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PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I want to thank the Democrats and Republicans who put conviction ahead of politics to get this done together.
MR. GREGORY: But after the break, major challenges await the president in the new year: high unemployment, the war in Afghanistan, a ballooning deficit, and Republican rule, at least in the House of Representatives. Where does the Obama team go from here? With us this morning, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Then, taking stock of 2010.
PRES. OBAMA: It is the law of the land.
MR. GREGORY: The passage of healthcare reform, the shock of an oil disaster in the gulf, the rise of the tea party, and the ongoing struggles of millions of Americans looking for work in a still fragile economy. Where has it all left the country politically? And will it be possible for the two parties to find any common ground in 2010? With us, our political roundtable: NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw; historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, columnist for The Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan, and Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: Before departing to Hawaii to join his family for the Christmas holiday, the president picked up several major legislative victories during this lame duck session of Congress: the tax cut deal, the repeal of the ban on gays in the military, and the hard-fought
passage of the new START arms control treaty with Russia.
(Videotape, December 22, 2010)
PRES. OBAMA: A lot of folks in this town predicted that after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock. And, instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people.
MR. GREGORY: And here to talk with us about the president's agenda heading into 2011, the top White House adviser and close friend of the president's Valerie Jarrett.
Happy holidays, Valerie. Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
MS. VALERIE JARRETT: Thank you, David, and same to you and your family, of course.
MR. GREGORY: Thank you.
"A season of progress," the president called it. And it was just November 3 the president was talking about a shellacking that he was responsible for in the midterm election. Then some unexpected victories in this lame duck session. What happened in that interim time, from the
president's point of view? Was there a course correction that he ushered in?
MS. JARRETT: Well, I think as the president said right after the election, what we heard and what the nation said during the election is, is that they really wanted to see Congress and the president and the administration in Washington working together. They wanted us to deliver
on behalf of the American people. And I think what we saw over the course of the last few weeks is just that. We made enormous progress, as you pointed out, from the taxes where, you know, everyone, when they get their next paycheck, instead of their taxes going up, they're going to go down with a payroll tax, with an earned income tax credit, with a child
care tax credit, with a credit so that we can afford to send children to college, and, and importantly, a credit so that companies will invest and they can take a hundred percent of their expenses now to create jobs for America. So that sends a very positive signal.
The START treaty, probably the president's single most important foreign policy accomplishment. In fact, the, the most successful treaty in the--in decades was just passed as well. And then you mentioned "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Now we'll be able to have gays and lesbians serve their country proudly in the military. And it's a military that's based on
trust, and so now they'll be able to serve proudly and represent our country. These are all major accomplishments that were achieved on a bipartisan basis with Congress and the president, both sides of the aisle working together.
MR. GREGORY: You know, the vice president, who was on the program last week, responded to a question of mine about when people think about the president, do they--are they able to sort of pin him down? You know, what is he exactly? A liberal, moderate, a centrist or what? And he had, he had this response in part. I want to play it for you.
(Videotape, December 19, 2010)
VICE PRES. JOE BIDEN: What he is, is he is a progressive leader who, in fact, understands that politics is all in the art of the, the possible.
MR. GREGORY: And that's--"the art of the possible," to a lot of observers, is a marked change from how he campaigned as somebody who was going to change Washington, change the way Washington operated. Has he made a shift in his own mind to say, "I've got to change tactics here, I've got to change strategy here in order to achieve some of the things that I want to achieve"?
MS. JARRETT: No, I don't think so. I think the president that we are seeing now is a--is the same person that I've known for over 20 years. When the president was in the state Senate, he had a reputation for being able to work very closely with people on the other side of the aisle and forge that compromise that's pragmatic. He never lets the perfect be the enemy of the good, and I think that that's his reputation. Early on in the administration I think the Republicans made a concerted decision to really oppose what we did. And I think what we saw after the midterm is a president who said, "I'm going to reach out more, I'm going to try
harder," and they reciprocated. And that's, I think, what the people want.
MR. GREGORY: And is that really the issue here? The tax deal sort of cleared out some of the underbrush here, and now there's more opportunity for real engagement, real agreement?
MS. JARRETT: Well, I hope so. I mean, I don't know about clearing out the underbrush. I think it's an example of what we can do when everybody says, "What's most important to me?" And what the president said was most important to him was not to raise taxes on the middle class, was to make sure that those who were unemployed have 13 months of benefits. Those are the ones who are going to go out, they're going to pay their rent, they're going to buy groceries, they're going to buy other household supplies, they're going to be able to afford Christmas presents for their children. That's going to grow the economy and create jobs. What was important to the Republicans was to have tax breaks for the very wealthy and the estate tax provisions. And so when you marry the two, you ended up with a package that was able to get the bipartisan support that we needed.
MR. GREGORY: But the, the...
MS. JARRETT: So in a sense, everybody got what they wanted.
MR. GREGORY: But this was a candidate who wrote in one of the memoirs that extending Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was morally troubling. So a lot of the core supporters who came out in, in unprecedented numbers in 2008 see this as caving, or they see it as weakness. They don't see it as somebody who is a progressive, who believes that politics is the art of the possible.
MS. JARRETT: Well, I guess what I would say is what the president wakes up every morning focusing on is what's best for the American people, what's not--not what's in his short-term political calculus, but what's really important to the American people. And what he did not want to have happen on January 1 was to see our economy that, although it is improving, is still very fragile. And he did not want to have people see their taxes go up, and he knew that's what was going to happen. So he wasn't looking for a peer victory. He wasn't going to just fight just to fight and take that chance. And so, what he realized is that he had to be
pragmatic, but he was being pragmatic in order to deliver for the American people. And that's really what I think you have to focus your attention for, and that's what he views every decision he makes. He has two priorities--and the vice president said this, again, last week on
your show--grow our economy, create jobs; and keep America safe.
