A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
- James Thurber professor and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University; author of a forthcoming book, "Obama in Office: The First Two Years."
- Michael Gerson columnist for The Washington Post and senior adviser at the ONE Campaign to fight global disease and poverty; former speechwriter for President George W. Bush; and author of "Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace American's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail if They Don't)"
- John Dickerson chief political correspondent for Slate.com and CBS political analyst and contributor. Author of "On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News' First Woman Star."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In his second State of the Union address, President Obama made an appeal for unity in tackling the nation's most urgent problems. He called on Congress and all Americans to work together to return the U.S. to the forefront of global competitiveness. He spoke of the need for greater investment in innovation, as well as cutbacks in spending. But he did not satisfy his critics who want deeper cuts and questioned how the seemingly conflicting goals would be achieved.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio, Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, John Dickerson of Slate.com and James Thurber of the American University. If you'd like to join us, call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Before we begin our conversation, let's hear this one cut from the president's speech.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAHalf a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets. We unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.
REHMJames Thurber, what did that mean to you?
MR. JAMES THURBERWell, that meant that he was trying to channel John F. Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy said we do hard things, that the Soviet Union is ahead of us in a space race. We have a clear threat from the Soviet Union. The clear mission -- go to the moon. We had lots of interest groups in favor of that, by the way, then, lots of funding, low unemployment, and Kennedy was the central core of authority. This is a little different. I mean, we have very complex problems. We don't have consensus about the problems. We don't have consensus about the mission. We have interest groups fighting with each other. We don't have enough funds. And the president is not the core of authority the way Kennedy was at that time.
MR. JOHN DICKERSONIt was interesting that what the president was trying to do is give that sense of moment to -- part of the speech was naming the current hinge in our cultural history we're in in our economic history, trying to give a sense of urgency. The problem, of course, is that Sputnik was about the threat to our safety and security, and whether this would allow Soviets to have enough technology to send missiles over here, which is a little more dire than the current situation. But he was -- the president was also tapping into that response, that American sense of determination and optimism, and we can lick any problem.
MR. JOHN DICKERSONIt's interesting. The president actually unveiled this in a speech in North Carolina last year when he talked about test scores in China being the best in the world and that this was a wake-up call. And the speech was ignored, in part, because he said it on the day he was announcing his -- the deal with Republicans on the Bush tax cut. But -- which gives you just a sense of sometimes you can say something and it's not heard. And then you unveil it somewhere else, and it meets its moment.
MR. MICHAEL GERSONWell, it's a theme that, I think, effectively allowed him to be upbeat and forward-looking. It also embodied an outreach to the business community, which I think is a real turn. The heroes of the speech were small businessmen. It was -- the tone was quite different from, you know, attacking fat cats, and now they're very much long lost friends. And it also -- it has this advantage -- having worked on some State of the Union addresses. A lot of -- the role he defined for government, a lot of the investments in education, technology and competitiveness have a 20-year time frame of success.
MR. MICHAEL GERSONAnd, you know, I remember Bush -- George W. Bush in 2006. The -- his entire economic portion of the speech was a competitiveness initiative, and I worked on that speech. I have no absolutely no idea whether it did anything at all. And so it's a theme that, I think, is a good rhetorical theme. It's hard to say that it's going to create jobs in the short term.
REHMJohn Dickerson, I know you went back to listen to or read the Wilson State of the Union address. Question, do these speeches make a difference?
DICKERSONWell, historically, the Wilson speech was the first one -- he delivered it in person in 1913 after a long period where presidents would just mail it up, which allowed them to be about -- sometimes as long as 22,000 words. Wilson was about 3,500. They come in now at anywhere between five and six -- I think the president's was closer to 6,000. Clinton, of course, the whopper, at 9,000 in 1995. Historically, they're fascinating. Wilson goes on for paragraphs about farmers, which it was much more agrarian country. Then there was one Clinton speech that changed his political -- the political dynamic. The polls went up afterwards.
DICKERSONBut, I think, mostly, you get a little bit of (word?). It gets a little it of a bump by just -- if they can embrace their role, but it then dissipates. And we go back to the conversation that existed before him. But I think, as a framing document, the State of the Union is very powerful because it's something the president refers back to time and again throughout the year. And it's a touchstone that he can say, look, there is a point here to all of these things we're doing. You can sometimes lose the theme in a presidency, and he can on -- on any day, say, hey, this may seem kind of -- whatever I'm doing over here may seem offline, but if you'll remember, I laid it all out in this long, organized speech. And there is a theme to this direction we're headed in.
