Sunday, April 26, 2009

MEET the PRESS 'Obama 100 days' Goodwin & Meacham

MR. GREGORY: We're joined by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and the editor of Newsweek magazine, Jon Meacham.

So, 100 days. Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post has an interesting a column today in which he says that the first 100 days are like the opening chapter of an unfinished novel. Doris, what have we learned about this president after 100 days?

MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think we've learned a lot about his leadership. We've learned that he's a man who is enjoying the job of being president, which is really important. You know, somebody said to FDR in the middle of all those challenges, "How can you bear all of this?" And he said, "Wouldn't anybody want to be president?"

It's the best job in the world. If you frees your psychic energy by loving the job, that's one thing. We've learned that he loves to speak to the American people, that he's willing to risk the overexposure in order to establish that connection with the American people. We've learned that he somehow shapes his own day. I mean, I think it's great that he gets up in the morning, has breakfast with the kids before going to the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan did the same thing. He said--not with the kids, but he got to the Oval Office later. Somebody said, "There'll be a national security adviser there at 7:15. You've got to be there, Mr. President." He said, "That guy's going to be waiting a long time. I'm going when I want to."

If you can find ways to sustain your spirit and maintain a sense of normalcy, the fact that he goes out and he has dinner in the White House--I mean, in the, in the Washington, D.C., area, that he goes on ESPN, all of that frees up, I think, your energies to replenish yourself and allow you to become a good president.

MR. GREGORY: Jon, it's interesting. We're talking about temperament here. It applies to the substance.

MR. MEACHAM: This is a president who almost instantly looks in the mirror and says, "I am the go-to guy" when it comes to pulling it all together, providing leadership, providing the way forward and communicating all of that. You expect that out of a president, but it comes in varying degrees.

It's the politics of calm, in many ways. And I think we'll study these 100 days and possibly the entire administration, ultimately, as a case study in crisis management in which he is trying to do something quite fascinating. He's doing a counterculture--running a countercultural presidency. In a news--in a world run by news cycles that move so fast, stories burn so brightly, he's saying, no, that we will be--he quoted St. Paul in his inaugural address, to use another one, "Be patient in tribulation."

He's arguing for a kind of patience. It's a projection of his personal characteristics on the politics of the moment. And that is one of the things that defines a great president, if he becomes one.

MR. GREGORY: And yet critics would say one of the things that he's done in 100 days already is expand the role of government, the size of government, the level of activism of government to a point that has put this country on a very dangerous heading, particularly financially, for the longer term.

MS. GOODWIN: You know, on the other hand, that's what he ran for the presidency in the first place for. He thought this was a moment in time when people realized that government had to take a more active role in solving the problems. That was his whole campaign. And I think to a certain extent, by doing a lot of things at once, at least setting the groundwork for them--he knows he's not going to get everything at the same time. But if he does get health care, then he can move toward alternative energy, then he can move toward education. By having those task forces going, by having Congress starting to work--you know, LBJ was told in '65, "You just got the Civil Rights Act desegregating the South through in '64, you had your war on poverty. Go slow, the country has to absorb these things." He said, "No. The momentum is here, I've got to move forward." He went for voting rights, he went for Medicare, he went for aid to education, he went for immigration reform, and he got those things because the country was ready. He's making a decision that the country's ready for this act of his government.

MR. GREGORY: And isn't it interesting, a new poll from The Washington Post/ABC News out just today measuring people's sense of whether the country's headed in the right direction, and for the first time, look at these numbers. In January he takes office, only 19 percent thought the country was headed in the right direction. Now that's 50 percent, more than think it's headed in the wrong direction. Jon, even at such an anxious time for the country.

MR. MEACHAM: Yeah. I think he wants to make a lot of big plays, and he knows that presidents are only remembered for two or three things. I think this argument about doing too much too quickly actually underestimates the people.

MS. GOODWIN: I agree.

MR. MEACHAM: I think that the American people are a sophisticated and mature republic and can, I think, think about more than one thing at once. And I think, again, as Doris says, does no one listen during campaigns? This happened with--you know, you covered President Bush. He use to say, when they say, "Well, why are you really cutting taxes?" He said, "Well, you know, this is what I ran on."

He ran on changing the conversation. In, in the same way President Reagan changed it center right, Obama wants to change things to center left. And that's the issue before us.

MS. GOODWIN: I think that right track, wrong track thing is huge, because what that shows is this mystery of leadership, that somehow you can change the American people's feeling about their country because you're there. You know, when FDR got into office there was this incredible letter sent to him by somebody who said, "Oh, my dog is hurt, my roof is falling in, I've lost my job, my, my wife is mad at me, but you are there so everything's going to be all right."