MR. GREGORY: But he...
MS. JARRETT: And so every decision he makes is measured against that test.
MR. GREGORY: But still, as president, you do have to fight some things. He talked about it after the midterms. You got to fight how things are done in Washington. He told Jon Stewart recently that "yes, we can" is still "yes, we can," but "yes, we can, but." I mean, is that now the story of the next year, that that Obama agenda has to be tempered by the realities of Washington?
MS. JARRETT: Well, we do have to accept the realities that the Republicans did win the House. And so they now have a responsibility to lead as well. And we can't ignore the realities of the membership and the makeup of Congress, and the fact that we are going to need bipartisan support to get things done. That is a reality. There are certain things the president won't compromise. So, for example, the Republicans wanted the high income tax breaks to be permanent. And what the president said is, "No, we can't afford it. In the new year, we're really going to have to tackle our deficit, and so we're not going to extend those tax breaks for the very wealthy indefinitely. We can't afford it, and it's going to be important that we control our deficit and, and we tighten our belts." So that's something he is willing to fight for, and we'll see in the next year and the year after that he's going to fight very hard when those
two-year extensions expire to cut off the income break for the very wealthy.
MR. GREGORY: You, you are, among other parts of your portfolio, someone who is a liaison with the business community in America from the White House for this president. The president's had a strained relationship with the business community, I don't have to tell you that. He's acknowledged it. He did so after the midterm election, talked about bankers as fat cats, and, and others that led business to really think that he was hostile toward them. What does this tax package do to get people back to work, and what is the new area of cooperation between the White House and the business community to get the economy moving?
MS. JARRETT: Well, let's put it in context and let's, let's keep in mind what was going on when the president took office. Our financial institutions were crumbling, on the break of disaster. Our economy was in a free fall. The stock market was crashing. People were seeing their life savings destroyed. Businesses were, were having to lay off people--in fact, the last six months of the prior administration we lost four million jobs. It was a, it was a period of turmoil. And the president had to take several bold and decisive steps, some of them
unpopular, to right our economy and get us on the right track.
Just last week, the president had a group of about 20 CEOs from around the country come in and talk about how can we grow the economy? How can we get some of the dollars that have been sitting on the balance sheet invested? And it was a very good session where we spent four and a half hours really talking about what we have in common. And I think what you're going to see going forward is an enormous amount of cooperation around exports, around free trade, making sure that the Korean Free Trade Agreement where the president lobbied very hard to open up export opportunities for U.S. companies gets passed through Congress; focusing on public education, making sure that our community colleges are training people in a way where there'll be real jobs at the end of the training. There's so many ways that businesses and, and the president are aligned right now. And what he said to them is, "Look, if you guys succeed, if you create jobs, if you invest in America, if we're able to help you
compete in a globally competitive marketplace, then the country wins." And that's what the president wants.
MR. GREGORY: The president spoke after the midterms about a difficulty that he has had connecting with the American people, living in the bubble of the White House and being in the bubble of the presidency. He talked about, as I said, after the midterm. Let me play a portion of what he said.
(Videotape, November 3, 2010)
PRES. OBAMA: When you're in this place, it is hard not to seem removed, and one of the challenges that we've got to think about is, is, is how do I meet my responsibilities here in the White House, which require a lot of--lot of hours and a lot of work, but still, you know, have
that opportunity to engage with the American people on a, on a day-to-day basis and know--give, give them confidence that I'm listening to them.
MR. GREGORY: You know him as well or better than anybody working in the White House.
MS. JARRETT: Yes.
MR. GREGORY: How does he do a better job of connecting with the American people when so many are hurting?
MS. JARRETT: Well, he often says that this is his biggest regret, is that when he took office, because of the crisis that was presented to him, he had to spend almost every waking hour in Washington focusing very hard on solving that crisis, and what he missed sorely was the engagement with the American people. He said it right before he left for vacation. He said, "When I get back, I really want to figure out a way where I can spend more time outside of Washington listening and learning and engaging with the American people." It's really what gives him his energy and his strength, and so we're determined in the new year to make sure that his schedule reflects that priority.
MR. GREGORY: We are in midst of a permanent campaign, and the, the campaign of 2012 is already upon us. And I found it interesting in one of the president's recent interviews, he said about a potential presidential aspirant, Sarah Palin, that he doesn't think about her. Do you think he should?
MS. JARRETT: Well, you know what I think? As the president of the United States, his obligation is to think about all of Americans every day. He has to wake up in the morning, he has to think about growing our economy, he has to think about keeping us safe. He needs to keep focused on the on the prize, and I believe...
MR. GREGORY: But he also thinks about political opponents.
MS. JARRETT: Well, but you know what, I think as president his job is really to focus first on that. And if he does that job well...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. JARRETT: ...if he looks out for America, if it's clear that he's doing everything he can to make sure that hard-working Americans who've lost their jobs can go back to work, and if he keeps America safe and he demonstrates that, 24/7, that's his priority, then I think the politics
will take care of itself.
MR. GREGORY: Do you think he should be paying to attention to her as a political threat?
