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Shields and Brooks on Obama ‘Recalibrating’ Stance on Egypt, State of the Union

January 28, 2011 at 5:41 PM EST
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks speak with Jim Lehrer about the week's top developments, including the Obama administration "recalibrating" the U.S. stance on the growing political unrest in Egypt and the president's messages in his latest State of the Union address.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

President Obama has made his statement about Egypt. And we’re going to run an excerpt of it in a moment.

And, in fact, we’re going to do it right at this moment.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good evening, everybody.

My administration has been closely monitoring the situation in Egypt, and I know that we will be learning more tomorrow when day breaks. As the situation continues to unfold, our first concern is preventing injury or loss of life. So I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters.

The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.

I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they have taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century.

At the same time, those protesting in the streets have the responsibility to express themselves peacefully. Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms that they seek.

Now going forward, this moment of volatility that has to be turned into a moment of promise. The United States has a close partnership with Egypt. And we’ve cooperated on many issues, including working together to advance a more peaceful region.

But we’ve always been clear that there must be reform: political, social and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people. In the absence of these reforms, grievances have built up over time.

When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech. And I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.

Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people. And suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. What’s needed right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people, a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens and a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people.

Now, ultimately, the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people. I believe the Egyptian people want the same things that we all want: a better life for ourselves and our children, and a government that is fair and just and responsive.

Put simply, the Egyptian people want a future that befits the heirs to a great and ancient civilization.

JIM LEHRER: And to Mark Shields and David Brooks.

David, what did you think of what the president just said?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they have done a good job in the last 24 hours of recalibrating their response. I think, initially, as in many responses with this administration, they are cautious and sort of on the side of whatever government happens to be in power and preferring order to disorder.

But I think they have come to see, in part because of the actions of the Egyptian government over the past 24 hours, that they have to recalibrate. And they — I think President Obama stood for a couple important things.

One, he stood for human rights and the idea that we will always stand for certain human rights, to assemble, to express yourself and that sort of thing. The second thing he stood for was he clearly put moral legitimacy on the side of the protesters and said their demands for reforms are absolutely legitimate demands.

And so I think that was an important thing to have said. He could have been maybe a little more forceful, but I think he did that pretty well. And then the third pivotal thing I thought of what he said was him calling on Mubarak, saying Mubarak had a responsibility to give meat to the talk about reforms.

Now, I think that’s useful to say. The next policy for the administration is, when Mubarak doesn’t put meat on that, which he certainly will not, what do you do then? And — but I think they have moved quite — quite well in the last 24 hours.

JIM LEHRER: Quite well in the last 24 hours, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think we were caught — the United States, the administration, was caught between our high ideals and the hard reality, the reality being that Egypt, beyond being the largest country in that region, has also been the most important ally of the United States as far as Israel in preserving peace.

And, without that, the next administration — administration in Egypt — and we don’t know who it will be or what form it might take — it’s hard to believe it will be anywhere near as supportive and a lot more suspicious and more skeptical toward the United States, and no guarantee that they will retain the 32-year commitment to the recognition of Israel and peace with Israel that has probably been — saved us from war.

I thought the president did lay down the law to the Mubarak regime. In terms of economic reform, one-half of the people in Egypt live on less than $2 a day. And that’s — that’s a reality. I mean, that is a harsh reality, when you are talking about economic reform. And I don’t think anybody doubts that the last election held in Egypt was not open, was not honest, was not fair.

And so I think that the president laid out the case rather definitely and emphatically.

JIM LEHRER: Is it emphatic enough to call it a threat, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it was. I think they pulled back.

There is sort of a political context, an American context here. After 9/11, President Bush gave a speech in London in 2001 or 2002 saying these ossified regimes like the Egyptian regimes are a threat to world peace, because they breed terrorism and they are inherently unstable. And he said we would prefer to see these ossified regimes fall, thinking that in that process we’ll get something better.

After — in about 2005, even the Bush administration began to reverse itself, after Hamas won an election in Gaza. And now with the end of the Bush administration and the Obama administration, we have a preference for order.

And so there’s still been that preference for order, fearing, as Mark says, legitimately, things could get worse. And so I think Obama is still a little on — a little inheriting that tradition.

The only thing I would say is that the people out on the streets — you know, there’s always the threat, oh, it is the Muslim Brotherhood. That is what the autocrats always say. But if you listen to what the people on the streets are saying, they are for economic opportunity. They’re for democracy. They’re for living in a dynamic society.

And so I guess I wish the administration would be a little forward — more forward, even more aggressive than they were tonight in saying, yes, they’re right. They are not only right, but they’re probably going to lead to a better Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mark, isn’t it unusual for a president of the United States to get on the phone with the president of an independent nation and say, here’s what I want to you do, Mr. President, and then on — then go on national — on his own national television, and say, I did it; I just told this guy…

MARK SHIELDS: Half-an-hour ago.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, half-an-hour ago.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: … half-an-hour ago.

JIM LEHRER: I want to you do this.

And now as a result of that, what everybody thinks about that, does the United States — does this now become an American problem?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the United States is very much a major player now, and that the question to the president is going to be, whatever President Mubarak does or does not do in the next 24, 48 hours or beyond, is that what you insisted upon? Is he meeting your standards, Mr. President?

