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David Brooks and Ruth Marcus Discuss Obama’s Cabinet Picks, Economy’s Woes

November 21, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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David Brooks and Ruth Marcus weigh reports that President-elect Barack Obama plans to choose Sen. Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner, among others, for Cabinet posts and the search for solutions to the economic crisis.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That’s New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away.

So much to talk about. David, let’s talk first about Barack Obama’s pick to be treasury secretary, Tim Geithner. He’s head of the New York Federal Reserve. We already heard our economic experts on the program earlier say he’s respected, highly regarded. What does this say?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, it says, among other things, that Obama is a confident guy, because he’s surrounding himself with a lot of very smart other people. Geithner is two weeks younger than Obama, so he’s just a little pup there.

And he’s pragmatic. He’s very smart. He used to be a moderate Republican for a while and then felt the Republican Party left him, became an independent, but is not an ideological person. He served with Larry Summers and Bob Rubin in the treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. Apparently everybody in this administration has to have served in the Clinton administration.

And the reputation was that Summers was the aggressive guy wanting to act; Rubin was the more cautious guy; and Geithner was the guy in the middle, casting the deciding vote, even though he was considerably junior to those two. Universally well-regarded.

And so I think, one, it’s a continuation of the Obama pattern over the last week of naming very, very smart, independent people, not cronies.

And, two, it’s a sign of continuation, since he’s been so heavily involved in what’s happened over the past several months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We should say, it’s going to be announced on Monday, we’re told. Ruth, what else does it say about Barack Obama?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: Well, it’s interesting. You know, we talk about no-drama Obama. It doesn’t have quite the same rhythmic ring to it, but this is kind of no-drama Geithner.

Everybody understood that Larry Summers, who was thought to be the other potential pick to be treasury secretary, who had held that job, exact job in the Clinton administration, was described to me by various folks today as bringing to the table perhaps more brilliance than Tim Geithner, who — I’m not suggesting he’s slow in any way. He’s a very, very smart man.

But Larry Summers is one of the most brilliant economists of his generation. Less brilliance, but also less baggage. And he’s — Geithner is a kind of no-elbows guy. He doesn’t make enemies. He does things in a sort of smooth edges sort of way.

And I think it’s also — I think, in a sense, he’s a little bit different, though, from some of the other picks that we saw reported from Sen. Obama — President-elect Obama. I guess we’re going to have to get used to that this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In what way?

RUTH MARCUS: A little less edgy, actually. There were some risky, kind of dramatic, if you don’t mind that word again, choices from Senator — President-elect Obama this week, obviously, Sen. Clinton, Eric Holder, to some extent…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Attorney general.

RUTH MARCUS: … because he did — as attorney general — did remind us of some of the baggage of the Clinton administration. Summers would have created more stir because of some comments that he made about women when he was president of Harvard and because of some other things. This one’s less controversial.

'A testament to Obama's confidence'

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
You've got to have confidence to get Larry Summers, Geithner, Goolsbee, Furman, all these guys together. And to think you, as a 47-year-old, are going to be the dominating force of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, David, we're hearing Larry Summers may end up in the White House as a senior adviser, at least for the time being, to President-elect Obama. When you put it together, Bill Richardson at Commerce, you were mentioning earlier some of the other names, does it say anything about Barack Obama's approach to...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he's just stockpiling brains here. And I don't know how it's all going to work.

Larry Summers in the White House without a clear portfolio, I don't know. Batten everything down, because he'll be wandering around with ideas. The man generates ideas.

RUTH MARCUS: That's a good thing.

DAVID BROOKS: That's probably a good thing. And he'll probably also have Jason Furman, I hope Austan Goolsbee, maybe...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who've been advising him.

DAVID BROOKS: ... who've been advising him.

RUTH MARCUS: ... at the Council of Economic Advisers.

DAVID BROOKS: ... advisers. So there's a lot of very smart people, and it's a testament to Obama's confidence.

You know, there was a great quote in a Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker about Obama's confidence. And I'm not going to get it exactly right, but he essentially said, "I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policy than my policy directors. I think I'm a better political director than my political director." It was a speech of confidence.

And you've got to have confidence to get Larry Summers, Geithner, Goolsbee, Furman, all these guys together. And to think you, as a 47-year-old, are going to be the dominating force of that.

A diverse cabinet

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
One of the other things that strikes me, as you look at the tableau that's being assembled, is the sort of effortless diversity that's being created.

RUTH MARCUS: But while wanting to hear the disagreement among them, which is going to be robust, which I think is a very, very healthy thing, something that's been lacking way too much in this administration.

I think one of the other things that strikes me, as you look at the tableau that's being assembled, is the sort of effortless diversity that's being created.

In other words, 12 years -- more than that -- when President Clinton came into office, it was imperative, so he said, that we have a woman attorney general. We had to go out and find a woman to be attorney general. This time around, it happened sort of more naturally, more organically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have an African-American president.

RUTH MARCUS: An African-American president, an African-American attorney general, a woman at State, which is no big deal anymore, a woman, Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, at DHS. Nobody's looking at these...

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's coming together.

RUTH MARCUS: It's coming together...

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

RUTH MARCUS: ... in a kind of nice way. And I think that that's a very good thing.

DAVID BROOKS: I actually want a white male at State. It's been decades since we've had a white male.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, you get Treasury. Stop the whining, the bean-counting.

DAVID BROOKS: Now it's being counted.

RUTH MARCUS: The white bean counting.

DAVID BROOKS: Two other things -- white bean -- two other things. One, there had been a sense, I think with the Clinton administration especially, that the groups, the interest groups around Washington were having a big say. One doesn't get that sense this time.

