MR. DAVID GREGORY: On this Easter Sunday there is a dark mood in the country about high unemployment, soaring gas prices, and Washington's constant bickering over how to solve pressing problems. In this climate, our politics is taking unexpected turns as well, with Donald Trump emerging as a surprisingly popular potential Republican candidate for the presidency. We'll discuss it all this morning. First, the budget battle. Will it degenerate into a partisan fight?
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor or people who are powerless or don't have lobbyists or don't have clout.
MR. GREGORY: Or is there the basis of real compromise that's still under the radar? The debt ceiling vote and the prospect of higher taxes are topics I will raise with two of the top budget
negotiators in the so-called "Gang of Six," charged with coming up with a compromise proposal: the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Democrat from North Dakota, Kent Conrad; and member of the Senate Finance Committee, Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Then, our political roundtable examines America's slumping confidence and the opening it creates for Obama's loudest critics.
MR. DONALD TRUMP: I think that Obama will go down as the worst president in the history of the United States.
MR. GREGORY: So what to make of Donald Trump and the rest of the potential 2012 Republican field? Do the president's declining poll numbers, particularly about the economy, indicate a tough re- election fight ahead? Joining us, columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks; columnist for The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson; Republican strategist Alex Castellanos; and former communications director for President Obama, Anita Dunn.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning, and happy Easter. We begin this morning with the continued fighting in Libya. Reports of heavy bombardment by Gadhafi forces in the coastal city of Misrata overnight. This coming a day after rebels claimed a victory there after government forces literally and initially retreated. The situation being described this morning as very dangerous. Senator John McCain visited the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi on Friday, and he is with us live this morning from Cairo. Senator, welcome. Describe the fight, the situation on the ground as you experienced it firsthand.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): Well, in Benghazi things are quiet and calm, and they have a transitional national council that is basically governing the area under their control. In Misrata it, it's, it is quite bloody, David. When I was there, a ship had just arrived from Misrata filled with refugees and the wounded. And I went to the hospital there in Misrata and I saw a lot of young men who were dead and dying and gravely wounded. This is a, this is a pretty bloody situation, and it has the earmarks of being a stalemate. Now, we hope that Gadhafi will crumble from within, but hope is not a strategy. And it's pretty obvious to me that we need -- even though I was glad to see the Predator now in the fight-- it's pretty obvious to me that the United States has got to play a greater role in the airpower side. Our NATO allies neither have the assets nor, frankly, the will. There's only six countries of the 28 in NATO that are actively engaged in, in this situation.
MR. GREGORY: So if you talk about Predators being used, supplies for the rebels, if it comes to it, Senator, would you like to see this president OK ground troops going in, if that's what it takes to break the stalemate?
SEN. McCAIN: No, I would not, David. I think it would be totally counterproductive. I believe that with sufficient and efficient, sufficient and efficient use of airpower, we can bring Gadhafi to his knees. It's ideal terrain and situation for doing so. Have no doubt, though, that he and his forces are adapting to this situation by hiding in houses and doing various things that prevent the airpower from being so effective. But I'll tell you, when you're flying around at 25,000 feet, it's pretty hide -- it's pretty easy to hide from them. But we need to recognize the government as a legitimate voice of the Libyan people so they can have access to the funds that we have frozen of Gadhafi's. We need to help them with communications, we need to help them with humanitarian assistance. We need to -- my view, would be very helpful if we took out Gadhafi's television because when the Libyan people see Gadhafi on television it scares them. This guy is, you know, in the -- by the courthouse in Benghazi, there are pictures of the 1,200 people that he had massacred in one day in a prison. And so we need to, we need to be more helpful, but troops on the ground is out of the question.
MR. GREGORY: You, you have been a forceful advocate of the things that you've been talking about with regard to the mission. There's not a unanimous view, however, in the Republican Party, and we are in a political season already. And Mitt Romney, with whom you've disagreed about war policy in the past, he came out this week in the National Review and said the
following about the president's strategy: "It is apparent that our military is engaged in much more than enforcing a no-fly zone. What we are watching in real time is another example of mission creep and mission muddle." Do you worry about this muddled mission and how it ends?
SEN. McCAIN: I worry about a mission that the president says that the policy is a removal of Gadhafi, but says that it would be a mistake to use force to see that that happen. And what the president's quandary is that he relies on NATO resolutions and Security Council resolutions, and the best he could get is a humanitarian resolution when the fact is that we need to take Gadhafi out. This guy is a person who has lost all legitimacy just, by the way, as Assad in Syria. Go ahead.
MR. GREGORY: But isn't it -- but you say take Gadhafi out. How do you just say that if you're not willing to go all the way with ground troops to, to do that?
SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Can you do that with airpower alone?
SEN. McCAIN: I think you can do it with airpower and sufficiently trained and equipped liberation forces. Look, these people hate Gadhafi. That's why I think there's still hope and a chance he may crumble from within. But the longer we delay, the more likely it is there's a stalemate. And if you're worried about al-Qaeda entering into this fight, nothing would bring al- Qaeda in more rapidly and more dangerously than a stalemate.
MR. GREGORY: Can I get you on the record on, on two other matters, Senator, on Iraq?
SEN. McCAIN: Sure.
MR. GREGORY: Admiral Mullen said it's possible that U.S. troops could stay beyond December, if that's what the Iraqi government wants. Do you think that that will be necessary? Do you think that will happen?
SEN. McCAIN: I think it's necessary that we provide them with things like training and air force-- they have to be able to defend their own airspace -- the technical and logistic, particularly intelligence capabilities that we have to offer. I think it's very, very important that we not leave Iraq completely. And I have very little confidence that the State Department can do the job all by itself.
