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Shields and Brooks on GOP’s Repeal Effort, Obama’s Overtures to Business, China

January 21, 2011 at 4:39 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks sort through the week's top political news, including President Obama's outreach to big business and China's president, plus the Republican-led vote in the House to repeal last year's health reform law.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, what do you make of the president’s reaching out to the business community, today and earlier?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s beginning to work. I mean, if you look at his poll numbers, they’re rising. And they’re rising among two groups: moderate Republicans and independents.

And actually if you look at the approval rating of Congress and approval rating of the Republicans in Congress, that is beginning to go down. So, the first thing to be said is this — politically, he sees the momentum.

Now, economically, it’s obviously a tougher road. He’s got a high degree of skepticism among the business community. But he’s — I think he’s begun to chip into that. A lot of the skepticism — and I would talk to a lot of CEOs who just loathed Obama, and who didn’t used to, a lot who voted for him. And a lot of it was just rhetorical. They didn’t like being called fat cats.

And he’s sort of scaled that back. He’s had a few meetings where he hasn’t screamed at them. They like that. There’s been a — this gesture in The Wall Street Journal, a piece that he wrote saying we’re going to look at the costs and benefits of regulation — and that’s being run by Cass Sunstein, who really could put some meat on that substance — and the free-trade bill. There’s a whole series of things.

And so it’s — he’s seized the political center a bit and really begun to shift and made people in the business community feel better. So it is — who would have thought three months ago he would have the momentum right now and the Republicans would be a little back on their heels? But it’s happening.

JIM LEHRER: It’s happened, the momentum back on…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I don’t — I don’t get as much out of it as David does. I mean, I think it’s been mostly public relations at this point.

I mean, when the president of the United States says in Schenectady today that he picked Jeffrey Immelt because — quote — “he is not one of the Washington crowd,” I mean, that just — that rings…

That is not authentic. I’m sorry. It is not authentic, when a Democratic president tries to run against Washington and tries to run against the government.

JIM LEHRER: … the CEO of General Electric.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes … selling apples on the corner.

MARK SHIELDS: In the third quarter of 2010, corporate profits in the United States reached an all-time high.

The Standard & Poor 500 is up 50 percent since Barack Obama has been president of the United States. I mean it isn’t like these people are hurting. Two-thirds of all the wealth created has gone to the top 1 percent. I mean it isn’t like he has been Robin Hood and holding them up. They are doing pretty damn well.

I think it’s a matter of necessity on his part. I mean, what he did do was extend the tax cuts. That wasn’t a matter of choice, but that was certainly their preference.

JIM LEHRER: That was pushed on him by the new — the new Republicans, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: By the realities of politics…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: … and both Democrats and Republicans, I would say, in this case.

But, you know, there hasn’t been any really major substantive change at this point. I…

JIM LEHRER: No policy change?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the tax — I would say the tax cuts extended, the South Korean trade deal, which had been in the works for, you know, a long, long time. It wasn’t a major innovation.

I do think that the tests will be on the budget and the State of the Union as to whether in fact he’s going to continue on this road. I don’t think the independent voters have returned to their positive rating of Obama, which they have for the first time Obama since August of 2009, based upon his overtures to Tom Donohue and the Chamber of Commerce and Jeffrey Immelt and the Fortune 50.

I think it’s — I think there is a perception that he has made things work since the election. He did get START through. He did get don’t ask, don’t tell through. He didn’t appear to be rolled by the Republicans in any way. And he was — he did act in a bipartisan way.

And, finally, at Tucson, in an American tragedy, he did — he was a president not only comforting people, but connecting emotionally with them.

JIM LEHRER: Do you buy in to that part of it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I — Tucson was a major part of it obviously. I do think the — healing the war, which really was a war with business, is a part of it, too. A lot of people work for businesses and respect business.

JIM LEHRER: Even if it was rhetorical war, you mean?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they see it as a — yes, it was a rhetorical war. And the business leaders would say it was more than that when they were being hit with regulations and all the uncertainty.

And there has been a shift. Some of it is so far just symbolic, but there has been a shift in personnel: Gene Sperling and Bruce Reed and Bill Daley. They’re not necessarily…

JIM LEHRER: Come in to the White House staff, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: They have come in or been promoted. And they’re not necessarily businesspeople, but they’re not hostile to business. And I think there’s been some shift there.

But, you know, the proof will be in the pudding, how much of the regulatory reform really is done. And, to me, the big challenge — and this is really leading into the State of the Union — clearly, there has been an emphasis on growth and competitiveness, international competitiveness. That’s now what they are talking about with some of the Obama people.

Before, you were talking to them about what you’re doing.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: It was about health care and all that. Now it’s about growth. We’re just going to grow, grow, grow, grow.

And so that is good music to people’s ears. But to me, the central tension there is, it growth trying to gin up some jobs are for 2012, job creation over the next few months, or is it long-term fundamental growth, doing the things like scientific research, infrastructure spending, education reform, which will yield no benefits by 2012 but may by 2020 or 2030?

And, to me, those are two separate subjects. And one of the things I’m curious about is when they’re talking about growth, which growth are they talking about?

