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Transcript (with my notes) from April 4, 2010 (PART 2)

April 4, 2010

MR. GREGORY: We are back with our roundtable this morning, joined by the editors, New Yorker’s David Remnick, the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” as well as Time magazine’s Rick Stengel, the author of “Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage.”

Welcome, both of you. Interesting opportunity to talk about the president’s leadership at this stage and where he stands. Let’s look at his approval ratings as he comes out of this healthcare debate, as measured by Gallup: 47 percent approval, 50 percent approval—or disapproval, I should say. This has been a pretty tough debate that he’s come through, but he has achieved on health care. Where is he right now, David?

Wow. There were two women on this week, but no people of color. The only black face on the show seems to come from “The Bridge” book cover.

MR. DAVID REMNICK: Well, anytime you have 10 percent unemployment, you’re not going to have soaring approval. Anytime the, the economy is troubled in many areas, you’re not going to have soaring approval ratings, despite the personal popularity of Barack Obama. So I think, you know, he, he’s in—he’s, he’s not in trouble, but he’s not going to be able to lift all Democratic votes in November. It’s going, it’s going to be a tough road in November.

MR. GREGORY: And yet you talk about, Rick, you talk about achievement in the first term. You go back to July of 2008, a Rolling Stone interview that he gave about what would be the marker, the metric for success for a President Obama. The question was just that, what would the marker that you would lay down be at the end of your first term where you say if this has happened or not happened, I would consider it a negative mark on my governance? He says, “If I haven’t gotten combat troops out of Iraq, passed universal healthcare insurance, and created a new energy policy that speaks to our dependence on foreign oil and deals seriously with global warming, then we’ve missed the boat.” He’s on a course to significantly achieve at least a couple of those items.

MR. RICK STENGEL: Right. He’s ringing the bell. I mean, a couple of weeks ago, remember, he was going to be Jimmy Carter, right, and then health care passed…

MR. REMNICK: Mm-hmm.

MR. STENGEL: …and suddenly he’s revitalized. But he has a whole line of things that he wants to do, including financial deregulation, energy policy. I mean, he could go and, and swing and run around the bases this whole first year. And, and basically he said, “Look, you know what, this is what I said I was going to do, I did it, and now vote for me.”

Interesting that Gregory has two guests who seem pretty sympathetic to Obama. What were the producers hoping would come from this segment?

MR. GREGORY: The, the flip side of accomplishment—I mean obviously presidents come here to accomplish things; but, ultimately, the—taking the measure of him as a leader, as something obviously you’ve done in the course of the work on the book, what have we learned about Barack Obama as president that is informed by his ascent?

MR. REMNICK: Well, we’ve learned what—his political patterns have always been clear. He’s a man of the center left, but a deep pragmatist, and his, his style is conciliation, his style is to put his arms around as many people as possible and try to bring them into a compromise. We saw that at its apogee in the healthcare situation. But the question is, will it apply in some of these other big questions that you raise, like, like nuclear Iran? I don’t think putting your arms around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to work, and he’s got to get the U.N. on board. Take global warming. That’s a situation that imperils us all in a very serious way, despite the science deniers. And we have to get international cooperation on an unprecedented level in order to take the measures that are necessary to reverse global warming. No single leader can do that either. It’s going to take a lot of effort and, and a lot of conciliation with other leaders around the world.

MR. GREGORY: And it’s interesting, Rick, Joe Klein, in Time magazine in the last couple of weeks, has said even as we look at the success of health care, we shouldn’t minimize some of the shortcomings of his leadership that were in evidence in the course of that very difficult debate.

MR. STENGEL: Yes. Look, a lot of people felt, a lot of voters felt that he took his eye off the ball, which was the economy. Remember, 80 percent of American voters who have health care like it. We almost had a financial Armageddon. The stimulus program helped avert that, but remember when voters go to the polls what do they care about? They care about the economy, they care about the economy, they care about the economy. Jobs and the economy are the main thing on people’s minds. So I think now he’s got to pivot and basically say, “What I am about for the next year is the economy. The economy is changing. It ain’t going to come back exactly like it was before. We’re going to have to start saving, we’re going to have to start exporting.” And that will be his message. But it will mainly be a rhetorical message because there’s a limit—I mean, Dr. Romer was, was, was trying to defend this—there’s a limit to what the government can do to actually create jobs. You know, they’re creating 800,000 of them, by the way, with the census, but that goes away in a few months.

MR. GREGORY: Here’s a question about his style of leadership. To say that President Obama is not an inspirational figure would strike a lot of people, especially defenders, as almost heresy. But my question is, has he found a way to reach people’s hearts when it’s not about him and his historic journey, when it’s about them and their struggles?