MR. GREGORY: How long do you see some substantial troop presence in Iraq?
SEN. McCAIN: I think it could go on for a period of time. But the key is that we not inflict anymore casualties, that Americans who are stationed there operate in an environment of security. I think we could achieve that. As you know, we have troops stationed all over the world. The American people aren't badly -- deeply concerned about that. They are concerned when Americans continue to suffer casualties.
MR. GREGORY: And before you go, Senator, a political note. When you were running for president, you were endorsed very strongly by one Donald Trump, who is now, according to people I talk to, quite serious about getting in the presidential race. Is he somebody that you could back for president?
SEN. McCAIN: As you know, I'm staying out of it. I think that Mr. Trump is having the time of his life. I congratulate him for getting all the attention that he's getting.
MR. GREGORY: But you don't think he's a serious candidate.
SEN. McCAIN: Well, I -- look, I'll let the people decide that. I'm glad he's willing to enter the arena. I think we have a lot of good candidates, and I am not endorsing any of them. I, I would be very happy if Sarah Palin got in. I'd be very happy with many of the governors that we have running now. I think we'll have a good candidate at the end of the day.
MR. GREGORY: But Palin appears to, to be less inclined to get in now. Do you suspect that she'll be there in the end?
SEN. McCAIN: I don't know. I, I really don't know what she's going to decide. I still am very grateful that she was my running mate, and I'm proud of the work she does.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we're going to leave it there. Senator McCain in Cairo for us this morning.
SEN. McCAIN: Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: Thank you very much.
Joining us now -- we want to switch topics -- two of the top budget negotiators in the Senate: chair of the Budget Committee, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota; and member of the Finance Committee, Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma-- both members of the so- called Gang of Six, the bipartisan group of senators who, for the past four months, have been working to forge a debt reduction compromise. Senators, welcome to both of you, and happy Easter. Senator Conrad, let me start with you. There's a lot going on in terms of trying to deal with the budget. You got the Ryan plan, you've got the president's plan, you've got another commission, and this so-called Gang of Six. Bottom line it here: Do you have a deal? Are you going to be announcing something soon?
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): You know, we've agreed not to discuss the status of our negotiations. But if we don't have an agreement soon, we won't be relevant to this discussion. So I'm very...
MR. GREGORY: So you're going to be relevant? Do you intend to be relevant?
SEN. CONRAD: I'm, I'm -- we intend to be relevant, and I, I would say this. We have made enormous progress in this group, and it is the only bipartisan effort that is under way. And at the end of the day, it has to be bipartisan or nothing is going to happen.
MR. GREGORY: But, Senator Coburn, realistically here, without the shroud of secrecy, are you going to have a deal?
SEN. TOM COBURN (R-OK): Well, the, the, the hope is, is that we'll have a deal. The country can't afford for us not to have an agreement.
MR. GREGORY: Let me stick with you on the point of contention, particularly with senators like you, Republicans, conservatives, and outside groups having to do with taxes. Could you support a deal here, out of this Gang of Six, on the budget that includes tax increases?
SEN. COBURN: Well, we're not talking about it. I think if you go back and look at the commission's report, what we were talking about is getting significant dynamic effects by taking away tax credits, lowering the tax rate and having an economic increase that will actually increase the revenues to the federal government.
MR. GREGORY: But...
SEN. COBURN: We're not talking about raising tax rates at all.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but here's -- here...
SEN. COBURN: So if, if there's a net effect of tax revenue...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
SEN. COBURN: ...that would be fine with me. I experienced that during Reagan's period in 1986.
MR. GREGORY: But here -- here's -- but if, if people's taxes go up in some way, it would appear to be a violation of the pledge that you signed with a well-known Americans For Tax Reform Taxpayer Protection Pledge. This is the group you signed the pledge with. And, and the second piece of this is that you, you vowed to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates. If taxes end up going up in some capacity, would you not be in violation of that pledge?
SEN. COBURN: Well, I think which pledge is most important, David, is the pledge to, to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special interest group who, who claims to speak for all of American conservatives when, when in fact they really don't. The fact is, is we have enormous urgent problems in front of us that have to be addressed, and they have to be addressed in a way that will get 60 votes in the Senate, a majority vote in the House, and something that the president will sign. And that's our problem with where we are today. The president doesn't have a plan that'll get 60 votes in the House. The House doesn't have a plan that'll get 60 votes. And what Senator Conrad and myself and other colleagues are trying to do is where's the compromise that will save our country?
MR. GREGORY: Here's the question -- yeah.
SEN. COBURN: This isn't about politics as normal. It's about making the decisions now that are urgent. When S&P decides that the trend is negative and, in fact, sends a warning shot across our bow, I think there's not anything more significant we can do than come to an agreement.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Conrad, let me ask you about taxes, because if I'm going to press conservatives on the idea of any tax increases, the press for Democrats is to say, "Hey, wait a minute, if you really want to tackle the deficit situation, how do you not raise taxes on the middle class, those making less than $250,000?" Can't just do it on the rich. Alan Greenspan was on this program last week, he said the Bush era tax cuts should expire for everybody. Is that not fair?
SEN. CONRAD: You know, let me just say this, revenue has to be part of this because revenue as a share of our national income is the lowest it has been in 60 years. Spending as a share of our national income is the highest it has been in 60 years. So you got to work both sides of the equation. But we did not raise tax rates, as this proposal, what we did was have tax reform. Let me just give you an example. In the Cayman Islands there is a little building, five-story building, called Ugland House, it claims to be the home of 18,000 companies. They all say they're doing business in that little building, the only business they're doing is monkey business. They're avoiding paying the taxes that they owe. If you reform the tax code and collect that money, I don't consider that a tax increase.
