Demos fellow Bob Herbert

The distinguished Demos fellow and former New York Times columnist shares why he’s not optimistic about President Obama’s jobs plan and explains why Black Americans are not in a recession, but in a full-blown depression.

Bob Herbert is an award-winning columnist who comments on politics, urban affairs and social trends. He recently left The New York Times to join the Demos think tank, where he will contribute to its Policy Shop blog and The American Prospect. A native of Brooklyn, Herbert has more than 40 years of reporting, broadcast and editorial experience and began his career as a reporter with The Star-Ledger in Newark, NJ. He also taught journalism at Brooklyn College and Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Promises Betrayed.


Tavis: Bob Herbert is, of course, the former op-ed columnist for “The New York Times” who now serves as a distinguished senior fellow at Demos. He is also working on the forthcoming text, “Wounded Colossus.” Can’t wait to get that one. He joins us tonight from New York. Bob Herbert, as always, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Bob Herbert: Hi, Tavis, great to be here.

Tavis: So let me start by asking whether or not this time around you are a believer, and when I say “this time around,” of course, I am referencing the fact, with all due respect, that the president has time and time and time again said, “And now we are going to focus on jobs.” So this time around, are you a believer?

Herbert: I am not optimistic, Tavis. When the president makes his address to the nation and to a joint session of Congress, I would be surprised if he proposes anything like sort of the big effort that’s needed to turn this economy around and create millions of new jobs.

Even if he did, I’d be even more surprised if the Republicans allowed that to pass. So I’m not anticipating very much.

Tavis: To your point now, then, whose fault is it? If the president can’t put something forth that you believe Republicans will support, is it the president’s fault, is it the Republicans’ fault that we don’t have a serious jobs bill in this country that can put Americans back to work?

Herbert: I’m starting to feel like I guess the majority of the public feels. You look at the leadership in Washington and it becomes a pox on both their houses. The Republicans have undoubtedly been obstructionists from the very beginning. We’ve been in this terrible economic crisis for a long time now and they have thwarted every effort by the administration to do anything substantial.

At the same time, I think the administration has not done nearly enough. This big push that the president is talking about now about jobs should have come early in his term. We had what was clearly a crisis then and we did not respond to it with the vigor that was required.

So it had always been my view that all the energy and political capital that went into the healthcare bill should in fact have gone into an effort to put Americans back to work, but that didn’t happen.

Tavis: Speaking of Republicans, what do you make of these growing numbers, at this hour, at least, growing numbers, it would appear to me, of Republicans, some of them well known, some with major committee assignments, saying publicly that they will not attend the president’s jobs speech. What do you make of that?

Herbert: Well, the political back-and-forth in Washington has gotten to absurd levels. I think it is highly disrespectful not to attend a joint session of Congress that’s being addressed by the president. At the same time, I do think that this is a largely political move on the president’s part.

So I think that what we’re seeing on both sides right now is the kickoff to the president campaign of 2012. I don’t see this as a serious effort to get the economy moving again and put millions of Americans back to work.

Tavis: Unpack that for me, then, when you say you see this, then, “this” of course being the big speech, as a political move on the president’s part. What do you mean by that, Bob?

Herbert: Well, I think the president can read the tea leaves as well as you and I and everybody else can. We have a jobs deficit here that requires millions of jobs to be created. In August, we created net zero number of jobs.

So what we need is a big effort to invest in those strategies that will in fact result in the creation of jobs. That requires the investment of a lot of money. No one is talking about that.

What they’re really talking about in Washington is austerity, which is just exactly the wrong way to go. At the same time we hear the nonsense that they need to get a handle on budget deficits, but at the same time that they’re talking about that they’re talking about cutting taxes. That’s on both sides; Republicans and Democrats are talking about cutting taxes.

So it just seems to me that day after day after day we watch what seems to me to be an exercise in absurdity in Washington. What we should be doing is investing in a tremendous amount of money right now, when interest rates are low, even though we have high deficits, in rebuilding the infrastructure – not just roads and bridges, but the dams and levees and the schools that are not in good shape, that are structurally deficient.

