"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”
Guest Host: Susan Page
The Justice Department and Congress look into allegations of improper foreclosures. U.S. deportations of immigrants climb to a record high. And new polls show several midterm races tightening. A panel of journalists on the week’s top national news stories.
- Jackie Calmes national correspondent, The New York Times.
- Steve Roberts syndicated columnist and journalism professor at George Washington University.
- Dana Milbank syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and author of "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's visiting WUNC in North Carolina and will be back next week. President Obama headlines a series of democratic fundraisers ahead of the midterm elections. The Justice Department announces it will investigate home foreclosure fraud. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is under fire for political ads that critics say may have been funded by foreigners. Joining me for the domestic hour of the Friday News Roundup, Jackie Calmes of The New York Times, Steve Roberts of George Washington University and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, the author of a new book that came out just on Tuesday. It's called "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America." Welcome to you all.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSGood morning, Susan.
MR. DANA MILBANKThanks, Susan.
MS. JACKIE CALMESThanks, Susan.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Jackie Calmes, you write in this morning's New York Times about the issues surrounding home foreclosures. President Obama is doing his -- what is effectively his first veto of a piece of legislation. Tell us about it.
CALMESWell, we've seen in recent weeks where some of the major lenders in the country, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, have suspended tens of thousands of foreclosures because of problems with the paperwork -- you know, slipshod accounting and possible illegalities with forgeries. They're just sort of moving these foreclosures through like a mass production line. And so in the midst of this, you have this bill, otherwise obscure, passed both Houses of Congress without even a roll call vote.
CALMESAnd it simply would have allowed that anything notarized, any document including a mortgage notarized in any state, would have to be recognized in other states, including notaries that -- notarizations that were done electronically, which some states don't recognize. In the midst of this foreclosure crisis, critics said, and a lot of consumer groups said, to the White House that this could make it even easier to be pushing through the foreclosure process unfairly. So the president decided he would not sign this bill since Congress is out of session, running for reelection or higher office. This means it's a pocket veto. It instantly dies. Congress can't override it. So it is, in effect, as you said, his first veto.
PAGESo, Steve Roberts, what does this mean for homeowners who may be facing foreclosure?
ROBERTSWell, there are two things happening at the same time. There is a -- this is part of a much larger movement around the country. You have attorneys general who are challenging a lot of these foreclosures. You have the Justice Department this week announce that they would investigate it. And so for people who are facing foreclosure, it could slow down the process. In a number of states, they've even cancelled these foreclosures. On the other hand, there's a fallout from that because people who want to buy these homes that have been foreclosed are now stopped in their tracks. And there's a -- politically, it works for people to say, let's get the big banks. Let's hold them accountable. Let's stop these unfair foreclosures. The downside is the housing market, which is already weak, could take a real hit and slow down the entire process. So it sounds good politically, but there is a potential economic cost here.
PAGEAny surprise, Dana Milbank, that the president decided to do this?
MILBANKNone at all. You certainly don't want to be seen as taking the side of big banks and against the people just a few weeks before an election. And the story actually is even stranger than what we've been discussing. Apparently, there are -- my paper's been reporting there are cases bubbling up through the courts. It's not exactly clear that the banks have the title to foreclose on a lot of these homes. And it's not clear that the people who bought these securitized assets. So it's conceivable that a lot of these people who are in a state of foreclosure are actually realizing that they are going to get to keep their money, not have a mortgage. It's -- there's a lot of chaos going on now in the industry. The banking industry is having a great deal of uncertainty, and that's, of course, has been the problem these last two years. So we're only piling on the uncertainty.
ROBERTSAnd this really reflects a much larger problem because one of the reasons we got in such trouble in the first place was a lot of these banks that historically had lent money to local people, they held the mortgages. They kept track. They knew who these people were. They knew they were credit worthy. There was a stability in the banking system. What happened some years ago, people would issue these mortgages and then sell them immediately. So they had no stake in the community. They had no stake in making sure that the borrowers were legitimate and valid. And this process of selling and reselling and reselling these mortgages was what has caused the problem. It has been an issue in these local communities for years now because the banks don't connect to the local homeowners.
PAGESo, Jackie, how long is it going to take to sort all this out?
CALMESIt'll likely take years. I mean, the one in the near term, there is the one sort of silver lining in that if you -- yes, the process has slowed down. But in slowing it down, you don't have properties being dumped on the market, which in turn drops the value, you know, of everything else on the market. But this is just -- there is just such a backlog of homes that you're just going -- this is going to have to work out its way through the system for years.
PAGEMore economic news this morning with new jobless numbers, unemployment rates stay stable at 9.6 percent, a pretty high rate for Americans, especially if you're looking for a job -- 95,000 jobs lost last month. Dana Milbank, that is a disappointing number, bigger than we expected.