MR. GREGORY: Without -- fair enough, fair enough. But my question had to do with taxes on the middle class. The president's position is, "I'm going to tax the millionaires, I'm going to tax the rich, but not anybody making less than $250,000." How is that sustainable if you really want to tackle the deficit? You look at these numbers.
SEN. CONRAD: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Don't taxes have to be raised on the middle class as well?
SEN. CONRAD: You know, I, I really don't believe they do. I believe the tax reform that the commission called for that produces additional revenue through going after these offshore tax havens-- let me give you another example right, right in recent history, the United States has seen the spectacle of companies, U.S. companies, buying European sewer systems, not because they're in the sewer business, but because they want to write those investments off on their books for tax purposes. That kind of tax scam should be closed down. I don't consider that a tax increase, but it does raise additional revenue that can be used both to lower rates to make America more competitive and to reduce our deficit. Because Tom Coburn is exactly right, our country is headed for a fiscal cliff, a debt 100 -- a gross debt 100 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States, not in the future, but this year.
MR. GREGORY: All right. But I, I want to stick to this point. Senator Coburn, let me ask you, a lot is made of your personal friendship with President Obama, but you also take him to task for not leading on this issue. Is part of that failure to lead, in your opinion, that he will not be honest with the American people about the need for tax increases if it's going to come to that for those -- not just the wealthiest Americans but those making less than $250,000, if you really want to deal with putting revenue and spending in balance?
SEN. COBURN: No. My, my argument with him is when he says 88 percent of the budget we're not going to touch, reform or, or, or fix and we're still going to solve our problems is an absolute falsehood. The fact is is you can't have Medicare out of the equation, you can't have Medicaid out of the equation, and we can't borrow the money-- the $2.6 trillion that we've stolen from Social Security and the international financial market without making Social Security sustainable.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let, let me get on that point. Let me just...
SEN. CONRAD: So to, to lead on this...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
SEN. CONRAD: Let me finish my point, David. To lead on this issue and to create a false predicate that says we can solve our problems without addressing our entitlements, it hurts the country. It doesn't help the country, it hurts the country. So we ought to be honest with the American people. Medicare cannot continue the way it is if we're going to survive. Medicaid cannot continue the way it is if we're going to survive. To put those off limits is erroneous, wrong, and hurtful.
MR. GREGORY: Here's the difficulty, and you both know it, Senator Conrad, is that the American people want more government than they're willing to pay for. Look at this poll, Washington Post/ ABC News, from this month about the popularity of taking certain steps that you just outlined, Senator Coburn. Cut Medicare spending, 78 percent oppose; cut Medicaid, 69 percent oppose; cut military spending, 56 percent oppose. The only thing that's popular is raising taxes on those making more than $250,000. So, look, you have members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, who need to go out there and campaign. What makes you think they're going to take the tough steps that the president is not willing to take in terms of really dealing with entitlements?
SEN. CONRAD: Because we must. Look, we've just had the definitive study done by two of the most distinguished economists in the country who tell us that once you reach a debt that is over a gross debt more than 90 percent of your national income, your future economic prospects are dramatically reduced -- future economic growth, future job creation. That's where we are as a country. This is a defining moment, and we've got to decide as a nation, are we going to do some things that all of us would prefer not to have to do, or do we wait for the roof to cave in? I think the American people are plenty smart. If you ask them the question, " Do you want to cut Social Security?" Of course they don't. "But do you want to make Social Security solvent for the next 75 years?" Yes, they do. When you ask them the question, " Do you want to raise taxes?" No, they don't. But will they support tax reform to get additional revenue to reduce the deficit and make the nation more competitive? I think then the answer is yes.
MR. GREGORY: Just a couple of minutes left, I want to get both of you on this debate over the debt ceiling. Senator Conrad, you voted against raising the debt ceiling last time it came up. You said you don't regret the vote. But to hear Secretary Geithner say that's, that's catastrophic, that's playing chicken with America's economy.
SEN. CONRAD: No, what I've done is I have been very clear for the last 10 increases in the debt, I will not support any long-term extension of the debt without a plan or a proposal or a process in place to deal with the debt. And so I've voted for short-term extensions, but I won't vote for a long-term extension. And I won't do it now unless we have a plan to deal with this debt because, at the end of the day, this represents a fundamental threat to the economic security of the United States.
MR. GREGORY: Well, you're a Democrat saying that. So unless there's direct linkage between spending cuts and raising the debt limit, you won't vote for increasing it here?
SEN. CONRAD: No, those are not my words. My words are, are very clear and they have been for years. I will not vote for any long-term extension of the debt, more than a year, unless there is a plan in process.
MR. GREGORY: And this vote would be less than that?
SEN. CONRAD: I don't know. We don't know what the, what the plan is.
MR. GREGORY: See what it is.
SEN. CONRAD: I, I think there are many who are saying this would be longer than that. Look, I, I think it is critically important that we get a plan in place to get this debt under control. I will vote for short-term extensions. I, I think it would be catastrophic to renege on our debt...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
SEN. CONRAD: ...but it's got to -- we got to have a long-term plan to deal with it.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Coburn, if you look at the polling on this, Americans, if you ask them, do not support raising the debt limit at this particular time. Do you think -- are you confident that there'll be any linkage between spending cuts and a vote to increase the debt ceiling?
