Video: October 30: Plouffe, roundtable

updated 11/13/2011 2:37:33 PM ET 2011-11-13T19:37:33

MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, the Republican race for the nomination, must-see TV. Herman Cain's campaign ad is blowing smoke while he's breathing fire.

(Videotape)

MR. HERMAN CAIN: I didn't realize that that bull's-eye on my back was that big. They came after me like I had talked about their mama.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Is he for real or a warm up for the Perry-Romney showdown?

President Obama claims he isn't paying attention, yet.

(Videotape)

MR. JAY LENO: Have you been watching the GOP debates?

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I'm going to wait until everybody's voted off the island.

MR. LENO: Really.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: But the man who is paying attention will run the president's re-election campaign from the White House, and he joins me one-on-one this morning, White House senior adviser David Plouffe.

Then our political roundtable on the leadership letdown in Washington. It fuels the Occupy Wall Street protests and is a backdrop for Decision 2012. Why can't we find leaders like Steve Jobs here in Washington? With us, author of the new highly anticipated Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson; NBC News special correspondent and author of the new book "The Time of Our Lives," Tom Brokaw; former Democratic governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm; and Republican strategist, as well as columnist for Time magazine, Mike Murphy.

Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.

MR. GREGORY: Good morning. The first snowstorm of the winter makes an early fall landing, blanketing the East Coast from Maryland to New England, leaving more than two million homes without power. This is how it's going to look a couple of months from now in Iowa when the caucuses are under way. And this morning we have a clear snapshot of how the Republican field now stands. In the new Des Moines Register poll, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney are on top.

Back in Washington, the president, focused on his own re-election and the need to jump-start the economy, has a new strategy.

(Videotape, Wednesday)

PRES. OBAMA: We can't wait for Congress to do its job, so where they won't act, I will.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: And he did, issuing four executive actions to make some economic fixes in housing, student loans, job training, and business. Here with us to go inside the president's re-election playbook, his 2008 campaign manager and now senior White House adviser, David Plouffe.

Good to have you back.

MR. DAVID PLOUFFE: Thanks for having me, David.

MR. GREGORY: So is this the new strategy? In Washington we can't get along, the president's going to essentially govern via fiat and do things on his own?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, as you know, David, the president's put forward the American Jobs Act, which is something that would create up to two million jobs in the short-term, really give a jump-start to our economy. And right now we haven't been able to get largely Republicans in Congress to cooperate. So we're going to continue to push for things like cutting taxes for the middle class, putting construction workers back to work. But in the meantime, the president's going to do everything he can, whether it's on housing, student loans, we're going to keep this up. So, at the same time we're going to try to get Congress to act on behalf of the middle class and help the American economy, we're going to do everything we can. As the president said, the American people can't afford to wait, and he's not going to wait.

MR. GREGORY: Is the jobs bill dead, effectively?

MR. PLOUFFE: Absolutely not. We're going to have a vote this weekend in the Senate on putting construction workers back to work rebuilding America. I find it impossible to believe, by the end of the year, that Republicans in Congress aren't going to report back to their constituents that they did something to help the economy, cut taxes for the middle class for small businesses, help rebuild America. So we're going to keep the pressure on because, you know, it's not like we're in normal times here. The economy is still, for many people, still in crisis.

MR. GREGORY: But you talk about Republicans. In fact, the president's effectively campaigning against a do-nothing Congress of Republicans, but are Democrats a problem, too? Bill Daley, the chief of staff, told Politico this in a column with Roger Simon on Friday. "On the domestic side," Daley said, "both Democrats and Republicans have really made it very difficult for the president to be anything like a chief executive. ... This has led to a kind of frustration.

"Let's figure out what we can do [without Congress] and push the envelope on some of these things." Do-nothing Democrats?

MR. PLOUFFE: No. If you look at where we are right now--trying to pass the American Jobs Act, cutting taxes for the middle class, putting construction workers and teachers back to work--pretty much everybody in the Democratic Party in Washington, governors out there, are standing with the president. So there's only one reason, one reason we won't make a huge impact on the economy, and it's because the Republican Party--and I make this point...

MR. GREGORY: But he singles out the Democrats.

MR. PLOUFFE: Yeah. Well, listen...

MR. GREGORY: Who and why are they doing it?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, listen, right now, the situation we're in right now, the Republican Party almost in unison here in Washington, let me make a point, the Republicans out in the country, mainstream, commonsense Republicans, whether it's having the wealthy pay a little bit more to help balance our budget and create jobs, doing things on jobs, the Republican Party out in America supports the things the president's trying to do. So you see this distance between the sort of tea party Republicans here in Washington and the presidential candidates and what Americans want.

MR. GREGORY: But I'm asking about Democrats.

MR. PLOUFFE: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: Bill Daley said Democrats are creating frustration. They've made it impossible, nearly impossible for him to act like a chief executive.

MR. PLOUFFE: No. In this moment we're trying to pass the American Jobs Act. Sure, there's been times, obviously, when not everybody in the Democratic Party here in Washington has agreed with everything the president's done. But right now, you've got Democrats in the Senate, in the House, Democratic governors and mayors who are standing in unison, not just for the president, but with the American people to do something on the economy.

MR. GREGORY: But you're not responding to this. I mean, here's the chief of staff saying Democrats have been part of the problem.

MR. PLOUFFE: Right.

MR. GREGORY: Are you--want to create some distance from that?

MR. PLOUFFE: No. What, what I think Bill will tell you is, is in the moment we're in right now, trying to pass the American Jobs Act, trying to reduce the deficit in the right way, trying to do everything we can to help the middle class, it's the Republican Party here in Washington that's the problem.

MR. GREGORY: You talk about not having a partner in Republicans. The leader of the Republicans in the Senate recently, took the president on on that very issue. Watch.

