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Obama's challenges

William ChafeWilliam Chafe

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the LaTrobe University Podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm here today with Professor William Chafe. He's a professor from the department of history at Duke University. Thank you for joining me, Professor Chafe.

You're here today to discuss Obama's presidency with me. My first question is what do you think of the mixed reaction in regards to Obama being given the Nobel Peace Prize?

William Chafe:

Yeah, I think probably if there were one moment of his presidency that Barack Obama would like to have changed or back, it would be that Nobel Peace Prize award. He didn't want it. He knew he didn't deserve it. He appreciated the fact that the Nobel Committee was trying to convey a message. He couldn't say no without insulting the entire Nobel community. I think what he said was great. But once again, it made this caricature for the right to attack. It was a premature celebration of something which is years if not decades ahead.

Matt Smith:

Could Obama be making himself too much of a target in some aspects?

William Chafe:

Yes. The simple answer is I think probably enough. We were talking about this earlier today. I think there are some people who think that we have reached a new height of venomous political dialogue in America with the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks and the Bill O'Reillys and the way in which they're just generating bile. Everything is vicious.

Matt Smith:

He said it wasn't race. Is he right by saying that?

William Chafe:

I think race is a latent but not primary factor. The one thing I think is important to recognize or remember is the last time we saw this degree of vitriol in our political dialogue. It was with the Clintons. Don't forget Bill and Hilary Clinton were accused of having murdered Vince Foster. The deputy of White House Council committed suicide because he couldn't stand the degree of vitriol that he saw all around him. But they were accused of murdering him.

There's a direct parallel between the kind of viciousness the Clintons experienced and what Obama is experiencing. Maybe it's worse. Maybe we never had the kind of suggestion of violence against the Clintons that we have against Obama. It's definitely there. Thomas Freedman, who is the probably preeminent columnist in the country at this point to the New York Times, wrote a very powerful column about three weeks ago in which for the first time someone of his stature said the truth, that we are essentially creating an environment that invites someone to take a shot at the president. So, yes, it could happen.

It's simply an active citizenship that some of the leaders of the Republican Party such as John McCain should get up and say, "This is unacceptable, this kind of vitriol. We do not play this game. And those who want to play this game, we should ignore and vilify." So, I think that the fact that the Republicans are not responding in that way in the honor of a different kind of political dialogue is shameful. The Secret Service reports a 400% increase in threats. That's probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Matt Smith:

I've noticed a pattern that when Obama stands in front of the press and wants to talk about J20, for example, or anything else for that matter, the press won't care about that and they'll want to talk about something else.

William Chafe:

Well, it's interesting. That's an important comment, I think, because it highlights the degree to which part of the problem is the press, the media, especially with the 24-hour news cycle. What they value, what they price. I mean, they will do anything for a controversy. And they will create the controversy if they need to.

The kind of explanation that Obama and others were giving at the J20 at one point 30 years ago would have been A the headline and B the focus of commentary for days thereafter and discussion. But we're not letting that happen. It's terrible. It's absolutely awful. Obama can't say it because he's got a stake in all these. But somebody should be able to talk about that. To have people completely wrapped up in the latest scandal as opposed to substance of discussion of the issues, it's terrible.

Matt Smith:

Do you think the global financial crisis will last as long as the previous one in the 1930s? And do you think that in a way Obama needs a crisis in the sense to be more relevant to people?

William Chafe:

I think that there's a recognition now that the stimulus package basically pulls us back from the precipice. People I think recognise that without that action, much worse things might have happened. On the other hand, the bottom line is that it hasn't affected the jobs and we have a 10% and probably higher unemployment rate.

I don't think anyone sees the unemployment rate significantly declining in the next three or four years without an additional stimulus package. And if you have that additional stimulus package, we're just basically putting public money into private hands to hire people. You're going to accelerate still further the apprehension and anxiety about the deficit.

Now, people like Paul Krugman, who is the economist from Princeton and writes for the New York Times, says, "This is just not the time to worry about the deficit. We'll worry about that when we get back into a situation of weak economic health." It's almost a quality of fear of deficits among the American people that is parallel to the fear of socialism. And I think that it's a very hard hill to climb to overcome that sense of resistance.

