Week In Politics: Jobs, The Fed And Intra-Party Sniping

Audie Cornish talks with political commentators David Brooks of The New York Times and Amy Sullivan of the National Journal. They discuss Friday's job numbers; the speculation over who President Obama will appoint to replace Ben Benanke as Fed chairman; and the intra-party sniping between Republicans Chris Christie and Rand Paul.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More now on the economy and the week in politics with David Brooks of the New York Times. Hey there, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Hello.

CORNISH: And filling in for E.J. Dionne is Amy Sullivan of the National Journal and director of The Next Economy Project. Welcome, Amy.

AMY SULLIVAN: Thanks. It's good to be here.

CORNISH: So let's start with the jobs outlook we just got from Yuki. I heard the words sick recovery in that story. And, you know, President Obama's been talking up this plan to kickstart the economy, but are we hearing anything from him that is moving the needle in any way or anything new? Next economy, I feel like I should go to you - Next Economy Project.

SULLIVAN: Well, you know, the numbers that we saw this morning were impressively unimpressive. Under ordinary circumstances, we would be happy to see the unemployment rate falling to 7.4 percent. But what's disturbing is to see that the employment rate has not ticked up at all really over the past year. And a lot of this, I think, can be traced back to the sequester and the fact that it's kind of acting as an anchor on the recovery.

The economy is definitely getting better, it's just not getting better at the pace that we would think.

CORNISH: And David, for you, what needs to happen to get things moving?

BROOKS: Well, I'll take the next economy 'cause this one stinks. You know, if you go back to 2009, if, say, 63 out of 100 Americans were in the labor force, now we're down to 59. So is that a recovery? I'm not sure it is. And I guess I differ from Amy. I don't think it's the sequester so much as basic structural changes in the economy. Much more technology replacing workers and most importantly, men especially not getting the skills they need to stay in the labor force.

Male labor force participation has just plummeted. That's especially men in their 20s and men in their 50s and early 60s, at either end of the prime working ages, though including a lot of people in the prime working ages. And so I think that's a question of education. It's a question of family structure and so not only economic problems here, but some deep sociological problems that make a lot of people really unable to thrive so much in this economy.

College grads, doing pretty good.

CORNISH: I want to move on to another big issue in economic policy and that is the whirl of speculation around who should replace Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. The short list that came up this week involved the names Larry Summers of Harvard and Janet Yellen, the current vice chairwoman at the Fed. Amy, do you see a danger here that the White House could kind of fumble this decision?

SULLIVAN: Just the fact that we're talking about this is something that people are chattering about tells that there is something different going on with how the administration is handling this selection. I think it is one of those increasingly less rare cases in which the White House is mishandling something that it had hoped would be an uncontroversial pick.

But with so many people just a few weeks ago talking about Janet Yellen as the consensus choice, that nobody could really present anything that resembled an argument against picking her to be the next Fed chair, the White House has felt with all of the Larry Summers supporters over there that they needed to present a really robust offensive case for Summers.

CORNISH: Of course, then you had Senate Democrats a letter casting doubts on Summers. House Democrats telling Obama, like, hey, you want to think about this a little more. David, I mean, are we just all obsessed with Larry Summers or is there a real question here about what direction the administration wants to go, right? I mean, this is going to be a lasting legacy when it comes to economic policy.

BROOKS: And it's turned into a bit of an ideological fight. The liberals tend to be more on the Yellen side. The moderates or Clintonites tend to be a little more on the Summers side, but no one has anything bad to say about Yellen. That's absolutely true. I think the argument for Summers is that he's got the intellectual heavyweight stature to adapt to what could be a global crisis.

CORNISH: All right. You're almost rolling your eyes here, Amy. What's going on?

SULLIVAN: Well, I mean, there's no question that Larry Summers is brilliant and I think lots of people at the White House, including the president, have kind of a fan boy status when it comes to Summers. But Janet Yellen has been at the Fed. She was there during the last international crisis and so, you know, the idea that Summers would somehow be more prepared to lead the Fed through something like that...

CORNISH: Yeah, though you're using the term fanboy, which is really funny. I mean, there's a loyalty factor, right, with the Obama administration: Susan Rice, Chuck Hagel, Samantha Powers, people who maybe go through some controversy but still get rewarded in the end. Is that a fair term, David?

BROOKS: Well, I would say on Summers' behalf, and again I have nothing against Yellen, but he is one of the smartest people most of us have ever interviewed. He also does have what you might call meta-cognition skills, which is the ability to know what he doesn't know, even though he can tend toward the arrogant sometimes. He does have a tremendous ability to know what he doesn't know and has an international reputation for the power of his mind.

CORNISH: All right...

SULLIVAN: That's true, and I don't think that Summers would, you know, cause any sort of disagreement like this if he were up, you know, for the Treasury secretary or a key economic position within the White House. The difference is this is Fed chairman, where it does not matter so much your ability to stun all of your opponents in debates. It matters that you can make decisions and make them without upsetting the markets, and upsetting people is kind of what Larry Summers does.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: All right, well it was a slow enough week in Washington that the spotlight also fell on the spat between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul. It started last week as a dustup over privacy and national security, and then it kind of gets personal when they start talking about aid for Hurricane Sandy victims and federal spending. Here's Christie to start.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: So if Senator Paul wants to start looking at where he's going to cut spending to afford defense, maybe he should start look at cutting the pork barrel spending that he brings home to Kentucky at $1.51 for every dollar and not look at New Jersey, where we get 61 cents for every dollar. So maybe Senator Paul could, you know, deal with that when he's trying to deal with the reduction of spending on the federal side. But I doubt he would.

CORNISH: Now Governor Christie went on to say that Washington politicians are only interested in bringing home the bacon. Senator Paul, of course, takes the bait, fires back on an interview with CNN, calling Christie the king of bacon. We are many years away from the next election, but already people are watching this spat as though it's meaningful. What did you guys take away from it

BROOKS: I think it was meaningful. I mean, I do think these are the two sides of the Republican Party, the rising libertarian side that Paul represents and that's most in foreign affairs, in national security policy and in domestic spending. Christie is on the other, which I guess we now call the establishment, but it's pretty conservative, as well.

And so they really are the two sort of verbal heavyweights on these two sides of the debates, and whether either of them run or neither of them run in 2016, I still think it's immensely consequential for the future of the party.

CORNISH: Both of them have sort of gone all in on whatever their position is, right, kind of going all in libertarian, all in moderate. For you, Amy, I mean, what do you see in this back and forth?

SULLIVAN: Well, I would so much rather hear this debate in 2016 than the kind of circus we saw with Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump.

CORNISH: Really? Because we're already making jokes about bacon here.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So it seems like things have gone awry.

SULLIVAN: It's just a little verbal cue. But it - I think David's right that we're actually hearing a debate between two sides of the party that represent who the voters are. You know, Pew Research had a really interesting poll out this week looking in depth at who the Republican electorate is. And these two men kind of represent who that is.

They have, you know, 34 percent of the Republicans out there think that the country needs to move more to the right and that the party in fact needs to move more to the right.

CORNISH: All right, sorry David, our guest gets the last word.

BROOKS: It's only fair.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times and Amy Sullivan of National Journal, thanks to you both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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