REHMAnd, certainly, what was interesting, Michael Gerson, is that on the one hand, the president was talking about investment or, as Republicans would put it, more spending, but on the other hand, belt-tightening, no spending of any non-necessity. How do you reconcile the two? What were, for you, the most important things?
GERSONWell, I think the president clearly favored one over the other. I mean, part of what he attempted to do -- and, I think, rather successfully -- was to say we can create jobs and compete with China. His second job was to say, we're going to avoid the fate of Greece, you know, with kind of sovereign debt crisis and inflation and a lot of other things. I don't think he succeeded very much at all. I don't even think he intended to in the last section. There was very little innovative on the deficit. He talked about a five-year budget freeze.
GERSONLast year's State of the Union proposed a three-year budget freeze. It was one of the most awkward and revealing moments because, when he talked about the five-year budget freeze, no one applauded. The Democrats didn't applaud. The Republicans didn't applaud. And he was very and purposely vague on Medicare and Social Security, which is the real deficit problem. He was essentially telling Republicans, you go first. He didn't show a lot of presidential leadership on that. I don't think he intended to. I don't think he wanted to take that risk in the State of the Union address. So I think he did rather well on one of those themes and not so well on the other.
THURBERI -- you know, the five-year freeze in the budget affects only about 12 percent of the budget. It doesn't have a major impact. He -- the thing that he didn't focus on were the proposals from the deficit debt commission. He really didn't endorse any of them. And if you want to change the deficit and ultimately the debt in the United States, you have to deal with entitlement programs and tax increases. And he didn't talk about either one of those. When he talked about a tax decrease for corporations, he talked about it being revenue neutral, and he said it wouldn't add anything to the deficit. That's a very hard thing to do. He's living within pay, go -- pay as you go.
THURBERIn other words, all these increases that he wants for investment and education, technology and infrastructure have to be paid by someone else in the budget. And the degrees of freedom in the budget are very little. Twelve percent of the budget on the five-year freeze -- that means you have to find the pay as you go within that sector of the budget. His -- he was hopeful. It's about the future. It's about cooperation and innovation, and I think that's good. But it was fairly vague and generally thematic and not focused on particular policies, and, therefore, it gives him freedom in the future to negotiate with people on the Hill.
REHMInteresting, that just crossing the wire is a new estimate from the Congressional Budget Office predicting that the federal budget deficit will hit almost $1.5 trillion this year, but the non-partisan budget agency predicts the deficit will drop to $1.1 trillion next year. So the question is -- I realize he didn't hit the deficit hard enough for an awful lot of people. Jim Thurber, what could he have said that would have satisfied those critics?
THURBERWell, I think he could have said that he would pick up some of the proposals from the commission. They've been around for a long time, and we've had other commissions like this. There's lots of people, and we all know that there needs to be cuts in entitlement programs or a means testing as well as tax increases. But that goes after the retirees. That goes after people who do not want to have any kind of tax increase. He does talk about tax reform, but he didn't get specific about that.
REHMBut he couldn't, could he? I mean, you don't do that in a State of the Union.
THURBERWell, politically, it's deadly.
THURBERAnd, politically, it's tough if you're going into a session where one House is the Republicans and the other House, the Democrats. And he -- you know, he had a historic 97 percent presidential support score batting average. That's going to drop down to the 30s, probably, because of this divided party government. And going into that negotiation, you don't want to be too specific at this point.
DICKERSONWell, I -- I'd be interested to hear what Michael has to say about -- that President Bush talked a great deal about his plan for Social Security in a State of the Union. But the president couldn't get -- didn't want to get specific, as Mike said, in this instance.
REHMJohn Dickerson, he is chief political correspondent for Slate.com, CBS political analyst and contributor. The phones are open. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. We are talking about last night's State of the Union speech. And, of course, there was not just one response, but two responses. Michael Gerson, a response from Michele Bachmann?
