A conversation with former Secretary of State John Kerry. He weighs in on the upcoming midterms, the state of the Democratic party and why he sees hope for America's democracy.
Guest Host: Susan Page
A lame duck, with diminished power to get anything done: This is how many had expected to describe President Barack Obama in his final two years in office. But the president has had a string of recent victories, including on trade, the Affordable Care Act and Iran. Now, he’s setting his sights on other issues, pushing for criminal justice reform, moving to close Guantanamo Bay and speaking out about race relations much more publicly than in the past. Some say the new “swing-for-the-fences” Obama represents a significant change from the man we saw take office, and what he does with this momentum could have major consequences as he moves into his last 18 months in office. We look at the evolution of President Barack Obama and his political priorities for the remainder of his term.
- David Axelrod Director, Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago; former senior adviser to President Obama; author of "Believer: My Forty Years in Politics."
- Todd Purdum Senior writer, Politico; contributing editor, Vanity Fair; author, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964"
- Dan Balz Chief correspondent, The Washington Post
- Lara Brown Associate professor, Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Some headlines have called it the best period of his presidency. Barack Obama has had big wins recently on the Affordable Care Act, Iran and trade. Could that momentum carry the president through 18 more months? Of course, he still has a Republican-led Congress, the election season is heating up and he has an ambitious list of issues still to tackle.
MS. SUSAN PAGEWith me in the studio to discuss President Obama's evolution and his priorities for the rest of his term, Lara Brown of the George Washington University and Dan Balz of The Washington Post. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DAN BALZThank you.
MS. LARA BROWNThank you.
PAGEAnd joining us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California is Todd Purdum of Politico. Good morning, Todd.
MR. TODD PURDUMGlad to be with you, Susan.
PAGEFirst, on the line from Chicago is David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and a former senior advisor to President Obama in his campaigns and at the White House. David Axelrod, thanks for joining us.
MR. DAVID AXELRODGood to be with you.
PAGEAre we seeing, in fact, a different Barack Obama than we did when he took office?
AXELRODYou know, I really don't think so in the sense that his attitude has always been, we've got eight years to do as much as we possibly can to shift the course of history in the right direction to the best we can to help the greatest number people. I remember, Susan, when we were discussing whether he should engage in the healthcare issue back at the beginning of the administration and there were a lot of political arguments as to why he shouldn't take it on.
AXELRODAnd he said, what are we supposed to do? Just sit here for eight years and admire our approval rating, put it on the shelf and admire it? Or are we supposed to draw down on it to try and do things that are going to make a lasting difference? And the things that he's doing now are things that he talked about throughout this presidential campaign. There are things that he's been talking about for years before he became president.
AXELRODSo in that sense, I think there's a great consistency to what he's doing now, but there's certainly also a greater sense of freedom and maybe even a greater sense of urgency knowing that the clock is ticking and that there are a limited number of days left for him to make the impact he wants to make.
PAGEI wonder if it -- does that freedom come, in part, from getting through that second midterm election where he has to pay less attention to congressional politics, to the politics of the Democratic Party, is that part of it?
AXELRODWell, it may be. I think that certainly getting past that election was a liberating moment, but I think it's important to note that none of us in the political community and the media community were viewing it as such the day after the midterm elections. In fact, many people were hanging crepe on the White House saying this is the end of the Obama administration because he had suffered, and the party, had suffered from losses in Congress.
AXELRODHe viewed it differently. I think he viewed it as just a wakeup call that, as he said, we're in the fourth quarter now and he was going to use every authority at his disposal to try and advance those things that he thinks are of lasting importance to the country.
PAGEBut, you know, David, I think there was a time, and maybe this is -- maybe we were not seeing things accurately, but there was a time when he seemed kind of distracted, not very energized, kind of despondent. I mean, we didn't see the energy that we're seeing right now.
AXELRODWell, look, he's a human being. We've had our ups and downs during these eight years, just enormous challenges throughout that period. And, of course, there are times when you lose energy, maybe lose focus, but that is clearly not the case now. I think that, first of all, he is very, very happy with the things that he's been able to accomplish in these now almost seven years in office and so he feels that he's sort of adding to what is already a good body of work and there's some satisfaction that comes with that.
AXELRODBut there's also that sense that the clock is ticking, that his presidency is coming to an end and that has given him, I think, a new sense of urgency.
PAGEWe've seen, I think, a change in particular in his willingness to openly talk about race and race relations in this country and part of that may be that we've had a series of national events that have forced that conversation. But I wonder if part of it is also that feeling of liberation that you mentioned.
