During Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office, Congress granted every request the new president made. Barack Obama, despite enjoying a decisive majority in both houses of Congress, hasn’t been so fortunate. His economic stimulus package failed to win a single Republican vote in the House, and conservative members of his own party are trying to block his ambitious plans to provide universal health care and curb global warming. What’s more, Obama himself has alarmed supporters by compromising on key issues, and he has yet to flex his political muscle by mobilizing the tech-savvy network of grass-roots activists he assembled during last year’s campaign. All of which raises the question: Is Obama raising false hopes? Or does he have what it takes to deliver real change?
To assess Obama’s performance during his first six months in office, we sat down in our New York offices with three of America’s leading political observers. David Gergen, a senior political analyst for CNN and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, served in the White Houses of Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist and professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics. Michael Moore is the Academy Award-winning director of Bowling for Columbine and Sicko; his new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, will premiere on October 2nd.
Overall, how would you rate Obama’s first six months in office?
David Gergen: You have to ask, compared to what? Compared to the last president — indeed, compared to the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — he’s gotten off to a fast start, with a number of legislative accomplishments under his belt. The economy didn’t go off a cliff, he’s changed the mood of the country, and there are signs that he’s beginning to change the culture. Compared to his aspirations for the future, however, I think he’s fallen short of what he hoped for by this time, and certainly what the country hoped for by now. The best example is the famous argument between Paul Krugman and the administration over the size of the stimulus package — Paul looks like he won the argument.
Paul Krugman: The problems that Obama faces are kind of awkward. The two major ones — the economy and health care — are things where half a loaf is basically not much better than none. If you’re building a bridge across an abyss — I’m mixing metaphors here — it better be complete. If you have a stimulus plan that falls short, then the economy looks lousy, and everyone says it failed, even though it may have actually made things better than they otherwise would have been. This was a case where he really needed to go for broke, and it’s not clear that he did on a sufficient scale. Likewise, on health care, there is a pretty high threshold of what he has to do to call it a success, (jetting some marginal changes in the health care system will be viewed as failure. So his big push has to succeed on both fronts in a big way, and we don’t know yet whether he will on either one.
Michael Moore: I’m still pinching myself, and I have been since Election Day. In Obama’s first six months he’s played some very savvy, smart politics with the opposition that has tied them in a number of knots. I’m very happy with what I’ve seen. It doesn’t mean I don’t have disagreements with certain things, but we now have the virtual opposite of what we went through over the past eight years. We have an intelligent president who has a heart and cares about others, and who has staked out some very brave positions. You can go down the list: from his speech in Cairo, to his admitting to the Iranian people that the United States helped overthrow the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in the Fifties, to his signing the bill against tobacco companies, to what he’s attempted to do to shut down Guantánamo, even without the support of a majority of senators from his own party. Considering what he’s inherited — the absolute, utter mess that the country is in — it’s been a remarkable six months.
What have you been most impressed by so far? Has any one move he’s made stood out for you?
Moore: He fired the head of General Motors! [Laughs] Seriously, a president of the United States, for all intents and purposes, fired the head of a company that was number one on the Fortune 500 list for more years than any other company in the history of that list. He essentially took over the company in an attempt to save the industrial infrastructure and jobs that it represents — that really stood out. That and his Cairo speech to the people of the Muslim world. Here’s a guy who went through an election where one of the tactics they used to try to prevent his election was to continually plant the idea in people’s heads that he was a Muslim, and a few months after he takes office, he essentially tells the Muslim world that we want to be friends and that he has Muslims in his family, and he respects them. That’s who I want representing me to the rest of the world.
Krugman: It’s funny — my reaction is that I’m actually extremely impressed by a lot of stuff Obama is doing, even on the fronts where I’m complaining, and yet it s inadequate. Take the stimulus. This is the biggest deliberate discretionary move to stimulate the economy through government action since the 1930s — there’s been nothing else like it. If you use that perspective, it’s really impressive, and the quality of the discussion has been extremely good. It’s so weird to have people in and around the White House who actually make sense. I have phone conversations with administration officials, and we’re talking the same language — it’s an amazing thing. But the scale of the problems Obama inherited is so large that you can simultaneously say, “This is really impressive, this is like nothing you could have imagined politically a few years ago,” and at the same time say, “I’m really-afraid that this is not going to be enough.”
If it doesn’t turn out to be enough, there could be electoral consequences. A lot of us on the economics beat, even the president’s economic advisers, are talking about 1937, which was the year that Roosevelt was convinced by the wrong people that he should slacken up on the New Deal. The economy slid back into a severe recession, and the next year he took a beating in the midterm elections, which put a stop to the New Deal agenda for several years. We’re all saying, “Are we going to see something like that here?”
Gergen: I’ve been most impressed over the past six months by the degree of passionate and serious commitment Obama has to social change. It’s not just rhetoric — he’s actually trying to follow through. He has also established that those who said he was not prepared and not up to the job were wrong. He’s now the most respected political figure in the world, according to some international surveys. When you compare all that to the recent past in our politics, this is a significant leap forward.
