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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s 2015 State of the Union

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff to analyze President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, including his agenda of middle class-friendly economic policies. Then political director Domenico Montanaro offers a breakdown of some of the most commonly used words in the speech.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    And that concludes the president's sixth State of the Union speech.

    By our total, it runs about exactly one hour, in which he talked about seeing a breakthrough year for America, and seems to be taking on a victory lap this last of his — well, next-to-last State of the Union speech.

    I'm joined here with Judy Woodruff, Mark Shields, David Brooks.

    And we're all going to talk about what we thought we saw in that speech tonight.

    David?

  • DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times:

    I actually thought it's one of the better State of the Union speeches I have heard in a while.

    I thought it was a nice mix of rhetoric and some policy. It had some uplift, certainly aggressively uplifting. I wonder if he can get away with that. Sixty percent — 60 percent of the country still think the country is on the wrong track. He was pretty celebratory, a little off-kilter, I think, with the mood, though interesting that he got so aggressive. It's a legacy pitch.

    But then the middle-class economics, it's a — he had a three-part vision, giving people security, competitiveness and skills, and I thought just interesting throughout how he praised policies. So he is more liberal than I certainly thought in 2008. It was a very liberal speech, but just as a speech, I thought it was pretty very well-crafted.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mark, what did you hear?

  • MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:

    I heard a stronger speech at the beginning, I thought, than it was at the end. And I thought he really exploited the advantage he has.

    I didn't think it was a victory lap, as much as it was a victory stroll. And he is playing to his strengths right now. The Republicans are enormously divided. You have got what — Mitch McConnell taking credit for the economy, and John Boehner saying the economy is in worse shape than it was.

    They don't know — Reince Priebus, the Republican national chairman, today said the economy — the economy is a calamity. And the president is — has numbers in his favor. He has got facts in his support. And I thought that part of the speech, where he built on that and that record, was the strongest part of it.

    I thought, when he got a little self-referential at the end, quoting himself, I think that's always dangerous to do in a speech.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, he kind of began and ended that way. He talked about this being the anniversary of his announcement on the steps of the statehouse in Illinois. And he kept talking about how we are more than a pipeline.

    It felt like he was purposely, I don't know, David, reach — Mark…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    The inauguration — it was the inauguration of his presidency.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That was…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That's right. You got that right.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    That's right, six years ago. That's right. Yes.

    I thought that was interesting. That was a factoid that I — as soon as he said it, I said, oh, yes, that's right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    That was — I didn't think that was — but I just — I thought the speech was stronger — and you can see the fight inside the administration as to what you go with.

    At the end, they got a little bit of a laundry list of items.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And — but he was obviously — on the middle-class economics, especially child care and family care and — I thought he was — I thought he was quite strong and quite emphatic and quite persuasive.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And really didn't spend very much time on foreign policy. They had said it would be a third of the speech. I think — I don't know that it was that much.

    But I guess my question is, was it too idealistic at the end, where he was — he was saying, we're better than this, we're the United States of America, we need to work together? Does he run the risk of sounding naive, David?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I, frankly, think he hadn't earned that. I think you got to earn that with your conduct. And he hasn't been as bipartisan as I think he should have been, not that the Republicans have either. They have probably been worse.

    But you got to earn it. And I think you see the evolution of the man who came in, I think, believing that, but very quickly things got very bipartisan. And his competitive nature — he's an extremely competitive man — has been aroused.

    And so we saw it most in that ad hoc comment, when some Republicans applauded when he said, "I will not run again" — I forgot the exact words, but it was something like, I beat you twice.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes. I won twice. I won twice.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I won twice.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    And so that's in him.

    And that part of him, that hyper-competitiveness, has been growing and growing week by week, year by year. And it's — and it frames this speech as well, because this was a speech — this was an in-your-face speech to Republicans. And we saw how miserable John Boehner looked sitting back there.

    This was not a conciliatory speech. And it's amazing, and amazing that the guy just got crushed in an election and he comes out very strong, very assertive. The growing economy helps. But you wouldn't know he just got crushed in an election just a couple of months…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How did the part — he did devote a big chunk of the speech to talking about what he called middle-class economics, started off saying, we — the shadow of crisis has passed and then moving on to talk about, here's what we can do next.

    Did that strike you as at all effective, Mark?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Oh, I thought that was the most effective part of it. I really did.