MILBANKAnd the expectations were pretty grim as well. And it's -- along with other indicators, it's more of what we've been seeing, that technically we're told the recession is over. Technically, we're in recovery, but it's going so slowly that nobody actually feels it at all. And we're now, in terms of joblessness, we're in the worst state we've been since the '30s, which is really and truly extraordinary. It's also the last unemployment number that we're going to see before this election, so this is not particularly what the Democrats wanted to see. They have an awful jobs record to defend right now.
PAGEWhat do you think the impact is politically? Steve.
ROBERTSLook, it just reinforces the dismal mood in this country, you know. Three out of five Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction. And you can point to these numbers. There are other numbers which say, well, maybe -- for instance, jobless claims have dropped. There are few small signs of recovery, but as Dana says, people are not feeling it. So this means, the Democrats over the last three weeks of the campaign, they can not say, you never had it so good. They can't say, happy days are here again. They can't say, you're better off than you were two years ago. They have to reframe the election. If it's a referendum on the jobless numbers, if it's a referendum on the national mood, they're going to get plastered. Their attempt is to reframe the question. Do you want -- do you have more confidence in us going forward or the Republicans? And that's what Obama has been trying to do on the campaign trail.
PAGEAnd this argument, well, it's bad, but it would have been worse without us. How persuasive is that politically, do you think, Jackie?
CALMESWell, it's so weak in the persuasive category that they don't even try to make it really very often. And it is hard, but, you know, this -- in fairness to the administration and the Congressional Democrats, looking at this from an economic point of view, once we knew in early 2009 that the recession was worse than anyone anticipated, you could foresee this. You could foresee that from past recessions that it was going to be very slow to recover from. And it was going to be jobless recovery for a long time because you had every layer of the economy, from consumers to corporations and small businesses to major banks all trying to deleverage, all trying to get rid of the debt they had built up over the years.
CALMESAnd so, nobody wants to buy anything from the consumer to the corporation, and nobody wants to be -- none of the companies want to hire quite yet. So we're just sort of at a standstill until everybody can sort of bring down their debt. So -- but it would -- you know, politically, the administration couldn't come in and say, well, we're not going to have much growth to speak of. It's going to be bad times for years. You know, that's just not a politically credible argument to make, and so they have to say, you know -- and then they seized early on on some better jobless numbers. The trend was coming down, but that was because the stimulus was at its peak, really. And the Fed activities were buttressing that. And now we're just sort of stuck here, and people think the unemployment rate will still be no lower than 8 percent by the time he faces reelection himself.
PAGETell us about what President Obama is doing now, Dana, on the campaign trail in these final weeks.
MILBANKWell, it's a tricky task for him because he's not the popular guy he was a couple years ago. His approval rating's in the mid 40s, which is nothing to brag about. And in parts of the country, he's downright poisonous, you know, outside of the highly Democratic areas on the coast. So what's happening is a lot of Democrats are asking him to come in and raise money. He can still get people to cough up thousands of bucks, and that will help Democratic candidates. But these Democratic candidates are saying, thank you, please come raise money for me, but let's avoid the picture. I don't exactly want to be seen with you. It's -- Joe Sestak running for the Senate in Pennsylvania said, actually, Mr. President, could you send your wife instead? I think that would be more appropriate.
ROBERTSIt's even worse than that because if you want to see Barack Obama in TV ads this year, it's in Republican ads, not Democratic ads. I mean, he's far more visible -- as is Nancy Pelosi -- and so that is part of it. Well, you know, I teach college students, and I can tell you two years ago, they really were fired up in Obama's praise. It was a palpable excitement and zest running through the campus. These are exactly the people that Obama's campaigning to try to get. He's appeared at the University of Wisconsin. He's doing these other campus events, and that level of excitement is so much lower than it was two years ago. It's very tangible.
PAGEYou know, we saw the Gallup poll go to a likely voter screen this week. Now, when they do a Congressional generic ballot without a likely voter screen, just registered voters, Republicans are just up three points, not such a terrible plight for Democrats. But when you add the likely voter screen which measures that enthusiasm gap, it's up to 13 percentage points, or 18 percentage points, which would be catastrophic if that was the case in three weeks if you saw those kind of numbers.
CALMESOh, absolutely, and that's why you see everyone on the Democratic side up to the President out there just playing to the base to Liberal Democrats, like Steve said, going to college -- Steve and Dana noted -- going to college campuses. And they just need to get the base out.
PAGEJackie Calmes, she's national correspondent for The New York Times. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with our panel of journalists. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Steve Roberts, professor of journalism at George Washington University. His latest book is titled "From Every End of This Earth." Jackie Calmes from The New York Times and Dana Milbank, political reporter at The Washington Post. You know, we heard President Obama on the stamp yesterday charge that there are groups raising money for political ads from foreigners. Steve, describe what this issue is.