But the question remains, are the reforms going to be adequate? Right now, both Obama’s aspirations and the needs of the country seem to be higher than what he is actually reaching. Given the inability of recent Democratic presidents to enact major reform, and because he has a long and complex agenda, Obama essentially outsourced much of the leadership for writing bills on climate change and health care to Democrats in Congress. All of that is understandable, and it’s been a great political experiment. But there’s been a tendency for a lot of compromises to be struck in Congress, and the White House has gone along with them too often.
Is there any one move Obama has made that you’ve been most disappointed by?
Gergen: The climate-change bill that recently passed the House, in my judgment, did not go far enough to address global warming. While environmentalists basically support the bill, the foreign press has treated it as almost a joke.
Krugman: I actually had very low expectations on climate change. I thought any real progress was going to have to wait until after the midterm elections next year, so the House bill is far better than anything I imagined was politically possible. In fact, it may be far better than what is politically possible once the Senate gets to it.
Gergen: But if you were an environmental scientist, Paul, you’d be making the same argument about climate change that you’re making about the stimulus: that what’s politically feasible is inadequate to get the job done.
Krugman: Well, on climate change, there are two different issues. One issue is how much emissions-reduction you’re seeking. On that score, the bill is not bad — not remotely enough, but as much as anybody thought was possible. The other issue is how much you’re buying off industry. Unfortunately, the bill contains huge giveaways to industry in the first decade. But that’s more a question of distributional fairness. Big giveaways aren’t an environmental issue — they’re an economic issue.
What’s been most disappointing to me is Obama’s economic policy. His legislative strategy has been to ask for something he thinks he can get and end up being bargained down from there. On the stimulus, I’m reasonably sure that the economists inside the administration did more or less the same calculations I did and said, “We really need something like $1.3 trillion.” But they concluded, “We’re never going to get that through Congress, so let’s go for $800 billion,” apparently in the belief that they were going to get a lot of Republican votes. In the end, they barely got it through, and the three Republican moderates who supported it demanded that one of the key parts — aid to state governments — be cut. So they ended up with a really weak bill. The question is, how many pre-emptive concessions should you make? My instincts are always “none,” but obviously some people in the White House are basically “everything.” That’s been the problem.
Michael, where has Obama disappointed you most?
Moore: Appointing Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Rahm’s brother is my agent, and I can’t get him to return my calls anymore. He spends his day talking to his brother, trying to run the world. That’s my personal beef — I can’t get my agent on the phone!
The larger disappointment comes with the Democratic Party itself, which is still behaving as if they’re afraid to lead the country. I don’t know what part of” “massive, overwhelming victory” they don’t understand. Millions and millions of people voted not only for Obama, but for the Democrats to run both houses of Congress, including a 60-seat majority in the Senate. It’s a mistake to waste any time at this point in enacting the agenda that the American people want.
Having said that, I can sit back and appreciate Obama’s sense of humor in appointing Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to clean up the mess they helped to create. It’s actually what a good parent does — when the children break something, they have to clean it up. At least, I hope that’s what’s going on. I take all of the things that make me nervous about the decisions that Obama has made, and I look at them through that lens — that it’s part of some kind of master plan. It’s like his continued support of a government-run option for health care. If a true public option is enacted — and Obama knows this — it will eventually bring about a single-payer system, because the profit-making insurance companies won’t be able to compete with a government plan and make the profits that they want to make. At some point most of them will probably have to bow out of the business. That’s why they’re spending . . . what’s the latest statistic, Paul?
Krugman: It’s $1.4 million a day.
Moore: One-point-four million a day lobbying to create something that will look like a public option, but in fact will make money for the private, for-profit insurance companies. So, in no way can we allow that to happen. Sixty people a clay in this country die because they don’t have health insurance. In the time we’ll be speaking here, four or five people are going to die because we can’t do what every other civilized country does. If I have one major concern, it’s that whatever Obama’s strategy is on health care, it must lean toward a single-payer system, and he must do everything in his power to beat back the industry that gave more money to his campaign that it did to John McCain’s.
Gergen: Let me take brief issue with you, Michael, on something you mentioned earlier — the firing of Rick Wagoner at General Motors. I thought that was not a brave act. The company was in bankruptcy, and Wagoner had no power against Obama. They should have let him resign and go his way with some honor. We can agree or disagree about what he represented at GM, but that was a political act to fire him, to make points.
Moore: I gave him two points for that, by the way. [Laughs]
Gergen: I know. But the larger point is, I’m glad to have someone of Michael’s honesty say that the public option on health care is, in fact, designed to be a pathway to a single-payer system. Because the Democrats have essentially said, “That’s not true.” We’re not getting a serious, honest debate about single-payer and whether it’s the best long-term solution.
Krugman: A public option leading to single-payer is one possible consequence. But we don’t actually know that. There are a number of cases where a public-run plan could coexist with private plans for people who want more extensive benefits than the public plan provides. Offering a public option is not simply a plot to destroy private health insurance.
