Week In Politics: Unemployment; Federal Budget

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E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review offer Melissa Block their insight on this week's events.


And if that's the timeline we're looking at, three years or longer, what are the political implications? Well, that's where we'll start our weekly conversation with analysts E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, and today, Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of the National Review sitting in for David Brooks. Welcome to you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Thank you.

Ms. RAMESH PONNURU (Senior Editor, National Review): Thanks.

BLOCK: So we're looking at the fourth straight monthly drop in unemployment, now at 8.8 percent, a full percentage point down since November. Let's cast forward, Ramesh, to next year's presidential campaign. How does the economy play? Is this still the albatross for the president that Republicans would like to think it is?

Ms. PONNURU: Well, I think that the Republicans have a much easier time of it if unemployment isn't dropping. Because, you know, they can still make the argument that it hasn't dropped far enough, that this is not the new normal that Americans should accept, but it's a lot easier to say the administration's program is a complete failure and nothing is budging. These sorts of numbers make that harder.


Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think the theme song of this recovery is a long and winding road or it's a long way to the top if you want full employment. I think these numbers are probably more helpful than not to the president because the private sector trend is pretty good. And if you could actually keep moving in this direction through the election year, even if unemployment were above seven percent, if you get it down below eight, I think it helps him.

But there's some really disturbing numbers underneath the good numbers. Six million people have been unemployed for 27 months or more. It's the lowest labor participation rate in a quarter century. And local government jobs continue to go away. We lost another 15,000 in March. We've lost 416,000 since - out of local government jobs - since September 2008.

It strikes me that it's a very, very strange time for Washington to be obsessed with cutting spending when it's state and local spending cuts that are holding this - are part of what are holding this recovery down.

BLOCK: Well, let's turn then to the budget wrangling in Congress. The temporary spending measure runs at one week from now, April 8th, and there are conservative Republicans saying, look, let the government shut down. Tea Party activists were here rallying on Capitol Hill yesterday with this chant.

(Soundbite of protesters)

CROWD: Cut it or shut it. Cut it or shut it. Cut it or shut it.

BLOCK: Cut it or shut it. Ramesh Ponnuru, you say bring it on, bring on a government shutdown. Why?

Ms. PONNURU: Well, I don't know if I would actually say bring on a government shutdown. I think, though, that one may be inevitable either this spring or in the fall because I do think that there is so much of an emotional desire on the part of conservative Republicans to have this sort of moment of grand confrontation where they really stick it to the spenders.

I think, you know, if you - I think that a shutdown is likely to happen sometime this year because the Democrats want it for strategic reasons and Republicans want it for emotional reasons.

BLOCK: And you're saying better to have it now than in the fall?

Ms. PONNURU: Well, if you're going to have one, I would think that if you're, say, if you're John Boehner who doesn't really want a shutdown and thinks it's not in the party's political interest, but he's got to think, if there's going to be one, better it be earlier with more time to recover than later. Better be earlier where you've shown your troops you've really tried to go all out for them than have some situation where they're saying that you sold them out.

BLOCK: And do you think that Republicans would pay a price at the polls for that, as they did after the shutdown in 1995?

Ms. PONNURU: Well, there are some reasons for thinking that it wouldn't be as bad as 1995, '96. For one thing, John Boehner just isn't the kind of polarizing and well known figure that Newt Gingrich was at that time. But, yes, I think that people do expect the government to function. And whenever there's a fight, the party that is more anti-government is going to be blamed for the shutdown of the government. It's just the natural place that people are going to go. And it's not going to matter what kind of spin Republicans put on it.

BLOCK: E.J., what do you think, who gets blamed if the government shuts down?

Mr. DIONNE: I think right now the polls are - there are some polls that show the Republicans get blamed. Others show that it's mixed. I think the difference from '95 and maybe he'll get around to doing it, but I don't think President Obama has set up this fight very well, compared to the way Bill Clinton set up the fight.

I mean, when he - Bill Clinton set up the fight as a fight over Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. And those were all very popular causes. And he was blaming the Republicans for cutting those things. Right now, this debate is a debate over numbers, 33 billion, 61 billion, if it's a fight over numbers, the Republicans are going to win 'cause they're always the people who are going to cut a bigger number.

And right now, I think that if - the Tea Party is really on dangerous ground if it wants to do politics as theater. I don't understand except for the psychological reasons that Ramesh pointed to, why they don't pocket a big victory here. Because Speaker Boehner and Paul Ryan wanted to cut 30-some billion early on. The Tea Party pressured them into more. Now they can settle for what they were going to ask for in the first place.

I used to think a government shutdown was very likely this week. I'm a little less so now 'cause Boehner is showing signs of wanting to take that 33 billion and figure out how to buy off the Tea Party, maybe with the Draconian Ryan budget that will come next week.

BLOCK: E.J., you've written this week that you would like to see President Obama apply the same principled thinking to the budget that you heard him apply in his speech on Monday on Libya. What did you hear in that speech that showed you that he had those principles?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I thought that in the Libya speech he told us why he did what he did. He explained the underlying principles behind it. I think he showed some real passion both for why there were moments when the U.S. really did have to stand up for its values, but also a really practical sense of why we couldn't always do it in exactly this way, why we needed to show restraint. You knew where he stood at the end of that, I think, whether you liked the speech or not.

On the budget, there has been this very conscious disengagement because he doesn't seem to want himself to get mired in congressional politics. I get that, up to a point. But in the end, budgets are moral documents and there are some really bad things in this Republican budget that periodically he says he's against. Cuts in Head Start, cuts in Pell Grants to help kids go to college. But he hasn't really put any passion into it or a consistent - put out a consistent effort to explain.

BLOCK: Ramesh, on Libya, did you hear on Monday night a clear articulation of what we might call the Obama doctrine?

Ms. PONNURU: I don't think so. Well, unless the doctrine is not to have a doctrine. You know, the administration seems to pride itself on being sort of ad hoc flexible and not being dogmatic about these things. The most striking thing, I think, about the address on Libya was how late in the game it was. You know, normally one would think that such a presidential address would be given around the time that the bombs start flying.

And I don't know whether it really was persuasive to people, partly because, you know, just the way things are, people pay a little bit less attention to each presidential address than they did to the one before. But also because I think for reasons of policy, the administration is holding back, the president is holding back some of its real thoughts about the subject.

I don't think that this intervention makes sense unless an undeclared aim of the war is regime change, or at least regime modification, but he's not willing to say it.

BLOCK: OK, thanks to you both and no fooling, have a great weekend.

Mr. DIONNE: And you too, thank you.

BLOCK: Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the National Review and E.J. Dionne, columnist with The Washington Post and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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