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Shields and Brooks: Should Obama Be Comforter-in-Chief in Oil Crisis?

June 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the week, including President Obama's emotional engagement -- or lack thereof -- with people affected by the Gulf oil leak, and the U.S. relationship with Israel following the deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, great to have you back with us this Friday.

So, they have capped the well in the Gulf. But the oil is still coming out. The president, Mark, was back down there today, second trip in a week. Do you see a change in the White House approach?

MARK SHIELDS: Certainly. I mean, I think today’s repeat visit by the president was an indication that he had received loud and clear the criticism he had gotten from both Democrats and Republicans that he wasn’t as visible.

His presence wasn’t as visible as it had to be. And now we’re seeing the narrative of the whole story, Judy, move from the well and the gushing a mile below the surface to the havoc, whether it’s people’s lives threatened and livelihoods threatened, beaches, birds, fish, as we saw in Ray’s piece.

I mean, it was just — the oil is now just a reality. And regardless of when we stop it, even though it hasn’t been stopped, that’s the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, does this make it look like the president is more in control of what’s going on?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he’s still — the oil is still gushing. There is the still the bad ambience. The oil is still coming out and nobody knows what to do with it.

And I think people rationally know there is nothing the president can personally do about something. But, still, the ambience is bad, and they want to see some reaction. I personally don’t hold him responsible for any of this.

Somebody had a good line that we elected a guy who was cool in a crisis, and now we are upset because he is cool is a crisis. And, so, I personally don’t hold him responsible. But people want to have a sense that he’s more emotionally engaged. I thought today was a good step, just in theatrical terms, not the best step.

I still want to see him surrounded by fisherman, by regular folks down there. And he still hasn’t done that. But, in the White House, though, they have done something quite intelligent, which is to create a separate team that is just going to do this, because one of the things that is a challenge for people in these circumstances is to pay serious attention to this, but not get consumed by it.

Jimmy Carter was consumed by the Iran hostage crisis. The Clinton people, with some of the scandals, they couldn’t get anything else done. And I think they have done the right thing, which is get some serious people involved, but still have most people going about the regular job of the presidency, which is the right way to handle it internally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, you said last week that you thought the president needed to show more feeling. I don’t remember the word that you used, but you said he needs to…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I was going to say, today — or yesterday, I guess — he told — in an interview, he said on CNN that he doesn’t think he should do that.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think part of the job description of a president is not simply commander in chief. It’s comforter in chief. And that — it really is.

Ronald Reagan did after the Challenger crisis, really bound up the nation at a terrible time. And President Clinton going out and welcoming back the caskets from the embassy assassinations and murders, I mean, those are important acts for a president. And I really think that that’s part of the job description.

It’s not — he doesn’t have to emote. He doesn’t have to pretend to be what he isn’t. But I think there is a sense of communicating that, at the highest levels of power and authority in this country, there is an understanding of the human factor in this. I mean, and David mentioned the fishermen in particular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In addition to blasting BP, which is what he was doing again today, saying they are spending a lot of money on advertising, but they need to spend money on the people here.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Yes. And I think that is moderately effective. I’m not sure.

But — but people want to know that the communication with the government is two-way. And that doesn’t mean you just sit with a series of government officials in your shirtsleeves around a table. It means you are in a non-governmental setting, where most people are, at a restaurant, maybe out on a boat with people.

And I think, so far, theatrically, they haven’t done that. But, again, I should stress, that’s theatrics. And it’s important, but it’s not the most important thing. I think, on the substance of the matter, they’re doing reasonably well. They’re being — people are angry for a lot — still the cry, do something, do something. But what are they supposed to do? I think they are doing, substantively, what they can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, the other big story today, Mark, was the jobs numbers came out, unemployment numbers for the month of May. It was an increase, but not as much as a lot of the experts had hoped.

Implications for the administration here?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the good news you get by very quickly. Unemployment fell from 9.9 to 9.7, fifth month, sixth month in a row of creating jobs, positive numbers.

But, underneath it, not good, Judy. I mean, the jobs were overwhelmingly in the Census Bureau. We only do that once every 10 years. We can’t do that — we can’t keep them on much longer. In fact, many of them will expire in June.

Only 41,000 jobs created in the private sector. The market obviously responded as markets do, rationally or irrationally. It expressed its judgment on it. And the most difficult thing in the world — I saw Democrats trying to do this today, including the White House, you know, put out the good news.

When you are one of 15 million people who are unemployed, and some of whom have given up, after being out of work for more than six months, even looking, the last thing in the world you want to hear is, things are getting better, those 15 million.

That is an impossible message to deliver politically, to communicate to people, I mean, without…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean because…

MARK SHIELDS: The sense of anger. I mean, don’t tell me things are getting better. I have been out of work for six-and-a-half months, nine months.

And that’s a difficult message.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, maybe we could take a census of China, keep those people on.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, then you get to the question of, what are we going to do about this? Because the long-term unemployment, the number of long-term unemployed, is truly horrific, even by any historical standards going back to the Great Depression.

