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Shields and Gerson on Jobless Rate Realities, Obama’s Plan in Libya

April 1, 2011 at 4:35 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson weigh in on top political developments, including the latest jobless figures, President Obama's handing of the Libya conflict and the budget battle on Capitol Hill.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonigh, the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight.

So, gentlemen, I was going to start with the jobs numbers.

But, Mark, you know, hearing that story about what these military veterans face, that’s tough.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it is, Judy.

It seems every politician’s speech — and corporate chief and public official — begins with honoring the great service and courage of our men and women in uniform. It would be great to see a competition among American employers to employ veterans who have come back and who have made that kind of a commitment. I mean, the unemployment rate among veterans in Paul’s piece and others is just — it’s unacceptable. And it is really ungrateful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been true in other wars, but it just seems particularly rough right now, doesn’t it, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I agree with that. It’s combined with a terrible economy.

And the question is what do employers want to take risks on? And the answer here is they should take risks on our veterans. You know, they do have challenges. They do have problems rooted in participating in very difficult wars. But they’re owed a lot. And this is a case where employers need to step up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael, the overall numbers that we got back today, last month, over 200,000 jobs created. We heard Ray’s discussion earlier. How do you look at this? Is this a turning point?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I look at it as good, but not great yet, at least yet. The momentum is the right direction. But it needs to get — you know, gather momentum.

This is a case where, in order just to keep the unemployment rate where it is right now, you have to create 150,000 jobs a month. This is about 60,000 jobs above that. But to get to full employment, you’re talking about millions of additional jobs. And so we’re getting there at a very, very slow place — pace.

I would add that a lot of the concerns in this economy are — also have to do with the housing market, which I think has not recovered in a certain way. There are two million homes right now that are owned by banks or on the verge of foreclosure. And I don’t think, until that problem gets better, that the president can strike up “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, good, but not great?

MARK SHIELDS: Good, Judy. February, March, two-month record is the best in five years. And now we have had 13 consecutive months of private-sector growth.

But before we break out the champagne, the sobering reality is that we are — still have in this country 7.2 million fewer jobs today than we had in December 2007, when the recession began. And, at the current rate, it would take a full three years just to return to that level.

So, it is — it’s good, it’s encouraging, it’s in the right direction, but there are sobering factors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if you talk to people who study this, they say that not all those jobs are going to come back.

MARK SHIELDS: No, and especially for older workers.

There has to be a recognition that the jobs aren’t going to come back the same way, by any means. And for many of them, it could be a lifetime of really unemployment or partial employment. And there has to be some way of addressing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are the – what’s the political meaning of this, Michael? I mean, is it clear that the president is helped a little bit when the numbers are good like this, or what?

MICHAEL GERSON: Clearly. You have got four months of job growth. That’s good for the president. I think they welcome it.

I don’t think they should underestimate, though, the level of economic anxiety out there that is coming from a variety of different sources, not just the direction of the job picture. I mentioned housing, oil prices. You know, there is a lot of fear out there. And if they look to triumphant with small, incremental gains, I think that that could hurt them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the politics?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think you could say that the argument, I think, the White House would make is, look, we had the European debt crisis. We had Japan and the tragedy there, the world’s third greatest economy. We have had oil price spikes and uncertainty in the Middle East. And in spite of that, they still had this job record.

But underlying it, Judy, there is a great question that is asked. And it’s, do you believe the country is headed in the right direction or is seriously off on the wrong track? And Americans, by better than 2-1, believe the country is off on the wrong track. And that is a — that is serious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. So, you talk about the uncertainty in the Middle East.

Michael, the president made a speech to the nation. It was Monday night. Did he do what he needed to do at this point?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think he did a very effective job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Libya.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right. Exactly.

I think he did an effective job explaining the humanitarian stakes of what went on. He said very directly: I was not going to stand by and watch mass graves being filled.

I thought that was effective. I think he did less good of a job, as most people commented after the speech, in saying what our actual goals are in Libya. This is a case where the administration says: We want Gadhafi gone, but we want a limited and temporary role in Libya. And those two goals may not be the same — you know, match one another.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, there are only — there are only two elements of the entire Libya, call it engagement, conflict, war, whatever you want to call it, the president has any control over. That is how much United States force is actually committed to the theater, and secondly, the speech he made.

And the president, I thought he made a good speech. I agree with Michael that the humanitarian case was — he made it quite strongly, quite emphatically. I think he implicitly contrasted the action — he had been criticized for not moving fast enough — with the United States’ yearlong delay before we moved in Bosnia under similar humanitarian grounds.

He explicitly contrasted himself with President Bush in going into Iraq, in terms of consultation, multilateral, other countries, the United States not being a lone actor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: And so, I think he did.

But still, there is no final exit strategy. And they have continued to fudge. They made the case that this is a terrible man. He has been there for 42 years, through seven America presidents. He’s a bad man. They made the case. But they still won’t say regime change. I mean, I don’t know what — what it is that we want from him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the president is saying, and Secretary of Defense Gates is saying, we’re not going to send troops. He said, at least, not on my watch, we’re not going to send troops.