That's the extraordinary transference of a leaders to the mood of a country.

And if you can get confidence in the country going, that's the most important thing he's done in these 100 days.

MR. GREGORY: But there's--this is a question of leadership. Again, what critics would say, if you look at how this president handled the bonus question with AIG, he knew that in the scheme of things it was not the biggest deal to this administration. And yet when the politics shifted, he stood up and said, "Yeah, those bonuses are table--terrible, and I'm angry." Perhaps the leadership moment there was to say to the country, "Calm down, it's not the most important thing." Here on this memos now he seems to be shifting positions because he's got a left wing of his party that says there must be accountability from the Bush administration. The politics of looking backward are tricky.

MR. MEACHAM: They are hugely complicated, and my sense is we have not seen the end of this story. I think that they are keeping some options open. I'm personally in favor of a 9/12 Commission, where we find someone like Jack Danforth and Sam Nunn and do some something like the 9/11 Commission where you review the entire war on terror. Did rendition work, did the unmanned aerial drones, as well as the, the interrogation techniques? And I, I suspect that what they've shown themselves to be are quite pragmatic, quiet realistic. That was the AIG example you raised. He didn't want to jump on it. There was a huge moment of populist rage. But remember, it was just a moment. I mean, it burn, it burned very quickly. And what's going to happen, for all the stylistic points, all the temperament points, he's going to be judged on whether this stuff works.

And whether the, whether the economy comes back and how he confronts still unforeseen national security challenges.

MR. GREGORY: Isn't this question about torture, Doris, if you put it in an historical context, we have to ask the large question, which is can you defeat an enemy like al-Qaeda without compromising the nation's character? Can you?

I mean, is that a debate that should go forward?

MS. GOODWIN: I mean, one has to hope so, that it's possible to do; as everybody was saying before, that the moral values of our nation are what we are known for abroad. I think the interesting question about why he wanted to look forward instead of back, I think he recognizes, as all leaders do, that you only have a certain number of resources in time, focus and imagination. And if the country goes off on a jag, you're going to lose--look at even now, we've been talking about torture this morning rather than maybe what should have been talked about if he had his way, which was this new speech that he just made about the importance of every time you have a tax increase you're going to have to use that to go for the tax cut. Every time you have a increased spending, you're going to have to have some sort of reduction in spending. That's a big thing he was talking about. You lose, you lose command of the airwaves with these things, and I think that was his initial instinct of hoping that somehow we could put this behind us. But once that elephant is in the room with that CIA memo...

..options are lost. They're going to have to do something.

MR. MEACHAM: I disagree a little bit. I think that the, to go to your phrase of politics of looking back, is the mature thing to do. And if we are right about our first point that the people can handle a lot of things, then finding a smart, moderate, intelligent way to look back, find out what this history of these seven years can teach us about how to fight terrorism, as you say, can we do this and preserve our moral values? Well, Abraham Lincoln didn't. FDR didn't. Great war presidents have always committed great sins, whether it's suspending habeas corpus or detaining Japanese...

MS. GOODWIN: Incarcerating, incarceration.

MR. MEACHAM: ...Japanese-Americans. And so life is messy. Life is complicated. But we have to understand this history, because if we don't then we--I think we're unilaterally disarming, in a way, as we push forward.

MS. GOODWIN: How could I go against looking back at history? I must yield to your greater judgment.

MR. MEACHAM: There you go.

MR. GREGORY: Doris, you know what's--talk to people, and they want to know, you know, what's he like? What are president's like? How do they make decisions? And somebody close to the president said he's got a very disciplined mind. What do we know about how he makes decisions?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, it sounds like one thing he does is to bring people into the room and ask them to debate different sides of the issue so that he can get alternative points of view, and that what I've heard him say, or other people say, is that he asks people who have been quiet in the room, "Speak up. I want to hear what you said." That's a very healthy thing. Again, going back to FDR, there was a certain time when he was in a room and he was explaining a pet project and everybody said, "Oh, it's great, Mr. President. It's great." George Marshall didn't say a word. He said, "George, what do you think?" and Marshall said, "I don't agree with you at all, Mr. President." Instead of being mad at him, he lifted him 34 feet up--not 34 feet up, 34 generals up to become his chief. And I think that's the way you want to have a president to make decisions, to have as many points of view there, listen to them and then think, think.

MR. GREGORY: All right, we're going to leave it there. Thanks both of you very much

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