ROBERTSWell, it involves the Chamber of Commerce, which is a very large, very powerful, very well-financed organization here in Washington. And a public interest group looked at their records and said, wait, the dues that are paid by their foreign members, corporations and others that belong, that the dues are kind of commingled with their political funds. And this is the basis for the argument that somehow foreigners are helping to fund elections through the Chamber of Commerce. Now, money is fungible. I mean, there's some legitimacy to that argument.
ROBERTSChamber of Commerce has adamantly denied that any foreign funds go into their campaign coffers, but this is part of a larger strategy of the Democrats. Knowing they're after the Supreme Court decisions which allowed much more heavy corporate contributions, trying to turn it to their advantage, it's a tremendous disadvantage in terms of that money. But they're trying to say, see, see, the big banks, the big corporations, big businesses, the oldest line in the Democratic book, billionaires and millionaires are somehow being nefarious in spending this money. And so it fits into their larger campaign thing.
PAGEThe liberal group MoveOn.org has asked the Justice Department to investigate. Are they likely to do so, do you think, Jackie?
CALMESOh, it's unclear at this point. It's -- I think there's clearly going to be investigations come out of this election in terms of the money that's being spent and going into these independent groups. But, you know, even if there were investigations, it would linger on long past the election, and, in the case as we've seen at the Federal Election Commission, could go years, past several elections.
PAGEWell, Dana, does this relate to that controversial Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that really opened the door to campaign spending that doesn't get tracked in the same public way that we're accustomed to?
MILBANKNot specifically, but it's very much the same issue that we're talking about here. And all we can do right now is guess about what's happening in this campaign cycle because we don't know who's spending the money. There's no need, because of that decision, for people to report it. Now, some people believe that, you know, look, we were already awash in corporate money. So, you know, they didn't really need any further vehicles. But they -- but now we will have no idea how much money is being spent out there.
CALMESAnd, you know, the Democrats tried, with the president's urging, to pass legislation that would have done basically two things in the wake of that Citizens United ruling of last January. And that was -- one was that, okay, it's fine for all these independent groups to raise as much money as they want, but let's -- they should have to disclose their contributors. And number two, no foreign contributors at all. That legislation, of course, failed under Republican opposition. But the president thinks it's a good issue, and with him in the lead, Democrats have continued to make it.
ROBERTSAnd part of the picture here, as Jackie pointed out, the rules are -- have become much laxer after Citizens United. But even the rules that we have, the investigation is going long after the election. So people might pay a penalty. But they know that the election is not going to be reversed. It's not as if someone is going to come in and say, we're going to take votes away from you. So they defy these rules with impunity, knowing that the worst that can happen is they'd get slapped on the wrist months or years from now. There's virtually no enforcement mechanism with any real teeth at all.
PAGEWell, if you travel, you go to a place where there's competitive election. You cannot turn on the TV without being just deluged with these political ads. I wonder, in some cases, whether they have any effect on voters anymore.
MILBANKWell -- and that does create a sense of equilibrium because it's so -- there's so much overkill going on in this market so that there's only so much airtime. It's been purchased up now. So even if you have some nefarious foreign group influencing the Chamber of Commerce, sorry, the ad time is all blown up.
PAGEWe saw the Associated Press with a story yesterday saying there are glimmers of hope for Democrats. Of course, Democrats are at risk of losing control of the House and may perhaps -- even the Senate, they need to lose 39 seats in the House for that to switch to Republican control. Do you see glimmers of hope?
ROBERTSI see a few. For example, if you look at the polls, the Republican brand is still in the dumpster. I mean, only -- in the latest Pew poll, only 24 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Republican Party. So it's not as if there is a great rush to believe that Republicans present a shining or attractive alternative. Second thing is that the Obama campaign of, get real, this is a choice. This is -- you know, this is not a referendum on, are you disappointed there was no public option? Are you disappointed there was no immigration bill? Let's remember who will replace Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner.
ROBERTSLet's remember you've got these Tea Party people all over the country who will move the Senate and the House to the right. I think that's having some effect on the base. And I think even on some independents, if you look at some of the Republican -- Democrats trying to use Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and some of the other more extreme candidates as poster children. See, this is what the Senate will look like. I think it's having a marginal effect, but the tide -- as you started this conversation, 9.6 unemployment is the most important number in American politics this year, and everything else is marginal compared to that.
PAGEDana Milbank, you watch politics all the time. Do you see glimmers of hope for Democrats?