AXELRODYeah, I think so. Look, I remember sitting in a room in 2011 when we were planning the campaign. I wrote about that in the book that I just released. We talked about things that he felt that he hadn't been as candid about as he'd liked to, where he felt cramped by politics and so on. And there's no doubt that race has been a difficult issue, a difficult balancing act for him because there never was a desire to advance himself as the black president.
AXELRODHe was president of the United States and he didn't want to give people or we around him didn't want to give people the opportunity to make the argument that he was sort of focused just on his identity as a black president. But I think that there are a lot of issues, structural issues, that go to the status of much of the black community in this country that are very troubling, troubling to him, and he is not -- he doesn't want to leave the presidency with that issue unaddressed and he's been very energetic about it, certainly in the last few months.
AXELRODBut just a final point on this, a lot of the things that he did at the beginning of his administration in terms of tax policy and other policies, you know, whether it was Pell Grants or health reform itself, helped people at the lower end of the economic spectrum and in that sense, you know, he's been on the -- at work on these issues from the beginning.
PAGEYeah. David Axelrod, his book, he just mentioned it, is titled "Believer: My 40 Years In Politics." So last question, David. What do you think President Obama's top priority is going to be in the next 18 months. What would he most like to achieve?
AXELRODWell, obviously, he's got something that is very current that he wants to complete, which is this Iran agreement, which he believes is the difference between potentially a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue and an inexorable march to war. He's talked very much about the climate change issue, which is an irreversible challenge that we face and there's a global agreement, hopefully, that can be reached by the end of this year.
AXELRODHe's got powers to regulate that he will, I'm sure, explore. I think that's going to be very important to him. I think he'd like to get a long-term infrastructure, a transportation bill done, because we've been neglecting that for the last six years and the country -- the infrastructure of the country's been degraded as a result of it. I think he feels very strongly about that. Criminal justice reform, that clearly is something that he feels strongly about and there seems to be a bipartisan consensus to do something about it.
AXELRODSo there are big things yet to be achieved in these last 16 months. I guarantee you this. He is not going to be counting paper clips. He is not going to be putting his feet up on his desk. He's a guy who's determined to make every day count.
PAGEDavid, the president took office in the midst of a terrible financial crisis. Certainly, that will stand as one of his big achievements.
AXELRODYes, I remember that.
PAGEI'm sure you do -- one of his big achievements. Passing the health care bill, a giant fight in the first few years. Is he happier now than he's been previously in his time at the White House?
AXELRODI think he is happy. I spent some time with him recently and, you know, he seems very happy with what he's been able to achieve, happy with where he is right now. I think there is a -- he feels -- to me, it feels as if he's unburdened. He's speaking his mind. He's not, in any way, curbing himself and he feels good about it. This is the Barack Obama that I know, the guy who's willing to speak difficult truths and who is willing to take political risks to do things that he thinks are important.
AXELRODI think he feels like he is very much himself right now and it's given him a lot of satisfaction.
PAGEAnd I wonder if it tells us something about what his post presidency will be like.
AXELRODWell, I think that one thing he's clearly, you know, his Brother's Keepers program and other things that he's done point to one element of his post presidency. And I think that, you know, so I think he's pointing to some of the issues that he'll continue to be involved in. And yes, I think he'll be a candid voice out there. But, you know, one thing I remember very clearly was a conversation I had with him in which he told me how much he admired and appreciated the way both Bushes had handled their post presidencies because they were very -- they've been very careful about not intervening in and standing over the shoulder of their successors in a running commentary.
AXELRODI don't expect he'll do that. I think he, you know, there are only a few guys on this planet who understand how difficult this job is and I think there's a certain respect that goes along with that.
AXELRODSo I don't expect him to be leading the charge against the next president if he doesn't agree or try to backseat drive, as it were.
PAGEAll right, yeah. David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and a former senior aide to President Obama. Thanks so much for joining us.
AXELRODGreat to be with you guys. Thank you.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk to our panel about what we've just heard and about President Obama's final 18 months in office, what we should expect. We'll go to the phones and take your calls. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Lara Brown, she's associate professor in the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University. And Dan Balz, chief correspondent at The Washington Post. And we're joined ISD line from NPR West by Todd Purdum, senior writer at Politico and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Well, Todd Purdum, let's start with you. You have -- had a piece in Politico the other day called "Barack Obama's Long Game: A Month of Victories Has Transformed the President's Second Term." Transformed? What did you mean?