(Videotape, October 18, 2011)

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL (R-KY): I know he's desperately interested in trying to blame anybody else, but he's the president of the United States, he set the agenda, he got everything he wanted, and it didn't work.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Stimulus, financial reform, healthcare reform, all big measures. They didn't work out in terms of economic impact the way the administration expected they would. Here are the Republicans saying, "We don't want to go along with anymore." You call that obstruction. They call it principled opposition.

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, it's ironic. Let's remember what Senator McConnell said, which he said his number one goal was not to put people back to work, help the middle class grow the economy; it was to defeat President Obama. So that's where they started this president's term. So...

MR. GREGORY: The president got the big things he wanted, did he not?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, we've got a lot more work to do.

MR. GREGORY: No, no.

MR. PLOUFFE: He did.

MR. GREGORY: But he got the biggest things he wanted in his first term.

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, we--this economy is going to take a long time to recover. So we've got to keep making progress. And right now you've got a Republican Party in Washington that almost seems to think the economy isn't in urgent shape, that doesn't need a jump-start. Let--don't take my word for it. Every independent economist who's looked at the Republican jobs plan in Washington says it wouldn't do anything to create jobs in the short-term. One macro-economic adviser's actually said their agenda could lead to the destruction of millions of jobs and economic and political upheaval.

MR. GREGORY: Well, let...

MR. PLOUFFE: So, so the only plan right now in front of the American people, in front of Congress that would create jobs in the short-term is the president's. Now, we've done some work with the Republicans, obviously. We've passed some trade deals that's going to help us sell Fords and Chevys in South Korea, passed patent reform. So we have been able to work together. And hopefully, in the next 60 days, we'll come together to cut taxes for the middle class and do everything we can to help on the economy. We still have confidence in that.

MR. GREGORY: All right. On the economy, look what the stock market did this week. Friday's close was over 12,000, on track for the largest monthly percentage gain, 2.5 percent economic growth in the last quarter. Does the president see any green shoots here on the economy?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, listen, for--there's far too many people still out of work, the middle class still feels a lack of security, and that's been going on even predating the recession. So, for a lot of people out in America, this is an urgent situation. There's no doubt that we've had, you know, many, many months of private sector job growth, market's obviously come back a little bit. But the question is, are you satisfied with that? The president surely is not. So we have to throw everything we can at the economy. And not just a--jobs is number one, but there's a bigger picture here, which is we have to reclaim some of the middle class security by restoring basic American values. That's what the president's trying to do, where hard work and responsibility is rewarded and where everyone's playing by the same set of rules, both Wall Street and Main Street.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about a few issues here. The super committee on the debt, there's been more discussion of them, they're trying to reduce at least $1.2 trillion worth of debt or else there's going to be some forced spending cuts. You were on the program back in July, and this is what you said about the super committee.

(Videotape, July 31, 2011)

MR. PLOUFFE: So you want to have something that compels both parties to act. Because I do think there's going to be a lot of pressure, rightly, on this committee to produce something that Congress can vote on.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: A lot of pressure. Does the president have a bottom line on what he wants to see the super committee produce?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, it's a little bit different situation than we faced during the debt ceiling because we had the default of the American and maybe global economy at stake. We do have additional deficit reduction as a result of the sequester in place. So the, the--what hopefully the super committee will do is act responsibly, so we can get--both get a large-scale deficit reduction, but do it in a smart way, and obviously the clock's ticking. Now, the president laid out his plan, which is we've already signed into law over $2 trillion of spending cuts. We need to go a little bit more there. And obviously the big challenge, if we don't get this done, if the American people look to Washington and say, "You didn't reduce the deficit," there's only one reason. It's because the Republican Party here in Washington refuses, through closing tax loopholes, to ask anything more of millionaires and billionaires. That's really the stumbling block. It was back in the summer, and it is now. So we need to zero in on the question here. And if the Republican Party here will say, "You know what, we are willing"--because the Democratic Party's willing to do a lot more spending cuts--"We are willing to ask the wealthiest to do a little bit more, through tax reform," then we could go a long way to solving this problem.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about this Solyndra issue, this was the, the high-tech environmental company that went bust after getting Energy Department-sponsored loans from the government to help develop them. Congress has said they want documents, perhaps they'll subpoena documents. The administration is now investigating. Did taxpayers get ripped off here?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, let's step back for a minute. We have to win this race, you know, we--if we don't win the clean energy race in terms of technology, innovation, and jobs, and cede it to other countries, we're not going to have the century--we need this. It'd be like us ceding the automotive industry race or the Internet and computer race. So...

MR. GREGORY: But, but, but--in, in dire economic straits...

MR. PLOUFFE: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: ...governments should be playing venture capitalist?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, these are going to be, you know, in terms of solar, alternative batteries. Now, we take very seriously the fact that one of these loans did not work. That's why we've appointed Herb Allison, who, who did a bunch of the investigative work on TARP, to look at this. There'll be a public report in 60 days because, no, protecting taxpayers is critically important. But we also have to keep our eye on the ball, which is if we're going to have the kind of jobs where people can make 20, 22, 25 dollars an hour in high-tech manufacturing around this country, which we have to have, we've got to make progress in the clean energy sector.

MR. GREGORY: Were campaign contributors involved here in terms of these--their projects that ultimately forced the government's hand?

MR. PLOUFFE: Absolutely not. These decisions about the loan program were made by career officials at the Department of Energy on the merits.

MR. GREGORY: Should government be playing venture capitalist to try to prop these interest--industries up?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, we believe this loan program's very important. By the way, it was a program that was supported by President Bush, so there's been support in both parties. Many of the members of Congress who--who've offered criticism themselves were lobbying for funds for, for companies like this. So I think in order--listen, you see what's happening in other countries, you know, huge investments in this clean energy sector. We have to do everything we can. And by the way, it's not just through this loan program. One thing I don't think's gotten enough attention, humbly, is the president has doubled fuel efficiency standards. So, by the middle of the next decade, the average fleet in this country's going to get 56 miles a gallon. That means a couple of things. Over two million barrels of oil less used a day. That could end up being almost half the oil we import from OPEC now we no longer use. And it's going to make sure that our automotive industry, which the president saved at a tough political time, is going to continue to innovate and lead the world. And that couldn't be more important in terms of our economy and our manufacturing sector.