MILBANKWell, there would be glimmers if they're anything, but I think one area -- I don't know if this would give them hope, but it is that there's an extraordinarily high degree of -- or a lack of confidence in these polls and what we're seeing in this election. We were talking earlier about the turnout factor, the enthusiasm gap. That's the hardest thing to measure in polling cues. You're kind of trying to guess who's going to go to the polls or not, and that's a very inexact scientist, so -- science. So anybody who tells you they know what's going to happen in these elections is making it up. So we know the Democrats are going to lose. We just don't know how badly they're going to lose.
PAGEDo you agree with that, Jackie?
CALMESYes. I mean -- and the vote is actually going on in many places as we speak. We don't have to wait to November 2 to sort of -- or they don't have to wait to rally the vote. They're trying to do it as we speak. So some of these ads, you know, will be a moot point to some voters as they come out. There's less -- it used to -- you know, the ads are almost uniformly negative. And it used to be the worst ads were dropped in the final days. Now, you're seeing them throughout because, you know, voters are voting.
PAGEYou know, you see the president and the vice president try to rally Democratic voters, but it's kind of a scolding tone. It's like, you have to buck up, don't sulk, stop whining. And, I wonder, is that really a way to get reluctant voters to vote?
ROBERTSI think it's hard to complain about whining without whining.
ROBERTSI mean, I think you sound petulant. And I think that what this reflects is a genuine frustration in the part of the president and the White House, saying, look, guys, can't you count? We don't have the votes for a public option. We don't have the votes for an immigration bill. We don't have the votes for the liberal agenda. In this country, only 20 percent -- or 21 percent of Americans call themselves liberals. And if you're out there on the left, fantasizing that somehow this Democratic president can enact a liberal agenda, you just don't understand political reality. And I think there is a lot of frustration that comes through in those phrases of buck up and get real and stop whining because they feel that the liberal left is just not confronting reality.
MILBANKYou know, one thing the Democrats have done extremely well is lower expectations.
MILBANKSo everybody is expecting them to be clobbered. So in the event that they don't -- the Republicans don't actually capture both houses of Congress, the Democrats can say, aha, it was a triumph.
MILBANKWe only lost 32 seats.
PAGEWell, I was at a briefing yesterday at the Democratic National Commission -- Committee with David Plouffe, who managed, of course, President Obama's very successful 2008 campaign. And he said it would be a "colossal failure" for Republicans if they didn't win the House and the Senate and every major governor's race. But, really, Jackie, I don't think reporters were buying that.
CALMESNo. I mean, it's all part of each side's expectation setting. And, you know, Democrats have sort of a balance to strike right now. They don't want expectations to start getting high amidst some of these news about glimmers of hope for Democrats because then, you know, just as they're trying to get people razzed to come out and vote, they'll be -- grow complacent again. And at the same time, they don't want to be so despondent that people will just, you know, pull the blanket over their head and stay home on -- instead of going out.
CALMESSo it's a balancing act.
PAGELet's go to our listeners. We'll let Phil join our conversation. He's calling us from Frederick, Md. Phil, thank you for joining us. Phil, are you there? Well, I think we must have lost Phil. We'll go instead to Teri. He's (sic) calling us from Forth Worth, Texas. Teri, you're on the air.
TERIHi, thank you so much for taking my call. Actually, being that it's Friday Roundup, I thought I could go ahead and call about this. It's something I left a message weeks ago about, and I didn't hear it play on the air. So I'm not sure if it got addressed or not, but a few weeks ago, somebody -- and I can't identify who and it really doesn't matter, but I thought maybe your panelists could discuss this -- if it was -- ask why, in fact, the media is painting such a dire picture of the status of the Obama administration.
TERIAnd the response was -- and this really, really concerned me, and nobody seemed to pick up on this being a problem -- the response was, well, the media is portraying it this way because it is clear through surveys that this is the public perception. And, of course, that is very backwards and very disconcerting. And I'm afraid it does reflect what's happening, that the media is portraying what they are perceiving the public to believe as opposed to giving the public the facts and then letting the public develop their opinions accordingly.
PAGEYou know, Teri, interesting point. Is this just the process where we're feeding on each other, do you think, Steve?
ROBERTSWell, I always find it amusing when we get calls from the left, saying the press is too tough on the Democrats because this has been the complaint the conservatives have had for generations, that the Washington media is all liberals, and they all support Democrats. All of us have been in newsrooms for a long time. And I've always believed that there are two biases that really show themselves. Newsrooms are in favor of a good story and against whoever is in power, and this is a natural tilt. And Democrats got, in some ways, spoiled during the campaign because there was a lot of favorable coverage of Obama. And now they're getting -- complaining because there's a natural twist to this.