GERSONMm hmm. Yes. Which did not make the Republican Party very happy. It's a -- you know, it shows that the Tea Party doesn't really care what the Republican leadership has to say. They would certainly have preferred a unified response to the State of the Union. And, you know, Paul Ryan really spoke for the party. Bachmann was, you know, showing divisions within the Republican Party. I think it's a bad sign for the future for the Republican leadership that a significant portion of the new members coming in have very little investment in what their leaders say or think. And that could be a real challenge.
THURBERI agree with that. I think that the Republicans have been terrific these last two years by having a clear message. No, no, no. And now they have several messages going on. And Boehner has to go to the right and to pick up these new freshmen, these new Tea group people, and they're very different than the mainline leadership. And, I think, he's doing a pretty good job so far. But the real test will be on the debate over what we should do about the debt and the deficit, about whether we really cut the budget $100 billion, whether they support a debt limit bill in March -- they, meaning the far right. I think the Republicans have serious problems in the House, not in the Senate.
DICKERSONI agree with all of this. I think when you listen to Michele Bachmann, it was essentially the same message Paul Ryan was offering. That wasn't really the problem in this instance. It was, you know -- she didn't -- it was -- it muddled the message. It got in the way. It gave the press a story to write about this internal division. And it was -- the tougher and more interesting battle will, though, come on the question of what to cut. And a lot of conservative Tea Party members of Congress have put up their own cuts, about $2.3 trillion over 10 years. And that's a little too fast, it seems, for Republican leaders so far, and that's where it's an actual challenge to the establishment. This was a challenge in that it muddied the message. But the message was, in fact, the same. What will be interesting is when the Tea Party actually says, you know, what the Republican leaders are doing is not enough.
THURBERBut, you know, the message of the assembled there was they were respectful. There was more cooperation. It looked like there's going to be bipartisanship, and I think that Boehner wanted to have that message also. We'll have battles in the future. And she was really off-message that way. It was really a campaign speech, calling it Obamacare and really digging at the president and the Democrats.
REHMShe was also off-camera because she was speaking to her Web group. And the television camera was off to the side, so it seemed rather awkward. Here's an e-mail from Victoria, who says "The pessimistic tone of Paul Ryan's response was in stark contrast to the president's remarks. Who do the Republicans think will embrace such negativity?" Michael Gerson.
GERSONWell, it depends on who you think is right. You know, Paul Ryan made a substantive critique. He thinks that we're in an emergency. We're headed towards kind of a serious governing crisis that affects the nature of our government, and he, you know, is proposing a starkly different philosophy. The president didn't agree with that. It was much more business as usual, that we can make changes around the edges and that we can, you know, bring, you know, a new focus on competitiveness and make this kind of -- you know, not have to make the kind of fundamental change that we might have thought in November. So, you know, it's a substantive issue, not a stylistic one.
REHMMichael Gerson, as a former speechwriter -- presidential speechwriter, do you agree with the fact that President Obama spoke so little regarding Afghanistan?
GERSONWell, I thought that was a significant omission in the speech. If you look at the text, there was almost as much on community colleges as there was on an active war that America is involved in. And I think that you can make the case that this has been a problem for Obama, is that he has not provided much inspiration, rhetorical leadership on a -- in a situation where, even by the administration's own account, America is going to be there, at least till 2014, with significant numbers. So he -- I think he needed to do more to build public support for policy that doesn't have much public support.
DICKERSONI think the White House made this choice, which was basically to leave out -- there were some criticisms the president should have addressed gun control in some fashion or gun violence in some way...
REHMAfter talking about...
REHM...what happened in Tucson.
DICKERSONAnd I think -- and they left out some things. And, in fact, in talking to advisors before the speech, they said, there will be people who will be unhappy about things not in the speech, but we wanted to focus it on the economy -- in some sense, using the disappointment people would feel about either not enough talk about Afghanistan or not talking about guns as a way to say, hey, but we're really focused on the economy, which used to be a knock against the president that he was not sufficiently focused on that issue.
THURBERYou know, he only spent 10 minutes on foreign policy and the military, and there was, really, only a couple of sentences on Afghanistan. He did promise to redeploy troops in July 2011. There'll be a major confrontation, I think, between Republicans and the president on that. But realize that a significant portion of the progressives, the liberals in America, are very upset with him about Afghanistan. I think he decided not to stick a stick in that beehive with this presentation and to focus on domestic job creation, innovation, education, investment in the long-term in getting our economy turned around, which is an international issue also because it's about competition with China and India by doing better here.
