'Special Report' Panel on Obama's Economic Optimism; Steele's RNC Troubles

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Bret Baier" from March 13, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We're keeping focused on all the fundamentally sound aspects of our economy, all the outstanding companies, workers, all the innovation and dynamism in this economy.

Then we're going to get through this, and I'm very confident about that.

LARRY SUMMERS, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: Our problems were not made in a day or a month or a year, and they will not be solved quickly. But there is one ineluctable lesson of the history of financial crises: they all end.


BRET BAIER, HOST: A lot of optimism out of the White House today about the economy, a different tone, perhaps, from recent weeks.

Let's bring in our panel: Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard; Nina Easton, Washington bureau chief of Fortune Magazine, and Juan Williams, senior correspondent of National Public Radio.

Nina, different tone?

NINA EASTON, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, FORTUNE MAGAZINE: Let me set one thing straight. Larry Summers has this clip that keeps playing where he says we do get out of it. He said that me four weeks ago. This is not a new line that Larry Summers has suddenly pulled out.

Yes, there is a slight shift in the tone. I wouldn't say it is hugely upbeat, but it's a little more confident.

And, look, they were able to take credit or enjoy a reprieve in the stock market this week. But did it have to do with Obama policies, or have to do with the fact that B of A actually became the third bank to say, "Look, we actually made some profits this year."

There was this little noticed pummeling of bank executives a couple of weeks ago, but they also said lending is up as well. Their retail sales numbers weren't as bad. There is this consumer credit program the Fed has started that is just now getting online. So there are some signs in the market that it's responding to. And I'm more than happy to hear Barack Obama talk in more confident terms, but let's not forget he has a self-interest in doing this. He passed the stimulus bill. He has got to show that that's working.

And for this huge amounted of spending that he has onboard, he needs a revenue stream coming out of a robust economy, and a lot of people don't think he is going to come up with that or the economy is going to hit the 3.2 percent that he's counting on next year.

BAIER: Fred?

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: It's going to be hard. I'm one who doesn't think that.

But look, I agree with Nina, it is a lot better what the president is saying now. And I think he's closer to the truth about the economy than he was when he was saying we were on the abyss, you know, to fall in, there was going to be a catastrophe, we could face an economy that was so bad it would never recover. Remember all that stuff? It wasn't that long ago.

But then he was trying to sell a stimulus. And he sold it, actually.

So now I think he is closer to the truth. He is a cheerleader. As Nina says, he has a vested interest in this.

But Larry Summers, his speech was very interesting and actually a very good speech. He is a very smart guy. Not the second half where he was saying how the Obama program was going to restore everything that's wonderful in the America, but the first part when he talked about where the economy is, how it got there.

And he doesn't really know, and nobody can know exactly when the recovery will come. He was a little more cold-blooded, and not quite as optimistic as the president. And then you have — and here is the thing that got me — then you have Robert Gibbs at the White House saying that the stock market is not a leading indicator. Well, nobody said it is a leading indicator. What people have said, especially me, have said it is a bet on the future. It is what investors think is in the future.

And they've been very pessimistic about the Obama program. They haven't liked it. But they saw a little good news that Nina mentioned, and the market went up. If we get more good news, the market will go up more.

BAIER: Juan?

JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I think that, at the moment, the Obama team is having to react to things like Warren Buffett saying the economy is in tough shape and he doesn't know when it will get out of it or economists who have said that because the global recession is having such impact, that they don't know when the recovery would start, and in fact delaying when they think that's going to kick in.

But so what you have seen this week from the Obama team is they are really getting their guns out there, getting everybody from Christina Romer to, we just heard about Summer to Volcker to Peter Orszag.

And, of occurs, the biggest cheerleader of them all, Barack Obama, the president, out there to make positive statements about the economy and to demonstrate that they have some control and a belief in the plans they have put in place.

And if you look at what the Fed did this week, as Nina just pointed out, it seems to have generated some positive response from Wall Street, which is a good thing.

So, to my mind, I don't think that he is overstating the case. President Obama, it seems to me, is saying "You know what, we are in control, and we have a belief in the future."

BAIER: Is there also, still, though, a concern about Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary and the confidence in him? There are even rumors that he would step down at some point because there is such a lack of confidence in him.

The fact that the president is rolling out all of these folks to talk instead of the treasury secretary, is that something?

WILLIAMS: It is. It is an indication, and I think that we have seen it all week — they had Timothy Geithner over to the White House to be with the president, to talk to the president, to be photographed with the president. But you know what? Clearly, what the markets need, what the American people need is a sense of somebody being in charge here, that's come down to people like Paul Volcker today making his statements, like Larry Summers making their statements.

I don't think that's Timothy Geithner's role right now.

EASTON: Geithner testified twice this week, and it was carried in news accounts. I don't think it's like they are hiding the guy.

But I think what the market is waiting on is the next piece to this bank rescue plan, which is really key, this public/private partnership that no one can figure out how it's going to work.

And if he can pull a rabbit out of the hat and somehow get private investors to take a fly on those incredibly distressed assets, then the view of him is going to turn around.

BARNES: Good luck.

They have to do that. I think the market has rejected the budget and stimulus, saying we don't have any confidence in those. But a good banking plan would help a lot.

BAIER: We'll see.

The head of the Republican Party hits another stumbling block, and some are questioning whether he is going to last.


TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: Mr. Steele's ability is certainly in question to lead the Republican Party back on to solid footing toward a majority party.


BAIER: Our Friday lightning round is next. Stick around.



TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: I wouldn't say anybody is attacking Mr. Steele. I would say Mr. Steele has been stepping in traps set by himself.

BOB TIERNEN, OREGON GOP CHAIRMAN: He is exactly the right person at the right time for are Republicans. I think he is doing a fabulous job. He is perhaps creating some waves, but those are the waves we need. We need to shake up this party.


BAIER: Michael Steele, Republican National Committee chairman, taking some fire, getting supporters out in Oregon. What about him? He is the first topic in the lightning round-Fred?

BARNES: Look, that guy doesn't believe that. Michael Steele has not been doing a fabulous job. He is off to a very stumbling start. My prediction is he will recover before the economy does.

But what he needs to do is he needs to do the job of a national chairman, and that's not to be the chief ideologist, to be talking about abortion and chastising senators who he thinks vote the wrong way.

It is to build up the organization at both the national and state level, raise money, support candidates and win elections. That is his job. It's not to speak out on social issues.

BAIER: Nina?

EASTON: I think all of this is a sign of crankiness, all the criticism is the sign of the crankiness about a party that is at 26 percent approval rating right now.

And I have two words for Michael Steele critics: Howard Dean — who was pummeled mercilessly by his party in the wake of the John Kerry defeat, and pounded mercilessly for this 50-state strategy. Everybody laughed at him. He had to go up against the big money guys in the Democratic Party. It turned out he was right.

WILLIAMS: I remember people like Lee Atwater and Haley Barber, and they certainly made waves.

And I think he clearly has not coordinated the kind of statements he is making with the repercussions it is going to have with the base of the party. That just hasn't worked.

But now we see he is going to put in place somebody who is going to be an executive director over there at the RNC. He has a communications.

So the is starting to fill in. And I think he will pick up the pace and do very well, because his message is exactly right. The party has got to grow.

BAIER: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Mexico next week, and obviously a lot of concern about what's going on in the border there with the drug cartels — Juan?

WILLIAMS: You know what? The U.S. has little choice here but to support Calderon, the president of Mexico, and to try to encourage him to even take it further against the drug cartels, because you don't want that violence spilling over into the U.S.

EASTON: So this could be the first big policy move for Secretary of State Clinton. It seems like the president is punting this to her, one of the questions being do we send in the National Guard?

BARNES: I feel certain that the whole problem is solved now that Hillary Clinton is going there. What more do we need?

Juan is exactly right. President Calderon has taken on the drug cartel much more strongly than any of the recent presidents in Mexico and she needs to support him.

BAIER: The president has had some tough times filling seats for various positions in his administration. How big of a problem is this, Nina?

EASTON: I think it's a big problem, because it's not just this avoidance of lobbyists. There is a very strict rule about not hiring lobbyists.

There also seems to be this disdain toward anybody who has business experience. So what do they do? They take CEOs and businesspeople and they stuff them into these advisory boards, like the Volcker Economic Recovery Board, which, allegedly, they're not listening to.

So I think it's a way for them to just kind of pretend like they're looking to businesspeople and not really include them in policy making.

BAIER: Juan?

WILLIAMS: I think it is a big problem. And if you look at what has been going on in treasury and the failure to fill so many positions, it is evidence that a lot of people once they get involved in the process don't want everybody going through their laundry and their friends. They just get tired of it. So a big problem.

BAIER: Fred?

BARNES: A big problem particularly at treasury. There was a story from London this week saying that one of the top officials there wanted to get a hold of someone in treasury, and there are 17 vacancies at the top. He couldn't get a hold of anybody.

And then there is the problem with the people who actually are given jobs. A lot of them are under investigation.

BAIER: Last topic, NCAA. Very quickly, who is team? You start out the week, who do you like, Fred?

BARNES: The University of North Carolina is by far the best team in talent. But they have been way underperforming. Today they barely won over Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament. I think they're the favorite.

EASTON: I punt to Juan.

WILLIAMS: Kansas. I like those teams. And I also like Oklahoma. I like that kid —

BAIER: I'm saying UNC. I don't know.

BARNES: I'm with you.

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