SEN. COBURN: Well, the only way we solve our very real problems is to start getting our spending under control. A debt limit doesn't really mean anything because we've always extended it. And the, the, the Treasury secretary has the ability, even if this debt limit is not extended, he has the ability to continue to pay interest on our bonds. The, the idea that we might say that this is catastrophic is wrong, that what is catastrophic is continue to spend money that we don't have on things we don't absolutely need and continue to mortgage our future and not fix the very real problems that are in front of us.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Coburn, before we go, I want to as you a political question, as I asked Senator McCain. You have been critical of Newt Gingrich because of multiple marriages, saying -- you've said in the past he doesn't have the commitment to marriage to be a good presidential candidate or, indeed, to be president. Do you think that Donald Trump will face similar difficulties, having been married several times, with conservatives?
SEN. COBURN: Well, you know, not to comment on either of them, I think what our country's looking for is courageous, moral leadership at this time of multiple problems it faces. We need somebody who's demonstrated sacrificial leadership, that has demonstrated consistency and, and an ability to lead based on a life that's modeled on what American ideals are. So that's not to comment on either of them other than the fact that the way we get out of the problems is people being honest with us about a situation and the problems that are in front of us and what the potential solutions are.
MR. GREGORY: You have been a friend and a colleague of Senator John Ensign, who has resigned, speaking of morals. His extramarital affair and other questions came before the Ethics Committee, and he has decided to resign. You have been a mediator in some of that process. Do you regret the role that you've played in any of these sides with regards to Senator Ensign?
SEN. COBURN: No. I just regret that the moral mistakes were made and the consequences are severe associated with those. And with that I would have any other -- wouldn't have any other comment.
MR. GREGORY: Was it appropriate for him to resign?
SEN. COBURN: Like I said, I, I, I don't have the, I, I don't know the basis under which he resigned, and I'm not privy to that. So that's a decision he made and what he stated was best for his family.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Conrad, do you think it's appropriate to have the Ethics Committee now make public its findings?
SEN. CONRAD: You know, that's for the Ethics Committee to decide. I used to serve on the Ethics Committee. I, I think it's -- would be appropriate for them to make a final report. That's certainly provided for in the Ethics Committee rules.
MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to leave it there. Senators, thank you both very much for being here. Coming up, tough choices on taxes, spending and entitlement reform. Will Washington bridge the partisan divide and find room for compromise? Plus, high unemployment and soaring gas prices leave Americans pessimistic about the future. Our political roundtable examines slumping confidence and what it means for 2012, including a potential Donald Trump candidacy, as we've been discussing. Joining us, New York Times columnist David Brooks; columnist for The Washington Post, Gene Robinson; Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos; and former communications director for President Obama, Anita Dunn.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, does the president have a tough re- election fight ahead and what to make of the 2012 Republican presidential field? Look, the roundtable is here and weighs in: Gene Robinson, David Brooks, Anita Dunn, and Alex Castellanos. They'll be up next after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: We are back, joined by our roundtable: columnist for The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson; columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks; Republican strategist Alex Castellanos; and former communications director for President Obama, Anita Dunn. Welcome to all of you. We just had this big conversation about the budget, entitlements, spending. This is the big debate in Washington now, and it's going to be as we get into the re- election campaign for next year. Alex Castellanos, is it a smart thing for Republicans to be taking on this fight over Medicare? A lot of Republicans have gone home to their districts and are fielding tough questions, basically saying, "You want to do what? You want to change Medicare as we know it?" Here's an ad that's running, a political ad, Americans United for Change, that takes on Congressman Ryan's plan about Medicare.
Unidentified Elderly Woman: Paul Ryan looks like a nice young man, but on April 15, he voted to end Medicare and its guaranteed health benefits. Ryan wants to use that money to give millionaires a $200,000 tax break. Ending Medicare so millionaires can get another tax break? Really? Call Congressman Ryan and ask, "What were you thinking!"
MR. GREGORY: What are they thinking, politically?
MR. ALEX CASTELLANOS: One thing we've learned in Washington over these years is just because one side loses, doesn't mean the other side wins. I think we're in one of these situations where everyone loses politically in this debate. Certainly Republicans are being hurt. Campaign 2012 has started. I mean, we've seen the evidence. But, you know, Democrats also lose, too.
Look, this is what everybody has to do: Step up to the plate and put something on the table about getting a hold of the deficit and the debt. There -- both sides are going to pay a political price. Republicans are cold and cruel and irresponsible.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. CASTELLANOS: But Democrats are also irresponsible on the debt, on not cutting anything. It's going to hurt both sides.
MR. GREGORY: And, look, Anita Dunn, we saw from the midterm campaign that the tea party sentiment in the Republican parter -- Party has won the day. I mean, it is forcing this fight over cutting government spending, and now both sides, the president has embraced that as well. So can you just make this about what, what Republicans want to do to seniors?
MS. ANITA DUNN: Well, David, I think that if you look at what the midterm elections said, they sent a very clear message to Washington, that they wanted both sides to work together for results and for solutions. It was interesting to me on the night of the election that the Republican leadership went out and said, you know, "We're not claiming a mandate. We got the message. People want us to work together." And the next day they claimed a mandate to come in here and dismantle entitlements and start radically cutting spending, so.
MR. GREGORY: What they said was people wanted the mandate was to cut spending. That's what they said.
MS. DUNN: Well, they said -- well, well, they actually said the night of the election that they understood there was no mandate except to get to work on the nation's problems. Next day they said there was a mandate to cut spending. But, David...
MR. GREGORY: And there is a lack of compromise and a great desire for compromise. David Brooks, Ron Brownstein in the National Journal writes in his column this week something that I really think sets up this discussion very well. He said, "Leading thinkers in both parties say that events of the past two weeks have locked in place a major part of the 2012 general- election contest.
"The debate will revolve around a big question more often dodged than confronted: How much government are Americans willing to pay for? Before the conversation is over, the answer could produce uncomfortable moments for President Obama and Republicans alike, not to mention voters themselves."
