Peter Beinart’s analysis of the state of the union speech
HH: Beginning now my conservations with lefties. Later in the hour, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek will join me to discuss the President’s State of the Union address. But right now, Peter Beinart, senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations, essayist for Time Magazine. Welcome back, Peter, always a pleasure.
PB: My pleasure.
HH: Let me start by asking you what you made of the President’s unprecedented attack on the Supreme Court as they sat there representing the dignity of law and the non-partisan nature of the Court, never applauding, never noting anything. How appropriate was that?
PB: You know, I tried to, in all honesty, ask myself how I would feel if it were the reverse, right, if it was a decision by a liberal Court that I really liked. Of course, someone like me has never seen a liberal Court in my lifetime, so, and how would I feel if it was a Republican president? So in all honesty, I don’t know if I would feel the same way, and maybe it’s a reflection of my ideology, but you know, was Obama really going to intimidate them such that they would not be willing to make judicial ruling the next way? That seemed to me a bit of a stretch.
HH: Well, I don’t think it’s about that. I think it’s about respect for a coordinate branch of government, and I believe among the Con…
PB: But he attacked Congress, they’re a branch of…I mean, he attacks them, so why can’t he…I mean, they’re also a separate branch.
HH: Because it’s a hundred years long tradition that you can attack opposite political parties, but the Court embodying the rule of law is above partisanship, or is supposed to, less so today than they were yesterday.
PB: You don’t think that Richard Nixon ever said that he disliked a decision of the Warren Court?
HH: All the time, but remember when the Berger Court handed down its 9-0 decision to turn over the tapes, and Nixon immediately complied with it? We have a tradition of doing, we can disagree with the Court, but we…
PB: But Obama is complying.
HH: But we do not go after them in that setting. They are always, you know how they sit, Peter. They don’t applaud, they don’t do anything, because they’re not supposed to be part of the political debate. Now they get involved in it, but as a Con law professor, what Obama did is just sort of shocking to me, and I think you’ll see that reflected among left, right and center. But let me ask you about the political side of that. How smart is it for him to attack Anthony Kennedy, who’s the swing, he wrote Citizens United, he’s the swing vote on the Court, and there was the President attacking him. He’s got to do business with this justice so central to so many cases for the next many years.
PB: You know, but I don’t think ultimately it’s going to, I mean, I guess I have more faith in the Supreme Court than that. I think the Supreme Court’s going to rule how it’s going to rule, and I don’t think this is ultimately going to make much of a difference one way or the other.
HH: All right, let’s move on. I think maybe that’s because I teach it that it’s different to me, but we’ll find out. How about the decision not to recognize the two police officers, the Fort Hood heroes? They were there, and he never said anything about them.
PB: Well, he didn’t say anything about the people who were standing in, except…he didn’t acknowledge any of the people standing up there, except for the Haitian ambassador, I think.
HH: Well, the Haitian ambassador is…
PB: But I don’t even know he mentioned him by name.
HH: But, but…
PB: He didn’t mention any of them.
HH: I know, but what do you think? Is that, we have this tradition of recognizing the people that you bring with him. Was that not odd to you?
PB: Is that true that every president has always made mention of that? I thought there were other presidents who simply brought them so then the media writes about who they are, but they don’t actually get mentioned in the speech. Are you sure Obama’s the first person to never actually mention them by name?
HH: I don’t know for sure. That is my impression. That’s what I remember, but I could be wrong.
PB: I mean, I have to say I did think it’s a little strange to bring all these people if you’re not going to mention them, but I mean, you can hardly say those guys were, first of all, Obama made the decision to bring them, so he wanted to honor them, or he didn’t have to bring them at all, and there were also a whole bunch of other people who he never mentioned, so it doesn’t seem like they were singled out in a negative way.
HH: Okay, so not an error there, either. How about his…
PB: You seem shocked by my answers.
HH: No, no, no. What about the deficit history that he came up with. It was all here, it’s not my fault, I’ve got nothing to do with this $1.35 trillion deficit?
PB: Well, he didn’t say that, to be fair. He said that he’d added to it significantly, but he basically said that you know, that it also, that he also came in with a significant deficit, and I think you know, I’m sympathetic to Obama’s view about this, because I think that the deficits that Obama has racked up have been in mostly in an effort to try to get the country out of, you know, to prevent a potential depression. And the deficits that George W. Bush racked up were basically about put aside whether you think going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan was a good idea, not paying for those wars was a bad idea, and I think that’s part of the legacy we’re dealing with.
