LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And it's time now for our weekly talk on politics. And joining me are our regular political observers, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Hello, to both of you.
DAVID BROOKS: How do you do?
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: And we'll begin with the speech that President Obama delivered on Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt just over a century ago. And the president cited some of T.R.'s themes.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: ...when everyone plays by the same rules.
SIEGEL: You could say when everyone gets a square deal. E.J, in your column about that speech, you called it the inaugural address that Obama never gave. First, what's so important about what he said? And isn't it kind of late for an inaugural keynote?
DIONNE: Well, it would have been nicer earlier but a lot of us - there's a modest fan club for T.R.'s Osawatomie speech. And so, the loyalists are glad Obama brought this to everyone's attention. And I think the reason why it was like an inaugural address is he offered a clear philosophical rationale for his presidency, why he thinks government has an important role. He offered a narrative explaining the causes of our travails. And he also laid out a battle plan against radicalized conservatism.
And he and T.R. have something very much in common, which is Obama has been criticized for being both too close to Wall Street and for being a socialist from the right. T.R., in his original speech, said here in Kansas, there is one paper which habitually announces me as the tool of Wall Street and, at the same time, frantically repudiates the statement that I am a socialist on the ground that this is an unwarranted slander of socialists.
And I think that Obama must've chuckled when he read that.
SIEGEL: David, by linking his speech to Teddy Roosevelt, the president could say that redressing economic inequalities, or the privileges of the rich, aren't some kind of alien class warfare. It's in the American tradition – in fact, of both parties it's in the American tradition. You think he's right?
BROOKS: Yeah. Well, sort of. There is early Roosevelt and there is late Roosevelt. Early Roosevelt believed in making competition fair and the square deal. Late Roosevelt, progressive Roosevelt put a lot of faith in experts and centralizing power. I like the early one. I think E.J. has a little more taste for the later.
I thought there was a lot to like in the speech. I guess I have two criticisms of it. First, I think this election is going to be about national decline. It's not going to be, as this president tried to make it, an election about inequality. And so, he can focus on greedy bankers and CEOs, and a lot of us will nod our heads. Nonetheless, the core issue is economic growth and job creation. And I think he's sidestepping the core issue.
The second is just a matter of substance. The only policy I can see in there was the idea of raising taxes on the rich to pay for more infrastructure spending and more basic research, which I'm for. But is he really going to run for president on that? It's an extremely modest agenda, given the broad problems he described.
DIONNE: I agree with David that this election is about national decline. And disagree with them on everything else. Because I think of this speech was actually about more than higher taxes on the rich, it was very much about how do you expand opportunity for the middle-class; why we need regulation to make capitalism work in a fair way. And I think it was forward-looking.
I think what Obama was saying is we need to take these steps, so that we don't go into decline so that we get our act back together again.
SIEGEL: By the way, E.J., are you confident that this is the tone now for the campaign? Or might President Obama, you know, reconfigure it, re-triangulate it at some point between now and in November?
DIONNE: Well, if you look at the history of the administration, you always wonder are they going to re-triangulate it? I talked to somebody in the White House who made a good point. He said, look, defending the progressive tradition in America is not a problem because unlike a rather rigid conservatism, progressivism, liberalism is rather pragmatic and is willing to adjust to circumstances.
So I think he thinks this is a message that works for liberals - and there were a lot of cheers from liberals this week - but also can work with middle-of-the-road voters.
SIEGEL: Well, the other political man of the week is clearly Newt Gingrich. The former speaker of the House has emerged as the latest challenger to Mitt Romney. And he's reminded us that he is still capable of tossing red meat to his critics. For example, opining here on poor elementary school students and proposing a kind of work-study program for 10-year-olds.
NEWT GINGRICH: What if you paid them part-time in the afternoon to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they came in? What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian? What - and I'd pay them as early as is reasonable and practical.
SIEGEL: David Brooks, you devoted a column to Newt Gingrich today, very critical of his candidacy, despite your feeling some real philosophical kinship with him. What Newt's problem?
BROOKS: Character. You know, he is the real Teddy Roosevelt candidate, or is in his best moments - wanting to use government to enhance growth and competition. His problem is he can't believe the same thing for five seconds in a row. Every moment in his life has no bearing on the next moment, and any word he says has no bearing on the moment after that.
As I was listening to that clip, I was reminded when he was speaker, he would have a press person on his staff in front of him nodding his head when Newt was being good, and shaking his head when Newt was straying off on some...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BROOKS: ...strange idea. And so, you need that. And it's very interesting - Peggy Noonan made a very good point in her column in the Wall Street Journal today that the people around Mitt Romney generally want him to be president. The people who worked Newt Gingrich generally are desperately afraid that he might become president, because he is inconsistent and erratic.
SIEGEL: You had a great line about the 1950s and '60s that I want you to...
BROOKS: That's where we're facing a candidacy on the Republican side between Mitt Romney, who looks like he walked straight out of the 1950s with his gee willickers vocabulary, and Newt Gingrich who walked straight out of the 1960s wanting to turn everything into a revolution.
DIONNE: I think an awful lot of conservatives in Washington are petrified at the prospect of a Gingrich candidacy. I've been surprised at how many of them I've run into in the last week - of a Gingrich presidency. You know, Ed Schultz on MSNBC said he's like a blender with the top off. And another prominent Republican I know said there was a big file drawer in Newt's office. Four of the drawers were marked Newt's Ideas, one of them was marked Newt's Good Ideas.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DIONNE: And I think there is a sense that this man can be very creative, but a lot of people just can't see him as president.
SIEGEL: But isn't it - David Brooks, isn't there a real gap here between the reasoned opinions of establishment Republicans, conservative and otherwise, and what turns on grassroots Republican activists? They seem to be very pro-Newt at this moment.
BROOKS: Right, 'cause he can take it to the opposition as hard as possible. And it's very interesting to watch the people who were served with him in Congress on the Republican side, wondering if they should come out and endorse Romney or criticize Newt. And they have a suspicion it would make any difference, and that could be right. So, they're really hanging back but they're scared.
DIONNE: The more the establishment in Washington attacks him, the stronger he might get, and that's the box they're in.
SIEGEL: You mean that they could manage to turn Newt Gingrich into the anti-Washington candidate?
DIONNE: The former speaker of the House of Representatives, who spent years here in Washington is going to become the outsider. Politics is amazing.
SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks for talking with us once again.
BROOKS: Thank you.
DIONNE: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Have a great weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.