Week In Politics: Obama On Race And Trayvon Martin

Melissa Block talks with political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They react to President Obama's remarks Friday about race and the Trayvon Martin verdict.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And it's with the president's comments that we begin our conversation with our Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both again.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: You know, after the Trayvon Martin verdict, there was a lot of discussion about what the president should or shouldn't say. Should he stay out of the conversation or insert himself more forcefully? And, of course, today, he did just that at some length and in really a quite extraordinary way. I mean, we did hear the president talk about knowing the fear that he saw from people in the past.

He knows what it's like, he said, to go into an elevator and see a woman clutch her purse nervously and hold her breath. David, your thoughts on the president's comments today.

BROOKS: They were strikingly personal. I thought they were Obama at his best, the Obama we saw in 2008 and 2007, someone who is sympathetic to all sides and he was sympathetic to the police. He's sympathetic to - he gave the context especially for African-American experience and how many African-Americans responding to this case. He gave the legal context. And so it was a broad (unintelligible) you could say, of the whole situation.

Arriving at, I thought, a pretty moderate and responsible and mature position, which was the legal system did its work. It has to be respected. This really isn't a federal case, in most cases. And so he arrived at, I think, a pretty responsible position at the end of the day, at the same time giving voice to a whole range of conflicting feelings, conflicting thoughts, conflicting ideas, and I think giving all Americans a sense of what other people are feeling, why they're reacting the way they are. I thought it was a deeply unifying statement.

BLOCK: And E.J., the president also did, as Scott Horsley mentioned, seem to be tamping down expectations that the Justice Department might bring civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, which is something that many people have been calling for.

DIONNE: Yeah. He did seem to be pointing that way and yet, he did, I think, propose a number of constructive steps. I think he was basically saying, we may not be able to do that, but there are things we can do. I thought it was really important for him to speak to white America in the way he did when he said Trayvon Martin could've been me 35 years ago, when he said it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away.

I think that was really important. And he sort of made three useful suggestions. One is can local communities look at better training for police to prevent racial profiling. He was really tough on the Stand Your Ground laws and I thought asked the right question, which is what would've happened if Trayvon Martin could have been armed and had shot George Zimmerman?

How would people have felt about that? And I think these laws really do need to be repealed. And then, he also spoke, how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? As a country, we really are not doing very much to help young African-American men who are stuck in some very difficult situations. And instead of sort of talking about them at moments like this and forgetting about them, we need to be, as a nation, to be looking out for them as our brothers.

BLOCK: You raise an interesting notion, which is that he's addressing white America in these remarks. It is a tricky thing to try to address two potentially very different audiences who want to hear very different things from the president at this moment, David.

BROOKS: Yeah. I do think a lot of white Americans look to the reaction from some African-Americans and understood where that reaction came from, but it was nice to hear it explicitly stated and stated in a personal and eloquent way. And so I do think he, as I said, it was unifying because he gave people a sense of where each other was coming from. And I have to say the point on the stand your ground law was actually clarifying for me.

I had some sympathy for the laws because as, you know, as Americans we should be independent, we should be able to defend ourselves, be strong. But the argument he made about, you know, do we really want all sorts of people, do we really want what happened here, people walking with guns feeling free to shoot off without legal protections, without the normal legal process? Now, that's a compelling argument, which he put very well.

And so I think if people hear that, there will be - you know, I think in my heart I certainly felt a little more desire, yeah, maybe something does have to be done about these laws.

BLOCK: I want to move on to another topic, and that was the deal we saw in the Senate this week to avert the so-called nuclear option over filibusters. White House nominees are now being confirmed and the Democrats' threat to change the rules of the Senate has been shelved.

We've also seen a compromise reached in the Senate on student loans. E.J., do you think there are balmy winds of compromise wafting through the Congress that we should all be excited about?

DIONNE: Everything is now absolutely wonderful in Washington, D.C. But no, but they are better. I mean, what you had here is the Democrats in the Senate stood up for once and said, no, we are willing to change the rules if you guys, the Republicans, are going to continue to filibuster nominees.

There's been an escalation of this. This happened only two times each to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Obama is already up to 16 times when this happened. And it was particularly troublesome that they were - Republicans were using the confirmation of Richard Cordray, they were going to block that so that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wouldn't sort of have a chance to operate.

And to his great credit, Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, said Cordray was being filibustered because we don't like the law. That's not a reason to deny someone their appointment. We were wrong. You don't hear the words we were wrong in this city very much.

BLOCK: David Brooks?

BROOKS: Yeah, E.J. used this as a victory for Democratic confrontationalism. I really think it's the opposite. I think what happened was John McCain and Lindsey Graham and some other Republicans said, you know, this is getting a little out of hand, let's walk back a little, let's preserve the structure of the institution, let's do a deal with Chuck Schumer.

And it was McCain and Schumer who really did a deal. And so I think some of the more establishment Republicans or maverick Republicans are walking back from some of the extreme confrontationalism of their colleagues.

DIONNE: I give full credit to McCain and Lindsey Graham and others, but I don't think this would have happened if you hadn't had people like Senator Merkley, Senator Udall, Senator Harkin, for some years saying, wait a minute, we've got to do something. They have been saying this is wrong, and finally their work culminated. And to their credit, as I say, some of the Republicans said yeah, you're right

BLOCK: I want to save a little bit of time here to talk about another big story this week, and that is the city of Detroit filing for bankruptcy, the largest U.S. city by far to do so, facing debts estimated between 18 and $20 billion. David Brooks, what's the bigger message here?

BROOKS: Well, the foundational principle is if you have a city, be a city. That means have economic diversity. And Detroit lost that. And second, if you're going to be a city, be responsible. They made promises to their pensioners, to their city workers they simply couldn't keep. And it's the combination of those two things that really led to what we saw today.

BLOCK: And E.J.?

DIONNE: Yes, there are pension problems, yes there are governance problems, but really this is free trade, free markets and the creative destruction that market defenders celebrate. It can actually be destructive. Even free trade advocates say there are, quote, losers from free trade. Detroit is among them, and now it's trying to pick itself up.

BLOCK: And we should mention that there was a ruling from a county circuit court judge today ordering that the bankruptcy filing be withdrawn. She says bankruptcy would be cheating good people who work. And we're going to have more on that coming up in the program. Meantime, thanks to you both. Have a great weekend.

DIONNE: You, too.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, David Brooks of The New York Times.

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