ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Time now for our weekly look at politics with columnists David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
SIEGEL: Those anemic job growth figures came out. As we heard, President Obama is campaigning in Ohio and Pennsylvania, paying special attention, I should add, to auto plants. E.J. first, how does President Obama campaign effectively on a recovery that is sputtering this way?
DIONNE: Well, he does it partly by campaigning against Mitt Romney. And we've seen that the ads that the Obama campaign has run in swing states against Bain Capital and whether it actually net produced jobs or didn't and the possibility of off-shoring or outsourcing, all that has hurt Romney. Secondly, these jobs numbers were disappointing to say the least, although there are a couple of interesting things about them.
One is that there were a couple of articles in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that without the seasonal adjustment, we actually produced 800,000 private sector jobs last month, according to the New York Times. The job growth may have been steadier. Obama may have gotten some extra jobs at the beginning of the year and lost them in the numbers this time.
But I was also struck by the fact that wages are up. And so what you may have is in the swing states where unemployment is lower and where enough voters are feeling some upward movement in their economic situation, it may offset some of the damage to Obama or some of the hope that Romney would get out of numbers like this.
SIEGEL: David, what do you think about that? Does the president have a credible jobs record even in the swing states?
BROOKS: No. First of all, E.J.'s found some silver linings. First of all, people do not vote by their state. The historical pattern is they vote by the national pattern of unemployment. And right now, if you want to draw a sort of line in the sand, Obama's looking pretty good if you believe the models, if he can get unemployment down to about 7.6 percent.
To do that for the rest of the year, he'd have to produce - or the economy would have to produce about a quarter of a million jobs per month. That seems unlikely. So the likelihood is going into the fall, the economy will be a net negative for Obama. There's not that much he can do about it. Listen, after a financial crisis, it just takes a long time to get out of these things.
The only problem I think Obama has, he didn't warn us of that three or four years ago when it was obvious, he didn't design policies for a kind of long term recession - or a long term slowdown which we're in the middle of.
SIEGEL: Running against expectations that he set, E.J. What do you think that?
DIONNE: Right. Well, I think he would have been better off right at the beginning of his inaugural address in sort of preparing the country for a tougher time. But the fact is that we've had sluggish jobs numbers for quite a while and Obama has maintained a lead pretty much all year by as much as 8 points in the swing states.
The Republicans are sort of hoping for a Jimmy Carter, 1980 situation, where the bottom falls out from under Obama at the end. But I don't think that Mitt Romney is Ronald Reagan and I don't think that Barack Obama is Jimmy Carter or that these problems are like that. Therefore, I think the fact that the numbers didn't turn negative was good enough news for Obama to keep him up.
I've been doing a lot of travelling in the last month and I'm struck by the number of Democrats who said they were sort of disappointed that Obama wasn't ahead by a lot. That was a couple weeks ago. Now, I think the feeling out there is, Obama can beat Romney as long as the economy stays steady.
BROOKS: Yeah, when this recession started, two economists, Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, wrote a very famous book which was widely discussed, "This Time is Different," where they said the historical pattern is these things take forever.
SIEGEL: Financial crisis.
BROOKS: Right. And so if that was your end - the Obama people frankly rejected that. They said in a year or two, no, we're going to be back in full growth. If they had taken it seriously, which was the historical pattern, they would have designed policies for big structural changes spinning out over a few years. They would have had a lot of support from a lot of independents.
They rejected that. Now they're going back to Rogoff and Reinhart, but I'm afraid too late.
SIEGEL: Next topic. This week it took Mitt Romney a couple of days to get onside with his party on the health care mandate. On Monday, his campaign aide said that the individual mandate and law is enforced by a penalty or a fee or a fine paid by those who don't have insurance. It took Romney a couple of days to declare it a tax instead and that confusion earned him a scathing editorial by The Wall Street Journal.
David Brooks, is this a semantic argument or is there some consequence?
BROOKS: First, it's symptomatic of the low regard with which the Republican establishment holds the Romney campaign. The candidate partly, but the staff around him. Everyone sort of likes them. They do not think they're the A-team. That would be the conventional wisdom. And so when they do something bad, then everyone is saying, why doesn't he hire the A-team?
SIEGEL: The Journal suggested that they all be fired for malpractice.
BROOKS: Right, and so that is a thing you hear not only from the Journal, not only from Rupert Murdoch, but all around Washington. The second thing, there's just a structural problem, is that he did do Romneycare. And so he has never really gotten out of that to explain why Romneycare or what he would do - well, he has explained what he would do differently, but he's got to explain the past a little better.
SIEGEL: E.J., can the Democrats campaign on this penalty or tax confusion?
DIONNE: Well, I don't think actually a lot of voters care that much about penalty versus tax. But I think it was a terrible mess for the Romney campaign. I'm reminded of one of my favorite barbs in politics. When the Wall Street Journal criticized Richard Nixon in 1960, John Kennedy said this is like the L'Osservatore Romano criticizing the pope, the Vatican newspaper.
SIEGEL: If you're a Republican, you don't the...
DIONNE: You don't want the Journal on you. But I think Romney suffered three ways from this, first incompetence. They should have act together on this early. Second, the - Romney gets the flip-flop thing, and third, it looks like he caved to pressure from the right, and that's going to be an issue all during the election.
BROOKS: There is one defense of him, that he should just run the most boring possible and shift all the attention onto Obama. He's been pretty boring, I'll give him that.
SIEGEL: David Books, E.J. Dionne, thanks again.
BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.