Hampton Institute Roundtable on Obama Presidency; H.W. Brands, Robert Caro, George Packer, co-sponsored by Roosevelt Institute, Guild Hall, East Hampton, 07/16/11

Notes taken by Steve Abramson, VATinfo.org:

Bill Brands began by observing that unlike when FDR took office in the Depression, the times were not bad enough when Obama took office for him to be permitted carte blanche.  Given the hand he was dealt, Obama has managed the economy as well as possible.

George Packer said Obama is not an FDR.  Obama is a reasonable progressive, and remote like Wilson.  But he is governing in times that are not hospitable to civility.  Packer added the bold comment that Obama may see his job to manage the country in a period of American decline!  Obama’s problem is that he has failed, since he was elected in 2008, to connect verbally with the public; failed to lead with motivating rhetoric; developed no new catchy phrases.  Packer challenged the audience to think of a memorable phrase attributed to Obama.

Bob Caro, speaking after Brands, came to the President’s defense, saying that Obama had an honest, calm, thoughtful persona and there was “a lot to be said for that.”

Brands pointed out that FDR had huge majorities in both houses, and was able to pass his legislation easily.  Obama began with control of both houses, but the 60 vote filibuster rule blocked his ability to get his full agenda passed.  Speaking to these expectations, Brands depicted the Obama “hope” campaign as allowing the public to project their own, diverse hopes on him.  However, after the election governing required choosing defined positions for or against issues.  Repeating his earlier point, Brands said that when Obama took office the crisis was not deep enough for the opposition to cede power, and he “had to tread lightly.”

Brands continued with an insight regarding taxes.  Once the debt ceiling debate is over, Obama will then be able to reach out to the public about a tax increase.  He cannot mention a tax increase at this time, with the Republican opposition dug-in, however, 80% of the public believes a tax increase is needed.

Packer continued with his feeling that Obama has not managed to articulate a vision for the public to attach itself to, and that there is no compelling political movement  behind Obama, and that Obama has not asked his supporters to do anything.

Caro turned the conversation to governance, elaborating on the contrast between campaigning and governing.  Governing is about passing laws, and to get them passed you must know what Senators (and Congressmen) want for their districts and know how to use your influence to garner their votes.  Pointedly, he said that Obama was only a Senator for three years and a good part of that time was spent campaigning for president, and the president has been on a learning curve.  LBJ’s position was that the most important thing for a president was to get bills passed.

Brands talked to the particular difficulty of our times.  Before the 20th century, the president was not the center of the government, Congress was. In the modern era the president is the center, but the multiple media venues make it harder to communicate the focused message to the public.  The president, he said, must match the times.  FDR was able to reach the public with radio broadcasts, and JFK succeeded in using nascent TV at which Reagan proved a master.  It is much harder today with diverse media.  As to the political campaign, he said that in past times with unemployment very high there were party challenges to the incumbent president, but not this time.  He predicted that Gov. Rick Perry is the likely Republican candidate, but that Obama will win re-election by reaching out to the public.(after the debt ceiling issue is behind him).

Caro, perhaps as though to say “not so fast,” pointed out that there were five states in play and that unemployment was particularly high in those states.

Brand added that Obama sounds reasonable and the Republicans shrill.  Also that foreign policy is a wildcard.

Packer added that Obama faces widespread discontent among Democrats, but cited the Republicans as cynical for shamelessly creating the fiscal mess and not helping  to resolve it.  The bailout and the stimulus he thinks were important, but not very well explained,  and as a result Obama began to lose his hold on the public.  He feels the stimulus was too weak, and posited that “Maybe politicians don’t know how to solve these problems today.” And, he added that Obama has not been heard from often enough in the last several months.

Brands continuing with his view of the Obama persona, said that Obama appears unable to show his anger in public, and cited that FDR was successful in railing against economic royalists.  Politics, he said, is an emotional game, and Obama must show his anger against the opposition.

Caro,said that perhaps Obama being black might curtail his showing anger (to which there was audience applause).  Brands pointed out that Lincoln was soft-spoken and “did not have an angry bone in his body.”  Packer said Obama is not soft, and has shown his steel in his ruthless dealings with subordinates.  Brands said it was difficult to run as an incumbent in hard times, and suggested that his re-election campaign may be run like selling a war, i.e., we have invested so much to make economic progress, we cannot stop now.

Turning to foreign policy, Packer said Obama has handled foreign affairs as well as anyone could, although he did seem a step behind the “Arab Spring,” when it commenced.  He deems Obama to be a shrewd, foreign policy tactician.  Caro added that perhaps most significantly, history may see Obama’s foreign leadership role.

This ended the roundtable discussion, and questions were taken from the audience.  A black audience member, citing his own upbringing expounded on Obama’s need to not show “black anger.”  Obama, he said, is plagued by a debt ceiling and also by a “doubt ceiling.”  As an example, he said that Obama  at Harvard was editor of the Law Review, a position to which he could not have aspired without being diplomatic at his core.

Brands, in response to a question about the political divide, recalled that Truman won by a narrow margin in a campaign in which very confident Republicans took the high road.  However, after the election, the Republicans decided to do everything they could to destroy him.  They were successful in convincing the public, and Truman, although Constitutionally enabled, did not run a second time, as it was unlikely that he would have received his own party’s nod.  Unrelenting opposition sometimes works, and it has worked on Obama, who actually has done well.

Caro pointed out that LBJ did not ha to run against a well-funded opponent, but did have a tough go against the Southern coalition, which was divorced from the rest of the Democrats over LBJ’s civil rights legislation.  In fact, no major legislation had been passed for any president from the time of FDR in 1947 to the LBJ presidency.

Returning to style, Caro said LBJ muscled Congress, and never forgot a vote against him.  Obama, Packer said, shows ruthlessness to his staff, but should show it to Boehner, Cantor, Lieberman; Obama should let them know there is a penalty for opposing him, but he is reluctant to punish anyone; Obama is not feared on the Hill.  Speaker Pelosi was feared and got more done than Obama.

Brands emphasized that bipartisanship is no longer possible.  At one time similar positions were held by members of the two parties, but no longer.  Now, if you are a conservative you are a Republican.  The days of reaching across the aisle are gone, he said.  Gerrymandering has made one party dominant within districts and makes incumbents safe.