Week In Politics Examined

This week, President Barack Obama outlined his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq, unveiled his budget proposal and addressed Congress. Political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times discuss these events.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The president's announcement of troop withdrawals from Iraq, his three-and-a-half-trillion dollar budget, and his first address to a joint session of Congress - much to mull over this week with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks. Welcome to the program.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Political Commentator, The Washington Post): Good to be here with you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Political Commentator, The New York Times): Good to be here with you.

NORRIS: Let's talk first about Iraq. President Obama there saying that the U.S. combat mission will end within 18 months, and tens of thousands of soldiers will remain there as we just heard. E.J., some Democratic leaders in Congress sound uneasy about the size of that continued presence.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, yes. There are some Democrats who opposed the war from the beginning, as President Obama did, who would like to withdraw more quickly. But I think what you're seeing is that Barack Obama is bold in domestic policy and cautious in foreign policy. And I think those two things are linked. How many times have progressive or liberal presidents seen their domestic hopes founder because of foreign policy problems? Certainly L.B.J., Truman to some degree, even F.D.R. saw the New Deal end because of the onset of what became our involvement in World War II. And so, I think Obama is saying, I want to get out

I'm going to keep my promise. He's got that agreement with the Iraqi government, suggesting we will be all out right before the 2012 election. But he doesn't want things to go haywire and get in the way of his domestic program.

NORRIS: And David, we hear the president's one-time rival, Senator John McCain, saying this plan seems reasonable to him.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. There's mostly a consensus. And it's interesting. When you talk to foreign policy experts and defense people, Iraq is now the bright spot in the Middle East, and Pakistan and Afghanistan are the dark spot. And -if I could be a little partisan here - we all dump over George Bush and much of it is earned, but the decision to do the surge was one of the best presidential decisions of my lifetime, and it allowed Barack Obama to do what he's doing today.

NORRIS: Let's talk about the budget that was unveiled yesterday. It will create a one-and-three-quarter-trillion dollar deficit. And David, you write today in the New York Times this shows that the rot ingrained in government is not expunged. There's something rotten in the state of Washington.

Mr. BROOKS: I'm having my emotional crisis over here. It's like the moment in the marriage when the wife turns to the husband and says, I don't know who you are. Because I thought, I thought Barack Obama was a nice, centrist guy who would bring us Head Start and health-care reform and basically be moderate. But this is quite a progressive, quite a liberal budget, which has spending on all sorts of fronts. And to me, really doesn't pay for it - relies on sort of rosy scenarios of growth to pay for it, promises 95 percent of the American people they won't have to pay any money ever in the future.

And really leaves - is going to leave us, really, trillion-dollar deficits in the future and which is going to, at some point, create tax increases. So to me, it's a budget that's making a lot of my liberal friends very happy, making a lot of moderate people pretty anxious.

NORRIS: And E.J., President Obama yesterday, though, said look, I work for the American people, I'm determined to bring the change that the people voted for last November. Is this exactly what he said he would do during the campaign?

Mr. DIONNE: Short answer is yes. David doesn't realize, yes, the progressive is the new moderate. And I think what you have here with Barack Obama is, he's keeping his campaign promises. And he's put the issue of inequality right square in the middle of the political debate. For 30 years, inequalities between the very rich and everybody else have been growing. David Leonhardt in David's paper, excellent economic writer, spoke of a story, Larry Summers, Mr. Obama's top economic adviser, used to say to explain inequality.

He said the way it's been going has been like each family in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution effectively sending a $10,000 check every year to the top 1 percent of earners. And Obama's determined to reverse that. He's cut taxes on the middle class and those below. And he is going to raise taxes on the very well-to-do. That's exactly what he promised, and the budget numbers don't add up if he doesn't do something like that.

NORRIS: I want to get, too, to the tone and the message of the president's address to Congress on Tuesday, his broad appeal for what he called bold action on a wide range of programs. David, you seem to be saying that he's overreaching. He's trying to do too much too fast, too soon.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I thought the tone was excellent. When he speaks, he talks about responsibility, and he's tremendously reassuring. That was a magnificent speech Tuesday. But, A, he's got about six propeller heads, as he calls them, in the White House, trying to redesign health care, finance, education - every -half the American economy all at once. I think that's just too much.

And, two, I really don't think he pays for it. The, you know - he relies on this idea that the economy is going to come roaring back next year to provide some revenues. There's still a lot of budget gimmickry in the budget. It's much better than the Bush budget, but it's going to leave us with a huge hole. And I wouldn't mind fixing inequality if he actually paid for it.

NORRIS: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think that what he's doing is focusing on three big problems. It's not a scattered agenda. He's saying health care first, education and green energy - and those are going to be his priorities. So, I don't it's a scattered agenda. And I think there is a link between a sort of moderate rhetoric that is almost like - somebody used the term pre-bottled to conservative arguments in progressive programs.

In a lot of ways, Reagan turned F.D.R. on his head, you know: optimistic, plain-spoken eloquence on behalf of conservative ideas. Obama's turning Reagan on his head, which means we are back to F.D.R.-style governance.

NORRIS: Okay, we'll have to leave it there. Have a good weekend, guys.

Mr. BROOKS: Good to be with you.

Mr. DIONNE: You, too.

NORRIS: Columnist E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times.

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