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Shields, Brooks on Obama’s Jobs Speech, Perry’s Debate Debut

September 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks weigh in on the week's top political news, including President Obama's $447 billion jobs plan, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry sparring over Social Security and the economy at Wednesday's GOP debate, plus the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

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

David, how does the president’s speech look to you 24 hours later?


DAVID BROOKS: Oh, anguished ambivalence, as usual.

JIM LEHRER: Anguished ambivalence? Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, it was a very good speech, very forceful. I was glad he actually had a plan. You contrast it to the last stimulus, or health care, where he let Congress do a plan. So it was leading from the front.

He also, as he says quite accurately, took ideas from the center. The payroll tax cut, all that stuff, the infrastructure spending, that is Republican and Democratic plans. There’s a Georgia Works element, where you get unemployment insurance to give people some access to the labor market. These are all very good ideas.

The third thing you have got to be aware of is, we are in serious peril of a double-dip in recession. And so all these are in favor of what he said. The doubts I have, one is, will he pay for it? And he sort of was ambiguous about how aggressive he was going to be in doing that.

JIM LEHRER: He said it was paid for.

DAVID BROOKS: He said it was paid for. He said he would announce a plan, but is he actually going to announce a plan or tell the Congress they should come up with a plan? A little ambiguity there.

And then finally, just the effectiveness of the thing. Infrastructure spending — we might be entering a double-dip in recession right now. Infrastructure spending will take a long time to get going. Payroll tax cuts. When people are nervous, they save their money. Is that really going to get spent? So I see pros and cons.

But on the whole, I think it’s a pretty good package for people in the middle and even a lot of Republicans and they should walk with the president another few steps to see if they can make it a reality.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think of the speech, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It was fascinating political theater to me, in the sense that, ordinarily, when Barack Obama has spoken to the Congress or a congressional group, he’s been cool, and the passion has been in the crowd.

And I found him to be passionate this time, and a certain coolness. I think it would have been — I thought it was a good speech. I thought it would have been a better speech if he had given it when he was at 68 percent approval, rather than 43 percent approval.

But, at the same time, I agree with David’s points, that he put the Republicans very much squarely on the defensive, because these are ideas that Republicans, a number of Republicans have not only supported in the past, but have advocated and urged upon him.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think his — his — the tone of urgency worked? Did he — did he have it? It’s always been said that he — it’s always been said that he doesn’t have that when he talks.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think there’s two questions.

One, if repetition is the first law of learning, as Susan Page told us in USA Today today, 37 times in a 34-minute speech he said jobs. So, that kind of got across as to what really was driving him. And the fact that, even though it isn’t reduced to legislative form yet, that he does have a specific plan, and not something that you folks are going to work out, I think is a real — a real plus, Jim.

The reality is — to me about it is that the electorate at large wanted him to reach out with bipartisan — non — a less partisan approach. He certainly did that. And his own base wanted him to show more passion and intensity.

JIM LEHRER: And you think he did that?

MARK SHIELDS: And he did that.

So, I think in that sense, it worked politically. The big question remains, will he follow through? I mean, remember on health care, he was going to take it to the country, go to every hamlet and convince people after the signing of the health care bill. He never did it. Other things intruded. He wasn’t just sitting there playing golf. There were other events.

But the question I think that a lot of questions the Democrats have, is he really — he did it in Richmond today, but is he going to continue on this?

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that’s important, David, that he has got — he really has to go to the country with this, or forget it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I think he went to the country on health care. I think he can go to the country.

He is facing a tough public. A lot of Americans have, A., given up on him, but a lot of Americans have given up on government. When he came into office, he said, I want to restore some faith in government. But if you look at the polling, do you trust government, it has fallen in the last two years, continuing really two decades of fall. And now it’s down to 17 percent.

So he’s facing a very skeptical public. He’s facing a public which is, to my mind, insanely skeptical about stimulus packages in general. The vast, vast, vast majority of people say the first stimulus did nothing. Now, I didn’t like that bill, but it must have done something.

JIM LEHRER: Done something, yes.


JIM LEHRER: There’s a lot of lists of things it did, but people don’t agree.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right.