PURDUMWell, sort of what you were talking about at the beginning of the program, Susan. I mean, this president, who just a few months ago was dismissed as sort of listless and despondent in the wake of the Republican round in the mid-terms last fall and sort of almost reduced to irrelevancy in the last two years of his office, suddenly seemed to be on a roll that almost nobody could have imagined: the Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, the fast-track authority from Congress, the Iran deal. He seemed, as you pointed out, newly energized, newly recommitted to the issues he's long been interested in.
PURDUMAnd it seemed as if his patience was being rewarded, his willingness to stake his presidency on something like health-care reform, which as David Axelrod pointed out, many of his advisors didn't want him to do in 2009. And, you know, it looked for a while that that would be both the biggest accomplishment of his administration and the biggest millstone around his neck because of the implacable and continuing opposition to it from the Republicans and from, you know, many states. But now the Supreme Court has apparently, you know, really definitively ruled that that is the law of the land. And I don't think the Republicans in Congress will have a way to unwind it.
PURDUMI don't think a -- even a Republican president in the next term, if that should be the case, could really unwind it. So he's got that, you know, on the ledger books really forever now, I think.
PAGESome of our listeners may have their own views on President Obama's long game on his last 18 months in office. You can give us a call on our toll-free line. The lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to email@example.com. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Dan Balz, I know you've watched the president closely. What have you seen? Have you seen a change in his demeanor?
BALZWell, David Axelrod used a word that I think is correct, "unburdened" in speaking his mind. He just seems -- he does seem more liberated to speak his mind about things. His patience with Congress ran out a long time ago and he's made no secret of that. And yet, as David said, there's been a certain patience about the way he has seen the arc of his presidency. There's been a confluence of events over the last month or two months that have, I think, reminded everybody of the direction he has tried to push the country and the degree to which the country has moved. So right now is a very good moment for him.
BALZBut I think the thing to remember about the Obama presidency is that there have been some very, you know, successful moments and some very unsuccessful moments. And there's been an ebb and flow to kind of the way the public has seen him or, in a sense, the way events have flowed in his direction or not. And so predicting the last 18 months on the basis of what we've seen over the last six or eight weeks, I think, is a little problematic.
PAGEThat's true, although one characteristic of President Obama, it seems to me, is that when things are going well, he doesn't seem that exuberant and when things are going badly, he doesn't seem that down. Unlike Bill Clinton, you know. Bill Clinton, you could read his ups and downs just by the way he was, you know, without any trouble. Lara Brown, is -- put President Obama's -- these last two years in some context for us. Is this what the last two years of second-term presidents are always like? Or how is this different?
BROWNWell, let me just sort of back up with one thing and say that it's much too premature to kind of come to any sort of conclusion about this legacy. One of the things that is very important for all presidents is actually who succeeds them and, in fact, how their party is seen in the years and how their policies are sort of institutionalized or not in those years after their presidency. And we just won't know that for quite some time. That said, I think it is important to see President Obama as somebody who has had these sort of near-term victories. And he is kind of relieved of those burdens from the electoral standpoint.
BROWNBut I think it's important to also take a look at most presidents. By the time of their sort of seventh and eighth year in office, they do kind of get it down. They have a sense of what the job is. They know what the workload is like. And they actually become fairly skilled in administering this part of their terms. The problem is usually things that have been kind of festering or problems that have not been fully revealed to the public do also tend to come out and we see sort of this different side of the president than one that was elected.
PAGETodd, I know that you have -- are a student of history. You had a book that came out I guess just this year, looking at two presidents and their work on the Civil Rights Act. How does this compare with other presidents at this time of their tenure?
PURDUMWell, you know, often presidents in the last two years of their eight-year term -- by definition they're sort of spent -- I agree with the professor that they have the drill-down and they know where the bathrooms and the light switches are -- but I think often their agenda is sort of petering out or festering problems come to light. You know, Ronald Reagan was almost undone by Iran-Contra in the last two years of his presidency. Then he redeemed it with his foreign policy. Bill Clinton, of course, had to go through impeachment, in some ways emerged politically stronger than ever from that, and still had quite a lot of action in the last part of his second term.
PURDUMSo I think that, you know, it's not 100 percent clear exactly what the end of eight years always looks like. He -- in this case, President Obama -- I think you pointed out something, Susan -- which is that he never gets that high, he never gets that low. He sort of stays at the 50-yard line of emotional intensity all the time. And that probably serves him well. It's one of the qualities that people in Washington have sometimes found exasperating during his tenure. They want him to get mad. They want him to get, you know, get even. They want him to be hotter under the collar, which I think, you know, historically he feels has never been a good strategy for black men in America.
PURDUMAnd so, I think, in some ways, the very parts of his temperament that are sometimes faulted are coming to serve him well now with this sort of steady-as-she-goes approach.
PAGEHere's an email from John, who's writing us from Louisville. He writes, "While the story has been about a productive final two years of the Obama presidency, when you look at the accomplishments, there is more to it. Most notably, the fact that after his defeat in the 2014 mid-term elections, he has turned to executive orders and what many would consider overreach to get these things done. With the exception of the trade deal, there isn't much to show for Obama victories that are accomplished by legislation. Democrats will regret this approach when a Republican is in office in the future." Dan, what do you think?
BALZWell, there may -- there's certainly some truth to that. There's a lot of truth to the fact that he has moved to try to do things through executive action and through the use of the bully pulpit and ways in which he can try to move public opinion, absent congressional consensus or support. I think this is a reality of the day. The country is so polarized. The Congress is in Republican hands. And it's been demonstrated over the last four or five years, in a lot of different ways, that Congress -- this Congress and this president can get very little done together. Now, there are some things still pending in which he's going to get some Republican support. The trade -- the fast track is one example of that. So it's not as though there is not any action.
BALZBut he turned away from that after 2014 because he -- I think, after the 2010 defeats, he still thought there was a way to work with Congress. And what happened in 2011, I think, changed his mind irrevocably. And ever since then, he has been looking for other ways to act. And I think that that's been a key to his second term and to understand kind of how he's approached it. But John is exactly right. Another president may try to do the same thing. And if it's a Republican president, and the Democrats hold the Congress, we'll be back into this kind of situation.
PAGEOf course, Lara Brown, that's one reason that presidents often, in their second term, turn to foreign policy, where they have to rely less on Congress, whether it's in their, you know, whether it's controlled by their party or the other party.
BROWNThat's absolutely right. Because usually sixth-year mid-terms are pretty tough on presidents. And I think we certainly saw that in 2014. But I do think that we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Barack Obama's approval rating is really only at a middling level. He is, you know, behind Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton, in terms of where he stands at this point in his term. He is ahead of Truman and George W. Bush. And yet, you know, history kind of has a lot to say about these people. You know, Truman ends up with a very strong legacy, Eisenhower, with one that is sort of thought to be just a tender of the office.
BROWNSo I think one of the things that we don't know yet is how all this will sort out and really what sort of opportunities did the president miss early-on in his term, while he was focused on some more of these long-game issues.
PAGEYeah. Well, Todd, you know, one thing that President Obama has long been criticized for is not building relationships with Congress and he hasn't done that in the final two years either. He's just kind of figured out a way not to make that matter.
PURDUMWell, he's decided, if you can't join them, beat them. And he -- but I mean, you know, your point is very well taken, Susan. Because part of the bad relationships are, in fact, with the Democrats. And we saw that in the fast-track. I mean, they had reasons -- ideological reasons, political reasons to be wary of the trade deal. But congressional Democrats have complained bitterly about the lack of care and feeding from the Obama White House and the lack of personal contact with the president. And, you know, it's an open question how much more he could have done in terms of making peace with the Republicans.
PURDUMFrom the minute he took office, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said his principal goal was to defeat the president for reelection. I think he could probably, you know, have endless glasses of Merlot with John Boehner and even share a cigarette and they probably still wouldn't get anything done because Speaker Boehner has so much trouble corralling his own caucus. But I think there's no doubt that President Obama clearly did, at some point, miss opportunities to work with Congress -- at least to know them more, to know more.
PURDUMYou know, one of the things that happened during the Civil Rights Bill, President Johnson was always calling the Southern segregationist Democrats, not necessarily because he thought he could change their minds, but because he wanted to know what was on their minds. And he got valuable intelligence. And I think, clearly, President Obama could have done a little more of that with profit.
PAGELet's go to the phones and give our listeners a chance to join our conversation. Tom is calling us from Harrisburg, Pa. Hi, Tom, you're on the air.
TOMHi, thank you very much. Yes, I called during the 2014 campaign and I said the Democrats should be embracing Obama instead of running away from them like they did. And I think history has proven me correct. When you look at Bin Laden dead, financial collapse reversed completely, health care for all -- which, I think, next to the GI Bill, is going to go down as one of the greatest domestic policy accomplishments. And the Democrats -- in 2016, right now, I'm currently for Bernie Sanders -- should again embrace Obama and his success that he has.
PAGEAll right, Tom. Thanks very much for your call. Well, Dan, what do you think? Could Democrats have done better in the mid-terms by embracing Obama. Because they didn't. They didn't want him to come campaign for them. They didn't want to talk about him.
BALZI think the president feels that they could have done better if they had embraced him more. And there are some Democrats -- I remember having a conversation with a Democrat out West, in the -- a couple of weeks before the campaign. And he was very unhappy that the White House and that the Democratic Committee wouldn't make a stronger argument. That he just felt that he thought that the president needed to be out on the field and campaigning and into states and, you know, make the argument. I'm not sure, given all that, that it would have made that much difference. I mean, a lot of these races were in very tough states for the Democrats.
BALZThe structural nature of politics today is one that this election, in 2014, was tilted very clearly toward the Republicans. They pulled out a few races -- Iowa and Colorado, for example -- that there were in swing states. But I think the president wishes somebody had made the argument on his behalf. I don't know how much difference it would have made.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go around the table. I'd like each of you to identify what you think we should really be watching. I asked this question of David Axelrod and he gave us 16 things that he thought the president wanted to achieve in his final 18 months. I'd you each to give me one thing that you think is important to watch, something big the president wants to do in the next 18 months that you're going to be keeping an eye on. Todd, we'll start with you.
PURDUMWell, I guess I think that if he's remotely serious about what he said in places like the Charleston Church eulogy and also in his visit to the prison in Oklahoma, I think he is deeply concerned about this -- whether you call it the school-to-prison pipeline, the criminal justice system, the mass incarceration of, you know, let's face it, young black men in America -- I think he is really concerned about perfecting the Union, as he often says. And I'd be sort of surprised, if he doesn't -- in the last 18 months and then particularly in his post-presidency, if he doesn't return to that. You know, as David pointed out, he's never wanted to be the president for just one part of the country.
PURDUMHis introduction to national politics really was that wonderful speech in Boston where he said there's not a red America, a blue America, there's the United States of America. So that's always been his creed. But I think he does feel that he has something unique and powerful to say to the country about the work that we still have to do on race relations. You know, there was a poll in The New York Times/CBS News poll last week that in some ways went counter to the happy talk in Washington lately. It showed that there really still is quite a great divide on racial questions in the country and quite a disparate view among black and white Americans of what the state of play is on those questions. So I guess I'd be surprised if he doesn't try to tackle that at least a little bit.
PAGEAnd of course the issue of criminal justice reform is one where there's some bipartisan sentiment to do something. Dan, what would you watch for the next 18 months?
BALZWell, I agree with Todd on the issues of race and criminal justice. The other -- one other one I would look at is climate change. There's obviously very little that he can do through the Congress. He's trying to do things through executive action. But I think his view is that this is an issue where the United States has to get positioned on the right side of this issue and leaning into it in a way that perhaps not. And so I think he's going to try to marshal whatever forces he can -- whether it's private sector or the bully pulpit again -- to try to create a consensus for action even after he leaves the White House. I think this is an issue that he thinks will continue to be important after he leaves the White House.
BALZAnd that if he can leave the groundwork that the next president, particularly if it's a Democrat, would follow up on and be able to make some progress on.
PAGEAnd Lara Brown, what do you think we should be watching?
BROWNWell, I actually would watch something that he has very little control over and that would be the economy. Because, really, the polls still show that the American public is dissatisfied with his leadership on the economy. They do not feel that a reducing unemployment rate is really helping them. They feel their wages are stagnant. They have a sense that really the economy has changed and they're not necessarily a part of the winners in this world. So I think what's going to matter a great deal for him, for his legacy, will be, in fact, what does the economy look like when he leaves office, given not just where it was when he started, but how much more the people's are -- expectations are about where it should be.
PAGEAnd, you know -- go ahead, Dan.
BALZWell, I want to echo that point. I think it's very, very important. When you look at the Obama presidency, one thing that has not happened is the one thing he's talked about in every campaign, which is helping the middle class get on a stronger and more secure financial footing. And, you know, you can give him credit for what he did in the months immediately after he became president in dealing with the collapse of the economy. But since then, the problems that he has long talked about have not changed significantly.
BALZAnd, in some ways, there is a debate within the Democratic Party -- between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for example, between the progressive wing of the Party and the more centrist wing of the party -- about what actually should be done or can be done. And in one way or another, he has talked about but not been able to solve it.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation and we'll go back to the phones. 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com. Join our conversation. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're joined from California by Todd Purdum, senior writer at Politico, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and with me in the studio, Lara Brown, a professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, and Dan Balz, the dean of the political press corps in Washington and chief correspondent at The Washington Post. Let's go to the phones and let our listeners join our conversation. We'll go first to Dawn, who's calling us from Westland, Michigan. Hi, Dawn, you're on the air.