MR. DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. Well, that's what I liked about the Ryan plan. It actually confronts you with that question. Listen, the average senior citizen is -- pays about $150,000 into Medicare, pays in $150,000. They get out of it, the system, about $450,000. That $300,000, a large chunk of it is being paid for by their grandkids. And so Ryan said, "Is that moral? Is that what you really -- what we want to leave a legacy?" So what he did was extremely politically foolhardy, but -- and I don't agree with every part of his plan -- but he asked people to face the question, the, the implications of their choices. And so I, I think everybody's going to have to do that in many different ways, but I thought what he did was a step in the right direction.
MR. GREGORY: But how -- but, Gene, if we're going to be serious, both sides have to face some tough realities, including Democrats. David Stockman today, who was budget director for President Reagan from '81 to '85, said, "Look, you got to get serious. You got to -- you actually have to cut taxes-- excuse me, have to raise taxes, not just on the wealthy, but you got to do it on the middle class if you're really serious about balancing the budget."
MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: Yeah, but what do you do first? I mean, you know, let's look at the political reality. You -- people admire courage and dealing with the budgetary reality.
MR. GREGORY: The just don't vote for it.
MR. ROBINSON: But what they, what they also they admire more is, you know, Medicare and Social Security.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. ROBINSON: And look at those poll numbers. You know, people say, " Raise taxes on the rich. Keep your hands off my Medicare. Keeps your hands off Social Security." Now, those may be unrealistic, but that's what people are saying. So what's the political equation? I think this period has been good for Democrats and bad for Republicans, frankly.
MR. BROOKS: But for the country, doesn't the president have to come out with charts and say, "Look, here's your reality, people. We're going to all have to take a hit." And he hasn't done that. He did it a bit with his speech. I don't think he's done it enough. Just the Ross Perot style charts, here's the deal.
MR. GREGORY: Let me put something else on the table, Alex, which is this dark mood in the country, the pessimism in the country. The right track/wrong track direction, The New York Times poll, 70 percent of Americans think the country's off on the wrong track. And then you look about the views of the economy, in general 44 percent think it's getting worse, 28 percent staying the same. There's a lot of pessimism there.
MR. CASTELLANOS: And I think the vision of a country is the job of the president, and that's something that I'm really disappointed in Barack Obama about. I've said a lot of good things -- you know, not, I'd say, 100 percent, but about -- a lot of good things about -- but he has, I think, failed in the vision. The candidate of hope and change has become this divisive populist who is pitting rich against poor, Republican against Democrat, red against blue. Remember the speech, there's one America, no red, no blue? What happened to that guy? I think that's a huge mistake because it also robs him of his greatest gift, and that is his ability to inspire, to lead. And that's...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah, but, but to be fair, the other side of that, Anita, is that in, in Paul Ryan's plan, a lot of people look at that and say, "This is an over ideological document here."
MS. DUNN: Well, David, I mean, there's, there's no doubt about that. I mean, the first line of it says the president's failed to lead so the Republicans must step up to it. And it's a very, very partisan plan, a very ideological plan. You know, I think that when you look at the mood of the country, there are a couple of things that are really important. The first is that, at the end of the day, this is not so much about the deficit, it's about economic growth and our economic future. And that's really the dividing line between the president's plan as he laid it out and I think the Ryan plan, which as, the president said, there are clear things we need to invest in. We need to invest in education.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. DUNN: Ask any CEO about that.
MR. GREGORY: I understand that's the platform. But what about the compromise piece? I mean, how -- but it doesn't...
MS. DUNN: Well, and, and the president has compromised, David.
MR. GREGORY: What about the tax question? How do you not raise taxes on the middle class if you're really going to say...
MS. DUNN: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: ..."Hey, we got to be serious about bringing the budget into balance."
MS. DUNN: Well, David, as, as Eugene said, where do you start? How about starting with the other side, which has basically said what we want to do is we want to cut taxes for the wealthiest people in this country and start with that, having a tax rate that's the lowest since Herbert Hoover for wealthy people in this country.
MR. GREGORY: Right. All right.
MR. CASTELLANOS: The president is -- has a job no one else has. He holds the heart of every American in his hand. He's president of everybody. And when the president says, you know, " Rich people are bad people, and they're, they're sitting there on their money. They're -- and by the way, their success is not earned, it's they've just -- they're just a fortunate few," he's dividing the country. And that's what hurts -- you know, now he's going to sit down and negotiate with business?
MR. GREGORY: Go ahead, yeah.
MR. CASTELLANOS: But -- and it's not ideological leadership, it's principled leadership.
MR. ROBINSON: The, the -- there's another way of looking at this big picture, though. I think people are saying they want an America in which we take care of the elderly, we take care of senior citizens, we, we give them the retirement that they thought they were paying in on say Social Security, the money they thought they -- that was there. And we take care of their physical health. And we also take care of the health of the poor. I think people are saying they want that kind of America. They don't necessarily don't want to pay for it, but I think it, it shouldn't be just about how we cut those programs, it should also be about how do we pay for the programs that people want? And yes, you're right, that, that's not just raising taxes on the rich. I think it's, it's a more broadly based tax raise.
MR. GREGORY: But, David, what...
MR. BROOKS: But, but we want a country that -- where government can balance competing interests. I think the polls -- and they don't see that right now. The poll that you mentioned should be extremely alarming to everybody in the political class because usually when you have an economy coming up, which ours is -- we've had good job numbers, we've had unemployment coming down -- usually public opinion comes up. That's the way it worked in the Great Depression. That's the way it worked under Reagan. But now we have this disconnect where the economy's going up, public opinion's going down.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. BROOKS: And that's in part because gas prices, but it's in part because structural problems in the economy, middle class isn't feeling it. And it's in part because people have given up hope in the political system.