MR. GREGORY: Final point on this. Will the White House cooperate with a congressional subpoena on documents?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, I'm not going to comment on a subpoena that's not been issued. We've already produced 70,000 pages of documents. We are cooperating with congressional committees. By the way, this is important to look into, we'd like to see as much passion in Congress for creating jobs as we do to some of these issues.

MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about politics. The president on the campaign trail at a fundraiser out West this week sounded pretty downcast. And this is what he said. "This election will not be as sexy as the first one. Back then ..." I was--"it was still fresh and new, I didn't have any gray hair, and everybody loved the hope posters and all that. But this time ..." it's "we've got to grind it out a little bit, we've got to grind it out. But the cause is the same, my passion is the same, and my commitment is the same." Bill Daly, chief of staff, talking about a brutal past three years. Is the president in a funk or is this meant to send a message to the base?

MR. PLOUFFE: He's not in a funk at all. I was on that trip with him, David, out West, and he was highly energized, as you--spent a lot of time talking about the executive actions we're going to take on the economy, "We can't wait for Congress to act, so we're going to act now." No. Listen, the point is the president is saying the country's been through a tough time, obviously, and we're going to have to go out there, and we're going to have a tough election. But I think for our supporters--one of the other things he said at these events he did, on the political side, was he promised change, and that's exactly what he's delivered. Change is ending the Iraq war. Change is making sure you can serve this country no matter who you love by ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Change is passing, after 100 years of failure, healthcare reform. Change is having economic and tax policies focused on the middle class. Change is restoring our place in the world, taking the fight to al-Qaeda, you know, eliminating Osama bin Laden, and so many of the terrorists. So we've got a heck of a record to point to here, not just a string of accomplishments, but the change, taking on tough issues, being willing to do tough things. And the election's going to be about the future, too. So we have, I think, a great case to make to our supporters about what we've done, why they need to get energized, and then we're going to have a great debate about the kind of country we're going to have in the next, next decade.

MR. GREGORY: Steve Jobs, who a lot of people are talking about this week with the new biography by Walter Isaacson, in that biography talks about a meeting with the president in which he warned him, "You're going to be a one-term president because you're too anti-business." Does the president feel at some point that he could live with being a one-term president if he said, "Look, I made some tough decisions during tough times, but there were costs to doing that"?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, I, I think Mr. Jobs' observation may have been more about the polls at the moment, and, and so I think that--because the--Mr. Jobs supported the president's re-election, and, and offered to help us. No, the president...

MR. GREGORY: You didn't take that help up, by the way, did you?

MR. PLOUFFE: Sure, the president's continued to have conversations with him.

MR. GREGORY: But he wanted to make ads back in 2008. He had a pretty good record of doing that, but you guys thought he didn't--he...

MR. PLOUFFE: He had some conversations with us, and I think it informed some of our thinking. And we certainly would have benefited from it this time again. But, no, the president's focused on--listen, one of the things I'm proudest about, this is something every speech he gave in '08, you covered it, he said, "You know, I'm not going to be a perfect man, and I won't be a perfect president, but I'm always going to tell you where I stand, and I'll be willing to do tough things." And that's what he's done. So in the middle of this, we were teetering on a great depression, he made some tough calls to make sure that we didn't go in that direction and began to climb. But he's tackled tough things here.

MR. GREGORY: He's not...

MR. PLOUFFE: But no, this country cannot afford to go back to the same policies that Mitt Romney and Rick Perry and all of these presidential candidates are offering. Let Wall Street write its own rules, make it easier for polluters to foul our air and water, and give millionaires and billionaires more tax cuts paid for by asking the middle class and seniors to do more. We cannot afford that in this country.

MR. GREGORY: He--he's not a one-term president?

MR. PLOUFFE: Absolutely not. We're going to win this election.

MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about what's happening on the Republican side. Look at the Iowa polling, it gives you a snapshot of where this race is right now. And it is Herman Cain who's on top at 23 percent, Mitt Romney at 22 percent. Who is the Republican most likely to challenge President Obama?

MR. PLOUFFE: I don't think we have any idea. Now, the World Series just ended Friday night, but to use a baseball term, I mean, we, we maybe are in the first inning of this. So this is going to have a lot of twists and turns. And in Iowa, which, you know, we know a little something about, you know, what matters is, can you identify your supporters, can you get them to the caucus? And so there's--the next 60 days is obviously going to be a fascinating period in politics. But the key thing is, David, no matter who we run against, they're offering the same economic policies that led to the great recession, that led to destruction of middle-class security in incomes. And that's going to be the fundamental question in front of us.

MR. GREGORY: Is Herman Cain for real as a candidate?

MR. PLOUFFE: You know, I really am not an expert in Republican primary politics. He, he seems to have tapped into something. What I find interesting is that Mitt Romney continues to have 75, 80 percent of his party looking somewhere else. And so it'll be interesting to see if he can turn that around.

MR. GREGORY: Will he be a diminished candidate if he's the nominee?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, here's--we'll see what happens in the primary. I'd make, I'd make two points about him. One is he has no core. And, you know, every day almost it seems to be we find another issue. You know, he was supportive of doing things like a cap and trade agreement, now he doesn't think that, you know, climate change is real. He was to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights issues, now he wants to amend the Constitution to prevent gay marriage. He was an extremely pro-choice governor, now he believes that life begins at conception and would ban Roe v. Wade. So you, you look at--issue after issue after issue, he's moved all over the place. And I can tell you one thing, working a few steps down from the president, what you need in that office is conviction, you need to have a true compass, and you've got to be willing to make tough calls. And you get the sense with Mitt Romney that, you know, if he thought he--it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue to win an election, he'd say it.