DAWNHello, thank you for taking my call. My remark would be, with respect to the mention of how he does not show anger, he tends to have an even-keeled style, but people express their anger in different wants, and I see that basically what he would do is, in a maybe non-courageous way, call people or the Republicans out during his speeches and then do executive orders and things like that. So he would not directly, head-on debate people.
DAWNAnd I think we, as Americans, accept anger where we can see it and we know exactly where the person's coming from, and we would prefer to collaborate that way, not have the person go behind our back and kind of try to, try to get the truths, you know, against us.
PAGEOh, interesting, Dawn. Thanks so much for your call. Here's a tweet from Carl, who writes, I have always been curious why the president didn't boast more on his successes. That temperament has hurt him, I feel. Laura, what do you think?
BROWNWell, I think that the president has been very well-aware that he has been operating within a very narrow band of approval ratings, and it's never a good thing to go out and kind of, you know, beat your chest and yell to the top of the mountains that you've done great things when really so much of the country is disconcerted, and so many people are wondering whether life is going to be better for them or whether they are secure in this world, where terrorism is kind of undermining their basic sense of safety, and the economy is making them feel insecure about their future.
PAGEJames is calling us from Washington, D.C. James, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JAMESHello, how is everybody doing? One thing people don't factor in, and y'all haven't factored in, is that he's the first African-American president. And plus, I've seen him disrespected like no other head of state has been disrespected, governor waving a finger in his face, being called a liar at the State of the Union Address, and the prime minister of Israel disrespecting him twice.
JAMESYou know, and people in the Republican Party, you have a faction that will not work with him due to the fact that he is black, but they won't say it.
PAGEAll right, James, thanks for your call.
BROWNWell, I -- you know, I really think that this is an important issue, but I also think there are some misperceptions out there around it. There is this really deep polarization in the country that has affected both of our last presidents, and the one thing that I always try to remind people is, in fact, President Obama's approval rating among Republicans on his inaugural day was higher than Bill Clinton's was on his inaugural day and higher than George W. Bush's was among Democrats on his inaugural day.
BROWNIn other words, President Obama actually started with a larger sort of scope of good will, like reservoir, out there of people wanting him to do well than either of the two two-term presidents before him. So I do think that some of this gets filtered through the media in a way that alters our perceptions about what has been said and what hasn't been said. Things have, in presidential politics, always been pretty ugly.
PAGEIt's true that he started with kind of a real -- a lot of era of good feeling at that -- at that moment, I think a lot of Americans, even those who didn't vote for him, were proud that we had elected an African-American president. But Todd, let me ask you, what do you think of James' point that -- he said President Obama's been disrespected because of his race?
PURDUMWell, I think it's really indisputable. I mean, I think there's a core level of bubbling always beneath the surface of that reality. One of the problems, though, as Lara said, when the president took office, he had allowed himself to become a vessel for so many people's disparate hopes and dreams that he was -- he was not so much a living figure or someone with a clear-cut set of policy proposals as a wish fulfillment vehicle. People saw in him what they wanted to see. So it was almost inevitable that he would quickly disappoint large numbers of people who didn't see in him what they'd hoped they'd get.
PURDUMAnd also, you know, he came into office pledging and promising to change the bitter tone in Washington. He was unable to do that. I'm sure he would say a lot of the fault lies with the Republicans, and he'd be right. I think you have to look at whatever failing he, himself, had in being able to change that tone. But I just don't think you can look at some of the invective that gets thrown around in the Internet.
PURDUMRemember what happened when he first went on Twitter, the stuff that came out in the first, you know, 24 hours, the rank, racist invective. There's just no doubt about it that President Obama does face that and faces -- that's something unique to him as the first black president. And yes, every president has faced unbelievable criticism, going all the way back to the first one, and we used to tease Bill Clinton sometimes when he would seem so beleaguered and say that nobody had ever had it as bad as he'd had because of the 24/7 media and so forth.
PURDUMSo, you know, Abraham Lincoln was called an ape, and we -- we know all the other things that have gone through our politics. But I do think there's no doubt that President Obama has borne a singular burden and largely borne it without complaint, and I think what's -- what must be satisfying for him now is to say, okay, what are they going to do, you know, let me just say what's on my heart because they punish me if I don't. So I think that that does explain part of the recent change in his demeanor.
PAGEI remember, I think this was right before his inauguration, he took his daughters to the Lincoln Memorial, and one of his daughters said something, I may have this quote slightly wrong, but I'm the first African-American president, you better be good.
PURDUMI think he's always felt that burden, no doubt about it.
PAGEYeah, and of course just in the last 24 hours, we saw him speak to an audience -- go to Kenya, where his father was, make a joke about the controversy, the discredited argument that he wasn't actually born in the United States, and referred to himself as a Kenyan-American. I think that's not something we've heard him do before. That reflects, I think, the time of his presidency. Do you think...
