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Shields and Brooks Probe Obama’s Economic, Transition Plans

November 7, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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Following President-elect Barack Obama's first post-election news conference, columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks assess his plans for the economy and his selection for chief of staff.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, overall, what did you think about that news conference and the way the president-elect handled it?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Four years of boring press conferences. When Bush was out there, you never knew what was happening, so it was sort of a little edge of excitement.

He did a very good job of not committing himself to anything, no faux pas.

I think he did send a few signals. The first most obvious is that he’s not going to interfere too much in the stimulus packages, in the running of the country over the next couple of months.

JIM LEHRER: Lay low a little?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. As he said several times, there’s only one president at a time.

The second thing, the economy is number one. That was no surprise. And there was no surprise that he talked about how important the stimulus package is. That will take up — I think they expect within the Obama world that there will be a stimulus package before the inauguration.

But even after the inauguration, they’ll probably have to do a little more, just because the economy was so bad in the fourth quarter and the first quarter.

And then the final thing — and this is in response to the final question that my colleague, Jeff Zeleny, asked, about the tax increases and the tax plan. I got the sense through the body language, though he didn’t say it explicitly, that the idea of raising taxes on the top earners would be postponed.

Because he seemed to talk about every other aspect of the tax plan, reducing the taxes on the middle class, but he didn’t say, “We’re also going to raise taxes on the affluent.” And in a time of recession, personally I think that makes sense.

Obama aserts his point of view

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There's a different tone to things than there was in the old campaign trail.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what did you think? First, just general style of how he handled himself.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, what struck me, Jim, is so much of the story since the election has been about symbolism, the symbolism of the first African-American president, and that was gone today.

I mean, it was just...

JIM LEHRER: New world, you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: ... this man is now the president-elect. And he presented himself.

I thought he was sober. He had sobering news to deliver. I mean, it's a sobering day.

But David's point is well taken. He emphasized a point that there is only one president, but that I have a point of view, and I will make that point of view known to my Democratic members and, if it is not heeded and acted upon, that I will in January, but that in no way would challenge the president's authority under the Constitution between now and the 20 of January.

JIM LEHRER: But he kind of put it on the Democrats to get it done.

MARK SHIELDS: He put it on the Democrats, but I think it was a certain salvo to the White House, too, that this is his position, that he's not going to throw any hissy-fits. He's not going to have any public contratante with them, but at the same time he's going to have a definite point of view, and that point of view will be expressed probably privately to the president.

On that, I think, as someone who's been a rather forceful and unrelenting critic of George W. Bush, they deserve great credit on what they've done on this transition. They have been more than conscientious. And I think they're doing everything they can to make it succeed.

But, on the whole, it was more a conference than there was news. You know...

JIM LEHRER: But that was not...

MARK SHIELDS: There was a sense that the mantle had passed when our colleagues start standing up and saying, "Mr. President-elect," and they stand up when he comes in the room. There's a different tone to things than there was in the old campaign trail.

DAVID BROOKS: That seemed to surprise him. But you also got the sense -- and this has been the story of his campaign -- the self-control. It was almost like a diplomatic briefing, where every word is very carefully modulated. There was a lot of careful modulation.

JIM LEHRER: It's the old story that, if you don't want to make news, you don't make news. And he didn't come to make any news.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And he can reel off paragraphs without making news. He showed that.

Selecting Rahm Emanuel

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I would say about Rahm is that he is a -- I think, a very moderate Democrat in his policy beliefs.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. What about the selection of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff? Do you have a view of that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it's a good selection. It's a controversial selection, because many people see him as a very partisan figure and a tough partisan figure, and he has been. He has elected a lot of Democrats.

I think on balance it's a very good selection. And I say that, A, he has been partisan, but in that he's shown a great grasp of reality. The members of the House who he recruited to run, especially in southern and swing districts, are conservatives. And he understands where the country is.

JIM LEHRER: Blue Dog Democrats?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and they're sometimes quite conservative. I got the impression sometimes every Iraq vet with a pro-life belief got a letter from Rahm saying, "Why don't you run for Congress as a Democrat?" Because he wanted those kind of people. And that's a sense of broadening the party.

The second thing I would say about Rahm is that he is a -- I think, a very moderate Democrat in his policy beliefs. He wrote a book called "The Plan" with a fellow named Bruce Reed, another moderate Democrat. And it's a sort of...

JIM LEHRER: Worked in the Clinton White House.

DAVID BROOKS: And he was also active in the Democratic Leadership Council and -- it is a Democratic plan, but it's not flaming liberal plan.

And then the third thing everyone talks about is sharp elbows, and he's an aggressive person. I think that's useful in the circumstance for two reasons.

One of the weaknesses I think Obama will have to overcome is that he'll want to throw out every decision-making process and think about every little nuance. And there will be no time for that, and Rahm will say, "Make a damn decision." And I think that's useful.

And then, facing the Congress. The chairmen -- it's not a question of left versus center. Chairmen have prerogatives. They have institutional interests. You're going to need a strong voice in the White House to sometimes step on their institutional interests and get people in line. And I think he's good for that, too.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Rahm Emanuel is a person of enormous ability, unique experience, having been in the Congress and then risen to positions of leadership there, having worked in the Clinton White House.

He's tireless. I don't think anybody knows...

JIM LEHRER: He was in the private sector for a while as an investment...

MARK SHIELDS: For a brief -- did very well. Did very well for Wasserstein and Company.

I don't think anybody knows what Rahm Emanuel's ideology is. He's a rather strong-minded nationalist on military matters.

But I would say this: What has been conspicuous about the Obama campaign is it's been totally free of drama of any sort. There haven't been any soap operas. There haven't been...

JIM LEHRER: You mean internally?

