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Shields, Brooks Take on Afghan Plan, ‘Populist Uprising’ Over Economy

December 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks examine the implications of the latest unemployment figures and President Obama's decision to commit more troops to Afghanistan.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, today’s job numbers, a pleasant surprise for a lot of people, including President Obama?

MARK SHIELDS: Good news for a nation and an administration that needed it, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And a surprise.

MARK SHIELDS: And a surprise, no question.

The — the sense, Jim, the reality that we still need 125,000 to 127,000 new jobs every month for people coming into the work force. So, putting this in perspective, it is — it is encouraging, it’s hopeful, but it isn’t the answer. There’s still — there’s still an awful big void out there of people.

And you heard Lisa Lynch earlier in the broadcast say…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … two out of five, the people are unemployed have been unemployed for six months or more.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

How do you see this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, just, politically, first of all, obviously, it is great news. Glad to see the economists wrong on the upside for a change.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: They have been wrong on the downside for quite a long time.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But just in policy terms, I think, if we are, there has been a clear trend. We don’t know if we’re going to have job growth, but the job losses have been diminishing for quite a long time. And it is pretty broad-based.

And, so, if we have begun to slightly turn the corner, one, it takes some of this wind out of the sales of the populist anger and what, to me, sometimes quite destructive anger, that was out there. Two, it means, in the White House, they can begin to think about long-term. They have been in crisis mode really for 10 months now. How do we get things going right now?

And now I think they’re beginning to look long-term. If we’re going to get a recovery, how do we make sure this recovery is really broad-based and people up and down the income ladder feel it? And so they are beginning to think about innovation. They’re going to be thinking about job creation in a fundamental sense, creating real jobs, not just jobs that are supported by temporary government spending.

JIM LEHRER: And I notice the two people told Judy, when they — when she asked them what would they suggest as ways to create more jobs, neither said another stimulus package. They didn’t talk about government spending at all.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I will say this, Jim, that this administration will live or die on jobs. I mean, it won’t — that is the issue domestically, as they — not only in the 2010 elections, but in 2012.

And I guess where I — where I disagree with David, I don’t think it’s enough to drain the populist fever, which I think is totally legitimate and totally understandable.

JIM LEHRER: What’s — define the populist fever.

MARK SHIELDS: A sense that — that the major financial institutions of the country, the highest and most powerful and most privileged, brought this country to the edge of financial chaos, and caused the economic crisis that has resulted in the unemployment…

MARK SHIELDS: … and that the only government action that people can really see that has made a difference in the last year is the bailout of these same financial institutions.

The only island of prosperity in this sea of discontent and suffering is that — New York financial institutions. And I think that is it. And they see Washington and New York scratching each other’s back.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well…

JIM LEHRER: President Obama said that himself in Allentown today. I mean, just — we had it in the — in the clip.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. One can have different views about the bailouts. And I think they were — they were necessary. We had to make the financial system stable.

But when I am talking about the — the populist uprising, I’m not so much talking about whether you supported the bailouts or not.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m talking about pieces of legislation which are now gaining hundreds of supporters in the House of Representatives to really denude the Fed of its powers. I’m talking about greater opposition to trade, free trade, greater opposition to immigration and to immigrant groups.

When populist uprisings happen in times of economic anxiety, it is not just, do you support the bailout? To me, it often gets uglier in many different ways.

MARK SHIELDS: But it isn’t — it isn’t even the bailout, David. And I’m not talking about the bailout — and I think there is a very plausible case can be made for the bailout — The sense that the only, the only area of our entire economy that has been helped, that has record profits, that is resuming bonuses the proportions that — the Third World GDP that these individuals are getting, is the financial institutions of Wall Street, which people hold accountable.

I agree with you. One of the reasons that immigration has been such a painful issue in this country is because of economic downturn and people being concerned. We doubled the gross domestic product of this country in the decade of the ’60s, and we went through the most wrenching and I would say the most positive social change in civil rights. And we were able to do it because the pie was expanding.

