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Shields and Brooks: Obama Must Aim for ‘Consistency’

January 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how would you state the importance of this speech tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s important, Jim. I think it’s a little bit of a recovery and rescue mission on the part of the president.

He’s definitely hit a rough patch, and, since Massachusetts, there has been a spiraling loss of confidence in his own party, both sort of skeptical or doubtful about his administration, and maybe the course, and its ability to stay on course.

And here’s a party with a 59-41 margin of majority in the Senate, and a 78-vote majority in the House, and they’re panicking. But, most of all, he’s got to communicate to people in the country. It’s not a Washington speech. It’s not a speech to the crowd in the hall. He’s got to communicate that he does, in fact, understand what they’re going through, and that he’s made a difference, and that they are committed to helping people in this terrible time of pain.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, David, that this has got to be a speech that goes way beyond Washington, if it’s going to work?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, he never breaks any new ground in these speeches, but he talks to people who haven’t been paying as close attention as professional politicians.

And, to me, the crucial thing is, how much of it is consistency and how much of it is change? He has suffered a bloody nose, the Massachusetts race. Independents have flaked way. The major initiatives of his first year are almost certainly not going to happen. In states like Delaware and Missouri and Illinois, polls are moving against him.

And so does he say, I’m just going to keep driving ahead, I’m basically on the right track, or does he say, I hear you, we’re going to shift course?

And all the early indications from the White House are consistency is going to be the watchword of the day.

JIM LEHRER: Do you hear the same thing, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, consistency. He’s got to…

JIM LEHRER: No shift, hey, I’m going to start all over again?

MARK SHIELDS: No mea culpa, no, I hear you, and now I’m — the era of big government is over and the Bill Clinton — that’s not going to be part of it.

But I do think — unlike David, I think that health care, the president used it — we love sports metaphors in this town, that they’re in the red zone, but he said…

JIM LEHRER: The red zone? I’m sorry?

MARK SHIELDS: The red zone at the 20 — inside the 20-yard line.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, is that right? Football, right?

MARK SHIELDS: But now he said they’re on the two-yard line.

And I think it’s fair to say that they have brought the legislation 90 yards of the 100 yards or more. And they have to get something done, and they have to get it done soon.

JIM LEHRER: David, a lot of people have pointed out that, while the president has had his problems, they’re nothing compared to what the Republicans have had in the same polls. In other words, when he drops in the polls, the Republicans drop even further.

And there’s a bigger message than just politics. Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there is a rejection of both parties, though I would say, in the general reelect poll in the House, it’s now even, which is unprecedented.

If you ask people across the country, who do you favor most, the Republicans, the Democrats, or the tea party movement, well, the tea party movement comes out number one, then the Democrats, then the Republicans.

So, if you’re the out party, you’re going to benefit. And the tea party movement is a strong movement. And, as we saw in Massachusetts, it’s not only the pure people who are very anti-government. There’s a lot of people who have a fear and a distrust for what’s going on. And I think another thing the president has to do — and I understand will do — is talk about the distrust.

The corrosive distrust against Washington makes it very hard to do anything here. I mean, look what has happened. Lindsey Graham made this point this week. The last couple of years, we had immigration reform, we had Social Security, we had health care.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, he just went through the whole list, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And they have all failed.

I had a very moving e-mail from a House Senate staffer today who has been a Democratic staffer doing health care reform, and it may all come to nothing, and she spent a year doing this. And so, you know, it’s just depressing that we can’t seem to get anything, any reform passed.

JIM LEHRER: And, of course, the key word here is we. It isn’t just Obama. It isn’t just this — those people or — it’s everybody, right?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s everybody, Jim.

But, in answer to your question, he’s speaking right now to a nation that has contempt for Washington, D.C., I mean, quite unlike anything I have seen in the past, with the possible exception of the Watergate years.

And by a 7-1 margin in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 84 percent of people believe that special interests have too much influence over legislation…

JIM LEHRER: Over legislation?

MARK SHIELDS: … legislation in this — and, at the same time, they asked the question — it’s a great question — Democrats in Congress are trying to push through legislation without bipartisan compromise — 2-1, people agree to that. Republicans in Congress are trying to block Democratic legislation without bipartisan compromise — 2-1, people agree on that.

So, I mean, there is a certain pox on both your houses, on both your parties. And I think that’s something that he has to address.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that? He’s got to take that on? He has got to talk about this stalemate and this polarization in a very direct, almost attack mode, to the Republicans, not to the public?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he has to talk about the distrust, and he has got to, frankly, on substantive grounds, adjust to the distrust.

JIM LEHRER: Adjust?

DAVID BROOKS: Because if people don’t trust you to do big things, you have got to figure out how to slowly build that trust. And, frankly, I thought he should have done that starting January 20, 2009, just acknowledge what country you’re in and slowly build there.

And he’s going to do some of that tonight. He’s going to talk about greater transparency in government and things like that. I’m not sure that’s going to get you there. I think they need some successes, so people can say to themselves, Washington helped here, helped there, and then we will think about the big policies.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark, that the president — there’s nothing in here for the president just to whine about this polarization; he’s got to figure out a way to deal with it, right? And he’s got to tell people, hey, I know it’s there and I have to do more about it, do something about it?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I agree with that, Jim. And I think he has to celebrate. There have been successes. But I think he has to celebrate those, I mean, the economic improvements that have been made and where the legislation, the law has made a difference.

But the problem in talking to Democrats is, they want the president — listen, they want to be more passionate. They want to be more combative. They want to be more bipartisan. They want to be more partisan. They want to be more flexible and more specific and more assertive. And I don’t know if you can do all of that in one speech.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Well, he’s the master speechmaker. Is that what this is about tonight, a masterful speech?

DAVID BROOKS: I really don’t think so. I think people want to, again, have a sense of trust in government. I think he’s doing the right thing by the having the spending freeze on discretionary spending.

I understand the objections, that we really still will have to stimulate the economy, but I think what David Axelrod said, every family does it, we should do this, I think that establishes a bond that government is basically working according to the normal responsible rules of life.

And I think it’s an appropriate thing he’s signaling we’re going to have a discretionary spending freeze. It won’t have a big budget impact, but just as a symbol to rebuild the trust, I think it’s the right thing to do.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, everybody went to briefings today at the White House about this speech and all that sort of stuff. And I know I went to one where the underlying word was, as long as there’s 10 percent unemployment in this country, that is the only issue really that people care about, for understandable reasons.

MARK SHIELDS: And, Jim, again, this is a problem for the White House and for the administration.

Voters believe that he has spent — the administration has spent more time, and the government in Washington, on health care than it has on jobs. And jobs and the economy are the overriding, number one, transcendent concern of voters. You know, a job is a four-letter word that is one that’s really welcome in this country right now, and, for every job, there are six people looking for it today unemployed.

JIM LEHRER: OK. We will hear what the president says, and we will hear what you all say about it later this evening. Thank you.