HH: Now let’s put 2008-2009 into a category that is unique. It’s the great panic years, or the great recession years, and so they’re different. In 2007, George…and the two wars are underway, 2007, $161 billion dollar deficit, 2010, $1.35 trillion dollar deficit. To me, that’s the Obama difference, about $900 billion dollars. How does he escape responsibility for that?
PB: I mean, you know that obviously, you know, a good portion of this is also going to be that when the economy falls apart, you have a huge decline in tax revenue, so that’s not something, that would have happened if John McCain had been elected, when basically everyone’s unemployed, they don’t pay much taxes. So I mean a lot of it is basically a structural thing. Look, the stimulus, I think Obama was pretty forthright about it. We spent a lot of money on the stimulus, and Obama did it partly because he thinks it’s helped to mitigate the recession, and also I think he thinks that these are investments that are really good for the future of the U.S. I agree with him.
HH: But the $1.35 trillion isn’t stimulus, it’s not TARP, it’s embedded spending now that will recur year in and year out.
PB: No, but I think, look, if you want me…the long term problems that we have in terms of the deficit have a lot to do, not only to do, but have a significant amount to do with health care costs. And I think that’s a pretty non, I mean, that’s a pretty nonpartisan statement. I mean, Peter Orszag would agree with you. The cost of rising health care costs ultimately could bankrupt the government, and I think that’s something that people have to deal with.
HH: But it’s also Social Security, and it’s also…
PB: I mean, and look, Bush did the prescription drug program, which I assume you were against, right?
HH: No, actually, I wasn’t.
PB: You were for it?
PB: Because most smart conservatives I know were appalled by it, and that was a big increase to an entitlement program which increased the cost of all the prescription drugs.
HH: Oh, and I’m not claiming that Bush didn’t leave a deficit. I’m claiming that the deficit he left was a manageable 3% of GDP, but President Obama has taken it to 10 and 9 ½ to 11% of GDP, that that could cause a currency collapse, and that he’s doing nothing about it except rhetorical flourishes. Health care was…
PB: But there’s an important part of this. I mean, if you’re not a Keynesian, you’re not a Keynesian. But it seems to me you have an economy where consumers are not spending, and business is not spending. Government has to spend in order to try to get the economy moving. Then you have a very difficult job of trying to pivot to try to deal with the deficit. But the government, it seems to me, in the year 2009, the government had to spend, or else we would have had unemployment higher than 10%.
HH: Peter, I agree with that. I have no argument…I didn’t like the stimulus bill, because I didn’t think it would work, and it didn’t work, and I didn’t like some aspects of TARP being extended and reused. But that’s different. I’m saying they have inflated the deficit, the structural deficit, not the one time deficit, to $1.35 trillion, and he has no plan for that. None. He didn’t have a plan last night. He’s the President.
PB: Well, I think some things…first of all, you have to, I think that the first job in my mind still remains, when you have the country at 10% unemployment, basically the job number one is still right now, getting this country out of the worst recession we’ve had many decades. And in terms of then pivoting to try to deal with this structural deficit, Obama did talk, is now supporting a kind of a commission which is going to try to deal with it, the question that everyone knows you need to deal with, which is entitlements. But I don’t think Republicans are in a great position to talk about this, when they refused to talk about how you pay for military and homeland security spending, and they refused to acknowledge that when you keep cutting taxes, you lose revenue.
HH: Peter, the budget is a 50% plus one in the Senate. It’s not a Republican issue. Obama needs to fix it. The President needs to do something, because this is a critical moment, and he didn’t do anything. It was a total failure of leadership last night.
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HH: Peter, before we go forward, I’ve got to play you a little something from MSNBC last night, Chris Matthews. Here’s what he said:
CM: You know, I was trying to think about who he was tonight, and it’s interesting. He is post-racial by all appearances. You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he’s gone a long way to become a leader of this country and passed so much history in just a year or two. I mean, it’s something we don’t even think about. I was watching, and I said wait a minute. He’s an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people, and there he is, president of the United States, and we’ve completely forgotten that tonight.
PB: You know, actually, I like Chris Matthews in general, and the reason I like him is because I think that he’s actually, of the people on TV, he’s one of the most politically knowledgeable. And I mean, there were obviously lines in there that sound a bit weird, but I think the general sentiment, it seems to me, is not so terrible. Basically, what he’s saying is it is kind of amazing in the United States, who would have thought we’d have a day where basically you had an African-American president who was engaged in a debate with the other party about economic issues, in which race was not really central to it? And that seems to me, I mean, that is remarkable. And so I think that basic point seems to me, it’s not a racist point. It seems to me it’s true.
