MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Mitt Romney, today, jumped on those jobs numbers. Good news, of course, he said, but no cause for celebration with the unemployment rate above 8 percent for 35 consecutive months. We'll start our weekly conversation with columnists E.J. Dionne and David Brooks talking about the latest economic news. David Brooks back from Iowa, here in the studio with me, welcome back.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
BLOCK: And E.J., up in New Hampshire. Welcome to you, E.J.
E.J. DIONNE: Thank you. Good to be with you.
BLOCK: And first question to both of you, Mitt Romney is saying that President Obama's policies have slowed the recovery and created misery for millions of Americans who are out of work. If the downward trend continues, if the unemployment rate, David, continues to drop, does that Republican argument lose its potency?
BROOKS: It loses some of its potency. Clearly, if we have a year of declining unemployment rates or good jobs numbers like today, obviously, the sense of crisis goes away. I don't think it really erases it, though. The problems with the economy are not so much cyclical now, they're structural. They have to do with wave stagnation, inequality, a sense the country's in long term decline. I don't think we're going to be in a period of 400,000 or 400 jobs a month growth where people will feel, oh, yeah, it's morning in America. We're not going to see that. So, it's still going to be fundamentally jobs, economy, election.
DIONNE: Well, it's hard ever to say with confidence: Ah, this economic mess is over. But these numbers actually are good news for Obama for a particular reason. The political scientists tell us that voters tend to form their opinions of the economy early in the election year. If they feel badly early, it's very hard to shake them out of that - out of their view and that hurt President George H.W. Bush in 1992, who was presiding over a much better economy, it turned out, than the voters thought.
So, starting out strong is certainly helpful, if not decisive, for President Obama. But he needs more months like this. And I think the Republicans will still keep saying what they're saying because unemployment is still going to be way higher than it usually is.
BLOCK: I want to ask you both about a new CNN-TIME magazine poll of likely voters in South Carolina, which votes after New Hampshire. The Newt Gingrich lead that we saw a month ago, 43 percent there, now down to 18 percent and Mitt Romney has risen sharply, up to 37 percent. Rick Santorum as well, but Mitt Romney out ahead. If those numbers hold, if Mitt Romney can pull out a win, not just in New Hampshire but also in socially conservative South Carolina, is the primary fight effectively over there, David?
BROOKS: Yeah, it would move from 85 percent likely Romney to 95 percent Romney and it would sign that he can get above 25 percent. South Carolina has a lot of social conservatives, has a lot of establishment mainstream conservatives, too. Though, I would say, what we're going to see over the next couple weeks, and especially in South Carolina, is an explosion of ill temper, especially in the debates starting this weekend. South Carolina, traditionally, has been the nastiest of the primaries.
Gingrich is like this unexploded missile that seems to be going off in all directions at once. He's going to - I think the Gingrich we've seen so far is going to like Kelly Ripa compared to the last couple weeks.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BROOKS: So, I think we're in for quite a volatile period or at least the nasty period. It might be like - you know, I assume Romney will still get it. But this will be volatile.
BLOCK: I'm trying to imagine that Newt Gingrich-Kelly Ripa match-up. E.J., you're in New Hampshire. Are you sensing this explosion of ill temper that David Brooks is talking about there?
DIONNE: Well, I'm looking forward to its possibility and we're going to see that - I think we might see it in the debates this weekend. Here's what I'm struck by. I'm struck by the fact that Rick Santorum has an enormous opportunity up here, which he has not fully seized yet.
I went to a Santorum event last night in Windham, New Hampshire. And what struck me is that he was running to be an excellent teacher at a Jesuit high school rather than running for president. He gave these long, sometimes Socratic answers. They were actually very interesting. And, in some cases, I gave him credit for not pandering to his audience. But he had a real opportunity here and he still got a little opening to do it. There was some energy coming in, and you don't feel that he's built on that energy.
Having said that, I think these numbers in South Carolina suggest - even though I agree with David - it's hard to see any of these other candidates stopping Romney right now. Santorum's now second. Perry is doing very badly. So the fracturing of the non-Romney vote may end by default and that's got to give Santorum an opportunity, especially if Gingrich ever comes to his support and still does the thing that David suggests he's going to do.
BLOCK: Finally, I want to ask you both about the president's decision this week to do an end run around Republican opposition in Congress. He made recess appointments to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, also appointed three members to the National Labor Relations Board. And there are lots of questions about whether the Senate actually was in recess when he did this, whether these appointments are constitutional. Republicans are outraged.E.J., what are your thoughts?
DIONNE: Well, I say thank God he did this. I mean, what the Republicans have done on Richard Cordray is really irresponsible and I think unprecedented. They are not against him as the head of the Financial Consumer Protection Agency. They want to change a law that's already passed. Well, you don't do that by blocking a presidential appointee. You do that by trying to change the law. And, yes, we're going to have these fights about whether this will work or not legally. I suspect it will.
But the president really made a point of how awful the whole confirmation process has become, and how much it's been abused by the Republican minority in the Senate.
BLOCK: David, there have been lots of presidents made recess appointments before? Why is this any different?
BROOKS: Well, usually they were - the Senate was actually in recess when they made the recess appointments. You know, to me, this is an example of sort of the perfect hypocrisy. Barack Obama was outraged by recess appointments when President Bush was in office. Now that he's the president, he thinks the obstructionism is bad.
I'm more on the side of the president in general. I think they should get to appoint the people they want. But I am really struck by the presidential strategy of picking fights with Congress. Out in the country, people are really concerned about big issues - national decline. To get in one little intra-Washington fight after another, strikes me as out of scope with what the country wants right now.
BLOCK: OK. David Brooks of The New York Times here in Washington, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post up in Manchester, New Hampshire, thanks to you both.
BROOKS: Thank you.
DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.