JIM LEHRER: The Obama presidency, expectations vs. realities, one year in.
And to Jeffrey Brown.
JEFFREY BROWN: History was in the air a year ago, as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. An economic crisis was at hand, the country was involved in two wars, and the first African- American had been elected to the White House, heading a sweeping victory for his party.
So, where is he, and where are we now?
We talk with Cynthia Tucker, political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Reihan Salam, who writes the Agenda blog for The National Review Online, and is a fellow at the New America Foundation; and historian and “NewsHour” regular Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University.
Cynthia, I will start with you.
How has reality matched up with expectations a year later?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution: Well, the expectations of the president were impossibly high. Many people were absolutely euphoric, if you remember the inauguration a year ago.
And the honeymoon was very, very brief, because the president had a very tough set of problems. And the economy, especially, still dogs him. He has not been able to solve those problems as quickly as many people had hoped. And, so, some disappointment has set in, I think, in some segments of the population.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will come back to some of the specifics.
Reihan Salam, how do — how do you see it? Start in a general sense, the expectations vs. reality.
REIHAN SALAM, New America Foundation: Well, I think that the president has some things to be proud of. He was faced with a number of very daunting challenges on the foreign policy front and on the domestic front. And, in some areas, like education reform, for example, he’s made a good deal of progress.
But, on his central domestic policy initiative, the health reform effort, I think that there were some very serious political missteps that are going to prove very politically costly. I think that a lot of time was lost, and I think that there are a lot of Democrats who are anxious and a lot of Republicans who are very angry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, a year ago, I know we sat here and we all were trying to do the analogies of history, right?
We were talking about…
RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: A dangerous…
JEFFREY BROWN: We were talking about Roosevelt. We were talking about Lincoln.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, sure, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Those were the big names.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK. A year later?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, you know, the problem is — actually, you could look at the last year as two — each party had its own idea of what history was being repeated.
On the left, for all those reasons that you cited at the beginning of the segment, there was a sense that the country had gone overnight from being center-right to center-left, and was therefore at least receptive to a much more, if you will, activist federal government in a number of areas.
The difference between 1933 and today is, Franklin Roosevelt took office — in an essentially conservative country that had been radicalized by three-and-a-half years of despair. I mean, when you had people in American cities searching for their next meal in garbage piles, guess what? Survival trumps ideology.
Ironically in part because the outgoing and incoming administrations cooperated, because they were the opposite of what Roosevelt and Hoover failed to do, because there was this consensus, you have a great recession, instead of a Great Depression.
And one — one consequence of that — I mean, one of the really remarkable things is, because Barack Obama, who didn’t run to bail out AIG or GM, did what he thought was the responsible thing, the candidate of change became the president of continuity. And that is a very politically perilous position to be in.
JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, what about the — I mean, one thing we talk about a lottery recently is the hyper-partisanship. That has not changed in a year.
CYNTHIA TUCKER: That has not changed at all. In fact, it’s gotten worse.
I have been surprised that Republicans have been united in their opposition to every single thing that the president proposed. I think that the president may have been surprised by that as well. I think he was expecting a loyal opposition, when, in fact, he got a party just absolutely committed to his failure, even if it dragged the country down as well.
And let me say something else about what Richard just said about the — Obama’s actions having helped to avert a very catastrophic set of circumstances. We didn’t have the Great Depression repeated because of policies started under President Bush that Obama continued.
But you don’t get much credit in politics for the things you prevented from happening. People don’t see that. And, so, I think that the president has done better than the poll numbers show.
JEFFREY BROWN: Reihan, I can see you want to jump in here.
REIHAN SALAM: Well, I have a somewhat different interpretation of what’s happened with regard to partisan polarization.
One thing that you saw is a lot of conservative independents were very alienated at the tail end of the Bush administration. And a lot of those folks are still alienated, and they have gotten very active in politics through the tea party movement and a variety of other initiatives.
And what’s really happened is that these folks are very distrustful of centralized power. And they see some tendencies in this administration that they didn’t like the last time around. Keep in mind that there were a lot of non-college-educated white voters who voted Republican who absolutely didn’t like Social Security reform.
So, when health reform was pitched to kind of center-right policy wonks as a kind of entitlement reform as a way to trim Medicare spending to find — to fund coverage expansion, a lot of these voters were very suspicious of this.
And, so, you see them getting mobilized in this way that was very unpredictable at the time. So, I think that this was the political mistake. Rather than looking to conservative policy elites in the capital, Barack Obama should have looked to, who were those older white Republican voters who didn’t necessarily love Bush, who were willing to give him a chance, but who had a very different set of concerns from, again, those inside the-beltway policy wonks?
And I think not getting that visceral sense of concern that particularly a lot of older voters who didn’t vote for him in the 2008 election or who stayed home, et cetera, that was a big mistake that he’s still paying for. And it’s now also exacted some cost in the form of folks from the left being disillusioned, as well as folks on the right. So, I think it’s a much more confusing landscape, really.
