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Shields and Brooks offer State of the Union predictions

January 28, 2014 at 10:25 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff about what to expect in President Obama's annual address to the nation, and how it may set the tone for politics in 2014.

GWEN IFILL: And we turn our attention again to tonight’s State of the Union address with some pre-speech analysis from Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, Mark, what are you expecting tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m expecting a real uphill struggle on the part of the president. This is the first time the president, who has been personally popular in spite of his programs, is less popular than the ideas he’s pushing.

And his numbers are underwater. He’s below 50 percent. And Democrats are nervous and scared and the country is pessimistic. So he’s got to — he’s got a tough task tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what do you expect and what does he need to do?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there will be a lot of modesty tonight.

He gave an interview to David Remnick of “The New Yorker” a couple weeks ago in which he said, being president is a bit like being a runner in a relay race. You inherit the baton. You pass it along.

And this really was someone who has been chastened maybe, made aware of the limits of the office. And so I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of radical proposals. But I would like to see a radical definition of the problem.

And we know he’s going to talk about inequality and lower social mobility. And so we would like to see at least the description of that and maybe some gesture towards some bigger solutions, even if, in the interim, he’s only proposing a few executive actions.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, we have a couple excerpts that have been prepared for delivery in tonight’s speech.

And one of the things he says is that inequality has deepened and upward mobility has stalled, and our job is to reverse these tides.

What do you guys think? Is it possible to reverse these tides when you’re in the midterm of a second term?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s tough, but there’s no place like the presidency.

It’s the greatest pulpit and bully pulpit in the country to lead. The numbers are just absolutely staggering the president made in a speech in early December. Productivity of the country has increased 90 percent in the past 35 years, and yet the average family’s wages are up only 8 percent.

And there’s been a widening, widening gap. And it’s not only bad ethics. It’s bad economics. The lack of buying power is slowing down the greater economy. So I think you can make an argument in the national interest that this is not simply the right thing to do morally, but it’s the right thing to do economically and nationally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, he’s laid out these ambitious goals, David, but, in a way, he’s limiting himself in a way by saying, well, I plan to do this with executive actions, if I can’t do it any other way.


The problem with the lack of social mobility is such a gigantic problem that you really need him to blare forth with some gigantic set of solutions. And he obviously doesn’t have access to that because of the way Washington is. And he’s come to accept that.

So, raising the minimum wage on some future federal contractors, that is not going to reverse the tide. It might be a positive step, might not be. But he — what you have to do to reverse the tides is a whole series of reasonably radical reactions which are both left and right together, some wage subsidies, which will please liberals, probably some social policies that will please conservatives. You have got to do a lot of this stuff together in a way that really breaks the orthodox barriers we now have.

And as we see each side standing up and sitting down, you need something that just breaks the orthodoxies. And it’s unlikely he will be able to …

DAVID BROOKS: … something like that.


I asked Jay Carney about this earlier, which is that, yesterday, Roy Blunt told Judy he’s abandoning Congress. And he said, oh, I’m not abandoning Congress. This is what Jay Carney said. Congress has basically abandoned the president.

Which is it? And is there any way to turn that around?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the president can’t abandon the Congress if he hopes to get an immigration law. And I think that certainly remains a hope, and sort of a growing hope now with action and activity on the Republicans, some resistance from David’s former colleague Bill Kristol, who’s arguing that it would be in — not in the Republicans’ interest to bring this up in an election year.

But, if they don’t address that issue before 2015, they’re not going to address it, and they go into 2016 with their presidential nominee disabled again. So the president has to have an olive branch in that sense, but he doesn’t expect — his level of expectation of the Congress and the Congress’ level of expectation of him I think are considerably lower than they were a year ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, other than immigration, David, where are the areas where you see the potential for real working together, cooperation?

DAVID BROOKS: Other than immigration, I don’t see any.

This has been a problem for the Obama administration, maybe an insoluble one, but I think it was soluble. You had a core of Tea Party people on the Republican side who are clearly not going to cooperate with anything. I still think at some point early in the administration, it would have been possible to build a governing majority sort of center-right and sort of try to isolate the Tea Party people and get the other Republicans into some sort of governing coalition.

They never quite could do that, and, therefore, we’re just stuck with the polarization we have now. And it’s really unlikely we’re going to see big legislation any time in the next couple years.

GWEN IFILL: Who does a president speak to on a night like tonight at this point in his presidency? Is he just talking to himself? Is he just talking to his supporters, talking to the American people who might be watching something else on DVR?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, this is the biggest audience he’s probably going to have this year.

And it’s before the 2014 elections. And the Democrats are hoping that he can bring some passion, some intensity, some purpose back to the administration. The — as I pointed out earlier, the issues are very much — the primary issues are very much in the Democrats’ favor.

But when a president is below 50 percent approval — and this president is now — the average loss of House seats in a six-year term is 36. When a president is above 50 percent, the average loss is 14 percent. Now, Democrats don’t want to lose 14 seats, but that’s a significant difference.

And so Democrats are hoping that it’s a resurgence on his part, that he can be a more popular leader for their party going into the 2014 elections.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It’s certainly not the people in the room.

David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal pointed out today that the lasted address, he had 42 asks of Congress, of which three happened. And so that’s not a great batting average. So it’s not them. But it is the people out in the country, for the reason Mark — this is really the last campaign speech he can make for the midterms.

And it’s the administration. This is mostly about setting the agenda within the administration, not so much what he says, but the act of composing the speech.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We look forward to talking to both of you when it all begins, in just a few hours.

GWEN IFILL: All night long.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All night long.