Author Robert Kuttner

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A Presidency in Peril author explains why the Tea Party has captured the political narrative.

Veteran economic journalist Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Demos think tank. He's also a best-selling author, whose titles include the award-winning Everything for Sale and A Presidency in Peril. Kuttner has a varied background, with previous posts as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, chief investigator for the Senate Banking Committee, university lecturer and a longtime BusinessWeek columnist. He's also a co-founder of the Economic Policy Institute.


Tavis: Robert Kuttner is the co-founder and co-editor of “The American Prospect” magazine and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest text is called “A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Street’s Power and the Struggle to Control Our Economic Future.” He joins us tonight from Boston. Bob Kuttner, good to have you on the program, sir.
Robert Kuttner: Great to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: On what do you base the notion that this is a presidency already in peril?
Kuttner: Well, I think we were all so heartened when Barack Obama was elected. We were also heartened by the fact that this was a Roosevelt moment. This was a moment when deregulation and the idea that the free market could do no wrong had totally disgraced itself. So it was a moment when we could take back our country.
On the other hand, he raised hopes so high that he had to deliver, and although I think he’s been picking up his game in the past few months he hasn’t delivered enough – not enough on jobs, on mortgage relief, on banking regulation, on getting the country back where it belongs, and as a result the Tea Party captures the narrative.
People who took a chance on this novice are not sure whether he’s going to deliver enough, and if he’s in peril, we’re in peril.
Tavis: You said a number of things I want to go back and pick up, if I can. In no particular order, number one, I’ve been in a thousand debates, as I suspect you have, Robert, over the last year and a half about whether or not this president as a candidate raised hopes really high. The point you made a moment ago, whether or not Barack Obama was essentially a green screen and we cast our own hopes and aspirations on him and set him up for something that he could never be.
The guy does not walk on water, but some of us, I think, thought he was Jesus for a few weeks during the campaign.
Kuttner: Well, I felt going in in 2007 that he was the most center-right of the three Democratic contenders, but I also felt that he was the one candidate who had the potential for being a great president because of his odyssey, because of his writings, because of his prior speeches.
You felt that this was a mad who could seize a moment, rise to greatness. This was a teachable moment; this was a man who had gifts as a teacher. So yeah, it was a gamble. Roosevelt was not all that liberal. Lyndon Johnson, who would have thought that he would be a great civil rights president? Lincoln took office trying to save the union. He didn’t think he was going to free the slaves.
So this was a calculated gamble that Barack Obama would rise to greatness, but it was a very steep challenge and the problem is if he falls short, he’s either Hoover or he’s Roosevelt.
I think the jury’s out. I’m not saying it’s a presidency that’s already failed; I’m saying it’s a presidency at risk. So I don’t think we simply projected our hopes onto him. I think we would agree that he’s a very unusual man and it remains to be seen whether he’s a great president or a president who somehow tragically missed the moment.
Tavis: That’s a big gap, though, Robert, you’ll concede, between Hoover and Roosevelt. It’s a big gap.
Kuttner: Yes, and I think the tragedy is that you look at who Obama appointed – this economic crisis required a clean break with the past, a clean break with the policies that brought us a financial collapse, but who does he appoint?
He appoints Larry Summers from the Clinton team that brought us deregulation, he appoints Tim Geithner, who had worked hand in glove with Ben Bernanke, who temporized during the crisis. He appoints Bob Rubin’s protégé, Peter Orszag, who believes that fiscal balance comes ahead of job creation.
With a team like that, you don’t get the kind of radical break that the circumstances required. That’s when I started writing “A Presidency in Peril,” because my heart sank when I compared the promise of Obama with the people who we appointed.
Now obviously he’s the guy who appointed them, so you can’t get him off the hook by blaming his team.
Tavis: But what about the notion, Bob, that he has taken on and in fact delivered already on some things that seven presidents before him tried to do – for example, the issue of healthcare reform, number one, and if in fact this financial reform package gets signed, how can he be overseeing a presidency in peril when he’s reformed the financial institutions and passed healthcare all within a matter of months?