And, two, and I think the most important thing, difference about Obama is that every other president has had a coterie of people around them from the time they were governor or something else that they bring to town either from Arkansas or Texas or wherever.

Obama, because he's so new and inexperienced, doesn't have that coterie. So he really is not picking cronies. He really is picking people who are indisputably qualified.

Avoiding a 'bailout to nowhere'

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
Most people seem to believe that some sort of major restructuring [in the auto industry] is in order and necessary. And that's why the money was not out the door this week from Capitol Hill, because they haven't seen that from the big three.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, we just saw that really, I thought, poignant report from Paul Solman from Detroit talking to some of the autoworkers, the people who are on the line for the auto industry.

President-elect Obama is not weighing in publicly about this, but we know behind the scenes he's been trying to get something done. Do we have a sense at this point of where he's coming from and what he might do, if this thing is not resolved?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think he's sent a general signal. He doesn't want a bailout to nowhere. He wants there to be some restructuring. And no one doubts, as Paul's report made clear, the pain that's going to be suffered by -- especially if some of these go into especially Chapter 7.

But I don't think any economist that I've read -- and certainly one didn't get that sense on Capitol Hill -- no one thinks, if we just give them a bridge loan, they'll be fine. I haven't read anybody who believes that.

Most people seem to believe that some sort of major restructuring is in order and necessary. And that's why the money was not out the door this week from Capitol Hill, because they haven't seen that from the big three.

And so I think -- but I think that Obama shares that sense. He says there's going to have to be some reorganization for the money. No one seems to have a plan yet for it.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I think it was very important that he said we're not going to have a bridge loan to nowhere, but nobody has yet been willing to step up to the plate and say, "We understand, but it is going to take all these things, restructuring the labor contracts, changing relationships with dealers, changing relationships with debt-holders," and nobody -- because nobody wants to take responsibility for the bad news.

It's easy to write the check. It's harder to own the bad news. And so the members of Congress who were understandably livid at the auto company executives who flew in on their separate corporate jets -- I mean, excuse me -- but they -- and they said, "We can't help you because you haven't shown us a plan."

Well, that's legitimate. But they understand how to get there, also. Nobody wants to own this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it believed they will come back with a plan, that we'll get them the money they say they need?

RUTH MARCUS: I think somebody needs to come up with the plan. And I think it would be helpful, actually, for the president-elect to get a little bit more involved, because these -- this is going to end up on his plate in a very negative way if we don't deal with this sooner rather than later.

Delays to an ambitious agenda

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
We talk about lame-duck Congress. This was a disabled-duck Congress. It got the absolute bare minimum done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that raises a very interesting question. We were just saying, David, in that this is the transition, the interregnum, I guess is the word for it, where you have a lame-duck president, you have a president who's 60 days away from taking office, but you've got this enormous crisis affecting real people every single day.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. We want a plan from Detroit. There's also demand for a plan from Washington.

There is on the table a $100 billion stimulus, which apparently is not going to pass. Some economists talk about the need for a $500 billion stimulus. But how exactly do you shovel that money out the door?

You can extend food -- or increase food stamps, increase aid to the states, increase some infrastructure spending. I mean, well, we're going to extend unemployment insurance. But that only gets you so far.

And there does seem to be a desire among many economists to actually shovel a lot of money out the door in a desperate attempt to stimulate the economy, but how you do that is still a complete open book, as far as I can see, around Washington.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, and also the more important question is also when you do that, because, the way things stand now -- I mean, we talk about lame-duck Congress. This was a disabled-duck Congress. It got the absolute bare minimum done.

They may come back. They probably will come back. It doesn't seem that they're anywhere near close to a stimulus plan.

But waiting for two months on stimulus is not a very good idea under these very dire circumstances. It takes a long time to get money in the pipeline. And this is going to be both a long and deep recession. If it makes sense to do a stimulus, you want to do it sooner rather than later.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there's no way around this, is there? I mean, Barack Obama, president-elect, has said several times there's only one president at a time. Is there anything he can do in the meantime before he takes office? I mean, he can make some statements.

DAVID BROOKS: Not that I know of legally. I mean, there...

RUTH MARCUS: But there is -- I disagree with you. I think there is only one president at a time. But, look, it's raining. The roof is leaking. The water is coming in. He's bought the house. It is going to be his come Jan. 20.

He can start talking now about what he thinks should be done to repair the roof and what steps should be taken now and even recommending, you know, contractors. I'll stop mangling this metaphor in a minute.

But they made a decision in the Obama campaign early on, or the Obama transition early on, that they were going to follow the one-president-at-a-time rule.

Well, the situation has changed. Things have gotten dramatically worse in the last week. Secretary Paulson made a decision that he had allocated a certain amount of the $700 billion, about half of it, and that he was going to save the rest for the new president.

Things have gotten dramatically worse since then. I think both of them need to come back and revisit that decision, figure out if there are some -- that, while we have one president at a time, there are some common things we can agree on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, David. Who can forecast -- 60 days seems like an eternity from now. But how much is Barack Obama's ambitious agenda affected by what we're looking at right now, in terms of...

DAVID BROOKS: I think more than they realize. I think Detroit is going to be a major story for the first months of their term, and then the money won't be there, and that will be a long-term story.

RUTH MARCUS: Very quickly, there is a little silver lining, tiny thin silver lining for him, which is, in this stimulus plan, he can have some money that it would have been otherwise difficult for him to get to pay for some of his agenda, to do some of the $150 billion that he's talking about for green energy and investments, to do some infrastructure spending...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gives him opportunity.

RUTH MARCUS: ... exactly -- to do some health care spending, so there's a little bit of opportunity. You wouldn't wish it on a president-elect, though.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Or anyone.

DAVID BROOKS: It's us, though.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, thank you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

RUTH MARCUS: Thanks.