You’ve raised the question of whether Obama is compromising too much on his larger, aspirational agenda. Should he draw a line in the sand and say, “Health care reform simply won’t be meaningful without a public option of some sort”?
Gergen: To me, it’s not the line in the sand. The line in the sand should be whether he can find a solution that provides universal coverage and also begins to bring costs down in health care. With all the deals that are being cut, there’s a good chance he’s going to get a package that extends coverage to everyone, but leaves the cost containment for another day.
Krugman: I’m of the belief that if they get universality, then the pressure will be on to do the cost savings. Once you’ve got the responsibility for making sure that everybody can afford health coverage on budget, which you would do under any of the plans being considered, then the pressure to do real cost saving would follow. Right now, the way we work our system is that costs just keep rising, and we deal with them by reducing the number of people who have adequate health coverage. So we basically contain costs by casting more and more people into the abyss. Once you remove that option and cover everyone, the pressure to actually contain costs becomes much stronger. It’s not so much that the public option has to be in the final bill, but if it’s not in, there better damn well be something else, some really serious reforms. In a sense, it has become a litmus test. If the bill does not have a public option, it’s going to take a much, much higher bar on the rest of it to get me to accept it.
Michael, if health care doesn’t include a public option, will that significantly change your take on Obama?
Moore: Absolutely. That’s the minimum we need. The private insurance companies try to maximize profits by paying out as little as possible when people get sick. That’s why they have to be removed from the equation — because they don’t know anything other than the desire to make as much money as possible. And we should not be talking about making money when we’re talking about people who are sick and in need of seeing a doctor.
Krugman: On health care, part of the problem is the other party. Last week I saw John Boehner, the GOP minority leader, complain that Republicans are game to play a role in the health care discussion. He really wants to be a part of it, on certain conditions — there must be no discussion of a public option, no discussion of an employer mandate, no discussion of an individual mandate and no increase in government spending. In other words, he wants to play a role on health care reform as long as no actual health care reform be considered. I rag on Obama to be tougher, but my biggest disappointment is that one of the nations two great political parties has been completely, completely unhelpful. The party that ran the country for the past eight years has just basically dug in on the belief that if they’re sufficiently negative, Obama’s going to go away, and it’s going to be 2005 again.
Gergen: The Republican Party clearly has made terrible blunders in the past few years, and they paid a price in 2006 and 2008. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that the center of gravity in the country has suddenly become one of embracing governmental solutions to health care or to a whole host of other issues. This is still a country whose values system is not that of Canada or Western Europe. For better or worse, we’re much more laissez-faire than those other countries. Assuming that people want to rush into some sort of single-payer system misreads the democratic impulses of the country.
Moore: What about the latest poll that shows more than 70 percent of Americans support a public option in health care?
Gergen: They favor an option, but they’re very wary of government playing too large a role, and they do not favor a single-payer system. What we do know from the Clinton effort, and we’ve seen it in the past, is that you can get a lot of support early for health care reform, but when you start looking at the particulars, the support erodes. We’re already seeing that with the Obama plan, and there’s some fear in the White House that he’s going to pay a price for this. Do I think he ought to continue pushing forward with health care reform? Absolutely, but I don’t think we should misread the politics.
So you see a danger for Obama in both directions. He runs a risk if he doesn’t get real reform, but he also runs a risk if he pushes the government’s role past the point where people arc comfortable.
Gergen: Absolutely. One of the binds he finds himself in is that if the economy does need more stimulus, he is going to have to spend more and drive up the deficit even further. But the country is increasingly rebelling against the deficits. In some ways, hail he gone with a bigger stimulus program upfront when there was more of an appetite for it, he would have been a lot better off than now, trying to come back a second time. He has to be concerned as he goes into the fall that if the economy seems to be stalling, and unemployment is going to be stubbornly high, and we’re moving toward even scarier deficits over the next 10 years, is that going to make moderate Democrats reluctant to move forward on health care reform?
Krugman: This is why health care reform really needs to be completed quickly.
Gergan: That’s also why health care reform needs to pay for itself, and bend the inflation curve downward.
Krugman: Actually, I think that if Obama can show successes, the deficits won’t matter. Massachusetts has health care reform which doesn’t do much cost control, and which exempts a lot of people from coverage. Yet it’s been extremely popular, according to the polls, even though it has turned out to have all the flaws the critics said it would. The thing that will hurt Obama is if the recession drags on, and the unemployment rate is still 10 percent in October 2012 — God help us.
Gergen: One of the things I applaud the Obama administration on is that there are people around the president who are deficit hawks. They really do want to make health care fit within some sort of framework that starts to bring the cost down. That’s the right way to go. It’s sound financially, but it’s also good politics. To me, the litmus test is not a public option, it’s to strike a balance between cost and coverage.
Those in the Senate who oppose the president on health care succeeded in postponing a vote on reform until the fall. Was it a mistake for Obama to set an August deadline?