PAGEYou know, Jackie, you cover economics a lot. You have a lot of expertise in that. And here's a kind of related e-mail we've gotten from Natalie in Atlanta, Ga. She says, "I want to point out that all this negativity about the economic status of Americans keep it negative. It's not that we're doing fantastic, but in terms of what this administration was handed over by the Bush-Cheney destruction, we're not doing that terrible. Is it possible that by focusing on bad news about the economy, as we were this morning, that we make the economy worse or guarantee that it continues in a bad state?"
CALMESWell, that's the question that's debated often and can't be answered as to just -- you know, since consumer confidence is so important to the economy, to what extent does negative media coverage keep consumer confidence down? But -- and I think both of the listeners have a fair point, and yet what we report on, it's right to report on what the facts are as well as what the public's perception is, especially in an election year like this one. But, you know, they do have a point in that, for instance, on the stimulus package -- very unpopular -- and we often, as we're doing political stories, will just let candidates on the opposition, Republicans mainly, get away with saying that the stimulus failed.
CALMESWell, by most any economist reckoning the stimulus did not fail, it did what exactly what it was supposed to do. If anything, it was too small. And it was too small because the Obama administration couldn't get the votes, certainly no Republican votes and not enough conservative Democrats' votes to be larger. Another reason -- example we had was TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout that initially started under President Bush. That has, too, been a success story, but people just don't want to believe it.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your e-mails at email@example.com. Well, Dana, do you think our callers have a point that reporters love a negative story?
MILBANKWell, of course, we do. But also -- and I don't think it's anything to be proud of -- but reporters are poll-driven. We watch the polls like -- more than anybody else does. And when a president is, you know, soaring in the '70s and '80s, well, he can do no wrong. And we're not nearly critical enough of the president, and then there is this pile-on effect when things get really bad for the president. So I think we are following, rather than leading, public opinion. On the other hand, you can't expect the media to be out there and cheerleading and cherry picking, you know, good economic measures just to give the economy a boost. This is a really grim economy.
PAGEIt's hard to see a positive news story coming out of a 9.6 percent unemployment rate and, especially, this huge number of people who are long-term unemployed for a year or more and just can't find a job.
ROBERTSWell, the real unemployment rate is 17 percent if you'll include discouraged workers, underemployed people. So that's a -- that means everybody in America knows somebody who's suffering. And that's why this is such a powerful issue. This is not some abstraction. This is not Iraq or Afghanistan or nuclear power. This is something that affects every single family directly or indirectly. That's why it's such a tenacious political issue and why the good news gets overwhelmed because the bad news is so pervasive.
PAGEJackie Calmes, we saw the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, come out this week and announced record numbers of deportations last year. What did she tell us?
CALMESWell, just as you said, she's -- you know, they're very interested in emphasizing the border control issue because unless -- the feeling is, unless the public is convinced that we've gotten control of our borders, there never will be any chance to pass the -- any legislation that would liberalize immigration law so that you could try to, you know, gain legal status for the estimated 12 million people who are here. And you certainly couldn't deport all 12 million people. It would not only be virtually impossible, but it would devastate, you know, our agricultural industries and a lot of other services all over the country.
PAGEThis administration is really focused on deporting people with criminal records, Dana.
MILBANKYes. A very large percentage of those people deported did have criminal records. They want to look, as Jackie was noting, as tough as they can. On a larger issue, a lot of this immigration debate has been something of a farce because it's now being portrayed as if there is this terrible problem on the border. Well, guess what? Violence on our side of the border is lower than it has been in a long time. There are fewer immigrants illegally coming across the border. There is a terrible problem, but it's in Mexico right now. So the -- all these furors are actually happening at a time when things have improved.
PAGEYou know, there were some thoughts, Steve, that the furious debate over immigration would help motivate Hispanic voters to turn out in this midterm election. How does that look now?
ROBERTSWell, if you look at the polls in general, Hispanics are tending very strongly Democratic. Barack Obama got 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, which was a big tick from previous elections, because George Bush had done a good job of cultivating Hispanic voters. Those numbers are still pretty much the same. The latest Pew poll, I think, was 65-22, Democratic among Hispanics. The problem is motivation. It goes back to the issue of intensity. It comes back to the issue of enthusiasm. And the same polls that show heavy tilt to the Democrats also show a lot of Hispanics probably will not vote. But this is a long-term problem for the Republican Party, and Karl Rove knows this. So you cannot alienate the fastest growing voter group in America and expect to win a majority of this country, but it might not show itself in this election.
PAGESteve Roberts, he's a professor of journalism at George Washington University. And we're also joined this hour by Dana Milbank of The Washington Post and Jackie Calmes of The New York Times. We're going to take another short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation. We'll go to the phones, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWe've got an e-mail from Chris who writes us from Cincinnati. The e-mail reads, "I am so frustrated that so many large businesses are making record-breaking profits and yet not hiring new employees that I'm on a buying freeze. I will buy nothing more than food and gasoline." Chris, if you would consider buying newspapers as well, we'd appreciate.
