A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
- Ron Elving Washington editor for NPR.
- James Thurber professor and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University; author of a forthcoming book, "Obama in Office: The First Two Years."
- Susan Page Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
- Ross Douthat columnist, The New York Times.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us I'm Diane Rehm. A Washington Post - ABC News Poll out this week offers mixed news for President Obama. While deepening economic fears have pushed his approval rating to a near record low the president stills holds an early edge over GOP contenders for 2012. It's a far cry from the overwhelming popularity he rode in on to the White House two years ago.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about President Obama's term thus far and the challenges that lie ahead is James Thurber of American University. He is the editor of a new book titled, "Obama in Office," Susan Page of USA Today, Ron Elving of NPR and Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an e-mail, if you like. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Every now and then I say send us a treat. And you can do that if you like, good morning to all of you.
MS. SUSAN PAGEGood morning, Diane.
MR. RON ELVINGGood morning, Diane.
MR. ROSS DOUTHATGood morning, Diane.
MR. JAMES THURBERGood morning, Diane.
REHMIt's good to see you. James Thurber, how can we measure a presidency just two years into it?
THURBERWell, a variety of ways. One is the production of legislation that has some permanent impact, another is whether he's met his promises from the campaign, another is whether he's really changed the tone of the way Washington works, a major factor that he had in his campaign. And whether the major issues that Americans are concerned about, jobs, the recession and two wars, now maybe three wars and a variety of other issues are really turning around in a way that they want them to.
THURBERBut ultimately, has he changed public attitudes about the way Washington works and about the legislation that he passed? Has he done a good job communicating that? And those are ways to measure his impact.
REHMAnd Ross Douthat, what do the polls tell us so far?
DOUTHATWell, I mean, I'm actually not entirely sure that looking at the polls is the best way to assess how the president is doing on the metrics that the professor just laid out. But I think the polls are a mixed bag for President Obama. As you said, it's, you know, he's fallen quite a distance from the overwhelming popularity he enjoyed after his inauguration and he's also fallen a bit more I think than some people expected in the last few months. I think there was a sense after the midterm elections that, you know, the presidency had been down but was sort of bouncing back, the economy was turning around and so forth.
DOUTHATAnd the last few months haven't been as kind to that idea I think and some of that may have to do with rising gas prices. Some of it may have to do with the ongoing debate over the deficit. But I think you have to say Obama is in a position where he is reasonably well-positioned for re-election but not perhaps as well positioned as he would like to be. How's that for a mealy-mouthed response?
REHMPretty good, Susan Page did the administration of President Obama pay sufficient attention to the results of the 2010 election?
PAGEI think we've seen a big pivot by President Obama since the midterm, since the results of the midterm that gave Republicans control of the House and sent a big warning flag up on some of the agenda that he had pursued. We've seen him take a more centrist stance on a whole series of issues. We saw him agree to the extension of the Bush tax cuts in the lame duck session. We see him taking a tone on this new ongoing budget debate where he's saying entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid need to be changed in some ways that are going to save some money.
PAGEThat's not the message that goes directly to his base. So I think, I think he has responded in really some fundamental ways to the message that voters sent in the midterms.
REHMFundamental ways, but not endearing himself to the people who put him into office in the first place? Ron Elving...?
ELVINGNo the last several months have not been about appealing to the Democratic base. They have been about trying to get back into a connection with the independent voters who swung to Obama fairly late in 2008 in reaction to the fiscal crisis, in reaction to the McCain/Palin campaign and in reaction to some good moves that were made by the Obama campaign on the positive side. But that was not a walk-away election. That was a close election, too close to call at Labor Day.
ELVINGMcCain/Palin were ahead on September 15th, the day Lehman Brothers went down. So the fiscal crisis really was decisive in that election. And let's also remember that in the end McCain got 46 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Now it was a wipeout in the Electoral College. The Electoral College exaggerates the results to some degree but he got 46 percent of the vote. Now that's not a terrible showing and let's also bear in mind that in November of 2010 at the end of those first two years we're talking about, Barack Obama was at 46 percent approval in the Gallop.
ELVINGNow his party took a terrible beating in the elections which tremendously exaggerated the unpopularity of the first two years in some ways and of course the base that we were just talking about a moment ago did not turn out very well for the Democrats in November 2010. But still he was at 46 percent so it's very easy to overstate the shifts in the electorate that are necessary to produce big political changes.
REHMRoss Douthat are the first two years of any president's presidency very difficult?
