Columnist Frank Rich

Veteran New York Times columnist explains why he chose to write about the president for his debut piece with New York Magazine.

During his nearly 30 years with The New York Times, Frank Rich was an Op-Ed columnist, politics and culture critic and editor. He was the first to carry dual titles as "Arts & Leisure" front-page columnist and senior advisor to the culture editor and has written on such topics as the religious right and the controversial film The Passion of the Christ. He's also a best-selling author, with titles that include The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Rich is moving to New York Magazine, where his duties will include editor-at-large and commentator on the mag's Web site.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Frank Rich back to this program. After more than 30 years with “The New York Times,” both as theater critic and, of course, opinion columnist, he makes his debut this week as writer-at-large for “New York” magazine. His first piece is called “Something Rotten: Obama’s Failure to Right the Wrongs of this Crash Has Haunted His Presidency and Could Undo It.” Frank Rich joins us tonight from New York. Frank, always good to have you on this program, sir.

Frank Rich: Great to be with you, Tavis, as always.

Tavis: Well, I am glad, as many others are, your fans, glad to have you back and looking forward to digging into what you have to say in the coming months and years inside “New York” magazine. Let me start with the obvious. Why this particular piece about Obama as your debut?

Rich: I guess as I was looking at various subjects, what really grabbed me and pushed me in this direction was the fact that Mitt Romney, a guy who is associated with corporate America, whose career was mainly in leveraged buyouts that often threw American workers out of work, that he is getting way with presenting himself as sort of a working-class hero, appearing in front of deserted factories and as a sort of nouvelle FDR.

I thought how could Romney, of all people, get away with this post, and I realized a lot of it has to do with the vacuum that Barack Obama has left in terms of his economic record as president.

Tavis: Is there a parallel? I’ll come back to Obama and Romney in a moment. Is there a parallel, though, to how George Bush got away with demonizing John Kerry when Kerry served and Bush didn’t?

Rich: That’s the exact parallel, only in this particular case – in that case, Kerry, his record was exemplary. He had done nothing to deserve it. There’s just enough that’s wanting in the Obama record so far that he gave Romney a slight opening for his exaggerations and caricatures.

Tavis: So you’ve got a lot of words here to unpack this in the new piece, which I’ve read, but to your mind, what is it that Obama has not done that’s led to this failure of writing the wrongs specifically about the crash?

Rich: Well, there’s several things. The two biggest things are first of all no one who gamed the system that created the circumstances for this crash has been punished. Low-level con people have, Bernie Madoff has, but the people who game the whole housing bubble didn’t.

In fact, quite the contrary, they took their fortunes and left while the rest of America was left holding the bag. So that’s a failure of law enforcement, to my mind, particularly given that Obama pledged to do that – in fact, started a task force within the Justice Department called “Operation Broken Trust,” but it has never had any significant prosecutions or even as far as one can tell real serious investigations of what went down.

The second thing is a failure to reform Wall Street. The Dodd-Frank bill was not great to begin with and now is of course at sea because of poorly staffed agencies that have to implement the rules that are being besieged by lobbyists, by the way, both on the Democratic and Republican side. Obama failed to fight for Elizabeth Warren or even appoint her in the consumer protection agency he set up.

I’ll tell you the third thing that’s unfortunate is that his record on jobs, while hardly worthless and indeed the stimulus, even if it was too small, saved several million jobs, has never been the full focus of this administration. So you get the feeling, it sort of gives the image of favoring the corporate status quo on Wall Street, even if that’s not what in his heart of hearts he believes.

Tavis: That third one may be just enough of an albatross to make sure he doesn’t get reelected alone – that is to say, not having done enough on the jobs issue. But as I listen to you lay out your framework, the first two Obama could very well argue he didn’t control. By your own admission, the first was about law enforcement and the second – my words, not yours – is really about Congress, not necessarily the White House. That Dodd-Frank bill had a whole lot of politicking that went along with it.

