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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Economy Speech, Chances for Congress Compromise

July 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Judy Woodruff about the week's top news, including whether President Barack Obama's economy remarks were substantive, if the future looks bright for collaboration in Congress and what they think of former President George H.W. Bush's new haircut.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.That was a sobering report we just saw.

But let’s turn, Mark, to what the president did this week.He’s kicking off a campaign to refocus attention on the economy, talk about how many people still don’t have jobs.Republicans immediately jumped on it, said it’s not real.How do you interpret what he’s trying to do?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I thought the president gave a very detailed and coherent analysis, diagnosis of what the problems are in the country, and in particular that income inequality and the growing inequality of the country itself, and made the argument, I thought quite well, that it’s not only bad ethics, but it’s bad economics when the middle class is buffeted and shrinking, because a growing, vibrant middle class is necessary for growing the economy of the country.

I think, on the prescription side, there wasn’t anything as fresh and new and cosmic, perhaps, as you would have hoped.But I don’t know if there is.I haven’t heard it.And certainly I have not heard it from the Republicans.But, you know, and I have to be honest.From the middle out is as uninspiring a slogan — I mean, power to the people, the people vs. privilege, common ground for common sense, there’s a lot of things — you keep the big boys honest.

But building from the middle out sounded like a personal trainer.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, the White House says he is going to keep at this message, that we’re going to hear a lot more from him about this.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, they plan eight weeks of this.

And I agree that what’s nice is they’re moving from the cyclical debate we have been having over for the past five or six years, which is stimulus vs. austerity, to a structural debate.And he’s talking about the big issues, globalization, technological change, widening inequality, all that kind of stuff.

And I’m glad we’re having that debate.I agree with Mark.The prescriptions are — they’re not bad.They’re just normal.And so they’re infrastructure spending, raising the minimum wage, improving education.That’s all worthy.They’re incommensurate with the size of the problems.

We have had decades where men are just dropping out of the labor force, widening inequality.These are gigantic problems.And where I wish he would go and what would be creative and I think take an interesting turn in the debate is to combine the economics and the social.

So say you’re a young woman, you’re working in a factory, you’re making $9 an hour, you want the job that will get you to $14 or $20 an hour.It turns out you actually need to go back to school and get some technical skills.But say you’re a single mom with a kid.You can’t do that.

And so this is the way the social and the economic interact in real lives.And if you’re that kid, your chances of dropping out of the labor force without a dad in the home are much higher.So having a debate where we talk about some of the social problems, the decline in marriage, some of the economic problems and how they interact, that seems to me where the debate is among economists and the academy.It would be great to see Obama merge those two.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are there other solutions the president should be putting out there?

MARK SHIELDS:  No, I think his solutions are all sense.

But they are — they’re not new.I mean, that’s the problem, and that gives Speaker Boehner and the others a chance to take a pot shot at it.But it is — it’s an enormous — I mean, increasing the minimum wage is good.Early childhood education.They’re all good.Job training.Those are all good ideas and I think they’re all important.

But I — I don’t think — it’s not, let’s march.And it’s tough, Judy.Let’s be very blunt about it.It’s tough for a president in this environment, 24/7, all the rest of it, for a presidential speech to break through.I mean, you know, it really is.It isn’t like when I was young or even when David was young.

MARK SHIELDS: When a president spoke, I mean, it kind of commanded the attention of the nation.And I think it’s tough to do that.

DAVID BROOKS:  I remember when I was young and George W. Bush was speaking.


MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, that’s right, as opposed to Woodrow Wilson.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it a matter of not having a solution or of not getting cooperation from the other party?Where — where is the — what’s missing?

DAVID BROOKS:  Yes.Well, I don’t blame the president for this.

If you go back to — there are moments of big economic transitions.So the progressive era in the 19th century, beginning in the 20th was a similar moment of transition.And you had this concentration of power in certain trusts and corporations.

It took the progressive movement really to come up with an intellectual solution to that, which turned into progressivism, a whole chain of legislation.We’re at similar moment with these big shifts in technology and globalization.I wouldn’t say there’s been a movement like the progressive movement which even has a solution, which has an adequate description.

And so it’s tough to ask a president and his staff to come up with that which economists and academics have not done.And part of the problem, as I tried to indicate earlier, it’s not simply an economic problem.It’s a social problem.It has to do with social structures and family structures.

So, until those answers come up from the world of ideas, it’s really hard for a president to come up with them on his own.He’s too busy.

MARK SHIELDS:  And, look, being very blunt, the other side would prefer to say more often than not, oh, it’s all a cultural problem.It’s all morality.

And it isn’t.There’s a — the median family income, household income in this country is 9 percent below what it was in 1999.And that was the highest it’s ever been.And we’re just seeing a greater concentration in the top 1 percent.This is the inequality.

But what we have learned is the top 1 percent can’t drive the economy and the national economy without a middle class that is vital and vibrant and growing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just one thing I noted.The president did take some shots at the Republicans.


JUDY WOODRUFF: He said they’re not cooperating.And I happened to be interviewing the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, this week…

MARK SHIELDS:  I saw that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … who said that he’s optimistic that the mainstream Republicans are going to start cooperating, that they’re just — they’re going to be able to work through their difficulties with the tea party.

How do you see that?

DAVID BROOKS:  Right.I wouldn’t — he was quite optimistic, and maybe that’s his job and he wants to talk himself into being — waking up in the morning and going into the Senate.

I would be moderately or a little optimistic.I do think there has been a recoil in the Senate among Senate Republicans away from what’s happening in the House and away from a little of the direction the Senate Republicans were moving in, in more of a House, more tea party direction.

I think some of the conservative Republicans who are not tea party, are not inclined to be that confrontational do want to preserve what the Senate is, which is a more bipartisan, a little more conversational body.And so I do think they are pulling back from some of the trajectory it was in.And there’s a lot more cooperation than there was probably two years ago.

The absence of people like Jim DeMint probably helps.And so I do think there’s some cause for at least a little optimism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it is different over in the House.


But it’s interesting.This week, Mark, you have the conservative — a conservative congressman, Justin Amash from Michigan, leading the charge to cut back on the NSA surveillance, the sweeping spying or collection of phone data, joined by a lot of Democrats, so that he was almost successful…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … with that amendment to…

MARK SHIELDS:  Just one P.S. on David’s thing.I’m not optimistic.

I mean, 70 percent of the Republicans in the Senate voted against the immigration plan.And David’s right that there are rumblings, but, as long as they have got the House caucus, where the speaker says he won’t bring anything out without a majority of the caucus voting for it, that means 117 Republican House members hold a veto over anything that’s going to happen.

So I think the optimism of David and Leader Reid, you know, is wonderful and admirable, but I think it may be a little unrealistic.This was a phenomenal moment.Justin Amash is considered unpopular in his own caucus.The leadership has gone after him.And here he is a 33-year-old outlier from Michigan, and he brings this up.

And who’s he stand shoulder to shoulder with?John Conyers, the octogenarian liberal Democrat from Detroit.And it not only shows the division of the House.It shows the division within the two parties, which I thought was fascinating.I thought it was a good debate.It should have been longer.

But, Judy, it’s — there’s a catch-22 at work here.And that is the president and all — everyone says, we need a debate about this NSA thing.But we can’t debate it because that would compromise our national security.

It’s a little bit like saying, you can have this job if you get some experience, but you can’t get experience unless you can get this job.And I think this was healthy.And I think it was encouraging.And I think it was an interesting debate.

Nancy Pelosi saved the White House’s bacon.She saved…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because the amendment almost — almost passed.

MARK SHIELDS:  It almost passed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was, what, 205-217.

MARK SHIELDS:  Yes, 94 Republicans.


And I sort of have some sympathy.I do think we need to re-debate what the national security state has been up to.You have got a lot of people who have no incentive to compromise in their desire to prevent another terrorist attack.And they’re willing to do incredibly silly things sometimes in order to prevent that.

And so I do think there has to be some balance.What I would like to see is a debate from the authority side.What you see is this movement on both parties and really in the culture at large, a movement toward libertarianism.And this is bred by the Internet.It’s bred by a lot of things, distrust of authority, distrust of anything that is secret, and say we distrust those guys.

And I think, if you’re fighting a war, if you’re in the world, you do need authority structures.You do need to trust people.And — but having a debate about where we should trust and where we should not trust, I give them credit for at least starting that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it says a lot about where Congress is in both political parties on this.

MARK SHIELDS:  I’m a big fan of Bob Mueller, the FBI retiring director, but you can see the loss of confidence in the FBI in the Whitey Bulger case, what we’re seeing in Boston.

The FBI was a criminal enterprise in that case.They were collaborators.So the skepticism and even the cynicism is based in fact as well.

DAVID BROOKS:  Yes, though I do think it exaggerates it.

Most federal workers are really quite impressive and are doing quite good work.And the debate that, you know, Chris Christie may have with Rand Paul, where he said, you know, there is libertarianism on the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The governor of New Jersey.

DAVID BROOKS:  The governor of New Jersey.

I want him to run against Rand Paul and have that debate.

MARK SHIELDS:  I agree, but we’re talking about secrecy here.

And I’ll tell you, secrecy is narcotic.If I — the more information I have that you don’t have, it is narcotic to the person who holds it.


MARK SHIELDS:  And that’s not liberal.That’s not conservative.That’s human nature.And that’s why there has to be a check and a debate about it.

DAVID BROOKS:  That’s true, but you can’t fight a war without secrecy.And you probably can’t do a lot of things in government without secrecy.

And the more transparency we have had, the less trust in government we have had over the last 40 years.

MARK SHIELDS:  Oh, I could not disagree with you more about the transparency and openness.

I think we don’t have it in our — the financing of our campaigns.That contributes to the paranoia and the distrust.We don’t have it where the money comes from.And — go ahead.Excuse me.


DAVID BROOKS:  Well, one quick — I have to quote my friend Bill Galston from the Brookings Institution that the government should have some secrecy for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothes.You don’t want to see all that stuff.


JUDY WOODRUFF: I don’t know what I can say after that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I do — I was going to ask you very quickly about Anthony Weiner, but we’re just not going to go there.

I’m going ask you both to comment on something really kind of wonderful.It’s a — I want to show you a picture that was released this week from Kennebunkport, Me.It’s former President George H.W. Bush, who shaved his head in solidarity with the 2-year-old son of one of the agents in his Secret Service detail.

This young man has leukemia.He’s being treated.He’s lost his hair.And we know that President and Mrs. Bush lost a 4-year-old daughter, I think, 50-some years ago.

MARK SHIELDS:  Sixty.Sixty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sixty years ago.

Look at that.I mean, what do you — there’s nothing more to say, other than that is an amazing man and an amazing picture.

MARK SHIELDS:  He’s an exceptional man.

And Tom Rosshirt, who was a speechwriter for President Clinton, made the long trip on Air Force One and interviewed the navigator across the Pacific.And he asked him — in the course of it, he said, of all the presidents, which one did you like?Oh, that’s no question, George H.W. Bush.He said, he knew every one of us.He knew our children’s names.That’s who he was.And that’s how special he is.And those are his values.

DAVID BROOKS:  Yes, he is an exceptional man.

But we always emphasize the negative in this business, but all those other people also shaved their heads.

MARK SHIELDS:  That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS:  And you go to towns, and people do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Thank you both, David and Mark.

MARK SHIELDS:  Thank you.