MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
So it seems the spring slump that many predicted for the economy has not come to pass. For thoughts on that and other topics, we turn to our Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. E.J., welcome back.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
BLOCK: And filling in this week for David Brooks, Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor with National Review, Ramesh, welcome to you.
RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.
BLOCK: Well, the stock market seemed to really like these numbers today. Ramesh, let's start with you. Your outlook on what these numbers say about economic policy, what you think is working and what might not be.
PONNURU: Well, I think what was the really positive development in today's numbers was not just the 165,000 for April, but the upward revisions that made February and March look a lot better than people had thought. And these aren't numbers that are reducing the unemployment rate as fast as we would like. There is still a crisis of long term unemployment which, unfortunately, is getting short shrift in Washington.
You may remember that we had a press conference this week. Nobody asked President Obama about jobs.
BLOCK: It did not come up, yeah.
PONNURU: But there is still some progress. The economy is not as weak as some people had feared. The sequestration is not damaging the economy as much as many critics had worried and all of these things are very positive.
BLOCK: But E.J., if you look longer term, do you think those across-the-board spending cuts will start to take a bite? You also had the payroll tax cut that went away in January. Is there a gloomier picture ahead, do you think?
DIONNE: Well, yeah, I don't think these are great numbers. They're good in the sense that we are not in a catastrophe. Neil Irwin on The Washington Post blog site said, look, we've had no double-dip recession that people predicted, but there hasn't been a big recovery. John Ydstie's piece about low expectations reminded me of the American Socialist, Eugene Debs, who once said there should be another beatitude, blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.
BLOCK: The soft bigotry of low expectations of the economy, there you go.
DIONNE: Yes, exactly. You know, you wonder where would we be if we had let the payroll tax holiday continue another year? Where would we be without the sequester? We're holding an economy down and while this is good news, we're not crashing again, it's not fast enough.
BLOCK: I want to move onto another topic. At the news conference that Ramesh mentioned, this week, President Obama renewed his vow to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Of course, this was a pledge he made back during the 2008 presidential campaign. He calls Gitmo a recruitment tool for extremists and not necessary to keep America safe. Ramesh, do you see any appetite in Congress for actually closing Guantanamo Bay?
PONNURU: There has been strong bipartisan opposition to the president's plans in the past in Congress and I don't see anything likely to change that. And I really wonder whether Obama is even serious, as opposed to just signaling to the segment of his base that's very passionate this issue, that he still stands with them. Because he surely knows both about the existence of that bipartisan opposition and the fact that the polls suggest that most people in the public are not with him on this issue, either.
BLOCK: E.J., do you think he is serious? The president said I'm going to go back at this. Has the administration, do you think, articulated a plan for what they would do with those detainees if Guantanamo were to close?
DIONNE: I think the answer's no. I mean, Congress doesn't want these folks coming into the United States. That's his big problem, but he's been president now for over four years and this thing has festered. There are a small number of people there. The facility has wound down. I think he's getting to the point where if he's going to offer this rhetoric, yes, it must be closed, he's going to have to do something whether Congress likes it or not.
BLOCK: And finally, to one more question that the president was faced with this week. At that new conference, he was asked, do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress. And let's listen to just some of what he said in response.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As Mark Twain said, the rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.
BLOCK: So he's kind of mangling the Twain quote there, but we get the point. Ramesh, do you think with the failure of the gun bill to get through Senate, the president's inability to roll back sequestration, some problems with the immigration compromise, has the president, indeed, lost his juice, as the questioner put it?
PONNURU: Well, I think that at the very least some of the expectations that his supporters had after he was reelected are being downsized. And a lot of people, when he talked about rumors of his demise having been exaggerated, were reminded of President Clinton saying at a press conference that many thought of as kind of a low point in his presidency, that he was still relevant.
But Obama's just been reelected. That's the difference in the political circumstances, whereas in Clinton's case it was right after a bad midterm that he had said that. I think that the president has, as you said, the gun bill failed, sequestration has not worked out politically the way he thought it would, and he doesn't seem to be making any headway on taxes. So I think he's really running into the limits of what a lot of people had thought was going to be a liberal moment.
BLOCK: E.J., you seem to be expressing some frustration in a column this week about things you think he could be doing that would restore that juice, if you want to call it that.
DIONNE: Right, well I think what he said about the fact that he shouldn't take most of the blame for this, it comes from Republican obstruction, is true. And the Senate is using the filibuster routinely. That's true. The right-wing Republicans want him to fail. That's all true.
But I think Americans like their president to look a little happier and more hopeful. This is the guy who used hope as his central concept. And, for example, if you take that gun vote, I think what's really striking is that the backlash against senators, particularly Senator Kelly Ayotte, who had a pretty rough week up in New Hampshire...
BLOCK: Of New Hampshire.
DIONNE: ...this week says this can come back. And I think he needs to be more hopeful, and I also think he needs to go back to the original agenda we've lost track of, you know, including his pre-K program, the minimum wage increase, more infrastructure. He's got to be sort of more aggressive and just happier in his work, even if I don't blame him for being a little depressed about things.
BLOCK: Just briefly, though, E.J., are you saying it's the optics, he needs to look and sound different as opposed to doing anything differently?
DIONNE: Well, I think he's got to make a broader case for his program and not let us get caught in all of this deficit madness all the time. People want the government to help them and do stuff.
BLOCK: OK, thanks to you both. Have a great weekend.
DIONNE: Thank you.
PONNURU: Thank you.
BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brooking Institution and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor with National Review.