Politics And Policy Take Center Stage As Obama Touts Economic Plan

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President Obama spoke about the need for economic stimulus yesterday. Joining host Michel Martin to discuss the president's plan is Steve Hildebrand who served as a Deputy National Campaign Manager to the Obama presidential campaign. Kevin Williamson, Deputy Managing editor the National Review joins the conversation as well.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This is the first full day of Rosh Hashanah and we want to wish our Jewish listeners a happy new year. It's the last day of Ramadan. We want to wish our Muslim listeners a happy Eid.

And it's Fashion Week in New York. We are going to introduce you to a young fashionista who is part of a new wave of Asian heritage designers who are rising to prominence in the industry. We'll have that conversation later in the program.

But first, resetting the White House economic agenda. President Obama outlined more of his ideas for jumpstarting the nation's sluggish economy yesterday in Cleveland. It was his second stop in the Midwest this week talking about reenergizing the recovery.

In Milwaukee on Monday, he unveiled a $50 billion plan to expand America's infrastructure of highways and railways. Yesterday's speech, though, was sharper in tone and more rooted in politics. The president repeatedly singled out Ohio congressman and House minority leader, Republican John Boehner for supporting philosophies that he said led to a downturn in the economy in the first place.

President BARACK OBAMA: A few weeks ago, the Republican leader of the House came here to Cleveland and offered his party's answer to our economic challenges. Now, it would be one thing if he had admitted this party's mistakes during the eight years that they were in power, if they had gone off for a while and meditated, come back and offered a credible new approach to solving our country's problems.

But that's not what happened. There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner. There were no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy that we had already tried during the decades that they were in power.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about the substance and the politics behind the president's economic policy in his speeches this week, so we have called Steve Hildebrand. He's a Democratic strategist who served as a deputy national campaign manager to then-candidate Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Also with us is Kevin D. Williamson. He's the deputy managing editor of the National Review, which is of course the conservative political journal. And I welcome you both. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. STEVE HILDEBRAND (Democratic Strategist): Thanks for having us, Michel.

Mr. KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON (Deputy Managing Editor, National Review): Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Steve, let's start with you. There are those who would argue that the president should exercise his bully pulpit and not directly engage a member of Congress. That's kind of beneath his station. I wanted to ask, what's your view of that?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: I don't think it's beneath his station at all. I think if it were personal attacks, that wouldn't be President Obama's style, but he was specifically talking about Leader Boehner's economic policies, which are not new, as he indicated, and they're not, you know, it's basically going to take us back to the failed policies of the years of George Bush. And I think it's fair to talk about that, yes.

MARTIN: How about effective?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Effective? Yeah. I mean, absolutely. There's - in politics it's - in a policy setting, frankly, it's very important to talk about the differences between policies and the people who are presenting those policies.

MARTIN: Kevin, what about you?

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Well, the president knows it's going to be difficult to run this time around without someone called Bush on the ballot to run against.

But the fact that he is concentrating so much on what happened during the eight years of the Bush administration, which was not a time of, you know, great fiscal sanity or wonderful economic policy, but he suggested he misunderstands the real problem which isn't something that originated in the last eight years or the last 10 years.

It's the fact that we had 80 million American households who thought their houses were worth twice what they were and eventually that caught up with us. And we have an economy that was based on this mythical wealth that didn't actually exist. And now that it's gone, we're going to go through an enormous, painful restructuring that no amount of federal stimulus can help us to avoid.

MARTIN: Well, I want to talk a little bit more about the (unintelligible), Kevin, I know you just wrote about whether you think these policies are actually effective or not. But I want to save that conversation for just a couple of minutes.

I do want to ask you, Kevin, about the president's point. He acknowledged that Americans are frustrated about the economy overall. But he accused the Republicans of basically being the party of no, of just blocking steps to get the economy churning again in the absence of better ideas on their part. I just want to play you a short clip of what he said.

Pres. OBAMA: And meanwhile, some of the various steps that were necessary to save the economy, like temporarily supporting the banks and the auto industry. Then the perception that Washington is still ignoring the middle class in favor of special interests. And so people are frustrated and they're angry and they're anxious about the future. I understand that.

I also understand that in a political campaign, the easiest thing for the other side to do is to ride this fear and anger all the way until Election Day.

MARTIN: Kevin, say your assessment.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Well, you know, sometimes saying no is the right thing to do, you know. And for the last three years we've spent more money trying to stimulate the economy than we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, if you include the Bush stimulus in that. And it's had, you know, very little palpable effect.

You know, Obama's great political mistake here was he put a number on it. When he was selling the stimulus, he said, if we don't do this, unemployment's going to be up around 10 percent, you know, here in a few months. And if we do it, it won't be there. And of course we did spend the nearly trillion dollars on it, unemployment's exactly where it was going to be anyway.

It's still there. It's still going to be persistent. And that's a difficult thing to try to run away from. And so, yeah, it's nice to be able to go out there and say, well, you know, these bad Republican guys trying to do what they did before and yada, yada, yada and all that.

But the truth is the fundamental problem that's facing our economy right now is not a question of public policies that were pursued over the last eight years, or the last 10 years, but public policies that were pursued over the last 50 to 60 years.