But we have lost…

JIM LEHRER: There was enough — enough money there.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: We lost 69,000 manufacturing jobs last week — last month. So, that was a real dark side.

JIM LEHRER: David, you mentioned the Fed.

This is called a segue…

JIM LEHRER: … to Ben Bernanke, the — the Fed chairman. And the — the hearings today, they really got — they got rough with him. That is an un — that doesn’t happen very often to a Fed chairman.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And that is just terrible.

I mean, the things they got rough with him for, he thought the banking system was more stable — this was years ago — more stable than it turned out to be. Fine. So did everybody else. He made mistakes.

Nonetheless, if you look at the history of the last two years, and if you looked at the books that are already being written about it, what do you see? You see Ben Bernanke leading the rebound, getting there early. being extremely aggressive, unprecedentedly aggressive with the Fed, trying to get this economy restarted, and then, with Geithner and with Paulson, really having this open conversation. What are we going to do? What are we going to do?

And they reacted very flexibly and I think very heroically. And I would say, if you — if you interview people around this city about who is trying to understand what is going on, who has the most developed views, there is nobody in Washington who has as well-developed views as Ben Bernanke. And there’s nobody over the past two years who has reacted in as successful a way as Ben Bernanke.

And, so, the piling on, I think, is just outrageous.

JIM LEHRER: Outrageous?

MARK SHIELDS: I think I agree with David for the most part.

JIM LEHRER: You think you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I’m not ready to canonize him. I’m not ready to put him on Mount Rushmore yet.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, he was concise and he was contrite.

His — his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, was sort of the Delphic oracle. He would come up there and speak in this sort of — broken syntax, and it would be, oh, you are so wonderful.

And he’s paying — Ben Bernanke is paying, retroactively, for Alan Greenspan’s sins. And so the Congress that — that actually were supplicant before Alan Greenspan when he was chairman, and totally deferential, now are sort of earning their bones by getting tough with him. I think it is indefensible.

I would like to see the Congress have oversight on where the Congress went wrong. I mean, I haven’t had a hearing yet…

JIM LEHRER: Good luck on that.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, no, but on the whole banking.

And I think — I think he’s been very candid and very forthcoming. And, you know, I expect him to be — I expect him to be reconfirmed. He was nominated by a Republican president, nominated again by a Democratic president. So — but it’s not one of Congress’ finest hours.

JIM LEHRER: All right. All right. Let’s talk about Afghanistan.

What is your — how do you read the reaction to the president’s Afghanistan plan that’s happened now since Tuesday?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I guess my reaction post-speech is that Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates did a big favor for Barack Obama. I think, on Capitol Hill and maybe even around the country, there was some sense of letdown, disappointment. The speech wasn’t quite everything they wanted.

But I think the testimony that Clinton and Gates gave subsequently was very effective. Among other things, it described exactly what was going to happen in a much more clear way than Obama chose to do during that speech.

And one of the things that struck me just about their presentations and their testimony was, this isn’t something new. This is something ongoing. There was a surge in march. We had Marines and other people occupying villages. That has begun to show some results. And we’re continuing on with that.

And so it’s not like it is a vast departure. But it is a continuation. And I thought they projected a great deal of competence and honesty, as they tend to do. And they shored up support, especially in Congress, where there is still skepticism, but it hasn’t boiled over. It has probably diminished.

JIM LEHRER: Hasn’t boiled over? What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think what strikes me more than anything else 72 hours after the speech is how few minds have been changed by it. There was…

JIM LEHRER: People who were…

MARK SHIELDS: People…

JIM LEHRER: No more troops, they still say no more troops. Those who said more troops, they still say it.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

I mean, you get polls that say, yes, we think the president — we’re going to give the president benefit of the doubt. And I think there is a certain rallying.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But the lack of passion in the speech itself that we commented on the night of the speech…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, we talked about it that night, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … I think is reflective in the debate in the country.

I’m still waiting for somebody to stand up there and say, he’s absolutely right. He did not give those on either side what they wanted. Now, you can say that’s the calibrated, moderated, measured style and substance of the president. It’s his process.

