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The Overload Factor: Is President Obama Too Busy?

November 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As President Obama departs for Asia, he leaves a full menu of unfinished business at home: two wars to manage, a struggling economy and his push for health care reform, to name a few. Jim Lehrer speaks to a panel of experts about the so-called "overload factor" for presidents.
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KWAME HOLMAN: The crowded presidential agenda was fully on display this morning, starting with turning around the economy. Mr. Obama announced a White House forum next month on jobs.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s important that we don’t make any ill-considered decisions, even with the best of intentions, particularly at a time when our resources are so limited. But it’s just as important that we are open to any demonstrably good idea to supplement the steps we have already taken to put America back to work. That’s what this forum is about.

KWAME HOLMAN: Moments later, the president left the White House to begin a nine-day Far East trip full of its own challenges. He will begin tomorrow in Japan, where new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is asserting some independence from the U.S. on foreign policy and trade. In China, the issues likely will include Chinese concerns about U.S. budget deficits, U.S. complaints the Chinese currency is undervalued, what to do about climate change, and how to deal with Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs.

But, even overseas, the press of the health care initiative back home won’t be far away. The president still is pushing Democratic leaders in Congress to pass a final bill by year’s end.

In recent days, Mr. Obama also has consoled the military community at Fort Hood, Texas, after 13 people were killed in last week’s mass shootings.

BARACK OBAMA: Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled, every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that is their legacy.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Veterans Day found the president paying tribute to the country’s service men and women, as he faces a decision on whether to send thousands more Americans to fight in Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: Some perspective now. It comes from Beverly Gage, professor of history at Yale University, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and Robert Dallek, professor of history at Stanford University. Bob Dallek, first, as a matter of history, is it fairly routine for a president to have as full a plate as President Obama does now?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, I think they all struggle with the demands upon them. What is really amazing, Jim, is that you can go back to James A. Garfield in the 1880s, and he said, “What is there in this office that anyone would want to get into it in the first place?” because he was so beset by so many difficulties that challenged him. Woodrow Wilson said, a way has to be found to relieve the burdens on the president; otherwise, he can’t survive. And, of course, he almost didn’t survive, had a terrible stroke. It’s just a torturous job. And, especially in this modern era, it has become all the more difficult, because the foreign policy burdens are so heavy. And when you are confronting two wars, as this president does, and an economy that’s so sluggish, it’s a terrible burden.

First-year overload

JIM LEHRER: Michael Beschloss, when you look back, what -- what examples, what presidency examples, spring to mind that fit this kind of thing that Bob Dallek is talking about?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You know, it's hard to find, Jim, because we all thought that Franklin Roosevelt had his hands pretty full in 1933 dealing with the Great Depression. That has been sort of the gold standard of a president overloaded during his first year. But, in a way, if you had to look for one president, maybe go back to Lyndon Johnson.

You know, Barack Obama, for instance, when he ran for the presidency, he thought, he has said, his biggest problem was going to be Iraq. Just after he was inaugurated, he said the other problems became so large that he was amazed to find that Iraq was one of the least of them. And Lyndon Johnson, I think, felt the same way. The night he became president, after John Kennedy's murder, he sat in his bedroom at home with some aides, talked about what he wanted to do as president, wanted to get a tax bill, civil rights, all sorts of things. Didn't mention once, in a serious way, foreign policy.

Then, a year-and-a-half later, 1965, he is trying to get the Great Society done, voting rights, Medicare, all those things we remember. At the same time, unexpectedly to him, he had to make basic decisions about whether to escalate in Vietnam. And, to some extent, he later said, he escalated in Vietnam faster and more steeply than he wanted to because he wanted to protect his domestic program in Congress from people who might say he was soft on communism.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly Gage, what do you see when you look for examples?

BEVERLY GAGE, professor of history, Yale University: Well, I think we have some good examples, Roosevelt, someone who actually did deal with crisis. And I think it's worth noting, with Roosevelt, we associate his first term as being really a domestic term, dealing with the Depression, crafting the New Deal. But, of course, he was also dealing with the rise of fascism throughout Europe. He's dealing with Japanese aggression in Asia. He's forging a new policy for Latin America. He's forging new relations with the Russians, all in his first term. So, while the country wasn't actively at war in the way that it was later on for him, he certainly had his plate full in that moment. We all think of Roosevelt as someone who really rose to his moment and dealt with crisis. I think maybe our -- our great counterexample is Jimmy Carter, who certainly, by the end of his term, was dealing with both foreign crises, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and was also, of course, also dealing with pretty serious economic conditions at home.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Bob Dallek, with -- with that, that Jimmy Carter is one who confronted many things at one time who had a full plate and didn't do as well? Are there others that you would add to that?

ROBERT DALLEK: Oh, sure, that -- William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover. Herbert Hoover said, the job is a compound hell. He was so beset by the economic crisis in this country, and couldn't really manage it. But I think Michael's point about Lyndon Johnson is well taken. And I think President Obama is very mindful of that experience that Johnson had with Vietnam. Johnson, there were people around him, his press secretary and other aides, who considered consulting a psychiatrist, because Johnson was so distressed by what he was confronting in this Vietnam War. Mrs. Johnson, when I interviewed her for my Johnson book, she told me that he used to hear the people marching around the White House, shouting "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" And she said, it was a wound in his heart, and he was just so distressed by it.