PAGEShe writes, "If they can boycott hiring, I can boycott buying. I can also boycott watching television and reading newspapers." Oh, that is bad news. Well, there is this -- there were some signs this week, Jackie, that corporations are making profits but using them to increase their stock prices as opposed to hiring some workers back.
CALMESRight. I mean -- and, you know, the interest rates at which corporations can borrow money are rock bottom right now. And so, you know, a lot of them are using that to buy back their own stock and to, you know, pay down debt. And, you know, what the e-mailer describes as sort of a vicious circle there where, you know, she's not buying, they're not investing. And they're not investing because not enough people are buying, and it just sort of feeds on itself.
ROBERTSAnd part of what's happening is that because of the economic stress, companies are finding ways to save money and to increase productivity. And traditionally, we love that in the economy. That's the way living standards rise. That's the way wage standards rise. But the result is that they're not hiring. So if you have a job, perhaps your wage is going up. But if you don't have a job, this -- there is this irony because we've always thought that increasing productivity was a good thing, but it's having the effect of deterring new hires.
MILBANKWhat we have going on is the corporations are hoarding their cash. The consumers are hoarding what cash they have. We need somebody -- the banks are hoarding their cash rather than lending. The one entity that can do this is the government. And can you imagine somebody saying that the government needs to be spending more money right now?
PAGELet's go back to the phones, talk to Joshua. He's calling us from Little Rock, Ark. Joshua, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOSHUAHi. Yes, thanks for taking my call. I am one of those disillusioned liberal Democrats that lives here in Arkansas. And I'll tell you, I just cannot bring myself to, "Buck up and vote for Sen. Blanche Lincoln." After torpedoing the public options and then voting against Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the defense authorization bill, I just -- I have never voted for a Republican in my life. But I cannot bring myself to vote for a senator who just does not represent me.
JOSHUAI mean, I know I should buck up and do it, but I just can't.
PAGESo, Joshua, what are you likely to do?
JOSHUAI'm likely to vote for the Green Party, the Green Party candidate. I mean, it's really my only option. I really don't see -- I mean, what can the president or the vice president tell me -- I mean, how can they convince me to vote for someone, Sen. Lincoln, who has done absolutely nothing to represent me in the last couple of years since President Obama took office?
PAGEAnd Blanche Lincoln, Dana, probably the most endangered Democrat -- incumbent Democratic senator who's on the ballot, her race now looks very difficult against the Republican John Boozman.
MILBANKWell, and she's got an added level of difficulty because she had this messy primary challenge. Presumably, the caller was supporting her challenger in that race. But I think this gets to the notion that there is an intense amount of anger out there. It's being directed at incumbents of all stripes. I mean, we hear a lot about Tea Party anger and conservatives. Well, guess what, the liberals are angry, too. And, you know, look in Texas, the Republican incumbent governor is in trouble -- in Texas, of all places. And that speaks to the fact that this is not an ideological problem. It's just widespread anger through the system.
PAGEYou know, I was out in Arkansas two weeks ago to do a story on that Senate race, spent a day campaigning, following Blanche Lincoln as she campaigned. Even at her own events, it was hard to find a voter that was enthusiastic about her. Most of them were not dissatisfied to the left as Joshua is. Most of them were unhappy because she had voted for the health care bill, which there were a lot of qualms about.
ROBERTSWell, she was caught in -- from both sides. But what Blanche Lincoln is is -- in the words of Nancy Pelosi -- a majority maker. Democrats cannot be a majority, either in the Senate or the House, just by electing liberals. She is a conservative Democrat who's the only kind that can win in Arkansas. And your caller can go vote for the Green Party, but the result is to help elect a Republican and a Republican majority. Now, that's the message that Democrats are trying to send to voters like Joshua.
PAGENot persuading him though.
ROBERTSAnd not persuading him, which is one of the problems the Democrats have.
PAGEJackie, we have an e-mail from Phil, who writes us in Washington, D.C. He says, "Can anyone explain why the administration insisted on low-balling the flow from the leaking BP well? It didn't make sense then, and it still doesn't." What do you think was happening there?
CALMESWell, it's not clear yet. The -- you know, the administration was, in the first days after the April 20 explosion of -- at the BP well site, was saying it was 1,000 and then it was 5,000 barrels a day. And it was really much more, we've now come to know, and so they were, you know, relying on BP's figures. And then when scientists came in -- the government scientist, independent scientist came in -- they came up with larger numbers, but the administration still wasn't prepared to -- you know, it's all uncertain. And so they weren't prepared to go there. But they say that it's a moot point because from day one, they were planning, and they were responding in a way that represented a worst-case scenario. But that just, you know, it's curious. It's sort of hard to believe because you just -- you know information is going to come out eventually. So it's just not clear why they wouldn't put it out or at least put out a range immediately.