JEFFREY BROWN: Richard?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, I think there’s a lot to that.
I also think something that the president said in his inaugural address that hasn’t been widely quoted, but I thought was extraordinarily shrewd, he said, the question isn’t whether our government is too large or too small, but whether it works.
And the fact is, the stimulus program, whatever you think of it — and I think you can make an argument that it has helped to cushion the blow in a number of ways — is not perceived to have been a crowning example of a government that works. It is widely seen as stuffed with pork. And that’s a very significant…
JEFFREY BROWN: Even though Cynthia says he’s not getting enough credit for having pulled — having prevented…
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, it is true.
JEFFREY BROWN: … something worse.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It could have been worse is not a rallying cry you know, that will excite folks, particularly in this hyperpartisan era.
But I also think — I think there were a number of Republicans who were attracted to Obama. They saw Obama in the campaign as a different kind of Democrat, as this almost post-partisan figure. They saw him as a reformer.
And, quite frankly, the mantra of change was vague enough that you could read into it almost anything that you wanted. And I think they, beginning with the stimulus plan, were to some degree disillusioned, the sense that the president, rather than crafting an economic policy of his own or the stimulus plan on his own, in effect, subcontracted that to Democrats on Capitol Hill, and then, when it was repeated with the health care plan, it’s very difficult to charge the hill, any hill, on behalf of a plan that changes every week.
JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re seeing — you’re seeing a much more oppositional, just…
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Absolutely.
JEFFREY BROWN: … not allowing anything to happen, which defines…
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Now, it is — it is absolutely true that the president ran as someone who would change the tone of politics in Washington. And many voters certainly expected that he would be able to do so.
But there were also many Washington insiders who thought it was a mistake for the president to claim that he could change the tone in Washington, because he certainly couldn’t do it by himself. He would have to have Republicans committed to reaching across the aisle. And he hasn’t found that at all.
In fact, I would argue that the president would be in less political trouble if he had spent less time trying to reach across the aisle to Republicans.
One of his both successes and failures is health care reform. The president is very close to passing historic health care reform that will insure about 30 million more Americans, will make it much cheaper for many families to afford coverage, will get rid of those infuriating things for those of us who have insurance, like insurance companies trying not to cover you once you get sick.
But it hasn’t passed yet. It’s very close, but it hasn’t passed yet. And if the president had spent less time trying to reach out to Republicans, who wouldn’t cooperate with him no matter how he extended himself, health care reform might already have passed.
JEFFREY BROWN: Reihan, what about that? I mean, if it passes, it’s going to pass with zero votes from Republicans, Cynthia suggesting a kind of opposition that is not a loyal opposition, but just set up as a roadblock on everything.
REIHAN SALAM: Well, leaving aside policy substance, I actually think that Cynthia makes a good point.
I think that the key for President Obama wasn’t so much reaching out to Republican legislators in Congress, but, rather, reaching out to rank-and-file conservative independents and some Republicans, who had a set of concerns that I think that the White House miscalculated about.
I think that, you know, those concerns were concerns about what has happened to Medicare. Again, you don’t think that Republicans would be the defenders of Medicare, but that’s exactly what happened, because that’s what their constituents wanted them to be.
Politicians, by and large, are followers. They’re not leaders. And, very early on, when it looked like President Obama was absolutely ironclad strong, when he had 70 percent approval ratings, you saw folks like Eric Cantor saying, well, we don’t like Reid and Pelosi, but we like President Obama.
That tone shifted very quickly when the conservative grassroots shifted. So, I think that that was a basic political miscalculation. And, again, I think that Cynthia does make a reasonable point. Had the president focused, for example, on some kind of Medicaid reform, on expanding access to Medicare, that would have been a shrewd incremental strategy that Democrats could have built on.
Instead, it was something that was very, very hard to sell to, again, those rank-and-file voters in the middle and some on the center-right.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, Richard, I have to ask you, in our last time here…
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: … because we’re in the journalistic trope of looking at one year, right?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: But history tells us that a lot can change after one year, right?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, yes. Yes.
You know where Franklin Roosevelt stood in the polls one year before he carried 46 out of 48 states? He was at 50 percent in the Gallup poll. Remember Bill Clinton who — of course, in many ways, the Republicans, their history that is repeating is not 1933. It’s 1993.
They think Barack Obama is Bill Clinton. And, of course, Bill Clinton was rewarded with a Republican Congress, the first in 40 years. What they fail to extend the analogy is, because they overreached as a result of that clear and stinging setback, Bill Clinton won a landslide in 1996.
Ronald Reagan lost significant support in the midterms in ’82. And I think the history books suggest that he didn’t have much trouble two years later. So, things can change. And beware of historical analogies.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, fair enough.
Reihan Salam, Cynthia Tucker, Richard Norton Smith, thank you all very much.
REIHAN SALAM: Thanks for having us.