DAVID BROOKS: So, there’s a lot of skepticism out there.

And I do think, again, it’s important, especially in Congress, for him to come back next week with a surprising way to pay for it. He’s going to raise taxes on the rich. That’s fine. He believes in that. But one of the things that struck me about the speech last night was the extra emphasis on the Medicare reform.

And he said, some people in my party don’t agree with that, but we have to do it. And if there’s a strong element of that, well, then that raises some eyebrows: Oh, he’s trying something new.

So, that would be very impressive.

JIM LEHRER: Back to Mark’s point about repetition, he didn’t say it 37 times, but he said, pass it, pass it, pass it. I didn’t count them.


JIM LEHRER: Sixteen?

MARK SHIELDS: Sixteen times.

JIM LEHRER: Sixteen times?

MARK SHIELDS: In one form, either pass it or you should pass it, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Are they — will they pass it?

DAVID BROOKS: They could pass part of it. As Eric Cantor said, there’s lots — if you went back to the debate, the stimulus debate the first time, when they had the first stimulus bill, there were a lot of Republicans saying this is a terrible bill. What he should do is cut the payroll tax.

Well, now that’s what is in the bill.

JIM LEHRER: He’s doing it, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: So it’s very hard to turn around and say, no, we’re not going to do that.

MARK SHIELDS: And the president does get credit for oneupsmanship, because the payroll tax will expire.

Now, Republicans have always insisted that if you let a tax cut expire, that’s a tax increase. Now, are they going to be a part of that? I thought there was one great moment in the speech when he said, the next election is 14 months away, and the people who sent us here, who hired us to work, they don’t have the luxury of waiting…

JIM LEHRER: Fourteen months.

MARK SHIELDS: … 14 months. Some of them are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck, day to day.

I thought that put a human face on the problem like had not been done in the past.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It was a very good moment. I thought that was the best moment of the speech.

But it should be said, they have these official numbers of how many jobs are going to be created, but people in the White House are pretty realistic about this. The real — I think last summer, or in the beginning of the summer, they were, OK, let’s grind this out. Let’s wait for the economy to slowly bounce back.

The news of the summer really is what created this speech, the fear that we could be in a double-dip. And so their hope — I don’t think they have extravagant hopes that we’re going to jolt the economy into prosperity. If we can stay even, given what’s happening in Europe and things like that, then that will be fine.

JIM LEHRER: The politics of it again, Mark. As we said, as Ray said in the lead-in piece, the Republican leadership was conciliatory, but the people who want to be the Republican nominee for president hammered this speech.

Why the difference?

MARK SHIELDS: Two different worlds.

The Republican House members and Eric Cantor — I had lunch with him and a bunch of other reporters, a luncheon hosted by The Christian Science Monitor on Thursday. He was sweetness and light. He was talking about common ground and finding a point of agreement, and that that was important.

Members of Congress understand, Jim, that American voters are disgusted with the Congress. They’re disgusted…

JIM LEHRER: Eighty-two percent of them are, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right — with the rancor, with the petty partisanship, and so forth.

In the past, what has been the source of consolation for individual members of Congress is voters have said, can’t stand the Congress, but old Charlie, my guy, is OK, or Sally, they’re OK. It’s the other 534 horse thieves you have got to watch out for.

Well, that’s changed. Now we have seen polls that actually show a majority of people willing to get everybody out of there.

JIM LEHRER: Including Billy Bob.



MARK SHIELDS: Evict them all.


MARK SHIELDS: And so I think that there’s that understanding that people do want a more grownup sense, a sense of working together and that perception.

The presidential candidates exist in a separate world. That’s Republican primary voters. They agree on two things. They’re against taxes and they’re against Barack Obama. And that’s what sustains them.

JIM LEHRER: You see the division the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, exactly. The presidentials are competing on who can be the most anti-Obama, which is a different thing than the House. So I agree with that.

The one — only one thing I would add is, you know, we sit here every fourth Friday and we talk about the jobs numbers for that month.


