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Shields and Brooks Mull Stakes for Obama Speech

September 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the lead up to President Obama's health reform speech and developments in Congress.

JIM LEHRER: And now to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, I’m going to ask you the same question Judy just asked David Axelrod that he didn’t answer, which is, what’s at stake for the president tonight?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Well, he’s going to get something passed. There’s an overwhelming percentage. There will be a health care bill. The question is how big it will be.

And the interesting thing to me in watching what’s happened the last couple days is not so much the language of the speech that will be interesting; it’s how the administration has moved.

There are a bunch of policies that have been floating around which they are now embracing, and it’s a move toward the center, there’s no question. The public plan is just dead.


DAVID BROOKS: It’s going to get a nice send-off, but it is dead. And the people — the vibe out of the White House makes that clear. The vibe out of the Senate makes it clear. There will be no public plan, not that it matters too much. It was never that central.

But the other things they’re moving on is on things like medical malpractice, things like the tax exemption on employee benefits, which they’re going to get, too, through the back door.

There’s a whole series of ways they’re moving in ways that will make life a lot easier for moderate Democrats and potentially easier for some moderate Republicans. So they’re moving a bit toward the center. They’re bringing down the cost.

There’s been movement. It’s not just a speech tonight. It’s a bit of a new plan they’re unveiling.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, a new plan’s coming, not just a speech?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: New plans, lot of possibilities, they’re still facing the Congress, Jim, and the president has an enormous responsibility tonight. He’s got two audiences. He’s got the audience in the hall, the members of Congress and the audience outside the hall, and he’s got a different task with each one of them. That…

JIM LEHRER: Aren’t they related tonight?

Solidifying Democratic support

MARK SHIELDS: After this speech tonight, those in the hall -- he's talking to Democrats, basically, I mean, because I think he has to have concluded that he's not talking the same way he was during the campaign when he was talking about reaching across the divide and forging consensus and bipartisanship.

By now, even to the most optimistic of observers, they have to have concluded the Republican position on health care reform has overwhelmingly been, to borrow a phrase from history, massive resistance.

And he has to reach the Democrats in that hall tonight, and they have to leave there encouraged and inspired, and -- which they have not been. And they are charged with the knowledge that they're facing a difficult political task, a risky political task, but it's important, and it's urgent, and that they're up to the fight.

JIM LEHRER: If you're a Democrat sitting there tonight, you've got to figure out a way to get something -- to go with the president on this...


JIM LEHRER: ... and that he's going to make some moves that will make it possible for me.

MARK SHIELDS: And he's going to be constant. I mean, the administration's position on the public option -- I happen to disagree with David on the importance of the public option. I think it is central, if we're talking about insurance companies.

JIM LEHRER: Is it going to be in there? Do you agree with David?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I agree that it cannot pass the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Not pass the Senate.

MARK SHIELDS: It is a difficult and tricky political reality for the Democrats in the House. So, I mean, I think what we're heading toward now is probably tactically that the Senate will vote first, because what you don't want to do is ask House Democrats to cast...

JIM LEHRER: To take a hard vote?

MARK SHIELDS: ... to take a difficult vote, including the public option, that is not going anywhere in the Senate. I do agree that the chances of its passing the Senate are remote.

But I think that the president has to energize and has to speak specifically. I mean, he's been back and forth. It's only a thin sliver. It's essential. It's a bargaining chip. I mean, there's got to be a sense of definiteness coming out of here tonight.

JIM LEHRER: David, what about this idea that Senator Snowe has floated, been floated for weeks now, that -- set up a triggering mechanism for the public plan, don't have it in there at the beginning, but after a year, if it looks like you need it, then we can reconsider it, and all of that, that that might be a way to bring in moderate Democrats and some moderate Republicans?

Obama's route: rally or wonky?

DAVID BROOKS: Max Baucus said today that he hears a lot about the trigger in the media, he doesn't hear much about it in the Senate. The public plan, I just think it's not going to be there.

The reason I think it's unimportant and the reason why many in the White House think it's unimportant, at most you get maybe 3 percent of the country involved. They just don't think it would have a big effect on the markets. It wouldn't bring down costs. It wouldn't be a big competitive effect.

