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Analysts Preview State of the Union

January 31, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: President Bush delivers his state of the union address later tonight. And we’ll have analysis afterward by New York Times columnist David Brooks and columnist Tom Oliphant, and they’re with us now for some advance observations, but, before we go to that, quickly, a word about Alan Greenspan.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he’s one of the four or five people I admire most in Washington. And I’d say I admire him most in part because he is both theoretically very sophisticated and also very practical. He has practical and theoretical knowledge.

And if you go and call him up and ask him off the record about an issue like Social Security reform he will give you a very detailed, just clear and credible definition of the problem, definition of other problems, definition of competing problems so aside from his job and his power, he’s a wise person who, if you ran across him, if you called him up, he could give you something that was really authoritative. And there are so few people like that in Washington so I just admire the heck out of him.

JIM LEHRER: Tom.

TOM OLIPHANT: Me too, and I say that as a lefty. As time passes, I think people will see Alan Greenspan as one of the handful of preeminent crisis managers at the end of the 20th century not just abroad but at home as well.

And, secondly, he’s lived his public life right at that spot where ideas and politics come together and has had an influence on so many things that go far beyond monetary policy: Trade policy, Social Security, protectionism. And, as such, you think of figures in the recent or distant American past; Bernard Baruke is about as close as I can come, a colossal figure.

JIM LEHRER: It’s interesting in the discussion that Ray just had, where somebody said he had become a media figure because he’s also the one public figure who never gave an interview in 18 years.

TOM OLIPHANT: Not if your coat was on fire.

DAVID BROOKS: Even at a party he would tell you about productivity rates. And that was useful to have.

JIM LEHRER: But he never did interviews. He’d never been on television; he never did newspaper interviews or anything like that.

Okay. The state of the union, is this the important speech for the president?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s the most important thing he’ll do today. You know, as compared to the Sept. 20 speech after 9/11 or that State of the Union, no, it’s not one of the climactic moments of the Bush administration in part because there’s not a lot of money to spend but I’m interested in it for a number of reasons.

I think if there were a normal society, this would be a speech that would be relatively bipartisan. I think a lot of the ideas we’re going to hear tonight are ideas that are either lifted from Democrats or that Democrats can agree on, things like high-tech cars that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, things like training more teachers to make us more competitive in math and science.

Even on the subject of Iran, which is a subject I’m going to be closely listening, you know, what to do about Iran, that’s something that has had no clear partisan division.

So here’s a president who is down in the polls, who doesn’t have much money to spend, who doesn’t have any really super huge agenda items but who will be talking about some small, important things.

And it will be interesting to see the dynamic when he does that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, it’s going to Democratic things he’s going to talk about?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, in a couple of respects it will get to, absolutely. And I suspect that they will help his political position when he brings them up. But I think precisely the unimportance, relatively of this speech is its importance.

When you’re down and you don’t have much political capital to spend, you can’t borrow in politics; you either have it or you don’t. And so I think the first thing that we’re going to hear is that all of the things that have contributed to his problems are going to be folded in to a somewhat new and larger concept of America’s role in the world, a kind of version of Madeleine Albright’s famous phrase about the essential nature.

And rather than — this won’t be the president we’ve been hearing from in November and December, arguing the case for Iraq or saying the economy is perfect or defending the warrant-less eavesdropping. This is talking about how the war, the battle against terrorism and even the country’s economic security depends on a larger view of America’s role in the world.

It won’t help him that much but it won’t hurt him. And it’s a tone that is in keeping with the fact that the people watching tonight are not just Republicans and committed conservatives. It’s a bigger audience and the speech will reflect that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that tone and theme may be more important here than laundry lists and policy explanations and why I did this and didn’t do that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, no, I think so, and in part because there really is no money, and in some sense this is the first State of the Union of the rest our lives because the rest our lives there’s not going to be no money.

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean? Say it isn’t so, David.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s just going to be like “Ground Hog Day.” We’re going to be watching the same thing over and over again.

No, what I mean by that is we have these creeping entitlements that are just crushing everything else in the budget and making it very hard to afford big government spending programs.

Now for the past five years we’ve been ignoring that reality and running up a deficit.

JIM LEHRER: And the president and the Congress have done that hand in hand as was just explained in the discussion about Greenspan.

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly. The political pressure I think has become very strong for both sides and so the president I think is going to stress fiscal responsibility and actually practice it.