The fact that we have $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid in fiscal — the last fiscal year, I think, is probably the leverage that the president is then going to be asked are going to — as Robert Gibbs was earlier, I mean, is that going to be the club?

JIM LEHRER: But as the folks told Judy in the — earlier in the program, what most of these people want, at least — and also the ITN reporter said this earlier to Margaret…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: … and on their pieces — that the people on the street, they want Mubarak out.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: This isn’t about reforming to get people jobs.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JIM LEHRER: This is to get Mubarak out.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and one doubts that President Obama, for all his eloquence, can persuade him to go. Maybe, if he is halfway tempted to go, which I sincerely doubt, you can ease the path. That’s been done before.

We’re going to have to face a crunch time when he says I’m not going anywhere.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, that’s the…

DAVID BROOKS: And, as you say, it is unusual to have as blunt a conversation reported so instantly…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: … as you say. That is quite remarkable, when you think about it.

But I don’t think the administration has yet grappled with what will be the painful moment, when he’s still there in a week or two weeks or a month.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Do you agree that’s…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, we did have a tradition of — in the Middle East, of talking to a friendly despot with a medical condition and asking him to reform. And that was 32 years ago, I think, in Iran.

JIM LEHRER: Shah of Iran.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes, yes.

Speaking of — back to other issues for a moment here before we go, how does the president’s State of the Union address look to you three nights later, sound to you three nights later?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it struck me, thematically, the president was masterful. I mean the American people expect optimism from their leaders. And he projected optimism. He captured the future. Americans want to live in the future. They want a — they want the country to be forward-looking.

It just strikes me that there are two great problems in this country, I mean jobs and the economy. And we have got an economy where we have got record corporate profits, and we’re not producing jobs for our people.

And we have got this incredible fiscal deficit, debt time bomb that is on a very, very short wick right now. And one party, the Democrats, address the first and want to talk about it, at least in terms of the economy, not particularly and specifically jobs but kind of want to go light on the second. And the Republicans only want to talk about the second and basically want to tiptoe around the first.

And it — we have just got an incomplete dialogue going on.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? We have got an incomplete dialogue?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, the country doesn’t want to take the tough measures.

And what it takes is a president who not only gives a great thematic speech — which I agree it was — but who says, here’s the tough measures. I’m going to call for some sacrifice on all of you. I am going to get out in front of you and lead this. And we’re going to do some things, not only light-rail — we’re fine — I’m fine with light-rail — but maybe a little bigger than that to create real jobs. And I’m going to make some cuts and I’m going to raise some taxes.

That’s the only thing that is going to avoid a fiscal crisis, which is imminent. 2019, our debt will be a trillion dollars. Our interest payments on the debt alone will be a trillion dollars. And so that is imminent.

And I think historians will look back on this Congress, both on the Republican side and the Democratic side, and say they gave good speeches, but the fact they weren’t grappling with this with both hands at this moment, they will — they will — that will strike them as bizarre.

JIM LEHRER: Bizarre?

MARK SHIELDS: Bizarre.

And think about this just in terms of the deficit. I mean, that doesn’t — that doesn’t fill a prescription. That doesn’t put a book in a child’s hand. That doesn’t put a plane in the air. It doesn’t build a bridge. It’s a transfer payment of people of ordinary income paying their taxes to bondholders.

And bondholders are overwhelmingly better off than the people who are paying the taxes. It is a terrible, terrible public policy to run up that kind of deficit. We — this year, in fiscal year 2011, we will spend 24.7 percent of the gross domestic product of the country, the federal government will, and will collect 14.8. OK?

That’s 10-percent difference. I mean, you can’t do that. And I agree with David that — I mean, we have been talking for 10 years about sacrifice. We were talking about George Bush not calling for sacrifice at the time of the war. We haven’t had a leader call for sacrifice.

He mentioned it in the speech sort of as an abstract noun, but at no point did he say this is what I am asking of you.

DAVID BROOKS: Bowles-Simpson commission set it up. They put everything on the table. They laid the problem out. And I thought he really could have grasped that.

And we have all sat with interviews with President Obama, and he’s always said: Next year, I’m really going to tackle the deficit.

Well, it is Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown at some point. And so I — I want him to actually say, OK, this is the year we’re going to talk about it.

And, so, I guess my reaction to the speech was very positive the first day, but it’s gotten a little sour the subsequent days.

JIM LEHRER: Is it the same progression from you? He — it sounded better the night he said it than he — than it does now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s — there is a little bit of the Gary Hart-Fritz Mondale race: Where’s the beef?

You know, I mean, the question that Mondale asked of Hart was sort of a, in the future, we have got to get moving. We’re a great country. We’re this and that. He evoked our great days of the past, gave us a sense of confidence and optimism about the future. But it didn’t come down to the action statement. Therefore, this is what I am asking of you, and me, and every American tonight.

And that’s what is missing.

JIM LEHRER: And, of course, what’s — of course, what is never missing for a president of the United States, just about the time you think you may have one thing to do, now you have got Egypt to deal with…

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: … and all the dominoes that could flow from that.

So, anyhow, thank you all very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.