Krugman: If he hadn’t set a deadline, then nothing would have happened. So we’re much closer to legislation than we would have been. The mistake Obama made was going off on that foreign tour in June. He should have been out there holding rallies for health care.
Gergen: Obama is a gambler by nature. He knew it might not work out, but he set high stakes for himself. We’re going to be asking all sorts of questions now about whether he had the right approach — whether he overlearned the lessons of the Clinton years. The central lesson he took from Clinton was that if you write reform in the White House, Congress will reject it. So he turned it over to Congress and said, “Here are some general principles, but you write it.” As a result you’ve had too many cooks in the kitchen. There was a middle course Obama could have taken, which would have been for the White House to take the leadership role, but to invite Congress to help architect it. That’s the way the Marshall Plan was done, and that’s the way much of the Great Society was done under Lyndon Johnson.
Moore: As far as deadlines, does it matter what month LBJ signed Medicare or when FDR signed the Social Security Act? What matters is that they were bold and didn’t flinch when people called them socialists. I’m more concerned about the insurance industry keeping their stranglehold on this country’s health care. They’ve bought a lot of seats at the bargaining table, and people like Sen. Max Baucus are all too willing to oblige.
Let’s shift gears to foreign policy. Given the state oft he economy, it’s easy to forget that we’re in the middle of two wars that Obama inherited. Start with Iraq: What do you think of his handling of the conflict so far?
Krugman: A lot of people would have liked to have seen American forces much more convincingly on their way out by now. In the end, it looks like we’re going to have a mildly hostile regime installed at the cost of a trillion or so dollars and 4,000 or so American lives. But Iraq doesn’t bother me so much — it’s Afghanistan that has me deeply worried. Afghanistan is the war you could argue was justified — it certainly didn’t start as a gratuitous “Let’s invade somebody who didn’t attack us” war. But it really does look pretty quagmirish. Obama sounds like he’s trying intelligent things to turn things around, but we’re likely to continue losing substantial numbers of soldiers and spending a lot of money without getting results. Afghanistan is not as unpopular as the war in Iraq, because there was an actual reason for the war, but it’s not looking very good.
Moore: I disagree. I don’t think there was a reason for the war in Afghanistan. We were not attacked by Afghanistan — we were attacked by a group of fanatical thugs who committed a mass murder of nearly 3,000 people. There should have been a police action to apprehend the criminals who planned and executed it. The Taliban are not an invading force — they are citizens of Afghanistan, and it is up to the Afghan people to decide whether they want to be oppressed by a group of religious fanatics. It’s not the business of our country to be in Afghanistan right now. I feel so bail that Obama had to inherit this, and he clearly hasn’t been given the right advice. Because it will, a year from now, become his war, just as Vietnam became Nixon’s war.
So what do you make of Obama’s decision to go the other way — to take these two wars he inherited and keep fighting them?
Moore: Look, this guy is a very good basketball player — he fakes right and goes left. He says he’s going to keep 50,000 troops in Iraq. But I would be shocked if, three years from now, there are 50,000 troops in Iraq. He says these things to keep the wolves away from the door, and it works. The other side seems to buy it. That’s why I admire his craftiness here. Same with Afghanistan. When he said he was going to send in 20,000 new troops, I thought, “He’s again trying to create this illusion so that the opposition will be kept at bay.” In fact, he’s sending in the special operations forces to find the leadership of Al Qaeda and bring them to justice. I think the idea is “Let’s go in and do the job George W. Bush didn’t do right after 9/11 — to capture Osama bin Laden — and then we’ll remove the troops from Afghanistan.” Because invading has not worked for any-other country in the history of Afghanistan. We can call up the Brits and find out what happened to them, we can call up Gorbachev and ask him what happened to the Russians. Genghis Khan’s phone is disconnected, so you can’t reach him. But historically, this is a losing proposition. Obama’s not dumb — he knows that he’s got to get the people who committed this crime and do the job Bush didn’t do, and then he’s going to get the hell out of there.
Gergen: “Fakes right and moves left.” Michael Moore, meet the Republican Party. Isn’t that the same critique the Republicans have been making about the president and the administration?
Moore: Yeah, and nobody will listen to them! I feel sorry for them. They think they know what he’s doing and they try to point it out, but Obama just acts all innocent and says, “No, I’m not doing that.” I probably shouldn’t be revealing what his strategy is, but I’m counting on the fact that Republicans won’t be reading this in Rolling Stone.
Gergen: On Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, I believe that President Obama has gotten it fundamentally right. He’s following through on his pledge to reduce the American presence in Iraq and gradually get out of there. We left the cities on time, and we’re going to continue to scale it down.
