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Shields and Brooks on Health Reform, Afghan Strategy

September 4, 2009 at 1:54 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the top news of the week, including the escalating violence in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama's upcoming speech on health care to a joint session of Congress.

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

Mark, what are your expectations for the president’s big speech to Congress on Wednesday night?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the — it’s a big moment, Jim. It’s not do-or-die. All of…

JIM LEHRER: Not do-or-die?


The political class, of whom I guess I’m one, we’re — we’re all frustrated sportswriters, and we want it to be third and long. It’s the Hail Mary pass. It isn’t that. It’s a key moment in the health care — health care effort by the president.

It’s key in this sense. Every president’s initial year is his most important in achieving his domestic achievement, his principal domestic achievement.


MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, for example…

MARK SHIELDS: Never as strong again.

Bill Clinton — Bill Clinton got through his budget and tax increase by one vote in each house in 1993. He could then stake a claim when the economy improved, that it was because of what he had done and dared to do. He owned the economy from that point forward.

The same was true with Ronald Reagan in 1981. When things did turn around after the 1982 midterm elections, in 1983 and 1984, he could reelection having said, I did this.

This is — this is Barack Obama’s test. And he is playing a major card with a speech to the nation, joint session of Congress. Dwight Eisenhower never gave one. Lyndon Johnson gave two, one after the assassination and one on civil rights.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking beyond State of the Union address?

MARK SHIELDS: State of the Union.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, this is a big thing.

JIM LEHRER: Big deal.

MARK SHIELDS: FDR in 12 years did one, declaration of war against Japan and Germany.

So, it is — it’s a major moment. And I think he’s essentially talking to the Democrats, because they have had to come to the conclusion this summer that they’re not going to get Republican support in the House. They may get some in the Senate. I think Olympia Snowe is an honest player. There may be some others.

But I think that’s — he has to lay out, this is what it’s for. It’s not descriptive. It is prescriptive. It has to be no inspiration — a little inspiration and a lot of perspiration. This is what it will be. This is who it is going to cover. This is what it is going to cost, and this is how we’re going to pay for it.

Obama's plan

David Brooks
New York Times
[T]he most interesting thing, from what I'm hearing, is that he will get much more specific on the costs, on actually changing incentives within the system to bring down costs, including taking some ideas that John McCain talked about.

JIM LEHRER: All right, there was a lot there that Mark just made out.

First of all, do you agree it's his -- on the importance with what Mark said?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, in my column today, I called it his ninth inning moment so, I'm sticking with the sports metaphor.

JIM LEHRER: But it's a different game.

DAVID BROOKS: It's a different game.

JIM LEHRER: It's not football. It was a Hail Mary. You're saying it's ninth inning.

DAVID BROOKS: As long as we stay with sports, I'm fine with it.


DAVID BROOKS: It's important. It's not a deal-breaker. I actually disagree with the fact that the first year is always the most important.

Franklin Roosevelt did the economy only the first year, and then did Social Security and some of the other stuff in the out years. So, I think Barack Obama would have been smarter to do that, because I think the anxiety over the economy is draining the health care.

Nonetheless, it's tremendously important. He will get a health care reform package. I say there is -- 95 percent he will get something. The question will be, is it a small, incremental thing, or is it what he originally hoped, something bigger?

And, to me, the most interesting part of the speech is, how far does he scale back? He's going to get specific. They're going to come close to basically writing a bill and saying, this is the president's bill.

JIM LEHRER: There is now going to be an Obama plan, you think?

DAVID BROOKS: The original plan was to wait for a Senate bill and a House bill.

DAVID BROOKS: But the Senate bill is not coming. So, here it comes.

And, so, he will pull back a little. But, to me, the most interesting thing, from what I'm hearing, is that he will get much more specific on the costs, on actually changing incentives within the system to bring down costs, including taking some ideas that John McCain talked about, some ideas that Republicans have talked about.

JIM LEHRER: Like what? Like what?

DAVID BROOKS: Things about risk pools and things like that.

So, that -- that could really -- that could offer an invitation to Republicans. I'm not sure they will take it up. I really doubt they will take it up. Nonetheless, he could reaching across to a lot of independents, the people he has been losing, and saying, I'm serious about cost. I'm serious about controlling the deficit.

