Week In Politics: Jobs Numbers, President Obama's Budget
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Until this week, the economy seemed to be doing sufficiently well to let lawmakers focus on things like guest workers and immigration, background checks for gun buyers and same-sex marriage. As we've heard, a very disappointing jobs report shifted that focus today. And joining us now to talk about politics and the economy, our Friday regulars, 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.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
SIEGEL: E.J., one reading of today's numbers is that the current mix of some tax increases, some across-the-board spending cuts, whatever the Federal Reserve is doing and whatever else contributes to the national economic policy just isn't doing it. Is it time for someone to think of something new and big?
DIONNE: Yes, I think so. Thank God for the Federal Reserve. Where would be if they weren't continuing to push the economy? I think this sluggish jobs report shows how utterly wrong-headed Washington's obsession with the deficit has been, how foolish it is to slash government spending right now through the sequester. This report should change Washington's conversation from deficits and austerity to job creation and growth, but I don't think it will.
And, you know, it's true that the sequester hasn't - it's negative effects haven't kicked in yet, although the pressure we're putting on the post office sure had an effect in cutting jobs. But it is striking that the payroll tax cut, which President Obama wanted to continue the tax holiday for another year may have started having an effect. It's expiration, the retail sector was one area that showed significant weakness. I mean, this is not a time for Washington to be taking its foot off the accelerator.
SIEGEL: David, what do you think?
BROOKS: Well, we get a bad jobs number report and everybody tries to find their politically favorite thing to blame. The sequester just doesn't work. The timing is wrong. That hasn't kicked in. The payroll tax doesn't really work either. It's true the retail jobs are down, but retail spending is not down. So there's sort of a missing link in that chain.
SIEGEL: I'm really suspicious that we can figure out in a complex big economy like this exactly what little policy change led to this disappointing result. I would focus on the big structural things. It is certainly true that over a long period of time, including now, labor force participation declines have been cataclysmic, especially among men and that's a big long-term problem.
BROOKS: Secondly, it's certainly true that over the last couple decades, we've just had worst recoveries. And so somehow, talking about the big structural things seems to be the order of the day.
DIONNE: But I am certainly not saying the sequester yet caused this. What I am saying is that at a time when we clearly face a much - a weaker economy or certainly not one that is strong enough, putting all those cuts in for the rest of the year is only going to make things worse. And focusing on deficits at a time when we really should do another round of stimulus to make sure we get out of the hole we were in, it's just a terrible mistake, the deficit focus right now.
SIEGEL: Is another round of stimulus even conceivable on Capitol Hill?
BROOKS: Well, I mean, if it was such a - you know, we spent how many trillions of dollars in debt?
DIONNE: But we stopped about a year...
BROOKS: Well, first of all, I would say the economy's extremely complicated. I'm against the sequester. But the idea that this little change is going to produce some gigantic effect on our economy seems to be trivial in comparison to the uncertainty that every business faces now that they do not know what its future employee is going to cost them.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about the possibility for, let's not say grand, just a bargain. It doesn't have to be so grand that Scott Horsley was talking about. President Obama is evidently going to offer a change in the way we calculate the consumer price index for Social Security if the Republicans give on revenue. Are there enough Democrats who can swallow that, E.J., and enough Republicans who can imagine more increased taxes to add up to even small majorities in Congress?
DIONNE: It sure doesn't look so at the moment. I think - first of all, I'm very glad a lot of Democrats came out against the president's proposal to change the index for Social Security because, if nothing else, this shows that President Obama has really been willing to put some hard stuff on the table. He is, you know, the Medicare cuts, the way he structured them, probably won't inspire the same opposition from Democrats.
But Republicans so far have not been willing to give any ground at all. I do think that if the Republicans ever gave on revenue, there probably would be enough Democratic votes to pass it. And I agree with the implications of Scott Horsley's story that if anybody can push this along, it's the group of Republican senators the president is going to be meeting with. I think he's going to be meeting with the same group of Republican senators a lot on absolutely everything from the deficit to guns to immigration.
SIEGEL: David, is there some gang out there working on the economy?
BROOKS: There's no shortage of gangs. I, too, am glad Democrats came out against because it suggests there's something sensible in what Obama has proposed. You know, I give this sort of a B-plus. I think he's - I'm a little mystified by his political strategy. Some weeks, he's going left, some weeks he's going to the center, but this week he's going to the center.
And he's proposed a bill which does have this Social Security reform. His Medicare reforms are inadequate. I do think, though, there is a small possibility of a small deal. And the one thing I would say, and I've heard from many Republicans or at least several, that they're soft on revenues.
They will be willing to tolerate a revenue increase if the president will give them a structural change in Medicare, not just tamping down the reimbursement rates, not just less spending but some structural reform at the foundation.
SIEGEL: As in Ryan plan, as in...?
BROOKS: Well, you don't have to go that far, but combining Medicare A and B. There are other things that can be done, which I think would be acceptable to a lot of Democrats, which would involve some structural change.
DIONNE: It would be helpful if they actually put it forward. I mean, here's Obama who's been putting forward some unpopular things. I think it's time for them to put something on the table.
SIEGEL: One last item not about the economy, the piece of American wisdom that I have never understood for my entire life was F. Scott Fitzgerald saying that there are no second acts in American life. In South Carolina, Mark Sanford, the former governor and congressman, is the Republican nominee in a district which is pretty well-drawn for Republican. It looks like he is a second act, David Brooks.
BROOKS: Yeah, I am so pro-redemption. I'm in favor of forgiving sins of this sort, especially since, you know, it was a sin, you shouldn't leave your post and go wandering off on wherever you're going.
SIEGEL: It was this thing that made it into late-night monologues (unintelligible)...
BROOKS: Right. But I - frankly I've softened because I was touched by the letter he wrote to his mistresses. They were...
BROOKS: The guy fell in love. And as Woody Allen said, the heart is a funny muscle. And if you're going to see Woody Allen movies after all that he's done, I think we should we should give Mark Sanford a second change.
SIEGEL: E.J., his opponent, who has many accomplishments of her own we could cite, will always be known nationally, I guess, as Stephen Colbert's sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
DIONNE: Yes, Stephen Colbert's sister, who pronounces the name differently.
DIONNE: First of all, this is our chance to say high-minded things about a wonderful tabloid story, and reporters are going to flood South Carolina partly because of the Mark Sanford thing. I am so glad David believes in repentance, redemption, all these wonderful things. It's a very Republican district. She is a very good candidate. Turnouts have been low in these primaries. She may have a shot, which I don't think anyone would ever have expected in a district like this.
SIEGEL: Think she has a shot, David?
BROOKS: Yes, there are a lot of people who don't like it when you leave your post and leave your wife.
SIEGEL: Well, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, thanks to both of you. Have a great weekend.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
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