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Week In Politics: Unemployment Rate, Primaries


And you can bet those Republicans hoping to replace Mr. Obama were watching those employment numbers closely. Here to talk more about this and the week's other political news is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks, of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be back.

CORNISH: So this is the lowest unemployment rate since the month after President Obama took office. David, let me start with you. At what point, does this downward trend actually make a difference to voters or scare Republican candidates?

BROOKS: I already think it has made a difference. If you look at the president's numbers, they've been up last couple months. I think that's largely the slowly growing economy. This will certainly help. And so I think it's tremendous news. It's especially good because it's not the result of any big stimulus spending by the government. It's the result of the business cycle finally beginning to turn around. And so it really should be heartening for the administration and really challenging for Romney or whoever the Republican is, that he can't just coast on a bad economy.

He just can't coast with a bunch of campaign events where he quotes "America the Beautiful." He actually has to get a little more substantive. And so it should be a prompt for Romney to be a little more aggressive on substance.


DIONNE: I basically agree with all that. I think what's interesting is that - I was talking to one person in the administration today and they were not crowing yet because this person said, look, we remember last January, as Scott Horsley mentioned, where the numbers were great and they didn't hold up for the rest of the year. Nonetheless, it was Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com who said that if Obama can get 150 to 250,000 jobs a month in job growth, he's probably going to be in pretty good shape for re-election.

And the country, if you judge by things like the consumer confidence index, actually does believe, finally, that things are getting better.

CORNISH: Of course, and this is - we're millions of jobs behind where we were pre-recession level, so...

BROOKS: It'll be a long time. And I must say, you always have to keep your eye on Europe. Whenever you speak to people who are knowledgeable or working full-time on the European situation, the fact that Greece may go out of the euro, is still going to scare people. The fact that European, especially French, banks are extremely exposed, I think that'll actually tell the tale this year, more than what happens here.

CORNISH: Each week, it seems like there's a kind of a wild card topic that we talk about and this time, it's women health care and contraception, which sort of came to the news this week, the biggest being the Susan B. Komen For The Cure waffling over funding to Planned Parenthood. Essentially, a political decision there. But also, the Obama administration's decision to require all employers to offer insurance that covers contraception. This includes religious organizations. And what was your reaction to this, E.J., because the Catholic Church came out very strongly against this decision.

DIONNE: First, I'm glad the Susan B. Komen group backed off what sure looked like a politically-driven decision that I think they'd explained less than honestly. But the Catholic Church thing is really interesting and I think the administration made a real mistake here. In their original rule, where they were talking about what will be covered under the health law, and contraception will be covered, which I think it should be, the only people allowed an exemption from that were essentially churches themselves, Religious institutions that primarily serve people of that faith.

That meant that institutions like Catholic hospitals, Catholic universities and other religious institutions that had, through the church, a conscientious objection to contraception would have to pay for something that they were against on moral grounds. I think what the administration should've done is given them their exemption, because I think religious freedom demands that, while figuring out a way, and Hawaii has done this, to let individuals buy in very cheaply to get their own contraception coverage.

But politically, the worst thing they did is they, from everything I understand, they gave all kinds of assurances to Catholics, including Catholics who had gone out of their way to support them on the health care bill, that they were going to try to work this out and then this decision came down and there's real fury in the Church, even among liberal Catholics who are sympathetic to them.

CORNISH: And, of course, the big political calculation here, right, are the votes. White Catholic voters make up a huge number of independent voters and many in battleground states, right, David?

BROOKS: Politically, it's a catastrophe, I think. I think it's a very, very important issue, in part because people think busybody government is interfering in their lives and not respecting freedom of conscience. And so you have a lot of Catholics who are upset and statements were read out at thousand of pulpits over the last Sunday on this. You have liberal Catholics who are upset because they were assured this would not be an implication of the health care law. You have conservative Catholics naturally upset.

You have a lot of evangelicals who had problems with Mitt Romney, who are now mobilized toward Romney because they're angered by this. So I'm not sure why they did it. And as E.J. said, there were many political ways out and it's still an unanswered question, why they switched policies on this.

DIONNE: If I could just say quickly, there are a lot of ironies here. There are some Catholic institutions that do cover contraception and a lot of the Catholics who are upset with them actually support contraception themselves, don't agree with the Church on this. I think it was the issue that you need to give some room to these religious institutions that do a lot of good work for our society. And that's why even the more liberal Catholics are upset about this.

CORNISH: And like all things with the affordable care act, it's very, very complicated.

BROOKS: Yeah, they didn't need another piece of trouble on that.

CORNISH: Quickly, I want to get to the Republicans on the campaign trail. We had some awkward moments with Mitt Romney this week. First, he told CNN, I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. This was - that's a snippet of a longer cut where he talks about being not very concerned about the very rich as well. And then, he eagerly accepted the endorsement of Donald Trump while in Las Vegas. Does that make sense to you guys?

BROOKS: Bad week for Mitt Romney. You know, I understand his strategy. He wants to focus on the middle class, but to have the words, I don't care about the very poor utter from your mouth suggests you're speaking in abstract management-speak terms, not in human terms.

DIONNE: Yeah, it was astonishing and Romney still can't talk about money. I mean, you talk about not thinking about messaging, to make that statement about not caring about the very poor, followed immediately by the Trump endorsement, I would've called Donald Trump and said let's delay this a week or two. It's astonishing.

CORNISH: Well, E.J. Dionne - of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, thanks so much for talking with me.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.