MR. REMNICK: Well, I, I, I don’t want to get too gooey about this. He’s a president. You know, he’s not—that’s what he—he’s a politician. He’s, he’s out to make policy advances, policy victories. He does not have the same talents as Ronald Reagan, he doesn’t have the same talents as FDR. He is himself. And there’s a certain coolness to his affect. I think a lot of foreign leaders wonder why he’s not in closer touch with them. Where is the love, some, some of the Israelis certainly think in the last couple of weeks…

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. REMNICK: …have—and they’ve been struck by his reticence, his personal reticence. But the question is, what can he achieve? What, what are the major victories he can bring? And he just had a really historic victory, we shouldn’t forget, on health care, despite the limitations of the bill itself.

MR. GREGORY: I thought it was interesting, too, in terms of a political matter, Rick, how he deals with this phenomenon of the tea party movement, which Republicans are trying to figure out, Democrats are trying to figure out. Here’s a portion of what he said to Matt Lauer during the course of his interview about that.

This is the most interesting domestic story of recent times. How does it connect up with the Hutaree story? Wouldn’t it be interesting to get a couple of Tea Party leaders on and ask them about domestic terrorism?

(Videotape, Tuesday)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I wouldn’t paint in broad brush and say that, you know, everybody’s who involved or, or have gone to a tea party rally or a meeting are somehow on the fringe. Some of them, I think, have some mainstream legitimate concerns. And, you know, my hope is, is that as we move forward and we’re tackling things like the deficit and imposing a freeze on domestic spending and taking steps that show we’re sincere about dealing with our long-term problems that some of that group will dissipate.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: How does he try to make sense of this politically, of this movement that it could hurt?

MR. STENGEL: I think it’s hard. You know, there’s that great famous American bumper sticker, “I love my country, but I fear my government.” That’s what tea partiers are about. It’s—they’re mainly Republicans, but there’s this disenchantment in the land with government as a whole. The USA Today/Gallup poll the other day showed three-quarters of Americans are basically disenchanted with governmental institutions. They are plucking people from that. But the issue for Republicans and for Democrats, and for, and for Barack Obama in particular, is how do you lure back those independents? More and more people are identifying themselves as independents, and how do I, how do I bring them back in? And, and even to go back to your previous question, I mean, remember, you know, Mario Cuomo famously said, you know, “We, we campaign in poetry and we govern in prose.” He’s got to govern with a little bit more poetry, I think, to get some of those folks, too.

MR. GREGORY: I want to talk a little bit about his ascent, his ambition, how we understand that and how that’s playing out in his presidency thus far.

And, David, your book deals with something that’s very central, which is that for Barack Obama to become sort of well-situated as a man and ultimately as a political leader he had to work out his own racial identity and sort of come to terms with that. And here’s a portion where you talk about identity in the book, racial identity. You write this: “Even before he announced his candidacy, Obama was selective in talking about race. As the only African-American in the Senate, it would have been natural for him to be the most constant voice on `black issues’: structural inequality, affirmative action, poverty, drug laws. But he was determined to be an individual with a black identity but a politician with a broad outlook and purpose.”

Overall, this segment is much more thoughtful than typical for MTP. I thought I was watching Charlie Rose for a while there.

MR. REMNICK: And that, and that maintains even now. You know, I had an interview with him in the Oval Office right before he was going, going to deliver his inaugural address, and we finished our interview and then he came out into the hallway and he wanted to add something very specific, because we’d been talking about race quite a lot. And he said, “Look, it’s just not worth it for me to talk about race when I have to extemporize, when I have to improvise” as he did with Henry Louis Gates Jr. when—that arrest, that arrest drama. When he’s in control of the subject, when he can give a whole speech as he did in Philadelphia during the campaign, and he can get to all the nuances, he will talk about it. But basically he believes, “Look, I’m the president of the United States. I’m not president of black America. And I have to lift all boats,” in, in Kennedy’s terms, in terms of economic improvement. “I can’t just focus my rhetoric or focus my policies on, on any one ethnic group.” And this has caused some problems with some of this former supporters and even supporters now.

MR. GREGORY: It’s interesting, we actually found something from 1990, Rick, where he was elected to president of Harvard Law Review, which is very prestigious, and he gets a lot of pickup in that as, as you write about in the book. The Associated Press has an interview with him, and this is what he says. “`Hopefully, more and more people will begin to feel their story is somehow part of this larger story of how we’re going to reshape America in a way that is less mean-spirited and more generous,’ Obama said.” Remember this is 20 years ago almost to the week. “`I mean, I really hope to be part of a transformation of this country.’ And the future of black people and of America generally? `It depends on how good I do my job,’ he said.”

You’re talking about somebody who seemed to have his head on about where he wanted to go ultimately.

However, it is funny to hear this discussion on race when MTP keeps getting worse on guest diversity.

MR. STENGEL: Oh, absolutely. I think even in his memoir he was thinking about that. And he’s looking at—he’s in a sort of transformational figure between the melting pot America and patchwork quilt America in the sense that he identifies with both. Melting pot is we all become Americans no matter our, our race, religion, creed. Whereas the patchwork quilt America that we’ve started drifting towards is we all have our separate identities. We’re not Americans, we’re African-American, we’re Polish-American. He does wants to transcend that. And as, and as David was saying, he’s not a black politician, he’s a politician who happens to be black. And he does wants us all to be at the table no matter, no matter where we come from, and say, “Look, we have to have a more unified purpose. What, what unites us is, is greater than what divides us.”

