Week In Politics: Obama's Vacation; Republican Presidential Hopefuls

Robert Siegel discusses this week in politics with David Brooks of The New York Times and Joy-Ann Reid, managing editor for Grio.com — an NBC News site focused on the African-American community.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

As we've been reporting, President Obama is ending his vacation early, and coming back to Washington tonight, as Hurricane Irene heads for the Eastern seaboard. That's one powerful concern on the president's mind. Also troubling, no doubt, recent poll numbers that show Americans are widely and strongly discontented with his performance.

For our Friday political conversation, I'm joined by New York Times columnist David Brooks. David, welcome back.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: And today, sitting in for E.J. Dionne, Joy-Ann Reid, managing editor for theGrio.com. That's an NBC News site focused on the African-American community. Joy-Ann, welcome to you.

JOY-ANN REID: Thanks, great to be here.

BLOCK: What about the poll numbers that we're seeing? President Obama's job approval rating is at one of the lowest points of his presidency. We talked yesterday on the program about a Pew Research Center poll. They are seeing what they call a big intensity gap, David. Thirty-eight percent of people now strongly disapprove of his performance. David, what do those numbers signal to you?

BROOKS: Well, the interesting thing to me is after he lost the 2010 election - after Democrats lost, they made some adjustments. They did move to the center. They did some things during the budget fight which were sort of moderate, hoping to win back those independent voters. And so far, if you look at the polls of 2011, they don't seem to have moved much. The shifts that took place in 2009 really - haven't really been abated, and that's sort of bad news.

The second thing is, there's sort of a loss of focus. If you look at the president's campaign in 2008, he told "Exodus" stories. It was his story - of a narrative of people coming together. And that unified his campaign and inspired a lot of people. I'm not sure what unifying narrative they've come up with for the next time, something that will have to be a battered fighter who's still on your side. So far, they haven't come up with that narrative.

BLOCK: Joy-Ann Reid, do you think that's a fatal problem for President Obama and his campaign staff?

REID: Well, you know, I think it's interesting that, you know, one of the problems that the Obama campaign has had is that ever since he came into office, the American people wanted to talk about jobs, right? They wanted to talk about jobs, jobs, jobs and maybe mortgages. Those were the two hot topics.

But we spent the first two years going on about health care, and sort of dragging through a big fight about that. And then we moved on to financial reform. And then we've spent the last year talking about deficits and spending. And deficits and spending fascinates the Beltway and fascinates the media. But the American people are not interested in that so much as they are, again, about jobs.

And I think what we're seeing for the Obama numbers is this long, slow drip of people just being fed up at the jobs picture and the economy, for them personally; not feeling like it's improving, and not feeling like Washington is on message, right? So on the one hand, I think his problem is that jobs number - that lingering, nagging ache over the economy. But on the other hand, if you look at the AP-GfK poll, it's incredible how - actually - remarkably stable the president's re-elect number is. It's gone down exactly one point since the last time they took the poll.

And I think the other issue for Republicans, what they have to look at is that they're not benefiting from people's long, slow ache on the economy. Because when people look at Republicans, they like them even worse. And when they look at the Tea Party, they like them the least of all. So I think that for the Obama administration, the blessing for them in all of this is the existence of the Tea Party.

BLOCK: Now, on the Republican side, we have seen a number of polls now showing Texas Governor Rick Perry vaulting ahead of the presumed GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney. David Brooks, do you see Romney maybe tilting further to the right, to more directly take on Rick Perry and try to turn those numbers around?

BROOKS: Yeah, they're having a debate in Romney camp, what to do. Because the Perry numbers are broad and they're real and they're, I think, probably permanent. You know, there are two courses. One is just hope the guy implodes. He's kind of a loudmouth...

BLOCK: Rick Perry, you're talking about?