MR. GREGORY: Can I just talk to you for a second, just to amplify your point, two data points that I think are important. The home value relationship to the recession. We can't forget here -- well, this is first the gas price effect, which is as gas prices go up, the president's approval goes down. I mean, pretty stark numbers if you go from February 11 to today. The other piece of it had to do with the home value. Homeowners assess home values since the start of the recession, 47 percent know that the homes are worth less. Their savings are gone. I mean, this is, this is that, that pessimism that you're talking about.
MR. BROOKS: And when -- where you look at where the numbers have moved, it's not in the rich, it's not in the poor. It's people making between $50,000 and $80,000 who are political independents. Those people have become much more pessimistic over the last couple months.
MR. GREGORY: Right. So, Alex, if you're running a Republican campaign right now, you're saying, look, there's a lot of reasons why Obama's tough to beat. You look at that wrong track number at 70 percent, you say, "Aha, that's the mind-set of the independent voter." Obama had them, and now they've moved away from him. And gas prices is a big effect here.
MR. CASTELLANOS: I think gas prices huge effect. Look, I would say Obama's still favored to win this election for a lot of reasons. He's -- people think he's a decent guy. A Republican Congress has made him safer. He can't spend without restraint now, so he's like light beer, all the hope and vision without the spending calories. And they think America's gone to a better place in racial relations. So, I mean, this is a good country. It doesn't want to pull the string out of that sweater. They want to keep him if they can. But Obama is vulnerable to the "send him a message" campaign. A lot of people are going to say, "How do I maximize the social value of my vote?" And they're going to say, "Well, I can't just assent to what's gone on. I'm going to -- he spends too much." Another group is going to say, "I didn't like the healthcare thing. I got to send him a message on that." Another group is going to say, "Hm, he bows too much. I didn't like that. He took over the car company. And you have- -one day he'll look up and he'll see all these people on the ridge, kind of like General Custer, that don't wish him ill, but are going to send him a message. And he is very vulnerable to that campaign.
MR. GREGORY: All right, let me take a break here. I want to come back, talk more politics, including the Trump effect that seems to be taking over Republican primary voters. More from our roundtable right after this break.
MR. GREGORY: We are back. More of our roundtable with the roundtable here. I want to talk politics. I also want to talk about the politics of gas prices. Alex, you were saying in the break this is what can be connected economically to the president in terms of an economic downturn. T. Boone Pickens, natural gas advocate, of course, and, and author of "The Pickens Plan For Energy Independence." I spoke with him this week as part of our Press Pass mid-week conversation, which is available on our blog, and he said there was a promise made about energy independence by this president that has not been a promise kept. This is what he said.
MR. T. BOONE PICKENS: I remember very well what he said when he was nominated. He said that in 10 years we will not import any oil from the Mideast. We're almost three years deep now from when he made that statement. There's been no plan put forth that I've seen, and -- since he's been president, to accomplish that unless he started talking about natural gas. And when you get down to it, we don't have a, a number of options.
MR. GREGORY: David Brooks, a year ago after the gulf oil spill, this president said, "What I will not accept is inaction in the energy debate," and yet that's where we are.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, well, he joins a long list of presidents who have failed at this. But I do think the natural gas point is an essential point. Wherever you go around the country-- western Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Texas -- I've been a lot of places where we're finding new natural gas deposits here. It seems to be the fuel of the future even though it's the fuel of the president. The problem is we don't have the infrastructure to really exploit it. And that -- I think this is an area where we have to get over our aversion to fossil fuels and our fantasy that we're going to live off solar and wind, which we're not. And -- but that's an intellectual leap that the political class has to make.
MR. GREGORY: Anita, how much does this hurt, gas prices? They talk about -- I know from talking to White House advisers, even more than jobs right now, they know that, that his approval is tied to gas prices.
MS. DUNN: I think gas prices, when they go up, hurt any president. And we saw this with Bush, we've seen it for a long time. I think going to David Brooks' point, though, Washington has a habit of thinking, "Well, because an energy bill didn't pass in the last Congress, therefore there's no energy problem now because we didn't pass a bill to deal with it." This is what the presidents since, you know, Richard Nixon have been talking about, and we don't have a comprehensive energy plan. I think that the White House-- when the president went out in his State of the Union and outlined his clean energy standards and other ways to achieve that independence from natural -- from imported oil, I think that people were like, "What's he doing? Why is he bringing this up again?" He's very committed to this. And, frankly, it is part of the economic future of this country that's going to create the jobs, that is going to help bring the middle class forward again.
MR. GREGORY: That, that -- right.
MS. DUNN: And that's what the argument's about, David.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. DUNN: I mean, that is really where the polls are.
MR. GREGORY: And the problem is, is there's a lack of consensus.
MS. DUNN: There is.
MR. GREGORY: Let...
MR. ROBINSON: And......investment.
MS. DUNN: Yes.
MR. GREGORY: Let, let, let me talk about...
MS. DUNN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...more broadly about politics and somebody who's making a lot of headlines and is either one or two in the polls on the Republican side. He's also on the cover of The Week magazine, and it is The Donald, Donald Trump. "Shaking it up," it says. Jonathan Martin in Politico wrote on Thursday sort of the basis for this energy, this wave that, that Trump is catching. "A latter-day P.T. Barnum with an insatiable appetite for attention and a knack for getting it, Trump has capitalized on two defining and interrelated features of the political-media landscape in the Obama era the symbiosis between political provocateurs and traffic-conscious news organizations and the rise of a conservative constituency that hungers for voices that will attack President Obama in sharp and unapologetic terms." Gene Robinson, I know from talking to people close to Trump, unless something were to happen, he is full speed ahead, he plans to get in this thing.