It’s the third one that could mess him up. But what say you about the fact that when he gets on the campaign trail he can eschew responsibility for the first two, can he not?

Rich: Up to a point. The fact is that he is not – the law enforcement part of it has been on his watch. It’s not connected with politics; it’s just been in my view a lax effort. They just have not been aggressive. It sort of fits with sort of a little bit of the Obama mentality of let’s turn the page on torture, too. Let’s just turn the page on what happened in the past.

So I think he does have something to answer for there, and the Congress blighting everything involving Dodd-Frank, that is a shared responsibility. One wishes, or I wish, Obama had taken more of a leadership role way back when he was fighting about healthcare and pushing that up to the fore, not just healthcare, which was then taken by his opponents and used to demonize him and help give him this Congress that he now has.

Tavis: How do you read, Frank, and I’m really curious as to your take on this, how do you read the fact that the Obama people have so badly missed focusing on jobs? This economy was taking. We were headed into recession during the debates he was having with John McCain.

I’ve said many times on this program and elsewhere between McCain and Obama, respectfully, the word “poverty” never came up one time. We could talk about the middle class; poverty never came up. It’s a word he still doesn’t want to utter to this day, the poor or poverty in this country.

But I’m just trying to figure out how a campaign, whether you like or loathe them, agree or disagree, a campaign that was so good on being focused, that was so good on staying on message, that was so good at messaging during the campaign could so badly miss the issue of jobs in this White House?

Rich: I couldn’t agree with you more, and of course we don’t know the answer, but there are several theories. One is that he was to some extent too much in the grip of people that he appointed, the sort of Robert Rubin retinue led by Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers. That was not that focused on jobs as the main thing.

So even in the stimulus, explicit plans to try to have a WPA jobs program, to put people directly to work, was, we now know, essentially shot down by the Geithner forces in the internal administration debate. This is an administration that took almost a year after Obama entered the White House to have any kind of even sort of pro-forma jobs council, which is just amazing, given the circumstances that you so accurately describe when he came in.

Then there was the healthcare focus and then what I don’t understand – and this is really the hardest question to answer – is how Obama, after healthcare, sort of waltzed past jobs as a focus and segued into the Republican turf of deficit reduction, almost as if he was intimidated by the Tea Party, even though every poll by every major pollster from Inauguration Day to the present shows that jobs and unemployment is a much higher priority for most Americans than the deficit.

Tavis: Here’s another question maybe you know the answer to, because I do not. There are those, including yours truly, who are hopeful that when the time came to reshape his economic team that maybe we’d get a new team of people in that might understand these issues a little bit better.

So when Goolsbee leaves, when Christina Romer leaves, when Larry Summers leaves, when Peter Orzag leaves, there is hope in the air, at least for that period of time, that this new economic team might get it. Maybe you see something that I don’t.

But is there a new team in place that might come to understand these issues better, number one, and is there enough time between now and Election Day if they did understand and embrace these issues a little more differently?

Rich: All right, well, two questions. The first one is no, I don’t see any change, and in fact you could argue that Goolsbee and Romer and Jared Bernstein, who’s also gone, were all on the side that we think was important, on the side of pushing jobs, pushing more spending, a larger stimulus, more proactive job creation over the deficit.

They lost. They’re gone. They are not, as far as I can tell, being replaced by people who are picking up that argument.

On the second point, yes, there’s a long time between now and Election Day, particularly in American politics, where things can change in a week. If he were to seize it, starting with this fight over the debt ceiling that’s going on now, and be strong and start to change his priorities, I think it could make a difference.

What you have to remember is some of the swing states that he won last time, like Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, they have higher, in some cases far higher, unemployment rates than even the miserable record in the rest of the country. So it’s imperative that he do this, not only for the good of the country but also for his own political survival, I think.

Tavis: Now we circle back to your initial point, talking about political survival, your very first point about Obama versus Romney. If he, in fact, is the presumed or presumptive nominee of the Republican Party – that remains to be seen – but if it is –

Rich: Absolutely.