Are they really, Michael, bound by whatever Gadhafi decides to do?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think they face a difficult situation, where the regime seems weak — there are some defectors from the regime — but the rebels seem weaker. They don’t have an organized army. They have very little command-and-control structure. They can’t seem to hold territory. They lose it once they gain it.

And so that’s likely to result either in stalemate or slaughter, and neither of which are particularly good outcomes for the United States. I think that you can make the argument that, if Gadhafi survives, he’s even more dangerous as a cornered animal in a certain way, with a significant amount of oil revenue.

So, you know, there — this could get very messy. What outcome do you want, and what methods do you employ?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a certain amount of luck involved?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, sure there is. Sure there is, Judy.

And — but I would say this. Any mission that ends or is completed with Gadhafi still in effective control of Libya is a failure. I mean, this is a — we can talk about the speech. And I think it was really a good speech. And I think the president makes that about as well as any, certainly, president in my lifetime.

But this is a results-determined intervention. Whether, in fact, Gadhafi goes, whether there is a Libya that is a functioning society and a civil society, I mean, all of those are open questions, and they do involve some luck.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, they’re debating whether to help the rebels and how much help do we give without sending troops in. We know there is CIA.

MARK SHIELDS: The CIA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The CIA.

MICHAEL GERSON: There are covert methods. Arming them, training them, those are possibilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s bring it back here and talk about the everlasting debate, Michael, over the budget, the 2011 budget. This is now, what, the fourth or fifth holding pattern they have been in.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The vice president, Vice President Biden, came out and said: We have agreed on a number. The Democrats and the White House and the Republicans have agreed it’s going to be a $33 billion cut.

John Boehner, the speaker, comes out the next day and says, no, we haven’t agreed on any number.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is going on?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think that the number that they talked about, that the vice president announced, the 30-some-billion dollars, is actually a strong negotiating position for the president and the administration.

You know, it’s something that the left had previously rejected. Sen. Reid said this was draconian; he wasn’t going to accept it. It was the initial position of Republicans, about $30 billion cuts. So, right now, Boehner is in a very difficult circumstance.

This is a good deal. Normally, you would take it. But he’s got to persuade his own conference that includes Tea Party members, who are pretty much off the reservation. And his message is essentially, take this deal, and the real argument will come over the 2012 budget, which is going to be announced next week, with entitlement reform and other things.

But I don’t know if they are going to take it or not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he’s not acknowledging that, that’s what is going on, behind…

MICHAEL GERSON: That’s what is happening behind the scenes, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: John Boehner is in a difficult and somewhat uncomfortable position. For the fourth day in a row, he was before the cameras today and the microphones. John Boehner is not somebody who thrives in public, the microphone. It is not something he seeks out. He doesn’t need that kind of a fix.

The fix he’s in politically is this. As he said today, he said, closing down the federal government will actually cost more than it would save. He said — and that was directed at his own caucus, Judy, and to the people that Michael talked about, particularly the Tea Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some of whom are prepared to go along with a shutdown.

MARK SHIELDS: Are prepared to do it, who think that’s the real litmus test of their commitment to the government.

And the — what Boehner is saying is, look, this is the first fight. It’s not the most important fight. It’s not the biggest fight. And for months now, we have heard that there’s going to be a major revelation next week, a production written, directed and starring Paul Ryan, the — you know, the latest and the greatest in the party of Lincoln.

And the worst thing that could happen as Paul Ryan is unveiling the 2012 budget, with its bold and dramatic initiatives, is that the government is being shut down. I mean, that would be a terrible, terrible stepping on your own message.

MICHAEL GERSON: That would step all over the…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is there any sign, Michael, that the Tea Party folks are going to fall in line, at least enough of them to give John Boehner…

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, there are two problems. There are Tea Party freshmen, who really do view the shutdown as an advantage, which I think is a mistake. But that’s true.

But there are also some longer-term Republicans that want to be seen as rebel leaders, people like Mike Pence and Michele Bachmann, who are taking advantage of the situation to expand their own prominence. You know, Pence led a rally this — chanting…

JUDY WOODRUFF: We had him on the show this week.

MICHAEL GERSON: … chanting, “Shut it down, shut it down.”

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: And, so, I think that’s a problem for Boehner, too, not just the freshmen, but also the older members who are trying to take advantage of the situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, the president — or, I should say, the left — the Democrats are getting some heat from the left. They’re saying, the White House, the Democrats have maybe give in too much already.

MARK SHIELDS: The explanation you get from the White House is that the president was seen — not for attribution — is the president was seen as too intimately and personally and completely involved in the legislative process the first two years.

And so they have distanced him from this. And there is. There’s grumbling, A., that they have given in too much too soon on the cuts that were talked about, and that the president himself is not personally involved.

It’s not simply Mike Pence and some of the others. Newt Gingrich, of recent and fond memory, and presidential ambitions, appeared before the House Republicans yesterday and urged them to be even tougher. I’m sure John Boehner must have been thrilled by that appearance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to have to call it a stop right now. And we have recent very fond memories of the two of you.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thank you both.