MS. JARRETT: I think he shouldn't be distracted by what are perceived as threats. I mean, I think--I really go back to what I'm saying. Because he's the president of the United States, he's not out there running the way he was before when he was the U.S. senator, where you have to think about everybody in the field every second of the day. The American people expect him to lead. He's their president, he's everybody's president regardless of party affiliation. And that doesn't mean that at some point he's not going to get out there and, and launch a campaign. But the most important thing that he can do for the American people is
think of them every single day and let them guide his actions.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, your role in the White House is unique. I mean, for those of us who, who cover politics, who cover administrations, you have a lot of responsibility as an adviser, but you're also one of the president's closest friends and have helped to mentor him and develop him as a political figure. What role do you play for him in that way? What is unique about it, and how do you help strengthen him?
MS. JARRETT: Well, I think the president's lucky to be surrounded by a strong group, both within the White House as well as his Cabinet of people, who he trusts and who he relies on for advice. I think the fact that I'm a friend who's there, who's known him for a long time, provides me with the ability to be a sounding board in, in one way. But I think that what's important to know about the president is he really listens to a variety of different voices, a diversity of opinion, and that's what really gives him the energy and the ability to think creatively and innovatively. And when, when you see the president engage with a room full of people, he calls on not just the people he's known for 20 years, but the new stranger who's walked in the room who might be the junior person at the table, but who has a new idea for how we can grow our country and make it strong, how we can compete internationally.
He has an almost insatiable appetite for new ideas from wherever he goes. When he's walking along a rope line, oftentimes people will lean in and whisper suggestions to him, and he comes back and he tells his economic team--some of the smartest people in the country--"This is what I heard today. What do you think about this idea?" And I think that that's what you really want in a president, somebody who's innovative, who's creative, who's always looking for new ideas, and who surrounds himself with a divorce--diverse and robust group of people. And, and I consider privileged to be at his service.
MR. GREGORY: We will leave it there. Valerie Jarrett, thank you, as always.
MS. JARRETT: You're welcome.
MR. GREGORY: Up next, taking stock of 2010. Healthcare reform, the oil disaster in the gulf, the rise of the tea party and the ongoing economic crisis, where has it all left the country politically? Our roundtable weighs in: NBC's Tom Brokaw, historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, and the Washington Post's Bob Woodward.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, our roundtable examines where 2010 has left the country politically. And will it be possible for the two parties to find any common ground in 2011? After this brief commercial break.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: And we are back, joined now by our special political roundtable: historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin; Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward; columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan; and our own NBC News special correspondent, Tom Brokaw.
Welcome to all of you, happy holidays. There's so much to go through.
Tom Brokaw, you think about the lame duck session, how this year ends for President Obama, and all these people are talking about the "comeback kid" and "look what he accomplished." You know, on November 3 in the shellacking of the midterm it wasn't supposed to work out this way. What happened?
MR. TOM BROKAW: Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. I mean, we've got a long way to go and there are a lot of big problems that are still out there. But I do think that he's had a good month, obviously. I think that--and it's due in a large part to the fact that he seemed to
be in charge, that he was leading from the front and not from the back as the guy who was kind of consulting with everybody on the Hill before he made a decision. He stepped up, and the country was ready for this kind of action, and the Republicans, I think, to some degree, got caught a little bit flat-footed by his eagerness to get the deal done in the way that he did and the way that he stood down the Democrats who weren't happy about it.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let's pick up on that, Doris, because at the end of the week he signs a signature piece of legislation, and that is the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. This was a way to mitigate some of the damage on the left, to say, "Look, this was a campaign promise. I got this done. You may not like that I'm dealing with the Republicans in other ways, but I got this done." And on this issue, the, the politics were too difficult for the Republicans to stay united in opposition.
MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Right. It's one of those moments when it was an idea whose time had come. And the gay movement deserves a lot of credit for making the whole way we think about gays different now. But it's very fortunate for Obama, I think, that that came at the same time as the tax cut, which a lot of the people on the left were upset about. But, you know, presidents in history are always upset about the people in their own party who criticize them. And Teddy Roosevelt used to say, "Oh, they're Tom Foolery guys. They're lunatic fringe." But on the other hand, they need them. They need them to push in from the outside in so that what they can get done is larger than it might otherwise be. So I
understand why he got irritated, but I think, on the other hand, it was great that he had that combination so he could say, "Yeah, this is--I did this, but look, on the other hand, I did the tax cut."
MR. GREGORY: Bob Woodward, what's your read on, on the president's strong finish?
MR. BOB WOODWARD: I mean, it's, it's real, and the, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a big deal. That's a--that is a movement in civil rights...
MS. GOODWIN: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: ...that will be noted for a long time and perhaps forever. At the same time, there, there's something about Obama that is not connecting with the people. And I was trying to think, you know, what is that? And somebody was telling me about this wake and gathering that Richard Holbrooke's widow, Kati, had in New York after he died. Holbrooke being the Afghan/Pakistan negotiator for Obama who died. And at this gathering, Bill Clinton walked in. And, of course, Clinton always takes over a room, and he put his arm around Kati, the widow, and started talking and saying that Richard Holbrooke had been somebody who always fought, who believed in peace. And somebody who was there told me, he said suddenly everyone in the room was involved in Bill Clinton's emotions. And that's what Obama has to do. He has to find a way to make these things personal, not abstract. He's so cerebral, he's so smart, he appears cool. And he's got to get in there and make those connections with, with the people in the unemployment line, the assembly line, in the mountains of Afghanistan.
MS. GOODWIN: You know, I agree with you. But the very steadiness that allowed him to come back from Scott Brown's victory, which seemed like he was dead in January, and then he brought health care...
MR. GREGORY: Who succeeded Ted Kennedy, of course.
MS. GOODWIN: Exactly. And now allowed him to come back from the shellacking in the midterm, that's a strength to neither be too high or too low, and to keep that steadiness. I'm sure at times you want him to yell, you want him to fight, you want him to show more emotion, but maybe those qualities don't often come together in the same person.
