Obama's inequality agenda

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," January 11, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," 50 years after Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, President Obama says poverty is still winning, and he's pushing forward with more government solutions. But is there a better way? Some prominent conservatives are weighing in.

Plus, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates making some waves with his new memoir. What it tells us about the president and his foreign policy.

And New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at the center of a political scandal. Are his 2016 presidential ambitions at risk?

Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

President Obama marked the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty this week declaring that there's more work to be done, and using the occasion to push a domestic agenda that includes an extension of long- term jobless benefits, a minimum wage increase and a new government initiative to create economic promise zones. But some prominent conservatives are coming out with antipoverty plans of their own and pushing back on the president's government approach.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R- FLA: The current government programs that are designed to address poverty, they help alleviate some of the pain of poverty, but they do not help people emerge from it. They do not help people rise above it. We have got to deal and with that and with opportunity and equality, not just income inequality. The president's got the wrong focus.


GIGOT: Joining the panel this week Wall Street Journal Political Diary editor, Jason Riley; assistant editorial page editor, James Freeman; and Washington columnist, Kim Strassel.

Jason, let's first talk about the Democratic agenda and their focus on income inequality. They're people driving this right now as part of their election year campaign theme. Why now?

JASON RILEY, POLITICAL DIARY EDITOR: I think a couple reasons, Paul. Obviously, the ObamaCare rollout has been such a disaster. It's what everyone's talking about. It's been driving down the president's approval rating so they want to change the subject. But secondly, this is sort of an evergreen for the left, income inequality, class warfare issues. They think it works for them. This is an effort to get back to something they're comfortable discussing in an election year. They think it will resonate with people in this economy. And that's another reasons they're doing it.

GIGOT: But here's one of the down sides, I would assume anyway, they've been in charge for five years.


RILEY: Yeah.

GIGOT: OK? Real median family income, household income, is down since the recovery began.

RILEY: Uh-huh.

GIGOT: Doesn't this bring attention to those --


RILEY: Yes, it does bring attention to an issue they haven't done a particularly good job of covering, but I also think there are some land mines, frankly, in here for Republicans wading into -- playing on a Democrat's turf on this issue. Traditionally, Republicans have focused on growth and economic opportunity. This would have them talking -- we heard Rubio talking about his own plan, antipoverty plan. Paul Ryan, another congressman, has been out there talking about antipoverty. I think Republicans and conservatives should be wary of playing this game on the left's terms. To the extent that it gets them off message, off that message of economic growth and spreading opportunity for people, I think it could do some harm to their prospect.

GIGOT: What about a critique of the 50 years of war on poverty. $20 trillion we have spent. The poverty rate now is roughly the same as it was, a little bit better, 15 percent.



GIGOT: 15 percent, not much better.

FREEMAN: Obviously, the definition of poverty has come up a bit but, yeah, basically the $21 trillion investment hasn't really moved the needle on poverty rate. And I think the problem for Republicans right now is they understand that the answer here is growth economics. The answer here is creating more jobs as opposed to government handouts. But when it gets into the details, they seem to have trouble right now advocating a real free-market agenda. We heard Marco Rubio give a sort of speech about free- market principles, but then he concluded by suggesting a bunch of tweaks to existing federal programs. So I think along with lauding the free market, they have to say how are we going to get more of it.

GIGOT: Kim, let me see if you agree with our two skeptics here --



GIGOT: -- about whether or not the Republicans ought to be trading on this turf. Do you think they're doing the right thing?

STRASSEL: They absolutely have to tread on this turf. Yeah, they want to talk about ObamaCare and they will talk about ObamaCare, but President Obama is forcing this debate. He wants this year to be about his inequality agenda. We know what happens when Republicans do not have an answer for that. Look at Mitt Romney in 2012.

So it is good news that you have a newer and younger generation of Republicans who are coming out. And I disagree. I think these aren't conservative ideas. What you're seeing is Republicans acknowledging, yes, we need a safety net for some of these programs. But some of the ideas are great. Returning to the state's control over how you administer a lot of these programs allowing for a lot more innovation, getting rid of some terrible things in the pass code like the earned income tax credit. These are not tweaks. These are important changes. And they're overdue coming from the Republican Party.

