7 Days Interview with Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment, Nov. 16, 2008
GREEN: Do you think Obama is being held to an impossible standard or is there a valid comparison between the transitions of FDR and him?
ALTER: Well, if the standard is fifteen major pieces of legislation in FDR's first hundred days in 1933, then that is an impossible standard -- and actually the Obama people don't like the hundred days standard, nor did JFK's people or any of the other presidents after FDR. But if the standard is that we need fundamental change of direction, then the Roosevelt experience is very relevant. Obama has made clear that this is not just going to be about nibbling around the edges. In my mind, the danger for Obama is not that he moves to quickly next year, it's that he moves too slowly. He needs to seize the moment, use the crisis to push through major change. Now he has a couple of advantages over Roosevelt. He's more of a planner and more disciplined in his approach. One of the things that really struck me about the early New Deal was how "seat of the pants" it was. Government always is in some extent, and Obama's administration will be to some extent. But I think that they have a more orderly process. Indeed, Roosevelt was described to have a second class intellect, and a first class temperament. Obama has a first class intellect, he's smarter than Roosevelt, and a first class temperament.
GREEN: Sorry to put you in a bind, but your editor-in-chief Jon Meacham wrote a Newsweek cover about "The Conservative America" which I think completely misreads the last two elections and progressive trends. Are we really still a center-right country?
ALTER: Actually Meacham let me write a contrary piece to his. It's a bit of an oversimplification to think that we're going to move left in lock step across the board, but as a general proposition there's no question that the country is moving left, the last line of my piece was "leftward ho". This is clearly how we're moving, but it's important not to do it in a way that's counter productive and that slows the opportunity for some big pragmatic change.
GREEN: Ok, but the money question is this -- will Obama push for bold change early or be more incrementalist?
ALTER: I do think he wants to be more than a triangulating incrementalist. But it's also true that he's got an awful lot of Clinton people working for him now, and that's their experience and people are often products of their own experience. You know, I heard recently, for instance, that some of the Clinton people on the transition were analyzing the differences between 1993 and 2009. Well that seems to me to be a completely ridiculous exercise. I don't know why they're taking the time to do that, we're in a completely different situation than we were in 1993. At the same time, they campaigned against the Clintons' and so they have their own sense of direction. That doesn't mean they have a more liberal direction, necessarily. I think it'll depend on the issue, on how far they move.
GREEN: Like FDR, Obama now gets to define his "mandate for change", even if he may not have run exactly on it. What specifically do you think he'll push for early?
ALTER: Well, I think it's this idea of a green economy. He can move very quickly toward subsidizing hybrids, plug in cars, his $150 billion alternative energy plan is absolutely central, and then a huge Rooseveltian infrastructure program to rebuild America which both puts people to work, in many cases building mass transit, energy efficient mass transit, stimulating the economy, and building a solid foundation for a green economy. Also, I think you're going to see a much bigger than anticipated stimulus package.
GREEN: Closer to the $560 billion that the Chinese are spending on heir stimulus and the $600 billion Paul Krugman has suggested?
ALTER: There is going to be that struggle between that kind of bold thinking -- and I think that Obama himself thinks that he has to be bold -- and also the realities of practical politics.
Interview audio can be found at airamerica.com
Panel Discussion, with Huffington, vanden Heuval & Green
GREEN: Picking up from Jonathan Alter, how close are the parallels between Roosevelt and Obama?
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think there are lessons to be drawn, Mark. I think they're close. And yes, the Nation is one of the few publications which one lived through the first New Deal and did an issue on the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. But I think history shows us that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to abandon caution because of the great traumas of his day -- the Great Depression gave him little choice but to be bold. And it was the great popular social movement of his time, working outside his administration, the unions at that time, that put pressure on FDR to carry out bolder reforms. Similarly, it's the strategy, the focus, the discipline of that outside movement that will push Obama to become a more boldly reformist president that HE may have envisioned. Paul Krugman writes today in the Times that to be cautious is a dangerous thing right now. Risk is the new caution. Because to overtake this deep and cratering recession is going to require relief, reform, and reconstruction, which were the great three words of the New Deal. Obama needs to remind peoples that government has a role to play in their lives.
GREEN: What about the static view of left-right-center, as if Obama -- as our teacher-in-chief -- won't be able to talk about more children's health, more transparency and no torture in nn-ideological ways?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: They were previously seen in sort of a knee-jerk way as left wing issues. But, I think what has happened is the center has shifted so these so-called left wing issues are now solidly mainstream. Whether it's torture, or healthcare, or bringing the troops home, or corporate responsibility. Any of these key issues of our time. So, all he really has to do is redefine the new center, and not be drawn into "is this left? Is this right? Is this progressive? Is this liberal?"
VANDEN HEUVEL: I think all of us have helped redefine the center over these last years, Arianna and Mark. Because what we have done is from below, from the outside, independently driven issues into the mainstream political debate that were majority issues that those inside the beltway wanted to avoid. Healthcare, trade, ending the war, as Arianna said. The "Teacher-In-Chief" phrase, I love, Mark. I think also Obama is "Organizer-In-Chief". When was the last time we had a community organizer as president?
GREEN: Nov. 4 didn't create a progressive realignment, only the opportunity for one. To achieve a real realignment, like 1890 or 1932, what would now have to happen?
HUFFINGTON: I think what it would take is precisely some really bold policies. And right now, as somebody said: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." The existence of this crisis gives him the opportunity the way it did with FDR to actually institute bold policies. And how the bailout money is being spent right now is the opposite of bold, imaginative, considered policies. Therefore, he has a very clear reality to contrast what he wants to do with, and I think he made a very good decision not to be in Washington during these international meetings so that he might have a fresh start.
GREEN: Will congressional Republicans give Obama a honeymoon or a hazing -- will they start opposing him from the get-go like they did with Clinton?
HUFFINGTON: I think they're going to be oppositional in some topics and compliant in others. I don't think there will be a universal attitude on how to deal with an Obama era. There are certain issues that are going to be so important to their base that they're going to fight on, and others that I think they'll want to demonstrate there's some room for bipartisanship.