ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Joining us now, our regular political observers: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Hello.
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (New York Times): Hello.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Washington Post): Hello, glad to be with you.
SIEGEL: David, you've been writing about whether the Obama administration, with its stimulus, its budget, its ambitions to reform health care, whether this is an administration that moderates can feel comfortable with. Are you getting more or less comfortable or more or less moderate?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROOKS: I'm getting less comfortable. I don't know about my gross ideological disposition these days. And I'm also getting a lot more nervous. I mean, I think this week the economy took another turn south, at least psychologically, and if I were Barack Obama, I'd be spending 90 percent of my time on the banking problem and fixing finance, because that's where the economy is really at its most scary. I wouldn't be spending so much time on education, on health care, on all the other stuff that may or may not happen in 2012. If we go into a depression and Obama is spending so much time focusing on a thousand issues that have to do with the distant future, it'll be like Nero.
SIEGEL: E.J., David just used the D word, a depression. Are we seeing an administration that is trying to enact a New Deal revival here?
Mr. DIONNE: Indeed, and that's why these things are linked. David wrote one column this week saying Obama is bad for moderates, and then he wrote a brilliant second column which refuted the first, saying maybe he's more moderate after all. And I think that one was closer to the truth. It makes perfect sense at this moment to try to fix health care, both for the long term and for the immediate term, because a lot of people are going to be losing health insurance. Where I agree with David, but not in quite the same terms as he stated it, is that he really does need to do more to reassure people on the economy. I actually think he may be too moderate in dealing with the banking crisis.
Because I think people are nervous that they don't see action. And it's fascinating that economic conservatives, comrades Alan Greenspan and Lindsey Graham and those leftists say at the Economist magazine, seem more comfortable with the idea of bank nationalizations than the Obama administration does. So I think he does need to move more aggressively there, but I don't think his program is in any way extremist or a diversion.
SIEGEL: Well, David, what do you think about that? If the administration did focus primarily on the financial crisis but did so by nationalizing the banks, are moderates more comfortable with that idea?
Mr. BROOKS: Possibly. I really think there's no ideology on this issue. On the subject of nationalization - first, the government has no legal authority to nationalize a lot of these banks. They need some legislation to do that. Second, I was told they never even got to that because they realize they have no authority. But there is sort of an issue, which is an empirical judgment. A lot of people, like Tim Geithner, think the banking system is basically healthy, and they can just - if they can just get the whole economy doing better, the banks will recover.
A lot of other people think that the banks are basically insolvent. And so we've got to focus a lot of attention on that specific issue. And my concern about the broader Obama budget is that essentially, it piles one thing on top of each other and we're going wind up with deficits that at least are $500 billion even after economy recovers, and will probably be a trillion.
SIEGEL: Let's move on to health-care reform. There was a White House forum on health care this week, E.J., and it was uttered very often - this we said, that today the circumstances in the country are so different from 1993 that the country is ready for health-care reform; that actually can be approved this year. Do you buy that, or is it going to be even harder to find three Republican votes in the Senate, come the fall, than it was for the stimulus package?
Mr. DIONNE: Health-care reform is never easy, but I it's think easier now than in 1993. First of all, in '93, people were accusing the Clinton administration of trying to bring on managed care. Well, we've gotten managed care through the private system, and a lot of people don't like it the way it is. Secondly, a lot of business groups are now, in one way or another, behind an effort to get to universal health coverage because they can't afford to cover their employees anymore. It's a real burden on business and so they would like some other way to do this, with the government playing a larger role.
Third, with these long-term fiscal problems that David mentioned, we're not going to get around to fixing them if we don't fix health care because Medicare, especially and also Medicaid, are a big part of the fiscal problem. So, I think there's a logic to health-care reform now that's even stronger than it was in '93.
SIEGEL: You agree, David?
Mr. BROOKS: I do agree that it's much more likely than before. There's a narrowing consensus around it that wasn't there in 1993. The Democrats have big majorities. I think there are two problems. One, I think the White House is a little passive, and that Congress is essentially going to be running the show -I think that's a danger. The second problem - and this is the bigger one - is the money. Where's the money coming from? In the budget, the Obama administration has in theory about $640 billion as a down payment. I'm not convinced that's going to materialize, and where are they going to get the other $600 billion they're going need to actually do it?
So getting the money there will also be a serious problem. But I do think it's at least 50-50 that we will have health care this year.
SIEGEL: Where will the money come from, E.J.?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, the problem for Obama that he faced this week is that some Democrats don't seem willing to enact some of the tax increases on the wealthy that he wants to enact. And I don't see many alternatives to the package he put together. The other likely place he's going to get it is from an idea that John McCain had and that he condemned, which is to change the way health care is treated in the tax system. And I think the Obama administration is going to back into that reluctantly, but I don't think it will be as reluctant in private as it is in public.
SIEGEL: You mean, to stop making the premiums that companies pay for their employees…
Mr. DIONNE: It's a limit…
SIEGEL: …pretax incomes.
Mr. DIONNE: …the deductibility on premiums - to get more money into the system to help people who don't have any health coverage at all.
SIEGEL: Well, I have a feeling we're going to be talking lots about health-care reform over the coming months. And thanks for talking with us today about it.
Mr. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
Mr. BROOKS: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: That's E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times.
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