MR. ROBINSON: Oh, I think that's true. And I think the, the other Republican possible candidate or candidates who are treating this like a joke, I, I think are making a mistake. You know, he's showing up number one or two in most of the polls of Republicans. You can say this is not a serious candidacy, you can say this is not a serious candidate. Yet, if you're looking for traction right now, and maybe it's temporary, but if you're looking for traction in that race, Trump's got more of it than anybody else.
MR. GREGORY: You work for Mitt Romney. Here Donald Trump is challenging his business acumen and, and, and credentials. What is fueling what is not -- it, it could be something that's ephemeral, but for not it's real. What's fueling it?
MR. CASTELLANOS: You mean other than a voracious appetite for publicity?
MR. GREGORY: Right. Well, that's a piece of it, right?
MR. CASTELLANOS: I think look at three things, you've had the tea party, you've had the Republicans' sweep of the last Congress, now you have Donald Trump. They're the same thing. There is no pro- Trump movement. There is an anti- Washington movement. America is so tired of -- you know, "A plague on both their houses, Republicans and Democrats." They want to roll a hand grenade under Washington's door. That grenade is Donald Trump. At some point, however, the spotlight has to move from what he's not, which is Washington, to what he is, which is a very unstable political figure. You know, his plan to put a flashing Trump above the White House is not going to go over well.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, I disagree with that. I think he's much deeper. The guy's been around since the '80s, and he stands for something. He stands for success, the gospel of success, that you can start out small and make it big in this country. Not that he did, but, but, but he stands for that.
MR. ROBINSON: Well, with the money in there before. So.
MR. BROOKS: Right, right. But he stands for that. He's been preaching this for, for 20 and 30 years. He attracts 60,000 people before the tea party ever happened. So I take him seriously as a political force because he stands for the idea that the small guy can get ahead. And he has Trump University, he has thousands of books and lectures all on that gospel.
MR. GREGORY: He also has controversial views, Anita Dunn. Just to name a couple, that he would go in in Libya and actually take oil wells away, take control of the oil. He's got a very -- some facile answers for some of the more vexing problems on the international arena. Again, within the White House, they love to hear him talked about, they love to see him a force, but they get particularly angry when he gets more attention on this birther business, whether the president was born in the United States, which he was.
MS. DUNN: Which he was, thank you. I think if you see the number of Republicans and conservative commentators who attack Donald Trump on this issue, it shows you how concerned the Republican Party really is about a Trump candidacy. I mean, you have a pretty broad group of people attacking him. And, you know, I mean the fact of the matter is that the president was born in the United States. He has a birth certificate.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. DUNN: It's been online, if I can say this, since 2008.
MR. GREGORY: And yet, and yet, Alex-- but look at this.
MR. CASTELLANOS: But I think Trump, by the way, I think he's doing the Republicans a service. He's...
MR. GREGORY: OK. Can I just bring up one point and interrupt?
MS. DUNN: Right. Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Just -- look at this poll in The New York Times. Forty-five percent, 45 percent of Republicans think that the president was not born in the United States. And Trump has certainly talked about that, he's touched that nerve.
MR. CASTELLANOS: As far as I know, I think I'm the only one, either president or talking about the president, who was not born in United States, so. It's, it's a diversion from, I think, the issue that works for Republicans which is economics, gas prices, those kind of things. But, you know, Trump is going toe-to-toe with the president of the United States. He's going toe-to-toe with him on not just the birther thing but on gas prices and things like that. Meanwhile, the Republicans-- the spotlight is not on the Republican field. It becomes a referendum really on Obama because no one thinks Trump is actually going to be president. This helps the Republicans, it hurts Obama. Obama's numbers are going down.
MR. GREGORY: Anita, go ahead.
MS. DUNN: But I think what, what also happens in situations like this is, as Alex knows, is when you have a businessman who starts running for president, who hasn't been through the political process before, the spotlight does tend to turn after a while from the novelty and from the facile answers to an actual scrutiny. And as it happens, businessmen who are used to a certain kind of press don't always react all that well. I think that the favor that's being done to the Republican candidates right now is the lack of spotlight on them, that as they're out there in this early stage that they can start really developing their kind of spiels, that they can really start positioning without having to answer tough questions from the press who are attracted to Donald Trump.
MR. GREGORY: Well, and Trump is certainly asking questions, David Brooks. One of them-- Savannah Guthrie sat down with him this week and asked about his views on abortion and was specifically asking about the Roe V. Wade decision and the right to privacy. And the exchange was telling and may be a problem for him among social conservatives. Watch.
MS. SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Is there a right to privacy in the Constitution?
MR. DONALD TRUMP: I guess there is. I guess there is.
MS. GUTHRIE: So how does that...
MR. TRUMP: And why do you -- and why, just out of curiosity, why do you ask that question?
MS. GUTHRIE: Well, I'm just wondering how that squares with your pro-life views.
MR. TRUMP: Well, I -- it's a pretty strange way of getting to pro-life. I mean, it's a very unique way of asking about pro-life. Why are you -- what does that have to do with privacy? How are you, how are you equating pro-life with privacy?
Ms. GUTHRIE: Well, you know about the Roe V. Wade decision.
MR. TRUMP: Yes, right, sure. Look, I'm for pro -- I am pro-life, I've said it. I've been that way for, you know, for a fairly extended period of time right now.
