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Shields and Brooks: More Sure-Footed Obama Lays Out Long Game

January 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Gwen Ifill about the content and tone of the 2013 inaugural address, including President Obama's mentions of climate change and social programs, and a greater sense of resolution and progressivism in his delivery.

GWEN IFILL: Joining us now, our NewsHour regulars syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

We all watched this together today. And now that you have had some time to digest it all, Mark, the president said, we are made for this moment. Who is we?

MARK SHIELDS: We, Americans, my fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, I think is how he put it. And we can seize it if we do it together.

And I think that was the theme of today. I mean, it was a strongly communitarian, more than I had heard the president use in the past, that it was a sense of, rather than asking the question that has been asked by presidents and candidates of the last generation of, are you better off, am I better off than I was a year or two, he was asking, are we better off? Will we be better off? Will the strongest among us be more just? Will the weak be more secure? At least in my paraphrase — and that’s what came through to me

GWEN IFILL: Did you get the sense he was speaking to everybody, including people who didn’t vote for him, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but making an argument.

It was about collectivity. There’s no question about that. Four years ago, it was about being trans-partisan, about healing divides. He was sort of above the fray. Now he’s in the fray. He’s picked a team. And his team is his party, his belief system.

And I thought he made the case for a very pragmatic, prudential, incremental, but progressivism, a more forthright case for progressivism than we have heard in some time, even more than Bill Clinton ever made. And so I thought he raised the debate. And it’s good to have this debate. I really thought it was one of the best inaugural speeches in the past half-century, because those — the speeches that work are making an argument for something.

And he made an argument for something. And then, you know, I’m not as liberal as he. So, I thought, oh, here’s where I differ. Here’s where I don’t. So, I thought it was really educational and very provocative.

GWEN IFILL: And did the president come across a chastened second-termer or an ambitious one?

MARK SHIELDS: He came across different to me.

Missing from the president was what I had seen several times during the campaign and in the presidency in recent years. There was sort of a petulance. There was a pursed lips look. That was missing. This is a happy warrior. And it was, I thought, a far more appealing figure in that sense.

And there seems, since the 6th of November, to be a sense of resolution about him, that he seems more certain or sure-footed than he had been in the past. I can’t imagine the president I heard today doing what he did on health care, turning it over to the Congress for a year to work its will in the committees and back and forth. I mean, this is somebody who is a lot more forceful executive I would say.

GWEN IFILL: And maybe that’s what informed — when he was quoting Jefferson and saying that our truths are self-evident, but then he said, but they’re not self-executing.

DAVID BROOKS: Executing, right, which was one of the best lines.

You know, I think he was sort of constrained for the past couple of years. Republicans had the House. And he was trying to get a grand bargain, had to negotiate, had to watch that he said to work with them. I think now they have sort of given up on a grand bargain.

I think now he’s making the long game. He’s thinking about the long game: I believe in a more liberal version of America, a more progressive version. I’m going to make the case. We’re going to have an argument.

And over the long term, I will try to a make a case for my belief system. I will try to undermine their belief system. And then in the long run, my vision will win.

And so that’s a much more liberating thing to do. I disagree with a lot of it, but it’s a much more liberating, much more free and much more direct thing for a president to do.

MARK SHIELDS: It was — one leading Democrat left a message for me to say, this is the first — it was no great uncritical admirer of President Obama’s, but he said today he thought the president said not only what he believed, but why he believed it more than he had in the past. And I think that came through.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s take some of that apart. One of the things he focused on, at reasonable length for an inaugural address, which wasn’t supposed to get down in the weeds, are things like climate change.

He’s got a State of the Union speech coming in a couple of weeks where he could talk about those things. But he identified specific policy objectives.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And it was about collective action. And that was — it was about collective action. Where do we have to work collectively to preserve the welfare state, Medicare, Social Security, to work on climate change, to increase middle-class or fortify or middle-class wages, to do gay rights, equal pay for equal work for women?

And so these were a series of causes, generally progressive causes. One of my problems with it is the New Deal was passed at a time when we were a young, boisterous, raw nation. We’re now a mature, aging nation. And so I think, as well as investing in human capital, we have got to cut back programs to reduce the debt. We have got to streamline some of the complex tax codes.

So, to me, it’s much more of a balancing than what he portrayed. Nonetheless, he portrayed a continuing progress of taking collective action to do things together.

GWEN IFILL: Except that when he talks about that we could not — we cannot mistake absolutism for principle, it sounded to me like he was speaking to the Tea Party.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he was. And that’s one of the criticisms of the speech was he didn’t speak to — enough or adequately to the 48 percent of the people who didn’t support him and that some of the remarks that he made did set their teeth on edge.

