Week In Politics: Gun Policies, Obama's Second Term Cabinet

Melissa Block talks to regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss gun policies and President Obama's second term cabinet.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now to our weekly political commentators, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

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

BLOCK: The meeting with the Afghan president, of course, comes at a time of a lot of transition for President Obama's second term cabinet. We had announcements this week of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense, John Brennan to head the CIA, and Jacob Lew to head Treasury, a number of other fit holes to fill. But I'm curious if, overall, you think those groups suggest any particular approach that the president will be taking in his second term. David, let's start with you.

BROOKS: Fifty shades of gray. You know, the president picks people who are safe. He picks people who are members of the establishment, the center left establishment. He picks people of integrity who aren't going to cause him any scandals. They're not going to cause any problems. But they're not fresh blood and I do think he's still within a pretty insular group. I think it's still something of a tired group.

I think, you know, we interview these people all the time. It's very hard to stay in these government jobs and stay intellectually fresh because the pace is so demanding. And so he hasn't really gone outside and surprised us with anybody. He's picked a lot of people who've been there for a long time. The other thing that strikes me as odd is that, especially among the Senators Hagel and Kerry, they're like Obama.

They were not particularly social senators. They're not particularly well connected. They're probably more intellectual than your average senators. He's gone from sort of team of rivals to a team of loners.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: Safe, loyal, moderately progressive, male. I don't - I think Obama decided in his second term he wants people he's really comfortable with. Brennan is an interesting case in point. He's been very close to Obama on all the difficult decisions. He sends a guy to the CIA whom the CIA likes and Obama trusts. There's a lot of trust going on here. Obviously, we're going to talk about it, there is this perception and reality problem that he didn't name any women in this early group.

First, it tells us how much we've changed as a nation, that if he's confirmed, John Kerry will be the first white male secretary of state since Warren Christopher served in the early to mid-1990s. I think some of it is also a problem of timing, in the fact that Susan Rice as secretary of state got nixed by the opposition in the Senate.

BLOCK: One more thought in terms of the national security team, both Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, of course, served in Vietnam. And I wonder whether you think that experience of war bears on their approach to foreign policy and to U.S. might. David Brooks?

BROOKS: They are what we call realists, which is to say they're not particularly devoted to humanitarian or human rights interventions, the way Susan Rice was a little more. They're both very cautious about the use of American power and so I'm really struck by how both these decisions, especially the Hagel decision and how much of our foreign policy is really driven by money and notably our lack of money.

We have no money to do Afghanistan. We don't really have money to do Iraq. I'm not sure we have money to do much else, given the amount of defense cuts we're going to be facing because of the budget problems.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: It's fascinating that Hagel and Kerry now have drawn broadly the same experiences from Vietnam in the sense that they were both very reluctant to commit American lives unless there is a very good reason for it. At the time, Kerry came out of the war as a strong anti-war voice, Hagel did not and his transition, the transition in his views happened over time.

But I think (unintelligible) Hagel will be the first former enlisted person to serve as secretary of defense. I think that will serve him well. I think it's going to be a real selling point in the hearings. But Obama is trying to remake American foreign policy, first and foremost, by getting our act together at home and he wants to get us out of Afghanistan.

He wants to do some trimming at the Defense Department and I think Hagel is somebody who is willing to do that, as a critic of, if you will, certain Pentagon bloat. That will be an issue when they argue about Hagel's confirmation.

BLOCK: And E.J., you mentioned the criticism that the new cabinet is shaping up to be not terribly diverse when you look at gender or race. Your colleague at the Washington Post op-ed page, Ruth Marcus, has said that it looks drearily disappointing. She says this lack of diversity, she says, it's "Mad Men" goes to Washington, except Peggy's leaving. Fair critique?

DIONNE: Well, she said also, I think President Obama should take a cue from Mitt Romney and get a binder full of women.

BLOCK: A binder full of women.

DIONNE: Some of it's - it's fair enough that you look at the way this has come out and these are all white guys. On the other hand, it is partly a matter of botched timing. You not only had all these males named, but you had Lisa Jackson leaving the EPA. You had Hilda Solis, the labor secretary, announcing her retirement. I think this bodes very well for women in future appointments.

For example, I think the solicitor at the labor department, Patricia Smith, is now mentioned as the leading candidate. I have a bias here 'cause I've known her for years. Rebecca Blank is the acting secretary of commerce. She might have a better shot at becoming secretary of commerce. I think you're going to see Obama do some correcting here.

BLOCK: David Brooks, is there a diversity problem, in your eyes?

BROOKS: A bit of one. There's still Valerie Jarrett, who is the most important person in the administration.

DIONNE: Yes, that's very important.

BROOKS: Which is worth pointing out. But would it kill him to have anybody who has any business experience or any significant business experience? They don't really do that. He doesn't have too many people who have served in their educational career outside of the Harvard/Yale axis. It would be a little nice to go outside that axis. I say that at the risk of saying that in this room, surrounded by you guys. But I'm saying it anyway.

DIONNE: I accept that point. By the way, it's got to be mentioned. Two appointees to the Supreme Court that were both women. That's not trivial.

BLOCK: I want to move on and talk about guns. Vice President Biden has been meeting with a number of stakeholders this week to discuss gun policy and I did speak today with the president of the NRA, David Keene. We're going to be hearing that interview elsewhere in the program.

And I want to play you a bit of what he said, one of the basic fundamental ideas that the NRA advocates.

DAVID KEENE: We believe that the problem is not the firearm, it's not the AR-15, it's not the pistol, or in the case of a killer with a knife, it's not the knife, it's the person wielding the firearm or wielding the knife. And what you have to do is punish those who would misuse these inanimate objects.

BLOCK: And David, the NRA came out of those meetings at the White House saying they felt they were basically useless. Do you see any progress toward any consensus on gun control or gun violence prevention?

BROOKS: Yeah, I actually think we're going to see something. I do not think we're going to see an armed - a weapons assault ban, the way Senator Dianne Feinstein would like. I do think we're going to close the gun-show loophole. I do think we're going to have a better registry, checking people, more background checks. So I can see a lot of sort of pro-gun senators not taking the absolutist line of the NRA and doing these modest reforms.

BLOCK: And E.J., very briefly?

DIONNE: It's not the car, it's the driver. So we shouldn't have seatbelt laws? I think that argument is getting very stale. I agree that there is going to be action, and I think one of the things to watch is what kind of moderate Northeastern Republicans, what do they do? You need Republican votes in the House. I think it's a real challenge to them to say we're going to break with ideology here and do something practical.

I do think there's a good chance on the magazines, on universal background checks. I hope the assault weapons ban isn't dead. That seems to be the one that is the hardest to pass.

BLOCK: OK, thanks so much to you both. Have a good weekend.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution.

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