DOUTHATWell sure I mean but any two years of any president's presidency are very difficult. I think in this case the particular kind of expectations that the Obama campaign raised in 2008, the, you know, we were just talking about the sort of idea of a wholesale transformation of the way Washington works, a generational shift, you know, this sort of somewhat nebulous notion of hope and change. All of that I think raised expectations for President Obama well beyond what a normal incoming president has. So it's sort of inevitable that you end up with some sort of letdown both from independent voters and from the president's base.
DOUTHATI do think it's possible though to, you know, in sort of general ways look at a presidency at the two-year mark and say well, you know, we can assess, you know, we don't know what the specific challenges in six months are going to be. We don't know what the next Japanese tsunami or what have you is going to be but we can sort of see the shape of this presidency in the big challenges it is facing. And I think if you look at the Obama presidency, you know, in order to be a successful presidency it's fair to say this president needed to pass some kind of big ticket domestic policy legislation, right and he did that successfully with the stimulus and the healthcare bills.
DOUTHATHe needed to put American foreign policy on a kind of sustainable trajectory in Iraq, Afghanistan, now perhaps Libya as well. And there I think the jury is still out. He needed to preside over renewed economic growth and there there's more progress than we had a little while ago but the picture is still murky. And then he needed to preside over some kind of stabilization of America's deficit and that's what we're arguing about right now. So I think those would be my sort of four big picture ways of looking at the Obama presidency.
REHMAnd what would your conclusion be there?
DOUTHATMy conclusion would be I was more confident that this presidency was on a successful trajectory six months ago than I am today.
DOUTHATTwo reasons, one is that, and here I would disagree a little bit with the other panelists. I don't think it's quite as clear that Obama has successfully pivoted to the center in the deficit debate. I am, particularly the speech that he gave, that he gave last week I think was more of a play to the liberal base and you could see that in the very pleased reactions from many liberal commentators to the speech than it was a sort of move to making an actual deficit deal possible. And I think the White House seems to be calculating that the deficit is something ultimately where a deal will be cut after the election.
DOUTHATAnd then I think that the Libya, what looks frankly like something of a fiasco to date in America's quasi-pseudo military intervention in North Africa I think calls into question. I thought Obama's foreign policy steering was going reasonably well at the two-year mark and I'm less certain that that's the case right now.
PAGEYou know Ross mentioned the high expectations that President Obama came into office with and that's certainly true but I think you would have to look at those first two years of his presidency and say he has faced some huge challenges beyond that of an ordinary president in an ordinary two years.
REHMYeah, he came in at the...
PAGEHe came in at the economic crisis. He had the potential collapse of the U.S. auto industry. Then you had the BP oil spill. Now you have this turmoil in Northern Africa and in the Middle East that is really a generational kind of shift. These are challenges not on the turf he would have chosen, right? These are not the issues on which he based his campaign where he talked about getting out of the war in Iraq and passing healthcare. So I think you'd have to say that he has had in some ways, and every president has big challenges but in some ways these challenges have been extraordinary.
THURBERYes, major challenges and I think he's been successful in a variety of these areas. For example we redeployed troops out of Iraq and deployed troops in Afghanistan which was controversial. He implemented TARP. We may end up making money. We had failed financial institutions. He's done nothing about debt and the deficit except increase the deficit as a result of the stimulus package and other things. The unemployment rate is teetering and it's going, it's going down a little bit and it's not going up the way it was before.
THURBERHousing foreclosures is a major issue that he can't really control very well. It's still a problem. He failed on cap-and-trade. Now what's cap-and-trade? It's a climate change bill. He shifted to EPA to promulgate rules and regulations to help implement that and he has a major challenge on that probably within one vote of the Senate to stop EPA from promulgating those regulations. He really hasn't as I said before changed the way Washington works though. He's attacked lobbyists like they're bad but he used lobbyists and associations to get healthcare reform through, financial reform through, even to help implement the stimulus package, to help implement TARP. He needs them but he's attacking them and that's a real problem.
DOUTHATBut don't you think that that was always the most unrealistic of the Obama campaign's promises, to sort of change how Washington works?
THURBERI think he believe in it. He believed in it in Illinois. He believed it in the 2007 reform. He believed in it in terms of pushing through those reforms that he had in the first executive order. Maybe he was somewhat naive let's put it that way.
REHMShort break and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd we have a discussion going this morning about President Obama's first two years in the White House. A new book edited by Professor James Thurber of American University is titled "Obama in Office." He's here in the studio along with Susan Page of USA Today, Ron Elving of NPR, Ross Douthat of the New York Times. One of the basics for any president is his ability to communicate. How well has he done that, Ron Elving?