MR. WOODWARD: But as, as a manager, he did a great job. It's masterful. But as something connecting with the average voter, he's not yet there, and that's how you win.
MR. GREGORY: Peggy...
MS. PEGGY NOONAN: Can I throw in, too?
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah.
MS. NOONAN: I got--on an issue like--considering the president's position right now, an issue like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is perfect. Here's why. It's a liberal issue, it's a left issue, fine. But it was in line with centrist thinking. The center supported the change. When a president of the left can make leftist moves with centrist support, he's going to be OK. Rightist president, the same thing. So always keep in, in mind the center. I would say also, Bob, as, as an extenuation to your remarks, I think the president has to regain his mystique, you know. The
presidency has a mystique, it has certain weight. It has a, a certain gravitational pull. I think the president walked into the White House with a certain mystique. I think he lost it in his first two years. He needs to gain it back. That's my read.
MR. GREGORY: Tom, I want to pull out a little bit farther, but before I do, I want to follow up on something specific about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." There's still a lot of questions about how this gets implemented, and then there's another question about military recruiting on college
campuses. My own wife, as you know, was part of the ROTC program at Princeton, as a lot of Americans were who were in the military and are no longer in the military. Is that the next step here, to take that on?
MR. BROKAW: Well, take it on is quite another question. The military has mixed feelings about whether they want to go back to Harvard, go back to Columbia, go back to the Ivy League schools. It's expensive.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MR. BROKAW: ROTC programs, and it's whether they get a big enough bang for their buck. Do they get enough kids who sign up for it at the elite institutions to go into a commissioned program of some kind? Or are they better off working at the land grant schools where they're going to get generally a greater response to it. So that's an issue. Now, the Ivy League and elite institutions are beginning to say, "We would welcome them back, we want to open that conversation again," because of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But you may find the military saying, you know, "I'm not sure that we need to go there because, frankly, it's
just not a happy hunting ground for us. We're not going to get that many people."
MR. WOODWARD: No, but it's important. I did naval ROTC in college back...
MR. BROKAW: Yeah.
MR. WOODWARD: ...in, you know, the Coolidge administration or whenever it was.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: And it is...
MR. BROKAW: Not Wilson.
MR. WOODWARD: It is important for the military to connect there with exactly the point you made recently...
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: ...in your op/ed piece...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: ...about this disconnect between those who serve and people who kind of say, "Oh, no, not that, that's not for me." And one way to do that is to, to bring it, bring it--bring ROTC everywhere.
MR. BROKAW: Well, here's what I think, Bob. I've actually been thinking about this a fair amount, and I--what I would do is, if not do it campus by campus, if you go to Boston, for example, you could do an MIT/Harvard program and put a couple of the institutions together and have a central ROTC program drawing on all the institutions. If you do it by institution by institution, with the questions that the military already has about a lot of costs--you got to put officers in those programs and training programs--they may be better to do something that is more centralized.
MR. GREGORY: Let, let me, let me bring it back to some of the wider challenges that the president has faced this year. We can look at what's happened in the last couple of weeks, he had a strong finish, but this has been a tough year for the president, for Democrats. AP wrote about it, in summing it up, and started with the passage of healthcare reform. Quoting the president, "`This is what change looks like,' Obama said proudly, after the health care law passed.
"But the economic recovery was too slow. The oil gushed for too long. The health care laws was too complicated. The unemployment rate too high. The political discourse too raw. The tea party too loud. Americans were in a foul mood, and Democrats got the blame." That's
really the story of 2010.
MS. NOONAN: Well, it's not--the way that's written, it suggests it was a matter of fate. Oh, my goodness, decisions were made, they were not popular. You know, health care, two years into this drama, you can look at it, look at the numbers, and you realize people just don't love that. That, that was just the wrong...
MR. BROKAW: They don't understand it.
MS. GOODWIN: They don't understand it, yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. NOONAN: Well, when you're two years in and they still, everywhere across the country, are scratching their heads, that is almost the definition of a bad idea.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. GREGORY: But, Tom, do they not understand it, or do they understand too well...
MS. NOONAN: And the president gave his first 18 months to it.
MR. GREGORY: ...that in fact it's going to help poor people in a tight economy?
MR. BROKAW: Well, there are two different answers to that, David. I think that a lot of small businesses understand it very well, and they say, "It's going to cost us more money, and we're going to move our employees into the Medicaid program or something else for their--we're not going to be able to afford to cover them." People who are looking at it from the ground up are saying, "I don't get it." And it's 2,700 pages. Most of the major health institutions that I know in this country who are going to be responsible for the care are still trying to sort their
way through it. At the very highest levels, they don't quite understand how it's going to work.
MS. GOODWIN: You know, I think one of the...
MS. NOONAN: Just politically, it was a misjudgment.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MS. GOODWIN: Well, I'm not sure it was a misjudgment, but I think...
MS. NOONAN: Just a waste of time and reputation.
MS. GOODWIN: You mean to even do it, you think it was? I, I don't agree with that.
MS. NOONAN: To go down that road with that bill.
MS. GOODWIN: But I think that what hasn't been done, you know, Bill Safire always used to say, when he gave a speech, tell them what you're going to say, then tell them--and then tell them what you told them. Somehow we never got straight what that, that healthcare bill was. A lot of people didn't understand what was in it, and that's a failure of the bully pulpit. Part of that is the rhetoric of the president. Part of it, it's really hard to get anything out to the country today because everything is so distracting.
MR. WOODWARD: I...
