The Week In Politics: Iowa Debate; Obama In Mich.

Melissa Block speaks with political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and Michelle Bernard, president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. They discuss political events of the past week, including Thursday night's debate between Republican presidential hopefuls, and President Obama's visit to Michigan.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: Here's a headline that must have given the White House heartburn today - "Why We're Fed Up With Obama." And that complaint came not from the right, but from center-left columnist Matt Miller in the Washington Post, who writes that he has snapped. And that snap, he says, is the sound of confidence in President Obama's leadership breaking. Well, that's where we'll start our Friday political conversation with E.J. Dionne, also a Washington Post columnist. E.J., welcome back.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And sitting in for David Brooks today, Michelle Bernard, who heads the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. Michelle, welcome to you.

MICHELLE BERNARD: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J., Matt Miller there is saying he is mad at the president. He writes, "events keep screaming that the president is weak, weak, weak." Do you think that signals real trouble for President Obama heading into 2012 among his base? And if so, how does he turn that around?

DIONNE: Well, I think Matt's column resonated because there has been a lot of frustration with the president on the left for not fighting back against the Republicans enough. Now, that's spread all across the Democratic spectrum. So, yes, it is a problem. I think the good news is that - if one can say that on a week like this - is that the White House is not in denial about this. And I think that now that they do not have the prospect of default staring them in the face - they were very worried that if they didn't make a deal with the Republicans, you could have default and economical calamity.

Now that that's past them, he's going to get a lot tougher. And this speech he gave in Holland, Michigan, was really an example of what he's going to do. In 1948, it was Give 'Em Hell Harry, Harry Truman running against a Republican Congress. This time it's going to be Beat 'Em Back Barack and he really, in this speech, went over and over again, tell Congress this, tell Congress that. I think he's going to get more aggressive and I think this time he's going to stay that way.

BLOCK: And Michelle Bernard, do you see that same president going on the offense trying to fight back against this perception of passivity?

BERNARD: I think that that's what we can look forward to in seeing in the president. The problem is that he - right now, he seems to have everything against him. The left is angry with the president. The right is angry with the president, frankly just doesn't like the president. And the Republican strategy of saying no to everything has actually really been, I think, very detrimental to this White House because people on the left look at it as a lack of leadership.

You know, one of the things I found most interesting about the president's speech yesterday was that candidate Obama seems to be so much better than President Obama. Candidate Obama, the way he speaks, the way he can engage with the public, you know, he had a line yesterday, there is nothing wrong with our country, there is something wrong with our politics. I would venture to guess that 9 out of 10 Americans have that absolute exact sentiment. The question is, how do you translate what candidate Obama says into governing and resonating with both the right and the left going into 2012? And that's going to be quite difficult.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the Republican presidential debate last night in Iowa leading up to this weekend's straw poll there. Two candidates, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann went after each other repeatedly. Let's take a listen.

TIM PAWLENTY: Her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent. That's not going to be good enough for our candidate for president of the United States. That's not...

MICHELE BACHMANN: You said the era of small government was over. That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama, if you ask me.

BLOCK: Michelle Bernard, did you hear any of the candidates last night articulate a clear vision besides, I don't like the guy in the White House and maybe I don't like the guy or the woman who is standing right next to me on this stage?

BERNARD: To be fair, I would have to absolutely say no. It was very interesting to watch candidate after candidate being asked a very specific question and rather than actually answering the question, deflecting and going back to why they would be better than President Obama. I think for people who really watched and really listened very closely to the questions, I'd have to tell you I thought the people at Fox did a great job and asked really important questions. I wish the same could be said for the answers that we received from all of the candidates.

BLOCK: Questions at a time - Newt Gingrich, for one, called gotcha questions.

BERNARD: Exactly, exactly. And, you know, quite honestly, the questions that were asked of Newt Gingrich are questions that every single person in this country is going to want answers to. I personally did not see them as gotcha questions. We want to know exactly where the people who want to lead our country over the next four years - we want to know exactly what they think about various issues.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, surprises for you as you listened to last night's Republican debate?

DIONNE: Well, I was surprised that Minnesota nice became Minnesota mean.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: I mean, when you saw that exchange between Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, I don't think I've ever seen an exchange like that in an inside-the-party...

BLOCK: Really?

DIONNE: ...debate. Nothing quite like that 'cause it was sustained. It went on and on - and you're this, well, you're that. And I think they both hurt themselves. And I think the person who was really smiling was Rick Perry, who is about to get into the race, because certainly Michele Bachmann represents the right end of the party, which is where Rick Perry wants to get his votes. Pawlenty has some of that vote, although he doesn't have a lot of votes it seems right now. And so I think that helped Bachmann.

Romney was disciplined. And I think the surprise for some people was that I thought Huntsman introduced himself quite well. He took...

BLOCK: Jon Huntsman?

DIONNE: Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah. Yes, he took stands that aren't going to be all that popular among the Republicans. He was the only person to defend Speaker John Boehner and the deal they just made. He defended his stand on civil unions.

BERNARD: And he defended, you know, he was proud of the fact that he served in the Obama administration and served his nation, which I found a pleasant surprise.

DIONNE: Right. And so, if only as the guy who actually seems to say what's on his mind, I think he helped himself some.

BLOCK: Michelle Bernard, let's end with you. E.J. mentioned that Texas Governor Rick Perry is expected to enter the race this weekend. How do you think that shapes the Republican dynamic in the primary?

BERNARD: It's going to be very interesting to look at how that affects the very far right of the Republican Party, evangelicals, and whether or not this will take away votes from, for example, Michele Bachmann leading into 2012. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, the people who really, really - their base is really far right of everyone else who's running, I think that they might - they're probably going to be quite nervous when he formally enters the race.

BLOCK: And, Mitt Romney, is he nervous?

BERNARD: You know, I got to tell you, last night, to me, Mitt Romney looked the most presidential of everyone standing up on the stage. He handled himself well. He didn't seem to be nervous. And I would venture to guess that he probably is not scaring Mitt Romney too much.

BLOCK: Thanks to you both. Have a good weekend.

BERNARD: Thank you.

DIONNE: You, too.

BLOCK: Michelle Bernard of the Bernard Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.