And I didn’t feel that. I thought that the president, I thought his tone wasn’t hectoring or lecturing or sermonizing.

GWEN IFILL: Maybe tone matters more than the words.

MARK SHIELDS: I think tone does matter. I really do. I thought it was done with a smile. And I think that’s so important.

And I was just struck — just to toss in a little history thing — I mean, we’re told that we’re more a secular nation. Fewer and fewer people, you know, go to church or belong to a church or whatever. But this is an openly religious event. It begins with an invocation. It ends with a benediction, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was just a high moment.

And it’s a great ritual. It’s a great ceremony, irrespective of party, whether it’s first or second or whatever. I mean, it is just is. And it changes. I mean, the president went to St. John’s Church this morning. Franklin Roosevelt did that because George Washington had done it. I mean, there’s just something wonderful about that. And he got out of the car and walked, and as did Mrs. Obama.

Why? Because Jimmy Carter did it in 1977, and every president since then has done it. I mean, it’s just — there is something …

DAVID BROOKS: It’s a great strength to him to be — he might be more liberal than most people are politically. But, in his personal demeanor, in his family life and in his style, he’s a very traditional person. And that came across. And that helps people relate to him.

GWEN IFILL: Mark said that he talked to a Democrat who said he thought he did pretty well, and not uncritical Democrat.

Did you talk to any Republicans who received the speech?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think they thought it was a good speech. People said this was one of his best speeches. Some of them thought it was very defensive, it was about defending the welfare state more than being offensive.

And I think the sentence that really got some Republicans more upset was where he said, we don’t have to choose between protecting the programs for the elderly and securing programs for the young.

And I would say most Republicans say, well, actually we do have to choose, that if you keep the current benefit levels for the seniors, there are no money for the young. And so that line aroused a lot of ire — not ire, but objection.

GWEN IFILL: If you watched a lot of the parade today — and we showed some of it — one of the people who seemed to be having the best day of his life is the vice president, Joe Biden. He was dashing across the street zigzag, hugging children on the sidelines, and seemed to be generally having a good time.

What do you read into all of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, if the camera followed Joe Biden all day …


MARK SHIELDS: … he would seem to be having the time of his life.

He is. He’s just somebody who brings great joy to his position. I mean, he doesn’t talk about the burdens of office or the agony of loneliness of decision-making or anything of the sort. He just — he really does — he enjoys the people. He enjoys the people he talks to. He enjoys the people in politics.

There’s nothing condescending, patronizing about him. And I just think today he was having the time of his life. He has got a wonderful family that obviously cares deeply about him.

GWEN IFILL: But aside from the president, who turned around and took that last long look and said, this is the last time I will be able to do this, you don’t get a sense from Joe Biden that he feels like this is his last rodeo.

DAVID BROOKS: I more — more think he has a future, at least is thinking about having a future.

GWEN IFILL: He’s 70 years old.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but he’s very healthy. He would be out there hugging the 800,000, if he could.

I think if he’s — I have never met him — heard him say anything negative about anybody. He loves everybody. And so I — he’s vim and vigorous, and so maybe he does have a future. And certainly there’s no evidence of him slowing down.

GWEN IFILL: You guys have covered quite a few of these events for us. And as you watch them and you step away from them, you sometimes think, oh, that’s inauguration, big day, and then what? Nothing changes the next day.

Was there anything in the rollout today that made you come away thinking, I don’t know, maybe there’s been even an incremental change?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I just — I think the happiness of him, of the president. He seemed to be, as I put it, a happy warrior.

And I would say just a certain resoluteness that he’s shown in the last — since the post-election period. And we will find out, I mean, whether in fact it can limit it to whatever the three items he wants to do. But we will find out yet instead in the State of the Union a laundry list with 412, including the metric system for the 11 Rocky Mountain states, or, you know, whatever else.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it certainly does speak to his base, that kind of resoluteness. The question is whether it then alienates the other side, who he still has to …

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it does. But he’s a happy warrior. He’s not a happy negotiator. But he may not be doing that much negotiating.

And so what I think the opportunity for Democrats is, has there ever been a party as weak as the Republican Party is right now? And so they have an opportunity to really divide the party on immigration, on guns and on a bunch of other issues. And that’s not internal negotiations. That’s going after the country and trying to peel away moderate or corporate Republicans.

And so that might be the game. And it may not yield immediate legislative wins short-term, but it may be a transformation.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will be watching every single Friday with both of you.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Gwen.