MS. GOODWIN: You give a speech on health care and the guy says, Joe Wilson says, "You lie," and that becomes the story.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: No, no, but I actually met somebody who read it, the whole thing, read it twice, and he, he confessed he didn't understand it.
MS. GOODWIN: Oh, that's a problem.
MR. WOODWARD: The complexity and...
MS. NOONAN: Yeah.
MR. WOODWARD: Now, one of the...
MS. NOONAN: The...(unintelligible)...a lot of it was just slapped in there. Nobody knows what's it all--interpretive.
MR. WOODWARD: I don't think the health care and, and where that's going or, you know, how it gets changed or implemented is a peril to the Obama presidency. I think there are other things, like the threat of terrorism, very, very real. And...
MR. BROKAW: And it's systemic unemployment, Bob. That's the--they missed the pass on that.
MR. WOODWARD: Yes. That's...
MR. BROKAW: Systemic unemployment. When they--when it goes up 2 point--when it goes up two-tenths of a point right before the election after they thought that they were on the right direction, that is a big signal. And my own guess is that it's probably a 12 or 13 percent of those people who are not looking for jobs anymore.
MS. GOODWIN: Right.
MR. GREGORY: But on Peggy's point, I think, whether it's about health care, the government stepped up, took some big whacks at policy, namely dealing with the economy, and a lot of people said, "Well, wait a minute, nothing's worked here. You know, you bailed out the banks--started under Bush, you continued it--the auto companies, you did health care, you did
the stimulus, and we're still in the same position. I still don't have any equity in my house anymore, and I can't find a job." That's a role of government issue.
MS. NOONAN: There's also this, this--growing from that, but part of what we're talking about is this--the biggest political change in the United States in my lifetime is the sense grown-ups have that their children will not have it better. It is a--we are a happy people. You can walk
along any street in America right now...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. NOONAN: ...and you can see people just doing Christmas and the holidays, and it's wonderful. But there is deep down, on the third level of thought, a, a strain of pessimism that I've never seen before.
MR. GREGORY: Well, and, Peggy, look at this from our recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, people's views on the last--on this last decade, that it's the worst decade in history at 54 percentile.
MS. NOONAN: Ah.
MR. BROKAW: Yeah.
MS. NOONAN: Well, part of that is big things happened at the beginning.
MR. BROKAW: But part of that because they're living through it.
MS. NOONAN: Well...
MR. BROKAW: Well, let me take them back to 1938, for example...
MS. NOONAN: Yeah, exactly.
MR. BROKAW: ...when the prospect of war and World War II, and the, and the recovery wasn't working as well as FDR had hoped it would in that year, and we still had bread lines in America, and the country was on its backside at that point.
MS. NOONAN: And we were hopeful.
MR. BROKAW: And, and how about the, how about the...
MS. NOONAN: Do you--it was dreadful.
MR. BROKAW: ...worst decade leading up to the Civil War, you know?
MS. GOODWIN: Yeah. And for those of us who are historians and who've lived in those other decades...
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MS. GOODWIN: ...the 1860s, the 1930s, I'll still take this one, as troubling as it is.
MR. GREGORY: What about course correction, though? Because, Bob, you talked about connecting, and this issue of how the president positions himself to deal with the pessimism, to deal with systemic unemployment, the threat of terror. Politico wrote something interesting about "Obama 2.0: Reinventing the Presidency," and wrote--they wrote this: "`He needs to be CEO of America,' said former White House chief of staff John Podesta, an Obama sympathizer who ran his transition to power after the '08 election and is now urging him to dramatically refashion his presidency.
"The West Wing makeover, as Podesta and others see it, would involve Obama no longer being Velcroed to the Hill' and giving more attention to powers of the presidency that don't involve signing bills into the law." In other words, legislating is not good for popularity.
MR. WOODWARD: That's true. But if you've--you talk to economists, CEOs, the one theme that comes through all of this in terms of the economy, you need a plan.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: And you need a plan that's not one year or two years, you need a long range plan. And no politician in the modern era has figured out to present a 10-year plan that he or she could sell politically.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MR. WOODWARD: And--because the problems in the economy are, are structural. They--it's not something you can tinker with, it's something that--you get a CEO on Sodium Pentathol here, truth serum, and say, you know, "How do you fix these things?" And they'll say, "Well, what's your 10-year plan, your eight-year plan?" And so he's got to find a way to make that politically salable. Whether he can, we'll see.
MS. GOODWIN: I think there's a way of having a bold vision. I mean, think about what FDR did in 1940. We were still coming out of the depression, we had the war in Europe to worry about, but he mobilized the economy in a fantastic way. He brought in CEOs to run his production agencies. I think Obama could do something similar like that. He, he gave much bigger appreciation, deceleration tax credits to business, and they came through to produce the ships, the tanks, and the weapons. Right now, if he were to go for alternative energy in a bigger way than he has, if he would get these CEOs and say, "What kind of tax credits do you need to keep jobs here in this country?" there's a way of making America competitive in the world again, be number one economically.
MR. WOODWARD: But he had that war, and that was, you know, that was the engine that drove it economically.
MS. GOODWIN: Of course, it's easier--but you can make things. You can't believe that that's all it has to be. I mean, you got to believe that, you know?
MR. WOODWARD: Maybe that's the answer.
MR. GREGORY: All right, let me get a break in here. We'll come back and talk specifically about some of the challenges ahead: spending, the war in Afghanistan, and the political landscape which is already taking shape for 2012. More from our roundtable right after this.
