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Transcript (with my notes) from January 24, 2010 (PART 2)

February 13, 2010

MR. GREGORY: Our roundtable weighs in on the political landscape and the Obama agenda after this brief commercial break.


MR. GREGORY: And we’re back, joined now by E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal, Chuck Todd of NBC News and Katty Kay of BBC World News America.

Welcome to all of you. Wow, is this a week to discuss or what? There’s so much to get to. Let’s go with Massachusetts to begin with, the question of where are we then? Where are we now? Here were the results comparing Massachusetts to where Obama was in 2008. Twenty-six points he won Massachusetts by. You fast-forward to the 2010 race, Scott Brown wins by five, that’s a 31-point shift. Look at some of the other key races we’ve looked at. Virginia, that’s where Obama won by seven in ‘08. It’s the Republican, McDonnell, wins by 18, a 25-point shift. And New Jersey, you’ve got a 19-point shift, another Republican winning in an election this year compared to—this was the governor’s race, of course—compared to the presidential race of 2008.

Peggy Noonan, what happened?

I will take this segment at face value. These are political observers being asked by Gregory to discuss the political landscape. And this has been an important part of MTP for a long time. Given the events of this week (The Massachusetts election and the run up to the State of the Union), having this segment this week feels appropriate. But at some point I will give thoughts on how this forum could be used in other ways which would add value to the MTP franchise.

MS. PEGGY NOONAN: I think America never stops being a dynamic country. It’s always exciting here. Look, I, I think the president had difficulties in his first year. Those shifts tell it. I think the big message is the 2008 election settled nothing. America is still in play. We’ve got Republicans and conservatives being resurgent. Bigger than that, I think the president is losing or has lost the independent vote and the center in the United States. That’s a bad thing to happen to a presidency in a first year.


MR. E.J. DIONNE: Well, first of all, let’s not overlook political incompetence here. Martha Coakley was ahead by 31 points, the Democrat. She ended up earning 800—she got 850,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2008. The Democrats should’ve seen this coming and they didn’t. That’s why I think they’re bringing back David Plouffe.

In a larger sense, if you look at President Obama’s problem and the Democrats’ problem, they’re suffering at both ends. They are losing energy from their own supporters, from progressives, and they are losing in the middle. The independent voters voted against them in Virginia and in New Jersey, and now in Massachusetts. And I think that double problem belies the normal talk you hear in Washington, “Well, now we move to the center or we move to the right.” That’s a really stale debate and it doesn’t begin to deal with the problems Democrats have, because they’ve got to get energy on their side again and they’ve got to start winning the middle. That’s why I think they are trying—Obama, in these very forceful speeches where he’s using the word “fight” about 100 times a day…


MR. DIONNE: …is trying to say, “Look, we get it. We are fighting against Wall Street.” They look like Wall Street liberals. Now, can you imagine a worse combination than being a Wall Street liberal?


MR. DIONNE: And they’re trying to say, “We’re going to fight for you against them.”

Good stuff, but nothing particularly new. I get frustrated when MTP has on columnists who basically repeat what they have said in their columns the previous week. Chances are, if they are an important enough observer to be on MTP, the audience has already read what the person has said (or seen them on a different show). MTP should cultivate and give air time to observers who will come to the show with something original… who will telegraph to us what they will be writing about in the coming week, not what they said last week.

MR. GREGORY: Katty Kay, here, here’s the cover of Newsweek magazine that’ll hit the newsstands, and you see Barack Obama on, on the cover. And the title there is “The Inspiration Gap.” And it does lead to this question; the president acknowledged that he had somehow failed in his ability to communicate to the American people, to somehow connect to their concerns. Peggy, you wrote this, this column about whether he was really connected. The obvious question is, how could that happen? How could the great communicator of our time have failed in that fundamental goal?

I like it when MTP teases the coming week’s newsmagazine covers. As an audience member it makes me feel like I am learning something new, experiencing the punditry “in the moment” rather than after the fact.

