I had an opportunity recently to watch the 60 Minutes interview with Barack Obama, broadcast last December. The interview comes at a time when the public opinion polls reflect a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the direction the United States is taking, politicians generally, and Mr. Obama particularly. So what was interesting to me was Mr. Obama’s confidence and self-assured disposition during the interview.
His solid performance came as something of a surprise because I have, perhaps like most people, been familiar with the president only through the eyes of other politicians, various political pundits, and social media. And of course a good deal of my exposure has been through the various polls that make the rounds. In other words, I’m familiar with Mr. Obama via the vast echo-chamber called “media.” The 24-hour 7-days-a-week news cycle does not seem to be charitable to anyone for very long. As George Will would say, “well.”
Watching Mr. Obama become president right there in front of Steve Kroft was instructive. Of course he was president before, but I hadn’t really respected that. And of course the wisdom of hindsight, many years, decades or centuries from now will render a verdict on his performance that I cannot predict. But in the moment, the here and now, President Obama seemed intelligent, pragmatic, and determined. Not just resolved, but optimistic. The comparison that comes to mind? JFK. As George Will might also say, “of course.”
But there you have it. A relatively young president, a student of history not necessarily by choice, but circumstance, talking about American fair play, the need for people to contribute their fair share, about reversing social injustice. Of course his circumstances are vastly different than John Kennedy. But the two men seem to share the same kind of social ideals.
I know there is another side to this story. As Steve Kroft pointed out, several times, the polls don’t favor the president. He is subject to some intelligent and rational criticism from several different sides. But it seems to me our country has always been a place where the social dynamics can be fierce: individual liberty, free speech, an open marketplace, the rights of private property all combined together can be a potent elixir. We are a culture of opinions that are (mostly) ungoverned by concerns about safety. As a country we were born out of rebellion, schooled in it, and we are still at it. Hurrah for the red, white and blue! Well.
The television broadcast was actually in two parts. I’ve seen both parts, as well as the complete interview ( broadcast on CBS Overtime). What’s interesting is that in the longer interview President Obama displays a much stronger side of himself. I suppose the constraints of editing an important interview down to a few minutes is challenging. And the shorter presentations do serve to explore the big questions and the President’s answers. But there are some subtle nuances that get lost. One thing that doesn’t get lost is that President Obama does not get rattled, he doesn’t lose his focus, and he doesn’t back down.
Kroft touches on all the recent hot-button issues: Wall Street, the deficit, discontent from Democrats and Republicans, doubts about leadership, negatives in opinion polls, and the upcoming election.
On the issue of Wall Street, Kroft cites recent negative poll results (42% believe the President’s policies favor Wall Street, 35% said his polices favor average Americans) as being the result of a lack of accountability: no criminal prosecutions, and weak civil actions. President Obama’s response is a quick civics lesson (the executive branch is separate from the judicial branch), and at the same time he delivers a small introduction to the one point he makes throughout the interview: fair play. What he actually said is that some of the most egregious and unethical acts were legal, and what is needed is legal reform. “The toughest reform package since FDR and the Great Depression” is how he put it.
He said legal reform, but what he means is fair play. It’s a recurring theme throughout the interview. The President also said “we,” as in “we” put together legislation. His use of the phrase “40 thousand foot view” is interesting as well. The sense of all this is that he understands his power, and knows how to use it. As that other Roosevelt said, “the bully pulpit.”
Kroft raises the issue of tax reform. Kroft begins to talk about Republican efforts to compromise, but the President steps in to offer a correction — “they made overtures where they were willing to raise two hundred billion dollars in exchange for two trillion dollars in cuts.” Obama’s ability to deftly change the course of the conversation, to take a negative and flip it over so quickly, is displayed several times in the interview. He is as congenial as Kroft, but just as determined to manage the interaction and get his message across.
Putting aside for a moment the arguments between the two very different notions of “social justice” that permeate the discussion (e.g., self-reliance vs. safety-net), for Obama, the whole question of tax reform centers on his idea of “balance.” His rejoinder to Kroft was that stripping the middle-class and seniors of tax breaks and benefits — “the things that people of modest means rely on“ — was not fair. Those who prospered the most from “the new economy” should do more.
The other theme that Obama came back to is his willingness to engage in dialog with his opponents to find solutions to the problems at hand. From his perspective the Democrats are willing to make concessions, but they expect a willingness on the Republican side to do the same. In a word, “compromise.” Kroft turns this around by saying that the President’s own party thinks he gave away too much, that he was “outmaneuvered … was stared down … capitulated.”
Obama’s answer to this is serious and measured: the long-term solution for Democrats is to agree to make changes in social benefits (“entitlements”) and for Republicans to agree to raise taxes. The vision here — and “vision” is the one key theme of the longer version of the interview that is missing in the shorter version — is for a sustainable social benefits program. The overarching theme: everyone contributes their fair share.
When Kroft points out that even some of the President’s supporters think he has not been bold enough, Obama points out that the flip side is the argument that he is too radical. He manages to negate critics from both sides by defining them as extreme. Which is to say unreasonable. He follows up by saying he’s not in a popularity contest. The message: he’s the President and he’s making the hard decisions. And his opponents are just carping.
When Kroft says Obama is being judged on his performance, Obama corrects him by saying he’s being judged against an ideal, and not the real-world alternatives. This is a lead in to a discussion about the upcoming election. And here Obama delivers a masterful lesson in rhetoric: he dismisses the entire Republican field by saying it doesn’t matter which one is nominated, because they all carry the same ideological torch.
Obama defines the contest as one not of individuals, but “core philosophies,” and he says the “contrast … will be stark.” When discussing individual contestants the President calmly notes their political expertise. He doesn’t snipe. He says he is content to wait until the nominee is chosen. Until then, he has other things to do.
Kroft raise the familiar issue of leadership. Kroft asks if the President promised too much, underestimated the task. This is the same as asking, “are you up to the job?” The President replies he understood what he was about, and he defines the challenge as not just a change in leadership, but a structural overhaul, a reversal of a “culture dominated by special interests …”, not something that can be done quickly. A task that will take more than one president. He is, by his own words, a man of determination.
It can be said that Steve Kroft wasn’t really playing hardball. So be it. But I do think he was asking the kinds of questions Sunday evening viewers expected, and wanted — the big general questions, topical, something people can get their minds around in a few minutes. More than soundbites, but less than a full-on debate. In other words, Kroft was a somewhat friendly audience. I suppose that’s part of the game.
I did not at all get the impression the President is a creature of the teleprompter, as is so often said. He was self-assured without being terribly arrogant, he displayed a keen sense of humor, and he was non-plussed by Steve Kroft, and man who has been a journalist since Mr. Obama was a child.
To put it another way, Mr. Obama seemed very much like a President.