MR. GREGORY: Before you go, I want to ask you about this Occupy Wall Street movement. Violent clashes out in Oakland this week as that movement has spread West. Atlanta, too, had some clashes there as well. The president's talked about this. He's empathized with these protesters. Does he, in effect, stand in solidarity with the protesters?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, I, I think the point the president made is an important point, that obviously you've got people protesting in, in New York, in cities and communities all across the country. But our sense is that in living rooms and kitchens all across the country you have that same sense of an economy that's not working well enough for the middle class. And I think that's going to be a powerful current in our politics probably--certainly for the next year, but probably for a long time after that.

MR. GREGORY: So he stands in solidarity with this movement?

MR. PLOUFFE: Well, I think he--what he appreciates is the sense that we need an economy that's focused more on the middle class, people trying to get in the middle class. One simple issue that's going to be an important part of next year, by the way, the president passed Wall Street reform to protect taxpayers from ever having to bail out big banks again, to protect consumers. The Republican Party here in Washington, for the most part, and I believe all the Republican presidential candidates want to repeal Wall Street reform. What message does that send after the 2008 crash? That we want to go back to the same rules we had. Listen, the American free market system is the most powerful creator of jobs we've ever seen, but that doesn't mean it's a free license to make money however you want to make it. We need basic rules of the road. The president stands on behalf of, of consumers in that. And what you see is a party really in unanimity wanting to let Wall Street write its own rules.

MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to leave it there. David Plouffe, thank you, as always.

And coming up, Decision 2012, inside the race for the Republican nomination. Can Herman Cain capitalize on his current standing atop the field as Perry tries to rebound and Romney remains a steady second? Plus, what if we had a Steve Jobs in government? Does Washington need someone like the late visionary CEO to break through the partisan battles and solve the country's big problems? Joining us, author of the new biography, "Steve Jobs," Walter Isaacson; author of "The Time of Our Lives," NBC's Tom Brokaw; former Democratic governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm; and Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: Coming up, our political roundtable on the leadership letdown in Washington. Joining me, author of the new Steve Jobs biography Walter Isaacson, NBC's Tom Brokaw, former Governor Jennifer Granholm, and Mike Murphy. They're all here. Coming up next after this brief commercial break.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: We are back now with our roundtable discussion. Joining me, author of the new Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson; former Democratic governor of Michigan and the host of Current TV's "The War Room with Jennifer Granholm," Jennifer Granholm herself; NBC News special correspondent and author of the new book "The Time of Our Lives," Tom Brokaw; and Republican strategist and columnist for Time magazine, Mike Murphy.

Welcome to all of you. A lot to get to here.

Tom Brokaw, let's talk about President Obama. Here he stands, in the middle of all of this turmoil, and we look at his approval and his disapproval now, an even split, 46 percent both ways. You heard David Plouffe, really, I thought, in a more detailed way, lay out what the plan of attack is here.

MR. TOM BROKAW: I think he's beginning to find his voice. For the last nine months or so we have not known which President Obama would show up from week to week. Now they seem to be on track to what the campaign strategy is going to be. They think that they've found some soft spots. And I suspect that, in the White House, there was a great deal of relief when they had the economic numbers come out the other day and show an uptick in the economy. It's still a pretty anemic growth; but, at the same time, most of the people looking at it were saying this does not mean that we're going to go into a second dip. So that's encouraging for them at this point.

MR. GREGORY: Jennifer Granholm, this question of here's the president going from hope and change in 2008 to telling his supporters, "We're going to have to grind this one out," and Plouffe saying, as he did a few moments ago, "This is going to be a tough election for us." Do you sense that the president is in a funk? Do his supporters feel that way?

FMR. GOV. JENNIFER GRANHOLM (D-MI): Oh, I think, actually, he's--I mean, I think Tom's right, he's totally energized. He's coming out swinging. He had to go through a period of time of demonstrating that he was willing to compromise and demonstrating that the Republicans were not willing to compromise. And, you know, frankly, I think we'll see a bit of the undercurrent of that in the super committee. Are the Republicans going to be willing to compromise on revenues, because Democrats will offer to compromise on entitlements. But the president is coming out swinging, and I can tell you that a lot of Democrats fell relieved about that. And I think he is, there's an updraft from the Occupy Wall Street movement. A lot of people who are feeling that the Republican solutions are not the solutions that will bring back middle class jobs or address the middle class issues.

MR. GREGORY: Mike Murphy, we've talked about this over the last couple of weeks. Seventy-four percent of the country thinks it's off on the wrong track.

MR. MIKE MURPHY: Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY: Nine point one percent unemployment, $14.9 trillion of debt.

MR. MURPHY: Right.

MR. GREGORY: You heard David Plouffe, they don't necessarily want to run on that record, they want to deflect.

MR. MURPHY: No, they're, they're energized, all right. They're energized with terror. They've got terrible numbers on the economy, which is the leading issue in a presidential election. The country's ready to fire him. The question is, a year from now, who the Republican is and how the campaign's prosecuted. What surprised me, and not a lot surprises me in politics, was that Mr. Plouffe went for direct personal character assault on Mitt Romney a little while ago. This is a White House staffer saying that the opponent has no core? That, that's harsh character attack politics, and I think he owes Romney a bit of an apology on that. I thought that was a step too far. Fight it out on the issues; there's plenty to disagree about. But that's a lot for, I think, a presidential staffer to say is about somebody. It's not fair.

The problem with this flip-flop politics, everybody's vulnerable in politics of that, because when you get new information, you change. Barack Obama ran and beat Hillary Clinton by being left of the Iraq war, talking about shutting down Guantanamo Bay, promise to the country. Gets elected, doesn't shut it down. Now, I'm not going to attack him for that because the reason he didn't shut it down, he got new information. I think he did the right thing. So you have to be careful. Everybody in politics who's ever looked at new information or done anything is vulnerable to the flip-flop attack. Certainly Romney is. But it, it's unfair to make that into a character assault like I just heard...