Tavis: If it is, in fact, Mitt Romney, how is Obama going to run best against him on these issues?

Rich: Well, I think Obama’s got to smoke Romney out, because Romney’s record is terrible. Do you know that when he was governor of Massachusetts, Massachusetts had the lowest rate of job creation except for one state, which was Louisiana, which had a huge exodus of the workforce because of Katrina? That’s Romney’s record.

Romney’s record at Bain is one of downsizing companies. So he’s got to smoke Romney out and challenge him, and he has to do it from a position of strength. Obama, as we were just saying, has to have his own record and a renewed vigor about this that can be a clear-cut alternative. He can’t just be another sort of seemingly corporate guy running against another corporate guy.

Tavis: I hate to use these words, “change” and “hope,” because they’ve been so overused in our lexicon over the last few years, but as I read the piece, Frank, there is a sense – I’m not suggesting you say this explicitly; maybe you do.

But there is a sense I get in reading your piece that you believe, as you’ve already said tonight, that one, there is time, but more than just time, you believe that Obama is still capable, that there’s something still inside of him that you can connect to, that you can appeal to, those who agree with your point of view on this.

Something there that we can perhaps get the president to understand and respond. I raise that to ask why it is, if my read on that is right, why, then, are you hopeful? Where’s the evidence of that? Do you think he’s going to stand strong on the debt ceiling and not give them what they want on deficit reduction?

I’m just trying to get a sense of why you remain hopeful after all the words you used in this article.

Rich: (Laughs) Well, I may be just a fool to hold on to any hope. (Laughter) Tavis, I can’t make – I don’t have any great argument except a fundamental conviction, I guess, that this is a decent guy, much of whose record in history, including, by the way, as a community organizer, suggests that his overall passions are not the ones we’re seeing presented and seeing so compromised in the past couple of years. I also feel he is somebody who when his back is against the wall tends to wake up and smell the coffee.

A third thing is in the press conference that he gave last week, where he was immediately, of course, insulted by the Republicans for being so out there and so angry when in fact all he did was fight a little and show some spine, and yet that even got him called a four-letter word on another network, that Obama, he’s still there.

We’ve seen a little bit more of it this week, but we’ll see. The history, unfortunately, has been he does this fitfully and then retreats. He called – not as a high point of his administration, but he called some of the bankers “fat cats” and then retreated from it three months later in 2009.

We have to hope that he’ll stick to it. A lot’s at stake for him as well as for America.

Tavis: I think you’re right. The American people want to see somebody fight for them, and I’m just suggesting that now would be a good time to start if you want to get reelected.

Rich: You bet. (Laughter) You bet, you bet, and that really, that you have – I don’t mean to pick on Mitt Romney, but let’s do it, everyone else does. (Laughter) Look, he may not be the nominee, we don’t know who the Republicans are going to nominate. But for now he actually pulled even to Obama in an important poll, the “Washington Post/ABC” poll.

Romney is the most transparent phony, and I think many Republicans would agree, that you can imagine. He’s rolling up his shirtsleeves, he’s letting a few pieces of hair fall out of place, a little bit less hair gel, and we’re supposed to believe he’s Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” That’s how he’s presenting himself.

Four years ago or three years ago he presented himself as a religious conservative. That didn’t work. So that’s really a paper tiger if Obama is going to be the real tiger.

Tavis: Frank Rich is back, and unapologetically. I am happy about that, as I’m sure many of you are. He’s now writing for “New York” magazine. His first piece is out and it’s a hot one. There’ll be a lot of talk about this in the coming days and weeks. It’s called “Something Rotten: Obama’s Failure to Right the Wrongs of this Crash Has Haunted His Presidency and Could Undo It.” Frank Rich, welcome back and good to see you, my friend.

Rich: Great to see you, my friend. Thanks for having me.

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Last modified: July 8, 2011 at 2:04 pm