ELVINGThat has been one of the great challenges of the Obama Administration thus far and it is an ironic one because I think it is fair to say that in his campaign for president 2007 and 2008 he was not only an effective communicator, but he set a kind of new standard for cooperation, if you will, from the media. He was a favorite -- he was a favorite beyond favorites.
REHMWhy are you laughing, Ross?
DOUTHATI like the choice of words.
ELVINGRoss likes understatements.
THURBERHe feel in love.
ELVINGThe media fell in love, there's no question about it. He was the beneficiary of the fulfillment of a fantasy almost I think for the media. He was the ultimate story. But not only the first African-American president, but in many respects somebody who came from a generation and spoke for a point of view and a kind of intellectual approach to things. But many, certainly not all and maybe not even most, but many in the American media found quite fascinating and were willing to get behind. And not only liberal journalists but people in the middle of the road and even some conservatives found him fascinating and he attracted a fair number of them to his standard.
ELVINGNow, almost as soon as he took the oath of office -- in fact, I would argue that even before he took the oath of office in the transition period, starting with some of the Blagojevich stuff that went down, the rolling birth story and the trying to get Tom Daschle in as the healthcare czar, another lobbyist story, all of these things, the relationship between Obama and his people -- and of course the people in between are always crucial -- his people and the reporters who were covering them changed radically. And we shouldn't have been surprised by this although, as Susan has said, people always do seem to be surprised in a president's camp when the tone between them and the press changes, when the media suddenly see them differently because they're in the White House.
REHMHow much of that was Rahm Emanuel?
PAGEI don't think he was a lot of that actually. I mean, I think Rahm -- Rahm Emanuel as the president's first Chief of Staff, was in a very -- I won't say device -- he was a very forceful figure and some people liked...
PAGE...aggressive -- and some people liked him a lot and some didn't. But reporters were very accustomed to dealing with Rahm Emanuel. When I first met Rahm Emanuel in 1992 when he was working for President Clinton's first campaign -- and a lot of reporters in town have similarly long experiences with him. Now, it did set a tone, a very aggressive tone with the press and perhaps more importantly with members of congress. I think the tone that was set with congress fit the very polarized nature of the world in which they were operating the first two years.
THURBERAs I -- you know, I think this president doesn't like congress and many presidents are that way. He didn't have a lot of very close friends. I think he used Vice President Biden to do a lot of things behind the scenes, 'cause he has a lot of long term friends. But the most important thing about communication is he didn't communicate to the American public about what the problems were to be solved by these major pieces of legislation. They went right to legislation. In other words, in healthcare, its cost quality access finance. He didn't talk about that and then when he talked about it to the American public he was like a professor. He was very, very complex. It wasn't like when he was campaigning. Of course campaigns are different than governing but he's still very complex in terms of the way he describes things.
THURBERNow, that doesn't come from a weak ego like some people wanna show how much they know. It's just that he knows how complex it is and he wants everybody to think through it and see why we need this policy in financial reform or healthcare reform or stimulus.
REHMBut it didn't work.
ELVINGHere's a quick data measure on what Jim's talking about. The Bloomberg News people did a national poll the week before the November, 2010 midterm elections that were so disastrous for the Democrats. And they found that by a margin of two to one -- or rather a ratio of two to one the people responding in the polls thought that the economy had shrunk since Obama became president despite 15 months of consecutive growth. They thought their taxes had gone up even though, in fact, their taxes had gone down. And they thought the TARP, which Jim referred to earlier, was money completely down a rat hole...
DOUTHAT...none of it was ever going to come back...
DOUTHAT...and two to one.
DOUTHATThey thought that because the Obama people lost the connection that they had had during the campaign to the independent voter to the average American in which they were able to communicate their view of what the problems were and what their solutions could practically be. They lost that once they were in office.
REHMOr was it loud voices like Rush Limbaugh, like Shawn Hannity? Was it those conservative voices who were simply making this president look bad from day one?
THURBERWell, like in a campaign you need to have a very clear strategy theme and message and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it and keep it simple. And so the opposition no, no, no, no, it's very simple. They needed to have a war room to push back on death panels, to push back on this nonsense, in my opinion. And they didn't do it. They just let it stay out there and fester...
ELVING...and the tea group people took a hold of it and ran with it.
DOUTHATI think one thing to keep in mind is that when Rush Limbaugh made his famous comments that he wanted Barack Obama to fail and when he came to Washington and gave a barnburner of a speech at the CPAC Conservative Political conference, the Obama White House was very, very pleased with this development. And they went out of their way -- I forget if it was Robert Gibbs or someone else, but they went out of their way to sort of anoint Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party.
