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Shields, Brooks on Obama’s Second Term and Hillary Clinton’s Exit From State

January 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Jeffrey Brown about what's ahead for President Obama's first 100 days during his second term, an identity crisis for the Republican Party, John Kerry's vision for foreign policy at his confirmation hearing and Hillary Clinton's legacy at State.

JEFFREY BROWN: And from garbage — sorry, I can’t resist — to…


JEFFREY BROWN: … the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Have you ever had such a good lead-in?

DAVID BROOKS: Don’t worry. We recycle.



JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the week began with the inauguration. We all talked on Monday. It ends with the White House appointment of a new chief of staff, Mark.

What does the new team, what does the language you heard this week tell you about the president that Barack Obama wants to be?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, like all re-elected presidents, he sees a mandate, an expanded vision of a mandate from the electoral victory.

But he realizes time is short. And I think he is not showing the same level of patience with the Congress that he showed in his first term, a certain impatience, a realization that probably this is his best year, in all likelihood, if history is any guide.

I think he’s been more sure-footed and I think a happier warrior, as I said earlier.

And I think that the people — Denis McDonough, whom has chosen to be his chief of staff, is somebody whom he likes, whom he is comfortable with, very much in his comfort zone, and probably the only person ever to be White House chief of staff who was a safety for John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history at St. John’s in Minnesota.


JEFFREY BROWN: OK. We knew we have some…


DAVID BROOKS: Trivia. Actually, many cornerbacks were also chiefs of staff.


DAVID BROOKS: He — as my colleague Peter Baker said, it’s stirred, not shaken. So he has not taken new people from outside.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. I mean, I said a new team, but it’s almost…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It’s all the same people. They’re just in different chairs.


DAVID BROOKS: And a lot of people got promoted. Some people like Geithner left. But he — we know Obama by now. He doesn’t like to bring in fresh blood. He likes people who he can trust.

He likes people like McDonough who would, you know, throw themselves on a grenade for the guy. They’re extremely loyal, extremely devoted, extremely trustworthy. And they are not going to leak.

And so he sticks with those people. And he’s been doing it since he became president. As for his term, I sort of think he is in danger, through no fault of his own, or only halfway, of really wasting these few months, which are the precious months of a second term, on budget stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wasting it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think we’re going have a little — a bunch of squabbles. But the chances of us getting any tax reform or entitlement reform are minuscule. And so we will probably find some mediocre fix for the reconciliation and the budget stuff.

But we will spend relatively little time on big stuff. I think judging still by the inauguration, he’s thinking the long-term. He’s thinking the Republican Party is extraordinarily weak. I’m going to try to go around the country and try to build a new majority on pretty liberal terms.

And it’s not about passing legislation over the next four years. It’s about really weakening the other side and building up my side.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about — and speaking of the Republicans, here they are meeting. They are having their annual meeting in Charlotte. And we have talked about this too. Their weakness, you just mentioned it again. They’re trying to figure out how they’re positioned going forward.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I do think the president at least implicitly and tacitly recognizes mistakes that he made in the first term.

I think that the emphasis, the reappointment of Richard Cordray and Mary Jo White at the Securities and Exchange Commission is an acknowledgment that in 1989 when we had the Savings & loan scandal in this country, 724 Savings & Loans went over, it cost the taxpayers $87 billion — 1,000 Savings & Loan executives went to jail, 1,000.

And this TARP and the bailouts of the banks has left us with $800 billion over, well over $700 billion to taxpayers. And you could count on two hands the number of bankers who have — so I think there is a sense that he didn’t address this. His administration wasn’t aggressive in the first term.

He wants to be in the second term. As far as the Republicans are concerned, they are simply going through the terrible stages that every defeated party does.

And one side says we lost because we didn’t stick enough to our principles. And the other side we lost because we were too dogmatic and didn’t reach out to the undecided.

And so the first inclination is always to blame your own candidate. You blame Al Gore if you are a Democrat in 2000, or John Kerry in 2004. You blame John McCain.

The Republicans want to blame Mitt Romney. That’s fine. But Mitt Romney is more popular than the Republican Party. I mean, he got 47 percent. The Republicans are dead in the water right now.

So you know they’re going through a difficult period. And they have got to try and figure out.

They can’t talk to Latinos, the fastest growing group in the country. They’re basically not conversational with younger voters. They are — Asians have left them in droves.

You know, they have just — they’re an aging white party, and in a country that is not — is less white each year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you follow the — Bobby Jindal down there gave a speech last he. He said, we’re fighting the wrong fight. And that is one side of what Mark is talking about.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Yes, the Jindal speech is actually interesting, because I think it is a sign that a lot of Republicans, a lot of smart Republicans like Jindal understand the problem.

But the Jindal speech is still — it’s as if your — conservatives have learned to speak a special language within themselves about government and about, you know, attacking the liberal media, all the normal code words.

And so Jindal said some smart things in the abstract. We got to stop being a stupid party. We have got to try to talk to outsiders.

But he is still locked within the prism of those code words. And so does he tell a story about what it’s like to be a waitress in Ohio or what it’s like to be a struggling Hispanic worker in Texas? He doesn’t talk that language. It’s all about government, it’s all about term limits. It’s the old code words.

