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Shields and Gerson on Jobs Report Progress, Presidential ‘Juice’

May 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson discuss the boost in the latest jobs report, President Barack Obama's effectiveness at the start of his second term, and political partisanship in battles over gun control and immigration reform.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to 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, we had good jobs numbers today, but you listen to that report just now from Paul Solman, and it makes you angry, doesn’t it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It does.

You look at Geoffrey Weglarz, who has 481 job applications, interviews, and no job. I mean, the long-term unemployment — unemployed in this country, more than four million out of work for six months, Judy, there’s been a study done of employers looking at resumes. And if your resume comes in and they’re the same, and Michael has not been working for a month and I haven’t been working for seven months or 11 months, and we have identical resumes, the employer will go to the person who’s worked most recently.

There’s almost a stigma that attaches. It becomes a terribly vicious cycle. When you’re out of work, you remain out of work, and obviously the problems that were cited of, you’re expected at a — younger workers are more flexible in salary. They’re more flexible supposedly on training or employers are willing to invest the time and the money in training.

I mean, it’s a terrible, terrible dilemma, and that’s a terrible waste of human capital. I thought Joe Carbone was just elegant on the subject of you cannot leave fellow Americans like that behind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does it say about our country that this is happening?

MICHAEL GERSON: It says that whenever we see the stock market at high levels and we see …

JUDY WOODRUFF: We broke a record today.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right, exactly — and we see the overall job numbers, we need to look a little deeper.

This is a case where we have a bifurcation, where people who are in the stock market did pretty well today.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

MICHAEL GERSON: But, if you look at our long-term employment situation, this is not a good time to be in the job market.

Our work force participation is very low. Long-term unemployment is very high. We have what’s been called the plow horse economy. It’s going forward, but very slowly. It’s not creating jobs in the way that need to be created. We are now still in the longest period of below three percent growth in the American economy since the Great Depression. This is not a good time to be in the job market, even if it’s a good time to be in the stock market.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what should be being done right now that isn’t being done? Or is there — is this just something we stand by and watch helplessly?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, this is the argument about doing — what about the deficit and what about spending?

And the argument that I would make is that it’s not in any way affecting the long-term well-being of the country economically to spend money to get people trained, to get them jobs, to employ them. I mean, that is in the good of the country and it’s in the long-term solvency of the greater country and the greater good.

And I just — I think there’s not, I mean, there really isn’t a master plan or a major plan right now or major …

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s not even being talked about.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it points to a disconnect in our politics where we have a lot of people who are concerned about jobs. We don’t have a lot of politicians talking about job creation.

Now, Republicans bring something, a little different emphasis to that issue, and Democrats, you know, and maybe both are necessary, job training, preparing people, giving them the social capital that’s necessary to compete in a free economy, but also macro-policies that increase the level of growth in our economy, which both of them seem to be necessary in this circumstance.

But, right now, if you look at the headlines, I’m not sure that we’re having that discussion. There’s a significant disconnect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the discussion is around cutting the budget.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there are arguments for cutting and doing something about the debt, but it does get you to the debt vs …

MARK SHIELDS: Not to be a complete downer, after Paul’s piece and the preceding piece on suicide — I mean, there is some good news.

We have had 38 consecutive months of private sector growth. Judy, we have had — the unemployment rate is down from 7.9 at the beginning of the year to 7.5. And to quote Mark Russell’s advice, to those whom see the glass as half-full, get a smaller glass.

We really — there is good news. Now, the bad news is — we have just heard it — on the long-term unemployment, and it’s sobering. It would take 16 more months of growth that we have now to get back to where we were in the number of Americans employed in Dec. of 2007. That would be Sept. of 2014. That’s almost seven years.

MICHAEL GERSON: Just to get back level?

MARK SHIELDS: Just to get back at that level. And that’s not even accounting for the millions of people who have come into the work force since then.

And in all fairness, December 2007 were not the good old days. I mean, that was a period of very slow economic growth. And, so, you know, there’s — it is sobering.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, meanwhile, what we’re talking about here in Washington — at least what some people were talking about was the president, Michael, held a news conference. And I guess the most memorable line was, he was asked does he still have the juice to get what he needs done in Congress? And he found himself in a position where he was denying that he was politically dead.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.

Well, we tend to exaggerate these moments. After his reelection, it was going to be a new progressive era. We were going to do all these major projects. Now he’s at a low point, particularly after the sequester battle and after the defeat of gun control legislation. And it looks bad.

And I think it was a bad press conference for him. You’re in a — you know, you’re not in a good position when you’re denying that you haven’t experienced your political demise. That’s not a strong position to be in. I think what disturbed supporters of the president was the way he’s reacting to this right now.

You know, a president is judged by his achievements, not the reasons he didn’t achieve, OK? And when you’re talking about the reasons you’re not achieving, it’s very defensive. And that’s what the president did in his press conference. He talked about how difficult it is and why he’s not making progress.

And I think that people looked at that and thought that, you know, that’s not the way that you respond or other American leaders have responded in low points that come in every presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What else could he have said?

MARK SHIELDS: I would just — I would add this, Judy.