MS. KATTY KAY: Yeah, and I think that’s the question that the White House is asking right now. That’s part of whatever—if there is going to be a reset, it’s going to be a reset around the issue of communication. That there were very valid reasons for the stimulus plan, for the bank bailout, for healthcare reform in American, but the president failed to present those reasons in terms that ordinary American families could connect with. There was almost an arrogance in the White House that “we are doing the right thing for the American people, but we don’t have to actually explain it to the American people.”


MS. KAY: “We don’t have to actually go to the people and say, `We need to do this, and this is why.’ This is why there is a real cost if we don’t enact healthcare reform, and there is a real benefit if we do enact it.” And I think that message didn’t get across. And maybe Obama came out of the election thinking, “I have this mandate to govern this country, and because of my story and because of who I am and because of that enthusiasm and inspiration and that hope around my election, I don’t actually need to go about explaining things,” and that was a big error.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Chuck, let me bring you into this, but I want to set your comments up with this. Politico wrote a piece this week called “What Went Wrong,” and this is part of it: “Obama and his team … believed that the historical cycle had turned, that voters had not only rejected George W. Bush’s brash conservatism but also moved beyond Bill Clinton’s tepid and defensive-minded progressivism. … Obama believed that early success would be self-reinforcing, building a powerful momentum for bold government action. This belief was the essence of the White House’s theory of the `big bang’—that success in passing a big stimulus package would lead to success in passing health care, which in turn would clear the way for major cap-and-trade environmental legislation and `re-regulation’ of the financial services sector—all in the first year.”

MR. CHUCK TODD: Well, this was about overlearning the lesson of Clinton, right, which is to don’t sort of dillydally in one issue, right, immediately try to do a whole bunch of things.

But, you know, I want to get back to the, the—something about this idea of the message problem that this White House has, because it’s odd to say they have a message problem when they are out there all the time trying to sell something.

MS. KAY: Hm.

MR. TODD: Now, part of it is they’re selling, obviously, a lot of things at one time. They got bogged down in the healthcare debate and that’s no doubt, and now they’re saying, “Hey, we’re out of touch, we have a message problem.” But they are going to have to deal with this issue of anger at—in government institutions. You and I spent a lot of time over the last two years talking about this anger that the public has and lost faith they have in institutions. That hasn’t gone away. That’s the, the issue here. That’s certainly the message that the president believes he received on Tuesday, which is, look, people are still upset at institutions, and he’s got to figure out how to become the leader of Washington and anti-Washington at the same time, which I think’s going to be incredibly difficult to do. Ronald Reagan pulled it off because he still had a Democratic Congress…

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. TODD: …to run against in 1982 when he was in the exact same position that Barack Obama is now. What’s odd for him is he’s got to figure out how to run against his own Democratic Congress in some form or another and run against the institutions of Washington, and that’s what’s going to be a difficult challenge for him.

MR. GREGORY: But, Peggy, he’s also dealing with a Republican Congress that was more difficult than he even accounted for in terms of not being willing to work with him. That’s a reality.

Why does Gregory think there is a “Republican Congress”? Very strange. But Todd made some good points about the anger with Washington not going away. And how does an incumbent president with majorities in both houses of Congress run against that? This is a topic worth more discussion but, Gregory (as in the McConnell exchange earlier) seens fixated on the “party of no” concept.

MS. NOONAN: That’s not how Republicans in Washington see it. They feel that their ideas say on health care, for instance, their ideas on tort reform, were simply flicked away and never really considered.

Let me say, on the communications thing, the president is often out there talking, his administration is every day. If you watch a lot of cable, it’s what you see. It is the wallpaper of your life, seeing the administration putting its case forward. I think it’s the wrong lesson to draw if you think we’re not talking enough or we’re not talking in the right, magical way. There is no right, magical way. The product that you’re trying to sell may be faulty. Beyond that, part of communicating is listening. You talk and you hear. The administration has done a bad job the past year of hearing the response of the American people and their reservations over their biggest issue, which was health care.

MR. GREGORY: But aren’t we over…

MS. KAY: Well…

MR. GREGORY: Go ahead, Katty.