GIGOT: When, and I would say economic -- excuse me, education reform as a tool of economic upward mobility is crucial. So take on Kim's argument.

RILEY: Sure. I'm all for that. And I'm all for Republicans and conservatives discussing that. The problem with debating income inequality with the left is their definition of equality, Paul. They're talking about outcomes. And they're talking about quotas and set asides and numerical outcomes and proportionate number of women and blacks and others in certain positions rising to certain levels. That is not about equality. When Republicans talk about equality, they talk about equal opportunity.

GIGOT: And what's wrong with that? Isn't that the way to counter the argument?

STRASSEL: Absolutely.

GIGOT: By focusing on equal opportunity and upward mobility?


GIGOT: The opportunity to move up, to stay up.

FREEMAN: How do you get that? It's not by turning the earned income tax credit into another type of federal benefit. It's not by taking the restraints off welfare reform and continuing to dole the money out. It's by having lower taxes and less regulations. Republicans feel like that's an old message for them so they need something new.


FREEMAN: Their job of politicians is to describe it in a new way because they know that's the right answer.


STRASSEL: Look, you know, a lot of people want Republicans to go out and just say get rid of all of these programs. By the way, that was the approach a lot of them had prior, for instance, to the 1990s welfare reform. It was the decision to finally go out and work with the other side, push them, pressure them, to actually have to reform the program, not say get rid of it, but reform it, that finally allowed for some major progress in that area. And I think that that's what you're seeing Republicans doing, is talking, not saying get rid of these programs, but figure out a way to make them operate much better.

GIGOT: All right. Very good debate. We'll have more on this in future shows.

When we come back, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates offering a rare glimpse inside the Obama White House. What his memoir tells us about the president, his administration and its foreign policy.


GIGOT: Well, a memoir by Robert Gates is making big news ahead of its release next week with the former defense secretary claiming in the book that President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted to each other that their opposition to the 2007 Iraq troop surge had been political, that the president did not believe in his own Afghanistan War strategy and was focused instead on getting out. Gates also writes that Vice President Joe Biden, quote, "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."

We're back with Kim Strassel. Wall Street Journal columnist, Mary Anastasia O'Grady; and editorial board member, Matt Kaminski, join the panel.

Mary, what are we learning from the excerpts in the book so far and the memoir that we didn't know?

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY, COLUMNIST: Well, I think we knew or we suspected that the president had a very -- looked at war in a very political way and made his decisions driven by politics. But I think what comes across more clearly is just how much the war was micromanaged out of the White House and how much the White House resented the idea that the generals were -- you know, wanted to do the surge and sort of were the ones who put together the idea of the surge and that they had to accept it. That's not the path that they wanted to go down.

GIGOT: And yet, Gates also writes that Obama made all the right decisions on Afghanistan even if he didn't believe in those decisions. How do you mesh those two statements?

MATT KAMINSKI, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: It's a conflicted memoir. And it's also critical of George Bush for not focusing enough on Afghanistan, by focusing on Iraq. But he pointed out in the section about Bush that during his time with George Bush as defense secretary, not once --


GIGOT: Last two years.

KAMINSKI: Yes, that's right. Not once did domestic political considerations weigh in on issues of war and peace. That's actually the big difference with President Obama.

GIGOT: But did Obama's lack of confidence in his own strategy in Afghanistan, has that ended up undermining the success, relative success, of the troop surge and where we are now as we begin to leave?

O'GRADY: For sure. That's what he's saying. And, you know, he makes the point that he's always treated nicely by everyone.

GIGOT: Gates was?

O'GRADY: Yeah.

GIGOT: Yeah.

O'GRADY: But he says he couldn't get anything done. And I think, you know, as you read through his complaints, what you see is really just a lack of leadership on the part of the commander-in-chief.

KAMINSKI: I think the really telling point in the part about Afghanistan was that he supported the troops, Gates says, but he didn't support his own strategy.

GIGOT: Right.

KAMINSKI: He announced the surge in 2009, but then against the advice of Robert Gates and David Petraeus, the military commander at the time, he put a deadline on all withdrawal. Meaning that he undermined his own war effort and undermined the troops that he was sending into Afghanistan.

GIGOT: Kim, what about this issue that he talks about where Hillary Clinton and President Obama both acknowledged in a meeting that their opposition to the Iraq surge in 2007 had been political? I think we more or less knew that, too, although to see it phrased like that and acknowledged is nonetheless telling confirmation of detail. But what about the impact of that potentially on Hillary Clinton going into 2016? Any fallout?

STRASSEL: Yeah, no. I think it's a real problem for her credibility, especially given, you know, some of her behavior during the primary election when she was running against Barack Obama. She wanted to fashion herself as more hawkish than him. But now we know that a lot of the positions that she was taking was actually driven as much by politics as they were driving his position. So this does put her in a more awkward position should she decide to run, coupled with her not very exciting tenureship as secretary of state.

GIGOT: Matt, what does this tell you about her?

KAMINSKI: About her?

GIGOT: Yeah.

KAMINSKI: I think we knew in her time in the administration she was very calculating and always looking ahead to a potential run, and that everything is politics with this crowd, unfortunately.

And the one thing about the Gates book is we still have three more years of this president with a lot of foreign policy fires out there. And there's no indication that President Obama has actually learned or grown as a commander-in-chief if you look at the Gates account of just the first two years and see what's happening right now in the world.

O'GRADY: And it's not only a problem with the president. It's a problem with Congress also. And I think what you have here really is a wartime secretary of defense giving basically an outpouring of grief about the way that Washington treats the military. These aren't little green army men that they're sort of just moving around. And he feels like they're playing video games or something. And these are real people and it kept him up at night.

GIGOT: All right, Mary, thank you very much.

When we come back, he's been billed as the GOP's best hope in 2016, but now political scandal is putting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's reputation as a straight shooter to the test. Could Bridgegate bring an end to his presidential ambitions?


CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: I'm sick over this. I have worked for the last 12 years in public life developing a reputation for honesty and directness and blunt talk.




CHRISTIE: And I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.

I am responsible for what happened. I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short. We fell short of the expectations that we've created over the last four years for the type of excellence in government that they should expect from this office.


GIGOT: An apology from Garden State governor and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Chris Christie, this week after it was revealed that top aides intentionally caused traffic gridlock on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge last September as political payback for a Democratic mayor who failed to endorse the governor for re- election. Christie, who denied any knowledge of the scheme, fired deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, Thursday after e-mails exposed her role in it.

We're back with Kim Strassel, Jason Riley and James Freeman.

Kim, did that press conference performance save the governor's potential run in 2016?

STRASSEL: You know, this was about as textbook as it gets on how to handle a political crisis. You know, he gathered information quickly, he went out there, he apologized profusely. Heads rolled. He fired people. And then he shut the door on this. And this is what you need to do.

Now, the only thing that could really hurt Christie going forward is if there is some information that he did know, especially given how vehement he was at that press conference that he had no knowledge of what was going on. But in terms of sort of handling the immediate crisis, he did. And I don't necessarily think, absent further information, that this could hurt his run in 2016.

GIGOT: Do you agree, Jason?

RILEY: Ronald Reagan used to say "personnel is policy." And I think what Christie has done is given his critics a big instrument here to bludgeon him with.

GIGOT: Despite the performance?

RILEY: Despite the performance. The question is his judgment of character, his surrounding himself with people capable of pulling stunts like that. He'll have to answer that.

That said, that was a press conference that showed the guy manning up. He took responsibility for what happened. I think, as Kim said, he couldn't have done much better than he did in that press conference. And I think what he has going for him is that there's enough time between now and 2016, barring any further information coming out showing that he was not telling the truth, there's enough time for, I think, voters to forgive him and for him to make up for this.

GIGOT: What about the question of whether he took this issue seriously enough from the start? You know, he dismissed it for weeks.


GIGOT: Said there was nothing to it. The question of why he didn't dig into it at a deeper level earlier and instead just took the word of his aides. Is that an ongoing problem?


FREEMAN: -- made jokes about being out there with orange cones himself stopping traffic. I think that actually probably speaks toward credibility here because one of the points he made in the press conference this week was, look, I never would have joked about stopping the traffic if I knew that my people were actually involved. In that way, I think, why he seemed credible. I mean, we'll learn in the coming days whether he was telling the truth. But it was very -- it was not at all Clintonian. In other words these were unhedged, unqualified denials. They weren't sort of carefully crafted lawyerly statements. And then, of course, he spent a lot of time answering questions. I think he did man-up. Probably, talked a little too much about his feelings.


GIGOT: I like that.

FREEMAN: But, you know, really --


GIGOT: Like the governor said, he was --


FREEMAN: -- are you going to apologize to us?


Obviously, the victims are the people in the traffic jams. But I also think we do need to keep this in perspective. And the IRS has really lowered the bar on behavior by government officials here, but as we look at scandals --


GIGOT: A little accountability for that scandal --

FREEMAN: That's right.

GIGOT: -- still hasn't -- who has taken responsibility for it so far? Just some acting IRS commissioner, who retired under pressure, and Lois Lerner, who resigned with a pension.

FREEMAN: And here we are eight months later and you have Congress and private litigants kind of urging, prodding, begging the FBI and Justice to go after this thing. It's kind of appalling. But, oh, they're right on the bridge story. The U.S. attorney's already investigating it.


If only they'd shown this kind of enthusiasm for the IRS targeting.

GIGOT: But, Kim, are there any lessons here we can take away about Governor Christie's management style? Is there really possibly a culture of payback, a thin-skinned attitude on his staff? You cross us, we're going to go after you? And is that a message you want to take to a campaign in 2016?

STRASSEL: Look, New Jersey is a rough place to play politics. One of the things we haven't mentioned here is doesn't really surprise anybody that this happened in New Jersey? And, yes, there probably are members of his staff that come out of that New Jersey political environment and do have that approach. I think what voters, however, are going to look at is his argument that he is a straight shooter and he handles problems when they come up. And that's what he tried to do this week. And that's the message he'll take when he goes out.

GIGOT: All right.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits and Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for our hits and misses of the week -- Jason?

RILEY: This is a miss to the White House for their nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. It's a gentleman named Debo Adegbile. He's a former NAACP lawyer who represented a notorious cop killer, Mumia Abu Jamal, who the left loves, helped him get off of death row. And I think, Paul, if there's anything more disturbing than what Obama's doing to our health care system, it's these people he's stacking in the Justice Department who seem to care nothing about tearing this country apart along racial lines.

GIGOT: All right.


O'GRADY: Hi, Paul. This is a hit for the French. The --

GIGOT: Here-here.

O'GRADY: The regulator for broadcast television has ruled that Miley Cyrus' video and Britney Spears latest video should be banned from French television until after 10:00 p.m. in the evening. So that's a thumbs up for the French.

GIGOT: The discerning taste of the French comes through again.



KAMINSKI: Paul, there were raised eyebrows and some snickers this week when Jay Carney came back with a beard. Right? Three cheers for President Obama's spokesman. What man likes to shave? Second, --


GIGOT: Matt Lauer, too?

KAMINSKI: Matt Lauer as well. It's just part of a larger trend. Beards started out in Brooklyn with the hipsters, but it shows that any kind of counterculture movement eventually goes mainstream. And lastly, it proves the age-old rule that if you wait long enough, fashions will come back. Somewhere, Rutherford B. Hayes is smiling.

GIGOT: Next week, Kaminski grows his.


He'll look a lot like Rutherford B. Hayes --


-- I think.

Remember, if you have your own hit or miss, please send it to us at jer@foxews.com. And follow us on Twitter at JERonFNC.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel, especially to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.

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