human suffering, which is obvious.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it could — conceivable that this could go even deeper in Barack Obama’s presidency and the way it is going to be considered, politically and otherwise, if this thing continues to rock along the way it is?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, obviously, you are going to see great policy differences as a direct consequence of this that are going to shape his presidency. I mean, you can see…

JIM LEHRER: Like what?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, for example, just two months ago, Jim, by a better than 3-1 margin, Americans favored offshore drilling. Now a plurality opposes it — I mean, that.

There will be tougher restrictions on safety for oil companies. There will be greater taxes on oil companies. There will be tougher environmental standards. And I think — I think David is right. I think that is — when Americans see those pelicans, I mean, that’s become an iconic picture of this, the pelican submerged in oil, unable to fly, unable to provide for itself. And…

JIM LEHRER: Well, I was just going to ask, David, do you see it in that kind of potentially devastating negative terms for the president and the whole political system? In other words, is this a major thing or a temporary tragedy…

DAVID BROOKS: I’m beginning to think it is more of a major thing, that people are more directly holding him responsible.

And I think it’s, again, as months go by and we don’t seem to be able to contain the spill. People don’t blame him for the event, but they do hold him responsible for how that oil is treated once it is out on the water. And if people don’t have the sense that they are doing everything they can, then — and if there are stories that came out like this story about the Dutch offer that was refused for a while…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: … then people will get a sense, oh, you know, maybe — maybe they are not as competent as we thought.

And I would say, just personally watching the president, I think a little less posturing, a little less — a little less…

JIM LEHRER: “I would fire Tony Hayward”?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, a little less of that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t really care about any of that. I just want details of how are they controlling the oil.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think — I think that’s true. I don’t think people — people want to see it done, Jim.

You know, deep in the DNA of America is, we are not — we are a can-do people. We are not a can’t-do people. And it is unfair for presidents, but it’s a test for presidents. Senator Bill Nelson was on the show this week, and he said the president is helpless, you know, and…

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: … he was — this was a supporter of the president.

And, you know, that isn’t what Americans want to hear about a president in a time of crisis, that he’s helpless and that he isn’t convening every way that it has ever been done, the Norwegian Sea, when they had the accident, how it has been done, what has been done differently, that there isn’t that sense of, we’re going to make this better.

And I think that is something that has been missing.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go back to Tuesday and the primaries. Is there — was there a message that emerged from — in your opinion? What’s…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there is a moral message. People have a sense that those who work hard are not being rewarded, and that those who did not work hard, whether on Wall Street or in government, are being rewarded. And so that is that average.

I think there is also a bifurcation in the Republican Party. In the red states, you really are seeing the Tea Party pretty — pretty strong. And I think the most important race there was in Nevada, where Sharron Angle took the Republican primary against the establishment candidate…

JIM LEHRER: She’s a Tea Party candidate, right.

DAVID BROOKS: … and now has an 11-point lead so far on Harry Reid, the majority leader. So, that is one part in the red states.

But, in the blue states, like California, you saw Fiorina and Whitman, pretty establishment candidates, win there. In New Jersey, a guy named Leonard Lance beat back — who is a House member, a House Republican — beat back a Tea Party challenge. So, you are beginning to see two different Republican parties, a strong Tea Party movement in the red, and then a more established Republican Party in the blue.

DAVID BROOKS: Do you have an overview of it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I have an overview of it, Jim, in terms of political strategy…

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: … that there’s only two ways to run for reelection in America. There’s the high road and the low road. The high road is, a candidate comes and points out to the voters all the good things we have accomplished in this four years, two years, six years, how your lives are better.

When that is not available to you, as it isn’t for the Democrats this year, you run the not-so-high road, which is — boils down to, look, I may be no day at the beach, but the other guy is no month in the country. And you concentrate on the defects and weirdness of your opponent. You try and focus voters’ attention there.

I think David is right. Nevada is the test case. Harry Reid is in the 30s, his favorable rating, the Senate majority leader. He’s dead. He can’t win. The state is 13.7 percent unemployment, leads the nation in bankruptcies and foreclosures, but it saved — Harry Reid can’t win, but his opponent can lose. The Republicans nominated…

JIM LEHRER: The Tea Party…

MARK SHIELDS: … Sharron Angle, who was — whose opinion, she wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare.

We will find in the next four or five weeks. If Harry Reid cannot focus the attention on her and her shortcomings, and go ahead in that race and make it competitive, then I think Democrats are really in for a tough, tough race in the fall.

DAVID BROOKS: But why do Democrats have to run a “I’m no day at the beach”?

They just had a year in which they have probably passed more of their favorite legislation than since the New Deal, so why can’t they run on their record? Well, maybe it’s unpopular.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

How do you read the Blanche Lincoln victory in the Democratic primary, reelection primary in the — in Arkansas?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, the question I, why did unions spend $10 million trying to beat her in a state the Democrats probably can’t win in any case, in a state without a lot of union voters, and in a state, like a lot of states, where people say there are all these special interests in Washington on the right and the left, and they’re trying to establish their muscle by manipulating voters in state after state? We’re going to reject those outsiders.

And so I thought it was foolish for the unions to do it on a whole bunch of reasons. And, personally, I hope more voters in more states, whether it is the Club for Growth on the right or the unions on the left, say, we don’t want the special interests trying to establish their own muscle by manipulating us.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think they did spend $10 million. I think they started — I think that became kind of the boast 3:00 in the morning cup of courage boasting.

But they did spend $6 million on television. And that is an awful lot of money to spend in Arkansas. There is a striking historical parallel to this race and that was in 1927, when John McClellan, the veteran Democratic senator, was challenged by a young upstart Democrat named David Pryor.

And David Pryor had the backing of outside interests and labor, and John McClellan barely beat him in the first race, and he was expected to lose in the runoff. And he banged David Pryor over the head about outside interests and labor money and this. And he beat David — the last race David Pryor ever lost, only race David Pryor ever lost.

But, I mean, there is a striking parallel to 2010. That is what Blanche Lincoln does. She’s — she turns the outsider thing on her opponent, that he’s being backed by these outsiders. She’s the incumbent. She’s the Washington candidate, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and she managed to make herself sort of the outsider taking on these alien interests.

DAVID BROOKS: So did Bill Clinton by calling them the national unions.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, in a word, with David about the — the — labor could have stayed out of this or should have stayed out of this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think — I think they wanted attention.

JIM LEHRER: They wanted attention?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I think they didn’t feel — they didn’t feel they were getting the attention from the Democrats. They didn’t feel they were getting the attention from the White House.

You don’t do it unless you’re going to win. I mean, I don’t think you go in and spend that kind of money and that kind of time, effort and energy and put that kind of spotlight unless you deliver, you come back with the — with the coonskin.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Speaking of coonskins, thank you both very much.