MR. GREGORY: We are back, joined again by our political roundtable. And I want to talk about some of the specific challenges the president faces. There are some tough issues out there. I think the first one is best summed up by Merriam and the word of the year for 2010, we'll put it up on the screen. It is austerity. It is a noun, "enforced or extreme economy." Tom Brokaw, that's what Washington is, is going to be grappling with, which is government's got to shrink, it's got to spend less. It's how to go about doing it.
MR. BROKAW: Yeah. Well, you know, in fact, if you go across the country, you find a lot of families who are already doing that. More, more women are saying to me, "I buy an extra edition of the Sunday paper just to get the coupons. And I'm going--I used to make fun of people in the grocery stores with coupons; I'm now clipping them myself."
On the other hand, when they make a decision to close a military base in whatever state, a Republican or a Democratic state, or when they're going to shut down an agricultural substation, you're always going to get the pushback from the special interest. The community's going to say, "They can't do that. I mean, that's our whole economy." So this is going to be a very tricky piece. Mitch McConnell said the other day, the president's in for a big fight here. But the Republicans have got a lot of pressure on them as well because they made some big promises about how much they can cut spending. And we're not going to kick-start the economy just by cutting spending and by cutting taxes. There are, as I said a moment ago, some real structural issues that we have to deal with here. Innovation is way behind the curve about what's be--about what's going on in Vietnam and India and China, and even in the Middle East, for that matter. And we're not addressing that by this political rhetoric.
MS. NOONAN: I think you
MR. GREGORY: Well, and that is--I've asked this question, Peggy, to numerous guests over the past several weeks: Do we have the balance right between austerity and what Tom mentioned, innovation?
MR. BROKAW: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Are we done investing in our economy to ultimately be competitive before we can deal with this long-term debt picture?
MS. NOONAN: Well, that's a huge one. I mean, that's going to be worked out over, over the next few years. I'm thinking as, as Tom was speaking, we have 40 million Americans on food stamps.
MR. BROKAW: Yeah.
MS. NOONAN: We have a lot of people in distress and a lot of people getting help from the government. It is true that we have to cut spending. I mean, everybody can make that speech. But it's going to be really difficult at the same time entrenched interests that are winding up costing a heck of a lot of money in America, such as, as municipal and state employee unions with pension benefits, etc. Every state is going bankrupt. They all have to look at the price of things. I don't know if austerity is really the right word.
MS. GOODWIN: I think--it's an odd word.
MS. NOONAN: This is the--yeah. This is some grinding of levers.
MS. GOODWIN: It is. And I think it--in a certain sense, there's a difference--austerity means sort of self-discipline. Shared sacrifice means you're doing something for a higher object. Like for example, during World War II, they, they called what we were wearing "austerity clothing." It meant trousers that didn't have cuffs anymore. No vests, it meant two-piece bathing suits to save cloth, so you didn't have a one-piece bathing suit. But you knew you were doing it...
MR. WOODWARD: That's where those came from.
MS. GOODWIN: Yeah! It was a good--but you knew you were doing it for a common cause, and I think leadership strength has to be right now, if we're going to go through an austere period, to convince us that something more than just undoing the deficit, that we're investing in the future at the same time as we're being austere.
MR. WOODWARD: But, but...
MS. NOONAN: Which involves trust. Leaders you trust.
MS. GOODWIN: That's exactly right.
MS. NOONAN: Who, when they say, "Everybody's going to take a haircut, everybody's going to get--have some difficulties but we can all get through it together, we're a great nation," that's the difficult part.
MR. WOODWARD: But, but there's all this talk about cutting spending, and then they don't do it. Of course, the tax cut deal, what, is going to add 800...
MR. GREGORY: A trillion dollars.
MR. WOODWARD: ...almost $1 trillion to the deficit, and if you go back--I happened to recently be reading Ronald Reagan's own autobiography, and in there he says--and he's identified with somebody who tried to cut government--and in it he in a very confessional way
says, "One of my biggest disappointments as president, I was not able to do this in"--he says, "I've let down the people on this issue." So if Ronald Reagan couldn't cut spending who's going to do it now?
MR. GREGORY: Well, but...
MS. NOONAN: He was able to cut the increase, the yearly increase, but he was never able to cut into this huge thing.
MR. WOODWARD: That's right.
MR. GREGORY: But, Tom, what--you guys--there are cross-currents in the Republican Party over just how deeply they want to cut which programs. Are they going to really go after entitlements? Are they going to repeal health care? How does the president navigate this? Because the budget is the big fight of 2011.
MR. BROKAW: Well, I think part of what he does is take a listen from Bill Clinton. Let them play their own hand for a while and stand back from it and see what happens within their party. Look, there's going to be more pressure coming from the ground up in the Republican Party than we can now fully anticipate in these tea party members who are coming in. And when they come to increase the debt limit in June or down, down the pike a little ways or shut down the government, the tea party people who have come in on this wave of populism within the Republican Party are going to push back very hard. Peggy was close witness to this, but I was reading as well some of the Reagan years, and people forget this, in 1982 he raised taxes after cutting them the year before. But they had wonderful language. They called the tax cut not a tax--I mean, a tax increase, not a tax increase, they called it revenue enhancement.
MS. GOODWIN: Right.
MS. NOONAN: Ah, those were the days. Those were the good old days.
MR. BROKAW: And President Reagan also said, and only Reagan could have gotten away with this, he said--when he signed the bill and addressed the country about what he was doing, he said, "This is really an extension of what we did a year ago when they cut taxes." To increase taxes was an extension of that, and somehow they were able to market that.
MR. WOODWARD: Well, and...
MR. GREGORY: Well, but--go ahead.
MR. WOODWARD: ...and we're going to have to raise taxes at some point here, or you don't address the deficit problem. And again, if you go to Reagan, the deal he made with Tip O'Neill, they doubled the payroll tax...