GERSONI think it's worth also noting that there were two other significant omissions, given his past record. One of them is the president essentially gave up on a cap and trade climate bill. There was no mention of that. It's not realistic anyway, but he didn't feel the need to even make a rhetorical feint. And the other one is closing Guantanamo Bay. There was no mention of that. That's been a key presidential theme, but that now is very unlikely. And, in fact, the administration has signaled they're going to resume military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. And so those were just concessions to reality. I don't fault him on those things, but they were significant.
REHMBut he did talk about the tax breaks for oil companies, did he not?
GERSONMm hmm, yep. That's a very good populist issue for him, and, you know, I thought that was effective.
DICKERSONAlthough he didn't talk about the oil spill, which used to be the only thing anybody was ever focused on. And, again, this is another area where, usually, in a State of the Union, everybody -- it's got everything in it, and you got to touch every base. And there are lots of bases that he didn't touch. He talked about the tax breaks for oil companies as a tradeoff for lowering corporate taxes, so that it all can be deficit-neutral.
REHMHe also talked about ending the Bush tax cuts.
THURBERYes. Realize that in 2012, those tax cuts end, as well as the estate tax. So there's going to be a big battle over tax reform. Generally, over the next two years, it's going to be very hard. Back to cap and trade and environment, he talked about the other side of it quite a bit, and that is energy. Clean energy is the other side of climate change. And so he spent a lot of time on that, a way to create jobs to clean up the environment, but he didn't talk about cap and trade. People don't even know what it is -- that term, in most cases -- or the environment.
REHMAll right. We've got lots of callers waiting. Let's hear what our listeners think about the president's State of the Union address. Good morning, Cynthia, in Cincinnati. You're on the air.
CYNTHIAYes. Something that really bothered me was -- and I don't know who does the decision on this -- you had two Republican responses. Last time I looked, Michele Bachmann was elected as a Republican also. And if the public keeps hearing the same negativity over and over again -- and they heard it twice last night -- it sticks. And it bothers me. And I'm wondering who made the decision that allowed them to have two responses.
THURBERWell, I want to remind you that -- and you know this -- that media are. It's plural. And we have freedom of the press. There are many other responses that came out from other people. These were handled on national media, so editors were making those decisions. But we have freedom of speech. We have freedom of the press. And they decided in some studios and some networks to cover both of these. But, you know, what Michele Bachmann was doing -- she, symbolically, was doing this by directing towards a webcam to her followers, and she has a national campaign going on. She wants to be president of the United States. And she was using this forum that way to the ire, probably, of the Republican leadership that wanted to have a clear strategy theme and message on this. And they didn't have it at the end.
REHMCould the Republican leadership have said to her, no, you may not do this? What could have been her response, Michael?
GERSONThe Republican leadership -- I don't believe -- could have said no without riling the new members -- the new Tea Party members that are coming to Washington. And there are quite a few of them. So that's -- it's not a fight they wanted to have, you know? But they certainly did not want that to happen.
REHMAll right. To Birmingham, Ala. Good morning, Uma.
UMAHello, Diane. Thanks for having me on the show.
UMAI wanted to bring up a point that I don't think you all have discussed so far, and that's the issue that he spoke about with immigration, especially with trying to retain skilled students that come to the United States for higher education. And immigration is always a hot button topic, especially when everybody lumps it together with illegal immigration, and that's really close to my heart because I came here as a student after finishing medical school in 2002 and have since then been in training. And, now, I'm soon to be a practicing cancer physician and oncologist. And I've been waiting in the so-called line to obtain my green card or permanent residency since 2005. My number finally came up in 2010, and I haven't heard back from the USCIS, which is the immigration service, since July of last year.
UMASo I just wanted to put out there how frustrating it is for a lot of legal immigrants that are trying to make this country their home. And I think I would fall into the so-called skilled category, just based on my qualifications.
REHMWell, I must say to you, congratulations, Uma. What about this situation, Jim Thurber?