DAVID BROOKS: And the last time, it was zero. Well, what happens if next month it’s in the negatives and then the month after that? I don’t care where you are on the ideological spectrum. If we have got two negatives, people are going to want him to do something. And so they might as well be open now for that possibility.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the Republicans, the Wednesday debate, what did you think of that? And were there winners, losers? Give us your report for a second, from your perspective.


I thought it was, A., an excellent debate, one of the best debates I have seen in many cycles. I thought all these people did quite well actually pretty much. I thought Mitt Romney did the best, best I have ever seen him, very forceful, knew what he was trying to do, moments of grace, when he had a chance to attack Rick Perry and he pulled back.

And so I thought that was a sign. If I were Barack Obama looking at what Mitt Romney did, time to be nervous, if he gets the nomination. Rick Perry is still the favorite. I thought what was interesting about — revelatory of his character was, when he was on the offense attacking people, going after people, I thought he was quite strong.

When he’s on…

JIM LEHRER: You mean Perry?


JIM LEHRER: Perry, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: When he is on defense, when somebody is asking him, or when he has to show sort of conviviality, much less strong. And I was sort of shocked by the ineptitude of the answers on Social Security and global warming.

Any mediocre staff should be able to give you a decent answer for an entirely predictable question. So, I thought he showed great strengths and also some pretty good weaknesses.

JIM LEHRER: What about Perry? What’s your opinion on Perry?

MARK SHIELDS: I defend — I defend staff. I’m sure that he was given answers that would pass David’s test or anybody else’s. That was the candidate’s decision. He wasn’t going to retreat.

He wasn’t going to — “No excuses, no retreat, no surrender.”

JIM LEHRER: That’s the way he’s going to run right?

MARK SHIELDS: “That’s in the book. That’s what I wrote.”

And I think that Rick Perry did meet the question about doubts whether he could deal in this kind of a national setting. I think he showed himself to be at ease, comfortable with himself, comfortable with the setting. I think that the problem for him is that he raised questions about his electability with the answers on Social Security and global warming that is — Republicans have to understand, Jim, have dealt with Social Security — IN 1964, Barry Goldwater made that an issue, and he got crushed by Lyndon Johnson.

But, more recently, in 2005, George W. Bush in his second term raised the question of privatization, of private accounts even, not even privatization, private accounts for Social Security. That contributed in the eyes of many Republicans to their losing the Congress in 2006.

I thought Mitt Romney was the best platform performance of his entire career. He showed himself to be able to take an elbow and to throw an elbow on the jobs question about Texas and Massachusetts. And I thought his defense of Social Security said: I’m the electable Republican. I’m the guy you want to go with.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, what are your thoughts about 9/11 10 years later?


DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, everyone has talked about the scars, the wars, the cost in life, and blood and the de-morale — low morale and the low position, America’s standing in the world. And so that’s pretty obvious.

I would just emphasize some of the positive things that have happened since 9/11 because of U.S. actions. Saddam is out. Gadhafi is out, not all because of U.S. actions. Taliban is out. Mubarak is out. There has been a change in the world. Al-Qaida has been destroyed. We haven’t been attacked again. And so I would say it’s at least a mixed blessing and that, after 9/11, the Middle East is in a period of turmoil, could turn out bad, could turn out good.

But given that that part of the world was in a decline, cultural, economic and political, the fact that there’s turmoil is potential good news. So, there is an upside to all the things that have happened since 9/11.


MARK SHIELDS: I disagree.

I think that to use 9/11 as a justification for going to war against Saddam Hussein is indefensible. It was indefensible then is indefensible against — war on Iraq and a war of occupation. The United States now has two wars of occupation 10 years later.

I think Afghanistan, you could certainly make the case, after the attack of 9/11, that that was necessary and required. There was a sense of national unity and solidarity and compassion that existed in this country after 9/11, which is gone. It’s no longer, no longer with us.

The United States’ standing in the world, that sense of solidarity with the United States and support for the United States after the terrible events of 9/11 has been allowed to go away. I agree with David about the Arab spring. And I think it is encouraging, and I — but I don’t think that going to Iraq is an instrument of it.

JIM LEHRER: Well, on that note of disagreement, thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.