MS. GOODWIN: Right.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: ...which is the most regressive tax in our system.
MR. GREGORY: But, Peggy, how do--how do Republicans manage here? John Boehner is the speaker of the House. He's a familiar figure in the Republican reins. Mitch McConnell, on the Senate side, he boasted about making the Democrats sweat tactically as we get into the new year. What's this dynamic going to be like?
MS. NOONAN: Well, it's interesting. They've been--the Republican Party has been winning big consequential serious elections throughout '09 and '10. They just won the House, 66 seats, so it is very significant. But they all know the problem is entitlement spending, and if you are going to look at where the money is spent, you're going to have to decide how exactly do we go at this and how do we go at it, not only among the available remedies on spending, how do we take any one of those remedies without the presidency? Do you know what I mean? It'll be highly unusual for a party that is not holding the presidency, that is only holding the House, to make huge change here, and yet they have to move forward in a serious way or the people who elected them will be very angry with them.
MR. GREGORY: Bob Woodward, another huge challenge is the war in Afghanistan. 2011 is the year when troops, American troops will start to come out, the president tells us. The vice president was on the program last week. I pressed him on this deadline point. And this is what he said about the endgame.
(Videotape, last Sunday)
VICE PRES. JOE BIDEN: The recent Lisbon conference, the NATO conference, where we said we're starting this process just like we did in Iraq. We're starting it in July of 2011, and we're going to be totally out of there come hell or high water by 2014.
MR. GREGORY: 2014. Now The Wall Street Journal took this on in an editorial saying that this was a mistake. And this is what they wrote in part: "Mr. Biden's glib rhetoric implying a lack of American staying power will in particular make it that much harder for General Petraeus to
get the support of Pakistan's military in rooting out Taliban sanctuaries in North Waziristan and around Quetta." This is over the border from Afghanistan and the tribal areas. "The remarks also undermine months of Administration effort to downplay its original mistake of setting a July
2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw U.S. forces. The U.S. and its allies went out of their way at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon to extend to 2014 the date when Afghan forces will take, `full responsibility for security' in their country. But even full responsibility does not mean the Afghans won't need some foreign military help."
MR. WOODWARD: Does your head spin? Yes, it does because--what they've told us is the beginning of the end of the war is July of next year and the end of the war is 2014. What they haven't told us is how they're going to do it. And how it will work. And there still is this disconnect between Obama and his White House and the military about where this is going. And, you know, if you take that report that they issued after studying this, you know, really for months, they said, "Well, it--we've made progress, but it's fragile and reversible." Now, if you've got ratings in, you know, and you're making progress but it's fragile and reversible--you're smiling...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. WOODWARD: ...you know, what does that mean?
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: That means you're in Never Never Land. That means we don't know.
MR. GREGORY: But can the president, Doris, make the case that we are still fighting an existential threat in Afghanistan? Does he have to do that in order to maintain some modicum of support?
MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think one of the things that hasn't happened yet, because he obviously hasn't made that case strong enough, six out of 10 people don't think this is a war worth fighting. In a democracy, you cannot bring soldiers into harm's way unless you've convinced the people that this is a war that we should be fighting. And the threat of al-Qaeda still remains the strongest question. If we can prevent and dismantle and disable them from getting back at us, then that's worth doing. But somehow that hasn't penetrated the country, and that's a failure of leadership until that happens.
MS. NOONAN: It is amazing to me that we are, what, nine years into, into these wars...
MR. BROKAW: Longest war in American history.
MS. NOONAN: Oh my goodness, and we are not talking about it every day...
MS. GOODWIN: Right.
MS. NOONAN: ...on the streets and in the cafe and over coffee.
MS. GOODWIN: It's terrible.
MS. NOONAN: It is amazing. It's just accepted as a fact that one
doesn't comment on.
MR. BROKAW: That's because less than one percent of the country is fighting the war. I mean, and 99 percent of the country nothing is asked of us. I mean...
MS. GOODWIN: Right.
MS. NOONAN: Well, then we better get our ROTC back to Harvard.
MS. GOODWIN: Right.
MR. BROKAW: And--well, I don't think that will make the difference, in all due respect, because they have a choice of whether or not they want to join ROTC. They don't have to. It's not mandatory.
MS. NOONAN: Sure. Of course.
MR. BROKAW: And so it's working class--Bob and I have talked about this a lot--working class families primarily come from the smaller towns in America.
MS. NOONAN: It always is that.
MR. BROKAW: They come from a military tradition of joining. But it's an obligation of all of us as well as the political leadership of this country to make sure that it's on the table, not just in forums like this, but on a, on a regular basis. I also think that we're looking at this in old terms. We're looking at, where's the victory in Afghanistan? Afghanistan has had 2,000 years of foreign invaders who have crawled out of there without a victory in conventional terms. And it goes beyond the borders of Afghanistan. We're talking about Islamic rage. I've been in
Waziristan and in the north in the Khyber region. These are two of the most hostile areas I have ever seen anywhere in the world. And as some of you know, I've been in a lot of bad places.
MR. WOODWARD: And the problem hasn't been defined with specificity that's necessary. The problem is, in these secret meetings last year, Obama said the poison is in Pakistan. The problem is in Pakistan. The sanctuaries are there and he decided secretly, "OK, these sanctuaries are unacceptable now."
MR. GREGORY: Let me get another break in here. We'll have just a couple of minutes left on the other side of this break, and we'll at least broach the topic that's already under way, which is, who are the Republicans going to nominate to challenge President Obama? Some final
thoughts from our roundtable right after this.