PAGEDana, what do you think?
MILBANKWell, I think I'd put this in the category of government ineptitude, rather than deliberate lowballing. I remember covering these hearings very early on, and they're -- the government, at least the lawmakers that time, were blaming BP for these low estimates. It sounds like they had people in the government trying to make these calculations who had no business making these calculations. Ultimately, the whole problem proved to be less than we feared in the first place. So at least it's a political matter. It's not terribly consequential.
PAGELet's go to St. Louis, Miss. and talk to Michael. Michael, hi. You're on the air.
MICHAELHi. Thanks for taking my call. The last call from Arkansas kind of spoke to what I was going to react to. And last weekend, we heard from a commentator on HBO who said you can give the keys back to the Republicans, who will drive the car back in the ditch after 30 years. Or you can give the keys to a friend who you are a little disappointed in. And that's the only point I wanted to make.
PAGESo, Michael, are you persuaded? Do -- you got a big senate there in Missouri. Are you persuaded to turn out to vote and vote for the Democrat?
MICHAELAbsolutely. And I will encourage all of my friends to do so.
PAGEOkay. Thanks very much for your call. Here's an e-mail we got from Marty who writes, "I strongly disagree with the comment made by Jackie when she said that, for the Democrats to come into office stating that we were in for hard times, things will take a hard time to improve, et cetera, was just not a politically credible position to take. To me, it is precisely the politically credible position to take, one of being upfront and honest with the people." So why don't politicians do that more often?
CALMESWell -- and in fairness, I'll take back a little of what I said in that the president and his top economic advisors have argued all along that it's going to take us a long time. Be patient. At the same time, that's not what I get -- what I was trying to say is you cannot emphasize that. That can't be your slogan to basically say, you know, things are so bad, we're not going to be able to improve them.
ROBERTSBecause the -- look, the most important commodity, in many ways, in American politics is optimism. And Ronald Reagan understood that. Bill Clinton understood that. Americans respond to a forward-looking, optimistic leader who says, times will get better. And so you have a tension between being candid about the dismal numbers, but also giving people some hope, and that is the tricky combination to try to hit. And Obama has been struggling. He was trying to do both...
ROBERTS...at the same time.
PAGE...Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican senator running as an independent in Rhode island for governor, he started out his campaign by saying, I'm going to be honest and straightforward with you. We need to raise the sales tax. We need to broaden the reach of the sales tax to hit some things that hadn't been subject to it. He has been hammered for that, and I think it does imperil his prospects.
MILBANKSure. I mean, honesty is never the best policy if you're wanting to get elected. And I think part of the problem that Obama has right now is of his own making, that he's -- he made us believe or made his followers believe during the campaign that he really was going to come in here and turn the lights on, and everything would change, that this whole system would change. Now, of course, you know, a fairly large plurality says that didn't happen, and fairly obviously, the political system didn't change. And I think that it was just the hope rhetoric led people to believe that he could do more than he actually could.
ROBERTSYou know, Michelle Singletary is a very good columnist in Washington Post, had a terrific interview with a woman, Velma Hunt, I think her name was, who made that famous comment at a town hall meeting, where she said, I'm exhausted from defending you. So Michelle interviews her. And Velma says, you know, I thought he had some secret, that he was going to wave a magic wand and it will all be better. And what Obama is grappling with is that two factors happened at the same time -- hope rose as jobs dropped. And so the expectation gap that our callers are reflecting is really what's getting them. The hard economic numbers, as you say, are not that bad. Obama's personal popularity, not that bad -- 45 percent equivalent to Clinton and Reagan at similar times. But it's really that the hopes rose so high, that it's impossible to imagine him living up to them. And I think that's what's really deterring a lot of these Democrats, like Joshua who called earlier.
CALMESWell, as Steve had said earlier -- and I totally agree -- the single most important number to know in this midterm election year is 9.6. The unemployment rate has been stuck there for some months now. But the second most important number to know that goes to this hope theme is 8 percent, which is what the administration initially at the very start projected unemployment -- where unemployment would peak if we pass the stimulus package. Now, they -- those numbers, that projection, was based on economic data that was, by that time, out-of-date. It basically was for November 2008, and we -- they were talking in January 2009. And in just that short time, we later found out the economic numbers were so much worse, but they're stuck with it. And, you know, there were people at the time arguing that we, you know -- we don't have the actual numbers, but that number just feels too optimistic. But...
