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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Bob McDonnell & The State Of The Union


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. We begin today with our regular political chat and we're going to talk about the week ahead. And it is a big one coming up. On Tuesday, President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address for 2014. And it's common for presidents to state that the state of the Union is strong, but this year the president will focus on income inequality. So, how might the president frame a strong nation with a widening gap between rich and poor? Our regular Friday commentators are here to talk about that and more. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And as we mentioned, the president will be talking about is income inequality and upward mobility. E.J., what would you like to hear?

DIONNE: Well, I would like to hear him talk both about the economics of it; in particular, you know, particular proposals, like the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, expanded pre-K programs, all of which are very popular. I'd also like him to talk about the roots of the problem, both in globalization, technological change and the cultural issues used not as an excuse but as a problem we have to deal with partly through the economy. I think he's got an enormous opportunity here, not only to do something for himself over the next three years but to shape the post-Obama debate. We're already going to be talking about that. And I think on this issue, the public is on his side. There's a Pew poll that came out yesterday that shows Democrats and independents very together on this and Republicans isolated. And whatever the politics, it is the issue we need to talk about as a country.

BLOCK: David, you said before that the language of income inequality introduces a class conflict element to this discussion, which you don't particularly like. You'd like President Obama to widen the debate. How would you like him to do that?

BROOKS: Well, I think it's a little incoherent. The reason the rich are getting richer is one set of problems. The reason the poor are not rising is an entirely different set of problems. I guess I'd like him to talk about opportunity and mobility and what can we do to give people the tools to compete in the economy. And its ground that's perfectly familiar to him. How to give people better parenting skills in those family partnerships, how to give kids early childhood so they're school ready - some of the early childhood programs he's talked about, some of the charter schools. A lot needs to be done for teenagers. Teenagers are dropping out of the successful career path at greater rates than any other age group. So, I'd like to see him lay out a menu of human capital policies, not emphasizing the class inequality as much as just opportunity. And I do think you could get a bipartisan legislative victory out of that.

DIONNE: I would like to believe you could get some bipartisanship out of some of those things, but I don't think the cultural questions are so easily divided from the economic questions and the questions of class. There are reasons why families are in trouble, and many of those reasons are economic. So, we really have to bring together the class concerns with some of those issues that David is talking about.

BROOKS: I agree with that. Single parenthood strongly correlates to income inequality and low opportunity, especially for the children of single moms. And so why is that? A, economic, because there are not a lot of marriageable dads out there making decent money. And so you do have to have wage subsidies for that; you have to have infrastructure jobs to give men more jobs to make them more marriageable. But then there's also a cultural factor of prioritizing marriage, making it early in the life story where people decide to get married before they have kids. And so I agree, it's both those things.

BLOCK: This will be President Obama's first State of Union since the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. It comes at a time when his approval rating is stuck in the low 40s. Should his address reflect that in its tone, E.J.?

DIONNE: I don't think he has to be defensive here. I suspect he will talk some about the Affordable Care Act, although my guess is he'll say the words middle class even more often than the Republican response says the words Obamacare. But I don't think he needs to be apologetic. He's got to say we had a problem and we fixed it and we're moving ahead. And then he's got to talk about the larger issues.

BLOCK: David?

BROOKS: A lot of the Republicans are bringing guests and they're bringing people who have been thrown off their insurance policies, people will illnesses. So, they're certainly going to raise it, and I think in a Republican response we're certainly going to hear a lot of that.

BLOCK: We have talked to you recently about the troubles facing the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Well, this week it's trouble for Republican Robert McDonnell, who just ended his term as governor of Virginia. He and his wife pleaded not guilty today to federal charges of conspiracy and fraud. They're accused of accepting luxury gifts and loans from a businessman who was seeking favors from state government. David Brooks, it was not that long ago that Bob McDonnell had been talked about, along with Chris Christie, as someone with great presidential potential in 2016.

BROOKS: Yeah. I, you know, I totally don't get this. You know, why do you want a Rolex anyway? I mean, you want it for status. But you're governor of Virginia. That is status. So what exactly are you getting out of the Rolex? My only psychological theory is years ago, I started to notice a phenomenon called status income disequilibrium, which is people of high status but low income. So they're hanging around people with Rolex, Rolex, Rolex; they go home and all they've got is a Swatch. And so they're desperately unhappy.

BLOCK: It's aspirational, you're saying.

BROOKS: Yes. And so we should have telethons for such people.


BLOCK: E.J., there was a revealing email from Maureen McDonnell, Gov. McDonnell's wife, included in the indictment. She wrote to an aide: Bob is screaming about the thousands I'm charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already.

And that, of course, became pure grist for the mill of Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" this week. Let's take a listen.


JON STEWART: So they had their own money problems. Well, we all know what needs to happen here. Somebody needs to sit the McDonnells down and give them some straight talk about financial responsibility.


BOB MCDONNELL: You can't spend more than you have for any period of time. You'll go broke... Spending is out of control at a lot of levels of government... We have to live within our means... And until we start managing the government's money like people manage their own money...

BLOCK: E.J., of course, that was Bob McDonnell there, talking about fiscal responsibility.

DIONNE: The moral of this story is, as the old song says, Papa don't preach. I think that this is a remarkable story. I agree with David that there is a habit of politicians who hang around with rich people a lot, to think they should live just like them. They can wait until after they're out of office, if they want to make money. And there's so many morality tales here - the way in which the collapse of the housing market got them in trouble.

Some people blame her. Some people say, how dare you stick this on the wife? I just wish they had not wanted things so much.

BLOCK: E.J. and David, thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.