DOUTHATAnd I think the Obama White House thought that the contrast between the president, then very popular, widely liked by independents, perceived as a sort of moderate reasonable figure and, you know, shouting, noisemakers on Fox News and talk radio was a contrast that would redound to Obama's benefit. And they went out of their way to sort of build up this rivalry. And then it kind of blew up in their face. And I think the reason it blew up in their face has less to do with this sort of particular noisiness and unfairness of Fox News and talk radio and all the rest.
DOUTHATAll of those groups were -- I mean, the tea parties weren't there during the 2008 campaign but Fox News was not being kind to Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. Rush Limbaugh was not being kind to Barack Obama. A lot of it just had to do with radically changing circumstances. And, you know, you just quoted the list of, you know, people didn't know the economy was growing. Well, people didn't know the economy was growing. People knew the unemployment rate was going up. And, I mean, I think with a lot of -- a lot of those things where, you know, it's easy to say well, the public was ignorant of what was going on. You know, the unemployment rate was 9, you know -- how high did it get?
ELVINGTen, it touched ten.
DOUTHATIt touched ten and that’s a scenario where saying that, well, if only the Obama Administration had communicated that yes, you know, you lost your job but GDP is going up again, I think it's a little bit -- I think there were limits on what the White House could do in those circumstances.
PAGEAlso in some ways the White House was out of sync with where the public was because the president made the decision he wanted to get the healthcare bill through, which was a hard lift. And that meant that he was not talking about the economy and jobs, when that was the issue that was in fact at the top of Americans' minds. I think he paid a big price for that. Now maybe over the long haul he'll look back and say this passing the healthcare plan was worth it. But it meant that he spent most -- like a year-and-a-half not focused on the issue that people were really concerned about.
THURBERYou know, I think they over-learned the problems that Clinton had with healthcare. They gave too much power to Chairman Henry Waxman and other people on The Hill, they let them go at it. And then at the very end he intervened and got Senator Baucus to move in the finance committee and that was a problem. But they also focused on this thing called cap and trade. What's cap and trade, you know? They don't know what that is in Boise. It's climate change and that wasn't high on the list. Those two things dominated for about 18 months. And the agony of watching them go through the legislature was painful for America and that was a problem.
DOUTHATAnd to go...
ELVINGThis is where the substantive part, what you're talking about Susan, what you're talking about Jim, the substantial part of what they were trying to do segues into the communication's message because during the campaign they had intense involvement with voters. But after the election what the voters saw was the Obama people intensely involved with federal law, federal policy and, worst of all, federal policy makers, congress, the kind of people Jim's talking about. That's what they saw. That broke the connection. The intense involvement with the voters was gone and this other intense involvement took its place and the voters took notice.
REHMYou know, it was an interesting thing to watch the transition between Barack Obama the candidate communicating with the public and Barack Obama the President reading statement after statement. It was a total transition in the manner in which he came across that I do think affected an awful lot of people's thinking.
PAGEI think that's true. And I don't know exactly why this miscalculation was made, because you talked about moving from campaign into governing. In some ways there's not a difference. You know, governing is a form of campaigning and that is not -- that's a message that they seem to have not paid enough attention to certainly during the first two years.
THURBERBut they've tried to come back. His State of the Union message was very simple. We've gotta invest in education, technology, R & D. And then he went out and gave some very simple presentations with stories. America loves stories. And -- but now he's back to the more complex things that George Washington University Press -- pardon me, speech last week was very complex about how we should all come together and how we have to have tax increases and cuts in the titlement programs to deal with the deficit. And it was not that persuasive in my opinion.
REHMAll right. Here is an e-mail from Mike in D.C. who says, "How has the tremendous increase of online information and disinformation affected this president? Things like the Birthers?"
ELVINGThere's been a tremendous amount of distraction from stories that had their primary in life online. Things that would be (sounds like) revetted by legitimate news organization -- I should -- that's a poor choice of words -- conventional news organizations and --
PAGELegitimate was okay with me.
ELVINGAnd let us say products that have stood the test of time and have many, many, many clients or many, many buyers, people who are interested in big operations that check facts and care about whether or not something is actually true. People who would actually go to Hawaii and find out what the story was with the birth certificate.
DOUTHATDonald Trump has people in Hawaii. I don't know -- why are you -- (all talking at once)
ELVINGConventional news operations other than Mr. Trump's operation...
ELVING...would care about whether or not some of these things were true. Obviously a great number of people get a lot of disinformation from internet sources that don't really care that are only interested in whether or not they can attract some attention.
ELVINGThis applies off the (unintelligible) as well.
REHMExactly. I mean...
THURBER...but they go to those sources that they believe in in the first place.