Truman similarities

JIM LEHRER: And is there -- do you agree, Michael, that there is evidence that -- that Barack Obama is aware of the same kinds of things -- same kinds of problems in his head, as well as elsewhere, that Lyndon Johnson went through when it comes to sending troops overseas?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Oh, I think he is. Lyndon Johnson became president, it is a little bit amazing to think, when Barack Obama was 2 years old. So, his personal memory of this is not enormous.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But he sure has a lot of people around him who know the lessons of LBJ and Vietnam very well. Can I throw in an example that is a little bit more hopeful?

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Harry -- Harry Truman, 1945, suddenly became president after FDR died. And he said, "You know, I felt as if I had the moon, the stars and the planets all fall on me at the same time." And he really did. He had to finish World War II in Asia and Europe, decide whether to use the bomb, you know, begin to fight the Cold War, you know, deal with huge numbers of returning veterans, how to house them, educate them, bring consumer goods to Americans, who hadn't had them for five years. He had to do all these things at once. And he had really had only the experience of being a senator from Missouri for about nine or 10 years.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Beverly Gage, pick up on that. What does history tell us when you look through these -- each one of these presidencies, in terms of how they -- how these men handled it? Are there patterns that -- that -- that, hey, if -- the Roosevelt way is one way, the Truman way is another way, the Jimmy Carter way is another way, one of the Bush ways is another, et cetera? Is -- are there things that -- that can be absolutely explained and interpreted, and then copied in some way?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think, for all of them, there have been basically three crucial challenges. I mean, when are you in the midst of crisis, and when are you balancing all of these different crises, there is the practical political questions. You know, can you get done what you need to get done? Can you make legislators behave? There is the symbolic politics challenge. How are you going to present a sense that you can handle this crisis? And that, of course, was Franklin Roosevelt's great strength.

And I think the third piece -- and this is where I think we have yet to see exactly how Obama is going to fall out -- is being able to view a crisis as also an opportunity, and make a set of pretty big decisions about whether or not you're going to take this particular crisis as an opportunity to do something large and to rise to an historical moment, or whether you are going to take a much more limited approach, which is certainly appropriate in some cases. And, to be really successful, you have to have all three of those in place. And some presidents have had one or two, the third piece hasn't been there, and things haven't worked out so well.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, well, Bob Dallek, the -- Bill Clinton -- picking up on Beverly's point, Bill Clinton said many times that he wished he had a few more major crises...

JIM LEHRER: ... so he could show exactly what he could have done as president of the United States.

ROBERT DALLEK: Theodore Roosevelt...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He may not feel that way now.

JIM LEHRER: He may not.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Legacy of hope

ROBERT DALLEK: Theodore Roosevelt said he couldn't be a truly great president because he didn't have a war to fight. But, you know, picking up on Beverly's point, I think that what is so interesting to me is the way in which the public responds to these presidents. And they don't want to know about their burdens. They don't want to hear that they are struggling and they are suffering. In fact, when you ask people in this country now who were the greatest presidents in U.S. history, they will tell you, predictably, Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and then they will mention Kennedy and Reagan. Why Kennedy and Reagan? I mean, you know, it is hard to consider them truly great presidents. But they remember them as optimists, as hopeful: Kennedy, the new frontier, promising to put a man on the moon by the end of a decade; Reagan, morning in America, the pride is back. And they want to hear that. And I think this is what helped Obama greatly in this past campaign, that hope and optimism. And, so, people are a bit frustrated at the moment by the fact that he seems to be burdened. And what they want to hear again is the hope.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Michael, that the American people don't care about burdens about president -- burdened presidents? They don't even -- this subject probably, they are not interested in.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I hope -- we will do our best tonight. So...

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But I think, you know, we look for presidents, obviously, who can bear the burdens well. As we all were saying earlier, LBJ and Nixon couldn't. Part of it was psychiatric. You know, LBJ used to have these enormous highs, enormous lows, didn't exercise much. He swam, but his idea of exercise was playing dominoes -- Nixon not terribly different. You know, contrast that with Barack Obama, who, if the stories are true, exercises very carefully every morning, eats very carefully, perhaps sneaks -- sneaks a cigarette once in a while, which you sure shouldn't. But everyone around him marvels at the fact that, when there's good news, he doesn't get too excited, and, when there's bad news, he doesn't get too distraught. Probably, that is the kind of thing you want in a president in crisis.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly Gage, also, the ordinary -- ordinary person would say, how in the world does President "Fill in the Blank" get informed on each one of these complex subjects well enough to make a major and correct decision? Is there an answer to that?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, it's really all about delegation. And different presidents have delegated to different degrees. And, you know, Obama does have a fairly coherent circle of advisers, who serve as pretty effective filters for him. But, I mean, some presidents -- you look at a figure like Woodrow Wilson, who really wanted to sit down, study the issue. He was an intellectual. He was a professor. He studied. He wrote his own speeches out. He really wanted that level of firsthand engagement. Others, someone like Ronald Reagan, was a great delegator, and had -- had many people at lower levels making fairly important decisions.

One thing that I will note that, while presidents throughout history have had lots of burdens, lots of crises, I think what is really challenging for Obama and for a modern president is the relentlessness of this and the immediacy of needing to respond. Again, to take the example of Woodrow Wilson, even something as dramatic as the sinking of the Lusitania, one of these critical events that eventually draws the U.S. into World War I, he had days to respond to this, to think about it...

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

BEVERLY GAGE: ... to step aside. And, you know, he also was able to leave work at the end of the day. It wasn't this 24-hour cycle. So, even just the psychic and really physical demands of the presidency have increased tremendously.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. Thank you, all three, very much.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Jim.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Jim.