And, so, the question is, do we have another set of job creation and other stimulus bills? And the thing that is worrying, I think, about these numbers is that, as a number of economists said, the economy is sort of churning along, but people don’t want to hire because they are not sure if this is a sugar high, this is a temporary set of growth. So, they don’t want to hire long-term.

So, it could be people think, OK, I have got — I see some energy, but that’s because the government is running a 10 percent deficit, and that’s going to go away, and then all the growth will go away. So, I don’t want to be stuck with a lot of long-term employees.

So, in a weird way, I think some of the stimulus spending, while doing some good short-term, is also raising a lot of anxiety long term and sort of dampening down some of the hiring.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you are hearing people say, well, they have spent all this money, and yet they are only creating 40-some-thousand jobs a month…

DAVID BROOKS: Right, because I think it’s — we have talked about this before — it is the psychology. You know, you can pump numbers into a macroeconomic number, but if people are basically anxious for future taxes, because of Greece, because of a million other things, they are still not going to hire. And the psychological switch has not occurred.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A different jobs question, Mark, the offer by the White House of a job, one of three jobs, to a Democrat running for the Senate in Colorado to keep him from challenging the Democrat who was already in the race. This is on the top of the Pennsylvania…

MARK SHIELDS: This is — well, it actually is the third time. The late Bill Safire said — had a rule of three. You had to have three separate instances — or incidents before a story really got legs.

This is the third one. Remember, David Paterson, the governor of New York, they ham-handedly, as — on the day the president was visiting New York, they tried to get him out of the race. He was — later withdrew because of an ethical question of his own, but then Joe Sestak against Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, and then Andy Romanoff against — against Michael Bennet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they all turned it down. They all said…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that’s the big thing. There are two factors come out of this.

The first is, it violates the marvelous rule that I learned from Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, which is, never write what you can speak. Never speak what you can whisper.

MARK SHIELDS: Never whisper what you can nod, and never nod what you can wink. And the idea of the White House putting out a menu…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think I follow that.

MARK SHIELDS: OK — putting out a menu of three jobs, you know, and saying — in print, e-mail, and sending it out to Romanoff and saying, do you want column A, column B? Well, there was no offer made.

But the more important and significant development is that, in both instances, in Specter and Sestak, in Sestak’s case in Pennsylvania, and Romanoff in Colorado, is that they felt that defying the White House, by going public on this, would cost them nothing and actually help them politically.

And I think that’s, you know, an unsettling message for the White House to receive.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I mean, if you want a job, if you are unemployed, run against a Democratic incumbent. The offers will start coming in.

DAVID BROOKS: And I do think that is it. This is an anti-establishment year. And we have seen it already in a number of cases, but it’s also even true within the Democratic Party against a Democratic president.

It’s sort of a badge of honor. We don’t know if Romanoff will win in Colorado. I sort of doubt it. But, nonetheless, it is clearly a case where you want to stick your thumb in the eye of the establishment. And that is going to make it hard for party leaders to run campaigns, because nobody is going to listen.

And you get bonus points for not listening. And, so, that makes it hard to establish party discipline.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that means the White House has no clout…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they have some clout, but obviously less. I mean, people are casting a lot of blame on the White House political operatives. I sort of don’t blame them. The atmospherics are different.

Look, we have got a lot of races where we have seen what is happening this year. And we’re going to probably see a lot more of it in Nevada maybe next Tuesday at the primary there, that the furthest ideologically extreme candidates are doing well, and the anti-establishment candidates are doing well. And it is just tough if you are in the establishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is unfair to ask you about this in just a couple of minutes, but — but Israel, Gaza, the attack on the flotilla of ships. There is another flotilla coming. The Israelis are threatening to stop them.

How does the Obama administration deal with this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they are doing it in a muddy way. Of course, I want them to be honest about it, which I think the true thing is that Israel was morally justified, but politically stupid, to do this.

Gaza is run by Hamas, which is — it’s threatening its destruction. Israel allows 10,000 tons of week of stuff to go through to — into Gaza. They could have channeled the humanitarian aid that way. They wanted a confrontation.

But Israel was phenomenally stupid to walk into this trap, just politically. And the Obama administration is trying to walk down the middle, and they’re just being fuzzy about it between Turkey and Israel, and really making no one happy. But I really don’t see another way for the Obama administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a headache and more.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s more than a headache. I mean, it is — one could argue about the illegality or the immorality of what Israel did, but no one can argue against the stupidity.

It was isolating. It lead to worldwide condemnation. It put the United States in a terrible position. It put Turkey in a terrible position, the one Muslim country that had been open in dealing with the Israelis. It put the United States, as General David Petraeus said earlier this year, and testified that this weakens the United States in its ability to be an honest player in the Middle East in the resolution, with other nations, simply because we are seen as being too pro-Israeli and uncritically supportive of Israel.

And I think what complicates it all is that Prime Minister Netanyahu feels threatened at home politically by his own political right. And the way to reestablish, as we all know, a political leader who is beleaguered is to introduce a foreign threat, and to stand up to international pressure.

And it’s easy to do that because President Obama is not popular in Israel, because he, ironically, is seen as too pro-Palestinian and not sufficiently uncritically supportive of Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was unfair to ask you, but I did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I thank you for your answers.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.