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Peter Baker talks Obama White House, the challenges of governing

Peter Baker talks Obama White House, the challenges of governing

“He’s a smart guy, and he knows he’s a smart guy,” said journalist Peter Baker about former President Barack Obama in a talk at the Woodrow Wilson School on Monday, Sept. 25. 

Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times, came out with a new book in June, “Obama: The Call of History.” Baker covered the Obama administration extensively, but explained that even within this relationship, Obama was somewhat of an enigma – “to us, and even to himself,” Baker said. 

Many Americans saw Obama as a new John F. Kennedy – young, hip, and cool, Baker said. However, when Obama administration's honeymoon period wound down, the media likewise shifted its tone, comparing Obama to Lyndon Johnson instead. For his drone strikes, Obama was compared to George W. Bush; for his handling of Syria, to Jimmy Carter. 

According to Baker, Obama said the only president he hadn’t been compared to in the media was Franklin Pierce, which, Baker added, was probably a good thing, since Pierce was a drunk. 

Even now, no one has been able to figure out exactly who Barack Obama is. That legacy is what Baker’s book attempts to explore, he said. In the course of his work as a White House correspondent, Baker explained that he has been privy to countless authentic moments with now-former presidents. According to Baker, Obama was never as open as some of his predecessors had been. 

Whereas former President Bill Clinton probably could have stayed on the rope line for hours, Baker said, and still come away rejuvenated, Obama would find that energy in other ways. Instead, Obama was said to watch ESPN in the evenings while reading briefings, and that he would only allow himself seven almonds, Baker said. 

After this almond anecdote was made public, Obama denied that it was exactly seven – though that had been a joke between his wife Michelle Obama ’85 and their White House chef. 

“The fact that he [Obama] felt the need to publicly deny something like that tells you a lot about the guy,” Baker said. Baker went on to explain that President Obama was unusual in many more ways. Most notably, Baker said that Obama was vulnerable and open in ways other presidents had never, or only rarely, been before. 

For example, after the Sandy Hook shooting, Obama was infamous for allowing tears to stream down his face on live television – imitating the way millions of Americans also felt.

“He [Obama] literally stopped speaking for eight – ten – 12 seconds, and there was complete silence,” Baker said. “While watching a president, having complete silence – that’s very rare.” 

“It’s a real side of him that we often missed,” Baker continued. 

According to Baker, Obama was not just difficult to understand as a person but as a politician – as he had a lot less political experience than many of his predecessors. In jest, Baker noted that, to conservatives, Obama was “the second coming of Karl Marx or Bernie Sanders”  coming to “take over health care and taxing us too much and bringing in too much regulation." 

Baker continued by noting that, even to his supporters, Obama was not quite what their ambitious hopes for him had conceived during his meteoric rise in the 2008 election. Because he had promised so much – saving the climate, uniting the country and other major promises for a politician to make – people on the left found Obama's compromises frustrating and disappointing. 

“We are, at this moment, a polarized country.”

Yet, what makes this analysis of his presidency so important is not just what it tells us about the first black president, Baker explained. The fact that Obama was too left and yet too right “tells us about ourselves.” 

“We are at this moment a polarized country,” Baker acknowledged. He explained that the last four to five presidents promised to unite the country once they take office, and all have failed. Obama won 98 percent of the densest populated counties in 2008, but Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 98 percent of the sparest populated counties in 2012.

“Politicians do have a responsibility [for political polarization] but we also have to look in the mirror,” Baker said. Furthermore, while American polarization is nothing new, it has manifested itself in a new form. 

The new element in elections is that Americans are no longer starting from the same foundation of information and facts, noted Baker. Instead of deriving all information from around three TV networks and a handful of newspapers, Americans are now able to garner information from thousands of websites and news outlets – many of which have a distinct bias, or aren’t even based in facts.

“People live in their own factual worlds,” Baker said. “No wonder we don’t get along well; we don’t even live in the same environment.” 

In some ways, Baker said, President Donald Trump might be a better fit and indeed a parallel for the current political moment of a divided nation. Trump is at heart, Baker explained, a divider – not a uniter, as so many previous presidents have strived for. In this sense, Trump may very well be, according to Baker, an accurate reflection of the American public's present political pulse. 

Under the Obama administration, however, try as Obama did to build compromises and a legislative middle ground, there was not a single month during his eight years where a majority of Americans thought the country was on the right track, Baker explained. While part of that might have been due to Obama’s struggle to perfect his politicking skills, part might instead be due to the times - where people may indeed crave extremes. 

Baker noted that, in the latter part of his presidency, Obama attempted less and less to reach across the aisle. After setting a precedent by passing the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus bill without a single Republican vote, Obama was in some ways left to govern with executive orders. 

“When you live and die by executive orders, that means the next guy can undo it,” Baker said, noting that this was exactly what Trump has done with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The skew towards policy change stemming from executive orders has left Obama’s legacy more unsettled than any other president's in recent memory. While presidential legacies are often debated and discussed for 10 or 20 or 30 years, Baker said, what’s unusual in Obama's case is that his successor has “make it a mission in life to undo so much of what his predecessor has done.” 

Baker explained that, while most new presidents promise “new directions” when they take office, they don’t usually spend time actively undoing what the previous person has done - as has been the case with President Trump in his early administration. 

Covering the current political moment is indeed a challenge, Baker said, noting that the New York Times particularly has received a fair amount of criticism. In response to criticism of his own bias, Baker explained that analysis is different from opinion. Importantly, he said, it’s based in facts. And facts, said Baker, are what Americans should - despite its recent criticism - continue to expect from The Times. 

“If you want to go to the other sides and listen to the partisan website that’s fine, but when you’re done, come back to us [The New York Times] and we’ll help you sort through it,” he said. “That’s our job.”

The talk took place at 7 p.m. in Sir Arthur Lewis Auditorium in Robertson Hall.

This article previously stated that the talk took place in Dodds Auditorium. The same space has been renamed to Sir Arthur Lewis Auditorium. The 'Prince' regrets the error. 

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