Week In Politics: Obama's Inauguration, New Cabinet

Robert Siegel 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 President Obama's inauguration and his new cabinet.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A new chief of staff, new secretaries of State and Defense, how different is the second Obama administration going to be? The inaugural address was received by Michael Tanner of the National Review Online as a clarion call for America to return to 1965, as if all we had learned about social and economic policy over the last 50 years had suddenly vanished.

Timothy Noah, in The New Republic wrote, Obama's second inaugural speech can be read as a sort of pledge that he'll do better on the equality front during his second term. Let's hear what our Friday regulars, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, have to say. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: E.J., was Barack Obama on Monday the Barack Obama you've been waiting to hear?

DIONNE: It's the Barack Obama I thought was always there. And, you know, for people who say this is somehow a radical speech, there was nothing radical in this speech. Ken Bahr(ph) who worked in O and B in the first Obama administration noted this speech only looks really, really liberal when compared with how far right the Republican Party has been. But it was a speech in which Obama, like Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural, like Franklin Roosevelt in his second inaugural, chose to make a case for what he believes and where he wants to move the country.

I think the new Obama is not going to pre-negotiate everything. I think he's going to say, here's what I want. Here's what I believe. Now, let's talk.

SIEGEL: David, what do you think of the new Obama and what's wrong with 1965?

BROOKS: It's, you know, it's the doom of the Republic.

DIONNE: That makes me feel good.

BROOKS: No, he came out and he made E.J. very happy. You know, I used to like the moderate or transcendent Obama. That guy has left the building. You know, he took a document, the U.S. Constitution, and he portrayed it as a great force for centralizing power. He takes James Madison, turned him into, you know, Leon Trotsky or something, so his years at Harvard Law School were not in vain, you know.

DIONNE: I think the David Brooks I used to like has disappeared today.

BROOKS: He's pushed me to the edge. No, okay, Bernie Sanders. And I do think actually it is - there are sort of two types of liberalism. There's the Catholic social values, which emphasize community, labor unions, things like that. He spoke much more in favor of a centralized more progressive version, progressive era, which was smart people from Harvard come in and make decisions, where I think he fundamentally gets things wrong.

And again, this is in tribute to him 'cause he does make an argument. I think he misunderstands where the country is. The New Deal, the Great Society, the progressive era, those were instituted in a time when we were young country, under-institutionalized. Now we're an old, aging country winding down and we need to be revitalized, not filled with more institutions.

DIONNE: Could I just say as a pro-labor Catholic, that I find...

SIEGEL: So, you speak as a Harvard...

DIONNE: Yes.

SIEGEL: Graying Harvard man, also.

DIONNE: Yeah, no, more of a - I guess I'm a Harvard pro-labor Catholic, if you must. But, you know, I thought this speech was very much in the tradition of old-fashioned Catholic social thought. That's why he laid so much stress on equality and on social justice. And even he explicitly said government can't solve everything. He explicitly praised entrepreneurship.

This wasn't some kind of Leon Trotsky speech, as - or even a Bernie Sanders speech.

SIEGEL: Trotsky's off the table.

BROOKS: I withdraw Trotsky.

DIONNE: (Unintelligible) Stalin, that was good.

BROOKS: Democrats always say government can't solve everything before they suggest it's about to solve everything. Here's why I say that about the technocratic rather than the Catholic social teaching. Throughout the speech, there are two things in American society, there's the individual, and there's the state. There's no mention of intermediary institutions like labor unions, like community groups. And that's where I think we have a problem as a society.

We have one party that talks confidently about government, the Democrats, one party that talks confidently about the market, Republicans, nobody talking about the stuff in between.

SIEGEL: OK, let's talk about the Republicans for a moment. This is the traditional season of soul-searching for the party that doesn't win the White House or that loses seats in Congress. I gather the Republicans are searching. David, what are they likely to find?

BROOKS: So far there has been some tepid ideas of new thinking. Bobby Jindal gave a speech yesterday which I think was symptomatic.

SIEGEL: The governor of Louisiana.

BROOKS: The governor of Louisiana. And he wanted to rethink the Republican Party. But he's been so steeped in the language of Rush Limbaugh, the Heritage Foundation, the conservative movement, it's a language that doesn't touch concrete reality. So it's a series of phrases about - against the liberal media, against government dysfunction, anti-Washington. It doesn't really connect. It's all very abstract.

And it's code words for other conservatives. It doesn't connect with somebody who's in Ohio, who's struggling to find a job. And so, there's a long way to go.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: Glad to hear that Catholic social thought from David. I think that you're seeing from some Republicans in Congress more of a struggle to come to a different place. I thought it was significant that we passed two bills with votes of mostly Democrats but with a bunch of Republicans choosing to go to the middle to vote with the Democrats. I think you're going to see that on gun control.

And so I think there is, beneath the surface, a real debate going on among Republicans to move them away from a place that lost them this election.

SIEGEL: What do you make of the deferring on the debt ceiling until May? Is that a sign of goodwill? Is it an assumption that the second honeymoon will be over by May or that there are so many other deadlines between now and then it doesn't matter? What do you make of it?

BROOKS: Well, I think John Boehner's really good at averting catastrophe. He's not so good at getting much done positively. I think it's bad for the country. You know, the overhang of insecurity is just terrible for the country.

SIEGEL: You mean the debt ceiling argument?

BROOKS: The debt ceiling argument. We're going to keep coming back to it for at least three or four months. These are the most precious months of a new administration, and it's going to get sucked up by these sorts of budget fights.

DIONNE: We're going to have a carnival of contrived crises just because John Boehner is having so much trouble controlling his party. They - if they were going to give up on the debt ceiling, they should have just said we're not going to fight on this ground. And to have one artificial deadline after another is just nuts, and it's not a way to govern ourselves.

SIEGEL: Well, they jointly created the artificial deadline of the sequester. That was something that the administration and the Republicans did together.

DIONNE: Right, and - but the debt ceiling is something, to take the debt ceiling and not just take that off the table when you've got all these other artificial crises there is just very unfortunate. But I think it's a sign that Boehner knows the debt ceiling is not something you want to fight on.

BROOKS: Yeah, I agree, the Republicans took a look at that and they said: We don't want to push the country over the edge. But the sequestration fight will be just as bad. It's just as much insecurity. It's economically stagnation.

SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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