MR. GREGORY: Talk about Nelson Mandela, whom you write about, and the leadership lessons from Mandela. There have to be obvious comparisons and certainly questions for Mandela about what he thinks about Obama.

MR. STENGEL: Well, I did, I was telling David beforehand, I saw him during the election, and it was before there was a nominee, and Barack and Hillary were opposed to each other. And I asked Mandela, I said, “Well, who are you going to support?” And, you know, he’s older now, and he smiled at me and he went, “I’m not going to go there,” that universal symbol, “you’re trying to get me in trouble.” But I think he—that he looks at, at Obama as, as something that is very positive for the world. I mean, remember South Africa is a place that almost had a racial civil war. The fact that Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest figures of the century is that he averted Armageddon, and he did it by preaching reconciliation. Remember, they, they were a majority that was disenfranchised. But he spent most of his first year as president talking to whites and basically saying, “You know what, we’re in this together.” There’s a lot of similarity. And there’s a lot of similarity also in temperament. Nelson Mandela went to prison when he was almost Barack Obama’s age. He was there for 27 years. He was a hard-headed, tempestuous revolutionary who went into prison, and he came out as this calm, measured man. You know, Obama’s temperament is kind of amazing. He sort of formed it without having to go to prison for 27 years, which I wouldn’t wish for on anybody. So there’s some similarity there.

Does the White House love or hate the Mandela comparison?

MR. GREGORY: I want to end with this, there was a, a New Yorker cover, and we’ll put it up here, that the president specifically write—liked, rather. And you write about it in the book. And so there’s the four panes of President Obama walking on water, until the final pane when he actually falls into the water. And he liked it. And, and you wrote, David, in the book, that it was a sense that, that he realized that, or that he didn’t always believe his own hype. There’s no…

MR. REMNICK: Well, I, well, I think he wanted to advertise the fact…

MR. GREGORY: That he wanted to advertise it in a sense…

MR. REMNICK: …that he doesn’t believe his own hype.

MR. GREGORY: …that, right, that…

MR. REMNICK: I think he has a, he has a substantial ego.


MR. REMNICK: And this, of course, this cover came out before the great victory on health care. And he—I—we sent him the cover, and Barry Blitt signed it, the artist. And it said, “Dear Mr. President, please keep dry.”

MR. GREGORY: But do you think he recognizes, despite enormous strength that he brings to the office, do you think he’s fully aware of what he doesn’t know or what his vulnerabilities are?

MR. REMNICK: Well, I think there are some people who think that he, he doesn’t know what he—that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. And I don’t think that’s fair. I think his style in meetings certainly is of, of listening. He’s not somebody who talks his way through a meeting, that he makes sure that everybody in the room has had their say, and then he processes it in a very deliberate, almost stylized way. So, no, I think he does take in a lot of information.

MR. GREGORY: Rick, what do, what do you think is the hardest thing he faces now, post health care.

MR. STENGEL: I think he faces—I mean, he has revitalized himself in his presidency, but he has to have a new mission. He has to basically say, you know what, I’m not just a pragmatic politician. I’m a moral leader, in a way. And what they’ve also done, which I think hurt them, is the sausage making process that was display—we all talk about how good transparency is—it wasn’t good for them.


MR. STENGEL: And he has to move past that.

I may be wrong, but I recall past Easter Sunday MTP broadcasts (maybe during the Russert era) when religion would be a main topic. Certainly there is enough fodder for a discussion of “Religion in America.” Or they could have looked at the abuse and cover-up scandal in the Catholic Church. Either way I suspect that conversation would have been more interesting than this week’s mishmash.

MR. GREGORY: We will leave it, leave it there. Thank you both. We will leave it there, but we’re going to continue our discussion with David Remnick and Rick Stengel a little bit more about their new books. It’s in our MEET THE PRESS Take Two Web extra. It’ll be online this afternoon. You can also read excerpts of “The Bridge” and “Mandela’s Way” on our Web site, And you can see much more of David Remnick when he appears for a special discussion on the “Today” program. That is tomorrow morning.

We’ll be right back here with some final thoughts on a big day in Washington coming up tomorrow.


MR. GREGORY: Finally here, baseball is back. The season begins tonight, but the real action is right here in Washington tomorrow when President Obama makes his opening day pitching debut. Now, of course, there’s a rich tradition in Washington of presidents tossing the first pitch of the season. A century ago President Taft did it for the old Washington Senators, FDR in ‘38, Kennedy and Nixon. President George W. Bush marked the debut of the Washington Nationals back in 2005. Last year, and I don’t want to sound bitter, but last year President Obama sat out opening day and the Nationals went on to lose 103 games. What a difference a year makes, we hope. Go Nats!

That’s all for today. Happy Easter. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.


The original transcript of this program is the property of NBC News and
© 2010

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