On Afghanistan, the president is following through on exactly what he promised during the campaign. I know there are those on the left who are very upset with him. They’re worried it’s going to become another Vietnam, and there’s that danger. Afghanistan’s a very poor country, and Michael points out accurately that history suggests, “Lower your expectations.” But I think we have to give Obama six months, or potentially 12 months, to figure out whether his strategy is going to work. He understands that if it goes on and on, the political pressure will be to get out, regardless of what happens. There’s going to be some intense fighting over the course of the summer, and we’ll see in the fall whether we’ve softened up Al Qaeda and the Taliban. At that point, the U.S. can begin to do what it did in Iraq — to sort out who we can work with and who we can’t. Stabilizing Afghanistan will also help in stabilizing Pakistan, a key goal.
The president deserves high marks here for following through, being steady. He’s worked well with the military, and Democratic presidents in the past have sometimes had rocky relationships with the military. His decision to keep Bob Gates as defense secretary has turned out to be an excellent decision, and despite initial concerns, Hillary Clinton has turned out to be an excellent team player. I don’t agree with all aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, but on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’s gotten it fundamentally right.
In one of Obama’s very first acts as president, he announced that he would close Guantánamo. But he’s note indicating he’ll continue to hold some detainees indefinitely, and he’s also continuing Bush’s military tribunals. Is this a compromise on a fundamental level, or a recognition of the complexities of what he’s up against?
Krugman: It can be both, right? It’s a real disappointment. I’m not making a big deal out of it because it’s not my central issue, but people have a right to expect more. It goes to the heart of who we are, and what kind of things we do as a nation.
David, that echoes what you were saying earlier. If you measure Obama against his own aspirations and his own rhetoric, is this an area where he falls short?
Gergen: I am pleased he’s shutting down Guantánamo, and I’m also of the view that just because George W. Hush did something a certain way, for Obama to do it the same way is not, per se, wrong. You have to make a decision on the merits. I know Leon Panetta, and these must be wrenching decisions for him. If he comes down a certain way — that we’ve got these incorrigibles who are dangerous, and we have to detain them — then I tend to give the benefit of the doubt. The overall issue with Obama’s presidency is that he has created these huge expectations. And when you raise people’s expectations, you’re often held to higher standards.
Moore: Have there been tribunals under Obama?
Gergen: I thought they were set up to go forward in U.S. domestic courts.
Moore: Yeah, but that’s not a tribunal. I don’t think there have been any.
So you think this is another head fake?
Moore: Yeah. I think that he gets the opposition to shut up by telling them what they want to hear. The proof is that there aren’t tribunals taking place now where people are getting their rights violated.
Gergen: Isn’t the larger point that they’re being held indefinitely?
Moore: “Indefinitely” for Obama might mean “two more months.” Remember, he’s having to deal with his own party on this. There were only six senators who supported the funding just to shut down Guantánamo and deal with the prisoners. When that happened, Obama realized, “OK, this is going to be harder than I thought. My own people don’t have the political will to do this, so I’ll go back on the court with my basketball.” Sadly, on this issue, Obama is having to play like LeBron James — he not only has to beat the opposing team, he also has to play against the people on his own team to take them to the championship.
Obama has also disappointed many of his own supporters by refusing to investigate Bush’s approval of torture and by scuttling any talk of a truth commission to expose other crimes during the Bush years. Was that the right move?
Moore: I don’t think that’s a dead issue. People of conscience know we can’t just sweep this under the rug. It needs much more than just a truth commission — there needs to be a serious criminal investigation. If it determines that laws were broken, then you have to do what you always do in this country: arrest and prosecute those who have broken those laws.
Gergen: We certainly need to get the facts out, not only about how the torture memos were written, but about how we got into this war. We still don’t know for sure whether there were deliberate attempts to deceive us.
Krugman: I think we do know that.
Moore: I know that.
Gergen: In my view, we don’t have the full record of what they were looking at, and we should. We need to make a distinction between getting at the truth and seeking criminal actions against lawyers in the Justice Department. That, to me, would be a terrible mistake: establishing a precedent that an incoming administration can open criminal investigations against lawyers from a previous administration it disagrees with.
Krugman: The last time something happened like this was Iran-Contra, and it was all swept under the rug. Not only did we then have the same kind of abuses in the run-up to the Iraq War, but it’s the same people. So we really do need to come to grips with this.
Gergen: There are a number of demands coming from the left, some of which I do think have some legitimacy. Prosecuting attorneys from the Bush administration isn’t one of them.
Moore: I hope you understand that when you say “people on the left,” most people I know, including myself, do not want to see investigations out of any sense of vengeance. It’s not about looking back — it’s about sending a clear message to any future presidents of any party that if they break the law, if they take the country to war under false pretenses, then they will have to bear the consequences of that.
Gergen: What laws are you talking about that people have broken?
Moore: Simple fraud.
Gergen: If we’re going to start indicting politicians for fraud, there’s going to be a very long line. It will be longer than the line for health care in Canada.
Moore: I’m not talking about politicians lying on the campaign trail — I’m talking about lying to convince Congress to back an invasion of another country that did nothing to us and was not responsible for 9/11. This isn’t your basic, everyday politician lie. We can’t just say, “We have a new administration now, it’s time to move on.” If we don’t deal with it now, we’ll find ourselves in this predicament again.
