AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
So, 115,000 jobs added last month. And on that subject, Mitt Romney had this to say on Fox News today.
MITT ROMNEY: Well, we should be seeing numbers in the 500,000 jobs created per month. This is way, way, way off from what should happen in a normal recovery.
CORNISH: We'll dig into the math of that number. But more on the politics of the moment, we turn to our regular commentators, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome, gentlemen.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
CORNISH: So after Mitt Romney made that comment on Fox, people quickly, you know, got into the labor stats and found that that's actually pretty hard to do. In the last 50 years, the country's only added 500,000 jobs in a month just five times. Only a handful of presidents have done this. So, David, starting with you, is this a statement that's going to come back to haunt Mitt Romney?
BROOKS: Well, he's got the essential fact right. In normal recoveries, you do get job growth. I don't know if you get 500,000, but you certainly get three or 400,000. So he's got that right. The problem is two things. First, financial crises are not normal recoveries and they just take a decade, and we just got to get used to that. The second thing is: We've got fundamental structural problems.
The percentage of adults employed is at a three-decade low, and so you've got to do serious things to reduce uncertainty for investors. You've got to simplify the tax code. You've got to give skilled jobs - even in the current situation, they're having trouble finding truck drivers making $50,000 a year. And so the election should be about big things. Instead, it's about little things: how high is the interest rate on the student loans, and things like that.
And what's disappointing is the president doesn't have a big tax reform plan. Obama in - Romney, in theory, has some big things to talk about, structural changes. He hasn't really gone there. And so the whole campaign is not as big as the problem we have in front of us.
CORNISH: And E.J., I don't know, we're not hearing too much about plans for next week from the president. They're talking about public works projects again, and that sort of thing. I mean, where do you see this going?
DIONNE: Well, I do think that there is a big problem in the public sector. But, look, if we had produced 500,000 jobs this month, Romney would have said we should be producing a million jobs a month. I mean, it's not surprising that he said that. Inside those numbers is a fact that's turned up over and over again. We added actually 130 private sector jobs, but lost 15,000 - I mean, private sector jobs, but lost 15,000 public sector jobs, while we were adding 4.2 million private sector jobs we've lost somewhere between a half-a-million and 600,000 public sector jobs in this recovery.
And I think it goes back to the fact that we have let all of these cutbacks in state and local government go way too far. Our unemployment rate would be much, much lower - significantly lower than it is now - if we had just grown the private sector at the same rate it grew under Ronald Reagan - no socialist, he.
CORNISH: But, you know, E.J., it's a blizzard of numbers, and at the end of the day, I think people are still kind of interested in that one number that we're watching.
DIONNE: Oh, I agree. And I think this is disappointing for the president. I mean, he's going to put the best spin on it. I think he really needs these numbers to get a little bit more robust, back closer to the 200,000 we had at the beginning of the year to be comfortable politically.
CORNISH: I think what's interesting is that the president started out this week talking about foreign policy and marking the killing of Osama bin Laden one year ago. Of course, we're back to the numbers at the end of the day. But let's talk about this strategy. Did Obama do the right thing, I guess, making a big deal out of marking the death of bin Laden as an anniversary?
DIONNE: I don't see how he couldn't. I mean, it was a really, really big deal. And it was - I watched Brian Williams' documentary on this, and it was pretty impressive, the fact that we did this. If it had blown up in his face, if something terrible had happened, he would've been accountable for that. I think it marked a kind of end to a long period.
And I think the Republicans realized somewhere in the middle of the week that their going after Obama for making an issue of it was only calling attention to the fact that on foreign policy, Obama has a very large advantage over Mitt Romney. It's really the first time since the '60s that the Democrats enter the election with a substantial advantage on foreign policy.
I think Obama would love to talk more about foreign policy. I suspect that Republicans now will be smart enough to go back and talk about the jobs numbers.
CORNISH: David, how did you see Romney handling this this week?
BROOKS: Well, first, I thought Obama was right to brag about it. It was a significant accomplishment. He's allowed to brag about his accomplishments. I thought he went a little over the top. A year ago, he said he wouldn't spike the ball. I thought the Brian Williams interview was like, you know, not only spiking the ball, wallowing around the end zone like Chad Ochocinco or something like that.
But - so I thought he went over the top. Nonetheless, he's allowed to brag about it, and it's a perfectly legitimate campaign issue. Where I fault the president is in the ad he released last week in which he then says Mitt Romney wouldn't have done this, based on a five-year-old, out-of-context quote. That diminished it. So I think, fine to brag, to then turn it into a negative attack ad, that was a sign of sort of campaign low-mindedness.
CORNISH: At the same time, foreign policy issues, he was obviously trying to gain some ground there. On the issue of China and the flap over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, you had Romney weighing in, as well. We have another clip from him this morning.
ROMNEY: Some of the press reports coming from China suggest that we may not have been as effective in protecting his freedom as we should have been. And if those reports are true, that would be a very dark day for freedom.
CORNISH: Never any easy answers when it comes to China. And, of course, you know, this can come back to haunt a candidate. David?
BROOKS: Here, Romney is being disingenuous. Listen, we've had a pretty bipartisan foreign policy, especially about China, but I think on a lot of things. Romney is trying to invent some massive difference. I suspect he'd be doing the same thing. I think the Obama administration on this, it's not been perfect, with the trip to China but they've done a reasonable job of balancing economic needs and human rights needs.
CORNISH: And, E.J., last one.
DIONNE: Just to go back, Obama did one ad. George W. Bush spent a whole year running on terrorism in 2004, so I don't think it was a big deal.
I think we have a moral obligation to get Chen out of China. I agree with David that this shouldn't be a partisan issue. And I think that it was his choice to stay in China initially, from everything I've read, because he was worried about losing influence. He's been an important figure in China. But now that this has all blown up, now that he and his family feel threatened, I think the United States has to figure out how to get all of them out of there. It is a moral obligation.
CORNISH: And that story still unfolding. But thank you both for weighing in. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times, thank you guys for coming in.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.