Brooks and Capehart on Democrats’ legislative setbacks, Biden’s pandemic response

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join Amna Nawaz to discuss the week in politics, including President Biden's handling of the omicron variant, and how to find hope during this holiday season.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And now to the analysis of Brooks and Capehart. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks, and Jonathan Capehart, columnist for The Washington Post.

    Welcome to you both. Good to see you this Christmas Eve.

    Gentlemen, I don't need to tell you Omicron is now the dominant strain in the U.S. It is spreading like wildfire. We know the president has been facing some touch questions about why the U.S. wasn't better prepared.

    I want to play for you just a quick sound bite. Here is how the president answered that question in an interview earlier this week. And then followed by that is how the CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, answered the question when asked by Judy Woodruff that same day. Take a listen.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: I don't think anybody anticipated that this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director:

    We have been working hard as we anticipated this, because we knew Omicron had this capacity to increase at this rate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, does it seem to you like the administration was caught flat-footed on this?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, judging by those two clips that you showed it, there seems to be, at a minimum, a disconnect when it comes to the messaging and who knew what when.

    But, look, I mean, we were all taken by surprise by how quickly Omicron came on the scene. It came on so quickly that a lot of us, myself included, were mispronouncing it.

    We were living through Delta and the highly transmissible nature of Delta of the Delta variant, when, suddenly, along comes Omicron. And it's even more virulent, more contagious than Delta, and swamping caseloads and things like that in ways that I think regular folks didn't anticipate, and, clearly, at least listening to the president, he didn't anticipate.

    But Dr. Rochelle Walensky says that they did. Look, the thing that the administration has to get a handle on is making sure that, one, that they can keep — keep things open as much as possible without resorting to shutting things down, especially schools.

    But, also, I think we all should pay attention to the fact that, yes, while cases of COVID are spiking beyond what we have seen in this pandemic so far, hospitalizations and deaths are not — are not spiking at similar levels.

    And that is because, yes, we're seeing a lot of breakthrough infections among people who are vaccinated and boosted, but what we're learning is, those vaccinations are keeping the symptoms — quote, unquote — "mild," keeping people out of the hospital and keeping people from dying, which means that it is imperative that anyone who has not been vaccinated, not been boosted do so sooner, rather than later.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, David, let's just quickly catch people up on what the administration has done since this surge of Omicron cases.

    They have announced more emergency medical staff, federal testing sites, 500 million tests they will be purchasing and will distribute to Americans free on request via a Web site. But what do you make of how the White House has been handling their messaging, at least, in response to this?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think it's a much bigger problem than a messaging problem. It is too little too late.

    There was an interesting reporting in "Vanity Fair" magazine that, in October, a group of scientists came to the White House with a 10-page plan to get 730 million tests to Americans, families, hopefully by the holiday season, by right now. And the White House didn't pursue that.

    And, according to the article and other articles on the phenomenon, a lot of scientists think they were too vaccine-heavy, they just wanted to focus on vaccines. They thought vaccines were the best way to do it. And they neglected a lot of the other tools we need.

    And, in one theory, they decided, if we let people have a lot of tests, they will try to test their way through the crisis without relying on the vaccines. I'd love to see any social science evidence that supports people really are — were thinking that way.

    But I do think it's fair to say that it's just hard to think as big as this problem is. And, at times, the administration has thought this big, but according to a lot of experts, at times, they have been thinking too small and too slow. And so we sort of missed a couple months where we could have been, in theory, ramping up testing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, there is this point I want to raise too about this free tests. I mean, people will remember an NPR reporter, Mara Liasson, brought up in the White House Briefing Room, why don't we just send free tests to Americans?

    And that idea was kind of dismissed by the White House press secretary at the time. That was just a couple of weeks ago. Here they are doing exactly that. What does that tell you about the conversations inside the White House on this?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, I mean, it says probably that they're trying to think as expansively and more imaginatively, as David just pointed out, than they were in the past.

    The other thing to point out is that even though the president said, yes, he wants to get out 500 million — 500 million tests, from the reporting, the contracts to do that have not even been signed yet and might not be signed until, at the earliest, next month, even though that's next week. Still, if you're going to announce 500 million new tests, I think people think, oh, I will be able to get those tests now.

    And so, to David's point, the administration has to think expansively and imaginatively all the time from this point going forward, because who knows what the next — what the next variant will be, how transmissible, more transmissible than Omicron it will be, or even what its name will be.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, David, let's talk about the economy too, because they are touting the successes, the recovery over this past year, six million jobs back, unemployment at 4.2 percent.

    And yet the president did make the decision, a crucial decision, to extend that freeze on student loan payments. They're working also to try to see if they can extend those child tax credits in some form. What does that say to you about how they're viewing where we are in the pandemic and the economic recovery?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, they put their pedal to the metal. I give them credit for that.

