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Shields and Gerson on Obama’s Campaign Role, Mosque Debate

August 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, sitting in for David Brooks, analyze the week's top news stories, including President Obama's shifting political fortunes and the debate over a mosque near Ground Zero.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight.

Michael, there’s been much commentary this week about the political problems of President Obama from you and others.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.

JIM LEHRER: And you had a column today which said the heart of it is quote “a gap between aspiration and reality.”

Explain your premise.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think we saw some of that in the mosque controversy, where the president first set out a very clear and ringing principle, and then retreated from it significantly. But I think it applies more broadly. I mean, this is a president who campaigned to change Washington, and we have even more bitter polarization a candidate who was supposed to be beyond partisan divisions. Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe he’s too liberal.

And the reality is that, you know, all politicians don’t live up to their initial image. But that initial image for Obama was a dramatic change, was supposed to be a dramatic change. And we just haven’t seen those changes. So, I think it hurts him more than most, in a certain way, because hopes were so high.

JIM LEHRER: You buy that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t, Jim. I mean, I think Michael’s right. Hopes were high. Hopes have been dashed. There’s a sense of disappointment, a sense of resignation. I think expectations were extraordinarily high. I mean, it was a part of it was that we were celebrating the fact that an African-American could be elected president of the United States. We felt awfully good about that and about ourselves, perhaps unrealistically so.

As far as bringing he has not brought a different tone to Washington. But I was just going over the figures on the Republicans. If you’re to going to be bipartisan, you have got to have both sides.

And when when John McCain was a reformer with Russians Feingold, writing the McCain-Feingold act, which absolutely wrote out soft money out of American politics, it was very controversial, hurt corporations, hurt labor unions, hurt big-money people, individuals, 55 House Republicans voted for it.

Now we’re talking about just disclosing who made contributions for corporations. Two Republicans are voting in the current that is in the space of just nine years. I means, that’s a profound and significant difference.

And I just think that President Obama, if anything, the criticism you hear from Democrats is, he spent too much time reaching across the aisle, trying to get help. But, I mean, I think we’re in a polarized, polarized political time. I mean, I don’t think it’s one way.

JIM LEHRER: It takes two to tango, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I do think there’s plenty of blame to go around. But there’s one person that is hurt most by the lowered the performance, as compared to the expectations. And that’s the president, who campaigned for an entirely different kind of politics.

And the way I put it in the column was that Barack Obama won the presidency by giving new voters in America intoxicating hopes. And that makes…

JIM LEHRER: Intoxicating hopes?

MICHAEL GERSON: Intoxicating hopes, and that makes the hangover even more difficult afterwards, when those hopes are not met. And I think that that is part of the narrative of this president. And you find it not just on the right, but, you know, concern on the left. Someone who promised to change that ethical atmosphere of the Congress, that’s not really been the priority. You find these criticisms on the left as well.

And, so, I think it’s a broader narrative that is a destructive one for the president.

MARK SHIELDS: … the significant achievements. I mean, this is…

JIM LEHRER: There was another column today. Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post went through all the things that the president has accomplished.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes. If the president were to leave office tomorrow, he is an historic president, whether you are talking about national health care, which Democrats have been pushing for initially for 75 years, that for financial regulation, which again was done overwhelmingly.

The only bipartisan figure that has emerged briefly was Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was a collaborator, conspirator with Chris Dodd on the on the financial regulation. And then, boy, he got pulled back or jerked back or jerked himself back, however you want to put it.

So, you know, but for some very skillful legislating, we wouldn’t have had anything. But, I mean, the stimulus package, the bank rescue, GM is back and on its feet. I mean, there have been major accomplishments.

The problem is unemployment. The problem is, the economy is not better. We haven’t had a recovery summer. Whoever came up with that phrase at the White House, this is going to be the summer of recovery, they ought to be in the aluminum siding business by Labor Day. I mean, it just it isn’t working out that way.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what about Michael raised the point in his original thing that the mosque controversy and what the president the New York mosque controversy and what the president said about that is an example of the kind of thing that a recent example of what he is talking about.

How do you see this, the way the president has handled it?

MARK SHIELDS: The way the president I think, first of all, the president had a responsibility to speak to the issue. The issue was…

JIM LEHRER: In other words, he had to say something?

MARK SHIELDS: It was going beyond New York. It had become a national issue, thanks in large part to talk radio, but to distinguished American Republican leaders, including Governor Palin and former Speaker Gingrich, who has redefined irresponsibility in this debate.

So, the president had a responsibility to speak. Did he choose the right venue, a Ramadan dinner at the White House? No. It was it could even look like he was saying something to please the crowd, instead of doing it to a national conference of Christians and Jews or something, to an interfaith meeting.

Saturday, when he qualified his unqualified endorsement of Friday night, was that helpful? No. But I think there was a responsibility to speak. And I think he spoke to values that are eternal with Americans.

And, Jim, he had to speak because of what had been going on, on the other side. I mean, for for Newt Gingrich to say that this is part of a conspiracy, to equate as he’s done in his statements, to equate Islam with al-Qaida Islam is not al-Qaida.

As Michael’s former employer put it so well, we were not attacked by the Muslim religion on 9/11. We were attacked by al-Qaida terrorists. And that had become such an irresponsible and provocative…

JIM LEHRER: So, he had to…

MARK SHIELDS: … and, I think I think, incendiary debate, that he had to address it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree he had to address it?

