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Week In Politics: Taking Stock Of Obama, GOP


Now, our Friday politics session with columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: It's been a so-so week. No new scandals alleged. New economic numbers that are okay, but not great. Some progress in immigration, we're not sure exactly how much. So I thought we'd take advantage of the mediocrity of immediate events to take a step back and take stock of both President Obama and also the GOP at this moment. David, let's start with the president. There's a whole genre of columns and stories now about why second terms will always disappoint you.

How do you appraise the second Obama term so far?

BROOKS: I don't think we should be harshly critical of weeks, by the way. First off, on President Obama, you know, I do think there's a reappraisal clearly taking place. And the best criticism I think that is the most legitimate is the lack of urgency, the lack of a second term agenda. We've got big problems in this country. You don't get the sense there's a lot of policy pyrotechnics.

To me, where I would defend the president, he is sort of a on the one hand/on the other hand kind of guy. And in general, I like that style of leadership. He's being called upon to be Teddy Roosevelt or even George W. Bush, to just have one idea, to be sort of a monist whether than a dualist. I don't think that's him. I wish he were more aggressive in being an on the one hand/on the other hand kind of guy, but I do appreciate that general style.

SIEGEL: E.J.? On the other hand?

DIONNE: On the other hand, I think David has Obama pretty well. I've written recently that it's hard being - it's, you know, not easy being Barack Obama, sort of like Kermit the Frog because he weighs things. And I think you saw that notably in this speech on national security. He's gotten past a couple of very difficult weeks. The Benghazi story isn't sticking. I don't think it will.

The IRS story will hang around, but there are no developments linking the White House to it and I don't think there will be. And there's a big fight with the Justice Department on the part of the press, but I'm not sure that's sticking with the country as a whole. His approval rating has stayed almost entirely stable and I think he's trying to go on offense on judicial appointments.

I think he's trying to talk about actual problems, like student loans, unemployment, infrastructure. And so I'm not sure you're going to see pyrotechnics there. But I think he wants to say, let's not talk about this nonsense. Let's talk about problems we might be able to solve.

BROOKS: We can talk about problems, but there should be some solutions. There's nothing he's talked about in the last five or six years that was not in his campaign book, "Audacity of Hope." He has not - his administration has not had a single new idea in the past five or six years. And some of those ideas have not been enacted, but there's just not a breath of new thinking.

And I do think, say, just accept you're a liberal, Democratic president. You're in a time of massive inequality, wage stagnation, family breakdown and you're not really giving policies commensurate with the size of that problem.

DIONNE: Well, I'm never going to argue against somebody who wants government to do more about these problems, so I agree with that. But I think with this Congress and with this political situation that he has, he's trying to do a limited set of things in areas like rebuilding the country, in areas like education, that he thinks actually have a chance of passing.

I agree that a bolder agenda would grab people's attention and might permanently get some of these other stories off the agenda.

SIEGEL: Let's turn from an alleged paucity of ideas to the Republican party. Bob Dole suggested this week hanging a sign over the Republican National Committee door saying, closed for repairs. And Michele Bachmann, whom we'll hear right now, who was, at least briefly, a figure of consequence in the party last year, said she's calling it quits.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: I fully anticipate the mainstream liberal media to put a detrimental spin on my decision not to seek a fifth term. Since I was first elected to Congress many years ago, they always seemed to attempt to find a dishonest way to disparage me.

SIEGEL: E.J., that's your cue.

DIONNE: I'm not going to put a detrimental spin on her decision. I will applaud her decision. I think she was responding to Bob Dole's attempt to encourage Republicans to repair their party a little bit. But Bachmann-ism is very much alive. In that speech, I was struck that what she said about Benghazi, implying somehow that a White House cover-up lead to the deaths; what she said about the IRS, implying a lot more Obama involvement in it than there's any evidence for; this kind of innuendo has really penetrated our politics and I'm afraid it's going to stay around even though Michele Bachmann is gone.

SIEGEL: And yet, David, there is a - there has been a series of senior - at least very public Tea Party people, going back to Sarah Palin and through Allen West, who either walk offstage or get defeated or quit. Is there some limit that we're seeing that's being drawn?

BROOKS: No. First, I envy her background music.


BROOKS: We'd be more dramatic if we had that background music.

SIEGEL: We're a capella here.

BROOKS: You know, the Tea Party, to be fair to it, is not about the leadership. Palin can go, Bachmann can go, Kane can go, and it really doesn't affect the movement. It is a genuine grassroots movement. And it's having - it still has a significant effect. To me, the negative effect right now, if you look at states like Colorado and Virginia, it's really hard to get Republicans to run for offices.

And I think they don't want to step inside of the middle of a Republican Party war. So they're having trouble recruiting candidates. I do think, though, that the rest of the party, what you might call the establishment wing of the party, is rallying.

And if you look at what happened, the most important issue before us right now is probably immigrant reform. And at least in the Senate, the Republican establishment is pretty much rallying behind some sort of non-Tea Party position. So the limits of the Tea Party are still there, and I think the other side of the Republican Party is slowly, slowly rallying.

DIONNE: But there are two things here. One is I agree that the Senate - there's a very good chance immigration reform will not only pass the Senate but get quite a lot of votes over 60. But what happens in the House, where the Tea Party is stronger?

Secondly, you saw a real showdown in the Senate between John McCain and Ted Cruz and some of the other Republicans where, you know, they've been pressuring the Democrats to come up with a budget, and now they don't even want to go into a conference to negotiate budgets. And this bothered John McCain, as it should. It's very interesting to see McCain emerge again as a leading spokesperson against a certain style of right-wing politics.

SIEGEL: But is he being a leading spokesperson, or is that now a maverick position as McCain sometimes takes?

BROOKS: Well, no, I think he is now the leading spokesperson. And for all that Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz, frankly, bash the media, they are mostly media creations. And their power and especially in Michele Bachmann's case, and we'll see about Cruz, their power is mostly as media lightning rods and attention grabbers rather than as anybody who could actually run for the party.

It's worth pointing out, Michele Bachmann ran for a party leadership job in the House and got crushed. So she is more a figurehead than - or was always more a figurehead than anything else.

DIONNE: She was brilliant at using the media she regularly bashed, it's true.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thanks to both of you once again.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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