And that would broaden the appeal quite a good deal, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that costs -- he has got to do something about costs in his speech, and mean it, or forget it?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. He's got to be specific. And there's got to be a sense of...

JIM LEHRER: But, on the costs, you agree with David; it's got to be about costs, hold it down?

MARK SHIELDS: It's got to be coverage.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, reform beyond just extending coverage.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, but if you come out of this with 25 million Americans still without coverage, I think he would be rightly and rightfully criticized for having signed it.

JIM LEHRER: So, he has got to do both, still got to do both?

MARK SHIELDS: He's got to do -- he's got to do both, I do -- I devoutly believe.

As far as the forum, Jim, it is a question to me why he is doing it there, because the atmospherics and theatrics are not good for him, I don't think. It will be one half will be jumping up and cheering, the Democrats. And the Republicans, I think, certainly, the House Republicans, have made the decision they're going to be sitting on their hands.

And you know, I don't know if that's the way to convey and to communicate with the nation most effectively. We will certainly find out.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the forum? What's your...

Growing concerns

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think the doubts about the president are not left, right, deficit, and whether government is too big. The question is, does it work?

DAVID BROOKS: I think is the most majestic. I think that forum is always better.

I agree with Mark's reservations, but I have never seen a presidential address from the Oval Office that was better. And we always talk about the reply to the State of the Union not as good as the State of the Union.

So, I think it is a good forum. The problem is, it's not health care. If you look at the polls, why is Obama falling? Well, partly, it's concerns about health care. But there has been a sharper drop in concerns about his handling of the economy and a sharper drop in his -- concerns about handling of the deficits.

So, I think health care has largely been a victim of a broader set of anxieties. And turning that around is going to be -- that's just tremendously challenging.

Bill Clinton gave a speech on health care. He produced a card and said, everyone is going get health care. I will veto, health care bill -- the -- the health care speech did not turn around health care. And this speech alone, without a really substantive plan, will not turn around health care.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree.


MARK SHIELDS: I disagree.

I think the doubts about the president are not left, right, deficit, and whether government is too big. The question is, does it work? And that's what it was.

JIM LEHRER: You mean if the government works?

MARK SHIELDS: Does his plan...

JIM LEHRER: His plan work?

MARK SHIELDS: Is his administration working? That is what saved Ronald Reagan. People still thought he was conservative, but they felt, in 1984, the country was better off than it had been in 1980, and that they were better off and that their futures were brighter.

And I think it is a question of, is it working?


MARK SHIELDS: And, right now, the most important number is not the Pew poll. It's not the Gallup poll, is not those numbers.

The most important is the one that Lisa Lynch was talking with Ray about. And that is the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.7 percent unemployment, and going up.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that the trump today isn't health care reform; it's that 9.7...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if I were a congressman, that's the key people to worry about, these Blue Dog Democrats in moderate seats that could go -- 9.7 percent today, there is -- I would say the economic consensus is that will be not quite where we are in a year from now, but close.

People expect it to be a long, slow recovery. If you are trying to run for reelection at 9.7, that is not a good thing. And so Mark's right. That is crucial.

Flap over school speech

David Brooks
New York Times
You would think he's -- you know, he is going to read the Communist Manifesto out there. And he is not. He is going to give a banal speech about the importance of staying in school.


Speaking of speeches by President Obama, he's going to speak -- he's doing a speech to the schoolkids, the public schoolkids, on Tuesday. And all -- what -- all kinds of things have broken out because of that.


JIM LEHRER: All hell has broken out.

MARK SHIELDS: All heck has broken loose, certainly, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I'm glad you said it, instead of me.


JIM LEHRER: But what in the world is going on?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there's a convergence here.

First of all, there are people who are conspiracy -- conspiracy buffs. They're more than buffs. They are addicted to it. The state Republican Party of Florida said they did not want the children to have to listen to the president lecture them on his socialist agenda, the schoolchildren in that state.

They stood up because he was going to tell why he was going to tax people who create jobs and take money away from them. I mean, it's just -- Jim, these are people in another galaxy. They are another planet. That's part of the problem.