MARTIN: Steve, why don't you just pick the ball up there? I mean on the hand, I mean, Kevin makes the point that stopping a policy that you disagree with is a good use of your time if you feel it fundamentally won't work. And he also obviously takes issue with the policy itself. He says it simply will not address the issue. So, Steve, why don't you take it from there?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Well, first of all, it's important to point out that had we not moved forward with the stimulus package earlier, our economy most likely would have been a lot worse off than it is right now. So that move was very, very important to keep the economy stable and not to go into a deep recession.

Number two is that the Bush tax cuts, I think it's really important to remember that George Bush and the Republicans pushed those tax cuts through at a time when we were spending billions of dollars on the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War. And you don't do those kinds of things to, you know, help your friends out, your rich friends out, at a time when the country's going deep in debt.

And we were fiscally sane at the end of the Clinton administration for the first time in many, many years. And George Bush and the Republicans took us in a pretty deep path of destruction. And we're trying to get out of that. And that's not to place blame. That's to suggest that they got us deep and it's time to get out and it's going to take a while.

And I'm just as impatient as every other American. I want the economy to be strong and healthy and resilient and get our people back to work, get people back in their homes. But the bottom line is the Bush tax cuts didn't help us stable the economy and it is important that we take those back.

This is not going to hurt middle Americans. This is not going to hurt rich people. This is simply going to put us back on par with where we were at in the Clinton years. This is not a tax increase.

MARTIN: Steve, I want to ask you, though, you've been critical of the president in the past (unintelligible) of not keeping his eye on the ball of who his core constituent whose mandate comes from, do you think he's back on track?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Yes, I do. I think this is a very important battle for him to undertake for policy reasons more than anything else, Michel. This really is fundamental economics that we should not be handing out big giant tax breaks, billions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthiest 1 percent of the American people.

It's the middle income folks and it's small business that needs help. And it's going to be small business that's really going to stabilize this economy if anybody's going to do it.

MARTIN: Kevin, I'm going to ask you to focus on the substance, you wrote about the stimulus, you were very critical of. You said just another bailout. That you said the highway system in particular is a source of endless financial shenanigans in a rich seam of political patronage to be mined by Obama's allies at the state and local levels. So I take your point on that.

What's your better idea? What do you think - and I recognize it is a complicated topic, which is why, of course, people write about it every day. But what is your better idea for it? What is to be done right now?

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Well, the fundamental problem is we had a bubble in residential real estate. And public policy right now coming from both sides - from Republicans and Democrats - is dedicated to trying to keep that bubble inflated to the extent that we can. You know, with the homebuyer's tax credits flooding the markets with liquidity for Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac and Morgan Securities and all the rest of that stuff.

As long as you keep doing that, you don't let prices fall where they need to fall to. You don't let the securities prices come down to where they need to go to. You stop the markets from clearing. You keep all this capital locked up and basically you're just keeping a dead system on life support. What we need to do is to concentrate on getting spending under control.

You know, the Bush deficits were nobody's idea, I think, of a good idea. But you don't respond to those by having deficits that are five or six times as large. And, you know, we're going out and lecturing him about, well, you know, you're trying to take care of your rich friends and all that. I mean that's a little rich coming from a guy whose number one campaign contributor was Goldman Sachs and who has, you know, spent a lot of his administration really trying to prop up (unintelligible) his funds. And...

Mr. HILDEBRAND: I think it's important, though, Kevin, Barack Obama wasn't giving tax cuts to Goldman Sachs as a favor for rich people. They may have contributed to his campaign, but ask him today if they're very happy with his presidency. He's not out there fighting for Goldman Sachs.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Really? I mean he's fighting for people who are holding a lot of overvalued real estate securities. We're not having to pay the price for the bad investments they've made.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: We can argue that point. And...

MARTIN: Well, it is true the campaign contributions are flowing - are redirecting - former contributors are redirecting toward the Republicans, which could be for any number of reasons.

So, Steve, I gave you the first word. Kevin, I'm going to give you the last word. Do you feel - a question for you is, clearly, well, the argument is the momentum is sort of shifting to Republicans. Do you feel that if that is the case, that there will be a redirection of economic policy in the direction that you have outlined?

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Well, no, I really don't think so. I mean I think the last really sane, you know, fiscally sane administration we had in Washington was probably sometime around the, you know, Harding or something like that.

The Republicans did not do a tremendously good job of exercising fiscal discipline last time around and they're starting to act like they maybe got some religion on the subject and they're going to get serious about it next time around, but, you know, the jury is still out. It's really hard to go in and make cuts. It's really hard to go in and raise revenue, which they're going to have to do. And whether they're going to have the wherewithal to do it next time around, I mean who knows?

MARTIN: Well, we - obviously a rich topic and to be continued. Steve, I'm going to have to call you back to get your take on exactly what your sense is of what's going to happen on Election Day. So we'll have to do that again.

Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of the National Review. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Steve Hildebrand is a Democratic strategist who runs Hildebrand Strategies. He's also former deputy national campaign manager to then-candidate Barack Obama's presidential campaign. And he joined us from South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Thanks.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Thank you.

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