Now, my gut instinct is that if people see stability in the economy and they see the housing market coming back and they see some measure of 2.5% to 3%, that they will not take it out on Obama. The key question is what happens in 2010 congressional elections? The party in power almost always loses seats in the off-year elections. Harry Truman lost 81 seats in 1946. Bill Clinton lost almost that many in 1994. I would say that if Obama can keep the losses under 20 in the House of Representatives, that he's probably in pretty good shape. If they're over 20, then I think he's got a real problem.

One of the things that I think, especially we American historians and especially we "liberal" American historians, have not fully appreciated is the degree to which the Democratic Party is really a totally centrist party at this point with a few exceptions. We expect someone to deliver on something which is just not practical, given those people and what they're defining as the prerequisites for their reelection.

So, when you see Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas and Ben Nelson, these people are not out of the progressive Democratic tradition. They may be liberals in this country. They're probably be right in the liberal in this country. So, I think it's something which those of us who have high expectations need to take into account in figuring out where we can go at this moment in time.

Right now, we don't have what FDR had in 1935 which is Huey Long and Father Coughlin, Charles Thompson and Gerald Lockey. We don't have those people pushing from the left. And I think that it's going to be very difficult to proceed in anything but a moderate reform incrementalist kind of fashion, which I wish were not the case. But I think it is the case and I think it's about time the liberals faced up to it and stop expecting too much from people like Obama.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that Obama's health care plans had a lot in common with those of Richard Nixon?

William Chafe:

Yes, absolutely. Kennedy's commented not to the end of his life but repeatedly commented that his greatest regret was that he had not accepted the Nixon deal on health care. If I were Obama and I think this really represents his own thinking, I think he embraces what Olympia Snowe, the Republican representative from Maine who essentially voted for the Finance Committee Health Care Bill, which has this trigger in which the public option will become operative if the insurance coverage is below a certain percentage. I think that Obama really wants to have 65 or 66 votes in the Senate on healthcare. And the particular tactic that Harry Reid is following is not going to produce that, not a good move.

Matt Smith:

What do you think of the team that Obama has assembled?

William Chafe:

He has got one of the most mature and competent if not expert cabinets that we've had in America for a long time. All the people who are in the top jobs are really terrific. I think he's got a great press secretary. One of the things that most people don't necessarily appreciate is that for the first time in probably 30 or 40 years, you have a secretary of state and a secretary of defense who like each other and talk to each other. Think back to the days of Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld where contempt was the name of the game and where not even civility existed. Whereas Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates talk to each other, they go to dinner together and they reinforce each other. They're on the same page. That hasn't happened for a long time.

Matt Smith:

What about Michelle Obama? It's fair to say that she shows great strength.

William Chafe:

She's got her head on straight, that's what she is about. Presumably, this family made a decision to go this route. I think it's probably one of the most courageous decisions any family could make. And I think she's a big part of it. And those girls are something else. And that's encouraging.

Matt Smith:

This war on Fox News as it's being called. Do you think it's just another phase of the war on terror?

William Chafe:

I actually think two things. I think that it's important to call out people like Limbaugh and O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. I think it's probably a mistake to generalize the entire news operation. I think that probably Obama would still be well served by going on shows with Chris Wallace or some of their correspondents from Washington, although I think he would never go on any show with those three.

I don't think it's hurting him to have created this disassociation. Sometimes I worry that you all see CNN International, which is different from CNN America, although CNN America is the one that I watch because I want to see what the barometers are saying. I mean, CNN has "the best news team available", which is really a lot of crap.

But anyway, they say this, the guy who I really want to know what he is thinking is David Gordon who served four different presidents on their personal staff. Now, Gordon has for the most part been very well disposed toward Obama if Gordon were to shift allegory. But yeah, going back to the original question, I think that probably it would be good if Obama gave an exclusive interview to the Fox White House News Correspondent.

Matt Smith:

Do you think Obama has come too far too fast?

William Chafe:

No. When you think about the fact that six years ago, he was a state senator in the Illinois legislature, it's mind boggling. But you don't run a campaign the way he ran a campaign. And you don't put together a team the way he put together a team. And you don't have an administration which is on message the way his administration is on message without having a hell lot of talent.

Going back to the campaign for a second, Hilary Clinton clearly was the frontrunner in that campaign. Almost every day you get at least three or four different stories out of the Clinton campaign with people attacking each other, trying to make hay at someone else's expense. It was a terribly run campaign. That never happened in the Obama campaign. Everyone was on message. They knew what the hell they were doing. And I think they know what they're doing now.

Matt Smith:

Professor William Chafe, thank you for your time.