THURBERWell, this is something that's also very important to business. Bill Gates comes here once a year, probably to talk about the need to keep good people here that are immigrants, but also bringing new skilled people into our businesses that he needs, other businesses want. But he also said in a statement and it set an agenda item that he wants to talk about an immigration bill that has security for our borders and a pathway to citizenship. And this particular issue was brought out. It's very important to business, to higher education and to immigrants that would like to stay here that are very skilled.
REHMJames Thurber of American University. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael Gerson, did you want to add to that?
GERSONWell, I do think that the president made a strong endorsement of the DREAM Act, which is -- they voted on in the last Congress. It was not successful. And, I think, unfortunately, these are people who are here and deserve to be treated in that manner. I question whether the mention of immigration reform is going to go very far in this Congress. Unfortunately, I think the Republicans are going to be very resistant and that this may be a much more symbolic, you know, placeholder rather than a serious proposal. That would be a very tough set of issues for this Congress to deal with.
DICKERSONExactly. And just some sense of how difficult it is, the president didn't address it directly. He came in through education, which is to say it was a part of his larger argument, long-term, future-oriented argument about investment in education, infrastructure. And so immigration came in under that umbrella as if to sort of repackage it as an economic jobs argument rather than the human rights and other kinds of arguments that have been used. But I think Michael's right in terms of the politics. Even with a new kind of topic sentence, it still has a difficult road ahead of it.
REHMAnd now to Ozark, Ark. Good morning, Mike. Thanks for joining us.
MIKEGood morning, Diane. I was wondering -- I don't have a lot of education. I've been to high school, a little bit of college, and I studied some, you know, economics. It's -- our taxes -- our federal income tax is as low as it's been since the Truman era. It doesn't make sense to me how we're going to dig ourselves out of this hole. Would we'd ever made what we made in the '50s and '60s -- you know, the bright light on the Hill -- if these higher income taxes would have been this low? Would we ever have gotten all the roads built and the things done? Why don't they just go back to the '50s tax codes and see how that works again?
THURBERMike, you're from Arkansas, and Arkansas went broke in the '30s. And you see what happens when a place goes broke. And they had low taxes then to try to attract business. Taxes are at a historic low, and I think that there was consensus on the commission on debt and deficit, even from Paul Ryan and other Republicans that, boy, we really have to reform the tax code. What does that mean? It means that we have to have some higher taxes for some people. And maybe we shouldn't write off the mortgage above $700,000, which is part of that, and I think that that has to be on the table. When they look at the so-called Bush tax cuts coming up in 2011 and '12, they will be looking at this yet again. They didn't do the brave thing, though, and tax higher incomes -- $250,000 and above -- at a higher rate. I think they have to think about that.
REHMAnd Joe in Marianna, Fla. writes, "If Obama wants to level the playing field, I'll know he's telling the truth if he establishes a flat tax for rich and poor." Any chance of that, Michael Gerson?
GERSONNo. Not from the current administration. He -- you know, he wants to make the system marginally more progressive, not greatly more progressive. There's very few people in American politics that would want to return to 90 percent tax rates, which we had after World War II. They -- you know, they were generally seen as negative. It was John Kennedy that wanted to decrease tax rates in order to get more economic growth. That's what he campaigned on.
GERSONAnd I think we've had a revolution in the way that that's viewed. I think it's also fair to say that the Republican spending cuts that they've proposed where the tax -- realistic tax increases have very little to do with the long-term deficit problem. I mean, we have a problem of increasing health care costs, an aging population and expansive entitlements. If that problem is not solved, we're not going to stabilize federal spending at a realistic percentage of the economy.
REHMBut, Michael, aren't you leaving out the cost of two wars?
GERSONThe president proposed defense cuts last night, and I think Secretary Gates has realized that some of that is going to be unavoidable. But I don't think that explains our long-term deficit problem either.
REHMVery quickly, John.
THURBERYes. This is the first war that we haven't taxed for -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- and no one says, let's tax for the wars. It's too deadly in terms of votes, in my opinion.
REHMJim Thurber of American University, Michael Gerson, Washington Post columnist, John Dickerson of Slate.com. More of your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd here's an e-mail from Gilbert and, apparently, several e-mails like this. Gilbert says, "I don't get it. Last month, we were told the world would come to an end if the Bush-era tax cuts were not extended. Now, four weeks later, we're told the end is near if budget deficits are not abruptly reduced. Which is it?" John Dickerson.