THURBERI think that most people in America believe that he was born in Hawaii and the people on the far right don't and they go to the sources to reinforce that and that's a problem.
REHMRoss Douthat, why has Trump been so successful?
DOUTHATWell, Trump has been successful because he more than -- and this is getting more into, I think, internal Republican Party politics than -- but Trump has been successful, I think, more because he has -- if you look at what Trump is saying, it isn't just talking about Obama's birth certificate. He's saying, you know, look -- you know, the Arabs are -- you know, have us over a table and the Chinese are doing this to us and so on. And I'm gonna go out and fight with them.
REHMBut he's using Birthers. He's using that image.
DOUTHATHe's using that to -- he's using that to -- Trump is playing on two factors among Republican voters I would say. One is -- right, he is getting in Obama's face and the Birther -- the Birther nonsense is the best possible way to get in Obama's face. And I think one of the best ways to interpret the popularity of the, you know, birth certificate theory is that it's just -- it's a way of people, you know, responding to poll questions to express their deep distrust and dislike of Barack Obama. And that's what Trump is tapping into.
REHMRoss Douthat of the New York Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jim Thurber.
THURBERWell, I'd like to respond to Ross. I think that it's also a way to say that Obama is not like you.
THURBEROkay. That he lived in Indonesia, he cares about people in Africa. He goes to Africa. He actually talks to the Arabs before we go into Libya. He's multinational. He just doesn't move in without asking anybody like other presidents. And many of these people don't like that. Plus, they don't like the trade problems with -- and the currency problems with China, and they put it altogether with him. That's been a failure, his relationship with China on currency. And so maybe the birth certificate thing is sort of a symbol of all of that otherness that these people don't like.
DOUTHATRight. But -- sorry, Diane.
REHMGo ahead, go ahead.
DOUTHATI was just gonna say that in -- again, in a presidency where, you know, Obama's approval ratings were high and so forth -- I mean, the Birther stuff was, again, out there during the campaign. The birth certificate nonsense is not what's determining Obama's overall approval numbers. It's something that's happening within the Republican base. And if you're talking about the overall trajectory of the Obama Presidency, I think the birth certificate stuff is -- it is a -- it's an epiphenomenon rather than an integral part of what's -- if Obama's approval ratings were high, the fact that Republican's want to talk about the birth certificate would be an evidence of the Republican Party's deep marginalization.
THURBERBut we've shown in the book that the support by the Republican Party of Obama very little in a Republican's -- it was very low -- has gone down slightly, not dramatically. He's not attracted Republicans at all. And by the way, Regan was at 39 percent in April of this period of time...
THURBER...when he was president. (all talking at once)
ELVINGAnd this long wave of popularity non – popularity or approval for a president, you have to go back to Obama's peak point, which was of course the very beginning, inauguration point. He was at a little over 60 percent. He came down 12 percentage points in the first six months, 2 percentage points a month on average. That's quite a rapid decline.
ELVINGBecause the economy was going into a tank. Because the fiscal crisis, while it may have been well managed in retrospect, looked as though it was in freefall and we were starting to see the recessionary effects of that fiscal crisis and people were being put out of work. And the country seemed to be completely in a kind of state of economic chaos. Now all of that was exaggerated, as we can see now, it was handled pretty well by an objective standpoint, but his numbers came down dramatically. Ever since that initial six-month drop, which ended about the time of the town halls in August of 2009, ever since then his numbers have been remarkably consistent, back and forth between sort of the low to mid 40's, up to about 50, 51 percent. And they've moved back and forth in that range now for almost two full years.
THURBERAnd, you know...
ELVINGThe big drop all came in the first six months.
THURBERSorry. You know that – and he went up during lame duck because he showed that he could reach out and work with the opposition party, the FDA reform went through, Start II went through. And of course the tax cuts went through, which hurt his support from his base. But he went up to 52 percent during that period.
THURBERBut he's been at 48 to 52 or so.
PAGEBut down just recently as Ross was saying.
REHMYeah, and why?
PAGEI think there's – I think what we see in our polling is growing questions about the strength of his leadership. That's a measure in which he's really fallen. And I think that reflects in part Libya -- you know, the multinational approach to Libya. And also the debate over the budget and the debt. You know, the budget that he put out in February is irrelevant now.
REHMSusan Page of USA Today. Short break. When we come back, your calls.
REHMWelcome back. It's time to open the phones first to Chicago, Il., good morning, Bill.
