'Special Report' Panel on How Well President Obama Is Handling the Economy

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Bret Baier" from April 14, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: 2009 will contin ue to be a difficult year for America's economy, and, obviously, most difficult for those who have lost their jobs.

The severity of this recession will cause more job loss, more foreclosures, and more pain before it ends. By no means are we out of the woods just yet.

But from where we stand, for the very first time we're beginning to see glimmers of hope.


BAIER: It was a lengthy speech at Georgetown University here in Washington, about 45 minutes for President Obama laying out his economic agenda and where we are now with the economy.

Let's bring in our panel about this — Fred Barnes, Executive Editor of "The Weekly Standard," Juan Williams, Senior Correspondent of National Public Radio, and Byron York, chief political correspondent of "The Washington Examiner."

Byron, let's start with you.Your thoughts on the speech and the message?

BYRON YORK, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER": I think the important thing that the president wanted to convey was that he has a plan. I mean, the polls show that people who are worried, they're scared about the economy, they're scared about their own future. They want to think that the president has a plan to fix the problem.

And it almost doesn't matter as much what is actually in the plan, because, actually, when you look at it, he talked about these five pillars of recovery. Well, when you looked at the five pillars of the recovery — investments in healthcare, investments in renewable energy, investments in education — they look kind of like the Obama campaign platform from a long time before the economic collapse. But I think the idea was to show "I'm on it. I have a plan. This is where we're going."

BAIER: So you didn't see much new in this?


BAIER: Juan?

JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: No, I think the key point is "I'm paying attention. My attention has not been off anywhere else. I understand job one, and job one for the American president here in April of 2009 is the economy." And he is saying he is back on it, and he understands it.

And he also then has to what I think of as a balancing act. He's up on a high-wire. The whole thing is he has to be optimistic, but not too optimistic.

Today we saw some numbers that indicated that retail sales, for example, are down from the first two months. So he has to be able to say "I understand this. I anticipated this. This is a little bump in the road, but it's not anything to get frantic about."

If we anticipate there will be more job losses, more foreclosures down the road, but we think we understand the dynamic here.

And Ben Bernanke today speaking at Morehouse College in Atlanta said much the same thing. Look at what the Fed is doing. We're getting into commercial piper to make available more money for specific areas of consumer loans and to small business and to people who want to buy things.

What you see in combination here is, just as Byron suggested, an administration saying, "We are paying attention, and we have a plan."

BAIER: Fred?

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": The problem is, it's not a very good plan. And you saw in the speech the basic contradiction in his plan. You read back about the New Deal, and there were two things Roosevelt had to deal with — economic recovery and his agenda, his basically liberal agenda. He chose the agenda over recovery.

I think Barack Obama is doing exactly the same thing, because he has built in here, if he wants economic recovery, then anybody can look and see all the things in his plan that work against economic recovery — cap and trade, which will shrink the economy, for one thing. They see tax hikes in the future.

He talked at some length about the new regulatory regime, which sounded pretty draconian to me.

And so that contradiction that is built in there. He didn't shy away from it, he just didn't call it a contradiction.

And there is one other thing, and that's the banks. It is something like — I may have this figure a little bit off — but about 75 percent of all the bank holdings in the company, all the deposits, are in the top ten banks, the big banks.

And he continues to criticize these banks, and he's telling them how we're going to put curbs on the pay for your executives, and so on. And what we're seeing of course is executives fleeing from these banks and going to other places, hedge funds or other places, where they can work and not be in these banks.

These banks — if he keeps that up, if he keeps thrashing these banks, they're not going to lend. They aren't now lending, and they're not going to lend. They're scared to death.

WILLIAMS: You describe talk of regulation as draconian.


WILLIAMS: To my ears, it strikes me as responsible given the behavior of the banks was a major contributing factor to get us into this economic crisis.

BARNES: Maybe so, but it's not going to spur —

WILLIAMS: Wait a second, Fred. The banks are right now on an offensive against the Obama administration and against any regulations, some of them talking about wanting to give the money back.

But you look at Goldman. Goldman is reporting profits. Wells Fargo reporting profits. So why do they need all of our money, and why did they refuse to account for the money, and why is it that the credit markets were remaining frozen until people started to put pressure on them?

BAIER: Juan, you can't characterize the banks as being against the Obama administration. They want to give back the money because they don't want the strings attached.

WILLIAMS: Correct. They don't want the regulation that Fred called draconian a moment ago because the administration says as we are trying to manage this recovery, we may have to make some demands on these banks.

BAIER: Byron, let me ask you this. There were a couple of lines in this speech that clearly were aimed towards, perhaps, the anger that you are seeing around the country and these 750-plus tea parties that we will see tomorrow. The president seemed to be trying to get a message out to them — calm down.

What was the message? What was the tone?

YORK: Well, the tone is we've got this under control, and, you know, we're going to make things better.

He sent a message, I thought, about banks when he put in some text that wasn't in the text that had been released by the White House. It was about we want to encourage people to make things, people who are productive, as opposed to those guys who just push money around.

It was a very anti-bank message, subtly done, and probably connected with people.

BAIER: It appears that poor children in Washington may soon lose the opportunity to go to some of the district's best schools. We will talk about the impending demise of the D.C. voucher program after the break.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It didn't make sense to me to put more students in the program with, right now, getting — the way the law is written is that all students will be out in a year. So to put them in for a year and then pull them back out didn't make sense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It hits me in the hardest year. As a senior it's going to hit me. Then I'll have to go to public school.

And, to me, it's like all that I worked for throughout my high school years I will lose.


BAIER: Right now 1,700 families in Washington D.C. received a voucher of about $7,500 of federal taxpayer dollars each year to pay for private or parochial schools. It was part of a five-year pilot program. It was extended for a year, but now the Education Secretary Arne Duncan has decided not to extend vouchers to new students in this program.

So what about the D.C. voucher program? We're back with the panel, Juan?

WILLIAMS: This is an outrage to me. This is, you know, the Obama administration trying to, in my mind, split the baby and killing everything. This is not a workable solution.

This is the key issue. And if you think about our generation, Bret, this is so important that you children, young people a chance to have an education in America, and especially in a failing public school system like the District of Columbia.

This voucher system is a direct threat to the unions. And so I think everybody up on Capitol Hill who's getting money for NEA or AFT, they should be called on the table. And they should ask them, where do you send your kids to school?

And are you willing to say that these kids who are getting the vouchers in D.C. and doing better than the rest of the kids, that these kids aren't deserving of an opportunity to succeed in America?

To me, you just want to scream. And why Duncan and Obama aren't in the forefront of education reform is an outrage. It's an insult to the very base that voted for them.

BAIER: Byron?

YORK: This is the president and Democrats in Congress. It's not so much Arne Duncan. In July, 2007, Barack Obama, candidate, gives a speech to National Education Association in Philadelphia — "We are committed to fixing an improving our schools instead of abandoning them and passing out vouchers."

This is something they have wanted to kill for quite a long time.

And, by the way, I think Arne Duncan is the first Education Secretary who ran a school system that the president who elected him chose specifically chose not to send his children to. And he's running the system now.

BAIER: Fred?

BARNES: Look, Arne Duncan, after sending out 200 letters to parents saying your kids would get scholarships, rather than now withdrawing those, let them choose, let the parents choose. If they want to send their kids with these scholarships to private schools, even though the program may end in a year, well, let them. Let them choose.

And, look, this program has two problems for Obama and Democrats in Congress. One, it was passed by Republicans, mainly. They're the ones who pushed this. And, secondly, obviously, the teachers' unions oppose it.

But look who is for it. The District of Columbia is fortunate to have one of the great school reformers now running the school system there and trying to improve it, Michelle Rhee. She is terrific. She is backed by Mayor Fenty, as well. That is the only reason she keeps her job.

And this program has showed promise. These are the people who we should be listening to, and Juan did pretty well, too.

BAIER: President Obama's children, Sasha and Malia, attend Sidwell Friends School, a private school in D.C. There are some families at Sidwell Friends who receive these vouchers.

BARNES: It should be embarrassing. It should be personally embarrassing to the president. But, obviously, the teachers' unions don't care about that.

BAIER: So what happens from now on? I mean, going forward, does it end? This is the end of it.

YORK: It ends. They have been told there will be no more scholarships.

We should point out, the Education Department commissioned a study of these students for the last three years. It didn't show much difference in math between these voucher students and public school students. It showed that the voucher students were three months ahead, on the average, in reading. But in the first group of voucher students, probably the most motivated group, a year and a half to two years ahead of their cohort in public school in that voucher program.

BAIER: So, Juan, the prospect of vouchers in this environment, in Washington, going nowhere?

WILLIAMS: This was an experiment. This was a much larger amount of money for the voucher than anywhere else in the country, and this was an attempt to see if it was going to take a hold.

And so what we see here is President Obama and Arne Duncan saying, you know what, it is not worth the fight if it is going away in the year. And I think that is an absolute cop out.

As Fred said, let the parents decide. Let people have opportunity. If you believe your child deserves such an opportunity, why wouldn't you give it to someone else's child, especially people who are poor?

BAIER: Quickly.

BARNES: I'd like to see one Democrat in Congress, a senator, say, step up and defend this program. Have not seen it. Only Republicans.

BAIER: Please go online with "Special Report" after tomorrow night's Wednesday night's broadcast. As you know from previous weeks, it's a live, interactive show. We will have more from the panel and others on some of the hottest political stories of the day.

Most importantly, we have the reaction to your questions and comments. Link up to us at foxnews.com/sronline. That's tomorrow night.

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