MR. GREGORY: David Brooks, the issue is social conservatives, he's got to begin to attract values, voters, if he's going to make any headway in Republican primaries. Does that kind of answer hurt him?
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, that...
MR. GREGORY: Once he starts to get more scrutiny?
MR. BROOKS: Well, that answer's like, "I can see Roe V. Wade from my house." It's like a Sarah Palin type answer. "I, I haven't really been paying attention to politics. I don't know much about it." He, he clearly doesn't know much about it. But the, the question is, will that answer hurt him? And the thing I keep coming back to is this poll, the tremendous unhappiness of the American people. I've seen it in country after country where people who are disgraceful, and in many ways disgraceful, got elected or got close to being elected because people said, "Anything but what we've got. If we've got Soviet Plan A over here, Soviet Plan B over here, we want the guy in the red pants." And the...
MR. GREGORY: Gene Robinson, there's also -- there's the rest of the field.
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: If you look at the lack of enthusiasm in The New York Times found in its piece...
MR. ROBINSON: Exactly.
MR. GREGORY: ...I'll put it up on the screen. Fifty-six percent say they're not excited by anybody in this Republican field. That's what creates some room here.
MR. ROBINSON: Exactly. Just two, two quick points. Number one, Donald Trump has the advantage of not being burdened by the need for consistency. He changes his views. He has changed his views. That doesn't seem to hurt him. It doesn't seem to bother him, and it doesn't seem to bother the people who are latching on now. Second, I would, I would disagree a bit with the notion that he helps Republicans. I think he makes the other candidates look small. I think he makes them look smaller, that, that this neophyte comes out and dominates the airwaves and the newspapers. You know, all of a sudden, makes kind of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, who -- you know, Tim Pawlenty, "Who are these guys?" And I think it delays a day when voters start figuring out who are these guys.
MR. CASTELLANOS: Those kind, those kind of answers, first, can't hurt Donald Trump because you can't fall off the floor. He's not going anywhere. But the reason I think Republican candidates right now aren't exciting is we haven't started the campaign yet, guys. Give them time. One thing I've learned over the years is campaigns don't pick candidates, campaigns make candidates. Republicans go through a test, they go through the gauntlet just like the -- a skinny state senator from Illinois did. And it makes some of them, makes them strong, makes them presidential material. We're going to go through that process. But meanwhile, the campaign Obama does not want is a referendum on Obama. That's what he's got now because there's no real opposition.
MR. GREGORY: Your John McCain...
MR. CASTELLANOS: His numbers are tanking.
MR. GREGORY: ...encouraged Sarah Palin to get in. What -- how do you gauge her level of interest and, and effectiveness at this point?
MR. CASTELLANOS: I think Sarah Palin is -- has become so irrelevant to the process now that it's almost as if she had been elected vice president. No one's paying any attention to her. I think she's running, but not in the person of Sarah Palin. It'll be Michele Bachmann that will fill her role.
MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to take another break here. We'll come back with a new segment that we're calling Trends Takeaways. What to look for next week and what made news over the course of this hour. That's right after this.
MR. GREGORY: We're back with our final moments with our roundtable. And we want to go to Senator McCain who was on the program earlier talking about Libya and making some news this morning as he talked about the U.S. effort and how things stand there. Watch.
SEN. McCAIN: This is a pretty bloody situation, and it has the earmarks of being a stalemate. Now, we hope that Gadhafi will crumble from within, but hope is not a strategy. And it's pretty obvious to me that we need -- even though I was glad to see the Predator now in the fight-- it's pretty obvious to me that the United States has got to play a greater role in the airpower side.
MR. GREGORY: David Brooks, do we have a strategy for stalemate?
MR. BROOKS: Well, we've got a strategy for hope. The crucial words there from McCain were "crumble from within."
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: Of my conversations with the foreign policy team of Obama is that they're really not hoping that the rebels can take over the country, they're hoping they'll be defections. And that's why the Predators are there to make sure if you're a Gadhafi lieutenant driving around, you don't know who's up in the sky about to hit you. And so we're trying to ratchet up the pressure. And I think that's probably the right thing to do.
MR. GREGORY: One of the big topics trending, as we've been monitoring it throughout the program, we've been on TweetDeck, which we can show you up on the screen here. Libya's certainly been one of those topics. Gas prices, something that a lot of people have been talking to me about in the course of the, of the camp -- the program, as well as the debt ceiling. And here is this, this tweet from Zach Moller. "For those of us looking for jobs, budget fight is secondary in U.S. economy." This is really interesting, Gene.
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: Because that linkage between the two has not been made very well by either party so far.
MR. ROBINSON: No, it hasn't been made. And, and, and actually, I think both parties are making a mistake to the extent that they don't find a way to talk about jobs in a way that people, that people get. And I think that's what the American people have been waiting for, for years now, is...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. ROBINSON: ...you know, as the economy has tanked, who's going to talk about jobs in a way that connects? I don't think the president has done that particularly well. I don't think the Republicans are doing that particularly well. And perhaps the winner of this election is who does.
MR. GREGORY: And what to look for this week? Yes, Donald Trump will be in New Hampshire. So we'll be keeping an eye on it. Thank you all very much. We're going to leave it there. Before we go, some programming notes. Join us next Sunday for an exclusive interview with one of the rising stars of the Republican Party, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, here for his first MEET THE PRESS appearance. That is next Sunday. Plus, our midweek Press Pass conversation this week will be with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will talk about education reform efforts and a kick-off of " NBC's Education Nation on the Road" making its first stop next weekend in the secretary's hometown of Chicago. Check your Web site and the Press Pass blog midweek for the full interview with Secretary Duncan. Let's go Caps, onto the semis. Stanley Cup hockey is here. That is all for today. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.