JIM LEHRER: Around the edges today, it’s leaked around that or not leaked around.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, leaked around.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Leaked around — that the president is going to try to stop or do his part at least rhetorically to stop this ugliness as apparently he says in the political climate of America today. Does he bear some responsibility for it, and is it time for him to step up to the plate?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, he won’t admit any, but I believe he does. But again I think that the concept of this speech is itself an answer. It’s an attempt really for the first time in a long time on the president’s part to speak to a larger audience of Americans.

And that is why while I agree completely with David’s point about the government is broke, its finances are essentially wrecked, there is one initiative that I’m paying a lot of attention to tonight that he — you know, one thing a president can do is steal other people ideas. That the victim of the theft is always grateful — but this initiative to put America back in to the science and mathematics business.

JIM LEHRER: That’s really a big deal, a lot of money too.

TOM OLIPHANT: A lot of it came from discussions between the Hill and the National Academy of Sciences, one of the preeminent citizens in our public square. It is very bold, what the Academy has published by way of study. There are bills in Congress supported by Democrats and Republicans with over half the members as sponsors.

The president is joining a very serious effort to try to do something about a very serious national problem. But the question that will arise next week when the budget comes out is whether his actions, even in this one case, can match his rhetoric.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you said you were very interested, David, in listening to what he has to say about Iran. Why did you say Iran rather than Iraq? That’s where he’s got a problem today.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he has the problem with the policy that’s set.

JIM LEHRER: Okay.

DAVID BROOKS: Iran, the policy is not set, and there’s been some supposition that the administration either expects Iran to get the bomb or has accepted that fact. And the question is, will he say no it’s unacceptable, or has the administration made up their mind, no, it’s unacceptable?

And if he says that in very strong terms, and I actually have heard that he will say it in pretty strong terms, then that suggests the administration is tougher than it has sometimes appeared over the past few weeks.

JIM LEHRER: But what if he says you can’t have the bomb but we will help you have nuclear power with the Russians and all that, which he’s already said?

TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed. And I think there’s a similar question about Iraq. There isn’t a partisan divide about Iran that I can discern. I think there are questions about effectiveness and tactics and strategy. And David is absolutely right to identify an uncertainty about the administration’s commitment here that the president would probably do well to clear up. That will not cause him political problem at home which is precisely why you would expect to hear him say it tonight.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think he should say about Iraq — what could he say about Iraq to help solve that problem he has?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, in the most narrow sense, nothing. But in the broader sense –

JIM LEHRER: It is what happens on the ground?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, this isn’t like when he was traveling in November defending the war. This isn’t a question of staying or leaving. There’s some questions about how committed to staying we are actually right now.

Rather, what I want to listen to is an effort to put Iraq in a larger context. And that is America’s role in the world. And, look, we’ll all argue about details of the war later and the formation of a new Iraqi government.

But from what I’ve been told, the purpose of this speech is not to rally support for the war but rather to speak about it in a bigger context.

JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you?

DAVID BROOKS: I hope he does that. That’s a tall order. I think he will do a little bragging or at least try and persuade that this is working with some concrete examples of how the training of troops is actually working and stuff like that.

I think, you know, this core mission that he’s been on for six months of being honest about what’s gone wrong but still saying we’re winning this thing, that’s got to take up a chunk tonight.

JIM LEHRER: Do you expect him to say, hey, we made a few mistakes here, a few mistakes there, but let’s look ahead? I mean, is he to that point, do you believe, that mistake-admitting is on his list?

DAVID BROOKS: Now it’s an addiction. You know, I think, you know, the best speeches he’s given exactly did that. I think when you look at the speeches he gave, they had a clear strategy, which was admit some mistakes, get some detail, and granularity and also without mentioning silly things the Democrats say citing them and rebutting them and engaging them, giving people on your own side saying we’re defending this policy; you should go out and defend it too.

It’s a little more aggressive than what Tom is saying he might do tonight.

TOM OLIPHANT: I would be surprised because I think the premium here is on not exacerbating the tensions that exist politically in Washington and in the country today but rather to lower the temperature, to give him some more time to gather his resources though in support of David’s point if you look at the membership in Mrs. Bush’s box up there in the galleries tonight, this thing is totally out of hand. There’s 20 or so people plus Mrs. Bush to be introduced. God help us.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. We will pick this conversation up later tonight on most PBS stations after the president’s speech. And also we have the Democratic response as well. Thank you all very much.