JIM LEHRER: But it's all over the country.

MARK SHIELDS: But it is all over the country. Well, the governor -- the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, said it was -- it was an interruption and a -- indefensible between the state and the local education and the federal.

Rick did not, his predecessors did not object when President Reagan in 1988 spoke to schoolchildren. President George Herbert Walker did in 1991. You know, I think the truth is -- and nobody wants to talk about this -- the reason the president is doing it, which is kind of a questionable thing, is to deliver the message to those kids most at risk of dropping out, children who have a single parent, children who are being raised by grandparents, of racial minorities, to say...

JIM LEHRER: Look at me. Look at me.

MARK SHIELDS: ... I did it. I did it. Stay in school. You can achieve your dreams.

I think that is what it is about. And I think David agree.


JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I do agree with that.

I mean, you would think he's -- you know, he is going to read the Communist Manifesto out there.

DAVID BROOKS: And he is not. He is going to give a banal speech about the importance of staying in school.

Listen, I don't think we need to see Barack Obama's face every five minutes on the TV screen. So, I...

JIM LEHRER: He's over -- you think he's overdoing it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I -- you know, it's like we have to all share his goodness every five minutes. He has to be on every pulpit. He has to host the "NewsHour" next. He's going to be everywhere.

DAVID BROOKS: So, I think it's a little too much.

I don't -- I think the presidency is a job of running the government. It's not to be the national Oprah. So -- but, that said, he's someone people look up to. He's not only the head of the government. He's the head of state. He represents the country.

And, if he is going to go to kids, a lot of whom admire them, and give them a good positive message, I personally don't see any problem. The larger problem for conservatives, by the way, is that there are a lot of conservatives who are fine with him. He's president. OK, you might not agree with him, but he's president. He's a good guy.

There is a fever swamp problem. And I happen to think it is a small minority of people on the right being blown out of the proportion by the media, frankly. But it is a problem that you have what you might call the death panel conservatives, who are -- who have decided that Barack Obama is the second coming of Karl Marx and -- and Engels. And he's totally inappropriate for the American context.

And that fever swamp part of the right is a problem for conservatives, most of all.

Problems in Afghanistan

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[A]ny time you are eight years into the war -- and we are eight years into Afghanistan -- granted, not an all-out effort -- and we're still talking about changing the strategy, a new strategy, it is an indication of problems.


What about problems for the president on Afghanistan? They're -- we still don't have the McChrystal report, but we heard what -- we reported, of course, what Gates said yesterday, maybe some room there to add more coups.

How do you read that situation?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the public is leaning against. A lot of Barack Obama's opinion polls are going down, Afghanistan included. A majority is against.

On the right, there is increasing opposition. George Will wrote a column this week saying we should get out. On the left, there is increasing opposition. And, meanwhile, in the military, there's increasing desire for more troops. We need to have more troops.

What I hope he would do is explain why we're there. I don't think he's really given a good speech explaining why we're there. And, to me, the core reason we're there is to prevent the Taliban from taking over, and then that having an effect on Pakistan, which would be a disaster.

And then he has got to persuade people -- and this is a tough case -- do we have a prospect of success?


DAVID BROOKS: And, to me, we do, because the Taliban is fundamentally unpopular, and because the nation-building we have done, even in the last eight years, which has not been a well-run war, has produced measurable gains.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see Afghanistan, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Any -- any time you are eight years into the war -- and we are eight years into Afghanistan -- granted, not an all-out effort -- and we're still talking about changing the strategy, a new strategy, it is an indication of problems, Jim.

The reality is that the popular support was cheaply purchased, quite frankly, during the campaign. It became, Afghanistan was the good war. Afghanistan was the front line in the battle against terrorism. And it was a way of positioning the Democrats against Iraq who are opposed to Iraq, and saying that they were for the war in Afghanistan.

There is the Powell doctrine, which laid out that you only go in with grave threat, with overwhelming force, with full public understanding and support, and with an exit strategy, which obviously was not honored in Iraq, has been breached here as well. There is no sense of exactly what the mission is, how we will know we will succeed, and when we will have succeeded.

And I think that remains a problem for the president.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.