MS. KAY: But one thing I would say is that it’s hard to hear it because the message is very confused. On the one hand, people are saying “we want jobs, but we don’t want the kind of spending that it’s going to take to get those jobs. We want you to be tougher on terrorism, but we don’t necessarily want a troop build-up in Afghanistan.” So the message that we’re getting from the country’s confusing. I would say there is a risk of being a little bit apocalyptic here, that thinking we have had this one result and that changes the nature everything and we have to have this major reset, and that there is a tendency amongst, you know, journalists included, to be a little bit short-term about this. There are another 10 months to go until the midterm elections. This is only one year of a presidency, and there is ample time. A and maybe we should actually—and perhaps the White House needs to think this, too—step back a bit and think “let’s not be too dramatic about this.”

Good point by Kay. Unfortunately it doesn’t fit with the demands of 24 hour cable or even a weekly show like this!

MR. GREGORY: Well, we’ve…

MR. DIONNE: Especially—journalists especially overate these things.


MR. DIONNE: I agree with you on that. But you’ve got an unprecedented situation. We’ve never been in a situation where everything required 60 votes in the Senate. There was a headline in the Village Voice that said, “Republicans Claim 41-59 Senate Majority.” That’s what we have come to.

MS. KAY: Mm-hmm.

MR. DIONNE: And I think the fact that the healthcare bill stood around there like a bottle of milk out in the kitchen for two days made it look less and less appealing to people. And I think Democrats really face a choice here. If they walk away from this healthcare bill after voting for it in both houses, they will look very, very weak. They’re going to be stuck with those votes anyway. I’ve been thinking of sailing metaphors, because of Ted Kennedy. If one election in one state can completely blow you off course, you’re not much of a sailor.

MR. GREGORY: Well, there’s no indication that they do plan to do that, right?

MR. TODD: No, not at all. And it does look like—I think, this, this, this idea of the House voting the Senate bill is still very much alive. When Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t have the votes, that was a negotiating tactic. That was a—make the liberal Democrats in the House stare into the abyss of nothing and say, “OK, we could have nothing. How do you want to, how do you want to do that?” to, to get at your point.

But, you know, another, I think, struggle for this White House is the fact that nobody’s seeing results. And obviously, so that’s why I think, Katty, this is where the White House does sort of ascribe to this. Hey, patience, patience, patience. As soon as the public sees some results, then they have something to sell, because they certainly did pass a number of things, you know, and they think at some point when the economy starts turning and this and that.

But I think the other fundamental mistake they made on health care is that they viewed health care, they, they forgot that it is connected to the economy. And they would say, “Oh, yeah, we know that.” And that anybody that’s concerned about health care usually is not concerned about the care they’re getting, they’re concerned about their job and the fear of losing their job and therefore health care. And, and that’s maybe where they had their priority flipped around.

When Todd mentioned the idea of having the House just pass the Senate version of healthcare reform, I was jolted a little thinking, “Oh yeah, that is really kind of the most intriguing possibility floating around the political atmosphere right now… why has it only come up in the final minutes of the show?

MR. GREGORY: Let’s talk a little bit about political conditions about the Republicans. But first, 1994 comes up a lot as a comparison, a wave that would sweep Democrats from power as they did when Bill Clinton was president. E.J. Dionne, back in 1994, in August, this is what you had to say on this program.


MR. TODD: Poor E.J.

MR. DIONNE: Save me!

MR. GREGORY: Watch this.

(Videotape, August 28, 1994)

MR. DIONNE: Why did the Democrats get into this fix and why did Clinton get into this mess? I think that in 1992 it was very clear, and still is, that Americans are worried about a number of things. They’re worried about losing their jobs, especially if they’re blue collar or middle managers, even with the economic recovery. They don’t think government works. The Clinton of ‘92 addressed all of those issues. And I think for the last year he has gotten lost in the details of health care, which chilled everybody’s mind, and in Whitewater. And I think that what he’s going to have to do and what the Democrats are going to have to do if they’re going to get back on track is to reconnect with all of those themes. And I think that’s what Clinton’s going to spend the rest of the year doing.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Pretty striking. Could the—almost the same be said today?