    And I was struck by the rather tepid response to some things, when he sort of got in — obviously, on Iran, there was minimal — when he said he threatened to veto any sanctions the Congress passed. And climate change, I thought he didn't get the kind of enthusiastic response I thought. And maybe, at that point, we were just at 45 minutes in.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And he's been asking for an authorization to use force.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Authorization to use force, specifically, that was — boy, it was…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Very light — there was very light applause at that time.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Less than minimal enthusiasm for that.

    And the trade deals, look, I'm first to admit the trade deals haven't always lived up to their hype. That was a little bit defensive to — as far as Democrats are concerned, who believe that, and most Americans believe that trade deals have led to jobs being shipped overseas and lower wages.

    So, I think, and closing the loopholes as well — there was no mention of a gas tax on the infrastructure. That was the one issue kind of skirted. I mean, if we're build all these bridges and roads, improving and become competitive, there has got to be revenue to do it with.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, there were no dollar signs attached to anything tonight.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes.

    Now, there's…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Maybe this is not the speech for that.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, we thought there would be a little bit more, actually, because he has floated a lot of these ideas, the child care, the community college piece, and thought — we thought, tonight, we were going to get a little sense of how they were going to get paid for.

    Maybe there will be fact sheets handed out later in the night, but not much of that. I thought the domestic policy part was strong thematically. And I liked how they organized it in these three baskets of security, skills and competitiveness.

    But it was very European. You know, a lot of the things he said, other countries have this, they have sick leave, they have child care, they have free education, free that. There was a lot of free. And there are tradeoffs obviously involved in that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is European code for what?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    It's code for European.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Social policy.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Come on, David.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I don't think there's a code for that. But…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But was he right?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Was — go ahead. Finish your point.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, I just want to make the point there are always tradeoffs.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    It's…

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    And so we do not have a 50 percent youth unemployment rate for a reason, and because it's cheaper to create jobs.

    And so I'm not saying — there are good policies and bad policies. A lot of the things — I agree with the child care policies, but there are tradeoffs.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But the premise of this was, he started out saying, we have turned the page, and talked about, this has been a breakthrough year.

    Was he entitled to say that, Mark?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Absolutely.

    And when you get Bill McInturff, Republican pollster, leading Republican pollster, who with Peter Hart does the Wall Street Journal/NBC polls, saying, this is a bust-out from the recession, these numbers, there's no question that the American people — twice as many think we will better off today than we were — than we — than about a year ago, one year from now.

    In other words, the optimism going forward is there. It's based upon reality that people are…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, their view is that the deficit has come down. I don't think he mentioned the deficit in the speech. If he did, I didn't hear it.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I think the turn the page is a little overdrawn. I mean, it's still true middle-class wages haven't increased in X-number of years. The fiscal situation is still unsustainable, though the year-to-year deficit has certainly come down quite a lot.

    But so I wouldn't say we — he wanted to say, we have had like nine years of crisis and we have busted out of it. I think that is a little overdrawn. But it's certainly true the economy is…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I wonder about the tone.

    Here we have a president who is entering the twilight of his presidency, no matter how you put it, and he came across — at least he seemed to strive to come across as awfully confident at this particular moment in time, when there's no guarantee that almost anything he proposed can pass Congress.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    No.

    I thought he was energized and engaged. And this is a man who was sidelined by his own party during 2014.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And he has come off the sidelines. He is very much in the game, and he wants the ball. And I — that was very much present.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    That's why I think the contrast with the election defeat is so striking.

    And I don't know. I think it's in his competitive nature, but also it's strategy, and actually probably a pretty good one, because you make your own momentum. And he has made a lot of momentum in the last…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And I don't think he would agree this is the twilight of his presidency. I think he would argue, I have still got some daylight left here.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The president is making his way slowly, but surely, out of the room, signing autographs for mostly Democratic members of Congress, as he makes his way out.

    And I wonder, as we watch him go out, do you think he did what he needed to — what he set out to accomplish tonight, David?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes, I do.

    I — the speech far surpassed my expectations. I think the formulations were good. The policies were presented in a clever way. Even for a trade deal, he phrased it in the most nationalistic way possible. And some of the child care, some of the sick leave — it's about earning sick leave. He attached it to American values.

    So I thought this was — it was not — if you're into this sort of thing, this was an interesting speech.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mark.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Mitt Romney promised during the campaign that, in four years, he and Paul Ryan would cut unemployment in the United States to under 6 percent.