MARK SHIELDS: Internally. I mean, throughout, it's just been remarkably so, the equanimity of the candidate has been -- and the president sets the tone in every White House.

Rahm Emanuel is a three-act drama daily, and his greatest admirers would acknowledge that. Probably the best character witness he has is a wonderful retiring Republican from Illinois, Ray LaHood...

JIM LEHRER: From Peoria.

MARK SHIELDS: ... from Peoria. And Ray points out...

JIM LEHRER: He was on our program a week or so ago.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. And Ray pointed out to me many months ago, years ago, that Rahm and he had sponsored a group of dinners together where they invited Democrats and Republicans who -- in current Washington, they don't get to know each other.

They go home. They get here on Tuesday. They go home on Thursday. They're on the same caucus. It's been a closely divided place -- where they could just kind of sit, and chat, and say -- find if each of them like baseball, or whatever, they've seen any good movies.

And Ray is a real Republican, a loyal Republican, but he always spoke glowingly about Rahm.

But Rahm, somebody's going to change. Either the Obama operation is going to change or Rahm's going to change, because, you know,

JIM LEHRER: Like oil and water you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: I just think Rahm's whole modus operandi was in the Clinton White House. And you can't have that kind of bombastic, I don't think, in a chief of staff at the White House.

DAVID BROOKS: The only thing I would say -- and there's certainly a point there -- he has not been a stranger to the Obama campaign. You know, he's been very active with Obama for the past many months, especially since Clinton dropped out and he could do it openly. They're close friends.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, he had worked in the Clinton White House, and he's tried to remain neutral during the primaries.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And that was his posture, at least during the primaries.

But in the general, he has been very closely involved with Obama. So he's been -- he hasn't had the formal role, but I think it's an acknowledgment which I think is an essential acknowledgement. I personally don't think the Obama campaign has really made this transition from the campaign to the White House.

The campaign really can be very tightly controlled, kind of secretive, very message-controlled. The White House is just too big an operation. It's just a different beast. And I think bringing Rahm in will widen -- is an acknowledgment of that change.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think it's a question of control at all. I think it's a question of tone. It's a question of temperament. It's a question of the way they run things.

And they don't run things, and they haven't run things in the Obama campaign where David Plouffe has been blowing up at people or David Axelrod has.

I mean, it's been -- and that's been enforced by Obama himself on a daily conference call with his staff. So, I mean, Rahm is somebody who just can't go 20 minutes without kind of exploding and letting you know exactly what he feels.

Problems for the Republicans

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[T]he Republican Party is facing a real problem in those four western states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona.

JIM LEHRER: Did you find it interesting that at the news conference, with all the big-name economic advisers, there stood in front and right behind him the vice president-elect, Joe Biden, and the chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The chief of staff is usually a guy off to the side.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, the chief of staff usually is out of camera range.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: No, but that was it. I mean, it's sort of the two people who are most prominently featured were the designated chiefs of staff at the White House and the vice president-elect, which -- and Paul Volcker in the background.

JIM LEHRER: Right. And Robert Rubin in the background, Larry Summers in the background, Laura Tyson in the background.

MARK SHIELDS: Now, tell me, did you think it was necessary to have all of them out there?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I've talked about this line-up before. I always like the line-up.

MARK SHIELDS: You like the character witness.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Innocence by association...

DAVID BROOKS: I just like to see Paul Volcker standing with Robert Reich, because of the three-foot height difference.

No, I think it helps, I mean, because those are impressive people. And Obama is still a young man.

MARK SHIELDS:

DAVID BROOKS: And a lot of people who pay attention to economic policy know everybody in that line-up. And I just think it's reassuring to see them.

JIM LEHRER: Both of you, first to you, Mark, end of this week, three days after the election, any lingering pieces of wisdom that you have not shared with us up until now, in other words, something that struck you that has not been said?

MARK SHIELDS: Just a couple of quick things, Jim.

One is that the Republican Party is facing a real problem in those four western states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona. If John McCain hadn't been on the ballot in Arizona...

MARK SHIELDS: ... Barack Obama and the Democrats, because the estrangement from the Latino community, which is a growing part of the electorate, and estrangement from westerners in general.

But the other thing is that the only age cohort in the entire electorate that John McCain carried were voters over the age of 65. Voters under the age of 30 voted 2 percent plus Democrat in 2000. They voted 12 percent plus Democrat in 2004 and by 35 percent in 2008. And you see it moving up the ladder to 30- to 44-year-olds, as well.

So the formula I use is probably a little bit of an overstatement, but right now the Democrats, young Democrats, are moving from a room of their own to an apartment of their own hopefully to a home of their own, while Republicans are moving from their own home to the rest home to the funeral home.

And...

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my.

MARK SHIELDS: And that's a problem for the Republicans.

Interpreting the 2008 victory

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
[I]t was a victory for the middle. The middle asserted itself. That's how I read the returns, which suggests sort of a measured way ahead for Obama.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess I completely agree. If you're in a shrinking group, you're probably Republican. The growing groups are Democratic.

The thing that strikes me -- and this has become a big debate, especially in the Democratic Party -- what sort of victory was it?

Andy Kohut was on the program yesterday, said it was a victory for the middle. The middle asserted itself. That's how I read the returns, which suggests sort of a measured way ahead for Obama.

Other people, however, say, no, it was a realigning election like 1980 with Reagan. It was a liberal victory. We should pursue a more liberal agenda, and interpreting that result has become a big debate.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, excuse me. Just one thing. Voters do want a more active government, a lot more than they did in 2000 and even 2004.

DAVID BROOKS: I disagree. But we'll get to that.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, those are the exit polls.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Mark. Thank you, David.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And both of you are going to be taking questions about the election on our online NewsHour insider forum. And I thank you for that.