JIM LEHRER: Where does, if at all, does the China summit fit in to this? Is this part of the new glow for Barack Obama? Do you think it deserves a glow?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it worked symbolically for him. I’m not sure of the substantive changes, whether they were — certainly, they weren’t earth-shattering.

But there were concessions, at least verbal. But that is not the first time we have had that from the Chinese in the past, the acknowledgment that they have a human-rights problem, even though it was blanked out for Chinese consumption, and the acknowledgment that there was a responsibility in North Korea and that North Korea was a problem, and again, the statements on intellectual property.

I mean, when Microsoft reports that one out of 10 Microsoft products that ends up in China in use is paid for, nine out of 10 are pirated, you know, that’s — I mean, that’s really international banditry on their part. And it’s — it’s continued.

But, you know, I think the president handled himself well. He does — he does that very well. I don’t know…

JIM LEHRER: David, what did you think of the summit?

DAVID BROOKS: I was most impressed by the level of self-criticism by the Obama administration and correction. And that’s really the story on economics, but also the story on China policy.

I think there is a widespread recognition that they came into the White House, into power saying we have got to engage China. We are going to open up to them. We are going to talk to them. And this was perceived as weakness by the Chinese. And they began to walk over the Obama administration.

And they also began to think this openness was a sign that Americans knew their power was in decline and were being more gentle. And, therefore, it was necessary to shift, do some openness and engagement but also do some toughness, and sort of strike that balance.

And a lot of the China watchers that I spoke to thought they struck that balance quite well. And so that’s a sign that they are willing to say, OK, we have sort of got this wrong. Let’s adjust.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, the House with the Republican votes repealed the health-reform law. What does that mean?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it means we now have the Republican health plan, which doesn’t impose any burdens on business or any regulations or doesn’t cost a nickel because there is no Republican health plan.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: And it means the law remains.

We have gone through that symbolism, that messaging. And the Republicans would say: We — we met our responsibility. We said we would do it. We’ve done it.

And it is over. I think the Republicans start to run a little bit of a risk, if they try to keep this alive in the Senate and torment Harry Reid and the Democrats to bring it up of what the Democrats did. At a time when American voters are concerned about jobs and the economy, spending time on health care, which has already been passed and is on the books and certainly could be improved, is not where the Republicans want to be, and politically or substantively.

JIM LEHRER: But they had to do it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And I think they were absolutely right to do it. I mean, they won on this issue. This was one of the dominant issues that propelled them to power.

And this — it’s not over. This was the first step. I mean, they have talked very explicitly about having a whole series of committee hearings. And they’re going to talk about some of the problems, some of the problems like unions and employers dumping people off their insurance rolls on to the public rolls, which they have a gigantic incentive to do, some of the fiscal problems. And that was sort of where the debate held up.

And I thought Republicans had a decent case to make that, on paper, according to the way the CBO counts this, it does reduce the deficit over 10 years, because of the tax increases, but in reality, because of the way — some of the accounting gimmicks, it’s quite bad for the deficit.

So, they were quite right to talk about that stuff. But the key will be, how aggressive are they going to be in going forward? And one of the debates they’re having right now between the top leaders and the more political people, frankly, hey, let’s not touch Medicare; let’s not touch that stuff.

Some of the more principled people and policy-oriented people are saying, we can’t really cut spending, we can’t cut deficits, we can’t really adjust our health care system unless we’re willing to talk about Medicare reform.

And so they’re having a serious debate about that. You can’t avoid health care.

MARK SHIELDS: David and I didn’t hear the same debate. I listened to the debate on the floor.

I mean, they — the Republicans regularly stood up and said they thought that pre-existing condition and elimination of that was good. They thought continuing people until the age of 26 was good. They thought not dropping someone when they were sick was good, that no lifetime limit was good.

But what they didn’t want was mandate and exchanges. Now, you cannot have that. You cannot. The insurance rates would be so high, it would be impossible. So, what they want to do is cherry-pick all the benefits and have none of the responsibilities.

DAVID BROOKS: Not quite fair — I mean, to one extent, a little fair.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: A little fair.

DAVID BROOKS: I am trying to open up in a moderate way, before I come back in an immoderate way.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: It is true that the Republicans have not decided — have not asked for any painful stuff, like Medicare cuts, the way Obama to his credit did.

But they do have a theory about how to control costs. And that theory is to define the benefits that the government is going to pay out and have a real, competitive marketplace where consumers can see what they’re paying and what they’re getting. And, therefore, you could have normal market competition.

So there is a theory there. How much they actually try to get that system into place will be determined by these committee hearings.

JIM LEHRER: A few seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I wait for that.

I mean, I have seen — I have seen — this debate has gone on now in this country 50 years. And there was a Republican plan in 1993. It was Bob Dole’s and John Chafee of Rhode Island. And it essentially transformed into the Romney plan in Massachusetts and the Obama plan in Washington. The Democrats embraced that Republican plan of 1993. And Republicans in the Congress have just walked away from it.

JIM LEHRER: And I’m now going to have to walk away from the two of you — very, very sad thing to do, but thank you both very much.