BILLHi, I mean, you, no offense, but I know you're doing your job reading poll numbers, but, I think, you're really out of touch with what Obama's supporters are feeling and how they're looking at his – you know, looking at and judging his presidency. I, myself, I'm a liberal democrat originally from Massachusetts living in the Midwest now. I'm registered as an independent and I voted for Nader in 2000, but I voted for Obama and, for me, the symbol of my disappointment is one of the campaign promises he made, which was to broadcast live over the internet all meetings with special interests.
BILLAnd I remember pumping my fists when I heard that one. And that was sort of a symbol to me that things were really going to be different. So, I mean, you can talk about whether people perceive him as being an effective communicator and what he's accomplished, but, I think, he's going to be judged, and is being judged, by his supporters on two things, one, whether he's kept his promises. And most of us don't think he's kept a single promise. And, two, the fact that he seems to be just a continuation of Bush with, you know, his military actions. People are very, very disappointed with that.
BILLAnd I don't think -- you know, people aren't going to look at some of the things you were mentioning earlier, like, the fact that he passed major legislation like the healthcare bill.
REHMAll right, Susan.
PAGEYou know, I think, President Obama has a problem with some liberal voters like Bill, who wish he had pursued the single payer option – the government health plan option – in the healthcare bill. Want him to close Guantanamo Bay; that's a promise he's been unable to keep. Disappointed with the increased troop levels in Afghanistan; I think that looms as a big issue over the next 18 months for President Obama. And there are things he has to address. I mean, one thing that President Obama has faced, I think, is that liberal voters who supported him have found him not as liberal as they hoped he would be.
PAGEAnd that independents who supported him found him to be much more liberal than they thought he would be – much more of a spender and a big government type than they thought.
THURBERWell, you know, we have a – sorry. We have this situation in the United States and that is it's a representative democracy. We have a Congress. And you need 60 votes to pass anything in Congress and so, I think, it's phenomenal that he got so much through in the first two years. It was the reform period. Now, it's the period of -- sort of fighting small wars, rear guard defense to keep things in there. We also have First Amendment rights. We have the -- we allow people to organize and lobby. And, I think, he increased expectations about attacking lobbyists and reducing their influence unrealistically. You can't do it in a -- when you have First Amendment rights. They're part of the process for good or bad.
DOUTHATAnd a lot of the rhetoric that he used during the 2008 campaign had a tendency to create, in many voters, an expectation. One of the phrases he used was the Martin Luther King phrase, "The fierce urgency of now." Well, if you know government as well as Jim knows it, as well as people who have been observers for 25, 30 years, you know that that is a kind of metaphor. You don't take it literally. But, on the other hand, if you're a first-time voter -- a surge voter -- or a Nader voter, and you hear somebody say the fierce urgency of now, you may think they're talking about the present. You may think they actually mean it.
REHMAll right, to Burke, Va., good morning, Ruth.
RUTHOh, good morning. Yeah, I have a few comments to make and a question to ask. The comment that I wanted to make was that as a voter during Obama's run for presidency, I do remember him saying things – and I'm an independent – such as, he expected that – and it could have been after the crash, actually – that the unemployment could go up as high as 10 percent. And that nothing – that he would not be able to accomplish everything within his presidency, and far beyond his presidency. So I did not expect all these that maybe liberals were expecting.
REHMI think he said those things after he was elected, Susan. Am I right?
PAGEWell, I think he -- obviously, even when he was running for office, he would say things like, you can't fix everything immediately.
PAGEIt took us a long time to get into this ditch. It'll take us a long time to get out of it.
PAGEBut, of course, I'm not sure that's what people hear. I mean, that's sort of, like, the small print with the asterisk at the bottom of the offer...
PAGE...that you get on the internet.
ELVINGWell, what I remember is -- and I forget which presidential debate it was, but it was after the Lehman Brothers and all the rest of it -- I remember he and McCain going back and forth talking about what spending they were going to cut. And, I think, it's easy for people to forget now, but, you know, it was a different time and place and so on. But, in addition, to running for president, promising to raise taxes for the rich and pass healthcare legislation, Obama also campaigned attacking the Bush deficits and promising independent voters that he was going to cut the deficit. And that – the deficit is never a sort of primary issue the way the economy is. It's always, generally, more of a secondary issue, but for Obama it's been a big secondary issue.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Larry in Washington who says, "The President has not had any CEO or executive experience prior to the election. Has that lack of executive experience hurt him?" Jim.
THURBERWell, I think that there is a little bit of learning on the job about being an executive. And he had some pretty good people around him. He has even better people now that helps him with that, but he's a guy who's never managed more than a senate office, you know, 25 people or 30 people. And it does make a difference whether you are governor or someone who's run a large complex organization. He tried to centralize power in the White House, as we know, through the czar system. It's given the Romanoff's a bad name because there's so many of them. And that hasn't worked very well.
