Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss with Judy Woodruff what they're looking for in President Obama's first State of the Union address of his second term, the current political and economic realities and whether State of the Union speeches really matter.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we come back to the State of the Union address, and to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
MARK SHIELDS: Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, what are you looking for from the president tonight?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, two things.
First, politically, how aggressive is it? The State of the Union -- I mean, the inaugural address was pretty aggressive a defense of government, a defense of his governing philosophy. So, it was much more aggressive than anything he had done in his first term. Is this going to be the policy codicil to that?
The second thing is economics. We know he's going to talk about the middle class a lot. What exactly is the growth agenda? And there are sort of two big problems that I think he could address. One is the way political dysfunction is dragging down growth, leading to policy uncertainty. Nobody knows how to invest. Nobody wants to grow.
The second thing is, what exactly is a growth agenda? Neither party has a very persuasive one. Say you're a 55-year-old guy in Erie, Penn. Your job has been displaced by technology. What's on offer for you?
Over the last three years, we have seen this dramatic drop in male work force participation, a lot of people going on the Social Security disability rolls. What can Obama offer you to get you back in the labor force?
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, we know he's going to talk about infrastructure, about education. What do you look for? I mean, does it matter how much he spells out the exact nature of what growth ...
MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes.
I think what David said is important. But when there are eight priorities, there's no real priority. I mean, all of these are important. But what -- I want to know whether he comes away with a sense of urgency tonight.
And, obviously, to the American voters, it's the economy and jobs. We're looking, Judy, at a -- median household income has dropped $3,469 dollars over the last decade in this country. And median income is down. And we have got a new normal of almost eight percent unemployment.
And there really is a sense of, are there any weapons left in the ordnance to attack this? And I think one thing we can be absolutely sure of is, the president will talk long.
MARK SHIELDS: I went through, and the Democrats have averaged an hour and 14 minutes, Bill Clinton, an hour and five minutes, Barack Obama.
Ronald Reagan averaged 40 minutes in his State of the Unions, and Richard Nixon averaged 35 minutes. So ...
JUDY WOODRUFF: And that counts applause?
MARK SHIELDS: That counts applause.
And I think he would endear himself to the nation if he just stood up and said, I'm going to ask you not ...
DAVID BROOKS: That should be a voting issue all by itself. Who do you vote for?
JUDY WOODRUFF: But has there been -- are you saying there's been a lack of urgency coming out of the White House on these ...
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I just -- I think there's a lot of important issues that they have emphasized, whether it's gun control or immigration or training and research.
But, I mean, what is it that comes out that the president says this is what defines my presidency? David is right. He was far more assertive in the state of the -- in his inaugural address than he was in his first term. And I guess we expect that to continue.
And is there an olive branch offered? I mean, is there a sense or is it going to be that -- Republicans have lost five of the last six elections -- the popular vote in five of the last six elections. They have lost two Senate seats. They lost the House races by 1.3 million, even though they only lost eight seats.
I mean, they're a party that -- and they feel -- the Republicans feel they get rolled on the fiscal cliff. So does the president try and pick them up and make them a partner in any way? Or does he just try to steamroll them? And I think that will be -- to me, that's what I'm looking for tonight.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. That's what I meant by him being aggressive.
It should also be said -- mark talked about the serious problems, the flat incomes, the people out of the labor force. But we're in this new budget reality, where we're probably not going to get a budget deal to reduce deficits, but Obama really can't do anything to increase deficits.
And I think we know he's going say, we're not going to increase deficits. This won't cost the American people a dime. So, how do you do big programs to attract, to address the sort of big problems without costing anything? And so doing that either suggests you're going to make some serious tradeoffs, cut somewhere else to spend here, or you're just going to do small, more or less mostly symbolic stuff.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we know the White House is already putting out some advanced text, saying that these are things -- things -- some of the things he wants to do are not going to cost the taxpayers anything.
Mark, who is the audience? Both of you have mentioned the inaugural address. Is it the same audience? We hear from the White House that the president is not just talking to the members of Congress in the chamber. He's talking to millions of Americans who have everything at stake.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, you could say to some degree the audience is the 48 percent who didn't vote for him, in the sense that what he says to them, but really true sense tonight the people who are listening are those who support, admire and identify with the president. That's the case basically with every State of the Union.
But he will be talking to the -- in that room as well, I mean, to the -- particularly to the House, where I think that's where, if there's going to be a graveyard or a launching pad for a second term, that's where it will take place.
DAVID BROOKS: I would say it's almost in his own administration.
State of the Union addresses rarely move polls. If you look at the last, say, 10 or 15, you get a two-point bump here maybe a two-point down, but nothing significant. But what you're defining for your administration is your set of priorities. What do you mention a lot? What do you give a passing reference to? What do you leave out?
And so it's more the agenda that you're telling everybody in your own team, this is what we really care about. This is how you adjudicate those disputes. What do we care about most?
JUDY WOODRUFF: How much do State of the Unions matter? Does it -- how much does it matter what the president says and how he says it?
MARK SHIELDS: When the State of the Union is tell -- I mean, President George W. Bush's State of the Union in 2002 did matter, because it was -- that was really the cusp of going to war in Iran after the attack of 9/11.
Bill Clinton's did in 1996 address when he said, prematurely and erroneously, the era of big government is over. But it indicated his whole strategy for his reelection campaign, which, quite frankly, worked.
But it's very few, Judy, that you can look back and say, boy, that was the defining moment, galvanizing instance.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. But agendas matter.
The president -- the problem the president has had for the last two years, how do you pass anything when you don't control the House? And so what agenda does he think can get through the House? And so setting the actual agenda is what matters, the speech a little less so.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we will be watching that speech, paying attention to every syllable out of the president's mouth.
We will be coming up in a few hours, both of you. Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.