JIM LEHRER: And now, the coming of tonight’s State of the Union address as seen by Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away tonight.
Michael, what do you make of this mixed seating arrangement?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it’s symbolic and sweet and a little bit like junior high school.
But it’s — I think the principle is an important one, not just in the Congress, but actually in our lives, that we should associate with people that we don’t always agree with. It’s why I like Mark so much.
MICHAEL GERSON: But I think that’s important.
And I hate — I have always hated that aspect of the State of the Union address, which is the competitive-applause aspect, which I think was undignified — has — undignified. And insofar as this undermines that trend, that’s a good thing.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, before — before we walk together or work together, we have to crawl together. And I think this is an important step that Mark Udall, the senator from Colorado, is to be commended for.
It’s — it’s positive. I think, once you sit next to somebody and talk to them and get to know them as human beings, it’s a lot tougher to demonize them. And I think that’s good for the legislative process. I think it’s good for the country.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of what’s good for the country, what do you think — what are your expectations about what the president is going to say tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t think there’s many expectations that haven’t been played out pretty graphically by the White House, I mean, what, education, innovation and — what else? Duplication, creation…
MARK SHIELDS: … I guess, of…
JIM LEHRER: Maybe cut the budget a little bit.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, exactly.
But it — I would say what — the biggest concerns Americans have, at least expressed in the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, and elsewhere as well, about America in the future is the decline of the middle class, the flight of jobs overseas and their sense that the American education — public educational system is not working.
And I think that those has to be — have to be addressed. Jobs are the overriding concern to people. And there’s never been, in my judgment, in the first two years of a president’s term an overarching economic definition or really narrative of what this administration is about and where it wants to go.
JIM LEHRER: And he should do that tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: I think he has to do it tonight. I think people have to walk out of that speech tonight or leave that speech and say, I understand jobs are his passion, his preoccupation, he knows what he’s doing about it, and he’s going to do something about it.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think a major electoral loss, like he experienced in November, is also a chance to restart your message and prove, I got — I heard, I listened.
And for the last few months, he’s been doing that quite well. The tax deal showed that there was some prospect of bipartisan cooperation, if you give in that process. Tucson recovered some of the — the tone, the post-partisan tone of 2008 for the president, and his staff changes, a lot of — bringing in a lot of old Clinton people who are very good on these deficit issues and pro-business messaging.
So, tonight could continue that progress. He has to be credible on an optimistic, pro-growth, economic message, but he really has to be credible on the deficit, not just — and that’s much more difficult. It’s very hard to get at long-term deficit without dealing with entitlements, which he doesn’t seem to want to do.
But people are going to take a real measure on that on — on how serious he is.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think that the real measure is going to be taken on thematic things he says or on programmatic things? Do you think it’s…
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, on the deficit, the words don’t matter at all. I mean, you know, it’s all policy in that. And people are going to add it up.
A five-year domestic discretionary freeze, which seems to be in the speech tonight, is not going to solve the long-term problem of the deficit. No one believes it will. You have to get at particularly medical entitlements. And there’s — there’s no way around it.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Paul Ryan, the Republican from — the new — new chairman of the important House Budget Committee and from Wisconsin, he’s going to give the Republican response.
MARK SHIELDS: Right.
JIM LEHRER: What do you expect from him?
MARK SHIELDS: I assume that Paul Ryan will address the deficit problem, which has been the central theme of the Republicans, of cutting the size, scope and spending of government, maybe in — in reverse order.
One of the great problems, Jim, that the two parties have is the Democrats are a party increasingly of have-nots, and that is, a party that depends upon public services, public education, public expenditures. The Republicans’ base is an older, white, retired base of voters who are not interested in — really in cutting entitlements.
And that’s — that’s an awkward thing. The Democrats don’t want the budget cut because their constituencies really look to the government for help, assistance, whether it’s in medical care, whether it’s in education, wherever. They — they really do believe it’s an active partner, whereas the Republicans philosophically want government cut back, but their most reliable constituency, older, white, especially retired voters, who are the most dependable in both 2010 and 2008, are — are not particularly interested in tampering with those entitlements Michael mentions.
JIM LEHRER: You see — you see it the same way, maybe not specifically the same way, but that — what’s at risk here or what is at issue here are philosophies, rather than programs?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, there is a difference in philosophy here.
I mean, Paul Ryan is going to say that we’re in an emergency, a fiscal emergency, that’s going to require serious measures, probably beyond what the president is proposing. Ryan is a big advocate of reform of Medicare, for example.
JIM LEHRER: Mm-hmm.
MICHAEL GERSON: I believe if, coming out of that, the administration really attacks that and — and demonizes it, that’s not a good sign. Eventually, that problem has to be confronted, and it has to be done in a bipartisan way. There’s no way around it.
And Mark is exactly right. Neither side has much of a political interest in doing this. It’s entirely a substantive need. And it’s a test of our political system in many ways.
JIM LEHRER: A test of the system, in a word?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it is. I mean, I do think the president is in a stronger position on reforming the entitlements, in the sense that he can make the case: I — I am the representative and leader of the Democratic Party. These are our programs. We care about them. We want to prune them and improvement — improve them, while the other side has been historically their opponents. And who do you want making these cuts, if the cuts need be made?
JIM LEHRER: Well, to coin a phrase, stay tuned.
Thank you both.
MICHAEL GERSON: We will.