There’s all kinds of work that needs to be done. We need to make those investments in the short term, and then later on after Americans are being put back to work, after the economy has a strong foothold and people are paying taxes again, then pivot to reducing deficits. Otherwise, the deficit is never going to come down, and I think ultimately we’re never going to get back to what is an economy that can sustain a middle class standard of living for most Americans.

Tavis: I try not to be cynical. I think skepticism is healthy, I think cynicism is a bit much. Yet let me ask this question, because I’m just trying to figure out what the value is, what the benefit is, what the net net is for Republicans doing anything to put Americans back to work.

The bottom line is if the numbers stay where they are, as you well know, it plays to their advantage, one would theorize, when it comes to next year’s national elections, that the president has not been able to right this economy, to put Americans back to work.

That narrative is the narrative they want to run on, so what’s the impetus for them, Republicans, that is, doing anything to put Americans back to work?

Herbert: Tavis, I don’t think that’s cynicism, I think that’s realism. The Republicans are so close now, politically, to regaining the White House and recapturing control of the Senate that they can taste it.

No one can say this publicly, and they won’t even talk about it privately, but I would be extraordinarily surprised if you have a lot of big-time Republican politicians who would like to see a sudden turnaround in the economy with hundreds of thousands and ultimately millions of jobs being created so that sometime next summer the president and the Democratic Party would be getting the political benefits of this turnaround. I just don’t believe they want that to happen.

Tavis: One of the things, it seems to me at least, that the White House has been arguing for some time now, and I don’t think the campaign is dumb enough to say this explicitly; I could be wrong, maybe they will. But I’m just trying to figure out how “it could have been worse” is going to be a winning strategy.

Herbert: That’s not going to be a winning strategy. Politically, the president is in terrible trouble. I think if the election were held today he would very likely lose. But that’s not a winning strategy, and another aspect of the president’s approach that’s not a winning strategy is this obsession with bipartisanship.

He may be the only person in the country who still believes that the Republicans would in any way work with him in a constructive manner on the problems facing the country. It’s just not going to happen. Yet he still talks about doing something with the other side, reaching out to the other side to do something constructive for the American people. He is asking the –

Tavis: Is it – please, go ahead, finish. I’m sorry.

Herbert: He’s asking the Republicans to put aside politics and do what’s right for the country.

Tavis: Right.

Herbert: I just don’t believe that the Republicans or the Democrats are going to put aside politics at this point. We’re in campaign mode and the prize is the White House.

Tavis: Might the president in any way be rewarded for at least trying to reach across the aisle?

Herbert: I don’t think so. I think the polls are showing – he thought that he would be rewarded for that.

Tavis: Right.

Herbert: I think the polls are showing that that is not the case. What happens is once it’s clear that the other side is not going to cooperate, to keep beating your head against this same wall makes you look weak. So I think that the public, which the public does not believe that the Republicans are going to cooperate with President Obama, so when the president keeps going down that road I think the public perceives him as weak and ineffective, and I think that that’s a losing political strategy, ultimately, and I think the polls are bearing that out.

Tavis: You well know and we all know now that campaigning and governing are two very different things. How could this Obama team have campaigned so well and have governed so not well, if I can put it that way?

Herbert: I think there were two enormous miscalculations by the president and his team. One, I think that he honestly believed, riding that tremendous wave that swept him into the White House, that the Republicans would have no choice but to cooperate, to some extent. I think that was a miscalculation. He was wrong, and he still does not seem to have recognized the extent of that miscalculation.

Secondly, it seems to me that they misunderstood the nature of the economic crisis. We are in a profound employment crisis in this country and if we don’t get a handle on that, then nothing else is going to matter. This country doesn’t work if Americans are not working, and right now, too many millions of Americans are out of work and I think that the administration doesn’t have a clue at the moment about what to do about that.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds to go. Am I right when I say that Black unemployment specifically – too many Americans hurting in this economy, no doubt about it, but am I right when I say that Black unemployment is now a national disgrace?

Herbert: It’s a national disgrace. Blacks in the United States are not in a recession, they are in a full-blown depression.

Tavis: Bob Herbert, of course, former columnist for “The New York Times,” now a distinguished fellow at Demos, working on another text that I can’t wait to get my hands on once he finishes it. Bob Herbert, good to have you on. Thanks for sharing your insights, as always.

Herbert: Thanks so much, Tavis.

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Last modified: September 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm