TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on ‘High Bar’ for Obama’s Jobs Speech, Funding Disaster Relief

September 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks weigh in on the week's top political news, including the bleak August jobs report, what President Obama needs to say in his prime-time speech on job creation and who should foot the bill for relief efforts after disasters such as Hurricane Irene.
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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, jobs, unemployment remains the problem of this country, particularly for people who govern it, right? I mean, it just goes on and on and on.

MARK SHIELDS: It does, Jim. And it gets worse.

We heard Ray with Mark Zandi. Mark Zandi is perhaps the most optimistic of all economists. And he acknowledged…

JIM LEHRER: He could barely find anything optimistic.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. He can always find, you know, some brightness in the — however bleak.

But I was looking. It’s 6.9 million fewer jobs today than there were in December 2007 in this country. And that’s — and we only had 58,000 average a month come into the work force, which means people just aren’t going to stop looking.

We usually — by just growth, we put another 100,000 people into the work force. So it’s just — it’s — across the board, there’s no bright spots.

JIM LEHRER: And, you know, David, here again, to pick up on what Mark Zandi said, that the key to this is confidence, that people just don’t want to — they’re worried. They’re scared.

And he cited, again, what has happened in Washington as one of the reasons that people who have the money, in other words, these companies who are making all this money and aren’t hiring anybody, is they just don’t trust what is going on in Washington.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s part of it.

I think the underlying thing was described by economists Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart years ago, which is when you have a financial bubble, and — which leads to a recession, it’s different from a normal recession. And if you look back at financial-led recessions, it takes a long time, seven years or so, to get back.

And in some sense, the stagnation we have seen ever since is par for the course for this kind of recession. But that doesn’t mean it’s not having big effects. And that doesn’t mean it’s not highlighting some underlying problems. And I think, as this thing drags on and on, a lot of people, like in Paul’s report today, are saying, well, aside from the cyclical, what is structurally wrong?

And we have had an economy that has been too consumption, too little production, too much debt, too much relying on household income, too many resources and talent going to Wall Street. We have some serious structural problems, wage stagnation, inequality, which have not been addressed.

And I think, the longer this goes on, the more politicians, both of the right- and left-wing variety, are going to say, we have got to look at the underlying problems here, not just what are we going to do next quarter to boost job growth.

JIM LEHRER: And it has been dumped on the political system, has it not, to fix this?

MARK SHIELDS: It has, Jim, at a time when confidence in the political system has plummeted to a new low. Right now, according to an analysis compiled by Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, but with no partisan tilt to it at all, shows that — quoting the Washington Post survey, that three out of four people have little or no confidence that Washington can do anything to fix the economy.

So there — that is — as the president approaches the nation next Thursday night, he is talking to an audience that is distrustful, mistrustful, skeptical, in some cases, almost cynical.

JIM LEHRER: Well, but he — what do you — what should be the expectations about what the president’s going to say next Thursday night?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the…

JIM LEHRER: What are yours?

MARK SHIELDS: I think what the president has to do is — I can tell you what the product of that event and that evening has to be.

People have to come out — if there is a point at which Barack Obama has lost support and lost confidence, it is a sense among many of his own followers they don’t know what he really would fight for. What is that point at which he will go into the foxhole and say, beyond this point, nothing?

I mean, there was a sense that, on the debt ceiling, there was never — that wasn’t clear. On the health care plan, there was never that clear sense of exactly where he stood, what his final principles were. We knew a general outline, but it was let the legislative process work itself.

We’re far beyond the legislative process working itself. He better come out of that speech next Thursday night with a sense on people’s part who have heard it that, OK, I understand what has to be done. The president has convinced me of that, that we need to do it, and that I am — I have a role in supporting him to do that. I mean — and that is necessary with those, and there better not be more than three point to it as to what has to be done.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? That is a high bar, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, that is a high bar. And he hasn’t done that since.