MICHAEL GERSON: I fundamentally agree with that. I and I agree about the Gingrich approach on these things.

The argument that, somehow, Islam is fundamentally incompatible with American pluralism is a deeply dangerous argument. It’s divisive at home. It undermines, in my view I spent some time in the West Wing it undermines the war on terror, because you have to work with Muslim allies all across the world in order to conduct this war.

So, the president of the United States, when he faces these issues, he’s not a commentator, you know, who says concerned about the funding of a mosque here or the zoning rules there. You know, he has a duty. He has a duty to Muslim citizens. He has a duty to our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan who are fighting radicals at our side.

And he can’t tell them that your house of worship, your holy place is somehow a desecration of Lower Manhattan. I don’t think that is possible. The president faced a choice between silence or doing something similar to what he did, OK, in my view.

Now, that doesn’t mean that he handled it effectively. I actually think he didn’t. So…

JIM LEHRER: Because of the Saturday change, you mean, where he said that, “I agree with the constitutional point, but I’m that doesn’t mean I’m endorsing it”?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think the president was undercut by his own political team, OK, whom I’m not sure they realize how big a deal about was. There hadn’t been consultation with the Democratic leadership, for goodness’ sake, with Harry Reid, who had to distance himself in a tough Senate race in Nevada from the president’s own comments.

This really creates an impression of of incompetence.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, back to the the Republican view on this, that Mark and you said you disagreed with it, Mike, Michael that your former boss, George W. Bush, there has been comments, why has he not spoken out on this issue? Do you have any insight on that?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I haven’t talked to him about it.

JIM LEHRER: No. No.

MICHAEL GERSON: But he has set a policy. He doesn’t intervene on these issues, either to hurt or to help the president. He’s not part of these discussions. And he’s made a point of that.

I don’t think that’s going to change, to be honest. I mean, he views that as a matter of a principled commitment. But, you know, I think it’s clear where he was as president. You have to make a division.

I mean, it’s Islamic radicals who want it to be a civilizational conflict between Islam and the West, OK? It’s us who want it to be every faith, people, good people and people of goodwill of every faith, against a very small group of violent radicals.

MARK SHIELDS: These people, Jim, invoking invoking Islam and just ascribing the acts of al-Qaida and these terrorist to Islam, the rebuttal and the retort is just from is from American history, the Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan, as they burnt people to death, as they flogged people to death who weren’t white, native, Protestant Americans that was their sin, and particularly African-Americans they did it with a burning cross. They did it while quoting Scripture, and saying they would do it in a Christian now, I mean, do we ascribe to Christianity those crimes, that odious and pernicious behavior? No, and any more than we would 9/11 to Islam.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make about these polls, the Pew poll and there have been some others that show that roughly 18, 20 percent of the American people believe Barack Obama is a Muslim? What’s what’s behind that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, in part, you can see his declining support. I mean, there’s a rising…

JIM LEHRER: This is before, actually, the mosque thing.

MARK SHIELDS: It was.

MARK SHIELDS: … his numbers.

MARK SHIELDS: … before the mosque controversy.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But it’s all tied almost to a piece with, was he born in this country? And the best rebuttal I have ever heard on that was given by conservative Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas when he said I asked him, how do you handle that when these people come up to and say, he wasn’t born he was born in Kenya, Nigeria, Mars, wherever the hell he was born?

And he says, “I turn to them and I say, if you think he wasn’t born here, you don’t think Hillary would have found that out, you know, and used it against him in 2008?”

But there is on talk radio, that is really an alive part of making him the other, making him somebody other than an American, a socialist, you know, foreign religion, foreign-born.

JIM LEHRER: It’s just all part of a piece? Do you see it that way? It’s just…

MICHAEL GERSON: I do. I agree with that. I think that this is a reflection of polarization. It is a reflection of a conspiratorial tendency on the Internet, which is true on left and right, by the way.

MARK SHIELDS: It is.

MICHAEL GERSON: And so I you know, I think and it’s not but is not historically unprecedented. If you look back, people accused Know-Nothings accused Abraham Lincoln of being a secret Catholic, OK? People accused Franklin Roosevelt of being a Jew, OK, because with policies that he pursued.

There is a long history in America of people using these kind of attacks. But it was disturbing then and it’s disturbing now.

JIM LEHRER: But the idea that calling that saying he is a Muslim is an attack is part and parcel of this whole thing.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it puts the president in a different position. You know, to object to this makes it sound like being, you know, of this faith is somehow objectionable, which it isn’t. So, it’s he shouldn’t, I don’t think, change, you know, carry a big Bible around. That would be deeply cynical, and he’s not going to do that. The good book says, you should pray in a closet. That’s, I think, pretty good political advice.

MARK SHIELDS: It is fascinating, I mean, our attitude toward presidents and religion. You have to belong to a church, but you can’t be too religious. We were suspicious people were suspicious of President Carter because he admitted he prayed several times a day. And Governor Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, did.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: Dwight Eisenhower, until 12 months before he ran for president, didn’t belong to a church, OK? He had to join a church. He became a Presbyterian, perfectly good church. And as long as you have church membership, you are apparently acceptable in the American political body.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Mark, Michael, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.