BALZOh, I think that's absolutely right, and it is, you know, as David Axelrod said, this sort of sense of liberation. He clearly feels freer to talk about things than he ever has in his presidency, and I think part of knowing that he's only got X months left in his presidency, he's going to get some things off his chest, and he's going to talk about them in the way he wants to do it. And so in that sense, you are seeing a different President Obama than we saw early on.
PAGENow here's an email from Peggy, who writes us. Do you or your guests think there's any possibility of Gitmo closing? I don't see how that could happen. You know, the fact is, the New York Times did a story on the front page last week that Gitmo not going to close, and the next day, Josh Earnest at the White House said here's our plan for closing Gitmo. Lara Brown, do you think that's going to happen?
BROWNWell, I think it's certainly something that the president and his administration have wanted to happen for a very long time. The hard part is what do you do if you close Gitmo, right. It's not about whether or not they want to keep it open, it's that what do you do in the absence of it being open. And I think with all of the sort of increase with terror in the world, with ISIS, with a sense of what's going on in the Middle East, there is still some concern about, you know, should we keep these people as prisoners of war.
PAGEAnd Congress, of course, has imposed some limits to make it hard to move some of those prisoners. Dan, if you were betting on the day that President Obama leaves office, will Gitmo still be open?
BALZI would bet that it would be. I would bet that he will be working on it until that final day, trying to figure out a way to, you know, fulfill that promise that has been there from the first day of his presidency. But the fact that, as Lara said, that it's defied solution I think tells you how hard it is and how difficult it's going to be for him to accomplish that.
PAGEDale's calling us from Rockford, Illinois. Dale, hi, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DALEAnd thank you for taking my call. I'm a loyal supporter of President Obama. My question or concerns for him to accomplish before he leaves would be to protect the Arctic and the Bristol Bay area. If, as NPR announced, that waste from the Japan tsunami is washing up in the Arctic, one oil spill by Shell will be around the world. So that's -- that's a huge concern for our climate crisis.
PAGEDale, thanks so much for your call. You know, that's a tough one, Todd, isn't it, to do things about -- he's had not very much success getting climate change legislation through Congress.
PURDUMYes, no, it's tricky. And presidents -- President Clinton, you'll remember, did some things with declaring national monuments, which the president can do unilaterally. Some of those were unwound. So I think he probably has to tread a little bit carefully there. He knows that things can backfire. He doesn't want to seem so provocative in his last months of office that, you know, it gives the Republicans ammunition against him in the campaign really, I think, he wouldn't.
PURDUMAnd I think Lara's earlier point about presidents' legacies being defined by their successors is a very, very important one to keep in mind. Barack Obama's legacy will probably look much different if he's succeeded by Hillary Clinton or a Democrat than if he's succeeded by a Republican. There's just no getting away from that. And that's not saying a Republican could undo health care, for example, but it just means that everything will look different because by its nature, the Republican Party will want to take the country in a different direction than President Obama's been taking it, and they will do what they can to minimize the effects and the lingering aspects of his legacy, whereas a Democrat presumably would want to coast on it and build on it.
PAGESo a 20 -- the 2016 election will have an impact on Barack Obama's legacy. To what degree, Dan, will Barack Obama have an impact on what happens in 2016 on who gets elected?
BALZHe'll have a big impact on that. I mean, the president's approval rating is an important factor in, you know, anticipating or predicting who is likely to win the next presidential race. It's not the only factor by any means, but the combination of economic unrest and his approval rating will be a factor. Now having said that, I think we're in an era where lower approval ratings do not necessarily disqualify a party from winning the presidency.
BALZI mean, I think that politicians or parties with lower approval ratings can succeed in this environment in part because there's just the kind of -- there's just so much discontent and unhappiness and the polarized nature of the electorate. So -- but, you know, if Barack Obama could do one thing to help the Democrats win the next campaign, it would be to raise his approval rating. That was the one thing he could have done in 2014, and he wasn't able to do it then.
PAGELara Brown, what do you think?
BROWNWell, I couldn't agree more. I think that's absolutely right. You know, I do think that presidents really never truly serve alone, and I think that that's a -- it's a strange idea because they are there in office alone, but they come in with all these expectations and hopes about what their presidency will be, and after they leave, they are judged by their successor, as well as their predecessors, how they match up to those other, you know, legislative histories, as well as sort of policy and political accomplishments.