But he hasn’t really set out an agenda, what is the country going to look like in 2020? Here’s what I’m shooting for. And I don’t think he’s done that. All of his speeches — he has had many domestic policy speeches. It’s been about a specific piece of legislation or it’s been as part of a negotiating process, and not really the big picture.

And so what one expects from this speech is a series of modest job-producing things for the next quarter, maybe some infrastructure spending, maybe the payroll tax reduction, maybe some more green energy talk. But I don’t think particularly that familiar stuff is going to influence and impress the American people.

I really would go down to the fundamentals, like I said before, and say, we have got some fundamental problems. Here’s what government should do which are sort of Republican ideas, maybe some clean tax reform, maybe lower the corporate tax rates. Here is what government should do some Democratic ideas, spend more on human capital, invest on technology, and stuff like that. Mix it all up. And I don’t think that’s alien to what he stands for, but he really hasn’t laid it out in any big, comprehensive form.

JIM LEHRER: Do you expect him to do that?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I don’t. I don’t.

I think they will go for — and I think they are so focused, as any administration is at this point in its term, on just trying to boost jobs by Election Day. And so I think they will focus on these smaller things.

JIM LEHRER: But why — if it’s such a big deal, such a major, major thing in this country, and he acknowledges it and the whole country acknowledges it, and he’s going to a joint — appear before a joint session of Congress, why do — do what you say he’s going to do?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, people in their third year in office are exhausted. They are really only looking to the short term.

Second, to do a big program that looks at some of the economic fundamentals, you have to mess up your base. For a Democrat, they would have to say probably some corporate tax reduction, along with some Democratic-friendly things. For a Republican, also, there — to fix really the deep structural problems, you have to do things from each party’s column. And that’s hard to do if you really want to mobilize your base.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree.

I think it has to be a “holy cow” moment.

I think I — I agree with David on the small things, I mean, that you are going to do the unemployment extension; you’re going to do the payroll tax extension. There will be those. And there may be some other fiddling.

But I think there has to be something big that is different. It can’t be the cats and dogs we have heard before. I mean, once he starts talking about green jobs, there is just going to be eyes rolling and people are going to be saying, is there arena football on the other channel?

I mean, it’s got to be something, whether it’s FAST, which is the proposal to fix the schools in America. It’s got to be labor-intensive.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: It cannot be capital-intensive. It’s can’t be machine-intensive. It’s got to be jobs for people.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s say he did that. Let’s say he did exactly what you think he should do. Would that be well-received by the Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, given what we have right now, I mean, we saw a hemorrhaging of support in this country for the president in the month of August and the Republicans, Republicans even worse — small consolation, cold consolation for the Democrats — because of the way the debt ceiling was handled.

It wasn’t only the product that came out that dissatisfied people. It was a sense of disgust…

JIM LEHRER: The way it…

MARK SHIELDS: … the way it was done.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And so I think, Jim, right now, that there — and, now, that has been compounded, if anything, or at least complicated, by the way the speech was scheduled…

JIM LEHRER: Yes. I was going to ask you about that.

MARK SHIELDS: … the back-and-forth on that, kind of a clever gotcha in the White House. Hey, we will do it on the 7th, because that’s the night that they are going to be debating at the Reagan Library, the Republican candidates, and we will step on their story, thinks somebody.

And, you know, it was just for whatever reason. And then John Boehner, having been presented with this opportunity where he could look big, if anything, starts to — the amazing shrinking man, becomes the first speaker of the House to deny a request to speak. So they both come out looking smaller as a result of that back-and-forth.

JIM LEHRER: You see it the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree. If we were going out to lunch, I would call you up and say, what day is good, and then we would juggle dates and we would find a date.

JIM LEHRER: Isn’t that how they have always done it? Isn’t that how…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. But I’m sure — you know, again, people are really angry.