One of the things I hate most about the “political roundtable” is when it devolves into preening of this sort… the kind that reinforces the pundits’ inner sense that they and their sort actually run the town. Ugh. (Not Dionne’s fault in this case.)

MR. DIONNE: That guy looked so young. Who was that? God love him.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah, right, who was that?

MR. DIONNE: You could have embarrassed me. That was, that was pretty good. I do think that, in fact, that is precisely what needs to happen. Peggy mentioned there were no magic words, and I agree with that. This is not about magic. But if you go back to Ronald Reagan, the person that Peggy worked for so effectively, Ronald Reagan spent a lot of time not lost in the weeds of policy. He made large arguments, and he made large arguments against the other side. He spent a lot of time saying this old, failed liberalism doesn’t work anymore. And I think what you need from Obama—in all of the speeches he’s given, he has not made a consistent argument, provided a consistent narrative of where I want to move the nation. I think you’re beginning to see that in the last few days. And Massachusetts, it’s very strange to say, could turn out to be a blessing if it leads to a course correction 10 months before the midterms. The Democrats didn’t see what was coming in ‘94; boy, they do now.

MR. GREGORY: Right. And, Peggy, it’s interesting. Lou Cannon, who you know well, the Reagan biographer, wrote this week that, you know, the conventional wisdom that somehow this is the unraveling of the Obama presidency might be wrong. This could be—Reagan’s first year, ‘82, was bad; landslide in ‘84. This is what he wrote, actually: “[Reagan’s ‘84 re-election landslide] would not have happened without the economic recovery; no president is immune to prolonged economic downturn. But Reagan’s performance in ‘82 was also crucial. … Millions of Americans responded to Reagan’s unflinching optimism and believed he would do the right thing. By that measure, if he can once again display the rousing audacity that marked the campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama can make a similar comeback.”

MS. NOONAN: Let me tell you what I think is the difference between now and 1982. Yes, you have two young, new, compelling presidents, and they’re going through a hard time in their first year. Here are the differences. One, Reagan was on the same page as his public with regard to what the great issues of the day were: the economy and national security, the Soviet Union. President Obama has not been the same page, he’s been going down a different road. Two, Reagan in ‘82 had a clear plan that everybody knew. He said, “I’m going to cut your taxes and it’s going to help get us out of it. I’m going to squeeze inflation out of the system.” Because it was a clear plan, people gave it time. In the end, it seemed to work. Three, Reagan was a conservative president in a center-right country. That’s not true with Mr. Obama, whose political philosophy is still, oddly, unclear in a way. It seems to—we see the impulses of it in his programs, but we’re not sure what the basic thing is. But America remains a center-right country. So I don’t buy the parallels of ‘82 and now.

Nice grounding in recent political history here. And the upshot advice (even if Noonan thinks it is unlikely to happen) is that the president needs to offer a large consistent message… a narrative which will connect him with the current moment for the American people. It could work.

MS. KAY: I would say that lack of clarity is very important, that there is a sense that people aren’t confident about the leadership that they’re getting from Washington. And if you remember one of the things in the ‘08 election that the Republicans and, to some extent, President Bush had been criticized for was a lack of competency. People wanted to feel that they had a, leadership that they could believe in, that was competent.


MS. KAY: And I think the struggles of the last week or two have begun to make people think, is this White House competent?


MS. KAY: Are they delivering on something that is clear? Are they actually managing to get the job done? Where do they go next? There’s a sense of confusion, and I think that’s very undermining for the president in terms of the electorate.

MS. NOONAN: Yes. I think that…

MR. GREGORY: There’s also the issue of the sort of opposition that the president faces. Where is the Republican Party? We talked a little bit about that. Again, part of the conversation we’ve had outside the hour today in some outside interviews includes one with Dick Armey, a former congressman who’s now part of FreedomWorks, who is part of this tea party movement that was influential in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Here’s what he said about the center of American politics.

Here, Gregory’s focus on the Republicans seems like a good fit… especially since Dionne, Kay, and Noonan don’t seem prepared to give the Republicans any lumps at all.


