What's Ahead In The Year In Politics?

The health care debate and President Obama's political fortunes dominated the year in politics. How will these and other issues play out in the coming year. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Reihan Salam, a blogger at National Review and policy advisor at Economics 21, offer their insight.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

And to talk more about the year in politics past and of politics to come, we turn now to our weekly contributors. E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post. And Reihan Salam is joining in today. He's a blogger at the National Review and policy advisor at Economics 21.

E.J., hello. Reihan, hello.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Hello. Happy New Year.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Blogger, National Review): Hi.

CORNISH: So let's start with you, Reihan, because health care dominated the dialogue this year. I mean completely dominated the dialogue. Is this going to be all we're talking about in 2011, as well?

Mr. SALAM: I'm sorry to say that I don't think we're going to talk about health care as much as we ought to. And I think we ought to talk about it a lot more because it's closely tied to the unemployment problem.

What a lot of folks don't understand is that the numbers for how much we expect a bill to cost came from the Congressional Budget Office, based on an assumption that unemployment would tumble to 7.7 percent in 2011. And we now know that that is a really, really optimistic assumption.

So the truth is that with a realistic assumption of where unemployment is going to be for the next few years, it's going to cost much, much more than we expected. And that's going to make it much harder to do a lot of the other things that we need to do to get the economy moving.

CORNISH: E.J.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, I think it is a kind of tribute to Democrats that so much of what they passed is setting the agenda for the Republicans, because they want to repeal a lot of it. Now, they have said that they want to take up a repeal of the health care bill in the House early January.

That could mean that they just want to get the vote out of the way to satisfy their base and move on to other stuff. Because the Senate is not going to repeal it, President Obama is not going to sign a repeal.

I do hope we actually debate health care because I think the case for what was done still needs to be made. I think it was the right thing to do. I think insuring 32 million more Americans was the right thing to do. But people who believe that still haven't persuaded a sufficient majority in the country.

So I hope there is a big health care debate, but I think the Republicans may not want to argue a lot of parts of the health care bill that are popular.

CORNISH: And not everyone is convinced about health care. I mean, President Obama certainly took a hit for it. I mean, this could also be considered the year that the president was essentially knocked around on his pedestal. I mean, we heard his line back in November about taking a shellacking.

E.J., I mean, is he effectively - how does he govern in this year to come?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, you know, now we know he's not Jesus. He's not Moses. He's not even Michael Jordan or Tom Brady.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: But in effect, we knew that already. And maybe - I think it'll be a little bit useful to have Obama as a politician - a smart and good politician rather than a pedestal figure. And I don't think he could possibly be in 2009 and 2010 what he was in 2008.

But one thing he lost that he needs to get back is his ability to persuade, to explain and inspire. He kind of lost that in the course of the last two years. He needs to persuade to join him in the direction he wants to take, because he persuades them that it's the right road. And I think he's got to be focused on the arts of persuasion and inspiration again.

CORNISH: Reihan, did you see anything from the lame-duck that gives us an idea of President Obama's plans going into next year?

Mr. SALAM: I actually think that the president is going to have a fairly good 2011. I think that the unemployment rate will likely improve somewhat at the margin. And I also think that the president has a very big, strong and vocal base of support.

When you think about the 20 million or so civilians who work for the federal, state and local governments, they really feel threatened by a lot of folks, like me, who think that we need a more cost-effective government. And so they're likely to rally around the flag.

And so I think that we're going to see a recovery in the president's political prospects. And we're likely to see a president who's going to go on the offense, which is why folks on the Republican and conservative side need to be very careful about how they take on the president.

CORNISH: And, of course, a big theme of this year, I think, was the rise of the outsider. I mean whether you're talking about tea party activists, putting the squeeze in the Republican primaries, whether you're talking about media types -Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart, or Lady Gaga weighing in on "don't ask, don't tell" - it seemed like there were influences coming from all over.

E.J., what does this mean for the way lawmakers are, I guess, going to deal with the year's agenda to come?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, now we're dealing with outsiders like John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, a re-elected Harry Reid...

CORNISH: Right. Right. Right. They're the consummate insiders.

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah. And now, you know, I think outsiders have played a role in our politics before. For goodness sakes, Ronald Reagan was an actor who was a very politically-aware actor and got very involved. May be Lady Gaga will be governor of California one of these days.

The tea party movement, I think, reflected an anger on the right end of politics, partly at Obama. Some of it was disaffection with President Bush. But the tea party and that right end of the Republican Party has a cost to them. You saw it with defeated candidates, you know, they lost a lot of Senate races because of the candidates nominated by those folks. And it could make managing the Congress difficult.

CORNISH: And, Reihan, in our last 30 seconds, give us your sense. I mean what did it mean to have the rise of these voices this past year?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think that it was actually a very encouraging sign. When I think of the tea party, I don't think of anger and resentment. I think of hope and I think of the belief that lots of citizens banding together can really make a difference in our society. That's true of the tea party and it's also true of Lady Gaga, and all of the other voices that we've seen clamor to have an impact.

Mr. DIONNE: Amen to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: And, of course, we'll be hearing from more voices this year; 2011 will be when I'm sure we'll see many presidential challengers stepping up.

Thanks to both you so much.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. SALAM: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Reihan Salam of the National Review.

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