And so the Democrats saw a chance to step all over the debate. And the Republicans saw a chance to step all over the Democrats. So they took their chances. But everyone else thinks, what are you doing? What are you doing?

JIM LEHRER: Because — I have read a lot about this. We all have, that there’s been — there’s no precedent for, first of all, a president calling a joint session of Congress without talking to the people who run the Congress whether or not — what the date, let’s do this and this.

And, apparently, the White House, the Obama White House, didn’t do that. Is that right? Is that…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s very hard to parse. People have different claims, but that seems to be the essential truth.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. They say that they did. They say that they did talk to the speaker’s office and there was an agreement.

But then the speaker said, well, there wasn’t a specific date. So, it was general agreement, but not a specific arrangement, it seems to be. But you’re right. It was a — the product, the net product for people was to say, my God, almighty, they’re the Bickersons. They’re the — it is like that couple you don’t want to be around, you know, where constantly: Did you see what he did? You know, isn’t she terrible?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And for the White House, they have to understand how bad this month has been. This period has really been bad.

Mark mentioned the faith in government. And Obama wanted to restore faith in government. Now we are again at historic lows. And then Obama’s ratings himself have plummeted, dropped significantly this past month, and part of just the whole atmosphere.

So Americans are just not going to tune in that much until Election Day. And he’s got a few moments to make people to say, oh, that’s different. And I know they are looking for that moment. This may be that moment. Even this will be tough. He doesn’t have much time. He’s got between 8:00 and the time the football game starts.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: He’s going to do it at 7:00.

DAVID BROOKS: Seven o’clock, OK.

JIM LEHRER: He’s going to do it at 7:00.

Do you agree with Mark that both sides look terrible on this, these — this was a terrible thing for the way the White House did it, as also that Boehner, also violating precedent the way he did, he looked smaller as well?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, people will just say, as they have said in the debt ceiling debate, as they have said a zillion times, those people in Washington don’t play by the normal rules we play by.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

Well, another thing, of course, that came up this — recently was Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, raised the issue about set-asides, which — on hurricane relief, disaster relief, that if you are going to — we’re going to give money to the victims of hurricanes, well, we have got to find — we have got to cut the budget somewhere else in order to give them the money.

And he has brought a lot of people down on him about it. What do you think about that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s a new position for Eric Cantor, because in 2004, when Tropical Storm — Hurricane-turned-Tropical Storm Gaston hit central Virginia and dumped 12 inches of rain in 10 hours, the first person to request disaster relief was Congressman Eric Cantor for his — they came up with $20 million.

And when Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a Republican member, said, no, no, we have got to do this, we have got to have set-asides for this, Eric Cantor was one of 127 Republicans in the House who voted against Jeb Hensarling. He said, no, no, time of emergency, you have to come up with it.

Yes, he’s right in the abstract that…

JIM LEHRER: You have got to pay for everything.

MARK SHIELDS: You have got to pay for everything.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But, you know, we have wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have gone unpaid for. We have all sorts of tax deals for the very best-off in the country that have gone unpaid for and are off budget.

Why start with the people — with people who are knocked out of their homes in Connecticut, in New Jersey and Vermont? I guess because they’re blue states.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: They should put a poster up in Congress to show the difference between a million, a billion and a trillion. Our problems are in trillions. And to argue about millions, it is pointless.

So it is a problem of scale here. We do this all the time. We think, oh, we will cut pay for congressmen, and we will solve the budget deficit. We will cut pay for foreign aid, and we will solve the budget deficit. No, that’s trillions. These are millions. It doesn’t really matter.

So it is senseless to fight about the things which are legitimate government spending on storm — on storm reparations, and when the real problems are in the trillions.

MARK SHIELDS: David’s right. And it was something we did very well, the government did very — at every level. The states did it well. Locals did it well, and the feds did it well on this storm.

JIM LEHRER: And nobody questions their responsibility to do it, right, right?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: No.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, OK. Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Ron Paul does.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.