BROWNSo I think the hard part for this president is really how he's been as a leader of his party. We already talked about the fact that he doesn't get along with congressional Democrats, and when you look across the landscape of the country, the Democrats are sitting with some of the lowest numbers that they've ever had in terms of officeholders at the state level and in the Senate.
PAGEIt's certainly true that President Reagan was very well-served by having George H.W. Bush serve a term after him. I mean, I think it's one of the things that really solidified Reagan's legacy in office. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to Phil calling us from Plano, Texas. Hi Phil.
PHILHi there. I have an opinion about Obama, that he has a wonderful, lighthearted approach to his problems and the office of the president, difficulties with the Republicans and so on, and he's demonstrated, I think, at the correspondents' dinner, which I watched on C-SPAN. He had a joke that said, I wonder if your guests have heard this, I don't have a bucket list, but I've got a list that rhymes with bucket. And I wonder if your guests agree with me about this.
PAGEOkay, Phil, thanks very much. Todd, what do you think?
PURDUMWell, you know, I wrote a piece a couple years ago, on the eve of the correspondents' dinner, about President Obama and humor. He does have a very acute sense of humor. Generally speaking, I think compared to many other presidents, he's not that willing to make fun of himself. He's pretty good about making jokes about other people, and I think he does have a lighthearted sense of the absurdity life. He has a highly developed appreciation for the craziness of the world he lives in. But I think sometimes he's better at poking fun at other people than he is at himself.
PAGEThat might be true of a lot of us. I've been there.
PURDUMOh, I would hasten to say, yes, exactly.
BALZGuilty as charged.
PAGEHere's an email from -- here's an email from Sandy, who writes, will the president make guns an issue now that he has no more elections to run? And in fact, Dan, we heard the president talk about this in an interview with the BBC the other day, about this being one of his big regrets.
BALZI think it is one of his big regrets, and he, you know, he tried so hard right after the Sandy Hook massacre to try to move legislation and was totally rebuffed in the Senate on that and I think recognizes that there is no congressional consensus for action on that. And yet with shooting after shooting after shooting, it frustrates him, as it does many people, and I think he will continue to talk about it and push.
BALZAnd again, it's one of those issues where I think he, you know, to the extent that he can prepare the ground for a later moment, he will try to do that.
PAGEIt's just hard to imagine what the later moment would be. After the Sandy Hook massacre, what, what could happen that would more fuel a desire for gun laws, Lara?
BROWNWell, I'm not sure that we're going to get gun laws, but I do think we could get some mental health support, and I think that would actually be an important achievement because there is some kind of bipartisan support for moving forward with some mental health bill, which I would imagine the president would sign and many people feel could help with some of these issues.
PAGEYou know, Todd, during the tough period for President Obama after the 2014 midterm, even the two years before that, there was talk of the second term curse, that a smart president just wouldn't even run for a second term because they're always so troubled. I guess he's kind of quieted that at this point.
PURDUMI think he has certainly given the lie to that, at least for the moment. Remember, also, early in his presidency, he said famously he'd rather be a successful one-term president than a mediocre two-term president, and the reality of history is that in order to be a successful president, really, you have to be a two-term president to have time enough to cement your legacy. So I think it's very important, as Lara said earlier, to remember that we won't know his legacy. Every historian you talk to is quick to caution that we won't know his legacy for a long time.
PURDUMBut at a minimum, he does seem to have given the lie to the second-term curse, and at the moment, anyway, it looks like his second term could well wind up being, you know, quote-unquote, better than his first.
PAGEYou know, it's interesting that on an issue like Cuba, where he took executive action, big controversy, now seems completely non-controversial.
BROWNWell, I think that's right.
PURDUMThat's a funny thing that happens, sometimes, when you lance the boil.
PAGEYeah, I mean, Lara, what do you think?
BROWNWell, I think what we see is that Cuba is an issue where people like to talk much more than they like to actually, you know, campaign against it. I think at some level, this is a rhetorical and valance issue, and I think what you see is that by him taking action, it opens a world of opportunities to even those who are on the other side to approach something that they've long wanted to.
PAGEDan, final thought?
BALZWell, I agree with that. There's a certain part of the Republican Party, and certainly Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio represent it because they're both from Florida, in which they're going to oppose this. And some Republicans are going to oppose most of what President Obama tries to do. But I think that on something like Cuba, he has moved the country in a direction that seemed in many ways inevitable, that there was going to have to be a turn, and he was prepared to do it and live with the consequences.
PAGEDan Balz of The Washington Post, and we've also been joined this hour by Lara Brown of the George Washington University and Todd Purdum of Politico and Vanity Fair. Thanks all of you for being with us this hour.
PURDUMThanks a lot, Susan.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Thanks for listening.
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