MR. GREGORY: Let me introduce this, we talked about what, what's going on in Iowa right now. Walter Isaacson, you look at the new presidential field poll among Republicans, and it's still Herman Cain on top. He's--this is the, this is The New York Times. This is the national number that shows Cain at 25 and Romney at 21. And we referenced what's happening with Iowa, where it's still Cain on top, and it's Romney second, 23 to 22.

MR. WALTER ISAACSON: I once served on a corporate board with Herman Cain, the Reader's Digest Association, and he's actually a very sensible, fun, funny guy, very focused. It's odd what happens when you go on the campaign trail. You become sort of a character. You have to sort of play more theatrically.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. ISAACSON: But I do think what he's introduced is a--the idea, which is a core philosophical idea, simplify the tax rates, lower taxes, make things radically simpler. And you are beginning to see, you know, a serious debate on some of these issues.

MR. GREGORY: Tom.

MR. BROKAW: Well, I think he's indisputably charming. There's no question about that. And he's very articulate when he's on that stage. And it, it's one more manifestation of how the Republicans are crashing around. But before we get too far down the road with the Des Moines Register debate, I mean, poll, we have to remember that going into the final weekend in '04, Howard Dean was the leading candidate. Everybody thought that he was going to win. I was in a hotel coffee shop in 1980 when George Bush 41 looked at me and said, "I got the big mo." He had defeated Ronald Reagan. Pat Roberts won in Iowa. They haven't cast a vote there. They haven't organized a caucus yet. So this one is up for grabs. What I think this poll tells us most of all is that the Republicans are still trying to find a candidate.

MR. GREGORY: Right. And this is what Mr. David Plouffe said, which is it should be a real warning sign to Romney that Republicans are still looking around.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: For sure. I mean, Romney's the one who should apologize to his base because he's--he, I mean, he's flipped on core issues. I mean, this is not about more information on abortion or stem cell. I mean, this week I count, I was trying to count this week: the collective bargaining issues in Ohio, climate change, the flat tax, and ethanol. George Will said that he's like a pretzel. I think he's like a wet noodle. But it's not even so much about the flip-flop, it's about where he lands. And where he's landing is on positions that are adverse, in many ways, to the middle class.

MR. MURPHY: Well, there's a good chance he's going to land on the White House because he knows how to create jobs.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: It might hurt.

MR. MURPHY: I would say one thing about Herman Cain, which is interesting, I agree with Tom. These caucuses move very late. But what that poll tells me is two things: Romney's in striking distance to do well in Iowa, he's in good situation in New Hampshire, he wins 2-to-2, and he'll be a very strong front-runner; second, Rick Perry is going to go down in history for the all-time train wreck beginning, because private polling in Iowa 40 days ago had him leading. Now it's down I think, in that poll, around 8 percent, 7 percent or such. I think it's still very fluid. And the big question I think all the campaigns are asking on the Republican side is will the Cain vote stick in Iowa, or will it start to melt away? The forces behind Cain, less about him, more about the kind of what's real in the primary now is this huge anti-establishment feeling. The farther you are from Washington, the better. And Herman Cain has caught that. The question is, can he hold onto it? Undubious, but could be a very interesting time.

MR. GREGORY: Well, to that end, I'll put this out on the table, this was the October 31st issue of New York magazine and what's on the cover, not a new picture, but an older picture of Mitt Romney from his Bain Capital days--obviously a bit of an agenda with this picture--and there's dollar bills coming out of his pockets. This is not just the Obama White House theme, although it's clearly going to be that, that they talk about the Gordon Gekko economy, but even Herman Cain is talking about Main Street vs. Wall Street and trying to characterize Mitt Romney this way, Walter.

MR. ISAACSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I found the George Will column particularly troubling for Romney because, when you have tea party types, George Wills, and others all feeling there's some authenticity gap, that's a bit of a problem.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Yes.

MR. ISAACSON: On the other hand, you know, you--he is a very articulate, serious man. So to, to keep dismissing him, I think, you know, he's clearly the front-runner here.

MR. GREGORY: That raises the question, Tom, about that tea party influence. You've talked about it here before, which is they got angry, they got organized, but if Mitt...

MR. BROKAW: And they got here.

MR. GREGORY: And they got here. But if they're still--if Romney is the nominee, is that a triumph of the establishment over the, the tea party, win for the conservatives?

MR. BROKAW: Well, at the moment, the tea party is really dominating the dialogue in all of this out of proportion to their numbers, if you look at the polls, and it's in part because of their discipline and, and the marker that they have put down. But to, again, to go back to what I was saying earlier, more people will begin to come into the process once we get the primaries under way and get the Iowa caucuses under way. And you'll have a better sense of it once we begin to cast some votes.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. BROKAW: I must say, on the Cain thing, I was stunned by that ad that he did with his campaign manager, ending it smoking a cigarette, which in my judgment is one of the great health hazards in America in terms of lethal diseases and also the cost of it all. I think that maybe 9-9-9 stands for you got nine months to live with lung cancer, nine months to live with emphysema, nine months to live with coronary artery disease. I can't imagine why they thought that that was an effective image.

MR. GREGORY: Well...

MR. MURPHY: If you look at Cain's...

MR. GREGORY: ...what was that image? Was this not a message to the tea party saying, you know what, "They want to take away our cigarettes, too, and we're going to take America back."

MR. GREGORY: I mean, maybe that was too cute by half, if it was really that.

MR. MURPHY: I think it, it was a--I'm guessing. You know, you never know. You look at Cain's travel schedule, he's in Alabama doing book tours. I'm not sure if it was tobacco the guy was smoking. It...

MR. GREGORY: Well, that's what James Carville said.

MR. MURPHY: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: He was actually a little more indirect.

MR. MURPHY: I mean, there's no real campaign behind Cain, it's all Cain. My guess is they were trying to make a bit of an outlaw video because, again, the whole thing is anti-establishment. You had a kid with a video camera, you had a campaign manager, a little time to kill. Often trouble. Didn't help.

MR. GREGORY: The issue, too, of--before we button this part of it up--on taxes...

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Yes.

MR. GREGORY: ...Governor Granholm, is that you have a very clear distinction here, and The Washington Post wrote about it on Wednesday, divergent paths within the Republican Party about how they want to handle tax policy. The headline of the piece this week, "GOP tax plans on divergent paths at the Moment." It was Karen Tumulty and Perry Bacon who wrote, "Although the Republican candidates differ on the specifics of their plans, the frame of the argument against the current White House occupant is the same: Obama contends that the rich are not paying their fair share of taxes, the GOP candidates counter that wealthy Americans, along with everyone else, are paying too much. What's bloated, they insist, is the government."

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Well...

MR. GREGORY: There's the debate.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: OK. But so this to me is driving me absolutely crazy because this income inequality issue, which the president is trying to get at with the Buffett Rule, it's not going to take care of it all, but 80 percent of the, of the revenue growth, of the, of the growth in income went to the top 1 percent over the past 30 years, 80 percent. We are seeing a level of income disparity that we haven't seen since the Gilded Age. So this is what is going to be, I think, the nub of an issue about tax policy. What's the tax policy that's going to create jobs in America and that's going to provide middle class jobs here, rather than giving money to corporations, etc., that--where they can just take that extra money or to capital gains investors and invest it somewhere else?

MR. GREGORY: Quickly, but quickly...

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: The...

MR. GREGORY: ...within the primary, though, this general election argument, the flat tax plan for Perry, is it a, is it a rescue line for him?

MR. MURPHY: Well, you know, the, the history of this has been that flat taxes don't do well in the second or third look because people get out the calculator. Though I think a flattening of the tax code would be very good for jobs and is good policy. Perry's problem is he wouldn't commit to it. He's got both plans.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. MURPHY: You can have the same old tax system or you can have the new somewhat flat. And it was too clever by half. I do think this, when the voting's over, Tom's so right, that's when it's going to start counting in all these national polls, I don't think Cain's going to be the nominee. But after this election in 2013, we're heading towards massive never seen before tax reform. And the idea of flattening things out, maybe even a consumption tax, Herman Cain will get a lot of credit for putting that in the debate because there's a lot of policy reasons he's going to be right.

MR. GREGORY: All right. That's a good segue, I want to take a break. We're going to come back and talk about larger leadership issues and some of the big problems that we're facing in the country. We'll take a break, come back with our roundtable and talk about that right after this.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: We're back with our roundtable. Tom Brokaw, your latest book is "The Time of Our Lives." You talk about political gridlock, but you also talk about, at the same time, a lack of shared national purpose. If there's an example of that, here is an ad from AARP, for seniors in the country, that talks about their political message to Washington. Watch.

(Videotape, AARP ad)

Unidentified Man: So Washington, before you even think about cutting my Medicare and Social Security benefits, here's a number you should remember, 50 million. We are 50 million seniors who earned our benefits, and you will be hearing from us today and on Election Day.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: I wouldn't call you a senior, but you are a grandpa.

MR. BROKAW: I am. I am a member of that generation, frankly. And...

MR. GREGORY: And that struck you.

MR. BROKAW: It did strike me because I thought it, it would have been much more appropriate for the AARP saying, "Look, this is a crisis in our lives. We are the beneficiaries of all the hard work before us. We know that change is coming. We're here to help you with that change, but there are members of our group who really do need all of this help." There are other members who can afford to pay more and are willing to defer their retirement, whatever you want to do. But to put the marker down that way...

Offscreen Voice: Yeah.

MR. BROKAW: ...is saying, "I got mine, to heck with the rest of you." I just think that's the wrong message. What I talk about in the book is that we all have to step forward. The phrase that I use is that we have to re-enlist as citizens, and that what we have to do is understand that this is going to be hard. This is a real intersection in American life. We're being challenged by, not just China, but by Brazil and Russia and India as well, in education, in housing, in everything else. We need to make some hard calls, and there's a short history of this in this country. Look what we did going into World War II, which is a favorite subject of mine: 1939 we were the 16th military power in the world. We turned this country, won the war, came home and built the lives that we have today. We need to go back on that kind of a footing.

MR. GREGORY: And you talk about the stakes being enormous, writing in your book, "One often repeated question is the most troubling of all, because it challenges an American belief so fundamental it might as well be carved in stone on a Washington monument: `Will our children and grandchildren have better lives than us?'"

MR. BROKAW: I've never had that question asked of me before until the last couple of years. For the first time, parents and grandparents of my generation and the baby boomers are saying, "I don't think my kids will have the lives that we've had." And it's not just a quantitative question, more things, it's the quality of life and what they can expect from their country and how they fit into the world and how they play in the political culture. Walter obviously has written about Steve Jobs. I was thinking earlier we have a--we have an analog political culture in a digital world, and that's one of the ways that we have to start thinking about changing whatever we're doing.

MR. GREGORY: It's interesting about Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson, because part of what I think Tom is talking about is not only a sense of national purpose and civic identity, but it's also a can-do practicality that he really manifested. And this is how you write about it, the distortion reality--reality distortion field that you write about throughout the book, and this is how it was described in the book, we'll put it up on the screen. "Steve has a reality distortion field. ... In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he's not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules." Bud Tribble, part of that original Mac team, the Macintosh team.

Also, "The reality distortion field was a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the" purposes--the "purpose at hand." Andy Hertzfeld, also part of that original Macintosh team. Why doesn't Washington have that kind of can-do practicality where they could--he cannot blink when he stares at you and say, "Get your mind around this. Get this done."

MR. ISAACSON: Well, he was able to make people do what they thought was impossible through this, whether it was the original Steve Wozniak design, or cutting some of the boot-up time off the original Mac, or getting Corning Glass to make that beautiful glass for the iPhone. He said, "You can do it." And in the end, they did the impossible. One of the people on the original Mac team, however, said, you know, "Steve would make an excellent king of France." I think that's different than making an excellent president of the United States. You know, one of my last meetings with Steve he said, you know, "I just wish Obama would be a stronger leader by being willing to tick people off and get them angry."

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. ISAACSON: Well, that's easy to do when you're the king of France, but when you're the president in a democracy, in a divided government, you can't just order and lead by fiat. And this is, this is why Steve Jobs ended up supporting and wanted to make ads for Obama. He believes in Obama, but he just believes that this divided government was so frustrating for him.

MR. BROKAW: But what he also had was...

MR. MURPHY: I think there's...

MR. BROKAW: ...he had clarity of vision, which I think was critically important.

MR. MURPHY: Yeah.

MR. BROKAW: He had a big, bold idea, and he was willing to sail against the wind to get that done. I remember meeting this new CEO of IBM right after the first Mac came out, we had one in our house, and I said, "What do you think of that?" And he said, "Oh, it's not going anywhere. My wife writes some invitations on it." But they were taking on the most established parts of the American economy and the industrial empire in this country, and they had that vision, and it was bold, and it also had real value.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. BROKAW: It counted for something.

MR. MURPHY: Yeah, I think, I think the lesson for Jobs and politics, I kind of agree with Walter, but the problem we have now, you can see it in that AARP ad, is that all the problems are long-term, you look at entitlements or anything. All the political incentives are incredibly short-term, survive the next election.

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. MURPHY: Jobs I don't think gave a hoot about short-term incentives at all. He had a long-term vision, and he pushed it through with his product genius and everything else.

MR. ISAACSON: And he really didn't care about just making profits for the short-term quarter.

MR. MURPHY: Right.

MR. ISAACSON: It was making products that he had a passion for perfection do to it in the long haul.

MR. MURPHY: Right.

MR. ISAACSON: At the beginning of Tom's book, he says, "It's not just our leaders we have to worry about. When history judges us, we're all going to be in the dock." And I think that painting a vision for the future, saying "here's where the country really ought to go," we all know the broad outline, Steve Jobs knew the broad outlines, which is better jobs, skills for those jobs, and a chance for everybody to move up.

MR. GREGORY: The...

MR. ISAACSON: And a reduction perhaps--oh, go ahead, sorry.

MR. GREGORY: No, no, no. Go ahead, finish the thought.

MR. ISAACSON: Well, I think that we all agree that there should be a fairer, flatter taxes...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. ISAACSON: ...but there should also be a reduction in the inequality in this country.

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. ISAACSON: And that growth can be for the middle class and jobs, and that's what we all have to do.

MR. GREGORY: Governor Granholm, there--you have such distrust of government. Eighty-nine percent in a recent poll said that they, they don't trust government very often. And then, as Tom writes about it, and I'll put another example on the screen, of the tone here. It's so easy to just vilify the other side, as you write about, Tom, in the book, "Slashing rhetoric and outrageous characterizations have long been part of the American national political dialogue ... but modern means of communications are now so pervasive and penetrating they might as well be part of the air we breathe, and therefore they require tempered remarks from all sides. Otherwise, the air just becomes more and more toxic until it is suffocating." So we have such a limited scope of problem-solving. That's not what Steve Jobs had.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Well, he had a big, he had a big scope, but, you know, I mean, he was also able to pay people to be able to do what he asked them to do, and Obama can't pay the Republicans to be able to get them to compromise. And that's his, his, his challenge. It's a challenge, really, of both process and policy. We've got a country where we do have this huge inequality, and people are asking "How are my children going to be able to do better than I have?" There was a report out this week that said that among the 31 advanced countries, the United States is in the bottom tier with respect to income inequality, poverty, poverty among children and poverty among seniors. And the question for us is, is that really who we are? Is that really who we want to be? Isn't there a moment where we do all compromise to be able to close that gap? And, and the policy side of things does not seem to be responding to the, to the need to be able to come together and close that gap.

MR. GREGORY: Tom, it's interesting, author and journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted recently about Steve Jobs, the following, "Imagine a Steve Jobs in the auto industry, in health care, in energy, even in government. We'd have a different country." We asked the question on our Facebook page as well and got an interesting answer this morning from, from Waldo W., "The more important question is, what would Apple look like if Washington ran it, if Washington ran it. This is why leadership and brokering compromise need to be the major skill sets in the next president."

MR. BROKAW: Yeah, you, you know, it's, it's really unfair to compare absolutely the political culture, which does depend on compromise and represent, as it does, the congressional interests of each of the districts and the Senate and, and the White House as well. But I think that there is a longing, as I go across the country, for everyone to take a deep breath and say, "Let's establish some well-defined goals that we know are out there," and that's what I try to write about here--income, terms of education, housing proportion, how the political culture works. I quote Bart Giamatti saying, "Don't become hostage to someone else's orthodoxy." There's an awful lot of that now. Everybody gets ear-tagged. That's a Western phrase. That's what they do with calves, they put an ear tag on them. Now everybody's a conservative or a liberal. That's how they get judged early and often, and it stays for too long. We need to get everyone involved in this dialogue, I think.

MR. GREGORY: And what--I guess the question is what breaks that? I mean, you could say we could solve some things in an election, Mike, next year, but the issues are just as hard.

MR. MURPHY: Well, yeah. And, and we're going to--the American voter's going to have to step up and reward political courage at the polls...

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Yes. Absolutely. That's right.

MR. MURPHY: ...which is a new concept. But here's a start: Don't run a billion-dollar presidential campaign on character assault.

MR. BROKAW: Yeah.

MR. MURPHY: That would be a good start.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: But, but...

MR. MURPHY: And that's why I was troubled by what I heard earlier.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Your point is totally right, the voters have the opportunity to say to people, "I'm going to take out the ones who won't compromise, who are not pragmatic, and put in people who will move the country forward." It really is, in this great democracy, an opportunity for the voter to speak up.

MR. GREGORY: We, we talked about it, we showed the pictures from this week, again, violent clashes in Oakland, in Atlanta, as well, with this Occupy Wall Street movement. And, and, Walter, there's no question that here's President Obama, a former community organizer, who will tip-toe up to the line of saying he walks in solidarity with this group because the message is a bit inchoate at the moment and not necessarily standing in solidarity with him, President Obama. But income inequality, the fate of the middle class over the past 30 years, are huge issues that politics and--we're going to have to confront in the political arena at some point.

MR. ISAACSON: We have in our nation's history, in our genetic makeup, sort of the--from the Sons of Liberty, which organized the original tea party, you know, through Shays' Rebellion, whatever, a populist sentiment, both on the left and on the right, that's against a lot of centralized power, against authority, against inequalities and favoritism. And I think you see that bubbling up now. Populism of that sort, you know, often produces great candidates, from William Jennings Bryan, or, you know, ones that do well enough, like George Wallace. But I think with the exception of Andrew Jackson, there has never been something that carried forth where it really elected a president.

MR. GREGORY: Let me get another break in here. Before we do that, a quick note. Be sure to check out our website this afternoon for our MEET THE PRESS Take Two Web Extra, where I will talk with author Walter Isaacson about his biography, "Steve Jobs," as well as with Tom Brokaw about his new book "The Time of Our Lives." And you can also read excerpts from both the books on our website, mtp.msnbc.com.

A quick break here. We'll be back with our Trends and Takeaways, a look at what was said here today and what to look for in the week ahead. Plus, what are the hot political stories trending this very morning? Right after this.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: We're back. Final moments with our roundtable. If you missed it, David Plouffe was here at the top of the program and broke new ground in how the White House is going to target the opponent in this race, going after Mitt Romney in a pretty aggressive way. Watch.

(Videotape, earlier this morning)

MR. PLOUFFE: He has no core. ... You get the sense with Mitt Romney that, you know, if he thought he, it was good to say the sky was green and the grass is blue to win an election, he'd say it.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Tom, this was pretty aggressive. It's also a sign that the White House would like some of Romney's Republican challengers to be doing more against him in this area.

MR. BROKAW: Yeah. I think he's probably the one that, in the given field, that they fear the most come the fall, because they know that the establishment of the Republican Party thinks he's the best manager, make the best president. I don't quite agree with Mike in terms of it was unfair. I think using the core question probably took it over the edge just a little bit. But the record is there about how he's flopped and we're--we'll hear a lot more from Rick Perry on these very issues in the coming weeks.

MR. GREGORY: If you go to our political trend tracker, and what's trending this morning, Cain and Romney on top of the Iowa poll is number one, Occupy Wall Street and the protests that we've talked about here. And number three, Perry will debate. Mike Murphy, it's interesting, he said earlier in this week, kind of stepping on his message about taxes, that he may not go to all the debates.

MR. MURPHY: Right.

MR. GREGORY: It's got to be a question in the Republican field about who ultimately is going to take on Obama in a debate well.

MR. MURPHY: Right. I'm shocked. Another flip-flop, debates and other things. Those are the most meaningless thing, flip-flops. Here's what I think. I think secretly the Romney campaign had a huge internal cheer because, if Perry stops doing debates, Romney can stop doing debates, and no candidates really enjoy these debates. That said, there will be at least four or five major debates, I think, before the Iowa caucus.

MR. GREGORY: Walter, do you have a sense of why it is that the debates in this season so far have defined the race to the extent they have, well before we've actually started doing any voting?

MR. ISAACSON: I think you have strong personalities in the, in the race. And I think that, you know, what, what else defines it now? It's a--it's been, I think, very refreshing to get to see these people.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: I love it.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. You get...

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Totally fun. You know, I get out the popcorn. I'm loving it. You're tweeting. I'm tweeting. It's totally fun.

MR. BROKAW: I think, I think, I think the debates, at this point, are watched primarily by the junkies.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Yes, for sure.

MR. BROKAW: And that, and that, the larger population will begin to tune in.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Although they've been getting good reviews.

MR. ISAACSON: I thought they were moving the polls pretty much, aren't they?

MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

MR. BROKAW: Well, they are, but the polls...

MR. MURPHY: In the absence of TV ads, which are all starting right now.

MR. BROKAW: Yeah, in the absence, right.

MR. ISAACSON: They're all starting right now.

MR. BROKAW: Yeah.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Right. Right.

MR. BROKAW: But they're kind of reading the day after and what plays out on television. And, you know, the cycle just never ends anymore, goes on all day long.

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. BROKAW: So we'll see, as more people get involved in the process. I, I thought for the debate that was the great contrast was, was all about illegal gardeners, and the next day Khadaffy was killed in Libya.

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. BROKAW: You talk about a contrast and what priorities ought to be.

MR. GREGORY: Just shows you. But here, here's the week ahead.

FMR. GOV. GRANHOLM: Right.

MR. GREGORY: Here's the week ahead, by the way, on where the, the candidates are going to be. And what stands out for me, Herman Cain meeting with members on Capitol Hill. This is going, you know, really into the establishment to see how he is evaluated. Romney did something similar recently and got a pretty good reception. This will test Herman Cain's strength.

All right, we're going to leave it there. Thank you all very much.

Before we go, a programming note. "Rock Center with Brian Williams" premieres tomorrow night on NBC at 10, 9 Central. We look forward to that. Also, for our viewers in New York City, MEET THE PRESS will air at a special time next Sunday, right before coverage of the New York City Marathon, at 8 AM Eastern next Sunday on NBC 4 in New York. So please make note of that.

That is all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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