DICKERSONYeah, well, it's both because their time frames are different. So the argument for the tax cut was that this is necessary for the short term. With the economy in a difficult position, it would have been too much of a shock to let these rates go up on the wealthy. And for the short-term health of the economy, they had to basically agree to this deal to increase the budget deficit. But as a long-term problem, the -- because -- largely because of entitlements' growing population and inflation mostly associated with health care cost, that is a growing, mushrooming problem that has to be addressed, or it will eat up the economy.
REHMAll right. To Apex, N.C. Good morning, David.
DAVIDGood morning. Thank you. I watched the State of the Union last night on C-SPAN, and they broadcast all of the tweets that the congressmen were doing while the speech was going on. And I was appalled at how rude -- in the air of bipartisanship -- how rude the criticisms were of the president and that they were being broadcast at the same time that the speech was going on.
REHMGive me an example, David.
DAVIDRon -- Ron Brown MD, I believe, from South Carolina. The president would say one thing about tax cuts, and he would -- and he said something like, the president doesn't want that, he only believes in socialism. Or, at one point, he called the president a liar. And these people are congressmen.
REHMWell, so much for the seating arrangement and bipartisanship. Michael Gerson.
GERSONWell, I think it's fair to say that congressmen have private thoughts that are probably best kept private...
GERSON...that we don't want to know. You know, certainly, there is an element of the Republican Party, and you saw in the Bachmann speech that blamed Obama pretty much for everything. Paul Ryan, by the way, didn't do that. He distributed the blame more broadly on both parties. And so I do think the seating arrangement, though, worked in one way. It ended the herd dynamic of these pop up, you know, competing applause sections. It also made the -- it reduced the energy level of the speech. There wasn't as much as you'd normally have. And as a former speechwriter, I don't think that's a bad thing. I actually think that puts more emphasis on the words...
GERSON...than the kind of team competition for the night. So I actually thought that that was a -- it was a good innovation.
REHMDidn't it actually reduce the number of ovations, either standing or seated?
GERSONI think it decreased the kind of energy and intensity of reactions to the president's remark, basically because if you're seating in a group of like-minded people who jump up at the slightest notice, you get more standing ovations. You get more intense reaction. But I just think that that's been a bad thing, a symbol of polarization, not a good thing.
REHMBut, like Michele Bachmann, isn't Ron Brown simply tweeting to his own following?
GERSONWell, I think that he -- yes, he's tweeting to his own following. And I think tweets are dangerous sometimes because you express things immediately and then later you don't really believe in it. And I think that's not very good. But, you know, there were 75 times that there was an applause this time from both sides, and this was professorial Obama. I mean, he was explaining things in great detail, and they were actually listening. And I kept thinking, you know, as a professor, I don't want my class on the left, jumping up and applauding and on the right, jumping up and applauding.
GERSONI like applause, but, you know, I want them to think about the content. And this mingling of Republicans and Democrats was very good. It's long overdue to have more civility and comity, and there was that at that level. The far left and far right were probably tweeting things that were really out of the main line. And I think we should focus on what happened. It was the first time since I've been watching this -- I worked on the Hill for many years -- that I've seen this. And it's terrific, in my opinion.
REHMWhy don't they ban tweeting during the speech, you know? John Dickerson.
DICKERSONWell, they just actually -- they've just made it more liberal, which is to say that you can bring in devices that were previously -- you can't...
REHMWell, I think they ought to ban them.
DICKERSONWell, you know, I mean, I think people are -- you know, free speech is still something we believe in. So if...
REHMYeah, free speech is one thing, but the presidential State of the Union...
REHM...is something else. And you've got members of Congress sitting there supposedly respectful of the leader of the free world.
DICKERSONBut if they're not respectful -- and that's something we value as a society -- then they'll be penalized for it or applauded as Joe Wilson was when he shouted out, you lie, which is much more powerful than some random thing. I mean, I think that if -- it is perfectly good and right and just to judge them on their inability to keep their mouth shut, whether it's in -- out loud or in a tweet. If they are so unrestrained that they can't keep it buttoned for a period of time, then perhaps they shouldn't hold office, or they should be a carny barker.
REHMHere is another question from Rick and Linda who want to know why were only two-thirds of the Supreme Court present. Who was absent? What kind of a statement are they trying to make? John Dickerson.