FMR. REP. DICK ARMEY (R-TX): This is the broad center of American politics. Look at the polling data. Right now the tea party polls higher than the Republicans and the Democrats. And it is becoming increasingly clear to the electorate out there, and they’re expressing their understanding, it is the Democrat majority in Congress and the president that’s on the liberal fringe and we are on the center. There’s no doubt about it.

(End videotape)

MR. TODD: Oh, well, I don’t know if they’re in the center. I mean, when we did our own polling on this, it’s clear that the tea party gets a big benefit because there’s one news organization that gives them a huge bump all the time. I mean, their favorable rating among Fox viewers is through the roof, and the rest of the country sort of doesn’t know a lot about these folks. But the message of the tea party sort of saying “the government doesn’t work, these institutions, and we’ve got to shrink the size of government,” is tapping into what we were just discussing before…

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. TODD: …which is this, this—I would—not disgust, but it’s sort of this distrust of all institutions that are out there, government included. But I think that—I want to go to something E.J. said about the Republican Party. I think the most striking thing about the minority party today vs.—that is that a Republican can’t go home, and it’s mostly because of this tea party crowd, cannot go home and sell a piece of pork that they got from Washington. It is now, when you bring home something, saying, “Hey, I brought federal dollars to this.” You’re on the defensive now.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. TODD: And so that does make the president’s challenge. So it’s not as if he can trade—you know, go and have these trades with a Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe, or let’s say Lamar—let’s go to—move over to maybe more conservative center-right, Lamar Alexander or something like this, because they’re not getting a benefit at home of bringing something back.


MR. TODD: Because we have, like, destroyed this, this, this idea that somehow anything from government that comes through is bad.

I suspect Todd is homing in on some real truth from the American public. But whether or not he is right… he is the only one in the roundtable who seems to be talking with conviction.

MR. GREGORY: Let me, let me get—E.J., just—I want to have you make your point. But also, as we tee up the State of the Union, another voice that we consulted on the outside was Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell, former chair of the party, who offers this advice about tone and substance for the president going forward.


GOV. ED RENDELL (D-PA): Mr. Obama was a very fine candidate. But most importantly, I think, our people, the, the Democratic base, the independents who supported us in the past, they want us to, to fight back, they want us to get something done. And look, if we’re going to go down in the 2010 elections, and I don’t think necessarily we are, but we ought to go down fighting for something we believe in, like health care for every American.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Will President Obama go down fighting?

MR. DIONNE: Well, he hopes he doesn’t go down, but he will be fighting.


MR. DIONNE: I, I want to—the, the…

MR. GREGORY: But is that a new approach, the fighting part of it? Is that…

MR. DIONNE: The fighting is not a word you would associated in the last year with Barack Obama. And yet during the campaign, it’s very similar to when he was fighting Mrs. Clinton in the primaries, where she was a more effective populist in those late primaries and he kind of had to learn it.

But I want to go back to something Chuck said. The—it’s imperative, and this is part of the State of the Union, Democrats have to show government can work.


MR. DIONNE: Because their whole argument is, “We can make the market work better, we can make the society better with careful uses of government.” If people don’t believe government can work, they’re not going to turn to the Democrats.

On the tea party folks, what did Bob McDonnell, the new governor of Virginia, and Scott Brown have in common? They didn’t have really divisive—they didn’t have divisive primaries.


MR. DIONNE: And so they could immediately run as real conservatives to the conservatives, but as problem-solving moderates to the rest of the electorate.

MR. GREGORY: And so, Peggy…

MR. DIONNE: If the tea party folks give Republicans a lot of primaries, they actually are going to set the party back.

MR. TODD: Yeah.

Did the panel just agree on something? Maybe these political problems facing the Republicans can be the topic some other day.

MR. GREGORY: All right. But, but is Scott Brown then the hope, is he a symbol for the future of the Republican Party?

MS. NOONAN: Well, look, I think you got deep blue Virginia, you got Massachusetts—sorry, deep blue New Jersey, you got Virginia, a swing state, you got deep blue Massachusetts now, they all yielded up candidates who got the support of centrists, down-the-line Republicans, tea party folk. Whatever the tea party people say operationally on Election Day, they seem to be going for candidates who, who are Republican candidates who they believe on the issues of taxing and spending.

Can I throw in on the idea of institutions? Anybody governing now has a terrible problem, because faith in institutions, all institutions—journalism, government, the church…

MR. TODD: Sports. I mean…

MS. NOONAN: …it’s all way down. So, so anybody has that built-in problem in government. But I would throw out the idea that if you have that problem, you shouldn’t be putting forward a 1,000 or 2,000-page healthcare bill in that environment.

Noonan has a good feel for these things. And there is probably a lot of truth in what she says here. The counter argument is that the president had big majorities and made a political choice to go big. It didn’t work. Will he go small now? A good question which didn’t get addressed today.

MR. GREGORY: All right. I’m going to have…

MS. NOONAN: You put out a small, discreet one.

MR. GREGORY: Got to make that the last word.

MS. NOONAN: Oh, I’m sorry.

MR. GREGORY: This will certain be continued. That’s all right.

MS. NOONAN: Oh, I beg your pardon.

Over the course of the last year on MTP, Gregory has gotten better with being in command of the roundtables and mastering the sheer logistics of live hosting. But this was not his best morning. He seemed to let the roundtable run over the top of him a couple of times and his attempt to close the conversation with Noonan was not terribly elegant.

MR. GREGORY: A programming note. Here on Monday mornings, “Daily Rundown” with Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie on MSNBC. They’ll have an exclusive interview with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. That’s Monday at 9 AM on MSNBC.

And up next here, our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE. January 1976, another economic crisis and another president preparing to deliver his State of the Union address. We look back at the advice offered on this program from Democratic presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen to Republican President Gerald Ford after this brief station break.


I hope MTP starts doing the “MEET THE PRESS MINUTE” every week. I really think it can help put the dramatic, “sky is falling” nature of most DC debates into greater perspective.

MR. GREGORY: And we’re back with our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE. January 1976, another time of economic turmoil in this country, as then President Gerald Ford prepares to give his State of the Union address to an anxious nation. Unemployment had climbed to 9 percent in the preceding year, and President Ford’s approval rating fell below 50 percent. It was an election year, and in true MEET THE PRESS tradition, a steady stream of presidential candidates made appearances on the program. Here was one of them, Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen, offering advice to the Republican president he hoped to run against and defeat in the fall.

(Videotape, January 18, 1976)

MR. LAWRENCE E. SPIVAK: Senator Bentsen, if you were the president and had to deliver the State of the Union message, what would you list as your first domestic priority now?

SEN. BENTSEN: The first domestic priority is getting people back on payrolls, getting them off the unemployment roles, back where they’re contributing to their families and contributing to doing away with this deficit that we’re facing. You know, to have the head of the family home and the kids saying, “What’s wrong with dad? Why isn’t he working?”

What they’re really trying to do in this economy of ours is to keep their foot on the brake of the economy, and I don’t think we should be doing that. We should be creating opportunity. What people are really looking for in this country is a return of self-confidence. I believe I could make a contribution there and a very major one.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: While Bentsen ultimately gained little traction in his presidential bid, the eventual Democratic nominee, a little-known Jimmy Carter, went on to narrowly win the White House later that year. As for Senator Bentsen, he went on to become the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1988, and later served as President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary. He died in 2006 at the age of 85.

And we’ll be right back.

I don’t know that we needed the recap of Bentsen’s career. I would have liked to hear a comparison of the deficts Bentsen mentioned in 1976 with what we face today. And Bentsen’s reference to “keep their foot on the brake of the economy” seems a little cryptic without the context of the moment. Maybe it could have been explored in a sentence or two. But in any event, keep these coming!


MR. GREGORY: And before we go this morning, a programming note. Still—stay with NBC News and MSNBC Wednesday night for full coverage of the president’s State of the Union address.

That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.


The original transcript of this program is the property of NBC News and
© 2010

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