Let’s talk about another area where Obama has compromised on h is promises. He has pledged to support gay rights, yet he went to court to support state bans on same-sex marriages. Is he in danger of abandoning his core principles here?
Gergen: He’s certainly in danger of postponing his promises to a core constituency. I have been surprised at how slow the action has been on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” There’s been a huge shift in the thinking of people at the top of the military — they’re much more prepared to embrace it than when Bill Clinton was in office, and it’s the right thing to do. We ought to be moving aggressively under the Obama administration to take down one of the last remaining barriers of intolerance in this country, and the president ought to be very open about that. If you’re concerned about fundamental human rights, this is central.
Krugman: There is this thing with Democrats, and it’s affecting Obama, too, which is somehow thinking they’re going to wake up tomorrow morning and it will be 1993 again. But it’s not — we’re a very different country. He can’t punt on this too much longer, because it’s one thing people expected.
Gergen: I was there in the White House the evening when Bill Clinton made the decision on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The president went around the room, asking everyone’s opinion about whether we should do “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I think it was roughly 12 to one saying that we should do it. The only person who opposed it was Al Gore. He fiercely thought we should not have any barriers, we should go straight to open acceptance. I think if you put that same group of people in a room today, it would be virtually unanimous the other way.
Moore: I’m betting that Obama is taking a political position on this. He’s done nothing different from what he told us he was going to do when he ran. I didn’t agree with the position he took during the campaign, but there hasn’t been a surprise here.
Talking about the political compromises he’s made, the underlying question seems to be whether Obama is tough enough. Is he prepared, on an issue like climate change, to take on the coal industry and push through the kind of legislation that is needed to tackle global warming? Or is he more like a second-term Bill Clinton, nibbling around the edges, not doing enough to go for the big win?
Krugman: I’m really worried, and I’ve been worried since the beginning, that he wouldn’t be determined enough — that he was, in fact, someone who always tries to find common ground where there is none. Sometimes you get this terrible feeling — especially when Rahm Emanuel gets quoted seeming to give away the store, which he’s done quite often — and you wonder if there’s any determination in this administration to actually make things change in any dramatic way.
One of the things I sometimes say to myself is “Wouldn’t I have had many of the same complaints about Franklin Roosevelt?” And the answer is “Much of the time, I would have.” There’s this quote people are using where a constituent asked FDR, “Mr. President, why won’t you do this and that?” And he said, “I want to, madam, but you have to make me do it.” To some extent, it’s up to the activists to create the pressure to make him do this stuff.
Gergen: He has a very different style of leadership from what we’ve seen in contemporary presidents, starting with Franklin Roosevelt. That is, heroic figures who picked up a banner and said, “Follow me, here’s what we’re going to do.” The White House would send legislative proposals to the Congress and say, “Here’s what we should enact,” and the president would go to the country and convince people to rally behind it. President Obama’s coming at it a very different way. He is envisioning through his speeches the long-term goals, he’s setting an agenda for the country, and then he’s serving more as a catalyst. Rather than picking up a banner, he’s tending to herd people along. He’s a community organizer.
Gergen: Exactly. You have to give him enormous credit that he’s breaking out of the paralysis we’ve seen in Washington for a long time. But some of us have rapidly growing questions about whether it’s going to be sufficient.
Krugman: One thing that is really striking and different is that this time, we actually have a progressive intelligentsia in place. On most of the big issues, the template for reform hail been worked out long before we knew who the Democratic nominee was going to be. The plan for health care reform that John Edwards put out in the primary, and all of the candidates adopted, is going to be, in one way or another, what health reform winds up looking like. Climate change, cap and trade, even roughly the target numbers for emissions were settled long before we knew who was going to win the 2008 election. So in some ways, Obama can come in and say, “I’m for what Democrats agreed on a while back was the agenda — go at it, Nancy.”
Gergen: There are times when many of us would like him to get more out in front and take the issue to the public and try to force the Congress to do his will, rather than him going along with their will. The toughness issue, to me, is going to be key not only on the domestic side, but also on the foreign-policy side. We haven’t talked about Iran, but that’s becoming an issue where his policy is in increasing trouble. The administration was overly cautious in the way it responded to the elections there, which revealed the thuggish nature of the regime. This is going to require Obama to be very, very tough with the Iranians, who are closing in on nuclear weapons. He needs to assemble an international coalition that will support tough sanctions in the event that multinational talks with Iranians go nowhere.
Moore: Actually, everything he’s said so far has impressed me with how tough he is. The way he carries himself when he’s meeting with foreign leaders has such an air of self-assurance and strength. And it’s a quiet strength, not that kind of fake bravado that Bush would put forth. Obama seems to say, “I’m here because we want to live in peace.” But he also has the look of “Don’t even think of fucking with me.”
Gergen: I don’t think that’s right. I disagree.
Krugman: That’s not the way I see it on domestic policy, certainly.