DICKERSONWell, Samuel Alito was absent. He -- you know, there's a lot of rich texture to this, but he was -- he had a previous engagement in Hawaii that he couldn't break. But you remember in the State of the Union where the president singled out the Supreme Court for its decision on Citizens United case and criticized the court. And Samuel Alito said that the president was not -- he mouthed, not true or not right. And, according to the reports, even the liberals on the bench were a little taken aback by the fact that the president was singling out the court. They have this very strange role they play in the theater -- or the old theater of the State of the Union. They have to sit mute with their hands in their lap.
DICKERSONThey don't engage in any of the popping up and the down and all of that nonsense, and so they are sort of sitting ducks. The president went after them. It turns out he may not have, in fact, been right in his criticism, which is also a little tricky. And so there was that. And John Roberts subsequently said, you know, this is -- this was an unfortunate kind of question whether they should go at all. Justice Scalia has called it a charade and a show. But after all of that, six of them showed up. And it all -- you know, things seemed to have been repaired a little bit. Although there was -- the president made no overture to them to kind of bury the hatchet. But the fact that they showed, and nobody got hurt is (word?)...
REHMWas Justice Clarence Thomas in the audience?
GERSONJustice Thomas wasn't there. He usually doesn't attend. Scalia doesn't usually attend. And then, sometimes, when there's only one justice there -- if you look at it historically, they don't always show up. This time it was important to see what they would do because Roberts made a statement that it was like a pep rally, and a lot of people felt that maybe he wouldn't come. He made a decision to come to represent that branch, even though maybe he disagreed with the environment of it. But, frequently, there are only three or four justices there if you look back historically.
REHMI thought it was interesting that Justice Thomas was not there, considering the recent news that his wife's near $700,000 income had not been included on his tax forms. That seemed a little curious to me.
GERSONWell, he has said that there was a misunderstanding about recording his wife's income. He has never done that since he's been on the Supreme Court. The $700,000 recently was recorded coming from the Heritage Foundation over the last four years, but she's had all kinds of other income. He's now submitted that. I have to believe that he did misunderstand that because he never recorded her income from the very beginning.
REHMCurious. Let's go to Fort Worth, Texas. Good morning, Michael. You're on the air.
MICHAELGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
MICHAELI just have a quick comment in regard to -- well, first off, I'm a single parent, and I very much, you know, feel that I must be responsible for my budget and the money that I borrow and so forth and so on. But I also feel that I'm a part of a growing number of Americans who feel that there's just a large disconnect with my government in regard to -- you know, we came through a period of eight years where the government seemed more than willing to borrow enormous amount of money to fight a war that was very questionable.
MICHAELAnd, now, what we're hearing is the government seems to be very responsible about cutting everything they possibly can for Americans. This recent thing with the 9/11 responders, the Republicans holding that up and then cutting it in half -- which I thought was abhorrent -- and then holding up, you know, the extension for the unemployment benefits. These are American citizens. And, you know, I just -- I find that it is -- it's just abhorrent to me.
GERSONWell, I mean, I understand the sentiment. It's very hard to argue in the last two years that America has been stingy. We have a situation where, in 750 days, President Obama has presided over an addition of more than $3 trillion to the debt, to the national debt. He was proposing last night -- some of his proposals were really in the range of $400 billion reductions. There's -- you know, this is -- you know, I understand the sentiment. But, right now, we're in an unsustainable budget situation. Republicans and Democrats are going to have to take that seriously. That's not going to just involve defense cuts. It's also going to involve broad cuts in other areas, and I think everyone recognizes that but don't really want to do much about it.
THURBERWell, I think what a lot of people forget is in the first few months of the Bush administration -- I'm sorry. I have to go back to that. The last Bush -- we had a projected $3.4 trillion surplus. We had four years of surplus before that, and we had tax cuts at that point that wiped out that $3.4 trillion. The hypothesis was that we were going into a recession, and they prevented it. So in a shorter period of time, $3.4 trillion was used in tax expenditures under the Bush administration. And we're still living with that right now.
REHMTo Lansing, Mich. Good morning, Joe. Thanks for waiting.