THURBERAnd he's appointed some very good people in the Cabinet, but he hasn't used the Cabinet -- not for decision making, but to sell the policies out there. He hasn't put them out. They're very articulate, smart people. He hasn't done that.
REHMAnd here's an e-mail from Bill in Dallas who says, "Keep it simple. I don't want my president to craft his communication to me with the assistance of PR-savvy advisors." Ross.
DOUTHATI mean -- I'm not sure what to say. I think that it goes back to the point that was just being made before about there being somewhat naïve expectations about the kind of changes that Barrack Obama would bring to Washington. I think every politician campaigns and tells people I'm not going to, you know, I'm not going to pull test everything. I'm going to give you the honest to God truth and so on. And then you get in the White House and, you know, you don't get in the White House you run a campaign. And you have PR testing going on all the time.
DOUTHATSo, you know, there is -- I mean and this actually goes back to the Donald Trump appeal, right. Like, I mean, why -- you know, people like Donald Trump for a week or two because Donald Trump really isn't crafting his message, you know, spinning with PR. He's, you know, he's a blow-hard thing, whatever comes to mind, but that isn't a way to really run for president.
REHMAnd here's what Muhammad says, "Obama has been a great disappointment. He has no guts to stand up to republicans."
DOUTHATThat is a criticism that the President will hear throughout these two years as he tries to deal with the reality of a House of Representatives run by the republicans. And the republicans already had essentially a draw in the Senate. Now, they have domination in the House. They can do whatever they want in the House and the Senate is not really an effective foil for the House because it's really in irons. Neither party has an effective majority there.
PAGEBut, you know, one...
THURBERAnd when you have divided party government, it's very tough. But other presidents have stood up to it. If you go back to the speeches of FDR, he's tough. He pushes hard. He pushes Wall Street in those speeches and if you look at Truman, he does the same thing.
DOUTHATAnd how many republicans were there in Roosevelt's House?
THURBERYeah, I know, it's a little different.
DOUTHATSix, I think.
ELVINGNot 288, 88.
PAGEBut, you know, in Jim Thurber's book there's a chapter by Steve -- Professor Steve Wayne about Obama's leadership style. And he makes, what I think, is a smart point. He says, "He wants transformational change with transactional leadership." So he wants big fundamental, sweeping change, but his style of leadership holds back a little bit. It lets the Congress kind of work out the details before he steps in and makes his case and decides what he want to do.
PAGEAnd, I think, he's -- I think he's paid a cost -- a price for that, too. It doesn't convey the kind of strong leadership..
PAGE...that people want to see.
ELVINGBut he's promised to be the post-partisan president. From the very beginning, last week, the American public loves it in the polls. I look at these polls very carefully. They want someone who's post-partisan and they don't like deadlock. They don't like what's going on in Washington, in terms of not making decisions. But, you know what, there's nobody in the middle. He keeps moving to the middle and there's nobody there. But the middle are the voters in America. They're in the middle, not the decision makers in Washington and that creates deadlock, which they don't like.
REHMAnd here's an e-mail saying, "President Obama miscalculated the level of vitriolic, racial rhetoric that would be tolerated in America." What do you think, Susan?
PAGEI think it's been a factor. I mean President Obama, himself, has never talked a lot about race. During the campaign he didn't focus on it. And, as president, he really hasn't either. But, I think, it's one of the realities of the world in which he has to operate.
REHMAll right, to San Francisco, good morning, David, you're on the air.
DAVIDWell, hi, Diane and your guests. Do you know why -- you've started to raise what I wanted to talk about and that's that every time Obama seems to get suckered by these right wingers, they seem to come up with even more elaborate scams to cheat him the second time. So is it emboldening these cads. And one example of it, two or three days ago, Standard & Poor's declared that California's bankrupt. Well, if Obama had been paying attention for the last two years about the sub prime, he would have seen that Standard & Poor's has been involved in almost every scandal -- financial scandal all the way back to before Reagan.
DAVIDAnd so organized crime pretty much is determining that California's bankrupt. And now Standard & Poor's is declaring that the entire United States is bankrupt.
THURBERWell, I'd like to talk a little above some of the specifics in the question and say that he has a record of giving things up before he sits down at the table. The stimulus package, one third of it, and he didn't sell this – were tax cuts that the republicans wanted. And he got zero votes out of the House, three out of the Senate and he continues to do it. He's doing it on the latest budget negotiations. He has an agreement through Reed and then they come to the table and they want even more. And that's not good leadership.