So it is actually very hard to get outside the mental framework you have grown up in. And the party is still stuck in that framework, and I imagine it will be for months and maybe even years.

It takes pain to force yourself. The key — it’s not genius. If you want to win elections, you have to get people who didn’t vote for to you vote for you. And so focusing in and listening to those people who didn’t vote for you is the step. And Republicans still haven’t taken that step. The people who are not already in your community, what are they saying? That’s a step.

MARK SHIELDS: Just to pick up one thing on David’s point, there is — the whole inclination is, what is the gimmick? There must be some gimmick. Oh, boy, it is social networking. It is micro-targeting.


DAVID BROOKS: Changing the Electoral College.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, the Electoral — yes, it’s got to be something we can do that way, I mean, that the other side is doing. I mean, it was radio with FDR. Republicans said, God, he’s good on radio.


MARK SHIELDS: And Democrats said, geez, Ronald Reagan is good on television. If we can get somebody as good on TV as he is — instead of that moment of introspection and saying people found the other side, the other side, our opponents, to be more relevant, more real and more plausible to our lives and their lives than they found us.

And that’s — it’s a terrible thing to live with rejection, but a losing party has to say, what is it? And what you can’t do is blame the voters. And I have heard echoes of that on the other side. The voters, that’s the 47 percent of takers, you know. No wonder we can’t win if they are all just parasites and worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can I flip us into foreign policy? Because also this week, there was Hillary Clinton testifying finally on Benghazi, and then hearings for John Kerry.

First on Benghazi, and Hillary Clinton, is that still a live issue?

DAVID BROOKS: I never thought it was a live issue.

It was something to attack the administration on election season. And there — you know, believe me, there were faults. But it was more a talking point.

I think we have reached the final chapter. Hillary Clinton is leaving. I think Benghazi is over. And it was sort of a substitute for having a real foreign policy debate.

What struck me about foreign policy this week was John Kerry in his own testimony emphasizing the budget and how much the fiscal situation was, A., weakening American prestige, because we look like a country that can’t run ourselves, and, B., is just weakening what we can do around the world, because we just don’t have the resources to do it.

And so he very explicitly said that, which is something Admiral Mike Mullen had said when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

JEFFREY BROWN: He also brought up things like climate change, food security, a lot of the sort of non-military…


And so I’m a little more skeptical that that is going to really dominate. A lot of people always say, well, non-military stuff will dominate our foreign policy. But when you have to face Iran this year, one way or the other, you are going to be back to pretty traditional power politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he has chosen two people in John Kerry and Chuck Hagel at State and Defense whose response is not immediate resort to military intervention. I mean, both of them I think have records that that is clearly established.

As far as the Benghazi hearings, it was an embarrassment. It really was. I mean, I thought the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, especially Sen. Johnson of Wisconsin and Senator Rand of Kentucky – Sen. Rand Paul, excuse me — were just — they were lightweights.

I mean, they were looking at — I mean, we went through 9/11 in this country, and not once in any hearing thereafter did any member of this administration — administration sitting in power then be questioned by a member of Congress of the other party or their own party about what was going on, what were you hiding, the presumption that, you know, somehow you had some information and weren’t sharing it.

And I thought Hillary Clinton handled herself well. I thought she was a grownup in a meeting of adolescents, quite frankly.

JEFFREY BROWN: She gave it back pretty tough at one point, at several points, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. If you’re going to take — I will take the — if you can’t take it on Hillary Clinton, don’t start. I think we did learn that.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think of her — well, the performance this time, but also now can we look back at four years. What will stand out about her time?

DAVID BROOKS: I think she is regarded as a successful secretary of state, for sure.

The question I would have is, what was independent? And this is something I’m frankly ignorant on and I think a lot of people who cover this reasonably closely are ignorant.

What was a Clinton initiative? What do we say — aside from the foreign policy that was being made by the president, what was the foreign policy she was responsible for?

She did a lot of traveling. And she did a lot of talking to people. But what was her initiative? And I confess I have trouble. There was some emphasis on women, and there were some other things like that.

But as far as a big shift in American foreign policy, where you can say that was Hillary Clinton’s idea, she pushed it through, she executed this policy, it’s tough to distinguish anything she did individually from what the president wanted done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have an answer to that?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t. I mean, I think it’s a legitimate question. I am not sure what the great view of the world is.

I mean, it’s been one of putting out Iraq and Afghanistan and putting those behind us and ending 10 years of war.

But beyond that, I mean, and dealing obviously on a day-to-day basis with all of the problems that the world puts in front of you, which they continue to do and will in the next four years as well, even more so, but I don’t — I’m not sure that there was ever sort of a Kissinger overarching theory, a strategy. At least, if there was, I was unaware of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in our last 30 seconds, but on this question, this larger question of where now, this rebalancing tour, domestic issues, perhaps, there’s some question of whether we are sort of disengaging, some fears of disengaging. What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think events will just change that.

Like I said, Iran, the Middle East, just — they never let you down. Something will happen. And so I do not think — we want to disengage, I think bipartisan. But I don’t think we are going to get to.

JEFFREY BROWN: We want to, but we won’t get to.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, and we haven’t even mentioned China and its new leadership and all that Asia represents, and North Korea, South Korea, Japan. I mean, it is everywhere, even before we get to North Africa.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both very much.