Week In Review: Obama's Budget Speech; 2012 Presidential Election

Robert Siegel speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, politics with our regular commentators, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Good to be with you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And, first, President Obama's speech this week on the budget and deficit reduction. David Brooks, it is still a long way until November 6th, 2012, but you effectively called the election for Barack Obama in your column today. Why?

Mr. BROOKS: I'm going to sleep. It's all over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: You know, I disagree with a lot of things in the Obama budget, but politically it's kind of a master stroke. The rhetoric pleased the left very much. The base was sort of fired up by it. He attacked the Ryan budget, which is politically very unpopular. It's unpopular to cut aid to seniors. And then he put forward his own plan, which was nominally to cut things, which will please the Independents saying I'm going to bring spending down. But he didn't actually list any spending cuts.

He said, I'm going to call on the commission to cut this. I'll ask the Pentagon to come up with some cuts, some other people, maybe to close some tax loopholes, without mentioning anything painful. So he did it - he got, like, I don't know what the trifecta plus one is, a quad-fecta.

SIEGEL: Oh yeah. It was a tetrafecta(ph).

Mr. BROOKS: But politically it was sort of a master stroke.

Mr. DIONNE: A quinnela(ph).

SIEGEL: E.J., you hailed the president's deficit speech as the moment when President Obama took the field at last.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. He finally took his own side in the argument, which he hadn't really been doing up to now. I mean, this argument is really, first, a philosophical and moral argument about what do you want government to do and who's going to pay for it. It's only secondarily about numbers. You got to answer those first questions first.

And Obama, I think, made a very strong case that we are a country that is individualistic but has always known there were some things, as he put it, we need to do together as a nation. And I thought his critique, his specific critiques of the Republican budget - I thought it was interesting, he didn't call it the Paul Ryan budget, he called it the Republican budget 'cause he wants to hang it around the necks of the whole party, including his opponent.

You know, I thought particularly on the health care programs, whereas he put it, the Ryan path, the Republican path lowers government health care cost by asking seniors and poor families to pay more. And the other way is to systematically reform health care to cut the cost of health care itself. I thought he made some very good and fair contrasts. It was tough, but he didn't do it in a high voice or an angry tone. He did it quietly.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I don't know about that. He did call his opponents un-American. I mean, he did sound like Michele Bachmann at times. But, you know, I think there is a substance here. And the substance which will not undo on the 2012 election, but will undo us all permanently, which is Medicare, in fact, has tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded money. The average Medicare recipient pays in about $150,000 and receives about $450,000.

So all that money is really being pushed onto our grandkids. And the system is basically unsustainable. And I'm not sure you can balance the budget without touching middle class, without touching seniors, which he's trying to do or says he claims he can do.

SIEGEL: I want to hear from both of you about the man who is the president's opposite number in this - the senior Republican in town, Speaker John Boehner. How's he doing?

Mr. DIONNE: Personally, if David's willing to admit that Obama's likely to be re-elected, I am perfectly happy to admit that I think Boehner has handled this quite well. I don't agree with those who say the fact that a bunch of Republicans voted against that 2011 budget earlier this week is a huge deal. He had plenty of votes to pass it. He is in a difficult situation, but I think he's used the Tea Party people in these negotiations. And so I think up to now he's done pretty well. I think defending this budget they passed is going to be a real challenge to him.

SIEGEL: David?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I agree. Well, there are actually very few legislative craftsmen or women around these days, but he is one of them. Pelosi was one, though, in a different way. She had an easier task a bit because she concentrated a lot of power in the speaker's office. He has dispersed power throughout the House and he still seems to manage it pretty well. So, just on methodological terms, I think he's quite impressive. And I, among many others, underestimated him.

SIEGEL: Impressive, but you're saying also playing a traditional role of skilled dealmaker.

Mr. BROOKS: Right.

SIEGEL: And coming back with something that both sides could agree to.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. And he's returned the House to its traditional form, which is - after Gingrich, it became very centralized. It became almost a speaker dictatorship. But now the committee chairmen have some power and that's all to the good.

Mr. DIONNE: And he's a former committee chair and so that's not surprising.

SIEGEL: Education.

Mr. DIONNE: Yes, education, where he actually worked pretty well with the Democrats.

SIEGEL: Well, now, David Brooks is going to go to sleep now 'cause he knows what's going to happen in the 2012 presidential election. But for those of us who are still - find it suspenseful, what do you guys make of a poll which places at the top of the list of Republican contenders for the presidential nomination, Donald Trump?

Mr. DIONNE: I think Republican primary voters need an examination of conscience here. I would love Trump to run just so the vast majority of the American people - I suspect, eventually even Republican primary voters - can stand up and say you're fired even before they hire him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. I see Snooki as his running mate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: A Trump/Snooki thing. It's a silly season, so nobody's really paying attention, nobody's campaigning. You know, at the end of the day there are really only three or four candidates who are going to get the nomination. And sad to say, Donald Trump is not one of them.

SIEGEL: Who are they then?

Mr. BROOKS: Oh, they're Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, they're Haley Barbour, another governor, they're Mitt Romney and Mitch Daniels, if he runs. I think he's the fourth. All the others will be interesting, appalling, whatever you think of them, but they will not be the nominee.

Mr. DIONNE: And I think the fact that Trump is so high reflects the weakness of the rest of the field. He shouldn't have this much support at this point. Romney's been around a long time. He ought to be doing better. Pawlenty isn't well known, but I think he will eventually do better. And Mitch Daniels, who I think both of us might agree would be the most interesting opponent to Obama, I have a feeling he's not going to run.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Governor of Indiana.

Mr. DIONNE: Yes.

SIEGEL: You think Donald Trump is peaking too soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Thanks to both of you. Have a great weekend.

Mr. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne.

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