HH: All right, last question, health care – the health care bill is dead. And right now, this whole dance of the leprechauns is about who’s going to get blamed for it being dead, whether it’s the Senate or the House or the President, et cetera. They haven’t got the votes in the House, they can’t get it out of the Senate, everyone’s scared about it. And the President stands up there and says if you know a plan, let me know, let me know, let me know. The dismissiveness of a year of counterproposals, Peter, was to me another indication he’s got not a bipartisan bone in his body. You all…
PB: Look, come on, how on Earth can you say he doesn’t have a bipartisan bone in his body, when he comes up there, and he basically calls for a capital gains tax cut, offshore drilling, nuclear power, more…I mean, there were a ton of things in there that whether I agree with him or not were clearly more than bipartisan. They were basically Republican ideas.
HH: Peter, on health care, I was speaking specific about health care. I applauded the nuclear power. I will be willing to bet you a very good dinner anywhere not one nuclear power plant gets permitted under President Obama. However, I’m focused on health care. The Republicans have said from the beginning, tort reform has got to be a component of genuine health reform. They shut them out of the decisions, they shut them out of the conversations. That’s okay, they’ve got 60 votes, they’ve got…
PB: I mean, did they shut Olympia Snowe out of the conversations?
HH: Olympia Snowe is not the Republican Party.
PB: Really? He went on bended knee to her.
HH: She’s one Senator, and she walked out.
PB: Yeah, and that’s exactly what George…that’s how George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan got their bills passed. They got a few Democrats from more conservative states. Obama tried exactly the same thing with the Olympia Snowes of the world. Did he ignore her? He basically tried to marry the woman, he spent so much time with her. You know, he was constantly beseeching her, and she ultimately didn’t go along. But it’s not true he didn’t make an effort to reach Republicans.
HH: Peter, is it your position that Obama is a bipartisan president because he courted Olympia Snowe on health care?
PB: I think he basically seemed kind of, he’s about as bipartisan. He’s doing the same thing that Republican presidents do. No president is bipartisan in the sense that they try to get the more conservative, the more ideologically alien members of the other party. They try to get the members of the other party who are closer to them, ideologically, That’s just, it’s normal. That’s what…Reagan got the boll weevils, and Bush got, you know, the Democrats from Arkansas and Louisiana. I mean, it’s just politics 101.
HH: Did President Obama run on a different approach to Washington? Did he pledge transparency that did not appear?
PB: No. Every president, Bush ran as a uniter…
HH: I’m not talking…you guys have got Bush on the brain, Peter. I’m talking about this guy with his 60 Democratic Senators…
PB: No, my point is, look, I don’t really care whether you, I don’t think bipartisanship is a good thing in and of itself anyway. It often times, so…
HH: But he holds himself out. You don’t mind that he’s lying about this, is what you’re saying?
PB: No, no. I’m saying he’s making a different point. Obama is making a point about the civility in the way we talk about one another, and I think Obama has been actually, in the way he talks about people who hold differing opinions, say on abortion, from him, he’s always had a very, very civil, respectful tone.
HH: Which is why departing on the Supreme Court doesn’t make any sense, because it’s the first time that’s ever happened.
PB: I don’t agree with your conclusion. I don’t think that was demagogue. He just said he disagreed with their decision.
HH: It’s the first time it’s ever happened. That’s not civil. It just isn’t.
PB: It’s the first time what has ever happened?
HH: To call out the Supreme Court in the State of the Union when they cannot respond, Peter. It is a massive departure from precedent.
PB: Well, they could respond…
HH: Do you really believe he’s a civil politician?
PB: I’m sure, I’m not sure, I’m just not sure. There clearly have been presidents who’ve criticized Supreme Court decisions, and I’m not sure I see quite the fundamental difference between doing that and doing it in the state of the union.
HH: Do you really, I want to make sure you get the last word here. Do you really believe President Obama has acted to restore civility in politics, and to maintain the transparency he pledged himself to?
PB: Yeah, I think by comparison to other presidents, yes. I think he’s always had a civil and respectful tone in the way he talks about the people who disagree with him.
HH: Peter Beinart, love having you on. That’s our first lefty after the state of the union. Jonathan Alter is next, America. Don’t go anywhere.
End of interview.