Gergen: And I don’t see that on foreign policy. I think there are a number of people, like Kim Jong Il and Hugo Chávez, who are thumbing their noses at him.
Moore: That’s what it looks like, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening. With Iran, for instance, I think his approach has been absolutely correct. The last thing we want to do is appear to be trying to overthrow a government. Let the Iranian people deal with this — if they want to deal with it, they will rise up and overthrow their oppressors. That is the lesson of history. Guys, come on, did you think in your lifetime you would seethe Berlin Wall come down? Did you think in your lifetime you would see Nelson Mandela out of prison, let alone become the president of South Africa?
Gergen: Michael, long before our lives are over, Iran’s going to have nuclear weapons. What would you do?
Moore: If you make a priority of having a nuclear-free world, you accomplish that in ways that don’t involve rattling swords and making threats. I have to tell you, after six and a half years of this war that we were led into because we were told that Saddam was going to have a nuclear weapon, I’m like a lot of Americans — I don’t want to hear that anymore. Don’t tell me about who’s going to have a weapon of mass destruction. If you’re going to tell me that somebody’s threatening me, that my life and my family’s life is in danger, then you damn well better prove it to me. At this point, I would have to see Ahmadinejad actually carry that bomb right out on to the stage and say, “Here it is, we have it.” Those days are over, and I don’t want to hear any more talk telling me about somebody with a weapon of mass destruction over there when we have more than 10,000 nuclear weapons ourselves. I don’t want another dime of my money going toward it, and I don’t want another soldier of this country being killed in the process. Obama’s taking the right approach, which is diplomacy.
Paul suggested, earlier that what Obama accomplishes will come down, in part, to what the American people demand. Where is Obama’s fearsome political grass-roots machine that was going to be mobilized on all of these issues and demand change?
Moore: This is a problem, and it goes to Paul’s quote from FDR and your earlier question of what we’ve been disappointed about. My disappointment is less to do with anything Obama has or hasn’t done than it is with my fellow Americans, who need to be every bit as active as we were in electing this man to the White I louse.
But Obama knew how to get people mobilized during the campaign. Has he been as successful doing that as president?
Moore: No. He’s trying, but he needs to go back to his community-organizing skills. I don’t want to be upset at him, I want to ask the people reading this conversation, “What have you done today, what did you do yesterday, what do you plan to do tomorrow to make sure we have universal health care in this country, to get those troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan?” We need to see a mass mobilization like we did last year, and it can’t all be on Obama for that not happening. We have to take responsibility for that ourselves.
Krugman: Look, on economic stimulus, this was a case study — Obama did not go to the country, to his supporters, and say, “You need to pressure Congress.” He tried to negotiate with Congress, and then very late in the game he hit the road when he realized that he was having a hard time. But on health care, he has not been calling on his base, he has not been calling on his supporters. He’s been very different as a president than he was as a campaigner.
Gergen: One of the masterful aspects of his campaign was the way he mobilized people, especially young people, through the Internet. By the end, he had 13 million people signed up who were receiving messages and were interactive. The question always was, can they take that capacity for politics and translate it into governance? I think it’s turned out to be harder than they anticipated. They moved those 13 million names onto the DNC list, but if you talk to folks who are organizing on health care at the local level, they don’t have the same kind of organizational structure now to put pressure on Congress to pass reform. It has not yet translated from the campaign as fully as one might have anticipated. I bet within a couple of years, it will be up and running. But right now, they’re not quite there yet.
Let’s talk about Obama’s appointments. Is there any one that most impressed you or disappointed you?
Moore: I was a little puzzled by his first choice for surgeon general, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who’s been known to fudge his facts; if Obama wanted a TV doctor, well, Doogie Howser M.D. woulda been better. But Hilda Solis as labor secretary was an inspiring choice. I’d like to see her out front more when the administration is talking about the economy.
Gergen: I’ve been most disappointed by the appointment process itself. Hillary Clinton flashed with anger a few clays ago over the slowness of the process, and she was right. The U.S. Agency for International Development has 12 political positions, and not one of them is filled. Obama also needs to appoint a top-flight manager to execute the economic stimulus. That’s what FDR did: He brought in some great managers to get the New Deal stuff clone. He called for the Civilian Conservation Corps in March of 1933, and by that summer they had 250,000 people in the woods.
Krugman: I continue to be a big admirer of Peter Orszag, Obama’s budget director. He’s one of those appointments that really makes you feel like we’ve got good people there, especially on health care. But I’ve been disappointed in Tim Geithner, who has been too pro-bank. You don’t want headlines about “more sweetheart deals for banks” at a time when people are complaining that the stimulus is doing no good. The public doesn’t really draw a line distinguishing between the stimulus and the bailout.
Is it too early to begin to identify the defining characteristics of Obama’s presidency? Do we have a sense of what Obama-ism looks like?
