Week In Politics Reviewed

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President Obama this week gave his first State of the Union speech, and on Friday he addressed House Republicans in Baltimore. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times offer their insight on the week in politics.


And as we've heard President Obama went before House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore today, he fielded their questions and he told them that one obstacle to bipartisan cooperation on issues like health care and energy is overheated partisan rhetoric.

BARACK OBAMA: You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, this guy's doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America.

And I would just say that we have to think about tone. It's not just on your side, by the way. It's on our side as well. This is part of what's happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do.

SIEGEL: Well, joining us now in a bipartisan spirit are our regular political observers columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times, welcome back.

DIONNE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Great to be here.

SIEGEL: E. J. first, has the president said or done anything this week that might actually reverse the downward trend of the Democratic poll numbers or increase the chance of bipartisan cooperation?

DIONNE: Well, I did think it was amusing today that he said we demonize each other and then in the middle, at one point that meeting, he praised Congressmen Paul Ryan, a Republican, and then quickly added I didn't mean it because he didn't want to encourage a Republican primary against him because Republicans would think he got endorsed by the guy saying all that crazy stuff.

I think that the - if you look back at the last year, politically, the Republicans won the two big definitional arguments of 2009 on the stimulus and on the health care bill. Were the Republicans obstructionists? Yes. Did they offer new ideas? No, but they did win the message wars.

So, and I think Obama began this week to start taking some ground back. And he's really putting the Republicans finally under some pressure. But they have a lot of work to do.

Nancy Pelosi met with a bunch of us columnists and somebody asked her if Democrats are in trouble getting their message across, and she said it's like a marriage: If a husband thinks he's communicating and his wife doesn't think he's communicating, he's not communicating.


DIONNE: Good advice to the Democrats and Obama.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, you have a column today in which you long for something between bipartisanship and a pox on both your houses. Do you see any prospect of Barack Obama becoming what you call an updated, saner Ross Perot?

BROOKS: Typical incoherence on my part.


BROOKS: No, I mean a lot of this debate about the State Union would he moved to the center? And the axis was center left. Well, to me, the axis really should be inside-outside. We're in a moment of unprecedented distrust of Washington. And that is where the country is. And I thought - and the question is does anybody in Washington reflect that distrust and do they have a solution to the genuine problem which is the Washington broken?

We've tried to reform Social Security, immigration, health care, energy, all those things are failures or likely failures. And so I thought the president took some steps to showing I will change Washington, I am not a typical Washington insider.

He adopted some policies, which are kind of independent friendly, freeze on spending, nuclear power, offshore drilling, that's non-orthodox stuff. Nonetheless, I don't think he went nearly far enough. The country is just in a rage about Washington, and he is behind that, as are the Republicans, but at least they can say we're against Washington. He has to try to say Washington is terrible, trust us to run more of the country and that's a contradiction.

DIONNE: I agree with David on this, the need for him to distance himself from Washington. At the end of that speech, you wondered does Barack Obama live in Washington anymore because he really was trying to identify with that anger.

And I think part of his strategy here is to make an argument that, wait a minute, these Republicans who have been giving me all this grief and the statement that led to this segment, these guys are at least as responsible for the mess we have here. So, he's trying to push back against them, which is something he really hadn't done very much of in 2009.

BROOKS: But they could at least say Washington is broken, let's go get all the power out of Washington. That's a reasonably simple message. To me, the core moral corruption is the deficits. You've got to tackle the deficits in a very hardcore way. And that means Republican saying we need tax increases, Democrats saying we need spending increase, we're not even close to that.

SIEGEL: The White House went into the State of the Union address very averse to labeling it a new beginning or a restart of the Obama presidency, at least publicly very averse. Is in fact the Obama presidency in need of a new beginning or a new start?

DIONNE: You know, it's a question of substance versus politics. Substantively, I think Obama wasn't being too soft on himself when he gave himself a solid B+ for the first year. I think that he did stem the economic collapse. He set a fairly reasonable framework on foreign policy. But I think, politically, you cannot call it a successful year when your party is in such bad shape. When the Republicans win a Senate seat, they hate it when you raise that in the White House, but it's true.

And I think the speech itself suggested that whatever they're saying, they knew they needed a new political course. They just don't want us to think there's new Barack Obama. And I think, as a person, he's still fairly consistent. But they did need a new political course.

BROOKS: I like the consistency. I wish he would have said, listen, I made some mistakes. He sort of said it, but he didn't really illuminate them because they did make some big ones. They misread the nature of the election. They thought it was a sort of new deal era. People wanted a big activist government, which they don't. They spent nine months on a central initiative which now has an 80 percent chance of failure.

SIEGEL: Health care.

BROOKS: Health care. And these are just huge mistakes. And so, one likes to see someone in midair admit doubt, politicians never do it, I guess I understand. But I would like to have seen a little more sense. I'm listening to you, let's re-establish trust.

DIONNE: Health care was about to be passed until the Massachusetts result, it should be said. And secondly, I don't think the opposition to Obama is rooted in ideology. I think if unemployment were at 4 percent instead of 10 percent, people would say whatever he did looks really good.

BROOKS: That's exactly where we differ.

SIEGEL: In the brief time that remains, just like to note the passing of perhaps the most influential and least media-exposed writer of modern times, J.D. Salinger we lost. An important person to you guys?

DIONNE: I loved the short stories, especially "Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters." And my colleague Henry Allen had a lovely line in the paper today. Salinger was once considered subversive in his wry, quite tweety way, the sort of guy who stands in a corner for the whole party and then goes home with the most beautiful girl there.


BROOKS: You know, though, he froze himself an amber - I read a great book recently, a great novel named "King Dork" by an author name Frank Portman. It was about a kid who barraged by having to read Holden Caulfield every single damn year.

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

DIONNE: Thank you.

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