ELVINGYou know, we say he's never run anything as an executive. One thing he did run was The Harvard Law Review. And when he ran The Harvard Law Review he liked to get everybody, even the people who had the most extreme views, to come together at the table and eventually harmonize in some way or another, and was apparently pretty good at doing that. And that's -- in a sense, it appears to be the model that he's trying to bring to the national governorship.
DOUTHATI think there's a lot of naivety in this vision of what's gone wrong with Obama's leadership. And, I think, that it relies on seeing American politics through a partisan, liberal lenses where, you know, every time Obama compromises it's a sign that those republican cads have played him for a fool and so on. The basic facts are that the Obama agenda, from the beginning, was a transformational, liberal agenda, right. That involved the holy grail of democratic policy for 30 years, 50 years, universal health care, which required making cuts and tax increases all over the place that were inevitably going to be politically unpopular.
DOUTHATThe stimulus package was, by far, the largest package of its kind in American history. It involved pushing a country already deep in debt further into debt. And you could go down the list and, currently, we're having a big debate about the deficit, right, where you're dealing with incredibly difficult things. I mean the American public, yes, they theoretically like the idea of post-partisanship, but what the American public really likes is low taxes and high spending, which are not necessarily mutually compatible things. And any president has to thread this needle, but Obama -- part of what Obama has run into, from the beginning, is that one, this stuff is hard, and, two, a lot of what he's wanted to do is just, basically, unpopular.
REHMAnd, Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an e-mail from Suzanne who says, "I have felt from the beginning that this administration should have been shouting from the rooftops the good things they were doing. Instead they were whispering. Communication has been their greatest shortfall."
PAGEAnd you think about presidents who have effectively communicated things. Bill Clinton, for instance, had some faults, no question, but a great communicator. And I remember when he was pushing the earned income tax credit, which is a complicated idea. And he would talk about it all the time. And he would talk about it in ways people understood and he made the case for it and he got it -- he got it through. Or George H. W. Bush in the lead up to the first war in Iraq, he didn't talk about anything else. He talked about that. He talked about it every day in public forums and interviews and every way he could. And that's the kind of focus that you have to have if you're going to make your case.
ELVINGI think he has not had message discipline out of the White House and out of the agencies.
ELVINGI think that he passed the legislation. He thought that it would persuade America that it was good and he didn't continue to sell the legislation with America. And he's still not selling the legislation.
REHMBut Ross thinks the legislation was wrong.
DOUTHATCan I just – can I just take you inside – let me just take you inside the vast right wing conspiracy in 2004, 2005 or so when George W. Bush's numbers were going down, down, down, down, down. Something you heard all the time from conservatives at that point was that the White House had a message problem. It had a communications problem. They weren't explaining why we were in Iraq. The economy was growing and it was the greatest story never told. And, I think, what often happens when -- you know, the deficit is large, right. The unemployment rate is high. We're embroiled now in three foreign wars and, I think, the White House has more problems than just a communications problem.
DOUTHATJust as the White House did in the Bush era and, I think, it's something, again, that people who are rooting – if you're rooting for a White House you want to think if only they would go out and sell things a little better we would -- you know, we would persuade people. And sometimes the problems are deeper than that.
ELVINGThat's certainly true, but at the same time, it's a little bit like the things the White House, itself, was saying about the problems in 2009 and 2010. They were saying, well, there's no communication strategy that covers 10 percent unemployment or 9.6 or whatever it was in a particular month.
DOUTHATOh, it's true. It can become an...
ELVINGAnd they would they would say that themselves, and, I think, anyone in the White House would have said we had real problems to deal with. We had an ambitious agenda. At the same time, we had to deal with a fiscal crisis, an automobile industry crisis, two wars that we inherited, neither of which we wanted in the first place, and so on. A lot on their plate -- a lot they had to deal with, but all of that having been said, you could say that about the darkest days of Bill Clinton's presidency. You could say it about the darkest days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, and there were some in the first term -- after Lebanon, for example.
ELVINGAnd in those instances, as Jim was saying a moment ago, those communicators, whether it were Reagan or Bill Clinton, managed to find the way to focus on just the message they wanted to get across and did that effectively and won re-election.
PAGEAnd to agree with Ross on one big point, reality makes a difference. So if the reality in 18 months is that unemployment continues to come down...
PAGE...the economy is looking pretty good. The situation in Libya isn't some kind of disaster President Obama will have the assessment of the American people and win a second term.
REHMAnd that's the first two years we look ahead to the next. Susan Page, Ross Douthat, Ron Elving, James Thurber, he's editor of a new book. It's titled, "Obama in Office." Thank you all.
ALL PANELISTSThank you.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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