Political Year In Review

Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times talk with Robert Siegel about President Obama's first year in office and the other big political stories of 2009.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

This being Friday, we're going to start by talking about politics. And since it is the last Friday of 2009, we're going to reflect on the year almost gone by with David Brooks of The New York Times, and sitting in for E.J. Dionne, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be here.

Mr. RUTH MARCUS (Columnist, Washington Post): Hi.

SIEGEL: Let's start right off with the man we've talked about this year more than any other politician.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met. (Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: President Obama at his inauguration, of course. David Brooks, domestically, is President Obama meeting all of those problems?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I guess the big thing that - listening to that - that strikes me is, that was the last moment of the campaign. The guy was Mr. Magic. All this charisma, this incredible throng surrounding him, he gets into office and he turns out - into Mr. OMB policy wonk. It turns out he actually likes governing more than campaigning, and that's meant a little loss in magic; his standing in the polls is down significantly, tremendously. It's meant he's a little more boring, but he actually gets involved in the weeds. So it's been quite a transformation of him personally since that speech.

SIEGEL: Ruth, do you agree with that?

Ms. MARCUS: Not sure I think that it's a transformation of him personally as much as that it is a different phase. What's strikes me, listening to that clip, is the distance that we've traveled from that day in January, that felt really so magical to so many people. Even people who didn't necessarily vote for President Obama felt thrilled at the notion of seeing an African-American. And the sense of hopefulness among so many people who had supported President Obama, I think it's fair to say, has somewhat dissipated. Now, he talked about meeting challenges and boy, did he decide to meet not just one of them but to take them all on kind of simultaneously, which was one of the most interesting decisions that he made.

SIEGEL: Dealing with the rescue of the financial system, a big economic stimulus package, and actually tackling health care in his first year.

Ms. MARCUS: And you left out global warming´┐Ż

SIEGEL: I left out global warming, yes. Pretty big menu there.

Mr. BROOKS: Bob Woodward counted the number of major initiatives, and I think it was 131 major initiatives in the first - and some of them are not even talked about. The education initiative, which I actually think is the most impressive. People forget about it. It's going on very quietly. Some of them are dead, cap and trade is probably dead. Some of them are incomplete - the financial regulations. But to be fair to him, he did pass health care - or he will. And he did pass a stimulus bill which, while way too diffuse, did some good on the whole.

SIEGEL: President has also pledged to follow through on troop reductions in Iraq, as well as troop increases in Afghanistan - which made, of course, for a surprising event: a wartime leader accepting a Nobel Peace Prize.

Pres. OBAMA: I faced the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism; it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

SIEGEL: President Obama in Oslo. David, you found real depth in the president's world view - expressed in that speech.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I thought it was his best speech, maybe, of his life. You know, not since Woodrow Wilson have we really had a president who could talk about moral philosophy, but then connect that through all the steps to actual policy, to actual troop deployments. And so, I thought that speech was just tremendously impressive for the way he connected, really, a view of human nature to an actual policy decision. And I happen to have thought it was the right one, but I think it's also fair to say he thought through it very carefully and was dragged against his will into the Afghan policy.

If you look at him overall on foreign policy, the Middle East initiative was a failure; the Iran initiative is so far incomplete; the Afghan initiative, the decision to continue there was, if you agree with or not, it was thoroughly thought through. And I think we can all be proud of the process he got there through.

SIEGEL: Ruth?

Ms. MARCUS: And I think the speech was another one of those moments that really marked the president's transition from campaigning to governing. It was the speech of somebody who, as David said, really soberly has thought through the role of America in the world. And it was a speech that Bill Kristol, the ultimate conservative hawk on Iraq and Afghanistan and everyplace else, loved. And it was the speech of man who has confronted the realism that you can only confront by sitting in the Oval Office and weighing the tough decisions. And that was clearly his most agonizing and agonized decision of the year.

SIEGEL: Here's one measure of change over a year: About a year ago, when candidate Barack Obama was hoping to reach across the aisle and improve bipartisanship in Washington, he used to talk about his conservative friend Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the Republican senator who was last heard leading Republicans in prayer that some Democrats shouldn't show up for the cloture vote. What happened, what happened to the hopes for some kind of more bipartisan tone in this city?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I've got a scapegoat for this, which is David Obey and Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner - that is, the congressional leadership. I happen to think that Obama actually tried to reach out to the Republicans, but the first thing that happened was, we have a stimulus bill that went through the House Appropriations Committee, which was phenomenally partisan, where information was not shared, which was old politics at its worst. And that pretty much soiled the waters ever since. And now we're stuck again - probably with an even more partisan atmosphere than under George W. Bush.

Ms. MARCUS: And one of the things that is so striking to me about this year -and you might say that lamentations about the lack of bipartisanship are something that we end every year with ...

SIEGEL: Yes.

Ms. MARCUS: ... and start every year with a resolution to be more civil to each other in the future. But the reality is that this was the year that President Obama came into office promising and hoping to deliver the winds of change and a new civility in Washington. And it has ended the year more poisonous than ever. I don't think I agree with David's assertions of blame. I think however the stimulus worked itself out, all of the forces that brought the Republicans to disagree about health care would have been brought to bear no matter what.

I mean, if you could not get Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley, two people from opposite parties who have one of the best bipartisan relationships in the Senate, to come to agreement on this, then I guess I have to say - and I'm sorry to be so negative about this - I sort of despair about the prospects of finding the kind of bipartisan agreement that we're going to need to tackle some of the future problems that are probably even harder than health care.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, we did have Afghanistan, which is sort of bipartisan. I do think when he gets his substantive policy grounds correct, you can actually create bipartisanship. I probably am the squishiest conservative on the face of the earth, but even I couldn't stomach the stimulus bill or the health-care bill. So, the policy just wasn't there for any kind of centrist alternative.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you both for coming in, and happy holidays.

Mr. BROOKS: Same to you.

Ms. MARCUS: Happy holidays to you, and happy New Year.

SIEGEL: Thank you, David Brooks of the New York Times, and Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post.

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