Krugman: It is too early. If we held this conversation again at the end of the year and health care reform has passed and the economy is recovering, then Obama’s the new FDR. If health care hasn’t passed or is something so emasculated that it’s not close to what people imagined, and the economy is sputtering, and an attempt to pass a second stimulus has been rejected, then he’s another Jimmy Carter. It’s that simple.
Gergen: Paul, if we have long-term unemployment of seven or eight or nine percent that hangs up there for two or three years, what judgment would you make then?
Krugman: That would be complicated, because we could say exactly the same thing about FDR. If we have a Japanese-style “lost decade,” which is a real possibility, then that’s certainly going to cast a pall. We haven’t had the acid test yet: We don’t know whether he can push an ambitious legislative agenda through. All we have is one half-measure stimulus — that’s the only big legislative achievement so far.
Gergen: He came into office with astonishing aspirations. It was almost as if he wanted to be Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson all rolled into one. He wanted to be the man who took on this recession, FDR-style, and conquered it, and he also had these other promises that sounded like LBJ revisited. It’s too early to make judgments about how this is all going to come out, but we’re beginning to see that he remains a man of high ambition, high aspirations. He has won a lot of people over with his calmness and the fact that he talks to us like adults. That’s new in politics. And that he’s willing, in his rhetoric, to describe reality much more accurately than most of our presidents have done in recent years. The Cairo speech and the Philadelphia speech are both good candidates for the history books. But there’s also been a cautiousness about the way he has executed some of this, a seeming unwillingness at times to push the system to the edges.
Krugman: We already know that one part of the dream of Obama-ism is not going to happen. He sold himself as a great unifying figure. They actually talked in the first week or so that the stimulus plan might get 80 votes in the Senate. It’s clear that was a fundamental misread of American politics. In fact, he’s a deeply polarizing figure because the opposing party has not accepted that Americans have rejected their ideas — they think they’re going to make a comeback. So this is a very different ballgame from what he imagined he’d be playing.
Who’s the president Obama most resembles in his first six months?
Gergen: He seeks to be FDR and Lyndon Johnson, with the cultural instincts of Lincoln. Whether he’s going to be able to scale those heights remains to be seen. Krugman: The situation resembles FDR, although not as extreme. One of my favorite FDR quotes is when he says, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” That’s basically what happened — the collapse of this thing built on greed, and Democrats being swept into office by the public horror at what Republicans have wrought. What we don’t know yet is whether Obama has the character and political skills to be another FDR. He’s smart, he’s flexible, he’s unflappable, which has turned out to be a really big thing in this current situation — he has this first-class temperament. But, my God, it’s one hell of a situation to find yourself in.
Moore: He’s inherited a disaster — 14,000 people a day are losing their jobs. One in eight homes are in delinquency or foreclosure. But when you’re in the situation we find ourselves in, you want a smart guy in charge, not the dumb guy. That’s why Obama’s approval rating remains high: Even people who didn’t vote for him have a sense of security with him in charge. They know that even if he doesn’t have the answers right now, we’re better off with someone who will think this thing through and do what’s best for the American people.
The real struggle for Obama is whether he’ll be carried through by the will of the American people or by those on Wall Street. We haven’t talked a lot about the bailout and the thievery that has taken place in the last few years by the big banks, and the effect that their fantasy casino is going to have on people’s everyday lives. Living here in Michigan and seeing the daily results of it is beyond distressing to me personally. So “hope,” one of Obama’s campaign words, is really the thing people are hanging onto right now. Obama wants them to be in that place, but he’s going to have to work hard and work fast to enact the very things that justify that hope.
As Bill Maher said recently, “The audacity of hope part is over; right now I’m hoping for a little more audacity.”
Moore: Exactly, and I think Obama knows that. I’ve never considered him a cautious person. Nobody called Barry who changes his name to Barack can be accused of” caution. Is he everything I want him to be? No. Does he share all my political views? No. But I didn’t run for the White House — he did. And he convinced the vast majority of Americans to vote for him, even when they were told over and over, “This man is a socialist.”
If you had to give Obama a letter grade for his first six months in office, what would it be?
Gergen: A-plus on aspirations, and B-plus on performance.
That’s pretty high.
Gergen: There’s been a lot of grade inflation in recent years.
Moore: I would give him an A if my theory about the rope-a-dope strategy he has employed turns out to be right. If I’m wrong about that, then I’ll have to mark it down to a C-minus. Right now, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Krugman: I think the grade is an “incomplete.” Obama hasn’t turned in his final paper yet on health care reform or on climate change, so I can’t give him a grade until we see what it looks like.
Forget the end result — how would you grade him on his first semester?
Krugman: Probably a 15 or a 15-plus. Because the one place where he actually got major legislation through, which was the economic rescue, he clearly aimed too low. We can argue back and forth whether they could have gotten more, but it’s quite clear that they didn’t even try. There was some misjudgment of the economy, but it was mostly political caution, and of a bad kind. So this was kind of screwed up.
But it’s a whole lot better, obviously, than nothing at all. And it’s a whole lot better than what the other team would have done. God help us if we would have had the other team in power.