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Transcript (with my notes) from January 31, 2010 (PART 2)

February 14, 2010

MR. GREGORY: Our roundtable on a busy political week coming up right after this brief commercial break.


MR. GREGORY: And we’re back, joined now by CNBC’s David Faber, Mort Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report, David Brooks of The New York Times, and Gene Robinson of The Washington Post.

Welcome to all of you.

Well, David Brooks, the final word at the end of the week, it was crystallized, I think, by The New Yorker cartoon which, I can tell you on good authority, the president finds quite amusing. Here it is, these various panes describing how the president used to be able to walk on water, and that final page he actually shows he’s a mere mortal, he’s lost his magic power, he’s into the drink. Where are we?

Is the president up or down? Sometimes an important question… appropriate for a State of the Union wrap-up weekend, I suppose… but really I’d like to know more about how the panel views the prospects on healthcare, jobs, don’t ask/don’t tell, and more.

MR. DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. Well, he’s still got it, he’s still carried in by cherubs when he goes to these meetings, he’s still fantastic. Listen, he’s—what’s happened is we’ve got two huge problems the government is not going to solve. One is short-term, which is the economy, the jobs are just terrible. I think they’re probably going to be terrible for a while. There’s nothing the government’s going to do to solve that over the next year. The longer term is the fiscal situation, which is suicidal. And the Republicans are not going to be willing to raise taxes, the Democrats are not going to be willing to cut spending, and so that looks almost unsolvable, too. And so when the government is screwing up on the two major things, then the country gets really angry. And the country is way ahead of Washington right now in its anger and its rage, and we’re all struggling to catch up.

Nice big picture overview from Brooks. The last sentence being where the analyst and pundit class focus should really be.

MR. GREGORY: And, Mort, if, if you listen to these two here this morning, Axelrod and Boehner, there isn’t a lot of common cause. There’s potential for some agreements, but there’s still this fundamental tension about whether the Republicans are obstructionists or not.

Hmmm… maybe there is some common cause… but Gregory did not press his earlier guests to identify it. What if you had taken that little booklet Boehner was waving and challenged Axelrod to find two things in there he would work to implement, right now, with the Republicans?

MR. MORT ZUCKERMAN: Well, I agree, there isn’t that agreement; and there isn’t that agreement on a program to at least deal with the short-term problem, which is getting people back to work. I just don’t think we have anything near that kind of a program that might have, in a sense, have gotten both the Republicans and Democrats together. That seems to me the issue that is absolutely overwhelming the American public, and until they get some sense of progress on that, it’s going to be a plague on both your houses, and the president’s popularity has dropped because he is a symbol of the Democratic Party in this first year more than in any other period—short a period. He’s gone down by about 30 points in approval rating, and it’s really primarily because of the economy.

Zuckerman makes a similar point about where the American public is. So maybe this public opinion thing is a real issue. Should we explore that further?

MR. GREGORY: And it’s interesting, Gene, here was the president, he took a little time out, a little break, going with some of his aides and the vice president to the ballgame yesterday, here at Verizon Center, Georgetown and Duke. Georgetown overpowering Duke, I should point out. And the, the president enjoying himself. He even did a little commentary on the sidelines where was it basketball or politics they were talking about? Listen.

(Videotape, January 30, 2010)

MR. VERNE LUNDQUIST: You’re obviously a left-hander.


MR. LUNDQUIST: Do you have any problems at all going to your right?

PRES. OBAMA: You know, I went to the Republican House Caucus just yesterday to prove that I could go to my right once in a while.

MR. LUNDQUIST: Thank you.

PRES. OBAMA: But there’s no doubt that I’ve got a stronger left hand.

(End videotape)

Cute video tape. Nice segueway. But the left/center/right framing of everything in DC is part of why people are so turned off by the city right now.

MR. GREGORY: Right. See, a Republican, Gene, will say “Exactly! You’ve got a great left hand.” And he had to go to this Republican retreat and say, “Hey, I’m not an ideologue.” And yet you heard me ask David Axelrod, “Is it his view that he needs to move to the center?” No, that’s not what you took away from the State of the Union. Did you?

MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: No, I didn’t. And, and look, at the White House, they believe they’ve moved to the center, they believe that they have—that, in their policies, beginning with the stimulus bill, which was one-third tax cuts, and throughout their policies that they’ve tried to accommodate centrist and, and even conservative views, or certainly Republican views, and that they’ve gotten, you know, slapped—they’ve, they’ve gotten the back of the Republicans Party—Party’s hand for their effort, that’s what they believe. They—at the White House, they were thrilled with the, with the, the, the, the Baltimore…

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. ROBINSON: …showdown question time and, and thought the president did really well and were very happy that he had had the opportunity to, to face his opponents in that forum, in a, in a, in a forum in which he does well. So, you know, I think they’re, they’re, they’re very happy coming out of the week, State of the Union and the, and the Baltimore…(unintelligible).

Pretty good horse race analysis… as far as that goes.

MR. GREGORY: David Faber, as you look at the week, has anything changed?

MR. DAVID FABER: Well, it, it appears in some ways that the president is making it clear to the American people he is solely focused to the extent on the economy. Obviously health care continues to be an important issue. But that’s where he’s focused, that’s where he meant—focused his State of the Union, clearly, on trying to create jobs. He didn’t go after the banks in a way that he had previously, even the week prior, in the State of the Union. And, and so perhaps the tone is changing just a bit, but that’s where he’s focused, of course, as David alluded, the challenges are, are significant. We had a good GDP number in the, in the fourth quarter. Mr. Axelrod mentioned it. It was up 5.7 percent, not quite 6 percent, but nonetheless strong. However, a lot of questions remain about the economy, about the ability to deliver jobs, and about the consumer.

I almost forgot Faber was on the show. Do we really need four analysts? It seems like each one gets very little time in this format. Faber, however, is a really smart guy. I’d like to hear more from him on this topic.

MR. GREGORY: Well, here’s how—to that point, Larry Summers was over in Davos at the economic gathering, and this is what was reported on The Wall Street Journal: Economic “adviser Summers coined a telling way to look at the current American economic state of play. He said the U.S. is experiencing a `statistical recovery and a human recession.’” That’s the issue.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: That recovery, 3.7 percent of the 5.7 percent, was for a reduction in the rate of inventory liquidation. This is not exactly a formula for economic success. I don’t think that the major area that the country is focused on, which is the jobs part, has really been addressed yet. And I didn’t think—frankly, I had a real problem with his State of the Union message, not because I didn’t think it was a good speech, but because, again, he was boiling the ocean, he was focusing on too many things, and I think he has to have much more comprehensive programs to deal with the economy. That did not come out of it.

MR. GREGORY: Mort, you were at the White House this week, at the president’s invitation, with other business leaders. Give us some sense of that.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Well, it’s a little difficult for me to do that since it was supposed to be off the record.


MR. ZUCKERMAN: But I’ll give you a general sense without—I’ll cross my legs for a second, OK?


MR. ZUCKERMAN: Look, I think it all focused on the economy. And again, a, a good part of it focused on what I just said, in fact, I focused on that, because I do think that he’s got to really concentrate his political capital and the country’s attention and the Congress’ attention on a whole series of programs to improve the economy and the jobs. We can’t do much, as David says, about the fiscal thing at this point, but the country is really terrified. It’s—the overall unemployment rate, if you take full- and part-time unemployment, is somewhere in the range of 20 percent. We’ve never seen that in our lifetime.

MR. FABER: But we do know, I mean, jobs lag a recovery, and certainly that will be the case here. It is always the case.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Without question. But we’re in a very different kind of economic recession now because it was induced by a financial crisis. And that is something we have not experienced in this country anywhere near to this degree. It’s going to take a much longer time. We’ve got to have government programs. It’s the only agent…

MR. FABER: Yeah. We’ve lost 7.2 million jobs…


MR. FABER: …since the recession began. It’s going to be tough.

Zuckerman and Faber are summing up the sober realities of where we are. They aren’t (or don’t seem to be) pointing fingers at anyone… just spelling out how difficult this recovery is going to be. Good.

MR. ROBINSON: Who’s got political capital to spend, at this point, except for Scott Brown, in, in Massachusetts, perhaps? You know, if, if you look at the—personal popularity, the president is actually, personally, quite popular.


MR. ROBINSON: And that graphic you showed earlier, 27 percent are, are blaming him essentially for everything being messed up, 48 percent blaming the, the congressional Republicans and 41 percent the congressional Democrats. It’s, it’s unclear who is the—I guess the president’s in a better position than anybody else. But how are you going to get a second stimulus? What are you going to do about jobs and, and the economy?

At first I was little perplexed by where Robinson was going with this out of the Zuckerman/Faber exchange. But I think the upshot is that the realities Z and F laid out are made all that much worse by the leadership vacuum Robinson sees in DC.

MR. BROOKS: Yeah, to me, that’s the profundity of what Larry Summers has said about the human recession, because it’s a psychological recession. If you ask people, “Why aren’t you investing? Why aren’t you lending?” it all comes down to uncertainty, at the end of the day. And so we could shove money into the economy, but if bankers and entrepreneurs don’t have any sense of certainty, then they’re just not going to invest for something six months out, a year out. And so we’ve not only got this economic problem, but it’s compounded by a psychological problem, magnified by the fact that distrust of institutions is at a highest level in American history. You go back to Watergate, you could go back to everything, people distrust institutions more than ever before.

That seems right.

MR. GREGORY: You know, to that point, from our Wall Street Journal poll, look at this in terms of the view of the federal government and the fact that most people believe that it’s not working well, that it’s unhealthy. Seventy percent feel that way.

And, David Faber, it gets to the point—the president wants a focus on jobs, rhetorically for sure, but ultimately government has to deliver. The stimulus has not lived up to its promise by the, the own admission of the, of the administration in terms of that initial impact on the unemployment rate. How much can government do at this point to create jobs?

MR. BROOKS: It—that’s a very good question. I mean, $800 billion in stimulus, of course a lot of it has yet to be spent.

Question was for Faber.


MR. FABER: And so we’re still going to see some of the effect from that. But, certainly, the government can only help. It can’t actually deal with the problem directly and create jobs all over the place, other than with direct spending to have people making roads and things like that. Businesses need to hire—small businesses, medium-size businesses. Those are challenged right now because they can’t get loans from banks to help them expand. And big business needs to hire. We’re not seeing any of that. It doesn’t mean we won’t. Typically, you need to get some confidence back before you’ll see CEOs say, “OK, I feel like I can actually start to hire now.” It hasn’t happened as yet.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Look, we are also looking at a condition where the state and local governments and local school boards are going to be cutting their expenses by $200 billion this year. It’s completely countercyclical. It’s going to wipe out much of what we still think is left of the stimulus program. They’ve got to come up with a much more serious program. I, I, I mean, there’s a major industrial program, industrial policy that is possible to improve manufacturing in this country. They’ve got to have a whole series of these programs because we may have a double dip in this recession, and then we’re going to be in real, real trouble.

OK. Now I am really getting depressed. Faber and Zuckerman should go on a downer tour of America.

MR. GREGORY: Well, let me bring up health care as well, and, and you heard David Axelrod say the president does not think it’s dead, that it can’t be dead. Even though it’s not going to be a priority, they’re going to let it linger, which has been dangerous. There’s a reason why the president set deadlines and said it has to be done this year. Going back to Clinton’s experience and the failure of healthcare reform, Joe Klein wrote an interesting column on this. And this is part of what he said: “The other mistake that [President Clinton made on Health Care reform] was political: a dozen years after Ronald Reagan was elected president, the public still believed, as Reagan said in his Inaugural, that `government is the problem,’ not the solution to the country’s difficulties. Clinton realized, too late, that he should have focused on governing effectively first.”

Gene, could the same be said now for this effort at health care?

MR. ROBINSON: Well, I think, in retrospect, yeah, you could. I mean, the—as you know, the White House made the calculation that, you know, coming in on a wave of popularity, first year, somewhat inconvenient about the economy falling apart, but, but that this was their big opportunity to do health care before we got into an election year cycle, before things got really complicated. Well, things got really complicated from the beginning. They got more complicated as, as time went on. And, and so, you know, from today you can look back and say, yeah, sure, they probably would have had more success if they had had a, had a, had established a record of governing, if they had focused on the economy. I think it was hard to—hard for them to see that then.

Ugh. Again with the DC dance. Why not ask the group which pieces of potential healthcare reform have the greatest chance of getting through Congress. Remember, people still want pro-consumer positive changes in the healthcare and health insurance industries. Whether or not they liked the ultimate healthcare reform bills, they are all still frustrated that the easy, common sense parts of reform cannot be enacted. Yet, here we are still discussing inside-baseball stuff about the sequencing and timing used by the president’s advisors.

MR. BROOKS: Some people were saying it, though, at the time.


MR. FABER: Yeah.

MR. BROOKS: Many people were saying it at, at the time, including a guy named Bill Galston at the Brookings Institution, who was Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser. He—they came in, and he was writing—listen, when FDR came in, people—70 percent of the people had trust in government to do the right thing most of the time. Now it’s 17 percent. You can’t presume they’re going to trust you to take everything into Washington. So you got to build slowly. And a lot of people were arguing against the big bang that Obama went for on precisely those grounds, and it’s come back to bite them.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: And I might say, when they did that in the Congress, they were not too responsive to the Republican Party. Now the Republican Party’s sitting there stone-faced when the president delivers his State of the Union message. But, for that first year, the Democrats, shall we say, were on a high. They were not exactly accommodating to the Republicans. But I agree with David, that had to be the focus. A lot of people were saying this is much more serious because it was so different as a financial crisis-induced recession. That’s what required the focus. We still aren’t getting it.

MR. FABER: Yeah, it was January ‘09. I mean, it wasn’t like we’re talking 2007 when we didn’t know if we were going to have a recession. We were already in the midst of a very serious recession…


MR. FABER: …when the president took over. So there were plenty of people who, I think, were aware of it.

Still talking about the political timing of Obama’s healthcare reform push, not about healthcare reform.

MR. GREGORY: But, Gene, is, is that fair that, you know, that the president has acknowledged the, the unified opposition of the Republicans, which has been a tactical, strategic choice that’s been made. How much room were they giving him?

MR. ROBINSON: Well, you know, when you get to the point where, where Republican members of Congress are opposing bills that—you know, measures that they co-sponsored, which, which we have seen in recent days, clearly there, there is tactic—there are tactics and strategy involved here. And, and now you’re hearing Republicans, as, as Congressman Boehner brought out the book to, to lay on the table and present, kind of, kind of feeling that, that I think the administration has had some impact in saying “party of no, party of no, party of no” whenever anyone says “Republican.” And, and I think that’s, that is beginning to smart a bit.

OK. Can we move on now?

MR. GREGORY: Let’s talk about the, the political landscape overall. Here’s the cover of The Weekly Standard, which is—asks a provocative question at a time when there are potential gains by the GOP. It’s, “Can Republicans Govern?”

David Brooks, you wrote this week about the potential for a third party re-emerging, which you call the “sane Ross Perot.” You see—whether it’s the tea party movement. But so much—people look at Washington and say, “It’s broken. They’re just not getting things done here.”


MR. BROOKS: Yeah. The only thing I’d caution Republicans about is distrust of government is not anti-government.


MR. BROOKS: People want government to work, they just don’t believe in it. So I think Republicans are doing what Democrats have, have done and what Republicans have done before, which is overreading the ideological mandate. They think the people are—distrust government, therefore they want big slashing. They can get away with just saying, “We want big tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.”


MR. BROOKS: We can go back to that old song, “That’s not true.”

Good points by Brooks. All made in his columns last week. As I wrote last week, wouldn’t it be great if the columnists on MTP came on with points that turned out to be previews of next week’s columns?

MR. GREGORY: Well, Newt Gingrich has said—calling for a new Contract With America, that the GOP needs to be an alternative party, not an opposition party.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: They, they do have—the Republicans have an advantage, though. The Democrats are in power. They—the referendum is going to be on the Democrats in the November elections, not on the Republicans. So if the Republicans distract the country from that and become the “party of no,” they’ll suffer for it. They’ve got to be constructive much more than they have been today.

MR. GREGORY: David Faber, so much of the administration will tell you privately and, and publicly that if the economy doesn’t make any gains here, if unemployment is not dented, it’s going to be really hard for Democrats in the fall. It’s going to go on to be hard for the president in, in 2012. Based on the people that you’re talking to, what is that impetus to start hiring again? Where is it? When is it going to come?

Wait, didn’t Faber address this earlier?

MR. FABER: Well, in some cases it may come fairly soon. But it’s a fair question and a very important one. If you’re a CEO of a, let’s call it a fairly large company, right now you’ve actually been profiting fairly well. You’ve cut your costs a lot by firing people, in part. But you may start to at least feel somewhat confident. You’re watching your stock price, it’s probably doing OK. That may lead you to think, “OK, I’ve got to start reinvesting in the business to a certain extent.” We might start to see that. Small businesses, medium-sized businesses, I think it’s a larger question. The banks got us into this problem in part by making very poor lending decisions. Now they don’t want to do that again, and they are much more stringent. They are not lending. Very hard to get access to capital. That’s what you need if you’re going to go out and create jobs. So it’s that confidence and capital. It’s not clear that we have all of that.

Yep. That is almost exactly what Faber said a few minutes earlier. This isn’t Faber’s fault, I think Gregory lost focus there for a minute.

MR. ROBINSON: So much of the economy and our economic growth has been driven by consumer spending. And consumers don’t want to spend. Consumers feel poorer than they felt a few years ago. Their houses are worth less. They feel their jobs are, are, are more precarious. And so how do, how do you solve that? How do you get people…


MR. FABER: In the fourth quarter they did spend a little bit more, we should point out, than they had the year previously.

MR. GREGORY: I, I’ve just got about a minute left. I want to—David, I want you to engage on this topic. You heard David Axelrod say about this transfer of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York for trial is now in a, in a state of abeyance, which is there is no decision, but obviously they’re now leaning against a decision that they had made very strongly. This is significant.

Do people use the word “abeyance” very often?

MR. BROOKS: Yes. Eric Holder did not consult the president before he made that decision, the attorney general. And that was a huge mistake, because it’s a political decision and it’s a national security decision. And they just made a tremendous error, and they’re going to walk it back.

MR. GREGORY: And yet they’re saying, Gene, there’s, there’s still no decision yet. I mean, what—why are—what’s the final shoe?

MR. ROBINSON: Still no decision, but it sounds like there’s a decision, doesn’t there?

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. ROBINSON: I mean, would you—no, if Mayor Bloomberg is saying, you know, “Thanks, but no thanks,” I, I don’t, I don’t think over that objection you can, you can go ahead with that.


MR. ROBINSON: It, it is very interesting, though. It, it, it does speak to a, to a certain independence of the attorney general, and I…

MR. GREGORY: But what are the consequences politically on this at a time when the Republicans are mounting a new charge of being soft on terror?

MR. ROBINSON: Well, they, they walk it back, and they say, “Why, we’re tough on terror.”

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. ROBINSON: “We’re”—you know. And…

This exchange was hard to follow. Did we learn anything? Was anything, in fact, said? As with last week, there is a point here where Gregory lost a little bit of the handle on his guests. Scott Brown is dragged in, but not by Gregory.

MR. BROOKS: It was a huge issue for Scott Brown. He used that issue…

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Scott Brown, right. Scott Brown said, you know, “Let’s spend the money on our defense systems and our anti-terrorist systems, not on providing lawyers for terrorists.” I mean, that is a very easy political hit for him to make, and it—the, the Democrats are vulnerable on that issue.

MR. FABER: The city of Newark also saying, “Hey, it’s going to cost us a lot of money. We don’t want to spend that money.”


MR. FABER: That’s going to be a huge issue this year. State, local government, huge deficits, David. Perhaps higher taxes on the state level, again, taxing the consumer.

Which hooks back to Zuckerman’s point earlier that unemployment is taking a hit from state and local governments cutting their budgets.

MR. GREGORY: All right, we’re going to leave it there. Thanks to all of you very much. Great conversation.

Coming next, our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE. A look back at the not-so-distant past, when leaders of both parties sat side-by-side debating policy and politics right here on MEET THE PRESS, right after this brief station break.


MR. GREGORY: And we’re back with our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE. Lots of talk this week of how broken Washington is and a desire to bring back a sense of bipartisanship. Well, here’s an attempt right here on MEET THE PRESS by the Senate majority leader and Senate minority leader back in 1989 to find some early areas of agreement in what would later become a major political battle over the fiscal 1991 budget.

Again, I am a big fan of the MTP Minute.

(Videotape, October 29, 1989)

MR. GARRICK UTLEY: You don’t see any possibility of an agreement as we start to work on the fiscal 1991 budget, which is going to be a tremendous challenge, a tremendous problem that might involve some kind of revenue increase in exchange for cuts in spending?

SEN. BOB DOLE (R-KS): Well, I would say this, and I think maybe we’d find agreement if, if everything’s on the table.

MR. UTLEY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. DOLE: I mean everything, entitlements as well as the revenues, then you’ve got some reason for agreement because I think, as Senator Mitchell has pointed out, we blame Democrats for tax increases, they blame us for reducing Social Security. So you’ve got to get it all on the table so there isn’t any political backfire.

This reminds me that entitlements did not come up in today’s conversation. Have both parties decided to avoid this topic?

MR. UTLEY: OK. Senator Mitchell…


MR. UTLEY: …you’ll put it all on the table?

SEN. MITCHELL: Oh, yes. I think if Senator Dole and I could settle this matter, that is if we were the only participants and say a group in the Senate, I think we could have an agreement in a very short order. I think that…

MR. UTLEY: Well, let’s settle up right now. I mean, would you agree to put some entitlement cuts on the table in principle?

SEN. DOLE: Not cuts.

SEN. MITCHELL: Not cuts.

MR. UTLEY: Not cuts. But I mean…

SEN. MITCHELL: No, I, yeah, I think everything should be on the table. I think the problem we have now, the preconditions before discussions by one side that require the other side to establish preconditions and pretty soon the discussion…

MR. UTLEY: And, and you would raise…

SEN. MITCHELL: …everything is off the table and there’s nothing left to discuss. …

SEN. DOLE: That’s billions of dollars.

MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: But it’s the White House that has really blocked this kind of compromise, isn’t it?

SEN. MITCHELL: That’s exactly right.

MR. UTLEY: Do you agree with that?

SEN. DOLE: Well, I don’t know. I, I don’t believe so. I don’t think we’ve ever had everything on the table. You know, we came very close in Reagan’s administration on two occasions. I think next year might be an opportunity for all of us, and I’m talking about the president, too.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Months later, as budget talks stalled, President Bush did put tax increases on the table and famously broke with his “no new taxes” vow, saying any deficit-cutting agreement would require tax increases. By the way, the last time the majority leader and minority leader of the Senate appeared here together was eight years ago, months after the 9/11 attacks.

If there is, indeed, a new era of constructive engagement, we want Leaders Reid and McConnell to know of an open invitation to appear together and talk constructively right here, any Sunday, on MEET THE PRESS.

And we’ll be right back.

I think the conversations on MTP could be much richer if you had officials of those sorts, from both parties, on together. And if the host was prodding them to agree… rather than provoking them… it could be a great service to America. Tell Reid and McConnell you won’t have either of them on the show until they agree to appear together… that will get their attention!


MR. GREGORY: Finally, a programming note: In honor of Black History Month, NBC News and have launched “The Grio’s 100: History Makers in the Making,” highlighting the next generation of African-American history makers. Watch for those reports all week on NBC and MSNBC, and, of course, on

That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week when we’ll talk exclusively with former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, author of his new book “On the Brink,” and the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, an in depth conversation on the legacy of the financial collapse and the future of the economy. That’s Paulson and Greenspan together right here next Sunday.

If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.


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


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