PAGEWe see some changes happening with the president's economic team, Dana Milbank. The chief economic advisor Larry Summers, the head of the Council of Economic Advisor's changing. Will that make a difference in terms of economic policy from this administration?
MILBANKI suspect not because there are very limited options about what can be done. They've pretty much tried everything they can do or that is politically tolerable. It does have the benefit of saying, okay, we're going to start with a clean slate, so you can bring in some new faces here -- or in the case of the CEA, an old face here. But it at least allows them to give the impression that they're making changes, even though their hands are tied.
PAGEAnd the big job, chief of staff at the White House, that's going to change. Steve Roberts, do you expect that to reflect some changes in strategy by the White House?
ROBERTSWell, I think the biggest change is what happens in the Congress, not what happens in the White House. It's going to be a very different political landscape. Rahm Emanuel had some great advantages. He had served in the House of Representatives. He had a lot of friends up there. And the Democrats with large majorities decided the Republicans are not going to cooperate. They were going to be push through their own bills, primarily the health care bill. It's going to be a very, very different landscape. So someone who comes into that job and is much more of a negotiator, less confrontational than Emanuel, probably going to serve the president better in the second two years.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls. Let's go to Michael. He's calling us from Coral Gables, Fla. Michael, thank you for holding on.
MICHAELHey, thanks for having me this morning. I'd like to comment with regards to the economic productivity that corporations speak to as well as the accumulated earnings for which we really haven't -- in just a year, we've had put taxation on to ferret out some of that money and get back to proper employment levels. We somehow have lost that direction. And consequently, we are talking about people working extended number of hours and calling that a measure of productivity, while at the same time, corporations are buying back their stocks through treasuries and leaving the economic plight to a government which does not believe in industrial policing. And I say this as someone who is in their late 50s with both a master of business administration and a master of public health and someone who really looks around and wonders, why have we gone wrong? And why can't we get the ship back on course?
PAGEAll right. Michael, thanks for your call. Jackie.
CALMESI -- actually I was wondering what the caller -- what his own prescriptions would be. You know, I think we face a situation where the electorate -- the Americans have bailout fatigue, and they have spending fatigue. And that could be a very dangerous thing if the economy either continues to weaken or if there were to be a, you know, global crisis that would cause a double-dip recession. So that's the danger.
MILBANKAnd as usual, in these recoveries, we see a bifurcation here. The stock market's actually fairly well-recovered. It's doing quite well. We're seeing signs that the wealthier are doing better, as often is the case, from higher-end stores. So there's, you know, there is a recovery within a recovery, and the vast majority of people don't feel that.
ROBERTSAnd the notion that the answer here is higher taxes on corporations, first of all, it's politically impossible. Second of all, a lot of economists don't think that's going to create jobs. The implication of the caller was somehow if you tax those profits, it's going to create jobs. Democrats couldn't even pass a tax bill that would tax people over $250,000. They couldn't get a majority for that. So this -- right now in America, there's virtually no appetite for increased taxing.
PAGESo, Jackie, what are the prospects that the full slate of President Bush's tax cuts will get extended when Congress takes that up, including for the higher-income Americans?
CALMESI think the chance, you know, the bets -- most bets would be on there being an extension of the tax cuts for the vast middle class and then a temporary extension, one or two years, for the upper rates.
PAGEJohn in Barrington, N.H. has written us an e-mail. "Will the outcome of this November's election really make any difference? Whether there are minor or huge gains for the Republicans, with Obama still in the White House to veto anything they might do to reverse the legislation of the last couple of years, it's hard to see how there will be anything but gridlock regardless of the outcome in November."
MILBANKI think that's an excellent point, and a lot of people will say, oh, my goodness, the Tea Party is taking over America. Well, even in the best scenario for Republicans, it's a very narrow majority. They won't be able to get anything by this president. So, you know, that's certainly true. You could also make an argument that for the first time, if Republicans do have power, they can't just oppose. They're going to have to come up with something. So we may have a scenario like we did after the 1994 revolution, where they actually have to cut a deal. And there is a school of thought that our government works best when it's divided, and you just can't have, you know, one party out there throwing bombs.
PAGEAlthough it took a while after the '94 election...
MILBANKYes, it wasn't pretty.
PAGE...to get to the point where they were doing stuff.
ROBERTSYeah, and, look, the single biggest difference is not the ability of Republicans to pass legislation. It's the inability of the White House to propose and pass a lot of their bills. Issues like immigration, cap and trade, a lot of things still on the president's agenda will have much tougher slating in the next Congress.
PAGEI want to thank our panel for joining us this hour. Steve Roberts from George Washington University, Jackie Calmes from The New York Times and Dana Milbank. His new book is called "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America." Thank you all for being with us.
MILBANKThank you, Susan.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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