Kuttner: Tavis, this is a very delicate balancing act, criticizing this president in the spirit of almost tough love, in the spirit of wanting him to succeed. So yes, passing healthcare was an achievement. If you look at the details of the bill, it’s not what its supporters crack it up to be. Eighty-five percent of the people in this country have health insurance. It’s going to insure maybe two-thirds of the people who don’t have health insurance.
The problem of under-insurance, the problem of unaffordable insurance, insurance not covering you when you’re sick, the problem of costs spiraling out of control and the problem of the insurance industry owning something that should be a social benefit, that’s still there.
But yeah, winning beats losing, and I was never prouder of Barack Obama in his presidency as when he decided to discover his inner partisan. He finally decided that the search for common ground with Republicans who were determined to destroy his presidency was something of a fool’s errand and he passed this Democrats only.
I also think the financial reform is an achievement. Doesn’t go far enough. The problem is people, ordinary people, are concerned about their jobs, are concerned that they’re losing their homes. Schoolteachers are being fired, laid off in a recession, childcare is being cut so that people can’t afford to take jobs, and it’s great that we passed health insurance, it’s great that we passed a partial financial reform bill, but is it going to be enough to prevent a Republican blowout in the fall?
Tavis: There are some who suggest that this oil spill, and that doesn’t do justice to it, to call it a spill; it’s much more than that now, but there are some who suggest that this BP problem is his Hurricane Katrina. One, do you agree with that assessment, and number two, if it is, how’s he doing?
Kuttner: Well, I’d give him an incomplete. He was a little bit slow off the mark; he was a little bit hesitant to use this as a teachable moment. This is another example; this was a gift from the progressive gods, if you will, if you want a teachable moment to show why you can’t trust the oil companies to run their own show any more than you can trust Wall Street to run finance.
But he is a guy who deeply believes in finding common ground. Now there is no common ground with BP unless you want polluted ground, and he, I think, should have been quicker to connect the dots, point out why you can’t leave the search for energy to the oil companies.
Tavis: To my read, it’s not just Bob Kuttner writing this book, “A Presidency in Peril,” but I could run the list of a number of progressives who we read and watch every day on television in “The New York Times” and elsewhere – progressives who are starting to raise – whose ire, I should say, is starting to get raised about this presidency.
Without running those names, because we know who I’m talking about here, what’s behind – and even in the blogosphere, of course – what’s behind progressives getting a bit uncertain about this presidency?
Kuttner: Well, I don’t think it is progressives having had unrealistic expectations of who he is or who he was. I think it is the fear that if he goes down, if the Republicans take control of either house, if he ends up spending the second half of his term triangulating the way Bill Clinton did, with an even more far-right bunch of Republicans, then the moment is lost and then the possibility of a new progressive era that should have been ushered in by the failure of the conservative era is squandered, and the right takes over and it’s even a crazier right wing than the George Bush right wing or the Ronald Reagan right wing.
The stakes are so high, he has to succeed.
Tavis: In 45 seconds, he ought to be doing what, then, beyond reading your book?
Kuttner: Well, he ought to be doing more about jobs. You get the economy back in recovery; you put people back to work. Then you worry about balancing the budget. He ought to be doing more about mortgage relief. The housing sector is a disaster. Millions of millions of people lost their homes last year – even more millions of people are going to lose them this year.
He ought to be giving more aid to the states. It’s unconscionable that 300,000 schoolteachers are at risk of being laid off this year. He ought to be stepping up to the plate to explain why this is a failure of the free market system that requires government to play the role that it did in eras like the New Deal and the Great Society, and that government led by progressives can do great things.
Tavis: He’s the “New York Times” best-selling author of “Obama’s Challenge.” The new text from Robert Kuttner is called “A Presidency in Peril.” Bob, good to have you on the program. Thanks for the book and thanks for sharing your insights.

Kuttner: Thanks so much for having me, Tavis.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm