'This Week' Extra: The Roundtable's Pre-Show Thoughts

PHOTO: Mortimer "Mort" Zuckerman, chairman and chief executive officer of Boston Properties Inc., speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., April 26, 2012.
Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Before "This Week" Sunday, we asked our roundtable participants to tell us what they are looking forward to discussing. Here are their pre-show thoughts.

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Mort Zuckerman: What Happened to the American Century?

What happened to the American Century? I mean, what happened to that faith in the nation's high purpose and sense of direction that animated successive generations of Americans? They surfed the good times, endured the bad times. And these Americans clung to their values and their optimism through the long Depression and wars hot and cold. Never a doubt that the American can-do spirit would prevail.

America was a country that cared much more about individuals being able to move up the socioeconomic ladder than where anybody started out or stood on it.

How much dimmer are the outside views of America today and how deflated Americans themselves feel! Much of the public dialogue is about decline and recession and the dysfunctions of the political processes at all levels.

We know that with 79 million baby boomers now beginning to retire, our fiscal future is as dire as our fiscal present. Our situation brings to mind a character in an Ernest Hemingway novel who was asked, "How did you go bankrupt?" "Two ways," he answered, "gradually and then suddenly." We know that given the way we are going, sooner or later the confidence of investors in America will be eroded to the breaking point and the bond and other global financial markets will force an adjustment "first gradually and then suddenly." Putting us on a path where our national economy and government revenues will be growing faster than the debts we owe is not austerity, it is sanity and leadership. And leadership is what we lack.

We have been wading deeper into it for a decade.

Which makes it all the more baffling that the Obama administration has abandoned confidence-building and instead has engaged in demeaning and discrediting the private sector. We now have a president who spends more of his time campaigning than governing, as if his government is not part of the problem. People feel there is a vacuum. He has begun his re-election campaign by stirring up the emotions of fear, envy, and resentment, invoking a class warfare that threatens us all. How far we have come from the rhetoric of hope.

More than two thirds see the past decade as a period of decline. A country long celebrated for optimism amid adversity is having trouble finding the spirit that saw it through times that were, in fact, much more menacing.

There is much about America that ought to cheer us. The United States remains the world's largest economy. It is still the global leader in the volume of manufactured goods; it is still the world's technological leader and the largest market for information technology; it is still the world's most innovative economy and home to 80 percent of the world's top universities and the top destination for foreign scholars, drawing many of the world's best and brightest to our universities and labs.

We need all the brains we can attract. We have lost our lead in large-scale, high-tech manufacturing and watched almost helplessly as uncontrolled outsourcing to Asia over two decades has hollowed out much of America's base of suppliers, factory managers, and skilled technicians. This is reflected in the dramatic turnaround in trade in high-tech products, which has gone from a $29 billion surplus in 2000 to a $50 billion plus trade deficit these days. We cannot be unaware of the shift to a service economy that privileges the better educated, which means that schools are the primary policy instrument for enhancing both social mobility and our competitive position. We cannot be unaware that we must improve our stock of human capital, that the ZIP code you are born into shouldn't determine your destiny, as it all too often does. We must never lose sight of the fact that education is more closely correlated with upward mobility than anything else and is the best solution to reducing excessive inequality that risks relegating our society into a class system.

The public instinctively understands that something is deeply wrong, that liberals refuse to acknowledge that we must live within our means and that government can be part of the problem. Capitalism, after all, has been at the center of our prosperity and economic growth.

The American public is looking for a renewal and a leadership that will eschew the emotional slogans of the extremes, the ideologies of left and right long alien to American life. The president we need should be unafraid to get booed, willing to risk a dip in the polls, eager even to wrestle with issues like immigration and public welfare.

Winston Churchill said it best: "The Americans will always do the right thing … after they've exhausted all the alternatives."

Well, they've been exhausted.

Mort Zuckerman is editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report.

Steven Rattner: Jobs Report Gives Little new Ammunition to Either Obama or Romney

Friday's jobs report was neither as good as economists hoped for nor as bad as some feared. Consistent with the three relatively weak previous reports, it gave little new ammunition to either President Obama or Governor Romney. Now, with only four jobs reports remaining, the contours of the employment picture in the run up to the November election are pretty much set.

Voters are almost certain to go to the polls deliberating over an unemployment rate that will be one side or the other of 8 percent. Political scientists will quickly note that no president has been re-elected with unemployment above 7.4 percent since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That may be true but remember that history doesn't always repeat itself and by the way, what about FDR? He was re-elected in 1936 with unemployment at 16.6 percent and again in 1940 with a 14.6 percent jobless rate. That was presumably because voters appreciated that FDR didn't create the Great Depression and in fact had moved the needle in the right direction, albeit slowly.

President Obama has the same argument on his side. When he took office, the economy was losing more than 700,000 jobs a month; since the beginning of 2012, it has added an average of 150,000 jobs a month (notwithstanding the drag from troubled sectors such as government, housing and finance). The unemployment rate is down and in swing states like Ohio, it is well below the national average (thanks in part to the president's decision to save the auto industry.)

Polls consistently show (albeit by a tightening margin) that voters don't blame President Obama for the economic mess. The most recent Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans blamed President George W. Bush for our economic problems versus 52 percent who held President Obama responsible.

As daunting as our economic challenges may appear, we would be in a far worse position had President Obama's stimulus program not been implemented and had he not continued the financial industry and auto rescue operations begun under President Bush.

Steven Rattner is the Obama administration's former lead auto adviser.

E.J. Dionne: Why Isn't Mitt Romney Ahead?

The most interesting question about this year's election is not why it seems relatively close, but why – with unemployment at over 8% -- Mitt Romney doesn't have a lead.

There are some obvious explanations. Romney had a difficult time in the Republican primaries, where all of his opponents questioned his conservative credentials. President Obama is helped by the fact that many voters still blame President Bush for our economic troubles. And even though the campaign feels to many of us as if it's gone on forever, a lot of voters still don't know all that much about Romney yet.

But that's only part of it. It appears that Obama has something that Ronald Reagan had: a very solid base of support. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, believes the rock-solid Obama base is around 45%. That's not all that far from 50.

And Romney has spent very little time introducing himself to the electorate. A substantial share of Romney's advertising in the primaries consisted of attacks on his opponents. The Obama campaign and the pro-Obama super PAC, on the other hand, have been quite successful in introducing Romney in a negative way, particularly through assaults on Romney's experience at Bain Capital. Polling in the swing states suggests that these commercials are bringing down Romney's numbers. And then there are the swing states themselves: most of them are faring better economically than the nation as a whole. There are a number of schools of thought about this among political scientists. Some argue that the national economy trumps the local economy when it comes to influencing voter perception. But others stress that voters cast ballots on the basis of their own economic experience, and swing state voters may simply feel better about things.

Last but not least is the unpopularity of the Republicans in Congress. The GOP standing is not what it was on the eve of the 2010 elections. That's probably hurting Romney, too. One of the arguments I make in my new book, "Our Divided Political Heart," is that conservatives have embraced a radical brand of individualism and in the process shifted their movement to the right of where it used to be. Romney has chosen to follow the party down this path and in the process has opened up a wide middle ground for the president.

The Republican hope is that 2012 will be like 1980 -- the election will stay close until the end when voters decide that they have had enough of the incumbent. I don't think Republicans should be counting on this. Barack Obama is not Jimmy Carter, Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan, the composition of the electorate is more favorable to Democrats, and we do not face a foreign policy challenge akin to the Iranian hostage crisis. Yes, a sharp dip in the economy or unexpected foreign troubles could change the calculus in Romney's favor. But for now, I think conservative critics of Romney's strategy are right to be impatient. Under rather difficult circumstances, Obama is doing pretty well.

E.J. Dionne is the author of the new book "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent" and a Washington Post columnist.

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