MR. GREGORY: We are back with more from our roundtable, final moments.
Tom Brokaw, you know, at this stage of the 2008 cycle, we were getting ready for the new year and some new announcements as to who was going to run for president.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. GREGORY: So what are Republicans going to do?
MR. BROKAW: Well, I--you know, who knows at this point, David. You've heard me say this a thousand times over, the UFO theory always holds, the unforeseen will occur. We don't know who they are at this point. It was just 15 months ago that the tea party was just a faint line on the political horizon in this country, and then suddenly it was this very powerful force. There are obviously a lot of Republicans in the Senate and in the statehouses around the country who see themselves in the Oval Office. I mean, Tim Pawlenty is running hard in Minnesota, Sarah Palin, obviously, is more than flirting with the idea. Now, Haley Barbour probably has banged himself up again a little bit in the last week or so with his comments about the White Citizens Council, to say nothing of people in the United States Senate, and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. So there's a lot of moving around going on out there.
MR. GREGORY: Well, what kind of candidate, Peggy Noonan, do you need to run as the Republican Party, to take on Obama? What's the theory of the case at this stage?
MS. NOONAN: Hm. A big thing is how the tectonic plates keep moving in American politics. Harrison Salisbury once said--a lifetime in journalism, he was asked, "What did you learn?" He said, "Expect the unexpected." If we've learned anything from the past decade, it's that anybody can arise from anywhere and become a leader.
MR. WOODWARD: Mm-hmm.
MS. NOONAN: Gosh, what do the, the Republicans need to beat Obama? A credible alternative, a serious man or woman, someone with experience and some weight and heft who can get through Iowa and South Carolina.
MR. WOODWARD: And so, not Sarah Palin, you're saying, is that right?
MS. NOONAN: Thank you, Bob, so much...
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah, yeah.
MS. NOONAN: ...for clarifying that.
MR. WOODWARD: Yes.
MS. NOONAN: I got to tell you, I'm one of those who thinks Palin will not run, and I happen to think if she runs, it will not work. Her people love her, support her, watch her on TV, read her books, love to cheer her. They especially love to defend her when people like us criticize
her. They will not vote...
MR. GREGORY: But it almost, as a matter of fact, I mean, she...
MS. NOONAN: I'm telling you, they will vote for her.
MR. GREGORY: ...she could run without running. She could be a factor without running.
MS. NOONAN: They won't vote for her for president.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MS. NOONAN: What I think she'll do is sit back. She's a realist, she'll know she's not going to--this isn't going to work. And so she will sacrifice herself and support somebody else...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. NOONAN: ...so there'll be a Palin primary.
MR. GREGORY: But to the--all right, against whom, against whom is the president vulnerable, Doris?
MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think somebody like a Chris Christie would be vulnerable for him because...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm. Governor of New Jersey.
MS. GOODWIN: ...because he's got...
MR. GREGORY: Who proclaimed on this program he's absolutely not running, no way.
MS. GOODWIN: Right. So then he won't be vulnerable, and that's it.
MR. GREGORY: But he won't rule it out four years ahead.
MS. NOONAN: But that kind of man.
MS. GOODWIN: No, but that--that kind of--that kind of person.
MR. WOODWARD: But, but he's the ultimate realist being made.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. NOONAN: He is a practical man.
MS. GOODWIN: The kind of person who speaks straight, who has a fire in his belly, who you believe him, even if you don't agree with him, that kind of person, I think.
MR. WOODWARD: Who seems to not be a politician.
MS. NOONAN: Who seems to mean it.
MR. BROKAW: I think the other thing is that all of this has to be in the context of what are the conditions going to be in nine months from now.
MS. GOODWIN: Right, exactly. The economy's doing...
MR. BROKAW: Are we going to have another terrorist attack? Or if the country remains secure, do suddenly we catch fire in the economy in some fashion? For example, does something happen catastrophically in the Middle East that the president deals with either in utter failure or brilliantly. All those are the unknowns up against which we have to measure what the chances are, you know, and, and we still have a long way to go for that, David.
MR. GREGORY: Does the president make a fundamental shift, Tom, in this next year, in his leadership style and in his tonal approach to the American people that gives him a lift?
MR. BROKAW: He better. That's what I think.
MR. WOODWARD: Well, I remember years ago talking to Obama when he was in the Senate, and we were talking about Illinois, and he went around the state saying, "I have support here, I have support there, and I don't have support here." And I walked away realizing, "Oh, he's a politician. He knows where the votes are, and he's a realist." The question is going to be, can he grow and adapt to whatever those circumstances are, and we don't know.
MR. BROKAW: You know, the other thing is, here's what I think about, about President Obama. We'll see whether this painful loss in November and then the recovery that we're seeing in the short term, in terms of his political fortunes, convert him, in some fashion, to a new kind of person. I always said that Bill Clinton's career was helped immeasurably by his defeat when he first ran for re-election as governor of Arkansas. He learned a lot from that. He had to deal with a lot of people in Arkansas that were in the business community, and he also learned that he was vulnerable. By the time he got here, he'd been through that kind of
an ordeal. Ronald Reagan had been governor of California for two terms before he got here. He'd been used to running a big state and dealing with Jess Unruh and the Democrats. President Obama has not been through that kind of baptism by fire. And, and I hope now that he's beginning to listen to some of the business leaders who've been rapping on his door for the last year saying, "We were for you. We have some things we think you ought to hear." And whether or not he's going to be receptive to them now about how to change the economy.
MR. GREGORY: I'm going to make that the last word. We will leave it there. Thank you all very much. Happy new year, and a happy new year to all of you at home.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.