BROOKS: Rick Perry implodes. And I think they're going to do that. And I guess I would do that. Through September, there are going to be three presidential debates; see how Perry does in those. But I think it's more likely than not that Romney is going to have to go after Perry. And it would be a mistake to try to out-conservative him. Romney is A, terrible that that; B, it would offend people who are Republican primary voters. He has to find some other tack. And I think the two tacks to take is to point out that Perry uses campaign money as a governing and a political tool, and that reminds people of Tom DeLay.

The second thing is, if this is a war on Washington and the opponents are Nancy Pelosi, then Perry is going to win. But if Romney can shift it to a discussion about America's place in the world, competition against China and India, then he seems like, I think, a more responsible steward. And that's more his natural ground. But so for a little while, they're going to do nothing. Then I think Romney is going to have to prove his toughness, and go on the attack.

BLOCK: And, Joy-Ann Reid, what do you think about what David is proposing there as a strategy for Mitt Romney, if he wants to take on Rick Perry?

REID: Well, I think it sounds like a fine strategy. I don't think it's going to work. You know, the way I'm reading the Republican base right now, I don't think they want a responsible steward. They want a firebrand, evangelical preacher that's going to bring back what they see as the good old days of America before it was burdened down by horrible entitlements and the minimum wage, and all of these ghastly liberal policies that the Tea Party Republicans want gotten rid of.

I don't think the base is paying attention to the specifics about Rick Perry. I think they just like Rick Perry. He's sort of a real George W. Bush, right? He's a real rancher, where Bush was kind of a faux rancher. You know, he's a five-generation Texan, whereas Bush acquired being a Texan. And I think that he is sort of reminiscent of the Bush they liked in 2000, and he's not really a patrician like Bush.

So I actually think that Romney is in trouble here. He took too long to recognize the threat of Rick Perry coming in. And now, Perry is gobbling up Michelle Bachmann's support. And he's consolidating kind of that far-right base that really runs the Republican Party now.

BLOCK: David, your column today, in the New York Times, is headlined "President Rick Perry?" And you write: It's time to take Perry seriously; he could be our next president. Does he have, do you think, the broader appeal to capture not just the Republican Party base in the primaries, but independent votes, Democratic votes that could vault him in a general election to the presidency?

BROOKS: Yeah. You know, I think he would face greater challenges than some of the other candidates, a Mitt Romney or a Jon Huntsman. But you know, I do think if he wins the Republican nomination, it's going to be a race about Obama. And Obama is weak. And if you look at the head-to-head polls, Perry is right there with him; 46-46 or so in the most recent Gallup poll.

So I think he's not - certainly not the most electable, but a lot of people are too quick to say there's no way that guy could win a general election. I think if you had a general election, the country has shifted to the right since 2008 - not as much as the Republican Party has, but it has shifted. And Perry could win a fall election.

BLOCK: Joy-Ann Reid, what do you think?

REID: Well, I think it's interesting. If this were 2010, maybe. But the difference between a midterm electorate and a general election electorate is quite vast. A 2010-style electorate is whiter and older, and is more Tea Party. And so of course, if you look at it that way, yeah, Perry would be electable. But what's happened is, that part of the Republican Party that's taken over is really turning off the American people.

The polls show that the intensity of dislike of the Tea Party is growing very quickly. Perry - he sounds good to that part of the base. But I think when you get into a general election, a guy who has spoken favorably about secession; a guy who hang - at least according to a Politico report - is confabbing with, you know, a faux historian who claims that slavery was forced on us by the British, and you shouldn't really credit civil rights leaders for ending, you know, what was segregation in the United States; I mean, a guy who talks with that extreme rhetoric I don't think is going to play very well in a general electorate that is tired of the far right stopping what they see as, you know, attempts at progress in Washington.

I mean, a guy who talks with that extreme rhetoric I don't think is going to play very well in a general electorate that is tired of the far right stopping what they see as, you know, attempts at progress in Washington.

BLOCK: OK. Joy-Ann Reid of theGrio.com, David Brooks of the New York Times, thank you very much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

REID: Thanks. It was great to be here.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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