    They have really created this turbocharged economy, which has its good sides, incredible job growth. It has its bad sides, the inflation. But I think that right to try to be aggressive on this and keep things going.

    I think they're very much right to try to keep the child tax credit going. This is going to be a whole lot of money out of people's pockets when it expires in just a short time.

    And the White House has not given up on Build Back Better. The — Joe Manchin really took a knife to it on Sunday when announcing on FOX News that he was a no-vote. But I have been speaking to people in the White House. They have far from given up hope. And one of the ways I think they can do this is to start with something like the child tax credit.

    It's the G.I. Bill for babies. It would have a phenomenal effect over decades, investing in children, giving them homes that are more secure. They will do better in school. They will have better lives. And if they can just take Build Back Better and pick one or two policies, like the child tax credit, and then really fund them fully for 10 years, that will not only be a short-term boost to the families who are relying on the money. It'll be a long-term boost for America.

    And I think the White House accurately thinks this is not over, that, if Joe Manchin allows $1.8 trillion, that's a lot of money to do a lot of good with.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, where do you think that big agenda, the Build Back Better plan, goes from here? Does it move forward in one big plan, or, as David is suggesting, do they break off parts of it and move forward with what they can?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I think that's where we're headed, from the reporting that I have done, that there is in sort of a legislative window, meaning there's the framework that Senator Manchin agreed to with the president, and then there's the Build Back Better bill that he, as I think either David — I think David just said that Senator Manchin stuck a knife in.

    Within — in between those two areas is enough negotiating room that, if calmer and cooler heads prevail, that Democrats and the president and Senators Manchin and Sinema can agree on a package that can get through the Senate, get through the House, and get on the president's desk for his signature.

    Not everything is going to get into this, whatever this new piece of legislation is. But whatever does get in it is going to be a huge success for the Democrats, for the president, and then, ultimately, because this is what the legislation is for, for the country.

    And I know there are going to be people out there who will be bent out of shape because their priority might not make it into that bill. But welcome to governing, and that there's another bite at the apple. And stop thinking about 2022 and what's possibly going to happen with legislative majorities and just go for the win, because whatever that win is, is going to be good for — good for the party and good for the country ultimately.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're going to be following the movements on any of those plans, of course, in the days and weeks ahead.

    Before I let both of you go, we are speaking on Christmas Eve. It is not the holiday I think, most of us expected or needed or wanted. But I would like to ask both of you just sort of how you're reflecting on this holiday season right now.

    David, I recall, a year ago exactly, we sat here, and you said you missed Christmas parties. It surprised you, but you missed them. And the quietude was bothering you at that time.

    Where are you a year later? How are you reflecting on this moment?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I didn't think I'd be talking to you through a Zoom camera again.

    I feel like I got in the DeLorean and I'm back in 2020.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    It's been a tough year. And I found it an exhausting year. 2020 we had the big climactic events. This has been a year, at least for me and I think for many people, without shape.

    My memory of what happened this year is very foggy. Long periods have passed. Long periods were a daily trudge. We were almost in the process of getting out of this. And then — so we were waiting to go out, waiting to unmask. And the waiting and waiting and waiting, we never stopped waiting. We're still waiting.

    And so I found this an oddly hard year, just a shapeless year. But it is Christmas Eve. And it's not a night to be unhopeful.

    Christians all around the world are celebrating the fact that people thought that, when the messiah was going to come, it was going to be with trumpets, it would be in the capital city of some great empire. But it was a little baby in a manger with cow dung all around it. It came unexpectedly and at the bottom. And world history was changed by that.

    So, on Christmas Eve, we should be thinking about the unexpected hopes that are fertilizing everywhere on Earth, and the possibility of redemption, the possibility that all will be well. And so, to me, this is a night of exhaustion reflecting back on this year, but not a night of homelessness.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, what about you? How are you reflecting on this holiday season?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, I think David put his thumb on it when he described 2021 as sort of shapeless.

    It started with excitement, because the new president was about to be inaugurated, but six days in, an insurrection that shook our democracy. And with each passing day, at the end of this year, we're finding out just how close we came to losing it all, losing our American democracy.

    But going into 2022, as shapeless as this year has been, as, in some ways, almost hopeless that this year has been, I am optimistic. I'm constitutionally an optimist. And I view New Year's and Christmastime as a time of reflection, but also a time of a recommitment to trying to right the wrongs of the past, and try to do things in ways that move me forward, move my family forward.

    But, also, I think, collectively, move our country forward. We are in a much better place today. Even though it's been a shapeless year, we are in a much better place today, December 24, 2021, than we were December 24, 2020, because of a new administration, because of vaccines, and because of the promise of what those two things mean for us going forward.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will take that little bit of optimism tonight from both of you.

    Jonathan Capehart, David Brooks, merry Christmas to you both. Thank you so much for being here.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Merry Christmas.

  • David Brooks:

    Thanks, Amna.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thanks, Amna.

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