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Shields and Brooks on Obama and Health Care

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - August 14, 2009

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, how would you portray the saga of the health care debate on this Friday night?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the polls are still terrible. There's still a majority against it. So it's sort of an odd situation where you look in Washington, you see pretty much momentum toward it, slow compromises, and you see the Democrats having plenty of votes, but are we really going to pass the most major domestic reform in a generation when the majority of the American people are against it? That's sort of an oddity.

And then the second thing, as we've seen in these highly reasoned town hall meetings around the country, is it's a pretty traditional left-right fight. You've got Republicans, you've got Democrats. And in the age of Obama, where we're supposed to rise above that, Obama has now got himself into a pretty traditional partisan battle, the health care version of the Bork hearings or the Thomas hearings or some other very hot partisan fight.

JIM LEHRER: Is President Obama making any inroads in getting back his support?

MARK SHIELDS: I think after...

JIM LEHRER: Or getting it in the first place, I guess I should say?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, after a rough patch, I think that he -- they had a pretty good week. I mean, I think that the argument that these town meetings, at least three out of four of them were reasoned events, that they weren't just brawls and pyridine fights...

JIM LEHRER: People don't seem to be taking him on at these town meetings.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Bryce Harlow, who is just a brilliant man in Washington, who's worked for President Eisenhower, from President Nixon, President Ford, once said to me, he said, "I don't know care who it is." He said, "The most powerful committee chairmen, the most influential CEO, he says, Bryce, just give me five minutes with the president and, I'll tell you, I can turn him around."

And he said, "I don't care who it is. You bring him into the presence of the president, especially in the Oval Office, and they end up walking out saying, 'Mr. President, God bless you. We're with you. You're doing a wonderful job.'"

And I think it's a lot tougher to be confrontational with the president. In a strange way, I think the president needs it, because...

JIM LEHRER: Needs to be picked on, you mean? You mean he needs to be confronted?

MARK SHIELDS: He needs that moment. He needs that defining moment. The intensity and the passion are on the other side, are against it.

David's right: Four out of five Democrats endorse what the president is doing; 1 out of 10 Republicans does. Independents have slipped, and they've got to be won back.

And I just think that it's -- the president has to be -- and what the problem is that his strength in the campaign -- and David's touched on it -- was that he was so reasoned, and so reflective, and so thoughtful, and not someone who appealed to emotions. But they need an emotionally defining moment, I think.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no, I actually think he needs to reassure people. I thought, say, in his town hall meeting today in Montana, the reasonable part was the good part.

People are scared. People are very anxious. We've had the government taking over the cars, taking over the insurance, taking over the banks. Now is it going to take over health care? I thought the reasoned part was the best part of his performance today.

The problem is he's really good at talking about why we need change. He's really good at talking about what change would look like if we had a good system. He's not so good at talking about what the plan is. And that's...

JIM LEHRER: The specifics of the plan?

DAVID BROOKS: The sort of -- the specific -- what's in it. And that's where the anxiety is.

The other thing is, he just tells a lot of whoppers now. Now, believe me, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are saying some things that are extremely off the charts untrue about the plan, but I just wrote down some of the things Obama said today which are whoppers.

He said everyone can keep their health care plan. Well, the CBO doesn't say that. Six million people are going to lose their plan. Preventive care saves money. That's not true. It's going to cost $90 billion a year. That's not true. It's probably going to cost twice as much when it's fully implemented. Government will be out of health care decisions.

He tells one thing after another, making it seem so easy. Well, believe me: This is not easy. It's going to take some sacrifices and some really painful cuts for people to get this system under control.

And often, when I look at him, I think he's over-promising, not as much as the other side, but to a significant degree.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, certainly not as much as the other side, because the other side, I think, has gone beyond the pale on the death charts. They are -- the fear is not just about this plan. There's a fear abroad in the land.

I mean, between 2000 and 2009, the private sector basically didn't create any jobs in this country. I mean, there's a fear, if you live in Ohio, you can't see your grandchildren unless you get on a bus or drive a car somewhere because your families are moving away.

I mean, so there's a lot of fear. And change has come very fast to this country. And I think there is an anxiety. I think there is a concern. And I think he was reassuring on that.

JIM LEHRER: What about the whoppers that David just...

JIM LEHRER: Time to forget that?

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