The process was admirable. I just think the product came down without the ability to move people, which, when a nation goes to war, there is no more serious, more solemn decision that is made. And you really do need that sense of — of…

JIM LEHRER: Of, let’s go.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agreed with that at the time. I think we both said it that night.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And I thought, how can you ask young men and women to really sacrifice everything if the president is so calibrated himself?

And I made that case to somebody in the House, and they said, well, the country is not there. The country wants to know that you feel the way they feel, which is ambivalent.

JIM LEHRER: Ambivalent.

DAVID BROOKS: And, so, they thought he reflected — that is the way Obama genuinely feels, but they thought he was with the country on this, and it would be of some comfort.

And I have heard that, too. One of the interesting things that struck me over the last couple days is, there is this alleged deadline of July 2011, when we begin to pull the troops out. A lot of people like me thought, they will never get anything accomplished in 18 months.

Fortunately, that is such a soft deadline, it is basically meaningless.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, it’s almost evaporated, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But a lot of people on the other side say, well, I really feel comforted that he said that, because it shows how he wants to get out, and I’m glad he feels that way.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. What’s your…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I’m sorry.

The one thing that I think that July 2011 does send is a message to Mr. Karzai and the Afghan government that domestic politics in this country will determine whether, in fact, the policy continues, whether the support continues, and that that is where the decisions are finally made, so that there is a certain urgency about them cleaning up their own, their act…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: … and moving to — to construct a government that the people of that country can live with.

JIM LEHRER: I noticed, in Margaret’s interview with Secretary Clinton, when she asked Secretary Clinton about, has she seen any signs yet that Karzai has got the word here and things are going to get better within the government, she said may…

MARK SHIELDS: May.

JIM LEHRER: … may be progress, rather than, oh, yes, right.

MARK SHIELDS: No. No.

JIM LEHRER: I mean, it’s — so, they’re — they — they have put a little bit of something in the sand here for Karzai, have they not, the U.S.?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, we have had — we have been leaning on this guy for eight years now. I mean, the fact is, he is bidding for survival, and the deals with the warlords are for his survival.

And the thing that actually has come out since is — which wasn’t really in the speech — was the reliance on the tribes, the reliance on the decentralized institutions within Afghanistan, which Gates and Clinton talked about. And that is actually quite good news, because that is where the progress is being made.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the person in the White House who said the president’s ambivalent, reflects the country’s ambivalence, we do expect our leaders, because they do have access to information, knowledge, events, and reality that is not available to average citizens, to come to a conclusion, not — not necessarily an impulsive one — and this president will never be impulsive — but one that does reflect a greater sense of certitude and confidence.

And that — there was not confidence projected the other night.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it was like the Pompidou Centre. The infrastructure was on the outside.

Usually, the politicians are uncertain on the inside, but, then, when they speak in public, oh, they pretend they have perfect knowledge and perfect confidence. Obama didn’t put on that facade.

I sort of wish he had, on balance, because I do think, when you go to war, you want a certain trumpet, that soldiers want to know you will be with them through thick and thin. But, on the other hand, he was being honest, so it’s hard to totally…

JIM LEHRER: … if he had done that.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, but the other criticism is that it really is the continuation of the Bush policy, in the sense that, again, all the sacrifices is being borne only by those in uniform and their families.

There is no sense of how we’re going to pay for it. There is no sense of a nation at war. There was no challenge to the American people, no call to us, certain or uncertain trumpet. So, in that sense, there was a sense — there was a feeling of disappointment among many Obama administration supporters.

JIM LEHRER: Could — would that have worked for President Obama, if he had done that, if he had done what Mark said?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, my idea is, you put a picture of a Marine or soldier on the gasoline pump, and you put a 5 cent gasoline tax on every gallon. If the pictures are right there, you would pay the tax.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But I wish they would do something like that. But, for some reason, both administrations have decided not to do that. I agree with Mark. I think it is a mistake.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

David, Mark, thank you both very much.