Week In Politics: Obama's Economic Speaking Tour, NSA

Robert Siegel talks to political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss President Obama's economic speaking tour and the National Security Agency.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, joining us to talk about politics now, columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And as we just heard, President Obama has been trying this week to focus on economic policy. He hit the road to promote an agenda for strengthening the middle class. Speaker John Boehner promptly dismissed the president's Galesburg, Illinois speech as an Easter egg with no candy in it. E.J., you've written about President Obama's week as a bid for history and one that could prove influential for many years.

Doesn't he first have to be influential and successful in a few months?

DIONNE: Well, he has to avoid catastrophe in the next few months and I think that's part of the purpose of the speech. And indeed, for all the criticisms of the speech, it struck me that in recent days you've had a lot of Republicans begin to back away from the idea of shutting down the government, of going to the edge on the debt ceiling.

Not only people like John McCain, but also people - real conservatives like Senator Richard Burr or Congressman Tom Cole. So I think on the short term it may do some good, but this is about the long term. I mean, why do we think of, progressives especially, think of Franklin Roosevelt as a great president? Why do conservatives think of Ronald Reagan as a great president?

Well, these are people who changed the terms of the national debate and had their ideas dominate for a long time after they left office. And this speech, I think, was very important because he was making the case for middle-out economics, basically a broad middle class, spread the wealth around, to use that famous line, as opposed to trickle-down economics. Growing inequality, he said, is not just morally wrong, it's bad economics.

So I think it was important that he begin, in the final years of his presidency, to change some of our assumptions.

SIEGEL: David, do you hear some kind of big core idea there in the president's words?

BROOKS: No. You know, who's ever been for trickle-down economics, by the way? You know, what I liked about the speech was that we're out of the stupid cyclical debate we had, which was whether we should have more stimulus or less or austerity. That was never going anywhere. We're back to the real debate. And I congratulate him for that, for getting us into the structural issues.

We have these gigantic structural issues - technological change, globalization, widening inequality, males just fleeing the labor force. And so these are big gigantic problems. My problem with the speech is that, first, the solutions he has are way too small for the problems. The solutions are fine, more infrastructure spending, more education reform, that's fine.

But it's not commensurate with the size of the problem and there's no overarching theory about what we should do about it. I don't really blame the president because the academics and the experts don't have an overarching theory about what we should do about this confluence of problems either. But I would have liked to have seen a bigger approach, some coherent approach about how we deal with what really are the core problems of the age.

DIONNE: I just disagree on two counts, although I appreciate some of what David said. One is that there isn't an overarching theory here. I think there is an overarching theory here which says there is a legitimate role for government in making a lot of investments that can actually help us grow. Government is not just a drag on the economic system. And also by making some changes in the labor market, like the minimum wage.

Second, I think the real test is going to come in the next eight weeks. The White House promises, and I hope they keep the promise, that it's going to be an eight-week campaign. He's going to lay out a series of ideas in more detail in future speeches, some old and some new. And I think it's going to be interesting to see what the new things are.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, I would just say the problems we have are a confluence of social issues and economic issues. The social issues are collapsing marriage, people born out of wedlock, disintegrating social capital. And to really speak intelligently about this, you can't just talk about economics. You have to talk about social structures. And what he did, the minimum wage, that's fine. As I say, infrastructure, fine, but he's not really getting at what are the core things that really define the moment.

SIEGEL: Well, he criticized the notion of the inevitability of inequality. Is he going after a conservative Republican idea there?

BROOKS: Well, I think he's absolutely right about that. We have widening social inequality. We have widening income inequality, and Republicans have been very slow to pick up on this and offer their own solutions, by the way. Actually, Rick Santorum is one of the guys - some of the social conservatives are a little better on it because they do understand the confluence of single parenthood and limited economic opportunity.

But you have to speak about it in these complex social ways and I just don't think he got there.

DIONNE: In the interests of authentic as opposed to fake bipartisanship, I would make the point that I do think that if you care about inequality, you have to care about family and social structure. But if you care about family and social structure, you have to care about inequality, because our inequalities are part of what is harming American families.

SIEGEL: One other topic. The House of Representatives voted this week against limiting the gathering of phone data by the National Security Agency. The vote was, and you can take your pick now, either a near-win for what Idaho Tea Party Congressman Raul Labrador called the wingnut coalition, right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats, or an actual win for pro-security, pro-establishment Republicans and Democrats.

What happened this week, and what do you guys make of it? David?

BROOKS: I'd say it's a moral victory for the wingnuts. And, you know, you look at the moment. What are we faced with? We're faced with a rising libertarianism, both on the left and the right. That is the movement that's really rising in power. We saw it in a bipartisan way in the Congress today.

SIEGEL: Chris Christie says it's dangerous, rising libertarianism.

BROOKS: I agree with that, but it's there.

DIONNE: I don't view it that way. I actually thought this was kind of a wonderful thing. Justin Amash, 33-year-old libertarian, John Conyers, 84-year-old liberal, say wait a minute, we have some questions to ask about the NSA. And the vote was as bipartisan as you'll ever find, 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats for it.

I don't think this is a vote to make us less secure. I think people have a lot of legitimate questions about the national security state. Great piece in David's paper about this FISA court, all the appointees being Republican. Let's open this debate. This was a vote to keep it open.

BROOKS: Well, I think we do have the debate, but we do have a situation where according to most of the people who actually know what they're talking about, these programs have saved lives.

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

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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