And so I think it's just become a set thing, and it's not going to be in the plan, trigger or no trigger.

The one thing, the one tension that Mark touched on is, do you give the kind of rabble-rousing speech to rally the Democrats, which Obama gave earlier this week, or do you...

JIM LEHRER: Well, the AFL-CIO speech, that's what that was. That was a rally speech.

DAVID BROOKS: We've always had to fight. We're going to fight for this. Or do you give a speech that a lot of, I think, the moderates would like to hear, is, we're going to cut Medicare costs $600 billion. We're going to really control spending. We're going to create risk premiums. It's hard to -- or risk pools. We're going to make...

JIM LEHRER: What's a risk premium?

DAVID BROOKS: A risk pool. It's an idea that actually was in a John McCain plan, which is to get some of the people who don't have insurance into these pools.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, I see. Got you.

DAVID BROOKS: And so that's wonky. And so the question is, is the speech a fighting speech or is it a wonky, reassuring speech?

JIM LEHRER: Can he do wonky and get away with that tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don't think he can. I don't think wonky is inspiring or encouraging. You don't have to be hot. You don't have -- it isn't a Labor Day rally speech. We know that. That isn't proper for this venue. He does have to reassure -- the two code words out of the White House, two abstract nouns this week are "stability" and "security."

"Stability and security"

JIM LEHRER: Stability and security.

MARK SHIELDS: And security.

JIM LEHRER: Stability of what?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the stability of the health plan.


MARK SHIELDS: They're talking to the 180 million people who have health care.

JIM LEHRER: Have it, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And they're talking to the people who were born on or before the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, all of whom are on Medicare, and who are essentially -- and I speak of contemporaries -- who are essentially afraid of two things: change and death.

And it's got to be assured that this change is not going to be cataclysmic and change their lives, because Medicare is a very, very popular program.

But there's got to be a reality, Jim. There are 20,000 Americans, according to the National Academy of Sciences, who every year die because they don't see a doctor. I mean, this is -- we're talking about coverage of people...

Obama's philosophy

JIM LEHRER: Is he going to talk about that in inspirational terms tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: He's got to inspire and encourage Democrats and let them know that they've got a strong leader who's not going to -- who's not going to sort of equivocate again, as he has on the public option.

DAVID BROOKS: This is the essence of Obamaism. Ronald Reagan could speak in a certain way because he had a philosophy of free markets, and there was a whole philosophy of entrepreneurship.

Clement Attlee or Bismarck or somebody on the left -- not Bismarck -- but could say...

MARK SHIELDS: Bismarck? Bismarck? Clement Attlee?

DAVID BROOKS: He could -- OK, so let's take Teddy Kennedy.

JIM LEHRER: Forget Bismarck.


DAVID BROOKS: Teddy Kennedy could say...


DAVID BROOKS: ... "I believe in collective action. We are going to do this together through the combined power of the government." That is a philosophy that creates inspiring rhetoric. Barack Obama doesn't come from either of those places. He comes from, "Let's see what we can get." And it's a different...

JIM LEHRER: "Let's get everybody together and"...

DAVID BROOKS: "Let's get it together. I don't know if I'm for the public plan, but if we can get it, maybe that will be a good idea, but maybe we can't."

JIM LEHRER: Rah-rah-rah doesn't follow that, huh?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, so that's just not part of who he is.

MARK SHIELDS: You cannot sit there as a Democrat tonight, Jim, and say -- look, here's a guy that's been rolled by the Republicans. They don't have an idea. They don't have a plan. Other than Olympia Snowe -- you know, I mean, forget Grassley. Forget Enzi. They're gone. The gang of six is now the gang of four in the Senate.

I mean, he's got to acknowledge that, look, you know, your goodwill, it's trust, but verify. I mean, it's up to you to come over and prove yourself that you're going to change, because I know the only way I'm going to pass this is with my people.

JIM LEHRER: I've got an idea: Let's watch and listen to what he says tonight. Then we'll talk about it again.

MARK SHIELDS: You make sense. You make sense.