The expectations were high, Barack Obama, the first and only American president since — since Dwight Eisenhower six decades ago to get more than 51 percent of the vote in successive elections. That’s a major achievement. So, expectations were high.

And Michael is right. The sequester and the gun control votes were stinging defeats for the president and disappointments for his supporters. I thought the press conference was a disaster. I thought it was a disaster, because he brought to it no energy, no zest for battle.

We judge presidents on results. We judge presidents on whether, in fact, they enforce their will upon the Congress. And — but it’s always in the results. We’re not interested in how they do it. We’re interested in what they do. George Bush got things done in the Congress by enlisting a totally united Republican Party and picking up a couple of outlier Democrats to pass his legislation.

Bill Clinton angered his own party by triangulating, by reaching across the aisle, angering the left of his own party. Right now, what Barack Obama has to confront is that the Republican Party in Congress is what it is. It’s a congressional party. It’s not interested in national elections.

They have lost, the Republicans. Five of the last six national elections, they have lost the popular vote. They are not competitive at this point. And so they are a congressional party, just as between 1968 and 1992, the Democrats were a congressional party. They got wiped out in presidential elections

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying he can’t count on them to work with him?

MARK SHIELDS: He can’t. What he has got to figure out, he has got to figure out how to go around them, how to pick off some of them, whether you do some with seduction. You do others with coercion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you did have that comment, Michael Gerson, this week from Pat Toomey, the senator from Pennsylvania …

MICHAEL GERSON: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … saying the reason many in his party didn’t go along with the gun control compromise was because they didn’t want to do something to help the president.

MICHAEL GERSON: Was obstruction.

I would add to that. I think that’s true. I think you have a connection between obstructionism, structural things that have to do with polarization in American politics, and some weak presidential leadership on some of these issues. I think all those things are consistent with one another.

But I do think there are real risks for just Republicans opposing things …

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

MICHAEL GERSON: … for the reason that Mark talked about.

Republicans right now have some positive goals they have to do to return to competitiveness as a national party. They have to appeal to new demographic groups. They have to appeal to blue-collar aspiring voters. They have to modify their tone on some social issues in order to compete. And if you’re just opposing the president, you’re not making progress on these other issues. This is — the rubber will hit the road for Republicans on immigration. If the Senate comes out with a bill and passes it with 60 or 70 votes, which is possible, and not certain, but possible, the House will then face this choice. They will be standing on a precipice.

Do we block immigration reform in America, or do we come up with enough Republicans, with enough Democrats to pass this thing? And it will be a defining moment for Republicans, whether they really want to pursue that obstruction strategy.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

But I would just remind, Democrats between ’68 and ’92, they lost 49 states in 1972 in the presidential election. They lost 49 states in 1984. They lost 44 in 1980, but they kept their congressional majority. They were in control of the House all that time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While they were losing nationally.

MARK SHIELDS: So they became a congressional party.

They weren’t opposed to their national ticket, but the national ticket didn’t win. They were still the chairmen of their committees. And that’s exactly where the Republicans are right now. What they’re worried about — and Michael is right I think in the scenario about immigration — but if I’m sitting there as a House Republican and Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah have generated a lot of grassroots opposition to immigration, and I’m worried about a primary challenge as a House Republican in my district on this issue, then they’re not going to go along.

I don’t care if it passes the Senate by 65 votes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, where does this go from here? On gun control, Republicans were not prepared to go along.

In the last week, gun control advocates have been out there at the grassroots level giving senators — Kelly Ayotte, the Republican in New Hampshire, giving her a hard time, questioning her vote. Could Republicans be moved to change their position on some of these issues because of …

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think that the — I think there’s been a backlash, but a relatively minor one, on the gun issue. And particularly if you’re in certain parts of the country, you don’t feel much pressure on this. And Ayotte may to some extent in New Hampshire. That is a more divided state.

But I really do believe that the immigration issue for Republicans, just looking at the numbers, that most people, including people like Ryan and Rubio and others, understand that this is an existential problem.

MARK SHIELDS: Ryan does. Rubio is a little bit foot in both camps.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, but I think because he wants to leverage role to be positive.

MARK SHIELDS: OK. OK.

MICHAEL GERSON: But I do think that they realize that this is not just an option.

If we — if Republicans fail this test, they may cease to be a national party for a long time. And I think that political reality could filter in. And I hope so.

MARK SHIELDS: On gun control, Judy, this is the first time that there’s been an adverse reaction to having voted against the NRA, whether it’s Kelly Ayotte, whether it’s Kay Hagan in North Carolina, who’s in a tough race, who cast a difficult vote, and her numbers have gone up. Jeff Flake in Arizona, his numbers have gone down. The same thing has happened in Alaska with Murkowski and Begich.

Now, that’s impressive. But what you have got to the do if you’re on the gun safety side, you have got to go into those states and work for Kay Hagan. You have got — in other words, you have got to say, you have taken a tough vote. We’re going to — in this for the long run, not just for one week of town meetings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear you both.

And I had hoped to end on a really up note, but it wasn’t to be. Next time.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

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