    In less than two years, it's at 5.6 percent. And I think this — we saw this in the president's manner and his bearing. I think the — he united the Democrats tonight to a great degree, who — the sum of whom were — really had misgivings about the losses of the party and his role in that.

    But I'm not sure that there was any bipartisan consensus…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, did you see the look on Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's face when he saw…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Is he signing this man's tie? He sure is.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    He is signing a tie.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I guess that happens every once in a while.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, as he leaves the hall.

    But I was — just wanted to talk briefly about Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He seemed to be not that thrilled by these ideas, right?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes. No, he — he would definitely oppose them.

    So, the one thing that Obama said — there are a couple of things he said, but hasn't acted on. And the one thing that Ryan is very engaged by is tax reform. And he had a paragraph there on tax reform. But he has had that paragraph in probably every single State of the Union, and there never actually is a proposal to follow it up.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    They kind of all agree that taxes should be reformed, but how one does it…

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Right. So, I — right.

    But they have the basic same approach. Everybody knows the same formula. It's lower the rates and close loopholes. I actually thought that's the sort of thing you lead with, because that's where you actually can get some — at least the shadow of bipartisan agreement.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    All right, Mark and David, you are going to stay here.

    But, right now, we're going to bring in our director, Domenico Montanaro. He's been here in the studio listening to all this along with us.

    He and his team have been crunching some numbers tonight.

    So, Domenico, what were you watching for tonight?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, we know that President Obama in all of these past State of the Unions has been big on talking about jobs, the economy, work.

    Tonight, again, jobs was a big, big number, 28 times that he mentioned it, the economy 32, work 57 times. And, Judy, he did mention debt and deficit five times, just a — took a quick count there at the end as you were mentioning that.

    And, as you can see, these are all of President Obama's words clustered together from 2009 until 2014, last time around. You can see economy, jobs and work really stand out. And that's a big difference from President George W. Bush, who, in his speeches, you see much more foreign policy dominating, where you have terror, Iraq, terrorists, must, fight, weapons. All those stand out much more in that cluster.

    Now, when you look at President Clinton, before them, you know, people, work, children, new, all of those really stood out. That was in a peacetime, when President Clinton much more talking about domestic issues and of course known for, "I feel your pain."

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Very interesting.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We want to — I want to ask you guys to pick up on that really quickly, because I'm very curious about the degree to which a wartime president has a different kind of State of the Union speech than — and start with you, Mark, than…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And absolutely Domenico's point. And Bill Clinton said that — sort of wistfully, that the tragedy of his presidency was, he didn't have a crisis or a foreign challenge.

    That is what keeps you from being a great president. And, you know, I mean, it's really an acknowledgment and admission.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Possibly the most narcissistic thing ever said, but…

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, but…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    … I think thought by most, spoken by few.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    But it was pretty candid.

    I don't think there's any question President Bush's presidency was defined by Iraq and by 9/11, his response to it. I think that's how he wants to be remembered and how most people remember him.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I'm struck by the word most, must in the earlier two presidents have — what a major word, just rhetorically, the use of the word, we must, we must. It's more old-fashioned, probably a little more pompous.

    I think President Obama has actually — has reduced that sort of exhortatory banalities that previous presidents used. He has a much more casual State of the Union — we were talking about it during the speech, using the words "screwed up" in a speech…

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Presidents didn't used to talk that way.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Yes.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    But I think there's a political logic to it, in that he's trying to relate to the middle class.

    And he's a guy who went to Harvard Law, went to Columbia, went to Occidental. He — the casualness of the tone is trying to say, I get it, I get it, I talk like you, I'm with you.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    There were two quick points.

    One was when he said, it's good news, fellows, when he talked about the economy. And the Republicans just kind of sat there mute. That wasn't in the text. It was just — that's really good news, I mean, sort of like he was telling them that.

    And I thought the other thing was when he — in defense of his Cuba opening, he quoted his holiness, Pope Francis, as being the architect. I mean, there were some deft touches there politically and strategically, I think, in the speech.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's a far cry. Just think of the States of the Union — State of the Union addresses from Roosevelt and — and — just name them. I mean…

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Reagan was the most…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Much more formal.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Reagan was the most conversational. Really — Reagan really had a great gift for doing it almost in a — just like he was chatting. And then he would do the exhortation. And it was Reaganesque in that sense.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, and, also, you should keep in mind that one of the things that showed up consistently in our polling all year long was that people hated the idea of gridlock and that he spoke directly to that, that they hated that almost more than they hated anything else that Congress is doing.

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