SUSAN DAVIS: I’m Susan Davis, and this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on-air.
Dan, I want to start with you. Under the eight years of Obama, the Democratic Party has lost 12 governorships, 13 Senate seats, 60-some House seats, and over 900 seats in state legislatures. So isn’t part of the Obama legacy a breakdown of the structure of the Democratic Party?
DAN BALZ: I think there’s no question about that. I mean, if you look at the personal success that the president had, first Democrat since FDR to win a majority of the vote in two consecutive elections, and you look at what happened to his party while he was president, which is just a hollowing out across the country of the Democrats, it’s clearly part of his legacy. I mean, I think part of it is that Barack Obama came to the White House as a singular figure. He was not a party person. He had not come up through the party ranks. He didn’t know the party.
MS. DAVIS: He was an outsider.
MR. BALZ: And he never particularly cared about it. He didn’t care about the structure of the party, the institutions of the party. And they withered under him. And the Republicans were very effective in the midterm elections of taking advantage of criticism of his record to push through success in those elections. And you know, the final sort of indignity for him in terms of what happened to the Democrats was what happened in the presidential election this year. Now, you know, it’s not – he wasn’t running. It was Hillary Clinton who was running. But that still ends up as part of his legacy. The Democrats – he leaves office with the Democrats having no control in Washington and little control across the country.
MS. DAVIS: But he has also said that he wants that to be a priority of his post-presidency now, isn’t it, to rebuild that structure of the party?
MR. BALZ: Well, perhaps, but he had much more opportunity to do it as president – (laughter) – than he will have a post – as a – you know, a former president.
MS. DAVIS: Mmm hmm, yeah.
Jackie, you wrote about a picture – one picture in particular that comes out the Obama White House. And it was a 2012 photo of the president in the Oval Office bending down as a young black boy touches his hair. Why do you think that image became so iconic of the Obama White House? And why did it matter so much to people?
JACKIE CALMES: I love that photo. And the funny thing is, I had walked past it day after day, week after week, and then year after year. And it was by 2012 – this picture had gone up in 2009 when it was taken. And I had – it was in the West Wing. And I would walk by it on my way to the press office. And finally I thought, I’ve seen since the Clinton administration, and I know it goes back to at least Ford, that these pictures of the president at play, at work, they rotate out regularly. This one stayed for three years.
So I finally tried to get the White House to tell me a little bit about it. It’s a family of a former National Security Council aide who had been going overseas. And this was – the family came into the Oval Office for a farewell photo, as staff often does. And the White House didn’t want to help me with this because of privacy reasons. So somehow I found the family. And I got – I spent a Sunday with them and talked to them.
And I think why it resonates is – well, I know why it resonates. It’s that you have this – we’ve talked about how the president does not make a big deal of the fact that he’s the first American – first African-American president. And yet the symbolism of that, especially for black males, is so great, and the idea that this little boy, five years old at the time, would go into the Oval Office and have one question for the president: Does your hair feel like mine?
And Barack Obama then – the photo catches him bent at the waist, as if the roles are reversed. And the boy is touching him, as if he’s knighting him, or something. (Laughter.) And at first, he didn’t want to do it. The little boy’s name is Jacob Philadelphia. He didn’t want to do it. And the president said, go ahead, touch it. And he still hesitated. And he said, touch it, dude. (Laughter.) So finally he did. And he says, does it feel like yours? And he said, yes. I just –
MS. DAVIS: You know, if you’re under eight, you’ve never lived in a country that doesn’t have a black president, right?
MS. CALMES: Right.
MS. DAVIS: You know, it’s a different – it’s a different way that you grow into the world.
MS. CALMES: Right. And, you know, I’d like to see Jacob again. I think I’ll look him up.
MS. DAVIS: Michael, I wanted to ask you about Joe Biden.
MICHAEL DUFFY: No one’s ever asked to touch his hair. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: Or yours.
MR. DUFFY: That’s really all you have to say.
MS. DAVIS: That is for sure. (Laughter.)
I was reading this anecdote when I was reading about the president’s relationship with the vice president, when Joe Biden was thinking about selling his house in Delaware, when his son Beau was sick, because he thought he would need the money to help care for his family, and over lunch. And the president said absolutely not. I’ll give you the money. You cannot do this, Joe. And it was sort of an anecdote of the friendship between the two men. How authentic is that friendship? And what do you think that legacy is?
MR. DUFFY: Well, clearly, that kind of an offer bespeaks an authentic friendship. And it’s all the more remarkable because of what Dan just said, which is that Barack Obama is a singular person. This is – you know, that – like all president/vice president tickets, that one was a shotgun arranged marriage. But this one took in a way that many – most don’t really take. Certainly Clinton and Gore had their issues. Quayle and Bush had their issues. Cheney and Bush had their issues. (Laughter.)
So these are not – these are not love affairs. But this one certainly was a deep friendship. And I think by the end of it, these guys – all four of those people, the Bidens and the Obamas, are all very close. And I think – I think it’s two things. One is that they weren’t different ideologically, that – Biden was a little more centrist – but they weren’t really different. And they were – and Biden had things – new moves, tricks that Obama didn’t. He could help on the Hill, and cut all three of the deals – the big deals that got cut, Biden was involved in.
And I think Biden probably looked at Obama and saw skills he wished he had – skills of discipline, skills of – a good speaker, Biden, but not as good as Obama. And I think they were – for the most part, treated each other with respect, which also we all know from covering White Houses doesn’t always happen. So I think that was a – that’s the real deal, and all the more amazing, because I think Obama didn’t really need anybody.
MS. DAVIS: Well, we can’t leave without talking about the other Obama, Michelle Obama. How do you think – what role did she play in shaping the Obama legacy?
MICHAEL FLETCHER: I think she helped sort of make Obama more relatable, if you will. I think there’s one thing people would say about the president, and a great speechmaker, but a lot of people see him as a little aloof, particularly people who have to deal with him day-in, day-out, right? (Laughter.) It just is hard to get to the guy. But she was kind of the opposite, so authentic, so, I mean, equally classy and learned and all that. But she was very someone you could touch.
And I think you saw that in her political development. You know, early on she was a very reluctant campaigner. She was basically a target for Republicans. Remember some of the comments early on? But by the end, she was – for my money, she was Hillary Clinton’s maybe second-best surrogate, if not top surrogate at the end. Yeah, exactly. So I think you kind of see her development through that. You see the Let’s Move thing. I mean, she was somebody I think a lot of America could connect to.
MS. DAVIS: It’s also interesting, because the Obamas leaving office are so young, you know?
MR. FLETCHER: Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: They’re in their early 50s. I mean, it seems like they could have a whole next chapter of what their impact could be on the country.
MR. FLETCHER: And one thing she’s made clear, it won’t be in politics. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: To the disappointment of many Democrats.
MR. FLETCHER: Indeed.
MS. DAVIS: Well, thanks, everybody. I appreciate you all being here.
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