JOEThank you. Yeah, I would agree with that. Part of the problem was going to be with this tax reform issue. I don't believe we're going to have any tax reform issues as long as we have unserious people, like the Tea Party, involved. I fault CNN, quite frankly, for even broadcasting that speech. To me, that's just ridiculous. I agree with -- wholeheartedly, with John's partner in crime at Slate -- Christopher Hitchens. These are the most unserious group of people. They never, ever speak of foreign policy. All they do is complain. And to give them a voice -- I have zero issue whether they're having a voice on a webcam. But to give a national voice to these people is -- it's sheer ridiculousness.
DICKERSONWell, let's cover -- let's look at it just from the media perspective. So the Tea Party, in the last election -- the animating force of the Republican movement was a group of populist grassroots activists who defeated the establishment Republican candidates in a lot of very interesting places -- in one case, defeated the handpicked candidate of the Senate leader for the Republicans. And this movement, which came sort of out of nowhere, has very interesting contours, helped shape the last Republican victory.
DICKERSONIt is now creating attention in the new Republican leadership in the House. This is a big story, and it's an interesting story. Now, the press goes overboard in kind of seeing this story everywhere and kind of amping it up when it's a slow news day about the tensions and the problems. Sometimes, they're there. Sometimes, they aren't. But it is a story and a story that has to be covered.
REHMJohn Dickerson of Slate.com. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now to Louisville, Ky. Good morning, Joe. You're on the air.
JOEYes, ma'am. Confusing times, Diane. I get very confused about what's happening here in America. We keep hearing that we need to cut jobs, we need to cut government, we need to cut pensions, we need to cut Social Security, Medicare, all across the board, local and national. But then they turn around, and they say that we need to increase spending. We need to go out and do things to buy things, so that the -- I guess that we just create more jobs that way. But if we're going to put all these people out of work and put them in unemployment, how do you go about addressing that problem?
REHMYou certainly pinpoint the tension, Michael.
GERSONIt is the tension, and it's really the context of the president's remarks last night. He was making an argument that we do need to make cuts in the short term, but we can't get rid of those long-term engines of economic growth. In fact, he talked about it as the engine in the airplane, that, you know, spending money on education, spending money on research and development, spending money on infrastructure -- those three in particular. That is -- he's defined a role for government that said that government needs to catalyze the private sector, kind of create the conditions that allow it to succeed. That's very much like Bill Clinton's argument that he made. The question is whether he's taking the fiscal emergency seriously enough, whether that approach is sufficient to the time. Republicans don't think so, but the president clearly does.
REHMHe calls it investment, and Republicans call it spending.
DICKERSONThis is the great philosophical debate we're going to have because Republicans believe that these nudges -- and it was interesting in the way Obama framed these things. They were challenges to business to be innovative, nudges to let states change and improve their education. He said, you know, if you come up with an innovative way of teaching, we'll give you the money. But it was not, we're going to tell you exactly what to do. So in attempt to deal with the immediate charge that it's top-down, Republicans believe just strip government out of -- get it out of the way. Remove these regulations, lower taxes and let industry pick and choose the most innovative. You can do it much more efficiently, and it can allocate capital in a smarter way if you just get government out of the way. And that is the philosophical debate we're going to have for the next two years.
REHMAnd the question becomes, can the president use his bully pulpit to go over the heads of Republicans straight to the people and achieve what he wants to achieve?
THURBERWell, that's what the speech was about. It was geared to the center. It was geared to -- we want to win in the future. We want to invest in these education infrastructure and innovation to help things get going. It was geared towards business. He wasn't on the far left. He was geared where the voters are, not where the House and the Senate is, because we've got people in the far left and far right really driving things in the House, in particular. And the endangered species in Congress is not the polar bear. It's a moderate. And he was going after the moderates in the electorate, not the moderates on the Hill. And that's where we'll find the confrontation over the next few months.
REHMDo you believe that, Michael Gerson?
GERSONI do believe that it was a speech very much that would please the dial groups, the people in focus groups that make these decisions. I mean, you know, if you say enough positive, hopeful things, people, you know, tend to like it. The question here that Republicans are raising, is he confronting the big problems?
REHMMichael Gerson, Washington Post columnist, former speechwriter for George W. Bush. John Dickerson is chief political correspondent for Slate.com, also a CBS political analyst and contributor. James Thurber is professor and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. His book, "Obama in Office: The First Two Years" will be coming in March. Thanks to all of you, and thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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